Dan Chaon’s most recent novel, Await Your Reply, is a masterful tale of identity and how it’s made, stolen, and remade. The book, with its three interlocking stories, and locales as disparate as Las Vegas, Nebraska, and the Arctic, is intensely readable, but as Janet Maslin of The New York Times points out, “…the real pleasure in reading Mr. Chaon is less in finding out where he’s headed than in savoring what he accomplishes along the way.” Chaon is also the author of the novel, You Remind Me of Me, and two short story collections, Fitting Ends, and Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award. He was my creative writing teacher at Oberlin College, where he is the Irvin E. Houck Associate Professor of the Humanities.
The Millions: What really struck me about this book was how realistic and specific your characters felt, even as some of them dissolved and became nothing more than a name, a wardrobe, a series of gestures and ways of speaking. At the same time, though, other characters remained real—and, this isn’t exactly the right word—pure. How did you go about creating the different characters for this novel? How important was it that they all be believable, and what does that mean for this kind of book?
Dan Chaon: The book was written in little pieces, almost like a series of short-short stories in the beginning. When I started, I didn’t know anything but little glimmers—scenes—that eventually began to fit together. In general I don’t plan out my characters in advance. Mostly, I begin with images, moments—a severed hand in an ice bucket, a lighthouse on the prairie, a guy driving down the Dempster Highway toward the Arctic Ocean. Once I had the moment in my head, I began to circle out and try to understand the people who were involved. So I suspect that my experience of writing the book, and the discoveries that I made as I went along, are not so different from the readers’ experience. The characters all started out as “real” to me—I was getting to know them as I went along, the same way you get to know friends over time–and I was as shocked as anyone when some of them turned out to be fakes. You say that some of the characters “remained real—and this isn’t exactly the right word—pure,” –but I actually think this is exactly the right coinage. Pure. I really like that word. That’s one of the issues that I was thinking of when I was writing. What is a “real” self? What is a “pure” representation of character? Is it just a consistent set of behaviors? Is there something truly essential that makes you, you? I don’t think I came up with an answer, but it was fun to think about.
TM: In your acknowledgments, you write that Await Your Reply pays homage to various writers you’ve loved, from Ray Bradbury to Shirley Jackson to Peter Straub, among others. What was the extent of your “gestures and winks” toward their work? Is this your own playful, literary version of identity theft?
DC: One of my early jobs when I was first out of undergrad was as a DJ. This was back in the late eighties, when the concepts of the “mash-up” and sampling were still in their infancy. But there was something about that concept that I really, really liked—the way the songs seemed to be having a conversation with one another, and by being combined actually transformed into something new. I’d like to think that there’s some of that going on here, too. Many of the “samples” are tucked into the imagery, like Easter eggs: for example, readers of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym will recognize those birds that are circling Miles in the Arctic, with their cry of “tekeli-li!”; people who have seen Takashi Miike’s movie, The Audition, will recognize that horrific piano wire in Chapter 2; people who have read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House will notice echoes of poor Eleanor Vance’s final thoughts… and—well, let’s just say that there are a few dozen of these throughout the book, which some people might enjoy finding themselves. But my intent wasn’t merely to create a bunch of cute in-jokes, either. To a larger extent, I was using these little touchstones to draw forth a particular texture and mood. For me, it was almost an invocation, a séance. That Ouija Board is in Jay’s house for a reason!
As a writer, I feel like I’m always in conversation with the books that I’ve read. Occasionally, an interviewer will ask: “Who are you writing for? Who is your audience?” And in many ways the answer is that I’m writing for those authors I’ve loved, and the books I’ve loved. If you’re an avid reader, and a book gets under your skin, it can affect you as intensely as a real human relationship, it lingers with you for your whole life, and there is always this desire to re-experience that amazing sense of connection you get from “your books.” I understand completely why people want to write fan fiction. To me, I guess, all fiction is fan fiction at a certain level, just as it always has an element of identity theft.
TM: Do you see your novel as a kind of Nabokovian puzzle, to be unwrapped and unlocked by discerning readers of the future? How far does the rabbit hole go?
DC: As much as I’m flattered by the term “Nabokovian,” I’m not sure that I’m capable of that level of gamesmanship. I’m sure that a literary critic could footnote the hell out of the book, but I suspect that a great number of the references she’d find here would be unintentional, or accidental, or drawn unconsciously from the cultural ether. A couple of years ago, I wrote the Afterward for the Signet Classic edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and one of the things that struck me, re-reading that novel for the first time in many years, was how much of my recollection of the book was simply wrong. Major scenes that I remembered vividly simply weren’t there in the text. In fact, as it turned out, my memory of Dr. Jekyll had been so radically infected by the enormous number of other representations that were floating around in the culture—movies and comics and parodies and so forth—that it was difficult to read the “real” version without filling in aspects from the version I’d imagined, the version that I’d pieced together out of a vast array of cultural detritus. None of which had existed when the actual book was written. I hope that something similar may happen to readers of Await Your Reply, and that in this way the “rabbit hole” goes on into Fibonacci-like infinity. I set out to draw on some of the archetypal plots that I had always found most compelling—the Bluebeard story, the evil twin story, the mythology of shapeshifters, legends of ghosts and haunted places and fruitless quests into the wastelands—all of which, of course, were viral memes for centuries before the internet existed. I suspect that the reader will be reminded of a whole set of references and touchstones as they read—but that their footnotes would be idiosyncratic, a kind of private, Kinbote-like appendix for each individual reader.
TM: This novel is ingeniously structured, with three narratives that eventually overlap and lock together. Part of the fun of reading it is figuring that puzzle out. How did you put together this little narrative machine? None of it feels accidental—but can that be?
DC: When I started out, I didn’t have any idea how the three threads were connected. I just knew that they were—somehow. The first hundred pages of the book took me about two years to write. I revised and revised, and fiddled around with the personalities of the characters, and added and deleted subplots and minor characters—basically trying to frame out the farmland that I was going to be working with, cutting brush and taking rocks out of the soil and so forth. The second hundred pages took about nine months. This was when I began to use cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, leaving each thread with an unanswered question that I had to figure out, and that pushed things forward for me more quickly. At this point, I was showing the book chapter by chapter to my editor, Anika Streitfeld, and to my wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz. They would each give me a little feedback and I’d float various plot concepts—which Anika or Sheila or both of them would frequently, kindly, shoot down, or talk me through. The last hundred pages was written in a little less than two months, but it really wasn’t until the final few chapters that I truly had everything figured out. The last bit of plot clicked into place the way a difficult math problem sometimes does. Bing! Suddenly it seems so obvious! And I remember e-mailing Anika at about four in the morning. “Does this sound crazy???” I had to go back and do some adjustment and revision—but it was actually quite surprising to me to discover how much of the plot was already there, embedded in the narrative without my noticing. It didn’t actually require a lot of rewriting. My wife Sheila died of cancer not long after I’d finished the final revisions, and it’s both difficult and comforting now to look at this book, since there is so much of her in it, chapter by chapter: her advice and thoughts and spirit. She wrote in pencil on the last page of the last chapter: “You did it, honey!” But really we did it together.
TM: As Await Your Reply progresses, it hearkens more and more to an old-fashioned thriller or horror tale, with its level of suspense, its secrets and plot revelations, and its pervading sense of unease. This, for me, felt simultaneously like a departure and continuation from your earlier work, if that makes any sense. What say you?
DC: I’ve been deeply influenced by two strains of North American fiction: first, by the realistic regionalism of writers like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Sherwood Anderson, and so forth; and secondly, by writers of dark fantasy like Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, and Ray Bradbury, etc. I’ve tended to be categorized more with the former group, the regional realists, but I think that you could make a good case to classify my work with the latter as well. My short story collection, Among the Missing, was strongly influenced by the tradition of ghostly and supernatural tales, and my first novel, You Remind Me of Me, was drawing very heavily from tales of psychological suspense and Kafkaesque otherworldliness—not intended to be straightforward melodrama, though I think it was often taken as such. I learned a lot about novel-writing from You Remind Me of Me—the effects that I wanted, and those that I didn’t—and I deliberately wanted to go back to the multiple narrative, round-robin style of storytelling, and see if I could build on what I had figured out. Around the time I was finishing You Remind Me of Me, I also happened to write a story for McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon. Chabon’s project was to combine so-called literary writing with pulp and genre storytelling elements, and I was very much inspired by what he had to say. I felt like the story I wrote, “The Bees,” was a breakthrough for me, and I learned a lot from writers like Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Arthur Phillips, Kevin Brockmeier—and many others—who were doing interesting work with genre-bending. I have to say, though, that perhaps the biggest cultural influences on the novel were my teenaged sons, Philip and Paul, and the books and movies and TV shows that they loved and which permeated our household—Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy of books, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the TV show “Lost,” the films Fight Club and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all the various good, smart stuff which one or both of my kids were obsessed with…
TM: In a 2004 interview with Poets and Writers Magazine, you remarked: “I’ve written stories since I was a little kid. To me there’s something compelling about being a different person for a little while and trying out a different kind of life.” I couldn’t help but read Await Your Reply as partly a meditation on fiction writing and reading. In the book, when Ryan muses that identities are like shells that “you stepped into and that began to solidify over time… They began to take on a life of their own, developed substance,” I thought of my own creative process of inhabiting characters. And Ryan’s sadness after retiring an identity articulated so well that peculiar grief of finishing a manuscript, or a beloved book. Were these nods to the writing and reading life intentional? Furthermore, do you think fiction writing is somewhat criminal—is it a weird invasion of privacy, this theft and composite of various real lives? Do readers understand best the lure of identity theft, the chance to live another’s life for a while? And, when you spend a large part of your time making up stories and reading made up stories, where does real life begin and end? What makes some human beings real, and some fictional?
DC: Gee, Edan. You articulate things so well here that I barely have to answer! Yes to all of these. I think that as a teacher of creative writing, it’s inevitable that you think a lot about the creative process, and that you spend a lot of time trying to articulate how it works and why it is important, especially in a world that students face in which this kind of thinking isn’t taken seriously, when it’s seen as frivolous—or worse. One of the things that I talk about frequently with my students is the act of empathy—the act of trying to imagine yourself in the position of someone else—and the way this can be scary, and transgressive, and even dangerous. One of my assignments in my fiction class is to ask students to write from the point of view of someone radically different from themselves—to speak in the voice of a different gender or ethnicity or class, to try to think as far outside themselves as they can go, to try to inhabit that person—and for many of my students this feels perilous, even morally problematic.
I remember one time we had a discussion in class about a sensational news story. An insane woman had kidnapped a pregnant mother, and had killed the mother and performed a c-section and claimed the baby as her own. A truly horrifying tale. And we had been talking about it in class, and I asked: which character would you choose if you were writing a story? The pregnant mother or the insane woman who took the baby? At that point, a young woman spoke up, a sophomore. “My God!” she said. “The ghost of that dead woman is probably spitting on us as we sit here talking about this!” I think that was you, Edan, who was so appalled. I remember that it gave me pause: At what point does imagining, does the attempt to inhabit, become wrong? At what point does it become morally repugnant? I still think: never. But I understand that it’s fraught, that it’s compromised, that it’s suspect. That it’s an invasion that borders on—or crosses over into—the criminal. During the writing of this book, I followed the exploits of a number of trolls who used invented personas to invade and then (often hilariously) disrupt various solemn internet message boards. I read about a depressed teen who was goaded into suicide by a cruel classmate’s mother who was pretending to be the poor girl’s “boyfriend” on MySpace. I myself set up a dummy email address and briefly tried out various fake personas to see what would happen.
Where does real life begin and end? What makes some human beings real, and some fictional? I don’t know the answer. For better or worse, the answers to these questions seem to be changing all the time, and maybe there is no true answer.
TM: There’s an incredibly eerie and memorable second-person chapter at the end of Part One, where the narrator describes “your” identity being stolen, which, “Isn’t necessarily you, of course…you are aware of your life as a continuous thread, a dependable unfolding story of yourself that you are telling yourself.” This chapter has the great power of planting paranoia in the reader’s mind, and forces her to question her own identity and notions of self. As I kept reading, though, I found myself feeling paranoid about everything in the book—pretty soon I couldn’t trust anyone! Um, Dan? How in the hell did you do this?
DC: This chapter emerged from a late night free-write, which wasn’t originally intended to be anything but a journal entry. I was at a point when I needed to try to explain to myself what the book was about, and this was one of the few chapters (the final chapter, Chapter 26, is the other) which came out in one draft, with very little revision. It felt like an inner voice that was speaking to me—a very eerie feeling for me as well.
TM: About the aforementioned chapter: why the second person? It’s interesting, because while it’s about identity theft, it’s not taking away my identity, but, rather, giving me a different one. In the text, I’m pulling off a snowy interstate—“And you wipe off the snow in your hair”—when in fact this reader lives in Los Angeles! What went into this particular narrative choice?
DC: The narrative movement of this chapter was weird for me. Originally, the narrator felt like me, Dan Chaon, the author—but then it moved into a more chilly and abstract omniscience, as if a little spark of myself had disconnected and was free-floating through the world, out-of-the-body travel, and then I found myself hovering over a stranger and entering into his consciousness. Becoming part of the scene, and taking on his life story and personality. I realize now that I was trying to model the process of transference—to describe in shorthand the way imaginative empathy works. “You” are not in Los Angeles any longer. You have become that melancholy middle-aged guy pumping gas in upstate New York.
There is a poem by my friend Liz Rosenberg called “The Accident,” which I think about a lot. In the poem, a woman who is driving down the interstate observes the death of a motorcyclist from a distance, and there is an incredibly beautiful use of second person that I have always admired. “You are still you, but changing fast,” says the narrator of Liz Rosenberg’s poem, and she is both talking to the dying motorcycle guy and to herself.
TM: Has teaching at Oberlin influenced you as a writer? How do you manage to give students a sense of artistic freedom, while also offering them straightforward advice on technique and form?
DC: I love teaching, and I particularly like that moment when a student begins to discover the subject matter and voice that makes them unique. That’s a real high for me and it’s what keeps me coming back, semester after semester. It’s such a pleasure to be around people who care passionately about books and writing and who have singular perspectives about the world, which is what I find almost across the board with Oberlin students. I do find that I learn a lot from students, too. The thing about teaching fiction is that there isn’t one answer to a problem—there’s no rulebook or easy fix. I learn a lot about my own process from helping students find solutions to the various issues that emerge when you’re working through a draft. Not to get all new-agey, but there’s a lot of good energy that comes out of it.
TM: Have you noticed any popular themes or concepts in this current era of undergraduate writers?
DC: I notice a lot more post-apocalyptic scenarios these days, and I’m aware that as a generation this new group is pretty scared and pessimistic about the future they’re being left with. In general, there’s less interest in straightforward realism than there used to be. It remains very difficult to get anyone under 21 interested in Alice Munro or William Trevor, but I guess that’s as it should be. It’s hard, at my students’ age, to be sympathetic with the very middle-aged concerns of those two greats. All in good time, right?
TM: Because this is a book site, and because I know for a fact that you are a voracious, insane reader, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?
DC: Lies Will Take You Somewhere, by my wife, Sheila Schwartz—and not just because we were married, either. I learned nearly everything I know about writing from her, and it’s a flat-out brilliant book: dark, funny, and strange in all the right ways.
As the media phenomenon du jour, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has put pressure on the commentariat to provide Potter-related context or controversy – anything to get readers to spend a few minutes with us, rather than J.K. Rowling! And herein lies a danger: in our zeal to ride Harry’s coattails (broomstick?) to glory, we Muggles are tempted to wave a wand over our own preconceptions and imagine them transfigured into news. In that vein, an article in last week’s Washington Post provoked our interest here at The Millions, while contradicting my own sense of how the Potter books function within the enchanted kingdom of childhood. I specifically remembered Cynthia Oakes, a middle-school librarian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, telling me some years ago about a book her students had gone wild for, and recommending I check out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Hoping to get some ground-level perspective on Pottermania, I got in touch with her (which wasn’t hard; she’s my mother-in-law) and asked if she’d mind revisiting the Potter books in a bit more depth. I had misplaced my Quick-Quotes Quills, but she graciously consented to be interviewed through the magic of email. [Editor’s note: Scroll down to view Oakes’ post-Hogwarts syllabus.]Opening the Chamber of Secrets”There is a wonderful bookstore in Hyde Park,” Oakes told me, “57th Street Books, where my colleagues and I often go to buy the latest children’s and young-adult titles. The children’s buyer at the time, author Franny Billingsley (The Folk Keeper), told us that there was a new British fantasy novel out, and the word in England was that it was wildly popular. We bought a copy, read it, liked it, recommended it to a couple of kids, and put it on our summer reading list. By the end of the summer, the idea of our introducing anyone to Harry Potter was beyond laughable. That’s how quickly it became a phenomenon. Kids told kids, who told other kids, who told still more kids – and that was that.”Initially, adults were out of the loop – which was great! It was remarkable, from my point of view, to see any book capture these kids’ imaginations and hearts so completely.” Oakes offered some further context: “This was right around time that the term ‘digital natives’ was being coined. As school librarians we were being led to believe that the future, and especially our future, lay in the Internet – that students were no longer interested in print. Then the iPod came out; once again, we were told that the future lay in digital whatever… and suddenly our middle school library alone had to buy seven copies of Sorcerer’s Stone. All copies were instantly checked out and the hold list was huge.“Then kids learned that the sequel was out in England. It was unprecedented to have them beg their parents to plan summer vacations to the UK around the publication of a book. One family, who actually did vacation in the UK that summer, brought back a copy of Chamber of Secrets. We ended up buying four copies of the next two installments. After that, kids were buying the books for themselves so we didn’t need to invest quite so heavily in order to provide access. We now have two shelves of the library devoted to six titles. I’m not sure if we’ll need to buy more than one copy of the latest book, since the sales of this title have been astronomical. I can assure you that no other series even come close to it in popularity.”Apropos of families vacationing across the pond, Oakes said she couldn’t generalize about any connections between the books’ success and social class. But as Chicago’s Lab School is a well-regarded private school, she could attest to the books’ strong appeal to upper-middle class, affluent kids. That appeal, she noted, “doesn’t seem to be contingent upon gender or race.”A Hogwarts of the Mind”I think what makes these books so seductive,” Oakes told me, “is that the world Rowling has created is a world kids really, really, really want to live in. Actually live in, not just imagine living in. They want to eat the candy, ride the train, wear the uniforms, own the brooms, play the games, study the magic, get mail from the owls, look at the maps, and spy from the folds of an invisible cape. Who wouldn’t want to be a member of the Weasley family? And who wouldn’t want Ron, Hermione, or Harry for a friend? Or Hagrid for a teacher? I am always amazed at how even a 14-year-old will still harbor the secret hope that Hogwarts is real.” Oakes remembers “being quite surprised when a fifth-grader confided in me that he was not able to get the spells to work. He wondered what he was doing wrong and he looked so forlorn while furtively whispering all this to me.”From a literary point of view, I’m not the first person to observe that these books are unique in combining the most popular of children’s literary genres into one rollicking story: horror, sports, adventure, school story, fantasy, romance, animal fantasy, family problems, etc. That gives them appeal among a broad array of readers. In addition, they are page-turners for kids who love plot-driven books and have satisfying characters for kids who prefer character-driven novels. It doesn’t hurt that the central character is a misfit without parents… a key ingredient to most successful children’s lit. What child, tethered to family and home, wouldn’t love to step through a magic portal where she instantly becomes the hero of the universe?“One must also remark on their unusual length. A 900-page kids book? Unheard of. And equally rare is a sequel that doesn’t have an ‘our-story-so-far’ component. Rowling rightly acknowledges the depth of her fans’ understanding of all the previous books by jumping right into the thick of the story. It is very difficult to read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without having read Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. And if you are starting with Book Seven, forget it!”Dark Art”My experience has taught me that kids will rarely choose to read a book that isn’t entertaining and will avoid an instructive book as if it had spattergroit,” Oakes continued. “This isn’t to say that they avoid books with ideas. I harbor the belief that they prefer them. The Potter books are entertaining, but darkly so. They deal with real evil – Voldemort is crueler than the cruelest classmate. Harry has to wrestle with whatever part he may have played in his own parents’ death. Thoughtless actions in these books have far-reaching and horrific consequences.”This is also more psychologically nuanced fantasy world than many contemporary books offer, with every character suffering from his own particular character flaw. Yet a truly noble and ethical solution to every problem is always apparent. I believe that our kids long for that sort of clearly delineated ethical world.They are discovering that the adults around them, much like Dumbledore, are not perfect. They want their friends, just like Ron, always to return to them. And they want Harry to make the right choices (perhaps because if he does, then they will). The books instruct, then, in the way the best books do: by allowing the characters to fail. Whether or not the Potter books are helping to define anyone’s moral universe, I can’t tell. But contrary to the opinions of some commentators, they surely aren’t destroying anyone’s moral universe…”She ventured a critique: “I know the books are flawed, and most of the books – certainly Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, could have used a seriously talented editor. Or just an editor.” Still, she said, “They are remarkable. It’s not popular to admit it, but when I read the first book I had to get up at three a.m. to finish it. As an unreconstructed bibliophile, of course I love these books… I am a fan.”Fresh out of veritaserum, I tested the truth of this last assertion by asking Oakes some targeted questions. Her favorite character? “As a woman and an educator, I have to love Professor McGonagall.” Favorite villain(s)? “The dementors. I’ve certainly run across my share of soul-suckers and they scare me to death.” Favorite setting? “I love Hogwarts and wish that I worked there. It has an amazing library and I would love to recommend books to Hermione. And have her recommend a few to me! Not to mention the fact that I’d get to hide from and/or fight trolls, death-eaters, and so on.”Ordinary Wizarding Levels (O.W.L.s)”Most assuredly there is a social aspect to the Harry Potter phenomenon,” Oakes said. “Kids sit around for HOURS discussing all the ins and outs of the books. They join online discussion groups, download podcasts, and know every website devoted to Harry. They create group Halloween costumes. In fact, fans were so enthralled by the books that they rushed into the library (en masse) the second, the very second, the cover art for Book Seven had been revealed. We had to display it at the circulation desk. (I mean, our credibility would have taken a serious nose dive if we hadn’t.) Then, they congregated around the printout of the cover and discussed THAT for hours.”I asked her if kids outgrow Harry. “Some students lose interest (or say they do), but a remarkable number do not. I overheard many conversations in the high school hallway prior to Book Seven that centered around horcruxes, Harry, and death. Our high-school librarians have all the Potter books on the shelves. The fifth grade to whom we recommended the first book graduated last year. So most of these kids grew up reading Harry Potter. I’ve watched high-school students sneak back into the middle school library to keep up on their favorite series books and their favorite authors. And I say, good for them!” No Argus Filch, my mother-in-law.”As for the hoopla,” she said, “the books have been very good for children and for young-adult publishing… Their sheer popularity forced The New York Times to create a children’s literature bestseller list. (Ha!) These days our kids are reading just as much as – if not more than – they did before.”As we’d discussed, “J.K. Rowling came at a crucial moment… However, I do wish the publishers would realize there isn’t going to be another Harry Potter and ease up on all the fantasy that’s coming down the pike. I worry that really good young-adult novels are getting overlooked. The hoopla has also turned off many new young readers. Whereas the initial impetus to read the books came from kids, there’s now a huge media machine cramming those same books down our collective throat.”Flourish and BlottsI asked Oakes if she could elaborate on “the good stuff” by furnishing Millions readers with some recommendations for post-Hogwarts reading. “Middle schoolers love serial storytelling,” she said. “That is part of the success of the Harry Potter books. I can think of many recent series that have met with remarkable success: the Alex Rider series, the Warriors series, the Princess Diary series, the Eragon series, the Spiderwick Chronicles – to name a few off the top of my head. Students will request the next book in the series sometimes months in advance. Because of Amazon.com, they know approximately when the book will be published. We librarians are forced, more than ever, to stay on top of things. However, I can think of no other book or series that would compel students and parents to attend a midnight party in order to obtain the sequel. That is purely a Harry Potter thing. We’ve had kids counting down the days to publication since December.”I would love for kids to love J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, because they are such elegant writers. Certainly there are kids who read Tolkien and Lewis, and often prefer it, but it doesn’t follow that a Potter fan is automatically a Bilbo Baggins fan. Tolkien is much harder to read, for one thing, and the works of C.S. Lewis don’t feel as contemporary as Rowling’s do. The latest, coolest reading trend amongst my students is graphic novels.”When recommending a book to Potter enthusiasts, Oakes always asks, “What part of Harry Potter is your favorite part? The school, the family problems, the sports, horror, the magic…?” Then, she says, “I come up with some titles based on the answer. It’s surprising to me how often students want to read about boarding schools and about all things English… and I can’t resist recommending the great contemporary English author Hilary McKay. Read The Exiles and see if you can stop reading the rest of her work. It’s not fantasy, but it is quintessentially English.”She went on to offer a post-Hogwarts syllabus of fantasy books:Young Adult/Older ReadersUrsula K.Leguin. The Earthsea Cycle. (A quest series with wizards and dragons.)Patricia McKillup. The Riddle-Master of Hed. (A quest series with wizards and mysteries.)Garth Nix. The Abhorsen Trilogy. (A dark fantasy that features necromancy and romance.)Philip Pullman. His Dark Materials. (Parallel worlds that collide in Oxford. As much science-fiction as fantasy.)Middle ReadersLloyd Alexander. The Chronicles of Prydain. (A quest series with an oracular pig; highly recommended byThe Millions.)Eoin Colfer. Artemis Fowl. (Contemporary magic which relies on technology. Spies!)Diana Wynne Jones. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci. (Parallel worlds; magic; families in all their dysfunction and glory.)Jenny Nimmo. Children of the Red King. (Wizards go to a school quite different from Hogwarts!)”Many kids don’t want to be perceived as Potter groupies,” Oakes noted. “It’s interesting, though, how many will reluctantly pick one of the books up, then get sucked right in to the world Rowling has created. It is almost impossible to resist the spell of the Potter books. Having said that, I’ll be very curious to see how they age.”
The reviewer would like to confront, at the start of her first review, the occasionally embarrassing fact that at some point in the recent past she was considering – never mind with what degree of seriousness – a dissertation on eighteenth-century cats and their literary and cultural significance. Having been told by the advisor seemingly most inclined to support such a project (this advisor being an animal fancier herself: her dog, on occasion, had been permitted to attend office hours and sometimes lectures), that “That way madness lies,” this reviewer abandoned her cat dissertation. The advisor’s statement may have been a jest – serious and interesting scholarly work, as the advisor knew, had been done on animals in literature and culture. The suspicion, however, arose in the reviewer’s mind (perhaps accompanied by a phantom waft of cat-box and spinsterhood) that whether you collect literal or literary felines, you are in some sense embarking down the path to the marginal and strange land of cat-lady-hood, and so she retreated by laying the project aside. And yet literary cats – in footnotes, illustrations, casual mentions in books long forgotten – continue to entrance her. They are, as Tristram Shandy would have said, her hobby-horse (or cat).This is not to say that I (formerly known as “the reviewer”) renounce the legitimacy of the eighteenth-century cats dissertation: By no means. Late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England was the birthplace of the fashionable lap-dog and the sentimentalization of animals generally. Who could forget the perpetual throng of spaniels at the feet of Charles II? Pepys complains in his diary of his wife’s dog pissing on the floor and recounts with horrified amazement his first encounter with cock-fighting; Hogarth’s best-known self-portrait includes his dog Trump, and his “First Stage of Cruelty” depicts boys and men doing hideous things to dogs and cats. The “Second Stage of Cruelty” depicts work-animals driven to death and a warning verse beneath:The tender Lamb o’re drove and faint,Amidst expiring Throws;Bleats forth it’s innocent complaintAnd dies beneath the Blows.The final stanza pronounces the perpetrators of these cruelties “inhuman” and so suggests – long before there was anything like an animal rights movement – that there is a moral aspect to our relations with animals, integral to our humanity. Robinson Crusoe, once settled in isolation on his island refers to his dog, cat, goat and parrot as his “family.” A recent show at the Huntington Library, entitled “Sensation and Sensibility,” displayed several rustic scenes of cottage life by eighteenth-century artists, chiefly Gainsborough, in which animals seemed to be family members. One particularly sentimental inclusion depicted the sale of a poor cottage family’s lamb: the buyer leads the lamb away as the family’s many children cry or press their faces into their mother’s skirts. Francis Coventry’s 1751 book entitled, The History of Pompey the Little: Or, The Life and Adventures of a Lap-Dog, gave voice to a living fashion accessory that is still with us. Eighteenth-century animals were memorialized in images, allowed to speak in memoirs, integral members of families, and extensions of human identity that still function today (as testified by the tiny dogs of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, as well as Queen Elizabeth II’s troop of corgis).And this is just the beginning: The prominent historian Robert Darnton’s book The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History describes a massacre of cats in Paris in the late 1730s by several disgruntled apprentices as a symbolic revenge on their bourgeois master and mistress, who coddled and pampered their feline pets while treating their human apprentices “like animals.” So cats become a means of expressing class tensions as well. And Darnton’s essay goes on to offer a survey of the symbolic and ritual values assigned to cats in pre-modern and quasi-modern Europe, particularly France. Cats were associated (as they still are – if only in the linguistic sediment of the slang word ‘pussy’) with female sexuality, for example. From the 15th century the stroking of cats was supposed to increase a man’s success with women, as manifested in such proverbs as “He who takes good care of cats will have a pretty wife.” Darnton also details associations between cats and the occult: Caterwauling was considered an indicator of the casting of spells, or, if under a specific man’s window, a sign of his wife’s infidelity, his own cuckolding; and a cat on the bed of a dying person might be Satan waiting to carry his soul to hell. Stranger still are the magical folk-remedies and beliefs Darton inventories: a cat buried alive in field could clear it of weeds; blood from a cat’s ear mixed with red wine could cure pneumonia; the brain of a freshly killed cat, if still hot, could make one invisible.My favorite eighteenth-century cat (the cat who started it all), however, is not of the Satanic variety. Christopher Smart’s Jeoffry, whom Smart immortalized in his strange and difficult poem (written sometime in the late 1750s or early 1760’s) “Jubilate Agno” or “Rejoice The Lamb,” was a divine cat. “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” Smart begins, “For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.” Smart’s description of Jeoffry’s particular habits has a striking intimacy of detail, and these mundane details of feline existence become emanations of divine order and a recognition of Jeoffry as an instrument of divinity:For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbor.For If he meets another cat her will kiss her in kindness.For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallyingFor he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.For he is an instrument for the children to learn gentleness upon.The profound strangeness of this poem in the context of the rigorously metered rhyming couplets that form the bulk of eighteenth-century poetry is, I hope, hardly less than its trans-historical strangeness. Even now, in the days of feline and canine clothes, braces, birthday parties, and marriages, Smart’s contemplation of the mundanely named Jeoffry as a being embodying, manifesting, and teaching the ways of God to men is still, I think, equally strange, arresting, and moving.Much of the rest of “Jubilate Agno” is an odd mystical taxonomy that pairs people, (both biblical and historical persons as well as Smart’s contemporaries) with specific animals and plants: “Let Mephibosheth with the Cricket praise the God of chearfulness, hospitality, and gratitude…Let Micah rejoice with the spotted Spider, who counterfeits death to effect his purposes…Let Anna rejoice with the Porpus, who is a joyus fish and of good omen…Let Ross, house of Ross rejoice with the Great Flabber Dabber Flat Clapping Fish with hands…Let Balsam, house of Balsam rejoice with Chenomycon an herb the sight of which terrifies a goose.” The explanations for these pairings are cryptic, brief, and/or nonexistent (you can understand why the poem was initially thought to be the product of a stint in Bedlam), but the purpose seems to be to assign to specific people a beast or a mineral or botanical variety expressive of some essential quality of their beings – that one man’s soul is expressive of blue daisie, juniper, jasper or onyx, while another’s is of the hawk, Pegasus, porcupine, or crocodile.Of course Smart was not the first or the last to imagine a correspondence between the variety of human natures and the rest of the natural world. The ancient Roman Aelian’s (AD 170-230) multivolume On The Characteristics of Animals is not so explicit as Smart’s poem in drawing correspondences between the souls of humans and the natures of animals, but the language of Aelian’s descriptions blurs the distinction between human and animal, making his animal subjects seem human in their motivations and behaviors:The Owl is a wily creature and resembles a witch. And when captured, it begins by capturing its hunters. And so they carry it about like a pet or (I declare) like a charm on their shoulders. By night it keeps watch for them and with its call that sounds like some incantation it diffuses a subtle, soothing enchantment, thereby attracting birds to settle near it. And even in the daytime it dangles before the birds another kind of lure to make fools of them, putting on a different expression at different times; and all the birds are spell-bound and remain stupefied and seized with terror, and a mighty terror too, at these transformations. (47)A more literal fictional imagining of this notion is found in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), which presents human souls externalized and personified as animal “daemons.” These creature-spirits can speak, and in their species are expressive of the particular nature of the human to whom they are attached. There are other examples of this species fusion and confusion – the Chinese animal calendar, Native American religions, the metamorphoses of Greek and Roman mythology, the animaguses of Harry Potter, for starters: But what does it all mean – if anything – and how does it relate to cat dissertations?A facile assessment of the desire to find correspondences between human souls and animal species might end in something similar to an exclamation I heard in a lecture on “The Grand Armada” chapter of Moby-Dick. This chapter describes the birthing and nursing of baby sperm whales in a calm, sheltered underwater room created by the rest of the pod with their bodies. Ishmael tenderly compares the expressions and motions of the whale calves to newborn human babies and such descriptions inspired a professor I once knew to exclaim excitedly, “Whales are people too!” Everyone laughed. But he did mean it, in a way. Suddenly, there is a break from the contemplation of whale as prey, enemy, alien “other,” and instead, a contemplation of these creatures in acts and attitudes of such mutual care and tenderness that the only way they can be described, even by their hunter, is “as human infants.” The willingness to confuse human and animal categories might imply a willingness to take a more expansive view of “humanity” or “personhood” that might include non-humans. This view would contend that animals are capable of seemingly human responses (tenderness, affection, care, curiosity, urgency, terror, etc.) that force us, as they forced Ishmael, to see ourselves in them and so – to some extend and however briefly – to respond to them and their behaviors as human – to treat them or imagine them as one of our own.But if animals, to whatever degree, gain humanity, humans gain something of the creaturely as well. The notion of particular animal species as expressive of human souls suggests that we are not all the same kind of human, and that no single theory of human nature quite gets the whole story: Fox-souled people are like this, cat-souled people, like that, giraffe- and marmot-souled people, other things entirely. Smart, Pullman, and Aelian recognize the totemic power of animals in slightly different ways, but all see in them sacred and mystical types that can help to illuminate aspects of the human – our varieties, vagaries, and eccentricities. In the case of Jeoffry, animals also offer models of holiness: Jeoffry’s sacred “compleat”-ness as Smart describes it – his exuberant, joyful catness – seems a portrait of being-wholeness one could never attempt with a human as the object of contemplation. Jeoffry is a cat in a way that I, or you, or anyone else will never be human – and perhaps this is because we are capable of such variety that we need the whole rest of the animal, vegetable, and mineral world to help us signify the essences of our beings. And we are also too self-conscious, self-fashioning, proud and fond of progress to simply to be human and do human-ish things they way Jeoffry does cat-ish things (bathing himself, hunting mice, stretching, napping in the sun) – What would those things be, anyway – what activities are particularly expressive of the human (Playing video games? Farming? Starting wars? Knitting? Writing blog articles? Bobsledding? Vacuuming?)?In the end, perhaps I should have stayed among the cats (and the canines, and the monkeys, and the pigs… there are so many more! Gulliver’s Houhynyms, E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, Pierre-Jules Hetzel’s Scenes from the Public and Private Life of Animals…). Perhaps it is a better place – or perhaps, more simply, I am philosophically a misanthrope, of the school of John Wilmot, Lord Rochester (1647-1680). The best-known portrait of Rochester (Johnny Depp’s The Libertine excepted) depicts him standing beside a monkey perched on a marble pedestal; the monkey is tearing pages from a book while Rochester crown him with a laurel wreath. I leave you in the earl’s dangerously capable hands, with the first stanza of his “Satire Against Reason and Mankind”:Were I – who to my cost already amOne of those strange, prodigious creatures, man – A spirit free to choose for my own shareWhat sort of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,Or anything but that vain animal,Who is so proud of being rational.
John writes in with this question:Anyway, I have a question about a book: As an Umberto Eco fan, and having read Foucault’s Pendulum and loved it, I am skittish about becoming physically ill if I read The Da Vinci Code. Should I be worried? Did Eco already write the book and Brown stupidize it? That’s the impression I get.I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, but I suspect that you would find it entertaining but not, shall we say, satisfying. Read it, or don’t. But how about some other books that you might enjoy which are more substantial and pleasurably complex (and much of this is just speculation because I haven’t read all of these books): First, I’d like to recommend two childrens’ series that – though they are written for kids – are loaded with allegory that make them rich reading, or rereading, for adults. They are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and CS Lewis’ classic the The Chronicles of Narnia. I know, Narnia, it sounds ridiculous, but I reread the series as an adult and found the books to be full of intricacies to be mined. From the grown-up side of things, I’m told that Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon might fit the bill, as will his more recent, and enormous, Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, & The System of the World). If you don’t mind a bit of a tropical lilt to your complex, fantastical fiction, I highly recommend trying out some magical realism. The The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is a terrific, meandering tale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is similarly enjoyable, and you can’t go wrong with the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. I may be getting a bit far afield here… anyone else want to chime in?
This week is turning out to be a mini-family reunion for me. My parents and two of my brothers are in town as are some aunts and uncles and cousins. Yesterday evening at a family barbecue near Venice Beach I fell into a conversation with my aunt and uncle about the reading habits of my young cousin, Tim, who is 10. He’s a very precocious reader and has finished off nearly all of the highly recommended children’s series that are out there right now: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and Brian Jacques’ Redwall Series (I recommended Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy since he hasn’t gotten to that yet.) The thing is, there’s a limited amount of high quality young adult fiction out there, so what do you do if your kid has read it all? Since I started working at the bookstore I have occasionally been posed this question by parents. It’s actually a crucial moment in the life of a young a reader, the point where they could very easily lose some interest reading because they have read all the kids’ books and aren’t allowed to read adult books. What folks sometimes forget is that there are quite a few books that, though they are shelved in the adult fiction section, are perfect books to help segue strong, young readers into the wider world that lies beyond the young adult section. Some people call these books classics, but they are perfect for challenging kids and keeping them interested in reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, to name just a few. I would also recommend that these children read the books in their original forms, not the abridged versions. I remember reading abridged versions of various classics when I was younger, and I think lots of other folks do as well, but looking back it just doesn’t seem necessary. In fact, as an eleven or twelve year old, I learned a lot of complex things about the world around me from the books I read, and these important details, the harsh language in Huck Finn, for example, seem to be just the things that are excised in order to create the kid friendly versions. We challenge kids in many aspects of their lives, why not challenge them to explore the big questions that arise from reading the classics. I hope that the children’s book industry continues to move in this direction, and a lot of the intelligent and challenging kids’ books that are out there indicate that it will. On the other hand, my friend Edan pointed out to me the other day the upcoming release of a “Student Edition” of Yann Martel’s international bestseller Life of Pi, from which, one can assume, the editors have removed anything that might distress, and therefore challenge, a young reader. Here’s hoping that this doesn’t kick off a new trend.