I have a hard time remembering the books I have read without also remembering who I have read them with or where. Increasingly, since so much of my reading is done out loud to my children, it seems natural to me that all reading should be shared reading of one sort or another. Sifting through text messages, chats, emails, and the letters and envelopes scattered around my office, I have pieced together a calendar of the books I have read and the people who made them matter.
January, February: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, “stories that show how the momentary convergence of yearning and surrender can make time hang still,” I shout first at Stephanie, then at the bartender serving us, before putting the thought in an essay on Williams; Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, Monkey Grip, and The Children’s Bach (“one of the best novels of the twentieth century,” Len writes to me after reading a draft of my essay on Garner)—novels built out of beautifully Brechtian tableaux. My calendar reminds me that most of February was spent at festivals and talks, reading on freezing trains. On a train to Harrogate: Dasa Drndić’s Doppelganger, which features an old lady giving an old man a hand job beat out to a Nazi alphabet primer. On a train to Cambridge: Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story, the best anatomization of how one person can colonize another’s thought after a break up. During a long weekend in New York: Drndić’s Belladonna, EEG, and Trieste for an essay about Drndić’s novels of unsuccessful self-annihilation. On a flight to Glasgow, Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, about an inexperienced, neurotic, young man seduced by a wry, charismatic, older woman.
March, April: Nightwood, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Giovanni’s Room, Housekeeping, Beloved, novels I re-read during the term with my students. (“Is modernism inherently depressing or do you just like depressing modernist novels?” one asks.); Siri Hustvedt’s fine and predictable Memories of the Future for a review. Obsessed with telescopes and other instruments of sight after scientists release the first image of a black hole, I read Margaret Cavendish’s mind-blowing The Blazing World and Poems and Fancies and Danielle Dutton’s enchanting novelization of Cavendish’s life, Margaret the First. I chase down some seventeenth century scholars, all of them named Katharine (why?), so I can learn how old telescopes work.
In mid-April, my friend Sarah comes to visit Oxford. A sense of civility and calm descends on my loud, disordered home. She airs out the cottage, opens a bottle of wine, roasts a chicken, and makes a salad, the likes of which my children have never seen before because I feed them only frozen peas, still frozen. We read together. The kids—The Jolly Postman, Each Peach Pear Plum, Julián Is a Mermaid, Tiny T-Rex and the Impossible Hug. She—Sally Rooney’s Normal People, interrupting her reading every ten minutes to groan at me. (I prefer Conversations with Friends.) Me—The Last Samurai, the pages of which have stiffened into little waves after I laughed so hard at DeWitt’s mad, philological genius that I dropped the book into the tub. To make Sarah happy again, I take her to Blackwell’s and make her buy her own copy of The Last Samurai, which has a nicer cover than mine because it’s the U.K. edition. She reads it in a single sitting the next day, draped over the couch in my office, and complains that Jonathan Safran Foer ripped off Helen DeWitt when he wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “Only his version was squishier,” she says.
At the very end of April, someone—I wish I could remember who, but I can’t—recommends Olive Moore’s Spleen, a forgotten modernist novel, painterly and queer, about the fearful eroticism of maternity. In Paris for work, I do an interview with British Vogue about “serious erotic fiction,” trying hard to convince the wide-eyed editor that Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is full of practical sex tips. On the flight to Guernsey for a festival, I read the first half of my friend Rachel’s forthcoming book On Compromise: Essays on Art and Democracy, which is bracing and sensitive and funny.
May: a month consumed by gradually escalating illnesses. A sniffle, a cold, a sinus infection, bronchitis. I am bravely preparing to die of tuberculosis in a garret somewhere when I receive a copy of Guy de Maupassant’s Like Death from Nicholas at the New York Review of Books. How does he know nothing heals me like a novel about French aristocrats and artists behaving badly? Convalescing, I blow through Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head at the urging of Sarah, who is convinced that my life is always one punch in the face away from a Murdoch novel. The recommendation is seconded by our friend Gloria. “When I gave this book to my roommate when we were twenty-two, she said she felt like bread that just discovered butter,” Gloria writes. “I have never forgotten that.” On the train to Cardiff for a talk, I read Adam Sach’s debut novel The Organs of Sense, which is extremely funny on seventeenth-century telescopes, blind astronomers, and the temporary luminosity of love.
June: Fleur Jaeggy’s novella Sweet Days of Discipline (cold, gleaming), then to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (eddying, frantic), poolside at Cliveden House where I burn badly, convinced that the English sun is too puny to warrant sun screen; Fran Ross’s Oreo after swimming the Thames, flanked by unarousable cows; Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, one of only three non-fiction books I will read this year and the inspiration for the bookish tattoo I get at the end of the month.
July: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, before a flight to Turkey to drop the kids off with my mother at her summer house on the coast. On the flight there, I read them the animal books they love: Just So Stories, Where the Wild Things Are, The Elephant and the Bad Baby. My last night at my mother’s, I stay up too late reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena, which I find on the shelf of the guest bedroom. I am mesmerized by how Frank—Milena calls him Frank; I will too—burdens this woman with his torment, yet how real and irreducible that torment seems. I am sad that Milena’s side of the correspondence has not survived. I like her voice as I encounter it in the appendix to the book, in a letter to Max Brod. It’s a voice that seeks reality and clarity and, glimpsing both, bends toward compassion. There’s an excellent description of how annoying it is to accompany Frank to the post office. I reread Lydia Davis’s short story “Kafka Cooks Dinner” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to hear the echoes of that voice, mined for its comic potential: “I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t.” On a flight to New York, I read over a dozen applications for the Whiting Non-Fiction Grant, though the one that I remember best, because it feels fated somehow, is a haunting new translation of Kafka’s diaries by Ross Benjamin.
August, back in the U.K., reunited with the kids: Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, because I have decided to include a chapter in this book I’m trying to finish writing on the short story and close reading; Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, because it’s “the new Ben Lerner” and because I used to be a high school debater. In the passenger seat on a drive to Cornwall, I pivot to read backwards to the kids—Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine, Ogden Nash’s Custard the Dragon, Julia Donaldson’s Tabby McTat, all of which I have memorized, so I can recite instead of reading—until I start to feel car sick. While they nap, I finish Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and begin Nicholas Mosley’s Accident, recommended by Claire, who describes Mosely as a “bloodless D.H. Lawrence”—lots of shadowy evil, too little golden sex. On the ride home, I write a short, exorcising essay on Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart, a grim, anti-Romantic novella about a woman who murders her cheating husband. The week after in Paris, everyone gets a 24-hour stomach bug, only no one gets it in the same 24 hours. The trip becomes a relay race of illness. The kids are listless, filthy. I read them their favorites: Lost and Found, Up and Down, How to Catch a Star, Stuck, The Incredible Book Eating Boy, all by the magnificent children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. I read chapter 42 of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady on my phone about a dozen times because his sentences stave off nausea.
September: On a trip to Boston and New York: Deborah Levy’s calm, aphoristic The Cost of Living—Sarah’s copy, a re-read from last December; Fleur Jaeggy’s S.S. Proleterka. Three Lives, and I Am the Brother of XX and Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, all courtesy of Mieke who invites me to raid her bookshelf at New Directions; the proofs for The Ferrante Letters with Kat, Jill, and Sarah, which I read aloud to us around Sarah’s kitchen table because I always read proofs aloud, though it is slow and excruciating. At a conference in South Bend, Nan recommends Susan Choi’s My Education, about a graduate student who sleeps with her literature professor’s wife, a literature professor too but also—shocking and confusing to all involved—a young mother. I read it on the plane home, and find that, like most relationships, the novel is fun and full of possibility in the first half, turns stale and falls apart in the second.
October: Len, who is on a one-man crusade against what he calls the “New Piety” in literary criticism, convinces me to read Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire. It starts out funny—Roth is trying hard to retool Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” as a comic novel—but Roth makes compulsive sexual desire into such a sad, annihilating thing that my laughter runs out quickly. In an afternoon, I read Isabel Waidner’s propulsive We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, a Brexit novel that manages to write about the present without making the present feel dated; in a night, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan’s Correspondence, which, though not as intense or agonized as Letters to Milena, still crackles with Celan’s despair and Bachmann’s self-possession. On a flight to Stockholm at the end of the month: Niklas Luhmann’s Love: A Sketch, for a talk I’m supposed to give preemptively titled “Critical Love Studies.” (What does this mean? I don’t know yet.)
November is frantic with reading to crowd out the holidays, which leave me bored and melancholy. There is Hermione Lee’s engrossing biography of Virginia Woolf and Volumes 2 and 3 of Woolf’s diaries for the new edition of Mrs. Dalloway I am annotating and introducing; John Berger’s sexy, phenomenologically attentive G., on Len’s recommendation, and Alison Light’s compassionate memoir about marriage and communism, A Radical Romance, on Pam’s; The Complete Gary Lutz for an essay on the un-erotics of art and sad literary men; all of Benjamin Chaud’s gorgeously illustrated Bear books to my children and the new Oliver Jeffers book The Fate of Fausto, a parable about an angry, possessive man for whom nothing in the world is enough. “What is enough?” my younger son asks. I do not know how to answer.
In mid-November, Diane Williams, who I have dinner and drinks with after a reading she gives in London, tells me to read John Cheever’s “The Season of Divorce.” I do, ending the year more or less where it started. Though by the time this piece goes up, I may finally finish Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I have been reading at a disciplined snail’s pace of 20 pages a night for the past several months.
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Our current condition of ambient despair gets an excellent portraiture in Evelyn Hampton’s The Aleatory Abyss. It’s an obscure book about being obscure—or at least it is a book about occupying forgotten interstitial spaces and about being of and among technological detritus. In Hampton’s world we live our lives not in streets, schools, libraries, parks, or other public commons but online and in Barnes & Nobles, Starbucks, malls, parking lots, and other privatized spaces; that is, Hampton shows us a familiar world. Personhood and agency here in the Anthropocene are moribund concepts, if not already vestigial, and great creatures called multinationals and state actors roam the terrain while we endure like plankton or parasites below and beside their decisions. This short book also pays homage to and is haunted by Hampton’s friend, the activist and writer Mark Baumer, who died in the middle of a mythic project that found him walking barefoot across America. Both artists are turned helplessly into elegists. Baumer’s work was part durational performance piece, part environmental fundraiser, part quixotic publicity stunt, and part personal protest. He kept record of his walk through a series of videos and blog posts, many of them heartbreakingly prescient, especially his final video, posted the day after the Trump inauguration, the day he died when struck by an SUV. Hampton’s work transmutes Baumer’s extroverted dissent, his syncopated poetic voice, and his manic video edits into its twinned flip: an equally clear-eyed but introverted analysis, a quieter but no less fierce objection. The Aleatory Abyss is a beautiful work, and profits from sales will go to the charity Mark Baumer was walking for: the FANG collective.
Until recently I hadn’t heard of Brian Castro or of his 2003 layered labyrinth of a novel called Shanghai Dancing. This, despite his checking off some primary boxes of personal interest: an English-language experimental novelist of Asian descent—a winner of nearly every major Australian literary prize, Castro was born in Hong Kong to a Portuguese father and an English-Chinese mother—whose erudition and interweavings of history, identity, and literature have garnered favorable, though perhaps misleading, comparisons to W.G. Sebald. Though their interest in history’s palimpsest is similar, Castro is boozier, more lush and improvisational, and much more of a sensualist than Sebald. He is free and risking, but usually his literary daredevilism mesmerizes with grace. This large, brilliant, messy book suffers from a cliched status of criminal critical neglect, or, as a writer put it on this site, Shanghai Dancing is “the best contemporary book in English that most Americans have never heard of.” But rather than make its neglect the takeaway, let’s celebrate the fact that the excellent Kaya Press has brought another of Castro’s novels, The Garden Book, to stateside readers.
The personal is ever political in Bae Suah’s A Greater Music. Similar in content to Chris Kraus’s Summer of Hate, if wholly different in style, Bae’s novel concerns love affairs across class and cultural lines. Described by the author in an interview as “a story of an unequal love,” a Korean woman recalls two affairs in Berlin during a time when she was struggling to learn German: one with the unrefined and practical Joachim and another with the hyper-educated “M.” The original title literally translates to The Essayist’s Desk, which the author says she chose because she wanted “a slightly freer form, one that would give me greater distance from the melodramatic excitement that fiction can generate.” And almost as if the people were mere means to learn German—though by the end of the book we realize how inseparable the two are—a great deal of the book’s focus slips away from the relationships and lingers on the internal convolutions of identity and self-alienating processes required when learning a foreign language. One of my favorite, perhaps unintentional, enjoyments was a long description of the narrator encountering a novel that she thinks notably avoids the cliches of “East German melancholy,” which made me think of the already overplayed American critical use of “Korean Han,” of which nonetheless Bae’s writing could be thought of as invoking.
It’s best to experience Anne Garréta’s Sphinx with no prior knowledge about it other than to know it is pretty good. Maybe that it’s sinister and transcends clever but probably even that’s too much. Sometimes it muddled in my brain with James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room—not entirely sure why, but maybe the pairs of star-crossed Parisians. Not knowing anything about it also includes not reading Daniel Levin Becker’s excellent introduction (which itself advises the same) and also avoiding the copy on the back cover.
In the age of ubiquitous and inescapable End User License Agreements (the ones where you have clicked “I accept”), we are all now collaborators—in both the crowdsource sense and the Vichy-esque one. Barbara Browning’s The Gift shows our interactive lives can and do allow enormous and strange forms of intimacy. It’s a smart and joyful autofictional game of a novel that suggests we shouldn’t underestimate the level of sensuality and vulnerability in even our more transactional or semi-anonymous contacts. Her novel begins with a loving reply to a spammer and goes on to include many different kinds of, as Browning calls them, inappropriate intimacies—from downtown performance art to Occupy’s Free University to dinner parties with members of Pussy Riot. Of these, the most central to the novel is with “Sami,” a musical virtuoso amputee living in Cologne, or so he claims to be in his and the narrator’s increasingly involved correspondence. Browning writes in one of the novel’s many confessions: “Actually, the book I’m beginning now is about collaboration, and the eros inherent in the collaborative process, which is also the process of writing the novel.” Her style is both gossipy and academic, utopian yet present, flirtatious yet steely, classically observed but zany in closing aphorism. If Rachel Cusk’s and Ben Lerner’s seem to be made in a humorless or self-aggrandizing black and white, Browning’s autofiction is a highwire gamble of vulnerability, true lies, and eager friendliness wrought in popping, saturated technicolor.
A historical survey, even one as well researched and balanced and clearly written as Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America, wouldn’t normally have commanded my attention with such emotion, but the country has renewed its racist vows, and so certain episodes in our national past now glow in the different light. Some, in fact, seem worse than unfortunate parallels with the contemporary—they’ve become taunts of impending/begun cataclysm. As others have noted, periods like the era of Asian exclusion acts and the years of Japanese American internment suddenly appear, rather than moments of national shame, now more like precedents, if not how-to’s. (One story I discovered in Lee’s overview, eye opening in its relevance, was the story of Canada’s Continuous Journey Law and the resulting epic of the Komagata Maru. The racist 1908 law was challenged in the courts and overturned by a surprise decision from an activist judge only to be eventually upheld, effectively banning South Asians from entering Canada. That is, the obviously illegal ban was defeated in the courts before a surge of stoked racism and a dearth of political courage allowed it to become law.) A Woody Allen joke packs a lot of terror in its casual delivery: “Don’t you even care about the Holocaust, or do you think it never happened?” one character asks another. The riposte: “Not only do I know that we lost 6 million, but the scary thing is that records are made to be broken.” That joke seems more truthful than the George Santayana observation about the unremembering ignorant being condemned to repeat history. Perhaps ignorance has little to do with it.
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I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: “What literature influenced you as a young person?” My fellow panelists—the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam—named beloved, important books and authors. My answer—which I think came as a surprise to most—was that I hardly read as a child and youth.
My parents are immigrants—English is not their first language—and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over—something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos.
The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college—relatively late for someone who now writes and reads “professionally.” Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience—I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe—and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn’t put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I’d call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about “mystical susceptibility,” the experience of books and language as “irrational doorways… through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them.” I’m so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment—because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I’ve picked up since then.
It’s true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago—the project of frantically “catching up” with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill—in James’s words, “states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain”—when reading.
In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time—”catchup” reading I’ll call it still—captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a “too late” (in fact, there may be a “too early”) when it comes to the reading life.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there…He had style, but his audiences didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement.” I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author’s concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn’t take to it as much as Hammett. I’ve just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler’s recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I’d read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I’d identify with Jo—if you’re reading the book at all, you’re Jo!— but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female—a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it’s all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here—four score and a decade later—still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel’s themes—social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness—have room to come forward.
King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn’t actually sure if I’d read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I’d “read” it, I definitely hadn’t read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter’s Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn’t ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays—Henry IV is currently on deck.
Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin’s stunning feats of compassion—for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: “Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking…finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world—” (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni’s Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment—Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness—inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I’m still asking them.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be “selfish,” which is to say centered around one’s creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin’s/Edna’s attraction to heterogeneous culture—cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility—is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call “gentrification”: affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin’s descriptions of Edna’s nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested…Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience—those moments when the inward life questions—that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration—collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read—whole-soul read—being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier’s.
Image credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz.
So much of what I read is for work (editing Dorothy, a publishing project, and teaching at Washington University in St. Louis), but I did manage some stellar outside reading in 2016. These were my favorites of the “freebies:”
1. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book: smart, unpretentious, unclassifiable. With an obvious nod to Sei Shōnagon’s 10th-century The Pillow Book, Buffam’s is a fragmented essay-poem-meditation on insomnia, motherhood, marriage, and other “hateful” things. It’s littered with lists, delightfully funny (or just delightful), such as “Moustaches A-Z,” “Things That Give a Dirty Feeling,” or “Jobs from Hell.” Here’s one:
SOUNDS I DON’T EXPECT TO HEAR
A rose opening.
Silence on the 4th of July.
The mating cry of the King Island Emu.
Hecklers at the ballet.
Foghorns in the Mare Cognitum.
A rich man entering Heaven.
A poor man entering the Senate.
2. Renee Gladman’s Calamities: It would be hard to overstate my sense of Gladman’s importance to contemporary American letters. Calamities is a series of short linked essays (or, as I’ve heard her call them, ditties) most of which begin “I began the day …” It’s embodied, subtle, playful, rare.
3. & 4. Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoon’s Came from Woolworth and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman: The Comyns and the Townsend Warner are reprints somewhat recently published in the U.S. by NYRB. I loved both to an aggressive degree, especially Lolly Willowes, which sneaks up on you with its ferocity, so sharp and erotic and free.
This fall I taught a new graduate course on desire, so have been eyeball-deep in amorousness: Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter and Eros the Bittersweet; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime; Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text; T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty; texts by Anaïs Nin, Roxane Gay, Joanna Walsh, Carl Phillips, William Gass, Catherine Belsey, and Marie Calloway; and, one of my all-time favorites, The Lover by Marguerite Duras.
Finally, my “year in reading” wouldn’t be complete without The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George and Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger (translated from the French by Cécile Menon & Natasha Lehrer). These are the books I spent the most time with, the ones I was able to get seriously and satisfyingly intimate with. Meanwhile, here at Dorothy we’ve begun putting together a book we’re nuts about for Fall 2017: the first ever Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington.
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If I had only one word to describe Annie DeWitt’s prose it would be “equine” not only for the elegance of her sentences but also because of their strength and poise. The threat of danger lurks too — a subtle awareness that at any point a scene might buck and kick and tear away deep into the thicket.
DeWitt’s writing has always been intrepid: I recall from the first time I read her work in a writing workshop with Diane Williams its intensity and lyricism and mystery, her characters ability to seduce, as in, to make you want to listen to.
Her debut novel White Nights in Split Town City, doesn’t diverge in this sense. The book is set in Fay River, an isolated town where the closest neighbors are also the only friends, “a fact established by proximity and common denominator.” There are horses here, too, to be ridden and groomed; here nature seems boundless and because of this more fearsome too. It’s in Fay River that Jean grows up while living with her parents and sister, Birdie. White Nights is a coming-of-age tale, yes, but one that looks unflinchingly at what it means to be a young and come into one’s own, at what it means to be a woman and mother, at the responsibility and loneliness and disillusionment that so often comes with adulthood, at the varieties of feminine desire, at adolescence and the newfound thrill of sex and empowerment, at the secrets that are known and those that remain hidden.
White Nights captures so tenderly this sweet spot of falling into adolescence, the first luscious taste of independence and, with it, vulnerability and endangerment too.
The Millions: You mentioned in an interview with Luke Goebels for The Believer, that you are both fans of “bringing a radical eye to the page.” I’m curious to hear more about what this means for your writing and specifically in this novel. After reading White Nights in Split Town City I wonder too about the presence of a radical ear, as well as a radical “I”?
Annie DeWitt: I love your point about the radical “I.” And too a radical ear. I grew up learning to play classical music via the Suzuki method. I try to bring that same kind of radical ear to my work — I am constantly evaluating the sounds of words — both lyrically and sonically. Where do they mesh? Where does the tone or the pace shift? What section should be played “Lento,” “Legato,” “Fuerte,” “Fortissimo,” etc.
My understanding of the radical ear was solidified for me in Mrs. Hull’s sitting room in front of a piano in a small split-level house in 1998. I remember the first time I sat down and played for her. Afterward she was appalled. Mrs. Hull had an air of distinction about her, or at least wanted to cultivate one. Her husband’s Dartmouth banner hung over the front couch — even though he probably hadn’t attended since the ’50’s. The piano was a chestnut colored baby grand and was always finely polished and covered in stacks of classical music books. She was British. Or, at least she seemed British in my mind. She was also a piano teacher. She was not a warm woman, but she did not lack imagination. She opened up one of her classical music primers and said we’d have to start from the ground up even though I’d been playing for 10 years at that point. For the following week I was supposed to practice Mendelssohn’s “Song without Words.” As I played she sat next to me and dictated the piece as one would a story: “Close your eyes,” she said. “Imagine…here you are on the proscenium. The curtain is drawn. The crowd is hushed. The red velvet at your back. Then in marches the troops!” Another day she taught me how to play by thinking of the sound patterns a sewing machine makes when you press and depress the petal with your foot.
I’ve always admired writers who embrace the radical “I.” I don’t mean radical in the way of “outlandish.” I mean an “I” that is truthful, that hasn’t been seen before. That has something to tell. This could be a very quiet “I” like in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (which I adore). Or, it could be an entirely inventive, postmodern “I” as in George Saunders’s Pastoralia. Or, it could be the kind of drunken, religious, plain spoken “I” of Barry Hannah. Or, the visual and journalistic “I” of James Baldwin or the empathic eye of Flannery O’Connor.
In many ways I think the radical “I” comes down to empathy. Being an empath means that when you look at person you can’t help but hear his/her story unfold. A person on the side of the road next to the bus station as you drive by. Their life, their loves, their hardships grab you by the throat and shake you.
Too, I’ve always admired people who live fault forward. Courageously. Without fear. When I think of Baldwin writing Giovanni’s Room, I am struck by his courage. Not only because he was writing about a man leaving his fiancée for another man in Paris — but too for the depth and honesty of the feelings the book conveys which in turn feel universal. On a basic level, it’s just another love story. And on another, it’s about living a revolutionary act.
The radical “I” is about a desire to show the backside of life — the complexities, the places where the self falls apart — without embarrassment.
TM: Fay Mountain, where the story unfurls, is so isolated that there’s only one other younger family living within proximity to Jean’s, which means they are friends by default. I’m struck by how Fay Mountain is a character, idiosyncratic and cut off, and more vulnerable to natural woes — infections, fires, the people who set them, failing bodies, unchecked desire. What was important to you in depicting this rural mix of feral and refined? And what writers of the rural and works do you feel your book draws from and/or engages with?
AD: When I think of writers who engage with place I immediately think of the start of Hannah’s story, “Waterliars:”
When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The line-up is always different, because they’re always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Otherwise you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it’s spelled on the sign.
I’m glad it’s not my name.
This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tells big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past.
Whenever I teach the story, I always say — what’s the most important line in this opening? “I’m glad it’s not my name.” That says it all. The whole point of the story is that encountering the truth is the hardest thing to do. That this man is named Farte — “with a great French stress on the last syllable” — in this small town in the American South, immediately casts him as an outsider. It’s such a small detail but it shows that he’s going to be forever beholden to this fate of not fitting in with the locals. And yet, Hannah immediately turns that on it’s head and says — don’t feel too bad for the guy — “he’s a great liar himself.” Lying, of course, being an asset in this town. A way of “passing.”
I was drawn to Fay Mountain in White Nights for the same reason — here were a lot of simple truths, and rumors, and “better paid liars” as Hannah says so eloquently, living on the small rural road where I grew up. These people were difficult to encounter and yet their stories — plain as they may be — begged to be told. In the middle of “nowhere” all you have is the self and the self’s encounter with the world. People living in isolation understand that.
TM: For me, White Nights conjures an element of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, specifically Jean’s childhood filled with silences and seemingly endless days of abandonment, and also — much differently, a crisis with domesticity. When Jean’s mother abandons the family Jean is left to wander without much oversight. Could you talk more about the space that loneliness and vulnerability occupy for Jean, and the others too? How does it empower her too?
AD: It’s interesting to hear the word “abandonment” used so frequently when talking about White Nights. I think of the mother’s leaving in the book as Jean’s great opportunity. The thing which allows her to encounter the road, and everyone living on it for better or worse, without filter. I’ve always been interested in what people call “maternal instincts.” We are raised to think that this is something instinctual to women. I find this to be a fallacy. There are many ways in which one can be “maternal” without having children — one can teach, raise plants, rescue animals, become political, write, speak, sing. To me these are all “maternal” acts — as they represent a way of caring for the world. And yet once you become a mother you are tasked with the very real challenge of raising a life. The mother daughter bond is essential. However, it sometimes fails.
Think of the “Strange Situation” in which a mother leaves the room and then reenters and the psychologist watches how the child reacts in the mother’s absence and then again upon her reappearance: It’s the strength and continuity of this first bond which defines attachment — how we are then able to go on and function in adult relationships. Jean is in an interesting situation. In many ways, the mother is the victim of society’s expectations. I think so many women born in the ’50’s experienced this — the idea that they must somehow grow up to be mothers — that this was the imperative. I feel for the mother in White Nights, as this is an imperative which I myself have not met. As I approach my mid-30s I deal with this lingering question everyday — what does it mean to not have children? However, for Jean’s mother, this question is even more imperiled — for her the question becomes, “What does it mean to feel the burden of having to care for the children you’ve already had, when society never truly gave you the choice to decide if you wanted to ‘mother’ at all.”
TM: I was seduced by Jean’s mother’s charm, much like everyone else in the book. But as a mother figure Ania’s ambivalence about mothering and domestic upkeep leaves something to be desired. Ania believed that interesting people lived lives “whose subsistence required very little upkeep, yet whose true thriving was provided for by acts of excess.” Inevitably, this perspective leads to a fraught mother/daughter relationship. I’d love to hear more about this tension for Ania, between her responsibilities for family and her ideal life, how Margaret’s friendship provides a foil, and the possibilities this opens or closes for Jean.
AD: There is something seductive about this mother — she “flips every switch in the house” upon her return. Margaret too feels this pull — particularly in that scene where the mother is buttoning Margaret into her coat and runs her fingers through the elder woman’s hair. White Nights is all about exploring these unprogramatic, hidden tensions — woman to woman, adult to child. These types of taboos. To me, “attraction” is a very interesting word — it implies something sexual, but also intellectual. The mother in this book is attracted to Margaret for her intellectual freedom, for the fact that she’s British, smoked cigarettes, never had children, and is “othered” by her “purebred old world blood.” For the fact that she reads Didion and Yeats. Of course, Margaret is a photographer. She is allowed the freedom to capture the world from behind a lens rather than be captured by it. She tries to teach Jean that in the scene when Jean spends the day with Margaret in the lawyer’s house.
And yet when Margaret asks Jean what she thinks of the photo they’ve developed together, Jean reads the photo literally and says, “I’ve never been much good at diving.” In that moment, Jean experiences a great disappointment in herself — she knows this is not the answer Margaret was looking for. Margaret is all about encouraging Jean to harness “her intelligence.” To think independently.
And yet, ironically enough, Margaret at one point is challenged by her own freedom — her alcoholism. She kills Wilson with her car. I wanted this scene to represent the central question in the book — how and when are women victims or victors of their own agency on Fay Mountain?
TM: A difference in values: Father states that one’s ultimate goal in life should be “authoring something authentic” while for Mother it’s closer to the Didion quote: “Style is character.” How does this tension play out regarding art, creation, upkeep, and by extrapolation, mothering? In this way too I’m curious about her relationship to the Georgia O’Keeffe print Ania buys—it seems that she wants to be both artist and image, but can one be both?
AD: The idea for the O’Keeffe print came from Didion’s great essay on O’Keeffe in The White Album. What initially drew me to this essay is its humor. The section in White Nights is paraphrased from Didion directly, Margaret says to Jena’s mother, Ania:
O’Keeffe attended art school in Chicago, The boys there were always encouraging her to abandon her practice and become an art teacher or a live model. One even went so far as to pint over her work to show her how the Impressionists made trees. At twenty-four O’Keeffe said she moved to Texas because there were no trees to paint.
The section ends with Margaret’s remark:
When the men asked her why she painted “Red Hills” instead of her traditional flowers, O’Keeffe replied, “A red hill doesn’t touch anyone’s heart.”
I mean — could there be a better come back? “A red hill doesn’t touch anyone’s heart.”
I think I relate to this line so fiercely. With White Nights I didn’t want to write a “feminine” book that was going to touch people’s hearts — I wanted to write a book that wasn’t afraid of going to the depths of the darkness of which people are capable — and showing that in the plain light of day.
I often get the comment that my work feels “masculine” in some way. I find this humorous. Women too can see the world for exactly what it is. There’s this great line in an interview between Marguerite Duras and the French journalist Xavière Gauthier which was transcribed in the book Woman to Woman. Duras is talking about her novel The Ravishing of Lol Stein. She recalls:
I was experimenting with this blank in the chain. On the inside there’s an extraordinary surveillance so that nothing escapes. But what’s its about is simply noticing…the accidents: that is, a displacement, a voice.
She calls these blanks “anesthesia’s — suppressions.”
TM: What seemed most radical to me in White Nights is how female sexuality is depicted so openly and variously. The reader is privy to the way that Ania’s beauty empowers her while Jean’s, as a young girl, makes her more vulnerable. We hear the sounds Ania makes having sex through Jean’s ears, and we watch as Jean haphazardly experiences her first forays into desire and sexual experience. Despite the transgressions against Jean, the novel doesn’t veer into shame or judgment — or even dwell there. This restraint seems like an authorial call, and one that perhaps also comments on the haphazard experiences that accompany sexual awakening. I’d love to hear your thoughts on navigating all of this.
AD: I recently read this quote by Lao Tzu: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” White Nights sets out to explore this distinction. To me, transgression is about the ways in which love makes you vulnerable, courageous, deceitful, intoxicated, alone. I think sex for Jean at this stage is an enigma — one which she walks into out of a deeper curiosity about the adult desire to be both wanted and free. She understands that sexuality is a captivating and capturing force. She sees her father watch the light between Callie’s rear and the saddle as she trots off down the road and remarks on how he both “fears and admires it.” I think Jean too feels a kind of attraction and repulsion at the idea of adult love. She sees how it has trapped someone like Otto Hause — his dying wife, his son who will never leave home. And too she sees how it is something which both defines and entangles her own mother — making her the center of attention but yet harnessing her to her role as wife and mother.
Jean’s first encounter with the male gaze happens when Otto Hauser watches her play the piano from the vantage point of his porch in the evening. He sees her through the window and — though he can’t hear the sound she makes — he imagines the sound based on her body movements. In that moment, Jean understands sexuality to be about a kind of “fame which nearly embraces you.” This, I think, is a dangerous rubric for a young woman. To feel that her power is relegated to her physical self — an area in which Jean feels somehow inferior to both her mother and her sister, Birdie. In many ways, Otto Hauser provides Jean the basis to “prove” that she too can be captivating. That she too can be more than a brain. That she can somehow toss off her intellect. This is what saddens me the most about this moment, that Jean doesn’t realize that it’s actually her intellect and her ability — to play a sonatina — which captured Otto’s Hauser in the first place. That indeed talent itself can be a draw.
I’ve always been interested in the Sontag quote that beauty itself is a talent. Though I’ve always thought of Sontag as a great feminist and one of our most inspired thinkers (and transgressors!), I think there is a danger inherent in this idea that beauty is a talent rather than simply a gift. How do you define beauty? Is it culturally relativistic, etc.? Of course it is. To me, raw physical attraction itself can never have the kind of gravitas of human intellect. But, I too am an aesthete, and am often completely subjugated in the face of raw beauty of any kind — human, artistic, architectural, linguistic etc. — as Sontag was. In many ways I feel like what she was saying was, “Human relations are based on attraction. Even friendships are based on a feeling of being drawn to some quality in a person which you yourself desire to possess.”
TM: We met in Diane Williams’s fiction workshop at the then Mercantile Library, now the Center for Fiction. I recall vividly how Diane urged us to write into spaces that terrify us and mention this now because one thing I admired most about White Nights was how scenes slipped into terror while depicted so tenderly, with such awareness. I’m wondering if this was a lesson you took to heart, or were there others?
AD: One line from a recent interview on craft I did with Diane for The Los Angeles Review of Books will always stay with me. She said, “Getting up and shouting out the rawest stuff of life is a formidable business.” I couldn’t agree more.
Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.
A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”
This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.
I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.
In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:
But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:
My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more. It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.
The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.
The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.
Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.
(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.
Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:
Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:
This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.
Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.
I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.
What’s your reading resolution for 2016?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The advance praise for What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the debut novel by Garth Greenwell, has been superlative to say the least. The handsome, nearly 200-page hardcover boasts blurbs from Edmund White and Hanya Yanagihara, among others, and early rave reviews have appeared in Interview and Booklist, in addition to starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, which hailed the book as “the first great novel of 2016.”
Greenwell’s elegant, meticulously crafted prose certainly merits such endorsements, and for its probing, unusually candid inquiry into gay desire, his book seems poised to be received not just as the first great novel of 2016, but the next great gay novel — a somewhat fraught designation that Greenwell has himself considered in his review of Yanagihara’s A Little Life for The Atlantic. There, Greenwell defines the category in passing as “a big, ambitious novel about gay life in America today,” and goes on to argue for A Little Life’s qualification. Funnily enough, however, it’s his own novel, spare and set abroad though it may be, that offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today.
Of the many favorable comparisons What Belongs to You is sure to invite, none seems quite so apt — or useful in understanding just what it is that makes it a great gay novel — as its parallels to James Baldwin’s 1956 classic Giovanni’s Room. Both books take place in a European city (Sofia, Bulgaria, and Paris, France, respectively) and center on an ill-fated gay love affair between an American expatriate narrator and a titular, foreign man. Both Greenwell’s Mitko (who gives the novel’s first section its name) and Baldwin’s Giovanni exemplify and are othered by a working-class masculinity, in addition to being tragically beautiful. And like their protagonist counterparts, both love objects have also left behind their home cities, though, Mitko, meaningfully, has not escaped his native Bulgaria or the effects of its depressed economy, and, unlike Giovanni, is identified as a sex-worker upon his introduction. (Greenwell is a writer of such subtle clarity, however, he never need name him explicitly or euphemistically as such. Many reviewers, unfortunately, have not been as careful in their treatment of Mitko, a complex and lovingly rendered character whom Greenwell goes to great pains not to reduce to the role of predator.)
In many ways, What Belongs to You inverts the terms of Giovanni’s Room: where in Baldwin, Paris is the only place where the expatriate is able to experience some semblance of sexual freedom, ultimately compromised by the impossibility thereof elsewhere, in Greenwell, Sofia mirrors the recalled Southern city of the narrator’s aspirationally middle-class childhood, a last outpost of a conservative worldview in which gay happiness cannot be imagined.
The action of both books is, for the most part, recalled — though retrospection and introspection might be even more central to What Belongs to You, in which everything that happens is explicitly filtered through the mind and/or memory of our unnamed narrator. The main character, like Greenwell himself, is a thinking writer and a poet, which informs his language and his approach to art-making. During his first encounter with Mitko, in which he pays Mitko for his performance, so to speak, he muses:
But then there’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.
The novel is bursting with such observations, as quotable as they are uncanny in the precision with which they reveal the transactional, often confounding nature of desires — and what determines them. Two sections that chronicle the narrator’s relationship with Mitko bookend a single-paragraph, 42-page second section of astonishing urgency, scope, and skill, in which the narrator, out on a long walk, re-enacts the joys and traumas of his childhood in order to consider his father’s legacy and imminent death.
Its place in the larger narrative of our protagonist, as he’s teaching English at the American College and looking for love in all the ostensibly wrong places, functions much like David’s recollection of his first lover, Joey, from his school days, in Giovanni’s Room — as an origin point. Once again, however, the terms of the two books are inverted: while it is an ashamed David who puts an end to his relationship with Joey, it is Greenwell’s narrator who is essentially abandoned by his best friend and first love K. after they spend an evening in an intimate (but chaste) embrace. Later, the desire between the two boys is triangulated between K.’s first girlfriend, for whom the narrator becomes both watchman and voyeur:
He knew I was watching and he let me watch. It was like a parting gift, I thought as I kept watching his face and the movements it made, it looked almost as if he were in pain. I was in pain too, and almost without thinking I let my hand drop between my legs and gripped myself hard. I’ve sought it ever since, I think, the combination of exclusion and desire I felt in his room, beneath the pain of exclusion the satisfaction of desire; sometimes I think it’s the only thing I’ve sought.
The indefatigable desire realized in K.’s room, and its repetition in the form of Mitko, also recalls David’s description of Giovanni’s: “It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room.”
For the narrator of What Belongs to You, K.’s rejection is also already something of an echo — of an experience with his father when he “must have been nine or ten” in which he unknowingly transgresses the boundaries of filial affection and which signals “the end of care:”
…his look entered me and settled there and has never left, it rooted beneath memory and became my understanding of myself, my understanding and expectation.
There’s nothing particularly revelatory in the idea that our relationships with our parents and early attempts at intimacy shape what we seek in our romantic pursuits as adults — the credit goes to Sigmund Freud there — but the remarkable intervention Greenwell makes in What Belongs to You, as Baldwin did in Giovanni’s Room, is that for gay men, the sociocultural trauma of sexual difference is just as integral an etiological force, and one that informs both our relationships with our parents and our adolescent fumblings. Neither What Belongs to You nor Giovanni’s Room is a coming-of-age novel, quite, but both deal with the consequences of having come-of-age gay in a particular time and place.
That the two novels differ substantially should be obvious on the basis of their differing authors and publication dates alone, but both are great gay novels, and, I think, achieve that success according to a similar mechanism. Just as Giovanni’s Room was the novel that best expressed the precarious and shifting social position of American gay men in the mid-20th century, so What Belongs to You offers us an almost uncomfortably clear articulation of our own time.
Published 60 years prior, in a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness and the prospect of same-sex marriage must have seemed laughable, Giovanni’s Room is, accordingly, a sadder book. This isn’t to minimize what a sad book What Belongs to You is, however (if you are, like me, a crier, you’ve been forewarned). Its story and title invite us to consider what does belong to us, whether we share the relative social privilege of its narrator or, like the doomed Mitko (or Giovanni, or even David), are trapped in an environment in which it seems impossible to follow our desires to their fulfillment. What belongs to us, Greenwell opines, is what we inherit — from our lovers, our families, and our cultures. What Belongs to You commits itself to revealing how our desires are forged in our early moments of rejection, frustration, and punishment, how even as we grow up and into lives in which we might be free to pursue our desires in whatever form they take, we are never truly free. We do not shape our desires so much as they shape us.
In a sense, the novel’s first sentence is a synecdoche of the whole, in which Mitko’s betrayal is a stand-in for the much larger betrayal of a world that teaches us to be ashamed of our attractions:
That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should have in turn made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely.
But finally, the response this book offers to the question of what belongs to us, if it is not quite joyful, is hopeful — and key to understanding what makes it the great gay novel of today. Greenwell’s narrator does ultimately find a healthy, reciprocal love in the form of a long distance relationship. And the role that Skype plays in that relationship is not incidental. Though the narrator first meets Mitko in an old-world cruising spot, the new possibilities for gay connection that technology has created are central to this book, as reflected in Mitko’s fascination with electronics he cannot afford, and both his and the narrator’s use of gay chatrooms as a means to mitigate loneliness (and for Mitko, to arrange his appointments).
We live in a time of a great transition, in which, for the fortunate, the experience of being gay does indeed get better. But the very construction of “it gets better” depends on the fact of it once having been worse, and it is this difficult passage between rejection and acceptance (from others and of the self) that characterizes gay identity in What Belongs to You. In his narrator, Greenwell has created a character who, somewhat counterintuitively, functions as an archetype of the gay experience today: moving from shame and secrecy toward liberation, even as liberation remains difficult to realize. Despite the vivid specificity of the narrator’s biographical details (which, it’s worth mentioning, bear a striking resemblance to Greenwell’s own life), his narrator, meaningfully nameless, remains capacious. If it would be a stretch to call him a universal character (this reviewer is also a gay poet, after all), it is important to recognize the ways in which the arc of his life epitomizes a certain moment in American culture: he’s a child of upwardly mobile middle-class parents, of divorce (and therefore also of the death of the nuclear family), and of the legacy of domestic violence, caught in a cultural moment of changing mores and moral panic, when the mainstreaming of psychotherapy spelled for a larger reckoning with family secrets, and when being gay was still mostly associated with AIDS and pedophilia.
Though he must recognize the enduring consequences of this legacy, that Greenwell’s narrator succeeds in imagining — and then making — a life in which he is not condemned by his desires is no small change in the history of gay literature. It heartens me to think that in 100 years, a young gay reader may no longer recognize the experience in this book as his own, as I don’t quite recognize mine in Giovanni’s Room. Greenwell’s masterful first novel suggests that in addition to all the pain we inherit, something else might belong to us too: something of our choosing — in another room, another country, another future — at the end of the street, just out of sight.
I’m a binge reader. And I also read in spurts. Usually when I’m not caught up inside the lives of characters I’ve created and I can’t or don’t want to disrupt the dream. I don’t read to escape anything. I read to feel better. To respect other folks’ lives, the difficulties they’re facing, the way they manage, ignore, or flee from them. I want to see how the writer makes me care about the people she’s invented because I want to believe they could be real, that their problems are complex but plausible, such that I forget about my own and am empowered by watching, and fingers-crossed that these characters will unravel some of these knots in such a way that when they arrive at another plateau, a clearing, regardless of how temporary, I’ll be just as relieved for them as they are. I want to go on an emotional journey where their payoff is also my payoff, and when I close the book I not only feel grateful for my life, but the story I’ve just read has enriched me and it’s power has now snuck into my heart and soul and will be with me forever. I don’t ever forget a good book because I am changed. In much the same way being in love changes you.
Having said this, I admit I was feeling pretty purple earlier this year, so I revisited these novels and story collections that were guaranteed to take me on realistic journeys I knew would make me laugh out loud, empower and uplift me, but also make me feel as if what I was going through couldn’t compare to what these folks were dealing with. Of course, they delivered and helped me feel lavender again.
Haircut & Other Stories by Ring Lardner. Back in college, when I first read “Haircut” and “I Can’t Breathe,” I hadn’t read any stories where the characters spoke in voices that weren’t measured or “pretty” (like we’d been forced to read in high school literature class), but they were conversational, tragic, and hilarious. Ring Lardner taught me that humor could be taken seriously, and his idiosyncratic and satirical style helped me to honor my own voice. Plus, we’re both from Michigan!
We the Animals by Justin Torres. A 126-page novel that broke my heart from page one. I’d never read a coming-of-age story about a Puerto Rican family, and this one is both heartbreaking and beautiful because Torres’s prose is pungent, written in jewel-tones, but not deliberately to draw attention to it. I cried while reading this novel, and believed every word of it because I know families and especially children who do suffer like this, but am glad some of them are able to escape out into the open and survive.
The Boat by Nam Le. I wish I could write like him! From the opening of the first short story: “My father arrived on a rainy morning. I was dreaming about a poem, the dull thluck thluck of a typewriter’s keys punching out the letters. It was a good poem — perhaps the best I’d written. When I woke up, he was standing outside my bedroom door, smiling ambiguously.” What an image. Nam Le was 29 when this collection of stories was published, but he writes as if he has a long past. His prose is seamless and the stories offered me a glimpse inside the lives and worlds of people I would probably never come to know, but his genius is how he manages to capture the voices of characters unlike himself, characters whose struggles reflect all of our humanity.
I’m a sucker for a strong voice in fiction and memoir, which is why I’ve seen fit to get reenergized to prepare for my next novel by rereading these masterpieces: Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price; Who Do You Love by Jean Thompson, Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons; Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan; Loving Donovan by Bernice L. McFadden; Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, and my favorite memoirist, Rick Bragg: All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, and The Prince of Frogtown. (They read like novels and I thought for sure Rick was probably black or a member of my family based on how his kinfolks lived, as well as the language he used).
It goes without saying that I usually reread One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez and his short story collections about every two to three years, mostly because I want to believe in magic not just magic realism.
I wish I could write a short story, but I’m too long-winded, which is why I have so much respect for them. Also, it’s easy to read two or three short stories back to back and travel emotionally without feeling you’re ending a marriage, but simply getting off an exit, which is another reason why I devour The Best American Short Stories annually (as I’ve since 1984), along with The O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses and New Stories from the South.
There are so many brilliant and powerful writers whose work doesn’t get the attention it deserves, I wish I could tell them how grateful I am for all the beauty, joy, and pleasure reading their words have given me. Their stories have been life affirming. And we so need it now.
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