In Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, the eponymous Spivet faults a chemistry teacher for falling short of his profession’s duty. Petty and competitive, he has failed, in Spivet’s words, to “distribute wonder.” Like so many in that novel, the formulation lodged itself in my memory, stowed away for future theft. It occurs to me now, however, that the phrase is best repeated to describe Larsen himself, whose extraordinary second novel, I Am Radar, an epic about genocide, performance art, and puppetry, has just been published.
Larsen, as game and thoughtful an interviewee as he is novelist, agreed to talk with me about Radar and my own forthcoming debut, The Poser, a novel about a man born with the compulsion and ability to imitate anyone he meets.
Jacob Rubin: I Am Radar spans radically divergent places, many of which, though not all, are undergoing or on the verge of genocide. There is Cambodia of the ’70s, Congo in 2010, the Bosnian War, Norway of the ’70s, and (perhaps most horrific) New Jersey in 2010. From the outset, did you know these places would make up the book? Were there other settings you considered? At what point in the process, did you know that the performance art group Kirkenesferda would be the novel’s linchpin?
Reif Larsen: During the first three years I was writing Radar I had no idea where this book was going. I originally started in what is now part three, then quickly realized I had to go both back in time but also laterally in space and story. The book really felt like it had this willful mind of its own, which I know is a schizophrenic thing to say because there was no one making this all up but me, but at times I really felt like I was riding this bucking bronco and just trying to hang for dear life. And the book was like: “We’re going to Cambodia, motherfucker.” And I was like…“Okay, fine whatever, you say. Just don’t kill me.” Obviously the cheerful through line of genocide limited some of the places I could potentially set the book in. Also, all of these places I’d had some kind of prior interest in or history with. (My roommate during grad school was writing a book about Cambodia. My friend had been going to the Congo for years making movies.) So the book just started gobbling these places up like a hungry monster. And in the end, I did get to visit all of them too, which was slightly uncanny, particularly when I’d written a scene in a place I’d never been to and then actually went to that place. I was constantly racked by a kind of fictional déjà vu.
Kirkenesferda came about organically. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to establish this group that was there but not there. A kind of ghost — formed by a literature around it, by images and references and anecdotes, and this weird, Borgesian book of all books that obsessively documented the history of the group but which itself cannot be found. There is a line from the novel: “After a while the reader cannot help but wonder how anyone could be so committed to something if it were not, at least in some sense, true. Devotion, at its core, must be a kind of truth.” So I wanted to press this notion of “devotion as confirmation” to its inevitable breaking point.
JR: Let me ask you about curiosity, which seems paramount in your work. In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, we have Spivet’s joyful, compulsive mapmaking. In Radar, it’s reflected both in the performance group’s mission and in the novel’s radical inclusiveness. I’m thinking, in particular, of the brilliant elucidations of real world phenomena, such as talking drums, quantum mechanics, telegraphy, puppetry, radiography, Morse code, among much else. What is your research process like? I realize the answer here is probably “both,” but which comes first — do you have the inkling that you’ll want to write about a certain place (ie. Cambodia in the ’70s) and then study it, or do you come to experience a place (Norway, for instance) and then feel the itch to set something there?
RL: As you suspected, there’s often a crazy interrelationship between my research and writing. Something will get stuck in my craw years before I ever write a word of the book — in this case it was a micro puppet show I witnessed down a dark staircase in Prague — and it will remain stuck, and I’ll keep coming back to it and usually this is a good sign I’m going to have to digest it via fiction somehow. Usually it’s not a one-to-one correspondence and not at all clear how that little morsel of observation will manifest itself on the page. Often the original reference will become quite veiled. I’ve been accused of writing “anti-autobiographical” fiction.
But then, just as often, my interests come out of the story itself. I will be writing a sentence and the father brings out a Morse Key and I’ll be like, “Shit. Gotta go learn about telegraphy.” For me, it’s always very important to be open to these kinds of messages (Morse or otherwise). The book will tell you what it’s interested in and then you have to go meet its demands. I was also amazed about the inclusivity of this particular book. The challenge was to cover that much ground and still make it feel like a novel, which I wasn’t really sure I did until the thing was finished, five years later. Still not quite sure, actually.
Along these lines, what was your process for researching Giovanni’s imitations? Part of the brilliance of this conceit is that imitations are the stuff of good fiction — noticing these inexplicable details that are there but not there, “the thread” that is unique to only this character. You are forcing yourself to write to specifics, to write compelling descriptions, but also to mine that vital territory of what separates a description of a person from the person itself. So I could see you writing this book armed with only the research of living on this planet as an observant being, but did you do other work as well?
JR: I did do some research, mainly about clothes in the 1940s and some of the history of Hollywood and of the Red Scare in Hollywood, as echoes of that period make their way into the book. In terms of the impressions themselves, as you suspected, I relied mainly on observation, experience, and caffeine. It was fun, though, to dramatize natural qualities of the writer (gesture obsession, hyper-observation) without Giovanni literally having to be one.
To get back to process for a sec, once you’ve assembled some of the research and let the book lead you to where it wants to go, do you think at all about genre? In the same way the best sci-fi bridges those liminal gaps between existing science and the science of, like, 12 hours from now, I Am Radar pulls at the bounds of what seems currently feasible. Did you think of it as science fiction?
RL: As a storyteller, I get very confused by the notion of genre. Even now, if you put a gun to my head I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. If there is a talking robot is it science fiction? If there is a dwarf with an axe and a cappuccino is it fantasy? I mean what even is YA anymore? Smaller words? Less complex emotional situations? No sodomy? Mostly genre is a shortcut for publishers and readers looking to categorize stories. Good writers rarely take shortcuts so genre doesn’t seem to be a very helpful discourse for us. A story is a story is a story.
JR: I want to ask about the theme of the exceptional. Radar, like The Selected Works of TS Spivet, explores precocity and its consequences. Many of the oddballs, eccentrics, and foundlings (some literal) who comprise Kirkenesferda are prodigies of a kind. I guess my question is about precocity and family. The precocity seems to give these collaborators joy and a kind of destiny at the price, often, of emotional orphanhood. How often does genius for these characters represent an expression of who they are, and how often does it represent a flight from home, or, at times, a burden parentally imposed?
RL: I’m not sure how to answer this question entirely — I, like many, am obsessed with the unanswerable questions of nature v. nurture and what is inherited and what is created on our own. It’s probably the most fundamental question of our humanness. But I do think you’ve pinned me to a familiar theme that comes up in my writing, which are these people who are imbalanced in some way — they present a particularly extraordinary skillset in one dimension, but then offer suffer an emotional imbalance because of it. Imbalanced characters are much more interesting to write about and throw up onto the canvas. There’s some purchase there and the imbalance leads to movement across the page. But the precocity that you’re referencing does allow for a sort of celebration of the strange; these characters have access to unusual or profound habits or thought processes that give you an excuse to tunnel deep into a mind or a scene or situation.
The same could be said, I suppose, about Giovanni, yes? He’s a great example of an imbalance in a character — a great skill at mimicry but paired with this interpersonal stuntedness. And I think you trace his growth so well over the course of the book. We really feel like we grow with Giovanni as he accepts, masters, and succumbs to his gifts. We feel his pitfalls and his triumphs. As a writer, how do you pace such growth on the page? How do you make it believable?
JR: Oh, definitely, yes. There’s a Buddhist adage about this, the exact wording of which I’m forgetting now, but it’s something like, the worn pocket leads to enlightenment more readily than the gilded robe (I write horrible fortunes cookies on the side). The idea, I think, is, “your strength is your weakness” because you will almost certainly rely too much on your strength, which creates an imbalance, a problem. This is certainly the case with Giovanni who is, in the end, impaired by his gift.
In terms of tracing growth, I think that’s really a matter of rhythm, of merciless rereading, of seeing when certain moments feel like they should come, and then engineering things as best you can to have that moment come maybe slightly before it’s expected. Like a lot of white people, I love rap music, and I’ve noticed really skilled rappers often complete the run of breath just slightly before the downbeat. Jay Z does this a lot. If he hit the beat exactly, it would feel late somehow. I became a bit obsessive about trying to do that with paragraphs and scenes.
What about getting started, inspiration? You’ve said that Susan Sontag’s decision to stage Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1992 was a seed for Radar. How did that seed begin to flower? Were there others?
RL: This is an example of one of those things that got stuck in my craw before a word ever hit the page. I had read an article Sontag wrote about her time putting on Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the war and it struck me as so absurd, almost offensive, in its audacity: to believe that this city under literal siege, where crossing every intersection became a life or death situation because of the snipers, where there was no running water, where people were saving a single onion so that it would last for weeks — why would you go to this place and believe that putting on Godot could possibly be a good idea? But Sontag did and her actors risked their lives to be in the show and the theatre was in terrible shape and people came and after the war they named a street after her. But that knife edge between the sublime and the offensive was something I wanted to explore: the human necessity to put on this existential farce while real horrors were knocking on the door. It gets at the deepest questions of why we feel this strong, totally inexplicable will to create art. We will turn our lives upside down just so we can create art. And these are very personal questions for me because not a day goes by that I do not have some kind of deep doubt about why I’m spending my life writing silly books when there are people in real need out there. And yet I continue to write.
But while we are on this topic: let me ask you…what were the seeds for The Poser? What’s been your own experience acting or on the stage? Often first novels are famous for the writer throwing everything into it (is Radar actually a first novel?) but what I admired about your book was how controlled it felt. The boundaries of the world and the story were delineated in this very self-assured way. Did you spend a lot of time editing down the book?
JR: That Sontag story is fascinating, and Radar explores that dialectic of futility/essentiality so well. I do have some history with performance. I was a rapper in a college hip-hop group in the early-2000s and have done stand-up comedy, so I think a lot about the stage and performance. Years ago I used to entertain at kids’ parties as a juggler, which is my humblebrag way of saying I was a sex symbol. I think I like the disguise the stage demands and the way that disguise allows for the truth. The whole mask thing. It’s a very simple paradox, really, but is somehow, for me, inexhaustible.
I’m glad it felt controlled, thank you. Earlier iterations were less so. This is sort of The Poser 3.0. As I worked through each incarnation of the book, I felt myself becoming more ruthless. I was like Walter White by the end of it. I cut hundreds of pages from the book. A whole section about Giovanni’s childhood. Cut. The asperity of cutting becomes its own sort of decadence. My editor had to stay my hand from cutting more. I wanted to get rid of everything remotely extraneous. The faux America in which the book takes place seemed to require a radical sparseness or the kind of heightening that sparseness ensures. Roberto Calasso has a nice bit about Franz Kafka, how in Kafka a “cabinet” is, like, the only cabinet in the world. It is the platonic Cabinet. In cutting things down, I wanted the nouns in the book to feel like that: the sole furnishings of a concrete abstraction.
This makes me wonder about a certain tradition of literature and its influence on you. Radar is inflected throughout by a Nabokovian sense of play. Elsewhere you’ve written about Orhan Pamuk. How important is a sense of the meta-textual and gamesmanship for you in writing and reading? Would you describe Vladimir Nabokov and Pamuk as influences on Radar? Were there novels you frequently reread or revisited while working on Radar?
RL: I feel like our generation of writers has been washed by the rains of postmodernism and come out the other side cleaner and a little wiser, but largely our own selves still. We can admire and applaud Roland Barthes and Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, but I get this sense from our peers that we’re maybe ultimately not that interested in turning the camera on the whole game and have that be it. In of itself this maneuver is not that interesting and feels like it’s been done before: “Yes! It’s a farce! Fiction is a mirage!” etc. Now that we’ve gotten this out of our system, I think we have permission to almost go back to telling stories. Because it turns out telling good stories — even if you’re propping them up on all kinds of canned maneuvers of realism — is, and will always be, really very hard.
That said, I remain interested in the mechanics of how we do what we do, almost like a boy picking apart an insect to see how all the parts connect. And, in this particular book, I was interested in not just postmodernism for postmodernism sake, but I was shooting for a kind of “quantum fiction,” based on the science of quantum mechanics, whereby you purposefully leave things in a state of indeterminacy — you don’t fundamentally address whether a character is alive or dead. And the trick is to do this so that it has an emotional impact, and isn’t just a game. All maneuvers of these sort I believe have to be working on a pathological level — they can’t just hit the reader in the brain, they have to hit them in the heart. And this is where a lot of postmodernists for me fell short.
I read many books doing research for Radar and quite a few novels. I have to be careful reading fiction while writing fiction because I find there’s a lot of spillover. I’m too exposed. I start copying whomever I’m reading in the moment. But this book took so long to write that I couldn’t avoid fiction altogether and there were a number of books that lent me great wisdom in the process. Many of them are listed in the bibliography, but some important ones were: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Graham Green’s The Quiet American, Danilo Kis’s Garden, Ashes, Miroslav Krleža’s The Return of Philip Latinowicz, and Willem Frederik Hermans’s Beyond Sleep.
What about you? Were their books that you turned to while writing The Poser? And what’s your relationship to other people’s fiction when you’re deep into writing your own?
JR: I’ve been meaning to read Garden, Ashes for years. This reminds me to do it. I am sort of a picky reader when I’m writing. Often I read the same passages from favorite books over and over until I’ve sucked all the word fuel out of them. Some specific works, though, did help as I was writing. Remainder by Tom McCarthy, when I was doing a later pass, helped me with some alienated descriptions of human gesture and attitude. I read some Steven Millhauser, too, who is so good at creating mysterious, seductive landscapes immanent with danger. I think I was also influenced by Robertson Davies’s The Deptford Trilogy, which has sort of lightly magical properties and a crisp, evocative prose style I liked. Otherwise, I often return to Thomas Bernhard, Barry Hannah, and Denis Johnson, and sometimes the poetry of Dave Berman and Emily Dickinson.
RL: So now that you’ve written your first book, what advice would you give to writers who are attempting to do the same?
JR: More and more, I think, solutions to writing problems are found away from the desk. Attention to an obstacle, I think, is like sunshine to a succulent: the more you marshal your energies against it, the more the obstacle tends to grow. Whereas if you go take a nap or throw a javelin or something, the obstacle might very well shimmer and disappear. Mind you, this is advice I almost never take myself, but when I do, it always seems to help.
It is easy to get discouraged, and there is no wonder why. There is much about writing that is unhealthy in a very real and clinical sense. Sitting, as we all now know, kills billions of people. The time spent away from regular company, required for the practice, can’t be good for serotonin or dopamine levels, not to mention vitamin D. Staring at the screen, even from the perch of an ergonomic chair, is terrible for your eyes, wrists, back, and shoulders. Of course, any real labor is a million times worse. It’s just, anyone privileged enough to think of writing a novel could likely entertain any number of careers that would provide at least decent remuneration, status, and some recognition, even the rare, implausible shot at improving the world. So, if despite this very real discomfort and uncertainty, you feel better writing than not — well, then you damn better keep writing.
And you? Any tips on approaching a second novel? Asking for a friend…
RL: Hmmm. The second novel is where things get tricky. All I can say is that it was much more difficult than the first. You become more aware of all the things you aren’t capable of doing. Also, maybe this will change with future books, but I wasn’t really sure how to apply my experience of the first book to the second. I had to learn how to write the ecosystem and logic of the new book and almost had to start from square one again. But I would say: don’t shy away from it. Take the more difficult path because who knows when you will ever write another?
On an August 2013 episode of The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, author Donald Antrim read and discussed Denis Johnson’s short story “Work.” Antrim said he remembered the liberation he associated with reading the story when it was published in The New Yorker in 1988: “At the time, I was trying to write stories myself, but they were somewhat dead and I think I felt a little lost…I think reading Denis Johnson had to have something to do with a sense of permission, a sense of freedom to do something that I didn’t understand fully and didn’t know how to imagine or envision.”
Antrim’s revelatory experience of reading the stories in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son – a linked collection that follows the drug-addled wanderings of a narrator known as “Fuckhead” — is far from unique. In 2012, Illustrator Jane Mount compiled My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection in which 100 contemporary cultural figures shared the books that mattered to them most. Jesus’ Son was tied alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses as the third most selected book. They both only trailed behind Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
On The New Yorker podcast, Antrim goes on to describe some of the unusual techniques in Jesus’ Son that have rattled so many readers and writers. Antrim notes the clipped and disoriented structure to many of the stories and scenes. He remarks on the speed of the narrative transitions. He says that there’s “an incoherence in the thought process that actually has a coherence.”
Then, as is the case on each episode of the podcast, Antrim reads the selected story: “I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.” Antrim proceeds through a story in which the narrator and his friend Wayne go to rip copper wire from an abandoned house. Then Wayne visits his wife while Fuckhead waits in the car. Then they go to the bar where they spend all the money they just made scrapping the copper wire. The story ends with Fuckhead gawking at the angelic bartender. “I’ll never forget you,” he thinks. “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”
New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman tells Donald Antrim about how she recently interviewed Denis Johnson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She says, “I asked him about this book, about Jesus’ Son…he’s quite dismissive of it when he talks about it now, and he said it’s just a rip-off of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry…” Antrim says that he’s never read Red Cavalry, and the discussion of Jesus’ Son, on its own terms, continues on.
But what does Denis Johnson mean by calling his most iconic book a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry — a classic of early 20th-century Russian literature? Johnson’s book features a ragtag cast of addicts in rural America, engaged in efforts of drug procurement and petty crime that almost always go wrong. Red Cavalry, on the other hand, features the title army during the Russian-Polish campaign, the Soviets’ first military effort toward spreading Communism to the rest of Europe. In terms of locations and circumstances, the books are radically different. But, on closer look, they actually do share a lot in common.
“The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head,” Babel writes in the opening story of Red Cavalry (as translated by Peter Constantine). “The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.”
In an introduction to Red Cavalry, Michael Dirda writes, “Violence and brutality mingle with a surreal, sometimes poetic beauty…This juxtaposition of an elevated literary style with coarse soldier’s talk, of strikingly original analogy with harsh naturalistic observation, lies at the heart of Babel’s achievement. In every way the stories yoke together opposites.”
Jesus’ Son actually works with a similar set of tools. “The sky is blue and the dead are coming back,” Johnson writes. “Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breast.”
Using “elevated literary style” alongside “harsh naturalistic observation,” both writers convey haunting and brutal landscapes. Babel: “Stars slithered out of the cool gut of the sky, and on the horizon abandoned villages flared up. With my saddle on my shoulders, I walked along a torn-up field path…” Johnson: “There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground…”
Both books feature frequent and intense poetic violence. Babel writes of Dolgushov who lies in the mud with his exposed heart beating and his intestines spilling out. “[He] placed his blue palms on the ground and looked at his hands in disbelief.” Johnson writes of McInnes, who’s been shot in the stomach and is dying in the backseat of a car. “[He] was white and sick, holding himself tenderly.”
Both writers seem to be geniuses of metaphors on the sky. Babel: “The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.” Johnson: “The sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge.”
What gets quickly lost when I put particular sections side-by-side like this is how radically different each book still really is. In a Red Cavalry story, a young Jewish soldier will accost an old woman and murder her goose to prove he’s not an intellectual sissy. In a Jesus’ Son story, a drugged-out hospital orderly will try to save a litter of “bunnies” in the desert to prove he’s not a fuck-up. “It’s a name that’s going to stick,” his friend Georgie tells him after he sits on and kills the rabbits. “‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave.”
Considerable narrative overlaps between the two books also exist, but they tend to be circumstances that are realized in newly distorted ways.
In one Red Cavalry story, the narrator transcribes another soldier’s letter home about, among other things, his brother Fyodorovna being “hacked” to pieces. “I wrote it down without embellishing it,” the narrator says, “and am recording it here word for word.” In Johnson’s “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” the narrator carefully shaves the face of another man in rehab, while that man tells him the story of each of his scars. “Are you going to change any of this for your poem?” he asks. “No,” the narrator says, “It’s going in word for word.”
Babel’s “Ivan and Ivan” and Johnson’s “Two Men” both feature men hitching rides who are perceived-to-be-faking deafness. Kirill Vasilyevich Lyutov shouts, “Are you deaf, Father Deacon, or not?” Fuckhead says, “Look…I know you can talk. Don’t act like we’re stupid.”
“What sort of person is our Cossack?” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty.” He stops, and then writes, “Omit the ‘revolutionary spirit.’” The same things might be said of Fuckhead. In “Out On Bail,” he steals and cashes Social Security checks from a dead tenant’s apartment, but he says he’s always believing he should be finding an honest way to make a few dollars, always believing he’s “an honest person who shouldn’t be doing things like that.” In “Dirty Wedding,” he mourns the death of his ex-girlfriend Michelle, who he once abandoned at the abortion clinic for a hooker at the Savoy Hotel: “[Michelle] was a woman, a traitor, and a killer. Males and females wanted her. But I was the only one who ever could have loved her.”
One of the more pronounced elements of both books is their narrative messiness. In The New York Times book review of Jesus’ Son, James McManus wrote, “The narrator’s inability to construct a ‘well-made’ story, or even to keep the facts of his life straight, expressively parallels the rest of his dysfunctional behavior.” McManus is talking about how Jack Hotel dies of a heroin overdose at the end of “Out on Bail,” and how, in the next story, Hotel returns, smokes hashish, and remarks, “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” as McInnis bleeds out in the back of the car. An early story in the collection is titled “Two Men.” Later in the book, in “The Other Man”, the narrator begins: “But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one…”
In “Emergency” — the prescription-pill-loaded narrator — undermining the entire story he had been telling up until that point — stops and reflects, “Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them.” He decides, “It doesn’t matter. What’s important for me to remember is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up.” In the final pages of the story, the narrative logistics turn impossible. Fuckhead and Georgie return to the hospital, possibly the same day they left. Then the narrator remembers how, just hours earlier, they had picked up their AWOL friend, Hardee, and how Georgie swore he’d get him across the border: “I think I know some people,” Georgie said to him. “Don’t worry. You’re on your way to Canada.”
Red Cavalry — in oftentimes strange and beautiful ways — is also haphazardly constructed. In “The Story Of A Horse,” Khlebnikov, a self-proclaimed white-stallion enthusiast, fails to reclaim his horse from Savitsky. Khlebnikov spends several days crying and writing a petition for his horse on a tree stump. At the end of the story, he’s discharged from the army as an “invalid” for his poor health and battle wounds. Ten stories later, in “The Continuation of the Story of a Horse,” the narrator reminds the reader of the disagreement between Khlebnikov and Savitsky, then transcribes a pair of no-hard-feelings correspondences between them; the horse only receives a brief and fairly inconsequential mention. “Thirty days I have been fighting in the rear guard, covering the retreat of the invincible First Red Cavalry and facing powerful gunfire from airplanes and artillery,” Savitsky writes to Khlebnikov. “Tardy was killed, Likhmanikov was killed, Gulevoy was killed, Trunov was killed, and the white stallion is no longer under me, so with the changes in our fortunes of warm Comrade Khlebnikov, do not expect to see your beloved Division Commander Savitsky ever again.”
In another story, the same vivid and incredibly specific metaphor shows up twice: “Trunov had already been wounded in the head that morning. His head was bandaged with a rag, and blood trickled from it like rain from a haystack,” the narrator reports early in the tale. Later he says, “At that moment I saw Trunov creeping out from behind a mound. Blood was trickling from his head like rain from a haystack and the dirty rag had come undone and was hanging down.”
Babel was an active soldier in the Red Cavalry army while he was writing many of his stories. The dangerous and dismal conditions under which the material was gained likely made smooth story construction quite difficult, even if that ever was an ambition. “Under machine gun fire, bullets shriek, a dreadful sensation, we creep along through the trenches,” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Some Red Army fighter is panicking, and, of course, we are surrounded.” Similar to what McManus describes in his review of Jesus’ Son, in Red Cavalry it’s also fitting that tales are so surreal and fractured. Johnson, meanwhile, was originally writing Jesus’ Son as a piece of memoir. He said, “Originally, in fact, I wasn’t even going to publish it. But then I added a lot of things that never happened to me, though almost everything in there actually happened to someone I know or heard about.”
The conditions under which the books were written share another important similarity: both were written with a sort of wild-eyed desperation. Babel joined the army, on the advice of his mentor, Maxim Gorky, to find material for his writing in the hopes of getting published. “My birthday,” Babel wrote in one of his early journal entries, “Twenty-six years old. I think of home, of my work, my life is flying past. No manuscripts. Dull misery.” In 1990, Johnson after a rough stretch and a rocky conclusion to his second marriage, owed $10,000 in taxes. He called his editor at FSG: “I told him, ‘I’ll make you a book of short stories; all you have to do is pay off the IRS.’”
Jesus’ Son vaulted to a cult popularity among contemporary readers and writers that’s hard for many other individual story collections to measure up against. Maybe Flannery O’Connor achieves a similar level of cultural cachet with A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Maybe Ernest Hemingway does with In Our Time. Jesus’ Son, though, was the collection chosen more frequently than any other in Jane Mount’s My Ideal Bookshelf. Similarly, on The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, Denis Johnson has been the most selected writer — three times with all three stories from Jesus’ Son. On a 2009 episode, before Tobias Wolff read “Emergency,” Deborah Treisman laughed and said, “I’ve had three other writers ask to do this very story while I put it on hold for you.”
Is what Denis Johnson said true, though? Is Jesus’ Son just a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry? “Rip-off” seems to be the wrong word. It borrows heavily, yes, but it seems to me Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than West Side Story is a “rip-off” of Romeo and Juliet. Or, in keeping with the Johnson-Babel theme of stark and brutal poetry, Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than Apocalypse Now is of Heart of Darkness. With any of these works, even adaptation or re-creation seem to not entirely be the right words; in each case, the follow-up deviates wildly from what might be considered its source material. In Jesus’ Son, the stories and execution certainly have a lot in common with Red Cavalry and — in considering them closely — it seems right for Johnson to acknowledge his debt. But do the similarities diminish any of the virtues of either book? Even more than in the case of the most liberal of re-creations, adaptations, or “rip-offs,” it seems to me that each book is still its own radical thing.
After Treisman tells Antrim, on the 2013 podcast, that today Johnson is dismissive of the stories in Jesus’ Son, Antrim says, “Well, he has his own attitude about what he did a long time ago. I have a tendency to write things off after 20 years, too. I’m not a particularly good judge of what I do. Maybe he’s not a particularly good judge, over time, of what he’s done.” Antrim pauses in thought, and then adds, “And that’s probably as it should be.”
As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.
I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.
When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.
My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.
In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.
There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.
By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.
In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.
What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.
The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.
The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.
Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.
Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.
When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”
Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”
At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.
“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.
Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”
“Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”
I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.
“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”
Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.
Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.
Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.
We should try to write some novels for them.
Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.
This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.
We should try to make games for them.
We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.
Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.
At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.
Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.
In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.
Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.
In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.
While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.
When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.
“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”
With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.
Image Credit: LPW
Each age furnishes new material for its own Dunciad, Alexander Pope’s great satire in which the world is ruled by the goddess of “Dulness” and the King of Dunces, an “Antichrist of wit.” In the poem, an “endless band” of Grub Street scribblers, poets, critics, and booksellers abase themselves in “high heroic games” to prove “who the most in love with dirt excel/Or dark dexterity of groping well.” The competitions for these hacks include: an attempt to drown out a braying donkey with their jabbering (“So swells each windpipe; ass intones to ass”); a foot-race whose eventual winner is reenergized after falling into a sewer (“Renew’d by ordure’s sympathetic force/ As oil’d with magic juices for the course”); and a dive into the Fleet Ditch, a contest wherein “Who but to sink the deeper, rose the higher.”
Pope’s “true dunces” display a heroic devotion to abjection that has its own kind of purity, a purity that rivals (even as it parodies) the dedication of a talented writer in thrall to the “reckless consciousness of art” (as Henry James puts it in “The Next Time.”) We take for granted the difficulty of ascending to the empyrean heights of genius, but descending into the “majesty of mud” poses its own challenges for those unpure hacks not blessed “with all the might of gravitation.” Or to put it in distinctly non-Augustan terms, hackin’ ain’t easy.
Take Wilton Barnhardt’s ruefully comic Lookaway, Lookwaway. Its self-loathing antihero, Gaston Jarvis, is a boorish and once-acclaimed novelist who has stooped to drunkenly dictating a series of historical adventures about Cordelia Florabloom, a Confederate heroine dodging Union perfidies to locate her missing husband. Presiding over a bourbon-fueled, one-man Algonquin Roundtable at an elite Charlotte country club, Gaston gets on his high horse to justify being a hack (incidentally, a word derived from hackney, an “ordinary,” and presumably not so high, horse):
You arteeestes ever wonder with whose profits the Germans (who run all of American publishing) pay for your little literary exercises? It takes a Gaston Jarvis or two to pay for your little writing hobby, your linguistic divertissements, to underwrite your little post-divorce, post-modern, post-plot-and-character twaddlings…
But behind Gaston’s bluster lies his failure to write his arteeestic masterpiece, a Trollope-like tale of the rise and fall of a family in the New South that was to lay bare the contradiction at the heart of Southern life: “There’s something fatal from what the slave trade fostered, a kind of barbarism side by side with civility.” Lookaway, Lookaway ends in a pathetic duel between Gaston and his best friend over the “dereliction” that led to the project’s abandonment, a spectacular parody of the genteel, chivalrous culture that Bernhard has so spectacularly debunked throughout his novel.
His earlier defense of hackwork notwithstanding, Gaston is ultimately ready to die for his betrayal of his talent and of the conundrum-filled South he so loves. The moral stakes of such a betrayal are clear because Gaston is a successful hack, but what if his conscious turn to schlock produced a masterpiece that troubled the easy distinction between high and low art?
Such is the premise of two studies of the writerly life: Mark Haskell Smith’s latest novel, Raw: A Love Story, a satirical journey into the “slaughterhouse of ideas and origination,” and Henry James’s “The Next Time,” a short story about the “age of trash triumphant.” Pitched in very different comic registers, each features a hack manqué and considers the morality, and frustrations, of hackwork that transcends its own limitations.
Mark Haskell Smith’s dark, priapic satires (Moist, Delicious, Salty, Baked) are marked by a Waugh-like callousness towards the grotesque deaths that result as his plots gather their murderous momentum. The gods of comedy can be as cruel as the gods of tragedy, and satirists like Smith, however anarchic or amoral their works may appear, are ultimately concerned with the inescapable forces of retribution. How a perverse comic justice applies to those who engage in “shitting on the altar of literature” is the subject of Raw, his latest novel presided over by a particularly vengeful “Book Goddess” (one character suspects her of cursing him with impotence).
In Raw, Curtis Berman turns to celebrity ghostwriting after failing to sell his epic, “Malamudesque” novel about the Ethiopian Jewish Diaspora. “Writers have been doing stuff life this for hundreds of years. Kingsley Amis, Larry McMurty, H.P. Lovecraft. There are lots of great writers who have worked ghosting. For chrissakes, Dickens wrote newspaper ads”: So does Curtis, who has a tattoo of Beckett’s dictum Fail Better “emblazoned in a font called American Typewriter on his right bicep,” defend his hackwork from his literary crush and avenging angel, Harriet Post.
Harriet is a high-minded literary critic determined to discover who has ghostwritten the bestselling roman à clef for Sepp Gregory, a vapid reality television star famous for his abs, which he gleefully displays to legions of adoring fans and high-culture radio hosts alike. She decides to expose this “callithump of fraud” by tracking Sepp to California, where the star of Sex Crib is promoting the book he didn’t write and dispensing surprisingly deep statements about the nature of reality to fans seeking the secret behind his physique: “Crunches are real. Even on TV.”
The book in question, Totally Reality: A Novel, is a commercial and critical success, “a Heart of Darkness for the realty TV generation” written so well that Harriet wonders at one point if Michael Chabon could be the ghostwriter. Totally Reality, we are made to believe, is both dreck and not dreck, “actively accelerating the culture toward the trash heap” even as it is the Great American novel and a work of cultural anthropology in the tradition of Margaret Mead. Referring to his follow-up project, a novelization of another reality star’s life, Curtis muses: “Sandy Panties could be an important book.”
The descent into hackwork frees Curtis from his sclerotic, self-defeating devotion to the high literary that produces its own kind of dreck. What stains Curtis is not so much the glorification of his new vocational path as his growing preoccupation with the very recognition and material goods his reality-star subjects crave. Flush with cash after signing a new book deal, Curtis considers getting trashed at a bar, as “that’s what a lot of writers do when they sell their souls, that’s what he imagined Faulkner or Franzen or Bret Easton Ellis would do.” Instead, he goes to the Mac Store: “If he was going to produce dross, he’d at least write it on a nice laptop.” For reasons I won’t disclose here, that purchase will prove to be a fateful decision, reminding all aspiring hacks that the Book Goddess is better appeased with libations than electronics.
Harriet is at risk of angering the Book Goddess as well — especially in one fantasy involving Sepp and a first-edition DeLillo as a sex prop — but this is all part of her liberating embrace of genre fiction and their attendant clichés. She first fancies herself an existential heroine from a Camus novel or as a proto-feminist character out of Charlotte Brontë. But when thrown into Smith’s raw comic world, Harriet makes a “mental note to add some genre books to her reading list” and by necessity learns how to pleasurably inhabit different genres: pulp fiction, the western and the erotic novel. The last is particularly important in this “Love Story” since amid the novel’s competing realities, Smith locates the most stable truth in the kind of ecstatic sex that makes one forget the distinction between hackwork and high art.
Henry James might blush to be compared to so ribald a writer as Smith, but the Master also profiles (albeit less louchely), an author turning to “gutter-pipes and slop-buckets.” In “The Next Time,” Ralph Limbert, whose writing is “as fine as the spray of a lawn-irrigator,” justifies his new and hopefully better-paid style to his adoring friend: “What is ‘success’ anyhow? When a book’s right it’s right — it brings money like potato or bee. Success be hanged! — I want to sell…Of course I’ve everything to unlearn.”
Unlearn it he can’t. Limbert would like nothing better than to devote his considerable talent to selling out and achieving an economic, rather than an artistic, success. Alas, he fails, and fails better each time — a feat he manages even without a tattooed reminder to help him. His journalism, which he tries desperately to make “chatty” and “vulgar,” always “reeks of the literary.” Desperately needing to support a wife and children, he attempts to write popular novels, but each heroic effort to be bad yields a “magnificent mistake,” a “grand…collapse,” a “hideous…triumph” more radiant and unpopular than the last. (Limbert’s sister-in-law, Jane Highmore, is by contrast a successful novelist who yearns to produce a Limbert-like “exquisite failure” and escape just once from the “doom of popularity.” She is a figure differently blessed but as comically cursed as Limbert.)
James’s tale, melancholy ending aside, justly proclaims its own “excellent comedy.” Limbert’s repeated “miscarriages” have a certain farcical quality — the narrator, who is even more “splendidly unpopular” than Limbert, must pretend that each new masterpiece is actually rubbish to appease him. And Limbert is not without a Wildean irony toward his plight: “‘He wrote to [a literary journal] that such work as he has done is the very worst he can do for the money.’”
But “The Next Time” is more broadly a fable about the laws of talent, one might say the tyranny of talent. There is much talk of “sacrifice” in the story, the notion that the journalistic and novelistic hackwork Limbert does is a betrayal of his genius. However, as the narrator points out, “what was talent but the art of being completely whatever it was that one happened to be? One’s things were characteristic or they were nothing.” Talent, maddeningly, is precisely that which refuses to be betrayed. This is comforting for Limbert’s small group of adoring fans but tragic for the genius himself.
Time and again, Limbert’s efforts to betray his talent are sabotaged by “some obscure interference of taste, some obsession of the exquisite” that reveal his genius no matter with what “infernal cunning” he tries to disguise it. A touch of the common and the vulgar, such as Highmore has, comes not through works but “by grace.” James confines Limbert to his ruinously high eminence while bestowing true hacks with a kind of election denied to Limbert and, presumably, to James himself, an author T.S. Eliot famously described as having “a mind so fine no idea could violate it.”
Ultimately, an ailing Limbert blissfully retreats “into grand indifference” and produces “Derogation,” whose title reflects on his career-long, cruelly ironic and ultimately fruitless pursuit of abjection. The fatal effort of producing his final “splendid fragment” grants Limbert, if not grace, then a merciful release from his tyrannical talent, which proves as powerful as Pope’s “Dulness” over her legions of pure hacks.
Image Credit: LPW
William Giraldi spent more than half of his 2008 review (pdf) of Cary Holladay’s A Fight in the Doctor’s Office considering the etymology of “novella,” identifying the history and characteristics of the form, and suggesting essential writers. He claims that the demands of character development are one way to separate novellas from novels, noting that Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice does not require the 800 pages necessary for the titular character of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Giraldi’s introductory thoughts seem like a rather long preface to evaluate a work of new fiction under 150 pages. Such an observation is not meant as criticism. To write about novellas is to engage in a form of literary apologia. Giraldi’s approach is the norm. Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form.
This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works. We might begin by mining appreciative notes rather than simply cataloging criticisms. Tucked between Giraldi’s prefatory critical observations in “The Novella’s Long Life” are notes of admiration: “an expert novella combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.” He continues a critical tradition whose modern genesis might have been the novella-loving 1970s, when even novels were short; think The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, or A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. In a 1972 essay he would later develop into a book, Robert J. Clements considers the oral tradition behind the novella form as helping him “define its length as long enough for a dry split birch log to be consumed by a blazing bivouac fire.” That image was still popping in 1977, when Graham Good, in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, almost elevates the novella beyond the novel, noting that the shorter work often focuses on “simple natural or preternatural exigencies: apparitions, cataclysms like great storms or earthquakes, and individual declines or deaths.” Of course novels also contain deaths, but it’s the speed and tension that matters: the “novella is a closed form whose end is latent in its beginning: there is usually some initial indication that the end is known, and this enhances the narrative art of holding in suspense what it is.”
Fast-forward to very recent memory. At The Daily Beast in 2010, Taylor Antrim considers the focus on novellas by presses such as Melville House and New Directions, and the publication of the “wispy thin” Point Omega by Don DeLillo and Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, as proving that the form is in “pretty healthy shape.” Citing works as diverse as “The Dead” by James Joyce and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Antrim claims that “novellas are often structurally syncopated…their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative.”
In “The Three-Day Weekend Plan,” from the 2011 anthology The Late American Novel, John Brandon offers a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: hoard your novella. Best to “downplay the novella in casual conversation,” and instead keep the form to “ourselves, the adults.” The novella is a personal document, something that will “let us find out, in the writing, how we truly write.” Work to keep in a closet or desk drawer, “away from any and all publishing apparatus.”
In “Notes on the Novella,” published that same year in Southwest Review, Tony Whedon waxes lyric about the form: “novellas are not so much told as dreamed aloud; they inhabit a realm of half-shapes and shadowy implication.” Historically, they “[thrive] on travel and adventure and [are] often set in exotic climes.” Whedon stresses the need for control, and uses language that mimics John Gardner’s oft-quoted definition of the form: all “subplots need subordinating to their main storyline.” That control, in the formal sense, enables time and tense shifts. That temporal compression increases tension and pacing, resulting in a “swirly and gunky” effect. Novellas are “implosive, impacted, rather than explosive and expansive.” I read this as novellas refract rather than reflect. They are something shaken, but not spilled.
“The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread” by Jon Fassler appeared last year at The Atlantic. Fassler laments that novellas are tucked into short story collections as an afterward, or packaged with other novellas to be “sold as a curiosity.” Although Fassler’s piece is primarily a profile of Melville House’s success with re-issuing older works in their “Art of the Novella” series, he concludes that “a renaissance in the mid-length non-fiction” form, the “journalistic equivalent of the novella,” is enabled because of electronic editions.
Upon the release of his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, in which a character publishes a novella, Ian McEwan quipped a series of imagined critical reactions to the short form in The New Yorker: “Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” McEwan confidently calls the novella the “perfect form of prose fiction,” citing a “long and glorious” lineage: Mann, James, Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon, Melville, Lawrence, and Munro.
A few weeks earlier, at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, McEwan claimed that he “would die happy” if he “could write the perfect novella.” Although he worries the form is unseemly for publishers and critics, readers love that they could “hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.” Inverting the typical criticism, McEwan claims that the “novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life.” In sarcastic response, Toby Clements at The Telegraph thinks that McEwan is “lucky to be allowed to publish novellas.” Clements quotes Philip Rahv, who says that the novella form “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” Returning to McEwan, Clements considers the foolishness of word and page count definitions. At 166 pages, On Chesil Beach was considered a novella by McEwan, but a short novel by the Booker prize judges. Giraldi notes that “Adultery” by Andre Dubus is identified as a short story in one collection, and a novella in another. I would add Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor to that list. I have defaulted to italics appropriate for a short novel, but many consider the work a novella. Confusion, idiosyncrasy, beauty: welcome to the world of the novella.
While charting the lineage of novella discussions is worthwhile, as a writer of the form I am most interested in application. Perhaps the most writer-friendly treatment in recent memory is “Revaluing the Novella” by Kyle Semmel from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Rather than formal comparison, Semmel focuses on what successful novellas contain. Like Giraldi and Whedon, Semmel applies John Gardner’s definition of a novella, as explicated in The Art of Fiction. He supports Gardner’s claim that novellas move through a series of small climaxes. Semmel rightly stresses the “series” element of the definition. The mode of the novella is athletic, forward-leaning.
Gardner splits his definition to contain three modes of novellas: single stream, non-continuous stream, and pointillist. The nomenclature might be idiosyncratic, but Gardner’s criticism was always homegrown. Semmel adds to Gardner’s discussion: often novellas contain “resolution; there is closure.” He admits that the point might sound obvious, but it stresses that novellas are not meant to be top-heavy or flimsy. A necessary point to make, as even Antrim, an admirer of novellas, claims that the form “has ambivalence built into its DNA…[it] serves up irresolute endings.”
Semmel considers a range of examples, from “Voices from the Moon” by Andre Dubus to Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. He also considers “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass, but quickly dismisses the work as a “gangly prose poem” of more interest to “literary scholars” than readers. My literary heart sunk. I have loved Gass’s longer novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” ever since it was recommended to me by novelist Tom Bailey, while I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. Bailey thought novellas were defined by time—a season or a weekend—and Gass’s piece was offered as an example.
Gardner devotes several sentences to that longer-titled, shorter work, but spends pages explaining why “The Pedersen Kid” is “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” It is important to note that Gardner stressed not only the stream of climaxes, but that they were “increasingly intense.” Yet what interests me most is Gardner’s further qualification that these climaxes are “symbolic and ritualistic.”
It should not be surprising that Gardner loves this novella: Gardner published it in 1961 in his magazine, MSS. Gass’s novella nabbed the magazine thirty charges of obscenity, one of which, co-editor LM Rosenberg shares, was “‘nape,’ as in neck.” Federal fines caused the magazine to fold after three issues, but Gardner never stopped appreciating the novella. His summary of the plot: “In some desolate, rural landscape . . . in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s child, the Pedersen kid, arrives and is discovered almost frozen to death near Jorge’s father’s barn; when he’s brought in and revived, he tells of the murderer at his house, a man with yellow gloves; Big Hans and Pa decide to go there, taking young Jorge; when they get there, Jorge, making a dash from the barn to the house, hears shots; Big Hans and Pa are killed, apparently — Jorge is not sure — and Jorge slips inside the house and down cellar, where at the end of the novella he is still waiting.”
I reread the novella each winter. I also revisit Gass’s preface to the collection, which explains the composition of “The Pedersen Kid.” He “began by telling a story to entertain a toothache.” Such a story must contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” After weeks of writing he “began to erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” He “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of the sonnet.” He cast away a focus on theme for devotion to the “necessity for continuous revision, so that each word would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound.”
“The Pedersen Kid” was planned end-first, with all action “subordinated” toward “evil as a visitation — sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” It was “an end I could aim at. Like death.” And yet, also like death, “I did not know how I would face it.” He imagined the book as a work of visual art: “the physical representation must be spare and staccato; the mental representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed. It falls, I think, into three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” Three also correlates to the story’s main characters — Jorge, Big Hans, and Pa — who enter the blizzard to find the Pedersen’s abandoned home. Although Whedon does not consider Gass’s work in his essay, it fits one of his theses that symbols in novellas “present themselves orchestrally in the form of leitmotifs that dovetail with disparate time sequences to create a strong over-arching moral theme: hence the novella’s connection with allegory.”
Gass’s novella contains extended spaces between words, which John Madera calls “caesuras,” and Samuel Delany thinks are “actual suspensions of sound.” Gass says that he “wanted pages that were mostly white. Snow.” He practiced typographical and pictorial experimentation in another novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The novella form is short enough to be both art and artifice. Experimentation does not become exhausting.
The novella is ritual: for Gardner, for Gass, for Whedon, for me, but for others?
Despite claims about the paucity of options, writers continue to draft and publish novellas in literary magazines and as standalone books. Big Fiction, At Length, A Public Space, PANK, New England Review, Seattle Review, Glimmer Train, and The Long Story have published novella-length work; The Missouri Review included one of my favorites, “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin. Ploughshares Solos releases novellas as single e-books. Miami University Press and Quarterly West have revived their novella contests. Iron Horse Literary Review holds an annual chapbook contest that publishes a novella-length work during select years. Texas Review Press has its own annual contest, the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Readers and writers of speculative fiction continue to embrace the novella form. Consider Ted Chieng, Jason Sanford, and Kij Johnson; not to mention the nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novella. The most recent winner was Brandon Sanderson, for The Emperor’s Soul.
Deena Drewis founded Nouvella, a press devoted solely to novellas, in 2011. Drewis initially considered works as low as 10,000 words, but became worried that some readers would consider such standalone books as “long short [stories].” She admits that defining a novella is difficult, and instead uses the work of Andre Dubus, Jim Harrison, and Alice Munro as formal affirmations.
At 4 x 6 inches, Nouvella books can feel too bulky beyond 40,000 words, so form requires practical function. Her longest release, The Sensualist by Daniel Torday, “occupies more temporal space” than her other books. Torday told Drewis the work had originally been a novel, but she received the manuscript “pared down to its working limbs. It doesn’t feel compacted the way a short story is often a work of compression, but it also doesn’t take the liberty of meandering, like a novel sometimes does.”
Nouvella’s stated mission is to “find writers that we believe have a bright and dedicated future in front of them, and who have not yet signed with a major publisher.” She finds that the form is “a good point of entry for readers to discover emerging authors.” If readers enjoy a short story from a new writer, they need to do the legwork to find other stories, “or wait until a collection comes out, but that requires a good deal of dedication and perseverance.” Instead, a novella “allows you to spend a little more time inside the author’s head, and because it’s a stand-alone book, it demands more attention from the reader. It’s also not a novel, which for readers, can seem like a big commitment.”
Drewis is prescient: Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Such evolution is not exclusive to Nouvella. Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas from Coffee House Press, preceded his forthcoming debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Mark Doten, who acquired Ervin’s title for Soho Press, notes that “having a strong favorable opinion” of Ervin’s shorter work “was certainly a factor [but not the only one]…in that book going to the top of my reading pile.”
Of course writers are not simply drawn to the novella form for its exposure opportunities. Tim Horvath has always written fiction “on the long side…[before he] knew a thing about word counts and literary journals and what they were looking for.” “Bridge Poses,” his 9,000 word story, was published in New South, yet he was unable to publish another, longer work, Circulation, in literary magazines. An editor at AGNI, while encouraging, “warned that it would be difficult to publish in a journal because of its length.” Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, wrote some paragraphs in support of the work, and that convinced Horvath to remain with the piece. Sunnyoutside Press ultimately released the novella as a book, and Horvath appreciated how the story’s manageable length meant that the work’s “cartographic and library obsessions” could be “echo[ed] throughout the design elements of the book.”
Horvath is drawn to “stories that feel as though they encompass multitudes, that take their sweet time getting going, that have a leisurely confidence in themselves, that manage nonetheless to feel urgent, their scale necessary.” That macro approach can be compared with Peter Markus, whose novella collection, The Fish and the Not Fish, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books: “every word in this new collection is monosyllabic, [and] you would maybe think that such limitation would limit such things as the length of the piece, how much can and can’t be done, how long such a project might be sustained. The interesting thing here is that the restriction worked the other way. The river flowed up the mountain, so to speak.” Markus has always been interested in “short novels or long stories” like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “The Pedersen Kid,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, and the novellas of Jim Harrison.
The novella form’s length afforded Horvath and Markus a particular sense of control over structure and presentation. The same approach might be applied to The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams, which he viewed as a “parody of an academic essay.” After he published a story in Main Street Rag, the journal’s publisher, M. Scott Douglass, approached Williams about being a part of the press’s new novella series. The form matched the writer: Williams wonders who would not appreciate “fiction that equally borrows the short story’s precision and the novel’s potency.” Williams uses the same word as Gardner — “perfection” — to describe the unique tightness of novellas, citing his list of favorites: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Nothing in the World by Roy Kesey, Honda by Jessica Treat, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth.
My own forthcoming novella, This Darksome Burn, began as an experimental, long story; early readers thought it a one-act play. I expanded the manuscript to a novel, reaching 300 pages, but was unsatisfied. Subplots upon subplots had blurred the central narrative. I started-over a year later. I turned the manuscript into a pitch, treatment, and finally a film script. Thought was subverted to action. Everything existed on the page. The script became a novella, and Erin Knowles McKnight, my editor and publisher at Queen’s Ferry Press, suggested I switch to present tense, which allowed me to increase the story’s immediacy. My dark story about an overprotective father in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains had found its form: a novella. I had found my form: I placed a novella about opium traffickers and atomic bomb scientists in storySouth, and another novella about a defrocked priest is coming from CCM Press in 2015.
I have practical and ritual reasons for being drawn to novellas. I am the father of five-month-old twin girls, and my writing is done in bursts, late at night. I spend my days living—preparing bottles, changing diapers, writing reviews, teaching, having lunch duty in my high school’s cafeteria, mowing the lawn, and watching my girls grow—but the cadences of story remain like a faint metronome. My old office will become a playroom for the twins, so I have migrated to a smaller room downstairs, the walls lined with books, and, proper to my Italian Catholic sensibility, a cross above the doorframe. I close the door, and in a small space, within a small page amount, I try to write stories that stretch their invisible seams. I love novellas. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt a novel, or short stories, or essays, or poems. But my heart is set on that form that feels both mysterious and manageable. No apologies needed for that.
The Dream of the Celt first appeared in Spanish in November 2010, three weeks after Mario Vargas Llosa, its author, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Like many of his fans, my expectations were high. The little amount of information I could gather about its plot was sufficient to hint at a return to form for Vargas Llosa whose latest novels, The Bad Girl and The Way to Paradise didn’t show him, in my eyes, at the top of his game. My once-favorite contemporary author has always liked to fictionalize culturally loaded eras in relation to historically significant characters who make them. It was strange to see Vargas Llosa fail with his tale of a radical chic, in The Bad Girl, and with Paul Gauguin, in The Way to Paradise. This time though, he seemed to have made a better match: the fin de siècle/Edwardian England and Roger Casement, a martyr to some of that period’s defining causes: anti-colonialism, homosexuality and Irish republicanism.
Vargas Llosa’s novel opens in 1916 in a cell in Pentonville Prison, where Oscar Wilde was held during his trials two decades previously. Convicted to death by hanging, Casement awaits the result of his appeal against the sentence. Outside his cell, a public campaign has attracted attention to his case and among the signatories for the clemency are G. K. Chesterton, John Galsworthy, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was responsible for gathering the signatures. One doesn’t need to be a historian to know the outcome of the appeal, as the book’s back cover informs us about Casement’s fate: he was hung on August 3.
Joseph Conrad’s signature is a notable absence in Doyle’s list. It is not only notable, but also unexpected, as Casement and Conrad, who first met in Congo in 1889, had a lifelong friendship which came to an abrupt end with Casement’s trial. They were disillusioned with Western civilization and coming from peripheral backgrounds, they were both vulnerable subjects of the empire.
Despite the mouthwateringly interesting nature of this friendship, Vargas Llosa, who devotes many pages to describing their encounters, leaves the question, which kept many Conrad and Casement biographers busy, unanswered. Being both outsiders of the British establishment, how could these two men have differed so dramatically at the time of Casement’s trial in 1916?
Born in Dublin in 1864, Casement, like Conrad, lost both his parents in his childhood and was raised by his uncle before he became a clerk in England. An extremely handsome man with curly hair and a pointed beard, Casement led an increasingly public life — not that of a novelist, but that of a consul, in which capacity he would later become a public campaigner for human rights.
Assisting King Leopold’s International Association for the Congo in 1884, when he was only 20 years old, Casement led the life of an adventurer in his youth. When he went back to Congo at the end of the decade, he was responsible for recruiting natives for a railway project which was planned to link Congo to Matadi, in order to make the job of carrying rubber, the leading export of the region, easier for the colonizers.
During his administrative tenure in Congo Free State, Casement became a lucid witness to the atrocities in the region, which he meticulously recorded in his diaries and reports. Ruled under the authority of Belgium’s King Leopold, Congo Free State was, for Casement, capitalism at its worst. Rubber was collected through slave labour and the treatment of natives by Belgium’s military personnel was often ruthless if not outright barbaric. He witnessed how slaves were made to drink defecations of soldiers; natives who were often chained together and were beaten with rifles until they fell to the ground. Hands were occasionally cut from the wrist, as a punishment for inactivity or rebellion, and skulls of murdered natives were used as ornaments by Belgian officials.
Seen by his colleagues as a sophisticated, trustworthy, and reserved gentleman, Casement had little reason to turn his observations into an official report the damning conclusions of which might have been disadvantageous for his own reputation and career. Nevertheless, Casement took detailed notes of his experiences and it was during this second period in Congo that he first met Conrad, then a thirtyish sailor, who reached Matadi after a voyage on board the ship Ville de Maceio.
Like Casement, who detailed his experiences in a private notebook, Conrad kept, for the first and only time in his life, a diary which became one of his earliest English texts, later christened as “The Congo Diary” by Conradian scholars. Describing his first impressions of his new acquaintance, he described Casement as a man who “thinks, speaks well, most intelligent and very sympathetic.” Conrad and Casement then shared a hut for almost a month during which time they found ample opportunity to exchange their often horrific experiences in the region. Conversing with a native speaker of the English language delighted Conrad who was struggling to write proper English for his future literary projects.
Also impressed with Casement’s ability to speak native tongues and the ease with which he could navigate in an area he found impossibly foreign, Conrad had nothing but admiration for his new friend. “He could tell you things,” he wrote, “things I’ve tried to forget; thing I never did know.” Readers of Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s most famous tale, will recognize similarities in between Conrad and Marlow; Casement and Kurtz also have a certain resemblance, which may help explain Conrad’s fascination with enigmatic characters whose characters he found difficult to penetrate.
Casement and Conrad went several times on short expeditions in neighboring villages and were equally convinced that the Western presence in Congo was barbarism masquerading as civilization. They didn’t meet again for almost a decade. In 1903, a year after he entered the British consular service, Casement asked for Conrad’s support and his eye-witness account in order to support the activities of Congo Reform Association to which he was engaged. A year later, when Casement visited Conrad in his house in Pent Farm, near Sandgate, they were again on excellent terms.
But unlike Casement, whose campaign for human rights in colonized territories made him a household (and for some, notorious) name throughout England, Conrad had little interest in becoming an overtly political figure. “I would help him but it is not in me,” he wrote following Casement’s invitation for his political engagement in the Congo cause. “I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.” Casement, who read Heart of Darkness with interest and admiration, still pressed for his support and was admitted to use a quote from one of Conrad’s letters where he said: “It is an extraordinary thing that the conscience of Europe which seventy years ago has put down the slave trade on humanitarian grounds tolerates the Congo State to day. It is as if the moral clock had been put back many hours.”
Eventually it was Casement’s later involvement in the Easter Rising, a failed attempt to end British rule in Ireland during the First World War, that led Conrad to change his position in relation to his beloved friend. With German support behind them, Irish Republicans expected to have the arms necessary to begin a revolt against the empire; Casement was among the mediators between the Republicans and their German allies. The German ship, Libau, which carried arms to Irish rebels, was captured by the British navy and was sunk. And days before the rising began, Casement was arrested on suspicion of high treason to the crown.
For Conrad this type of treachery was no laughing matter. His eldest son, Borys, was serving at the Front in northern France and Conrad thought it was the worst time imaginable to begin an upheaval in Britain, the country that had provided a safe home to him and his family. It was partly due to this feeling of outrage that in a letter written almost three decades after their first encounter, Conrad could describe Casement as a man “of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid, I mean that he was all emotion.” He could admire outright rebellion to power but plotting beneath the disguise of a member of the British consular service, was a different matter — it was hypocrisy.
In fact, Casement had already left his official post and had little sympathy for a violent upheaval that Conrad feared would take place. But the British crown had to make an example of the man and unlike Doyle, Conrad had little interest in getting to the truth of the matter. His distant, cold, and almost patronizing view of the imprisoned man (“no mind and all emotion”) shows Conrad, the great analyzer of the “treacherous” Jim, at his worst.
The Dream of the Celt is perhaps the polar opposite of Conrad’s description of its subject matter — a book of almost no emotion and all intelligence. From Vargas Llosa’s treatment, Casement and Conrad emerge as figures cut out from biographies and scholarly works. Reading this novel is an experience comparable to that of walking around wax figures of eminent Victorians in Madame Tussauds. Those characters certainly do look like Casement and Conrad, but lacking vitality, color, and authenticity, they strike the reader as being little more than wax figures.
The chief fault lies in Vargas Llosa’s failure to imagine Casement as a figure distinct from his representation in historical texts. One scene sees Conrad thanking Casement for his friendship; patting him on the shoulder, Conrad confesses that without Casement’s assistance he could never have written Heart of Darkness. But the gesture doesn’t seem genuine and reads more like a nod to the student of literature who is already informed about Conrad’s work and Casement’s influence on it.
As he waits for the outcome of the appeal, the ghostly image of Conrad haunts Casement time after time in his prison cell: “As he lay on the cot on his back, his eyes closed, Joseph Conrad came to mind again. Would he have felt better if the former sailor had signed the petition?” In fact, Casement’s obsession with Conrad brings to mind Vargas Llosa’s own involvement in human rights campaigns which, for some critics who shared Conrad’s suspicion against political engagements, were seen as activities that distracted the author from writing good novels.
His interest in Casement’s relationship with Conrad therefore reminded me of Vargas Llosa’s political journalism and his non-fiction book, Making Waves, in which he collected his essays. Among them is “The Story of a Massacre,” which details Vargas Llosa’s efforts to solve the mystery behind one of the most notorious atrocities that took place in his country. In 1983, eight Peruvian journalists went to Uchuraccay, a rural village in Peru, in order to write about human rights abuses reported to take place in the area. They were attacked with axes, killed, and buried by the villagers. No one exactly knew what happened and, from the bits of information he could gather from newspaper accounts, Vargas Llosa could tell something was amiss. He then headed a commission to investigate the incident and, outside an official report, wrote this lengthy essay about his findings that was published in English in an issue of Granta that year. In “The Story of a Massacre,” he offered a picture of two civilizations in deep disaccord. According to his conclusion, peasants had mistook cameras for machine guns and saw the journalists as guerrillas who threatened their lives.
This type of political engagement and interest in documenting atrocities might partly explain Vargas Llosa’s admiration for Casement as a writer and historical figure. But apart from portraying Casement as “one of us”, The Dream of the Celt fails at re-imagining Casement as a fictional character with the same profundity one finds in Conrad’s protagonists, such as Jim, Marlow, and Kurtz.
In a commemorative poem entitled “Roger Casement,” the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats immortalized his fellow patriot with the following lines: “I say that Roger Casement / Did what he had to do. / He died upon the gallows, / But that is nothing new. / Afraid they might be beaten / Before the bench of Time, / They turned a trick by forgery / And blackened his good name. / A perjurer stood ready / To prove their forgery true; / They gave it out to all the world, / And that is something new.” Vargas Llosa’s fictional rendering of Casement’s life sadly falls short of producing a book that says something new about the great man. While Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which scarcely refers to names of historical figures it depicts, manages to reach the dark heart of Kurtz, its subject matter, The Dream of the Celt leaves its protagonist exactly as it finds it. A little understood and strange man who remains for us, as he did for his contemporaries, a mystery.
The latest short by James W. Griffiths, We Were Wanderers On a Prehistoric Earth, is an “ode to the incredible flora and fauna of Malaysia.” The film is accompanied by a passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and it’s clear that the author’s description of the Congo applies to Southeast Asia quite easily.
Empathy in fiction is a strange thing. It is possible to experience an imaginative connection with a character in a novel that would almost certainly be beyond us were that character a real human being in the world. A character’s actions, no matter how terrible, are often secondary to the way in which he or she is presented, particularly when that character is a first-person narrator. Lolita’s Humbert Humbert is an extremely obvious — and an obviously extreme — example of this. He’s a murderer, a kidnapper, a pedophile and, in a way that manages to seem somehow independent of these attributes, a fundamentally distasteful person. And yet we want to spend time with him. We want to hear what he has to say, and not just because it’s so horrible, or because of the famously fancy prose style in which he says it. There’s a part of us that connects with him, even as we recognize that we would never, or could never, do the ugly things he does. He is, as a fictional creature, more human to us than any of his countless real-world counterparts.
If we’re talking in purely utilitarian terms — if we stick to the basic moral spreadsheet of his actions — Eli Sisters, the narrator of Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt’s Booker-shortlisted The Sisters Brothers, is probably a worse guy than Humbert Humbert. As a professional hit man in the gold-rush era American West, he has, in partnership with his older brother, Charlie, killed an awful lot of people. And he doesn’t seem to have any particular inclination to conceal the unpleasantness of his actions from the reader (he is not, as far as it’s possible to tell, a remotely unreliable narrator). He lives an ugly life in an ugly world. About a third of the way into the novel, for instance, we see him perform an astonishingly unpleasant sequence of actions. Charlie has just shot a prospector who had been holding Eli at gunpoint. The bullet having relieved him of the back of his skull “like a cap in the wind,” the presumably (but not explicitly) dead prospector’s brain is now exposed. Eli then informs us that he “raised up my boot and dropped my heel into the hole with all my weight behind it, caving in what was left of the skull and flattening it in general so that it was no longer recognizable as the head of a man.” His rage still unsubdued, he disappears into a forest and lowers his trousers, ostensibly to check the state of his leg after its being prodded by the barrel of the prospector’s rifle. He briefly considers returning to the body to mutilate it further, but decides against it. “My pants were still down,” he recalls, “and after collecting my emotions I took up my organ to compromise myself.” This, we are informed, is a technique suggested to him many years previously by his mother as a means of dealing with his sometimes unmanageably violent temper.
The remarkable thing about the scene is the way in which deWitt makes this horrible stuff seem as though it were happening to Eli. We see him not so much as the perpetrator, but as the victim, first of the prospector’s aggression, then of his own rage. When he stamps on the man’s already adequately traumatized cranium, we wince not so much for the sickening brutality of the act he commits as we do for Eli’s own sake — out of sympathy for someone who is not nearly as cool a customer as he needs to be in his line of work, and for someone whose propensity toward savage violence might reveal a deeply scarred psyche. The prospector himself barely enters into the emotional equation; he is merely the cause, and then the focus, of Eli’s rage. Empathy in fiction, as I’ve said, is a strange thing. And the fact is that Eli is an extremely likeable character. We want him to get along, even when getting along involves murdering people for no other reason than that he’s being employed to do so.
The plot is an extremely simple one: Eli and Charlie have been instructed by their boss, a ruthless businessman referred to as the Commodore, to travel from Oregon to San Francisco in order to assassinate a former associate with the delightful name of Herman Kermit Warm. They don’t know why Warm has to die, and neither do they express any real interest in the question; they simply know they have to find him via a go-between named Henry Morris and murder him. Eli wants to stop killing. It’s not that he feels any particular guilt about it, so much as that he’s just sick of the blood and the suffering and constant danger. He has little natural aptitude for or attachment to the art of murder. Eli has vague plans to open a drapery shop once the Warm assassination is complete, but Charlie — by far the more accomplished and enthusiastic killer, and the dominant brother — dismisses and ridicules Eli’s plans to settle down and go straight. We’re in familiar territory, in other words; deWitt doesn’t have much apparent interest in subverting his chosen genre.
The novel’s structure is episodic, with each short chapter detailing a tightly delineated incident, and advancing the brothers further along their trajectory towards San Francisco and the doomed, mysterious Warm. There are countless diverting episodes along the way. The brothers spend the night in an abandoned house with an old woman who appears to be a witch; the portly Eli falls for a hotel manageress who bluntly informs him she prefers less bulky men, and so he tortures himself with a 19th-century version of a crash diet; Charlie inflicts a series of debilitating hangovers upon himself and overdoes it on the curative laudanum. They meet an impressive array of vividly drawn characters on their travels, whom they as often as not rob, murder, or in some other way mistreat. DeWitt’s exploitations of the picaresque form are striking, and he has a wonderful way of exercising his comic gifts without ever compromising the novel’s gradual accumulation of darkness, disgust, and foreboding. Much of this has to do with Eli’s narration, which is a strange and lovely linguistic artifact, curiously formal in its delivery and yet intimate and unguarded. Early on, Eli suffers a grotesque swelling of his head and visits an amateur dentist who, after inflicting a series of minor atrocities on his oral cavity, introduces him to the new concept of oral hygiene. He shows Eli “a dainty, wooden-handled brush with a rectangular head of gray-white bristles” and demonstrates “the proper use of the tool, then blew mint-smelling air on my face.” Eli’s evangelical conversion to this new “method” provides a running joke throughout the book, but it is also one of the countless wonderful ways in which deWitt humanizes a narrator who would otherwise be in danger of seeming, if not quite monstrous, then certainly a very bad person. Later, he bonds with the hotel manageress through their shared enthusiasm for the newfangled brush and paste. It’s one of the novel’s many moments of quiet, restrained absurdity:
I elected to show the woman my new toothbrush and powder, which I had in my vest pocket. She became excited by the suggestion, for she was also a recent convert to this method, and she hurried to fetch her equipment that we might brush simultaneously. So it was that we stood side by side at the wash basin, our mouths filling with foam, smiling as we worked. After we finished there was an awkward moment where neither of us knew what to say; and when I sat upon her bed she began looking at the door as if wishing to leave.
The scene appears to be playing coy; the shared vigour of the tooth-brushing seems like an obvious stand-in for a more erotic intimacy. But we already suspect, and will soon find out for certain, that the woman is nowhere near as chaste as Eli wants to portray her here (she’s already had a grubby commercio-sexual exchange with Charlie upstairs), and neither is the novel itself. The scene is a sort of reverse feint, in other words, in that it seems to be doing more than it is, as opposed to doing more than it seems. It really is about Eli’s enthusiasm for the toothbrush, and his delight in sharing his enthusiasm with a woman to whom he has taken a shine. Even when he’s involved in much grimmer activities, he is a curiously innocent man. The stiff-backed composure of his language, though, is the major source of his charm. It’s hard not to smile at words like “equipment” and “method” being applied to the accoutrements of tooth brushing, and it’s impossible not to like Eli for the childlike joy he takes in them.
Eli may be a likeable guide, but the territory he takes us through is bleak and nightmarish, teeming with malice and greed, with violent lusts and blank antipathies. Comparisons to Cormac McCarthy have inevitably been made, and it’s a reasonably fair point of reference, but the connection finally has more to do with subject matter than style. It’s hard not to think of Heart of Darkness, too, what with the mounting sense of dread, the confrontation of the bestial forces beneath the veneer of civilization, and the apparently Kurtzian figure of Warm. There are moments of fierce visual potency that seem like a gift to whoever might end up directing the seemingly predestined film adaptation (I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coen Brothers were already mustering their forces). There’s a particularly chilling descriptive passage, for instance, where Eli is skinning a bear he is forced to shoot when it attacks his beloved horse, Tub. His observation of the skinned animal amounts to an eerie vision of nature as an engine of death and ruthless, unceasing assimilation. “The carcass lay on its side before me,” he tells us, “no longer male or female, only a pile of ribboned meat, alive with an ecstatic and ever-growing community of fat-bottomed flies. Their number grew so that I could hardly see the bear’s flesh, and I could not hear myself thinking, so clamorous was their buzzing.” DeWitt then inserts a visual detail which is both beautiful and utterly grotesque, and which caused me to put down the book and pause for a moment in order to savor its inspired creepiness. “When the buzzing suddenly and completely ceased,” Eli recalls, “I looked up from my washing, expecting to find the flies gone and some larger predator close by, but the insects had remained atop the she-bear, all of them quiet and still save for their wings, which folded and unfolded as they pleased.” There is something unaccountably horrible about that moment of silence and, in particular, the wings folding and unfolding “as they pleased.” It’s entirely peripheral to the narrative, and to the scene in which it takes place, and yet it somehow encapsulates the stark and singular malice of the world the novel portrays.
The book becomes incrementally darker the closer the Sisters boys get to tracking down Warm, but it never comes close to being overwhelming, or even, finally, all that disturbing. For all that Eli’s narrative is beautifully composed, and for all the vividness of deWitt’s depictions of mid-19th-century California as a hellish chaos of gold-rush greed, the novel feels, in the best sense, like a high-grade entertainment. The darkness it conjures is closer to Frank Miller than Cormac McCarthy. Even its most troubling moments have a cartoonish aspect to them. The depiction of the removal of Tub’s infected eye by a spoon-wielding stable hand, for instance, is unflinchingly graphic, but there’s a sly preposterousness to the scene in the first place, a knowing gratuitousness, that makes it more gross than genuinely harrowing. Similarly, the passage in which Warm dictates the words to be inscribed on a friend’s tombstone refuses to be fully serious even as it stares down life with seemingly Nietzschean intensity. “Most people,” he intones, “are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change their lives for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood — weak blood, diluted — and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing.” By the time Warm’s dictation reaches its bombastic conclusion (“There is no God”), it has long since been tipped over into absurdity by its sheer length and grandiosity, both of which attributes render it comically ill-suited to tombstone inscription. A comparable effect is achieved elsewhere, when Warm recalls his sociopathic father, a German inventor who was forced to flee to America due to his “specific area of deviancy” (presumably sexual, although never actually identified). The elder Warm’s inventions are insane, but strangely believable. One of them provides a disturbing distillation of the desires for power, wealth, and primacy that fuel the savage economy the novel portrays. “He invented,” Warm tells Eli, “a gun with five barrels that fired simultaneously and covered three hundred degrees in one blast. A hail of bullets, with a slim part, or what he called Das Dreieck des Wohlstands — The Triangle of Prosperity — inside of which stood the triggerman himself.” There are many moments of genuine humour in The Sisters Brothers, but deWitt is also very good at this kind of queasily unfunny joke. The kind of joke, in other words, which is in no more or less terrible taste than history itself.
There is a sense, toward the end of the novel, that deWitt has not done quite as much with his endearing narrator and his compelling narrative style as he could have. The a-to-b of the plot is a little too straightforward to be satisfying, and there’s not much to be had in the way of an emotional pay-off in the jarringly sweet final pages. Despite the depravity and violence he depicts (and is responsible for), Eli never gets much beyond establishing that the world is a dark and unpleasant place, and that he vainly wishes it could be otherwise; there’s not, in this sense, ultimately a whole lot of moral heft. But perhaps that doesn’t matter all that much when a book is so consistently enjoyable as this. The Sisters Brothers is as entertaining a novel as I have read in a long time, and there’s always a lot to be said for entertainment, even on the Booker shortlist.
Death arrives in the first sentence of Ann Patchett’s sixth novel, State of Wonder. Deep in the farthest reaches of the Amazonian rainforest, a middle-aged drug researcher who was sent there on business but has no business being there succumbs to fever, and the secretive field scientists he’s with dash off a quick note to the States. It arrives “a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.” How terrible a weight these things still carry. Someone must tell his young family. Someone must pack up his office. And someone must be sent back up the river to recover his body and find out what the hell is going on.
When the Company in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness goes after its rogue and raging ivory trader, Mr. Kurtz, it sends Marlow, a veteran boat captain; his mission is the river. When Vogel, Patchett’s invented pharmaceutical giant, goes after its rogue drug researcher, Annick Swenson, a brilliant doctor who has disappeared into the jungle with millions of Vogel’s dollars while developing a radical fertility drug, it sends Marina Singh, a mid-level lab scientist and former Swenson student; her mission is the body, the drug, and the aging Swenson herself. It’s no vacation, but Singh desperately needs a dose of something exotic. “She was forty-two. She was in love with a man”—Vogel’s CEO, twenty years her senior—“she did not leave the building with,” and April in Minnesota is bleak. “The crocuses she had seen only that morning, their yellow and purple heads straight up from the dirt, were now frozen as solid as carp in the lake.”
Patchett does not trade in weak women. (It’s the men, like Singh’s father, an Indian graduate student so absorbed in his studies that the family ate dinners on the floor, so as not to disturb his stacks of papers piled in the dining room, who are little more than shadows in Patchett’s work.) She subjects her women to terrible losses, and then lends them the strength to march forward in ways that are as heroic as they are practical. Singh is a winning narrator. Life has muddled her plans and substituted its own realities. An early marriage fizzled two years into her medical residency, so at thirty, she and her husband “bought their own divorce kit at an office supply store and amicably filled out the paperwork at the kitchen table.” A tragic accident at the hospital drove her from clinical medicine and sidelined her into a pharmacology PhD program. Having arrived, without intending to, alone at middle age, she might be permitted some bitterness. Instead, she wears her quiet self-composure like a charm, and if she suffers long nights of indecision about her mission to the Amazon, she doesn’t betray it. Feeling needed, she goes. Her boss and lover packs her off with a bundle of GPS technology and extra anti-malarials. He’s doesn’t want to stay in touch so much as he wants to keep her healthy and on a short digital leash. To borrow Wilde, to lose one employee is tragic—to lose two smacks of carelessness.
Minnesota bookends the novel, but Patchett has written a Brazilian adventure tale. When she arrives, Singh’s passport is a “booklet filled with empty pages,” and she’s welcomed to the country by the disappearance of her luggage. Suddenly, luxury is a toothbrush and shopping in the market is an obstacle course of language and custom. By the time she leaves, months later, she’ll be wearing entirely new skin. Patchett captures well the essential loneliness and boredom of traveling solo; the foreign becomes exhausting, the heat devastating. Dr. Swenson stays in the field for months on end, and her gatekeepers in the port town where Singh is waiting are a pair of blithe young bohemians—house sitters who collect the doctor’s mail, smoke dope in her apartment, and stonewall inquisitive journalists. (“She was such a pretty girl. It must be hard, Marina imagined, for her to have no place to go.”) There is little to do but wait. As the pages pass, and the odd trio go on one field trip after another, we begin to forget why Singh has come in the first place. Then, like apparition, Dr. Swenson is back in town. Finally, we’re headed “down a river into the beating heart of nowhere,” the throttle on the boat—and on the novel—open full.
History and art provide some useful examples of how things turn out when the white folks rush headlong into the wilderness, brimming with ambition and delusion, and Patchett slyly pays her dues. “Dr. Singh, I presume,” Marina is greeted when she arrives at the upriver research station. Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s 1982 film about dragging a steamship over a small Peruvian mountain, makes an appearance, as does Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel that invented Shangri-La. Dr. Swenson has been living among the remote Lakashi tribe for more than a decade, unlocking the secret to their astounding fertility, which allows women to bear children into their seventies. “Their eggs aren’t aging, do you get that?” an excited researcher asks Singh. “This is the ovum in perpetuity, menstruation everlasting.” Now there’s an idea that only a male drug exec could love. And though the stakes—and potential profit margins—couldn’t be higher, we don’t feel the tension build until the human dramas begin to play out at the station.
Dr. Swenson is a tropical storm of genius and brio. She delights in adding exponents to the ethical equations at hand in the jungle. She preaches a gospel of absolute non-intervention— “They are an intractable race,” she lectures Singh on the Lakashi. “You might as well come down here to unbend the river”—even as she pricks their fingers, collects their spit, and swabs their vaginas. She issues demands, barks her thanks, and keeps her emotions stoppered in a test-tube. In perhaps their most tender moment, Singh visits an ailing Swenson in her quarters; the elder woman sends her away. “I know how to sleep, Dr. Singh. I don’t need you to watch me unless it is something you are trying to learn to do yourself.”
Patchett has set herself an ambitious task. She begins far from home—Nashville, where she lives and writes—and moves steadily away from the known world. Her prose, as she established with Bel Canto and earlier works, is full of tenderness and insight; she writes of sorrow and invasive medical procedures with equal ease. Her language shows devotion to how the sentence unfurls across the page. She has remarkable skill, as a storyteller, knowing precisely when to cut away from a scene. She doesn’t write dialogue; she writes conversations, full of human surprise, humor, and outrage, which act in service to the many Big Ideas she’s probing—about aging and fertility, children and careers, ethics and abuse. Heart of Darkness had a post-colonial mission, well ahead of its time, and Conrad was swinging for the fences. State of Wonder has some questions, none of them as urgent, but compelling still.
The jungle hides its secrets until the very last, threatening to swallow Singh altogether. The story is still roaring at full-throttle as she heads down the river, back to beautiful, mundane civilization and Minnesota’s summer raspberries. But escape is never so easy, and after what she’s seen, we doubt very much that her fevered dreams will leave her soon.
Sometimes you can make a cheese sandwich, pick up a book, and change the way you think about life. More often, you can make two, open the computer, and read Postcards from Yo Momma. The former infinitely rare and precious experience is preferred, but it’s impossible to manufacture. You cannot prime yourself for epiphany, even if the the book is pithy, the mustard piquant, and you’ve arranged yourself prettily, nay, beatifically, in a sunbeam.
I have tried it many times with Heart of Darkness, which is a work that feels like it should impart some kind of something. Every time I open the book I think, like a young man bound for the colonies, “My god, I’ve really started something.” And every time I open the book I raise a crust to Joseph Conrad the polyglot, who in this novel gives a fine demonstration of the fact that some brains are different than others. Some brains take words in any language and make minions of them (others make mincemeat). Conrad, in a third language, wrote one of the most epic beginnings ever. I challenge someone to find a second paragraph that portends such greatness:
The Sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas, sharply peaked with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
It keeps going like this, all his words perfectly arranged, the narrative artfully made. And yet in spite of Conrad’s virtuosity, by the middle of this slim but theme-sodden novel, I usually find myself musing on the accomplishments of Martin Sheen, wishing I hadn’t made so many unhelpful underlines in my copy, wondering if the first sandwich feels lonely in my gullet, and realizing I missed the part (again) that explains who the Pilgrims are. This last read, I sent myself into a paroxysm of giggles by imagining one of the fellows on deck cutting Marlow off halfway with an emphatic cry of “Boooo-ring.”
I actually did have an epiphany this last time, but it was not the kind I had been trying for. I did not glean arcane truths and readerly thrills from the novel. No, I realized that my feeling about Heart of Darkness is not hate, but something akin to contempt, the contempt bred of school-day familiarity.
Unless things have changed considerably in the last few years, if you go to college and study literature, you will encounter this novel. You will see it in a class that builds it up, then you will see it in a class that tears it down. You will talk about the Other, and the Intended, and the Horror. You will make much of colonial ineptitude and Conrad’s startling frankness re: it. You will read Chinua Achebe (then several years later you will read him again and marvel at how fucked up the world, and you, must have been to necessitate the writing of an essay pointing out that Conrad was racist). At the end of it all, you will do a group project on Apocalypse Now.
Heart of Darkness is not bad or boring, but it bores me, badly. I almost feel guilty getting bored, because I think Conrad had significant things to say. And he had a sense of humor, a grim one, my favorite kind. He knew, for example, that many colonials were idiots and that Marlow was an inspired windbag. But I get bored, and think how I can pare the story down to just a few words: “White man oppresses black man, is oppressed in turn by jungle mysteries.”
I will never regret studying literature. Reading novels is fundamental to my particular brand of personhood, and so it’s important to understand how they work and why they do and what they tell us about the world. And studying Heart of Darkness is important and I’m glad I did it. But I suspect there’s nothing like prolonged study to turn some books stale for some people. Indeed my copy of Heart of Darkness, one of those scholarly critical editions, is an object lesson in making novels loathsome by burdening them with six different levels of pointless annotations and distracting hieroglyphics, and entombing them in essays that total several hundred pages longer than the novel itself.
Of course, as we are told by the lovable old salt, “it’s queer how out of touch with truth women are! They live in a world of their own and there had never been anything like it and never can be.” I know intellectually, in my fragile bird brain, that Heart of Darkness is a Great Work. But I don’t know it in my own, less inscrutable heart.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks recommended by GarthIt’s been a long time since I read this 1984 coming-of-age novel, but its indelible images – the green glass of Mello Yello bottles, the soggy crackers used to make home-ec mock-apple pie, the railroad lantern by whose light the protagonists play night games of pickup basketball – remain seared into my memory. Author Bruce Brooks, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, combines descriptive mastery with the kind of compassion that can’t be taught. His story of an unlikely friendship also complicates some of our cherished myths about race and privilege. Though The Moves Make the Man, a Newbery Honor winner, might be slotted into young adult and sportswriting and Southern lit categories, it is no more a niche work than The Bluest Eye, or A Fan’s Notes, or To Kill a Mockingbird, in whose illustrious company it belongs.Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler recommended by AndrewRichler’s final novel, Barney’s Version is a savagely funny piece of satire. It’s also quite moving as it sweeps you through one man’s life. Frank and cantankerous, Barney Panofsky lays bare his failed marriages, his work, and his possible crimes and misdemeanors. Somewhat unreliable as a narrator, Barney’s memories are annotated by his son Michael, who provides clarification and correction to his father’s version of events. Whenever I hear that a film adaptation of a beloved novel is in the works, I usually brace myself for disappointment, but with Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman signed on to play the principal roles, I’m actually looking forward to this one.The Strangers and Brothers series by C. P. Snow recommended by LydiaThis sequence of novels, beginning with A Time of Hope, takes place in England from World War One to the sixties. I haven’t actually finished the series; I’ve only gotten through four out of a possible eleven. I’m a finisher, though, with the exception of Moby Dick on tape, The Alexandria Quartet, and Ulysses (fucking Ulysses, actually), so I am hoping for a completion date sometime before the autumn of my years.I was overjoyed to learn of the existence of these books. I love novel series, and it is my dream to find another Dance to the Music of Time. Or at least a Forsyte Saga. Or at the absolute least, the one with the cave bears. As it happens, C. P. Snow sits somewhere on the spectrum between Powell and Auel. The books are not nearly so delightful as Dance to the Music of Time, but I am nevertheless enjoying them quite a bit. They relate the life of a middle-class man of limited means, who rises to great heights in several professions. It’s a good chronicle of several English epochs and the attitudes found therein. The subject matter is not always riveting, but the books are quite readable. I realize that this doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, but most of the books I love have already been ringing-ly endorsed by someone else, and these are a step or two off the beaten path. So this is me, endorsing.The Posthuman Dada Guide by Andrei Codrescu recommended by AnneDada wisdom, divined by Andrei Codrescu and dispersed throughout this guide includes: take a pseudonym (or many); embrace spam email as a form of cut-up poetry; and remember that “the only viable Dada is the banished Dada.” Codrescu posits with wit that as creatures of the digital age, whose lives are beholden to IMs, email, iPhones, Google, and Facebook, we have entered a posthuman era where employing Dada’s nonsense actually makes sense. Beginning with an imagined chess game in 1916 Zurich between Dada founder and poet Tristan Tzara and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Codrescu traces Dada from its nascence to show how Tzara and his rabble-rousers usurped and altered the course of twentieth-century thought. Dada resists meaning and revels in absurdity, and Codrescu would be the first to acknowledge this book doesn’t provide a list of how-to’s but rather resembles a nautical map that charts the currents of our times. “It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life,” Codrescu warns. And for that reason alone, you just might want to try it.The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant by David Waller recommended by EmilyHow delightful to find a learned book that wears its scholarliness lightly: David Waller’s lovely new biography of the Victorian grande dame and salonniere Gertrude Tennant is such a book. Because the magnificent subject of Waller’s book lived from the end of the age of Jane Austen through the First World War, and lived both in France and in England, her biography offers a sort of intimate history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – its personalities and intellectual and cultural history. The famous and controversial explorer Henry Morton Stanley attended Mrs. Tennant’s salons (the horrors of his expeditions to Africa are thought to have been among Conrad’s models for Heart of Darkness), as did Labor Prime Minister William Gladstone, the famous Victorian painter John Everett Millais, and literary luminaries like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Henry James, Robert Browning, and Ivan Turgenev.Her acquaintance was a motley of all the aesthetic and intellectual trends of the age: Imperialist explorers, socialists, anarchists, ex-emperors, Romantic and realist novelists, mediums and experts in telepathy all passed through Mrs. Tennant’s drawing room. Her allure as a biographical subject, however, is not limited to her extensive acquaintance: Tennant’s ability to balance her absolute commitments to her husband and children with her gifts for friendship and graciousness and her interest in social and cultural life reveal a more nuanced view of the age, and of the possibilities available to Victorian women. Tennant was a cosmopolitan, a woman of the world, and “an angel in the house” (as the Victorian ideal of wifely and motherly virtue came to be known). Waller trusts Tennant to express herself; he quotes extensively from her diaries and letters. Her voice is earnest, warm, unpretentious, intelligent, loving. You will be glad to have met her. And you will see, through her life, a more refined view of English nineteenth century social and intellectual history.
Based on a True Story, Hesh Kestin’s collection of fiction set in Africa, Polynesia and Hollywood on the eve of WWII, was recently chosen one of the ten best books of 2008 by the Kansas City Star. Writing in Perigee, Duff Brenna called it “opulent,” “heartbreaking” and “masterful,” and Cheri Parker in The Lit Life termed the novellas “hip in a manly, intellectual way.” According to Linda Rodriguez in the KC Star, “These three superb novellas by a former foreign correspondent are some of the best short fiction this reviewer has seen in years.” Kestin was European bureau chief of Forbes, covering Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and a war reporter for Newsday, the Middle East Times and the Jerusalem Post. Based on a True Story, Kestin’s first book of fiction, is published by Dzanc.For years I’ve had the extreme displeasure of throwing new fiction across the room and seeing it fall apart. Launched just right, the spine splits and signatures or – if they’re paperbacks – pages shake out like, well, like bad fiction: unconnected, insubstantial, rank. Most new writing suffers from what can only be called peanuts envy, a wish to emulate the classic New Yorker story about uninteresting people with irritating little problems doing little or nothing about them but bumping into similarly boring people doing, if possible, less – and all of it slowly.Awed by such smalliloquence, the MFA mills early on began turning out robotic imitators themselves turning out a pasteurized cross between the New Yorker story and what Hollywood calls “meeting cute” – any boffo first paragraph will do. With few exceptions it’s downhill from there. Not that there’s any there there. It’s unlikely there can be. Why?Most people writing fiction today have never done anything but write fiction. Sure, it worked for Scott Fitzgerald, but he was an empathic genius who was able to create great characters effortlessly carrying upon their backs great themes. Great writers need great themes, the normal genesis of which is in the writer’s own experience. Alas, thanks to universal college education, contemporary novelists have no experience other than being students and then – surprise! – teachers. Swathed in the classroom, they rarely know even what they don’t know.Which is why this year I found myself privileged to read once again (for the fourth time since age sixteen) Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence, he of Arabia. Yep, a really good movie, but – as with the Bible – you really should read the book.Ostensibly a history of the British-directed Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I, in it Lawrence layers upon a lucid history and disturbing memoir enough fiction to bury the Iowa Writers Program in Sinai sand. It is without question a masterpiece, crossing categories and blurring characterization with a perfect pitch not heard in English since Shakespeare or Twain or Auden. A natural-born liar – many of his facts aren’t – Lawrence claims to have written the book thrice, having lost earlier drafts, once in a railway station. If so, this may be the best proof ever that it pays to rewrite from scratch.Certainly it is proof that to make a great story you must have a great theme. Try this one for size: One man steps out alone into a hostile environment, befriends aliens, becomes one of them – “There seemed a certainty in degradation” is one of the book’s many great lines – before being defeated by the same night he had hoped to light. If this sounds like Heart of Darkness, you’re right. Arguably it is also the theme of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises and Hamlet.And the writing!Seven Pillars (the title is taken, with no irony, from that of an earlier book, abandoned) makes of English a language of pure romance, full of such subtle sound and glottal fury that reading it aloud is like playing the cello really well. Yet not all the high-flying fluency in the world would have helped Lawrence if his book had been about adultery in the English department, or filial disappointment, or immigrant confusion. Pay attention: The man set out alone to conquer Arabia – note to Washington: including Iraq – and did it. Of course if the people who got us in the Iraqmire had read Seven Pillars they wouldn’t have been so much as tempted, but unfortunately our universities turn out writers, not readers. What Isaac Babel liked to say about being a writer goes as well for a president: “You must know everything.”Writers must first live, must know people who do more than sit next to them in a fiction workshop, and they must come to terms with the sanctity of creation. Yeah, it’s nice to create a phrase – but it’s magnificent to create a world. Lawrence created a universe.Of course I’m partial to Lawrence for another reason. One sentence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom got me through twenty years in the Middle East – most of them dealing [as a journalist principally] with Arabs. As Lawrence put it: “In the East they swore that by three sides is the decent way across a square.”How right he was, and is.History, memoir, fantasy all in one, Seven Pillars is in its sum greater than all three, and reason enough to limit my reading of contemporary fiction to those books that actually endeavor to be great. Lawrence failed to unite the Arabs, but his attempt was at greatness. In the end I’ll pick up more new fiction. Perhaps I’ll read some through to the end. Possibly I’ll find the gem, tomorrow’s classic. Greatness is not limited to the past. One must have hope. And a decent throwing arm.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.