Nothing triggers my raging Impostor Syndrome quite like being asked to account for my year in reading by a fancy literary website. What did I read this year that was good — both in the sense that I liked it, and the sense that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to admit I liked it? Did I read anything good this year? Did I read anything at all? What is a book?
I have receipts that prove I bought a lot of books this year, at least, so let’s start with a sampling of 2015 purchases, separated according to my two main reasons for reading at the moment.
1. Because I’m Writing a Work of “Historiographic Metafiction” about 19th-Century Feminists, Plus a Critical Companion Piece, and if I Don’t Screw It up, I’ll Get a Ph.D. at the End of It
A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction by Linda Hutcheon
Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner
Trial and Triumph by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Vol. II: Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1866-1873 edited by Ann D. Gordon
The Humbugs of the World by P.T. Barnum
Twelve Causes of Dishonesty by Henry Ward Beecher
Traps for the Young by Anthony Comstock
The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson
Alias Grace; The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru
2. Because, Occasionally, I Stop Working on My Dissertation/Checking Twitter Long Enough to Read for Pleasure
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s by Richard Beck
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai
Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise
Loving Day by Mat Johnson
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton
If I had actually read all those books, I would feel I’d made a respectable enough showing, but the ratio of books I buy to books I read all the way through has always been about 10 to one. I’ve dipped into most of them, and I can’t imagine eventually finishing any of these books and being mortified that I once mentioned it near my own name in a post at a fancy literary website. But if I’m going to speak honestly about my year in reading — beyond just submitting “the entire fucking internet, front to back, endlessly” — then I should probably focus on books that I a) finished and b) remember well. Right?
So I started thinking back month by month. In January, I spent my 40th birthday reading an ARC of Saint Mazie on the beach in Miami, falling in love with Jami Attenberg’s brave, witty, sexy, generous, heartbreaking heroine. In February, I reread Possession for the first time since college in the ’90s, marveling again at Byatt’s erudition, ambition, and perfectly calibrated storytelling. In March, I read Petite Mort, shortly after meeting Bea Hitchman and hearing her read from this twisty, brainy thriller that made me care about early cinematic techniques nearly as much as the central characters. In May, my preorder of Loving Day arrived, and in June, so did Music for Wartime; Mat Johnson and Rebecca Makkai have become drop-everything authors for me in the last few years, the kind who irresistibly combine intellectual seriousness with a total lack of self-seriousness. In July, on a rocky Canadian beach, I read Luckiest Girl Alive, which I honestly don’t remember much of now, but I remember enjoying it and thinking that, unlike Girl on the Train, it was not too unreasonably compared to Gone Girl. (Oh, right, I guess I also read Girl on the Train this year.) In August, my first solo book came out, and I started a tour that severely cut into my time for reading anything else, but I read a lot of fragments for school and blew through Step Aside, Pops in one highly satisfying hour.
There were other books I finished in 2015 — more keep coming back to me — but those are the ones that came immediately to mind, a fact that now gives me pause (and should have much earlier). A large portion of my novel deals with the way white men in power play men of color and white women off against each other, encouraging us to fight each other for scraps, while even those are kept out of reach of women of color. It happened during the fight over the 15th Amendment, during the Civil Rights Movement, during the 2008 Democratic primaries, and it’s been happening in the academy and the literary world ever since it occurred to folks in charge, about 15 minutes ago, that reading lists composed entirely of white men are perhaps too narrow in scope. As a 21st-century ranty feminist, I like to think I’m above all that, and yet there’s my actual reading list from the past year: A bunch of white women, and one mixed-race man.
As I write this, people who care about writing, literary gossip, and the publishing industry are all abuzz over Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay “On Pandering,” which has become a sort of Rorschach blot for everyone’s writerly grievances. Me, I was so enraged by Stephen Elliott’s behavior toward Watkins (and lack of shame in writing about it publicly), I blocked out nearly everything else she wrote. But other writers I admire, from The Toast’s Nicole Chung to Booker winner Marlon James, swiftly noted that in addition to the white-guy pandering Watkins describes, there’s a whole lot of pandering to white ladies going on in the book world. Do those of us sharing the post so widely and enthusiastically even realize that?
As I said to Nicole on Twitter, I came out of my M.F.A. program 10 years ago well over being impressed by the Serious White Men Everyone Loves — I believe my exact words were “Fuck Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy” — but all I did was sub in writers who look more like me. When I write a new syllabus, I told her, I always think of 40 white women I love right away, then have to cut most of them to add writers of color — maybe even, when it’s a slow misandry day, a couple of men. I do make a point of diversifying every syllabus beyond a token author or two, but why is that always Step Two?
Because, although I buy work by writers of color, it seems I’m still far more likely to read and retain work by white women — especially ones I know in real life. I knew I leaned that way, but I wouldn’t have guessed the imbalance was so extreme before I sat down and took stock. (And that’s without even counting my failed attempt to read Elena Ferrante because fancy literary people are so bonkers for her.)
I can understand why it happens: books written by people similar to me absorb my attention most easily, and are thus the ones I resist countless distractions to finish. But a zillion years of white men feeling that way about books written by and for white men is, of course, how so many of us ended up feeling like they were the only audience worth writing for. It was bullshit when they did it, and it’s bullshit I need to consciously interrupt in my 2016 reading. My account of next year’s reading may not be any fancier than this, but it will probably be a lot more interesting.
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Stand on Zanzibar is that rarity among science fiction novels — it really made accurate predictions about the future. The book, published in 1969, is set in the year 2010, and this allows us to make a point-by-point comparison, and marvel at novelist John Brunner’s uncanny ability to anticipate the shape of the world to come. Indeed, his vision of the year 2010 even includes a popular leader named President Obomi — face it, Nate Silver himself couldn’t have done that back in 1969!
Let me list some of the other correct predictions in Brunner’s book:
(1) Random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools, plague society in Stand on Zanzibar.
(2) The other major source of instability and violence comes from terrorists, who are now a major threat to U.S. interests, and even manage to attack buildings within the United States.
(3) Prices have increased sixfold between 1960 and 2010 because of inflation. (The actual increase in U.S. prices during that period was sevenfold, but Brunner was close.)
(4) The most powerful U.S. rival is no longer the Soviet Union, but China. However, much of the competition between the U.S. and Asia is played out in economics, trade, and technology instead of overt warfare.
(5) Europeans have formed a union of nations to improve their economic prospects and influence on world affairs. In international issues, Britain tends to side with the U.S., but other countries in Europe are often critical of U.S. initiatives.
(6) Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East.
(7) Although some people still get married, many in the younger generation now prefer short-term hookups without long-term commitment.
(8) Gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream, and pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance are widely used (and even advertised in the media).
(9) Many decades of affirmative action have brought blacks into positions of power, but racial tensions still simmer throughout society.
(10) Motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells. Honda (primarily known as a motorcycle manufacturers when Brunner wrote his book) is a major supplier, along with General Motors.
(11) Yet Detroit has not prospered, and is almost a ghost town because of all the shuttered factories. However. a new kind of music — with an uncanny resemblance to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s — has sprung up in the city.
(12) TV news channels have now gone global via satellite.
(13) TiVo-type systems allow people to view TV programs according to their own schedule.
(14) Inflight entertainment systems on planes now include video programs and news accessible on individual screens at each seat.
(15) People rely on avatars to represent themselves on video screens — Brunner calls these images, which either can look like you or take on another appearance you select — “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere.”
(16) Computer documents are generated with laser printers.
(17) A social and political backlash has marginalized tobacco, but marijuana has been decriminalized.
Other science fiction books have occasionally made successful predictions, from Jules Verne’s Around the Moon (1865), which eerily anticipated many details of the Apollo program, to William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) with its descriptions of cyberspace and hackers. But Brunner’s work stands out as the most uncanny anticipation of what would actually change — and what would stay the same — in the decades following its publication. Certainly, there are many details, large and small, that Brunner got wrong. But even when the particulars don’t ring true, the overarching theme of Stand on Zanzibar, which is the hidden cost of our obsession with human perfectibility, is just as relevant today as when Brunner wrote his novel.
In this book, each of the major characters is on a mission to improve the human race, and in ways that are all-too-familiar to us today. Sometimes this preoccupation manifests itself in legislation and regulation; politics — both national and global — increasingly manifests itself as a competition between different schemes for human improvement in Stand on Zanzibar. Certainly that attitude shows no sign of going out of style in the current day. Even minor characters in Stand on Zanzibar distinguish themselves by their zeal for upgrading the species, whether through writing books filled with advice and indictments, or business investment in impoverished regions, or implementing ambitious software programs that improve the efficiency and quality of life, or just good, old psychological manipulation. These too are still part of our everyday life. But the most popular — and controversial — method of human improvement in the fictional world of 2010 presented by Brunner draws on biotechnology and the potential for tinkering with our DNA.
A few days before I wrote this essay, I ran across an article about a Harvard professor who proposes placing Stone Age genes in a human embryo, then implanting it in an “adventurous woman” who would serve as surrogate mother for the the resulting Neanderthal baby. This scenario sounds like something lifted straight from the pages of Stand on Zanzibar. In Brunner’s novel, a prominent professor named Sugaiguntung is working on a comparable line of research, and hopes to create superhumans by drawing on his experiences manipulating the DNA of orangutans. Indeed, the sci-fi story sounds more plausible than the news story.
The plot is deliberately fractured and presented in fragments by Brunner, who modeled his work on John Dos Passos’s similarly structured (or rather unstructured) U.S.A. Trilogy. Like Dos Passos, he interjects headlines, bits of news stories, song lyrics, self-contained background interludes, and other cultural bric-à-brac into his narrative. But unlike Dos Passos, Brunner finds ways of pulling the different threads together into extravagant new shapes — most notably in the final pages, when a novel that seems too disparate to cohere surprises readers by the elegance with which all the pieces come together. And though there are many things to admire in this prickly, unconventional book, perhaps the most impressive feat is our author’s ability to maintain tight control with a clear sense of purpose and direction even when the narrative appears the most anarchic and chaotic. Put another way, what originally comes across as a free-spirited 1960s novel, long on attitude but short on clarity, turns out to have more in common with those artful new millennium novels, such as Cloud Atlas, A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Gods Without Men, in which all the storylines converge, the colorful subplots fitting together into a brilliant and unexpected mosaic.
Two diverging plot lines dominate the novel. Norman House is an African-American who has joined the senior management of GT, a multinational corporation akin to General Electric. To advance his career and staunch his growing alienation, House signs on to an ambitious project in Africa that promises both to make bundles of money and also improve the quality of life for the citizens of a desperately poor Third World nation. At almost the same moment, House’s roommate Donald Hogan embarks on an even more challenging project — one that requires him to operate as a spy in a hostile Asian country, loosely based on Indonesia, where amazing breakthroughs in genetic research have been announced.
These two plot lines will eventually come together, but Brunner takes his time in this big, discursive book, and much of the appeal from Stand on Zanzibar comes from the subplots and minor characters. A bohemian author named Chad C. Mulligan provides both insight and comic relief in equal doses, and is such a persuasive figure that he deserves to star in a novel of his own. Guinivere Steel, the hard-edged leader of a boutique chain, is another compelling figure who only gets a bit part. Her specialty is throwing extravagant society parties in which the entertainment is built around her humiliation of the guests, especially those she doesn’t want to invite to her next soirée. And, staying true to a time-honored sci-fi tradition, Brunner includes one top-notch digital character, the computer Shalmaneser, which is to the GT Corp what that chess-playing electronic brain Deep Blue is to IBM.
As I look back at the remarkable burst of experimentation in science fiction during the 1960s, led primarily by the younger New Wave authors, I am frequently disappointed by how few of them hold up nowadays. Too often, bold techniques that promised to open up new terrain to SF during the 1960s and 1970s ended up as stylistic dead ends by the time we got to the 1980s and 1990s. But Brunner, older than most of the other New Wave authors and in some ways the least likely to deliver a breakthrough novel — he had been churning out conventional genre books, sometimes a half-dozen or more in a single year, for almost two decades when he published Stand on Zanzibar — raised the ante further in these pages and won on his big bet. And he did so with a risky gambit, in which both form and content were stretched to their limits. That he managed to get so many predictions right along the way is to his credit, but hardly the only reason to read this one-of-a-kind novel.
Reared in the dressing rooms of the 18th century, the novel can often seem out of place in our age of LOLcats and Angry Birds. But in spite of its advanced age and sometimes stuffy reputation, the old chap is surprisingly nimble. In the technological tumult of the past decade, for example, YA went through puberty, electric literature moved out of the ivory tower, and the literary novel was successfully (for the most part) cross-pollinated with a number of more exotic genres.
In the midst of all this, a strange literary beast has reemerged, a hybrid of the short story and traditional novel. This newly reinvigorated genre — let’s call it the polyphonic novel — uses a chorus of voices and narrative styles to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Think Nicole Krauss’s Great House or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists.
Just as polyphonic music combines melodies to create texture and tension, the polyphonic novel collects a multiplicity of distinct, often conflicting voices around a single place, family, object, or idea. Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze. Drawing inspiration from classics like The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, and John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, contemporary polyphonic novels make music from the messy cacophony that is life in the 21st century.
Bypassing traditional notions of character and plot, polyphonic novels create meaning at the intersection of seemingly random plot lines. Harmonies are found in the artful assemblage of disparate voices. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “A plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” Eschewing objectivity and uniformity, polyphonic novels rely instead on simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices.
Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, is a perfect example of the genre. The book traces four Londoners as they attempt to understand, escape, and make their way through Kilburn, the working-class neighborhood where they all grew up. With each new narrator, the novel loops back on itself, answering and expanding upon questions raised by previous sections. Towards the beginning of the book, for example, one of the main characters watches her best friend and her best friend’s husband exchange a glace across a crowded party. “She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all.” Two hundred pages later, we have begun to understand the glance in all its sad complexity. The seemingly enviable couple is really nothing but “an advert for themselves,” “like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.”
Polyphony is particularly well-suited to excavations of the urban landscape. (For what is a city if not a collection of conflicting voices?) In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann mobilizes a chorus of seemingly incongruous voices to conjure a portrait of New York in the 1970s. Skipping between narrators — an aging prostitute, an Irish monk, a judge, and an irresponsible young artist, to name just a few — McCann creates a dissonant, yet synchronistic world nearly as vivid and wonderfully cluttered as the city itself.
But polyphonic novels need not live in the city. Take, for example, Hari Kunzru’s brilliant Gods Without Men, which layers the Mojave desert with a progression of characters searching for meaning in the void. Narrators pop up and fade away. They build doomsday bunkers, military bases, and geodesic domes. They spend decades looking for truth, but the quiet mystery of the desert subsumes them all. As the final narrator writes, “that which is infinite is known only to itself and cannot be contained in the mind of man.”
Contemporary polyphonic novels come in a wide variety of flavors. Many find structure in the family. Others, like The Imperfectionists, are shaped around the extended family of the workplace. Ian McEwan’s Atonement centers around a single act of accusation. While Great House and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book follow a single object through history, dipping in and out of the lives of those who have possessed it. And then there are those polyphonic novels built on nothing more than an idea. Swirling around seemingly unapproachable concepts such as authorship and fictionality, aging and time, novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit From the Goon Squad use a variety of forms and styles to create a sense of scope that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a single narrator.
It can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between these most disparate polyphonic novels and linked short story collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Emma Donoghue’s Astray. Often, unfortunately, this border is delineated by marketing departments eager to attract readers (who, as conventional wisdom would have it, are drawn like moths to those two tiny words, “a novel,” tucked away at the bottom of the book cover). As Jay McInerney grumbled in a recent review: “I suspect that if Dubliners had been published in recent years it would have been marketed as a novel.”
Whether or not his assessment is true, many readers agree with McInerney’s basic premise. Indeed, a quick perusal of Goodreads reveals a sizable cadre of those frustrated by polyphonic novels’ lack of traditional plot and character development. As one reviewer on the Great House page wrote: “writing a book of short stories, fitting them together Tetris-like, and calling it a novel DOES NOT MAKE YOUR BOOK A NOVEL.” Even some professional critics seem flummoxed by polyphony (see, for example, Douglas Copeland on Gods Without Men or Mike Peed on Let the Great World Spin).
While certain readers and critics might be frustrated by shifting genre boundaries and non-linearity, the polyphonic novel has found favor among those responsible for giving out literary awards. Almost all of the books mentioned above have won (or should win) major literary prizes. The finalists for the past decade of Pulitzers, Bookers, and National Book Awards include quite a few works that could be described as polyphonic. This might be a coincidence, or a peculiar bias of the awards’ judges. Regardless, these awards indicate that the polyphonic novel occupies an important sector of the contemporary literary landscape.
With each foray onto the Internet, each ping and clang, we are searching for meaning in a haystack of data, balancing perspectives, trying to find reason in a cacophony of opinion. Is it any wonder we are drawn to fiction that reflects this new way of being, to a form that’s uniquely suited to our fragmented and globalized century? The novel survived the advent of radio, cinema, and television, thanks in large part to its pliability. And the novel will continue to survive so long as it continues to adapt.
One of the most exciting new books of 2013 hits shelves today: Tenth of December by George Saunders. Also out are Will Self’s Booker shortlisted Umbrella, Rage Is Back by Adam Mansbach, Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra, Scenes from Early Life by Philip Hensher, The River Swimmer: Novellas by Jim Harrison, Y by Marjorie Celona, Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman Love is a Canoe by Ben Schrank, Driver’s Education by Grant Ginder, and new from NYRB Classics is Testing the Current by William McPherson, with an introduction by D.T. Max. New in paperback are Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru and The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. There are many more new books to explore, of course, in our huge 2013 books preview, published this week.