Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.
–Zadie Smith, “This is how it feels to me,” in The Guardian, October 13, 2001.
If you want to read the Greatest Work of 9/11 Literature, the consensus is: keep waiting. It will be a long time before someone writes it.
We don’t know what it will look like. It could be the Moby Dick of the Twenty-First Century, or maybe a new Gatsby, but more likely it will be neither. Maybe it won’t be a novel at all. It could be a sweeping history (maybe) of New York at the turn of the Millennium and of America on the precipice of total economic implosion (or not). We will read it on our iPad34 (or maybe by then Amazon will beam narratives directly into our brain for $1.99). One thing that seems certain is that no one has yet written that book. Not DeLillo (too sterile), Safran Foer (too cloying), Hamid (too severe), Messud (too prissy), O’Neill (too realist), Spiegelman (too panicked), Eisenberg (too cryptic) or the 9/11 Commission (too thorough).
The idea is that it will take time to determine what — if any — single piece of literature best captures the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. We can name any number of reasons why authors seem to have underwhelmed us during the past decade. Perhaps they suffered from an extended period of crippling fear of the kind Zadie Smith described just weeks after the attacks. Literary production can tend to feel superfluous in the aftermath of large loss of life. Or perhaps it’s our persistent closeness to the events. We’re still only a decade out, despite the sense that we’ve been waiting in airport security lines for an eternity. (By comparison, Heller wrote Catch-22 almost 20 years after Pearl Harbor; War and Peace wasn’t finished until 50 years after France’s invasion of Russia; and I think the jury may still be out on who wrote the definitive work on Vietnam). We can’t blame earnest authors for trying. It just wasn’t long enough ago yet.
None of this stops critics from trying to figure out the best 9/11 book so far.
We gather books about 9/11 (and some would go as far as to make the hyperbolic-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek claim “they’re all post-9/11 books now”) into a single pile and determine who has best distilled the essence of terrorism’s various traumatic effects on our national psyche and our ordinary life. On one hand, it seems plausible to blame this tic on our collective reduced attention spans and expectations for rapid literary responses to cultural and historical events. Or more simply: we want our book and we want it now. On the other hand, the imperative to produce a 9/11 book became a kind of authorly compulsion — a new way to justify the craft of writing to an audience whose numbers always seem to be inexorably marching toward zero. Amid conversations about “the death of the novel” (and we often fail to remember that these discussions were robust and ominous-sounding back in 2001 too), 9/11 provided a renewed opportunity for books to become culturally relevant. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction — the whole lot. Any literary rendering of the post-9/11 world would be preferable to the unmediated reality of it. Or more simply: writers could come to the rescue of a traumatized public. Or even more simply: why shouldn’t it have been writing that could have soothed us and given us some kind of answers?
Whether these considerations will eventually vindicate the authors who tried to translate 9/11 into literature just a few raw years after the fact, we can’t say. My contention is simply that, for now, they shouldn’t be so universally panned for trying. In the meantime, perhaps this decade anniversary isn’t an opportunity to determine who’s written the best book so far, but rather to reconsider accepted notions about what constitutes the Literature of 9/11 in the first place. The books we have written and read since 2001 tell us more about ourselves than about the capacity of literature to encompass the consequences of an event like these terrorist attacks. Rather than rank these books, we should fit them into categories that allow us to consider why we turn to literature in the aftermath of a traumatic event. We can more usefully ask ourselves “Why read?” and think about why this particular historical moment produced such a rapid and rapidly evolving body of literature.
Here are some ideas to help get this conversation started. I don’t intend these bullet point-style assertions to be a decisive argument. Rather, I guess I’m just trying to figure out a way to group and regroup the books that have been on our collective radar for the past ten years.
1. To understand the post-9/11 world, we should look to the literature of the last moments before September 11, 2001.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001. Concerned with biotech, the dot-com crash, and the erosion of middle class family life in millennial America, Franzen’s novel captures a vague sense of menace in the days immediately before 9/11. And, though she has become better known for A Visit from the Goon Squad (which mentions the World Trade Center, only briefly) Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me proves that fiction can often seem to predict the world just ahead of us. The events of the novel so uncannily represent the shadow presence of terrorism in the unseen spaces of American everyday life that Egan, who wrote the book entirely before 9/11, included an afterward to the novel in 2002. She writes: “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress last fall, I would have had to receive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.” This last line has always been problematic for me. Were we really that innocent before 9/11? Authors seemed totally capable of exposing the dread underlying the exuberance (rational or otherwise) at the close of the Millennium. I wonder to whether we’ll remember the pre-9/11 years as one of innocence or willful ignorance.
2. There is no single body of 9/11 Literature.
As I have mentioned, the tendency in the past decade has been to lump together all works of fiction about 9/11. As the number of works that deal directly and indirectly with the terrorist attacks has ballooned, the moniker “9/11 Literature” has become a dull catchall term used to describe too many types of books. Instead, we can try to make some distinctions to figure out more precisely what different kinds of books have done, and stop trying to judge them all by the same criteria. It can be helpful, for example, to distinguish between 9/11 Literature and Post-9/11 Literature. Whereas Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man pivot around the events of September 11, books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children suggest how the events and their effects can be pushed to the margins. Works of 9/11 Literature obsess about the intricate and far-reaching effects of 9/11 on the lives of characters, whereas Post-9/11 Literature emphasizes how individuals can move beyond the trauma of the attacks and allow ordinary life to resume its flow.
3. The literary response to 9/11 better helps us understand the longer-term psychological effects of terrorism on families, communities, and nations.
Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close help us understand how the effects of cultural trauma reach into future generations. They explore how we are all implicated into broader narratives of belonging to national and cultural heritages. Spiegelman had to publish the serial version of his comics in Germany because squeamish newspapers in America believed that his critiques of the Bush Administration would be poorly received at home. Likewise, Safran Foer’s novel was frequently criticized as playing on themes of grief and loss that seemed too fresh. As time passes, these criticisms fall away, and what we’re left with is a more subtle understanding of how — in the immediate aftermath of a cultural trauma — we must try to recover as individuals.
4. The relationship between The 9/11 Commission Report and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation stands as one of the most compelling pairs of books to emerge in the past ten years — and neither one of these is a novel.
While I’d argue that no single works stands out as the definitive representation of the terrorist attacks, a reader could do no better to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001 than to devour the 9/11 Commission’s official report. To 9/11 truthers, it probably makes sense that the government would produce an eloquent and sophisticated rendering of the attacks, and the complicated histories of terrorism and American intelligence failures that led to them. But to the rest of us, it comes as a fascinating surprise — one that reveals the government’s investment in the production of a literary artifact of some serious depth and skilled sentence-making. The 9/11 Commission Report defies the expectation that a government document should be stodgy and defensive. Instead, it reveals — often in a tone that breaks its own rigid impartiality and becomes downright moving — the grating human oversights of regulators and the humanity of the terrorists themselves as they bumblingly tried to find a hiding place in America.
When read alongside Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the report, the two works become a breathtaking and genre-bending account of 9/11. Together, they are proof that an event like 9/11 can actually produce new artistic forms. The effort to describe and understand — to probe and render aesthetically — gives rise to new ways of thinking about the world. These are not novels, but they certainly rise to the level of literature, no matter how one decides to define it.
5. It’s time to start re-thinking the place of 9/11 in the landscape of American literary production.
It has become more apparent that 9/11 is moving to the background of our cultural consciousness. Its influence remains, but its effects have faded when compared to what seem like more pressing economic and political concerns. Books like Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes help us understand what this process of fading looks like. But to return to Franzen and Egan, no two books seem better suited to the moment after the post-9/11 moment than Freedom and A Visit from the Goon Squad. To understand how authors have begun to fill their blank screens with something other than images of the World Trade Center on fire, it’s hard to do better. Franzen tackles the Bush Administration while Egan projects into a future New York, in which the 9/11 memorial has become an old landmark in Lower Manhattan. Literature looks forward at the next moment — toward a space and time during which we will no longer use the term Post-9/11 to describe ourselves, if only because newer and more troubling problems will take its place.
* * *
I have left out many works and many ideas. Where are Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan? Where are Colum McCann and John Updike? I have left out (in the very last minute) Lorraine Adams, whose book Harbor absolutely changed the way I thought about post-9/11 America when I read it, even though it had little if anything to do with 9/11. All of this is just to say: the conversation should continue, and I think it will only get more interesting throughout the next decade.
Image credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr
“My despair about the American novel began in the winter of 1991, when I fled to Yaddo, the artists colony in upstate New York, to write the last two chapters of my second book.” So begins Jonathan Franzen’s famous essay, “Perchance to Dream,” which appeared in Harper’s fifteen years ago this month. The essay, subtitled “In the Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels,” recounts Franzen’s struggle to write serious fiction in a culture that had lost its appetite for anything more nuanced than a Seinfeld joke:
Just as the camera drove a stake through the heart of serious portraiture and landscape painting, television has killed the novel of social reportage. Truly committed social novelists may still find cracks in the monolith to sink their pitons into. But they do so with the understanding that they can no longer depend on their material, as William Dean Howells and Upton Sinclair and Harriet Beecher Stowe did, but only on their own sensibilities, and with the expectation that no one will be reading them for news.
Within weeks of its publication, copies of Franzen’s essay were being passed hand to hand in my MFA program in San Francisco like samizdat in the old Eastern Bloc. This is less strange than it might sound. In San Francisco in the 1990s, where every third garage housed some greasy-haired tech geek pounding out code, anyone wanting to be a poet or a novelist did feel a bit like a cultural dissident. No one had yet seen an e-reader, but there was among my writer friends a pervasive sense that the book, and the centuries-old culture that had grown up around it, were under assault. Franzen, then the author of two well-received but relatively little-known novels, captured this anxiety in his essay, asking aloud the question we were all quietly putting to ourselves: “Why am I bothering to write?”
I’m older now, my life choices pretty well settled, so it’s difficult for me to rekindle the revolutionary glow I felt reading “Perchance to Dream” in grad school. For one thing, as I recall, the guy who handed it to me surrendered to the Zeitgeist soon after turning in his thesis project and took a job as a “content strategist” at an Internet startup. For another, the third novel that Franzen was so painfully bringing into being during the writing of his essay turned out to be The Corrections, which won the National Book Award and made Franzen the most famous non-guest in the history of Oprah.
Still, the existential crisis Franzen describes in his essay would seem to be doubly urgent for today’s twentysomethings, the generation of so-called Millennials born after 1982. When “Perchance to Dream” was published, the Internet browser was just two years old. Few people used email, wireless was still an old-fashioned British word for radio, and you couldn’t download a movie to your computer, much less to a smart phone or iPad. Even TV was simpler. If you wanted to watch a show, you had to sit down in front of your set at the prescribed time and watch it. (Television, like much of mass culture in the pre-Internet era, was an authoritarian regime: you did what you were told, and maybe you’d get in a chuckle or two between the endless parade of ads.) In other words, novelists of Franzen’s generation stood at least a fighting chance of sinking their pitons into the monolith.
Today’s pop culture is a far trickier edifice. Not only are the distractions of movies, songs, YouTube videos and web memes ubiquitous and easily accessible; they now proliferate from the bottom up. In April 2007, to take one well-known example, a 16-year-old from Batesville, Mississippi named DeAndre Way posted a low-budget YouTube video of himself and some of his friends in an empty swimming pool demonstrating dance moves to his song “Crank That.” Within weeks, Way, under his stage name Soulja Boy, had signed a record contract, and by September the song had broken into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. How is an aspiring novelist intent on telling a quiet tale of romantic love supposed to compete with a home-grown rap tune whose signature line runs: “Superman that ho”? How does a young poet stand a chance against the AutoTuned novelty of a Rebecca Black?
But look closely and you’ll see that young writers are entering the arena in droves. The web is teeming these days with literary blogs and ’zines written by and for people under 30: The Rejectionist, HTMLGiant, and Full-Stop to name just a few. Two of the best novels of this year, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, are by women in their twenties. According to blogger Seth Abramson, who tracks creative writing program rankings at The Suburban Ecstasies, the twenty most selective MFA programs are now harder to get into than Harvard Medical School. And you have to go down to No. 49 on the selectivity list – Georgia College & State University – before you find an MFA program that accepts a higher percentage of its applicants than Harvard Law. Maybe in 2011, the pertinent question is not “Why bother?” but “What gives?”
If you are a Millennial feeling the urge to see what pre-Oprah-dustup Jonathan Franzen reads like, I can save you the trouble. The famed Harper’s essay hasn’t aged particularly well. It is 15,000 words long, and readers hoping to savor the morsels of wit and wisdom sprinkled liberally through the text must hack through a thick, fibrous membrane of authorial ego. In recent years, Franzen, now a successful author in his fifties, has made very public peace with Oprah and is capable of presenting himself on the page as a thoughtful, empathetic guy. (A considerably rewritten version of “Perchance to Dream,” now called “Why Bother,” appeared in his 2002 essay collection, How to Be Alone.) But this is not that Jonathan Franzen. This Jonathan Franzen is beset by stupidity on all sides. Politicians are stupid. Booksellers at Barnes & Noble are stupid. People who like to watch television are also stupid, but at least they aren’t as stupid as the people who make the shows they watch. The only people who aren’t stupid are serious novelists, and they are culturally irrelevant. One has the sense, in reading the piece, that the entire fin de siècle American world exists solely to give Jonathan Franzen agita.
In the end, he is rescued from this ocean of idiocy by Shirley Brice Heath, a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford who interviews him as part of her research into why people write and read what she calls “substantive works of fiction.” Serious readers, Heath tells him, come in two flavors: either their parents modeled serious reading for them as children, or, far less commonly, they were “social isolates” who found in books a profound connection with an imaginary world that supplanted a daily environment in which they felt they had no place. The latter description, apparently, fits Franzen to a T, and he is relieved to hear Heath tell him that readers who came to books to cure their social isolation are more likely than other kinds of readers to become writers. Soon afterward, his writer’s block is cured and his stalled third novel begins to click along.
Thus, we have Shirley Brice Heath and her eccentric research project to thank for the wonder that is The Corrections, along with the (to my mind) somewhat less wondrous Freedom. But this doesn’t help us much with our Millennials. One can imagine a young social isolate like Franzen, who was born in 1959 and wrote two novels before you could browse the Internet, having no more promising portal for his imaginative hunger than the stacks at the local public library. But surely this can’t be the case for Obreht, who was just nine when Netscape Navigator went online in 1994. And what of Tao Lin, who at age 27 has written two novels, a novella, a collection of stories, and two volumes of poetry? Or Joshua Cohen, who had published the 800-page Witz (his fifth book) by 30? What possible relevance can Heath’s model have for the legions of 22-year-olds who could have gone to film school next fall or sat in their parents’ garages smoking pot and making humorous little web videos about their talking cats, but instead chose to shell out thousands of dollars for a graduate degree in fiction or poetry?
Apparently, this form of storytelling has a future. This isn’t because written language is somehow better than visual imagery, or because it cures isolation, or even because reading books makes you smarter than watching TV, but because words on a page, as a delivery system for images and ideas, can do things the competition can’t. I would go so far as to say that serious fiction and poetry will survive because of their relative simplicity, not in spite of it. We live amid a constant high-tech, high-revenue din: ringtones, Lolcat calendars, Gawker postings, reality TV shows, all of it shiny and noisy and designed, with scientific precision, to sell us shit we don’t need. Next to that stands a poem. Or a book of stories. Ever seen paid product placement in a poem? Ever had to fast-forward through the ads to read a book? The Kindle may be young, but substantive works of fiction, whether on paper or a screen, stand as islands of commercial and mental quiet in a sea of cultural noise. Young writers aren’t applying to MFA programs and sending their work to tiny journals read by a few hundred people because they think they’re going to be rich and famous. They aren’t stupid. They’re writing and publishing because they know that only through words on a page can they reach an audience without having to be rich or famous – or else cozy up to those who are – in the first place.
The cost of entry into the world of writing is extremely low, and getting lower by the day. Novelists don’t even need traditional publishing houses any more. To write a novel, a talented writer needs a laptop and a lot of free time. Of course, you could say much the same about DeAndre Way. He didn’t need a record deal to make a hit record. But look what happened to him. After the first Soulja Boy video went viral, Way signed with Interscope Records and his first album went platinum, meaning it moved more than a million units. His second album, though it had some hit singles, didn’t do nearly as well. Granted, the kid was no Cab Calloway to begin with, but he’d caught something in that first video, and that something turned out to be commercially valuable. No more filming in empty swimming pools for Soulja Boy. But somewhere on the journey from DIY to Blingsville, he lost that magic connection with his teenage audience, and his third album, The DeAndre Way, sold only 56,000 copies.
Unlike pop music, the writing of “substantive works of fiction” starts out DIY and stays pretty much DIY until the end. Yes, if you sign with a traditional publisher, there will be agents and editors and publicity flacks to deal with and self-promoting blog posts to write, but even if you are Jonathan Franzen, when you sit down to write your fourth or fifth novel, it’s still going to be just you and that laptop. Serious literature is among the least commercially lucrative of all contemporary art forms. A novel never sells anything but itself, which means that the whole huge noisemaking machine we call popular culture leaves novelists more or less alone. Jonathan Franzen may see that as cultural irrelevance. I prefer to call it freedom.
But what of Franzen’s deeper complaint in his Harper’s essay, which is that even when a serious novelist does try to engage with the broader culture, no one is paying attention?
The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?
It is tempting to use Franzen’s own career in response to this question. The Corrections, born out of his years of frustration, went on to sell nearly a million copies in hardback, and his more recent novel, Freedom, put him on the cover of Time magazine, which called him a “Great American Novelist.” Jonathan Franzen, please meet Cultural Relevance.
But, okay, DeAndre Way, a teenager from Batesville, Mississippi, moved more units than Jonathan Franzen, a 51-year-old writer judged by many to be the foremost novelist of his era. Clearly, these are peculiar times. But when was serious fiction and poetry ever a mass taste? In his essay, Franzen mentions Harriet Beecher Stowe, who did indeed move a fair few units in her day, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for all its virtues, is an anti-slavery polemic written in the form of a three-hankie melodrama. Of Stowe’s contemporaries, the founding generation of American letters, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Dickinson, only Emerson and Hawthorne found anything like a contemporary audience. Whitman self-published his first two editions of Leaves of Grass. Melville stopped writing fiction for almost thirty years in the wake of the failure of his magnum opus Moby Dick. Dickinson only made a few half-hearted efforts at finding a public forum for her poetry. And Thoreau, my personal hero, wrote in one of his letters after he bought the remaindered copies of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”
That is what true cultural irrelevance looks like. But it’s not difficult to suppose that Thoreau was thinking of this early failure when, in Walden, he tells the story of an Indian basket maker befuddled by the fact that his baskets aren’t making him rich. “I, too, had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture,” Thoreau writes,
but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?
Piton, anyone? I hear Henry’s got a whole basket full of them in his cabin on Walden Pond.
(Image: Someone else’s holiday from technowannabe’s photostream)
1. “Two Paths for the Novel”
It was late October, 2008, and Robert Silvers had earned a victory lap. The New York Review of Books, which he’d co-founded with the late Barbara Epstein during the New York printers’ strike of 1963, was about to observe its 45th anniversary. And equally improbably, after the tumultuous reign of Bush fils, the country seemed poised to elect a president aligned with the social-democratic politics for which the New York Review had provided life support. Interviewed by a reporter at a San Francisco restaurant, though, Silvers, 78, sounded less like an eminence grise dining out on past accomplishments than a hungry young editor on the make…or maybe the cat who ate the canary. The end of the conversation found him talking up “‘an ambitious essay’” slated to appear in the Review’s anniversary edition, “‘a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind’”—a “dismantl[ing]” (in the reporter’s paraphrase) of the literary “status quo.” “‘Some people will be slightly shaken,’ Silvers said with delight,” before “grabbing a handful of smoked almonds and making a dash for the door.”
The mind in question was the English novelist Zadie Smith’s, and the dismantling turned out to be a 9,000-word essay on two well-received recent novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Or perhaps “essay” isn’t the right word; as the title “Two Paths for the Novel” suggested, it was closer in spirit to a polemic. The rhetorical embroidery was dazzlingly multiform, but the gravamen ultimately rested on that old workhorse, compare/contrast. As Smith saw it, Netherland—at that point well on its way to bestsellerdom and President Obama’s nightstand—represented the excesses, the exhaustion, of “a breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had freedom of the highway for some time now.” McCarthy’s Remainder, meanwhile, was “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” “an avant-garde challenge” meant to
shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.
In the event, I’m not sure anyone apart from Joseph O’Neill was actually “shaken.” Manifestos are a dime a dozen these days—to borrow a line from Dale Peck’s manifesto-infected Hatchet Jobs, “that and $2.50 . . . will buy you a skinny mochaccino” (with adjustment for inflation)—and even before David Shields’ Reality Hunger, obsequies for “lyrical Realism” had been performed at length by Ben Marcus, the editors of N+1, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann…not to mention a whole host of Continental theoreticians.
Then again, to measure the success of a literary manifesto by whether or not the status quo stays mantled is fundamentally to misapprehend the genre. Its prime object and beneficiary is not “the novel” but the critic herself, and in this sense “Two Paths for the Novel” was a triumph. To other polemically minded reviewers (particularly the vicar of capital-R Realism whose name Smith had worked into an uncharacteristically juvenile pun (see above)), the essay served notice: Your boy’s club’s been breached. “Two Paths for the Novel” (with a slight adjustment of title) would constitute the longest piece but one in Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, published in 2009.
Now ascended (or condemned) to the post of New Books columnist at Harper’s, Zadie Smith will no doubt have discovered the limited and erratic scope of the authority to which she’s laid claim. On one hand, her elegant dressing-down of Netherland seems to have had approximately zero effect on the novel’s reception, aside from giving people who didn’t like it something to point to. On the other, “Two Paths for the Novel” does appear, several years out, to have shifted the literary landscape in one very particular way: it’s positioned Tom McCarthy, who as late as 2005 couldn’t find a publisher for Remainder, as the English language’s leading avant-gardist. Indeed, so subtle were its powers of persuasion that no one seems to remember he was ever anything but.
This was most visible last summer, when Knopf published with great fanfare McCarthy’s third novel, C. Jonathan Dee, writing in Harper’s, adjudged it “an avant-garde epic” (adding, somewhat bewilderingly: “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”) “An avant-garde masterpiece,” proclaimed Meehan Crist, in The Los Angeles Times. The redoubtable Adam Kirsch went so far as to borrow Smith’s technique, putting C. in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” he decided, “of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the keeper of the avant-garde flame.
The “Two Paths” effect even persists, albeit subtly, in the long McCarthy retrospect Amanda Claybaugh, an English professor at Harvard, published last month in N+1. Claybaugh seeks explicitly to engage with “the claims made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.” As that last phrase suggests, though, Claybaugh leaves mostly intact the claim that underpins the others: that McCarthy himself is to be found among the avant-garde. This hints at both the brilliance and the weakness of “Two Paths for the Novel”: several of its conclusions are actually smuggled in as premises, which become ours as well. Accepting “the violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland” is the price of admission.
This is probably the place to declare for the record that I’m half in love with Zadie Smith’s critical voice. Also that I think Remainder is a terrific novel. But, thanks in no small part to Smith’s advocacy, what’s at stake in assessing McCarthy’s burgeoning reputation is something much more than that: “the future of the avant-garde novel.” The artistic avant-garde is, Adorno would remind us, one of the few free spaces we’ve got left. (That’s assuming there is one.) And because its future is so important—and because, if we’re lucky, we’re going to be reading Smith’s criticism for a long time to come—I think it’s worth revisiting her premises and treating them as open questions. How, specifically, is Remainder avant-garde? And also: how avant is it?
2. Language + Matter = Death…Or Something.
To the first question—how is it avant?—Smith offers one clear answer. Remainder challenges “the essential fullness and continuity of the self” that is the soul of Realism. McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist is literally discontinuous; he awakens at midlife from an unspecified accident unsure of who he’s been. This might, in run-of-the-mill amnesia fiction, inaugurate a quest: Hero Seeks to Recover Past. Remainder’s “hero,” though, mostly shrugs off concerns about identity, to subversive comic effect. Here, the comparison with Netherland is illuminating. Joseph O’Neill, too, knows better than to present his hero as a unitary psyche; one of his chief effects is the subtle altering and re-altering of perception that attend the passage of time, and the narrator, Hans van den Broek, seems troubled by a nagging lack of “fullness” in his character. Still, the debt is more to Fitzgerald and Hemingway than to Deleuze & Guattari, and so the difference between the two novels’ approach to the “self” is one more of kind than of degree. Hans van den Broek seeks communion; Remainder’s “Enactor” (as Smith calls him) seeks to secure for himself, through industry and cash on the barrelhead, those depthless sensations Frederic Jameson calls “intensities.”
Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs…. In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of “self”-sabotage to a superhighway?
Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things. At which point it becomes apparent that the schizoid depthlessness of postmodernism ain’t it. Think of Bret Easton Ellis. Play it as it Lays. Tao Lin. As with the Realist plenitude Netherland draws on, “our receptive pathways” for the discontinuous self “are solidly established.”
There’s another way in which Smith believes Remainder to be avant-garde. It’s apparent in the word “trace,” which is to “Two Paths for the Novel” what descriptions of clouds are to Netherland: almost a nervous tic. In short, Smith feels McCarthy to have assimilated the destabilizing linguistic insights of Jacques Derrida in a way O’Neill hasn’t. (Isn’t “remainder” just a synonym for “trace?”) But whenever she turns to theory as such, Smith’s native lucidity gives way to an undergraduate overeagerness. Critiques of Realism, we are told,
blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy.
The novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real.
Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel.
[Remainder] tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters.
Smith seems to be following the pronouncements McCarthy has promulgated as General Secretary of a “semi-fictitious” avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society (INS). She offers an excerpt:
“If form…is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism.”
The syntax of these sentences is easy enough to follow, but, in their mingling of metaphysics, materialism, and aesthetics, these are, I think, far murkier waters than Smith realizes. I confess to being on shaky ground with Derrida; the failure to find rigor in Smith’s use of the “trace” may well be my own. But the materialism here is “dialectical” in only the loosest sense, and Smith’s gloss on being-towards-death seems reductive, even hedged. At any rate, we’d do well to read more than a word of Heidegger, for whom the kind of being “the things” have – especially in the broken, obtrusive, or useless state Remainder finds them in (e.g., the “gnarled, dirty and irregular” carrot) is most important in adumbrating the kind of Being we have…which is precisely where the Necronauts are at their glibbest.
Moreover, it’s difficult, reading Remainder’s handling of things qua things, to find anything more disruptive than what Viktor Shklovsky was doing in 1925, or William Carlos Williams in 1935, or Georges Perec, quite differently, in 1975. In fact, the hospitality of Remainder to allegorical readings might just as easily be read as a failure of its ability to resist metaphor, or to foreground language’s inability to do so—to capture materiality in the sense of “thingness.” And again, notwithstanding the artful stammerings, elisions, and self-corrections of the first-person narrator, the linguistic subject these objects encounter is still a consistent, confessional, Cartesian (if unusually estranged) “I.”
In general, then, Remainder’s formal choices seem less troubled by its theoretical convictions than Smith makes them out to be. The novel’s ideas may be novel enough, but McCarthy dramatizes them the way Cervantes did it: embody them in a character, launch him into a plot (albeit one that ends in a Borgesian loop). We might, if so inclined, read this as a conscious rejection of another of Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form.” More likely, though, Remainder, like Netherland, is simply drawing on the formal vocabulary of Realism to “enact” the philosophical agenda Smith can’t quite pin down. (C. may well be another matter. I haven’t yet read it, but in Claybaugh’s account, it seems to go a step further toward assimilating theory into language and, especially, structure, with mixed results.)
That philosophical agenda may itself be somewhat incoherent; even Claybaugh doesn’t entirely clarify it. I’m struck by the possibility, which Smith only glances at, that the garbled quality of the INS’ transmissions is intentional—that the avant-garde to which McCarthy is authentically the heir is not Existentio-Deconstructo-Dialectico-Materialism, but the Situationism of Guy DeBord. As I’ve got it from Lipstick Traces, the Situationists (who their mark on the near-revolution in France in 1968) sought to expose the gaps in the seemingly solid bourgeois political and aesthetic order through acts of play and imposture—of “détournement.” You can see their legacy in attenuated form in flash mobs and Improv Everywhere and Exit Through the Gift Shop.
I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy isn’t thinking in earnest about “the melancholy impasse out of which the…novel has yet to work its way”; this weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover story on The Pale King was lucid and engaged, and, notably, offered no answers. But the iron-fisted theorizing of the General Secretary may be less a way forward for the novel than a way of having us on for the baggage we bring to it—and for the ease with which even the messiest “remainder” gets assimilated into the cultural order (Remainder the novel having been picked up for a movie deal by the U.K.’s Film4.) McCarthy alluded to these slippery possibilities in a recent essay on the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint: “Will he turn out, ultimately, to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” It’s likewise possible to see Remainder’s avant-gardism as purposefully “semi-fictitious.” By positioning his novel as a work of violent rejection, rather than of pop accomplishment, McCarthy may have insinuated into the bookshop a kind of Trojan-cum-Morse horse—a container that encodes something quite different from what it is.
3. I’ll Be Your Mirror
Internally, though, Remainder is less the “antipode” of Netherland than its photo-negative. That is, each stands in exactly the same relation to its respective tradition as does the other. This is not to accuse either of mannerism, exactly, but in each case, “the obvious imperfection of the world” is brought under the government of a familiar aesthetic reflex. In Netherland’s case, the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing, in the mode of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In Remainder, the potentially meaningful gets reduced to the narcotic flatness we enjoyed in the nouveau roman. Each is exactly as “aestheticized” as the other; it’s just that Smith likes one aesthetic better.
Borrowing her own key terms, “identity,” “authenticity,” and “anxiety,” it’s possible to reconstruct why this might be so. The “identity” reading points to the evident seduction Continental Philosophy holds for a Cambridge alum. In the heady world of literary theorizing, Derrida opens doors. But Smith thinks like a novelist, not like a philosopher. (Indeed, she may think more purely like a novelist than any other writer we have.) Consequently, her keen attunement to the nuances of Forster and Woolf, the playfulness with which she approaches Kafka and Hurston, go rigid whenever her thoughts tend toward academe. The false notes in Changing My Mind—I’m thinking here of the essay on Nabokov and Barthes, and parts of the essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are almost always a product of her desire to force the play of her intelligence into some theoretical scheme.
The “anxiety” reading points elsewhere. Smith’s shadowboxing with a certain unnamed “lapsed high Anglican,” and the NYRB’s positioning of her essay hard on the heels of a review of How Fiction Works, would seem to suggest that “Two Paths” grows out of what one blogger has called “the James Wood neurosis.” Certainly, Smith is entitled to feel that she acceded too quickly and too publicly to Wood’s criticisms from the pulpit of Realism of her own first book, the multiethnic social novel White Teeth. And it was Wood whose rapt review launched Netherland, unbothered by the considerably more conventional uses to which it put its multiethnic milieu.
But the “authenticity” reading is the most revealing. In her mid-30s, Smith is still “changing her mind,” working through what kind of novelist she wants to—and can authentically—be. As she herself has suggested, here and elsewhere, her considerable gifts for characterization, irony, description, and dialogue fall squarely within the Realist tradition. But perhaps she feels, rightly or wrongly, that even her most accomplished novel, On Beauty, sits too tidily on the bourgeois bookshelf. She channels E.M. Forster, but wants to be David Foster Wallace. “Anything, anything at all, that doesn’t sound like me,” she wrote in her response to Wood’s “Hysterical Realism.” “Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important.” It’s as though the “existential crisis” or “nervous breakdown” she sees O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel inflicting on “what we have been taught to value in fiction” is her own.
Fortunately for her and for us, Smith labors under a misapprehension about what it means to be avant-garde. To borrow a metaphor, she can’t quite see the forest for the “dead wood.” Here are the rhetorical questions she throws at the feet of Netherland:
Is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past?
These are, of course, the very mimetic questions that animate canonical Realism, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Proust. Smith’s avant-garde is a gradual convergence on what she insists doesn’t exist: the one true and transcendent Real. But look at the “disturb and disrupt” mandate I sketched above—hell, look at Smith’s essay—and you’ll instantly see that avant-gardism, like its dark twin kitsch, is always situational. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Wagner’s innovations are disruptive; by the mid-Twentieth, they’re the soundtrack for Triumph of the Will.
The enemy to be rebelled against today is hardly “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Rather, it is a world order that reduces form, language, and selfhood to mere options in the supermarket of aesthetic choices. And insofar as it presents an aesthetic binary—write like this tradition, rather than this other tradition, and you’re on the right path—Smith’s conception of the avant-garde is woefully insufficient. Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? It amounts to a game of Distinction, whose logical end is to deny that the kind of avant-garde Adorno champions is even possible.
Then again, in a less theoretical mood, Smith once wrote these sentences: “We can only be who we are…. Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular “team,” and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla that mark books as mainstream as Netherland and Remainder as “violent rejections” of each other, and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. A true path forward for the novel—Zadie Smith’s or Tom McCarthy’s or anyone else’s—will run through those trackless spaces, and we must follow it there. Otherwise, we give the status quo the victory, no matter how ardently we might wish to dismantle it.
Vive la différance.
From Our Archives:
“Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.”
“The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.”
“Bulletin: Interview with Tom McCarthy, General Secretary, INS.”
In the fall of 2005, when my first novel came out, I was invited to speak to the Jewish Book Council, a group of representatives of Jewish community centers and synagogues from across the country. I was one of about 25 writers who were to stand before them that afternoon, in the first of two or three sessions they’d hold.
We were all sorts of Jewish writers, corralled into a giant hall—a handwriting analyst who had written about the signatures of celebrity Jews, a young woman who had gone to China to teach English but had ended up starring in a soap opera there, and Ira Katznelson, the great Columbia University historian, who that year had written a book about racial inequality in 20th Century America.
We were called up, one after another, and allotted two minutes each. They sat in front of us, mostly late-middle aged, mostly female, presumably Jewish, all of them with reading glasses and notebooks—the scariest possible bar mitzvah crowd, deciding whom to invite to speak to their particular audiences, in San Diego or Palm Springs or Shaker Heights. I was given an orange tag, not a red one, which meant I had to leave before hors d’oeuvres got served, and since my last name begins with B, I went early in the program.
Usually I do pretty well in front of audience, but this time I blew it. Did I mention, when I got to the podium, that I had published a previous book of stories, or that the stories had won some big awards? Did I say that one of the awards I’d won had been Jewish? No. I told them I lived in Brooklyn, and I mumbled something about how my novel had been a labor of love, and how I hoped they would love it too, if they read it. Then I wandered past my seat (the only writer not to return to his seat), and went to the back where the wine glasses were (nobody else had touched a wine glass), and in full view of the ladies, downed a plastic glass of cheap Chablis.
Still, I got a couple of gigs.
Even now, a good half of the paid readings I get invited to are sponsored by Jewish organizations. In fact, Jewish readers took interest in me even before they had read me. When my first story was published in Zoetrope, there was an item about it in the Jewish Daily Forward, in their Walter Winchel-esque “Knickerbocker” gossip column, “Gabriel Brownstein has published a story.” —the assumption being (I guess) that their readers were rooting for a guy with my name. Even non-Jews take interest in me as a Jew. About 90% of the time I get book reviews assigned, the authors of the books are Jewish. I’m not complaining—those books have been good—but had my father dropped the second syllable of his last name, no way would you see my by-line on an article about Singer or Roth.
“Are you a Jewish writer?”
That’s the big question—the question every Jewish writer gets asked when he stands before a Jewish crowd. It’s a question about allegiance, I guess, about identity—and because the answer is so obvious (my last name is Brownstein, I’m sitting in a synagogue basement, hawking a book) it feels a little bit needling, posed with a raised eyebrow, and the eyebrow I imagine is my late Great Aunt Henya’s, drawn in an orange pencil to match her permanent’s rinse.
I’ve worked out different replies. The rim shot: “No, I’m a Korean gynocologist.” Or “Yeh, yeh,” with the flap of the hand (Yiddish being the only language where a double positive is a negative). But the fact is inescapable: Were I to convert to Catholicism and to renounce the pen for dentistry, that would only make me a more interesting Jewish writer.
As a kid, I’ll admit it, I thought of them like an all-star team, The American Jews—Saul “The Sultan of Swat” Bellow roaming right, Bern “the Iron Horse” Malamud at first, Grace “Pee-Wee” Paley, the slick-fielding shortstop, and in center my hero, Phil “The Jersey Clipper” Roth. All I wanted, maybe starting at about fifteen, was to be a utility infielder on that squad, maybe a pinch runner, but certainly to wear the uniform. And that uniform was never the long black coat and yarmulke. Alexander Portnoy wanted to be “just a center fielder,” not a Jewish center fielder. None of my heroes took the field with a big YIDDLE on their chest, or played for the home team. And that’s what drew me to them—their ambiguity, their irony, the same things, it turns out, Cleanth Brooks liked about literature.
My team by now has won so many championships that their influence is pervasive. Everyone wants to wear the cap. It’s not just Updike with his Beck books. Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, acknowledged his debt to Bellow and Roth. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is over-populated with brilliant, superreal Jewish caricatures—the assimilated Larchmont housewife, the downtown hippy, the neo-con sage—Franzen (not a Jew) even has a Jewish identity rediscovery subplot. Some of my favorite recent Jewish short stories have been by non-Jews, like Nam Le’s “Meeting Elise,“ about a New York painter’s colonoscopy, or Anthony Doerr’s beautiful requiem for a dying Holocaust survivor, “Afterworld.”
Not long ago, William Deresiewicz wrote an interesting article in the Nation about the state of contemporary Jewish letters. He noted that the Jewish subcultures that spawned the great Jewish-American writers of the midcentury are all gone, and that it’s no longer possible to be a Jewish-American writer as Bellow and Roth and Malamud and Paley were, moving from the margin toward the center while embracing both. The Jewish writers of my generation whose subject is most overtly Jewish—Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nathan Englander—tend to write historical fiction, and they seem not to be following the madcap assimilationist comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint but more the elegiac lyricism of Cynthia Ozick, as in The Shawl—a search for something lost, a search for authenticity. But that search for authenticity is not what I love.
It’s not that I’m ambivalent about being a Jewish writer, but that the kind of Jewish writer I am is ambivalent. I’m more attuned to the dissonant chord than to mournful harmonies, and reading Ozick—ah, she’s so brilliant, nobody’s smarter—I can get uneasy. In the Puttermesser Papers, for instance, a character begins riffing on Yiddish, with its only one word for knife: “By us, we got only messer, you follow? By them they got sword, they got lance, they got halberd . . .. Look it up in the book, you’ll see halberd, you’ll see cutlass, pike, rapier, foil, ten dozen more. By us, pike is a fish.” And it’s feels like a sermon not a story, as if the character is mouthing the author’s beliefs, by us we’re gentle, by them they’re mean, and this for me shades quickly toward Ozick’s politics, the kind of Zionism that brooks no irony or ambiguity, or much sympathy at all for the other guy’s sufferings or cries for justice.
What happens when Jewish fiction becomes identity fiction? Here we come to the difficult thing at the heart of this essay and the heart of contemporary Jewish-themed fiction, i.e., fiction about the Holocaust. Here, irony and ambiguity seem out of place: I may find my ethnicity comic, but Nazis most certainly won’t. Ozick’s “The Shawl” is not the first piece of fiction by an American-born Jew to re-imagine the horrors of the camps, but it is one of the most influential. And “The Shawl” is beautifully written, six-pages long and composed as if in a trance. A mother watches as her child is thrown against the electrified fence of a concentration camp: “And all at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and her balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the voices went mad in their growling.” In direct contradiction of Theodore Adorno’s dictum that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” Ozick turns Auschwitz into poetry.
Her writing, in some ways, is the antithesis of the flat-eyed, clear-eyed prose of Primo Levi, whose Survival in Auschwitz chronicles the awful banality of the place, and examines the daily bleakness of mass slaughter with his clinical chemist’s eye. As a writer you can’t help but be struck by Ozick’s audacity, but now, thirty years after “The Shawl,” it’s become habitual. Everybody turns Auschwitz into poetry—serious writers like Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Englander, and less serious writers and film-makers and TV-show producers, all the way down to Holocaust kitsch like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. A world-wrenching mind-boggling horror—a set of horrors that no one can wrap their mind around—has become a genre, holocaust fiction. And like the Jewish comedy that I so love, the field’s open to everybody. I can hardly go two semesters of creative writing classes (at a Catholic school, natch) without getting a concentration camp story. And yet when I taught Survival in Auschwitz recently in a graduate literature course, my students didn’t much like the book. So dry, they said. So bleak. It was missing something. In most Holocaust stories, they said, you got that little ray of sunshine, of redemption—the triumph of the human spirit.
Bellow, of course, didn’t much like being categorized as a Jewish writer. He was uncomfortable with Isaac Beshevis Singer (“too Jewy”) and joked that he, Malamud, and Roth were the Hart, Schaffner and Marx of American letters. The great Jewish writers of the 50s saw identity and history as unsteady things. Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” ends with its hero running from rabbinical studies toward love, and the old matchmaker, Salzman, muttering prayers for the dead. The viewpoint in Roth’s late great Israel novels—The Counterlife and Operation Shylock—is doubled, two Roths, split identities, the whole concept of authenticity set ablaze.
Perhaps in the work of contemporary historical Jewish novelists we’re seeing a counter-reaction, an attempt to put that fire out and reclaim all that was lost. Maybe people are done reading about ambivalent Jews. After all, you can be a Jewish writer these days, a Jonathan Lethem or a Joan Silber, and not really write that much as a Jew at all. Meanwhile, the very best of the current Jewish writers who write on Jewish themes, Michael Chabon and Allegra Goodman, have managed to leap the dichotomy between the old ironists and the new earnestness largely through the sheer force of human comedy. American-Jewish fiction remains rich in potentialities—infinite numbers of stories to be written about family, history, assimilation, Zionism, philo-Semitism, anti-Semitism, ideology, and power—no wonder people are still interested.
I went to a conference not too long ago on Asian American writers, and “Are you an Asian American writer?” the writers were asked. For me, it was a little trip through the looking glass, and I wondered: Is this how it goes all over the country? You invite a panel of writers, troop them up under the fluorescents, and then ask, “For us or against us?”
David Henry Hwang, the playwright, had a good answer. He said that for years he had resented the categorization, but in time he had come to terms with it. You have to get categorized, he said, one way or another—Jewish writer, gay writer, women’s writer, sex writer, what have you. He talked of friends, fine playwrights with unspectacular careers, who had never been categorized, and said, look, that’s why they never took off. You need to get categorized in order to succeed.
Truth is, these days, any writer who gets any attention should count himself lucky. A reader, somewhere, from some reason, is thinking of you—that alone should be cause for a happy dance. So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a Jewish writer. Invite me to your community center, please!
(Image: Seychelles Island-1, from zeevveez’s photostream)
T.C. Boyle is in a groove. He’s that rare combination of a bold writer who is consistently fun and seemingly, he’s becoming more prolific. His last novel, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired bestseller The Women, was released in 2009 and now, quick on its heels comes his 13th novel, When the Killing’s Done, a colorful, quick-witted and entirely plausible account of environmental activism and bureaucratic bumbling in and around California’s Channel Islands. Topically it might remind you of the cerulean warbler section of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but whereas Franzen’s foray into wildlife issues felt so tangential and agonized into being that there was a temptation to skim through that meandering West Virginia bird sanctuary section, When the Killing’s Done is thoroughly engaging and cohesive. There isn’t a dull moment in it.
It’s always been Boyle’s great gift to take the reader somewhere (Alaska, the Hudson River Valley 300 years ago, Kinsey’s inner circle, a pot farm in Northern California) and completely convince you of the accuracy of the surroundings he gives you. Not just geographically, but politically, socially and culturally. Bits of Boyle stick with me; In the early 90s, new to California, I read his hilariously picaresque Budding Prospects, the pot farm novel, in which a character describes a San Francisco burrito as the shape and size of a skein of yarn (with considerably more heft). I have thought with pleasure of this description virtually every time I have lifted a burrito since. Which is to say, roughly a thousand times.
I became even fonder of Boyle after reading his 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain, which I interpreted, rather desperately, as a small validation of my newspaper career. In the early 90s, I worked for the Ventura County edition of the Los Angeles Times. Resume-wise, you’d have called this a stepping stone, but I recall it more as rowing in the newspaper equivalent of a slave ship. The paper was making a “push” into the county, a dreary no-man’s land between the busy San Fernando Valley, where porn was made, and the relative paradise of Santa Barbara, where there were art-house movies, good bookstores and a taqueria Julia Child was known to frequent. Our local readership was perilously small, but we published two zoned editions of this local section. No story was too small to cover. Any idle musing that struck an editor during his or her commute could and would be turned into a story by we eager minions. That was how I once came to write a profile of Highway 101. I am referring to an inert stretch of tar.
This was all educational, but miserable, and the concern that barely anyone was reading what we were writing loomed large. Then along came The Tortilla Curtain, a witty, fast moving study in contrasts between the entitled residents of gated communities on the edges of the Santa Monica Mountains and the poor Latino immigrants who have the temerity to make them nervous. Boyle, who lives in Montecito – for most of the last two decades, in a Frank Lloyd Wright home, lucky man – knew so much about the politics of pettiness and fear that ran rampant through what we often called “suburban enclaves” that I was certain he was reading our zoned edition of the Los Angeles Times. Someone was paying attention. And unlike us, he had a true sense of the big picture.
Many years later and many miles away from Ventura County, my realization that Boyle had written a novel about the Channel Islands nearly made my heart skip a beat. This is precisely the book I always wanted to read. From Ventura, the Channel Islands loom like magical temptations out there on the Western horizon, mostly just the long low ridge of Anacapa (technically, three small islands) and the green hills of Santa Cruz Island. Santa Rosa is hidden behind the hulk of Santa Cruz, and San Miguel is farther north, off Santa Barbara, but reportedly, nothing happened there. I visited Anacapa and Santa Cruz, a good boat ride’s distance away, whenever there was the thinnest journalistic excuse to do so. There were bureaucratic control issues — the Nature Conservancy owned most of Santa Cruz but the National Park Service had a say in what happened on part of that vast island (four times the size of Manhattan, Boyle tells us), as well as all of Anacapa and even in the 1990s there were the same ecological issues that Boyle focuses on. The islands are beautiful, mysterious and though largely deserted, rich with history (once they had belonged to people, actual people, mostly ranchers, who got to live there). They exist as time capsules of what California might have looked like 200 years ago. On these blissful days reporting out on the islands, you could count on a day of freedom from yet another editorial whipping. Even more alluring, you could imagine all the histories that might have been.
Boyle has done just that, but put it on the page, interweaving true facts and scenarios with a group of fictional modern day characters with warring interests in the ecological future of the islands. National Park Service biologist Alma Boyd Takesue is leading the fight against the invasive species overrunning the native populations of the islands, in the case of Anacapa, black rats who landed there via shipwreck in 1853 (true story) and on Santa Cruz, feral pigs descended from the pigs left there by ranchers. Alma’s grandmother survived a 1946 shipwreck (fiction) that killed her grandfather and spent three weeks shooing away black rats in a fisherman’s shack before being rescued. Now Alma wants to eradicate those rats. And when they’re gone, she plans to move onto Santa Cruz’s pigs, which are destroying the habit of the native island fox (a smaller breed than is found on the mainland).
Her main opponent is the Santa Barbara-based leader of a group called For the Protection of Animals (FPA), Dave LaJoy, a wealthy, vitriolic middle-aged vegetarian whose favorite recreational activity is to pilot his big motor boat out to the Channel Islands and enjoy nature while swilling beer and eating hummus sandwiches. LaJoy is an animal lover – he believes even a black rat has as much right on Anacapa as some native bird – and a people hater, with the possible exception of his girlfriend Anise, a beautiful folksinger. Anise had the unusual pleasure of having spent most of her childhood in the 1970s on Santa Cruz; her mother Rita worked as a cook for a sheep rancher who leased a sizeable chunk of the land (the section of the book involving Rita’s days on Santa Cruz is wonderfully evocative). In a neat twist, the pigs brought there by earlier ranchers lead to the ruin of that exhausting but rewarding ranch life, and yet still, Anise wants to save them.
The book flies by – LaJoy, with his “rusty dreadlocks” and fits of rage, is horrible yet hilariously entertaining, a man driven by arrogance and conviction in equal parts – but it’s not just a good yarn; Boyle has a real point to make, about population control of all beasts (and mankind). Alma is the protagonist certainly, but that doesn’t make her right in all circumstances. What for instance, would ground zero truly be for the Channel Islands, in terms of ecology? To truly erase all signs of man’s past interference with the natural habitat requires fresh interference by man. If the pigs are removed, what will become prey for the eagles that were drawn to the island by the ready food source the pigs presented? The island fox, as it turns out. So the raptors now have to be caught and removed. The minute Alma gets rid of one invasive species, it seems she has another to deal with. Who, or what, is meant to have ownership of and residency on these islands? The question isn’t really answerable, and Boyle plays with that ambiguity to great effect. The basic facts of what he’s telling, through told through fictional characters, really happened. And I finally have actual proof that Boyle reads the paper, having found this on his website: “…I still preserve a yellowing newspaper headline from six or seven years ago (it’s pinned beneath a magnet on the refrigerator door), which reads: EAGLES ARRIVE AS PIGS ARE KILLED, a reference to the reintroduction of the bald eagle and the eradication of the feral pig.”
Boyle has a joyful willingness to go over the top, trips he almost always negotiates with uncanny expertise. There’s a wildly harrowing scene involving LaJoy dragging a group of idealistic college kids up into the canyons of Santa Cruz Island during a powerful rain storm. He makes you see them slogging through the mud, soaked and shivering but propelled forward by this bombastic, charismatic jerk and we see how LaJoy clings to his sense of rightness even when it has become terribly apparent he’s made a huge mistake. In terms of the narrative, this would have satisfied as LaJoy’s comeuppance, but Boyle has another, less successful and surprisingly harsh final set piece in mind for the founding members of FPA.
But because of all he gets right, because of his fine sense of the big picture and his ability to convey it using characters that always come alive, I can forgive him it. I can even forgive him the character Toni Walsh, an utterly unappealing, rather dim seeming reporter from the local paper. She’s disdained and distrusted by both Alma and LaJoy. Although she’s covering environmental issues, Toni Walsh appears to have no interest in nature. She spends most of her expeditions to the islands fishing in her purse for cigarettes and never wears suitable clothing. Here Toni is in a torrential downpour on Santa Cruz. LaJoy has brought her there looking for pig corpses to photograph, images he hopes will outrage the community. Her lone concession to the weather is an Easter egg pink slicker, a concession cancelled out by her unwise decision to wear matching sandals. LaJoy wants to know whether she can keep hiking. “Hunched, pale, a streak of yellowish mud painted across her cheek like a tribal cicatrice, she just shrugs. ‘I don’t know,’ she says after a moment, and here’s that stab of a smile again – a good sign, a very good sign – ‘I’m afraid I’m more of a city girl. But anything for a story, right?'” I swear I never would have worn pink sandals to Santa Cruz. But this joyful skewering suggests that Boyle has met a few of my brethren.
Both are comic-realist novels about recent history, family stories and love stories with subplots about technology and the environment. Both are ambitious books that attempt to examine the struggles of contemporary America, and both writers model their novels on great 19th Century realist fiction. While Franzen invokes Tolstoy, Goodman (without ever announcing it) structures her book loosely around Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
Both books are concerned with authenticity, and both books’ protagonists are obsessed with environmental preservation. In Freedom, Walter Berglund wants to protect songbirds. In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach wants to save redwood trees. In both, the main character’s environmentalism is posed against a second major character’s struggle with aesthetics and materialism. Both Freedom’s Richard Katz (a musician) and The Cookbook Collector’s George Friedman (an antiquarian) make long speeches about the commodification of beauty. And in both books, there’s a subplot concerning a dickish and acquisitive young man, aggressive and faux-heroic, who gets into some morally disreputable W. Bush-related business by going after money: in Freedom it’s war profiteering and contracting, in The Cookbook Collector it’s Internet invasion of privacy and eventually government surveillance. As Freedom gets much of its ripped-from-the-headlines feel from subplots about the Iraq war, so The Cookbook Collector with the boom and bust of the Internet era.
Both are loose, baggy novels that move from character to character and year to year, with great big imaginative sweeps. Both books center around a family (the Berglunds, the Bachs), both books climax with a love triangle and a trip to a place of environmental crisis, and conclude with a violent death and the consolation of marriage. Both novels have big canvases that the writers attack with comic gusto. (The Cookbook Collector moves from boardrooms in Boston to communal houses in Berkeley; it makes you cry about 9/11 and makes you think about David Hume and culinary history.) Both novels are really books about value, both material and moral. These are serious books that question value in American life in light of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war.
Both are addictive reading. I couldn’t put either one down. And both books were well received. Reviewers really liked The Cookbook Collector. They marveled at its intelligence and grace. It was called “a feast of love;” critics said that Goodman “makes us care,” and that her books was “enchanting and sensuous,” and “flush with warmth and color.” Critics were somewhat more divided over Freedom, but those who liked it liked it a lot: “A masterpiece of American fiction,” said Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “an indelible portrait of our times,” said Michiko Kakutani in the daily. And this difference in response mimicked the gap between the two books’ pre-publication hype. Franzen’s was sold as “The Great American Novel” (that’s what Esquire called it), while The Cookbook Collector was (I guess) just another good book by Allegra Goodman.
Why such a big gap?
I’m sure that a lot of the hype probably has to do with vagaries of the publishing marketplace, mysterious stuff that I can’t speak to. (Like, how’d they get Obama to buy it?) A lot of the gap in expectations also has to do with the relative success of the authors’ previous books—on the one hand, there was that long wait after Franzen’s mega big hit The Corrections, on the other, a shorter wait after Goodman’s well-regarded Intuition. (I, for one, sort of expect that every few years Allegra Goodman will give me another terrific novel to read.) I’m sure part of the wide gap in response has to do with the genders of the authors. It’s as impossible to imagine Goodman on the cover of Time magazine as it is impossible to imagine Jonathan Franzen getting called “warm and sensuous.” (There’s a subtext to the praise of The Cookbook Collector that I quoted above, and it’s: Allegra writes like a girl.) But the difference also is in the books themselves, in the way they approach their readers and their subjects. As a hundred critics before me have argued, Franzen’s book swaggered out and demanded the response it achieved. Its title, its 561 pages, and its sweep boldly proclaimed it a Major Novel and critics had to deal with this claim to Majorness. If you didn’t compare it to The Great Gatsby or Moby-Dick, that was almost a diss.
Freedom got more negative press than did The Cookbook Collector, but that hardly means it’s a weaker book: it just got more press period, and probably much of the nastier criticism was just counterreaction to all the noise around the novel’s release. But the book was part of that noise. Freedom is a terrific performance, but it also sometimes feels like a guy at a dinner party who’s talking very, very loudly. It mentions War and Peace so many times you’d have to be a dolt not to get the Tolstoyan ambitions. And some of the book’s weaknesses are part of its terrible roar. As Charles Baxter wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Freedom’s ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project. The author all but comes out and says so.” And Franzen’s characters’ actions are sometimes presented with such broad irony that they better serve his point than his plot. As a result the characters can seem dimwitted; as Baxter put it, “almost every reader of Freedom will be more worldly than its protagonist and will have anticipated several of its key moments many pages before they arrive.”
Meanwhile, for all its sweep and ambition, The Cookbook Collector comes on quite modestly. As Ron Charles said in The Washington Post: “Goodman is a fantastically fluid writer, and yet for all her skill, she’s a humble, transparent one who stays out of the way, never drawing attention to her style or cleverness.” Goodman’s gaze is always on her subjects, and she handles her big themes lightly, submerging them in the lives of the books’ characters. The Cookbook Collector’s literary elegance is part of what made the book invisible to a broad public, while Franzen’s roaring crassness is part of what made his book such a smash. He’s just a lot louder than she is.
Which is not to say there aren’t lots of ways in which I prefer Franzen to Goodman. He’s much more interested in the dark side of life than she is. He writes with sympathy and intelligence about addictions and failed marriages, career failures, and failures in raising children—almost everyone in Freedom is some kind of anxious wreck. Meanwhile The Cookbook Collector has a pretty uniformly well-adjusted, privileged cast (that’s what you get for following Jane Austen, the lives of the smartest rich girls in the county), most of whom are either making a mint in computers or are enjoying tenure at MIT. The exception is Goodman’s heroine, Jessamine, the family flake, a confused grad student at Berkeley (egads!), but by the time the novel is done she’s found love, money, and has embarked on a promising academic career.
When people have sex in Freedom, heads bang on walls. In The Cookbook Collector it’s a finger on the chest and then fade out. (Goodman does write a very sexy scene of a girl eating a peach.) There are gorgeous flights of imagination in The Cookbook Collector—like the scene where George stumbles upon the collection of its title, 17th Century manuscripts stored in the cabinets and ovens of a musty Bay Area kitchen:
For a moment, he thought she was searching for the iodine, and then he saw them. Leather-bound, cloth-bound, quartos and folios, books of every size. The cabinets were stocked with books. Not a dish or cup in sight. Only books. Sandra bent and opened the lower cabinets. Not a single pot or pan. Just books. She stood on a chair to reach the cabinet above the refrigerator. Books there as well.
George stepped away from the sink without noticing that he had left the water running. Injury forgotten, he gazed in awe. He leaned against the counter and stared at bindings of hooped leather, red morocco, black and gold. Sandra opened a drawer and there lay Le Livre de Cuisine. She opened the drawer below and took out The Accomplisht Cook: or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery. He opened the book at random: Section XIII: The First Section for dressing of fish, Shewing divers ways, and the most excellent, for dressing Carps, either Boiled, Stewed, Broiled, Roasted, or Baked, &c. He had never tried to roast a carp.
But there’s nothing in The Cookbook Collector like the scene in Freedom where a young adulterous husband digs through his own shit for the wedding ring he has swallowed:
He knelt on the cool floor and peered into the bowl at the four large turds afloat in it, hoping to see the glint of gold immediately. The oldest turd was dark and firm and noduled, the ones from deeper inside him were paler and already dissolving a little. Although he, like all people, secretly enjoyed the smell of his own farts, the smell of his shit was something else. It was so bad as to seem evil in a moral way. He poked one of the softer turds with a fork, trying to rotate it and examine its underside, but it bent and began to crumble, clouding the water brown, and he saw that this business of the fork had been a wishful fantasy. The water would soon be too turbid to see a ring through, and if the ring broke free of its enveloping matter it would sink to the bottom and possibly go down the drain. He had no choice but to lift out each turd and run it through fingers, and he had to do this quickly, before things got too waterlogged. Holding his breath, his eyes watering furiously, he grasped the most promising turd and let go of his most recent fantasy, which was that one hand would suffice. He had to use both hands, one to hold the shit, and the other to pick through it. He retched once, drily, and got to work, pushing his fingers into the soft and body-warm and surprisingly lightweight log of excrement.
Goodman glides through her fiction, while with Franzen, it’s always a triple lutz with a camel. When Jessamine Bach joins an environmental group it’s the prosaically named Save the Trees, and like a real environmentalist, she sits in a treetop canopy to preserve the redwood from loggers. (That scene in the redwood is beautifully turned.) When Walter Berglund starts an environmental group, it’s called the Cerulean Warbler Mountain Trust, and Walter’s got a scheme wherein he’ll give over some pristine wilderness to a coal company and then after they’ve removed the mountaintops and fouled the groundwater, he’ll replant the place as a songbird preserve.
Franzen has written a lot about his break from difficult, satiric post-modernism. In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” he pronounced his split from his one-time hero William Gaddis. He doesn’t want to write really, really hard intellectual books anymore. Thing is, Franzen’s over-the-top satire and his pressing of his characters’ faces into humiliation and into the meaningless void—these things really do derive in Franzen from Gaddis, from a dire, post-Beckett aesthetic. Part of what makes Franzen so exciting to his admirers and so frustrating to his critics is his attempt to wed whacked-out and dark postmodern irony to sympathetic humanist realism. And in this unlikely marriage problems do arise. In a crazy-ass postmodern spoof, you can have a character dig through his shit or have an environmentalist join up with a coal company, and this can be part of the cold icy whacky comic mayhem (like in Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, a novel about a set of interrelated lawsuits, where the cars are called Isuyu and Sosume). But in a realist novel, this kind of irony can shade into something ugly, can make characters seem plastic and thin and (as Charles Baxter argued) a little stupid. Franzen’s willingness to abase his characters often reads as if he holds them in contempt.
Part of the difference in reception of the novels might actually have something to do with the two books’ Jewishness—and here we come to another one of the weird parallels between the books. Both of these are very Jewish novels, and their subplots about Jewishness mirror each other. In both books, mothers hide their Jewishness from their children, children discover their secret family histories, and these discoveries of secret histories coincide with violent global convulsions.
In Freedom, Patty Berglund, Walter’s wife, keeps her Jewish identity a secret from her kids, and her son Joey (the one who digs through his own shit, the one who gets mixed up in phony arms deals in the Iraq war) discovers his Jewishness late in the novel. After he makes this discovery of his identity, Joey gets involved with in a scary Jewish family—one that might be modeled on the Kristols or the Wolfowitzes, rich Jews whose interest in Joey’s Jewishness is almost as creepy as their interest in right wing politics, Jews who distribute false information that leads to war.
In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine and Emily Bach’s mother is dead, but her Jewishness is similarly locked away from them, kept hidden from the girls by their father. They both learn about their Jewishness at a post-9/11 memorial service—the Bach sisters are related not to assimilated or political Jews, but to Hassidic Jews, in fact to the Bialostoker Rebbe himself. Goodman’s treatment of Jewishness has a completely different purpose than does Franzen’s. For Franzen, Jewishness marks another opportunity to explore self-loathing and to memorialize the times—here, to skewer neo-conservatives. In The Cookbook Collector, the presence of Jews—of rabbis—allows the novel to contemplate value in a whole new light. Religious value is a central value for Goodman, and one that underpins the whole of her work. In this book, it is contemplated alongside other human values—material, aesthetic, filial, and romantic. And all of these things, in Goodman’s eyes, have worth.
Twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he worried that the irony of his favorite post-moderns (Pynchon, Delillo, Gaddis, Barth) had been co-opted in his generation of post-modernists’ lives by television, in particular leering, cynical “I know this is just an ad” kind of TV ads. Wallace worried that his generation of post-modernists had fallen into a trap, a reflexive, cold irony he called “televisual,” and he described this irony’s gaze as “the girl who’s dancing with you but who would rather be dancing with someone else.” Allegra Goodman, of course, is in no danger of falling into this trap. At the end of The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach’s newly discovered uncle, Rabbi Helfgott, presides over her and George Friedman’s marriage, and it’s clear that the book believes in God and in love, and that Goodman’s fiction exists in a stable, meaningful, social world. Her subtle literary ironies are of a piece with this large-hearted view.
Meanwhile Franzen’s novel—his whole career, really—is a struggle with this postmodern ironical trap, a struggle to inhabit it and get out of it, to be humane and to be ironic. At the end of Freedom, when the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, huddle together after 500-plus pages of humiliations, affairs, failures, and addictions, and in the ruins of their marriage find some comfort from the horrid world all around—well, it’s proof (if proof was ever needed) of Franzen’s extraordinary gifts. This final section succeeds movingly.
But he never can quite turn it off, and you feel it, the televisual irony, all throughout the course of Freedom. Franzen is dancing with you, sure, and with Walter and Patty as well, and his moves are wild and Tony Manero dazzling—but he’s not wholeheartedly on the floor with his partners. Allegra Goodman loves her characters—they absorb her attention as if she could wish for nothing more, and she offers them intimately to her readers, so much so that the author herself all but vanishes. Franzen’s characters meanwhile exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds. His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident. He has managed to shuck the difficulties of postmodern fiction while retaining much of its cool and distant pose.
David Foster Wallace had lots of moral and aesthetic problems with televisual irony—he ends that essay about it with an interesting call for earnestness—but he also noted how well it sells. Half a year after its release, The Cookbook Collector, full of earnestness and love, is between hardcover and paperback editions, and it’s hard to find at your local bookstore. Meanwhile, cool and calculating Freedom sits high on the bestseller list, alone among its literary contemporaries. That’s some kind of triumph.
The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes four books that have gotten quite a lot of attention over the last year – the Franzen, Egan, Grossman, and Murray – and one outlier, a novella originally written in 1947 by the 101-year-old Keilson, that was published in English for the first time last year. One might argue that with this set of finalists, the NBCC’s fiction contest is more high-profile this year than the NBA and Booker slates were. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (at The Millions, Egan’s Year in Reading, excerpt)
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (at The Millions, excerpt)
David Grossman, To the End of the Land (review)
Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key (profile)
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (review, Murray’s Year in Reading, excerpt)
S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches (excerpt)
Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (excerpt)
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (excerpt)
Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (excerpt)
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (excerpt)
For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit PW.
Jonathan Franzen has always been outspoken about his disdain of e-readers. In an interview with The AV Club, he said the Kindle “makes everything seem unsubstantial,” that “the words seem more arbitrary, less intrinsically valuable.” Yet Franzen writes the kinds of novels that are best read on the Kindle. They demand attention solely to the text, the kind of undistracted reading environment that makes e-readers so appealing — not to mention the perk of carrying a small electronic device instead of a 700-page hardcover copy of Freedom.
It seems fitting that Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Tree of Codes was published around the same Christmas season when the Kindle became Amazon’s best-selling product ever. The Kindle does away with all manners of a novel’s physical form and design; Tree of Codes exists solely to embrace those things, and to be embraced, but gently.
The die-cut interior of Tree of Codes is made up of select words, carefully re-assembled from Foer’s favorite novel, Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, to create an entirely new narrative. (Cut ten letters from the original title and you get Tree of Codes.) If Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the book equivalent of a mash up, perhaps Tree of Codes is akin to 8-bit music: it’s both a reduction and reinterpretation of another work. Visually, the sparse prose and overwhelming negative space leaves a stunning impression, (accurately captured in what might be the least-annoying book trailer of all time). It’s a wonderful experiment in what a book can be, and also home to a mediocre novel.
What Foer has done is a little gimmicky and not entirely new — William Burroughs and Brion Gyson did a similar cut-up book in the ‘60s — but the reading experience is an absorbing challenge. The first thing you have to do with Tree of Codes is figure out how to read it. I don’t mean interpreting the text — the prose, though occasionally aloof, reads as a fairly straightforward narrative — but how to physically hold the book. Because of Tree’s die-cut pages, it’s hard to tell what words belong on the page you’re looking at and what’s on the next page or two. After a few minutes, I figured out that the best method was to keep a finger under the page I was reading, bending it slightly, to give the words more depth (again, I mean physical depth).
Some readers have taken to inserting a blank sheet of paper behind each page, but doing that feels like a denial of the book’s design. There’s something haunting about seeing what lays ahead, just out of focus. Tree of Codes is intent on distracting its audience and making them conscious of the reading experience. The pages are also fragile, and I found myself holding Tree of Codes with extra care. According to Foer, the binding had to be paperback — if it was hardcover, the book would “collapse in on itself.” It shows consideration to the book not as an art object, but a book as a thing you read.
The format of a book doesn’t need to be challenging or difficult. But if authors really want to defend the idea of the physical book, they need to consider how the medium actually affects the reading experience. The example that comes to mind is Dave Eggers, who writes in QuarkXPress instead of a regular word processor, which might explain why McSweeney’s does just fine without selling books in ePub format.
Despite it’s unconventional form, Tree of Codes is actually a natural step for Foer, as a novelist who has toyed with visual elements like type, white space, and color in his earlier works. In an interview with The Morning News in 2005 (just after the release of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Foer said he “really like[d] books as objects, as little intimate sculptures that you have a real interaction with.”
Sculpture is a medium that is appreciated for its form, texture, its third dimension; sculpture is also a medium that isn’t necessarily interacted with, even touched, unless you want to be escorted to the curb by museum security guards. Really, the sculpture comparison does a disservice to what a book really is: a mass-produced object that you spend hours holding.
It’s just too bad that in the case of Tree of Codes, the reading experience is far more interesting than the actual novel. Holding the book, you can feel an absence of weight in the middle. Even within 3,000 words, Tree of Codes inconsistently waivers from abstract poignance (“The tree stood with the arms upraised and screamed and screamed.”) to the sort of pretentious mediocrity you might find in DeviantArt poetry (“I could feel waves of laid bare, of dreams.”). It boils down to whether or not you find Foer’s lyricism to be poetic or merely sentimental.
But credit is due to Foer for taking Schultz’s work and making it his own. Trees features the familiar fallible perspective from Everything is Illuminated and the Freudian relationships from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are also allusions to a vague disaster — is it a plague or the Holocaust? — that amounts to an equally ambiguous tragedy that is better felt than understood.
When I finished Tree of Codes, I placed it in on my bookshelf. But it felt as if it didn’t belong stuffed next to my copy of Freedom — which has endured being borrowed by three different people since August. Tree of Codes might be a much worse novel than Freedom, but it’s a delicate book. There are thousands of copies of Tree of Codes, and yet mine feels special. It’s a reminder that the book is a precious thing.
If 2010 was a literary year of big names — featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few — 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that’s likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy.
In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers’ time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we’re looking forward to — 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review, “the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal.” Baxter’s previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.)
The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection “exquisite and almost excruciating.” (Emily M.)
While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie. Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.” Perhaps. But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are. Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best. Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob)
Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren’t likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one “The Campaign Trail” which one early review describes as imagining “the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus’s memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin)
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan)
The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work — marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility — that includes an alphabet book of dead children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.”) Alexander Theroux was Gorey’s friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey’s death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.)
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression “black dog”? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog–literally, he’s a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt’s fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister. British reviewers have been quite taken with the book’s whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.)
The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.)
Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like “discovered,” as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it’s true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu–Budapest before World War II–and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia)
West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison’s new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town’s founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It’s a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.)
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan)
Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan)
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there’s certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year’s most anticipated, but what’s the point of having a website if I can’t use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics. Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.” Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master. One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40” list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick)
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir. Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing. In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob)
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.” (Max)
All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet. We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production. On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya)
Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson’s Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max)
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world–that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne)
This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick)
The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so. (Garth)
The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty’er, Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate. (Kevin)
The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian’s last novel, The Children’s Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 List.” His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism’s forebears: Shakespeare. It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth)
Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years–and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy–weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne)
Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth)
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn’t quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. “The Tragedy of Arthur” is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max)
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O’Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O’Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to “share” it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth)
The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X’s manifesto against higher education for all: “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X’s bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America’s lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren’t cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It’s like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante’s “Shadow Scholar” piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.)
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan)
Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7′ x 7′ tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother’s suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max)
My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream — until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, captures the moment when American “dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear.” (Bill)
Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max)
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle’s collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys’ trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the “Full English Breakfast,” I thought of this story. (Max)
Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd’s great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia)
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth)
There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic “20 Under 40” list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper’s labeling 32-year-ole Butler “one of the voices of his generation,” that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max)
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We’ve reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max)
Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year’s Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain “science fiction, aliens and spaceships.” The title refers to “a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe” where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville’s track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill)
Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate’s large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio’s Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max)
To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter’s illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya)
Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove. Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating. In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty. Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy. When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob)
The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley’s latest is described as a “novel in two parts.” An early review in the Financial Times calls the book “darkly elegant” with “two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.” (Max)
Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection’s over-arching theme: “Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.” (Max)
The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting “the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him,” from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “This one was a picnic,” Patchett says of State of Wonder, “because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.” (Bill)
The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen’s next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament? (“May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto,” Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen’s immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen’s forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.)
The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs–a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne)
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume. In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob)
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max)
Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav’s third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks “Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?” Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max)
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max)
Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year “in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life.” The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux’s time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max)
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock’s debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick)
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl’s beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl’s academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl’s agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan”—is that without Blue, Pessl’s nothing. Can she–could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)–generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue’s? (Emily W.)
Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds. Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend. But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob)
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist’s father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar’s experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia)
Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college – presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition – to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth)
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the ’80s, and Imre Goldstein’s translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly – as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates – he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception – psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg’s appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth)
Unknown (fall and beyond):
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn’t find a buyer for this story of “cults of personality and terrorism” and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by…er…The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as “America’s Best Writer.” Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people’s minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth)
The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author’s bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max)
Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet:
Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson’s book will, one imagines, address Dante’s exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia)
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.
This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.
Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.
Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.
Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.
When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.
Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.
And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035… by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.
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I read The Children’s Book, and I sort of didn’t like it that much. But I’m putting at the top of my Year in Reading because it disturbed me profoundly, and that has to count for something. I finished it late at night while my beloved was sleeping, and when I turned off the light I clutched him, feeling terrified.
I liked its Arts and Crafts conceit, but sometimes it seemed a conceit alone, an excuse for a nifty Morris-esque cover design. Occasionally I found myself wanting to glaze a bowl, but I also found myself thinking: “This is no Possession.”
Then everyone started dying, and I thought, “Wow, A.S. Byatt is mean.” And A.S. Byatt is probably not mean, but I was overwhelmed by the union of war’s indiscriminate horror with the steely moral judgment of her universe. It’s a serious business, the kind that keeps you up at night.
Freedom, to echo Garth and Stephen and Dan. Freedom was a book that I read pretty much straight through, and when it was over I started again, only to find, for the nth time, that it doesn’t work that way. You can’t have it again, there being no time like the first time and all that. I also felt that way about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Museum of Innocence, as I’ve said before.
I unwittingly read wonderful books that turned out to be part of trilogies: The Lyre of Orpheus (Cornish) and Independence Day (Bascombe) and The Persian Boy (Alexander). So that turned into six more books to read, and to date I’ve only finished Mary Renault’s Alexandriad. But I’m all about Richard Ford for 2011. And Robertson Davies–he’s kind of like a male Iris Murdoch.
I read non-fiction now, which has been an adjustment. Non-fiction does not often leave me clutching my beloved in the night, although it probably should. I liked Rebel Land, about eastern Turkey, Armenians, and Kurds, because it made more meaningful gestures toward readability than many works aiming to inform; in fact, in the end I think it turned out to be more enjoyable than informative.
It helps that Christopher de Bellaigue, in addition to having a life that generates maximum personal envy (speaking fluent Turkish and Persian; writing things in the NYRB), knows a thing or two about a well-placed vignette. He might not be a bona fide historian, but there’s a story about a cardoon seed and a cuckoo that almost had me turning to the adjacent bus-rider to say “Lemme read you this part.”
A good year, all told.
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Fifteen things about my year in reading:
1. My most immersive reading experience of the year took place in late January and February as I embarked upon Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, followed by the Lymond Chronicles. Twelve long and involved and completely transporting books later, I closed the cover of the final installment with a profound sense of loss.
3. The book I read this year that I most wish I had written myself: Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.
4. The book I read this year that I don’t understand why I hadn’t read sooner, it is so much exactly what I like: Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.
5. Three excellent novels I read for the second or third or fourth time this year and found just as fantastically good as I had the last time: Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, Cintra Wilson’s Colors Insulting to Nature, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.
6. Another important reread: Mary Renault’s trio of novels about Alexander the Great. The influence Renault’s books had on me as a young teenager cannot be overstated.
7. The indispensable and fascinating nonfiction book that I think everyone should read: Randy Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.
8. The most intellectually stimulating nonfiction book I read this year: Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. The only other book I read this year that is likely to have such a pronounced effect on my next novel (The Bacchae excluded) is Andrew Dolkart’s architectural history of Morningside Heights.
9. The most intellectually stimulating book I reread this year: Genette’s Figures of Literary Discourse. In a similar vein, I also reimmersed myself in the writings of Victor Shklovsky and read Scott McCloud’s inspired Understanding Comics.)
10. I found Keith Richards’ Life incomparably more interesting (a better book!) than Patti Smith’s Just Kids. The latter also suffers in comparison to Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, which I highly recommend.
11. Some of the top-caliber crime writers whose books I read for the first time this year: Arnaldur Indridason, Liz Rigbey, Caroline Carver, Deon Meyer, Ake Edwardson, Asa Larsson, C. J. Sansom, Jo Nesbo.
12. Writers whose new books I devoured this year because I like their previous ones so much: Lee Child, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Atkinson, Robert Crais, Ken Bruen, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Joe Hill, Tana French, Jo Walton, Connie Willis, Joshilyn Jackson.
13. Top 2010 guilty pleasure reading, both in its guiltiness and in its pleasurability: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books. (Richard Kadrey’s books are too well-written to count as a guilty pleasure, but they are immensely pleasurable.)
14. I found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom excellent, but it did not have a deep effect on me.
15. In September, I got a Kindle. It has saved me a lot of neckache while traveling, some dollars that might have been spent on full-price hardbacks and the pain of reading poor-quality mass-market paperbacks when I can’t find anything better. The best value-for-money discovery: Lewis Shiner’s superb novel Black & White, available at his website as a free PDF.
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Nearly ten years ago, I interviewed Jonathan Franzen, then primarily known less for his fiction—he’d published two great but largely unread novels—and more for a brilliant, cranky essay on writing (and reading), generally referred to as “the Harper’s Essay.” Over the course of a day, Franzen talked, with unflinching honesty, about the difficulties—and exhilarations—of writing The Corrections, which was due to be published three months hence. He had, he explained, become so consumed with writing a “big” novel, an important novel, that he spent years writing and discarding chapters, plot threads, characters, perpetually unsatisfied. His frustrations and ambitions rang eerily true for me, for numerous reasons, not the least of which being that I was working on a novel that, I knew, would be large in scope, so large that I began to hyperventilate when I allowed my mind to linger too long on it.
Franzen, of course, found his way out, in part, he explained, by turning away from the sorts of big novels he tended to favor, as both reader and writer, and toward the more slender volumes on his shelves, the Gatsbys and suchlike. Ultimately, he conceived of The Corrections, less as one massive tome, and more as a series of smaller novels. Franzen’s cure, in a way, became my own. I didn’t put down those big social novels, but I did look at them in a different light, as a series of component parts, and a few months later my own novel began to slide into place.
This fall, like everyone else on the planet, I burned dinner, let my two-year-old cry, stopped answering the phone, and missed any number of subway and bus stops, as I completely gave myself over to Freedom. But I was also, in a neat coincidence, starting work on my own second novel, an even larger and more nerve-wracking endeavor than the first, and so I found myself thinking about that long-ago interview—the advice he’d unknowingly doled out—and picking up some of the shorter novels on my bookshelves, including many old favorites, such as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, both of which I re-read every year or so, marveling at their perfection, and Jean Rhys’s 1928 novel Quartet, which I’d not so much as glanced at since I was about 23.
Brief, brutal, and mildly baffling, Quartet follows a young—or, well, young-ish—former chorus girl, Marya Zelli, over the year following her Polish husband’s imprisonment for theft. Left in Paris with no money and no real way of making a living—she hails from shabby genteel English stock—Marya sells everything she owns, falls ill, and is taken in by the Heidlers, a wealthy British couple whose interest in her stems, she soon discovers, from the husband’s desire to make her his mistress. It’s not giving much away to reveal that she succumbs—you know she will from the moment they meet—because the real pleasure of the novel lies less in the plot (there isn’t much of one) and more in Rhys’ dark humor, unsparing accounts of Marya’s existential despair as she wanders “like a grey ghost…in a vague, shadowy world,” and genius for portraying a character with the smallest and most specific strokes (Lois Heidler, clutching her giant handbag, bears “the expression of the woman who is wondering how she is going to manage about the extra person to dinner… Obviously of the species wife.”).
For the 21st Century reader there’s also, of course, the odd and undeniable pleasure of reading about Paris—the expatriates of the Montparnasse–in the 1920s from a perspective rather more raw than that of, say, Hemingway. Rhys’ characters—be they would-be painters or Midwestern divorcees—appear to be on the verge of collapse—emotional, physical, financial, artistic–as if they were, to a one, harbingers of the financial failures that would devastate the global economy a year after the novel’s publication. At 23, Quartet struck me as a frank exploration of the vulnerability of a lone woman in a society geared toward monogamy and family. Fifteen years later, it reads as something much larger: an exposure of said society’s cracks and fissures, of the ways in which it has failed that lone woman, and, in doing so, has descended into a sort of moral decay. The residents of Paris wander its streets, devoid of money or purpose, resentful of the prosperous few, filled with the “devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence.” Not so different, I suppose, from New York—or Des Moines, or Fort Worth, or Sacramento—right now.
Some other books I’ve loved this year: Ada Leverson’s satirical novel, Love’s Shadow, originally published in 1908, and recently reissued by Bloomsbury, which covers similar territory to Quartet, but in a deeply comic manner. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which also made me burn dinner, allow my children to play with knives, etc. (Why, I’ve wondered, was Egan not on the cover of Time magazine? Her novel speaks equally to present-day truths about America.) Two new memoirs with very long titles, though I am not normally a memoir person: Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House (which I loved so much, I have forced it on everyone I know) and Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, which is ostensibly about September 11, but really a kind of contemporary kunstleroman, about becoming a writer in the rather toxic contemporary literary climate. And three not-new collections of poetry: Sarah Vap’s American Spikenard, Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling, and David Young’s translation of the Chinese poet Du Fu, which is worth reading for the introduction alone.
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The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010. (Click each image for a larger view)
Point Omega by Don Delillo
Reality Hunger by David Shields
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
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At the beginning of 2010 I was in Ukraine, and trying to understand what was going on there. Two contemporary historians, both dissidents, helped explain. Georgiy Kasianov writes in Ukrainian, Russian, and English; his history of post-independence Ukraine (in Russian) is a great and funny book that bravely resists the nationalist narrative pushed forward by the Ukraine-for-Ukrainians lobby. In English his edited volume, A Laboratory of Transnational History, is recommended. It includes an essay by John-Paul Himka, a Canadian historian of Ukrainian origin who has for a number of years kept up a lonely moral crusade against the nationalist elements of the Ukrainian diaspora in North America. You would think the margin for historical error in a territory and period as finite as Western Ukraine during the Second World War would be pretty thin; you’d be wrong.
I tend to read books in spurts. After Ukraine, I read a number of dystopian novels for an article I was writing. The best were Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island. I preferred the Houellebecq. In fact, though Elementary Particles is still his best book, this one is his funniest. “In order to pass the time I told him the story of the German who ate the other German whom he’d met on the internet.” Very funny.
At this point, having settled again on American soil, I decided to figure out what was going on with our foreign wars. I read Rory Stewart’s amazing and funny book about walking through Afghanistan in the wake of the American defeat of the Taliban in late 2001 (The Places In Between), and then Megan Stack’s Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, which begins with her entering Afghanistan a bit earlier, right on the heels of the American invasion, tagging along with an Afghan warlord who will eventually try to sneak into bed with her. Stack’s book was so good that I could hardly believe it, so I read Dexter Filkins’ Forever War just to check. It was also very good. Forever War has more bombs exploding; Every Man has more of a comparative sweep.
At this point, almost without intending to (I was waiting for someone to give me their copy of Freedom), I read Ian Frazier’s funny, epic, surprising Travels in Siberia. Then I read Freedom, which is as good as everyone says it is. Reading Frazier and Franzen back to back underscored, first, that they have quite similar names, and, second, the deeply Midwestern quality of Freedom. There’s a great passage at the end of the Siberia book in which Frazier talks about how his father used to berate him, back in his Ohio childhood, for living such a sheltered existence and knowing nothing about the rest of the world. This is a uniquely American, perhaps American-suburban, prejudice–the idea that Ohio couldn’t possibly be further away from, say, Siberia. What Frazier points out, in his quiet, uninsistent way, is that the center of the most economically powerful nation on earth can’t pretend that it’s far away from anywhere, much less one of the world’s largest oil-producing regions, which is what Siberia is. It seems that a deep awareness of the truth of this–of the interconnection of the American suburbs and the rest of the world–is one of Franzen’s important contributions to American fiction and American self-understanding over the past ten years.
In June, my book of interviews about the financial crisis with a hedge fund manager was coming out, and I realized I still knew nothing about the financial crisis. I read as fast as I could to avoid humiliation. Many of the books were bad. Their authors had the difficulty of writing from another country–like the Ukrainian historian Kasianov, who writes partly for Russians–but in a language that the people in that other country (that is to say, us) didn’t know. So they could either pretend that we knew it already, or treat us like idiots. They did a bit of both. The Michael Lewis books–his newest, The Big Short, and his oldest, Liar’s Poker–stood out among all these for their clarity and wit, although I should add that I haven’t yet read John Lanchester’s I.O.U. or Yves Smith’s ECONned, both of which are supposed to be good.
When the HFM book came out, I did mostly manage to aovid humiliation–for example, by sleeping through a scheduled radio interview. But non-humiliation was not enough. I decided to get to the bottom of things by reading Capital. But I couldn’t understand it. I began to read around Capital–David Harvey’s Limits to Capital; Peter Singer’s Marx; Immanuel Wallerstein’s Historical Capitalism; Michael Harrington’s The Twilight of Capitalism; Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. The only one I really got through (aside from the Wallerstein book, which is like 100 pages long because he uses no examples) is To the Finland Station. I’d inherited the notion somewhere or other that Wilson’s book wasn’t first-rate as intellectual or political history. This is untrue. Of all the secondary sources on Marx, it has been the most valuable to me. It will certainly always be the most entertaining. It gives a different kind of genealogy of Marx, through the French historians rather than the German idealists, and also it has a beautiful and sympathetic account of the relationship between Marx and Engels. Just a lovely book, almost as good as Parallel Lives.
At around this time, about a month ago–and still stuck about a third of the way through the first volume of Capital–I concluded that I would never understand Marx’s obsession with the concept of “price” until I went back to Adam Smith and the original formulation of the theory of price that Marx is taking issue with. So that is where you find me today, about a fifth of the way through the first volume of The Wealth of Nations. Maybe a quarter of the way.
Other great books I happened to read that came out in 2010 were Elif Batuman’s The Possessed; Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask; and Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. I recommend all three without reservation; they are instant classics. Another book I think everyone ought to read is Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Losing My Cool. It’s a complex, very honest, very entertaining memoir about a young man’s education that has not received anything like the serious consideration and discussion it deserves. And a final book I recommend from 2010 is And the Heart Says Whatever, by my very witty girlfriend, Emily Gould.
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Goddammit, I’m choosing Freedom.
Oh, how I wish I could be talking about some other book! A book that’s weirder or fringier or cooler. A book that didn’t get on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, or if it did get on the cover, it wasn’t also chosen by Oprah. Maybe even, for Christ’s sake, a book that’s not by a dude.
But as much as I loved the books I read this year by Jennifer Egan and Belle Boggs and Tim Hensley and David Mitchell and Vanessa Davis and Ian Frazier and Paul Murray and John Waters and Daniel Clowes and Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Moto Hagio and Matthew Gallaway and Dyna Moe, I loved Freedom more. Believe me: I’m not proud of myself. I feel like a real douche.
But I loved Freedom in May, when I was so wrapped up in the novel on a family trip to Carolina Beach that I shamefully abandoned my family to hide in a locked bedroom and read it in half-hour chunks, only emerging when the screams of my bored children made it impossible to continue. I loved it when I finished it and didn’t know anyone else who had read it and I wanted to talk about it so much. I loved it when I sent it to a friend in film who really wanted the summer’s status galley. I loved it when I got a first unexpected glimpse of Tanenhaus’s review. I loved it when debate broke out about whether it was worth all the attention paid to it, and I loved when wealthy female pop-fiction writers whined about the attention they didn’t get from the Times, and I loved when Meghan O’Rourke reminded us of the real gender gap in literary fiction. I loved defending Freedom in comment threads from people who hadn’t read it yet. I loved it when B.R. Myers wrote that review, and when Garth Hallberg took the occasion to rip B.R. Myers a new one. I loved it when friends tweeted their rage about Patty’s behavior, or their wicked delight with Joey’s shit-sifting, or their mockery of Jonathan Franzen’s hilarious notions of how viral videos work. I loved talking about it for most of a coffee date in which we were ostensibly supposed to be talking about business. I loved it when Oprah shouted, “FrrrrrrrrrrrEEEDooooooooommmmmmm!!!!!!!!!!!!!” And I loved it when my wife read it in September and started mysteriously disappearing into the basement for half an hour at a time.
I loved Freedom. But I also loved that everyone else loved (or hated, or poo-poohed, or was enraged by) Freedom. So I guess I’m glad that this overhyped, overwritten, overrated, too-popular doorstop by yet another old white guy with glasses was my favorite book of the year.
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I kind of hate to say this, but the very best book I read this year was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It’s cliche, and he doesn’t need the boost. I read a number of smaller press books, some of which were excellent. Bluets by Maggie Nelson in particular springs to mind. But still, I really think Freedom is a masterpiece. I read it as an advance copy, so I had the fortune to read it when there was hype, but not as much hype as there became.
I will say this, it was not my best year for reading. It was a year where I read a lot of really good books but almost no great books. Last year I read three books I would consider better than Freedom, though only one of them was a novel, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. It took me six months to read 2666. In the meantime, I also read We Did Porn by Zak Smith, which was also a better book, as was Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. But that was last year, and that’s not what this is about.
But I don’t care. I want to talk about something else. You know what’s a great novel? Lush Life by Richard Price. That’s from my 2008 list (I keep a list of every book I read). Also, in 2008, I read the novella Ray by Barry Hannah. Are you kidding? You want to talk about great literature, you have to read Ray before you can even have the conversation. And those two books weren’t even the best books I read in 2008. Because in 2008, I read the absurdly underrated Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, which impacts the way I think about creative non-fiction still to this day.
And then in 2007, I read Stoner, which would probably top the list of “Best Books I’ve Read In The Last Four Years.” 2007 was a glorious year for reading. Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, Advertisements for Myself by Norman Mailer, The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart.
I’m not even going to get into 2006. I’d start to cry.
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The Bad Boy’s Anger
One opens The Atlantic Monthly and is promptly introduced to a burst of joyless contrarianism. Tiring of it, one skims ahead to the book reviews, only to realize: this is the book review. A common experience for even the occasional reader of B.R. Myers, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft and execution. Myers writes as if the purpose of criticism were to obliterate its object. He scores his little points, but so what? Do reviewers really believe that isolating a few unlovely lines in a five hundred page novel, ignoring the context for that unloveliness, and then pooh-poohing what remains constitutes a reading? Is this what passes for judgment these days?
If so, Myers would have a lot to answer for. But in the real world, instances don’t yield general truths with anything like the haste of a typical Myers paragraph (of which the foregoing is a parody). And so, even as he grasps for lofty universalism, Brian Reynolds Myers remains sui generis, the bad boy of reviewers, lit-crit’s Dennis Rodman.
Myers came to prominence, or what passes for it in the media microcosmos, via “A Reader’s Manifesto,” a long jeremiad against “the modern ‘literary’ best seller” and “the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.” It earned notice primarily for its attack on the work and reputation of novelists lauded for their style – Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and E. Annie Proulx, among others. Many of these writers were ripe for reevaluation, and “A Reader’s Manifesto” was read widely enough to land Myers a contributing editor gig at The Atlantic. It was subsequently published as a stand-alone book. Yet the essay was itself little more than an exercise in style, and not a very persuasive one at that. It was hard to say which was more irritating: Myers’ scorched-earth certainties; his method, a kind of myopic travesty of New Criticism; or his own prose, a donnish pastiche of high-minded affectation and dreary cliché.
I can’t be the only reader who wanted to cry out against the manifesto being promulgated on my behalf, but Myers had insulated himself in several ways. First, he had been so thoroughgoingly tendentious, and at such length, that to rebut his 13,000 words required 13,000 of one’s own. Second: his jadedness was infectious. It made one weary of reading, weary of writing, weary of life. Finally, in the The Atlantic’s letters section, he showed himself to be no less willing to resort to pugnacious misreadings of his correspondents than he had been of his original subjects. “I have no idea why Jed Cohen thinks I have disparaged a hundred years of literature…” he wrote, in an exchange about his Tree of Smoke review. “Saying that reputations must never be reviewed would place reviewers above criticism.” No, one wanted to object. Saying that reviewers must never be reviewed would place reviewers above criticism. Mr. Cohen is himself criticizing a reviewer. But to argue with Myers was, manifestly, to summon his contempt. And so he whirled mirthlessly on, flourishing the word “prose” like a magic wand, working pale variations on his Reader’s Manifesto. In your face, Toni Morrison!
To date, I have yet to read a comprehensive debunking of the Myers bunkum. But his recent review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom really does seem to invite one – not so much because I liked the book and he didn’t, or because it caught the eye of David Brooks and from there spread to the far corners of the Internet, but because of the willfulness of his misrepresentations to the reader, and the radical degree of projection involved. To the long-time Myers watcher, the review, titled, “Smaller Than Life” looks to be a giant mirror: what Myers takes to be the philistinism of contemporary literature is an enormous reflection of his own.
Myers premises his complaints against Freedom on the “smallness” of its characters – their likeness to “the folks next door.” In support of these descriptions, he tenders a few details from the text: Patty Berglund bakes cookies and is “relatively dumber” than her siblings. Her husband Walter has a red face and his “most salient quality . . . [is] his niceness.” Richard Katz is a womanizing punk musician. See? Tiny. Insignificant. “Nonentities.” But even at this early stage of the argument, what should be obvious to even unsympathetic readers of the book is the smallness of Myers’ imagination. Set Richard Katz aside for the moment (maybe Myers lives next door to some priapic indie rockers). Isn’t “relatively dumber” – an elaboration of the idea that Patty’s siblings “were more like what her parents had been hoping for” – meant to tell us more about Patty’s self-image than about her IQ? Patty will return to the theme in her whip-smart autobiography, after all. And mightn’t some readers find this will-to-averageness “interesting,” psychologically speaking? Also: Isn’t Walter’s most “salient” quality (carefully elided in Myers’ quotation) actually “his love of Patty?” And “salient” for whom? Not for the author, but for the subtly anti-Berglund neighbors on Ramsey Hill, whose point-of-view mediates the novel’s opening section, “Good Neighbors.” Either unwittingly or purposefully, Myers has made a cardinal error. He has mistaken the characters’ angle of vision for the novelist’s.
As if to compensate for the oversight, he hastily concedes that the “insignificance” of its principals (again, insignificance to whom?) need not doom a novel itself to insignificance: “A good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates.” Invidious comparison alert! But Myers seems to have not read Madame Bovary, or, at best, to have paid it the same glancing attention he pays to Freedom. For the former has more to tell us about the latter’s style than about its “storytelling.”
Though Franzen’s temperament is warmer – he doesn’t aspire to Flaubert’s fearsome objectivity – his technique relies to an unusual degree on the free indirect discourse Madame Bovary pioneered. Flaubert inhabits his characters, Lydia Davis tells us in the introduction to her new translation, in order to “[hold] up a miror to the middle- and lower-middle-class world of his day, with all its little habits, fashions, fads.” Irony is everywhere present, especially, she writes elsewhere, “in the words and phrases in the novel to which he gives special emphasis” – that is, underlining or italics.
They appear throughout the novel, starting on the first page with new boy. With this emphasis he is drawing attention to language that was commonly, and unthinkingly, used to express shared ideas that were also unquestioned.
Freedom, too, aims to be contemporary – perhaps even, as Myers puts it, “strenuously” so. But the scattered instances of “juvenile” glibness and vulgarity he portrays as its mother-tongue (“the local school ‘sucked’. . . Patty was ‘very into’ her teenage son, who, in turn was ‘fucking’ the girl next door”) are not unexamined symptoms of “a world in which nothing can happen.” Rather, like Flaubert’s common, unthinking phrases, they are necessary constituents of the novel’s attempt to show that world its face in the mirror. And if Franzen “hints at no frame of reference from which we are to judge his prose critically,” it’s only because he assumes his readers have read other novels written since 1850, and so already possess that frame themselves.
Not that Myers has any apparent trouble “judging the prose”; Franzen’s is “slovenly,” he insists. Nor is this the only place he seeks to have it both ways. The vulgarity he imputes at first to Franzen he finally does get around to pinning on Patty…but only to demonstrate that she “is too stupid to merit reading about.” Conversely, Franzen’s attempts at eloquence reveal him to be one of those people “who think highly enough of their own brains” that they must “worry about being thought elitist.” (Stupid people, smart people, “middlebrow” people; is there anyone who doesn’t count as a “nonentity,” in B.R. Myers book?)
It would be a mistake, however – a Myers-ish one – to read too much into this incoherence. The simple fact is that Myers’ conception of language is itself vulgar. “Prose,” for him, equals syntax plus diction, and is expected to denote, rather than to evoke. He positions himself as prose’s defender. But when he uses the word, or its cousin, “style,” what he’s really asking is for it to give way to more and faster plot. (It’s a preference Flaubert would have regarded with some amusement. “‘These days, what I really adore are stories that can be read all in one go,'” he has his protagonist say. “‘I detest common heroes and moderate feelings.'”) Myers dismisses one of Franzen’s showier metaphors – “Gene…stirred the cauldrons like a Viking oarsman” – as “half-baked,” with no consideration for the way it connects to the Minnesota Vikings-themed rec room of the opening pages, or the Vikings garb these Minnesotans wear, or ultimately to “the old Swedish-gened depression” Gene’s son, Walter, feels “seeping up inside him . . . like a cold spring at the bottom of a warmer lake.” Similarly, Myers writes off Freedom’s ornithological tropes as clichés, while giving us, in his own voice, sinking hearts, pushed luck, “busy lives,” “[getting] a pass,” “aspects of society,” “interesting individuals” – shopworn phrase following shopworn phrase “as the night the day.”
(This is not to mention the larger cliché of think-piece provocation – the You thought it was black, but really it’s white school of journalism. It’s no coincidence that “A Reader’s Manifesto” appeared in a magazine that was clawing back market share with cover slugs like Is God an Accident? and Did Christianity Cause the Crash? and The End of White America? and The End of Men. The approach would be codified, with no apparent irony, in the 2008 relaunch slogan: “The Atlantic. Think. Again.” But is “thinking” really le mot juste here? It’s surely no commendation for a critic that we know what he’s going to say about a novelist before we’ve read the review. Or before either of us has read the book.)
Remarkably, Myers even manages to be wrong when he tries to concede something positive about Freedom. “Perhaps the only character who holds the reader’s interest is Walter,” he writes. But the adult Walter is by far the novel’s least fully realized character. Of course, this late softening in the review is probably, like the invocation of Emma B., purely rhetorical, but I’ll condescend, as a demonstration of my own fair-mindedness, to grant Myers exactly the same degree of benefit of the doubt he imagines he’s extending to Franzen.
He is absolutely correct that contemporary book reviewers are far too “reluctan[t] to quote from the text,” but he confuses close-reading with mere assertive quotation. He consistently shows himself, here and elsewhere, to be deaf to point-of-view, tone, and implication. Indeed, he seems to revel in this deafness. (He quotes a line of capitalized dialogue – “I KNOW IT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN” – and then confesses, with italics. “I have no idea what this is meant to sound like.”) This is sort of like an art critic trumpeting his glaucoma. Or like a restaurant reviewer who can’t stomach meat.
Who’s Down in Whoville?
Of course, Myers’ real target isn’t Jonathan Franzen, or even “the modern literary bestseller,” so much as it is “our age, the Age of Unseriousness.” The old values – truth, civility, Seriousness – are seen to be under attack from “chat-room[s] . . . Twitter . . . The Daily Show . . . the blogosphere,” and “our critical establishment.” Extremism in their defense can be no vice. But, as with conservative pundits of many stripes, Myers is perfectly willing to be “truthy,” uncivil, and unserious himself, when it suits his purposes. “I especially liked how the author got a pass for the first chapter,” he huffs at one point, with the sarcasm of a high-school Heather. Thus does he participate in the destruction of value he claims to lament.
Moreover, Myers has, symptomatically, mistaken a signifier for the thing it signifies. The underlying cause of the contemporary ills he keeps alluding to is not the coarseness of our language, but our narcissism, whose most “salient” form (as I’ve argued elsewhere) is a seen-it-all knowingness that inflates the observer at the expense of the thing observed. In this sense, B.R. Myers couldn’t be more of-the-moment. It’s no wonder he’s baffled by those turns of phrase by which the novelist seeks to disappear into his characters.
Finally – and most damningly – Myers has little to tell us about beauty. For Flaubert’s contemporary Baudelaire, beauty was
made up of an eternal, invariable element . . . and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be. . . the age – its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion.
In his dyspeptic disregard for what might be amusing, enticing, or appetizing about the world we live in – his inability, that is, to read like a writer, or write like a reader – B.R. Myers has placed contemporary literature in toto beyond his limited powers. He offers us, in place of insight, only indigestion.
Award season is hitting its stride, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have been announced. This year’s fiction list includes something of an invasion from overseas, with Peter Carey, surely the first Booker shortlister to also be a National Book Award finalist (but eligible for both because the Australian-born author is now a U.S. citizen), and Lionel Shriver, who, though a U.S. citizen is often more commonly associated with London, where she makes her home.
The nomination for Shriver validates a provactively titled piece that ran in these pages this year, Lionel Shriver: America’s Best Writer?, which suggested that she deserves far more critical attention. Rounding out the fiction list are Nicole Krauss, recently lauded as a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer, and a pair of relative unknowns Jaimy Gordon and Karen Tei Yamashita, each writing for small indie presses, McPherson and Coffee House, respectively. Also notable, the fiction finalist number four women versus one male author, and Jonathan Franzen and his blockbuster literary novel Freedom are nowhere to be found.
The other big name to note is rocker Patti Smith, who earned a nod for her memoir.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (excerpt)
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Great House by Nicole Krauss (excerpt)
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver (excerpt)
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita (excerpt)
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (excerpt)
Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq by John W. Dower (excerpt)
Just Kids by Patti Smith (excerpt)
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward by Justin Spring (excerpt)
Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War by Megan K. Stack (excerpt)
Young People’s Literature:
Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie is one of those books that came to my attention through the chatter of the booksellers with Twitter accounts who make my life so expensive. When it comes to following the ecstatic recommendations of career booksellers, I’m admittedly a bit of a sheep; I have a perpetually evolving list of books to buy, because these people never stop reading and recommending things. This almost always works out well. They’ve only failed me once. They are, generally speaking, readers of impeccable taste.
By last week I’d heard about Bad Marie a half-dozen times or so and I’d mentally placed it on an unwritten “books to buy after next month’s royalty check comes in” list along with Aurorarama, A Geography of Secrets, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and two or three other no-doubt-brilliant titles, but then the author went and friended me on Facebook.
I didn’t recognize my new acquaintance’s name, but there in her bio was the title of the book I’d heard so much about. Also, she seemed friendly. The next day I had some time to kill in Grand Central Station, and found myself browsing in the station bookstore. There was Bad Marie staring up at me from the table for the fourth time in as many bookstores, so I threw caution to the wind and scored a copy. It felt a little illicit, because there are months when fifteen dollars is a not-insignificant sum. I find this actually fitting, because everything about this book is illicit and the heroine is frequently strapped for cash.
Bad Marie describes a time that might be a pivotal moment in the life of Marie, or might, just as likely, be the beginning of the end. Marie is thirty years old, employed as a full-time nanny to her uptight and controlling friend Ellen’s two-year-old daughter. The two-year-old, Caitlin, is the light of Marie’s life, her “better half”, her darling. It’s a dead-end job, but Marie is more or less content. She is without ambition. Impulse control is a problem. She spent six years of her twenties in prison for accessory to murder and bank robbery.
The arrangement crumbles when Marie, who enjoys taking baths with Caitlin and doesn’t think it’s such a big deal to drink on the job, passes out in the bathtub. Ellen and her dashing French husband Benoît come home early that evening, and Marie wakes to find the two of them staring down at her; Ellen aghast, her husband with evident appreciation. By the next day she’s been fired, and within a week she’s en route to Paris with Caitlin and Benoît.
I started Bad Marie at the beginning of my morning commute. By the end of my return trip home that afternoon I wasn’t done yet and it wasn’t really possible to enter my apartment and get on with my life until I found out how the book ended, so I holed up in a café for forty minutes until I’d finished the last page. I’m filled with admiration for the work.
It’s a fast, fearless little book about a woman who does very bad things. Marie is supremely conniving. “I gave you this job against my better judgment,” Ellen tells her in a restaurant, the day after the bathtub-and-whisky incident.
“I’m really busy at work, Marie. I have an important job. I have a career, Marie. I swear to God, I don’t have time to look for a new nanny right now.”
“I’ve inconvenienced you,” Marie said, wondering what the fuck Ellen was talking about. Ellen was worried about her job. Marie was going to wreck her marriage. Marie might have held off, had she been allowed to keep her job.
By any rational measure, this is not a pleasant person. Marie is vengeful, and she’s unsophisticated—her main complaint about France is that they speak so much French over there—but she has a talent for survival, and I found that I adored her. More than that, I found her refreshing.
Authors are too timid, it seems to me sometimes, in the face of the demand for conventionally sympathetic characters. “I didn’t like any of the characters” is a common Amazon reviewer’s refrain—or, I don’t know, maybe that’s just what they say about the books that I write. They say it like it’s a bad thing.
I’m not entirely unsympathetic. I read John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich recently, and was so thoroughly disgusted by Rabbit’s son Nelson that I had to keep cheating on the book in order to get through it. This speaks volumes, I think, about Updike’s brilliance in character development. It’s rare to encounter a character so maddeningly real.
Nelson is a whiner, and nothing’s ever his fault. I found it impossible to spend extended periods of time in Nelson’s company, so every few dozen pages I’d put the book down and take a break with another novel, read something else til I was ready to come back again. It wasn’t until Nelson’s wife echoed my thoughts in the text—“You’re spoiled and you’re a bully”—that it became possible to read on without reservations.
On the other hand, deeply flawed characters are interesting. I will never forget Nelson Angstrom, which is more than I can say for most characters I encounter in fiction. One of the most memorable books from my early teens was Ruth Rendell’s Live Flesh. I read through a great many of my mother’s mass market paperbacks, and this one stands out in memory. I don’t have a copy now, and I don’t remember if it was good or not. What I do remember is that the book’s narrated by an ex-con who, in the years before he went to jail, raped several women and crippled a police officer. Making your first-person narrator a serial rapist is a shockingly bold choice, and it’s one of the few books from that period that I remember clearly.
In her new novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me, Edan Lepucki (a Millions staff writer) takes on a more conventionally distasteful narrator. You’ve met girls like Joellyn, or at least, I’ve met girls like Joellyn. She’s pretty, superior, and a little heartless, an entitled young woman who hasn’t, one senses, had to face the consequences of her actions very frequently: when she can’t pay her phone bill, she just sends it to her mother. She’s playing at adulthood. Her mother will catch her if she falls.
“But what’s pathetic about us also makes us human,” Lepucki writes, and that rings as true as anything I’ve read. Perhaps it isn’t that Joellyn is heartless, exactly. Perhaps the problem is one of misplaced energy, the wrong heart for her profession, a freelance graphic designer with a warrior’s soul:
When I was a kid, I wasn’t sure what kind of woman I would become, but I had a hunch. I dreamt of Valkyries, warriors. I stole the belt from my father’s bathrobe and used it to tie saucepans to my chest so that no sword could pierce my heart. I used the saucepan lid as a shield. I imagined that my fingernails were weapons, and my teeth too. On long car rides, I saw myself running along the freeway shoulder, or in the brush, barefoot but in full armor. I assumed the woman I’d become would be vicious and beautiful, the roar of some exotic animal made physical. It’s not so strange, to have high expectations.
This is a girl who requires an arena for combat. It seems to me she’d have been a natural at roller derby, but she turns instead to the dating world. When she meets Zachary in a coffee shop—“bland, invisible in the way certain men in their thirties are”—she pursues him more or less for sport. The consequences, depending on how you look at the matter, are either lucky or disastrous. It’s a sharp, accomplished work.
In a recent book club discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on Salon.com, Laura Miller raised the likability issue. Readers have called Franzen’s characters unlikable, and “I confess,” she wrote,
I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naïve and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.
I can’t get behind this statement in its entirety, because the implication is that the practice of dividing people into “nice” or “mean”, or “kind” or “unkind”, or “friendly” or “unfriendly”, or whichever set of labels you wish to use, belongs exclusively to the world of grammar school. We’re all flawed, of course, all of us both nice and mean, but I’m only really interested in spending time with people who manage to remain consistently kind. There was a time in my life when I was impressed by sheer genius, sheer talent, and would seek out people based on this alone, but that was a while ago. At this point I find myself uninterested in spending extended periods of time with interesting people if they aren’t also somewhat nice, if they don’t also comport themselves with some measure of honor.
But as for the rest of it, I hate such remarks too. The point is that these characters aren’t real, even the ones wrought by a master like Updike. What is naïve and blinkered is the insistence that fictional characters be held to the same moral and behavioral standards we expect of our friends. It seems to me that part of the point of literature is to enlighten and expand, and there are few pleasures in fiction that expand our consciousness further than getting to observe the world from the perspective of characters so different from us, so thoroughly flawed, that if we were to encounter them in real life we wouldn’t like them very much.
In Germany these days, freedom is everywhere. Or rather, Freiheit: the egg-bedecked cover of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel dominated the front table of nearly every bookstore I visited on a recent, weeklong tour. Somewhere nearby, invariably, loomed stacks of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tiere Essen (Eating Animals), Paul Auster’s Unsichtbar (Invisible), and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love (Eat Pray Love). I’ll admit that I found it comforting, in what was otherwise terra incognita, to encounter names without umlauts. Still, on the eve of the umpteenth annual Frankfurt Book Fair, it seemed to me striking evidence of a literary trade imbalance between the U.S. and Germany that so many of our books should be front-and-center in their buchhandlungs while so few of theirs are available in English at all.
This situation is not unique to Germany, of course. The figure “three percent” has become notorious shorthand for the proportion of foreign-language books appearing in English each year. Nonetheless, in the wake of the Bolaño craze, there appears to have been an uptick in the rate of translation from the Spanish. And a steady current of French literature, from Duras to Houellebecq, has always lapped our shores.
One would think, in light of Germany’s 500-year history as the publishing capital of the world, that the literary luminaries of its language, too, would have a following on this side of the Atlantic, as they did in the epoch of Mann and Broch, Hesse and Musil, Canetti and Döblin. And certainly, Anglo-German literary relations recovered quickly enough from World War II. Such eminences grises as Günter Grass, Christa Wolf, and Martin Walser have long been available Stateside, as have the postwar heavyweights Heinrich Böll, Uwe Johnson, and Arno Schmidt (though only part of Johnson’s magnum opus, Anniversaries, has been translated, and Schmidt’s, Zettels Traum, is said to be untranslatable). A handful of writers who appeared later, notably Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and W.G. Sebald, are widely read in the U.S. But as the most esteemed German-language writers born after the war – the Thuringian Franzens and Foers, the Austrian Smileys and Gaitskills – remain largely untranslated or unknown, I made it an informal project, as I traveled from Munich to Hamburg to Berlin, to ask every critic and editor and bookseller and journalist I encountered to tell me whom I should be reading.
Two of the names mentioned most frequently were Wolf Haas and Marcel Beyer. Haas, born in Austria in 1960, is the author of nine books. Nearly everyone I talked to said they couldn’t imagine translating his voice-driven prose, but it turns out that Ariadne Press last year brought out an English edition of his 2006 novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago. Scott Esposito reviewed the book favorably at Conversational Reading: “[It] is indeed a delight for people who enjoy play with metanarrative and conceptual games, but it also has quite a bit of what, for lack of a better name, I might call good old fashioned realism.” Beyer, born in 1965, has been even more prolific than Haas. One critic told me that his early work is the best, and happily for American readers, his first novel, The Karnau Tapes, as well as Spies (2000), are available in translation.
The recent Nobel Prize winners Elfride Jelinek (b. 1946) and Herta Müller (b. 1953) also came up often. Thanks to the concerted efforts of small American presses, even before the Nobel announcements, both have multiple books available in English. Hari Kunzru’s “Year in Reading” entry on Jelinek’s Wonderful Wonderful Times last year seems to comport with the findings of my informal poll: “I don’t want to live in her world, but suspect that in fact I do,” Kunzru says. “This is what makes her a great writer.” The Romanian-born Müller was spoken of even more highly – one Berliner waxed positively rapturous about her exploration of the brutal history of Central Europe in the era of World War II and the Iron Curtain.
Another Berliner, a journalist, suggested I take a look at a novel that concerns more recent history: September, by Thomas Lehr (b. 1957), a finalist for the German Book Prize. It has not yet appeared in translation, but an excerpt is currently available at signandsight. Funeral for a Dog, by Thomas Pletzinger (b. 1975) winner of the Uwe Johnson Prize, also deals with the September 11 attacks, albeit more obliquely; a book scout I talked to seemed very excited about the novel, which is scheduled to appear next year in a translation by the excellent Ross Benjamin. Other younger writers I was encouraged to read were Andreas Neumeister (b. 1959) and Michael Lentz (b. 1964), neither of whose books have yet been translated into English.
One of the most exciting developments in the Germany literary scene, according to a Bavarian sales representative, has been the appearance of narratives from the country’s large immigrant population. Like Aleksandar Hemon in English, these non-native speakers have reinvigorated their adopted language by hearing it with new ears. The sales rep singled out the Russian expat Alina Bronsky (b. 1978) for particular praise…and lo and behold, Europa Editions brought out Broken Glass Park just this year. The German Book Prize-nominated How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, published by Grove Atlantic, fashions a similarly effervescent prose idiom to reimagine the coming-of-age of author Sasa Stanisic (b. 1978) during the Bosnian War.
Finally, it may be worth mentioning a few writers who appeared in our “Prizewinners: International Edition” project a couple of years ago. Norbert Gstrein (b. 1961) has a new novel out this fall, though none of his work has appeared in English since 1995’s Döblin Prize-winning The English Years (natch). Katja Lange-Müller (b. 1951), another Döblin Prize winner, has been featured at the PEN World Voices Festival, but her work remains available in translation only in anthologies such as Oxford U.P.’s Berlin Tales.
One of the most frequently translated contemporary German writers is Ingo Schulze (b. 1962). A recent essay by the critic Marcel Inhoff complained about Schulze’s style, comparing him to his antecedents, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Leo Perutz. Unlike me, Inhoff reads German, but his argument seems to elide a key point: since his debut, 33 Moments of Happiness: St. Petersburg Stories, Schulze has looked as much to the East as to the West. What may look like casual journalese to Inhoff strikes me as a Germanic spin on the venerable Russian tradition of skaz – especially in the recently translated One More Story. In its narrative surprises, this book struck me as the equal of either of this year’s Bolaño collections. Even more affecting is Schulze’s expansive reunification novel, New Lives, whose hapless antihero, Enrico “Heinrich” Türmer, has stayed with me since I read it.
Whatever the merits of Inhoff’s critique, it directs us to a few more contemporary writers of distinction: Hartmut Lange, Patrick Roth, Thomas Stangl, Reinhard Jurgl, and Clemens J. Stetz. Like the one above, this is a partial list (though doubtless more authoritative). But even my own fragmentary catalogue of German-language novelists seems superior to the offerings currently available in American bookstores, notwithstanding the efforts of Europa and Ariadne and other fine publishers (and The Literary Saloon, The Quarterly Conversation, and Three Percent). Here’s hoping that such lists at least call attention to the imbalance, and light a fire under those who might remedy it.
Flavorwire’s list of the Top Ten Bookstores in the US was not supposed to piss me off, but that’s exactly what it did. It was supposed to be the sort of article you read and then forget about until someone else runs it again next year. Instead, being the disagreeable sort, I found myself dwelling on the thing and, well, getting pissed off.
The list angered me for several reasons. For one thing, it began with the obligatory opening gambit, “Bookstores are dying.” This is the default commentary-of-the-moment regarding bookstores (independent or otherwise). It follows from the idea that bookstores, like record stores, will be a thing of the past before you have time to finish Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Of course, this line of reasoning assumes that books are just like CDs and that record stores are, indeed, gone. Though neither of these statements is true, I will concede that bookstores are somewhat imperiled at the moment.
Okay, maybe there are fewer bookstores in existence now than there were ten or twenty years ago, but to say that bookstores are dying is an oversimplification. It’s not so much that they’re all dying, but that a certain kind of bookstore is on its way out. The closure of the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, a superstore, for instance, represents the shifting tide in the book retail world. That store opened in 1995, and as we all know by now, a lot has changed in the media business since then. The days of requiring a 60,000 square foot storefront to sell books are coming to an end, if they aren’t already over. Make no mistake, the B&N closure was an epoch-defining one, even if it was a rent hike that made it happen.
The superstore made a lot of sense in the pre-internet era. In order to offer the largest possible selection, you needed a lot of space. Initially, independent stores like Powell’s in Portland, Oregon and The Tattered Cover in Denver opened huge storefronts carrying tens of thousands of titles. The chain stores – especially Barnes & Noble – mimicked the open space, the big comfy chairs, and the air of bookish intellect of these stores. They took the concept of the superstore national, and in the process, they leveraged their size, scale, and efficiency to secure favorable deals from distributors. In short, they were able to sell books for less, which enabled them to sell more books.
But Amazon and the rest of the ecommerce stores made the issue of selection and scale largely moot. How do you compete with a store that claims to offer every book in print? Still, having a physical location with a lot of books was valuable; if someone wanted the book that day, these stores were there for them, and they offered a large enough selection to satisfy all but the most esoteric needs. But what would happen to these stores if the need for the physical book were suddenly removed? With the rising popularity of ebooks – set to consume anywhere from 15% to 50% of the book market in the next five years, depending on who you believe – we are about to find out the answer to that question.
Barnes & Noble and Borders both know first-hand what it’s like to be suddenly left with a product that no one needs. In the 1990s and early 2000s, both dedicated significant floor space to CDs and DVDs. The book industry even had a term for this – “sidelines,” a term they later revised to the much catchier “non-book products.” But digitization and the internet came quickly for CDs, gutting that business in just a few years. As broadband speeds increase, streaming video will eventually kill off the DVD, as well. In response, the big stores turned to products that couldn’t be so easily digitized. Almost every big store now has a cafe, creating a “third place” where people could congregate and discuss the books and periodicals they’ve purchased. Many stores have converted an area into a permanent events section, giving them a seating capacity that rivals some small theaters and attracting big name authors for readings and parties. A few weeks ago, Borders announced it will be selling custom-made teddy bears in its stores. But despite their best efforts, the large stores face a daunting and dismal future.
Hence the elegiac mood of the Flavorwire piece, and its imploring “buy some books, you lousy ingrates” call to action. Another pet peeve of mine is when people consider their local independent bookstore a charity. Unless your store is a non-profit, it should succeed or fail based on how well it does as a business, not because of noblesse oblige on the part of your municipality. Allowing people to treat your for-profit business like a charity can have some unwanted side-effects. I’ve worked for stores that would occasionally charge admission to a reading. Typically, the price was purchasing a copy of the book, which seemed perfectly reasonable to me – you’re there to see the author, you buy the book, the store makes some money, the author makes some money, everybody wins! But all too often, people would look at me as if I’d just told them air was no longer free. “You shouldn’t be charging for these events,” they’d say. “They’re good for the community.” In other words, they were looking for an evening of free entertainment. Well, this isn’t the library, ma’am. We have to pay the bills somehow.
But despite all of this, there are some reasons to be excited about bookstores. The Flavorwire article came to my attention because of the efforts of two New York City independent bookstores – Housing Works and McNally-Jackson – who had posted the article to their Tumblr blogs. Housing Works pointed out that most of the best indie bookstores in New York had opened in the last ten years, not closed. They were talking about Greenlight Bookstore, WORD, McNally-Jackson, Idlewild, Powerhouse, and Desert Island. In Los Angeles, where we’ve had some substantial bookstore attrition in recent years, several new stores have opened, including Metropolis, Family, Stories, The Secret Headquarters, and the Brentwood Diesel store. On top of that, Vroman’s Bookstore, my former employer, was doing enough business to buy fellow LA indie outpost Book Soup (also a former employer) and Skylight Bookstore expanded, annexing a neighboring storefront.
These stores are succeeding not because they are the biggest stores, but because they are the right stores for their areas. We’re seeing a resurgence of the neighborhood bookstore, something many had considered dead in the heyday of the super stores. Technology has actually leveled the playing field between big stores and small stores; anyone with enough capital and the space for a large copy machine can have a Book Espresso Machine, giving them access to hundreds of thousands of titles, as well as custom-printed books. And web applications like Foursquare and Facebook Locations don’t discriminate between businesses based on size; anybody with a good hook can lure people to their store and capitalize.
Which brings me to the second thing I hated about the Flavorwire piece: What does it mean to say “These are the best bookstores,” after all? Any list that includes Powell’s, The Strand (a store that sells mostly remainders and used books), and Secret Headquarters is comparing apples to BMWs to gym memberships. Making a list like this is akin to asking, “What’s the best place to buy food in Los Angeles?” and then listing Whole Foods, The Cheese Store of Silver Lake, and Animal as your answer. Sure they all sell prosciutto, but that’s more or less where the similarities end.
Please don’t think the stores on Flavorwire’s list aren’t great – they are – but the stores they chose reveal the futility of the whole process. What makes a “great bookstore” and what do the stores on the list have in common with one another, other than that they all sell books? The truth is, I can teach you to write a “Best Bookstore” list right now. Nearly every “Best Bookstore” list pulls five or six stores from the following list of venerable indies: Powell’s, Tattered Cover, Vroman’s, Book People (in Austin, TX), Elliott Bay (Seattle, WA), and Books and Books (South Florida, the Cayman Islands & now Long Island). Those are the remaining indie super stores, and they rightly deserve praise, but there are so many tremendous smaller stores that are equally deserving of recognition. There are too many, in fact, to make a list (Believe me, I tried). And what makes so many of these stores incredible, what many of the chain stores could never mimic, is the staff. A better list might be one that names the top 10 booksellers in America (I could take a crack at that: Stephanie Anderson from WORD, Emily Pullen from Skylight, Michele Filgate from Riverrun, Rachel Fershleiser from Housing Works…Well, I could go on).
In the end, it’s irrelevant, as the only bookstore that anybody cares about is the one near them, the one whose staff knows their tastes, the one that hosts your favorite author when he or she comes to town. For some of you, that’s no doubt a chain store. I grew up outside Syracuse, NY, and I will absolutely shed a tear the day the Borders in the Carousel Center Mall closes, as it was place I remember visiting when I was in high school and just discovering the pleasure of reading. The rest of the stores, though – the big, nationally known bookstores – exist for you, unless you live around the corner from one of them, more as monuments than as businesses. They’re kind of like those iconic bars and restaurants that people make a point of stopping at every time they’re in New York or LA – they’re the McSorley’s or the Musso & Frank’s or the Rendezvous of bookstores. If they went away, you’d read about it in the paper. It would be an “important moment,” but its impact on your life would be minimal unless they are your store. It’s the proverbial store around the corner that you care about, and if that store continues to serve you well, I think it will survive. If it doesn’t, well, hopefully someone will put it on some sort of “best of” list before it goes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to celebrate the fact that my local bookstore is still kicking. Maybe you should do the same.
(Image: Abbey Bookstore image from poisonbabyfood’s photostream)
Interview with Tom McCarthy, author and General Secretary, INS
Conducted by: Anne K. Yoder
Present: Anne K. Yoder, Tom McCarthy
When I first received news that INS General Secretary Tom McCarthy would visit the City of New York during a promotional book tour this September, I inquired via the Secretary’s secretary whether he would be available for interviews. The response was delayed, and inconclusive. The return email landed in my spam box where it sat unnoticed for days. The message indicated only that McCarthy would appear alongside Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley in Brooklyn and respond to a panel of New York intellectuals’ inquiries about the recent activities of the International Necronautical Society, specifically the recent publication of the General Secretary’s third novel, C.
Two days before McCarthy’s arrival I received a text message indicating my request had been accepted. I was told to go to the coordinates 40° 77′ N , 73° 98′ W, which I deduced to be the southwest corner of Central Park. I would be met at 23:00 GMT on the day following the hearing. The sole stipulations were to not use any electronic recording devices and to wear une jarretière, please. The first request seemed finicky, the second slightly inappropriate. I thought perhaps this was a prank, and wondered whether my email had been intercepted, if someone on the other end had mistaken my number for a high-end call girl. There was no mention of names, although when I called the sender’s number I heard a raspy recording announcing I had reached the voicemail of the offices of the INS.
The weather was stormy that Thursday evening. An unlikely tornado ripped through Brooklyn immediately before my departure, forcing me to dodge cascades of fallen tree limbs in my heels. This arboreal carnage seemed fitting, however, prior to a meeting with a man who teaches a class on Catastrophe, and who founded the International Necronautical Society, whose mission is to “map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit” the space of death. The sky began to clear by the time I entered the park. Shortly after I sat down on a bench, a man wearing tinted glasses and suit with a piece in his ear tapped me on the shoulder. “Follow me” he requested. He led me to a building and we ascended the express elevator 70-odd floors to a tower suite. “Make yourself comfortable,” he directed, then poured me a glass of champagne and closed the door as he exited.
McCarthy entered the room from the shadows of a dark hall, wearing a black shirt and pinstriped jacket, which he removed and laid across the settee. He greeted me, poured a drink for himself. Our conversation commenced. McCarthy permitted my request to jot down thoughts and fragments of our exchanges by typing while we spoke. What follows is a live blog of our exchange, but with a delayed transmission, at the bequest of the authorities at the INS.
McCarthy and I sit before a window with a southeastern view. Central Park looks the size of a soccer field, and the buildings below form a Legoland of urban sprawl. I ask McCarthy if he witnessed the afternoon storm approaching from above, as he has written that he often storm watches from his residence on the 12th floor of a central London flat. The height in conjunction with technology allows him to forecast the weather’s effects on events below:
When storm clouds groan and rumble people scour the sky for aeroplanes flying too low. I track them from my windows, waiting for the day when one of them will hurtle like a meteor into the Telecom Tower, painting the sky a new blood-orange.
McCarthy says no, that he was harried doing publicity in the world below. I say the advanced warning would be useful, and mention that in addition to storms sounding like low-flying airplanes, the sound of a tornado is often likened to the rumble of a passing train.
This height from above makes me think of Serge Carrefax, aerial observer in the First World War and protagonist of McCarthy’s novel C. I think of Serge’s aerial perspective on his missions, how he fires his gun in rhythms and cadences, six short bursts followed by eight longer ones to which he repeats the phrase “of the purpose that your thought / Might also to the seas be known…”
The fallen landscape prints itself on Serge’s mind by dint of his repeated passage over it: its flattened progression of greens, browns and yellows, patches of light and shade; the layout of the town and of the marsh beyond it… He likes to move these things around from his nacelle, take them apart and reassemble them like pieces of a jigsaw.
I inquire about the INS’s aerial reconnaissance missions in Berlin, where “target sites were identified according to the INS’s central concerns: marking and erasure, transit and transmission, cryptography and death.” I ask if a similar mission will be carried out in New York. McCarthy replies that no such project has been planned, the no-fly zone would make this task prohibitively difficult. I suggest attempting aerial photography from the roofs of buildings, such as the one we’re in.
From aerial photography, we segue to maps. McCarthy directs me to a conversation recorded in Bookforum in which he discussed cartography and mapping physical boundaries, transforming the material into the abstract. I am intrigued. McCarthy summarizes: “What most resists dominant mappings is not alternative mapping but rather the territory itself, its sheer materiality.” McCarthy refers me also to the writings of French poet Francis Ponge, whose writings struggle with depicting the material with language.
A low electric hum begins and grows louder. The vibration permeates the walls, the windows, our bodies. We see a helicopter pass by not far in the distance and watch as it descends to a helipad below. McCarthy quotes F. T. Marinetti, father of Futurism:
Nothing is more beautiful than a great humming central electric station that holds the hydraulic pressure of a mountain chain and the electric power of a vast horizon, synthesised in marble distribution panels bristling with dials, keyboards and shining communicators.
I bring up a lecture McCarthy gave last year at the Tate entitled, “These panels are the only models for our composition of poetry, or, How Marinetti taught me how to write.” In the lecture, McCarthy refers to an electric form of writing presaged by Marinetti, though only realized fifty years later in the books of Ballard, Pynchon, and Robbe-Grillet. McCarthy said:
Electricity, the medium of circuits, grids, and loops. It’s a conception of writing, a brilliant one, that’s only possible when it goes hand in hand with a conviction that the self too is relayed, switched, stored, and converted, distributed along the circuitry and grids of networks that both generate it and exceed it.
I say that this reminds me of the ever-elusive V., the transforming, chameleon-like coquette of Pynchon’s novel of the same name, sought after by one Herbert Stencil. It’s no coincidence, then, that McCarthy’s novel is named C?
C stands for any and all of the following: carbon, cysteine, cyanide, cocaine, chute, call, caul (present on Serge’s head at birth), crash, Cairo, Carrefax, and Carter and Carnarvon–discoverers of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb.
C depicts an awe and awfulness that mirrors our own technological age. The book issues a noetic hum, akin to that of electric transmissions, the roar of airplane engines, the crackle of gunfire.
I tell McCarthy of riding a crowded train nights before, where I noticed the people pushing arms and knees into me were plugged into technological devices.
I ask about Serge’s drug-addled car crash, if that was meant to allude to Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto“:
O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black beast of my Sudanese nurse… When I came up—torn, filthy, and stinking—from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!
McCarthy merely nods, as if this allusion is so obvious it need not be stated.
C’s idyllic beginning cedes to chemicals, gunfire, speed.
My cell phone vibrates three times. Again, a message from the INS number: “Inauthenticity is the core to the self … the self has no core, but is an experience of division, of splitting.”
I ask McCarthy what this means. He denies any knowledge–misdialed maybe?
Crash is awash with semen: dried on leather car-seats, glistening on instrument panels. Vaughan’s semen, for Ballard, seems to bathe the entire landscape, “powering those thousands of engines, electric circuits and private destinies, irrigating the smallest gesture of our lives”…
He mentions the passage where Serge is working as an aerial observer and first snorts cocaine, the exhilaration he experiences, the hours that pass seemingly in minutes, and how he can barely contain himself after landing as he ejaculates over the plane’s tale. The erotic and destructive forces intermingle. There are the ravaging effects of gravity, force, and speed on the youthful bodies, “Their faces turn to leather–thick, nickwax-smeared leather each of whose pores stands out like a pothole in a rock surface–and grow deep furrows. Eyelids twitch; lips tremble and convulse in nervous spasms.” They stumble from landed planes with “sucked-in cheeks and swollen tongues.”
McCarthy says it may be more appropriate, and comfortable, to discuss such things while sitting on the bed. He refills our glasses and we kick off our shoes. My leg twitches inadvertently, like a cat’s.
He brings up Bataille, the connection between eros and death, and quotes, “Man achieves his inner experience at the instant when bursting out of the chrysalis he feels that he is tearing himself, not tearing something outside that resists him.”
I mention Rilke, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure.”
Another series of vibrations. I look at my phone: “We exist because we are awash in a sea of transmission, with language and technology washing through us.” I begin to wonder if this is part of an elaborate set-up.
I mention how the connection parallels something else McCarthy said during his Tate lecture: “Literature begins where identity and knowledge are ruptured, multiplied and transmitted along chains of language,” and transformed into something else. Isn’t that like sex with Tania, Serge’s masseuse?– “the tearing sound as though fabric were being ripped,” the hazy veil removed from his vision. What of Serge’s preoccupation with animal sounds, and getting it on from behind?”
McCarthy looks at me with rabid eyes and speaks of Bataille, the death of self in copulation, how a sensible woman in the throes of passion would appear to an unknowing bystander like a mad dog, like a bitch in heat. Of course there is Freud’s famous case of Sergei Pankajev, the Wolf Man, who witnessed his parents having sex doggy-style. Serge is an animal as all humans are, and his transgressions erotic.
McCarthy asks if I’ve read Story of The Eye.
I say I tried once with a boyfriend to reenact the scene of Simone breaking eggs. I unfortunately contracted salmonella vaginally. McCarthy runs his hand up my leg, admiring my stockings.
But C neither addresses larger questions about love and innocence and evil, nor unfolds into a searching examination of the consequences of art. Worse, C fails to engage the reader on the most basic level as a narrative or text.
McCarthy smiles. He speaks of society’s expectations that literature act as a mirror to liberal culture, where the self is never in question. He has “no qualms about deploying a type of realism as one of the frames in C” because “Everything is a code.”
He speaks against sentimentality of characters, fleshed out rather than, what Serge has been called–flat.
I ask, Franzen? What are his thoughts then on Freedom?
McCarthy graciously declines to comment. I tell him I heard a rumor he called Atonement kitsch at the INS hearing last night. He says, “Oh that Lorentzen!” Accuses him of putting words in his mouth.
Well, then, one last question: what of your popularity? McCarthy purged multiple members of the INS for caving to demands of mainstream publishing, i.e., becoming “complicit with a publishing industry whereby the ‘writer’ becomes merely the executor of a brief dictated by corporate market research, reasserting the certainties of middle-brow aesthetics (‘issues’ of ‘contemporary culture’, ‘post-colonial identity’ etc.) under the guise of genuine creative speculation.” Should McCarthy considering expelling himself, now that he’s been nominated for the Booker Prize?
Those members were expelled because “they had written what they had been told to write,” he explains, suggesting that he himself has transgressed. He holds little faith in the juries of the large prizes. Though the money–no one will argue–is rather nice.
He seems slightly agitated with this mention, gets up off the bed and puts on his jacket. I take this as my cue to put away my laptop and put on my shoes.
I leave the suite, gazing out at the vast topography of the city. While waiting for the elevator, my phone hums again, delivering what I interpret as a parting message: “We are all necronauts, always, already.”
Addendum: I submitted the above transcript for INS for approval, as requested, the day after the interview. Some quotes of texts and interviews have have been inserted and modified. I quickly received an email response from the Secretary’s secretary, stating that McCarthy had not conducted interviews of this type on the day of the tornado, and at 23:00 GMT, he had given a public reading at a bookstore in SoHo. The request to authenticate the document was denied, and the interview filed as apocrypha.