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Most Anticipated: The Great 2018 Book Preview

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Settle in, folks, because this is one the longest first-half previews we've run in a long while. Putting this together is a labor of love, and while a huge crop of great spring books increases the labor, it also means there is more here for readers to love. We'd never claim to be comprehensive—we know there are far more excellent books on the horizon than one list can hold, which is why we've started doing monthly previews in addition to the semi-annual lists (and look out for the January Poetry Preview, which drops tomorrow). But we feel confident we've put together a fantastic selection of (almost 100!) works of fiction, memoir, and essay to enliven your January through June 2018. What's in here? New fiction by giants like Michael Ondaatje, Helen DeWitt, Lynne Tillman, and John Edgar Wideman. Essays from Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, and Leslie Jamison. Exciting debuts from Nafkote Tamirat, Tommy Orange, and Lillian Li. Thrilling translated work from Leïla Slimani and Clarice Lispector. A new Rachel Kushner. A new Rachel Cusk. The last Denis Johnson. The last William Trevor. The long-awaited Vikram Seth. As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we're incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do. So don your specs, clear off your TBR surfaces, and prepare for a year that, if nothing else, will be full of good books. JANUARY The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): In her Goncourt Prize-winning novel, Slimani gets the bad news out of the way early—on the first page to be exact: “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a gray bag, which they zipped up.” Translated from the French by Sam Taylor as The Perfect Nanny—the original title was Chanson Douce, or Lullaby—this taut story about an upper-class couple and the woman they hire to watch their child tells of good help gone bad.  (Matt) Halsey Street by Naima Coster: Coster’s debut novel is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a rapidly gentrifying corner of Brooklyn. When Penelope Grand leaves a failed art career in Pittsburgh and comes home to Brooklyn to look after her father, she finds her old neighborhood changed beyond recognition. The narrative shifts between Penelope and her mother, Mirella, who abandoned the family to move to the Dominican Republic and longs for reconciliation. A meditation on family, love, gentrification, and home. (Emily) Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro: Five years after her story collection, I Want to Show You More, drew raves from The New Yorker’s James Wood and Dwight Garner at The New York Times, Quatro delivers her debut novel, which follows a married woman’s struggle to reconcile a passionate affair with her fierce attachment to her husband and two children. “It’s among the most beautiful books I’ve ever read about longing—for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life,” says Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You. (Michael) The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson: Johnson’s writing has always had an antiphonal quality to it—the call and response of a man and his conscience, perhaps. In these stories, a dependably motley crew of Johnson protagonists find themselves forced to take stock as mortality comes calling.  The writing has a more plangent tone than Angels and Jesus’ Son, yet is every bit as edgy. Never afraid to look into the abyss, and never cute about it, Johnson will be missed. Gratefully, sentences like the following, his sentences, will never go away: “How often will you witness a woman kissing an amputation?” R.I.P. (Il’ja) A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson): Kadare structures the novel like a psychological detective yarn, but one with some serious existential heft. The story is set physically in Communist Albania in the darkest hours of totalitarian rule, but the action takes place entirely in the head and life of a typically awful Kadare protagonist—Rudian Stefa, a writer. When a young woman from a remote province ends up dead with a provocatively signed copy of Stefa’s latest book in her possession, it’s time for State Security to get involved.  A strong study of the ease and banality of human duplicity. (Il’ja) Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated by Jonathan Wright): The long-awaited English translation of the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 gives American readers the opportunity to read Saadawi’s haunting, bleak, and darkly comic take on Iraqi life in 2008. Or, as Saadawi himself put it in interview for Arab Lit, he set out to write “the fictional representation of the process of everyone killing everyone.” (Check out Saadawi's Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.) This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: Wünderkind Jerkins has a background in 19th-century Russian lit and postwar Japanese lit, speaks six languages, works/has worked as editor and assistant literary agent; she writes across many genres—reportage, personal essays, fiction, profiles, interviews, literary criticism, and sports and pop culture pieces; and now we’ll be seeing her first book, an essay collection.  From the publisher: “This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.” The collected essays will cover topics ranging from “Rachel Dolezal; the stigma of therapy; her complex relationship with her own physical body; the pain of dating when men say they don’t ‘see color’; being a black visitor in Russia; the specter of ‘the fast-tailed girl’ and the paradox of black female sexuality; or disabled black women in the context of the ‘Black Girl Magic’ movement.”  (Sonya) Mouths Don’t Speak by Katia D. Ulysse: In Drifting, Ulysse’s 2014 story collection, Haitian immigrants struggle through New York City after the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of their county. In her debut novel, Ulysse revisits that disaster with a clearer and sharper focus. Jacqueline Florestant is mourning her parents, presumed dead after the earthquake, while her ex-Marine husband cares for their young daughter. But the expected losses aren’t the most serious, and a trip to freshly-wounded Haiti exposes the way tragedy follows class lines as well as family ones. (Kaulie)  The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith: Smith’s The Sky Is Yours, is a blockbuster of major label debuts. The dystopic inventiveness of this genre hybrid sci-fi thriller/coming of age tale/adventure novel has garnered comparisons to Gary Shteyngart, David Mitchell and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And did I mention? It has dragons, too, circling the crumbling Empire Island, and with them a fire problem (of course), and features a reality TV star from a show called Late Capitalism's Royalty. Victor LaValle calls The Sky Is Yours "a raucous, inventive gem of a debut." Don't just take our word for it, listen to an audio excerpt.  (Anne) Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee: Spanning cultures and continents, Lee’s assured debut novel tells the story of two sisters who are bound together and driven apart by the inescapable bonds of family. Miranda is the sensible one, thrust into the role of protector of Lucia, seven years younger, head-strong, and headed for trouble. Their mother emigrated from China to the U.S. after the death of their father, and as the novel unfurls in clear, accessible prose, we follow the sisters on journeys that cover thousands of miles and take us into the deepest recesses of the human heart. Despite its sunny title, this novel never flinches from big and dark issues, including interracial love, mental illness and its treatment, and the dislocations of immigrant life. (Bill) The Infinite Future by Tim Wirkus: I read this brilliant puzzle-of-a-book last March and I still think about it regularly! The Infinite Future follows a struggling writer, a librarian, and a Mormon historian excommunicated from the church on their search for a reclusive Brazilian science fiction writer. In a starred review, Book Page compares Wirkus to Jonathan Lethem and Ron Currie Jr., and says the book “announces Wirkus as one of the most exciting novelists of his generation.” I agree.  (Edan)  The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette: With Winnette’s fourth novel he proves he’s adept at re-appropriating genre conventions in intriguing ways. His previous book, Haint’s Stay, is a Western tale jimmyrigged for its own purposes and is at turns both surreal and humorous. Winnette's latest, The Job of the Wasp, takes on the Gothic ghost novel and is set in the potentially creepiest of places—an isolated boarding school for orphaned boys, in the vein of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Old Child, or even Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. “Witty and grisly” according to Kelly Link, strange and creepy, Job of the Wasp reveals Winnette's "natural talent" says Patrick deWitt. (Anne)  Brass by Xhenet Aliu:  In what Publishers Weekly calls a "striking first novel," a daughter searches for answers about the relationship between her parents, a diner waitress from Waterbury, Conn. and a line cook who emigrated from Albania. Aliu writes a story of love, family, and the search for an origin story, set against the decaying backdrop of a post-industrial town. In a starred review, Kirkus writes "Aliu’s riveting, sensitive work shines with warmth, clarity, and a generosity of spirit." (Lydia) The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Four adolescent sibling in 1960s New York City sneak out to see a psychic, who tells each of them the exact date they will die. They take this information with a grain of salt, and keep it from each other, but Benjamin’s novel follows them through the succeeding decades, as their lives alternately intertwine and drift apart, examining how the possible knowledge of their impending death affects how they live. I’m going to break my no-novels-about-New-Yorkers rule for this one. (Janet) King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich: This historical thriller features an ax-wielding psychopath wreaking havoc in the city of Sazeracs. It’s been eight years since Rich moved to New Orleans, and in that time, he’s been a keen observer, filing pieces on the city’s storied history and changing identity for various publications, not least of all The New York Review of Books. He’s certainly paid his dues, which is vitally important since the Big Easy is an historically difficult city for outsiders to nail without resorting to distracting tokenism (a pelican ate my beignet in the Ninth Ward). Fortunately, Rich is better than that. (Nick M.) The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers: Eggers returns to his person-centered reportage with an account of a Yemeni-American man named Mokhtar Alkhanshali's efforts to revive the Yemeni tradition of coffee production just when war is brewing. A starred Kirkus review calls Eggers's latest "a most improbable and uplifting success story." (Lydia)   In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist (translated by Henning Koch): A hit novel by a Swedish poet brought to English-reading audiences by Melville House. This autobiographical novel tells the story of a poet whose girlfriend leaves the world just as their daughter is coming into it--succumbing suddenly to undiagnosed leukemia at 33 weeks. A work of autofiction about grief and survival that Publisher's Weekly calls a "beautiful, raw meditation on earth-shattering personal loss." (Lydia) Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett: The award-winning British historian (The Pike: Gabriele D'Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War) makes her fiction debut. Narrated by multiple characters, the historical novel spans three centuries and explores the very timely theme of immigration. Walls are erected and cause unforeseen consequences for both the present and futurey. In its starred review, Kirkus said the novel was "stunning for both its historical sweep and its elegant prose." (Carolyn) Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby: A novel about art, loneliness, sex, and restless city life set against the backdrop of Hurricane Sandy-era New York, Neon in Daylight follows a young, adrift English catsitter as she explores the galleries of New York and develops an infatuation with a successful writer and his daughter, a barista and sex-worker. The great Ann Patchett called Hoby "a writer of extreme intelligence, insight, style and beauty." (Lydia) This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff: Medoff works a double shift: when she isn’t writing novels, she’s working as a management consultant, which means, as her official bio explains, “that she uses phrases like ‘driving behavior’ and ‘increasing ROI’ without irony.” In her fourth novel, she turns her attention to a milieu she knows very well, the strange and singular world of corporate America: five colleagues in a corporate HR department struggle to find their footing amidst the upheaval and uncertainty of the 2008-2009 economic collapse. (Emily) The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s first novel is a fascinating and beautifully rendered meditation on ghosts, technology, marriage, and the afterlife. In a near-future world where holograms are beginning to proliferate in every aspect of daily life, a man dies—for a few minutes, from a heart attack, before he’s revived—returns with no memory of his time away, and becomes obsessed with mortality and the afterlife. In a world increasingly populated by holograms, what does it mean to “see a ghost?” What if there’s no afterlife? On the other hand, what if there is an afterlife, and what if the afterlife has an afterlife? (Emily) Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates: The follow-up novel by the author of Black Chalk, an NPR Best of the Year selection.  Yates's latest "Rashomon-style" literary thriller follows a group of friends up the Hudson, where they are involved in a terrible crime. "I Know What You Did Last Summer"-style, they reconvene years later, with dire consequences. The novel receives the coveted Tana French endorsement: she calls it "darkly, intricately layered, full of pitfalls and switchbacks, smart and funny and moving and merciless." (Lydia) FEBRUARY The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: In her latest novel, Nunez (a Year in Reading alum) ruminates on loss, art, and the unlikely—but necessary—bonds between man and dog. After the suicide of her best friend and mentor, an unnamed, middle-aged writing professor is left Apollo, his beloved, aging Great Dane. Publishers Weekly says the “elegant novel” reflects “the way that, especially in grief, the past is often more vibrant than the present.” (Carolyn) Feel Free by Zadie Smith: In her forthcoming essay collection, Smith provides a critical look at contemporary topics, including art, film, politics, and pop-culture. Feel Free includes many essays previously published in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and it is divided into five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free. Andrew Solomon described the collection as “a tonic that will help the reader reengage with life.” (Zoë) What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson: One of my favorite literary discoveries of 2017 was that there are two camps of Robinson fans. Are you more Housekeeping or Gilead? To be clear, all of us Housekeeping people claim to have loved ​her ​work before the Pulitzer committee agreed. But this new book is a collection of essays​ where Robinson explores the modern political climate and the mysteries of faith, including​,​ "theological, political, and contemporary themes​."​ ​Given that ​the essays come​​ from Robinson's incisive mind​, I think there will be more than enough to keep both camps happy.​ (Claire)​ An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: In our greatest tragedies, there is the feeling of no escape—and when the storytelling is just right, we feel consumed by the heartbreak. In Jones’s powerful new novel, Celestial and Roy are a married couple with optimism for their future. Early in the book, Jones offers a revelation about Roy’s family, but that secret is nothing compared to what happens next: Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and sentenced to over a decade in prison. An American Marriage arrives in the pained, authentic voices of Celestial, Roy, and Andre—Celestial’s longtime friend who moves into the space left by Roy’s absence. Life, and love, must go on. When the couple writes “I am innocent” to each other in consecutive letters, we weep for their world—but Jones makes sure that we can’t look away. (Nick R.)  The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer: Nothing is what it seems in VanderMeer’s fiction: bears fly, lab-generated protoplasm shapeshifts, and magic undoes science. In this expansion of his acclaimed novel Borne, which largely focused on terrestrial creatures scavenging a post-collapse wasteland, VanderMeer turns his attention upward. Up in the sky, things look a bit different. (Check out his prodigious Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.) House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: First made famous in the documentary Paris Is Burning, New York City’s House of Xtravaganza is now getting a literary treatment in Cassara’s debut novel—one that’s already drawing comparisons to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The story follows teenage Angel, a young drag queen just coming into her own, as she falls in love, founds her own house and becomes the center of a vibrant—and troubled—community. Critics call it “fierce, tender, and heartbreaking.” (Kaulie) Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi: A surreal, metaphysical debut novel dealing with myth, mental health, and fractured selves centering around Ada, a woman from southern Nigeria "born with one foot on the other side." She attends college in the U.S., where several internal voices emerge to pull her this way and that. Library Journal calls this "a gorgeous, unsettling look into the human psyche." (Lydia)   Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: The latest novel from the author of The Listeners follows five women of different station in a small town in Oregon in a U.S. where abortion and IVF have been banned and embryos have been endowed with all the rights of people. A glimpse at the world some of our current lawmakers would like to usher in, one that Maggie Nelson calls "mordant, political, poetic, alarming, and inspiring--not to mention a way forward for fiction now." (Lydia) Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot: In her debut memoir, Mailhot—raised on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in southwestern Canada, presently a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue—grapples with a dual diagnosis of PTSD and Bipolar II disorder, and with the complicated legacy of a dysfunctional family. Sherman Alexie has hailed this book as “an epic take—an Iliad for the indigenous.” (Emily)   Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: 2017 Whiting Award winner Halliday has written a novel interweaving the lives of a young American editor and a Kurdistan-bound Iraqi-American man stuck in an immigration holding room in Heathrow airport. Louise Erdrich calls this "a novel of deceptive lightness and a sort of melancholy joy." (Lydia)   Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin: long live the short story, as long as writers like Lazarin are here to keep the form fresh. The collection begins with “Appetite,” narrated by nearly 16-year-old Claudia, whose mother died of lung cancer. She might seem all grown up, but “I am still afraid of pain—for myself, for all of us.” Lazarin brings us back to a time when story collections were adventures in radical empathy: discrete panels of pained lives, of which we are offered chiseled glimpses. Even in swift tales like “Window Guards,” Lazarin has a finely-tuned sense of pacing and presence: “The first time Owen shows me the photograph of the ghost dog, I don’t believe it.” Short stories are like sideways glances or overheard whispers that become more, and Lazarin makes us believe there’s worth in stories that we can steal moments to experience. (Nick R.)  The Château by Paul Goldberg: In Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, the irrepressible members of a Yiddish acting troupe stage manages a plot to assassinate Joseph Stalin in hopes of averting a deadly Jewish pogrom. In his second novel, the stakes are somewhat lower: a heated election for control of a Florida condo board. Kirkus writes that Goldberg’s latest “confirms his status as one of Jewish fiction's liveliest new voices, walking in the shoes of such deadpan provocateurs as Mordecai Richler and Stanley Elkin.” (Matt) The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: A memoir by a Whiting Award-winner who served as a U.S. border patrol agent. Descended from Mexican immigrants, Cantú spends four years in the border patrol before leaving for civilian life. His book documents his work at the border, and his subsequent quest to discover what happened to a vanished immigrant friend. (Lydia)   Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: If the driving force of Van der Vliet Oloomi's first novel, Fra Keeler,  was "pushing narrative to its limits" through unbuilding and decomposition, her second novel, Call Me Zebra, promises to do the same through a madcap and darkly humorous journey of retracing the past to build anew. Bibi Abbas Abbas Hossein is last in a line of autodidacts, anarchists, and atheists, whose family left Iran by way of Spain when she was a child. The book follows Bibi in present day as she returns to Barcelona from the U.S., renames herself Zebra and falls in love. Van der Vliet Oloomi pays homage to a quixotic mix of influences—including Miguel de Cervantes, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kathy Acker—in Call Me Zebra, which Kirkus calls "a brilliant, demented, and bizarro book that demands and rewards all the attention a reader might dare to give it." (Anne) Some Hell by Patrick Nathan: A man commits suicide, leaving his wife, daughter, and two sons reckoning with their loss. Focused on the twinned narratives of Colin, a middle schooler coming to terms with his sexuality, as well as Diane, his mother who’s trying to mend her fractured family, Nathan’s debut novel explores the various ways we cope with maturity, parenting, and heartbreak. (Read Nathan's Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.) The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: If 2017 was any indication, events in 2018 will try the soul. Some readers like to find escape from uncertain times with dour dystopian prognostications or strained family stories (and there are plenty). But what about something fun? Something with sex (and maybe, eventually, love). Something Roxane Gay called a "charming, warm, sexy gem of a novel....One of the best books I've read in a while." Something so fun and sexy it earned its author a two-book deal (look out for the next book, The Proposal, this fall). Wouldn't it feel good to feel good again? (Lydia) MARCH The Census by Jesse Ball: Novelist Ball's nimble writing embodies the lightness and quickness that Calvino prized (quite literally, too: he pens his novels in a mad dash of days to weeks). And he is prolific, too. Since his previous novel, How to Start a Fire and Why, he has has written about the practice of lucid dreaming and his unique form of pedagogy, as well as a delightfully morbid compendium of Henry King’s deaths, with Brian Evenson. Ball's seventh novel, The Census, tells the story of a dying doctor and his concern regarding who will care for his son with Down Syndrome, as they set off together on a cross-country journey. (Anne) Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman: News of a new Tillman novel is worthy of raising a glass. Men and Apparitions is the follow-up novel to Tillman's brilliant, ambitious American Genius: A Comedy. Men and Apparitions looks closely at our obsession with the image through the perspective of cultural anthropologist Ezekiel "Zeke" Hooper Stark. Norman Rush says, "this book is compelling and bracing and you read many sentences twice to get all the juice there is in them.”  Sarah Manguso has said she is "grateful" for Tillman's "authentically weird and often indescribable books." I second that. (Anne) Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith: Police officer Eamon Michael Royce is killed in the line of duty. His pregnant wife, Evi, narrates Eamon’s passing with elegiac words: “I think of him making the drive, the gentle peachy July morning light illuminating his last moments, his last heartbeat, his last breath.” Months later and wracked with grief, Evi falls for her brother-in-law Dalton: “Backyard-wandering, full-moon pregnant in my turquoise maternity dress and tobacco-colored cowboy boots. I’d lose my way. Dalton would find me. He was always finding me.” The sentences in Cross-Smith’s moving debut are lifted by a sense of awe and mystery—a style attuned to the graces of this world. Whiskey & Ribbons turns backward and forward in time: we hear Eamon’s anxieties about fatherhood, and Dalton’s continuous search for meaning in his life. “I am always hot, like I’m on fire,” Evi dreams later in the novel, still reliving her husband’s death, “burning and gasping for air.” In Cross-Smith’s novel, the past is never forgotten. (Nick R.) The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani): In a New Yorker essay on Tawada, author of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Riva Galchen wrote that “often in [her] work, one has the feeling of having wandered into a mythology that is not one’s own.” Tawada’s latest disorienting mythology is set in a Japan ravaged by a catastrophe. If children are the future, what does it presage that, post-disaster, they are emerging from the womb as frail, aged creatures blessed with an uncanny wisdom? (Read her Year in Reading here.) (Matt) The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst: Hollinghurst’s sixth novel has already received glowing reviews in the U.K. As the title suggests, the plot hinges on a love affair, and follows two generations of the Sparsholt family, opening in 1940 at Oxford, just before WWII. The Guardian called it “an unashamedly readable novel...indeed it feels occasionally like Hollinghurst is trying to house all the successful elements of his previous books under the roof of one novel.” To those of us who adore his books, this sounds heavenly.  (Hannah) The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector (translated by Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser): Since Katrina Dodson published a translation of Lispector’s complete stories in 2015, the Brazilian master's popularity has enjoyed a resurgence. Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser’s new translation of Lispector’s second novel promises to extend interest in the deceased writer’s work. It tells the story of Virginia, a sculptor who crafts intricate pieces in marked isolation. This translation marks the first time The Chandelier has ever appeared in English (Ismail). The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat: It's very easy to love this novel but difficult to describe it. A disarming narrator begins her account from a community with strange rules and obscure ideology located on an unnamed island. While she and her father uneasily bide their time in this not-quite-utopia, she reflects on her upbringing in Boston, and a friendship--with the self-styled leader of the city's community of Ethiopian immigrants--that begins to feel sinister. As the story unfolds, what initially looked like a growing-up story in a semi-comic key becomes a troubling allegory of self-determination and sacrifice. (Lydia) Let's No One Get Hurt by Jon Pineda: A fifteen-year-old girl named Pearl lives in squalor in a southern swamp with her father and two other men, scavenging for food and getting by any way they can. She meets a rich neighbor boy and starts a relationship, eventually learning that his family holds Pearl's fate in their hands. Publisher's Weekly called it "an evocative novel about the cruelty of children and the costs of poverty in the contemporary South." (Lydia) The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg: Fairy tales get a feminist spin in this short story collection inspired by Ortberg's most popular Toast column, "Children's Stories Made Horrific." This is not your childhood Cinderella, but one with psychological horror and Ortberg's signature snark. Carmen Maria Machado calls it a cross between, "Terry Pratchett’s satirical jocularity and Angela Carter’s sinister, shrewd storytelling, and the result is gorgeous, unsettling, splenic, cruel, and wickedly smart." Can't wait to ruin our favorite fables! (Tess) The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea: Urrea is one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen with my 35-year-old eyes, so it’s incredible that it’s not even the thing he’s best at. He’s the recipient of an American Book Award and a Pulitzer nominee for The Devil’s Highway. His new novel is about the daily life of a multi-generational Mexican-American family in California. Or as he puts it, “an American family—one that happens to speak Spanish and admire the Virgin of Guadalupe.” (Janet) Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala: Nearly 15 years after his critically-acclaimed debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, was published, Iweala is back with a story as deeply troubling. Teenagers Niru and Meredith are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When Niru’s secret is accidentally revealed (he’s queer), there is unimaginable and unspeakable consequences for both teens. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says the “staggering sophomore novel” is “notable both for the raw force of Iweala’s prose and the moving, powerful story.” (Carolyn) American Histories: Stories by John Edgar Wideman: Wideman’s new book is a nearly fantastical stretching and blurring of conventional literary forms—including history, fiction, philosophy, biography, and deeply felt personal vignettes. We get reimagined conversations between the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the doomed white crusader for racial equality John Brown. We get to crawl inside the mind of a man sitting on the Williamsburg Bridge, ready to jump. We get Wideman pondering deaths in his own family. We meet Jean Michel Basquiat and Nat Turner. What we get, in the end, is a book unlike any other, the work of an American master working at peak form late in a long and magnificent career. (Bill) Happiness by Aminatta Forna: A novel about what happens when an expert on the habits of foxes and an expert on the trauma of refugees meet in London, one that Paul Yoon raved about it in his Year in Reading: "It is a novel that carries a tremendous sense of the world, where I looked up upon finishing and sensed a shift in what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. What a gift." In a starred review, Publisher's Weekly says "Forna's latest explores instinct, resilience, and the complexity of human coexistence, reaffirming her reputation for exceptional ability and perspective." (Lydia) The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Edith Grossman): The Nobel Prize winner's latest arrives in translation from the extraordinary Edith Grossman. The Neighborhood is symphonic, a “thriller,” if you can call it that, about a detective whose wife gets roped into a debilitating situation. It is set in Llosa’s 1990s Peru, and you see this place with its paradox of grayness and color, juxtaposed with spots of blood. Two women married to very affluent men are having a lesbian affair, and one of their husbands, Enrique, is being blackmailed. When he fails to meet a photo magazine editor’s demands, he is slandered with photos of an erotic encounter on the front pages of the magazine. These two threads will converge at a point of explosion as is wont with Llosa’s novels. While this may not be his best work, it will keep readers reading all the way. (Chigozie) My Dead Parents by Anya Yurchyshyn: Sometimes truth is more fascinating than fiction. Such is the case with Yurchyshyn's My Dead Parents, which started as an anonymous Tumblr blog where the author posted photos and slivers of her parents' correspondences in an attempt to piece together the mystery of their lives. Yurchyshyn's father was a banker who died in Ukraine in a car "accident" that was possibly a hit when she was 16, and years later, though not many, her mother succumbed to alcoholism. Her parents made an enviously handsome couple, but they lived out Leo Tolstoy’s adage of each family being unhappy in its own way. Yurchyshyn's tale is one of curiosity and discovery; it's also an inquiry into grief and numbness. Her Buzzfeed essay, "How I Met My Dead Parents," provides an apt introduction. (Anne) The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas: Year in Reading alum and author of The Oracle of Stamboul explores the history of Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue (site of the famous Cairo Geniza document trove discovered in the nineteenth century) through the story of its generations of Muslim watchmen as gleaned by their modern-day, Berkeley-dwelling scion. Rabih Alameddine calls it "a beautiful, richly textured novel, ambitious and delicately crafted...a joy." (Lydia) Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen: This is an atmospheric novel of betrayal and ardent allegiance to ideology and political choices. When young Ah Liam decides it’s virtuous to report the resistance of his grandmother to Maoist rule to the authorities, he unravels his family with his own hands. His decision leads to the family having to flee the country and for them to have to make a decision: leave a fraction of the family behind or face greater harm. With its striking title about the sacrifice (the “burying”) of those who are left behind, the novel succeeds in drawing a very striking portrait of this turbulent period of Chinese history. (Chigozie) Memento Park by Mark Sarvas: Many of us who have been with The Millions for some years surely remember Sarvas’s pioneer lit blog, The Elegant Variation—and look forward to his second novel, Memento Park, 10 years after his critically acclaimed Harry, Revised.  Memento Park is about art, history, Jewishness, fathers and sons: Joseph O’Neill writes pithily, “A thrilling, ceaselessly intelligent investigation into the crime known as history.”  So far, Kirkus praises Sarvas for “skillful prose and well-drawn characters.” (Sonya) Wrestling with the Devil by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Famously, Kenyan author Ngugi wrote his Gikuyu novel Devil on the Cross while serving out a prison sentence. (And he did it on toilet paper, no less.) Now, the writer whom Chimamanda Adichie calls “one of the greatest of our time” is releasing a memoir of his prison stay, begun a half-hour before he was finally released. Taking the form of an extended flashback, the memoir begins at the moment of the author’s arrest and ends, a year later, when he left prison with a novel draft. (Thom) Stray City by Chelsey Johnson: Twenty-something artist Andrea ran away from the Midwest to Portland to escape the expectation to be a mother and create a life for herself as a queer artist. Then, confused and hurt by a break-up, she hooked up with a man—and ended up having his child. Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, which comes  after a successful run of short stories like the Ploughshares Solo “Escape and Reverse,” is a humorous and heartfelt exploration of sexual identity and unconventional families. (Ismail) APRIL The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer is ​one of those rare​​ novelist​s​ who is able to capture the zeitgeist. Her follow up to The Interestings, The Female Persuasion centers around Greer Kadetsky, who is a freshman in college when she meets Faith Frank, an inspiring feminist icon who ignites Greer's passions. ​After graduation, Greer lands a job at Frank's foundation and things get real. Wolitzer is a master weaver of story lines and in this novel she brings four ​together as the characters search for purpose in life and love. As the starred review in Publisher's Weekly says, this novel explores, "what it is to both embrace womanhood and suffer because of it." Amen sister. (Claire) The Recovering by Leslie Jamison: The bestselling author of The Empathy Exams brings us The Recovering, which explores addiction and recovery in America, in particular the stories we tell ourselves about addiction. Jamison also examines the relationship many well-known writers and artists had with addiction, including Amy Winehouse, Billie Holiday, Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, and more. The Recovering has received advance praise from Stephen King, Vivian Gornick, and Anne Fadiman. Chris Kraus described the The Recovering  as “a courageous and brilliant example of what nonfiction writing can do.” (Zoë) Circe by Madeline Miller: It took Miller 10 years to write her Orange Prize-winning debut novel, The Song of Achilles. Happily, we only had to wait another five for Circe, even more impressive when one considers that the novel’s story covers millennia. Here Miller again invokes the classical world and a massive cast of gods, nymphs, and mortals, but it’s all seen through the knowing eyes of Circe, the sea-witch who captures Odysseus and turns men into monsters. (Kaulie) America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: As we enter year two of the Donald Trump presidency, Castillo’s first novel challenges readers to look beyond the headlines to grasp the human dimension of America’s lure to immigrants in this big-hearted family saga about three generations of Filipina women who struggle to reconcile the lives they left behind in the Philippines with the ones they are making for themselves in the American suburbs. (Michael)  You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Is Sittenfeld a serious literary novelist who dabbles in chick lit? Is she a writer of frothy beach reads who happens to have an MFA from Iowa? Do such distinctions still have any meaning in today’s fiction market? Readers can decide for themselves when Sittenfeld publishes her first story collection, after five novels that have ranged from her smash debut Prep to American Wife, her critically acclaimed “fictional biography” of former First Lady Laura Bush. (Michael) Varina by Charles Frazier: Returning to the setting of his NBA winning Cold Mountain, Frazier taps into the American Civil War, specifically the life of Varina Howell Davis, the teenage bride of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. In this personal tragedy set in an epic period of American history, Frazier examines how “being on the wrong side of history carries consequences” regardless of one’s personal degree of involvement in the offense.  Something to think about. (Il’ja) Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean: You’ve been reading Dean’s reviews and journalism for some time at The Nation, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, Slate, Salon The New Republic, et alia.  Winner of the 2016 NBCC's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, Dean is debuting her first book with apt timing: Sharp features intertwining depictions of our most important 20th-century female essayists and cultural critics—Susan Sontag, Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Pauline Kael, Rebecca West, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, and others.  A hybrid of biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp has been praised and starred by PW as “stunning and highly accessible introduction to a group of important writers.” (Sonya) How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee: In addition to receiving a starred review—and being named a Top 10 Essay Collection of Spring 2018—by Publishers Weekly, Chee’s essay collection explores a myriad of topics that include identity, the AIDS crisis, Trump, tarot, bookselling, art, activism, and more. Ocean Vuong described the book as “life's wisdom—its hurts, joys and redemptions—salvaged from a great fire.”  (Zoë) Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (translated by Tina Kover): From the waiting room of a French fertility clinic, a young woman revisits the stories of generations of her Iranian ancestors culminating in her parents, who brought her to France when she was 10. This French hit, published in English by Europa Editions, is called "a rich, irreverent, kaleidoscopic novel of real originality and power" by Alexander Maksik. (Lydia) Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires: A debut collection of stories exploring black identity and middle-class life in so-called "post-racial" America, with storylines ranging from gun violence and depression to lighter matters like a passive-aggressive fight between the mothers of school kids. George Saunders called these stories "vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive." (Lydia)   Black Swans by Eve Babitz: Until last year, Babitz was an obscure writer who chronicled hedonistic Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. And then Counterpoint and NYRB Classics began reissuing her memoirs and autofiction, and word of Babitz’s unique voice began to spread. In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote, “On the page, Babitz is pure pleasure—a perpetual-motion machine of no-stakes elation and champagne fizz.” Novelist Catie Disabato asserts that Babitz “isn’t the famous men she fucked or the photographs she posed in. She is the five books of memoir and fiction she left behind for young women, freshly moved to Los Angeles, to find.” Black Swans is the latest in these recent reissues. Published in 1993, these stories/essays cover everything from the AIDS crisis to learning to tango. And, of course, the Chateau Marmont. (Edan) Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley: Crosley, author of the New York Times bestselling essay collection I Was Told There’d Be Cake, returns with a new collection of essays. Ten years removed from her debut, Crosley takes on issues ranging from the pressures of fertility, to swingers, to confronting her own fame. Look Alive promises to be a worthwhile follow-up to Crosley’s 2011 collection How Did You Get This Number?. (Ismail) The Only Story by Julian Barnes: Give this to Barnes: the Man Booker laureate’s not afraid of difficult premises. In his 13th novel, a college student named Paul spends a lazy summer at a tennis club, where he meets a middle-aged woman with two daughters around his age. Soon enough, the two are having an affair, and a flash-forward to a much-older Paul makes clear it upended their lives. (Thom)   Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis): In this torrential inner monologue out from Oakland publisher Transit Books, a woman reflects on music, politics and her affair with a musician, a pianist obsessed with the 1910 self-portrait painted by Arnold Schoenberg, a haunting, blue-tinted work in which the composer’s“expression promised nothing positive for the art of the future, conveyed an anxiety for the future, looked far beyond any definition of the work of art or of the future.” (Matt) How to Be Safe by Tom McCallister: This novel, by the author of The Young Widower’s Handbook, is billed as We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Dept. of Speculation—those are two of my favorite books! Also? Tom McCallister…is a man!  Although high school English teacher Anna Crawford is quickly exonerated after being named a suspect in a campus shooting, she nevertheless suffers intense scrutiny in the wake of the tragedy. As the jacket copy says, “Anna decides to wholeheartedly reject the culpability she’s somehow been assigned, and the rampant sexism that comes with it, both in person and online.” Of the book, novelist Amber Sparks writes, “It’s so wonderful—so furious and so funny and urgent and needed in this mad ugly space we're sharing with each other.” Author Wiley Cash calls McCallister “an exceptionally talented novelist.” (Edan) MAY Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient​ and Divisidero among his other works,​ this new novel ​from Ondaatje ​is set in the decade after World War II. ​When their parents move to Singapore, ​​​14-year-old​ Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, ​are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they ​become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, ​they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when ​​their mother returns months later without their father, but​ ​gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel ​begins to uncover the story through​ a journey of​ facts, recollection, and ​​imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire) The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan) Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia) Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti's previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious" and “narcissistic" quite the unintentional compliment. Heti's new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all.  (Anne) That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.) Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk: Four years since publishing his last novel, Palahniuk returns in the era of fake news, obvious government corruption, and widespread despair. (It’s as though the protagonists in his most famous novels were right from the start.) In Adjustment Day, these themes weave together in the form of a mysterious day of reckoning orchestrated by an out of touch, aging group of elected officials. (Nick M.) Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories.  That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph.  RIP. (Il’ja) MEM by Bethany Morrow In this debut novel set in a speculative past, a Montreal-based scientist discovers a way to extract memories from people, resulting in physical beings, Mems, who are forced to experience the same memory over and over. Complications ensue when one of the Mems, Dolores Extract #1, begins to make and form her own memories. (Hannah)   And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: O’Connell’s memoir—her first book—is here to remedy the “nobody tells you what it’s really like” refrain of new mothers. Giving birth to her son in her 20s, after an unplanned pregnancy, O’Connell chronicles the seismic changes that happened to her body, routine, social life, and existential purpose before she knew what was coming. All the cool moms of literary twitter (including Edan!) are raving. (Janet) The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel's novel "deserves a standing ovation." For a taste of Gabel's prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia)   The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah) A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail) Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter's breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne) The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom) JUNE Kudos by Rachel Cusk: When I first encountered Cusk's writing in the mid-aughts I wrote her off as an author of potentially tedious domestic drama. I was woefully wrong. It's true Cusk is a chronicler of the domestic: she is as known for her memoirs of motherhood and divorce as she is for her novels, but her writing is innovative, observant, and bold. The New Yorker declared that with the trilogy that her latest novel Kudos completes, Cusk has "renovated" the novel, merging fiction with oral history, retooling its structure. Cusk has said: "I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live." (Anne) A Suitable Girl by Vikram Seth: Reportedly delayed by writer’s block brought on by a breakup, Seth has finally produced the much-anticipated sequel to his international smash of 1993, A Suitable Boy. That novel, a gargantuan epic set in post-independence India in the 1950s, was a multi-family saga built around the pursuit of a suitable husband in a world of arranged marriages. In the “jump sequel,” the original protagonist is now in her 80s and on the prowl for a worthy bride for her favorite grandson. Though best-known for A Suitable Boy, the versatile Seth has produced novels, poetry, opera, a verse novel, a travel book, and a memoir. (Bill) Florida by Lauren Groff: After collecting fans like Bara​c​k Obama with her bestselling novel Fates and Furies, ​Groff's next book is a collection of short stories that center around Florida, "the landscape, climate, history, and state of mind​." Included is ​"Dogs Go Wolf,​"​ the haunting story that appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the year. ​In a​ recent​ interview,​ Groff gave us the lay of the land:​ "The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I've lived for twelve years.​..​I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you.​"​ (Claire) There There by Tommy Orange: Set in Oakland, Orange's novel describes the disparate lives that come together for the Oakland Powwow and what happens to them when they get there. In an extraordinary endorsement,  Sherman Alexie writes that Orange's novel "is truly the first book to capture what it means to be an urban Indian—perhaps the first novel ever to celebrate and honor and elevate the joys and losses of urban Indians. You might think I'm exaggerating but this book is so revolutionary—evolutionary—that Native American literature will never be the same." (Lydia) Upstate by James Wood: It’s been 15 years since Woods’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published. What was Woods doing in the meantime? Oh, just influencing a generation of novelists from his perch at The New Yorker, where his dissecting reviews also functioned as miniature writing seminars. He also penned a writing manual, How Fiction Works. His sophomore effort concerns the Querry family, who reunite in upstate New York to help a family member cope with depression and to pose the kinds of questions fiction answers best: How do people get through difficulty? What does it mean to be happy? How should we live our lives? (Hannah) The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: This third novel from the acclaimed author of The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House interlaces the story of an art gallery director whose friends are succumbing to the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago with a mother struggling to find her estranged daughter 30 years later in contemporary Paris. “The Great Believers is by turns funny, harrowing, tender, devastating, and always hugely suspenseful,” says Margot Livesey, author of Mercury. (Michael)  Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill: Frequent New Yorker and Harper’s readers will know that O’Neill has been writing a lot of short fiction lately. With the new Good Trouble, the Netherland author now has a full collection, comprised of 11 off-kilter, unsettling stories. Their characters range from a would-be renter in New York who can’t get anyone to give him a reference to a poet who can’t decide whether or not to sign a petition. (Thom) Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A family chronicle, workplace drama, and love story rolled into one, Li's debut chronicles the universe of the Beijing Duck House restaurant of Rockville, Md., run by a family and long-time employees who intertwine in various ways when disaster strikes. Lorrie Moore raves, "her narratives are complex, mysterious, moving, and surprising." (Lydia)   SICK by Porochista Khakpour: In her much anticipated memoir SICK, Khakpour chronicles her arduous experience with illness, specifically late-stage Lyme disease. She  examines her efforts to receive a diagnosis and the psychological and physiological impact of being so sick for so long, including struggles with mental health and addiction. Khakpour’s memoir demonstrates the power of survival in the midst of pain and uncertainty. (Zoë)  Fight No More by Lydia Millet: Millet’s 2010 collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Eight years later she’s released another collection of stories arranged around a real estate broker and their family as they struggle to reconnect. Millet’s satire is well-known for it’s sharp brutality—and its compassionate humanity. Both sides are on full display here. (Kaulie)   Tonight I'm Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson: Examining the intersection of social media and intimacy, the commercial and the corporeal, the theme of Hodson's essay collection is how we are pushed and pulled by our desire. The Catapult teacher's debut has been called "racingly good…refreshing and welcome" by Maggie Nelson. (Tess)   Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt: On the heels of her critically praised debut, The Daughters, Celt gives us a love-triangle story that, according to the publisher, is “inspired by the infamous Nabokov marriage, with a spellbinding psychological thriller at its core.”  The protagonist is a young Russian refugee named Zoya who becomes entangled with her boarding school’s visiting writer, Leo Orlov, and his imperious wife, Vera.  Our own Edan Lepucki praised the novel as “a sexy, brilliant, and gripping novel about the fine line between passion and obsession. I am in awe of Celt's mastery as a prose stylist and storyteller; I can't stop thinking about this amazing book.” (Sonya) [millions_ad]

A Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man: On James Wood’s ‘The Nearest Thing to Life’

James Wood is a kind of literary mentor to me. He seems to be able to take murky notions floating around in my head and articulate them with casual precision, as if he wrote from the tip of my tongue. His compact volume How Fiction Works –– which I read in a single sitting on a bus from New York to Boston –– is one of the loveliest and most concise primers on fiction I’ve come across. But if that book was too stuffy for some (like Walter Kirn, who, in his review for The New York Times couldn’t suppress his disdain for a critic of Wood’s ilk, who “flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic”), Wood’s essay collection The Fun Stuff displayed a more personal side. In essays like “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library” and “The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon,” Wood shows how emotionally resonant and stylistically idiosyncratic he can be. Add to this his remarkable considerations of Edmund Wilson, Lydia Davis, W.G. Sebald, and Geoff Dyer, and you have a well-rounded book that should quiet anyone suspicious of a term like artist-critic. But if suspicions still abound, here is Wood’s newest work, The Nearest Thing to Life, taken from a series of lectures given at Brandies and the British Museum. This book, which manages to be even slimmer than How Fiction Works, also manages to be even better. The Nearest Thing to Life is as close as we’ll ever get to a manifesto from the British-born New Yorker critic. Contained in the book’s 134 pages is a passionate defense of criticism, a memoir of Wood’s early life and influences, and an insightful study of the meaning of fiction. This should all be old hat by now. Every year, new books arrive promising some meditation on fiction’s quintessence, and though many of them are useful and even well written, they rarely offer truly fresh observations. All of which makes The Nearest Thing to Life that much more remarkable. Wood succeeds so well because of his knack for recognizing defining contradictions. Consider the way he unpacks the duality of fiction through the lens of religion: The idea that anything can be thought and said inside the novel –– a garden where the great Why? hangs unpicked, gloating in the free air –– had, for me, an ironically symmetrical connection with the actual fears of official Christianity outside the novel: that without God, as Dostoyevsky put it, “everything is permitted.” Take away God, and chaos and confusion reign; people will commit all kinds of crimes, think all kinds of thoughts. You need God to keep a lid on things. This is the usual conservative Christian line. By contrast, the novel seems, commonsensically, to say: 'Everything has always been permitted, even when God was around. God has nothing to do with it.' Wood loves fiction because of its “proximity to, and final difference from, religious texts.” Fiction, he writes, “moves in the shadow of a doubt, knows it is a true lie.” And although we believe in the veracity of a novel’s world, this belief “only resembles actual belief.” These are ideas I’ve written about before but never with such sure-footed clarity. Wood, in this wonderful book, is able to exude dispassionate scrutiny with personal expression, a rare feat indeed. James Wood was born in Durham, England, in 1965 but has for the last 18 years lived in America, specifically Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches at Harvard. His standing as a foreigner leads to a lovely meditation on what Wood refers to as “homelooseness:” “Exile is acute, massive, transformative; but homelooseness, because it moves along its axis of departure and return, can be banal, welcome, necessary, continuous.” For Wood, this is one of contemporary fiction’s most prevalent themes, the search for a semblance of home in an increasingly global community. A glimpse at many of the well-acclaimed American novels from the past decade or so proves his thesis: from Jhumpa Lahiri to Junot Díaz to Teju Cole to Gary Shteyngart, some of our most lasting recent fiction has come from immigrants, emigrants, exiles, expats, a diasporic smorgasbord. Wood returns here to Aleksander Hemon, a writer Wood greatly admires and about whom he has written repeatedly, and one can see why Wood feels such a connection to the Bosnia-born Hemon, for exiles, no matter what their origin, all share this in common: wherever they are isn’t home. Or, as Hemon himself puts it in The Lazarus Project: “If you can’t go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world –– indeed, nowhere is the world.” But perhaps Wood is best in this brilliant book when he writes passionately and tenderly about criticism itself. First, he distinguishes what he calls “writer’s criticism” from “academic literary criticism.” Though English studies began in universities around World War I, criticism has been around for centuries, but, as Wood points out, “it existed as literature” by writers like Samuel Johnson and Samuel Coleridge and Virginia Woolf. Academia, with its claims to dispassionate engagement, can’t quite capture the beauty of literature. “A lot of the criticism I admire,” Wood writes, “is not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate redescription.” Though he doesn’t use the term, Wood calls for criticism as testimony, a creative and revelatory way to pay witness. Consider the example Wood provides here. Virginia Woolf attends a lecture in London given by the art critic Roger Fry, and she describes the way Fry pauses while studying one of his slides. Suddenly, a word strikes him “as if for the first time” and in this moment the audience sees something important, something the critic does not see: himself. For two hours they had been looking at pictures. But they had seen one of which the lecturer himself was unconscious –– the outline of a man against the screen, an ascetic figure in evening dress who paused and pondered, and then raised his stick and pointed. That was a picture that would remain in memory together with the rest, a rough sketch that would serve many of the audience in years to come as the portrait of a great critic, a man of profound sensibility but of exacting honesty, who, when reason could penetrate no further, broke off; but was convinced, and convinced others, that what he saw was there. It is a remarkably beautiful passage, one that captures criticism at its most moving. Wood, though, fails to point out that Woolf is doing the very thing she attributes to Fry: she is convinced, and convinces other, that what she saw was there. This is testimony about testimony, one artist enraptured with other artists. Wood captures Woolf who captures Fry. Criticism (and art, for that matter) is nothing if not endless, complex description of our own experiences with literature, and our descriptions of other people’s description. In many ways, literature is a path paved by paraphrase. Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, wrote, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.” In keeping with this notion, The Nearest Thing to Life gives us a profound portrait of an inimitable artist.

Ask the Writing Teacher: The Third Person

Dear Writing Teacher, We met at the University of Tampa this past week and you gave me your email address in order to get book suggestions from you. I'm working on a young adult novel in close third person with a decent amount of world building involved in the narrative. I've found it difficult to find contemporary novels (and short stories) that aren't written in first person so any suggestions you have, I would really appreciate. Thanks in advance for your help. Best Regards, Tiffany Dear Tiffany, I have to admit that your question, initially, made me giggle. My in-house statistician hasn't crunched the numbers yet (Nate Silver wasn't available so I hired my dog, Omar Little, and, quite frankly, he sucks at the job), but I'm pretty sure the proportion of contemporary novels narrated in the third person is equal to those narrated in the first.  Or at least it feels that way. I have so many good third-person novels to recommend to you!  Stoner by John Williams. The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. Off Course by Michelle Huneven. The Vacationers by Emma Straub. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. (I'm basically walking through my house, calling out titles. I could do it all day. The Fever by Megan Abbott!) Some of these books limit themselves to one character's consciousness, like Stoner or Off Course. Others, like The Vacationers and The Fever, shift between multiple characters from chapter to chapter, or scene to scene.  In these novels, the distance between the reader and the events of the narrator, or "the psychic distance" as John Gardner puts it, is fairly close. These narratives reflect what James Wood calls, in How Fiction Works, the free indirect style: "As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking." (If you haven't read Wood's book, you can read the first chapter here. And you can read Jonathan Russell Clark's clever and helpful essay on close third here.) The Thin Place is told in a more elevated, all-knowing third-person point of view that skips from one small town resident to the next, including a dog, which is fitting since the book is about the thin scrim between the cosmic and the mundane, and the connection between all things. Everything I Never Told You also shifts its third person perspective, between family members, and its narrator has more knowledge than anyone; the book's first sentence, "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet..." makes that clear, and it emphasizes just how little this family understands about itself. In both these novels, perspective reflects theme especially well. If you're trying for this more elevated perspective, I also suggest you read Edward P. Jones along with 19th-century masters like George Eliot. These writers alight on one perspective and then another and another, deftly providing access to a character's most intimate motives in one passage only to gracefully move away to comment on the scene in the next. They drop Wisdom-with-a-capital-W and it's great fun to read. (And write, I hope!) An omniscient third person narrator feels like a bodiless character who shapes our understanding of the narrative's events. One of my writing teachers declared on multiple occasions that the third person point of view was easier than the first person. I disagree; each is easy and difficult in different ways. The first person has always come more naturally to me. Its performative qualities are revealing; I discover who my character is via language use and voice tics, confession and truth-dodging.  Most importantly, there isn't the elasticity of psychic distance that exists in the third person, which requires control and intention so that the reader doesn't feel like she's riding a narrative tilt-a-whirl. It's disconcerting to be deep inside a character's psyche and then, suddenly, to see him from afar. I bet many first drafts of third-person narrations struggle with finding the best distance from which to tell the story. I recommend you decide what your novel's psychic distance is, and stick to it. If you're after a closer third person perspective, keep in mind Wood's image of the narrative bending around the character's mind so that the language and observations reflect and imply that particular consciousness. Also, avoid using "seeing" verbs; instead of, for instance, "She saw the cup on the table," just say something like, "The cup was on the table." Since it's a close third person, you don't need to tell the reader who is doing the seeing -- that's already implied. It's also easy to forget the body when writing in third person (just as it's easy to forget the external world when writing in first person). One way to lessen the psychic distance between reader and story is to include physical experience: not what others see of the narrator, but how it feels, internally, to be this self: how it feels to be tired, to be restless, to be nauseated, and so on. (One of my pet peeves as a reader is when we learn about the hair of a protagonist from a (supposedly) close third person narration; people have very specific relationships to their hair, and they don't view it, can't experience it, from afar. If you're gonna talk about a character's hair, make sure it expresses the experience of having said hair, rather than something like, "She ran a hand through her shoulder-length straight auburn hair..." which puts me outside the character and her experience. In that example, I'm looking at the character, rather than seeing the world with her.) Since your novel requires world building, I also recommend you read the last story/chapter in Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, "Pure Language," which seamlessly depicts a future New York City and a music industry that caters to toddlers -- or "pointers" as they're known -- from the third person perspective of a guy named Alex. As you read, mark the moments where Egan is providing the reader with expository information about the world. Where does Egan fit it in, and how? Perhaps more importantly, how do these passages reflect Alex's psyche and and shape our understanding of him? For example, look at this passage, where he's describing a woman he's meeting for the first time: Lulu was in her early twenties, a graduate student at Barnard and Bennie's full-time assistant: a living embodiment of the new "handset employee": paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically omnipresent, though Lulu appeared to be ignoring a constant chatter of handset beeps and burps. The photos on her page had not done justice to the arresting, wide-eyed symmetry of her face, the radiant shine of her hair. She was "clean": no piercings, tattoos, or scarifications. All the kids were now. And who could blame them, Alex thought, after watching three generations of flaccid tattoos droop like moth-eaten upholstery over poorly stuffed biceps and saggy asses? I'm interested in how "handset employees" and "clean" are in quotation marks, which allows Egan to not only straight-up define these terms for the reader, but to show that Alex is apart from these communities. The phrasing of "All the kids" shows that Alex isn't as young as Lulu. Overall, the description of her reveals that Alex is attracted to her -- and also intimidated, I think. Egan could have left out the "Alex thought" in the last line -- the sentence would still work without it -- but its inclusion adds a few inches to the psychic distance, which perhaps gives Egan some flexibility of tone when describing this particular future. Part of your quandary, of course, is that you're writing a young adult novel, and I'm no longer giggling because, you're right, there are far fewer third person examples in that genre. Why is that?  My friend Cecil Castellucci, who will publish her 12th (!) young adult novel, Stone in the Sky, in late February, has her own litmus test for categorizing a book as YA. Her definition sheds light on why so many are told in first person: For me, a book is YA when it has a young protagonist and the action is happening right now or has just happened. If a book has a young protagonist, but it is nostalgic or self-aware, then it is an adult book. Castellucci argues that a YA book feels like it's happening "in the now," and that this sense of urgency allows the reader to feel as if she's "on the journey with the character as they clue in and grow." The first person, and in particular the first person present, provides the kind of immediacy that the YA genre so excels at. In the third person, a sense of "nostalgia and awareness," which Castellucci says is usually present in adult books with young protagonists, might creep in. Castellucci says there are beautiful examples of third person YA books, so I asked my friend Katie Coyle, who recently published her first YA novel, Vivian Apple at the End of the World, for her suggestions.  She recommended Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Malinda Lo's Ash and Huntress. The first two are examples of realism, the third is historical fiction, and Lo's are fantasies. Now that you have these recommendations, I suggest you ban the first person for at least six months. Read only novels written in the third person. Furthermore, try to read third person novels that have the same psychic distance you're aiming for, be it close third, or an elevated omniscience, or something in between. When I'm struggling with a technical challenge in writing, I bang my head against the wall, write and rewrite and write again, and seek out books that have mastered said challenge. It's useful if the book's content is wildly different from mine -- that way, I don't feel like I will accidentally crib its ideas. For instance, if you're writing an epigrammatic novel about, say, the workplace, it would be helpful to read Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell for its succinct and perfect short chapters. (See also: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.) You'll be wise to avoid books that share your subject matter. It's form you're after, not content. Aside from all that, I'd recommend writing, to yourself, your reasons for choosing the third person. Why does the story need to be told this way? It's useful for me to articulate and defend my choices when I'm about halfway through a first draft.  This lets me move partly (but never wholly!) out of intuition and into intention. Intention feels powerful. "Good luck, Tiffany!" she typed as she tucked her silky blonde hair behind her ear. Sincerely, The Writing Teacher

The Art of Dialogue: A Symposium

(The following is an imaginary symposium. The dialogue (except for the goofy shit) is adapted directly from these books: On Writing (2000) by Stephen King, On Directing Film (1991) by David Mamet, This Year You Write Your Novel (2007) by Walter Moseley, Reading Like a Writer (2006) by Francine Prose, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) by Jane Smiley, and How Fiction Works (2008) by James Wood. Apologies to all. Enjoy.) MODERATOR Everybody, shut up. Just be quiet. Now, I realize that a group of writers like yourselves would jump all over the chance to point out the irony of me beginning a symposium on dialogue by telling everyone to shut up, but I don't want to hear it, okay? Spare me. Let's just get this over with. Jane Smiley, let's begin with you. JANE SMILEY Thank you, Moderator. To dare to write about many different characters, and to keep them straight without the help of actors, is in many ways a bold endeavor. It imposes several duties upon the author. MODERATOR Like what, for instance? JANE SMILEY Well, each time a character speaks, he is likely to speak in a way that differs from every other character and also from the narrator because distinctiveness is one of the main methods an author has to organize his characters so the reader can keep them straight. MODERATOR Interesting. A very practical observation. Dialogue helps differentiate characters. Good. JANE SMILEY I have mentioned order, in the sense that the readers don't want to get the characters mixed up, but there is also the progress of the plot. Characters in dialogue are required to more or less move the story along. If they are just sitting around chatting meaninglessly, then the novel comes to be about the meaninglessness the characters are demonstrating. DAVID MAMET Excuse me, I completely object. JANE SMILEY Jesus. Of course. MODERATOR To what do you object, Mr. Mamet?  DAVID MAMET You don't have to narrate with dialogue. The only reason people speak is to get what they want. JANE SMILEY I wasn't finished, Mr. Mamet. First of all, I said "more or less move the story along." I understand that dialogue isn't how you tell a story. But certainly dialogue must in some way pertain to the narrative, even if they aren't speaking of the literal plot. Depending on his role in the novel, though, a character is also required to have something interesting to say that simultaneously deepens the reader's knowledge of him, deepens the reader's knowledge of other characters, deepens the reader's understanding of the story, and best of all, deepens the reader's knowledge in general. DAVID MAMET No, no, no. The purpose of dialogue is not to carry information about the "character." In the first place, there is no such thing as character other than habitual action, as Mr. Aristotle told us two thousand years ago. It just doesn't exist. WALTER MOSLEY Wait one minute! Why are we letting David Mamet in here? Are we all aware that he's talking about films, not novels? DAVID MAMET Yes, but I've written novels. WALTER MOSLEY Yeah, like two. The Village and The Old Religion. DAVID MAMET And Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources. WALTER MOSLEY Okay. Whatever, we'll call it three. But either way, I think your view of dialogue is greatly skewed by playwriting and filmmaking. So let me please interject a bit. We're talking about the use of dialogue. That alright? MODERATOR Sure, do whatever you want. See if I care. WALTER MOSLEY First, I agree with Dave over there that dialogue shouldn't be used for exposition. Many new writers use dialogue to communicate information such as "My name is Frank. I come from California." This is the simplest use of dialogue. It's okay for a job interview or a chance meeting in a bar, but in a novel, dialogue is meant to be working overtime. But I also agree with Jane about the many uses of dialogue. Every time characters in your novel speak, they should be: (1) telling us something about themselves; (2) conveying information that may well advance the story line and/or plot; (3) adding to the music or the mood of the scene, story, or novel; (4) giving us a scene from a different POV (especially if the character who is speaking is not connected directly to the narrative voice); and/or (5) giving the novel a pedestrian feel. MODERATOR Pedestrian? Why pedestrian? WALTER MOSLEY Thought you didn't care, Moderator? MODERATOR Don't push your luck. WALTER MOSLEY To answer your question: Absolutely. Making the dialogue seem pedestrian might seem counterproductive to the passionate writer. Here you are, telling us a story of profound feeling in which the main characters are going to experience deeply felt transitions, and I'm asking you for ordinary and prosaic dialogue. If you can get the reader to identify with the everydayness of the lives of the characters and then bring them -- both reader and character -- to these rapturous moments, you will have fulfilled the promise of fiction. The reader is always looking for two things in the novel: themselves and transcendence. Dialogue is an essential tool to bring them there. MODERATOR Okay, okay. Let's get another voice in here. Francine Prose, you've been sitting over there quietly. What about you? Do you think dialogue should be pedestrian? FRANCINE PROSE Thank you, Moderator. In one sense, yes, I do think that. Among the things I remember hearing when I was beginning to write was the following rule: you shouldn't, and actually can't, make fiction dialogue sound like actual speech. The repetitions, meaningless expressions, stammers, and nonsensical monosyllables with which we express hesitation, along with the clichés and banalities that constitute so much of everyday conversation, cannot and should not be used when our characters are talking. Rather, they should speak more fluently than we do, with greater economy and certitude. Unlike us, they should say what they mean, get to the point, avoid circumlocution and digression. The idea, presumable, is that fictional dialogue should be an "improved," cleaned-up and smoothed-out version of the way people talk. Better than "real" dialogue. Then why is so much written dialogue less colorful and interesting than what we can overhear daily in the Internet café, the mall, and on the subway? Many people have a gift for language that flows when they are talking and dries up when they are confronted with the blank page, or when they are trying to make the characters on it speak. MODERATOR And you also agree that dialogue shouldn't be used for exposition? FRANCISE PROSE Well, in extreme cases, yes I think I would warn against inventing those stiff, unlikely, artificial conversations in which facts are being transmitted from one character to another mainly for the benefit of the reader: "Hi, Joe." "Nice to see you again, Sally." "What have you been doing, Joe?" "Well, Sally, as you know, I'm an insurance investigator. I'm twenty-six years old. I've lived in Philadelphia for twelve years. I'm unmarried and very lonely. I come to this bar twice a week on average, but so far have failed to meet anyone I particularly like." And so forth. But even when novice writers avoid this sort of dialogue, what they do write often serves a single purpose -- that is, to advance the plot -- rather than the numerous simultaneous aims that it can accomplish. To see how much dialogue can achieve, it's instructive to look at the novels of Henry Green, in which many of the important plot developments are conveyed through conversation. MODERATOR Oh, wonderful! Finally, some examples! I've been waiting for over a thousand words for this. FRANCINE PROSE Throughout Green's work, dialogue provides both text and subtext, allowing us to observe the wide range of emotions that his characters feel and display, the ways in which they say and don't say what they mean, attempt to manipulate their spouses, lovers, friends, and children, stake emotional claims, demonstrate sexual interest or unavailability, confess and conceal their hopes and fears. And it all passes by us in such a bright, engaging splash of chatter that only slowly do we realize how widely Green has cast his net, how deeply he has penetrated. MODERATOR Example, please. FRANCINE PROSE Yes, okay. Here it is: "Did your father happen to mention that he'd taken me out the other afternoon?" she inquired. "No," the boy said in an uninterested voice. "Should he?" "We ran across each other in the street. I'm afraid I can't afford anything like the gorgeous meal he provided." "But curry's my favorite," Peter claimed. "I wish I had it every day. Decent of you to ask me." "No, because I do truly enjoy seeing you. It takes me out of myself. And you've little idea how few there are I could say that of. Though, d'you know, it could be true about your father. He's so terribly handsome, Peter." The boy broke into mocking laughter, with his mouth full. "Look out for the curry," she warned. "You'll blow it all over me and the table." When he had composed himself he said, "Well I once ate a green fig looked exactly like Dad's face." Then, after a brief pause to discuss a mutual friend: "Are your parents still in love?" she asked. "My mother and father? God, I suppose so. Are yours?" "Not a bit. No." Peter went on eating. "They don't even share a room." A little later: "How long have they been married?" "Lord, don't ask me. I wouldn't know." "All in all, I imagine they were still very much in love," she suggested. "I expect so," he said. "You won't tell them I mentioned this, will you?" In this passage from his final novel, Doting, nineteen-year-old Annabel Payton has invited Peter Middleton, a student two years younger than herself, to have lunch at an inexpensive Indian restaurant near her office. Annabel has a crush on Peter's father -- as the awkward, somewhat thick-headed Peter may or may not be aware -- and is attempting to extract information about Peter's parents from her lunch companion. Word by word, the dialogue captures the rhythm of someone trying to discover something without disclosing something else, of an interlocutor who cannot stop pushing until she finds what she is seeking. It's a model of social inquisition carried out by someone who doesn't much care about the person she is interrogating, except that she would like to keep him from forming a low opinion of her and from figuring out what she is doing. At the end of the scene, Annabel asks Peter if he thinks his mother is beautiful: "Yes," he said, rather gruff. "As a matter of fact." "Me too," she echoed, but in a wan little voice. "She has everything. Hair, teeth, skin, those wide-apart eyes. By any standard your father's a very lucky man." "Why?" "To have such a wife of course. Would you say she liked me, Peter?" "Fairly, yes. No reason not to, is there?" "Oh none," she agreed casually. MODERATOR Let's get technical for a second. Why is that scene so suggestive of things without spelling them out? What makes Green's use of dialogue so effective? JAMES WOOD Can I step in here for a moment? MODERATOR Oh, I didn't realize we had critics here, too. JAMES WOOD Well, I'm also a novelist. The Book Against God. Anyone? Anyone? MODERATOR We haven't read it. But go on. Maybe a critic's opinion will be useful here. JAMES WOOD Wonderful. In 1950, Henry Green gave a little talk on BBC radio about dialogue in fiction. Green was obsessively concerned with the elimination of those vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers: he never internalizes his characters' thoughts, hardly ever explains a character's motive, and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character's emotion to readers ("she said, grandiloquently"). Green argued that dialogue is the best way to communicate with readers, and that nothing kills "life" so much as "explanation." MODERATOR So you think the excerpt that Francine presented is effective because of the lack of "explanation"? JAMES WOOD Yes, information is communicated silently, slowly, through careful accumulation of a character's actions, their words. Here's a working example. Green imagined a husband and wife, long married, sitting at home one evening. At 9:30, the husband says he is going across the road to the pub. Green noted that the wife's first response, "Will you be long?," could be rendered in scores of different ways ("Back soon?" "When will you be back?" "Off for long?" "How long will it be before you are back?"), each one capable of a distinct resonance of meaning. The crucial thing, maintained Green, was not to hedge the dialogue with explanation, as in: "How soon d'you suppose they'll chuck you out?" Olga, as she asked her husband this question, wore the look of a wounded animal, her lips were curled back from the teeth in a grimace and the tone of voice she used betrayed all those years a woman can give by proxy to the sawdust, the mirrors and the stale smell of beer of public bars. Green felt strongly that such kind of authorial "assistance" was overbearing, because in life we don't really know what people are like. "We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure?" MODERATOR Do you agree with all of that? It seems a bit strict, doesn't it? Almost overbearing? JAMES WOOD Yes, you're quite right. Green, counseling against being overbearing, is laying down a fair amount of prescription himself, and we do not need to take his doctrine scripturally. Notice that when Green does his parody of explanation, he also falls into a deliberately breathy, second-rate style ("wore the look of a wounded animal"), whereas we can imagine something more continent, less offensive: "Olga knew what time he would come home, and in what state, stinking of beer and tobacco. Ten years of this, ten years." Fulsome explainers like George Eliot, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth and many others would all have to retire themselves in Green's universe. MODERATOR Okay, okay. Let's take a pause for a moment. What have we learned here so far? Anything? It seems that every rule you try to make about dialogue has many contingencies, many exceptions, ways around it. Characters shouldn't speak in blatant exposition but subtle forms of expository information are allowed. They should sound like "real" people but not exactly like real people, as normal conversation consists of ums and ers and likes and, truthfully, uninteresting filler. Writers should let the characters' speech say more about them than the narrator, though we have numerous successful examples of writers who break this rule. Finally, dialogue should always be performing multiple tasks at once. Is there anything else? Anything practical? Anything at all like a rule? STEPHEN KING Yes, I have something to add. MODERATOR Go on. STEPHEN KING Adverbs. I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that writers use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions…and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to maker sure we all know what we're talking about, examine these three sentences: "Put it down!" she shouted. "Give it back," he pleaded, "it's mine." "Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said. In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions: "Put it down!" she shouted menacingly. "Give it back," he pleaded abjectly, "it's mine." "Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said contemptuously. The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately. Contemptuously is the best of the lot; it is only a cliché, while the other two are actively ludicrous. Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals: "Put the gun down, Utterson!" Jekyll grated. "Never stop kissing me!" Shayna gasped. "You damned tease!" Bill jerked out. Don't do these things. Please oh please. The best form of dialogue attribution is said. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine. MODERATOR Okay, good. A rule of sorts. I like it. Yes, Mr. Mamet? DAVID MAMET To get what they want! That's why people talk! MODERATOR So what do you want, Mr. Mamet? Why are you talking right now? DAVID MAMET I want future generations to make great art! I'm trying to help. MODERATOR Help us now by being quiet. What was the point of this symposium? Have we really learned anything? Let's get the writer in here. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Yes? MODERATOR What was the point of this? What, could you not think of something to say yourself? JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Well, kind of. I realized that I didn't have anything new to add about dialogue. All the observations I could make I'd first heard articulated in these books. What could I add? MODERATOR That's laziness disguised as modesty, Mr. Clark. I'm not buying it. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Well, the other thing was that none of these writers had anything definitive to say. Everything they said had some qualification to it. Or, if they were more stringent, I could think of a great counter example. So I thought that if I put a bunch of voices together and showed how difficult dialogue is to even talk about, I'd maybe contribute something useful. MODERATOR Let me spoil it for you: you didn't. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Oh. Sorry. JAMES WOOD Can I go now? I've got a long flight. WALTER MOSELEY Me, too. Plus I'm hungry. The invite said there would be snacks. I don't see any snacks. JANE SMILEY Everyone up for a bite to eat? WALTER MOSELEY Sure. JAMES WOOD Alright. FRANCINE PROSE I could eat. DAVID MAMET Fuckin' a. JANE SMILEY Not you, David. (DAVID MAMET exits, pursued by a bear.) JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Ha ha! JANE SMILEY Or you, Jonathan. None of us even know who you are. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Oh. Sorry. WALTER MOSELEY Plus you only put us all together because ours were the books you happen to have on your shelf. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK But at least that means I bought all your books! WALTER MOSELEY Yeah, yeah. Whatever, man. (Everyone exits except for MODERATOR and JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK.) JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Looks like it's just you and me. MODERATOR We're the exact same person. So, basically, you're by yourself in your room. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Like always. MODERATOR And you're talking to yourself. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Yeah. Funny. In a symposium about dialogue I end up alone, talking to myself. MODERATOR And what does that tell you? JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK That dialogue is a conversation a writer has with himself, a conversation he has with his characters and a conversation between characters. That it's all three. That, ultimately, the art of dialogue lies within the writer, determined by how he perceives people, human interaction, motivation. That dialogue, as much as it speaks to a character's identity, speaks to the writer's as well. That rules are almost impossible. That a writer has to engage with dialogue, be in conversation with it, so to speak. MODERATOR I was going to say that you need some real human friends. I mean, listen to yourself: you're talking to yourself about fake characters talking to each other. Pretty sad. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK You know what's worse? To me, it isn't sad at all. If the only dialogue I have in my life is the dialogue of great writers, I don't have a whole lot to complain about. They're great conversationalists, at least. MODERATOR Yeah. At least you've got that. Come on. Save the document and be done with this.   END Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Art of Close Writing

Jonathan Russell Clark sits at his desk, writing an essay about free indirect discourse. Surrounding him are books by authors who employ the technique with considerable skill: Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Dixon, and Joshua Ferris. He recalls a time when he did not even know what free indirect discourse was, and a time, later, when he knew the term but viewed it more as a descriptor than a crucial component. He remembers how his relationship to the term evolved over the years: his initial distrust of it, as many of his favorite writers cavalierly disregarded the tactic; his frustration with its limitations: how would he communicate the thoughts of other characters if he couldn't leave the brain of the protagonist?; his eventual understanding of its importance while reading James Wood's illuminating (though much debated) book How Fiction Works, in which he refers to it as "close writing"; and then, finally, his acceptance and full embrace of the method. Though he still admired novelists who could successfully avoid using free indirect discourse, he knew he would never break from it himself. It was just too liberating, the way close writing allowed his sentences to spill out of him, effortlessly, like thoughts, rapid and rabid and rampant, just spit out onto the page––it was so easy, or, well, easier, because it's not as if he's without problems, creatively speaking, oh he has problems, like how is he supposed to know which thoughts are important and which simply aren't? and why is he unable to write economically, why are his pieces always longer than they need to be?––but yeah anyway, he now loved close writing because it made writing fun. To be clear: close writing is not vital to all fiction. In fact, it doesn't even speak to most fiction. For instance, first-person narrations cannot use free indirect discourse. When a character is speaking directly to a reader, the aim of close writing is already happening; no technique required. Also, novels and stories that feature an omniscient narrator are similarly excluded––all-knowing narrators simply tell us information. The skill required to pull off such a voice is its own subject. No, close writing only relates to third-person limited narrations, and, even more specifically, ones with an active interest in the inner lives of the characters. Not all fiction cares about that. Here's how James Wood explains close writing: So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist's omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing. And later: Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to "own" the words. Without being able to articulate it, free indirect discourse appealed to Clark greatly. Novels that used the style effectively gave him a giddy sensation, the prose seeming to not have been written but transcribed from a person's mind but filtered through the ostensibly distancing third-person point-of-view, and though he didn't know it, he came to depend on such techniques to let him "settle" into a character. Even more striking, when he read a piece of fiction (especially in a workshop environment) that failed to use close writing and didn't effectively employ another style, something irked him as his eyes moved over the words. He was made uncomfortable by these stories, but he didn't know why. What the hell was it? When he finally learned the term––in a college course, he thinks––he started to understand what it was that had been bothering him. Once he read How Fiction Works, he knew with satisfying finality. Free indirect discourse. Close writing. Thankfully the grey cloud hovering over his frustration had a name. Nameless things give aimless dreams. How important is free indirect discourse? In the history of the novel, it's extremely important. Clark at first didn't even realize that the technique had to be developed at all, but in fact it was an astonishing feat. According to Michael Schmidt's monumental and astounding work of scholarship and criticism, The Novel: A Biography (a book so big and important it merits its own essay, which is forthcoming), early iterations of the novel concerned themselves less with verisimilitude than outright deceit. When Daniel Defoe composed Robinson Crusoe (or, to use its full title––no joke––The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. with an Account of How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver'd by Pirates), "he believed he had to honor readers' expectations of a true and edifying story. An untrue story had to seem true." The nuanced psychology of the characters was irrelevant to the task of moral tutelage. But the method of mimicking eventually morphed into the representation of human thought. Generally, the development of close writing into its modern form is attributed to Gustave Flaubert in novels like A Sentimental Education, but the early traces of "inner monologue" are as subtle and elusive as the technique itself. Gabriel García Márquez "detects the original use of 'interior monologue'" as far back as Lazarillo de Tormes, a picaresque work from 1554. James Wood points out an example in Pope's mock-epic The Rape of the Lock from 1712. Jane Austen, who died four years before Flaubert was born, occasionally abandoned her lofty point-of-view in order to take the reader into the character's mind, if only briefly, as in this passage from Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth felt herself completely taken in. She had fully proposed being engaged by Wickham for those very dances:––and to have Mr. Collins instead!––her liveliness had been never worse timed. There was no help for it however. Mr. Wickham's happiness and her own was per force delayed a little longer, and Mr. Collins's proposal accepted with as good a  grace as she could. She was not the better pleased with his gallantry, from the idea it suggested of something more.––It now struck her, that she was selected from among her sisters as worthy of being the mistress of Hunsford Parsonage, and of assisting to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors. Austen's tactics are very subtle––the exclamation point punctuating the shock over Mr. Collins, the italicized she, and the sound of contemplative flow in "There was no help for it however"––but those little moments of language all belong to Elizabeth, not Austen. It is Elizabeth who can't believe she has Mr. Collins instead; it is Elizabeth who can't believe that she was selected from among her sisters, and it is Elizabeth who doesn't think there was any help for it however. A reader may not be able to articulate with precision the, as Wood describes it, "marvelous alchemical transfer" that just took place, but they'll feel it. They'll understand Elizabeth a little bit more. Flaubert took it a bit further. He organized his entire style around close writing. In A Sentimental Education, the prose moves into the protagonist Frédéric's mind without any explicit hint at the shift. Here is Frédéric's first seeing Mme Arnoux, the older woman with whom he falls in love with: Never before had he seen more lustrous dark skin, a more seductive figure, or more delicately shaped fingers than those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past? Those last questions are Frédéric's, as if transcribed verbatim from his thoughts. But where did that shift happen? There was no, "He thought…" Instead, the language slips first into the character's vernacular––the words "lustrous," "seductive," and "delicately" are all Frédéric's––and then into his mind. It's quite a nifty trick. "Thanks to free indirect style," James Wood writes, "we see things through the character's eyes and language but also through the author's eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once." If this all seems very basic to you, consider that there was a time when close writing simply didn't exist. Additionally, though readers and writers often implicitly understand these ideas, sometimes the act of naming something and recognizing its traits leads to understanding. Like David Foster Wallace's fish parable, sometimes you have to say: This is water. Moreover, once the modernists enter the picture, close writing is taken to new depths: the inner thoughts of characters become just as important––or more important––than the plot. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce went so far as to construct novels that took place in a single day, Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, meaning the reader spends most of the narrative inside a mind as it thinks. Joyce loved to catalogue very ordinary thoughts, and through Leopold Bloom he mastered close writing like nobody before him. Here is Bloom just after he is first introduced, as he prepares breakfast for Molly: Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn't like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry. Listen to the fragmentary nature of Bloom's thoughts as they mingle with action. Taking Flaubert's technique even further, Joyce gives us full access to Bloom's mind with almost no indication he's doing so. His thoughts aren't profound––they're quotidian, mundane, banal. Clark's favorite moment comes when Bloom is unable to recall someone's name: Stream of life. What was the name of that priestylooking chap was always squinting in when he passed? Weak eyes, woman. Stopped in Citron's saint Kevin's parade. Pen something. Pendennis? Who hasn't had a similar moment, a name stuck on the tip of the tongue? Then, a full 25 pages later (in the 1922 text, that is), as Bloom assists a blind man across the street, and whose face strikes him "like a fellow going in to be a priest," it suddenly hits him: "Penrose! That was the chap's name." The image of a priest brings to mind the "priestylooking chap" whose name he couldn't recall earlier and he's able to conjure the name, except Joyce doesn't clue the reader into the association. The line is simply plopped down in the middle of another scene. Virginia Woolf wastes no time delving into her titular character's inner life. After her famous opening––"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself"––the prose immediately becomes one with Mrs. Dalloway's ruminations: For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning––fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, "Musing among the vegetables?"––was that it?––"I prefer men to cauliflowers"––was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace––Peter Walsh. Who's Lucy? Why does she have her work cut out for her? Why is Mrs. Dalloway buying flowers? And who is Peter Walsh? Why does he suddenly appear in her mind? Remember: this is the first page of the novel. In 1925, when Mrs. Dalloway was published, people still expected some exposition, some introductory orientation, but Woolf provides none. She doesn't have to. That's the power of close writing. >Since then, free indirect discourse has become an integral part of third-person novels. Grab any one at random and you'll probably find that it employs close writing. And there are still writers who experiment with this voice in their fiction. Stephen Dixon's I. plays around with the separation of author and subject. The protagonist's is named I., which means Dixon gets to write sentences like: "I. met Fels more than twenty years ago." Yes, it's third person, but it's also first.  Dixon, then, further erases the gap by having the character, I., also be the writer of the prose, so that he can stop in the middle of a paragraph (which, in Dixon's fiction, are always long) and say, "Oh, he's not explaining himself well," or "What's he going on about?" Then, those murmurs of uncertainty become full-blown self-doubt: Oh, stop with the crypt of memories swinging open and all that. Fine, then what? Simply this: he finished something yesterday––okay, a short story––wanted to start something new today––story, novel, two-page short-short: what did he care? A fiction of any length––even a play if it was possible––because he gets agitated with himself and grumpy with his family if at the end of the day after the one he finished a fiction he still doesn't have something to work on the next day. In other words––but he thinks he explained that okay. He continues to edit himself as he goes, noting, at one point, "that last parenthetical sentence could be clearer, and he knows it's going to take work." After a lengthy explanation of I.'s morning, he writes, "He could have done that so much more simply: he finished writing something yesterday, wanted to start writing something today, saw the obituary and started to write." The transfer of voice from the author to the character, here, is thrown right back to the author. Dixon's I. is also the writer, so close writing here traces not simply the character's thoughts, but the very words he's typing. Thinking and writing meld into one organism. Dixon's metafictional approach could be thought of as elaborate autobiography, but whatever it is it shows how close writing can still be stretched and expanded for new purposes. Dixon's work is often neglected, or deemed too difficult for casual enjoyment. Too bad; he's wonderful. The last writer Clark wants to focus on is Joshua Ferris, a writer noted for his experiments with voice. His Then We Came to the End is written in first-person plural, an entire office represented with the narrative we. Recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (in the first year Americans were considered), Ferris is one of contemporary fiction's most assured practitioners. His abilities with close writing are prodigious, as unequivocally demonstrated by his New Yorker story "The Pilot." It basically focuses on the neuroses of Lawrence, a wannabe television writer who gets an email invitation to a producer's "yearly blowout." "He'd R.S.V.P'd," we're told, "but not immediately. Two days after the message came in. Two days plus maybe an hour." When he receives no reply from her, he starts to worry: He would have liked a reply. After a few days went by, he'd have liked a reply a lot. Was his e-mail too effusive? Was it a mistake to use the word "sick" to describe her show? Or maybe she was just busy shooting the season finale. She was just busy shooting the season finale. He should have just written back quick-like, something like "Thanks for the invitation, Kate. See you then." Then she might have quick-like hit Reply, with a confirmation, and he'd have known that she knew he was coming. Did she even know she'd invited him? Sometimes, with e-mail, some programs, you hit All Contacts or something and invite people you didn't even mean to invite. Of course she'd meant to invite him. He just didn't have any confirmation that she'd received his R.S.V.P. That was kind of unnerving. But, think about it, would he then have to confirm her confirmation? That wasn't really feasible. It was just…Everything was fine. She was just wrapping. He was too effusive. "Sick little fuck-you": that might have been––no, it was fine––just a little insulting? No, no, it was fine, who knows, not him. That is a virtuoso stretch of comic writing, and a better representation of human thought as it occurs than almost anything Clark's read in his life. The thoughts interrupt each other, the narrator oscillates between two poles of neurotic uncertainty, even repeating himself to emphasize a statement's validity (yet inadvertently showing how questionable Lawrence finds that validity), and yet the reader never loses the train, the writing is crystal clear, the rhythm natural. Even though Lawrence isn't technically narrating, he owns every single word on the page. The reader is in his mind. Close writing really is an amazing thing. Consider that this essay right now has been narrated in the third person, and yet there is no question as to what Clark's opinions are. There was never any confusion over "who" was asserting the statements made above. The "marvelous alchemical transfer" made it so the separation between Jonathan Russell Clark and some ostensible narrator disappeared––after a while, you probably stopped noticing, except for the occasional use of Clark's name. Here, of course, Clark and the author are the same, but the same technique used in fiction functions the same way. The writer disappears and only the character is left––the voice, the thoughts, the little details that make us human. Image via John Lester/Flickr

A Year in Reading: Kristopher Jansma

With the arrival of both my first novel and my firstborn this year, my available time for reading evaporated right alongside time for other basic human requirements such as sleeping and breathing. When my nose found its way between pages, it was likely to be advice about how to raise the Happiest Bébé in my Arrondissement so that I might someday again do something other than swaddle, swoop, and shush my son. Research for my next novel (out in 2015!) took top priority, so I dove deep into both Everybody Was So Young, Amanda Vaill’s moving biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, and re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrait of them in Tender is the Night. But what novel about Lost Generation types would be complete without some theoretical physics? So I’ve been going back over Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe and Fabric of the Cosmos and, on somewhat of the other end of the spectrum, my Robert Fagles translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Because one central character is an artist, and most art from Warhol to present leaves me eye rolling and/or giggling, an artist friend of mine recommended his favorite book on contemporary art, David Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy – which has finally helped me to understand the contents of the Whitney Museum as more than bad practical jokes. Outside of book research, the rest of my yearly reading has been mostly focused on my students at SUNY Purchase College. In addition to their (often) impressive work in class, I’ve been pushing myself to expose them to the kinds of great books and stories that they wouldn’t normally see in a classroom. Last Spring in a course on The Art of the Novella, we read classics like The Dead and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but also mind & form-bending works like Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03. (If that sounds exciting, I apologize - registration for Spring 2014 was last month and the class is now full). This fall, my Advanced Fiction students have been knocking me out, and I’m doing my best to keep up with them as we work our way through James Wood’s How Fiction Works. (Wood came to campus in September to deliver an incredible lecture on the question of “Why?” in Fiction, which we’ve been grappling with ever since.) We’ve now been focusing on short fiction, from classic masterpieces like Chekov’s “Rothschild’s Fiddle” and Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” to contemporary writers like David Foster Wallace, Ben Loory, Karen Russell, Jessica Francis Kane, George Saunders, and Wells Tower. Most of the time I can’t tell who is learning more, me or the students, but I’m glad to be there either way. When the semester winds to a close, I’ve got a huge pile waiting for me. If all goes well I might get to the first two on the pile – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending – before January, when I have to start reading for my Creative Nonfiction seminar in the spring. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Winning Over James Wood

1. This is an essay about the genius of James Wood, the literary critic at The New Yorker, and how it influenced the novel I’m about to publish. Unfortunately even writing that sentence makes me feel uneasy. Enough people already like James Wood; enough people hate him, too. And while there are instances of novelists who admit to being influenced by critics – the most famous recent one is probably Michael Chabon deciding to expand the scope of his work after Jonathan Yardley praised his gifts but criticized the narrowness of their use – there’s something unsavory in that reversal, something suggestible and therefore at odds with the single-mindedness and determination that I associate (perhaps wrongly?) with good fiction. Still, there’s the truth to deal with. When people ask me about influence I don’t think of the living writers I like best – David Lodge, Jeffrey Eugenides, Norman Rush. As Jonathan Franzen pointed out, by the time they reach maturity most novelists have moved beyond the stage of direct influence. What I think about instead is James Wood: his emphasis on precision in language, his (implicit and brave) rejection of the intentional fallacy and consequent belief that he can ascertain an author’s aim, his rejection of vague or lyrical cant. But that uneasiness! I feel it. And therefore maybe it would be best to start with an inoculation – the things that are wrong with James Wood. I’ve compiled a list in my mind over the years. James Wood has a terrible sense of humor. Here’s a passage that Wood describes as “sublimely funny,” about how a character in Hardy called Cain Ball was named: O you see, mem, his pore mother, not being a Scripture-read woman, made a mistake at his christening, thinking ‘twas Abel killed Cain, and called en Cain meaning Abel all the time. She didn’t find out till ‘twas too late, and the chiel was handed back to his godmother...She were brought up by a very heathen father and mother who never sent her to church or school, and it shows how the sins of the parents are visited upon the children, mem. Only a deranged person could find this sublimely funny, even using the least general definition of the word sublime. It’s maybe faintly amusing in the donnish, ironic, humorless manner of a letter to the Economist. But the simple fact is that Hardy wrote a century and more ago, and humor is the least durable form of human communication. Someone is being born out there right now who will find it bizarre that I consider The Forty-Year Old Virgin funny, and in all but the most exceptional cases, P.G. Wodehouse for instance, comedy fades after ten or fifteen years. So to conclude, I’ve read a lot of James Wood, and whenever he finds something funny it’s a sure sign that it’s not funny. James Wood seems naïve about art. One of the interesting little ghosts in the James Wood machine is his sophisticated and perceptive love of music, which was the subject that earned him a scholarship to Eton. But his intermittent mentions of art are embarrassing. There are a few examples of this (including one nails-on-a-blackboard invocation of Andy Warhol) but the worst for me is in an essay on Laszlo Krasznahorkai, in which he describes a series of paintings as “exquisite and enigmatic.” What the hell is that? It’s unlike Wood to use such uninteresting words, the words a docent at a regional art museum might use, but there they are in print. “Exquisite,” in particular. It tells us nothing about the pictures, and worse, it implies that beauty is the metric by which to judge art. In an essay about one of the least stylistically beautiful (and one of the most stylistically interesting) writers alive! James Wood is obsessed with character names. About Revolutionary Road, he writes, “Frank is anything but frank, and springlike April will die in the fall.” Okay. Or of a character named Adam Morey in The Privileges, a book about, unsurprisingly perhaps, privilege, he says “the name suggesting both ‘money’ and ‘more’ of it.” Oh, thanks James Wood! So there you have it – I’m out now. I guess he sometimes chases the strong, vibrant language that he so admires in novelists. He can be unattractively dogmatic. But the most honest thing to say is that the way he sees fiction has changed the way I see fiction. Whether he’s funny doing it or not. 2. What makes James Wood great? One thing is his willingness to quote at length, and it seems only fair to grant him the same courtesy. Here is the long first paragraph of his review of The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, a review that I think should be handed out on the first day of every MFA program. Most of the prose writers acclaimed for “writing beautifully” do no such thing; such praise is issued comprehensively, like the rain on the just and the unjust. Mostly, what’s admired as beautiful is ordinary; or sometimes it’s too obviously beautiful, feebly fine — what Nabokov once called “weak blond prose.” The English novelist Alan Hollinghurst is one of the few contemporary writers who deserve the adverb. His prose has the power of re-description, whereby we are made to notice something hitherto neglected. Yet, unlike a good deal of modern writing, this re-description is not achieved only by inventing brilliant metaphors, or by flourishing some sparkling detail, or by laying down a line of clever commentary. Instead, Hollinghurst works quietly, like a poet, goading all the words in his sentences — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs — into a stealthy equality. I mean something like this, from his novel The Line of Beauty (2004): “Above the trees and rooftops the dingy glare of the London sky faded upwards into weak violet heights.” We can suddenly see the twilit sky of a big city afresh, and the literary genius is obviously centered in the unexpected strength of the adjective “weak,” which brings alive the diminishing strata of the urban night sky, overpowered by the bright lights on the ground. The effect is paradoxical, because we usually associate heights not with weakness but with power or command. And the poetry lies not just in what the sentence paints but in how it sounds: there is something mysteriously lovely about the rhythm of “weak violet heights,” and the way the two adjectives turn into a plural noun that is really just another adjective; the sentence does indeed seem to drift away into the far distance. This is not a particularly original passage of criticism – for one thing re-description sounds an awful lot like defamiliarization. But it has two qualities I associate with Wood. First, it’s absolutely correct; he’s a great reader, whether you like him or not. This passage is itself a re-description of a sentence one might easily have passed without noticing. Second, it’s a close reading that is attuned to the significance of language within fiction. The second point is the significant one. In the last ten or fifteen years precision of language has become the password that marks out serious writers of fiction. (In this respect, though in fewer and fewer others, John Updike’s influence remains enormous.) There aren’t many literary novelists at the moment who are content to be plainspoken, and those who are, Kazuo Ishiguro for instance, have clear narrative motives for the choice. Instead, when you open almost any well-regarded novel today it will have long passages of precisely poetic prose, full of surprising and carefully curated language. I attribute this generation of writers’ embrace of non-narrative and extra-narrative observation at least in part to Wood. From his first days at the Guardian he’s been a persistent and sometimes lonely advocate for Hardy and Lawrence’s brand of language-based realism. (The writers he’s criticized over the years – Richard Powers, A.S. Byatt, Paul Auster, this last to devastating effect – often have an element of magic in their works, and a fair criticism of Wood might be that he restricts his affections to books that even when they are fanciful make total sense, which sounds like a fair metric until you think about it.) To pick out language for special attention might seem like an affectation in a critic of fiction. Language is important in a novel, obviously, but less so than in poetry, where the sense of distillation makes it overarchingly vital. Novels should have room for mess and digression, the way life does – and in my opinion they should also have some speed, which precious language can check. But what seems to me to make Wood such an important critic is that he doesn’t care about language simply for itself, even when he cites its beauty, as in Hollinghurst’s case, but, crucially, as an indicator of a novel’s quality of thought. That seems to me to be his central insight: that since language is our only point of access to a writer’s intentions, its care or carelessness is the first test we ought to take of a book’s merit, and more than that our greatest clue to the quality of their thoughts. “Intelligence is not mere ‘smartness,’” he writes at one point, “but an element inseparable from the texture and the movement of the book.” This – the division between smartness and thought – is where Wood’s brain began to work on my own. 3. In the spring of 2011 I was living in Oxford, doing halfhearted work on a doctorate (its subject was false genealogies in the work of Edmund Spenser; film rights still available) and working intensely on the final third of a novel about the city, where by then I’d lived for nearly three years. One day I read that Wood was going to be in town, to deliver a series of six lectures on fiction at St. Anne’s College. I went to all six, excited to hear him speak. They were intermittently terrific; it seemed to me that he was strongest in his readings of contemporary writers, where the weight of academic thought had yet to settle. In particular his lectures on Melville and Woolf were perceptive in parts but also seemed less persuasive in that academic setting, and I was reminded that in a very real way criticism is journalism, a first, delible draft of literary history. That was Wood’s strength, I thought: getting a living writer just right for a literate but not professional audience. His opinion of Orwell seemed less vital to me than his opinion of Ben Lerner. Around the same time I read How Fiction Works, his short guide to (truth in advertising) how fiction works. Though that book was genial company it made very little impact on me, probably because I was already aware of the existence of free indirect speech, which Wood discovered in the same way that Columbus discovered America – long after it was settled terrain. Combined with the good-but-not-great lectures, the effect of the book was to lessen his importance in my mind. It wasn’t as if he was the only critic I liked, anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever read a word Zoe Heller wrote that I didn’t love. Dwight Garner was never boring. Then a funny thing happened. By June I had finished my novel about Oxford. It was under contract to a publisher and I took some time away from it, two or three months, because I wanted to return and edit it with fresh eyes. When I went back to it late in the summer I felt pleased with the book from sentence to sentence, and with its characters. But I started to have a terrible, itchy, and at first seemingly irrelevant thought: James Wood would dislike this book. This was truly stupid, I thought at first. You might write for yourself, or some ideal reader, but never for a critic. But then my thought clarified into something worse: James Wood would dislike this book and he would be correct. There were two levels to this realization. The first was the level of language, and I experienced it as I edited from line to line, like those fibrillations you feel in a muscle just as you’re falling asleep: I would pass by a sentence and then startle back toward it, realizing the fatal slackness of its language. Where I thought I had been precise I had been quick, where I thought I had been quick and free I had been inexcusably careless. (Wallace Stegner put it so well – hard writing makes for easy reading, and the reverse.) I began to edit much more fastidiously, not in accordance with what I thought Wood would like (I wasn’t that far gone) but with what sounded like the truth. If, for instance, I had a character “crunch through the snow” in my first draft, now I would stop and think. Was there any vitality left in that word, “crunch”? Where had I received it?  Was it the best word I could think to describe the sound of shoes in the snow? What about the little shreds of wisdom (“fail better” was one I can recall cutting) that had been hollowed of meaning by familiarity? The second level of that Woodian realization, and the less agonizing, more liberating one, was about a subtler idea: withholding. That is one of Wood’s own words, an attribute he values enormously in a writer. Reticence might be another thing to call it. In his assessment (one of his most profound to me) of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, he writes: And throughout the novel, present but never spoken, never written – it is the most beautiful act of Sebald’s withholding – is the other historical name that shadows the name Austerlitz, the name that begins and ends with the same letters, the place that Agata Austerlitz was almost certainly “sent east” to in 1944, and the place that Maximilian Aychenwald was almost certainly sent to from the French camp in Gurs, in 1942: Auschwitz. As I read through The Last Enchantments – as my book was and is called – I began to see how catastrophically little I had withheld. Partially this was a fault of using the first person, a choice that I began to look on with dismay. My narrator analyzed every gesture of the people around him, and was constantly checking in on his own thoughts. He also explained the emotional significance of all the interactions he had, as if he were writing for a child. So I began to cut as ruthlessly as possible, and just as importantly to elide plot, to remove connective tissue, to cede control of the book to the reader. As with the language, it wasn’t a slavish choice, taken in obeisance to James Wood’s critical opinion. Instead, it was that he had, as in the opening to his Hollinghurst review, illuminated an idea I already understood in my mind – that the best texts are writerly, per Barthes – but had never cared all that much about, until I relearned it through his gift for instantiating abstractions through criticism. How rare that seemed to me at the time, and seems still, in a critic. I spent that whole fall of 2011 cutting and rewriting my novel. By the end of it I felt nearly sick with anxiety over the process. Still, I forced myself to take another few months away from it, and when I returned again I realized, with a tremendous exhalation of relief, that it was a better book now. When I finished reading the last draft I was sitting in a coffee shop in New York, and I can remember, though it sounds bizarre, thinking of James Wood – and feeling grateful to him. Also, and not irrelevantly, on that day I remember thinking that even after all of my changes he would see the book as a failure. A few months away from publication, I still do, for reasons I’ll describe now. 4. Of John Updike, whom I mentioned earlier, Wood has written, “he is not, I think, a great writer, and the lacuna is not in the quality of his prose but in the risk of the thought.” The risk of the thought. That phrase has settled in my brain. The Last Enchantments is a relatively conventional story about an American abroad at Oxford, where he makes a break with his past life, meets new people, and falls in love. These could be the elements of a radical book or a safe one, a good one or a terrible one. I don’t personally think it’s terrible, but it may be safe. The fact of the matter is that language and elision – the lessons that James Wood reshaped and renewed for me as I was editing – are important, but they’re still not as important as conception. As I look upon my book as a finished object, preparing to exchange it for money with people out in the world, I can’t help but feel its conception risks too little. (I should say I don’t think risk means formal radicalism – Alice Munro, to me, is a far riskier writer than, say, John Barth, because her stories rely on her perception of human psychology, which when written falsely is disastrous.) The Last Enchantments seems to exist too much within the contours of books that I’ve loved in the past, both long ago (Brideshead Revisited) and not that long ago (The Line of Beauty). That may sound odd, since at the outset of this essay I specifically disavowed the direct influence of other novelists, but I don’t mean that the books were influential on my own. I mean that I accepted the terms of other writers too easily – their view of the world. My own book is new, in the sense that I feel very sure it’s written with my voice, but I now I wonder if perhaps it’s not new enough. Of course this is a common tactical retreat. Every writer must feel his last book is the worst one ever, and I don’t know how I’ll come to judge this one when I’ve traveled farther away from it. I’m working on something now that is riskier, or feels riskier to me, but it could be that I’ll look back on it with far greater regret than I do on The Last Enchantments. At any rate it’s certain that I’ll look back on it with regret. It seems impossible to me not to. Iris Murdoch said it best: every book is the wreck of a perfect idea. This returns me to James Wood. Almost no subject on earth has more nonsense mysticism attached to it than writing. I think perhaps in the end what he has given me is the feeling that any real work of literature is underwritten not by inspiration, or genius, but by actual thought – actual work – actual choice. In every line of his criticism, Wood searches for the real work that an author is doing, rather than the most generous possible reading of its brilliance. No wonder his highest praise for Lydia Davis is for her “relentless control” of her work, which “gives it an implacable Beckettian power.” The fact that this praise gets right is that writers live within the borders of their choices. That is the lesson I owe James Wood for teaching me, better than I was able to teach it to myself. Critics should never determine what a writer should write, of course. But writers shouldn’t be proud, either; they should take their lessons where they can find them. Read with the craft in mind, Wood can give a writer who pays attention the wherewithal to write with greater care, to take greater risks, and therefore ultimately to – one more time, why not – fail better.

Farewell to the Enchanted City

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” –Joan Didion 1. It becomes palpable in late spring, when I receive a pair of unconditional offers posted first-class Royal Mail. I give ample notice at work; I make a little list of things I “haven’t done yet,” as though I am permanently relocating to the moon and will never again have the opportunity to ride the Staten Island Ferry; I chart out the furniture I need to sell, making guesses at how much cash I might collect as I disassemble my life. The days slip by and summer stutters in, blisteringly hot at first, then endless weeks of rain. (Half a dozen people say something to the effect of “You’d better get used to this!” often with a wink and a nudge, and I bite my tongue, or sometimes, I don’t, and snap, “The rain in England is not like this,” even though sometimes it actually is. A friend buys me a raincoat — a “parting gift” for the “the precipitation zone you will be heading to” — and I am profoundly grateful.) I begin to get maudlin as I leave certain places, or say goodbye to people at the end of the night. “Will this be the last time I...” The abstract idea that has hovered over me for ages — leaving New York City — sprouts legs and begins to crawl. I’m headed to University College London in the fall, after one more season taking bets in my hometown, at the Saratoga Racecourse (this summer marks my tenth anniversary as a pari-mutuel clerk). These steps have been charted for a good while now, guided by the gravitational pull of London, a city in which I’ve lived before and a place that always manages to provoke my most extreme emotions, for better or for worse. Before all of that, though, I have to say goodbye to New York, which feels a bit self-indulgent: people change cities, migrate across the globe, uproot their lives every day, and most of them don’t feel compelled to write long essays about moving. But New York, though — maybe it’s the preponderance of writers here, the narcissism and the navel-gazing, that turns our comings and goings into a series of extended metaphors? We document our arrivals and our acclimations, the natural evolution of a human being, growing older — changing in a city that’s often painted as the living embodiment of change. And when we manage to leave, if we manage to leave, escape becomes a genre in and of itself. Because it often feels like that: escape, like getting out of town is risky, or hard to coordinate, or something that happens just in the nick of time. There are a lot of "leaving New York essays" out there, nearly all of them framed from the vantage of the author’s new location, a place that’s usually less shiny or less gritty, somewhere that’s better in a lot of ways but invariably shadowed by nostalgic regret, maybe a kind of lingering sense of not having "made it" here, whatever that means. They follow a tested formula: you march confidently across the Hudson possessed with extreme naivety, because you are impossibly young when you arrive in New York, no matter your age on paper; you quickly learn the same sorts of hard lessons that people have learned for years on end; you pay a lot and get very little and sharpen your cockroach-killing reflexes; you have moments of startling clarity, as you reference specific street corners or landmarks or bits of cultural currency, paired with embarrassing vocalizations of these moments of clarity. (These references have obviously shifted over the years; right now, it’s often people drinking Tecate on rooftops in Bushwick as the sun sets over the Midtown skyline. For me, in my years working the night shift in a skyscraper in Times Square, it was the Midtown skyline sometime after midnight, from the BQE just above the Kosciuszko Bridge, cemeteries and hulking warehouses shadowed in the foreground and a postcard stretch of light and geometric wonder across the river.) And then somewhere along the way, it ends. It’s not the day you leave, because if you’re writing this sort of piece, it’s likely that no one is forcing you to go, or you’re not putting up much of a fight. The New York of our imaginations has to end sooner than that — maybe it collapses under the weight of our own preconceptions, or maybe pinning so much responsibility on a city serves to mask the way the passage of time can alter us: when we arrive we are willing and eager to fold ourselves into different shapes, to make ourselves fit, but as we grow older, acts of contortion become more difficult, or at the very least, less desirable. It was always easy enough for me to live here, but my New York lost the vibrancy of the early days pretty quickly; I could hold my folded shape, but the stagnancy chipped away at me over time. People say that New York is a city for the rich, or a city for the young; it is also a city for the new and the bendable. On Easter Sunday, I box up my books and hesitate as my fingers pass over a well-worn pair of Didion essay collections, the big two, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. I am sorting books into three piles: to give away; to send upstate; and to keep around for my final few months in New York, things I know I need to read, my half-dozen favorites, and a few shelves of "emergency books" that I irrationally feel like I might want to reference and need nearby me at all times. Afterwards it looks like the oddest little library — Gulliver’s Travels and Orwell’s essays and Evelyn Waugh’s collected short stories? Why did I keep these things here? Did I think I’d need to peruse How Fiction Works in a pinch? But I remember now, three months later, why I kept the Didions close at hand. In the vast realm of "leaving New York" essays, “Goodbye to All That” says everything that has ever needed to be said — but better. 2. I bought Slouching Towards Bethlehem in the final weeks of my senior year of college, and I read it during the strange, torpid months that followed. I open it up years later and remember, with some surprise, that those months coincided with my ill-fated experiment in becoming the kind of person who makes notations in books. Flipping through the essays, I see that I was playing fast and loose with the brackets and asterisks, basically rendering the act of marking totally pointless, like highlighting an entire page. I marked some good stuff, but most of it’s good stuff, kind of extraordinary stuff, really. It’s here that I should pause and acknowledge that if there’s anything more tedious than a “leaving New York” essay, it’s a “young girl discovers that Joan Didion has an inside window into her soul” essay. Bear with me for a moment, please. I can’t help but wonder why “Goodbye to All That” was placed at the very end of the book: chronologically, it belongs at the very beginning — it explains away her twenties, and lays some of the foundations for the woman we find through all the rest, simultaneously fragile and steely, searching for answers under the California sun. Didion in New York is bendable to the point of breaking: it feels so removed from the rest of it, and I suppose, in a real sense, it was: she arrived here at age twenty, in the late fifties; she left eight years later, to return to her native California, as the West Coast was securing its central place in the socio-political history of the decade, and a permanent place in the American cultural imagination. In the final pages of the book we do a bit of a 180, back to Didion’s New York. Even from a distance, across the river and half a century later, the city is so instantly recognizable that it’s startling. I re-read the part about talking to her long-distance boyfriend during the first few days and laugh aloud on a packed train at rush hour. (“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”) There’s a dangerous paradox in writing about your earliest years, about the very beginnings of adulthood. We believe our experiences to be unique but the messages to be universal, and we have a hell of a time trying to strike the right balance, without coming off as narcissistic or arrogant, qualities that look all the harsher when paired with inexperience and immaturity. It’s tricky to avoid whining. The circumstances of my own first year out of school are difficult to quantify, sometimes interesting, sometimes mind-numbingly ordinary: the post-graduation confusion, then a return to my summer job at the track; moving to Edinburgh to work in a t-shirt shop and live in a long-term hostel; moving to San Francisco to take an internship and cobble together rent money with sketchy side gigs; getting a call one day in early July, waiting for cheap sushi in San Francisco’s financial district, that my best friend had been hit by a truck and killed as she was biking to work that morning. I had decided to leave California a few weeks prior; I felt slightly out-of-synch out west, uncomfortable in ways I’d never felt in Scotland, as grim as my life there turned out to be. With loss, priorities can sharpen. I returned east immediately. If you asked me to explain myself that year, I’m not sure I could. I can outline my movements in plane tickets and bank statements, in e-mail chains and hazily-recalled phone conversations, but I fall victim to that paradox, the simultaneous convictions of uniqueness and universality. I came to New York on the heels of all of this, and those convictions solidified there, as I attempted to lay the foundations of the life I felt I was supposed to lead. Didion describes her own naïve march into New York by addressing the paradox with a kind of unflinching sentimentality: When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again. In fact, it never was. Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before. It almost feels like some sleight-of-hand, the way the experiences her twenty-year-old self believes to be singular are cut down by that final sentence. Didion, a pioneer in the school of New Journalism, stretches her years in New York across the city like a broad, welcoming umbrella, inviting all of us underneath to find our own experiences in her early fumblings. “Of course it might have been some other city,” she writes, “had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York.” I can’t help but wonder, though; it’s an impossible sentence to counter, after all. I compare my own earliest fumblings to my years in New York — the place where my twenties slipped away, where I worked very hard and got just a little bit in return, where I spent huge swathes of time never setting foot outside the five boroughs (more like three boroughs, actually), where my own cultural assumptions met up with hard realities, where I stopped to marvel at that stretch of the Midtown skyline every single time I passed it — and I think that it couldn’t have been anywhere else. But then, perhaps because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York. 3. Everything changes, even people, at least a little bit, and I watched my friends unravel somewhat in New York and then weave themselves into something nearly unrecognizable to me. I am leaving at a pivotal moment: one after another, people I know bid goodbye to their twenties, approaching the time when it feels as though one must choose to escape New York and rebuild elsewhere, or attempt to graduate into a more settled existence, moving in with partners and purchasing real estate and thinking about the future in years, maybe decades, rather than months. I think that those who stay are not choosing the life I’ve known: they are hoping to create something new, or so I assume. All the while, the circle contracts: a good number of my friends, some of the closest, have left town within the past year or two, nearly all of them in the height of summer, making toasts at outdoor goodbye parties as sweat collects at the backs of our knees. I want to say goodbye properly but I am not quite sure how to manage it. “You’ll be back,” people tell me, at work or out at some party or other, and I think, well, maybe, or better yet: yes and no. Joan Didion, after all, has returned to the Upper East Side. I can come back for certain — though maybe when I win the lottery, because I can barely afford to stay now — but I can’t return to any of this; I lost it some time ago. I suppose that’s why it’s so much easier to say goodbye to the physical space, to the things that give me my daily bearings, than to the alternative: I’ve always been terrible at endings, from my childhood notebooks to the current collection of folders on my desktop littered with unfinished stories and essays, things that are very nearly there, if only I could find the last key piece, some subtle thematic note that could tie it all together. “Goodbye to All That” takes its title from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Good-Bye to All That, his “bitter leave-taking of England” written in the wake of the First World War. But Didion’s essay, first published in The Saturday Evening Post, was originally titled “Farewell to the Enchanted City,” which I think might suit it better, in some inexplicable way. There’s so much inevitable disappointment wrapped up in the title — nostalgic regret, my absolute go-to when leaving a place. The Enchanted City, the land of outsized expectations. “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.” It isn’t hard to live here, for some of us, but maybe it is hard to sort our expectations from our dreams: the horizon is too hazy, blotted out by the skyline. Months to go, then weeks, and then it is a matter of days. I take stock, and I don’t say much, let alone any real goodbyes. To the physical spaces, my favorite corners: Cadman Plaza just after a thunderstorm, the view up Manhattan Avenue, dashing towards the train at Bryant Park at sunset. To the golden rhythms of the life I’ve known, because I, like Didion, spent my New York years making a magazine: I spend a few weeks working to not feel responsible for these words on these pages, for the publication to whom I’ve sacrificed Friday nights for nearly five years (and a good number of Saturdays, too), for the magazine that’s always been irrevocably wrapped up in my idea of New York, long before I ever stepped foot in the lobby. To my friends, who, if we can manage it, will always be my friends, but never like this again — even if I rushed back tomorrow, the ground has already shifted beneath me. But mostly to the Enchanted City, to the idea of it, how effortlessly it formed in my mind, and how it can disappear in an instant, when your back is turned. Someone else, somewhere, is arriving right now, marching across the Hudson: picking it back up, and falling in love with New York City for the first time, too. Image via Sakeeb Sabakka/Flickr

The Slacker in Modern Fiction: The Flâneur Goes to the Mall

1. In 19th-century France, the flâneur had an undefined route but a fairly specific path: the wandering observers of Baudelaire and Flaubert (the term comes from the verb flâner, French for “to stroll”) assessed society, notably urban life, with detached interest. These days, the term gets an extraordinary amount of play in the essays of James Wood, who goes into paroxysms of joy every time an eagle-eyed idler walks around and describes the scene in an illuminating way. In How Fiction Works, he writes: “This figure is essentially a stand-in for the author, is the author’s porous scout, helplessly inundated with impressions. He goes out into the world like Noah’s dove, to bring a report back.” One of the keys to the flâneur and his porous qualities, in my mind, is his idleness: a character engaged in strenuous work has no time to hang out and observe; his insights will have to come from elsewhere. In the 19th century, it wasn’t all that strange to designate your protagonist a “loafer.” But today, this kind of aimlessness strikes an odd chord: it is in and of itself a plot point, a defining characteristic. Flaubert’s Parisian rambler who hangs around cafes, people watching, would today most likely be called a slacker. Towards the middle of the 20th century, writers began to refashion the aimless observer. Dissatisfaction crept in, from Holden Caufield’s angst-ridden wanderings to Ignatius J. Reilly in The Confederacy of Dunces. Some say the term “slacker” was coined as early as 1898 -- during the World Wars, it referred to draft dodgers -- but it didn’t gain pop-culture appeal in America for nearly a century. Born in the '80s and raised in the shadow of Generation X, I always saw the previous generation -- Marty (and George) McFly, Wayne and Garth, Bill and Ted, Jay and Silent Bob, every classroom scene in Clueless, people who used the word “whatever” on a regular basis -- as the epitome of slackerdom. But it’s my generation that seems perpetually relegated to their parents’ basements. Recently, Emily St. John Mandel reviewed Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan, about a young woman who graduates from college and summarily retreats to her parents’ house instead of looking for work. Stein’s protagonist has been called a slacker, but something about her doesn’t quite fit the mold: Stein herself wrote in to add, “This is just a temporary blip in her life as an otherwise successful young woman, and I hope my novel resonates with those in a similar boat: not just the perennial ‘slackers’ out there, but the temporarily lost as well. Esther’s fantasies are just that: fantasies...for successful, ambitious people, there’s a dark fantasy to just throw in the towel, give up, and eat cereal.” I’m interested in characters that are living out that fantasy: what makes for a successful slacker novel? What propels a book when nothing seems to be propelling the protagonist? And how will the tradition of the flâneur be repurposed in the modern era -- because isn’t the slacker ideally positioned for the role? I looked at two novels, published a quarter of a century and 8,000 miles apart. The first is Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, out last month, and the second is Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, published in 1988. They’re wildly different stylistically: where Wilson’s prose is choppy and erratic, like the cocktail of uppers one of his characters has probably just downed, Chatterjee’s sentences wind on languidly through sweltering afternoons, reminding us that despite holding a job in the Indian civil service, his protagonist is usually getting stoned. But the similarities between the books are numerous, beyond the rampant drug use. If a novel garners momentum from its characters’ desires, these two work because they are narrated by young, confused men who both want nothing more than to finally, actually want something. 2. At first glance, Adam Wilson’s protagonist, Eli Schwartz, may seem a less than ideal observer: When I was ten, my parents took me to a specialist to get my hearing tested. Worried that I was going deaf because I never paid attention to anything anyone said. Doctor took me into a dark room, gave me headphones. I listened to a series of beeps, raised one finger each time I heard one. Other tests too. Results were suspiciously conclusive. Nothing wrong with my hearing whatsoever. Eli is in his early 20s, and he’s not doing much of anything with his life: “Instead of college, sank deep into my basement abyss.” He later describes himself as a “glorified townie without the glory. No rugged good looks or blue-collar gas-station-employee pride.” Class is one of Eli’s major hang-ups: though his parents’ divorce bumped his mother and, by proxy, him, down an income bracket or two, he is still comparatively wealthy, and thus doesn’t have to get a job, something he barely wants to consider. In a chapter titled “Money:” Eli sums it all up in two sentences and a bullet point: “Safe to say I wasn’t instilled with respect for the dollar. Let’s not play the blame game.” If it’s possible to redefine the idea of the flâneur in the 21st century, Eli is probably the place to start. He wanders, sure, but he’s largely stationary. The world comes to him, through the eponymous flatscreens -- computers, phones, televisions, etc. Much of the book, in bulleted list form, mimics the pace and the language of the Internet. In fact, Eli is a trustworthy observer and a good porous scout: he’s blank, ready to be inundated with modern life, and abstractly searching for something to stir up some kind of desire and kick-start his inertia. “I wanted everything to mean something. Or at least for something to mean something.” The book is littered with pop-culture references, particularly to the movies: titles of films, in parentheses, that resemble a situation at hand, and in the final section, there’s a surprisingly affecting twist on movie tropes, in which Eli’s fantasies for getting his life together, or merely getting a life, spiral off in every direction. “Possible Ending #4 (Dark but Ultimately Life-Affirming Screwball Dramedy):...It’s possible I end up a schoolteacher for the mentally unhinged. When Kahn dies I cry fountains, realize how much I’ve learned, how much I still have to learn.” 3. The unemployed aren’t inherently slackers, as Leigh Stein (and I, in years past) well know. But employment doesn’t always turn a slacker into a productive member of society. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s protagonist, Agastya Sen, is a reluctant trainee with the IAS, the Indian Administrative Service, and he’s been stationed in backwater Madna, far from the megalopolises in which he’s been raised. In a way, his own disinterest and laziness offer up good metaphors for the byzantine bureaucracy of the IAS, but Agastya’s disinterest is willful, at times petulant. “He himself made no effort to know his new world; as it unfolded, it looked less interesting to him; and later, even to see how far he could extend his ignorance became an obscure and perverse challenge.” Agastya, who is alternately known as Ogu, August, and English, a reference to the Anglo-Indians that is delicately explored, leaves his post after lunch and rarely returns, smoking a lot of weed (“Agastya, for the nth time in his life, was glad that he was stoned.”) and spending the intervening hours in the waffling of post-adolescent confusion: He wondered at the immensity of the Indian Railways, millions of people travelling thousands of kilometres every day -- why they did so baffled him. On less calm mornings, he would think about his situation and his job, why he wasn’t settling down, whether his sense of dislocation was only temporary, or whether it was a warning signal. But there was nothing specific that he wanted to do, no other job, and then with a smile he would retort, Yes, there was, design colour schemes for trains, be a domesticated male stray dog, or like Madan, even half-wish to be murdered. Late in the book, even after he’s matured a little and begun to accept his responsibilities, Agastya still waffles. Visiting a leper colony, he thinks that he envies its founder, now renamed Baba Ramanna, “most of all for knowing, when he had been merely Shankaran Karanth, how to master his future.” Like Eli Schwartz, Agastya makes for a sympathetic protagonist because he’s so quietly apathetic, and also like Eli, his lack of convictions and essential blankness make him an ideal observer. Everyone else has chest-thumping opinions about India: his direct superior; the chief of police; his father, uncle, and friends from home; his new friends in Madna, including an outspoken cartoonist; and a couple -- an Indian woman and an English man -- who pass through town on a sort of pilgrimage. If the flâneur’s observations are meant for the urban street scene, I think the same principle can be applied in English, August, despite its rural setting: Agastya paints a rich portrait of the IAS, and of a country that only he seems to realize is impossible to describe, or pin down. 4. Both of these novels have been called “darkly comic.” The king of blurbs, Gary Shteyngart (who blurbed himself recently, saying, “Gary Shteyngart’s blurbs are touching, funny, and true. This is a blurber to watch.”), wrote of English, August that, “Comparing Upamanyu Chatterjee with any other comic novelist is like comparing a big fat cigar with a menthol cigarette.” Of Flatscreen, he said, “OMFG, I nearly up and died from laughter. This is the novel that every Young Turk will be reading on their way to a job they hate and are in fact too smart for.” They are both very funny books: Eli’s got a lot of great one-liners, and Agastya seems tuned into some perpetual joke, which he supplements with compulsive lying. In a way, the comedy is essential: an unfailingly serious book about a man who wants nothing and does very little would be pretty grim. And the humor helps Wilson and Chatterjee tackle generational concerns, because both Eli and Agastya seem convinced that their generations are the ones that will put an end to everything. “Was it true I’d missed the party?” Eli wonders. “This was it for us: reality TV, virtual reality, planes into buildings.” In the final pages of English, August, the cartoonist, Sathe, tells Agastya, “You see, no one, but no one, is remotely interested in your generation, August.” What makes these boys, and these books, so likeable? They’re gentle, harmless, and fairly charming. They’re smart and funny and wasting their talents. They’re more than a little lost and fully aware of the fact. And in that way, they’re most of us, stripped of our responsibilities and wayward ambitions, if we even have any. They offer perfect reflecting surfaces for their respective times and places. In their lack of desires they show us what we want, as societies, and perhaps even as individuals. The reader might say, “This might be bad, but at least I want to leave my mother’s basement.” Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.

The Little Room of Danger and Depth

Oh how horrendous it was. Last year I did that thing: I bought and sold a house. As everyone warned, it was a dreadful double-whammy – I’d rather stand up in front of 500 people and share the secrets of my life. When preparing my humble home for sale, a place in which I’d lived for over a decade so it was starting to come undone at the edges, my real-estate agent told me that the two most important rooms in a house are the kitchen and the bathroom. Where I live now, an 1890s worker’s cottage in a regional town in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, it’s not the kitchen and bathroom that means the most to me, no, it’s a small room immediately inside from the front door. It really is a small room. You could fit a double bed but there wouldn’t be much room to walk around. And there’s only one window, a timber-sash ensemble, which looks into what’s officially the tiniest front garden in the district. And the walls are painted a color that’s a cross between clay and mud, so it feels cave-like, as more than one visitor has commented. Why is this room my favorite? Because it’s where – at last – I have a library. On each side of the old Hordern and Son coal-burning fire (I burn wood in it, and despite its age it’s surprisingly efficient, pumping out a sharp, dry heat) are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The bookshelves aren’t old, though they look as if they’d like to be. Also in the room is an upright piano, one from my teenage years. Sometimes, when I’m having a break from working words I sit there and make up simple minor-key tunes that only I and passers-by hear, except I’m sure the passers-by wish they hadn’t. Against the window is a dark green tartan-esque couch that I bought from Vinnies in town for $60. It’s in a surprisingly good condition, although the dog has designs on it. What’s missing is technology. When I moved in a year ago I decided that the little room at the front of the house would be gadget-free: no PC, no laptop, no phone, no stereo, although the modem does live in the library, because it’s the only option. It wouldn’t be a place to check emails or scroll through Facebook updates, that soulless activity that’s somehow entrapped even a good person like me. There’s no technology in this room because I want it to be about the books on the shelves. In this day and age it seems almost prehistoric to want to establish a library. It’s as though I’m admitting that I’ve become a fan of riding a donkey down to the shops, or that I’ve discovered how and why things fall to the ground. But I don’t care. How good the books look on their shelves: all those people I’ve met, all those adventures I’ve had. What dangerous situations I’ve been in: birth, hard living, love, loss, betrayal, and, yes, even death. I like order – to be honest, I’m obsessed with it – so I’ve divided up the library as if expecting the public to visit. To the left of the fire is fiction, and by fiction I mean primarily novels. To the right of the fire is my collection of literary journals I’ve built up over the last two decades, though I did have to do a cull when I moved house, which seemed sacrilegious, but it was simply something I had to do because they’d gotten out of hand, they’d proliferated. Also on this side of the fire is poetry, short-story collections, and writing "how to" books. Amongst this is a handful of my own publications; I’m not sure what I make of those two inches of book spines. Is that really all I’ve produced? Yes, that’s really all I’ve produced. Back on the left-hand side I’ve divided things up even further. On the top shelf, almost out of reach, are the books I must risk life and limb for if the house is burning down. There’s Eminence by Morris West, Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan, the first volume in Manning Clark’s memoir, The Quest for Grace, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, How Fiction Works by James Wood (recently I concluded this book was so good that it didn’t deserve to wallow on the right-hand side), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Flann O’Brian’s The Third Policeman, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow, which was the first grown-up novel I’d loved, and, of course, Madam Bovary. These books have moved me; the lives between the covers are as real as those of my family and friends. Like the coal-burner fire they radiate with intensity. They will be read again and again. Beneath the top-shelf stories are books I’ve enjoyed, sometimes very much, but they don’t seem to possess the profundity – life’s sheer heartbreak – of those up high; if there’s a fire and I have a spare arm I’ll grab some of these, but I won’t fret. Further down again are books that haven’t meant much to me, or perhaps I’ve hated them, or I’ve simply not understood, or I’ve understood them but they haven’t stayed with me, they’ve neither lingered nor haunted. Even so I can’t stand to chuck them away; in terms of novels I get rid of next to nothing, it seems inhumane. On the bottom shelves are books that are waiting to be picked up and loved, I hope I’ll love them, and I’m sure they do, too. What started this library? How did it come into being? In 1994, when against my better judgement I decided to have a crack at writing fiction, a well-read friend came over to my place; he and I had committed to doing a night course in creative writing and he’d offered to give me a lift. He looked around my flat and said, “Where are your books?” I pointed to the one and only shelf in the place, the one above the television. “There,” I said, “I’ve got Cloudstreet.” As if this single Winton tome could offer absolution! I did have some books on biology and ecology and place and landscape, because I’d started my professional life as a landscape architect, but in terms of novels I was up shit-creek. “Really?” said my friend. “Is that it?” Yes, that was it. He shook his head. He was incredulous. And he was right: I wanted to write but I’d not read much, at least not as a young adult – I was too busy navigating the minefield of late-surging hormones and the appalling mess of sexuality that goes along with that. Back in primary and high school I’d read, though I was slow at it, but I had enjoyed the task very much. These days, courtesy of my mother, I’ve re-collected most of the books I’d loved as a kid, such as My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, and The Dingo Summer by Australia’s Ivy Baker (which, according to the inscription, I was awarded for the neatest book in Science, Term Two, 1982; these days my handwriting is so appalling it looks like I’ve had a stroke). I loved The Dingo Summer for its exploration of landscape and loneliness, which are two themes I’ll take to the grave, whether I keep writing about them or not. There’s no doubt in my mind that the morning after my friend made his painful, embarrassing judgement I resolved to read as much as I wrote, to slowly but surely fill my shelves with books. Novels, short-story collections, poetry even. I’m not a good reader of poetry, but sometimes I do like to try unpicking a few lines before I turn out the light at night, a kind of surreptitious literary dessert. It’s probably taken me longer than most readers and writers to build up a library. I remain frustratingly slow at getting through a book, and these days I’m regularly exhausted – trying to get words in the right order really is an exacting job – so I’m forever falling asleep with pages face down on my chest. But now I have it, my library, at least a library in the making. I’m also an avid – read: fanatical – collector of music, so I have shelves and shelves of CDs and vinyl records, even some tapes, but I keep all this in a different room to the library, the one the previous owners used as a nursery, which, I think, is rather fitting for a childless man like me. However, even though a day doesn’t go by when I don’t listen to music, listen intensely, more than often I’m moved (I’m not immune to doing air guitar to Sonic Youth or lying in the bath imagining my demise to the miserable strains of The Smiths), it’s my collection of books that means the most to me. All that ink and paper and cardboard has enriched me in ways that I don’t really understand, not yet, and perhaps I never will – I almost failed the High School Certificate, English was my only reliable subject, and thank Christ for that. All I know is reading has challenged me, it’s changed me, sometimes it’s angered me; sometimes I’ve been so caught up in the text that years later I can still remember the events, minute details. For example, that unexpectedly sensual moment in the water-tank between the boy and the older man in The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. Or in The Quest for Grace when Manning Clark as a child visits a cemetery, feels the terrible weight of his existence, his meaninglessness, so he runs home where he is thankful for the warmth and comfort of a roast dinner. Part of the allure of reading is finding fictional worlds more interesting than the predictable day-to-day of real life. But books haven’t simply offered escape. They have given me depth, they have given me perspective, the sense that my days and nights have expanded, opened out. The aimless meanderings of my white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle-class life have more pulse because I’ve read, because I’ve given Tolstoy a go (The Death of Ivan Ilych is on the top shelf), and Chekhov too (he’s also up there with the best of them, obviously). For the completeness of this record, I should declare that there’s no Shakespeare on my shelves. I could lie and say that I love the guy, but I don’t, I’m with Tolstoy on that front – it just seems so, well, much ado about nothing. But that’s all by-the-by, isn’t it. The fact is that at the age of forty-three years and twenty-eight days I have a room that can rightly, justifiably be called a library. It’s a physical thing as much as a brain and heart thing; it’s a space, a place, a room all of my own, in every possible way. It is without question my favorite room in the house, the most important room, as archaic as that sounds, as archaic as it probably is, but I really don’t care. My library is my anchor, it’s my look-out, it’s my lighthouse. And I’m eternally grateful that if ever I’m burgled my books will be safe, because these days no one in their right mind would bother stealing the things. Everything will be alright. As long as there’s no fire.   Image credit: Kelly Schott/Flickr

No More Model Airplanes: Essential Writing about Writing

In his essay,  "How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals," Richard Bausch protests the proliferation of instructional books about writing, and laments all those wanna-be authors who, rather than read novels or short stories, seek out books on how to write their own.  He asserts, and rightly, "The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction." I never read how-to books on writing until I was faced with the prospect of teaching writing; before then, I simply read, period.  The writers I loved (and even the writers I hated) taught me, indirectly, about writing.  In a class of beginning writers, the ones with the strongest sense of storytelling and character, and with a grasp for prose that is vibrant and surprising, are often the ones who read voraciously, widely, and deeply.  A good reader isn't necessarily a good writer, but a good writer must be a good reader. In the past few years, though, I have sought out some books and essays on craft and technique.  I've found that some of these texts are useful for articulating the intuitive; it's when I'm having trouble with my work--or, more likely, wrestling with my manuscript in revision--that explicit instruction has led me out of whatever hole I've dug myself into. I haven't read the kinds of how-to manuals Bausch rejects; I prefer the books that deal with "the aesthetics of task," as he puts it.  I've read and enjoyed--and, sometimes, enjoyed disagreeing with--such books.  I've also enjoyed, in preparing a lesson for an introductory course, going back to the basics.  It reminds me of taking a ballet class for non-dancers; as someone who studied ballet for years (never seriously, mind you), the painstaking review of the plié can be illuminating. After all, it's the step that allows the dancer to do everything else.  One just has to remember that learning to plié spectacularly won't make one a spectacular dancer--or even a dancer.   There's technique, but there's also passion, soul, grace, daring. There are a few books on writing that I've not only been useful for teaching, but also inspiring and instructional to me personally.  They  have me thinking deeply not only as a writer, but as a reader, too; perhaps that's the difference between such texts and the ones Bausch rejects.  Aside from the usual suspects--The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, for instance, or Mysteries and Manners by Flannery O'Connor--here are some of my favorite books on craft: How Fiction Works by James Wood provides an excellent explication and appreciation of the free indirect style, or, as I prefer to call it, the close third person.  The third person is the trickiest of points of view, in my opinion, for it can vacillate wildly in terms of distance from the character(s); Wood's way of describing a close relationship between narrator and character makes this one approach to point of view easy to understand without stripping it of its complexity.  I also love the short chapter breaks--often only a couple of sentences long.  They're pleasurable to read. Now Write!, edited by Sherry Ellis, isn't a book on craft at all, but, rather, an anthology of writing exercises from writers like Dan Chaon, Alexander Chee, and Jayne Anne Phillips, among many others.  I use this book all the time when assigning shorter pieces to my students.  I've also recommended it to students who want to keep up a regular practice of writing without the pressure of working on a longer, self-designed project.  A couple exercises a week--from "Why I Stole It" by Robert Anthony Siegel, to "The Photograph" by Jill McCorkle--will hone anyone's powers of imagination and description.  I've done these exercises along with my students, and they remind me that writing without a final product in mind can open new avenues, and introduce me to characters and story lines I heretofore might not have entertained.  This kind of writing feels as fun as reading. Lately, I've been obsessed with The Art of series, edited by Charles Baxter and published by Graywolf Press.  In each slim volume, a notable writer examines one element of writing from a craft perspective.  Baxter's own volume, The Art of Subtext, explores plot and scene without reducing them to formula, without turning fictional characters into pawns on a chessboard. He manages to discuss character desire and motivation in a way that doesn't make me think of overly-simplistic screenwriting rules.  My class had a great time discussing Baxter's analysis of the great J.F. Powers story "The Valiant Woman," which introduced many in the room to an oft-overlooked writer. I've recently been re-reading Joan Silber's The Art of Time, discussed on this site by J.C. Sirott.  One of the things I love about writing fiction is how I can play with time, compress it and expand it, and I love analyzing these approaches with my students.  Is there nothing sexier than starting a paragraph with, "Five years passed"?  Is there nothing juicier than  crouching into a dramatic moment between two characters?  Silber's discussion of "selected concreteness" in The Great Gatsby is sharp, as is her examination of Anton Chekhov's "The Darling." Again, the reader in me delights, asks me to look again, and look more closely. Lately, I've been reading the series' books on poetry.  A couple of weeks ago I assigned Mark Doty's The Art of Description; what Doty says about poems and their capacities can be applied to fiction: What descriptions--good ones, anyway--actually describe then is the consciousness, the mind, playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that's doing the looking If that's not a new and beautiful way to articulate perspective and point of view, I don't know what is. I've also found a few essays on writing online, which I've taught with great results: Zadie Smith's "Fail Better," an essay on voice and what it means to write well, informed my reading of Emma Donoghue's Room (and my subsequent review). I find myself coming back to it, both in my own work, and in my teaching.  The essay asks: What is voice and truth?  What does it take to write well?  How can one refine one's consciousness? William Boyd's "Brief Encounters" is a succinct overview of the short story from the perspective of one of its best contemporary practitioners.  I like his distinction between a event-plot story and the Chekhovian one. Elizabeth Bowen's "Notes on Writing a Novel" is full of strong opinions, none of them supported with examples (She writes: "What about the idea that the function of action is to express the characters? This is wrong. The characters are there to provide the action.").  The piece is a series of declarations about the novel, and some of them wow me, some confuse me, and some leave me cold.  Whatever the declaration, though, I admire Bowen's confidence, and there are some nuggets of real genius here:  "Nothing can happen nowhere" (when she's discussing scene), and (regarding dialogue): "Speech is what characters do to each other." Now, I'd like to know--teachers, students, writers and readers--what are your favorite books on writing?

The Elusive Omniscient

As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this. I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on. On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree. It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up. No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world. But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power. He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise. But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition. Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read. So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance. And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine. This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders. All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.) Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere. Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day. [Image credit: Tim]
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