How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Novel

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Building My Own Strange Machines: A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem and Christopher Boucher

Time flies. Six years ago Jonathan Lethem published The Ecstasy of Influence, a sprawling collection of essays, sketches, interviews, and fiction, knitted together with candid autobiographical notes. Since then, he’s brought out his ninth and 10th novels — Dissident Gardens and A Gambler’s Anatomy — as well as a story collection, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, and apen monograph on the album Fear of Music. A new year, another book. More Alive and Less Lonely collects literary essays, introductions and book reviews from the last 20-plus years. The book was edited — or curated, rather — for Melville House by Christopher Boucher, whose two novels (How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; Golden Delicious), as I recently read them, significantly altered my perception of language in fiction, reminding me of when I first encountered Lionel Essrog, the compulsively lyrical narrator of Lethem’s now classic New York crime novel, Motherless Brooklyn.

In the spirit of generosity and of abundance, both author and editor agreed to participate in a roundtable conducted recently over several days of emails. Unlike in the humorous essay “The Counter-Roth” included in the new book, which details Lethem’s attempts to entertain Philip Roth at literary functions, I made it clear up front I had abandoned any hope of making either of these writers laugh.

The Millions: This collection caught me completely by surprise, even though I’m an avid reader of Jonathan’s work and previously hunted down several of these pieces online. The editor’s introduction states that a framework and coherence were evident early on among the 60 or so short essays in this book. Were there other breakthroughs later in the process?

Christopher Boucher: It’s fun to think back to the very beginnings of the process, when Jonathan started sending me contenders for the collection. I’d loved The Ecstasy of Influence, and so these uncollected essays seemed like a gift — my own “lonely book” (see “The Loneliest Book I’ve Read”), if you will.

As I remember it, we came to the idea of a “book on books” early on — during our first meeting at Melville House. I was thrilled with this direction, because that was the book I wanted to read. As a diehard fan of Jonathan’s fiction, I gravitated towards his essays on books and literature — I found them addictive, sneakily-instructive, and full of the same joyful inquiry and insight that’s so prevalent in Ecstasy. What’s more, these essays made me want to read — to drop everything and read for days. I liked the idea of trying to create the same experience for the reader — to curate a book that served as a readerly “wake-up call.”

That said, though, we left a lot of wonderful material out. Along the way, too, I found myself lobbying for a rather broad definition of “books and writers” so that we could include as many essays as possible. I remember really wanting to include Jonathan’s fictional exchange between his character Perkus Tooth and director Spike Jonze (“The Original Piece of Wood I Left in Your Head”), for example. While it’s unlike anything else in the book, it’s just so poignant and funny.

Jonathan Lethem: For me, the image of this book emerged in the negative space described by my two earlier essay collections — The Disappointment Artist, and The Ecstasy of Influence. The first one, Disappointment Artist, is really a memoir of my teenage life and self-invention as a writer, disguised as a cycle of cultural essays. It’s about losing my mother and understanding my relationship to my father and concealing my vulnerabilities behind movies and pop music and books. The form is exclusive and everything I wrote in that mode is included in that short book (arguably, the Cassavetes piece doesn’t really belong). Ecstasy of Influence is a baggy monster, full of writing in different modes, and on different occasions. There’s even fiction in there, and a poem. It’s a deliberate — and obnoxious, I’m sure — attempt to measure the space I’d blundered into as a “public intellectual,” which wasn’t a plan I’d had for myself. It’s modeled, for better and worse, on Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself.

What was excluded from those collections created the possibility that became More Alive and Less Lonely. I’d written more often on books and writers than on any other topic, in the form of reviews and introductions, largely. And “appreciations.” Writing about books was the first thing I did besides writing fiction, and the first thing I published in any venue (in the Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, when I was 22). I reviewed a few books for Salon in the mid-’90s — one of those earliest examples is included here, on Jill Robinson’s Past Forgetting. And the first book I was ever asked to introduce was Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird. That’s here too. It’s really the heart of my activities, the center of my life, as a reader, bookseller, and “author.” It’s a book of devotions, basically.

TM: Were there specific collections (by other writers) that occurred to either of you during this process?

JL: By way of comparison, I thought mostly of books by British writers — things like Anthony Burgess’s Homage to Qwert Yuiop, or Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Afterlife — books that are full of things like introductions and “appreciations.” I think the ways my bookishness manifests itself are more like a U.K. writer than like an American one, honestly.

But I didn’t shove any of these comparisons at Chris. I preferred to let him find the form and the tone, and to do all the heavy lifting here. I really let him wade through the morass — and there was more ass than you’d think. He covered it, for the most part.

TM: I’m curious, how were the pieces received? How many at a time? Over what period of time? Were there any changes or cuts made to specific essays, or other issues or obstacles that came up in bringing this work into book form?

CB: Conversations about this project began in December of 2015, when a mutual friend put Jonathan and me in contact by email. Jonathan sent me 60 or so pieces to review, and we met to discuss the project in early 2016. It was during that meeting that we first talked about the idea of a “book on books.” With a preliminary theme in mind, I dug in and started looking for threads in the essays that could inform their sequencing and the book’s scope and shape. These pieces were published at different times and in a variety of venues, so our reader was going to have do some time travel. And I didn’t want them to feel “unstuck,” or mapless. So I searched for ways for the book to stake out its range and territory early on — that was certainly my goal in the first chapter, “Engulf and Devour,” which shifts from a “devotion” on a book from Jonathan’s childhood to pieces on Moby-Dick and Philip Roth.

Later in the book, the essays focus in on specific writers (Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip K. Dick), link thematically (as in the last chapter, “Fan Mail”), or connect via what I think of as “channels” — inquiries or enthusiasms that reappear in different garb. I love the various forms of nostalgia expressed in the chapter “It Can Still Take Me There,” for example — there’s a piece on the character of Batman, and further on, an essay about Jonathan’s encounter with the beat hero Herbert Huncke.

As the book took shape, Jonathan sent along other pieces that might fit. To my delight, he also wrote some new essays that helped round out the chapters and complete some of the narratives therein. One of my favorite pieces in the book, for example, is his “Footnote on Thomas Berger,” a new piece that follows two previously-published essays on Berger. I won’t spoil it, but it’s an astounding story.

Editorially, most of the heavy lifting took place last summer. Since most of these pieces were previously published, I saw my work as a sort of literary forensics: I read the manuscript version against the published version, and sent Jonathan edits that catalogued all editorial discrepancies and suggested a way forward. I sent these to Jonathan in batches of 10 or so and he returned finalized versions. Overall, my edits were modest — these essays were already in fighting shape. We settled on a preliminary structure and title by July, and the manuscript was submitted a few weeks later.

JL: I’m fighting the temptation to satirize Chris’s scrupulous account of all his due diligence with claims of my having handled the perimeter defense, or being the one in charge of bringing the ziplock bags of trail mix. “First I built a bonfire hot enough to melt down the horse’s hooves,” etc. But the truth is that I did nothing so comprehensive or thoughtful even as that. I really just dumped that initial catastrophe’s worth of pieces on Chris, by means of Dropbox. Then, to make matters worse, I sporadically discovered pieces I’d missed or forgotten about entirely that were hiding either in dingy corners of the Internet or of my own hard-drive, and sent those along as well.

As Chris began to settle on pieces — which didn’t happen all at once, but in sequences — I periodically flew into a panic of rewriting. I think I did a bit more “improving” — or at least triage — on these clumsy old sentences than Chris shows signs of being aware of. Mostly I tried to simplify tormented thoughts into merely agitated ones.

I really like hearing about Chris’s concerns about the risk of “maplessness” and the way he thought of his solution in terms of “channels.” I find the design and flow he arrived at consistently surprising and delightful, nothing I’d have managed myself. That feeling extends to the title of the various sections, and the title of the book itself, which are all Chris’s discoveries.

TM: Readers now can go over the trail themselves to find a discarded ziplock, map in hand. The Hawkman trail? To borrow language describing two kinds of Pynchon novels (in the essay “Pychonopolis”) this new collection teeters between Comparatively Stable and Utterly Centrifugal. Not because it is chaotic but because there is narrative drive and so many plot threads. The time-travel aspect, far from disorienting, is gratifying. What was lived, and sometimes suffered through, for decades, we see transpire in a few pages. I’m wondering if Jonathan’s attitude toward collaboration has changed at all since the famous Harper’s essay and his “Promiscuous” Internet project, where material he authored was made available for filmmakers and music bands?

JL: Well, I’m in no way repentant, if that’s what you mean. All of my impulses — my yearnings — are still in the direction of a gift economy.  It seems even more urgent to me now, more bound up in our political lives, all this stuff: acknowledging intertextuality, breaking the spell of “property” over our expressive cultural lives, find ways to reclaim a commons or create a “temporary autonomous zone” wherever possible. Locating versions of mutual aid for artists and artworks. Distinguishing corporatist imperatives from life imperatives. Not that I have some coherent political plan on offer!

The Promiscuous Materials site is in disrepair — I need to rework it, and freshen it up, make it inviting again. I’m not web-savvy that way, and there are only so many hours in the day. Still, people still do find their way to those stories and texts and song lyrics and make their own things out of them from time to time. I’m glad about that. I should say that it wasn’t some major experiment, I don’t make any such claim for it. The project was more a gesture — a mild provocation, combined with a sort of playground. Like a community garden in a vacant lot.

My main job is writing novels, and as I get older I know I’ve got to exclude a lot of other involvements. Too often that means missing chances to collaborate, and locking myself in my room. But I’m still really dedicated to breaking down the dull imperial notion of the novelist-as-Prometheus. Finding ways to introduce apertures or slippages in the mask of authority — both inside the text, and around it.

CB: My response here skims the surface of your question, Chris, but for me this project has been wholly defined by Jonathan’s generosity. After the briefest of introductions in late 2015, Jonathan invited me to help steer this ship; I’ll always be grateful for, and amazed by, the trust he showed in me from the get-go. Received en masse as they were, too, these essays felt very much like “uncommodifiable surpluses of inspiration” — like gifts, in other words.

This seems like a good time, too, to note that Jonathan’s donating all of his earnings from the book, and that half the proceeds are going to the charity Doctors Without Borders. Jonathan included this proviso in the initial book proposal, and I think it set the tone for the entire project. While I know I’m speaking of a different currency now than the one that drives the gift-economy, the creation of this book was certainly driven by a “Give All” sensibility.

TM: That kind of generosity is inspiring. Now pet theories are kicking around in my mind. Did the choice of Doctors Without Borders have anything to do with the list of doctors acknowledged in last year’s A Gambler’s Anatomy and the convincing, or convincingly imagined, medical research involved in that book, or does the association go back further?

JL: I’m sure it would be easy to overthink it. The fact is that I’ve always just been astonishingly moved by what they do. Which is no knock on, say, The Southern Poverty Law Center, or The Center for Biological Diversity, or many other possible destinations. But you have to pick one. Doctors Without Borders might seem to me — I’ve never thought about this, exactly, before — like the ultimate opposite of the kind of indirect politics practiced even by the most righteous of us artists and writers (I don’t mean myself). That’s to say, where we’re by definition operating in the realm of the figurative and the intangible, in my case also the hesitant and ambiguous. While they are literally rushing bodily into zones of violence and crisis and putting bandages on other human bodies. So it was the least I could do. Let’s leave it at that.

Oh, but I should confess here that the doctors acknowledged in A Gambler’s Anatomy aren’t all doctors! By the time my list of acknowledgees had four or five doctors on it, it seemed fair — I mean, it seemed funny — to award the same title to Chris Offutt, and to my wife. Doctors of my spirit, and doctors to my book.

TM: The acknowledgments reminded me of the dedication, also funny, in Stanley Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show. A list of radio hosts and their stations — Jean Shepherd; WOR…etc — ending with Joan Elkin; WIFE. I guess compared with the earlier discussion of a cultural commons, I was struck in this new collection by more traditional roles of authorship, for the reader respecting what great authors do on their terms. Which of course is a different matter, although I admit conflating them a little. One of my favorite pieces is the essay on Joseph McElroy. It does a great job anticipating a reader’s objections while full-throatedly supporting a big league writer’s craft. Are there some artists that, more than others, represent some kind of line or limit? With McElroy, “narrative ‘sense'” sums it up. Have you experienced any conversions during your reading lives? This essay does much toward recruiting me to the McElroy camp.

JL: Elkin’s WIFE, I’d forgotten that. Genius — I wouldn’t try to compete. But my own wife regards my honorary doctorates as embarrassing jokes, so I took my revenge by awarding her a bogus one too.

As for the opposition you suggest between “authors doing things on their terms” and the cultural commons, I’d say nah. My whole point, if I had one, was that to wade into the cultural commons was my description of what authors do when authors do what they do — on their terms. Anyway that’s how it feels to me. Whether conscious or semi-conscious or unconscious of the fact, we’re all intertextually polymorphous-perverse in the end. As Dr. George Harrison wrote, “text goes on within you and without you.”

I’m glad I rallied your curiosity about McElroy — he’ll gratify it (though, honestly, I probably wouldn’t pick up Ancient History as an entry point. Try Lookout Cartridge first.) But since I’ve gotten started picking apart premises lurking in your questions, let me do it again, and protest the terms “big-league,” “conversion” and “recruit.” Because I know McElroy is generally associated with “difficulty,” and so what I hear in those words of yours is a kind of reader’s hierarchy of striving, as if reading him or someone like him is a matter of stepping up to some higher realm or duty. I’m not into it. Too much Protestant work ethic in there, and status-seeking, and a hair shirt too. Read hedonistically instead. McElroy offers a delicious blast of oxygen — it’s fun to be in his brain, that’s the reason to go there. I mean, if it turns you on to think of your reading of great novels, whether canonical or modernist or postmodernist or translated or just loooong, as some kind of sacrificial devotional act or military campaign or mountain-climbing expedition, go ahead. But admit that that’s what turns you on! Life’s too short to be intimidated by the books that are waiting only to be picked up and encountered, and then devoured, if you like what’s on offer — it’s like being intimidated by food.

CB: I’ll resist the urge to go literal here and steer us towards the last piece in the book, “Books Are Sandwiches,” and say instead that I love this answer because it reminds me, as a reader, to eat what I like and all that I can — to follow my instincts without regard for anything that might obstruct my engagement with the page. Some of my favorite moments in the book, too, are those when Jonathan finds vitality in places I wouldn’t have known to look for it — when he hails Chester Brown as a “a citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul,” for example, or sees in the work of Gilbert Sorrentino “a mind whose only way of handling a first introduction is to blurt out ‘Don’t we know one another already?’”, or praises Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments as “an object in furious motion, humming with its own energy, and all you might wish to do is touch it, alter its trajectory barely, so as to nudge it into universal view.”

TM: One other term that probably does more to activate a reader’s resistance, if the book doesn’t conform to the reader’s preconceived notion of said term, is novel. It’s understood that this is the reader’s problem, the reader’s loss. Although, also it’s a cultural loss if the book or author goes out of print, which lends an urgency to what’s said about the lesser-read authors praised in this book and elsewhere. In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan calls the dip in John Barth “terrifying.” This collection nonetheless concerns novels, second only to the unmitigated joy of reading anything. It’s largely a novelist’s bag of novels and novelists. What draws you to writing novels?

CB: What I love about the novel, both as a writer and a reader, is that it lives with you for a while, imprints itself on you. The novels that first invited me to write one, though, were particularly strange machines: The Age of Wire and String, for example,and Trout Fishing in America. I remember well the experience of reading the latter for the first time, and how the world continued buzzing for me even when I wasn’t reading it; it felt like having a pair of anti-gravity boots stowed away in my backpack. No other object has informed my life quite like my favorite novels have.

From a craft perspective, the novel caters to the kinds of risks that I like to take in my writing. Because of my early influences, perhaps, I’m drawn to building my own strange machines. Also, I don’t think novelistically, as I know some writers do. I have to think small, write small, and I only find my novels once I’m inside them. I began my second book, for example, with one stand-alone piece about a piano that changes your point of view, and another about a character who has a sentence for a pet. It wasn’t until a year later, maybe, that I admitted to myself that these should be part of the same narrative. At the core of my process is a certain unease or anxiety about the form, and I’m glad for that — I think it’s a good place to write from.

Even so, I marvel at those writers who seem to have an easier relationship with the form. Jonathan’s one of my favorite living novelists, and for me his novels are built like tanks — each one different from the last, and yet always dizzyingly inventive, uniquely ambitious, and expertly constructed.  Reading A Gambler’s Anatomy, for example, I was amazed by its grand design — the way that the narrative arc, pacing, and sentence-level music all work together. I’m curious to hear what he has to say about a form to which he clearly brings such mastery.

JL: “A novelist’s bag of novels and novelists” — you make it sound like a sack of cats! Yet one also being carried around by another, larger cat. Or a smaller one who is struggling with a very large sack.

Well, I doubt I could write a more impassioned love letter to the novel than Chris B. has done here, so instead I’ll play the feisty elder, and remind you young whippersnappers what Norman Mailer said when someone played devil’s advocate about the viability of his chosen form (some of which devil’s advocacy I think I hear in your question). I quote: “The novel will be at your funeral!”

Maybe me and Boucher have our heads too far up the wazoo of the novel to realize that the world has moved on to other, better things…the human attention span having suffered irreparable damage,,,I doubt it…but even if so, it has been a pretty good place to spend my life. What I really think is this: the novel is the least airless, the least restrictive, the least solipsistic of wazoos to have climbed up. It is a wazoo with a view.

Okay, to be a bit more serious, I really have come to understand that the humbling mystery of my chosen practice is how capacious the damn thing is. It holds together impossible things (like life itself). It even makes room for the anti-novel — for those always turn out to be novels, too. It models human consciousness in any number of ways — by its involvement simultaneously in narrative and language and also sensation, dreaming and projection and fear, and with our feeling of duration — time, that is.  It concerns itself with concurrence of being-in-our-heads (that’s the siren call of solipsism) and being-in-the-herd (the basic fact that we’re social creatures, wandering among others every day of our lives). The two are simultaneous immersions, never resolving their permanent juxtaposition. The novel actually captures this! How incredible. And even the shortest and simplest novel is oceanic, confusing, too big to get your head around, or see all at once (again, like life).

Anyway, this here bag of cats — it’s got other things in it, I swear. There’s my mother-in-law, in the “Footnote to Berger.” She’s no novelist! There are cameos by any number of others — painters, poets, children, and teenaged pre-novelist me. It’s less lonely because it’s fungible to human beings. As are novels. Whereas bags of cats are just — well, cats, all the way down.

A Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

I’m writing this in November, which is the month when I go through the notebook where I keep track of all the books I read, study the titles with a little star next to them, and try to remember which of these struck me the most. The three that remain most vividly in memory from this past year are a book about the shipping industry, a surrealist novel from a small press, and a work of speculative fiction about the Second American Civil War, the premise of which seemed horribly topical when I read it back in September and hasn’t become less troubling since.

1. The Shipping Industry
The British journalist Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything has one of those wildly unwieldy subtitles that haunt the non-fiction section — Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, Food on Your Plate — but unwieldy or not, the subtitle does sum up the situation fairly nearly, and it’s an elegantly written and deeply researched book. George goes to sea aboard a container ship, the Maersk Kendal, and in so doing steps into a world mostly closed to outsiders. Standing on the dock at Felixstowe in the U.K., looking up at the towering hull of the ship, she reflects on the oddly invisible nature of the industry relative to its importance:
These ships and boxes belong to a business that feeds, clothes, warms, and supplies us. They have fueled if not created globalization. They are the reason behind your cheap T-shirt and reasonably priced television. But who looks behind a television now and sees the ship that brought it? Who cares about the men who steered your breakfast cereal through winter storms? How ironic that the more ships have grown in size and consequence, the less space they take up in our imagination.
“Are you reading that for research?” a couple of people asked, when they saw me reading it.

“Yes,” I said, which wasn’t untrue, but also easier than explaining that I’ve always been interested in the shipping industry, which is probably not terribly uncommon among people who grew up by the ocean and hold childhood memories of grey horizons with container ships passing, floating citadels crossing unimaginable distances. I’ve spent a lot of time in hotel rooms over these past couple years, and the one I liked best was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, because the view was of the docks across the street, where another Maersk ship was being loaded when I went to bed. The ship was gone by morning.

2. A Surrealist Novel From a Small Press
The only thing I don’t like about Christopher Boucher’s work is that it’s almost impossible to do it justice when I’m trying to explain it to people. (I praised his first novel, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, at some length back in 2011. It was about a man whose girlfriend gives birth to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle.) His second novel, Golden Delicious, is in more or less the same surrealist vein and infused with the same strange brilliance, but this time it’s a kind of meta-novel, which is to say that the characters know they’re in a novel. Their novel’s Reader is a character, with whom the protagonist goes on bicycle rides. The protagonist doesn’t have a name, but he does have a pet sentence. If you ride your bike to the edge of town, you’ll reach the margins, which are sometimes a little sketchy.

The language in Boucher’s novel isn’t just alive; it gets into fights. (“Shortly after that, two clauses got in a fight in the margin across the street. This would happen every once in a while — you’d hear the wild, high squeal and pitter-patter of language chasing language through trees.”) Sentences sometimes skitter away, as in: “Just then a small sentence scampered across the page. My Mom lunged at it, picked it up by the scruff of its vowel and tossed it into the margin.”

The whole thing’s a bit convoluted, peculiar, often very funny, and also deeply, improbably moving, because here, as in Boucher’s debut novel, the entire high-wire act is in service to a deadly serious story about belonging, and about the agonies and joys of being in a family.

3. A Novel That Isn’t Out Yet
It is arguably slightly obnoxious to recommend novels that aren’t out yet, but the book that I found the most haunting this year doesn’t actually come out until April. Omar El Akkad is a Canadian journalist who’s covered topics ranging from terrorism to the gradual disappearance of Louisiana beneath the water. His debut novel, American War, opens with the outbreak of the Second American Civil War in 2074. Sarat Chestnut is six years old when the war begins, and El Akkad follows her through her years in a displaced persons camp and into the war’s aftermath. The war’s ostensible trigger is the South’s refusal to stop using banned fossil fuels, but it seems clear that this is essentially a pretext; the problem was never really oil, the problem was that two incompatible cultures have emerged in one country and the Red and Blue states have found themselves on a collision course. (Seems improbable, I know, but stay with me here.) The premise is harrowing, the prose is stark and beautiful, the plotting is impeccable, and there’s something utterly heartbreaking in El Akkad’s subtle rendition of the ways in which war shapes the human soul.

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Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

The commute to my day job takes an hour. Books are indispensable, because while I don’t necessarily believe that hell is other people (I’ve given this some thought, and am actually reasonably certain at this point that hell is Delta Airlines), if I had to be fully present on the subway for two hours a day I’d probably start snarling at random strangers.

Forgetting to bring a book with me constitutes an emergency. I’ve turned back on the street on harried mornings and walked back up four flights of stairs just to find something, anything to read. If I’m almost finished a book, I’ll take an extra just in case. All my memories of reading this year involve harsh overhead lighting, bright stations, glancing up in time to see that strange underground river that runs along the G line, and noise-blocking headphones. (There’s often nothing attached to these headphones. I just need a plausible reason to ignore anyone who bothers me while I’m trying to read.)

So, then, a few of the best books I read this year. This isn’t exhaustive, and to a reader of The Millions or other literary blogs, this list will likely have an air of déjà vu. The books I particularly loved this year mostly fell into one of two categories: either I already wrote them up on The Millions, or I didn’t write them up here, but only because they were already so popular that it kind of seemed like everyone was writing them up everywhere else, and what’s the point of covering a book that everyone else has already covered, when so many wonderful books are published each and every week with insufficient publicity budgets?

1. How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Christopher Boucher
Christopher Boucher’s debut novel concerns a young man whose girlfriend gives birth to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. I found it to be deeply moving and hilarious.

2. How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
An intelligent novel about a time-machine technician. Upon reflection, there are surface similarities with the Boucher novel (sad young man seeks father in surrealist alternate universe), but this one’s less surreal and more pseudo-sciencey. I think of it as a beautifully conceived piece of literary science fiction. I very much like the idea of galaxies that are specifically zoned for space opera.

3. After Midnight by Irmgard Keun
Keun published this novel in 1937. The book follows a 19-year-old German girl, Sanna, through a catastrophic evening in late-1930s Frankfurt. It’s harrowing and beautifully written.

4. Spurious by Lars Iyer
A poignant and often funny meditation on friendship, failure, the apocalypse, messianism, Kafka, and mold. Mostly it’s an extended conversation between a writer named Lars and his best friend, W., who feels compelled to express his love via insults. (“W. remembers when I was up and coming, he tells me. He remembers the questions I used to ask, and how they would resound beneath the vaulted ceilings. — ‘You seemed so intelligent then,’ he says. I shrug. ‘But when any of us read your work…’, he says, without finishing the sentence.”)

5. Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
The book concerns a lonely British lawyer living and working in Moscow in the 1990s. There’s a body in the first chapter, but the real story here isn’t the crime; it’s the extent to which we’re willing to lie to ourselves, to ignore the obvious, in pursuit of happiness or companionship or love.

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A Year in Reading 2011

If you’re like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people.

And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the “best” book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don’t). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer’s bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages.

With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one.

As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.

Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet.
Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints.
Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin.
Nick Moran, The Millions intern.
Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley’s Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way.
Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.
Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding.
Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories.
Duff McKagan, author of It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N’ Roses.
Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
Amy Waldman, author of The Submission.
Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories.
David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World.
Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married.
Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen.
Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States.
Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen.
Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend.
Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season.
Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm.
Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic.
Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood.
Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles.
Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India.
David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California.
Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric.
Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories.
Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper’s Lament.
Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown.
Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium.
Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season.
Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.
Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org.
Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions.
Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel.
Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes.
Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case.
Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones.
Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich.
Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama.
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination.
Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.
Belinda McKeon, author of Solace.
Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
A.N. Devers, editor of Writers’ Houses.
Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings.
Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls.
Rachel Syme, NPR contributor.

A Year in Reading Wrap Up

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee

The Millions Top Ten: November 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

1Q84
2 months

2.
3.

The Marriage Plot
2 months

3.
7.

The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life
3 months

4.
4.

The Bathtub Spy
4 months

5.
5.

The Art of Fielding
3 months

6.
10.

Lightning Rods
3 months

7.
6.

Leaves of Grass
5 months

8.
9.

A Moment in the Sun
6 months

9.


The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
1 month

10.


The Sense of an Ending
1 month

Haruki Murakami returned to our top spot this month with 1Q84 (read our review here), while Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (read our review here) crept up to the second spot. Meanwhile, Ann Patchett’s Kindle Single The Getaway Car jumped into our third spot and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods was also making a strong move higher.

Another Kindle Single, Christopher Hitchens’ timely The Enemy, and Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test graduate to our Hall of Fame. Don’t miss Janet’s review of the latter.
Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern appears on our list shortly after winning the National Book Award, while the Booker Prize win propels Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending onto our list.
Near Misses: How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, 11/22/1963, The Sisters Brothers, Salvage the Bones, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.


1Q84
1 month

2.
1.

The Enemy
6 months

3.


The Marriage Plot
1 month

4.
4.

The Bathtub Spy
3 months

5.
3.

The Art of Fielding
2 months

6.
5.

Leaves of Grass
4 months

7.
9.

The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life
2 months

8.
6.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
6 months

9.
7.

A Moment in the Sun
5 months

10.


Lightning Rods
1 month

The literary battle royale of 2011 played out and Haruki Murakami emerged the winner with 1Q84 (read our review here) debuting atop our October list. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (read our review here), meanwhile, debuted a bit farther down the list, but still put up an impressive showing. These two weren’t the only novels to make a splash in October, though. As Garth wrote in his review, “in a just world, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month.”

The Murakami debut bumps Christopher Hitchens’The Enemy from the top spot, while Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, that perhaps unlikely favorite of Millions readers graduates to our Hall of Fame. Don’t miss the review that started it all.
Falling off our list is Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (our review). This is the second of Dyer’s books (Out of Sheer Rage) to spend time on our list but fail to make our Hall of Fame. Also slipping from our list was Christopher Boucher’s debut novel How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (our review).Other Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Sisters Brothers, and The Sense of an Ending. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Enemy
5 months

2.
3.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
6 months

3.


The Art of Fielding
1 month

4.
10.

The Bathtub Spy
2 months

5.
5.

Leaves of Grass
3 months

6.
4.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
5 months

8.
7.

A Moment in the Sun
4 months

8.
9.

How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive
2 months

9.


The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life
1 month

10.
9.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
4 months

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King graduates, along with The Hunger Games, to our Hall of Fame this month. Taking the vacated top spot is Christopher Hitchens’ timely The Enemy. With Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car debuting on the list and joining another Kindle Single, The Bathtub Spy, it’s becoming pretty clear that these bite-sized e-book originals are gaining some serious traction, a trend that the media has been taking note of, of late.
Our other debut, meanwhile, is a plain old novel, certainly one of the big fiction releases of the fall, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. We first noted the book’s headline-grabbing deal in early 2010, and we highlighted it in our big second-half preview.
The big story next month will be seeing which heavyweight, literary new release will debut higher on our Top Ten, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (read the opening lines here) or Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (read the opening lines here).
Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Magician King, Swamplandia!, A Dance with Dragons, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Tiger’s Wife. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Pale King
6 months

2.
2.

The Enemy
4 months

3.
4.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
5 months

4.
5.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
4 months

5.
8.

Leaves of Grass
2 months

6.
6.

The Hunger Games
6 months

7.
7.

A Moment in the Sun
3 months

8.
9.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
3 months

9.


How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive
1 month

10.


The Bathtub Spy
1 month

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King remains in our top spot, but it will be headed (most likely along with The Hunger Games), to our Hall of Fame next month where it will join this month’s inductee, the book I co-edited, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Thanks again to all the Millions readers who picked the book up. It was a great project, and I’m glad I had a chance to share it with you.
We have a pair of newcomers this week. Readers were clearly intrigued by Emily St. John Mandel’s review of Christopher Boucher’s unique new novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. We also have another Kindle Single on our list. Tom Rachman, whose The Imperfectionists is already in our Hall of Fame, makes the list with The Bathtub Spy, a new short story published as an e-book original. Christopher Hitchens’ timely The Enemy has already had a nice showing on our list, suggesting that readers are warming to the pricing and perhaps the more bite-sized nature of this new format. Do Kindle Singles (and similar pieces offered on other platforms) undermine books or are readers now being introduced to the work of writers like Hitchens and Rachman via these low-cost "samples?" Something to ponder.

Meanwhile, the stay of George R.R. Martin’s latest, A Dance with Dragons, on our list turns out to be brief. Other Near Misses: The Magician King, Swamplandia!, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Art of Fielding. See Also: Last month’s list

A Surrealist’s Guide: Christopher Boucher’s How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive

Words fall a bit short when describing Christopher Boucher’s debut novel How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. I have to imagine that trying to explain this book — its complexity, its brilliance, the way it manages to make perfect emotional sense even though almost everything about it is, on the surface at least, absurd — must pose a significant marketing challenge. I’ll admit to some skepticism when I first got this thing in the mail: “If you think raising a kid in today’s world is hard,” the jacket copy reads, “imagine how tough it would be if your child also happened to be a Volkswagen Beetle.”

You read that correctly. The book, which had arrived out of nowhere, was placed in the unpromising stack of books, notebooks, and Random Pieces of Paper that daily threatens to take over my entire desk. It stayed there for weeks. I think I forgot about it. Until a day not long ago when it fell out of the stack — as things sometimes do, because the entire pile collapses every time a cat jumps on it — just when I was looking for a book to take with me on the subway. Fine, I thought, a Volkswagen Beetle. The premise didn’t grab me, but on the other hand, the book is published by Melville House, which is one of my favorite presses. I thought I’d give both book and publisher the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad I did. I was hooked by the end of the first page.

Boucher’s strange and dazzling novel concerns a young man whose girlfriend gives birth to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. She finds this more troubling than he does and quickly flees the scene, leaving him to raise a fragile young VW while coping with the aftermath of his father’s death. His father was killed by a Heart Attack Tree who came slinking down out of the woods in dirty jeans, having heard the father’s heart beating from afar; the Tree slunk up to him where he sat in the country market building at Atkins Farm and took his heart from his chest. Then the Heart Attack Tree, realizing that his crime had at least one witness, got behind the deli counter of the Farm, revved the engine, and drove the farm away down the highway with the man’s dying father and a number of Atkins Farm employees still inside. I want to say he used the farm as a getaway car, but, well, he didn’t. It was a get-away farm.

A great many things in Boucher’s world can be driven. (Farms, for example, and also musical riffs.) If you open the hood of your car, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll find either an amateur theatre production in progress or an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Phrases that are clichéd and dead in our world — time is money, music transports you — are literal and alive in the world of the book: time really is money (the narrator is nameless, because he took his name to a pawnshop and got twenty-two hours for it), and music really does transport you; some of the new tunes on Route 16 are exciting, but it’s an impractical way to travel, because time passes differently inside the music and by the time you get out of the tune and back on Route 16 a couple weeks might have gone by in the outside world. The narrator gets yelled at by his boss for this reason.

Everything in this world is alive and animate. Take, for instance, the moment of the VW’s conception:
“Shit,” I said. I sat up. “Look, look,” I said, checking for breath, for a pulse.
There was nothing. “I think it’s gone,” I said.
“What?” she said, and turned on the light.
“The condom. It’s dead. It’s not breathing.”
They give the condom a proper burial in a little matchbox coffin outside in the sparkling cold. The narrator breaks down when the coffin is lowered into the hole. Later, back in the apartment, “we got into this conversation about what happens when you die. I wanted to know: Why did it happen? What had the condom (or my father, for that matter) done wrong in its life? And where did it go?”

The narrator is a writer at a newspaper. His editor is a block of cheese. His best friend is a chest of drawers; they go hiking together. The VW comes too, sometimes, but he’s a delicate child/car and often too sick to keep up. A ratchet starts crying and has a meltdown while the narrator’s using him to try to fix the VW; the narrator’s not about to just give up a ratchet that he’s spent good time on, so he takes the ratchet to a local therapist. The session deteriorates when the therapist asks the narrator to come into the room:
Then the ratchet began to sniffle and a tear ran down his cheek. The therapist turned to him. “Harold?” he said.
“Ask him about his project — about his son,” said the ratchet. “Ask him how he runs and where it goes—”
“Listen,” I said. “None of this is very complicated.”
“Not complicated!” the ratchet said.
“I’m a single parent trying to raise my son — that’s all.”
“A car that runs on stories!” shouted the ratchet.
The VW does run on stories, mostly. It also requires a certain variety of chai tea in large quantities, and also love. When it breaks down, it has to be fed new narratives; when the Love Pressure gauge drops below a certain level, it’s sometimes necessary to drive into the nearest populated area in search of acts of kindness before the car stalls altogether. These procedures are explicated at some length in the sections of How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive that are modeled after the 1969 Volkswagen handbook of the same title, where the narrator describes the chaotic and beautiful workings of the VW. These are the sections, incidentally, where the momentum of the book occasionally falters, particularly near the beginning.

But for all the surrealism, there’s nothing glib about the book. The narrator’s beloved son, the VW, is ill throughout and getting sicker; he’s prone to breakdowns and struggling with rust, since the novel’s set more or less in the present and the VW is, after all, a ’71. What we’re left with, through all the insanity and dizzying leaps of logic that make up Boucher’s world, are a series of absolutely human and recognizable truths: it’s unspeakably sad when a parent dies. It’s really scary when your kid’s seriously ill. It can be comforting to avoid change, to stay close to home (“Want to know where we are geographically? Take a look at Gauge Fourteen: It should say ‘Northampton.’”) We spend our lives trying to understand the world, and understanding the world means telling ourselves stories about it; which means, of course, that we all run on stories, whether we’ve thought about it in those terms or not.

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