How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life

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Samuel Pepys Would Have Been Huge on the Internet

At some point during the 31st of May 1669, a learned if bawdy, witty if obscene, educated if scandalous, pious if irreverent rake, raconteur, and libertine who’d recorded over one million words about his life for almost a decade stopped his private scribblings, even though this gentleman named Samuel Pepys would live for more than another three decades. To the best of our knowledge, until that point no Englishman had ever provided such a complete accounting; such a scrupulous interrogation not of the soul, but of a life—a largely secular exercise in tabulating not just wars, but dinners; not just plagues, but nights at the theater. Beginning on January 1st upon the first year of Restoration, Pepys would record everything from when fire immolated the city of London to a particularly enjoyable stew of tripe and mustard. An entry dated March 10th, 1666 confesses that the “truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it,” and such a position could be the motto of Pepys’s diary. That document doesn’t reach the rhetorical heights of other 17th-century classics—it has not the poetry of William Shakespeare’s famed soliloquy in Hamlet, nor the intellectual sophistication of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets or George Herbert’s The Temple. Rather, what Pepys offered was something different, but no less impressive—a complete map of an individual human life and mind during that defined period of time. As novelist Philip Hensher notes in The Atlantic, “there is no precedent and no parallel for what Pepys actually did.”

Restoration was inaugurated with King Charles II’s triumphant return to London to avenge his father’s regicide, and Pepys would work as administrator of the Navy in the new regime. This was a fabulous era of theatricality after a decade of dreary Puritan Interregnum; when John Dryden’s and Aphra Behn’s elaborate set-pieces thrilled London audiences, when Isaac Newton’s New Physics transformed the very nature of motion, when wits from John Wilmot to William Wycherley injected English letters with a pump of aphrodisiacs.  An era ruled by an aristocracy that Peter Stallybras and Allon White describe in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression as being “carelessly demonic, nonchalantly outrageous, cynical in the way that only a class which despises its compromises can be cynical,” all of which Pepys was able to document. Pepys observed both the plague and the Great Fire of London, the first which decimated the capital and the later which purified it, and the Second Anglo-Dutch War when the English traded the tropical paradise of Suriname for a small village named New Amsterdam on the tip of Manhattan Island. With large, soulful brown eyes, jutting lower lip, and curly auburn hair, Pepys cut a swath through London society, from the coffee houses and printers of Fleet Street to the book stalls at St. Paul’s, pushing the Socratic injunction to “Know thyself” to its extreme, the most self-obsessed man in a self-obsessed era. A man aptly described by Emily Cockayne in Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England as the sort “not to make too much of a fuss about being accidentally spat on by a lady in the theatre—providing the lady was pretty.”

Yet after nine years of privately recording his movement in regal circles, his observation of scientific and technological changes, his attendance at the splendid plays of the Restoration, his intellectual intercourse with the era’s great minds (as well as the other type of intercourse), Pepys made his last entry on that spring evening in 1669. Fearing that he was going blind (he was not going blind), the diarist signed off with “The good God prepare me,” and so after one million words Pepys would fall silent in the record of his own life. A funny thing which literary anniversaries we choose to commemorate or not. Certain authors come in for posthumous honoring more than others—Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens. This year sees the 200th birthday of the great, grey bard of Camden, Walt Whitman, and his work will be rightly celebrated with events throughout his cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. Three years ago was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and it received a predictable amount of attention; 2023 will be the 400th year of publication for the first folio of the dramatist’s complete works, and it too will undoubtedly be commemorated with exhibitions, lectures, plays, books, and articles (I’m penciling such retrospectives into my own writing schedule right now). Pepys’s retirement as a diarist, by contrast, seems to largely be passing without much mention; the release of a commemorative coin from the Royal Mint (which he was associated with) notwithstanding.

An irony in this, because Pepys is in many ways a prophet of our own self-obsessed age. Pepys’s fragmentary, digressive, contradictory, messy diary (which was as voluminous in its output as it was disorganized in its execution) foreshadows our own individual self-fashioning. In Pepys we see Facebook; we see Twitter. British actor and web-programmer Phil Gyford sees in the diary a forerunner of blogging, and as part of an online project he spent nine years posting Pepys’s entries in real time. Lisa Schamess, in a delightful essay for Creative Nonfiction, considers both Gyford’s project and the general compatibility of Pepys’s diary with our own digital moment, arguing this his prose itself is “elegant evidence of how lustily the 17th century’s most famous diarist might have embraced the internet, tapping up its opulent charms deep into the night.” With an admirable eye towards close reading and comparison, Schamess reads through several of Pepys’s entries to demonstrate how in their half-formation, their digressions, and their exhibitionism, they’re reminiscent of Facebook posts. Schamess writes that Pepys’s “sharp eye and acid wit would be perfect for the restless internet, with its thin, glowing scrim between life and audience, its illusion of anonymity and controllable intimacy.”

Much is convincing in Schamess’s observation, yet it’s undeniable that even if his prose would be copacetic with the internet’s “illusion of anonymity and controllable intimacy,” Pepys’s actual writing was, at least while he was alive, completely private. Scholarly arguments abound about just how private Pepys’s expected his writings to ultimately be, and yet Gyford’s neat conceit aside, the historical diarist was not hitting “Post” after each one of his entries. Hewing to a more traditional interpretation of Pepys that sees him as a man of the late, late Renaissance, content to exist in wonder and curiosity, his editor Richard La Gallienne claimed that for Pepys’s “It is not so much himself that interests him, more merely the things that happen to himself, but the people about him and the things that are happening to everybody, all the time, to his nation as well as to his acquaintance.” Schamess’s and Gyford’s arguments about “social media Pepys” would be anachronistic coming from Pepys’s editor, a man old enough to have had an affair with Oscar Wilde, but perhaps La Gallienne would have concurred with them had he known what the internet was. Regardless, even in La Gallienne’s reading of the man’s character, there is something undeniable modern (or post-modern) in his vociferous appetites, his manner of absorbing, repackaging, and projecting his experience. In Pepys’s diary, there is an equivalence between his mind and the world, and what could be more contemporary than that, whether on paper or in 140-characters?

Written in a code-like short-hand developed in the 16th century, Pepys’s diary wouldn’t see publication until his writing was deciphered in the early 19th century; his previous reputation resting entirely on his role in civil government, ranging from membership in Parliament and being administrator of the Royal Navy to a position on the Tangier Council during the short years that the English governed a Moroccan colony. Pepys’s great colleague in self-introspection (or self-obsession), the Frenchman Michelle de Montaigne, may have invented the essay form more than a century earlier, but even he couldn’t match the Englishman for sheer magnificent, glorious, transcendent narcissism. The diary is what his name shall be inextricably linked with, not necessarily for the quality of the prose (though Pepys is often a fine stylist), but rather for the raw, honest, unguarded reflection on a sheer multitude of subjects ranging from politics to theater to medicine to sex. One of his 19th-century readers, the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, writes that Pepys’s style “may be ungrammatical, it may be inelegant, it may be one tissue of mistakes, but it cannot be devoid of merit.” With what seems like faint praise, Stevenson clarifies that the worthiness of Pepys lay in a style that is “indefatigably lively, telling and picturesque…[dealing] with the whole matter of a life and yet is rarely wearisome.”

At turns anxious and perverse, aroused and guilty, introspective and arrogant, horny and holy, Pepys’s diary was the most complete record of the Restoration era, and of the vagaries of a human mind in all of its splendid contradiction. Tolerant and humane, if skeptical, in his Anglicanism, Pepys was an often unconvinced enthusiast of church sermons, writing on January 19 1661: “To church in the morning, where Mr. Mills preached upon Christ’s being offered up for our sins, and there proving the equity with what justice would lay our sins upon his Son.” Yet he was also the author who was able to write of his wife discovering Pepys’s dalliance with her maid Deb Willet as “coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl [with] my [hand under] her coats; and indeed I was with my [hand] in her cunny,” his indiscretions characteristically hidden in a hodgepodge of ellipses. Elsewhere he deploys a strange pidgin of English, Spanish, and French to mask his pornographic obsessions—idiosyncratic ciphers that if one can read his shorthand take most readers mere seconds to crack. That’s always been the enigma of Pepys, a man who spent so much time writing his apparently private diary, who took the most marginal of non-pains to cloak his indiscretions, and yet had the entire project bound in six volumes and categorized in his library’s bibliography with the apparent foreknowledge that it’d inevitably see posthumous publication. 

Pepys is the virtual font of an age for those of us who are weirdly enmeshed in the 17th century, attracted to a melancholic era of stunning contradiction, which White and Stallybras describe as being both “classical and grotesque, both regal and foolish, high and low.” To read Pepys is to inhabit his world, and while among the great prose stylists of that century he lacks the metaphysical acumen of Donne, the philosophical flights of Thomas Browne, or the psychological insight of Robert Burton, Pepys makes up for those deficiencies by simply being there—day after day, for the better part of Restoration’s first decade. Consider the eeriness of his first-hand account of the plague which leveled London in 1665, forcing the court to rusticate themselves as the buboes spread through the capital:

This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord Have Mercy upon Us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind… that I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell and chew, which took away the apprehension.

Such a fusion of the horrific and the prosaic
conveys an immediacy that is still present three-and-a-half centuries later, a
sense of “This must have been what it was like.” Or consider his account of the
Great Fire of London from that satanic year of 1666, which remains haunting in
its specificity, the small details of tragedy illuminating the experience more
than maps and demographics ever could hope to:

Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.

Hensher observes that from a “seventeenth-century perspective, everything here is a deplorable breach of literary manners: the undignified interest in inessentials, the failure to assert any kind of moral about people’s scrabbling after their possessions, and the eccentric, unpolished syntax.” And yet Pepys’s is a novelistic sensibility, apt more for Dickens or Gustave Flaubert than for his own century; an empathy that understands that there is infinitely more to be conveyed in the image of singed pigeons than the sophistries of theodicy that impose false meaning on such tragedy.

In making record of the 17th century, there is certainly something innately attractive in gravitating towards those particular dates that loom large, but what’s most evocative in Pepys are the personal details, the mundanities but which by virtue of his having recorded them now belong to the annals of eternity. On April 4th, 1663 he makes record of dinner “most neatly dressed by our own only maid,” in which Pepys and his guest feasted upon a “fricassee of rabbits and chickens, a leg of mutton boiled, three carps in a dish, a great dish of a side of lamb, a dish of roasted pigeons, a dish of four lobsters, three tarts, a lamprey pie (a most rare pie), a dish of anchovies, good wine of several sorts, and all things mighty noble and to my great content.” There are, it should be said, numerous entries of this sort. Think of it as the Restoration equivalent of an Instagrammed food picture. He’s less charitable in his theater recommendations; writing on September 29tht, 1662 that he went to the “King’s Theatre, where we saw Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” But what’s Shakespeare next to a lamprey pie?

Or Pepys harrowing reminiscence of a surgical procedure, more than two centuries before anesthesia, which removed a kidney stone the size of a tennis ball from his bladder. Medical historian Roy Porter writes in Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine that “invasive surgery was limited in scope; lengthy operations, or ones demanding great precision, were out of the question.” Nevertheless, “A brave man—Samuel Pepys was one—might risk having a bladder stone removed surgically.” We should be thankful that the physician was the rare 17th-century doctor who saw fit to wash his hands before venturing tasks urological, for had there been for a bit more grime upon his digits when he performed surgery on Pepys’s peep and we’d never have had the diary to read. Pepys had his anatomical memento mounted as a trophy, writing March 26th, 1660 that “This day it is two years since it pleased God that I was cut of the stone…and did resolve while I live to keep it a festival.” Supposedly Pepys would plunk the stone into glasses of wine.

Then of course there is all of the sex in Pepys, with squeamish Victorian editors deleting whole entries where the diarist both luxuriated and punished himself over perversions both imagined and enacted. Pepys enumerated the women, from aristocrats to maids, wives and daughters of friends and colleagues, whom he fucks; women united in the status of not being his wife. Obsessed with not only his own erotic adventures, Pepys spends ample time hypocritically chastising Charles II’s own notorious appetites, while fantasizing about the monarch’s mistresses, from the actress (and “Protestant Whore”) Nell Gwynne to the aristocratic Barbara Villiers, whom Pepys claims he had a sex dream of that was “the best that ever was dreamt.” Still substantially less problematic than the entry from May 21st, 1662 in which Pepys writes that he came across Villiers’s underwear being hung out to dry in the palace at Whitehall’s privy garden, being “the finest smocks and linned petticoats…laced with rich lace at the bottom, that ever I saw; and did me good to look upon them.”

Cockayne writes that Pepys was “often led by his libido,” and indeed there is something disquieting about the author spending all of this time lusting after scullery maids and servants, duchesses and actresses. Critic Warren Chernaik writes in Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature that the infamously scurrilous theater of the period was “fundamentally conservative in its sexual attitudes.” Reading all of those lustily guilty passages of Pepys, and you can get a sense for the fundamentally reactionary nature of the diarist’s priapic concerns, where prurience and puritanism are twined pairs. Chernaik writes that “With nothing to rebel against, no taboos to be transgressed, blasphemy would lose its power to shock. It can be argued that society creates its rebels,” so that far from an exercise in liberation, Pepys’s orgasmic encounters were a type of prison, with nobody trapped in the neurotic cycle of release and guilt more than the author himself. Evelyn Lord in The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies, writes about Pepys’s encountering, while perusing book-stalls with his wife, a lewd French volume entitled The School of Venus (infamous for its illustrations of society women purchasing prodigiously endowed dildos). Lord writes that after expressing disgust at the book, Pepys “put it back on the shelf. However, he was unable to resist it, and eventually went back and purchased it in plain binding, took it home, read it and then burned it.” One imagines that Pepys perhaps had more onanistic concerns with the book that even he wouldn’t put into record. 

Denouncing The School of Venus to his wife, while later purchasing it in plain paper—was Pepys a hypocrite? Of course, he was a hypocrite. Did he feel guilt over his indiscretion? The ashes of his smut should leave little doubt that he did. Something modern in that position, the enigma of the neurotic. Pepys is our contemporary in that he dwells in a certain negative capability, a fractured ego strung as it is between the public and personal, the spectacle of accountability and the private web browser. In that manner, I see less of Twitter and Facebook in Pepys, less of the carefully manicured self-creation implied by our collective digital subterfuge, and more of a different post-modern literary genre—Samuel Pepys was the first writer of autofiction. That form, defined as it is by the presence of a narrator who is largely the same as the author but who dwells in the massive complexity of the individual, including all that is hidden (perhaps even from the author themselves). The true inheritors of Pepys’s ethos aren’t all of us clicking away on Twitter, it’s not the vulgarities of those writing status update while sitting on the toilet. Rather it’s those obsessive writers cataloging the minutia of their lives; poet Ben Lerner in 10:04, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Teju Cole’s Open City, and especially the Norwegian completist Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume My Struggle.

In that 3,600-page door-stopper, Knausgård contemplates both his conflicted relationship with his father, and the breakfasts he prepares for his children—with as much detail as Pepys once did. Knausgård writes of days that were “jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when ever opportunity filled me to the brim.” The task of My Struggle was for Knausgård to write deliberately and simply, to dwell in the prosaicness of detail. By comparison, Hensher describes the minutia of Pepys’s diary as being such that most of its entries couldn’t be “considered important in any obvious way; each has the quality, instead, of being interesting, which is much stranger and harder to achieve. We know about the socially aspiring dish of tripe and the randy morning because the man wrote it down.” That is the cracked wisdom shared by both Knausgård and Pepys, the understanding that we don’t write about things because they’re important, but rather things become important because we write about them. Jonathon Sturgeon claims in Flavorwire that the best description of the autofictional novel is a book where “the oeuvre is the soul. The artist’s body of work…has come to replace the religious ideal of the immortal spirit.” If that’s true, I’d venture that Pepys’s profane, grubby, earthy, secular diary is the first autofictional novel, in all of its over-determined detail, with all of its insignificant meanings, and especially with all of its contradictions of spirit, so very human in their deployment.

Writing of Pepys shortly after the diary had been rediscovered and published in the 19th century, Stevenson provided gloss for Pepys’s protean character: “We all, whether we write or speak, must somewhat drape ourselves when we address our fellows; at a given moment we apprehend our character and acts by some particular side; we are merry with one, grave with another, as befits the nature of demands of the relation.”  Such a mercurial nature is our common birthright, and in the sloppy, imperfect, anomalous medium of a diary we can see a certain process made naked. A polished essay is like the woman or man dressed formally for a job interview, clothing dry-cleaned and hair perfectly coifed—the individual self-fashioned into the most presentable of versions. Diaries are how we actually are more or less all of the time—messy, confused, and impolite. Le Gallienne argues that “The record was a secret between himself and his own soul, not forgetting his God… whom he invokes on many curious occasions.” Written for the Lord and for posterity, Pepys’s diary is a record of the soul before editing and revision, which is to say a record of the soul as it actually is. No deletions, no rearrangements, no strike-throughs, but rather a manuscript as a man, all error and contradiction—and the more perfect for it.

Leah Dieterich Talks About Monogamy, iChats, and the Leap to Memoir

Vanishing Twins: A Marriage (Soft Skull Press, 2018) is a rumination on desire, creativity, and the people who complete us. Told in elegant, precise vignettes, author Leah Dieterich uses ballet, philosophy, pop culture, and literature to gently tilt and examine the many facets of her identity.

Dieterich got in touch with me when she moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, this year—I’m a recent transplant from New York—and we started going to readings and writing events in PDX together. Earlier this summer we spoke about monogamy, performance, and craft at her dining room table, a fuzzy outline of her sleeping daughter on the baby monitor between us.

The Millions: Was there a particular incident or feeling that spurred Vanishing Twins?

Leah Dieterich: I was writing a novel that was based on myself and my advertising partner, where I was imagining that we were running away from our jobs and responsibilities and taking a VW van up to Big Sur. I had been working on this novel for a couple of months, and then this one night when I was writing at a café in Santa Monica (where I ended up writing most of the book), it started to take a different turn.

I started writing about the French ligature with the O and the E smashed together, and I really didn’t know how it fit into the scene that I was writing, but it was coming out. I remember feeling so good about it but also concerned. I knew I wanted to follow this thread, but I had no idea what it had to do with the novel. At the same time, it felt like an epiphany. I realized that instead of the novel, this was what I wanted to write about. I wanted to explore my actual life in these weird ways—not necessarily as straightforward memoir, but using the interests I have in language and in other writers and thinkers to explore certain events and themes in my real life, rather than trying to make things up. I finally gave myself permission. I said, “I just want to write about my own life and that’s OK.”

TM: I’ve been reading a lot of Sheila Heti, somebody who’s known for straddling that line between fiction and non-fiction. How Should a Person Be? is a “novel” but—

LD: I think the subtitle of that book is A Novel from Life.

TM: Yes! And Motherhood has an unnamed narrator, but in How Should a Person Be? the narrator is also named Sheila. And of course real-life Sheila also has a best friend named Margot, same as in the book. Were you ever tempted to call Vanishing Twins fiction?

LD: Yeah. Once I started being really honest about my story, I got scared and thought, “Maybe I should call this a novel.” It felt like a way to hide, perhaps. I tried to query agents with it as an autobiographical novel in the vein of Sheila Heti’s book, but in the end, the agent who wanted to represent me called it a memoir (since I think I’d had a casual conversation with her about whether to call it fiction or nonfiction) and I was like, “OK. If you wanna call it a memoir, and you think you can sell it as a memoir, then let’s go for it.” I didn’t really have to do anything to the book to call it a memoir. I’d already changed all the names of the characters from my life, and since that’s totally acceptable in memoir, I just kept them the same as they’d been when it was called a novel. The names were an important part of the narrative or structure of the book—having all three of my main characters’ names begin with E.

TM: I was wondering about that choice.

LD: Yes. I wanted to make them feel sort of interchangeable. I wanted them to overlap.

TM: Did the people—the three Es—know you were going to write about them?

LD: Yes. I had written a short story inspired by my relationship with Elena before I started this book, and she’d seen that. My work colleague, Ethan, also knew; I had written a short story with characters inspired by us that I’d shown him. That scene actually appears in the book.

Eric (my husband) always knew that I would be writing about our life. I didn’t have him read the book until I thought it was ready to send out to agents. At that point, I’d already had my mentor, Sarah Manguso, read it and give me edits on two separate occasions over the course of two years. The first time my husband read it, he said it was beautiful but he didn’t like the way that he was portrayed. To his credit, he was like, “I’m not the audience for this book and I still think you should send it out.” I did send it out, although somewhat reluctantly, and luckily I didn’t get an agent for it then. It was kind of a relief because if someone had been like, “We want this,” and then I would have had to decide if I wanted to sell the book knowing he was unhappy with it, that would’ve been horrible. Some of the agents that rejected it had interesting feedback that I read to him and he total agreed with. I thought, “If I work on the book with this feedback in mind, hopefully it will satisfy this, or any other agent, and also my husband.” I showed him the manuscript before I sent it to a new batch of agents and he was like, “This is amazing–this version totally solves all of my problems and I think it’s incredible.” In the end, it worked. He was happy and I got an agent, but it took a year of revisions until I queried again, right before I was about to give birth to my daughter. That had been my deadline for myself.

I think the process of revising the book helped our relationship in a certain way. It helped me have more perspective on the time in our lives that I was writing about, to have delved into it more deeply. I think that’s why the book ended up being better. I think before, I was just scratching the surface with his character, and mine too for that matter. We weren’t full people on the page.

TM: So it wasn’t that you didn’t include enough about him, but maybe you just needed to include—

LD: The right things. I was so selective in what I had chosen to remember, but luckily, I had a lot of documentation. During that time in our life, we had been living apart, (he in New York and I in Los Angeles) so much of our communication was written.

TM: Emails?

LD: iChats. A lot of instant message. I would save all of the conversations that felt significant, both with him and with Elena (who lived in London). I had all of that. I knew that I would do something with it someday, so I saved it all. I literally went through about 20 chat transcripts that were each two to three hours long. This is weirdly masochistic and totally the way I operate, but instead of just reading them, I transcribed them all word for word. I had read some of them many times already for research, but I tended to skim them. Transcribing forced me to relive them. I spent a few months just doing that every single day. I’d be at the coffee shop crying over my laptop because I felt like I was in that moment again, but this time I could be the observer, too, which was even more heartbreaking for me. I could drop into the role of myself eight or nine years ago, but also see her from a distance.

TM: That’s crazy to think about going back through and kind of reliving it.

LD: It was amazing.

TM: You incorporate a bunch of outside texts into Vanishing Twins. Did you write the narrative first and then go through and add in the research bits? Or would things jump out at you as you were constructing the story?

LD: That’s a great question. One of the main outside texts is A Lover’s Discourse, by Roland Barthes. I was obsessed with that book. I’d bought it while we were living apart. I hadn’t started writing Vanishing Twins yet, but years later when I was working on the book, I’d be writing these little snippets of action, a scene I remembered from my life and it would remind me of something from A Lover’s Discourse, or from Adam Phillips’s Monogamy and I’d think “I should go get that and look at it.” When I’d feel blocked, I’d transcribe all of the quotes I’d underlined in these books. That way I felt like I was always accomplishing something even if it wasn’t generating new material. Once I copied down all the things I’d underlined, they started finding their ways in or inspiring new sections.

When my husband and I moved back in together after living apart for nearly three years we went to dinner at a friend’s house in LA and the friend started talking about Adam Phillips, and he was like, “Have you read Monogamy? It’s amazing.” He brought this little book down from the shelf. I don’t remember perfectly because I was really drunk, but I remember being upset about the book and its title, because though my husband and I had closed our open relationship, I was still very anti-monogamy in theory. We borrowed it and my husband read it, and was like, “This is amazing. I think you’d really like it.” I was resistant but I acquiesced and once I did, I was like, “Oh my God.” I was floored. That book changed my life. It complicated everything I thought about monogamy and made it seem dangerous (which I liked) and a worthy challenge, instead of something boring you do out of laziness.

[Monogamy] is so short. There’s basically just a paragraph on each page. They’re vignettes, or propositions. As I began writing Vanishing Twins, that book started to find its way in too. I write in a program called Scrivener. Do you use it?

TM: I don’t, but people love it.

LD: I really love it. Especially for this type of book where there’s a lot of short sections that are interchangeable. I would spend hours rearranging them. It’s really easy to do because each section is listed in a column on the left and you can just drag and drop them and move them around. Before I started using it, I was using Word and I had like 20 pages and I just couldn’t keep track of everything. I think having Scrivener helped the book start to grow, just from a file organization standpoint. It’s a really important part of how the book came together.

TM: In Vanishing Twins there’s heavy use of white space—it’s a distinctive form. Were there other writers besides Phillips who gave you permission or encouragement to do that? Was there a particular blueprint you used as you were constructing the book?

LD: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was my blueprint, really. That moment I described, when I was working on the road-trip novel and I began writing about the O and E ligature. That was when I was like, “I want to write nonfiction. I want to write lyric essay or memoir in the vein of Bluets or Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay.” There’s this thing in L.A. called Writing Workshops Los Angeles that Edan Lepucki started. That’s how I met Sarah Manguso, actually—I took a one-day poetry workshop with her. Anyway, they had a memoir class, but I was like, “There’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to actually get to this class on time after work and/or have time to participate and read everyone’s work,” but I thought the teacher and the syllabus sounded really interesting, so I contacted her.

Her name is Chris Daley and she’s now running WWLA, and I said, “Can I just do an independent study with you?” And she said yes. We met at a coffee shop and I showed her the pages I had, and said “I love Maggie Nelson and I love Sarah Manguso. I want to write a book that is about my life but is not straightforward memoir. I want it to be more…”

TM: Lyrical.

LD: Yeah. I told Chris, “Here are my pages. I love Bluets. What advice do you have for me?” Some of the pages were about the œ ligature and some were about my open relationship and some were about twins because concurrent to wanting to write this book, I had also had the idea to write a movie about a young married couple who are struggling to grow as individuals while maintaining their bond who meet a set of identical twins and end up getting into a relationship with them—the woman with the one sister and the man with the other sister.

Chris said, “Maybe twins could be your blue.” It was like a lightbulb went off over my head. But it was her head. Then she said, “That’s just a thought—it doesn’t have to be that.” I wasn’t even listening anymore. I was off and running. I hadn’t seen how I could connect all these seemingly disparate ideas and concerns but once she presented it to me, it was so obvious.

TM: It’s always interesting when someone else can see the common themes in your work more clearly than you can.

LD: It made it so much easier to write, because any time I was trying to come up with new material, I would be like, “What about binary stars? Those are twins.” It was like a prompt.

TM: Before writing this book, you existed in two different artistic spheres: dance and advertising. I wonder how ballet and writing ad copy influenced the writing of Vanishing Twins?

LD: To write for advertising, you have to be very concise. I was telling someone the other day that there is a rule that you can’t have more than six words on a billboard. So I was used to cutting things back to their core. Sarah Manguso is all about concision and cutting everything you possibly can, which for me was easy because it’s what I did all day. That I think, definitely informed my style and the way that I write.

For dance, I don’t know. That love of performing might be one of the reasons I write memoir. It’s a way to put myself out on stage in a way. I think I miss that from dancing, that feeling of being out there and being exposed. Somehow I think if I was writing fiction, I would feel more like I was hiding and that wouldn’t be as satisfying.

TM: In the book, you talk about making the decision to cut your hair short and stop wearing makeup—abandoning what some might refer to as performative femininity. At the time, your husband is not into this change. I wonder if that issue has persisted—are you aware of femininity as a performance still?

LD: Ever since I started writing this book I feel like it has allowed me to express the fullness of my identity so I worry less about how I dress or how long or short my hair is. I don’t need my appearance to do all the heavy lifting anymore. My hair is really long right now and I like it, but of course I still sometimes think, “What if I cut my hair really short again?” but I resist because I know my husband likes it longer and at this point in my life and relationship, I want him to find me attractive just like I want to find him attractive. I have a LOT of opinions about his appearance so it’s only fair that he should have them about mine. I’m sure I’d have to have those negotiations with anyone I was in a long-term relationship with, regardless of their gender. I rarely wear makeup anymore which is something I’ve carried over from my more tomboyish days, but occasionally, and I should say VERY occasionally, I put on some lipstick.

TM: It feels a little like a costume to me at this point, especially after having kids. I wasn’t wearing it for a long time because I was too busy, but I do now on occasion. My kids will be like, “You look different. You look pretty.” It’s so weird that they notice that, and weirder that they like it, that they’re already receiving cues about what is “pretty” and that they’ve attached a value to that. It’s so bizarre.

LD: It is. I feel the same way. I’ve always felt weird about wearing makeup that is observable—stuff like red lipstick. I own it and think it’s pretty, but I still feel the same way I felt when my mom put lipstick on me the first time for Halloween when I was eight, and I felt like I couldn’t close my mouth. I still feel like that. I don’t know how to hold my mouth when I’m wearing it.

TM:  Did you feel a duty to be honest in this book? Were there things that you specifically left out because you didn’t want to hurt somebody?

LD: I did leave things out. There were other relationships I had while we were open, but they weren’t as significant. They felt extraneous and would have complicated the narrative. I think that was one of the main things I learned about memoir­—that you don’t have to talk about everything. That was the thing that was hardest for me to realize: I have the freedom to give this thing a shape.

May Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month — for more May titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

(Also, 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.)

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)

Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay: In this age when (some) sexual assault survivors are finally being listened to and (some) sexual predators are being held accountable, there couldn’t be a better time for an essay collection examining just how pervasive and pernicious rape culture is. Gay has become a champion for survivors of sexual assault since the beginning of her writing career, so she is the ideal editor of this book that attacks rape culture from all angles. From essays by well-known figures such as Gabrielle Union to emerging writers, this book explores all elements of this ill from child molestation to the rape epidemic in the refugee world. (Tess)

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.)

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo: Five characters arrive in the megacity seeking to make a new start, leaving behind traumatic situations born of Nigeria’s sociopolitical complexities and mingling their fortunes in what Booklist calls, in a starred review, “a tangy Ocean’s Eleven–esque escapade that exposes class and ethnic divides in the country even as it manages to mock the West for its colonial gaze toward the African continent as a whole.” (Lydia)

Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey: This is the third book in the master’s Seasons Quartet, a novel rather than the essays that characterized the previous volume. With Spring, Knausgaard explores a family disaster, explaining to his daughter (the intended audience of the Quartet) why it is that they receive visits from Child Services, and what it was that caused her mother to leave. (Lydia)

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. (Il’ja)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale: A newly translated novel from a Prix Goncourt winner who Milan Kundera called the “heir of Joyce and Kafka,” Slave Old Man is the hallucinatory journey of an old man who has escaped enslavement on a plantation in the forest of Martinique, pursued by his former captor and a fierce dog. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly writes, “Chamoiseau’s prose is astounding in its beauty.” (Lydia)

Like a Mother by Angela Garbes: Several years ago Garbes, a food writer, wrote a viral and absolutely bananas piece about the mysteries and miracles of breastfeeding. Now she brings the same spirit of inquiry and amazement to a related and equally bananas process, filling a lacuna she faced when she was pregnant with her first child. The result is a deeply reported, deeply felt book on everything surrounding reproduction and its effects on the body and the mind. (Lydia)

Calypso by David Sedaris: In this, his first essay collection in five years, Sedaris uses a family beach house as a starting point to explore mortality and age with his characteristic humor and aplomb. (Read Sedaris’s latest essay, on his mother’s alcoholism, here at The New Yorker.) (Lydia)

 

 

 

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)

The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel: Abel’s debut centers around a group of young people who converge in a utopian summer camp in a small town in the Colorado mountains, exploring American obsessions of freedom, ownership, property, and class against the vagaries of the Reagan and Bush years. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly calls this novel “politically and psychologically acute.” (Lydia)

 

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)

Meet behind Mars by Renee Simms: In stories taking place across the United States and ranging in style from fabulist to realist to satyrical, Simms, a professor at University of Puget Sound, writes scenes from the American experience, focusing on the connections and inner spaces of a large cast of African-American characters. Tayari Jones calls this “an exciting debut of a vibrant new voice in American literature.” (Lydia)

Kickflip Boys by Neal Thompson: We all turn out like our parents to some degree — an unsettling revelation when we remember our own missteps growing up. In Neal Thompson’s new memoir Kickflip Boys, he recalls his rough-edged upbringing as he raises his skateboard-obsessed boys and wonders about their own emerging rough edges. Thompson is a magazine writer and the author of four prior books, most notably his biography of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. (Max)

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)

The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: A novel about the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, juxtaposing the life of a modern girl fleeing Homs across land and sea and her medieval counterpart, a girl who traversed the same territory while apprenticed to a renowned mapmaker. Simultaneously an homage to Arab intellectual history and a lament of modern chaos. (Lydia)

On Sheila Heti and (Not) Motherhood

A friend texted me a few months ago to tell me her period was late. We spent five minutes going back and forth on the specifics, but I was about to teach a class and she was getting on a train. Remember, I said, just before I put my phone away, the abstract idea of the thing is always scarier than the thing itself. This is a sentence I wanted to whisper to Sheila Heti’s main character throughout the reading of her book Motherhood. This is a thought exercise, I wanted to tell her, but it has very little relation to the actual thing.

Of course, Sheila Heti knows this. Her character—who, like her similarly Sheila Heti-like character in her previous novel, How Should a Person Be? is to be understood as both a stand-in for Heti and sufficiently Heti-adjacent that scenes might, in moments, have been altered for effect—acknowledges and plays with motherhood as abstract idea throughout the book. Heti’s character knows the abstraction’s relation to the thing itself is limited, but it is perhaps her knowledge of this that is one of the forces keeping her decidedly unwilling to become a mom.

She likes ideas of things. She revels in abstractions. She seems less sure of what to do with actual life.
But just as that autopsied body revealed a startling lack of something to my mother’s eyes, so in the moment of marrying I felt deceived: marriage was nothing more than a simple human act that I would never be up to fulfilling…so I fear will be the first moments in the delivery room, after having the baby laid on my chest, when it will hit me in a similar way as to how those moments dawned: there’s nothing magical here either, just plain old life as I know it and fear it to be.
I recognize this feeling so completely. I felt it when I got married. When we had kids. The feeling that this Big Life Event was so shockingly like the rest of life, the fact that magic maybe only ever existed in my head. Or maybe that magic only existed fleetingly. I love the man I married. I love our marriage. I love motherhood, but most of it is exactly like the rest of life: confusing and exhausting, messy, complicated, never like I planned. This is also, of course, the relief of all these major life decisions: there is just more—sometimes more crowded, more exhausting, sometimes more joyful—life on the other side.

When I told a friend I was about to start reading Sheila Heti’s book she looked at me and smiled. We’d spent part of the lunch we’d just had together ogling a baby at a nearby table. We’d spent some of the rest of lunch watching a video of my three- and five-year-old on my phone. I liked it, she said. It was 150 pages too long, but I liked it. My friend doesn’t have children, but she’s thinking of it. She’s at the beginning of her 30s, still with a broad enough swathe of time in front of her, that she can be thinking about it, for a while still, without the stakes feeling too high. It was like 450 pages, my friend said. It should have been 300 pages, but I liked it. When I got the galley in the mail a week later, the first thing I did was check the page count: 278.

I bring this up because I also felt like the book was too long, but on purpose, as if Heti is performing for us what it felt like for this woman, thinking the same thing over and over again, having the same types of dreams, the same types of fights with her partner, the same kind of conciliatory sex. This feels like part of her project. If this is a book about (not) motherhood, it is also, a book about the female body and its limits and its strength. It is also an intense, sometimes maddening, performance of female ambivalence.

Heti uses a recurring act of her main character asking an i ching coin yes or no questions throughout the book as a sort of exercise in external surety. The character acknowledges that it’s random; we watch as she asks enough yes or no questions so as to make them further her larger project.

The form breaks a few times and she’s smart and charming enough to call herself on it, to acknowledge this is just a way to force herself outside her own brain, “its useful, this, as a way of interrupting my habits of thought with a yes, or a no.” Of course, the coin only interrupts her briefly and she can easily outwit it. She asks enough questions, gets enough yeses, and her habits are quickly reestablished.

Once, when I was hugely pregnant the first time and walking around a small town where my husband had work and where I had come along, I walked into a bookstore off a crowded street and the woman behind the counter looked at me and said, that huge thing is never coming out of tiny little you. I had big babies and am not a big person. With both our girls, people pointed at me on the street in my final months. But it has to come out, I said to her, horrified. It has to come out, I said a second time; she looked at me and laughed. I walked another hour after that, shaken and crying. What if it was still possible to take it back? I had been so grateful to have decided. I had been so happy, for the first time maybe, to be so surely interrupted, to just let my body act.

This is the trick of the physical bodily world to which we must all succumb in some way. Heti’s character can outwit nearly every yes or no that’s offered to her, but the no she gets or lets herself believe when she turns 40 is the only thing that can actually, and finally, interrupt her habits. She will not have a baby, so it seems, all of a sudden, after years of back and forth, because her body says so. She doesn’t have to think in circles any more.

Heti’s character less decides not to have a child as decides to wait out her body’s ability to procreate. This is, of course, its own sort of decision. She’s a fiercely intelligent woman. She knows what time passing means. There is a scene in the book where she goes to see about freezing her eggs to prolong this timeline, but she opts against it. There is talk of money there, but it also seems that she needs this experience of deciding not to to be more wholly contained. It is a type of deciding that feels less like deciding than the vasectomy enacted by a man she meets at a party, less deciding than the IUD she gets then has removed. But still, it is the same decision insofar as there is no baby at the end of the book. It has the same physical consequences, contains the same absence in the end.

Containers were what I thought about the whole time I read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. I thought about what words contain and how that is determined for us early, what books contain, and what bodies contain. I thought about the ways in which we are at the mercy of each of these containers, how our ability to acknowledge their limits and their capaciousness can determine so much of how we choose to live.

In a class I taught a few months ago, we read a handful of what I thought of as revolutionary female writers: Clarice Lispector, Jean Rhys, Rachel Cusk, Samantha Hunt. All of these women I think of as fierce consciousnesses, not beholden to the traditional expectations of the novel, not beholden to traditional expectations of the Female. In each of the books we read by these women there are pregnancies; there is an acute awareness of the female womb. One of these pregnancies ends in an abortion, one in a dead baby, but the womb as character, as part and parcel to the character’s status as Female, is present in each.

In the Lispector, Passion According to GH, the book is largely about language. She is interested in absencing words, as we understand them, from their expected meaning; and she does this even with her “pregnancy.” The main character in the novel is “pregnant,” but she knows immediately that she will abort the baby, so then, “pregnant” as in filled with something that will one day turn into a baby, is not that, but something else. Of course, women have for centuries been pregnant and it has not resulted in a baby, but Lispector lets us see this clearly, that even the most seemingly certain word, an empirically provable fact of the body, does not have to be.

Each of these women forces the words around the female body to become something other in their telling. Hunt, in her short story “A Love Story,” whose character is a mother, is asking her status as “mother” to also hold within it the word “sex,” to also contain words like want and need. Each of these books succumbs to the fact of the female as a specific type of body that is also a container, a vessel maybe for the womb and for procreation, each of these books seeks to explore what else “Female,” “Mother,” “Pregnant” might be.

Heti’s character seems both to want to explore this and also to be fighting against the fact of the limits of it, both in what her body might hold, but also in the words as they were delivered to her up until then. Close to the end of the book we spend some time with Heti’s character’s mother at her house close to the sea where she lives alone. We know already this is Heti’s character’s dream of old age as well. It is also one of the reasons she gives for not wanting to procreate. She wants to be old by herself and without obligations. It seems her mother has achieved this, though, of course, her mother also has her. Her mother is perhaps the most compelling character in the whole book. For obvious reasons, I guess, but, most of all because she seems to have managed to largely not mother, even as a mother herself.

When this woman describes going to visit her mother in medical school when she was a child, she says, “there seemed to be nothing so glamorous or romantic in the world as a mother who lived alone in an apartment with her colored pens and books.” Later, she explains that she had a friend ask her once (though she doesn’t say at what point in her life) if her mother was dead. Close to the end of the book, while staying with her (still living) mother in her house by the sea, there is the following scene,
Right before my mother left the room, she spoke, with some confusion, about women who say that raising kids is the most important thing in their life. I asked her if motherhood had been the most important thing in their life, and she blushed and said, No—at the very same moment that I interrupted her and said, You don’t have to answer. I was there.
Her mother, it seems, was able to be both Mother and Not Mother at the same time; a sort of extraordinary feat of female ambivalence; a resounding accomplishment of the abstract outpacing the physical fact. And, of course, this also isn’t true. She is a mother. She birthed this woman and her brother. She is just Mother in a different size and shape and with different preoccupations and interests than we might expect.

Both my mother and my sister are lawyers. They both have four kids. They’re both married to lawyers. My sister is a partner at my mother’s law firm and the only major difference between her life and the life my mom lived is that she works fewer hours, because she is a partner at the firm my parents built when we were kids. If you ask my sister what it is that bothers her about our mother she will tell you that it is the fact that, if someone at a party tells my mother that she looks familiar, she will mention she’s a lawyer, and not that she’s a mom. She’s a very successful lawyer. Her kids, my sister argues, are also a success. The fact that her first response is to trumpet her accomplishments infuriates my sister. It is one of the things about my mom I like the most.

My mother and I don’t speak much. On the surface, my life could not be less like hers. I run though, and she runs. I look like her. I love my kids fiercely, if not in the way of other mothers. I am obsessed with work. I am both a corrective to everything I see as how she wronged me, and more mother just like her than I might ever say out loud.

All of this to say, part of Heti’s project seems to be to push the limits of the Female, to upend the necessity of Mother, to suggest whole worlds that might exist beyond the making of other smaller versions of ourselves. But what her book also does is remind us of the limits, both of our bodies and our thoughts. For all her abstract acrobatics, this feels like a book about the complicated way Heti’s character both does and does not love her mother; it feels like an exploration of the ways our bodies hem us in.

Heti’s character doesn’t actually decide one day not to be a mother, the same way, when I found myself accidentally pregnant at 28, I more just decided to not get rid of it for a few months; she lets time run out and then watches as her body decides for her. We watch as her body, month after month, controls her thoughts and moods and feelings, even as she continues to be brilliant on the page. We’re reminded again and again that we are contained not just by our bodies, not just by time and the roles long since established by biology and culture, but by the way we’re taught to think about the words that are meant to define our bodies, contained by the specific, intransigent ways those words might mean in our own lives.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2018 Book Preview

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 Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published. What was Wood 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)

Upscale, Artisanal Bullshit of the Highest Order

Of all of the wonderfully insightful Charlie Rose segments on books and writing, the one that sticks with me the most is the contentious 1996 debate between David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner about the current state of literature in America. Wallace was on the heels of Infinite Jest and Franzen was building up to his perfected synergy of the Midwestern America family after two well-received warmups that underperformed commercially. Leyner had a novel and a collection to his name, both of which were highly satirical while maintaining an aura of symbiotic self-consciousness. Wallace was on the cusp of canonization, a distinction Franzen would reach with his 2001 novel, The Corrections; Leyner continued to produce a steady stream of fictional and nonfictional oddities, like his collaboration with Dr. Billy Goldberg, Why Do Men Have Nipples?. And so while Franzen and Wallace need no introduction, Mark Leyner, a man who has spent a career experimenting with style, structure, and genre, seems comparatively under-loved. As Leyner himself bitterly points out in his latest novel, Gone with the Mind, he’s not included in Philip Roth’s “formidable postwar writers” in Roth’s 2014 interview The New York Times. As it happens, Gone with the Mind, is both the perfect introduction to Leyner’s work and demonstrative of the reasons it has languished in relative obscurity.

Many readers feel a certain trepidation when they read fiction infused with factual anecdotes from an author’s life; these anxieties amplify when the writer literally injects his or her namesake into their fiction. This has been the central device of Mark Leyner’s writing throughout his 25-year career. His 1992 debut novel, Et Tu Babe, follows the life of the famous novelist, Mark Leyner. His sophomore romp, The Tetherballs of Bougainville depicts a lauded teenage screenwriter with the same name. For a writer who has made a career out of wry quips and flares of reality mixed with the imagined, Gone with the Mind is a culmination of these tendencies, more a gesticulation of satiric irony than cohesive narrative. Like all of Leyner’s categorical fiction, his latest book isn’t entirely upfront with its distinctions, either as a thinly veiled fiction or an elaborate farce.

In his latest, Mark Leyner the character is the guest speaker at the “Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series.” The event is coordinated by his mother, who provides a lengthy introduction for her son at the beginning of the novel. He is there to read from his autobiography — a project that began as a first-person video game wherein the objective is to return to his mother’s womb — to a crowd of two: a Panda Express and Sbarro employee. The narrative is, ultimately, a novel-length speech. While at times it is focused, it frequently rambles on the composition of the fake book inside the metafiction. My experience reading the novel spawned an array of adjectives, often in the span of a few seconds. Absurd, juvenile, sophisticated, selfless, masturbatory, profound. That’s Mark Leyner, and he knows it:
We (the Imaginary Intern and I) used to talk a lot about an olfactory art, some kind of postlinguistic, pheromonal medium that would be infinitely more nuanced than language (and without language’s representational deficiencies), a purely molecular syntax freed from all the associative patterns and encoded, ideological biases of language, that could produce the revelatory sensations of art by exciting chemosensory neurons instead of the ‘mind,’ that could jettison all the incumbent imperial narratives and finally get to something really nonfictional.
Authors frequently insert themselves into their own novels, but they work in ways that keep the end product undeniably fiction. Philip Roth embodied his child self in The Plot Against America, but the premise of Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election is purely fantasy. Ben Marcus rewound to his childhood in Notable American Women, which centers around behavioral modification and mind control. Other examples stray closer to the real. Jonathan Safran Foer (real) traveled to the Ukraine alongside American pop culture enthusiast Alexander Perchov (make-believe) in Everything is Illuminated. The voice, age, and background of Foer in his 2002 novel are largely synchronized with the author himself. The Pale King turned David Foster Wallace writer to David Wallace, one-time IRS agent. Douglas Coupland took the rare route of becoming a villain in JPod.

Perhaps the most common insertion tactic for fiction writers is to portray fiction writers. Paul Auster the detective has his identity stolen by Daniel Quinn, the fictitious mystery writer and protagonist of The New York Trilogy. Joshua Cohen is hired by tech billionaire Joshua Cohen to ghostwrite his autobiography in Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. Martin Amis is hired to rewrite a fledgling film in Money. After spending decades toiling with his mammoth fantasy series, The Dark Tower, one cannot fault Stephen King for actually acknowledging himself as the writer of epic series. King’s character literally embodies the struggles he had with bringing the series to an end, and Roland Deschain hypnotizes him in Song of Susannah in order to move the story forward. Leyner mirrors King in terms of breaking the proverbial fourth wall, as Leyner’s character often addresses the audience about his difficulties with finishing his autobiography:

If I were asked by some young, sensitive writer just starting out, what key lesson I’ve learned in life (which I’ll never be), I’d probably say that there is no aperture of egress, however tiny and exquisitely sensitive, that can’t be turned into an aperture of ingress.

If these writers-as-characters serve as a means for propelling their respective narratives forward, Mark Leyner’s layered self in Gone with the Mind is there for the sake of holding back; the work is an attempt to reinvent the conventions of novel structure. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Gone with the Mind plays with the characteristics of a novel in much of the same way that Eggers does with memoir form in his 2001 breakout. Where they differ is in cadence; rhythmically, AHWOSG is very much focused on the delivery of story via written exposition, while Leyner’s clear intent is orality. Eggers dressed up his postmodern memoir with fiction; Leyner dances around truths in a novel. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? likewise commented on the divide between fiction and autobiography. Calling it “a work of constructed reality,” Heti’s hybrid book shares a trait with Leyner’s. She built “A Novel from Life” from the framework of conversations with close friends. Leyner substitutes close friends with mainly his mother, and a smattering of other friends and relatives as he sorts through, and attempts to make sense of, his own life experience:

And it’s only much later in life that we try to retrospectively map out, to plot all the traumas and the triumphs, the lucky breaks and lost opportunities, all the decisions and their ramifying consequences. And I tend to believe that this inclination to look back on one’s life and superimpose a teleological narrative of cause and effect is probably itself a symptom of incipient dementia, caused by some prion disease or the clumping of beta-amyloid plaques.

Leyner, in an effort to subvert the reader from digesting the tale like a conventional novel, introduces the Imaginary Intern, a quasi-intuitive, philosophical entity surmised from a craquelure in the food court bathroom tiles. As bizarre as it sounds, the Imaginary Intern serves as the vessel — a foil for Mark Leyner the character. One can see the Imaginary Intern as the motivations behind writers including themselves in their fictions. In essence, it is the trial and error of entering and wading through the falsehoods of fiction as a living, breathing person in an effort to create a fresh version of oneself:

And this was something the Imaginary Intern and I used to always talk about trying to do in Gone with the Mind, trying somehow to express the chord of how one feels at a single given moment, in this transient, phantom world, standing in the center of a food court at a mall with your mom, but in the arpeggiated exploded diagram of an autobiography.

There comes a point in the novel when readers are likely to go, Okay, yeah, but what’s the point? For me, it was during one of the many dialogues between Mark and the Imaginary Intern.

Cheekily, Leyner lets his mother anticipate and defend him from his reader’s complaints. “I’d say, that’s the great thing about literature. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own interpretation. That’s what I’d say to that.”

In that great Charlie Rose segment, much of the conversation is about books competing with visual media. Leyner, Wallace, and Franzen discuss their concerns about the crowded entertainment market vying for our time. At one point Leyner says, “I have to somehow devote my work to people who may not be great readers anymore.” This statement resonates even more 20 years later, with the advent of social media, the rise of video games, Netflix, YouTube channels, Twitter.

If Leyner’s goals were honest, Gone with the Mind is the product of two decades of searching for the correct formula for the not-great readers, somehow producing one of the most compulsively readable literary novels I’ve read in years. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. This is Mark Leyner commenting on fiction in a way that only he can; he admirably dissects the problems with modern readers while simultaneously building a bridge to new readership. Within the many digressions and the back-and-forth with the Imaginary Intern, Leyner sporadically muses on the human condition and effectively broadens the scope of his narrative:

And I still believe that there are two basic kinds of people—people who cultivate the narcissistic delusion of being watched at all times through the viewfinder of a camera, and people who cultivate the paranoid delusion of being watched at all times through the high-powered optics of a sniper’s rifle, and I think I fall—and have always fallen—into this latter category.

Mark Leyner has spent his career carving his niche and discovering his singular voice. This declarative voice bellows from the food court podium in Gone with the Mind, demanding our undivided attention. Gone with the Mind isn’t the first novel that fictionalizes its author, and it won’t be the last, but it is absolutely one of the most inventive displays of this delicate sort of fictional act. Leyner is an oddity in American literature, a writer of virtuoso talent who chooses to spin genre-defying stories instead of capitalizing on what readers of literature have come to expect from the novel form. I concede that some readers may never get past yeah, but what’s the point? But in the author’s own words, “Even those who consider all this total bullshit have to concede that it’s upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order.”

The Fine Edge Between Comedy and Horror: The Millions Interviews Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last — Margaret Atwood’s first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 — is a novel that teeters on the fine edge between comedy and horror. The writing is full of Atwood’s wry humor, but the dystopian world in which the characters live, whether they are a sleeping in a car and fleeing thugs or under surveillance in a tightly controlled community, is an alternate world that is full of horror.

The novel tells the story of Stan and Charmaine. After a great financial crash, their home is repossessed, their credit is frozen, and they are left to eek out a meager life living in their cramped Honda for shelter. Stan sleeps in the driver’s seat so they can flee quickly during the night if need be. With only Charmaine’s money from a bartending job, they dumpster dive, eat day old doughnuts, and have no viable prospects for their future. When Charmaine sees an ad on TV for Consilience, a suburban utopia and a ‘social experiment,’ she signs them up to take a look. Participants are given a home of their own in exchange for going to prison every other month.

The idea behind Consilience is that a full prison creates full employment and all prosper. While Charmaine and Stan do their month in jail, they swap places with an alternate couple who live their life, drive their scooters, and sleep in their bed until the month is up and they trade places again. In a set up that recalls a Midsummer’s Night Dream-like mix up, unknown to each other both Stan and Charmaine have chance encounters with their alternates. Confusion, obsession, and mistrust turn into revelations about the truth about Consilience.

The more I read, the more I questioned whether I could describe the community of Consilience and the chaos outside its gates as taking place in an alternate world. So much of what happens in this novel, from foreclosed houses to private prisons, is already part of our world. The world of The Heart Goes Last feels more like a twisted version of our current reality. Only small changes would be needed to make it all ‘true.’ Just as Charmaine and Stan’s lives contort when they seek out their alternates, utopian turns dystopian and comedy bends into horror with, as Atwood says, “one small turn of the wrench.”

I interviewed Atwood over the phone from her hotel room in New York. We spoke about not having sex with furniture, Pepper the greeting robot, themes in Victorian literature, and quotas in private prisons.

The Millions: The Heart Goes Last has your trademark humor, but the circumstances that Stan and Charmaine find themselves in are horrifying.

Margaret Atwood: A lot of things are funny to those watching them, but not to the person undergoing them. The person who slips on the banana peel doesn’t think it’s funny as a rule.

TM: Charmaine says near the beginning of the book that, “comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness.”

MA: It does, unfortunately. Sometimes people make fun of themselves, but if you dig down there’s a bit of that too. On the other hand, where would we be if we couldn’t laugh? I think they’ve always been joined at the hip.

TM: At the beginning of the novel, you quote Ovid, William Shakespeare, and a blog post by writer Adam Frucci[1] — who sets out to test an ottoman with a fake vagina. I have to ask: Did you have sex with furniture to research this novel?

MA: I think that piece of furniture is intended only for men?

TM: Frucci warned that it was, “no Kleenex clean up, my friends.” Actually, what he endured to test the ottoman is a good example of something that is funny for the reader, but not so for the person going through the experience.

MA: One of the headlines of that post is “I did this so you don’t have to.” Frucci has probably woken to find himself strangely famous. A lot of people are reading that blog post.

The other thing that has to trouble your mind is — who had this idea for this piece of furniture? And would you have this in your living room? I have many questions.

TM: Maybe you’ve given the ottoman maker a little sales bump?

MA: I have a feeling that a piece of furniture with a sex thing built into it came and went fairly swiftly. If that blog post was written in 2009, the furniture has fairly quickly been superseded by the advances in robotics.

Do you know about Pepper the robot? Pepper is not a sex robot. In fact, Pepper comes with instructions that say explicitly that you are not supposed to use it for sex, though I don’t know how you could.

Pepper is a greeting robot, like one that Stan, the main character in The Heart Goes Last, is working on before he gets fired at Dimple Robotics. Except that Stan’s is a grocery bagging robot. It is supposed to smile at you.

Pepper is supposed to be able to read your emotions. They were installing Pepper as a greeting robot in Japan where greeting is a social custom. And then they put him/her on for private sale and he/she sold out very quickly. Apparently we want someone who can read our emotions.

TM: At Dimple Robotics, Stan’s job, before he looses it, was working on the empathy module of his robot.

MA: Personally, I don’t want someone who can read my emotions, because then you can’t dissimulate, can you? If somebody asks if you are having a nice day and you say yes, but you’re actually not…it spoils your act.

TM: It’s the white lies that get us through.

MA: I’m afraid that’s correct. They do. “That’s a lovely dress! You look wonderful!”

TM: The novel is filled with this kind of joke — your humor is always close to hand. I love a line on writing from Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?: “You have to know where the funny is, and if you know where the funny is, you know everything.” Do you agree?

MA: No, but it’s a good hint. You don’t know everything if you know that, but you know some things. It’s true in a negative way. If something is unintentionally funny, you ought to know. If you intended it to be very serious and dramatic, but actually it’s funny, then you are in trouble.

There is a wonderful book called The Stuffed Owl. It’s an anthology of good, but bad, verse. It’s well worth reading. It is full of writers who were aiming for the heights and tripped on the banana peel.

TM: As I was reading The Heart Goes Last, I kept thinking back to Survival, your thematic guide to Canadian literature that was published in 1972. In it you said: “I read then primarily to be entertained.” Do you still?

MA: Go back to what the ancients used to say, that art should entertain and instruct. They didn’t say to what degree. If it doesn’t entertain, and by entertain I don’t mean just frivolous, I mean engage your attention and keep you going. If that doesn’t happen, you’re not going to turn the page. So there has to be something engaging enough to keep you reading.

That is why first chapters are so important. If you can’t get the reader through the first chapter, they are never going to get to your pithy piece of wisdom on page 85.

On the other hand, if there is nothing serious in it, you may be entertained on a superficial level and it’s a one time read. Or it’s what we call a “beach read.” Or what I sometimes call a “hotel room drawer read.” I leave them there for others to enjoy. I did that in Hong Kong once and they were so screamingly honest that they collected the books and mailed them back to me. I thought that was so sweet.

TM: The Heart Goes Last is about characters who give up their freedom for comfort. When Stan and Charmaine tour Consilience for the first time they both feel reason to worry about how it runs. However, after experiencing the discomfort and fright of life in a car, they opt for comfort, “the bath towels clinched the deal.”

MA: Yes. It’s also about how circumstances cause people to do things that they would otherwise not do. That is a human universal truth. Stan and Charmaine give up their freedom, but of what does their freedom consist? They don’t have a lot of money, they are living in their car, they are subject to every thug and criminal that stumbles across them, so that is maybe “freedom,” but of a very limited kind.

TM: Can we expect a scared or thirsty human to make good decisions?

MA: You can’t. Self-preservation kicks in. A person will make the decision that you think gives him or her the best chance of getting through.

TM: In that way, is The Heart Goes Last a survival story?

MA: A lot of people lived that, or something close to it, when the 2008 crash happened. They were thrown out onto their front lawn or living in their cars. That is ongoing.

There’s a movie that just came out that I must go and see called 99 Homes — it’s the story of a man who evicts people from their houses because they couldn’t pay their mortgages. As I said, the situation is ongoing.

I was listening to the radio in London, England, and there was a show about people who had moved back into their parents’ houses, or parents who have had their kids move back in, because they could not afford to either rent or buy in London. It was too expensive.

TM: The set up of your novel felt so real.

MA: It is real.

TM: But it’s not necessarily your reality. David Mitchell wrote about how he imagines the far past or the far future, that to get in the right mindset he thinks about the things that the characters might take for granted in life.

MA: We did a lot of car travel when I was a child. We also did a lot of camping out. So that wasn’t under duress, but I know what it’s like to sleep in a car.

TM: There are other parts of the book that could be taken as speculative fiction, but aren’t, like private prisons.

MA: There are private prisons in the U.S. The Atlantic just did a huge piece on this. There is nothing in the U.S. constitution that says you can’t make people do enforced labor if they are convicted criminals.

There’s a history of that kind of prison as enterprise. The Australian penal colony was one of them. They would send people to work off their sentence. Someone was making money out of it.

TM: I also read that in Arizona there are three private prisons that require 100 percent inmate occupancy.

MA: You have to keep them full to make them profitable and that is a recipe for creating more prisoners.

TM: In 2008, when you published Payback, a book of non-fiction about the nature of debt, it almost felt like the world of finance had collapsed at your feet. The timing was quite something. Tell me about your crystal ball?

MA: I don’t actually have a crystal ball, but I do read advertisements when I’m sitting on the subway. I was seeing a lot of them that said “let us help you get out of debt.” I thought, boy, if there are all these enterprises doing that, there must be an awful lot of people in debt.

The other thing is that, if you are a student of Victorian literature, as once I was, debt is a big theme. Not only with Dickens, but a number of other writers as well. So is the prison system.

TM: In Survival you wrote, “Literature is not only a mirror; it is also a map.” Can The Heart Goes Last be read as a map?

MA: Maybe a map, but also a door. Open the door and what’s inside? Stan and Charmaine are in a planned prison system, a for-profit enterprise. What they don’t know when they go in is how the enterprise is making its money. The thing to ask about private prisons is who is making the profit? And how much are they making. Maybe it’s time to rethink. What should we have instead?

__

[1] I contacted Adam Frucci, author of “I Had Sex with Furniture: The Shameful (NSFW) Fleshlight Motion Review,” to comment about the honor of becoming an Atwood epigraph: “I didn’t really believe it at first — Ovid, Shakespeare, and my goofy blog post from 2009. I can’t say that of all of the things I’ve ever written that this is the one I want people to remember and attach to my name, but what can you do? All I can really do is be honored and assume that Margaret Atwood is a huge fan of all of my work and looks to me for inspiration all the time. That’s about accurate, right?”

Women in Clothes: A Collaborative Endeavor


1.
Sipping Champagne at my kitchen table on a hot August night, I flipped through the fat book, Women In Clothes. There was my little blurb, which made me cringe only a little to see in print, in which I talk about how, after my boyfriend telling me I needed to dress better, I went out the next day and spent $250 on clothes. My confession was right there alongside other similar personal confessions from over six hundred women around the world. Women In Clothes is a crowd-sourced, multi-form anthology consisting mostly of survey responses from regular, everyday women (like me) as well as from famous intellectual-artsy women (including Lena Dunham, if you needed me to even tell you that; you’ll find Eileen Myles and Roxanne Gay in there, as well). The survey answers, which are cleverly organized, are supplemented by essays from and transcribed conversations between similar such intellectual-artsy women, and wonderfully minimalistic and eclectic photo essays made up of personal collections, ranging from nail polish to handmade guitar straps to ear plugs.

Women In Clothes is the result of a collaboration between authors Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits, and visual artist Leanne Shapton. It is a striking endeavor in that it is, as mentioned before, verifiably “crowd-sourced” and contains no input from anyone who could be considered a style icon, although a former fashion model and a prominent fashion critic are amongst those who contributed survey responses. The book is, in this sense, a truly contemporary item, representing an age brought along through the Internet’s dominance, in which all opinions are valid, and sharing private thoughts and practices is acceptable.

Right away, I enjoyed the book’s overall light-heartedness, its tiny glimpses into people’s metaphorical and physical closets, and its whimsical and eye-pleasing artwork. Then I flipped to an interview with human rights journalist Mac McClelland, and read, on page 174:
And H&M, oh my god, I can’t even be in an H&M, I feel like I’m having a heart attack in there. It smells like . . . To me it smells like diesel or something—gas fumes and textile chemicals. Urban Outfitters—I have the same thing. Every time I walk in there I’m just like, oh my god, it smells like plastic and chemicals and bad news and bad politics and I just (laughs) I don’t want to be there.
I paused, looking down at my outfit, which consisted of two summer staples: an Aztec-print tube top from Urban Outfitters, and a striped skirt from H&M.

2.
In cities like New York, a capital of both the fashion and art worlds, there is no limit to how well-dressed a woman can be—and not just fashionably so, but also and perhaps of greater import, uniquely and singularly so. It’s a competition to be at the height of stylishness, and yet appear to have risen there almost effortlessly. Despite this competitive veneer, however, when prompted for fashion advice, women may extend solidarity. Occasionally, minding one’s own business on the subway, a tap on the shoulder will interrupt.

“Excuse me, do you mind if I ask where you got that?”

The information will be received with a grateful smile—unless the store named is someplace expensive, like Anthropologie, in which case there might be a slight roll of the eyes.

If fashion is divisive, then literature may be the opposite. It creates camaraderie. Female authors I have never met, or have brushed with in New York, are in my imagination my colleagues, as if we are somehow expressing different facets of the same contemporary voice. Reading a work by a female author that relates to the world you live in is like having a therapist who speaks to you in poetry: it doesn’t make things necessarily clearer, but it makes them beautiful and interesting. (Of course, such bonds may exist only in my imagination; one well-known female author whose work I admired—and who contributed to Women In Clothes—not only ignored my e-mails seeking her advice on a project, but seemed physically pained when I tried to speak to her about it at a magazine party.)

Last fall, I saw a co-worker who I didn’t know very well on a lunch break, reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I ran over and hugged her, so glad that she was sharing this magical literary treat. Had she been wearing the same dress as me, the reaction would have been much different: a snide glance instead of a hug.

3.
A pivotal scene in How Should a Person Be? occurs following a trip to Art Basel Miami during which the narrator, Sheila, purchases the same yellow dress that her best friend Margaux has just decided to buy. Back in Toronto, Sheila receives an e-mail from Margaux confessing that she is upset about the incident. She has even decided to give the dress away.
4. i think it’s pretty standard that you don’t buy the same dress your friend is buying, but i was trying to convince myself that maybe it was okay to buy the  same dress your friend is buying. you know, trying to think about it positively, hence the “we’ll wear them in our music video statement from me.”
Sheila and Margaux are not just any women; they are intellectual-artsy type women. They consider themselves serious—and often mention how glad they are to have found each other, “a girl who was as serious as me.” In a September, 2013 article in the New Yorker about Eileen Fisher, Janet Malcolm leads with this confession: “There is a wish shared by women who consider themselves serious that the clothes they wear look as if they were heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected.” And yet the message of Women in Clothes is clear: daily fashion choices are incredibly important for most women, often involve an incredible amount of anxiety as well as a good deal of creativity and resourcefulness, and ultimately consume a good deal of our time, energy, and emotions—regardless of whether we exist in a style-conscious setting or not.

Reading Women in Clothes, I became interested in how it was a collaborative endeavor. How had a subject that I felt created anxiety and divisiveness amongst women—as it does in Heti’s novel—been channeled into a creative endeavor? How had it become something shared not only between the three editors—as well as various collaborators who worked closely with them in analyzing the surveys (Mary Mann) and designing the book (Kate Ryan)—but also by hundreds of everyday women, like me, who had become involved in its making? I reached out, via e-mail, to the book’s editors.

The project’s birth was rooted in its absence, when Heti sought and could not find a book that would explain “what women thought about when they shopped, when they put outfits together,” she wrote me. “All the books I found approached dressing from the outside, not the inside. They were so image-based, or else about a specific stylish woman, like Audrey Hepburn.” Upon this realization that the book she wanted to read did not exist, Heti began e-mailing her friends, asking them “What is your process when getting dressed in the morning?”Heidi Julavits replied with some thoughts, suggesting the subject could become a book; the next thought was to include Leanne Shapton. The three began communicating over e-mail, over time incorporating other online collaboration programs into their process: Google Hangouts, Skype, Dropbox, and Google Docs.

At a certain point, the three women convened in a Toronto hotel for several days of what Shapton dubbed “book camp,” which, Julavits wrote me, “involved basically not sleeping for three days, and at one point ending up on the floor in bathrobes eating room service soup at midnight.” All three women stated that the process of making Women in Clothes was somehow transformational on a personal level, and that collaborating resulted in a work that was greater than the sum total of each individual. “I think the book is a million times smarter than any one of us, individually. We filled in each others’ gaps,” wrote Heti. As Shapton put it, “Like a swimming medley relay ream, we each had a strong stroke, and then brought opinions and support to the others.”

I suspected that producing Women in Clothes may have made its editors more aware of their own fashion choices. To this, Julavits shared a story that took place when she and Heti were having a drink at one point during the early stages of the book. “I was tired and not feeling very chatty, but I was very actively checking out and admiring her dress, which was a vintage nightgown. We parted ways, and she wrote me a bit later to say, ‘I went home and changed out of that ridiculous dress.’ I realized that she’d misunderstood my close attention for criticism, and it made me also realize that I want to be more vocal when I see a woman who’s looking great.”

Only a week before my e-mails with the editors, I had sat in a coffee shop, my attention distracted from their book by a woman sitting near me, conversing with a friend. Everything about this woman was perfect—her oversized necklace, her silky white tank top, her casual, baggy black pants, her minimalistic make-up. She saw me eyeing her, again and again. But I said nothing. Who knows how she took my glances—perhaps as praise, but also perhaps as criticism. And these glances happen so regularly on the subway, in shops, on the street. They are, it seems, part of the secret language of being a woman—the way we constantly judge ourselves and others based on superficies and artifice.

Can a book like this counteract these tendencies, likely instilled in many of us through too much time in our teenage years reading fashion magazines, which told us how to dress and what to look like? Can it, furthermore, make us think twice before we purchase clothes that implicate us in a web of human rights violations via factories around the world, and move us toward slightly more sustainable enterprises (I won’t even get into the whole American Apparel situation here, but let it suffice to say that many humanitarian companies do exist). A book like this can probably do that work, to some extent. But what it really makes me want to do is create art in a collaborative fashion—to find ways to work with other women rather than against them. I am jealous of the editors of Women in Clothes not because they have cool clothes or great hair, or perfect bodies. I am jealous, and admire, that they found a way to work together to create something a little bit revolutionary, and then shared the experience with so many people, giving us the opportunity to contribute in ways small and large.

Time to Put the Knives Away: An Interview with Rebecca Mead

Over coffee in a cafe in Fort Greene, Rebecca Mead asks me what my favorite book is, and then she stops herself. “Having a favorite is a stupid thing,” she says. “It’s like asking a child his favorite color. Only children have favorites.” Of course this isn’t true. Committing to a favorite book is like committing to a relationship, which is to say that it carries no automatic promise of deepening your engagement with human life, and may impede it. (Very often, when someone tells you his favorite book, you think he should have read more books before settling down.) The danger of poorly chosen commitment is a major theme of Mead’s favorite book, George Eliot’s Middlemarch — young, energetic Dorothea is stymied by her marriage to the permanently blocked scholar Casaubon; the ambitious doctor Lydgate is destroyed by his marriage to the materialistic Rosamond — but My Life In Middlemarch, Mead’s new book about her favorite book, makes it clear that she has chosen well. Mixing memoir, criticism, and literary history, with a sharp eye for all three, My Life in Middlemarch makes us feel what it’s like to live with a book throughout one’s life. A veteran New Yorker writer, Mead describes how her sympathies have shifted among characters from one reading to the next, and about how her life and reading have changed each other.

Mead points out that Virginia Woolf’s famous quote about Middlemarch — that it is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” — is not quite the unambiguous compliment it is often taken to be, since “grown-up” is “what children call adults.” But since we never stop being children and never stop having favorites, Mead makes a persuasive case that our favorite novel should be this one, which, like the best romantic partner, never stops comforting and never stops chastening us.

The interview has been condensed and edited.

The Millions: Is Brooklyn more or less provincial than the town of Middlemarch?

Rebecca Mead: (Laughs) New York is provincial, and Brooklyn is its own peculiar, absurd province within that. When I moved here from England in 1988, New York felt like it was where everybody wanted to go, the center of everything, very, very exciting. Now it feels like this isn’t the place where people are coming to. If you’re young, you can’t afford to move here. London is so international. People are coming there from Europe; it feels much more connected to the rest of the world. Maybe it’s age, and being less excited. But yes, New York does feel provincial.

TM: Where’s the line between self-help and literature? George Eliot, maybe more than most novelists, rather explicitly wanted to make her readers better. I admire how your book is not “How George Eliot Can Change Your Life In Seventeen Steps.” Where do you think that line is?

RM: I began with a piece in The New Yorker that was about the origin of this quotation — “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” — and I wanted to disprove that Eliot had said it. I didn’t disprove it, though I still don’t believe that she said it. When I started thinking about writing this book, I thought maybe I could do chapters based on twelve or thirteen things she did say. But I realized that this didn’t work at all, because that’s not how she works. When you separate what look like nuggets of wisdom from the text, they can make nice refrigerator magnets, but they’re just phrases. I think you have to read the whole book in order for it to make any real difference in your life. Because while you’re reading Middlemarch, you have the experience of empathy. You’re not simply told to be empathetic. You have your empathy shift from one character to another. And you have it change as you go back to the book over time, as most serious readers do. Middlemarch doesn’t tell you how to live, but reading Middlemarch, knowing Middlemarch, thinking about Middlemarch, helps you think about how to live for yourself. It’s a more demanding process than simply being told how to live.

Eliot wasn’t afraid of explicit moral direction or suggestion — she didn’t think there was anything wrong with doing it, as lots of later people have. That’s one thing I like about her; that’s one thing I liked about her as a young reader. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with telling you what she thought about things, rather than forcing you to think about whether you’ve got it right or wrong.

They keep coming up with these scientific studies measuring the effect on people’s empathy if they read literature, and on the one hand, you think: “Oh, good, that that will encourage people to read literature.” On the other hand, you think: “Do we have to measure it this way?” Isn’t that what literature is for, to make you see the world beyond yourself, and feel the experience?

I’ve read Middlemarch lots of times, but it never told me what to do, and it certainly didn’t tell me what not to do. And if it did tell me not to do something, I didn’t not do it. We make our own mistakes, and learn from our own experience. But reading is part of your experience. If you love literature, literature is part of your life. It’s not an external thing.

TM: “Books are stuff and life is stupid” doesn’t seem to help Lydgate.

RM: No. Poor Lydgate. But he dies young. He might have figured it out if he lived a little longer. But he made his own mistakes, as we all do. If he had read more literature and less science, he might have a wider view of women than he did. He had his own erroneous expectations, as we know from his relationship with the actress. He has an idealized notion of a woman on a pedestal.

TM: Lydgate’s relationship with the actress is an interesting burst of melodrama very early on. Which leads me to all the plot-heavy stuff with Raffles, which you mention is the least memorable part of Middlemarch.

RM: I’m not sure I could tell you now exactly how it works. I assume she had fun writing it. It’s fun to read it, and it’s fun to forget it. Then you come back and it’s like a whole new book.

TM: There’s also a lot with wills and so forth. Eliot is more dependent than I remembered on creaky plot devices. Why do you think that is?

RM: Why does she use Victorian plot devices? They were there, and they were what people used. Her audience would not have thought that that’s a creaky old device, they would have thought that that’s the shape a novel takes. What she was doing that was transformative was the interiority — D.H. Lawrence said that she took the action inside. That was the innovation, done within a framework that was in many ways still very traditional. And there were the demands of the serial format. She wasn’t quite like Dickens, but she had to hook people for the next episode. So she’s not Virginia Woolf, but you have to have Eliot first. I don’t think we can take her to task for not inventing every revolution in the novel, given that she invented one so brilliantly. At least one.

TM: Zadie Smith, in a very admiring essay on Middlemarch, complains that nineteenth-century English novels are still being written with “troubling frequency.” Do you think that literature’s gotten more conservative since Woolf? Do we need to move beyond Middlemarch?

RM: Right now, I’m reading Sheila Heti’s book, which is fantastic. It’s experimental but still has the satisfactions of a traditional novel. Kate Atkinson’s most recent book has an experimental form. Zadie Smith’s own work. People are doing things with novels that haven’t been done or haven’t been done for a while. Elizabeth Gilbert writes a novel with the idiom and ambitious scope of a 19th-Century novel, and I loved that, too. I found it completely winning. There are plenty of boring books, but there are plenty of exciting books as well.

TM: Do you think that writing this book has changed your approach to journalism? Your recent piece on yogurt opens up into a panoramic look at the family of the man who founded Chobani, and the town where the factory is.

RM: “The Middlemarch of yogurt?” I hadn’t thought about that. Certainly, though, the process that led me to want to write this book has to do with empathy. A lot of young writers don’t have a lot of empathy, and I don’t think I did. My first book [One Perfect Day] was about the wedding industry, a world about which I was curious about but not attracted to or invested in or fond of. I spent a lot of time with people who were doing things I didn’t like or approve of, and that was my aim, to do a comic muckraking sort of thing. That has a lot less interest for me now. I’m interested in writing more about people I like or admire or want to understand, rather than wanting to write about people that I could expose in what I saw as their comic foolishness. But that’s just part of growing up. If you still have the knives out when you’re my age, it’s time to put them away.

TM: Is there value in having the knives out when you’re young? Should we put them away when we’re twenty?

RM: No, I’m not saying that there should be no journalism that’s spiky or skeptical. I’ve still got the knives; I might get them out when there’s something that really needs cutting. I’m speaking about what I’m interested in doing. And of course there’s important value in exposing corruption and malfeasance, but that’s not the kind of thing that I ever did.

There’s a debate — isn’t there always — about whether criticism should always be kind, about whether you should write a bad review or take somebody down. It’s hard being on the receiving end of those reviews, but we all put ourselves out there, don’t we?

TM: You talk about how Middlemarch was too earnest for Virginia Woolf’s generation. Do you think that we’re too earnest? Too ironic?

RM: “Too ironic. Insufficiently earnest.” (Laughs) Your generation will acquire earnestness. I’m not going to be anti-irony. But earnestness has its own rewards.

TM: On a sentence-by-sentence level, there’s no writer more ironic than George Eliot.

RM: Yes, that’s a very important point. The post-Victorian generation put George Eliot into the box of earnestness and worthiness and dullness, so she’s forbidding. And people look at Middlemarch and think: “Oh my God, it’s so dense, I’ll never get through it.” But if you try hard enough to get into it, it’s spectacularly hilarious and ironic and cutting.

As I write in the book, when she was in her early thirties, she wrote absolutely scathing pieces about people. Forget about my knives, her knives were really, really sharp. Reading those essays, there was something absolutely thrilling about realizing that she too had been thirty years old and willing to take somebody down. But those things don’t live, and we would not read them now if she hadn’t written these great works of empathy, which are filled with irony and humor and the rest of it, but endure because of the empathy and the earnestness that underlies them.

TM: In that Zadie Smith essay I mentioned, she argues that the ambitionless Fred Vincy is the moral center of Middlemarch, because he’s not bounded by ideology. What do you think about that?

RM: It’s a great take on him. He’s a character whom I was uninterested in when I was seventeen. At the time, I couldn’t see the point of people like Fred Vincy. I realized in my late thirties or early forties that Fred and Mary are my mum and dad. Coming late to marriage myself, and having had many years of romantic adventures that I probably wouldn’t trade, the idea of that commitment from childhood is incredibly romantic. Awesome, to use that word properly. It’s really awesome. I have a lot more time for Fred than I used to. That line at the end of the book when he goes hunting but won’t jump over the high gate because he sees Mary and his children: that makes me cry. I literally sobbed the most recent time I read the book when I got to that scene. When a book can speak to you in these different ways over the decades, that shows that she did a good job.

TM: Are there any interpretations of the book that you strongly disagree with?

RM: There are some that aren’t mine, but I’m interested in reading other people’s. There is a wonderful essay by Nina Auerbach called “Dorothea’s Lost Dog,” in a book called Middlemarch in the 21st Century. She wrote about how annoyed she is by Dorothea, because Dorothea could learn all kinds of things if she wanted to. She has a library, she has the resources to educate herself, and yet she never does. Auerbach goes through the book and finds all these places where Dorothea has got books but she’s not looking at them and is looking out the window or something else instead. She finds all these places where Dorothea is not reading. She makes the case that, while we see Rosamond as the silly woman to be despised, in fact Dorothea is just as trivial as Rosamond. Dorothea’s ideas about spirituality are absurd; she has no rigor; she has no intellect. It’s so interesting to read; it’s not how I read the book, and I don’t agree with it in the sense that I have a different Dorothea, but it’s equally plausible. The more interpretations, the better. Even wrong ones.

TM: I think Rosamond is stronger than she gets credit for. She refuses to play the role that Lydgate tries to assign her, and I think there’s something admirable about that.

RM: So she could be reclaimed as a feminist heroine? There’s an interesting argument there. She’d be a feminist in the mode of: “Sure, I wear revealing clothes, but I do it because I want to. I spend an hour every day on my makeup for me.” But I’m not sure that I buy that sort of feminism, so I’m not sure I would buy Rosamond as a proto-post-post-however-many-posts-we’re-at feminist. She’s certainly not weak; she gets what she wants. She decides she wants to get married, and Lydgate has virtually no say in the matter. Once they are married, she gets everything she wants up to and including the death of her husband. She’s resilient like a rock is resilient. But the point of marriage is not one submitting to the other; it’s each submitting part of the way and not submitting part of the way.  She resists him, but she doesn’t resist him in any productive way.

TM: Do you think Lydgate would really be able to submit usefully over the long term? You talk about what would happen if he married Dorothea; I don’t think that that would be a happy marriage.

RM: It might not be. There’s a part of me that always hopes he might marry her. A lot of readers say he could have been redeemed that way. But maybe you’re right; maybe it wouldn’t have been happy. Whatever Lydgate did, he should have waited a little longer before getting married, done a little bit more, made some scientific discoveries, met some more people.

There’s that line where Ladislaw asks Dorothea not to forget him, and she says that she’s met so few people that she’s never forgotten anyone she’s met. The condition of someone like Dorothea is that she really wouldn’t have met many people. It’s hard to think yourself back into what that world would be like. That’s one way in which Brooklyn is not provincial in the way that Middlemarch is. There is always somebody else to meet.

TM: That makes me think of Adelle Waldman’s novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., which is explicitly influenced by Middlemarch.

RM: What’s interesting about the conclusion of that book is that Nathaniel is essentially a Lydgate who doesn’t care. He’s a Lydgate who marries Rosamond and is happy. We don’t know where he’ll end up — from the outside, it doesn’t look good for him. But from the inside, he seems to be doing great. There’s something very dark in her willingness to leave it there and not stage a comeuppance. It was scary. In a naïve-reader sort of way, it made me very glad I’m not thirty and living in Brooklyn.

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