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A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

It wasn’t planned, but 2017 turned out to be a year when my reading hopscotched happily between genres, styles, and voices. Here are half a dozen highlights, arranged by where you might find them shelved in your favorite bookshop.

Memoir
Joan Didion’s South and West is a string of stray thoughts and notebook jottings that reminded me why I find her such a mesmerizing and maddening writer. These 126 pages were compiled in the 1970s, when Didion was trying to conjure magazine articles about the deep South and the Patty Hearst murder trial. The articles never materialized, but this book reaffirms Didion’s mesmerizing prescience as a reporter, as well as her maddening tendency toward preciousness. The prescience comes from Didion’s observation that by 1970 the deep South had become everything California was not: “the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” The remark now reads like a prophecy in a country that has elected Donald Trump president and has allowed itself to be reduced to a big fat gooey red center sandwiched between two wafer-thin blue coasts. The preciousness comes from Didion’s familiar, brittle persona, which makes it nearly impossible for her to get out of her rental car and pump gas on a “nightmare” stretch of Louisiana back road. The book’s most valid insight might be this: “In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.” Maybe the very best thing about this uneven book is that its section on the West morphed into one of Didion’s finest meditations on her native California, the 2003 memoir Where I Was From.

Fiction
Nominated for the National Book Award, Carol Zoref’s powerful first novel, Barren Island, tells the story of immigrant children who grew up on the titular island, a remote industrial hell in New York City’s Jamaica Bay, where the city’s garbage and its dead animals were sent from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Since I have been gathering string for more than a dozen years in the hope of writing my own novel set amid the horrors of Barren Island, the news that another writer got there first filled me with minglings of disappointment and dread. But Zoref’s book turned out to be both very fine and very different from the book I’ve been dreaming. Reading Barren Island reminded me that no writer owns a subject, and that no two writers could possibly write about a given subject in the same way. By the time I reached the final page, my dread had turned to relief, then resolve. There’s nothing stopping me from writing a book that now has a pedigreed predecessor, even if my book is still little more than a dream, a pile of notes, a central character, and a working title: The Angel of Barren Island. Thank you, Carol Zoref.

History
Deanne Stillman has spent the past three decades building an impressive body of work about the depredations visited on the land, the animals, and the people of the American West in the name of “progress.” She came out this year with a delightful hybrid, a sort of double-biography and cultural history called Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. When the great Lakota warrior Sitting Bull returned from exile in Canada and briefly joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, the promotional posters trumpeted the unlikely alliance of two men who were “Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85.” They were not merely friends, in Stillman’s telling, but “a powerhouse of mythology.” Drawing on the vast literature about the two men and her own prodigious research, Stillman has delivered a book that cements her reputation as one of the most astute and passionate chroniclers of that vast, blood-soaked canvas known as the American West.

Macroeconomics
It’s not every day that you crack open a deeply researched, thickly annotated, 762-page work of macroeconomics and discover you’re in the grip of a page-turner. But that’s what happened as I breezed through Robert J. Gordon’s magisterial The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. The book makes a compelling case that the years from roughly the end of the Civil War to 1970 were a time of profound change in Americans’ day-to-day lives that’s unmatched in human history. Moreover, the great inventions that propelled those changes were one-offs, which means the “special century,” as Gordon calls it, will never be repeated. This book, like Barren Island, struck a personal nerve with me: my paternal grandfather lived from 1863 to 1955, roughly the span covered by Gordon, and I had spent years trying to imagine what it was like to be born to a slave-owner during the Civil War and to die at the frosty peak of the Cold War. Thanks to Gordon, I now know enough to begin to imagine.

Crime
The Hard Case Crime series continues to surprise and delight. This year it introduced me to Max Allan Collins, a prolific crime writer who has just added the novel Quarry’s Climax to his long-running series about the professional assassin Jack Quarry, who gets the party started with this ice-breaker: “I’d been doing murder for hire for five years now—well, seven and change, if you include the two tours of Vietnam.” Quarry’s new mission has him headed to Memphis, where he’s been hired to kill the guy who’s been hired to kill Max Climer, a lovable Larry Flynt clone who runs a strip club, publishes a skin mag called Climax, and is launching a lucrative X-rated video line. Collins is a polished writer who keeps the story moving as the bodies pile up and the double-crosses go triple and quadruple. What a glorious moral cesspool!—where the cleanest guy in town is the one who gets paid to kill people, and always earns his paycheck.

Budding Genius?
As the year ends, I’m hip-deep in a belated first foray into the work of the decorated David Mitchell: his debut novel, 1999’s Ghostwritten, published when he was 31. So far the novel has transported me to Okinawa, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, with Mongolia, Petersburg, London, and other destinations up ahead. The writing is bracing, bewildering, and it makes me hungry to know where it will take me next and what kind of books come after it. To find out, I intend to spend the coming year reading all of Mitchell’s fiction in chronological order, something I’ve done with only one other writer, the prolific British fantasist China Miéville. If that immersion is any measure, 2018 is going to be another rich year in reading.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The Book Report: Episode 38: When Your Favorite Author Lets You Down

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike talk about how it feels when your favorite authors let you down.

Discussed in this episode: Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, Number9Dream, and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, denial, grief, bargaining, the Rabbit Angstrom books, Roger’s Version and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike, Radio On: A Listener’s Diary by Sarah Vowell, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer.

Not discussed in this episode: Alice Munro’s disappointing short story collection, The Cottage by, I Don’t Know, Let’s Say, the Pond or Something.

Sins in Thy Orisons: On David Mitchell’s ‘Slade House’

Well-heeled critics take a kind of offense when writers of David Mitchell’s caliber experiment with genre fiction. Nonetheless, the release of 2014’s The Bone Clocks, with its body-jumping Horologists and systematic references to most of his previous novels, proved that Mitchell has embarked on more than an experiment; he is on a Yeatsian search for unity. Late in his life, W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet, published A Vision, a collection of cultish metaphysical writings that cast the whole of history as a cycle between order and chaos, the barbaric and the civilized. His poetry of the period also represented the world this way: his famous piece “The Second Coming” culminates with the image of a “rough beast…slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born,” a kind of un-Christ who represents the beginning of a barbaric period in history, the inversion of the Christian era.

The purpose of all Yeats’s late writing, as the scholar Richard Ellmann pointed out in Yeats: The Man and the Masks, was to offer a “unified personality,” to give his readers a sense of cohesion that everyday life lacks by using a consistent set of symbols to discuss, praise, mourn, and process a disjointed reality. For Yeats, symbols like beasts, roses, and winding staircases were touchstones: no matter where his writing wandered, these landmarks offered a sense of direction — they brought him back to A Vision’s unified historical scheme. The poems he made with those images are beautiful and timeless. But A Vision is another story. Supposedly sourced from automatic writings Yeats’s wife received from the spirit world, it reads like an acid trip in a Catholic church, or — appropriately enough — like a scene from David Mitchell’s Slade House: a horror novel set in a dark corner of the newly-minted meta-world that unites all of Mitchell’s books.

Mitchell told fans at 2014’s Edinburgh Book festival that his writing has become “an exercise in world building and cosmology.” With the lengthy and ambitions Bone Clocks, he revealed the extent of that exercise by referencing characters from all of his work, back to his 1999 debut Ghostwritten. Though it would be difficult to gage the extent to which his megaverse was planned, Mitchell has made it clear that a single plot overarches everything, down even to his most quotidian Black Swan Green. Lovers of Cloud Atlas are familiar with Mitchell’s tendency to write novels as a series of interlacing plots, where a young character in one segment might be an old man in another. But what Bone Clocks introduced was design on an altogether different scale: a set of death-defying interlopers engaged in a cosmic war across time, whose antics, it turns out, have been crashing through the scenery of each successive novel.

When he announced that a new, shorter book was set to debut only a year after The Bone Clocks, fans correctly anticipated that Slade House would deepen Mitchell’s investment in that larger scheme. Released just in time for Halloween, Slade House has quickly sparked comparisons to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw — a literature critic’s ghost story, a haunted-house yarn the glamor of which was underpinned by plot and language that could bear up under the stuffiest academic scrutiny.

Mitchell has been upfront about his exasperation with critics who pit realism against everything else, as if the sort of writing where souls can be eaten and bodies shed like cicada shells needed to earn special literary stripes in order to be taken seriously. He told the Edinburgh Book Festival he likes “to use genre as a tool, like style, structure or a character. Where does it say a book has to remain within a single genre?” and The Paris Review that “When something is two-dimensional and hackneyed, this is how to fix it: identify an improbable opposite and mix it, implausibly, into the brew.” Mitchell has proved himself a master of the improbable brew, but the question is whether the books that have resulted are freshening agents, or just a cheap attempt to spike the punch.

Slade House cooks up its mixture with euphoric technical complexity and flourish. Set at nine-year intervals from 1979 to 2015, it is composed of five interlocking narratives centered around a mysterious “small black iron door,” and the magnificent, trippy, horrifying mansion to which it leads. A succession of sympathetic loners are lured into Slade House by its malevolent occupants, treated to a disorienting phantasmagoria that mixes their deepest fantasies of popularity and inclusion with their worst fears, and finally tricked into bringing about their own demise.

We hear the story through their voices, and each is masterfully rendered, deeply human. The 13-year-old Nathan Bishop, whose autism makes him insensitive to the subtle difference between a quirky hostess and a murderous schemer, the oafish lonelyheart policeman whose subtle racism he would blame on hard experiences on the beat, and the self-conscious college student Sally Timms are each cohesive and distinct.

For every character, Slade House morphs into a tailor-made nightmare. I found Sally’s haunting at a raucous party the most alarming and immediate, perhaps because I grew up listening to some of the same music. But more likely the sting came from her voice’s mixture of devastating self-examination and quippy humor: “Slade Alley can’t be more than three feet across,” she observes on approach to the house, “A properly fat person — fatter than me, I mean — couldn’t get past someone coming the other way.” And when she snuffs a proposition from an attractive partygoer: “Off he goes, and screw you, Isolde Delahunty at Great Malvern Beacon School for Girls and your platoon of body-fascist Barbies…screw all of you, wherever you are this evening, because I…just turned down a bronzed Australian surfer demigod…”

Yet the culmination of each story contains an obligatory nod the meta-world of Bone Clocks, and it is there that Mitchell’s ambition starts to make a messy feast of his talent. Examining Slade House’s grandfather clock, whose face bears no hands but only the words “Time is, Time Was, Time is Not,” Sally Timms quips that the clock is “Highly metaphysical; deeply useless.” At worst, this epithet could be applied to Mitchell’s language just at the passages when Slade House reaches its highest emotional pitch. At key moments in each character’s adventures there are debilitating pauses for exposition, linking Slade House’s dark little nightmare world to the wider one we heard all too much about in Bone Clocks.

Words like “lacuna,” “orison,” and worst of all, “psychovoltage” diffuse the physical terror of Mitchell’s best scenes with obtuse, jargony pinpricks. That the term “lacuna” is lifted from medieval metaphysics and “orison” from Hamlet’s banter with Ophelia in Act III scene i makes them no more interesting: pedigree adds little when species are awkwardly crossed, and there is nothing of Hamlet’s earthy nightmare in the clinical use to which Mitchell puts his meta-world’s argot, explaining away the wonderful ghost stories he’s taken such care to weave in each successive chapter.

At best, “highly metaphysical; deeply useless” might still be said of the interlaced world Mitchell is making. Metaphysical and useless, yes, but nothing is as essential as the inessential, and a little willful suspension of distaste allows us to luxuriate in Mitchell’s superfluities. The Yeats-like unifying project he’s taken on is initially thrilling in its apparent scope. And though his machinations are luxurious, underneath the heavy-handed codswallop is the pungent flavor of raw voices, coming from characters we recognize from the street. As long as his books are populated by such real people, Mitchell will deserve his following, but he is in danger of a fatal shark-jumping accident.

In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, Mitchell allowed himself to suggest the unknown, and the scenes where Orito explores Enomoto’s caves are therefore riper with terror than any of Slade House’s “lacuna” scenes. Narrow paths curve into darkness, statues drip with blood, and Orito takes away only her fear and a growing list of questions about the people who built the tunnels. But Mitchell’s ambition to weave a meta-narrative has forced his newer books to reveal what is best left hinted. With their many external references, The Bone Clocks and Slade House are artsier novels than those that came before, but far less artful. In them Mitchell reads like a remodeler who stubbornly insists that the gaudy corridors he’s built between his mansions are the real architectural triumph.

Admirably, he has left nothing sacred in his conquest of genre-fiction territories, explicitly comparing his work to that of J.R.R. Tolkien, the master world-architect himself. Mitchell even included a character called Bombadil in Slade House’s final chapter, as if to assure us he knows what he’s doing, that no shrines to Tolkien will be left to gather dust during his incursion into hallowed ground. But to throw down that gauntlet is to invite comparison with a man who was a consummate novelist first, and mythology-spinner second. According to accounts from his friends, it took Tolkien 12 years to write and revise The Lord of the Rings, and obsessed with background as he was, most of that time was not spent tightening up a meta-scheme of cohesive self-references (otherwise why would there be so many Unfinished Tales, so many loose ends in The Silmarillion?), but making sure the characters and language were rich, authentic, and human. By contrast, Mitchell looks like a hobbit-sized challenger talking through a tall hat.

Above all, Tolkien knew what to leave unsaid. To name a specific example, the “Watcher in the Water” that guards the entrance to Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring is horrible precisely because we know neither what it is nor how it came to be there, apart from some scrawled suggestions in an abandoned journal. The entry reads: “The Watcher in the Water took Óin. We cannot get out.” More terror is crammed into those two lines then into the whole of Slade House, because Tolkien has left space for our imaginations to populate the darkness. But Mitchell is addicted to ripping back the veil. His evil Grayer twins become less frightening the more we know about them, and their soliloquizing at each chapter’s climax makes them something worse than poorly-written antagonists: they become well-written antagonists too well explained. Their nightmare mansion ultimately disappoints, like a haunted house with all the lights turned on.

With each successive, elaborately explained novel, there is a paradoxical sense that Mitchell’s world is shrinking, because the rigging he’s so intent on fastening between storylines is clogging up the gaps that should be occupied by the unknown. Nothing can swoop down on us without getting caught in the wires. Titles like Cloud Atlas hint that Mitchell is undertaking a quest to map the changeable world, to search for suggestions of coherence among what is cloudy, turbulent, and disordered. But just as the psychedelic gobbledygook of Yeats’s A Vision added nothing to the power of his poetry (it only gave theorists the opportunity to point to some prose passage that was supposedly the origin of a poem, as if that proved anything), Mitchell’s Horologist wonderland seems like an escape from the literary into the clever. Discovering one of his linked plots gives you a Sudoku-solver’s thrill, but this pleasure would be hard to call artistic. Billed as a suggestion about the interconnectedness between us all, such moments register instead as self-satisfied technical flourishes, easter eggs.

As Mitchell gains power and the volume of his work expands, we have to hope he exercises a proportionately large restraint. Tolkien’s world-creating mechanism began with people and with language: He and C.S. Lewis used to play Scrabble in Elvish, a cultural artifact which grew organically alongside Tolkien’s lands and characters, instead of being thrust upon them in literary retrospect in the manner of Mitchell’s Horology. In terms of creative impetus, this retrograde fiddling with Mitchell’s own world could prove to be, as Sally Timms puts it, “a fatal mistake, like Orpheus looking back…”

To demand that Mitchell walk the same road as even his greatest predecessors would be inane when his explicit desire is to innovate, but as he said himself, the watchword of the world-builder, even as he mixes improbable elements, must be a plausibility that outwrestles the improbable. Plausibility means a sense of rightness to experience, and Slade House, in spite of its pristine characterization, forgets that the experience of horror starts with the unknown. Instead of dark shadows, he gives us exposition, and as tempting as it must be to forget, Mitchell should have remembered that readers will always prefer to wander the maze’s edges than to sit down for a lecture at its center.

Where We Write

The ultimate in writing spaces seems to be the writing shed, a spare, distraction-free room set in some verdant landscape, where, in fertile solitude, the writer may create worlds out of nothing. Roald Dahl had one, so did Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps one day, we’ll each be writing in our own. Until then, as our Millions staffers share in their illustrated entries below, we’re making do (often happily!) with offices, studio apartments, coffee shops, and guest bedrooms. Share a photo of your own writing space using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter and we’ll repost some favorites on our Tumblr.

 

Michael Bourne: That’s right, I write in bed. I used to have a desk, one of those hideous pasteboard rolling-keyboard-drawer deals, but this being Brooklyn, when we adopted our son five years ago, my “home office” became his bedroom and I was relegated to the guest bed. But now I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The big stack of paper in the foreground is my recently finished novel, which I’m now reading one last time before sending out. The yellow legal pads are where I take notes for my reported pieces (yup, I do most of my phone interviews in bed, too). There’s also some old New Yorkers and a Toy Story comic book that I read to Luke before he goes to bed. (Also, I now see peeking out from the Thomas the Tank Engine blanket, a big black motorized toy car, whose provenance I cannot fully account for.) What the photo doesn’t show is the built-in bookshelves that cover the far wall and the prints of Impressionist paintings on the other walls. It also doesn’t show the cats – one ginger tom and a silver-and-black girl cat – who snuggle around me as I write. I thought about cleaning it up, but that would not only present me as a neat freak, which I am not, but more importantly it would convey the wrong impression. This isn’t a work space so much as a work nest. Like a lot of writers, I write a ton of bad stuff. Really bad stuff. Embarrassing bad. But here, behind closed doors, in my messy bed in my son’s bedroom, with the big wall of my favorite books smiling down at me and the cats curled up in purring puddles at my side, I can be my fraudulent self and no one will ever have to know.

 

Sonya Chung: I live in a studio apartment with one other human and two dogs. It’s pretty crowded. I work at a long table that is divided from the sleeping/TV area by bookshelves. I straightened up a little for this photo, but generally, I work, and think, in piles. Writing pile; teaching pile; life administration pile. On the far right end of the table is the miscellaneous crap/mail pile (and, of course, dog biscuits). I included my knitting-in-progress in the photo (a scarf) because it’s a strategy I’m trying out, i.e. I’m teaching myself to knit and hoping (as many people have told me) that it helps to de-stress and focus scattered thoughts. The kneeling chair recently replaced an exerball-as-deskchair (which gradually deflated) — back pain, anyone? The lamp is a Kmart special that was originally all-white, but we spray painted the shade hot pink, couldn’t tell ya why…

 

Garth Hallberg: This probably isn’t the messiest workspace you’ll see, though the handprints I’ve left in the laptop grime are pretty gross. Still, when I behold The Desk objectively like this, any pleasure I might take in the externalization of my own mind loses out to my chagrin at all the work remaining to be done. Atop the compact O.E.D. are six books I’m currently supposed to be writing about – one of them a three-novel omnibus, another a year past deadline. To the left of that, bits of my wife’s dissertation have drifted down on top of the desk references (Shakespeare, Hobsbawm, Trucker’s Atlas, Complete New Yorker). Multiple drafts from my own work in progress lie atop books unread (Juan Jose Saer) and un-reread (Joseph Mitchell), because there’s no open space on the desktop. To the front right looms…well, the less said about that, the better.

The picture of my son is for inspiration. The knife is to be used against hostile invaders. The envelope of inspirational quotations has yet to be unpacked, a year-plus after we moved. The coffee right now is what is keeping me going. If you look closely in the glass of Amos’ Ab/Ex masterpiece, on the wall, you can see me shadowed against the awful pink bathroom tile, camera to eye, heavily caffeinated, but, for a moment at least, no longer quite so hard at work.

 

Kevin Hartnett: Whenever I start focusing on the less desirable features of where I work I remind myself of this: It’s an upgrade.

I started as a freelancer three years ago. At the time, my wife I were living in Philadelphia in a one-bedroom apartment. We got on all right in our small space. Then we had a kid. And another kid. By the end of our time in Philadelphia I had to move two piles diapers and a changing pad just to find a place to put my laptop down.

Now we live in Ann Arbor. I work on the second floor of our house, at an antique secretary, in a room with sliding glass doors that lead out to a deck in our backyard. It’s not strictly speaking “my office,” but from 9am-2pm everyday, when my wife is at work and our kids are with their nanny, I have the space all to myself.

My idée fixe of office spaces is a clapboard shed that overlooks Buzzard’s Bay on the front lawn of a friend’s house on Cape Cod. My present situation is a far cry from that. The sliding glass doors face west, which means I work in dimness. And the view out my window is just a boring suburbanish backyard. Occasionally a scrum of kids will burst into view, toting sleds or soccer balls. More often it’s just me and the squirrels who are so obviously fat and healthy it’s off-putting.

But overall I try not to fetishize where I work. All I really need is quiet and enough light to see by. When I find myself longing for a New England sea breeze I try to remind myself of this: The most consequential feature of any potential office is that I’ll be the one sitting in it.

 

Lydia Kiesling: Before a friend moved and bequeathed us the coffee table, the workspace was just the couch, where I sat with computer perched on lap and fretted about irradiating my womb and/or femurs. Now that we have the coffee table, my womb and femurs are presumably okay, but my back suffers. For now, this is where I do everything that I routinely do–homework, writing, cat-hugging, facebook-creeping, school reading (I prefer to read novels before bed, in bed). Most important: My betrothed, knowing this to be the lint-filled navel of my universe, pried the leftovers from my hands and proposed marriage in this very spot.

 

Edan Lepucki: Last summer I wrote about my workspace for the deliciously voyeuristic Tumblr site, Write Place, Write Time. The photos show my desk at home, which is my preferred place to write. Since having a baby, though, my apartment and the desk within it are far less calm and tidy, and I’ve had to go elsewhere to work. Most days I write fiction at my neighbors’ kitchen table while the baby plays and eats furniture next door. (Don’t worry, someone is watching him.) Since it feels weird to post a photo of my neighbors’ place, I present you instead with a picture of their dog, Saul. He is my muse. He understands only Spanish. His mohawk is growing out. Que lindo, no?

I write most of my essays for The Millions at Paper or Plastik Cafe, the coffee shop down the block from me. The place boasts excellent coffee, friendly baristas, beautiful high ceilings, and internet access, which I need for all these damn links. Here is a shot of my most recent camp-out. Mine is the only Toshiba on the block, but it’s proud not to be a fancy-pants Mac. Who cares if the bottom is duct-taped together?

 

Emily St. John Mandel: I’ll be the first to admit that my workspace is looking a little strange these days. It used to be much less eccentric, but then I decided that I wanted a standing desk, and, since all the standing desks I saw online were either hideously generic or too expensive, I made some improvisations involving a couple boxes, an unused Ikea shelf, and a two-volume dictionary. It isn’t beautiful, but I like it, and I find that I much prefer to work standing up. Other details: that’s Ralph in the desk chair, the papers taped to the wall are notes for current and future projects, and the window looks out on rooftops.

 

Nick Moran: My desk is full of nomads, and much of its population changes regularly. To wit: the five different histories of Russia. Though I minored in the stuff as an undergraduate, and I’ve always been drawn to the place, those are only visiting until I finish something I’m writing. (I don’t always use Red Star Over Russia as a mouse pad, either.) The rest: the asthma inhaler, the little wooden box from an Amman bazaar (labeled, adorably “Cofee”), and the Real Housewives-noise-canceling headphones are permanent residents. So, too, is the stack of aborted articles beneath the VQR. And the computer, of course. There’s also a Qur’an left over from a recent trip I took to visit my mother in Jordan. An exercise in immersion, that was, and a longtime desk resident it’s become. Finally, there’s the art on the wall above, a relic from my AP art class in high school. My theme was “breakfast.” That one you see is a diptych of a pig turning into a slice of bacon.

 

Bill Morris: I like a short commute. So I made an office out of the second bedroom in my apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. Normally the place is not such a pigsty – honest! – but at the moment I’m working on a long magazine article about the future of my hometown, Detroit, and my notes, tape transcripts and drafts have taken on a life of their own. In case you’re curious, that Royal manual typewriter is not a prop. I still write on the gorgeous beast, then use the Mac for editing and sending my stuff.

Looking at this picture reminds me of the beautiful simplicity of the writing life: all you need is a table, a chair, a writing tool, a stack of blank paper (optional), and an idea. How much less could anyone ask for?

 

Mark O’Connell: My desk is normally a lot more cluttered than this, but I didn’t want to let the side down, so I did a little spring cleaning before taking the photo. I work in Trinity College Dublin, where I’m doing a postdoctoral research fellowship; I’m in an open plan office in a snazzy new building dedicated to interdisciplinary research in the humanities. On the right, my desk overlooks an atrium where book launches and wine receptions for academic conferences are often held. As a result, I’ve become a connoisseur of awkward standing. I also get to see a lot of surreptitious lunging (for plates of sandwiches) and timid but determined sidling (toward established clusters of interlocutors). That can be fun to watch, and is often a reason in itself to work late.

On to the desk proper: the obvious centerpiece here is the nifty set-up with the elevated laptop, wireless keyboard and trackpad: this discourages slouching and does wonders for the lower lumbar region. Those books lined up at the back are mostly by or about Walter Benjamin, who might have something to do with something I might end up writing (that’s about an average number of mights for me). A lot of them I haven’t so much as opened, but I feel significantly smarter just having them there in front of me. In that sense they’re like a sort of bibliographic mascot or talisman. On the right of the laptop is a hybrid pencil sharpener/rubber I picked up earlier in the week. I probably paid more for it than I should have (€3), but you’ve got to spend money to make money in this business. I don’t mean for this to turn into a bragging session, but I do also own an electric pencil sharpener. It’s a very high-end machine. I keep it at home, though, because in an academic work environment, a thing like that can be viewed as a vulgar display of status.

 

Janet Potter: Four minutes after this photo was taken, I started packing everything pictured into boxes. I’m moving this month, so my work area will soon be reconstructed in another Chicago apartment with a bigger kitchen and walk-in closets. I can say with some confidence, however, that it will look a great deal like this, because the iterations of my work area in each of my post-college apartments have been built around the following, horcrux-esque elements:

#1 – The Big Blue Desk. How great is that desk? It’s royal blue! It’s a solid wood secretary desk (with the flip-up thing for a typewriter) that I bought on craigslist for $30 in 2005.
#2 – The Posters. The signed cover prints of On Beauty and Ghostwritten were going away presents when I left my old job at Brookline Booksmith, and the signed print of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a gift from a friend at Random House.
#3 – The Chair. That stool with the ugly green cushion was the bench to my grandmother’s vanity.
#4 – The Formative Books. The bookshelf that sits to my back holds only the best of my childhood, teenage, and college reading. The Hedgehog and the Fox, Cloud Atlas, The Harry Potter series, Proust, Natasha’s Dance, Banvard’s Folly. Only the best.
#5 – The Presidential Biographies. Each time I finish another biography in my project, I add it to the ranks lined up on top of the bookcase, supported by Abraham Lincoln bookends that used to be in Conan O’Brien’s New York office (long story).

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Plot Horses and Narrative Helmets: A Morning with David Mitchell

Although many readers at The Millions are likely to have at least one David Mitchell book under their belt (Cloud Atlas was admitted into The Millions Hall of Fame earlier this year, after all), I’m sure most of you remember what it’s like for the uninitiated. Everyone tells you that you must read Cloud Atlas, and you buy it and it sits on your shelf for three years. You assume that his work is intellectual, serious, complicated, experimental; a multi-voiced beast that is said to be amazing, but that has to be heavily grappled with in order to appreciate. However, spending even a couple of minutes with David Mitchell — the man — made me realize that neither he nor his work should be approached with the kind of hesitation or trepidation that some readers have.

Just before his reading at Skylight Books, Mitchell tiptoed down the stairs from the mezzanine office. He sat on the third step clutching his cup of tea, hidden from the adoring masses by a waist-high wall that serves as a railing. From my chair at the back desk, I had the perfect angle for a photo opportunity: the big author mentally preparing for his last reading before heading home. Instead, when he noticed me with the camera, he started making faces at me and mock-scowling. During his reading, he paused mid-sentence to tell anecdotes, he told us that he likes to create onomatopoetic verbs to mess with his translators, and he occasionally provided sound effects to go with his metaphors. This was not the brooding intellectual one might have expected. This was not the “serious author” whose books are to be spoken about with mountainous respect in hushed tones. This man was playful, and instantly open, and remarkably nimble.

Although David Mitchell is almost universally hailed as a creator of literary fiction, it is the lens of games and child-like amusement that often sharpens his work into focus. Michael Chabon described Cloud Atlas as “the novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book.” Mitchell has been called a ventriloquist for the way that he inhabits voices and “does” other genres so well. Even his naysayers use this lens: in the LA Times, reviewer Eric Banks described the second section of Mitchell’s new book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, as a foray into “comic-book Japonica.”

I asked Mitchell what his favorite game was growing up, hoping it might tell us something about his writing as a whole. He described a loose kind of game that most of us probably played in some form or another: an improvised war-type game with two opposing sides and rules and goals that you kind of made up as you went along. You would advance into each other’s territory, set ambushes, and try to spring your own men who’d been captured. Guns were made up of two fingers and a thumb, and there was a sort of honor system when a confrontation occurred. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I think that it can describe what Mitchell has done in his books – he makes up a new set of rules each time, and he treads into territory that you might not expect in terms of genre, voice, and style. There are usually opposing forces at play, though who is playing for which side can be ambiguous and shifting.

From the micro-view of his own memory, Mitchell quickly waxed analytical. He suggested that games allow us a small view into how the mind works:

We don’t have an effective vocabulary of the mind, because we don’t really know what it is. And we need a couple of Newtons or Darwins or Einsteins–in neurology–before, I think, we’ll begin to “get it”… We know much more about [the mind’s] pathology than we do about its anatomy. But it becomes visible in games. Games gives us a vocabulary of mind that we otherwise lack… Patterns can be made manifest in one form.

Fiction can also “do the mind” — it picks up on patterns like games do. Towards the end of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Jacob fleshes out the story of Phoebus in Greek mythology and then says: “The truth of a myth, Your Honor, is not its words, but its patterns.”

Several of Mitchell’s novels use games to show macro tendencies: he uses a rugby match to ruminate on chance and fate in Ghostwritten, in Black Swan Green it’s something called British Bulldogs that sheds light on growing up in Thatcher’s England, and in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the Japanese game Go provides the ripples and layers. In the final section, after we’ve gotten some sense of the relative equilibrium between the Dutch and the Japanese on Dejima (the Dutch East India Company’s outpost off the coast of Japan in 1799), in comes the English ship, bringing with it global machinations and the need for shifting alliances and multilayered strategies. It is immediately followed by an actual Go match, also full of machinations and strategies, which has taken on all sorts of significance of its own. Not only does it illustrate the power play happening between the Magistrate and Lord Abbot, it foreshadows the waning strength of Japan’s isolationist policies in the face of global advances.

In the present day, interestingly, Go has the opposite role to play in the global advance of technology — Mitchell told me that an algorithm is no match for a master Go player, and the game is “one of humanity’s last strongholds against the computer.”

Perhaps Mitchell is aware of these tendencies, for even he uses toys and games of childhood to describe his writing process. On the recent challenge of writing a libretto for an opera, David wrote that “packing so much human luggage into so few syllables” was similar to sudoku.

When I asked him whether one needs to live in a place in order to write about it, he said it’s hard to make it smack of authenticity if you haven’t. You need more tricks and sleight-of-hand to mask the fact that you haven’t been there. For example, Mitchell had never been to New York when he was working on Ghostwritten. One of the sections is takes place there, so he set it in winter, when windows are hard to see through and details are muted by snow. And then he made the bulk of the action occur on a radio show. How’s that for literary prestidigitation! Historical fiction, however, tends to thrive on rich detail, and after reading his latest novel, no one would doubt that Mitchell spent nearly a decade living in Japan.

Finally, I asked him how, after observing a place in the present, do you access its past or imagine its future? I’m sure that there is some element of Faulkner’s famous quote at work, that “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” David also suggested that first you gather the bits. Then, essentially, you’re playing dress up with dolls:

You just think about the story first. And… the people. But they are, as it were, naked.         Temporally naked. So you just think about the story and the relationships and… what their hearts want. And how these wants bounce off each other. Then when you’ve got those, then you clothe them. Literally clothe them in appropriate period costumes, but also sort of… attitudinally clothe them.

While answering questions after his reading at Skylight Books, Mitchell got into a groove and offered, in rapid succession, three extended metaphors for his writing process. The best one, the one that can help both writers and readers, came to him just a few weeks ago. He said that writing a novel is like an amusement arcade horse race game with five horses – character, plot, theme/ideas, structure, style – and the goal is for them all to finish at once. For example, you develop the character horse, his history and his personality, and then you ask “What would he do in this situation?” Then the plot horse catches up. I found this metaphor to be useful to me as a reader as well, in terms of describing what does and doesn’t work in a novel.  I asked Mitchell whether one of his horses needed more training, or whether one came more naturally than the rest.

It varies from book to book. I would say that generally, my themes/idea horse probably hasn’t much rider. I don’t really think “This book is going to be about this,” ahead of time. Or perhaps, specifically, it sort of leaves on its own sweet time, late and last. And at some point, after the others have streaked ahead, the rider sort of hops over the barrier from the crowd and then sort of jumps on …[here Mitchell made leaping gesture with his hand];. And then, “Okay, this is what you’re about. Now I see, now I see…”

The other metaphor that Mitchell threw out there was one that helped him finally master writing in the third person: that of the “narrative helmet.” One character wears it at a time, and it’s got a “camera filming the action but with a spike going into the brain so you can get that character’s thoughts but no one else’s.” He then told us that the plot of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is perhaps more complex than it seems: in the first act, only Jacob wears the helmet. In the second act, the helmet alternates between Orito and Ogawa. In the final act, Jacob, the Magistrate, and the English sea captain wear the helmet. By doing it this way, the momentum increases as you progress in the book.

With building blocks, some children build simple walls and steps, and others build castles with moats and turrets using the exact same materials. Mitchell must have been one of the latter —  he recently described his books as “Lego-novels,” made up of component pieces. After spending a few hours in his presence, it is clear that he thinks of language and literature in degrees of magnitude. “A word is a musical note, with its own timbre and attack and fade,” he said at the reading. “And a sentence is therefore a musical phrase, and a paragraph, therefore, is something like a song.” He’s written several novels of interconnected stories and his latest is really more like three successive novellas.

But we’ve all built towers that collapsed, and even David Mitchell can attempt too much. He told me that Cloud Atlas was originally going to have nine parts, not six, but it got unwieldy. One of the narratives was to be from a Korean rock star who was watching a video cassette that (of course) broke in the middle. But when Mitchell sensed it wobbling, he realized that he already had a young musical prodigy in Frobisher. He couldn’t bear to waste the time and money spent on researching Korea, so he set “An Orison of Sonmi-451” there instead.

Mitchell brings to his work the fine balance of playfulness and complexity. I think what turns some people off from “postmodern” writing in general, and something that Mitchell manages to avoid, is a feeling of being toyed with, a feeling that the writer knows something that the reader doesn’t. When you finish, you want to feel as though your mind has been engaged, not as though you’ve been had. Mitchell teased out the distinction a bit:

Maybe it’s the difference between, in the former case, being obliged to be the victim of a practical joke, where it’s not fair because you don’t know what the terms are, and it’ll happen to you and you just have to sit there and take it. Which is really annoying. As opposed to sort of being taught the rules of the game, and sort of being given an invitation, “Would you like to play, too?

Mitchell invites us to play with him, to enjoy the stories he writes, and to have fun trying to figure things out. He also invites us to think hard, and to grapple with the challenges of civilization. As a culture, we could use a bit more of that playfulness and complexity.

Bonus Link: A podcast of the Mitchell event at Skylight Books in Los Angeles

Books on Stoops

My wife and I are moving out of the apartment we’ve rented for the last five years and into another apartment in the same neighborhood. The onerous task of culling through our books has fallen to me – perhaps justly, since I’m the one who collected most of the damned things in the first place. My goal is to discard at least two boxes. I’ve been struck, though, by the number of books on my shelves that I found among other people’s discards.Indeed, hardly a day goes by in Brooklyn that I don’t see a box of cast-off books sitting on a stoop or by a curb, with a “Free – Take Me” sign, or (once) a glow-stick casting its alien light over the offerings. The entire borough, viewed from a certain angle, is like a great rotating library: you take my copy of Mules and Men, I’ll relieve you of your Sense and Sensibility.What follows, in no particular order, is a catalogue of the 30 books I’ve apparently taken from other people’s stoops over the last five years: a sort of portrait of a certain time and place. I’d be curious to hear about your own finds in the comments box below.Baker, Nicholson: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of CivilizationAckerman, Diane: A Natural History of the SensesMaugham, W. Somerset: The Razor’s EdgeElizabethan Plays (a 1933 anthology; no author)Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time (trans. Macquarrie & Robinson)Baldassare Castiglione: The Book of the CourtierGarcia Lorca, Frederico: Three PlaysBréton, André, ed.: What is Surrealism?Tsvetaeva, Marina: Selected PoemsMitchell, David: GhostwrittenHarvey, David: Spaces of HopeGrimm, Jacob and Wilhelm: Fairy TalesPinter, Harold: The Proust ScreenplayMarlowe, Christopher: Plays and PoemsWoolf, Virginia: Essays, vol. IIFaludi, Susan: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American WomenMerot, Pierre: MammalsPope, Alexander: The Rape of the LockReed, Lou: Rock & Roll Heart (okay, it’s a VHS tape, but still pretty cool)Marcuse, Herbert: One-Dimensional ManCalvino, Italo: Italian FolktalesThompson, Willie: Postmodernism and HistoryCocteau, Jean: Five PlaysAmis, Martin: Visiting Mrs. NabokovGibbon, Edward: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. IVBissell, Tom: God Lives in St. PetersburgCalasso, Roberto: KaPortis, Charles: NorwoodDidion, Joan: MiamiSt. Augustine: The City of God[Image credit: steelight]

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