Al Alvarez, Joyce Carol Oates, John Cheever, and others remember Philip Roth, the creator of iconic characters Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman.
[University of Chicago English professor Joan Bennett] invited us to tea to meet one of her students; it was Philip Roth and the stories he was working on in Joan’s class became Goodbye, Columbus. He was very intense and had pronounced views on the department; his wife seemed rather silent. (Chicago, mid-1950s)
—From First Generation: An Autobiography, by Ernest Sirluck (University of Toronto Press, 1996)
2. Prince to My Pauper
On the first day of a course on Henry James [at the University of Chicago] in the fall of 1957, I found myself sitting next to…a dark debonair fellow in a jacket and tie who…looked like he had strayed into class from the business school…Phil Roth. With the antenna of New York/New Jersey Jews, we quickly tuned into each other. …
Phil wore GI khaki gloves inside his leather ones, but otherwise dressed like the junior faculty member that he also was, having been given a job in the College that the rest of us Ph.D. students would have killed for. …
Around the second week of class, one of the students was going on about the religious allegory that underlay Daisy Miller. [Professor Napier] Wilt asked me what I thought of this interpretation. I said that it was idiotic to read James as though he were Hawthorne. Then Phil jumped in and proceeded to show how eschewing the concrete for the symbolic “turned the story inside out,” that Daisy had to be established as an American girl of a certain class and disposition before she became of any interest as a sacrificial figure. Like two players early in the season who find they can work together, Phil and I passed the ball back and forth, running up the score of good sense. …
The one time he came to our flat, he sat there like a social worker on the edge of a couch over which I had nailed an old shag rug to cover the holes. Though we both came from the same hard-pressed Jewish middle class, his clothes, his place in the College, and the money he made from writing cast us in adult prince and pauper roles. …
During our humor binges, Phil would suddenly slip the moorings of his gifts of precise mimicry, timing, suspense, and imagery and get carried away—or better, swept away—into a wild dark sea of vulgarity and obscenity, as far out and obsessed as Lenny Bruce himself.
—From First Loves: A Memoir, by Ted Solotaroff (Seven Stories Press, 2003)
3. Meticulous Invigilator
When Philip Roth was living in London, I went to the little apartment where he worked to collect him for lunch. While he was putting on his coat, I glanced at a page of manuscript lying beside his typewriter. Philip has one of the strongest voices of any novelist alive, effortless and apparently unhesitating, yet the page was black with tiny corrections.
“Who’s going to notice the difference?” I asked.
“You are,” he answered. “I am.”
Meticulousness is just one of the obsessions Philip and I share. When we first met 40 years ago [circa 1960] we were both angry young men with bad marriages, troublesome parents and a yearning for shiksas and literature. We had both been good students, full of high seriousness, and even now when we talk about books it’s usually about the masterworks we were taught to admire back in the fifties when we were at college—Kafka, [Nikolai] Gogol, [Henry] James. Since then I have written three novels, yet whenever I am with Philip I realize I lack the novelist’s temperament. A real novelist is an invigilator, constantly on the watch, listening, making mental notes, using whatever happens to happen and weaving it into stories. Maybe that was what James meant by “loose and baggy monsters”: the novel can accommodate everything.
—From Where Did It All Go Right? A Memoir, by Al Alvarez (Morrow/HarperCollins, 1999)
4. Boys’ Talk
I have a drink, go to meet Philip Roth at the station with the two dogs on leads. He is unmistakable, and I give him an Army whoop from the top of the stairs. Young, supple, gifted, intelligent, he has the young man’s air of regarding most things as if they generated an intolerable heat. I don’t mean fastidiousness, but he holds his head back from his plate of roast beef as if it were a conflagration. He is divorced from a girl I thought delectable. “She won’t even give me back my ice skates.” The conversation hews to a sexual line—cock and balls, [Jean] Genet, [John] Rechy—but he speaks, I think, with grace, subtlety, wit. (Ossining, N.Y., 1963)
—From The Journals of John Cheever, by John Cheever (Knopf, 1990)
5. Vigilant Spectator and Critic
July 28, 1965 [Yaddo writers retreat, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.]. In the evening, to see the William Wyler film The Collector. Afterwards the Yaddo boys [and two girls] sat around in the Colonial and dissected the film, Roth as usual giving the lead…Roth is a sharp, logical analyst of character and motivation in whatever he sees and reads. I remember that in discussing Herzog he spotted all sorts of illogicalities; when he discussed The Collector, he took it apart, spotting every possible implausibility and moral confusion. He is always outside, vigilantly himself as the spectator and critic and judge. Everything is consciously sized up all day long. This extraordinary conscious intactness!
—From Alfred Kazin’s Journals, selected and edited by Richard M. Cook (Yale University Press, 2011)
6. Tall and Handsome
We had first met in East Hampton, Long Island, in 1966. Rod [Steiger] and I had taken a house for the summer months, and we had a good time there…bicycle-riding, swimming, performing a host of healthy summer activities. Neighbors invited us over for a drink; one of their houseguests was Philip. Already a highly acclaimed young writer—the author of Goodbye, Columbus, a fine volume of short stories—I recognized his tense, intellectually alert face immediately from photographs. Tanned, tall, and lean, he was unusually handsome; he also seemed to be well aware of his startling effect on women. I was immediately attracted to him, and he would tell me years later that he also had felt the same toward me…
—From Leaving a Doll’s House, by Claire Bloom (Little, Brown, 1996)
I was talking to Philip Roth for the [Toronto Telegram]. He spoke in the tapered tone of a man who wanted to convey a casual intelligence and amiability, a man deft with an idea. Slender, a little balding, wearing a pullover V-neck sweater and a shirt open at the neck, he paced back and forth on the burgundy plank floors in his flat, and then sat at his writing desk—heavy oak, somewhat awkward to sit at—a gray metal elbow lamp clamped to the desk top, jutting into the air, it angled back over his typewriter. (New York, late 1960s)
—From Barrelhouse Kings: A Memoir, by Barry Callaghan (McArthur & Company, 1998)
8. Swarthy Glory
As JH [companion James Holmes] and I were finishing our chowder at The Tavern, toying with the notion of leaving next day, stopping our ears against an aggressive accordion and trying to compare notes on our mutual loathing of the local Catholic dishwater-blond fauna, and exclaiming, My God, there’s not one Jew in this town, much less anyone we’d ever want to know! Who should enter in all his swarthy glory but Philip Roth, and Barbara. So they sat and chatted a while, cheered us up some (we’d seen no humans hitherto), and we made a date for Wednesday, but didn’t keep it because we fled instead. (Siasconset, Mass., 1972)
—From The Later Diaries: 1961-1972, by Ned Rorem (North Point Press, 1983)
9. Completely Likeable Person
May 15, 1974…Met Philip Roth. We went to his apartment, then out to lunch. Attractive, funny, warm, gracious: a completely likeable person. We talked about books, movies, other writers, New York City, Philip’s fame (and its amusing consequences), his experiences in Czechoslovakia meeting with writers. Ray [Smith, husband] and I liked him very much. His apartment on 81st St. is large and attractive, near the Met. Art gallery. He has another house (and another life, one gathers) in Connecticut. My Life as a Man irresistibly engaging. But one wonders at Philip’s pretense that it isn’t autobiographical.
—From The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982, by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins, 2007)
10. Handshakes Received and Avoided
Philip Roth came with Claire Bloom to [film and stage producer] Patrick Garland’s wedding to [actress] Alexandra Bastedo in the Chichester Cathedral and to the reception afterwards in Bishop Kemp’s quarters in the cathedral grounds. Edward Kemp, the youngest teenage son of the bishop approached him. “Mr. Roth,” he asked, “may I shake you by the hand?” After his wish had been granted and he slipped away (to become in time an excellent writer/director), Philip Roth whispered, “Women at literary luncheons across America have run a mile rather than shake the hand of the man who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint. (West Sussex, England, mid-1970s)
—From Ned Sherrin: The Autobiography, by Ned Sherrin (Little Brown, 2005)
11. Inward-Looking Self-Explorer
A feeling of authentic French provençal with faded ochre walls and pine tables where you can sit as long as you like…Thompsons, as this modest establishment on the corner of Portobello Mews and next to a new dry-cleaner’s, soon becomes known. …
Today Philip Roth is sitting at the back of Thompsons in the gloom. Like an ant-eater’s, his long snout and bright eyes are trained downwards, on the food he consumes. A book is held up close to his face; Roth most definitely does not wish to be disturbed. I’ve heard this most inward-looking and remarkable of self-explorers has a room where he writes in Stanley Gardens, up the hill. I know, despite the fact of his apparent great distance from the talk or excitements around him, that every word one says goes into the long, this head, shaped like a quill with its tufty feathers of black hair, and lies waiting to be inscribed in stone. …
The other day, Roth went so far as to invite me to join him in the dark recesses of the restaurant. We talked of nothing much, except Roth’s first wife and the novel, My Life as a Man, that he’d written about her violent and untimely death. My sympathy was brushed aside; Roth declared himself unperturbed by the outcome of his spouse’s tragic accident…
After lunch, Roth suggests I “see” his Stanley Gardens workplace. I go up the hill with him, and then up three floors to the minute flat where he sits over his desk, deep in Nathan Zuckerman, his alter ego. There is hardly any space, between desk, armchair and wall, to stand in; but somehow Roth his fitted a rubber mat, green with a swirly pattern, in this tight space, and I find myself—there is nowhere else to go—standing on it. “For my exercises,” Roth says. A silence falls, and I leave, suddenly aware I don’t want to be here at all. Whatever the “exercises” are, I definitely do not want to be a part of them. (London, 1976)
—From Burnt Diaries, by Emma Tennant (Canongate Books, 1999)
12. Monk’s Cell With a Great View
Roth’s face is lined now, his mouth has tightened and his springy hair has turned grey, but he still looks like an athlete—tall, lean, with broad shoulders and a small head. Until recently, when surgery on his back and arthritis in the shoulder laid him low, he worked out and swam regularly, though always, it seemed, for a purpose—not for the animal pleasure of physical exercise, but to stay fit for the long hours he puts in at his writing. He works standing up, paces around while he’s thinking and has said he walks half a mile for every page he writes. Even now, when his joints are beginning to creak and fail, energy still comes off him like a heat haze, but it all driven by the intellect. It comes out as argument, mimicry, wild comic riffs on whatever happens to turn up in the conversation. His concentration is fierce, and the sharp black eyes under their thick brows miss nothing. The pleasure of his company is immense, but you need to be at your best not to disappoint him. …
The New York studio…where me met to talk…is on the 12th floor, a single large room with a kitchen area, a little bathroom and a glass wall looking south across Manhattan’s gothic landscape to the Empire State Building, with a wisp of cloud around its top.
The lectern at which Roth works is at right angles to the view, presumably to avoid distraction…There is a bed with a neat white counterpane against the wall, an easy chair in the center of the room, with a graceful standing lamp beside it, all of it leather and steel and glass, discreetly modern. It is a place strictly for work, spare and chaste, a monk’s cell with a great view. (2004)
—From “The Long Road Home,” by Al Alvarez, The Guardian (Sept. 23, 2004)
13. Missed Opportunity
I went to hear Hermione Lee, an Oxford University English professor, speak at Columbia University this evening about her just published biography [of Edith Wharton]…
I arrived early at Low Library and took a seat in the third row of the nearly empty rotunda. Soon afterwards, a professorial man in a tweedy brown jacket sat down in the seat right next to me, which struck me as odd, considering that he might have been expected to leave an empty seat between us in such uncrowded circumstances.
I glanced at him, thought he looked vaguely familiar, couldn’t place him, and went back to working on some writing. (I now blush to think he might have been looking at the page.) Fifteen minutes later, along came my husband, who sat down in the seat on my left. The “professor” soon moved one seat over, laying his coat across the seat between us.
When Hermione Lee took her seat onstage, I noticed her nod in greeting to the man on my right. Then, the person who introduced her mentioned that she had once written an essay on Philip Roth.
And then, of course, I knew.
I cast a sidelong glance at “the professor,” and realized the person I had studiously ignored while I continued my own scribbling was arguably our country’s most famous living literary novelist…
I had just missed the opportunity to have a 15-minute tête-à-tête with the perpetrator of Portnoy. After the Wharton talk concluded, I lamely inquired if he was Philip Roth and told him it was nice to see him. He returned the pleasantry and was off to commune with the academic types up front. (New York City, 2007)
—From “Philip Roth: Another Missed Opportunity,” by Lee Rosenbaum, Arts Journal’s CultureGrrl blog (April 12, 2007)
Image credit: Flickr/hye tyde
I will propose two axioms here, the first completely obvious, the second hopefully less so. One: most writers have a zone of thematic interest they compulsively revisit in their work. Rare is the Flannery O’Connor story without a fraught parent-child relationship; few are the Raymond Carver stories without a bottle of gin lurking on the counter. Two: per Carver and O’Connor, a writer’s greatness tends to be proportionate to, or correlate with anyway, the strength and clarity of these fixations. Great writers have great subjects, and they return to them again and again, like a dog worrying daily over a buried bone.
So it’s interesting when an important author purposefully writes against these tendencies, against themselves. In his recent Lincoln in the Bardo, for example, George Saunders abandons his familiar dystopian terrain, going back in time to achieve something artistically new. Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I recently discussed on my podcast, Fan’s Notes (shameless plug), strikes me similarly. Following the runaway success of The Adventures of Augie March, with its rollicking first-person narration and ambition of scope, Bellow released Seize the Day, a slim novella, and cramped in every sense. The third-person narration is straitjacketed, the setting is an old folks’ home, the action is mostly confined to a single, contentious meal between father and son, and the stakes hinge on $700 worth of lard futures. After Seize the Day, Bellow returned to large books like Henderson the Rain King and Herzog — large in scope, large in voice. Largeness was Bellow’s aesthetic mode, outsized spiritual yearning his native thematic soil. But Seize the Day is a notable aberration, an effortful — though somewhat clumsy and abortive — stab at smallness and bathos.
Regardless of how we evaluate this kind of book’s success, it is gratifying and noteworthy to see a artist pushing against his or her own inclinations and instincts. And so I found it, going through the work of Leonard Michaels to arrive at the Nachman Stories.
The Nachman Stories, as they are informally known, are a cycle of seven pieces bound by a single protagonist, Raphael Nachman, a well-regarded mathematician at UCLA (Michaels himself taught at Berkeley for decades). These stories are terrific, wonderfully written, shot through with an enigmatic, elusive sense of mystery. And they are completely different than anything else Michaels wrote.
Michaels’s great subject was the erotic and the borderlands it shares with other worldly conditions: love, hatred, friendship, confusion, depression, and, in particular, death. Going Places, his first collection, commences with two stories of graphic sexual content — “Manikin,” in which a woman is raped and commits suicide, and the even more representative “City Boy.” Here, the protagonist, caught screwing his girlfriend on the living room floor of her parents’ Manhattan apartment, is banished from the house without clothes, runs to the subway entirely naked only to be denied entry, and upon return to the street is met by his girlfriend, who bears his clothes and the news that her father has suffered a heart attack. They return to the apartment, and celebrate the phone call reporting her father’s survival with another interlude on the floor.
I Would Have Saved Them if I Could, Michaels’s second collection, features “Murderers,” perhaps his most well-known and anthologized story. In it, a group of teenage friends routinely masturbate on the sloping edge of a Brooklyn apartment roof while watching a young rabbi and his wife have sex across the street. One day, a member of the group slides down the roof, tearing his finger off in the process, and plummeting five stories. The naked rabbi screams out the window at them, calling them murderers — a fusing of the carnal and mortal in one indelible moment.
Michaels’s last story collection, A Girl with a Monkey, features a titular story that leads with the following sentence: “In the Spring of the year following his divorce, while traveling alone in Germany, Beard fell in love with a young prostitute named Inger and canceled his plans for further travel.” This strikes me as a characteristic Leonard Michaels sentence, packing loneliness and trauma into a rhetorical sardine tin with the frankly sexual. The story proceeds as you might imagine: sex, sex, regret, folly, sex, regret, sex.
In 1997, six years before his death in 2003, Michaels wrote the first of the Nachman stories, entitled, simply, “Nachman.” In “Nachman,” Raphael Nachman has traveled to Poland for a mathematics conference, where he is informed by the American consul that he will be surveilled by the communist secret police. Nachman responds, “My field is mathematics. Nothing I do is secret, except insofar as it’s unintelligible.” Prodded further with a warning as to the “considerable allure” of Polish women, he elaborates:
I’m not married. I have no secrets. I don’t gossip. I didn’t come to Cracow for romantic adventures. It’s arguable that I’m a freak. You’re wasting your time, Mr. Sullivan, unless you want to make me frightened and self-conscious.
The story proceeds with Nachman touring Cracow’s former Jewish ghetto accompanied by a young female guide who may or may not be a government agent, one of Poland’s famously alluring women. He feels a vague attraction to her, though mainly to her stoic inscrutability, and the story ends with them drinking vodka in a café, Nachman thinking, “For an instant, [he] wished he could love Marie, feel what a man is supposed to feel for a woman, but not for the sake of ecstasy.”
Nachman is an ascetic, and Michaels’s focus on such a character — happy with his pencil and paper, his equations and conferences, and his solitude in a little house in Santa Monica — is arresting. It’s as though Michaels, in order to thwart his habitual mode, had to create a character inoculated against desire. To return to our earlier examples, the equivalent would be a Flannery O’Connor protagonist on pleasant speaking terms with her mother, a Carver character who enjoys a single glass of crisp white wine before bedtime.
What does it profit an author to create a character pitted by nature against its creator’s instincts? In Michaels’s case, backgrounding the erotic charge serves to foreground it — Nachman’s sterile, calm existence is constantly being impinged on by the promise or threat of erotic life. The effect is something like a pristine operating room marked by a bare smudge of mud or a greasy handprint, and the plots of these stories are not unlike a contaminated OR being scrubbed down.
“Of Mystery, There Is No End,” begins as Nachman accidently spies his best friend Norbert’s wife, Adele, kissing a man on the side of Santa Monica Boulevard. This coincidence throws his life into moral turmoil — should he tell Norbert and how? And why does it bother him so? The simple answer seems to be that he has his own feelings for Adele, yet he never acts upon these feelings despite having ample opportunity. He is a man of instinctive restraint, a restraint signally opposed to Michaels’s frank explorations of the bedroom and its consequences. It is only in the last line of the story, chastely lying in bed, that Nachman allows himself to wonder if he is in love with her.
The stifling of this erotic energy tends to position the Nachman Stories in the realm of the metaphysical. It’s as though, absent a release for the ambient sexuality in Michaels’ work, the narrative energy is funneled upward, into — if not the spiritual — the mystical. Nachman’s profession, mathematics, perfectly echoes this quality, in its intellectual self-denial, its abstraction in pursuit of equations that aspire to an almost numinous beauty, a beauty that, in turn, can take aesthetic shape in the real world. In “The Penultimate Conjecture,” Nachman visits a math conference featuring a mathematician named Linquist who claims to have solved a long-standing, famous problem reminiscent of Pierre de Fermat’s Last Theorem. Watching the man, Nachman senses the equations are wrong, and the story pivots on his internal struggle: should he speak up and ruin Linquist? He imagines himself and Linquist as medieval knights engaged in mortal combat. Cowering beneath Nachman’s sword, Linquist offers up his slave girl, and thus (as, again, the rumor of sex invades the story’s realm) does Nachman’s fugue end.
The story cycle itself ends with “Cryptology,” in which Nachman has been invited by a shadowy corporation to New York for a cryptology conference. While in the city, he runs into a woman who seems to know him and invites him to dinner; he goes to her apartment only to find her having sex in the shower with her husband, and he flees in mortified dismay. “Cryptology” ends with Nachman in Washington Square Park, calming himself with a vision of home that serves as a perfect imagistic postscript for these stories:
His office and his desk and the window that looked out on the shining Pacific. He’d never gone swimming in the prodigious, restless, teeming, alluring thing, but he loved the changing light on its surface and the sounds it made in the darkness. He didn’t yearn for its embrace.
It is difficult to read these stories, written by a man in his 60s shortly before his death, and not read into them a certain clarity of purpose. Having produced decades of work marked by hectic energy, Michaels’s creation of Nachman seems an attempt to slow things down, to filter the intemperate world through a temperate soul. The sexual is still there in these stories, but it exists less as an act or an actor, and more as atmosphere — background noise that, like the ocean crashing outside Nachman’s window, occasionally intensifies into something audible, becomes for a moment frighteningly present, then just as quickly again subsides.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I know it’s already been praised to the skies, and endlessly opined about, and I’m pretty ambivalent about winding up as part of that “Why do white people like this so much?” meme or backlash or whatever exactly it is or was, but it happens to be a fact that the most deeply resonant and personally important book that I read this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, so I’m going to take a minute and try to say why I think that is.
The first thing — and for all that has been said about the book, this has not been said nearly enough — Coates is a marvelous stylist. Sentence by sentence, and thought by thought, the book is as formidable and rich in its aesthetics, in its range and command of information and emotion and idea, as in the particulars of the argument it advances. Some of my favorite passages were the descriptions of Coates’s first year in college — the explosion of friends, mentors, reference-points, ideas, identities — and of the halting, hard-traveled road to becoming a writer. Despite every circumstantial difference you can think of — our ages, our ancestries, where and how we each grew up, where we each chose to go to school, what we each eventually chose to write — Coates’s narrative of intellectual, artistic, and political coming-of-age resonated deeply with my own memories of that same era in my own life, and I hardly imagine I’m the only one. It was at least as instructive to learn what we had — and have — in common as it was to be reminded of what we didn’t, and still do not.
My very favorite part of Between the World and Me deals with Saul Bellow’s infamous question, “Who was the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” As someone who loves Bellow, who used a line from Herzog as an epigraph to his most recent book, it has caused me no small amount of pain and soul-searching over the years to try and reconcile the great man’s bountiful, messy, life-loving novels with his pinched, reactionary, often abhorrent cultural politics. Coates quotes the writer Ralph Wiley’s response: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”
Of course this is true, and self-evidently true at that. The problem with Bellow’s question was never whether it could be answered, or what the answer might be; the problem was with the set of assumptions that caused it to be formulated in the first place, and the sneer with which it was then asked. If you want to know the limits of a man’s universe, just look at who he excludes from his notion of the universal. (You can start, if you like, with the default masculine pronoun deployed in the previous sentence.) For all my commitment to progressive politics (not that Democrat Party shit either — I mean actual progressive politics), for all my fluency in concepts of radical egalitarianism and liberation, for all my sense of myself as a leftist, I had never myself managed to arrive at Wiley’s devastatingly simple — even obvious — conclusion. (And of course I had never heard of Ralph Wiley before, much less read him; more’s the pity.) I had gone on the hunt for the short-circuit in Bellow’s humanity, but it hadn’t occurred to me to look for my own. It will surprise some of my readers more than others that I found them in the same place.
Once I understood what I’d been wrong about, it was remarkably easy to admit that I’d been wrong, and just how much. In fact, it felt pretty good. Being wrong is easier than being afraid of being wrong, because a person who is wrong and knows it can begin to imagine what rightness looks like, whereas a person who is afraid of being wrong can only dissemble or stay silent, hoping to make it through another day, another hour, with his fear intact.
Let’s be real clear here: I’m not claiming my work, or anyone’s work, is done. I don’t think this book gave me a racial-cultural exorcism. If anything, the narrowness of my own example suggests how much likely remains unaddressed, unaccounted for, as-yet-unimagined. This isn’t one of those essays where the white dude beats his chest and offers a putative mea culpa that sounds like a fraternity chant and actually doesn’t say anything except Pay more attention to me. I hate those fucking essays. In fact, I wasn’t sure whether I should write about Between the World and Me at all, but The Millions asked me to pick the book that meant the most to me this year, and this was the only honest answer I could give.
I’m going to end with a thought about Bellow, but not a defense or apology. He was who he was and he said what he said, and his reputation will stand or fall on the future’s willingness to endure him at his worst for what he offers at his best — that’s his problem, not mine. But since I said before that I loved him, I feel I ought to offer some inkling as to why. Since I’m almost done here, and this essay isn’t about him, I’ll keep this part short. One thing I love about Bellow is that he is unashamedly interested in the state of the human soul. He uses the word often, not in definitively religious terms, but not figuratively either. He believes in the soul, in its endless capacity for dilation and betterment. He believed, or wanted to believe, or his best work helps me believe, that we can be more than the sorrows our ancestors fled and inflicted; better than we ourselves were yesterday; better than we are right now. That line from Herzog that I used as my epigraph: “Oh, for a change of heart, a change of heart — a true change of heart!”
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Garth Risk Hallberg first appeared in my inbox in 2009 through the mediating voice of Max Magee, the founder of this site. Max wrote in gentle tones that, while he and his partner welcomed my contributions to The Millions, they both felt that “war is peace, bitches” was not a useful embellishment to a work of criticism (a note so self-evident that I couldn’t take it personally). In the subsequent years I’ve gotten to know Garth a little — as an intensely committed reader, a generous colleague quick with encouragement, and the proponent of an egregious class of pun. He is also the author of criticism that I hesitate to call forbidding only because I suspect that it wounds him.
Garth has a medieval intellect: free access to a vast array of texts, of points and counterpoints, which he is able to call forth from an internal commonplace book at a moment’s notice. This intellect is evident in pieces like “How Avant Is It?” or “Why Write Novels at All?”; the former references 50 names and nearly as many texts. These aren’t wielded like bludgeons, rather placed deftly and precisely around his writing — points on a schematic drawing showing in bewildering detail something familiar you’d looked at but never really seen. Garth’s intimidating schemata are illuminated by something friendly, though — the light of a true flashlight-under-the-covers reader, one unafraid to issue calls to arms for capital-A Art:
…we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla…and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide.
When Garth wrote the above, in 2011, it’s unlikely he knew just how much cultural hoopla he would himself one day generate. The revelation of the startlingly large advance for City on Fire — an advance unprecedented for a 900-page debut — caused a slight distortion in the fabric of the universe. I never expected to see, as I did last week and which it will also undoubtedly wound him to mention, a photo of Garth in Vogue, wearing costly designer items and looking like a goddamned matinee idol.
Garth’s previous published work, a novella called A Field Guide to the North American Family, made heavy use of photography and textual fragments to propel a surprisingly tender work of fireflies-and-cigarettes Americana. When City on Fire arrived, I noted the visual elements — the recreated pages of a punk girl’s ‘zine, a journalist’s whisky-ringed article draft, a patriarch’s handwritten letter. Taking these, with the novel’s size, with the $2 million, with the monastic vastness of the author’s frame of reference, I had, frankly, no idea what to expect.
What I found was not the terrifying post-modern edifice I feared, but something warm and generous. Something beautifully written, fantastically plotted — something suspenseful and moving and full of interesting people and ideas. It’s a book written to create communion between reader and writer. It is also a book that, despite its frequent appearance in articles on the current popular interest in the New York of the 1970s — despite its rhetorical signposts, its blighted streets, its Patti Smith soundtrack — feels contemporary and fresh.
There are other big books that have caused people to mention Charles Dickens and for which “accessibility” is actually a subtle neg; this is not the case for City on Fire, which deftly gathers up the stories of over a dozen people, half-a-dozen “scenes,” and one teeming city in careful prose, with a reverence and faith that escape naivete only because they are the things that motivate all great stories. As one of Garth’s characters, the veteran reporter Richard Groskoph, puts it
What he wanted above all to get right was the web of relationships a dozen column inches had never been enough to contain…He wanted to follow the soul far enough out along these lines of relationship to discover that there was no fixed point where one person ended and another began.
I spoke to Garth in the weeks before publication, when he was going to a lot of matinees to kill time and, at his wife’s behest, avoiding pregnancy metaphors to describe the surreal anticipatory state he occupied. No one is more startled by all the hoopla than Garth himself. That said, I think there is a way in which, like any writer, he has spent his life preparing for the contingency (playfully referenced in his character Mercer’s imaginary Paris Review interviews, daydreamed when production on the great American novel had stalled). I asked Garth how he went about transforming from critic to novelist, and how he navigated, in his novel, those lines of relationship–those deep places where the author and world collide.
The Millions: When we started this conversation via email, you mentioned that you were already writing fiction when you “walked backward” into reviewing: what does that mean? I don’t think I actually know, or remember, how you got started with The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg: That’s a bit of a long story, but basically I met Max when I was 17, in Washington, D.C. I had grown up in North Carolina, on tobacco road. “Down East.” My town was a college town, but a small one, and such elements of college culture as we got largely involved keg stands and pool halls. Both of which I came to appreciate as a teenager — but it lacked that density of record stores and plays and paintings or whatever it was that I was probably hungry for. So I was a voracious reader from an early age: novels and nonfiction and increasingly poetry. And then the summer I was 16 I was working in a radiologist’s office, literally typing Social Security Numbers into a computer for minimum wage and spending the proceeds on, um, various forms of contraband, and my mom said, “That is not going to look very good on your college application.” I told her I wasn’t going to apply for college. We went back and forth about it, and she finally in a fit of despair suggested a residential poetry workshop at Duke at the end of the summer. I think her pitch was that it was only a week long. So I went up there, and naturally it was instantly like, “My god, a community!” What’s that line from the end of Jesus’ Son? “Freaks like us?”
[Supplies clarification via email: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”]
Among them was a kid from Washington, D.C., named Derek, who became a close friend. And I started going up to D.C., which was about a five-hour drive from where I lived. On the weekends and in the summers, I’d drive up and find a place to crash and hang out with Derek and his friends, all of whom seemed bewitchingly well-read and creative. And also very wholesome in a strange way. I should emphasize that the teenage culture where I was from was not one of great psychic or spiritual health. Like, the group of people I’d been ratting around with included, on its periphery, a couple runaways and a small arms dealer.
And I think I had a tropism for cities already, but I’d never been to New York, I’d never been to Paris or San Francisco or LA or anything — so to me D.C. was at that point the paradigmatic big city. Max was a friend of Derek’s. So Max and I hung out a lot. And then I started using D.C. as a jumping-off point for raids on New York.
TM: And when did The Millions enter the picture?
GRH: I guess that was after I got out of grad school. I’d gone to NYU after having spent three post-college years in the workforce in D.C. and not liking what I’d seen. That’s actually not entirely true, but…
TM: What kind of work?
GRH: My first job out of college was writing Internet content, which paid shockingly well but was not good for the world. But a couple months into that came September 11. And in the aftermath, I quit that job and went to teach elementary school for two years.
TM: Like how some people joined the army.
GRH: Well, I’m a lover, not a fighter. In any case, I had surrendered by then to the fact that I was not, or was no longer, America’s Greatest Living Teenage Poet. But I’d been writing fiction steadily, and in the fall of 2001, for inexplicable reasons, the fiction started to feel really alive. All of a sudden, I started to feel like I was good at it. When it got to where I couldn’t split time with teaching, I applied to graduate school, which was also an excuse for my wife and me to move to New York. And then a couple years later, in maybe 2007, Max called and said, “You read a lot of books, and I’m turning The Millions into a group blog — will you contribute?” So I did one thing, and I think we maybe got an email from the person under review, saying, “I had written off blogs as this hysterical thing, but this piece is actually thoughtful.” I’m sure you’ve gotten those emails, too; they’re gratifying. It’s a very direct connection. So I started writing reviews alongside the fiction. I didn’t really know what I was doing as a reviewer, besides thinking through questions of aesthetics. But I knew what I didn’t want to do.
TM: It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read some of those works of criticism — the pieces like “How Avant Is It?” I remember writing you some cringe-inducing emails in the past asking how you got so smart. I find it astonishing that you can write these dense essays and simultaneously be writing such an expansive and, accessible is not the word, imagine-a-better-word novel. You’re a Pierre Bourdieu in the streets but a, um, Dickens in the sheets.
GRH: Well, maybe another way of phrasing your generous response to the novel is that I haven’t yet managed to hit the mark I’d like to in the critical writing. Because to the degree that there’s anything intimidating about the voice of the criticism, then I’ve failed in my attempt to make something demotic and beautiful. And I should also say, about those pieces, that maybe I manage to be more humane and given to levity in the mode of praise than in the mode of attack. It took me a long time to get over “Somebody said something wrong on the Internet” and to just find something to hold up for praise. My favorite piece I wrote for the site is probably the one on Deborah Eisenberg. And of course in the essays you cited above, I’m kind of covertly working out some ideas about my own fiction.
But in any case, the rhetoric of fiction is so different. If being a passionate amateur is a rhetorical complication you have to deal with starting out as a critic, it’s an asset, or even a birthright, for the novelist. Or anyway, for this novelist. Or that’s my opinion. Instead of needing to establish you know something, you’re more credible as a novelist establishing that you don’t understand something, that you’re seeking to fathom the unfathomable. There’s more room for mystery. Things can be both true and false at the same time — true for one character, false for another; right in one context, wrong in another. You have to be willing to be duped, Henry James says. That’s sort of my standard for “irony” in the novel, and I guess it creates kind of a gentler temperament.
TM: When you say that the rhetoric of fiction is different than writing criticism — is there a time when you sit down and say “I’m being too arch right now, I’m being too knowing, I’m using some kind of device that I would use when I’m writing criticism”?
GRH: I’m tempted to say, conversely, that the voice of the fiction just comes more naturally to me, but I’d be using the adverb in a very peculiar, almost technical sense. Because writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer — it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.”
I tend to forget this about other writers, because I read as if the person doing the writing were speaking. So if an essay takes 45 minutes to read, I have this kind of unexamined assumption that it also took 45 minutes to produce. And then it’s like, “Damn, E.B. White is so natural, he writes with such ease, how does he do that?” But I know from experience that no, no, no, that’s an 18th draft and he spent months and months and months pulling his hair out to get there.
What I can say is that fiction is the first writing I do every day. And if there’s a day — and there have been many in the last couple of years — when I’m only going to have room for one or the other, fiction or essay, I’m always going to choose fiction. Because writing nonfiction doesn’t make me less crazy in the way that fiction does.
For me in a piece of fiction when everything is working, everything is embodied and incarnate, and sometimes ideas that are illogical or I don’t agree with or seem silly to me in real life suddenly become compelling because a fictional person believes in them. And that’s maybe part of the strangeness of the rhetoric of fiction.
TM: It’s funny because I kind of think of you just sitting down and speaking the novel to an extent. I think of it as being narrated by a generous late-20th-century god with an extensive vocabulary who periodically zeroes in on the respective consciousnesses of the characters.
GRH: That’s sort of what I mean about belief and the fictional person. You dig a little way into that, and it opens up all kinds of bizarre logical problems and mysteries and circles to be squared involving subjectivity and objectivity. This novel is clearly a deep attempt to be “with” the characters, but also to make them meaningful by knitting them together into something larger.
So I wanted the narrative voice to be constantly modulating between the poles of total objectivity and total subjectivity — but only ever actually touching one or the other pole in a few select places. And using a broad vocabulary gave me the room to dial up or down the degree of slanginess or rhetoric or whatever as we move in and out. To send a constantly modulating signal about vector and position. Rather than free indirect style just being a switch you flip — now in character; now out of character — I wanted it to have what Kurt Cobain once described as “psychedelic” dynamics.
[Supplies Cobain quote via email: “I wanted to learn to go in between those things, go back and forth, almost become psychedelic in a way but with a lot more structure.”]
Which is also closer to how I experience life.
And somehow the interludes in City on Fire, those first-person “documents,” are related to that. I thought a lot about how the enjambment of Esther’s first-person voice and Dickens’s third-person voice works in Bleak House, even though it “doesn’t work.” Or, like, the letters in Herzog. I’m pretty sure Bellow was frustrated with having to choose first or third person, and kind of wanted the resources of both, us being both inside and outside of Herzog, and just is like, “A-ha! The letters!” As the Dude says, there are a lot of ins and outs, a lot of what have-yous. [Garbled sound of talking with phone covered.] Sorry — the exterminator and my landlady were walking around.
TM: What do you need to exterminate? What do you have?
GRH: We’ve got some mice. We’ve got a few mice.
GRH: Which I’d rather not exterminate. Maybe rodent prophylaxis is what we’re trying to practice here. [More discussion with landlady, exterminator.] Where were we?
TM: The ins and outs and what-have-yous. Which extend beyond the characters and the voice to the plot. Did you have to create a map for yourself ahead of time?
GRH: Well, in a very strange way — a way that’s almost mystical — I already had a lot of the book ahead of time. I’d had this sort of vision, which I’ve probably beaten to death in other interviews…
TM: The famous bus.
GRH: Right, on a Greyhound from D.C. to New York, to scope out places to live, and as improbable as it sounds, in the space of 45 seconds or however long it was, a lot of things — characters, architecture, images, events, scenes — sort of all came at me at once. But it was like getting a box of puzzle pieces in the mail. You can tell how big the puzzle is going to be, roughly, and how intricate, and what the color scheme is, but you don’t necessarily know whether the piece you’re holding is the upper-left or the lower-right corner. Nor do you know how everything connects. And mapping it all out ahead of time may close off certain intuitive leaps.
I had this dream — I still have this dream — of the novel, what D.H. Lawrence called “the big bright book of life,” being as organic as a tree. In order for a tree to achieve its shape, it has to grow and respond to all kinds of obstacles and dry years and wet years. So even in this case of extreme complication I was reluctant to do any kind of formal outlining. If I’m verbally tracing over something that’s already been outlined in schematic or graphic form the words just die. And maybe this is an overlap with how I feel about essays: the feeling of the writer being taken by surprise is a totally enchanting feeling for me as a reader, and the feeling of being taken by surprise is a totally enchanting feeling for me as a writer, because something has just emerged that I was not capable of producing through purposeful thinking. It’s bigger than me.
Anyway, I just kind of wrote and wrote and arrived at a process that seemed to work, stitching together pieces and seeing what fit. And some answers would come to me very quickly, and some would come after a lot of trial and error. And some came while I was sleeping.
TM: Like what, for example?
GRH: Like the design stuff. I had this dream in what was probably spring of 2008, early on in the writing of the novel. And, peculiarly, I saw the finished book. This wasn’t under the sign of anxiety, as much of the rest of my life is — it was a dream of, like, feeling joyful and at peace. Me handing the book to a reader, a specific person in my life. And inside the book, some of the pages looked a little funny. And I woke up and thought, “Well, that’s odd.” But I guess that’s what it turned out to be.
TM: One thing I’ve learned about you from this is that you are kind of a Desert Father, having visions and dreams. Do you have signs and portents all the time, or were they specific to this book?
GRH: It may just be that I’m very suggestible. Maybe the delinquent habit reading trains you into is to be highly suggestible, so that if someone writes that Character X is performing Action Y, you say, “Oh, yes, I can see that.” So by the same token, if my son says, “Dad, you’re stepping on the sidewalk cracks!” there’s a very real part of me that wants to call my mother. Opening umbrellas indoors, all that kind of stuff, I’m very superstitious about. I’m tempted to say very California, but I don’t want…
TM: I live in California and I’m exactly the same way.
GRH: Well, you’re a good reader. So you’re also highly suggestible. Of all the people writing regularly for The Millions you and I probably have the most similar relationship to literature. And superstition is also just a kind of Pascal’s Wager. You know, just in case.
But that was part of the attraction to writing for me. I always saw it as intrinsically related to dreams and visions and the whole gnostic thing, the call from the beyond. I’ve basically been writing since I was six, and I think of it as a vocation more than a profession, both because it’s a preposterous profession, which remunerates very few people in ways that allow them to live in the world, and also because it just seemed like…Have you read The Gift? Lewis Hyde?
GRH: You should read it! You would love it. And not to presuppose that I had any talent as a kid, or do now, but it seemed to me from a very early age that writing was something I had to do. It felt like a gift in the sense that it was given to me, not by me — it didn’t feel like a choice. I thought when I was a teenager that this meant I would become a poet. And I did not turn out to have a gift in the senses that are required to do that. But I still think of that — being a poet — as the purest and holiest and (interestingly) least professional way of being a writer.
But the job posting for Poet, in the mind of the 15-year-old beatnik, is like, Duties include: Must spend lots of time walking around waiting for signals from the universe. I think a lot of that stuff has stayed with me, both because I remain inordinately attached to the person that I was when I was 17 and wanted to be Rimbaud, and also because no superior way of making sense of the universe has yet presented itself. So I remember at that age driving around at night and having the streetlights go out right at the moment I drove under them. And the rational explanation is that there was something electromagnetic going on with my car. But how do you then explain that exactly the song I needed to hear came on at exactly that moment on the radio? And I experienced that as a profound moment. No amount of disillusioning can ever persuade me that it wasn’t a profound experience.
Two other things occur to me on the question of superstition. One is that the whole writing thing is just sort of magic or alchemy. I was talking to someone last night about questions that make writers groan, and this person pointed to “How much of the work is autobiographical?” and “Where do you get your ideas?” And I was thinking that, yes, okay, those questions are sort of banal (even as they underpin so many higher-order interview questions). But also that maybe there is something of anthropological interest in the fact that people keep asking them and gravitating toward them. Like, maybe one of the interesting things about the question of autobiography is that it remains a mystery — and the reason it drives writers crazy to be asked it is that they can’t answer. Who the hell knows where the ideas come from? And who the hell knows how much of the work is you and how much of it is not? We live in an age that is mildly allergic to those kinds of mysteries. But if you sort of consecrate your life to something that brings you face to face with those mysteries on a daily basis, you learn to respect them, or leave room for them to just be, and maybe that encourages tolerance for all sorts of other weird behavior. It’s like the baseball player who doesn’t wash his jockstrap. I don’t usually wear a jockstrap when writing, and if I did I’d like to think that I’d keep it in good repair, but I understand the mentality.
The second possible account of the superstition would be that it’s less a concomitant of the underlying mysteries than a mask you put on them. I’ve never been very trusting of what writers said about their own writing — I remember this came from E.L. Doctorow and it might be apocryphal, but something about Lawrence claiming to have finished a draft of Aaron’s Rod or whatever and to have turned it over face-down on the desk and written the next draft never looking at the first one. Doctorow’s surmise was that this was probably bullshit. But in order to leave room for mysteries, maybe sometimes you kind of concoct these fictions about how and why you’re doing what you’re doing, which are not true but you believe them to be true, and they help you not to look at the real reasons or to try to find out what the real reasons are. So I feel like some of that writerly mumbo-jumbo may just be a way of attempting to preserve…
I’m sounding really new-agey about this.
TM: I’m hearing that writing is a kind of cult, not in the sense of Jonestown, but of Delphi, oracles, gases coming out of vents in the earth and so forth.
GRH: I’m thinking more about the double-edged nature of self-consciousness. On one hand, as a writer you have to be really self-conscious. And I haven’t even figured out, and don’t know if I want to examine too closely, whether it’s a constant thing or whether you’re toggling back and forth — but at least periodically you’re moving into the reader position and becoming conscious of yourself as you will sound to the reader. But then, too much self-consciousness is totally paralyzing. It seems practically, even if it is not empirically, a very weird and mysterious thing. And then you write the book and the book gets published and you sit down to write the next book, and the fact that you’re all the way back at the blank page trying to figure out how you did it last time just speaks to the mystery.
TM: There were so many moments when I would think, “Hmm, Garth is somehow now a 24-year-old gay black man from Georgia, or a 36-year-old woman recovering from an eating disorder.” And not in some shoddy “He couldn’t stop being himself” way, but in a way that I could feel some fundamental connection and sympathy with the characters.
GRH: I’m flattered, because that was very much how I thought about the ambition of the book. There’s a great Mark Singer profile of David Milch, who’s the creator of Hill Street Blues and Deadwood, and Milch is like emerging from a somewhat dissolute background of addiction and pain via a lot of crazy and superstitious ways of thinking about Art. He’s one of those guys who will capitalize Art and not put it in quotation marks. And it might be generationally just not attainable for me, but I aspire to be the kind of person who can write Art with a capital A and no quotation marks, because that’s how much it meant to me and still means to me. When I was 17 it meant that to me every day, all day — in a very real way, it saved my life — whereas now at 36 I fall slightly out of contact hour by hour with all that Art can mean. But when it’s really operating on me it’s definitely a capitalization-with-no-quotation-marks thing. Anyway Milch, in this profile, uses the phrase, which I think he gets from one of St. Paul’s epistles: “Going out in spirit.” And Art-making for me is a going out in spirit. With this book, I thought that — I don’t even know where the characters came from, but they came to me in this solid form, and I thought, I have to find a way to go out in spirit to them. “Compassion” means suffering with. So I had to compassionate, or suffer, with these characters. And pretty early on, I realized the question I had to keep in mind was “How is this person me?” Because they are all me. They all have to be me, or the book won’t work.
TM: The ones for whom you feel that — or the reader feels that — it’s all the good guys. There’s a distance between the narrator and the bad guys.
GRH: That might be a failing of the novel!
TM: No, because structurally it should be that way. Why should the person who is coming out with this narrative — why should he be able to… Okay, no spoilers. Well, no, I’m not quite right, you do get some backstory for the Goulds, but that’s biography.
GRH: It was complicated for me because I think I really want, philosophically, to have the bad guys, the antagonist figures, be as fully human…I think of this as the Dick Cheney Problem. It goes like this: I know philosophically that Dick Cheney is human to Dick Cheney, and to his wife and daughters and friends, and that his inner life is as rich as mine, but I’m not quite a good enough novelist to understand what it might be like to be Dick Cheney.
And what you end up with if you subscribe to the Dick Cheney Problem is you have antagonists who don’t participate in the full breadth of the writer’s sympathies. This may feel a little bit 19th-century, and that’s not displeasing to me. I mean, Dick Cheney is a little 19th-century. Still…
One of the books that was sort of on my mind as I wrote was Demons, the Dostoevsky book. Stavrogin has great vitality, but I don’t remember him having as much interiority as, say, Ivan Karamazov does. And I think what fascinated me about Amory Gould, the worst actor in City on Fire, is that here’s someone who, if I get inside him, has all the things that I have as his author. He has the means to know everybody’s secrets, and he has the means to plot, like a novelist does, and he is very intelligent, but he doesn’t have…he can’t go out in spirit. He’s spiritually defective. Or rather, I hope we see, damaged. And without the strange ineffable thing that we were gesturing at earlier, all of the concrete talents and drive required to make a fiction won’t work. People won’t achieve their destinies within the story because you won’t be able to understand them.
But it’s nice, I guess, that the book is long enough to have problems for me as a writer, things I can’t decide whether they are what I wanted. Though that may be another enabling fiction: the book wanted it that way, and I’m the innocent bystander. Anyway, I’m glad you picked up on that Amory thing, because it definitely stood out for me. Maybe I don’t have enough evil in my soul.
TM: There’s the authenticity of character, and then there’s authenticity of, I guess, scene. On that score, did you worry about the punk stuff? Is that a scene you were familiar with, in its contemporary iteration?
GRH: My canon at 15 would have been Kerouac, Brautigan…you can fill in that whole canon. Hippies, proto-hippies, and post-hippies. And also heavy doses of Stephen King. But yes, when I was in D.C. and for three years after college I was kind of hanging around the punk scene there, which was still very small. Or not small, but a size where everybody knew everybody. Small enough to have that feeling of being a community. It was also intensely political and creative and just a fascinating contrast to the more louche, symbolist New York punk scene of the ’70s. There’s actually a good story about Minor Threat coming up to play New York with Bad Brains and being like, “Screw this place, you guys are all junkies.”
The thing that really struck me about the punk scene in the ’90s was how creative it was. It was about making things, making your own bands, making your own ‘zines, making your own fashions, making your own life — and judging people not by the aesthetic content of how they presented themselves but by how much effort had gone into creating themselves. But I loved both sides of the music and both sides of the impulse, both the creative and the destructive or nihilist. The sort of Thanatos and Eros — and those two things seemed ultimately to thread together for me most satisfyingly in Patti Smith.
So when I realized I was going to write this book, one of the thrills was knowing that all these feelings about punk and what it had meant to me, the scope and variety of it, would have a place to go and live. And of course that’s just one of many things that found a home in the book. There was also all I’d been feeling about race and class and sex and coming-of-age and marriages…It was the first thing I’d ever worked on where all the parts of what was meaningful to me could find a home.
TM: Speaking of marriages, I just read a little snippet of an interview with Adam Johnson. “When I’m writing, I become a terrible husband, I abandon my children.”
GRH: That’s what Jenny Offill calls “the Art Monster,” right?
TM: Exactly. I’m curious about how your writing works with parenting and how much your wife, who works full-time, has to pick up — how do the logistics work?
GRH: The short answer is that they don’t. The first draft of this I had nearly finished right before becoming a father. In fact, I was close enough that I probably could have finished. But I’d always known that the novel was going to end with the blackout of ’77 — that it was going to have to have this grand finale. And I thought, foolishly, “I’m going to wait and finish it after we have this baby, because that’s going to give me something I don’t already have emotionally.”
This idea that the book needs a different writer at the end — I adapted it from George Saunders, who claims it’s from Einstein, but apparently Einstein can’t be found saying it anywhere: that “no worthy problem is solved on the plane of its conception.”
And in fact my older son arrives and I discover that I am different, but not in the way I’d thought. I’m instantly so much tireder and dumber and more impatient and slower. I wrote the blackout that summer. I started waking up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, so I was writing it in the dark, in the summer, the stifling summer of 2010, and it took forever and it was a totally different kind of writing. The ratio of joy to torture was lower in a lot of places, and it took me a long time to get it right — or what I thought was right. Maybe it’s not right still.
By the time I was finishing the fourth draft and revising, our second son had come along and my wife was finishing her dissertation. So we were like a small publishing concern, only half our staff was under the age of three, and it was insane. There was no sleeping happening at all — though that did give a kind of visionary edge to the work. I was basically hallucinating from fatigue. And we were completely broke and not happy campers in a lot of ways. It was very, very hard. We kept getting priced out of where we were living and moving deeper and deeper into Brooklyn. And people write these essays, “Why Do Writers Live in Brooklyn?” But even if I didn’t love New York, which I do, my wife was shackled to her job, which was in Manhattan, and my teaching income — I was teaching four classes a semester at that time — came from being in a place that has enough colleges to support that kind of adjunct-teaching load.
So not to oversell this, but in those years I felt like the schlepping mascot of the new gig economy. And now I continue to wake up really early — our basic agreement is that whatever happens before 8 a.m., I’m not responsible for. So if I wake up at 4:30 or 5 I can have three-plus hours before everyone’s awake. My brain’s very pliable at that hour, and it’s quiet. Then I take the kids and finish them on breakfast and get them ready to go and take them off to their allotted places, and am back at the desk by 9:30. But by then my brain feels like it’s been the victim of assault with a melon baller, and it can take me a dangerous 45 minutes to figure out where I was and what I was doing. And within that 45 minutes if I succumb to the temptation to glance at a newspaper, there goes the rest of the morning.
But then there’s this beast that emerges at the end of every draft. I call it the Crazy Old Man of the Mountain, Jenny Offill calls it the Art Monster, Adam Johnson has his version…It’s a place of not shaving. A place of questionable hygiene, because you’re like, “I could shower or I could keep working on this for 15 minutes.” A place of not eating for long periods of time and then gorging to make up for it, a place of no sleeping. And that creature, the Crazy Old Man of the Mountain, is scary for children. Like Der Struwwelpeter, who might come and eat you out of absent-mindedness. It’s just not a healthy thing to have in the house. It’s not a model of probity or balance. Yet somehow having kids makes the Crazy Old Man worse, because you have to allocate more of your meaningful work time to overheated obsession, since you’re not getting as much done in third gear. Or you’ve been in second gear when you really needed to be in third, so then you have to make up for it by shifting into fifth gear. And fifth gear is crazy for everyone, and the kids are like, “Dad, why are you driving so fast?”
So again, the short answer is, it really doesn’t work. But I look at someone like Michael Chabon or our friend Edan Lepucki. Or Dickens and Joyce — no, wait. They were terrible fathers, so they don’t count. But people have done it. It must be a kind of muddle-through thing.
TM: And now you’re done. And now it’s all starting, in a way.
GRH: [Laughs.] Yes, I’m having the uncomfortable feeling that some things are being typed as we speak. And I don’t know what it’s all going to be like. I have no scale for what it will be like, how people will react. Having written a 900-page novel is already unforgivable. But in my defense, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. There’s something in the book somewhere about choice and freedom not being the same thing. So: I didn’t feel like I was choosing this. Yet on the other hand, I’ve rarely felt so free.
After Herzog came out, Saul Bellow began the slow transformation from young Bellow into old Bellow, from the critically adored but little-known writer to the Nobel Prize winner whose views were solicited on every topic. In The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about a new biography of the author, which tackles his early career. Related: our own Emily St. John Mandel on Bellow’s novel The Bellarosa Connection.
The Imp of the Perverse, not Patrick, may be the patron saint of this particular Irishman. Read the fictions of 2013 IMPAC winner Kevin Barry — he snagged the 100,000-euro prize with the bloody and lyrical novel City of Bohane — and you’ll discern the presence of a little demon stalking his people, a green-eyed creeping death with a rain-wracked ginger topknot. These souls find doing the right thing, whether it be moral or rational, quite the difficulty. The barriers are often karmically insurmountable. And as in his new book, the award-winning collection Dark Lies the Island, the affliction makes for consistently glorious, and often hilarious, reading.
Burn enough hours with the mind behind it all and you’ll detect certain immutable qualities, including a genuine affability, a grindstone work ethic, and immense empathy. The lattermost, a good thing for any writer, seems to be what also makes his readings among the most entertaining and virtuosic I’ve ever witnessed. The confidence and timing of a seasoned actor or comedian come naturally — the characters are made flesh — and as a story unspools in Barry’s easy Irish timbre, it reeks of the real, of the truth, no matter how fantastical the tale.
Barry recently visited Oregon for Portland’s Wordstock festival, and as is required by law here, I invited him out for some cycling (“I’ll ride 80k a day”) and some pints at the legendary Horse Brass Pub (“You Americans — look, if it’s over 5 percent, it isn’t beer; it’s fucking tawny port wine”). We inevitably found a good session beer to his liking and then talked at length about his work, the subconscious, the ’burbs, failure, the supernatural, Southern writers, comic fiction, and Ireland’s formidable literary legacy.
The Millions: Some biography, please.
Kevin Barry: I’m from Limerick city, on the west coast of Ireland. I’m 44. I’ve published three books, and I cycle my bike a lot in County Sligo. I live in an old police station there, in a swamp, essentially. And if I don’t write in the day, I don’t feel good for anything much.
TM: Did you grow up in Limerick?
KB: Pretty much in Limerick city until my late teens, in the suburbs. And when you grow up in an Irish suburb in the seventies, you may as well be in a suburb of Toronto or Phoenix. Most of the cultural feeds are precisely the same, except there’s also something slightly other about the language. Irish writers maybe have a slight edge because of the way we fucking mangle the English language. We have no rules for it. The way we deliver our stories is changing all the time, but I don’t think there’s any fear for the story. Human beings need stories as much as they need beer and trousers and hats and food and shelter.
TM: You hear early humans likely discovered fire a million years ago. We’ve been telling stories, in some form, around campfires for a million years.
KB: And it won’t stop. In terms of Irish writing, we must never underestimate the effect of 300 days of rain a year. We’re indoors a lot of the time, and we need to make shit up. We’d go nuts if we didn’t. But, yeah, I’m a kid of the suburbs and still have strange romantic notions about suburban life and that feeling on summer evenings. It always puzzles me that there isn’t more suburban art and literature.
TM: Maybe people are trying to escape the suburbs psychologically.
KB: Yeah, it’s like they’re so bland they can’t be mythic.
TM: Cheever made them mythic. It’s a liminal place, the hybrid city-country.
KB: There’s some French word that I can’t think of at the moment, where city bleeds into countryside, that edge of town. It’s a kind of nowhere land, with odd tensions from either side pulling. Nothing as eerie as walking around a suburb at 4 a.m. on a summer-night morning with nobody around and just a little bit of wind in the trees and leaves. And falling in love or out of love with some girl, and you’re 17. Those moments stay with you, in the sodium light.
TM: Does that shape your work?
KB: I remember talking once to a bunch of American students. And they were stunned and horrified to learn that Ireland has suburbs. Even though so many of us in Ireland grow up in the suburbs, they almost never show up in Irish literature. Because it doesn’t suit the mythos, which is either the Ulysses of the big city or the John McGahern small towns or the farm and the bleak austerity of the farmland. But Irish suburban life has almost never been done. The working-class cities, Limerick and Cork—that language has never appeared in Irish literature. I tried to bring some of it into City of Bohane. I hate the word resource applied in any way to literature or art, but it is a resource. It’s a very strange, weird, mangled, beautiful, tender, lovely take on English.
TM: You’re obviously besotted by the language, and you work its angles and curves to great effect. I picture the Oxford English Dictionary sinking into a Gaelic bog. But you don’t sacrifice clarity, even in your novel, which is a sustained, successful voice experiment. A high-low style seems to come easily to you, like a tune on the air.
KB: Thinking specifically in terms of the novel, I’ve always been drawn to work that tries to blend the high and the low. Saul Bellow in the fifties, with Augie March, trying to do Chicago street talk but the literary fucking high style as well, and really going for it. Martin Amis in the eighties in London. When I came to write City of Bohane, I had twin ambitions for it. I wanted it to be a grand, visceral entertainment, a real pulpy fucking page-turner, but also a serious language experiment. It was fun to write, and increasingly it seems to me that I should be having fun at the desk. On the very simple equation that if I’m having a good time at my end, the dear, beloved reader is having a good damn time at the far end. A lot of writers say that they don’t think about the reader at all. I’m a complete fucking whore for the reader. If someone picks up my book, they’re really doing me a fucking turn, and I want to give them a good time on many different levels. So I try to make every page and sentence pop. And that causes weird technical difficulties as a writer. It makes your work very intense as a reading experience. With City of Bohane, I sometimes think to tell the story right it should’ve been a much longer book, but the language was too intense. I think 280 pages is fine, because it’s fucking… It’s a wallop in the face.
TM: Some people can’t take it. Some of us eat it up, the sustained performance on the page. And it’s a first-person narrator. But there can be fatigue.
KB: People either tend to really love it and be evangelical of its cause or go, “Fuck all, this is not for me.” Which is fine. I would always take strong reactions over mild ones. It’s a book you have to read with the ears. You have to listen to it. And you have to do a bit of work at the start, and that’s kind of a difficult area now in novels. I think previously, as readers, we were prepared to give a novel a bit of time. You have a 900-page Russian door-stopper from the 19th century, and you give it a hundred pages, and it’d be fucking torture turning those pages. They’re like lead, you know? But then that magical thing happens where suddenly you’re trapped in the world. You’ve earned it.
TM: It’s the same with Shakespeare. Suddenly you’re in and it flows.
KB: I suspect now the reader won’t give you that much time anymore. It makes it a good time for the short story. I think, increasingly, people give as much time to a book as they will to an art-house movie or an indie film. I have this conversation all the time with my editor in London, and he says, “No, man, literature should be the alternative to all that white noise. It should be a quiet, immersive space where we go to get away from all that stuff.”
TM: A deeper escapism and amusement.
KB: Yeah, and maybe he’s right. Until recently, I hadn’t read the Booker Prize–winning Hilary Mantel novels, the Henry the Eighth stuff, you know? She has what I call “thumb.” You just want to turn the pages and keep going with it.
TM: In your work there seems to be the influence of writers from the American South. Barry Hannah and Charles Portis come to mind. A lot of Southern and Irish writers strike me as Hearers of the Music, profoundly taken by language. It seems that they particularly relish the poetry that can be drawn out of prose. Baudelaire wrote, “Always be a poet, even in prose.”
KB: To my shame, I’ve never read Charles Portis. Love Barry Hannah. There is an interesting correlation between Irish and Southern writers. We face similar difficulties, in terms often of the dialogue. You don’t want to over-egg it. But at the same time, people do fucking talk like that. So you have to be true to that as well. I think Hannah gets a beautiful balance.
TM: The dialects seem to have arisen from remoteness and insularity, fed over centuries by religious communalism. Flannery O’Connor wrote — and I once heard Hannah echo this — that the South is “Christ-haunted.” Is it the same for Ireland, with the huge Catholic and smaller Protestant presences?
KB: There’s no doubt. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but there’s Catholic prose and Protestant prose. Flannery O’Connor’s prose is Catholic fucking prose. John Updike’s prose is Protestant fucking prose. And that’s fine. There’s also Jewish prose, which dominated my whole reading staples in my twenties. I wanted to be the next great Jewish writer, which was difficult, as I was a ginger-haired child in Cork, in the south of Ireland. That didn’t work out. Without being too reductive, I would say the Protestant strain is to strip down and to pare back, to reduce. Beckett is a Protestant writer. Joyce is a Catholic writer. Joyce piles it all on to the fucking page. And for a long time in the 20th century, Irish writers had a great difficulty. They had to go one of the two paths. But there was a third way, and the stream in Irish writing I really love is that mischievous, anarchic, and inventive one that goes back to writers like Flann O’Brien, back to the 1700s to Laurence Sterne and Dean Swift. It’s a kind of crazy, funny, nasty strain.
TM: Tristram Shandy.
KB: Yes. I like my literature to be funny, the comic mode, and I think most of my favorite writers at some level are comic writers. Someone like Saul Bellow. Herzog is a novel about a nervous breakdown, a crack-up, and it’s fucking hilarious. Philip Roth writes terrifying novels about all sorts of disintegration and horrible, awful masculine emotions that are deathly funny. I think comedy is the most true human mode. It’s how we get through, through…
TM: The tragicomedy?
KB: For sure. My short stories, a lot of them are very dark, but I think almost always at the end they are comedic.
TM: That’s a great insight, of being Irish and that choosing between Joyce and Beckett. Beckett said Joyce was a synthesizer — put everything in, tried to bring it all together — but that he was an analyzer, and he was trying to take out every fucking thing he could. A reaction against Joyce and that high postmodernism.
KB: Absolutely. What I love about Beckett’s stuff, really, is that he plowed the same kind of stony ground for 50 years. And did him no harm. You can still bring new things all the time. In my own instance, I think the novels are going to be very different. The short stories are in lots of ways. I want to let the story dictate the style.
TM: The story is the master.
KB: Rather than the other way around. Don DeLillo once said that when he was writing, all that interested him was the sound. He said something like “I’ll happily change the subject of the sentence for the sake of how it sounds. And I will let the sound dictate the story.” I thought, Fucking heroic, man. And a story is a song, and it’s a tune. It’s a melody, and you follow it along.
TM: Dark Lies the Island is your new collection, your second. The stories are highly atmospheric. Whether you’re mixing despair and humor, delving into evil in disguise, or plying supernatural undercurrents, the particular psychology evoked just infuses the narrative.
KB: I think it’s the most intense prose form. There’s nothing like a fucking good story when you’re in its grip. I love the novel for its looseness, in the way that life is shapeless, but I just love that feeling when you’re in the hands of a really good storyteller and you find yourself sitting up a little straighter and turning down the radio and turning off the computer and chucking the kids out the window and just getting closer to the page. And you’re trapped, line by line. To make it that intense an experience for the reader is fucking difficult. I’m also really interested in the essay. It’s more front-of-the-brain.
TM: And you’re on the line. It’s you. You can’t blame it on a character.
KB: I think fiction is superior. You can’t lie in fiction. Your soul is there, pinned and wriggling on the page. You can lie much easier in nonfiction. Every single sentence in a short story is bearing weight, and for that reason most go wrong on me. Most end up on the floor. I write ten or twelve of the fuckers a year. One or two will get seen by anyone. I have a workroom at home in County Sligo that’s just littered with the corpses and near-corpses of half-dead zombie stories. It’s appalling shit. It’s fucking terrible. But I will always finish them, because I think that’s when you know you’re a pro: when you finish even the bad stuff. Just to get a finished object there.
TM: And to know.
KB: And to know. And I’ll do something else.
TM: Your stories read as deeply felt. Sometimes with the first-person stories, you think, That happened to him.
KB: I do think your best ones come out of your own experience. Everything is feed. Fiction happens in the subconscious, the back of the mind, that place, and I think your life experience has to sit back there for a while before it comes out. I think you have very little control as a writer, often. The decision to write fiction is a kind of a pact you make with your subconscious. You say, “Give me stuff. I’ll be there. I’ll be a pro. I’ll be at my fucking desk. I’ll be waiting for it.”
TM: “I’ll be the vessel.”
KB: Yeah. It’s sitting there. It took me a long time to get there. In my twenties I was writing music reviews, theater reviews, stuff like that, and it was doing fine, making the rent, having a good time out and about… Not getting happy. Knowing there was a part of my brain that I wasn’t using that I wanted to use. But it’s difficult when you’re writing sort of journalism stuff all day to find the time and space to write the fiction. I had to get poor. I bought a 12-foot caravan, a little trailer home, and I sat it on a beach in west Cork, and I spent a summer out there writing the next great Jewish-American novel. And it was a fucking monstrosity. But it taught me it has to be your main thing, the thing you do when you get up in the morning. The time especially for first drafts is when I’m barely awake.
TM: Fresh out of the dream state. John Gardner talked about the “vivid and continuous dream.” And a dream is a wild and fuzzy thing.
KB: Writing fiction and dreaming are very close. I won’t even have a cup of coffee when I get up. I’ll have a cup of weak tea. I don’t want to come up from it too quick. I want to stay in that kind of murky, blobby, kind of dream-shapey world and just— I don’t care about the sentences or the sense or anything. I just want to spew down words onto the page. And just slow accumulation. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and it’s very important to me to do something on it every day, even if it’s 20 minutes, to just try and make a daily connection with it. Because if you miss a day, it can suddenly completely start to go away. Writers have always sought ways to procrastinate. Editing and cutting is the enjoyable part.
TM: Bringing it out of the raw, like Michelangelo’s Captives.
KB: It’s the block of stone. Just cut away at it and see what you can get. There is a corollary to that. I think you can cut too much.
TM: The tendency toward the Carveresque, no pun intended. And a lot of that was Gordon Lish.
KB: Yeah. Or you can polish too much, hone too much, and take the original impulse and life force out of a piece.
TM: In your stories, and especially in your novel, place is always a primary force, a character, often sinister or supernatural.
KB: If I have a single, fundamental belief as a writer — and I suppose it’s quite an esoteric one — it’s that human feeling doesn’t just reside in humans but that it settles into our places, and I think very often fiction is about springing that feeling from places. [The recent New Yorker story] “Ox Mountain Death Song” comes from being out on my bike. I go out around the Sligo hills in the fucking drizzle and rain and wind. But it’s nice because your mind kind of unspews, you know?
TM: Woody Allen’s long, hot shower.
KB: For sure, and I was about three, four years going out cycling in the Ox Mountains, which by American standards aren’t mountains at all; they’re fucking hills, you know? But anytime I went, I got this kind of bleak, dark feeling into my bones. And eventually I said, “I’ll try a new method, a new tactic. I’ll go out and I’ll write the story on site.” I went out and I stayed in a cheap hotel in a little beach town in the shadow of the Ox Mountains and wrote a really rough draft in three days and kind of forgot about it for a few months. I’m often writing two stories at the same time, and one of them is kind of an attempt not to write the other one. There’s always a phantom story underneath. But there’s something John Cheever said in his beautiful introduction to his collected stories: stories remind you very much of the time in your life when you wrote them. Of the place, where you were. What I love about him is he’s deeply fucking weird, you know? Those are really strange, eerie, kind of crazy stories.
TM: He’s doing things that others just weren’t doing. You can say Shirley Jackson, a few others here and there, maybe. But, really, “The Swimmer”?
KB: Amazing story.
TM: Nobody was doing anything like that.
KB: Nobody was doing that stuff. I love to read stories that are coming out now and see what’s happening. But I do love to go back, to read the classic stuff. Someone like V.S. Pritchett, in the 20th century, was a hugely famous story writer. He was in The New Yorker five times a year. In Europe he was the most famous British man of letters. And he had one of those weird things where, after his death, in the late nineties, he just faded from view instantly. But you go back and read him and they’re nuts. And they’re all built on talk, on mad, deranged, demotic, provincial UK kind of talk. As much as you should always keep up with what’s happening and who’s pushing things out at the edge, don’t forget these guys. They put lifetimes’ worth of serious talent into developing the short story and bringing it to where it is. And it’s one of our greatest achievements as human beings, the short-story form. I think it’s really sublime when it’s good. I think what unifies the great story writers is that they stick with it throughout their careers. Sometimes you get the guy who comes out with a brilliant debut collection of stories and just goes on and writes novels. I really hate that shit. Keep writing stories. It’s not an apprentice form for the novel. It’s no accident that the very best writers of stories alive are the people who keep writing them all the way through their careers. Alice Munro, William Trevor, George Saunders.
TM: But we want your novels, too. That expansion. Like in City of Bohane, you’ve got small town, big tapestry. The Bohane River divides the city physically and metaphysically. On its way out to sea it seems to leach and drag the wickedness of the long dead out of the boglands of the countryside to poison the city with “the taint.” It feels directly connected to all the great Irish mythology, especially the Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Epic life and death sunk into the earth but fluid and moving.
KB: Those influences feed in subconsciously. Human feeling bleeding into the place. Limerick city is quite a troubled city, quite a violent place, lots of gang feuds. It’s known as Stab City. It’s always had lots of knife crime. Once, when I was a cub reporter in the late eighties, there was a great, since-passed-away local politician, a guy called Jim Kemmy, and I met him downtown one time. We were standing by the River Shannon, which is Ireland’s biggest, longest river, which enters the sea through Limerick, and there’d been some horrendous fucking gang feud in town with about five dead on either side. And I remember saying to him, “What’s wrong with us?” And he said, “I don’t know, but I think it’s coming in off the river.” And it stuck with me for years and years and years, and the first line of the novel is “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river.” The taint of place. I try to escape Ireland in the winter often, and I go to Spain, just for some bit of light and blue skies and get out from under the belly of cloud. And I’m a secret bird-watcher. A twitcher. So I went a couple of times, in southern Spain, in Andalucía, to a town called Ronda. There’s a very famous gorge a couple of thousand feet deep. And it’s famous for its choughs, which are crows with red beaks. Amazing fliers. They fly sheer up and down the face of it. So I went there and was looking, and this fucking dark, black, horrendous feeling coming over me, and I’m going, “What the fuck is it?” And getting out of town. Getting out of Ronda on the next bus. Went back couple years later, same thing, down around the gorge. Started doing some research about it and discovered that in the Spanish Civil War 300 prisoners had been made to jump to their deaths, at gunpoint, at the gorge in Ronda. And I’m certain that some of that feeling, that terror, that fucking primeval human horror, has settled into those stones, and I fucking picked some of it up. My brother is a fisherman, loves to fish for trout in Ireland. He talks about a particular lake that he found himself on once in County Clare. And same thing. “Amazing, beautiful summer night. I’m out fishing in my boat out on the lake. Suddenly, ‘Fuck, get outta here.’ Horrible feeling.” Doing some research after: horrible scenes in the Irish famine. Two hundred people starved to death on the shores of this lake.
TM: And you’ve got to have the antennae to pick it up.
KB: I think we all have the antennae at some level.
TM: Some are more sensitive.
KB: Sometimes you’ll shiver and say, “Get outta Dodge.”
TM: Bad mojo. Can you talk about the risks you took with Bohane? I’m curious if there have been any comparisons to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, if only because of the idiomatic invention.
KB: A Clockwork Orange was a hugely important book to me as a teenager. If you go back to it, it’s very much about Britain in the sixties. It’s a projection on the moment when it’s written. It’s about mods and rockers and Brighton Beach. Burgess wrote it when he was living just outside Brighton, and he couldn’t describe that world directly, but he described it brilliantly by doing it at a future remove. In some sense I think City of Bohane is a projection on Irish cities as they are at the moment, when they have over the last 20 years changed unbelievably, for the first time become multicultural places. Lots of new weird, wonderful energies, lots of new dark, dangerous tensions.
TM: Bohane is like a west-of-Ireland western.
KB: It’s a complete western.
TM: It’s very cinematic, and that quite literally plays into the risky and experimental narratorial conceit, a magical first-person omniscient narrator who’s also a character. But not like Vonnegut’s intrusive god-author; it doesn’t come off like that.
KB: I wanted the reader to feel like they were in some awful, horrendous dive bar in a tremendously deranged Irish city in the middle of the 21st century and there’s some crazy old fucking whisky-drunk nut alongside them whispering this demented tall tale into their ears.
TM: And he knows what people are thinking. You believe him.
KB: Yeah, he’s kind of God out there. One of the technical questions was “How much do I show this guy?” I kept him very, very limited. He shows up once or twice. The I word comes in.
TM: It’s a mystery, but I wouldn’t say it’s soft-pedaled. The voice is so strong. But I haven’t noticed anyone else remarking on it. Then we see you win the IMPAC. Obviously, it’s resonating.
KB: That was very cool, winning a big prize.
TM: Can you talk about setting as character and parallel protagonist?
KB: In Bohane in particular, obviously the city is the main character. I guess what it comes out of is when you’ve lived in a city like Limerick or like Cork, you are aware that there is a world out there, outside the city limits, but really it’s just kind of a rumor. It really doesn’t matter. Where you are is the center of the fucking universe. And Bohane is all-encompassing. They refer to anything outside of Bohane as Big Nothin’. It’s that sense that this is the world and this is all that counts. I think that’s familiar to anybody who’s lived or grown up in small cities. They’re just about big enough to be anonymous in, but also they’ve got this kind of weblike, clammy sense of connection to everything. Coincidences can genuinely happen. When people and professors read Dickens now, they say, “Too many coincidences,” right?
TM: But London was a hell of a lot smaller.
KB: London was about 800,000. People would’ve bumped into each other all the time.
TM: So it’s not necessarily a deus ex machina or overwrought orchestration.
KB: I think he was absolutely on the money.
TM: Is Bohane a bit of a mashup of Limerick, where you’re from, and Sligo, where you live now?
KB: Equal parts Limerick, where I lived until I was 20, and Cork, where I moved to and lived until I was 30. The accent I would hear is quite a Cork singsong, quite a melodious accent. I physically see it as Limerick, which is a dark dock town. And there’s west-of-Ireland weather in there. And great, mad renditions of the English language.
TM: About that. Ireland has given us folks considered the greatest writers in, or innovators within, the English language. People think Joyce and Beckett, deathless giants. Yeats. Flann O’Brien. Seamus Heaney. The great Frank O’Connor. And it’s not a very big place. Is it a burden or a source of effulgent pride?
KB: [Laughs] I would never go to my desk in the morning and say, “I must settle down to do some Irish writing here.” One of my great problems with the whole edifice of Irish literature is that it was sometimes quite a hermetic world. The only influences on Irish literature were things that had happened in Irish literature. As if electric light and television and cinema and rock-and-roll and punk and electro and disco had never been invented. I honestly don’t think in nationalistic terms. If you’re positioned in any way in any tradition, it’s better to have good people behind you than fucking twats.
David Bowie hasn’t performed live in seven years, but he has a good excuse — he’s been reading. His top 100 books are part of the “David Bowie Is” traveling exhibition (currently in Toronto.) The list reveals that he’s a big fan of American lit, including Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and more. He’s also an amateur rock historian, naming Charlie Gillete’s The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll and Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom among others. When can we sign up for the class, Professor Bowie?
I know people who read all the hot young novels. And I’ll occasionally buy one or two (although after getting burned by The Corrections, I wait for the paperback). But mostly the past is too full of fiction I haven’t read: fresh green breasts of James, Beckett, Mishima, Woolf remain uncharted, and I’m going to spend my time with The Marriage Plot? 2012 was the year I got around to what proved to be my favorite novel, period. I’d been meaning to read V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas for years — Naipaul was already the author of my favorite opening line: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” (I often say this to myself like a mantra; make of that what you will.) And Naipaul is possessed of a most delightful literary personality. But Mr. Biswas — nothing could have prepared me for the breadth of this book. Everyone in these pages is weak, silly, utterly human. I’m not sure any postwar author has known his own character — inspired by Naipaul’s father — so thoroughly. (Bellow comes close, in Herzog, published a few years after Biswas.) It’s hilarious and sad and all the usual things we say a work of literature is when we mean it seems to contain all of life. Going to buy that gold brooch for you, girl.
Other books that made my year — besides some poetry titles I wrote about for the Chicago Tribune — include John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead; Richard Hughes’s In Hazard; Haddawy’s translation of The Arabian Nights (except the verses — it’s called meter, dude); David Graeber’s Debt (read if you have student loans and want to feel even angrier about them); Fantagraphics’s reprints of Carl Barks’s duck comics; Brian Michael Bendis and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil: End of Days (for those who preferred Frank Miller before he became a right-wing dipshit); George Herbert’s The Temple; and the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
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I kept a reading journal for the first time this year and I highly recommend it. It’s humbling for one (that’s all I read?), inspiring (read more!), and clarifying (choose well). That said, it was a pretty great year reading-wise. I read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green twice, re-read Turgenev’s First Love, William Gass’ On Being Blue, and Don DeLillo’s End Zone, and I highly recommend them all. With everything going on with the Penn State scandal, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse, Tiger, Tiger is both timely and even more devastating. I finally read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and thought it was terrific. I took Ann Patchett’s advice at the opening of Parnassus, her independent bookstore in Nashville, and bought Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, devouring it in a single sitting. I had so much fun reading The Stories of John Cheever in conjunction with The Journals of John Cheever that I read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in tandem with his Letters, which includes a wonderful introduction by its editor, Benjamin Taylor. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — my first experience with his work — was riveting, appalling, and beautiful. Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway was so wide-reaching, variegated, and emotionally precise I felt like I’d read a collection of micro-novels.
Still, of all the books I read, only Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian took over my world, and by that I mean I had that rare experience, while immersed in it, of seeing reality through its lens whenever I put it down and in the days after I finished it. Ostensibly it’s about a band of Indian hunters run amok along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century but really it’s about how man’s natural state is warfare. You can buy that bill of goods or not but like McCarthy’s greatest works (Suttree, The Crossing) it’s written in his inimitable style, that fusion of The Book of Isaiah, Herman Melville, and Faulkner (though he’s more precise than the latter, more desolate and corporeal than Moby Dick’s author; whether his prophetic powers are on par with his artistry remains to be seen), a voice which is all his own, of course, and has an amplitude I’ve encountered only in, what, DeLillo at his most ecstatic? Murakami at his most unreal? Bellow in Augie March or Herzog? Alice Munro in The Progress of Love? John Hawkes in The Lime Twig? Read it if you read anything this coming year and note: a bonus to the experience is that you’ll add at least two hundred words to your lexicon.
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Catch-22 has been receiving a lot of press lately for its fiftieth anniversary, and why not? Joseph Heller’s masterpiece has permeated the culture in a way few novels do, its title becoming a catchphrase to readers and non-readers alike.
It also happens to be a very fine book. I certainly thought so when I read it at St. Louis University High, where it had become something of a rite of passage for juniors thanks to the efforts of Mr. Jim Raterman, whose energetic classes were known to include impersonations of B-25 bombers perfected by his upbringing near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. Heller’s genius for encasing a humanistic tale in absurdist farce made the book endlessly appealing to a bunch of seventeen-year-olds whose young intellects were fermenting in an all-male prep school environment that put a high valuation on the quick reply, the clever pun, and the high-minded non sequitur. Many of us also happened to be terribly earnest, and Catch-22, with its indictment of war and solicitude of the individual, spoke directly to the bits of Jesuit social teaching that we picked up in theology class. The book felt decidedly important to us.
Unnoticed in the shadow of Catch-22’s wings, another book is marking its golden anniversary this year, one that also felt and still feels terribly important to me. I don’t remember how I learned that Catch-22 — along with another favorite book of mine, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road — had lost its bid for the 1962 National Book Award to a slim volume by a man with the strange name of Walker Percy. Literary awards obviously don’t constitute the last word on merit, but I was curious to read the book judged superior to touchstones of my young reading life. I didn’t get around to The Moviegoer for two years after finishing Catch-22, but when I did, I knew that insofar as book awards have a power of ratification, the National Book Award committee had done its job in 1962. Still, when it comes to great literature, laurels like the NBA are paltry acknowledgments of a book’s real power; I found this to be especially true of Percy’s book. Catch-22 had been important to me as a student of literature, and Revolutionary Road had been important to my early development as a writer. But The Moviegoer was important to me as a human being. Like few other books I’ve ever read, it changed me.
F. Scott Fitzgerald thought “the purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s mind.” Other than Fitzgerald’s own works, I’ve never read a novel whose power lies so fully not in the course of being read, but in the astral glow of having been read. When I completed The Moviegoer for the first time, I was at a loss to explain the significance of the 242 pages I’d just traversed, but I knew they had been important. I felt the novel working on me in strange ways, like a slow-release drug. That so much of The Moviegoer’s effect is felt when it’s not being read can be attributed not to some defect in Percy’s prose, but rather to the nature of the novel’s moral project.
That project is fixed in the book’s epigraph, a quote from Kierkegaard that Percy takes as his lodestar: “…[T]he specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” This is the condition that the narrator, Jack “Binx” Bolling, finds himself in at the novel’s opening, and it is the condition in which Percy keeps his narrator for most of the book; only upon the book’s completion does the reader realize just how mired Binx really is. Binx’s life is characterized by a vague, not altogether unpleasant sense of discontent; he’s unsure of his purpose in life, and his inability to discern it is both sweet and enervating. He devotes most of his energy to “the search,” an ill-defined quest for an ill-defined higher truth: “What is the nature of the search? you ask. …The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
In this formulation of Binx’s preoccupation, Percy sounds like a contemporary who was also explicitly in search of ultimate meaning: Saul Bellow. Unlike Bellow’s characters, however, Binx makes good on his threats to stiff-arm society. Bellovian heroes like Charlie Citrine and Moses Herzog see the everydayness of life as both working against and essential to their own searches; in the end, they can never foreswear community. Binx has no such qualms. He calls himself “a model citizen” because he enjoys paying his bills and renewing his licenses on time, but he uses his conscientiousness in these matters as an excuse to avoid any other form of civic activity. His formidable aunt, who urges him to enter medical school, asks, “Don’t you feel obliged to use your brain and to make a contribution?” To which Binx responds, “No’m.” He treats his brokerage job as a game, has serial affairs with secretaries he sees as interchangeable, and, in the novel’s climax, fails to recognize the precarious mental state of his cousin Kate. He floats around in a sort of dreamlike state, bemused and terrified by the world. Fittingly, he lives on a street called Elysian Fields; like the dim realm the Greeks imagined for their deceased heroes, Binx’s New Orleans is neither perdition nor paradise. In an indeterminate world, Binx is convinced only of the importance of his search. “[N]ot for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder,” he declares.
Such an assertion sounds off-putting in its solipsism, but in the context of the work as a whole, the reader is inclined to support Binx thanks to Percy’s refusal of irony. To revive the Bellow comparison: Bellow’s characters are comically solipsistic and hapless, and even a book as tightly locked within the first person as Herzog leaves room for the reader to laugh at the narrator’s overeducated lack of self-awareness. Percy wrestles this outlet away from the reader, forcing him to perform Kierkegaard’s insight along with Binx. Against his better instincts, the reader takes pleasure in sharing Binx’s aimlessness, though it quickly becomes clear that he ought not to. Early in the novel, Binx says, “Everything is upside-down for me,” but this is inaccurate. “Upside-down” describes a state of inverted order, yes, but a state of order nevertheless. Things aren’t reversed for Binx so much as they are polysemic, freighted with too much mysterious possibility, both beautiful and alienating. Even his confusion lacks order. Speaking enviously of his aunt, who is dismayed at the deterioration of Southern gentility, Binx says:
For her too the fabric is dissolving, but for her even the dissolving makes sense. …It seems so plain when I see it through her eyes. My duty in life is simple. I go to medical school. I live a long useful life serving my fellowman. What’s wrong with this? All I have to do is remember it.
But alas, Binx can only look through his aunt’s eyes for so long; when looking through his own, an action as simple as enrolling in medical school threatens the search — would pose a threat to the world’s beauty, while simultaneously risking meaninglessness amidst the vastness of the universe. “Where there is chance of gain, there is also chance of loss,” Binx says. “Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.” Waking from the dream bears costs that Binx is unwilling to bear.
The reader, too, is reluctant to awaken. Who hasn’t yearned for a life free of banality’s demands? Realizing that the search itself is what poisons Binx is one of the book’s aforementioned after-effects. Percy works to make indolence alluring, reserving some of his most lyrical writing for Binx’s paralyzing reveries. Here’s Binx, recalling his college days:
…I had spent the four years propped on the front porch of the fraternity house, bemused and dreaming, watching the sun shine through the Spanish moss, lost in the mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place.
It’s a lovely rendering of a feeling we’ve all experienced at one time or another, and it’s also an appealing description of what sounds like a fine way to spend an afternoon. What’s not so evident beneath Percy’s hushed, precise prose is that this passage points directly back to the epigraph. Here is despair, well hidden.
Appropriately, it is the source of so many American dreams, the movies, that provides ready fuel for Binx’s reveries. Movies limn his reality; he claims to have no memories of his own: “What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the ground dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.” And he depends on films to confirm his existence, a phenomenon he dubs “certification”:
Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
To describe The Moviegoer’s style as “cinematic” in any conventional sense would be a stretch (unless one has the cinema of Godard in mind). But there is a way in which Percy’s novel is reminiscent of film. So tight is Percy’s control over our emotional response to his work, so closely does he make it hew to Binx’s, that reading The Moviegoer is not unlike seeing the world through the ruthless eye of the camera, the lens’s vision substituted for our own.
I would be remiss to discuss The Moviegoer without a word about the book’s theology; for better or for worse, Percy is first and foremost known as a Catholic writer. Here, autobiography may be helpful.
I read The Moviegoer during the spring break of my freshman year of college, two-thirds of the way through a difficult year. My dad and I traveled to Jupiter, Florida to watch the Cardinals in spring training. What was only a notion during childhood visits to Florida now blossomed into a fully formed realization: with the exception of the ballpark, Florida filled me with dread. The strip malls, the prevalence of faded pastel colors, the salt-laced air that lashed everything — these all inescapably suggested decay.
The crisis came on Saturday night, when we went to Mass. Unfamiliar churches are also anxiety-provoking environments for me, and Jupiter’s was worse than most: its garish white marble and overwhelmingly old congregation gave it the feel of a mausoleum for the living. Listening to the priest go on in English rendered incomprehensible by a thick accent, the brand of Catholic humanism I’d carefully crafted in the amniotic environs of high school gave way like a weak levee before a flood. Everything that could conceivably be called meaningful seemed suddenly contingent, including meaning itself. For the better part of an hour, I lost all my faith, Catholic and otherwise.
Back at the hotel, I took refuge in The Moviegoer. No longer did I see Binx as a “strange man,” as I called him in several margin notes; I saw a version of myself. In the Binx who spent his college days mooning about on the fraternity porch, I saw the young man who had thus far spent college standing against the wall at parties and walking home alone, wondering why he couldn’t make his new school feel like home. In the Binx who shunned all social obligations, I saw the kid who kept his classmates at a wary length, failing to see the necessity of relationships. And in the Binx who yearns to find his role in life, I saw the young writer who could no longer see the point of writing, because some day the sun would wink out, and all the words would disappear.
As melodramatic as it sounds, such was my state of mind that spring, and for most of my first two years of college. The Moviegoer didn’t heal me, but it did make me believe in healing once again, in large part because I was comforted by the fairly obvious truth that Walker Percy had traveled this lonely path before me. A Catholic convert, a medical doctor, and a devotee of Kierkegaard, Percy hardly lived by blind faith. When I wrote earlier that The Moviegoer achieves its powerful effect by shutting off all views of its offstage workings, I wasn’t being entirely precise: one senses the author’s intimate knowledge of the sort of bewilderment that Binx and the reader are made to feel. In 1987, Percy described his Christian existentialism for The Paris Review:
I suppose I would prefer to describe it as a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding — all of which he is, but not entirely. It is the “not entirely” I’m interested in — like the man Kierkegaard described who read Hegel, understood himself and the universe perfectly by noon, but then had the problem of living out the rest of the day.
“The problem of living out the rest of the day” — it was exactly the problem I was facing in Florida, from the second we left the ballpark; and it was exactly the problem I was facing in Chicago, from the second I finished my daily reading in Adam Smith or Plato. Percy treated this problem seriously, and I was grateful to him for this. I wouldn’t have been able to stomach, for instance, Bellow’s thumbing his nose at the problem. For Bellow, laughter is crucial to living out the rest of the day; it is a form of resistance. At the end of The Adventures of Augie March, the titular character wonders, “Or is the laugh at nature — including eternity — that thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will.” But to Percy, laughter is a sad expression of our reluctance to go along with nature, too solemn to satirize. Thus, Binx’s wry description of his uncle is also in some ways a rueful description of himself: “He is an exemplary Catholic, but it is hard to know why he takes the trouble. For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him.”
Binx is hardly an exemplary Catholic, but he desperately wants to believe in some higher power beyond the material world. And here is the trouble: his desire for the existence of a God figure is rooted not in any hope in an afterlife that would plug the hole of death, but in a need that this world, with its unsettling mixture of beauty and transience, have some ultimate meaning. Like most people, Binx only intermittently grasps death as a reality, and this failure lends Binx’s life its desultory quality: since he has all the time in the world, he can spend his days scanning the horizon for a signal from another world.
The Moviegoer didn’t shake me from my melancholy immediately, but it did help me to recognize that I was on the same terms with my depression as Binx is with his search; inhabiting it was comfortable in the way that staying in bed all day is comfortable. When I decided to transfer after my second year of college, I wrote about The Moviegoer in my application essay, not because the book had directly spurred my decision to leave Chicago, but because the memory of it, carried around for a year, pricked me as long as I was content to simply mark time. Transferring was for me not simply a change in schools; it was the first time I’d acted out of faith in years, and I wanted Walker Percy to get his due.
For me, 2009 was the year of Europe Central – not so much because I would wind up reading, in late November, William T. Vollmann’s large novel of that name, but because a couple of chance encounters back in January (Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (reviewed here)) set me on a path toward it. In the intervening months, I found myself traipsing back and forth between literary Berlin and literary Moscow and losing myself in the territories in between.
My very favorite of the books I encountered during these peregrinations – indeed, the best book I read all year – was A Book of Memories, by the Hungarian master Péter Nádas. A glib way of describing this indescribable novel would be to say that it is to postmodernism what The Magic Mountain is to modernism – rigorous, comprehensive…a classic. However, the author who kept coming to mind as I read was Harold Brodkey. Nádas’ psychological and phenomenological insights are, like those of Brodkey’s stories, microscopically acute. Formally, however, A Book of Memories offers more excitement. The novel unfolds like a game of three-card monte, giving us several narrators whose gradual convergence seems to encompass the entire aesthetic and political history of Central Europe in the 20th Century.
A close second would have to be The Foundation Pit, by the early-Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. This slim novel reckons the cost of the Stalinist industrial program, but in the process reveals an ecstatic vision of the human soul. I agree with Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics: Platonov’s voice is as arresting as Kafka’s. It is also tender, and weirdly touching. And Platonov inspired me to read (finally) Life and Fate, the sweeping World War II saga by his good friend Vasily Grossman. This novel, like some of Platonov’s work, was suppressed by Soviet censors, and as a consequence was never properly edited. That shows, I think, in the sketchiness of some of the book’s secondary characters and plots. But at its frequent best – in its depiction of German death camps; in its attention to the trials of Viktor Shtrum and his family; and in an early, haunting letter from Viktor’s mother – Life and Fate approaches the depth of its models, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
The two finest works of nonfiction I read this year, by contrast, had a distinctly American flavor: Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Edie, a riveting oral history of Edie Sedgwick, edited by Jean Stein. Each is in the neighborhood of 500 pages, but reads with the propulsion of an intellectual whodunit. Taken together, they create a panorama of the transformative years between World War II and Vietnam, whose upheavals we’re still living down today. Come for the titillation; stay for the education.
Amid these longer works, it was a relief to have poetry collections to dip into. My favorites were Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, both of which I wrote about here. (On second thought, where these two poets are concerned, maybe relief isn’t quite the right word.) Similarly, a couple of coffeetable books offered piecemeal inspiration. Air : 24 Hours, a remarkable monograph on/interview with the painter Jennifer Bartlett, is freshly minted MacArthur Genius Deborah Eisenberg’s My Dinner With Andre. I also heartily recommend Up is Up, But So is Down, an anthology of Downtown New York literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Reproductions of flyers and zines adorn this volume, expertly compiled by Brandon Stosuy. Come for the images; stay for the writing.
A couple of other novels I loved this year were Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Each, in my read, unraveled at the end, and so didn’t quite stand with Nádas (or Herzog, or Mrs. Dalloway). But each reached rare pinnacles of perception and beauty, and I’m always pleased to spend time in the company of these writers.
The best new books I read were Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Ingo Schulze’s New Lives. One of the first things people notice about Lethem is his skylarking prose, but in this most recent novel, a note of deeper irony (the kind born of pain; one wants to call it European, or maybe Bellovian) disciplines the sentences. I look forward to seeing where Lethem goes next. The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.
And then there was Europe Central, about which more anon. I’m not sure I can recommend it, anymore than I was sure I could recommend Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men last year. I haven’t even decided if I think Europe Central is a good book. But it swallowed me by slow degrees, and hasn’t quite let go.
There are many, many more amazing books I’d like to write about here: Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov; McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge; Rabbit Redux, Running Dog, Dog Soldiers; The Book of Daniel, Daniel Deronda… In fact, looking forward to “A Year in Reading” has begun to exert a formal pressure on my reading list, encouraging me to bypass the ephemeral in search of books I might passionately recommend. Fully half of what I read this year blew my mind, and I look forward to some future “Year in Reading” entry when I have 52 masterpieces to endorse. Imagine: one great book a week. For now, though, mindful that your hunger to read a 10,000 word post about what I read is probably even less keen than mine is to write it, I’ll leave you with these titles, and wishes for great reading in 2010.
I have a friend who – the details don’t matter – I think of as a character in a Saul Bellow novel. One of the wild charismats, making a mess of life, attractively, and whose conversation is knit of brainy references, emotive bursts, and half-baked theories. Said friend was enthusing to me the other day about the great Jackie Chan. He said Jackie Chan is our Buster Keaton. Jackie Chan, I didn’t know this, was basically sold to the Peking Opera as a child. (Madness!) In that sense Chan belongs – so goes his notion – to the American vaudeville tradition of impoverished genius. What a weird and necessary set of circumstances goes into the making of a Jackie Chan. Well: what weird compression made a literary genius of little Solomon Bellow, who could wax on as enraged and impassioned about teeth as about, say, Hannah Arendt? To go back and read Saul Bellow is to encounter again the kind of mad virtuosity that, in a certain mood, a certain type might argue is a sort of translation of the embodied genius of Chan.
Anyhow, my favorite Bellow novel, which I reread this past year, is Herzog. If you want to feel a bit grandiose about your own madness – how charming we remain, nothwithstanding – then Herzog’s for you. And if you want that grandiose good feeling you have about being near mad – if you want that bubble popped – then, again, Herzog – with wronged and wronging Moses Herzog at its center – is for you. Moses Herzog – that suffering joker – resembles the best of clowns of any era or field. He’s sexual, ecstatic, bitter, and comedic: a fire you watch burn with increasing hopes (intermittently justified) that there will be no ash.
So Bellow: the uninsurable stunt man. Buyable.
I think it’s a symptom of the internet age, or my impending old age, or doom, that while I used to amble into a used book shop with no particular book in mind and leave satisfied with a bulging grocery bag, now I find myself a slave to a roster. Before, I would keep a vague running list of books I wanted to read, which basically encompassed the whole of literature as I understood it, so that any pile of two dollar books was bound to yield several items of interest. And now I want what I want when I want it.
Under the Net was a long-time bee in my bonnet. There are so many Iris Murdoch novels, in so many printings; they are a fixture in secondhand book shops. When I realized that this one, her first, was on the Modern Library list, I thought I was bound to come across it before too long. For nine months it eluded me, although in pursuit of that title I managed to read five other Murdoch novels. In the same way, I read Black Boy instead of Native Son, and Young Torless instead of The Man Without Qualities, and loathsome Henderson the Rain King instead of Herzog. Which is a good thing! I’m better for having read them all. But every year that goes by finds me less happy to cast the net in this haphazard fashion (hence my summer of discontent). I require specific titles now. I’ve undergone a paradigm shift. It’s kind of a bummer, actually.
(I do know all about libraries, and I cherish them. But I like to own the books that I read, and I like to read books that I own. In case there is an emergency. It’s a thing about me.)
Anyway, I wanted to read Under the Net, and I got sick of looking in vain and reading things other than Under the Net, and I finally outsourced the job to the internet. I felt sort of guilty about this, like buying a pet instead of adopting. I did it media mail, which seemed more virtuous, in the manner of hard church pews and wooden teeth. After eight days, the novel arrived. All things considered, the experience was obscenely convenient.
Someone once said (it was me) that Iris Murdoch wrote so many novels that if you are in the mood to read something by her, there is probably a fresh one available. It’s like having a harem wherein all the inmates are related to one another and look alike, yet retain sterling qualities of their own. I quote myself not because I’m the last word on Iris Murdoch, but because the metaphor has useful application here. If Murdoch’s huge oeuvre is a harem of related women, then reading Under the Net is like going in back in time to meet their matriarch, coltish and sepia-toned on the day she was plucked from her village.
I have always thought that The Sea, The Sea stands apart from the other Murdoch novels I’ve read, largely because of the spicy and pitch-perfect first person narrative. I thought, perhaps, that it was a prime example of late-ish Murdoch at the height of her powers. So I was surprised to discover find that her first novel, published in 1954, has more in common with The Sea² (1978), than any of the works published between (that I’ve read, of course). Like The Sea², Under the Net is written in the first person. The earlier novel’s narrator, translator and occasional writer Jack Donoghue, is kind of a feckless, easier-going, impoverished prototype of Charles Arrowby, who came a quarter century later. I suppose they really don’t have much in common, since Arrowby’s whole being is centered on being the opposite of feckless and easy-going and impoverished. But they are both educated, afraid of commitment, and very funny. They are memorable, varying somewhat from the stock cast of awful aesthetes and academes who populate the majority of her novels. Not that Donoghue isn’t one of those, but his way with words is considerably more amusing. Here, kicked out of one rent-free situation, he ponders the future:
It was certainly something of a problem to know where to go next. I wondered if Dave Gellman would harbour us. I fondled the idea, though I suspected it was no good. Dave is an old friend, but he’s a philosopher, not the kind that tells you about your horoscope and the number of the beast, but a real one like Kant and Plato, so of course he has no money.
The whole experience of Under the Net was surprising. Unless one has made a pointed effort to study them, one can have only a hazy sense of the zeitgeist of decades and places in which one hasn’t lived. That said, Iris Murdoch is so relentlessly urbane and modern that Under the Net seemed to me much younger than its 55 years. I’m aware that drinking and being feckless and running around was not unheard of in the 1950s–I did read Lucky Jim (also published 1954. In fact, I think Jim Dixon could conceivably have enjoyed a matey bender with Jack Donaghue and company). But the people of Under the Net seemed very hip, or at least as though they could have easily populated a later novel. Perhaps it’s not that Murdoch was cutting-edge, but that her eternal engagement with the pedantic, the bachanalian, and the emotionally stunted will never go out of style.
The plot of Under the Net doesn’t bear summarizing. It is farcical and, I dare say, “rollicking;” there’s even a dog who stars in movies. I am unused to feeling so little feminist rage during a Murdoch novel; this one was light-hearted and lacked the sinister undertones present in, for example, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Message to the Planet. Under the Net could even be called a buddy novel; Donoghue and his Irish familiar, Finn, reminded me not a little of my favorite John Irving book, The Water Method Man, and the adventures of Bogus Trumper (also a translator), and Merrill Overturf described therein.
I find it odd that this novel would make it onto the Modern Library list over TS². It’s a little fluffy. But, as we’ve been hearing so much recently, lists are problematic, and the Modern Library list is so problematic on so many levels that its defects no longer shock. Pluralities are weird. Still, Under the Net’s presence on the list caused me to hunt it down and read it, which not only caused me to have a nice Sunday afternoon (it’s short), but freed up a spot on the roster. That’s one for the list. Then again, the existence of a list only serves to codify things and thus intensify the need for a roster, which causes me to have fewer pleasant afternoons digging through bookshops, and more neurotic episodes on the internet. That’s one against.
Anyway, Under the Net was fun and I liked it. I’ll leave you with a word from Jack, who has troubles of his own:
I glanced hastily through the manuscripts. Once before, in a rage, Magdalen had torn up the first sixty stanzas of an epic poem called And Mr Oppenheim Shall Inherit the Earth. This dated from the time when I had ideals. At that time too it had not yet become clear to me that the present age was not one in which it was impossible to write an epic. At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write. But nothing is more paralyzing than a sense of historical perspective, especially in literary matters . . . But to return to Mr Oppenheim; my friends had criticized the title because it sounded anti-Semitic, though of course Mr Oppenheim simply symbolized big business, but Madge didn’t tear it up for that, but out of pique, because I broke a lunch date with her to meet a woman novelist. The latter was a dead loss, but I can back to find Mr Oppenheim in pieces. This was in the old days, but I feared that the performance might have been repeated. Who knows what thoughts were passing through that girl’s mind while she was deciding to throw me out? There’s nothing like a woman’s doing you an injury for making her incensed against you. I know myself how exasperating it is of other people to put themselves in positions where you have to injure them.
It has been said, though by whom I can’t remember, that the Great New York Novel is as elusive a creature as the Great American One. Because this city (the argument goes) concatenates the fictional challenges of other urban settings – the scale of Tokyo, the insularity and cinematic overfamiliarity of Paris, the mutability and lunatic vitality of Bombay – no novelist can own it the way Dreiser and Wright and Farrell own Chicago or Dickens owns London. And so Ishmael pushes out to sea, Isabel Archer steams for England, and Gatsby is left standing at West Egg, chasing the green light. The world’s most expensive real estate beggars the literary imagination.Of course this is more truism than truth. Melville, James, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Ellison, and, more recently, Doctorow and DeLillo and Auster have done the city justice. Three great novels by Saul Bellow – Seize the Day, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet – constitute their own kind of New York Trilogy, rendering midcentury Manhattan indelible for all time. (Bellow, of course, cut his teeth on Chicago). But it speaks to the size of Joseph O’Neill’s ambitions – and the sublimity his accomplishments – that his third work of fiction, Netherland, merits comparison with these authors. Indeed, in its extraordinary literariness, it invites such comparison. It is, for long stretches, a Great New York Novel.The book is deceptively slim, and concerns a Dutch-born investment banker named Hans van der Broek who becomes estranged from his family and from himself in the wake of (though not because of) the September 11 attacks. Exiled in a haunted Chelsea Hotel and a benumbed city, Hans finds a measure of belonging in a cricket league populated largely by working-class immigrants.Hans’ narration has a Proustian sensitivity – and, more strikingly, a Proustian elasticity. Making scant use of page- and chapter-breaks, Netherland travels backward and forward in time, arranging events by emotional, rather than chronological, logic – and, in the process, creating suspense. We learn in the first few pages that by the end of his story, Hans will have settled back into bourgeois stolidity, in London. But how will he have gotten there? we wonder. And will he have learned anything in the process?The answer to the latter question is, of course yes; Netherland, which starts as a murder mystery, is really a novel of awakening. The vehicle for that awakening is O’Neill’s finest creation, a dynamo named Chuck Ramkissoon who will, by 2006, end up face down in the Gowanus Canal. Chuck is an operator, a calculator, and a charmer, but he takes the American dream quite earnestly. “‘Think fantastic,'” he tells Hans. “‘My motto is, Think fantastic.'” He has interests in a kosher sushi business, a numbers game, and real estate. His most ambitious project, however, is to convert a little-used airfield in outermost Brooklyn into Bald Eagle Field:”I’m talking about an arena. A sports arena for the greatest teams in the world. Twelve exhibition matches every summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop. I’m talking about advertising, I’m talking about year-round consumption of food and drink in the bar-restaurant.”Or rather, I should say, Chuck’s most ambitious project is Hans. Initially a cricket buddy, he becomes a kind of mentor for Hans, Quixote to Hans’ Sancho Panza, West Indian Gatsby to his Continental Carraway, shuttling him through insalubrious outer-borough locales and slowly pulling him out of his deep freeze. “He was going to fascinate me,” Hans says, describing both the trajectory of the book and Chuck’s strategy for drawing Hans into the tangled business of “Chuck Cricket, Inc.”As James Wood noted in his New Yorker review, O’Neill finds in cricket a beautiful controlling metaphor; it comes to stand variously for upward aspiration; for camaraderie; for innocence; for fragile, ridiculous, sublime democracy – for all the things Hans feels he lost in the fall of 2001. Beautiful, too, is the way O’Neill puts the metaphor to work, letting his diction suggest, rather than insist (just as he does with the novel’s other preoccupation, the aftermath of September 11). In a scene that recalls Levin among the mowers in Anna Karenina, Hans trims the grass of the wicket-to-be:We took turns driving a lightweight fairway mower with an eighty-inch cut and fast eleven-blade reels. Chuck liked to stripe the grass with dark green and pale green rings. You started with a perimeter run and then, looping back, made circle after circle, each one smaller than the last, each one with a common center. They would soon be gone, but no matter. What was important was the rhythm of the cutting, and the smell of the cutting, and the satisfaction of time passed fruitfully on the field with a gargling diesel engine, and the glory and suspensefulness of the enterprise. […] For all of its apparent artificiality, cricket is a sport in nature. Which may be why it calls almost for a naturalist’s attentiveness: the ability to locate, in a mostly static herd of white-clothed men, the significant action. It’s a question of lookingO’Neill’s writing is this luminous, this precise, this cadenced, and this understated throughout the novel. It creates, in Henry James’ formulation, the present palpable-intimate: Even as the above passage evokes a world, its aphoristic intelligence evokes a worldview, and in the modulation from hesitation (“it calls almost for…attentiveness”) to penetrating insight (It’s a question of looking), it embodies Hans’ weaknesses and capacities. Perhaps even more deft, because less exquisite, is the way O’Neill gives us Chuck Ramkissoon, almost entirely through gesture and dialogue. Along with The Emperor’s Children and The Line of Beauty, Netherland contains some of the most immaculately written English prose of the new century.When O’Neill is using his miraculous instrument to capture the underrepresented precincts of Eastern Parkway and the Herald Square DMV and the Chelsea Hotel and Floyd Bennett Field, it takes on a moral majesty. With the great hole of the World Trade Center smoldering in the background, to record is to memorialize; and apprehending the world as clearly as Hans does becomes a kind of metaphysics, as in the novels of Bellow. It is not a question of looking, but one of seeing.That said, although Netherland moves like a great book, it is, like The Emperor’s Children, sometimes merely a good one. Which is to say that sometimes, Hans merely looks. The stakes of the novel, the things we’re led to believe matter most to him – his wife, Rachel, and his child, Jake – never fully matter to us, because they never assert their independence from Hans’ literary imperatives. A lovely description of Jake’s “train-infested underpants” makes a statement about Hans (what an eye!), rather than one about Jake; whereas Keith Neudecker playing catch with his son in DeLillo’s Falling Man actually, if laconically, sees the boy. Of Keith, James Wood wrote, “He had never been, perhaps, an easy husband – uncommunicative, driven, adulterous, tediously male,” but when it comes to relationships with other people, is there really so much difference between DeLillo’s protagonist and O’Neill’s?Even at the end of the narrative, Hans doesn’t quite seem to see Rachel or Jake as real people, nor is his failure in this regard presented ironically. And because of the novel’s chronological structure and its insistence on the importance of seeing, this threatens to become a serious flaw beneath the novel’s manicured surface. If Hans has been vouchsafed some kind of revelation, there in the green fields of Brooklyn, why are his feelings for his wife so much less convincing than his feelings for Chuck Ramkissoon? And how are we to feel about his return to the IKEA’d embrace of bourgeois “lifestyle” from the dicier terrain of actual life? Is this growth or surrender?This being a novel, style provides the answer, or at least begs the question. O’Neill’s, ultimately, is elegiac, and so, like the tide Fitzgerald’s boats beat against, it keeps tugging Hans toward the past, which is the book’s, and Hans’, center of gravity. The point is not that Hans’ suffering clears the way to redemption, but that for a few moments, it seemed it could have. As the book nears its conclusion, Hans circles back and back to the moments when he came closest to grace, seeing them with ever fiercer clarity. The paragraphs take on the surging rhythms of Hans van der Broek’s wounded heart. Which is a rather too literary way of saying that, in Netherland Joseph O’Neill has accomplished something even more impressive than the Great New York novel. He has brought – has restored – Hans van der Broek to life. We see him.See also: Kevin’s take on Netherland
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.
Let’s say you’re slightly to the left of the Bell Curve: you read, on average, a book a week. And let’s say you’re also slightly leftward-listing in your survival prospects: that, due to the marvels of future medicine (and no thanks to the blunders of contemporary foreign policy) you’ll live to the fine old age of 90. Let’s furthermore presuppose that you’re one of those people, the precocious ones who were reading Kesey and King and Kingsolver and Kipling at 15. How many great books will you get to read in a lifetime? Assuming you’ve already answered the adjunct question (why?) for yourself, the prospect of having to choose only three thousand books from among the many Millions may sound daunting. My Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Literature contains some entries on authors alone, and is hardly comprehensive. Balzac alone could eat up almost one percent of your lifetime reading. On the other hand, as usual, limitation shades into wonder… because in an infinite reading universe, we would be deprived of one of the supreme literary pleasures: discovery. Half of my favorite works of fiction of the year were by authors (women, natch) I’d never read, had barely heard of: Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy, and Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.And if I had gone my whole life without discovering Deborah Eisenberg, I would have missed something like a literary soulmate. The beguiling, bewildered quality of Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes – the sentences whose endings seem to surprise even their writer – is so close to the texture of life as I experience it as to be almost hallucinatory. On the other hand, Eisenberg’s world is much, much funnier and more profound than mine. She’s single-handedly rejuvenated my relationship with the short story… and just in time for the remarkable new Edward P. Jones collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. I’ve already expressed my suspicion that Jones has been a positive influence on Dave Eggers, as evidenced by What is the What. So I’ll just round out my survey of new fiction by mentioning Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s overlooked first novel, The Cottagers – a dazzlingly written thriller.In between forays into the contemporary landscape, I’ve been trying to bone up on the classics. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice until this year; it’s about the most romantic damn thing I’ve ever encountered, and I’m a sucker for romance. Pricklier and more ironic, which is to say more Teutonic, was Mann’s The Magic Mountain – a great book for when you’ve got nothing to do for two months. Saul Bellow’s Herzog completely blew my doors off, suggesting that stream-of-consciousness (and the perfect evocation of a summer day) did not end with Mrs. Dalloway. Herzog is such a wonderful book, so sad, so funny, so New York. So real. I can’t say the same thing about Kafka’s The Castle, but it is to my mind the most appealing of his novels. As in The Magic Mountain, futility comes to seem almost charming. E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate was another wonderful discovery – a rip-roaring read that’s written under some kind of divine inspiration: Let there be Comma Splices! Similarly, I was surprised by how well page-turning pacing and peel-slowly sentences worked in Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Ultimately, it’s sort of a ridiculous story, but it’s hard to begrudge something this rich and addictive. Think of it as a dessert. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rip-roar of that most sweeping of summer beach books, Lonesome Dove. And if the last three titles make you feel self-indulgent, because you’re having too much fun, cleanse the palate the way I did, with the grim and depressing and still somehow beautiful. Namely, Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing or W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. (What is it with those Germans?)Nonfiction-wise, I managed to slip away from journalism a bit, but did read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men while I was in Honduras… sort of like reading Melville at sea. I made it most of the way through Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (God knows why, half of me adds. The other half insists, You know why.) Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment lightened things up… Not! But I will never read Cosmo Girl the same way again. Come to think of it, pretty much all the nonfiction I loved this year was a downer, about the impure things we can’t get away from: Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, and especially the late George W.S. Trow’s astonishing, devastating Within the Context of No Context. Lit-crit offered a little bit of a silver lining, as William H. Gass’ A Temple of Text and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self. Wood’s essays on Tolstoy and Bellow remind me that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”… which is, I guess, why I’ll keep reading in 2007.