For better and worse, books are how I learn things. Kissing, for instance. Though I wouldn’t get the opportunity to implement this knowledge for another solid decade (or, uh, more) I referred, with hope, to the Junior Girl Scout handbook. Year after year, I read to understand, knowing that it’s a futile exercise—limitless in both the exhausting and reassuring ways. Exhaustingly, reassuringly, there is always more to know. 2018 was another Year in Reading to know more—embarrassingly literally at times. The books I read fell into a few main categories:
Literal self-help! In 2018 I did things I’d never done before and read books about them. In January I started a business; I read Starting a Business for Dummies. I read Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, about letting your employees go surfing (the self-help realm is all about the subtitles, and Chouinard’s is: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman). A book that legit changed my life was one I found on a shelf in an Airbnb: David Allen’s Getting Things Done, about Getting Things Done®! (Subtitle: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.) I thought I was sort of spending too much time on my phone so I read a book called How to Break Up With Your Phone and it more or less worked. In June we adopted a kitten from the SPCA. I read Total Cat Mojo (The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat) by Jackson Galaxy, in which he recommends blinking slowly at your cat to express love. I read a book called Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest, about taking cats on hikes. Indeed, I remain as cool as I was at age 9.
In the category of fiction that is haunting/beautiful/devastating and wholly engrossing: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Tommy Orange’s perfectly calibrated There There. In a single sitting, I read The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon—an otherworldly, wonderful thing.
In the category of opening doors to other worlds, a la Exit West: I read memoirs that put me squarely in other people’s bodies: This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, and The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich—all memoirs from distinct, memorable, assured voices.
In the category of laughing/crying perfection and exactly my cup of tea: I teared up (for sad and happy reasons!) at Less by Andrew Sean Greer, Kudos by Rachel Cusk, and The Idiot by Elif Batuman. These were books that made me laugh and broke my heart—a combo I love wholeheartedly.
In the category of the female experience made scarily visceral: You Are Having a Good Time by Amie Barrodale, a book of too-real, resonant short stories. And The Power by Naomi Alderman and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood were books that articulated my questions exactly, in perfect timing.
Maybe I read also to get mad? In the category of books I read and got mad at: The Corrections and Freedom (I know, I know, but I enjoyed Purity, and honestly, truly was open to enjoying these too). There were a few books I should have put aside and read anyway, due to my I-always-have-to-finish-a-book-even-though-I-know-life-is-short rule. And I know it makes me a chicken to not name names, but listen, I just won’t. One was an acclaimed thing that made me actually throw it across the room because of its overly, well, florid descriptions of flora. The other was by an exceedingly acclaimed author that included incredibly racist descriptions of all its Asian characters (and when I googled the author’s name with “racist against Asians” the search yielded nothing, meaning that even though this was the year of Crazy Rich Asians, it remains a year in which casual racism against Asians is still okay).
Speaking of being tired, tired, tired of the way things are, I read texts like manuals. In the category of books I read to make things different, make things better: Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown. bell hooks’s Feminism Is for Everybody. Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These are books that both galvanized me and made me hopeful—that pointed me in the right direction.
Most recently, in the category of nonfiction that describes the invisible and real, I’ve read: Ai Jin Poo’s The Age of Dignity, about the ways in which we’re woefully underprepared to take care of our aging in America. And Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, about the invisible world of microbes. What I learn is this: Counter to everything we’ve been taught about evolution, change doesn’t necessarily happen glacially, especially when bacteria are involved. There’s fluidity to how bacteria and their hosts interact: exchanging information, changing constitutions, and swiftly adapting. A woodrat living in the desert can eat poisonous creosote plants because they have bacteria that live in their guts that can detoxify it. If you put the same bacteria into the guts of other animals, they can start eating poisonous creosote, too! And this change doesn’t take hundreds of years, it just happens! There is a metaphor somewhere in there about reading, maybe.
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2007 was the first year that Americans sent and received more text messages than phone calls, but you might not have guessed that from reading that year’s literary fiction, which included novel debuts from the likes of Junot Díaz, Joshua Ferris, and Dinaw Mengsetu, as well as new work from more established authors like Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, Dave Eggers, and Philip Roth. Although some of these books were set in a modern era, the authors did not choose to show their characters texting or even engaging very much with cell phones. Given the slow pace of publishing, this is only logical: a novel published in 2007 was likely completed in 2005 or 2006, and even if the setting of the novel was up-to-the-minute contemporary, it likely did not include events past 2005.
In the mid-aughts, texting and social media were on the rise, but they weren’t yet knit into daily life. Twitter, (which was originally conceived as a platform for group texts), did not appear until 2006; Facebook was still restricted to college dorm rooms; and the iPhone, with its now-iconic speech bubble texting application, had not yet been unleashed. Looking back at the books I read in those years, I don’t remember noticing the lack of cell phones or texting, probably because I wasn’t doing a lot of texting in my own life. I had a flip phone and the only text messages I received were from my service provider, reminding me to pay my bill.
At some point, though, probably 2011 or 2012 (when The Millions last published a piece on this problem), I began to feel the absence of modern technology from contemporary fiction, and of text messaging in particular. By then, I had a smart phone and in an irony that all smartphone users have accepted—and in fact no longer perceive as ironic—I stopped receiving phone calls. Instead, I got texts, usually redundant bits of logistical information: I’m here! Running late! On my way home! See ya soon! I was a reluctant texter, uncertain of how to reply to banal messages that seemed written in response to an undercurrent of anxiety that I wasn’t actually feeling. But soon enough, I was thumbing out the same blips of communication and feeling nervous when I didn’t receive them in return. These mosquito-like messages, often bearing links to the Internet, quickly changed the texture of my days. But the fiction I was reading did not reflect this.
The problem of representing text messages is related to the problem of representing the Internet in general, an overwhelming subject that can be portrayed as a social phenomenon, an addiction, a public square, a place of employment, a repository of secret lives, or a den of procrastination—to name just a few possibilities. Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens, Emily Gould’s Friendship, and Dave Eggers’s The Circle, all do a good job of portraying characters who have moved portions of their lives online, often with a certain amount of regret. I’m sympathetic to that storyline, but I’m also curious about the more subtle ways that technology is reshaping us. What intrigues me most about text messages—as opposed to social media platforms in general—is that they are so immediately recognizable as a piece of a larger narrative. I think this is what makes text messages so irresistible; anything that seems to speak directly to the story of our lives is hard for us to ignore. (And if you doubt the irresistibility of text messaging, consider the fact that there are laws in many states, banning people from checking text messages while driving.) And yet, for all their dramatic potential, I haven’t come across many contemporary novels that have been able to communicate their unusual immediacy and power.
I reached out to my Millions colleagues to see if they’d noticed a similar absence of technology in American fiction. Edan Lepucki shared her theory that a lot of contemporary fiction has been set in the 1990s because it’s a way for writers to avoid dealing with the potentially plot-killing presence of cell phones. But she has noticed that, recently, writers have started to reckon with modern technology. It’s something she has begun to incorporate more into her own fiction, including her most recent novel, Woman No. 17, which takes place in our iPhone era, and includes a number of text and Twitter exchanges. “I wanted to show all these different ways of communicating or not communicating.”
Nick Moran cites 2010’s Skippy Dies as one of the first books he noticed in which text messaging was used well. “It was especially impressive because the subjects are teens, the most avid texters of all.” But that same year, he was disappointed that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom did not include any texting, even when the narrative focused on younger, college-aged son. Anne Yoder wrote to me to recommend Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying To Reach You, “as a book that incorporated texting rather brilliantly,” as well as Tao Lin’s novels Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009), Richard Yates (2010), and Taipei (2013). Taipei was notable for being hated as much as it was loved for its accurate-to-the-point-of-boring portrayal of lives lived on computers and phones. Zadie Smith cut to the heart of the debate by comparing Lin’s Taipei to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in her essay “Man Vs. Corpse”:
Lin’s work can be confounding, but isn’t it a bit perverse to be angry at artists who deliver back to us the local details of our local reality? What’s intolerable in Taipei is not the sentences (which are rather fine), it’s the life Paul makes us live with him as we read. Both Lin and Knausgaard eschew the solutions of minimalism and abstraction in interesting ways, opting instead for full immersion. Come with me, they seem to say, come into this life. If you can’t beat us, join us, here, in the real. It might not be pretty—but this is life.
I have to admit that reviews of Lin’s fiction have not stoked my curiosity, even as I am ostensibly seeking books that give an accurate portrayal of modern life. I dread the boredom that so many critics mention. (A strange dread, when you think of it, and probably one that novelists are right to evoke, in our age of entertainment.) I have, though, read the first two volumes of My Struggle, which at least had young children and a traumatic family death to temper the monotonous description of daily life—stakes, as the screenwriters like to say.
I wonder if my conventional appetite for drama has something to do with novelists’ reluctance to incorporate texting and online life into narrative. (Another factor might be the age of novelists, which I’ll get to later on.) There’s something about the ease of communication and information-gathering in our era that feels less dramatic, even if it is potentially more so. One example of this occurs in the recent film Lion, which tells the story of a four-year-old Indian boy who is accidentally boards an out of service train that takes him to Calcutta. He wanders the city for weeks, unable to accurately communicate his address or identity. Eventually he is sent to an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple. When the boy grows up, he finds his birth mother and his hometown, thanks to the extensive global mapping of Google Earth. But the part of the movie that depicts his incredible discovery is pretty boring, especially when compared with the first half of the movie, when he’s lost in a huge city. Of course, the resolution of a plot is always less interesting than the ensuing complications, but it’s especially unsatisfying to watch someone solve a mystery by squinting at a computer screen as he opens new tabs on his web browser.
In general, though, film and TV have done a better job of incorporating new technology into narrative. House of Cards, which premiered in the winter of 2013, used text messages to build suspense, especially in the first season, as the corrupt and ruthless Senator Francis Underwood used his texting app to manipulate underlings or to leak sensitive information to a young reporter. Tensions were built so effectively that you felt yourself sighing, with relief, when you watched a character delete a series of compromising messages.
House of Cards came up several times when I interviewed writers about their use of text messages in fiction. Dan Chaon, whose recent novel, Ill Will, incorporates some incredibly chilling text exchanges, told me that he had looked to House of Cards when considering how to format his manuscript. His characters’ text messages appear in grey text boxes and are usually right- and left-aligned but sometimes are placed in the middle of the page, interrupting paragraphs.
“I liked the way House of Cards played with it,” Chaon said, “with the text bubbles on screen, and the sound. I did a lot of experimenting with where to place the text boxes on the page. I found there was something very interesting about the way you could manipulate the field of the page, and play with how they appear for the reader.”
Like Chaon, I also found myself drawn in by the formatting of the text messages in House of Cards. I like the way they are superimposed over the scene, like a kind of caption or title card. Something about the artifice of this presentation makes the storytelling more exciting to me, and is a welcome departure from the more realistic shot of a smart phone or computer screen. After House of Cards, I began to notice how other TV shows used this captioning strategy. Text messages are particularly effective in sitcoms dealing with the etiquette of modern dating and relationships: Master of None, Insecure, The Mindy Project, and Love. They seem to have solved certain narrative problems for screenwriters, who can now have a character type something they would like to say but can’t bring themselves to actually say—the never-sent text—or to provide logistical details that previously would have been revealed with title cards or awkward dialogue. It’s a new way to convey internal thought without breaking the fourth wall or relying on voiceover.
But what narrative problems can text messaging solve for novelists? This is a question I’ve been asking, as a writer as well as a reader. My first novel, obeying Lepucki’s Theorum, was set in 1996, in part because I wanted to depict certain aspects of ’90s culture, but also because my characters were in high school, and I wasn’t confident that I could convey a modern young person’s social life, informed by social media and cell phones. However, the novel I’m working on now is set in our current era, and I’ve found myself incorporating texts into the storyline, even as I’m not exactly sure what purpose they serve. They aren’t an efficient way to advance plot, and although they can reveal character, I’m not sure if they are bringing anything to the table that dialogue and internal thought aren’t already providing with greater emotion. I can’t decide if text messages are more like dialogue, documents, internal thought, or if they are something else entirely. Also, how on earth should they be formatted?
The Chicago Manual of Style says that text messages should be treated like a quotation: “A message is a message, whether it comes from a book, an interview, lipstick on a mirror, or your phone. Use quotation marks to quote.” This seems like a sensible approach, one I’ve encountered in many novels, but I have personally resisted it, because quotation marks suggest something has been said out loud, and the particular syntax of text messages are shaped by the fact that they aren’t spoken and would be written differently—or perhaps not at all—if they were. Jennifer Acker, a fiction editor at The Common, told me over email that she treats text messages like a kind of document: “To me, they are just briefer and more immediate versions of emails. I don’t think of them as dialogue, like a phone conversation. There is a particular style, and sets of abbreviations, and a curtness to them that is written, not spoken.”
Margaux Weisman, an editor at Vintage/Anchor (and my former editor, at William Morrow), thinks text messages have the potential to be more powerful than dialogue. “A single obnoxious text could tell you so much about a character. They seem to me more potent because they are dropped and diffuse like bombs and the recipient can’t always respond the way they’d like.”
Chaon told me that one reason he decided to use text bubbles in his novel was that he was trying to get at the experience of receiving a text, which to him is something different than rendered dialogue. I asked him if he saw text messages as a kind of document. “I see it as a homunculus. As a little genie that pops up, that’s not quite a document, because it feel like it’s a document in three dimensions, because it announces its presence and it requires immediate attention—for most people. I swear to god, I’ve seen people during a wedding, texting. So it’s more important than a ceremony, for example. It has an addictive quality for people.”
As someone who stayed up for several nights in a row to finish Ill Will, I can attest to the addictiveness of his messages: they jump out on the page and force you to keep reading. They often bring bad news or reveal a worrisome absence. They’re not fun. Chaon is the first to admit that his use of text messaging is colored by a feeling of trepidation: “I’m the father of a 25- and 27-year-old and saw the texting phenomenon from the beginning and watched as it took over everyone’s life, in particular of that age and younger. I was resistant to taking it up myself, but I was also really aware of how it affected people’s daily lives. I wanted to get at that in a way that felt true to the effect of it and the sense of the way it plays such a large role in our vision and attention.”
For younger writers, text messages are perhaps not so fraught. Lepucki told me she didn’t give a lot of thought to formatting when she was drafting. When typing texts, she used simple tags like, “he typed” or “I texted.” She found text messages to be useful in showing the growing emotional distance between two characters, with one character texting more frequently and the other character barely replying. For extended exchanges between characters, she formatted it more like a play or interview, with the character’s name, followed by their text. She assumed that her publisher’s production team would reformat everything but the only change they made was to use a sans serif font for texts, tweets, and emails. Ultimately, she preferred this low-key approach, because her characters are generally casual in their texting. “Text is fun in because it’s neither external nor internal. It’s a cool register for feelings.”
Author Katherine Hill took a similar approach. Her first novel, The Violet Hour, did not include any texting, but she’s found herself at ease with it in her second novel, which takes place in our current era. She generally views texting as a kind of written dialogue, but doesn’t use quotation marks, because it isn’t spoken. Instead, she uses italics, with line breaks for extended exchanges and dialogue tags—i.e. “so-and-so texted”—as necessary. She said she has resisted formatting that mimics screen captures because she feels it draws too much attention to the texts. “For my character, texting is a somewhat seamless experience. I don’t think he makes a huge distinction between texting and speaking and I wanted the formatting to suggest that.”
Like everyone I spoke to, Hill didn’t think there should be any hard and fast rules. In some situations, she thought more intrusive formatting was preferable: “I once had a student who wrote his entire short story in text. He formatted it aggressively (left and right aligned, in text boxes) but that was pleasurable to read because it was an entire story in messages.”
The idea of formatting entire stories via text is not new. Some readers may remember Japan’s “cell phone novel” craze, which began more than a decade ago and was especially popular with younger writers, who would compose entire novels within text messaging apps. It was a mode of self-publishing that quickly crossed over to mainstream publishing. By 2007, half of Japan’s bestsellers originated as cell phone novels. In 2008, The New Yorker described it as “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age,” citing ways that the limitations of text messages affect language, chapter lengths, and narrative structure. But the trend has not really taken off in the U.S., despite a brief flirtation with “Twitter novels.”
There’s a significant difference between using text messages as a publishing platform and incorporating text messages into a traditional narrative format, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to blend the two genres. I spoke to a writer, Mitchell Maddox, who is attempting this kind of innovation in his first novel. Maddox, who describes himself as “totally new to fiction writing,” is a former high school English teacher who is now working as a project manager for a mobile app developer. As an experiment, he decided to write a portion of his book in text message bubbles. Maddox didn’t grow up with texting, but found himself interested in the ways that text messages reveal aspects of personality that other forms of communication might not show as readily. At first he crafted his fictional messages as an exchange between two characters, but then decided it was more dramatic to make the exchange one-sided, so that the reader feels a kind of urgency, as if they are receiving the messages.
“I actually don’t like to talk to people over text message,” Maddox told me, over the phone. “But it became a way of creating a voice. The text messages are a kind of monologue. That sounds kind of simplistic, but the format gives it a different energy, a different feeling. It’s a break from the rest of the narrative, which can be a bit heavy, rich in detail, very cerebral and is intended to sound intellectual and then the text messages are much more light, flippant—though they still drive the narrative. I think the energy is immediate and I hope that the reader is like, ‘Oh, these are just text messages.’”
Maddox hopes to publish the book with a QR code that readers could type into to their phones, so that the text message portion of the book would arrive directly on their smartphones. An even more sophisticated version of this would be to scan a code that would provide readers with a new contact. To receive the text-message portion of the novel, readers would send an actual text to the contact. The fictional contact would then respond with a series of texts, so that the reader would feel as if they were receiving correspondence from an actual person.
Five years ago, the idea of receiving a portion of a novel over text message probably would have struck me as gimmicky, but my relationship with my phone has changed, and now I do quite a bit of reading via my phone’s browser. I also send and receive a lot more text messages. I can see the appeal of switching to my phone for extended sections of texting, and how it might create an enhanced feeling of intimacy. (There’s a convenience factor, too, especially while commuting.) As with any piece of literature, whether or not it transcends gimmickry depends on the quality of the writing itself.
When writers incorporate new technology into their novels, they run the risk of dating themselves by writing about something that will soon become obsolete. This, I would argue, is a risk that applies to almost any subject (witness the irrelevance of some of the books published shortly after the election) but seems particularly anxiety-provoking when it comes to writing about technology. Almost every writer and editor I contacted asked me how long I thought text messages would even be relevant. Would they soon be relics, a particular communication that we used only for a brief period of time? What about Facebook? Twitter? All the myriad places we post online?
Novelist Lara Vapynyar took on this question in a direct way in her most recent novel, Still Here, which follows a group of Russian expats living in New York City. Her characters are all strivers; naturally, one of them is working on an app. The novel opens with a painfully funny scene, in which her character tries to sell his app, Virtual Grave, a service that preserves a person’s online presence after death. (His idea is shot down by a wealthy investor friend, who tells him that Americans prefer not to think about death.)
Virtual Grave struck me as perfectly ridiculous when I read Vapnyar’s novel this spring. But last month, I heard a radio story about a grieving son who invented an app to allow him to text and speak with his father by drawing on an archive of digitized recordings and texts.
Vapnyar invented several fictional apps for Still Here, and told me that after the book’s publication, she was surprised to learn that similar apps were in development. Writing to me via email, Vapnyar said she simply tried to come up with ideas that showed how immersive online life has become: “I thought I’d push it a little, make them seem plausible and yet not quite real.”
I appreciated the way Vapnyar’s novel pushed technology into an existential realm, because I thought it showed how technology might be changing the shape of our thoughts—our particular illusions, delusions, and the relationship that the living have with the dead. If you view social media primarily as a way of socializing, and see text messages functioning in basically the same way that dialogue functions in a social novel—something that reveals class, character, and status—then you probably think I’ve gone a little nuts with all this formatting analysis, and maybe with this essay in general. But if you experience text messages as something more destabilizing, then maybe you see what novelists have to wrestle with. It’s not just our social lives that are being shaped by the Internet, and it’s not just our politics: it’s our consciousness and our sense of time—the two things that the novel is pretty much in the business of excavating.
Image Credit: Flickr/William Hook.
In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.
Between the World and Me
Go Set a Watchman
The Buried Giant
The Girl on the Train
Book of Numbers
A Little Life
The Paying Guests
A shuffling atop this month’s Top Ten puts Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me above Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which may be expected when one book earns inspires praise from Toni Morrison while copies of the other one are refunded by local bookstores.
Of course, it hasn’t all been praise for Coates’s essay-letter to his son – and, to be fair, it hasn’t all been negative press for Lee’s early novel. In a recent piece for our site, Sonya Chung used a regrettable column by David Brooks to explore the “convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me.” Similarly, our own Michael Bourne pondered the silver lining of Go Set a Watchman’s release, which occasioned the reevaluation of Atticus Finch:
“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.
Moving from two major publishing stories to a third: this month’s Top Ten welcomes Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, into its ranks. The work debuts in the eighth spot, likely but a pit stop on its way to the higher reaches of our list, as the book (whose release date was technically September 1st) was only just reaching readers’ hands in the final days of August. Purity follows blockbusters The Corrections and Freedom and, as our own Lydia Kiesling notes, the book contains “a few digs at you, reader.”
There are a few digs at you, reader, in Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s big new novel. Here’s one buried in the musings of Andreas Wolf, the sociopathic leader of a data-dumping transparency project — one analogous to but at odds with WikiLeaks: “The more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death.” Have you read a take or a tweet excoriating Jonathan Franzen? You inhabit a world “governed…by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.”
Ironically, the Internet — the thing with which Franzen’s opprobrium is most frequently associated — is also the vehicle by which his utterances become collectively memorable. The Internet is why I know, for example, that 20 years ago, Franzen expressed anxiety about cultural irrelevance in the type of tone-deaf revelation primed to annoy less-famous writers and destined to become characteristic: “I had already realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.”
No one should be permanently lashed to his or her remarks of decades past, but Franzen, with his frequent public grumping, invites a certain amount of scrutiny. And despite the easy prey of Franzen’s Vogue shoots, that essay, “Perchance to Dream,” published in Harper’s in 1996, contains an artist’s statement that remains the tidiest, most cogent thesis on the project of Franzen’s writing: “It had always been a prejudice of mine that putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted in its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context.”
Of course, nailing the “public context” was a source of considerable anxiety:
I’d already worked in contemporary pharmacology and TV and race and prison life and a dozen other vocabularies; how was I going to satirize Internet boosterism and the Dow Jones as well while leaving room for the complexities of character and locale? Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change…
With Purity, the project is long, the cultural change significant, time of the essence. Time presses in all of Franzen’s novels, for reasons of health — human or environmental — or economics, or plate tectonics. In his latest, several plot devices add urgency: there’s a home on the verge of foreclosure, a sensational news story in danger of being scooped, more data in need of the “disinfecting” sunshine of the aforementioned Wolf’s Sunlight Project.
If there’s anything that denotes a Franzen text, it’s a socio-cultural rant, and the slightly Bill-and-Ted-like deployment of the adjective “excellent.” Here’s Walter Berglund of Franzen’s last novel, Freedom, telling the employees of an Appalachian body-armor plant what’s what:
‘You, too, can help denude every last scrap of native habitat in Asia, Africa, and South America! You, too, can buy six-foot-wide plasma TV screens that consume unbelievable amounts of energy, even when they’re not turned on. But that’s OK, because that’s why we threw you out of your homes in the first place, so we could strip-mine your ancestral hills and feed the coal-fired generators that are the number-one of cause of global warming and other excellent things like acid rain.’
Or Chip of The Corrections, foaming at the sister who is just trying to get him upstairs for a parental lunch:
‘I’m saying the structure of the entire culture is flawed. I’m saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as “diseased.” A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroy the appetite for the one pleasure in life that’s free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental “health” is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you’re buying into buying. And I’m saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant.’
Franzen, for all that he attracts online derision, knows that nobody is irredeemable who has a sense of humor (as he told the Guardian in a recent profile, he considers himself a “comic novelist”). Comic, ranting males abound in his last two novels, but Purity as a whole is comparatively humorless in ways that are both intentional and not; humor’s absence, on the intentional front, is what damns the leaker Wolf and a cruelly drawn character named Anabel Laird, the mother of the novel’s heroine, Purity “Pip” Tyler.
Purity is baggy — comprising several deep, character-driven sections linked together by a series of unlikely events. Wolf’s segments are in a jarring, significantly darker key than that of Franzen’s previous fiction. Wolf wrestles throughout the book with a second self he calls “the Killer;” in some especially gross moments he almost channels Jonathan Littell’s seemingly placid, ultimately depraved Nazi narrator in The Kindly Ones. Here’s Wolf recalling his troubled mother: “He remembered remembering, when he saw her pussy in the rose garden, that this wasn’t the first time he’d seen it — that something he’s thought was a disturbing dream from his early childhood hadn’t actually been a dream.” Or here, exercising his sexual frustrations about Pip: “It was a relief to stop fighting the Killer and submit to the evil of his idea; it turned him on so much that he went to the spot on the floor where Pip had stood naked and used the panties she’d left to milk himself, three times, of the substance he hadn’t spent in her…”
Purity’s “public context,” as Franzen put it in 1996, also feels more urgent than that of his previous work; there’s a polemic built into Wolf that his character is finally a bit too flimsy to support. You’d think that someone like Wolf would worship the Internet for its purifying possibilities; but its potentiality is more obliterating — more like the state in George Orwell’s Oceania — than it is a vehicle for liberation. In Wolf’s conception, the Internet is aligned with the totalitarian system that characterized the East Germany of his youth: “If — and only if — you had enough money and/or tech capability, you could control your Internet persona and, thus, your destiny and your virtual afterlife. Optimize or die. Kill or be killed.” In a keystone passage, Franzen intersperses a description of East Germany under Socialism with the tech orthodoxies and infelicities of the present day:
The real appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory of the class enemy was assured. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, decentralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity.
It’s unclear, ultimately, why Wolf, with his mistrust of the Internet’s role in society, has spent so much time, so much effort, to set up his Bolivian hacker’s commune. (Because he’s a little insane, basically.) And his Sunlight Project, apart from the spectacular descriptions of its setting in a Bolivian valley, takes place essentially in front of a green screen, cobbled together with references to a “private fiber-optic line,” a “network of malcontents and hackers,” “facial-recognition software,” or an “impenetrable maze of electronic red herrings to protect the source.”
Perhaps due to generational differences, something about Franzen’s “public context” has never quite rung true to me — his college freshman’s September 11th in Freedom didn’t match my freshman self, staring blank-faced at the television in week two of college. But it has also never much mattered to me, because I think Franzen’s ability to convey the private experience is often transcendent and perfect. I can just look at the final paragraph of The Corrections and start crying — Alfred and Enid and the ice chip and the changes she’s going to make in her life. Goddamn.
But in Purity, like Freedom, the world is sometimes only an echo of a world that should be familiar. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there was “no there there,” and Franzen seems content to take her at her word. Pip, too, occasionally lacks a “there;” in the end she works as a character — you root for her happiness — but Franzen includes oddly few context clues for her. Who were the friends that Pip slowly broke up with via aloof text messages and hangout-cancellations? What clothes did they wear; what things did they read; what shows did they watch? Barring financial constraints, would Pip see Magic Mike XXL in the theater? $130,000 in student loans is alleged to loom over Pip, clouding her future happiness, but the day-to-day math of her straitened circumstances is missing, with none of the lovingly crafted accounting of pitiful finances that resulted in Chip Lambert’s memorable salmon-down-the-pants scene in The Corrections. Nothing about the description of the Oakland squatters’ domicile that Purity inhabits — or her co-residents — necessarily convinces the reader that Jonathan Franzen has embedded with Occupiers and freegans.
Purity sang for me in its least overtly culturally relevant moments — like the complex romantic history of Pip’s mentor (and Wolf’s brother/foil) Tom Aberant, or that of his partner Leila Helou, who blooms into brilliant life for one section and then more or less fades away. There’s the twisted romance of Tom and Pip’s mother, Anabel, put forth in a memoir saved on Tom’s hard drive as “A river of meat.” Like Patty Berglund in Freedom, Tom’s explosive personal document drives events in the text. This is a vengeful — on Franzen’s part, it seems — piece of writing that describes Tom’s long marriage with a comically unhinged harpy. Anabel is an artist; for much of their marriage she is at work on a decade-long performance piece visually documenting every centimeter of her own body: “You need to do whatever it takes to be finished,” Tom tells her. “You know I’ve never finished anything in my life,” she says.
She beat her fists on her offending head. It took me two hours to talk her down and then a further hour to emerge from the sulk she’d put me in by suggesting that my aesthetic was vulgar. Then, for three hours, I helped her block out a rough schedule for completing her project, and then, for another hour, I began the transfer of important thoughts from the first of her forty-odd notebooks into a new notebook, written by me. Then it was time for her three hours of exercise.
It’s cruel, but it works. We never get Anabel’s point of view, although Pip more or less corroborates Tom’s account with her experience of being Anabel’s dutiful child. But unlike Tom, Pip has access to Anabel’s most endearing feature: “The pure, spontaneous love in that smile, every time she’d caught sight of Pip…Her mother had needed to give love and receive it…Was that so monstrous?”
In a recent article in Harper’s, William Deresiewicz lamented the neoliberalism that has taken over the university campus. “For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today…presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have no agency, no options.” Franzen gives Pip a healthy dose of agency, considering the challenges posed by her financial situation and her difficult mother, but he also gives her a Dickensian surprise, making a millennial fairy-tale out of the story that somewhat corroborates Pip’s oblivious young-person-ness: “The flight, in a too-small jet, dodging thunderstorms, cured Pip of any desire for future air travel. She expected death the whole way. What was interesting was how quickly she then forgot about it, like a dog to whom death was literally unimaginable…”
As Pip hits tennis balls with a young man in a touching, chaste courtship, Franzen gives us all tacit permission to stop caring about the big stuff; it’s nearly an acknowledgement that the big stuff, globally speaking, is never really what matters in his novels — not nearly so much as love, anyway: “All over the state, reservoirs and wells were going dry, the taste and clarity of tap water worsening, farmers suffering, Northern Californians conserving while Orange County set new records for monthly consumption, but none of this mattered for the hour and a half that she was on the court with Jason.”
Franzen’s last book was The Kraus Project, an annotated translation of essays by the Viennese writer Karl Kraus. In one of these, Kraus lashes out against a style of brief, impressionistic journalism ascendant in his day. “Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head,” Kraus grumped, and thus provided a point of entry for Franzen’s own celebrated brand of grumping. By coincidence, mere days after the release of Purity, New Directions will publish a collection of feuilletons by Joseph Roth, the great Austro-Hungarian novelist and journalist — and a contemporary of Kraus — beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann. Roth was a master of shedding light onto the “public context” in the uneasy interwar moment when Germany was gearing up for the great smash-up, when “in these assembly halls, where people used to go to smooch and drink, they [were] now daubing swastikas and Soviet stars on grimy walls.”
I read this haunting compilation — one which utterly gives the lie to Kraus’s denigration of the feuilleton form — concurrently with Purity. About Germany in this awful, pregnant moment, Roth wrote:
Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a sick patient will know that the hours are not all pathos and anguish. The sick man will talk all kinds of nonsense, ridiculous, trivial, unworthy of himself and his condition. He is missing the regulating consciousness. That’s just want is missing in Germany: the regulating consciousness.
I can’t say how well Franzen writes Germany — according to Roth in 1923, it is the “least understood nation in all of Europe” — but I know that he is interested in the “regulating consciousness.” The noble art of journalism practiced well, the good sense of Pip, whatever it is that keeps Tom from strangling Anabel, whatever it is that’s lacking from Andreas Wolf’s strange brain — these things are that consciousness embodied. Franzen is also, I think, interested in creating the kind of luminous societal prophesy that animates Roth’s short, wondrous pieces. But Roth himself knew the pitfalls of that effort:
From time to time I think of describing the ‘German,’ or defining his ‘typical’ existence. Probably that isn’t possible. Even when I sense the presence of such a thing, I am unable to define it. What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory.
I think Jonathan Franzen is a wonderful novelist. I don’t know him, but I often feel like he knows me, and for that I love him. His work is most vulnerable to attack when it tries too visibly to be the chief diagnoser and prognosticator of “the culture.” It is most meaningful when it deals in those “singularities within the profusion.” Still, it endeavors always to do both — and therein, I think, lies its essential goodness, its essential purity.
I can usually remember exactly where I was when I read any given book. Here’s what I mean: when I look to the shelf before me, The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram, is the title that catches my eye. It’s a hardcover with a matte black jacket and gray print on the spine.
Where was I?
An image arrives instantly: a wheely chair in the adjunct faculty office at the community college. It was winter, my first in New Mexico. Besides teaching, I waitressed in a cocktail lounge until two or three in the morning. Exhausted and homesick, unable to afford health insurance, I often wondered whether I’d made a mistake in following my heart to Santa Fe.
Next on the shelf: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which I read in a college dorm room strewn with empty mugs and textbooks. Rain streamed down the windowpanes for weeks on end. It was finals, but I wasn’t writing my papers — those I stupidly saved until 24 hours before they were due. I was a frantic person then, always running late.
And as for Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, I read that on a pink couch in a Cambridge apartment in summer. My boyfriend and I had just broken up; he packed his bags and moved to Alaska, and I was simultaneously fraught with grief and elated with newfound freedom.
It’s an ability I suspect many of us possess: besides plying our minds for the story’s plot, the characters’ names, and the themes presented, we can send ourselves back to where we were when we read the books we loved. Lately, I’ve been trying to pay even more attention to my journey as the reading of the book is taking place. What mark did the book leave on me, and in turn, what imprint did I impart?
Books have always helped me to find meaning in the chaos of experience. As my eyes scan the shelf, I can picture angsty teenage afternoons, Cynthia Voigt beside me offering up Dicey’s Song like comfort food. I see an October of bad job interviews, red wine, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I see a quick succession of flings and subsequent breakups, Jane Smiley and Joyce Carol Oates stroking my hair as I wept. I read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich when my grandmother died. Anita Shreve, Stephen King, and Isabel Allende saw me through romantic weekends, family get-togethers, and summer road trips. Because of the books I have read, I’m a teacher, a traveler, and a chef. I am a fighter and a laugher. I am a writer.
For one bewildering moment, I wonder who I’d be without this shelf.
When I was 22, I worked at a hotel in my hometown for six months and saved up enough money to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. While members of my graduating class were accepting real jobs and renting their first apartments, I moved back in with my mom and dad. It took some convincing to get my mom to agree to put me up while I prepared to see the world alone. “I just need to do this,” I told her many times, so many that finally I actually believed it. The truth was, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, and so traveling seemed the most logical path, because after 17 years as a student, I needed a break. I needed some culture, some eye-opening excitement. In the end, my mom pitched in for my rabies vaccine, and together we mapped out my route on the family globe.
A few days before Thanksgiving, my brother drove me to the Boston airport. I was bound for Hong Kong, and foolishly I had done very little planning and no preparatory reading. Like most other things, I had left my trip around the world until the last minute. My friends threw me a going-away party the night before, and I hadn’t slept at all. At the airport, my brother kissed me goodbye and tore off gleefully in my car — his for the next six months — and then I was alone, the morning still dark and very cold. I looked at the ticket in my hand. This wasn’t how I imagined it would be — already, a desperate loneliness, and I hadn’t even left the States.
In Hong Kong, I suffered from horrible jetlag. I woke every morning at three and tossed and turned until four, and then I sat out on the roof of my hostel and watched the city twinkle awake. I had never felt so lonesome. I had no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t communicate, and I had terrible trouble reading my map. I didn’t know how to do the most basic things — eat at a café, find a book in the library, buy a train ticket — and I felt stupid and self-conscious trying. People looked at me strangely, and so I wandered the streets very early in the mornings when only schoolchildren were out walking. I wrote weepy emails home and wondered how I would survive six months of this.
Then I opened Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt.
Of the book itself, I only vaguely remember the plot. The main themes stand out: a desperate childhood, extreme poverty, alcoholism, and abandonment. I remember McCourt’s Limerick in stills: a dirty gray street, a freezing Sunday mass, a sour pickled dinner, a Christmas with nothing.
I can remember well the book’s humor, though, and its hope. I remember an adolescent Frank who scrimped and saved, rose in the morning, passed out in bed at night, and watched men throw his mother around. Still, he survived. By the light of a waning headlamp, I finished the book and wept. I slept deeply that night and rose with the sun for the first time in a week.
When I think of Angela’s Ashes, what I remember most is the way Hong Kong sounded and smelled. The air was muggy, winey, and fishy by late afternoon. Salt blew off the sea. My hostel smelled like cigarette smoke and old newspapers, and the curtains were always closed so that the place sat in a simmering, crowded gloom. In the very early morning, the scent of lilies blew in through the single open window. The girl in the bed next to mine came in late and slept a restless, whimpering sleep. All of this I recall as if it happened very recently. I think of Angela’s Ashes and my senses remember Hong Kong.
The book kept me from giving up, I realize now. It kept me from getting on the next plane home, and it forced me out of the relative safety of my hostel. If Frank could survive, you can do this, I told myself, setting out. I took a ferry to Lantau Island and then rode a bus for hours through a tiny fishing village and a silver city built into cloud forest. On Lantau, standing beneath the largest Buddha sculpture in the world, I couldn’t believe where I was.
Thailand was my next stop. I made my slow way up and down the country, riding buses toward Burma and then back to Bangkok. In the daytime the buses were always crowded, four or five to a seat and people standing with animals and children in the aisles. There would invariably be a toddler on my lap. The heat would rise and the hours would lengthen, and yet there was always something so calm about those rides. The heat, the long light, and the good-natured Thais all made for easy traveling.
I read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith on one such journey. We were traveling down Thailand’s narrowest passage towards the Malaysian border, having left Bangkok early that morning. We were due in the city of Trang by midnight, and all the while I read. The sun was warm through the windows, and a gentle breeze blew. A little girl sat perched on my lap, her hair in braids, her hands folded across her body. Eventually, she closed her eyes and slept against me. I read about a grassy Botswana savannah, a friendly community, and a no-nonsense lady detective called Hetty who sings to herself, “O, Botswana, my country, my place.”
I can still remember that line exactly. I was a continent away from home on a bus in Asia, and yet I also felt, however temporarily, to be in my place. The words somehow matched exactly the Thailand that stretched alongside me, yellow and green beneath an amber afternoon sky. There came an occasional glimpse of the sea. I was content, flung, and anonymous. I had never felt so free. We jostled along in the fading afternoon, the passengers’ heads lolling in sleep.
A man in a beach hut on the island of Ko Chang gave me his copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in exchange for a piece of cake wrapped in foil and two lukewarm Chang beers. Of that book, I remember round pebbles and a wandering boy, spare prose, a search for treasure, and a long journey home. But I cannot think of The Alchemist without also thinking of that man’s beach hut, his dreadlocks, the jam-packed ashtray by his bed, and his sandy kitchen floor. I remember a white-sand beach, creaking palms, shells lined up on the stairs, a jagged painting of birds and water. I can still hear the man’s deep, quiet voice. Our feet were bare. He was born on the beach, he told me. Without The Alchemist, I might not have remembered him at all.
I spent my last months in India, where I felt it my duty to read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I expected to slog through the book, published three-quarters of a century ago, but in the end, I couldn’t put it down. Everything I saw matched the texture of the book: the sounds of the streets and markets, the smells of burnt sugar and sweat, and the rocking of the trains. I noticed caves the color of clay, and my train once passed through a desert strewn with bones. I saw the marshes of Goa and the Karnataka coast; I turned the pages.
Still, India shook me. It shakes most anyone, I imagine, especially if you’re used to orderly streets and personal space. The clamor was jolting. The trains were late and crammed, and people slept on cots in rows on the sidewalks. I saw sick people, hungry people, and dead people. I was overwhelmed and afraid, and people stared at me constantly.
In the end, it was, of course, a book that saved me. I distinctly remember sitting on a train in a busy aisle seat, deep into A Passage to India. Mrs. Moore was watching from the deck of a ship as India shrank away. She had had a bad go of it, and she was ready to go home to England. On a train pulling through neighborhoods of sprawling Mumbai slums, I read Forster’s description of Mrs. Moore’s departure:
…Presently the boat sailed and thousands of coconut palms appeared all around the anchorage and climbed the hills to wave her farewell. ‘So you thought an echo was India; you took the Marabar caves as final?’ they laughed. ‘What have we in common with them, or they with Asirgarh? Goodbye!
I put down the book, looked out into mad Mumbai, and laughed out loud.
I heard Forster’s coconut palms everywhere after that: So you thought one bad night was India? One bad meal? One crowded street? India is beautiful, you see. Give it time!
Their whispers strengthened me. In freezing Manali, I did what I could to stay warm, eat well, and exercise. By Haridwar, I had stopped noticing the stares. I learned to look instead for the beauty each place offered: In Rishikesh, I stayed for free in an ashram, practicing yoga in the mornings and walking by the glacially blue Ganges in the afternoons. Jaipur held an ancient fort, a raucous flea market, and an organic farm at the end of a dirt road where, for three weeks, I weeded vegetable gardens with a group of Israeli hippies. Rajasthan was a city of blue roofs, golden sunsets, and cream-colored walls, a color palette I will remember for the rest of my life.
Nowhere else, I suspect, could I have read so closely or loved so dearly A Passage to India.
That year, only the books in my hands knew where to find me. They were my guides, my teachers, and my friends. Thailand will always resemble Botswana in the afternoon light, and my Hong Kong is Lantau, silent mornings, and Frank McCourt as a rugged little boy, finding laughter in a gloomy room. For readers, I have discovered, there will always be two journeys, and if we forget one, we’re bound to lose both, for each sustains the narrative of our lives.
Photos by Katie Thebeau.
We recently posted a new edition of Judging Books by Their Covers 2015: U.S. Vs. U.K. These comparisons are fascinating — what does a “little billboard” on a book say about our respective cultures?
I was recently looking at the covers of Dutch-language books and found many titles that I recognized. Despite our different cultures, we share many overlaps in our literary taste. I hoped that I could draw some conclusions about those tastes by comparing U.S. and Dutch-language book covers. After spending way too much time on the task, I conclude that I can’t. The comparisons, however, are equally fascinating.
With my tongue in one cheek, I’ve provided a few thoughts below. You are encouraged to take equally wild stabs in the comments. If anyone has more cultural insight, please do weigh in.
The American covers are on the left, and the covers from the Dutch originals or translations are on the right.
The Dinner is a good place to start as it was first published in Dutch in 2009. I understand the scorched place setting of the U.S. cover. Looking at the lobster on the Dutch cover…I’m thinking of a seaside restaurant in Maine. Maybe it’s evoking the feelings that lobsters have when they go into a pot? That’s how the tension of the novel feels, like being boiled alive?
A Millions favorite, Stoner. I read the New York Review Books Classics version and it blew me away, so it is difficult for me to say anything that might sound disloyal. However, if I could draw a picture of my face after I read the novel, I would have looked exactly like the man in the Dutch cover on the right.
I had to run this Dutch title through Google Translate to make triple sure that I had the cover of A Visit from the Goon Squad. It becomes “Visit the Thugs” in Dutch, which has a nice ring to it. I’m less clear about what purples evoke to the Dutch that turquoise on the U.S. hardback cover does not? Why one less fret on the neck of the guitar? Google Translate was no help in answering these questions.
Some of the imagery for Freedom is similar, but the covers have very different feels. To me, the lake country in the U.S. cover evokes the gentrified world view of Patty and Walter Berglund. I’m interested in the choice of a flat field — is it trying to say something similar to a Dutch speaker? If there is an Ornithologist out there, please let me know if the bird on the right speaks Dutch or English.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: wow.
Anthony Doerr’s Dutch translation is interesting as the publisher went with the U.K. cover (we declared it “pretty dull.”) Maybe the Dutch designer agreed because there are some differences. Most striking are the changes of tint. The girls dress, for example, is much more vibrant on this cover than on the U.K. version on the right. In general, the U.S. cover takes the broader view of the book I read. I wonder if a reader in Amsterdam or London would disagree?
In 1943, Dwight MacDonald, one of the co-founders of the literary journal Partisan Review, lost an internal power struggle over its editorial direction and left to found a new magazine, Politics, that better suited his vision. The reasons for MacDonald’s split with the other PR founders, Phillip Rahv and William Phillips, are complex and have been examined at length elsewhere, but in principle they involved both a difference of opinion regarding the participation of the United States in the war against Germany and Japan (which MacDonald opposed) and the question of whether Partisan Review would be principally a journal of leftist politics (as MacDonald wished) or one equally committed to independent-minded literary and cultural criticism. After MacDonald’s departure, Partisan Review did not abandon politics, but it remained known as a journal open to distinguished work even from those who differed from the editors ideologically. Before finally closing in 2003, PR would go on to publish criticism — by fellow travelers (Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin) and ideological enemies (Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren) alike — that set a standard that other journals of opinion still strive to match.
Ancient squabbles at a now-defunct literary magazine, involving a good deal of now dated Marxist cant, are not inherently very interesting. But the Partisan Review, both in its high editorial standards and in its struggles to resolve inherent tensions between the domains of politics and art, continues to be a point of reference in our literary culture. The founders of n + 1 have cited PR as an example, even as they have produced a journal with a hipper, more contemporary voice; several of the core PR critics, including Lionel Trilling, remain culture heroes; and New York Times critic A.O. Scott maintains what amounts almost to an obsession with PR, citing its writers in his work, contributing an admiring introduction to a collection of essays by another PR stalwart, Mary McCarthy, and undertaking a book project surveying the American novel since World War II that seems consciously to invoke Kazin’s landmark study of the preceding period, On Native Grounds. It is Scott’s fascination with PR and its fusion of ideology and culture that I wish to discuss here, along with the broader question of how the contemporary American novel ought to engage with politics.
Here is Scott in a recent Times essay:
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us…Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.
This is a stirring statement of purpose for the arts, but one that should be parsed carefully. In this and a series of previous essays published over the last several years, Scott makes two related claims: (1) that our culture no longer makes a strong demand upon us morally or intellectually, but instead treats us simply as consumers whose expectations must be met; and (2) that a false dichotomy has arisen between our political and cultural lives, such that artists have abdicated their responsibility to examine the ideological structures that we are governed by and have instead been content to describe the compensatory mechanisms we have evolved to survive within them. What Scott wants is a more serious, more politically engaged culture, one more alive with disagreement and dissent.
Some of what Scott says, particularly on the subject of politics and the American novel, seems to me a little “pushed,” in the sense that he risks asking the wrong things of writers, or perhaps weights engagement on his terms too heavily, and imputes a didactic purpose to the novel as a genre that it cannot support. My purpose here is not to quarrel with Scott, however, but to explore some of the tensions that inhere in the novel of politics, and relatedly, to assess the extent to which the critical attitude that Scott has embraced remains salient in an era of very different cultural values. The sense of crisis to which Scott has addressed himself is no doubt real. Suddenly, everything seems to be up for grabs again in our political life. It is natural to hope, even if that hope is somewhat against the weight of experience, that artists can light the path ahead.
The Partisan Review sensibility was in part a product of historical and biographical forces, to wit, the world of Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to New York in massive numbers over several decades beginning in the 1880s. Irving Howe, Phillip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, and Leslie Fiedler all belonged to this world; Howe memorialized it in World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made:
For about thirty or forty years, a mere moment in history, the immigrant Jews were able to sustain a coherent and self-sufficient culture. It was different from the one they had left behind, despite major links of continuity, and it struggled fiercely to keep itself different from the one they found in America, despite the pressures for assimilation. Between what they had brought and half preserved from the old world and what they were taking from the new, the immigrant Jews established a tense balance, an interval of equilibrium.
Scott is an inheritor off this culture through his mother, the historian Joan Wallach Scott, who grew up in a Brooklyn Jewish family, moved away from home, got a Ph.D., married a Protestant, and had little Tony. Other forces have acted upon him, too, of course: one could just as easily say that he is a product of the academy (his father, Donald Scott, teaches at CUNY); of Harvard (Class of ’88); or of the newspapers where he has worked for 20 years. It might seem odd or even de trop to claim that there is a Jewish intellectual style and that Scott works within it, except that he makes little pretense otherwise; his work is studded with references to the PR critics (not all of them Jews, of course), men and women all now dead and to some extent forgotten — so much so, in fact, that what at first looks like interest begins gradually to seem more like obsession. While the PR critics are not Scott’s only touchstones, they seem to embody for him the highest possibilities of the critical form.
There are good reasons to think that the PR intellectual style is outdated. First, because of the collective experience of the Holocaust, the Cold War, and McCarthyism — the extraordinary cataclysm of the middle of the 20th century, in which ideology threatened not just to eclipse civilization but to extinguish it — the PR critics did not draw sharp distinctions between politics and culture. For them, all cultural products referred to and derived from a system of relations that they saw in Marxist, philosophically materialist terms. Today, by contrast, we tend to regard culture as a semi-autonomous sphere, independent and self-justifying. Second, the PR critics wished above all to be thought of as serious, and their conception of seriousness, which they linked to cultural traditions inherited from Europe, is likely to seem anachronistic to us today; American culture has lost its last vestiges of self-doubt and become, at least in commercial terms, a dominant brand. Few critics today, even very cosmopolitan ones, think of Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as salient points of reference when they talk about the form and potential of the novel. Third, the PR critics wrote in a mandarin style of intellectual assertion that hardly seems possible in an age in which critical authority is on the run in all spheres of intellectual life. We no longer assume that a Columbia professor like Trilling has the right to tell us how to read or what belongs in the canon.
On the other hand, there is a good deal that remains admirable and relevant in the PR style, despite its occasionally risible self-importance. An air of political crisis seems to have returned to American life, creating space for both reasoned dissent and all manner of charlatanism; there exists a new sense of possibility that is both exciting and terrifying. If that is so, then a somewhat artificial distinction between political and cultural life begins to look not just specious but irresponsible; we need our artists to remind us of who we are. And while the culture continues to become flatter, there is also a countercurrent of interest in what is authentic and best in the culture rather than what is given to us by media monopolists. The flattening of our culture should not be confused with its democratization, however determined Apple might be in its advertising campaigns to conflate the two. To dismantle or, at least, to interrogate structures of political and cultural power begins to look like pretty urgent work. At the end of this chain of propositions, Trilling, Fiedler, and especially Howe wait for us. Perhaps Scott chose his heroes better than one might have thought.
Scott’s admiration for the PR critics also rests on values more narrowly literary. There were several gifted stylists in the PR crowd: Howe, who delivered opinions of undisguised vehemence in long sentences gentle on the inward ear; Trilling, Jamesian, diffident, balancing his long, erudite essays on a single concept or turn of phrase; MacDonald, whose essay “Masscult and Midpoint” finds a perfect equipoise between an unrepentant cultural snobbery and a sighing regret that such thoughts must be expressed. It is this fusion of political and aesthetic values that seems to interest Scott, the dream of a critical mind both free and disciplined. Scott is first and last a writer, a man who wants to get himself fully expressed on the page. His prose style is not flashy, and it takes sustained exposure to his work to realize that he is a very good writer indeed, one who has resisted the slackness that can creep in when you have multiple pieces due week after week, the diminished expectations of daily journalism. While Scott colors between the lines, rarely reaching for heightened rhetoric or memorable coinage, his steadily intelligent prose constitutes a quieter kind of intellectual heroism. He is less interested in providing that he is right about a particular work than in defending his aesthetic values or, more fundamentally, the importance of establishing aesthetic values and judging works of art, even popular art, by those standards.
American literature has always been more wary of ideology than its European counterpart. Here we take our politics light, and with a good deal of artificial sweetener. Leslie Fiedler (another PR contributor) said that all American novelists were stunted, unable to accept their role in the culture at large, returning always to the intense, private, unmediated experiences of youth. Fiedler intended this as an indictment, at least in part, but the innocence of the American writer may not be entirely a bad thing. Europe in the 20th century suffered so grievously from excessive ideological passion, both in its politics and in its letters (Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Paul de Man, Günter Grass), as to constitute a potent negative example.
Today we are inclined to think that a novelist whose primary purpose is narrowly didactic is likely to produce work that is date-stamped; but there are counter-examples strong enough to give one pause: Charles Dickens often wrote with a political purpose; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attacked the Soviet state with The Gulag Archipelago; and then there is the irrefutable case of George Orwell. Of course, the American novelist may have had less need to confront the state than her counterparts in other places and times, since the twin rhetorics of liberty and equality have always been part of our official discourse; an artist-provacateur like Ai Weiwei is a necessary figure in China — a sort of dramatist of state repression — but perhaps less so in the West. It may be the case, however, that the relation of the artist to the state has changed in America in the last decade with the gross expansion of the national security apparatus, which along with rapid technological change has shrunk the once generous zone of personal autonomy that we came to take for granted. If that is true, it may be time for certain creative work that cuts a little closer to the bone.
A criticism that attempts to take account of politics runs into an immediate paradox, which is that those novels that deal least directly with ideology tend to be the ones in which the strongest ideological assumptions are made; the preconditions of social life are so self-evident to their authors that they need not be stated. A Jane Austen novel is strongly concerned with domestic life and family relations, almost to the complete exclusion of ideological questions; and yet without the stable substructures of marriage and property on which it depends for both its plot and its social texture, it would falter on the first page. Unlike the plastic arts, the novel can never be wholly apolitical, given that even in its most experimental forms it seeks to refer to the world. Still, it would be a crude critic indeed who opted to “take on” the assumptions of these novels; he would almost be making a category error. Austen is a writer for all time; that she required a certain stability of society and manners has not proved disqualifying. Indeed, Henry James thought of this stability as virtually a precondition of the novel, or at least of his own. The novelist must sometimes have the freedom merely to take the world as he finds it.
The idea of the political novel is also somewhat in tension with the generative process that leads to the impulse to write. The political imagination seeks to solve problems, even to extinguish them. The violent political imagination seeks to extinguish false consciousness, which can only end in the extinguishing of human beings. The literary imagination is content to present problems, of whatever sort, taking the world as it finds it; in that sense it is conservative, even as it attempts the radical gesture of creation ex nihilo. The novel classically begins in the writer’s mind with a character or a situation, not with a political structure, a legislative event, a party congress. “An idealistic young doctor and poet seeks stability, meaning, and honor as his country descends into violence” is at least potentially Doctor Zhivago; “a series of events in imperial Russia leads to the demise of the Romanov dynasty and the creation of the Soviet Union” is something else entirely. Of course, a novel that begins with character may effloresce to become the story of a revolution, as with Zhivago. But what distinguishes the novel from the forms with which it has vied for space (biographies, narrative histories, religious texts) is its concern with private experience and, beginning with the modernists, interiority. The inner life observed is the lodestar of the modern novel: Mrs. Dalloway in her kitchen. The political novel, by contrast, seeks to link the individual’s destiny to the mass society that conditions him and against which he struggles for autonomy.
However much faith we are inclined to place in our artists, we should acknowledge that the crisis that Scott asks art to explain, or at least to narrate, was (among other things) an event in economic history, arising out of very deliberate and identifiable policy choices made over the course of several decades by intelligent but apparently rather blinkered individuals. Sustained engagement with that history actually is important to understanding what happened. A novelist may be able to “tell the truth” about the sense of dislocation and free-floating anxiety felt by a laid off mortgage banker; or about how a family’s life might unravel after the loss of their home; but she probably cannot explain the chain of causation that started with the invention of securitization and led to the jumbo mortgages that led to the building of that house that the family paid too much for, struggled to keep up, and eventually surrendered to the bank. John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, not Agricultural Practices in Northeast Oklahoma, 1926-1935, and while The Grapes of Wrath is an essential document in the record of our national experience, you would not want to consult it as a guide to farm policy. The novel as a genre gains strength and resilience from its engagement with the social sciences, but we should not confuse it with social science itself; the division of labor between the two exists for a reason and is essential to the vitality of both.
I do not think that Scott actually means to suggest that a novel is inherently a more trustworthy document than a Fed white paper or that the purposes of the two are coextensive. One assumes that a novelist may be as blinkered as the social scientist she meets in the faculty lounge. What we might legitimately ask a novel of the financial crisis to do is to speak to the moral imagination of the reader, to invigorate it, and to extend its reach to people and things that are not customarily the objects of her concern. That is part of its genre work. And is that not a enough?
Lionel Trilling both believed in the salience of literature to political thought and cautioned against asking the novel to do too much. Here he is in his most famous work, The Liberal Imagination (1950): “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” But in 1946, in an introduction to The Partisan Reader that was published shortly after the MacDonald schism and might be read as a commentary upon it, he had struck a more cautious note: “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.” Trilling, like Orwell, is a writer in whom ideologues of all stripes seem to find support for their views; most recently the neo-conservatives have sought to claim him as their own. But Trilling’s work seeks an autonomous space for literature and rejects a philistine criticism that would assess works primarily for their ideological correctness.
Scott himself clearly belongs to the political left, and the novel of politics he asks for is implicitly one that would vindicate his concerns. We generally think of the political novel as having a progressive or reformist purpose. It is well to remember, though, that two of the most influential political novels in the history of the West, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, were written from the right — and continue to animate conservative politics today. Another species of political novel, the anti-communist novel — Darkness at Noon, Animal Farm, The Gulag Archipelago — is not rightist in origin per se (Orwell, for example, described himself as a democratic socialist) but is strongly anti-utopian. Indeed, the novel as an art form is inherently anti-utopian, inasmuch as it seeks to point us to conflicts within the individual, and between the individual and society, that are inherently intractable. A political novel’s happy ending usually does not mean the end of war — which, be it literal or figurative, is with us always — but with the protagonist’s achieving a separate peace.
If I am right that, among other things, the political novel faces a problem of scale — national politics tends toward the totalizing vision, while narrative fiction wants to be intimate — then the solution may be for the writer to deal with a small bore problem that can nonetheless be “scaled up:” a part that will stand for the whole. Ideology, in both its grainier and more sweeping senses, is at the center of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a somewhat archly ironic account of American political values in the aughts. Franzen engages politics directly, in that several of his characters are actively trying to shape policy, and more subtly, in dramatizing how ideological tropes seep into private life and affect the choices we make in our homes and neighborhoods. Freedom extends themes present in Franzen’s earlier novel, The Corrections, but it takes on conservative political values more directly and with markedly less sympathy for their representatives. As such, Freedom was dealt with critically as a political novel (at least in part), though less in terms of whether the reviewer shared Franzen’s politics than whether Franzen’s attempt to bring ideology to the center of a domestic novel was prima facie legitimate.
Sam Tanenhaus, the author of a biography of Whitaker Chambers and a narrative history of the conservative moment in the United States, hailed Freedom as “a masterpiece of American fiction;” B.R. Myers, the author of A Reader’s Manifesto and a professor of North Korean politics (and therefore a man who knows something about the dangers of ideology) called it “a monument to insignificance.” Myers seemed to feel that Franzen was writing a kind of socialist realism, with his characters acting as representatives of certain tendencies in national life rather than vital individuals; he also found their diction and their inner lives banal (perhaps he has lived outside the country for too long to recall what we are actually like). Tanenhaus and Myers are both strong critics, and their radically different responses to Freedom suggest an ongoing lack of critical consensus regarding how politics should be dealt with in narrative fiction. Some critics demand that the author’s politics be entirely soluble in the narrative, while others find a plainer statement of ideological assumptions bracing. This lack of consensus is not necessarily a matter for concern — chacun â son gout, after all — but it does leave the writer who has a sustained interest in ideology with a hard problem.
Freedom occasionally suffers from the impatience of its author with the very narrative techniques that Franzen employed to such extraordinary effect in The Corrections. While in the latter novel, Franzen’s use of free indirect style was masterful in bringing to life each of the members of the Lambert family, in his presentation of Freedom’s Berglunds, Franzen hovers rather too close by, over-managing our interpretations. Freedom sometimes descends into a hectoring tone, holding forth rather than narrating. Its author seems burdened by the responsibility of telling us things we already ought to know. But a novel is not meant to be a substitute for watching PBS Newshour; it is not a discourse on citizenship. This is not to say that Freedom is not an excellent novel — only to suggest that Franzen did not manage the problem of blending his aesthetic and didactic purposes perfectly. There is something in the reader that wants to resist Freedom even as he admires its art and recognizes the world it creates.
Amy Waldman’s The Submission deals not with the financial crisis that is Scott’s immediate concern but with other signal event of our recent politics, the 9/11 attacks. The Submission starts with a high concept: the jury judging the anonymous submissions for a Ground Zero memorial unwittingly chooses an American of Middle Eastern descent, a slick, arrogant, and thoroughly secularized product of the Yale School of Architecture named Mohammed Khan. The choice of Khan activates opposition, some of it ugly, from a coalition motivated variously by religious animus, opportunism, and survivor guilt. Others rally to Khan’s defense in the name of tolerance, civic order, and aesthetic values. The ensuing struggle over the meaning of 9/11 and what might constitute an appropriate response to such a spectacularly successful act of political violence is a portrait of New York in that raw and tumultuous period that registers the change in mood and understanding created by the attacks.
The Submission was published to enormous acclaim, and it is in many respects a worthy novel, but three years later it already feels dated. Waldman’s model was clearly Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Submission answers Wolfe’s call for a less effete and more epistemic account of what actually goes on at the street level of our livid cities. While Waldman is a writer of patience and skill, the result still feels like a kind of super-journalism. The people in The Submission succeed as representatives of their social environment, but they never quite escape their representative status to succeed as individuals; as such, they are not literary characters at all, in the sense of seeming to possess autonomous selves. It is important to remember, as Wolfe has often failed to do, that while the techniques of fiction and newspaper reporting may seem similar, their purposes are very different and their truth-value depends on different claims. The Submission by its very conception carries a very heavy documentary burden, which necessarily inhibits the imaginative freedom of its author. Imagination is the faculty in which Scott places his final measure of trust, but imagination is often precisely what suffers when the novelist seeks to fulfill a didactic purpose.
Literature is naturally against the grain of ideology. Ideology seeks to impose a pattern on historical experience, sometimes by violence; the patterns of literature perform gentler acts of persuasion, and they emerge only gradually. To get to the place where the pattern coheres and the author’s meaning emerges (assuming that we are in the realm of novels that seek to perform in this way), the reader must pass through the slough of ambiguity. The pattern is the novel’s purpose, but the ambiguity is its basic condition. While the novelist may be God in the universe of his narrative, he accepts that his effect on the world is diffuse and indirect.
In asking that American novelists engage more fully with the political dimension of our national life, Scott is asking them to risk something of the freedom of thought and expression they enjoy, derived from their very unworldliness, that gives their work (for Scott) a unique truth-value. When the novelist becomes just another person who wants to sell us something, her moral status suffers, and so perhaps does her claim on our attention. So we should be careful about what we ask novelists (and poets, and filmmakers) to do.
Taken more broadly, however, Scott’s recent attempts to diagnose why our culture is so persistently, noxiously trivial, even as our claims regarding our special status in world affairs become more grandiose and deluded, seem both honorable and timely. This is not say that Scott is a cultural pessimist per se; indeed, he rightly regards a renewable capacity for enthusiasm as a necessary part of a critic’s equipment. He is not despairing, but he is disappointed. Like the PR critics, who as the children of immigrants were both in love with America and perpetually disappointed by it, he is inclined to think that we ought to do better. “Doing better” might start with demanding art that demands more of us.
Image Credit: Flickr/Jaime Martínez-Figueroa
I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy this year. I read it twice, actually. It made me want to quit writing.
That sounds like the kind of cutesy thing you could say about any book you love, but in fact the reality of it was terrible, a sensation that lasted for days, a blend of nausea, fog, and loss. How can I explain it? Reading those books — My Brilliant Friend, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a New Name — it was as if I had spent my whole life training to be a world-class swimmer, waking up at dawn to do laps, eating the right stuff — and then, all of the sudden, swimming in the ocean one day, I had been joined briefly by a dolphin and realized, oh, of course, that’s what swimming actually is.
That is: There’s a difference between naturalism and naturalness. Naturalism is still a mode. Ferrante’s early books are great, but they’re modal, full of the effects a novelist can use, beautifully deployed, but effects. By the Neapolitan trilogy, those effects are gone. As a consequence it has less immediate line-to-line dazzle than what we’re used to calling great fiction these days, The Flamethrowers, for example, or even The Days of Abandonment, but what she buys with the sacrifice is a consuming naturalness. There’s not a single moment of falseness across all the thousand pages of the books. In general, even the best novelists enter their texts; the great ones do it almost imperceptibly, but still, behind Walter’s love of birds in Freedom, for instance, you just sense Jonathan Franzen’s love of birds, a weak but noticeable magnetic draw from character to author. Whereas Ferrante works so closely to her characters’ motivations, more closely than any novelist I’ve ever read, that it means the books are not so much realistic as that they are a reality. The result is intoxicating, art with all the beauties of a made thing and the authenticity of a discovered one. It’s like a garment without seams that fits perfectly, or like those Vija Celmins rocks. It’s like the opposite of the Pompidou Center.
The last 20 years have seen the ascent of James Wood’s idea that what the novel offers uniquely is an encounter with another consciousness, and now we’ve arrived at the cultural triumph of his particular theodicy, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ben Lerner. Those (wonderful) authors get rid of the problem of the novel by entering it overtly, and while that allows an magical nearness to them, it’s a solution that’s also an impoverishment, because it foregoes plot. An acceptable loss, you might say. I wonder. Wood’s pressure toward interiority almost seems to me to forget the structure of life, which is so crucially at once internal and external. Life has actions in it. In reading a novel, it’s profound to experience the self-in-other in memory or contemplation, but it’s sometimes just as profound to experience the self-in-other during moments of decision. In Ferrante, we have both — they’re told in the first person, but they’re the story of more than a single person, of many equally weighted people. The plotting of their stories is so skillful, indeed so unplotted, in the sense that life is unplotted, in the sense that we don’t know the future, that as readers we suddenly exist both in other actions and in their actors’ consciousness of them. Not the latter alone.
I read a lot of things in 2014, and I would like to imagine I’ll look back on the year and remember rereading Patrick O’Brian, whose achievement as an author of historical fiction I consider as great as Hilary Mantel’s, or Six Memos for the Next Millennium and Mythologies, which have both been rattling in my mind since winter, or the mysterious and beautiful 10:04, or the funniest book I read all year, a fantastic self-published novella that if there were justice in the world would upend pro sports, Goodell vs. Obama by PFT Commenter, or the fifth volume of Marcel Proust, finally I’m almost done.
But realistically, Ferrante is who will stay with me.
It’s considered unsophisticated to be normative about authors. Leave it to Buzzfeed, leave it to the Mike Trout zealots. I get that, but at the same time I also think it’s important to believe in greatness, and I don’t think it’s always wrong to calibrate it. I don’t know if Ian McEwan is greater than Don DeLillo, or whatever. What I do know is that before 2014, I thought Philip Roth was the greatest novelist alive. Now, for me, he’s second.
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We are a society of consumers. In any of America’s 4,135 Walmart locations, you may find us observing our grotesque sacrament of consumption, enrobed in Duck Dynasty apparel and attended by trains of resource-gobbling offspring whose ominous chants for Monster Energy Drink and Despicable Me talking figurines can be heard halfway to the parking lot. We buy it; we break it, tire of it, or allow it to spoil; and we discard it. We are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and Black Friday is, as it were, our Black Mass. So, at any rate runs a popular line of self-flagellation — but to what degree is it true?
Jonathan Miles’s new novel, Want Not, hopes to make us think long and hard about this question. The book opens on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. Its three narratives, which cohere thematically but don’t much intersect in the contrived manner familiar to moviegoers, follow freegan squatters in Manhattan; the loathsome owner of a collection agency, his troubled wife, and his stepdaughter; and a middle-aged liguististics professor grappling with his failed marriage, his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, and a difficult project drawing on his knowledge of dead and dying languages.
The squatter plot recalls Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy (2011), a novel about a Florida anarchist collective. There is, if not quite a love triangle, an odd domestic arrangement: Micah and Talmadge take on Matty, Talmadge’s childhood friend and fresh out of prison in Oregon. They lecture him about freeganism in a way that is also for the reader’s instruction, just as one Dan Brown character might explain the Priory of Sion to another. Gradually, these characters do assume real depth; a flashback to Micah’s own off-the-grid childhood and subsequent wanderings (as far as India) furnish the book’s most exotic, poetic passages, as in this description of Indian poverty:
It wasn’t the makeshift blue shanties and lean-tos, or the women thrashing clothes on rocks, the men squatting to defecate in the shade of Peepal trees, or the naked, cinnamon-colored children cooling themselves in puddles — all this was too familiar, even nostalgically comforting, to faze her. What wrenched her, instead, was the unnatural landscape of the poverty: the scale, the density, all the degraded details. The coolant-green, battery-acid-yellow swirls in the puddle those children were cooling in. The mustardy burning-trash haze that strangled the breeze those women were sucking into their lungs as they paused between thrashings.
Matty goes through the motions of learning to scavenge, to salvage — in one very effective nail-biter of a scene, he is nearly flattened in a trash compactor — but his eye is on the main chance, and what he comes to find in his friends’ lifestyle is not salvation so much as criminal opportunity. Endowing Matty with this mercenary streak was a canny move on Miles’s part. It reveals a mature understanding that not everyone can be brought sincerely into the fold, that people will want what they want no matter how fully they may try to engage with the arguments of the pious.
As for Elwin Cross Jr., the linguist, we encounter him just as he’s killed a deer with his Jeep Cherokee. There was, conveniently, a time in Cross’s youth when he pored over “the Foxfire books as if they were Talmudic scrolls,” and under the influence of wine and nostalgia he decides to take the kill home and butcher it. Waste not, want not. Miles describes this process so vividly and in so dignified a manner that, rather than making the reader squeamish, it may have him clicking over to the Cabela’s website. Other things that Elwin refuses to discard include his technically totaled Jeep; Christopher, the drunken, buffoonish son of his abusive neighbor; his father’s memories; the endangered languages of micro-ethnic groups.
This may sound a bit too elegant, even pat, but it is mild in comparison with Dave Masoli, Miles’s laziest creation. Masoli is a Frankenstein’s monster of stereotypes. “An hour after eating Thanksgiving dinner,” Miles writes, Dave “was staring into the toilet with wide-eyed awe and admiration.” Yes, we are in for a bathetic rhapsody to a bowel movement — in Dave’s view, a whole bowel symphony — and like the scatological tableau in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, it doesn’t rise above the level of Tucker Max gross-out merely by being in an upper-middlebrow novel. It takes the book’s kitchen-sink approach to waste too literally and too far.
Dave is obnoxious, greedy, unscrupulous, homophobic, racist, a cigar aficionado, and, of course, a Republican. Ostentatiously humanizing a caricature like this, as Miles ultimately does, may be worse than having drawn the caricature in the first place. It suggests that Miles believes he is being imaginative, or insightful, or even shocking in proposing that a person such as Dave might also possess a soul. That most people are walking contradictions should cease to astonish around the time one’s history teacher reveals that Hitler was a vegetarian and Stalin wrote love poetry.
Miles’s plot, his superflux of character and incident, is at times as bloated as the America it examines. Want Not seems to crave pride of place with such “sprawling” books as Infinite Jest and Freedom. Miles includes an unsubtle advertisement for his own simile-laden prose style on the first page: One of his characters is “an inveterate analogizer who couldn’t help viewing the world as a matrix of interconnected references in which everything was related to everything else through the associative, magnetizing impulses of his brain. Back in college he’d read that this trait was an indicator of genius.”
Want Not isn’t a work of genius, but it is a triumph of careful planning. It is a book designed for book clubs and high school classrooms. Its themes and morals are, like one of those barn-owl-pellet science kits, both easy to unpack and, if considered in the right frame of mind, fascinating. Its reach may exceed its grasp, but it earns that oft-abused adjective ambitious. With the lone exception of Dave Masoli, Miles’s characters are well drawn, convincing, and easy to care about; his prose is intricate but reads at a good clip. But the greatest compliment one can pay Want Not is that it turns out not to be a didactic novel about reducing, reusing, and recycling. It may be just the opposite, a subversive argument that we are focusing our attention on the wrong sort of waste.
Elwin’s project is to help prepare a warning for a New Mexico HAZMAT dump, a message that will be intelligible to a civiliation of 10,000 years hence. It is an exercise in deep-time communication, and based on a real-life project at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. For all that well-educated Americans enjoy trash-talking themselves and their consumption habits, the deep-time warning makes us seem optimistically conscientous. Man, if by some miracle he endures another 10,000 years, may face far more serious threats than the presence of a radioactive junkyard. Yet he insists on making an effort to protect our children’s children’s children, ad infinitum. Good for him.
Call it love or humanity or something like it. But let’s not forget our actual children. The book describes one heartbreaking miscarriage, one live birth consigned to and rescued from a dumpster. Miles’s main characters are people who need to be picked up, dusted off, and repaired. Sometimes one suspects that Miles is instructing us not to worry so much about abstractions. “[G]arbage was the only truthful thing civilization produced,” Matty thinks, “because that’s where all the dirty secrets went.” Ask any archaeologist: We are that garbage. We’re all headed for the same scrap heap, as is our species, as far as deep time is concerned. It’s to our great credit that we look to the future, but we shouldn’t let our very fleeting present go to waste, either.
Old Hoboken Waterfront, featuring the Maxwell House coffee plant (far left) and the Lipton tea plant (far right).
Both the Lipton Tea and the Maxwell House plants used to be situated at the north end of Hoboken’s Frank Sinatra Drive, a winding riverside road on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Built to capitalize on the town’s proximity to Manhattan, and also the accommodating docks famously depicted in On the Waterfront, the two plants employed generations of workers from Hoboken and its surrounding area. In the mornings, the entire town smelled like tealeaves and roasted coffee.
During my lifetime, both buildings underwent a routine familiar to residents of “up-and-coming” neighborhoods across America: they were closed, sold, and replaced with luxury condominiums. Today Eli Manning owns a fully automated apartment in the Hudson Tea Building. A one-bedroom at Maxwell Place rents for $3,200 a month.
The rest of the town has undergone a similar transformation. Locally owned shops that used to line Washington Street — the main drag spanning the length of the Mile Square City — have in the past three decades been replaced by more and more cookie cutter storefronts from the likes of Baby Gap, Anthropologie, Panera Bread, and Chipotle. Real estate values have skyrocketed due to an influx of young, childless Wall Street workers who appreciate the PATH train’s easy access to the financial district.
Unfortunately this development has come at the expense of longtime residents, many of whom belong to the working classes. Last year Hoboken High School was ranked 298th out of 328 public schools in New Jersey. (Down from 187th the year prior.) The shrinking supply of rent-controlled apartments is always one referendum away from being diminished further. Local businesses evaporate and the town loses its identity. People who moved here for its flavor wake up one day and realize that flavor’s gone. What was at one time one of New Jersey’s most distinct towns is more and more becoming an extension of whitewashed New York, unrecognizable from any number of neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Nostalgic locals are replaced by the hipster vanguard; the hipster vanguard is replaced again. To the young newcomers who didn’t grow up here, there’s little reason to care: Hoboken is said to boast more bars per capita than any other American city.
At the end of July, however, the town will lose one of its best.
The best way to understand Maxwell’s is to think of it as Hoboken’s own CBGB, but with tighter curation. A former tavern for the factory workers at the Maxwell House plant, Maxwell’s was bought by Steve Fallon and his family in 1978 and converted into a sit-down restaurant. At the time, Hoboken was undergoing its first wave of gentrification, and in order to take advantage of the burgeoning hipster scene, Maxwell’s launched the town’s first successful Sunday brunch.
By the early 1980s, however, the space began to establish itself as one of North Jersey’s premier concert venues — this despite the fact that its 200 person capacity event space was the size of a suburban garage. (Its acoustics were not dissimilar.) The place hit its stride when Fallon brought on Todd Abramson to manage bookings. He went on to host performances from major acts like Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Strokes. In 1985, Bruce Springsteen and Hoboken resident John Sayles teamed up to use Maxwell’s as the set for scenes in The Boss’s music video, “Glory Days.” My mother recalls that the crowd of Springsteen fans gathered uptown was larger than the one that had assembled at St. Ann’s Feast the year before — remarkable because the Feast featured appearances from both Ronald Reagan and Frank Sinatra.
All the while, Maxwell’s also hosted a steady stream of diverse punk, grunge, and indie rock groups in addition to the larger touring outfits. In a testament to the range of sounds you could experience, check out the “Away” video The Feelies recorded (the year I was born) on the same stage that (24 years hence) would feature a sold out performance from The Sun The Moon The Stars. Now add to the mix the knowledge that Yo La Tengo performed there more times than I can count — even playing the eight nights of Hanukkah every year. Add to that the knowledge that once a month the place would remove all the tables and host Dave Post’s Swingadelic project in the dining area. You get the idea.
Yet Maxwell’s has always been a microcosm for what was going on in the town as a whole. It’s a case study for the prevailing trends: not only was it a product of gentrification’s inexorable march, but now it’s a victim of it as well. In recent years, the local crowds have steadily ceded ground to visitors. It’s a trend depicted in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which noted that Richard Katz had to drive into Hoboken in order to drop off his guitar. (The staff memorably treated him “like a General MacArthur returning from Korea in defiant disgrace.”) In recent years, more and more noise complaints forced shows to end early. It’s become uncommon to see Hoboken residents in attendance. The town has changed. The residents who made up the previous gentrification waves have been pushed out to new frontlines, or else they’ve grown up. The current milieu is composed of frat boys and young parents. In the comments section for The Star Ledger’s report on the bar’s closing, Hoboken is described with epithets like, “frat row,” “HoBroken,” and “DOUCHEVILLE.” As I type this, I hear the distinct click-clack of stiletto heels coming from the two girls who live next door. Monday night is when they go clubbing at places like Boa and Room 84 — both of which opened in the past year, and both of which pull nightly crowds bigger than Maxwell’s weekly draw.
This is not the first time Maxwell’s has shut its doors. In the mid-90s the place was briefly converted into a fancy brewpub. Big metal casks lined the windows and the place played the radio. Three years later, the bar as we knew it was rescued and reopened thanks to an alliance between Dave Post and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. But this time feels different.
“The culture in Hoboken is driven by TV now,” Abramson recently told Ledger reporter Tris McCall. “A lot of the bars downtown are fighting with each other for who has the most giant TVs. That’s what Hoboken nightlife has become.” He’s not wrong. The most popular bar to have opened in town over the past year is owned by one of the families in The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
And so it goes. What started decades ago with the demolition of the Maxwell House plant will continue next month. The town’s newest residents, no doubt drawn by the allure of once-affordable rents as well as the quirky nature of my hometown — a nature established by places like Maxwell’s — will have unintentionally contributed to a rising cost of living, a rapidly emptying high school, the proliferation of chain stores, and the demise of a cultural institution. Soon I’ll move away, and when I come back years later, I’ll see a whole new town with a whole new set of problems. Meanwhile, I can’t help but feel that somewhere else in America, a small bar or restaurant owner is looking at their back seating area and thinking, “Hey, this just might work.”
Image via Hoboken411.
The office of literary agent Ellen Levine is a sun-struck jewel box of a place overlooking Madison Square Park and lined with shelves of signed first editions by Levine’s many famous clients, including Marilyn Robinson, Russell Banks, and Michael Ondaatje. Despite these trappings of power — that view, that big desk, the young editorial assistant who ushers you in with a hushed reverence that suggests you are being granted an audience with the pope — Levine is herself unpretentious and approachable. She is a small person, bird-like and soft-spoken, and when she settles in at a conference table, her manner suggests not a big-wheel New York literary agent but a college professor taking time out of her day to sit with you in her office and talk about books.
I had invited myself to Levine’s office one sunny April morning last year to interview her for the first in a series of features I was writing for Poets Writers Magazine called “The Aha! Moment.” The idea was that I would talk to writers, editors, and literary agents about the moment the light went on for them about a particular manuscript, the moment when they thought, I have to do this project. I had asked Levine to pick a novel by a new client and show me at what point — where exactly, on what page — she decided she had to take this writer on. Then we would print that manuscript page in the magazine, with Levine’s quotes explaining how the writing had grabbed her and why.
As we sat down to discuss the page in question, midway into the first chapter of a first novel by an unknown African-American writer living in Brooklyn, Levine described the writer’s command of language and storytelling craft, but when she reached a key passage in the scene, in which a young mother is about to lose her twin babies to pneumonia, Levine’s voice caught. When I looked up, her eyes had misted over. If you interview a lot of people, you develop a radar for when people are selling and when they are not, and in this case Ellen Levine was not selling. She was genuinely moved by this scene in an unpublished book by a writer nobody had ever heard of. I left her office that day thinking: Something really, really good is going to happen to that book.
Sure enough, eight months later, I read that the book Levine and I had been discussing that day, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, had been published in December, six weeks ahead of schedule, and had been picked by Oprah Winfrey for her newly rebooted Book Club. This weekend — on Super Bowl Sunday, of all days — Mathis will sit for an interview with Winfrey to discuss the book.
Long before Jonathan Franzen famously dissed her for picking his novel The Corrections for her Book Club and James Frey’s pseudo-memoir A Million Little Pieces blew up into, well, a million little pieces, Oprah and her Book Club were the subject of an unseemly mix of love and hate from the publishing industry as well as from many readers of literary fiction. On the one hand, Oprah clearly moved product. An astonishing amount of product. According to one study by Fordham University marketing professor Al Greco, during the 15 years Winfrey ran the Book Club before she shut it down along with her syndicated show in 2011, the 69 “Oprah Editions” embossed with the signature Book Club seal sold roughly 55 million copies.
So much for the love part. Franzen, thoughtless as his comments may have been, was only saying out loud what many others had been saying when he suggested Winfrey had larded her list with “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” novels, directed primarily at women readers. At the time, the blowback at Franzen was all about him being an elitist, but I always thought there was a gendered element to the knock on Oprah books. Franzen, and many others, said the books were middlebrow and directed at women, but to my ears, anyway, there was a strongly implied causal relationship between the two: the books were middlebrow because they were directed at women, as if serious fiction — the kind written by Hemingway and Faulkner — was for guys while anything written with a female audience in mind was, almost by definition, middlebrow.
After the Franzen dustup, Winfrey started devoting fewer shows to books, and after the James Frey debacle, she pulled back even further, picking only a few books a year and relying more heavily on established classics like Elie Weisel’s Night or novels by guy-friendly authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Cormac McCarthy that countered the stereotype of an “Oprah book.” By the time she invited Franzen back on her show in 2010 to discuss his novel Freedom, she just seemed weary of the whole thing.
In many ways, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, the second book picked for the rebooted Book Club 2.0 featured on Winfrey’s eponymous Oprah Winfrey Network, neatly fits the stereotype of an “Oprah book.” For one thing, Hattie focuses on a damaged family, as so many previous Oprah picks have, and like a number of earlier picks, it is set in black America. A cynic — and don’t pretend there aren’t a few of them among you — might even go so far as to say that Hattie is a perfect Oprah book because it is the sort of book about black people that white people like to read, meaning one that allows white readers to bear witness to, and passionately decry, America’s long history of racial oppression without feeling personally indicted for playing any role in that oppression.
It is true that much of Hattie is set safely in early and mid-century America, before many contemporary readers were even alive, and the passages that deal with the most straightforward white racism take place in the South, which allows liberal northerners to blame such ugly behavior on those white people, who are of course nothing like themselves. But such calculations, and indeed all the baggage that comes with being an “Oprah book,” are unfair to the novel Mathis has written, which is a dazzling debut, rich in language and psychological insight, steeped in the history of 20th-century black America and black American writing, and yet fully in tune with a 21st-century America capable of twice electing a black man president.
Hattie is being marketed as a novel, but it would be more accurate to say that it is a collection of linked stories revolving around the dysfunctional Shepherd family, starting in 1925 and ending in 1980. There isn’t a truly weak story in the lot, but the book is best when its central figure, the hard-hearted “plow horse” of a matriarch, Hattie Shepherd, is present, and loses some of its vitality when she is not.
We first meet Hattie in that heartbreaking opening chapter when she is a joy-filled 16-year-old escapee from the Jim Crow South imagining how when her newborn twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, begin to walk they will “totter around the porch like sweet bumbling old men.” This moment of dreamy bliss lasts barely a page before the twins come down with pneumonia, and Hattie, crippled by her inexperience and pride, fails to save them. Hattie goes on to have nine more children — far more than she and her sweet, but feckless husband August can support in Depression-era black Philadelphia — but the twins’ deaths mark her, turning her into a cold, rage-filled woman capable of beating a child until he wets himself in terror for having left a window open in the rain.
But Hattie isn’t a villain, nor is she a helpless victim of her circumstances. She comes alive on the page in all her complexity as a woman fiercely determined to never let another child slip away, but neither strong nor resourceful enough to keep them alive without terrorizing them within an inch of their lives. “Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman,” Mathis writes late in the book.
She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing them if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies? They didn’t understand that all the love she had was used up in feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has its share of stock figures — child preachers whose touch can heal the sick, good-time men who live for the gambling table, and loose-living women who shack up with criminals — but it is Mathis’s gift to breathe life into these characters, render them in three dimensions as ordinary people striving to be decent but lacking the strength of character or willpower to get there. They are often very destructive and Mathis is too clear-eyed a writer to turn away from the wreckage they leave behind or to pass off their recklessness as a mere product of racism and poverty. But she doesn’t pass judgment on them, either. Mathis’s characters are those rarest of fictional creations: real living, breathing people.
A central element of the Oprah Book Club narrative has always been the sudden reversal of fortune experienced by those lucky few Oprah authors. The poor wretched scribe, the tale goes, was toiling away in obscurity in the backwaters of American literary culture until one day the phone rings, and — Oh, my God! — “Hi, this is Oprah.”
Whether this narrative was ever really true of the earlier Oprah picks is debatable, but it is certainly not true in the case of Mathis who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a client of Ellen Levine, one of the top literary agents in New York. I have exactly zero knowledge of what levers Levine pulled, but it is hard to imagine that an agent as well-connected as Levine, sitting on a book as good as Mathis’s, could have resisted at least suggesting to one of Winfrey’s show bookers that they might want to give this book a read.
But if this plucked-from-obscurity narrative is partly a media fiction, it does point up a fact Oprah’s detractors would do well to keep in mind: while Winfrey has occasionally leaned on books by Nobel laureates like Faulkner and Toni Morrison, the bread and butter of the Book Club was always new books by little-known authors. Try this at home sometime. Tell yourself you need to pick a book that will appeal to millions of readers, by an unknown author who will be interesting to talk to for an hour on national television, but who has also written a serious work of literary fiction. And then tell yourself you need to do this once a month while running the highest-rated talk show in the history of television. Let me know how that works out for you.
It is high time defenders of American literary fiction cut Oprah Winfrey a break. These days, even Oprah is no longer Oprah, and while Mathis’s novel has shot up into the bestseller lists, it is unlikely stay there for months the way books did in the Book Club’s 1990s heyday. Still, imagine what would have happened if Winfrey hadn’t picked it. It still would have garnered raves from reviewers in print and online, and over time booksellers would have begun quietly putting it in the hands of favored customers. In other words, it would have remained a well-kept secret among a bookish few. Instead, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will be read by hundreds of thousands of people and Mathis will sit down for a well-publicized interview on the high holiest day in the American television calendar, Super Bowl Sunday. With any luck, this gritty, tough-minded work of literary fiction that also happens to be a mesmerizing read will enter into the cultural mainstream. Who else but Oprah could pull that off?
Driving south into Miami-Dade County is less scenic than you might expect. Decades of Floridian sprawl have resulted in long, sun-bleached stretches of asphalt punctuated by industrial supply centers, physical therapy clinics, outlet malls, Waffle Houses, Pollo Tropicals, and strip clubs. The anticipated visuals – palm trees, beaches, flashy hotels, and the ocean – are blocked all along I-95 by tall concrete embankments that keep cars away from oak-less subdivisions called Highland Oaks, Rolling Oaks, or Woodlands. Long are the miles spent enduring such non-views; longer still in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
For this reason, I recommend flying into the city at night. As your plane descends from the West, you can peer out your window. What you’ll see at first is nothing: endless blackness in every direction, a sight so rare in some parts of this country that its effect at first is jarring. Am I over the ocean? You aren’t. This is the Everglades, the swamp so gnarly it dissuaded four centuries of settlers from staying put. It’s the defining geography of South Florida, the subtropical “River of Grass” stretched like a permanent, slow-moving membrane over half the state’s limestone shelf. [To see for yourself, click the “left” arrow a couple times on this map.]
After a few moments, the darkness abruptly gives way to a line of neon city lights, a literal demarcation of where wilderness was beaten back by the Army Corps of Engineers. Now your airplane is a few hundred feet above well-lit and densely populated ground – ground that a mile previous was nothing more than mud and mangrove. From no other vantage point can someone as quickly realize that Miami is a city that shouldn’t be here, an enclave carved out from Mother Nature and cut off from its surroundings. Truly, it’s the Magic City.
Culturally, Miami also exists as a world apart from the rest of its own state, the rest of its own nation. The further south one travels in Florida, the further north one feels politically. After all, it’s in the northern regions where you’ll find Quran-burning pastors, pro-abortion billboards, xenophobes, and megachurches. The north gave us Tim Tebow. By contrast, the southern regions are where international relations matter more than American elections, where most residents actually know the difference between “socialism” and “Communism,” where gay pride is evident, and where you probably won’t get that promotion if you can’t speak Spanish. Early in Tom Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood, a bout of road rage lays bare this separatist feel. “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW!” shouts an exasperated “anglo” who’s just been cut off on the road. “No, mía malhablada puta gorda,” replies her Cuban adversary. “We een Mee-ah-mee now! You een Mee-ah-mee now!”
Back to Blood is obsessed with cultural abrasion, with the way different classes and races vie for power in a city whose largest demographic is composed not so much of a single nationality as, instead, confederations of “non-Americans” pitted against an eroding white hegemony. Dionisio Cruz, the city’s fictive Cuban mayor, sums it up nicely:
“Miami is the only city in the world, as far as I can tell — in the world — whose population is more than fifty percent recent immigrants…recent immigrants, immigrants from over the past fifty years…and that’s a hell of a thing, when you think about it. […] I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, ‘Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.’”
Dutifully, Wolfe does his best to display these conflicts. In the novel’s first chapter, we meet our hero, Nestor Camacho, a strapping Cuban cop working as a marine patrolman. On this day, he’s tasked with arresting a Cuban refugee who’s boarded a party yacht in Biscayne Bay. Real federal legislation dictates that Cuban refugees are granted admission and amnesty in the United States if and only if they reach dry land before being captured; if accosted at sea, they’re sent packing. (For Haitians, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, and other groups — all of which are deported no matter how long they’ve been here — this is, justifiably, a touchy source of resentment.)
Unfortunately for Nestor, the arrest becomes a citywide cause célèbre, and the next day he finds himself on the front page of both the English-language Miami Herald (favorably) and the Spanish-language Nuevo Herald (unfavorably). His family is none too pleased. For most Cubans residing in South Florida, there is only one thing more reprehensible than Fidel Castro’s regime: prohibiting escape from it. (Miami’s Cuban demographics have traditionally voted Republican ever since John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco.) As a result, Nestor’s family and peers, sympathetic with the will to flee their native island, all but disown the young cop and brand him a traidor.
But that’s not all. In the subsequent seven hundred pages — for which, reportedly, Wolfe was paid about $10,000 per — readers get glimpses of many more racial imbroglios. Nestor himself hits another racial flashpoint when a de-contextualized YouTube video emerges of him choking out a black drug dealer. We get glimpses of the love/hate relationship between the Haitian and African-American communities; the way corruption and wealth buy access to the upper echelons of “legitimate” society; the way white social strivers manipulate one another to attain superficial status; and, finally, how Miami exists for the privileged as a Will Smith video and for the poor as anything but.
This is “a book on immigration,” Wolfe told The New York Times in 2008, but that’s not really true. This is a book on belonging, and each character seeks it in a different way. Nestor wants his family to accept the fact that he was merely taking orders on that boat. His ex-girlfriend, Magdalena Otero, a psychiatric nurse who’s dating her upper-crust “anglo” boss, wants to belong anywhere but her hometown of Hialeah. Her boss, Dr. Norman Lewis, wants desperately to belong atop Miami’s money-based status pyramid. John Smith, the whitest white dude ever conceived, wants his boat-shoe-wearing, Yale Eli self to be accepted in the Miami Herald newsroom, where his boss, Edward Topping IV, a fellow Eli, wants nothing more than to belong to the Miami in-crowd of socialites and rich men. The Haitian-born Lantier, a French literature professor at Florida International University — err, “Everglades Global University” — wants badly for his children to belong to any culture except for one that speaks Creole.
At 81 years old, Wolfe still practices the on-the-ground reporting he’s always prescribed. I was twenty-two months old when he published his Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast (PDF),” an entreaty for American novelists to emphasize realism. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, when Wolfe was on top of his game, he incisively depicted a sliver of New York City’s 1980s decadence with the nostalgic accuracy of a Polaroid snapshot. However since then total immersion has proved more and more elusive and his recent novels have been marred by generational misunderstandings, clueless errors, political prejudices, and unfortunate, altogether creepy portrayals of women and youth. This descent is evidenced by his latest imitations of rap lyrics. I Am Charlotte Simmons subjected us to: “Short’s Johnson, he go roamin’ / Homey’s jeans a his is packin’ heat / Inside that cracker jack’s own home, an’ / Bottom lady wants ‘at sweet dark meat.”
Fortunately, Wolfe has done some more homework this time. While his rap lyrics haven’t improved (“Caliente! Caliente, baby. / Got plenty fuego in yo caja china / Means you needs a length a Hose put in it, / Ain’ no maybe —”), he has apparently grasped Miami more firmly than he could grasp the American university system. Real places and legitimate commentary are sprinkled throughout the novel like cocaine in a South Beach bathroom. One of Wolfe’s Cuban characters correctly describes Hialeah and its vicinity (Dade County’s most overwhelmingly Latin neighborhoods) as being similar to “Singapore or Taiwan or Hong Kong” in that it’s a sort of free enclave within another country. Other actual Miami institutions are depicted satirically and accurately, such as the trendy and porn-soaked Wynwood Art Walk, the decadent Art Basel festival, and the orgiastic Columbus Day Regatta. (Don’t Google image search that last one if you’re at work.) Wolfe nails the power structure that keeps Miami mired in inertia: the political reality that, just as too many cooks can spoil a broth, too many interest groups can stall a city.
As for his exhortation to emphasize the real over the imagined: Wolfe demonstrates his abilities here as well. In a refreshing bit of contemporary insight – and as a contrast to Jonathan Franzen’s improbably technophobic college students in Freedom – the young people in this novel send one another texts, tweets, and “Instagrams” on their iPhones. Real musicians like Pitbull, Shakira, Rihanna, and, hysterically, LMFAO are name-checked. Somebody said to be getting “white boy wasted” (!!!) has “Wild Ones” as their cell’s ring tone. At one point, a police boat is described as “the Ugly Betty of boatbuilding.”
However despite these superficial accuracies, the novel is ultimately tripped up by the banal. Compared to their vibrant setting, Wolfe’s characters and plot details are predictable and flat. We learn scarcely anything about Nestor’s motivations and interests, only that he likes to tinker with cell phone ringtones. Magdalena is an enigma: a college-educated psychiatric nurse who doesn’t know the difference between a “logotherapist” and a “pill therapist,” and who doesn’t understand the words “cutting-edge,” “invests,” “extortionist,” or “penthouse,” yet does somehow know the word “czar.” Some characters are introduced (like Edward Topping’s wife) only to be completely forgotten later on. Almost every male character is a hulking, powerful wall of muscle. Almost every female character is a vivacious Latina in tight clothes. One of them even refers to doing the deed as “giving [the guy] some papaya.” (Ugh.)
What’s worse, though, is that the city Wolfe depicts isn’t the full Miami. It’s instead limited by Wolfe’s own perspective: that of a wealthy, conservative anglo. It was T. D. Allman, author of Miami: City of the Future, who wrote that “practically everything everyone says about [Miami], both good and bad, is true.” But is it still true to depict a Miami with only one African-American character? Is it still true if you set only one scene in Overtown, a black neighborhood once known as “Colored Town” but renamed following the construction of the Dolphin Expressway literally “over” the entire area? (That scene, by the way, takes place in a crack house.) Is it still true if you set the novel during the tail end of hurricane season, but fail to mention any rainfall?
It shouldn’t have to be this way. In other American cities, like Burlington or Austin, residents implore one another to “Keep [City Name] Weird.” In South Florida, these calls would be superfluous. Perhaps it’s the lack of a state income tax, or perhaps it’s to be expected from a state founded by hustlers, degenerates, and outlaws, but this place is a veritable treasure chest of weird. Hell, they eat people’s faces here. They overdose on bugs. They alternately molest and cockblock manatees. Wolfe, who loves realism, should’ve been able to uncover these things and more. He should’ve been able to build his novel on the framework of real weird (real interesting) details instead of on things that could take place anywhere: art forgeries, love triangles, and social apprehension. He should’ve been able to give us the Miami you’d encounter if you actually lived here, not the Miami you’d encounter only if your research consisted of Scarface and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which is surprising because his guides seem like they were totally capable and qualified. Instead, I suspect Wolfe was caught up in the same trap as the writers of Treme. He seems compelled to check off the boxes of Miami sightseeing without ever delving into what created those sights; he seems to favor the granular detail in place of the overarching narrative, the historical context.
Perhaps one reason for this superficiality is the author’s apparent distraction. Distracted by what? Let this series of rhapsodies – off-putting on their own, but doubly so when you think of the “on-the-ground” reporting that went into this book – answer that question:
Wolfe on women in shorts: “‘Attractive’ barely began to describe the way he felt! Such nice tender legs the two girls had! Such short little short shorts! So short, they could shed them just like that. In an instant they could lay bare their juicy little loins and perfect little cupcake bottoms!”
Wolfe on women in jeans: “Their jeans hugged their declivities fore and aft, entered every crevice, explored every hill and dale of their lower abdomens, climbed their montes veneris.”
Wolfe on women in bathing suits: “Wisps of thong bikini bottoms that didn’t even cover the mons pubis…Tops consisting of two triangles of cloth that hid the nipples but left the rest of the breasts bulging on either side and beckoning, Want more?”
Wolfe on a female stripper: “Her tail is thrust up like a bonobo’s or a chimpanzee’s toward John Smith, offering a full view of the perineum and its forbidden folds, crevices, cracks, clefts, cloven melons, alluring labia, gonophores — the entire fleshy arc.”
The novel’s only actual sex scene: “But then the tips of her breasts became erect on their own, and the flood in her loins washed morals, despair, and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his. Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all without a word.”
The phrases “lissome legs” and “lubricous loins” are repeated more times than I cared to count. Some of them even take place on my alma mater’s campus, and I shudder at the thought of Wolfe’s gaze stalking the UC Breezeway. I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s disappointing when these bits are so vivid and yet the Miami sun is described as a “big heat lamp in the sky” more than four times.
I dislike savage reviews, and I did not set out to write one about this book, which I genuinely looked forward to reading. I remember loving The Pump-House Gang when I read it in high school. To this day I can recall Wolfe’s description of the door to the Playboy Mansion, how its Latin inscription read, “Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare” (“if you don’t swing, don’t ring”). But now part of me wonders, were I to reread that book, would I enjoy it as much? Is Wolfe’s writing only appealing to young boys – or perhaps older boys with the minds of young boys? Is there really any shame in liking this style of writing, or is it just a matter of personal taste? I cannot say for certain, but I can say that those seeking a deeper understanding or an accurate depiction of the city of Miami would be better-served by books different from this one.
As a starting point, and because when it comes to Miami, truth is better than fiction, I would recommend John Rothchild’s Up For Grabs, a personal memoir as much as a rollicking trip through South Florida’s outrageous history. Rothchild recounts the way the state’s first American settlers evolved from a cavalcade of land and mineral speculators into mobsters, rumrunners, “pot haulers,” escaped Latin American political players and Cocaine Cowboys. This is the book I wanted to read when I started Wolfe’s novel.
I would also recommend, for a more flatly historical perspective, a double shot of Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp and Arva Moore Parks’s Miami: The Magic City. Both books cover the geological and human histories that make South Florida and Miami unique. Neither one dwells on its inhabitants’ “declivities.”
There are few iron facts in the crapshoot of the literary life, but here’s one: In book publishing — no less than in music, war, and sex — timing is everything. I have found five books that illustrate different facets of this fact. In the first, what initially appeared to be bad timing proved to be the opposite. In the second, the timing of publication was simply horrible. And the three others were graced with something no amount of publicity or hype can buy: great dumb luck.
Joe Posnanski, a decorated sportswriter, snagged a $750,000 advance in March of last year to write a biography of a living American sports legend with a reputation so flawless and immense that the man had already been cast as a seven-foot-tall, 900-pound bronze figure with his right index finger pointing toward heaven. A first printing of 75,000 copies of the biography was scheduled. Publication was set for Father’s Day, 2013. As Posnanski got busy, success — in the form of a monster bestseller — seemed assured.
His working title, suitably breathless for a subject already immortalized in bronze, was The Grand Experiment: The Life and Meaning of Joe Paterno.
But Posnanski’s dream began to unravel almost immediately. The same month he signed his contract, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported that a grand jury had been hearing testimony about allegations, originally made in 2009, that Jerry Sandusky had molested a teenage boy while working as an assistant football coach for Paterno at Penn State University. Eight months later, Sandusky was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year period.
Then it came out that a graduate assistant had told Paterno, way back in 2001, that he had witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State locker room — and Paterno had notified the university athletic director but not the police or any child protective agency. The university’s board of trustees promptly fired Paterno, who had been football coach for 45 years, winning a record 409 games.
Two months later Paterno died of lung cancer at the age of 85. At this delicate moment, already swamped by bad news, Posnanski probably did himself no favors by writing a column in Sports Illustrated that called for a balancing of his subject’s “full life” against “a single, hazy event involving an alleged child molester.”
On June 22, a jury convicted Sandusky of 45 counts of sexually abusing young boys. In a blistering report issued a month later, former-F.B.I. director Louis J. Freeh stated that Paterno not only failed to report the sex-abuse allegations to police, but that he and other university officials concealed Sandusky’s activities for more than a decade. Also, it was revealed that in 2011 Paterno had renegotiated his own contract, winning more money and perks — even as the scandal was becoming front-page news. Ten days later after the Freeh report was issued, in a Sadam Hussein moment, that 900-pound statue of Paterno was removed from its pedestal in front of Beaver Stadium.
This wasn’t a perfect storm of bad timing; it was a typhoon, a tsunami. Posnanski’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, reacted accordingly, pushing the publication date up to this summer, limiting author interviews, and scaling back the book tour.
Reading the book is an unsettling experience. Posnanski is a solid reporter and a nimble if not elegant writer. He enjoyed complete access to Paterno, his family, university staff and many others, and he paints a largely sympathetic portrait of a man who touched thousands of young lives in positive ways, but then drifted out of touch and over-stayed his welcome. Posnanski points out that Paterno was never fond of Sandusky, who retired in 1999 after it became clear he was not going to succeed Paterno as head coach. Sandusky, a teetotaling Christian, then devoted his time and energy to his Second Mile charity for young people, while enjoying the run of the Penn State football facilities. It was a dream setup for a pedophile.
In this 402-page book, the chapter entitled “Sandusky” runs just 14 pages, which opens Posnanski to at least the appearance that he’s soft-pedaling his story’s dark heart. Near the end of the book, Posnanski reveals an incident designed to portray his subject as almost touchingly out of tune with the times. When his family insists that he read the appalling indictment against Sandusky, Paterno reluctantly complies. Halfway through it, he turns to his son Scott and says, “What is sodomy, anyway?” But the episode backfires once you’re aware that Paterno may have been 85 years old at the time and hopelessly out of touch — but he was in touch enough to be aggressively negotiating for more money and perks.
During his final conversation with his biographer, the dying, defrocked legend confesses, “I wish I had done more.” As contrition goes, this strikes me as falling far short of Robert S. McNamara’s mea culpa — “We were wrong, terribly wrong” — in his 1995 memoir about his disastrous mishandling of the Vietnam War, In Retrospect. Then again, McNamara sent tens of thousands of young Americans to pointless deaths while Paterno merely looked the other way while an underling ruined the lives of a few dozen boys. Maybe size matters when it comes to assessing monstrous acts.
On the eve of Paterno’s publication, The New York Times reported that the book’s subject had gone, almost overnight, from “revered to radioactive.” But then a funny thing happened. On Sept. 9, shortly after its publication, Paterno debuted on The Times hardcover bestseller list at #1. The next week it slipped to #5. A week later, it was at #12. Not the monster bestseller Posnanski and his publisher had envisioned, perhaps, but far from shabby. It turns out that even the very worst publicity can be good publicity, and there will always be a market for radioactivity. On Oct. 9, Sansdusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years, virtually ensuring that he will die in prison.
And Joe Posnanski has a #1 New York Times bestseller on his resume. All writers should suffer from such terrible timing.
Alex Shakar’s timing, on the other hand, was truly, deeply, immaculately dreadful. In the summer of 2000, when he was 32 years old, Shakar had the surreal experience of watching a small army of publishers trample each other for the privilege of paying him a small fortune for his first novel. The bidding frenzy finally peaked at “about a third of a million bucks,” Shakar reported in a rueful recounting of the episode in The Millions last year.
The following summer, as an elaborate marketing campaign was taking shape, Shakar found himself signing galleys of his forthcoming novel at Book Expo in Chicago, alongside such literary stars as Joyce Carol Oates, Clive Barker, and Ann Patchett. Details magazine did a photo shoot of Shakar tricked out in 1980s clothing. People magazine wanted to do a profile. The early reviews in the trade papers were “glowing.”
Shakar’s novel, called The Savage Girl, deals with the fallout of rampant consumerism, predicting that the current bubble can’t last and an era of “post-irony” is on the way. The protagonist has taken a job with a trend-spotting savant who sees the perfect consumer product: diet water. The story includes a bomb threat by a terrorist, and computer screen savers that show a city being destroyed by a nuclear attack. When the electricity in a high-rise building fails, a character asks, “What is it this time? Terrorists or the usual incompetence?” He then answers his own question: “Can’t rule out Armageddon.”
Late that summer Shakar’s editor, the renowned Robert Jones, lost a long battle with cancer. A memorial service was held on Sept. 10, eight days before the book’s publication. The day after the memorial service, Shakar heard a radio bulletin at his parents’ house in Brooklyn, and he and his father climbed the fire escape to the roof to watch the north tower of the World Trade Center burn. White pages — legal documents — had fluttered all the way across the East River to Brooklyn. Fearing chemical weapons, father and son went downstairs to watch the two towers collapse on television.
“There goes your novel,” Shakar’s father said.
The scheduled book tour went forward, though turnouts were modest or nonexistent. The publisher pulled the planned second round of national advertising. There were no national television appearances. Shakar noted that even the rave reviews read like obituaries. A reviewer for The New York Times called the novel “a sharply observant relic of the recent past.” With pundits everywhere proclaiming “the death of irony,” People magazine decided not to run its profile of Alex Shakar.
Among the authors who wrote enthusiastic blurbs for The Savage Girl was Jonathan Franzen, who had published his novel The Corrections just 17 days earlier, on Sept. 1, 2001. Franzen called Shakar’s book “an exceptionally smart and likable first novel that tries valiantly to ransom Beauty from its commercial captors.”
While Shakar’s misfortune was that events made his novel seem instantaneously dated in many eyes, Franzen’s good luck was that those same events made his novel look prescient to just about everyone. Life is not fair.
The Corrections opens with these lines: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” The novel is marinated in this sense of dread, which was about to become the dominant American mood. And while it makes no mention of bomb threats, terrorists, Armageddon or post-irony, the book traffics in topics that would become part of the national conversation in the coming decade, from global warming to viral marketing, psychopharmaceuticals, even the coming organic and artisanal food movement, with its Brooklyn epicenter.
Irony didn’t die on 9/11, but The Corrections marked a major shift not only for its author but for many writers working in America — a shift away from the irony-laced pyrotechnics of postmodernism, and toward the rich hardware of realism. This was no small thing, it didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t easy to do. As Franzen told BOMB magazine, “Simply to write a book that wasn’t dressed up in a swashbuckling, Pynchon-sized megaplot was enormously difficult.”
The Corrections ended up becoming a literary sensation, fuelled by a bit of counter-intuitive marketing that cemented Franzen’s status as a canary in America’s cultural coal mine. When Oprah Winfrey invited Franzen to appear on her book club show, he declined, citing her tendency to pick “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” books. People howled that Franzen was the worst thing you can be in America: an elitist. (During his 2008 campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama would feel compelled to reassure voters that he and his wife are not “elitist, pointy-headed intellectual types.”) The marketing director for Franzen’s publisher had the good sense to be delighted by the uproar over his Oprah snub, saying, “This level of news activity works to keep him front and center in bookstores.”
Franzen has followed The Corrections with a book of essays, a memoir, a work of translation, and another big novel, Freedom. He wound up on the cover of Time magazine in 2010. It took Alex Shakar 10 years to produce a second novel.
Perhaps no writer enjoyed better timing than Tom Wolfe with his novel Bonfire of the Vanities. The book, a giddy lampoon of the go-go Reagan years, including preening Wall Street bond salesmen who fancied themselves “Masters of the Universe,” appeared just weeks after the Bloody Monday stock market crash in the fall of 1987. The collapse of global markets and the ensuing recession — the payback for a decade’s worth of hubris and unbridled greed — certified Bonfire as an almost magical bottling of the ’80s zeitgeist. Timing doesn’t get any better than that.
The book became a smash best-seller. It hit such a nerve that Michael Lewis, a former bond salesman, paid it the highest of compliments by noting that one of its central coinages had entered mainstream American lingo. “By the end of the 1980s,” Lewis wrote, “it was not unusual to see a bond salesman celebrate the sale of a block of $100 million mortgage bonds by standing on top of his desk, beating his chest and hollering, ‘I am a Master of the Universe!'”
Come to think of it, there was a book that enjoyed even better timing than Bonfire. It was a sensationally salacious tell-all called Elvis: What Happened?
The book consisted of the tape-recorded words of three of Elvis’s former bodyguards as told to Steve Dunleavy, Rupert Murdoch’s favorite mad-dog tabloid reporter. The three members of the Memphis Mafia, bitter over being fired by Elvis’s father after years of loyal service, started telling their stories to Dunleavy in 1976. And what stories! They talked about a daily diet of uppers and downers that would have taken down a bull elk and eventually turned Elvis into “a walking pharmaceutical shop.” They talked about the King’s one experiment with LSD. They talked about Elvis’s love for guns, which led him to blast a television set when smarmy Robert Goulet’s face swam onto the screen. They talked about Elvis’s fascination with death, which led him to break into a mortuary and give lectures on embalming in the presence of corpses.
The book was published on Aug. 1, 1977. Fifteen days later, Elvis pitched off the toilet in the master bathroom at Graceland, constipated, overweight, drug-addled, and very dead at the age of 42.
Rupert Murdoch had planned to run excerpts of the book in his New York Post tabloid later in the summer. But Murdoch, never a man to pass up a chance to turn a buck, pounced. The Post ran the first excerpt on the day Elvis died, under the headline NEW BOOK TELLS OF HIS DECLINE IN DRUG NIGHTMARE.
Elvis’s drug use became the focus of much of the publicity surrounding the book. Late on the day Elvis died, Dunleavy appeared on an NBC News special anchored by David Brinkley. Sporting a beard and waving a cigar, Dunleavy talked about Elvis’s prodigious drug intake, his seclusion and his weight problem, then added that Elvis was “a poor kid from the South…a bad word, a nasty word, but one that is often used, ‘white trash.'” People were furious, but they kept buying the book. Even after ham-fisted Dunleavy appeared on “Good Morning, America” the next day and got into a pissing match with Geraldo Rivera, Elvis: What Happened? kept flying off the shelves.
But the troika of Memphis Mafioso were chagrined by their book’s “good” timing. They held a press conference expressing their undying love for Elvis, and denying that they were “bloodsuckers” trying to capitalize on his death.
The book sold 5 million copies in the year after Elvis’s death. Which proves, beyond all doubt, that timing is everything.
Image Credit: Flickr/..stiina..
Recently, I watched an Iranian, an Italo-Palestinian, and an American Jew take the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, backed by a string quartet. There’s a punch line in there somewhere. (A reporter for the Village Voice quipped, “Even Rush Limbaugh couldn’t make up a funnier parody of what Upper East Side Manhattanites do on a Tuesday night.”) “Exit Strategies” was one of the first events of this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and its participants, Marjane Satrapi, Rula Jabreal, and Tony Kushner, would repeatedly and somewhat apologetically call it an “experiment.” The Kronos Quartet — never a group to back down from an experiment — was meant to play pretty much nonstop, as the writers spoke with (or over) them. Kushner had the most success, reading a poem about grief and working with the cadences of the music. Satrapi talked about the moment the world’s view of Iran shifted from princes and flying carpets to riots and religious extremists; she was improvising warmly but apprehensively, which left her occasionally shouting past the quartet. But Jabreal barely acknowledged the musicians at all, determined to deliver a cavalcade of political talking points: the wars, corruption in Washington, the health-care crisis, and the Republican primary field, all dredged up for a clearly liberal audience that probably never wanted to hear about Michele Bachmann again.
It was a strange night. The Village Voice reporter likened the Kronos Quartet to the band on the sinking Titanic, but it wasn’t as bad as all that — and he admitted as much, too. It was definitely an experiment, interesting at times, nerve-wracking at others, but the thing that struck me was the conversational clash that followed, like when Jabreal asked Satrapi what she thought the 2012 election looked like outside the United States, as the quartet plowed on in the background, and a clearly frustrated Satrapi said that she was elated by the music — and really wasn’t interested in talking about Mitt Romney. The declaration earned her the biggest applause of the night.
They both had fair points: the event was ostensibly about music; the program didn’t promise a dissection of American politics. But it was an opportunity for two Middle Eastern women to talk about their vantages from abroad, specifically from such cosseted places as Iran and Palestine — views that are a fair bit harder to find than most in the American literary landscape. This was the seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival, which brings together writers from around the world to, according to this year’s introduction, “celebrate the power of the written word in action.” It purports the values of PEN itself, whose charter states that: “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.”
PEN World Voices is one of the foremost international literary events in New York City, a place that, as the center of American publishing and home to a basically alarming number of writers, looks inward — celebrates the local, perhaps — more often than not. I’m as guilty as any of literary jingoism: I attend maybe one reading per week in Brooklyn or Manhattan, and it may be partly my own fault, but the writers I encounter nearly always hail from the Anglophone world, whether they’re native-born or have emigrated here or to the UK. Most of the authors I read fall into the same category. The topics I’m interested in, the regions in which I’d like to see a story set — all of these fall within the confines of English-speaking lands. And I think this is probably a personal failing. Maybe I don’t need to know how Mitt Romney comes off in Iran. But so little writing from the vast majority of the world penetrates the American literary scene, and my own personal literary scene. It’s an age-old complaint, but things don’t really seem to be changing. You can seek out literature from just about anywhere — and now it’s easier than any previous point in history — but it’s a hell of a lot harder to bring it into the conversation.
There’s that famous and damning statistic: translated works make up just three percent of the American book market (and, in contrast, sixty percent of all the translated literature in the world comes from English). The University of Rochester, who named their translated literature site, Three Percent, after the fact, suggests that when narrowed down to literary fiction and poetry, the number drops to a paltry 0.7 percent. There contemporary notable exceptions, from genre (Stieg Larsson and the European crime-novelist wave that has sprung up in his stead) to mega-bestsellers (Paulo Coelho, Umberto Eco) to the literary masters (Gabriel García Márquez, Orhan Pamuk, José Saramago, and a handful of others) that have become permanent fixtures in our canon. And of course there are the hippest of the modern-day literary heavyweights, Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño. But the majority of translated literature remains largely obscure, lauded in niches within the publishing and reading worlds but failing to impact the broader public.
The translation question is an old and thorny one. Foreign books, anecdotal wisdom suggests, are a big gamble: “There’s a general perception in the trade that these books can be difficult to sell,” one publisher told the Guardian. “As long as that persists it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Reading in translation is often a tricky prospect: the conflict between readability and remaining faithful to the original language lies at the heart of the ethics of translation. Look at the line-by-line differences between Murakami’s translators, Jay Rubin, Alfred Birnbaum, and Phillip Gabriel. Some passages are wildly different, clunky with too-literal translations, or, on the other end of the spectrum, full of Western idioms and surprisingly liberal interpretations of Murakami’s words. It leaves the reader in translation feeling a little distrustful, and inadequate. I can’t imagine learning Japanese — I only got past high-school level French!
And perhaps part of the trouble is that translation means more than replacing a word with its foreign equivalent: there’s a broader cultural undercurrent at work when we talk about Americans and international literature, a question of how a book will read on this side of the Atlantic. Take, for example, Tim Parks’ diatribe against Jonathan Franzen and Freedom, from the New York Review of Books about a year ago. He begins with an absurd press release from the American publisher of Thomas Pletzinger, a German novelist: “Pletzinger is German, but you wouldn’t know it from his debut, which is both wise and worldly.” Parks is incredulous:
What a wonderful insight this careless moment of blurb-talk gives us into the contemporary American mindset! We want something worldly, but if it seems too German, or perhaps just too foreign, we become wary. As my mailbag indicates, the literary community is very much an international phenomenon, but not, it would seem, a level playing field. To make it in America Pletzinger must shed his German-ness as if he were an immigrant with an embarrassing accent.
Parks quickly moves on to Franzen, whom he accuses of aggressive, list-heavy American-ness: he takes fault with the European fascination with Freedom, saying that there are no Italian words for half of Franzen’s lists, from foosball table to “mechanized recliner.” The Italian translator chimed in, indignant, in the comments, giving exact translations for foosball and La-Z-Boy and insisting that, despite Parks’ claim, the Italian for “mechanized recliner” is just as ugly as the English. But I think that the broader point still stands. Reading The Corrections last year — that’s a solid decade after everyone else read it, which I quickly learned when I tried to discuss it with people — I couldn’t help but feel like all those cultural references were incredibly dated, a lot of otherwise engaging prose weighed down by Y2K-era jargon. Cultural references are tricky, whether they’re traveling across geographical or temporal borders. But is something substantial lost with their removal?
Three Percent is trying to revive May as “World in Translation Month,” and it’s an obviously laudable goal. But it remains to be seen how they — or anyone — can effectively market an entire world of literature that’s still failed to catch on amongst the majority of the American reading public. I’ve seen the attempts: articles, blogs, word-of-mouth from friends or booksellers, offering up blind recommendations, the author’s name, title, and original language, and I don’t know how to parse it. I’m guilty myself: just the other day, halfway through Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, the first book in translation I’ve read in a long while, I found myself trying to talk about it with a few friends. “He’s Senegalese,” I said. They looked at me expectantly, waiting for something more helpful than nationality. “It’s about colonialism.” They nodded. “It was translated by the woman who did The Little Prince,” I tossed in. “Ah!” one said. A relief: a cultural frame of reference. I give most books a hard sell, but I had so few tools at my disposal, reading a Senegalese book translated from French half a century ago, and fault here lies with me, not with Kane, whose book is extraordinary and subtle and philosophical and unlike anything else I’ve read about the colonial experience, which, coming from a person who essentially majored in postcolonialism, is saying something.
Ambiguous Adventure is part of a Melville House series called the Neversink Library, which “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.” I’m taking that last designation to heart. There’s a danger in become too prescriptive with foreign literature: we should be reading it, that it’s good for us, that it’s our duty as citizens of the world to read books from every corner of it. The Neversink project seems to offer an antidote to that: titles carefully chosen and offered up with the simple explanation that these books are so good they never should have slipped past or from the public consciousness. All good books transcend the place and time in which they were written: the whole point is to write something specific that becomes universal, after all. So perhaps the best way to transcend the barriers of international literature is to no longer market it as such. A good book is a good book. We need to read more in translation — and we simply need to read more. Maybe dropping all of these labels is a good place to start.
I feel woefully inadequate as a reader, particularly with regard to keeping up with contemporary writers. Most of my colleagues keep up nicely. They’ll chat me up about a recent great story or essay in The New Yorker. They’ll ask what I thought of A Visit from the Goon Squad or Freedom. They’ve already read A Visit from the Goon Squad and Freedom. Those books just came out, didn’t they? And Freedom is big, and The New Yorker comes every week. Am I that terribly busy, more so than any other writer who also teaches for a living? I don’t think I am. Plus, I have all summer to write and read. Why aren’t I keeping up over the summer? I don’t know! I do own Goon Squad and Freedom, by the way; they’re in my to-read cart, along with books by Edward P. Jones and Francine Prose and Deborah Eisenberg, and biographies of Wharton and Frost. And a John McPhee book. And Volt by Alan Heathcock. (I’m name-dropping now, compensating for my inadequacy as a reader by trying to convince you that I do read (or at least, earnestly intend to; there are 63 books in that goddamn to-read cart)).
Anyhow, the book I most recently plucked from the cart was Thom Jones’ first story collection, The Pugilist at Rest. This is a re-visitation of Jones for me, having read his work in various magazines and anthologies — back in the day, when I kept up — and remembering…well, frankly, not liking it. I re-visit because it has happened — again and again — that a writer whose work I remember not liking becomes, upon re-reading, a writer I enjoy and admire very much. (This has happened with Alice Munro, Henry James, Nicholson Baker, William Gibson, Carol Bly.) What I remember about not liking Jones had something to do with the hopped up, motor-mouth narration of the few stories I’d read. Well, The Pugilist at Rest is an entire collection of hopped up, motor-mouth narrations, and the effect of reading all eleven stories was very emotional for me. There is an urgency and a need in this aggregate voice that feels palpably human, and vulnerable. Some of his narrators are deluded, arrogant assholes, but man, do they try (and fail) not to be — talking their way through their story, telling it and confessing it and laying it all out (trying to!) no matter how awful it makes them look. What is remarkable to me in reading these stories is the sense of this voice haranguing and hauling me into the fictional world. I’ve never felt more present as an audience while reading a book, never more fully engaged in the mysterious exchange that can occur between reader and writer — I’m being somehow appealed to, in the most intrusive and nakedly honest away. A story is just words on a page, and for a writer to extract such an emotional response from a reader via his arrangement of words on a page — that’s a very great writer.
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In August, I went to my local bookstore and asked one of the owners, Land Arnold, to recommend a book. I said I was traveling for the next two weeks and needed something to sustain me. He pulled down Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, the 25th anniversary edition from Simon & Schuster. “It’s got everything,” Land said. “It’s a love story. It’s a Western. It’s an adventure. You’ll love it.”
Off the bat I liked the cover. I often buy books based on covers. It didn’t even mention winning the Pulitzer Prize. The edition was a large paperback, 858 pages. On the front was a prairie under a sunset of reddish pumpernickel, with stars embedded in the cover, little dots of embossed reflective silver. On the back was a picture of Larry McMurtry looking like Carl Sagan, Texas Ranger. I thought, Now that is an author.
You know how wine critics say a certain bottle has good mouth feel — literally causes pleasure the way it rolls on the tongue and coats your cheeks? Well, Larry McMurtry felt good on the back cover of that book. It felt good in my hand. Hefty. The paper stock was uncoated, pebbly like an expensive handbag; it suggested it would improve with age and use. In the business, I believe this is called feltweave. I bought the book, broke the spine at the register, and smelled it — nothing in the world smells like that. Makes you want to say with sincerity, Golly. Reminds you that the pleasures of reading are bigger than reading. There’s smell and touch. Note-taking and page-tearing. Most importantly, what the book does to your insides. Let’s just say it: Reading a novel should not be an accomplishment unless you’re illiterate. But we all have other options these days for entertainment. Reading for many — most, I bet — is something more often felt by its absence than presence in daily life.
In any case, I didn’t take to Lonesome Dove straight away. It put me to bed: I started it on a flight from RDU to Philadelphia International and fell asleep. But I could fall asleep to fireworks; it doesn’t say much. And I don’t mind a novel that’s slow to start — though I hate them when they die in the middle. I chuck them into the garbage — and that feels great. Maybe I take books too personally, but isn’t that the point? When your intimate trust is betrayed, isn’t that the moment when we’ve all agreed it’s OK to throw things? Anyway, my Philly connection to New Hampshire went to hell, so for the next 11 hours I ran back and forth to the ticket counter, trying to get on a flight. It was not ideal reading time. Though I did manage to squeeze in a George R. R. Martin book — good dwarf scenes is about all I remember — two meals and five Bud Lights, until finally I got a seat on the one plane that departed that day for Manchester, opened Lonesome Dove, and fell asleep.
That quickly changed. For the next two weeks, I only allowed myself an hour a day with Lonesome Dove, to prolong the satisfaction of reading it. The novel is excellent, sustained with constant style, and its dramatic excellence increases, withholding and rewarding, as the cowboys move their cattle north. Even the ending fits together. One night I slept with it under my pillow. I scratched up the margins and read bits aloud. It’s not incredibly deep. But it’s deep enough. And I couldn’t remember the last time I was similarly floored by a long, dramatic, entertaining literary novel. It had been a while . The ones that come to mind from the past decade are Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay; Ian McEwan’s Atonement; Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai…and that’s about it.
Most days I prefer novels that are compact, smart, and acidic — Falconer; House of Meetings; One D.O.A., One on the Way — all the children of Bovary. But no entertainment for me is more rewarding than a great big book. Just imagine if Penelope Fitzgerald had written a 900-pager.
Earlier this year, a book publicist confessed to me while giggling behind her hand, “You know what, I do all of my book shopping on Amazon, isn’t that terrible?” At the time, I didn’t say anything, but, Yes. It is terrible. Amazon’s perks are many, its prices hard to beat, and the Kindle is a great way to sample the latest Michael Connelly. But no human being is going to materialize through your laptop and hand you a book that’s been thoughtfully selected to rock your boat.
I loved Lonesome Dove. I look forward to reading it again. Thank you, Land.
 For big hoary beasts of recent social realism, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson were all great in my book, but they weren’t exactly Great Expectations-level entertainment.
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The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2012 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 147 novels on the list, nominated by 122 libraries in 45 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2010 (including translations).
Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.
Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least seven libraries.
Room by Emma Donoghue (20 libraries representing Australia, England, France, Ireland, the Maldives, New Zealand, and the United States)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (13 libraries representing Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (12 libraries representing Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, and the United States)
To the End of the Land by David Grossman (10 libraries representing Brazil, Canada, Germany, and the United States)
Purge by Sofi Oksanen (8 libraries representing Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland)
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (7 libraries representing the Czech Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States)
You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:
In Canada, Annabel by Kathleen Winter
In Germany, Fame by Daniel Kehlmann
In Ireland, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:
From Bermuda, Gorée: Point of Departure by Angela Barry
From Cyprus, A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible by Christy Lefteri
From Hungary, One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni
From India, Serious Men by Manu Joseph
From Japan, The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.
The Marriage Plot
The Bathtub Spy
The Art of Fielding
Leaves of Grass
The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
A Moment in the Sun
The literary battle royale of 2011 played out and Haruki Murakami emerged the winner with 1Q84 (read our review here) debuting atop our October list. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (read our review here), meanwhile, debuted a bit farther down the list, but still put up an impressive showing. These two weren’t the only novels to make a splash in October, though. As Garth wrote in his review, “in a just world, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month.”
The Murakami debut bumps Christopher Hitchens’The Enemy from the top spot, while Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, that perhaps unlikely favorite of Millions readers graduates to our Hall of Fame. Don’t miss the review that started it all.
Falling off our list is Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (our review). This is the second of Dyer’s books (Out of Sheer Rage) to spend time on our list but fail to make our Hall of Fame. Also slipping from our list was Christopher Boucher’s debut novel How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (our review).Other Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Sisters Brothers, and The Sense of an Ending. See Also: Last month’s list.
Like her contemporaries Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, Helen DeWitt went much of the last decade without publishing a novel, and in a just world, her new book, Lightning Rods, would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month. I’m picturing editors from glossy magazines knife-fighting in alleys for a chance to feature DeWitt on the cover… Times Square billboards of DeWitt traversing some rustic byway, vest saucily aflap… A giant inflatable Helen DeWitt looming over the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, nodding down at rapt throngs of skinny-jeaned teens…
Then again, a world more hospitable to minds like DeWitt’s would likely deprive her of the frustrations that give her writing its unique moral intensity. Her first novel, The Last Samurai (2000), was among other things a look at the fate of the imagination in a fin-de-siecle culture consecrated to the superficial, the gaseous, and the ephemeral. Your Name Here (2007), her unpublished and more or less unsummarizable follow-up, hinges on an exiled writer named “Helen DeWitt” and her struggles to wrest art from the lunacy of post-9/11 life.
At first blush, Lightning Rods looks like a departure. The Last Samurai fits into an erudite subgenre called the “anatomy” – the novel that wants to swallow the whole world. (This may be part of what the critic Marco Roth had in mind when he called DeWitt “Twenty-First-Century America’s finest Seventeenth-Century novelist.”) Lightning Rods, by contrast, is a tapered, tailored 280 pages. It confines itself largely to the willfully beige environs of the contemporary American office park. Moreover, it is a comedy. By this I mean not so much “a book with jokes in it” as that rarer thing, the laughing-so-hard-other-people-on-the-subway-are-starting-to-wonder-if-you-require-psychiatric-attention book. But fear not, Samurai lovers; DeWitt’s moral vision remains as sharp as ever. Which is to say, Lightning Rods belongs to another venerable literary tradition: the satire.
Satire’s a lot like haiku, or Marxism: there’s the loose version and there’s the strict version. In recent decades, American writers, being American writers, have preferred the former. You pick a subject, usually institutional (politics, the university, the news media), and you attack it with as many comic exaggerations and caustic jokes as possible. This technique has yielded some good novels, but it’s formally a fair piece from the canonical satire of, say, Jonathan Swift. This latter is an art of constraint, rather than of license. Its genius is to invent a single premise – the proposal of “A Modest Proposal,” the catch of Catch-22 – and to follow it without flinching to the most absurd ends. The excitement comes from watching the writer chain himself to the implacable machinery of his own logic. And as DeWitt’s idiosyncratic intellect has always gravitated toward the gap between messy reality and the logical Ideal, it’s no surprise to find her choosing the narrower path, and succeeding brilliantly.
The protagonist of Lightning Rods is a guy named Joe, whose surname, never given, might as well be Schmoe. He’s a particular sort of American Everyguy – a hapless door-to-door salesman who at age 33 has sacrificed the possibility of emotional or spiritual fulfillment on the altar of the most conventional sort of material success. Or, more accurately, has lost any ability to distinguish between the two. By day, Joe travels around failing to sell encyclopedias, and later vacuum cleaners. By night, he concocts baroque masturbation fantasies that fail to assuage his sense of failure. He should be out selling right now, he thinks. He should be a different and better person. “Which just goes to show,” DeWitt writes,
how blinkered we can be by our preconceptions. Because little though he knew it, it was the hours he spent trying to sell vacuum cleaners that were the waste of time, something he would remember with shame and self-loathing for the rest of his life. His well-meant efforts to develop an efficient masturbatory program, likewise, were completely misconceived. What he didn’t realize is that a genius is different from other people. A genius doesn’t waste time like other people. Even when he looks like he is wasting time he may in fact be making the most productive possible use of the time.
Joe’s particular insight is to take his favorite masturbation fantasy and not only bring it to life but monetize it. I wouldn’t want to spoil for you the pleasure of discovering that fantasy yourself. Nor would I want to give away exactly how – with the help of a future Supreme Court justice, an adjustable-height toilet, several pairs of PVC undergarments, and a dwarf named Ian – Joe manages to realize it. Suffice it to say, the genius is in the details. And, speaking of details, look again at the passage above. Notice the double entendre of “a genius doesn’t waste time like other people,” and the sly redundancy (i.e., time-waste) of the sentence that follows. Joe’s target demographic – office worker – gives DeWitt a chance to luxuriate in the eloquent dumbness of the corporate idiom. Her delight in nuggets like “orientated” and “product feature” and “bifunctionality” (and, come to think of it, “corporate culture”) is evident in every deceptively artless sentence.
She never condescends to her characters, however; like George Saunders, that other poet laureate of the management handbook, she’s too damn curious about the way they think. “In an ideal world,” Joe muses, in another typical moment,
he would obviously have wanted to spend more time making sure no one was doing anything she didn’t feel comfortable with. Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal, sustainable client development was absolutely vital to the success of the business, and it was up to him to single-handedly pursue that goal for all their sakes.
We are too close to Joe’s thoughts here to comfortably condemn them, or even to be sure where they end and DeWitt’s begin. “Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal”: is that a banality contaminated by truth, or a truth contaminated by banality? And make no mistake about it: Joe is after truth, to exactly the extent that he’s able to frame the concept. He is a strangely moving figure, a devoted pilgrim in a world whose prophetic tradition consists of Dale Carnegie, George Gilder, and Napoleon Hill.
According to the publisher’s flap copy, Lightning Rods “take[s] on the complex issues surrounding sexual tension in the workplace.” To my ear, this betrays a questionable sense of salesmanship. I keep hearing a snatch from an old Monty Python routine: “Tonight on Who Cares: Sexual Tension in the Workplace.” (I would have gone with Remainder meets House of Holes, by way of Then We Came to the End.) More importantly, though, it’s a classic case of the slipperiness of satire. Lightning Rods is no more “about” sexual tension in the workplace than A Tale of a Tub is about the tub. But if Joe’s “Lightning Rods” are the vehicle, what is the tenor? What, exactly, is being skewered? By the end of the book, the answer, wonderfully, seems to be “everything”: bureaucracy, sexual politics, the objectification of the female body, the sanctification of same, political correctness, political incorrectness, etiquette, boorishness, ambition, laziness, late capitalism, and even logic itself. DeWitt brings to satire what Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 brought to the detective story: purity of means, ineffability of ends. This is not to say that Lightning Rods shares that novel’s epic sweep. It is, by design, a minor work. (DeWitt says she began writing it, and several other books, in 1998, “to pave the way for” The Last Samurai) But it so emphatically aces the tasks it sets for itself, and delivers such a jolt of pleasure along the way, that it reminds me of just how major a minor work can be. I wish the other leading American novelists would produce more books in this vein. Come to think of it, I wish Helen DeWitt would, too. At any rate, as one of her endearingly flummoxed characters might say, I literally cannot wait to see what she does next.
Image credit: New Directions
It’s a big week for new books. Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke is now out, as is Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy, Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge, and The Funny Man by John Warner, who recently appeared in these pages. Philip Roth’s American Trilogy is getting the Library of America treatment. (Capsule previews of all of the preceding titles are available here, incidentally). New in non-fiction is Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern and Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin. And out in paperback: none other than Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.