I am vulnerable to the word
“‘Once long ago,’ Rogni said, ‘an old woman in a flowered housedress sat on a kitchen chair steeping tea in a cracked brown teapot. She was the Nurse-of-Becoming; she was getting ready to imagine two sisters. Only she made three mistakes.’” So begins Kathryn Davis’s Labrador. The curtain parts. The world disappears.
One of my favorite things to read this year has been Sabrina Orah Mark’s series Happily, on fairy tales and motherhood, online at The Paris Review. “My son’s first grade teacher pulls me aside to tell me she’s concerned about Noah and the Ghost People,” the first essay begins. The curtain parts. The world divides. The ghost people appear by my side.
“In the house opposite, in the dark night of the garden, the governesses are playing cards. Eléonore who seems so straitlaced is laughing like a madwoman,” writes Anne Serre (and translator Mark Hutchinson), in The Governesses, another of my favorites. One that the New Directions catalog copy refers to as a “semi-deranged erotic fairy tale,” by the way. The curtains part. A light comes on the dark.
“Mouths open to the sun, they sleep,” begins Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive, yet another favorite. The curtain parts. The dream begins. Current events become story.
Each year I tell my creative writing classes they must attempt to write literature, and literature does not let readers escape the world, it forces them to engage with the world. Your writing can be in any genre, I tell them, but its goal must be engagement, not escape. There are lots of enjoyable books that serve as an escape, I say. But that’s not what we’re writing.
I am not so sure anymore though.
Don’t I use literature as an escape?
Once I asked a student what he
thought made a good book.
“A book that changes how you
think?” he said.
“Then what makes a great book?”
“A book that changes how you
act?” he said.
Do books ever change how I act?
I tell my students that writing
should give the reader an experience.
That implies books could change
how we act. Experiences change how we act. Don’t they? Shouldn’t they?
In the spring, I was supposed to review Kathryn Davis’s novel The Silk Road. I volunteered to do it. I love the strange worlds of Kathryn Davis’s creations, and a novel that shifted between the Philadelphia suburbs of my mother’s ancestors and the silk road journeys of my father’s ancestors seemed custom-built for me. But I read it and I faltered. I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t sure if I liked it. So I read it again, and I liked it more, but understood it less. Possibly I became obsessed with it and the strange siblings that drift across its pages in some kind of maybe physical, maybe metaphysical journey after one of them has died. Possibly I read it three times. Still I couldn’t review it.
I suggested to the editor that I write an essay on Davis’s work as a whole instead. They agreed. So I reread Duplex, my favorite (schoolteacher dates sorcerer in suburban town studied by robots) and Hell, my second favorite (braided narrative of households across time and space, but much stranger than that makes it sound). I read Versailles (an often humorous Marie Antoinette retelling), The Walking Tour (two couples take a tour of Wales, not everybody comes home) and finally Labrador (awkward sister gets taken to Arctic by eccentric grandfather who is eaten by polar bear while graceful sister stays home and gets pregnant).
It was one of my favorite and strangest periods of reading. Dream upon dream. Not daydreams, which are carefully constructed fantasies, but night dreams, made up of recognizable parts assembled in peculiar configurations. I went into each novel and came back out again unable to recount exactly where I’d been. (The Silk Road aptly begins: “We were in the labyrinth.”) Maybe this doesn’t sound like a positive recommendation; but what I am trying to say is I lived inside of Kathryn Davis’s writing for awhile, and if you are the kind of person who wants to see the world with greater wonder, who is always looking for foreign lands in the backs of wardrobes, who understands death to be close all of the time but also probably not within the realm of imagining—these books are for you. They are an escape, though one from which you return with a greater capacity for seeing and appreciating the wondrous world.
But still I didn’t write the
Maybe this had less to do with
the difficulties of writing and more to do with the difficulties of life.
My father died this year. Now I have another father, of memory and story and imagination, an autofictional father existing in another dimension. Now I tell stories about him that he will never hear. On his death certificate, the funeral home listed him as female. They also handed his box of remains to my mother inside of a sparkly green gift bag. Upon receiving this gift, my mother and I did not react, nor look at each other, until we stepped outside of the building and burst into laughter. “It’s okay, I’ll reuse it,” my mother said. We laughed even harder. But my father, who appreciated jokes, perhaps would not have appreciated this one.
“Will you weep when I die?” he
used to ask me, as if there was any doubt.
Once once once. I had a father.
Escape engage. Escape engage.
The story of mourning.
In Turkish there is a storytelling tense, not past, not present, not future. The tense for repeating things you heard secondhand but did not have direct experience of. The once-upon-a-time tense. In that tense I still have a father.
When my father died he had both
Alzheimer’s and a rare form of mouth cancer. Because of the Alzheimer’s he
sometimes forgot he had cancer. My mother would have to tell him again. And again.
If she could have, my mother
would have let him forget. But my father would moan, or scream, or really
scream, that his mouth hurt, why wasn’t she taking him to the dentist, why
wasn’t she helping him. Even after weeks of chemo, he could still forget.
Wouldn’t it be nice if
forgetting was an escape? But all it did was make his pain inexplicable.
Because I am both Turkish and not, every year I read as many Turkish writers as I can. This year I had much appreciation for: Ayşegül Savaş’s lyric novel Walking on the Ceiling; jailed politician Selahattin Demirtaş’s sometimes charming, sometimes brutal story collection Dawn; Ece Temelkuran’s dire but believable warning that engagement without activism becomes the mere “expression and exchange of emotional responses” How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship; Can Dündar’s surprisingly humorous and even joyful We Are Arrested: A Journalist’s Notes From a Turkish Prison; and journalist Ahmet Altan’s more somber I Will Never See the World Again (translated by Yasemin Congar), also written in jail and smuggled out via his lawyers.
But the book that stopped me in my tracks was More by Hakan Günday (translated by Zeynep Beler). You can’t find a summary or review of the novel that doesn’t include words like harrowing, disturbing, and unsettling. The narrator is a teenager engaged in the family business—smuggling refugees for money with zero concern for the refugees’ safety or survival. It is no surprise that this novel has not had the popularity of its much sunnier bookend, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. Where Hamid uses fantasy to create hope, Günday uses it to create horror. The title comes from the refugees’ cries for “more” food as the narrator scrapes excrement off the floor of the concrete bunker they are buried in during the smuggling process. The novel, which to be clear, I admired tremendously, reads very much like a nightmare—appropriately so given the real life circumstances it is trying to place the reader inside of. But even it, was also, for me, an escape. What have I done for the Syrian refugees other than imagine their nightmare? Doesn’t educating myself about the horrors of the world make me feel proud! But what does it do for those who suffer them?
I guess I believe reading
generates empathy. I feel pretty sure it can offer readers life experiences
they would not otherwise have. But does it change how we act?
Engage escape engage
When I read Ahmet Altan, I am outraged at his imprisonment. When I read the news of his release, I feel joy. When I read the news of his re-arrest, I feel outrage again. But feelings aren’t engagement, are they?
For me, the action that reading triggers is writing. And here is my bigger fear: that writing isn’t engagement either.
I don’t doubt the value of
literature, of representation, of the framing of narratives, of making our pain
explicable, but writing isn’t enough. How could it be? And yet, at times, I
have treated it as if it is. Even now, even now as I type this and imagine you
reading it, I am hoping that you, not I, will be moved to act, to right the
More from A Year in Reading 2019
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Wormholes, portals, wizards, dachshunds, geological time, haute cuisine: these are a few of the things you will find in Kathryn Davis’s fiction. “My sensibility as an artist,” Davis said in a recent interview in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, “is (thank God) a Frankenstein monster of parts.” Ever since the publication of her first book, Labrador, in 1988, she has shown herself to be a writer of graceful sentences and wild creative power—the “love child of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll,” Joy Press once called her. Wherever her imagination wants to go, Davis will follow, whether that means traveling from Denmark to upstate New York with an opera-writing murderess (The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf) or settling down in a 1950s Philadelphia partly populated by robots (Duplex). She has written a novel called Hell, in which time collapses on itself within the walls of a semi-detached house, and a novel called The Thin Place, about a Vermont town where the skin between this world and the spirit world is especially porous.
Davis’s new novel, The Silk Road, continues her exploration of the strange, but if anything, it’s even bolder than her earlier books. Rather than ease the reader into the extraordinary by way of the ordinary—as Duplex does, for example, by beginning with a sleepy suburban street before proceeding to introduce robots and sorcerers and air-borne scows—The Silk Road dives right into the extraordinary from the first paragraph:
We were in the labyrinth. Afterward, no one could agree on the time. Jee Moon was tucking someone’s right hand in under their blanket, having first tucked in the left. She did this tenderly but firmly, as if to suggest we could be doing it for ourselves. Next she took someone’s head and lifted it like it wasn’t part of a human body, a cabbage or a planet or the repository of all good thoughts and evil, which, when you think about it, is exactly what a human head is.
What is going on here? A yoga class winding down, with everyone in shavasana, or corpse pose. Where are we? In the labyrinth, like the narrator says, which we will soon learn is part of “the settlement,” located in the Arctic north, where the permafrost is rapidly melting. And who are we? A group of individuals known only by the names of our professions (the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Topologist, the Cook), guided by a mysterious woman named Jee Moon. And why are we here? To escape from a flea-borne plague that is devastating humanity.
This, anyway, is the novel’s frame story, loosely modeled on the frame story of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which 10 characters fleeing the Black Death gather in a villa near Florence and swap yarns to pass the time. But, in The Silk Road, the medieval literary device gets a new, fantastical twist: The characters don’t just tell each other tales, they hear each other’s thoughts, which swarm “from our heads and—not being solely the province of the brain—from other parts of our bodies, and [rise] to link themselves with other thoughts in a molecular action.” Though such mind-melding might quickly become ridiculous in the hands of another writer, Davis harnesses it to powerful effect, using it as an excuse to blend the characters’ voices with voices borrowed from literature, scripture, and song.
Some of Davis’s allusions are bound to slip past the reader unnoticed. There are not many who will recognize both a line from Lucretius (“Moreover in the sum of all things there is no one thing that is begotten single”) and the lyrics to an old French pop song (Chariot, chariot, si tu veux de moi…). But the sources of these lines are less important than what Davis makes of them—how she orchestrates them into a meaningful and quite beautiful whole. Often the same passages that leave us scratching our heads are the ones that take our breath away. Describing the spread of the plague across the globe, Davis writes:
Everyone knew it was a physical condition—they were that knowledgeable—but the extent of what they knew was compromised by exposure to a glut of information and rumor, making it difficult to predict anything. Some people claimed mortality didn’t come through Saturn and Jupiter, but rather through Mars. Others said the work of the planets could not be avoided but there were things it was possible to avoid. Transmutation was easiest between bodies that had matching qualities. No one knew where the sickness came from or where it was going. No one knew which hospitals had medicine or empty beds or doctors or nurses. There were robbers abroad in the land. There were wild beasts.
As this passage indicates, it can be helpful to think of The Silk Road as a piece of music, in which meaning is produced through rhythm and repetition rather than rational exposition. The reader, holding onto his hat, has to trust that themes and variations will be revealed, even if nothing in the end is certain. But complaining about indeterminacy in a Kathryn Davis novel is like complaining about William Gass’s love of alliteration or Bob Dylan’s singing voice. The embrace of uncertainty is central to the whole endeavor. Like Emerson, Davis insists that “knowledge is the knowing that we cannot know.”
The Silk Road is full of enigmas. Are the main characters siblings, as their shared memories of childhood suggest, or are they linked in some more intangible sense—perhaps as different permutations of the same soul? Is the Arctic settlement where they find themselves the Tibetan Buddhist bardo between one existence and the next? When one by one the characters begin to disappear, where do they go? We can ponder possible answers, point to evidence, even argue for one interpretation or another if the spirit moves us, but finally the pondering is what’s essential. Davis’s style encourages us to remain open to multiple interpretations even when they contradict each other. A “cove of sparkling light” at the settlement’s edge may either be a “real pool of something like water—we were in agreement on that if nothing else—or just a gathering of attention, all of it in one place, as solid and bright-surfaced as a jewel but otherwise beside the point.”
Of course, the beauty of fiction is that things can be both. The cove can be liquidly real and also a potent projection. The characters can lead their individual lives—in which they walk an ancient pilgrimage route through France or bump their braces on a water-fountain spout in St. Louis—while at the same time blending their consciousness together in a hum of voices that summons all the living and the dead.
It would be safe to say that Davis is fascinated by multiplicity, but not by the distracted, all-over-the-map multiplicity that characterizes novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. These novels, whatever else might be said of them, suffer from a jittery lack of focus. Their structures, down to their syntax, seem born of the same impatient impulse that has given us Tinder and flights of beer. By comparison, The Silk Road is a calm book that, with its meditative poise and measured prose, invites us to reduce speed, concentrate, reread and reconsider. Even as it entertains us in the expected novelistic fashion by narrating the story of a group of characters over a span of time, it is constantly throwing our received ideas about narratives, characters, and spans of time into question—and sometimes throwing them overboard altogether.
I have, so far, read The Silk Road three times and can already see that I am going to have to buy another copy—I’ve messed mine up with so many marginal scrawls. These range from exclamation points made to mark favorite images (“a few clerics in long black cassocks, sliding up and down the steep pathways like chessmen”) and aperçus (“Furniture was important to people who cared about the surfaces of things”) to question marks curling next to what, in a conventional mystery novel, would be called clues. The mystery in The Silk Road, however, revolves around nothing less than the formation and dissolution of selfhood—what Joy Williams calls “the great wheel of time and its terrifying promises of rebirth and forgetfulness.” If this mystery has a solution, I have yet to find it. If you do, you’ll have to let me know.