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 December.
5 Year Diary
Her Body and Other Parties
Sing, Unburied, Sing
Little Fires Everywhere
A Millions first: the top spot this month belongs to a book of blank pages. Is this an indictment of the modern publishing industry? Or are Millions readers a bunch of obsessive diarists who gleefully read Hannah Gersen’s Gift Guide for Readers and Writers? I’m thinking the latter because reading Gersen’s recommendation has my index finger hovering over the “buy now” button:
The design is unique in that every page represents one day and is divided into five parts, with each part representing one year. So, when you write your entry for Feb 1, you can look back at Feb 1 of the previous year to see what you were doing/writing/reading/thinking/weathering. I think it’s especially useful for writers because if you use the space to track writing and reading projects (as I often do), it’s a great way to gauge your long-term progress.
Elsewhere, there were major shakeups on our list owing to the success of our Year in Reading series, which recently wrapped up. As our series unfolds each year, one or two books become unmissable fixtures on our participants’ lists. You can’t open a contributor’s piece without seeing these books listed. Years ago, such was the case with John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, which was praised by almost every Millions staffer, including Elizabeth Minkel, Bill Morris, and Garth Risk Hallberg. More recently in 2014, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was shouted out by five participants.
This year, that honor belongs to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which skyrocketed into third position this month on the strength of recommendations from six participants – including Louise Erdrich, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Jeff VanderMeer. Maria Machado’s story collection is unlike anything else published this year. Her unsettling stories play with form and genre, weaving disparate influences together into unique threads. (One of my favorites in the collection reads like a blend of Susan Minot’s “Lust” and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.) Are these stories horror? Fairy tale? That’s an argument for another piece. The takeaway here, as evidenced by our Year in Reading participants and our Millions readers alike is simple: the book is excellent. (Bonus: Carmen Maria Machado shared her own Year In Reading this year, too.)
Another book benefitting from last month’s series was Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Also highlighted by six Year in Reading participants, Ward’s novel now holds fourth position on our Top Ten. (Bonus: Jesmyn Ward shared her own Year in Reading this year, too.)
Finally, a note on what’s absent. Obviously, no books ascended to our Hall of Fame this month. Instead, the new titles on our list unseated books which hung around the Top Ten for the past few months. Those dropped books include Forest Dark and My Absolute Darling. Next month, will they pull their way back up onto our list? Let’s find out soon.
See Also: Last month’s list.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that when I found out Richard Matheson was dead, I was watching television; there are few writers, after all, with a more intimate, lengthy relationship with both that living room medium and its bombastic cousin, the feature film. The storyteller in me wishes I’d had one of the many Matheson-penned episodes of The Twilight Zone on in the background at the moment I learned of his passing, if only because it feels like a modicum of disquieting coincidence in keeping with the sort of urgent, vital fiction he seemed to pump out effortlessly for decades. Imagine it: a fan learns of a famous writer’s death as the very words he wrote drift from the television, and cut to the fan’s face and cue the spooky score as he senses invisible, supernatural hands at work.
Alas, there was no such luck, as my fiancée and I were approximately chest-deep in an evening marathon of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and I had to make do with the melodious sound of Detective Elliot Stabler slamming a perpetrator’s head into the reflective glass of the police interview room. Of course, Matheson, of all people, likely wouldn’t have begrudged me a brief indulgence in what you could (charitably) call campy, disposable entertainment (if you’ve seen “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, you know what I mean).
“Richard Matheson died today,” I said.
“Hm?” My fiancée said. I pressed mute so we wouldn’t have to talk over Stabler cartoonishly brutalizing a suspect.
“This writer, Richard Matheson, he died today. He was 87, but still, you know. Terrible.”
“That’s so sad,” she said. We were very nearly through half a moment of reflective, respectful silence when she returned to playing Sudoku on her iPad. Stabler gritted his teeth and sneered something into the perpetrator’s ear.
“So, you don’t have the slightest clue who that is.”
“Nope,” she said politely. “Should I?”
I opened my mouth to begin what would, knowing me, be an exhaustively detailed, near-insufferable process of explanation, complete with video clips, historical context regarding his influence on other important contemporary writers, and breathlessly quoted vital passages, but after a moment, I found nothing would come out. Matheson’s long been a favorite, and someone whose career and influence I find inspiring, but here I was, unable to speak about him.
My fiancée looked at me. “You know who he is, right?”
It’s hard for me to talk about writers.
Don’t get me wrong. I can talk about books and writers for-goddamn-ever, and love to; we can spread some sleeping bags on the kitchen floor and have an impromptu sleepover and talk about stories all night if you’d like. That being said, I believe the lens through which I view such things is a little odd. It’s not just that I love literature and books — it’s that my mind is built with an obsessive proclivity for recalling lists of titles, and influences, and passages, and on and on. Like I said, this is odd, but more importantly in regards to interacting with others, it’s boring.
Inciting yawns, you see, is precisely the opposite of my intention, particularly if it means shutting someone’s mind down about an author with whom they might someday fall in love. I want to be a participant in the literary community, and an envoy for short stories and novels and any other means of delivering some of the cream of the printed crop; I don’t want to screw someone out of discovering something great because they got bored after I started rattling off James Baldwin’s bibliography like I’ve got literary tourettes.
So if someone hasn’t heard of Cormac McCarthy (and I’ve avoided impulsively bludgeoning them with something), I don’t say: “Here’s Child of God and The Crossing and Blood Meridian and the script for The Sunset Limited, take a quick gander and you’ll have a good idea of his importance to the western canon and HEY WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” Instead, I simplify for the sake of continuing the proverbial conversation by relying on a perhaps more easily accessible cultural reference: feature films. Let’s be honest. Films are easier and quicker to consume than novels or short stories, for the most part, and that fact alone makes them an easier experiential mountain to climb for the majority of busy people and their shorter and shorter attention spans.
“He’s the dude who wrote No Country. You remember. The one where Javier Bardem had the bowl cut and fucked up like thirty people.”
“Oh, rad. Yeah, he housed that guy with the air gun. That was fucking sweet,” they say, nodding.
Does this constitute participation in the long, slow dumbing-down of culture? Maybe. However, what I’m also saying, what I consider the more salient ultimate point is that my strategy at least continues a conversation about an artist instead of ending it; having seen a film they liked, a friend may pick up the novel that inspired it.
I can bask in a momentary thrill when a friend nods in recognition, because hey, maybe I’ve just played a small part in someone discovering something cool. Of course, my endorsement or quick distillation of an author’s identity through film adaptations may not lead to a friend mowing through an extensive list of works, but it might.
I’ve used film as a successful means to introduce people to writers before. It works for Annie Proulx. It works for Toni Morrison. If you’re willing to be disqualify anything from the ’80s (or anything, like the legendarily bad television adaptation of The Stand, that involves Gary Sinise), it sort of works for Stephen King. You’d think that given his extensive list of adapted works and his own involvement in the television and film industries, it’d work for Matheson, too.
You would be wrong.
You would be breathtakingly wrong, in fact. You would be so wrong as to necessitate a bracing shot of something almost incalculably strong before looking at the man’s IMDB page. In fact, instead of reviewing his filmography, content yourself with this miserable spoiler alert: Matheson’s work has been adapted into a stunning litany of shitty movies.
Other authors you might fairly categorize as important are at least the occasional beneficiary of good film adaptations — or at least they trend much less toward the sad, dark wasteland of whoops, does anyone remember why we cast Paul Walker? With Matheson, that’s not the case. A number of his works — each considered at least addicting, pulpy-fun page turners, and at best as profoundly influential to a generation of writers — have been adapted in recent years, and, well, they are all really, really bad. Even though the written work is good, the adaptation — despite widely varying directors, screenwriters, and casts — ends up bafflingly terrible.
Is there something inherent in Matheson’s writing that makes for bad adaptations? Such a premise doesn’t seem to make sense, because the works vary enough — stylistically and thematically — to rule out a single fundamental flaw. What Dreams May Come is a novel incredibly different from I Am Legend. “Steel”is a short story with no readily apparent similarities to “Button, Button.” And yet all four have produced adaptations (What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend, Real Steel, and The Box, respectively) in the last few decades that have been (deservedly) panned by critics and fans.
Frankly, it seems worthy of a Twilight Zone episode. Richard Matheson. 87. A writer and screenwriter and noted figure in the annals of contemporary literature. He’s about to find out, though, that simply producing an effective story is not enough. When adaptations are concerned, sometimes, an effective story is just what one needs to produce a completely ridiculous and terrible story. Richard Matheson is entering a world beyond sight and sound. He’s about to arrive…in The Twilight Zone.
Let’s look at the evidence.
“Button, Button” is without question a classic example of the short story form. It’s a work of stunning power that flashes by with equally breathtaking brevity. You know the plot; a cash-strapped couple are offered the opportunity to make $50,000, simply provided they push the button on a small, innocent-looking contraption delivered unexpectedly to their doorstep. The only catch? As a result of their button-pushing, someone they’ve never met, somewhere, will be killed.
The story’s few, intense, spare pages are spent exploring the couple’s conflicts over the morality of a utilizing a device they agree cannot possibly do what its mysterious proprietor claims it does. It’s a bad joke, Norma and Arthur are certain, but, as they wonder over tense dinnertime disagreements, what if it isn’t? It’s a question Norma especially wrestles with, and after her resolve crumbles, the story climaxes with an eminently re-readable denouement that seems a forerunner of the now-ubiquitous twist ending:
She felt unreal as the voice informed her of the subway accident, the shoving crowd. Arthur pushed from the platform in front of the train. She was conscious of shaking her head but couldn’t stop.
As she hung up, she remembered Arthur’s life insurance policy for $25,000, with double indemnity for-
“No.” She couldn’t seem to breathe. She struggled to her feet and walked into the kitchen numbly. Something cold pressed at her skull as she removed the button unit from the wastebasket. There were no nails or screws visible. She couldn’t see how it was put together.
Abruptly, she began to smash it on the sink edge, pounding it harder and harder, until the wood split. She pulled the sides apart, cutting her fingers without noticing. There were no transistors in the box, no wires or tubes. The box was empty.
She whirled with a gasp as the telephone rang. Stumbling into the living room, she picked up the receiver.
“Mrs. Lewis?” Mr. Steward asked.
It wasn’t her voice shrieking so; it couldn’t be. “You said I wouldn’t know the one that died!”
“My dear lady,” Mr. Steward said, “do you really think you knew your husband?”
It’s a strikingly memorable story, and perhaps its best quality is also, in regards to film adaptation, its biggest problem: the restraint with which Matheson writes. Consider what he doesn’t tell us; we don’t learn the intent of the organization behind the contraption or the button; we’re never given much in the way of background or description of the story’s closest thing to an antagonist, Mr. Steward; and we’re certainly not provided any explanation as to how Arthur’s death is orchestrated or what nefarious, possibly supernatural forces are at work. All Matheson gives us is a mirror of the same troubling awareness his characters are grappling with — that forces they cannot possibly understand are at work in the background of their lives. “Button, Button” does what all the great works of the short form do: it gives the reader a sense of a larger world.
The larger, imagined world can be used, figuratively speaking, for both good and evil, though. I’d argue the good is to be found in the sometimes nameless, occasionally sleep-depriving consideration that results from reading a story like this, while the proverbial bad comes from people who decide there’s money to be made in committing to film their answers to questions Matheson probably meant to be rhetorical.
Which brings us to The Box, the 2009 adaptation of “Button, Button.” I won’t harp opportunistically on the casting missteps (though I could, because did you realize Cameron Diaz is in this movie dear God), but there’s a mistaken approach at work here — one that illuminates the precise problem in modern filmmakers adapting Richard Matheson’s writing.
They want to tell us everything.
Whereas the source material short story derives much of its power from the sense it creates of normal people rendered pawns in a mysterious, inexplicable game, The Box explains, helpfully, that the machine delivered to Arthur and Norma’s doorstep is a means of testing the morality of humans.
“Okay, we knew that,” you’re saying. “That’s pretty much what the short story is implying.”
Yes, but DID YOU KNOW IT’S A TEST CONCOCTED BY ALIENS THAT CONTROL LIGHTNING?
“…oh,” you’re murmuring.
It’s not sufficient, you see, for the creators of The Box to hint at dark forces beyond our understanding up to no good. For the purposes of a movie, they implicitly argue, implication and suggestion are not good enough. Our villains need a big, scary plan, and an origin story, and they need a larger plot, and you better goddamn believe they need some CGI to be the whipped cream on top. Here you go.
Let’s not waste time cataloging how few of those things are even close to included in the source material (another spoiler: NONE). Adaptations are precisely that — reimaginings of preexisting material, often shaped and expanded for the purposes of a particular project. The problem here, though, isn’t that someone dared to alter Matheson’s material; it’s that they approached a narrative that works in large part because of suspenseful atmosphere and implication, and then totally abandoned both. The end result, as you can see, is somehow at once hokey and painfully dour.
It’s not just something dark at work, it’s aliens. It’s not just a suggested moral conflict, it’s actually a scientific test of morality conducted by aliens to determine if a species should be exterminated. It’s a distinctly Hollywood sort of affliction, one born of the ill-conceived notion that movies are better if they have something bigger, something cooler, something more impressive, something just a little bit more.
Now, of course, you can argue these ideas (aliens, lightning, CGI water coffins, CGI face scars, whatever CGI is used to make James Marsden so supernaturally attractive) are ones Matheson held in his head when he wrote the original story, but I’d have to argue pretty strongly that A) no and B) if he did, at least he had the artistic decency and good sense to let his evil lurk in the shadows instead of dragging it embarrassingly out into the bright light.
And therein is the problem. Matheson had the good sense, the near-unteachable instinct that told him when a story’s construction necessitated the appearance of a shadowy, foul terror — but also the courage to do the opposite, to leave us with unanswered questions. That degree of artistic discipline and restraint, though, isn’t particularly common in contemporary filmmaking. In fact, if popular genre fiction in this day and age creates lingering uncertainties instead of neatly concluded narratives with tidy endings, you almost have to expect a clumsy director to render it into some unintended horror show of green-screen hackery. To use a phrase that’d get me a flying elbow to the throat from Detective Stabler, you’re pretty much asking for it.
In The Box as well as the other Matheson adaptations I’ve mentioned that fall short of the mark, source material that artfully leaves work up to the reader’s imagination is abandoned in favor of whiz-bang film wizardry or action that is not actually particularly magical. It’s not intended to be magical, either, for magic baffles and confounds the brain, and leads it to try and make sense of the fantastic, the mysterious, the impossible. It’s not a special effect intended to supplement and expand a story — it’s a gimmick that does the imagining for you.
Can you blame Matheson for employing uncertainty and letting readers formulate their own shapeless boogeymen, whether moral or supernatural or otherwise? Of course not. His deep relationship with campy entertainment aside, even an imagination as vivid as Matheson’s couldn’t have possibly anticipated the nature of the myriad adaptations of his work to come both during his life and after; no author or artist can. It’s not their job to, either, because stories and movies and everything else they commit to paper or film or whatever medium is next aren’t static, finished things. Once they’re published or released, your art is no longer your own. Like it or not, the work belongs to everyone.
Which is, come to think of it, how reputations function, too. They’re not fixed, they’re fluid — from book to book, from film to film, from generation to generation, and most gallingly to me, from person to person, too. The truth is that I was struggling to speak about Matheson not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because the adaptations of his work are so bad I worried my fiancée, in this case, would never check him out again. In other words, I wasn’t trying to be a conduit for great writers — I was trying to decide what someone thought for them, before they experienced any of a particular writer’s work. I was, in other words, committing roughly the same sin as all those unmitigated trainwrecks of film adaptations, the lackadaisical imaginations at which I rolled my eyes and scoffed.
How about that for a twist?
Of course, I’d love for everyone to experience and understand the artists I find rewarding and enthralling the same way as me, but such a thing is impossible — not just because of Will Smith and CGI zombies, or Cameron Diaz and lightning aliens, or Hugh Jackman and silly jumping robots, but simply because we’ve all got different relationships with art, and varying ideas of what it should do and the role it should play. Who am I to act as the arbiter for people’s taste, or decide how anyone else should experience a writer? My job isn’t to make anyone’s mind up for them.
My fiancée was still staring at me expectantly. I thought about some of my favorite Matheson stories. Some scenes from adaptations flashed through my mind.
“Let me tell you about some amazingly bad lightning aliens, dear,” I said. “You are going to love this.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia
There was something in the air during the 1950s in America that bred an especially grand strain of science fiction whose like was never witnessed before and hasn’t been since. It was a heady concoction: postwar triumph and trauma, unprecedented technological advances, the true advent of mass media swamping the atmosphere, that psuedo-fascistic hum of nationalistic propaganda and blacklisting, and the incessant reminder that a mushroom cloud could end it all… like that.
Because our national memory consigns the decade to a cultural-studies netherworld of Eisenhower conformity whose only pinpricks of creative greatness could be found in the Beats’ scrappy secondhand Whitmanisms, the science fiction of the 1950s is somewhat neglected. Many anthologies and studies that cover the genre’s supposed “Golden Age” content themselves with the 1930s and 1940s, when the pulps were churning out stiff-jawed space operas and riffs on gleaming cities of the future. The science fiction of the 1960s, with its narrative-busting experimentations is seen as being more daringly au courant and thus worthier of critical attention. Somewhere between the spacesuited squares like E.E. Doc Smith and countercultural innovators like Harlan Ellison, though, lies a golden seam that contains some of the century’s most thoughtful, jazzy, and dazzling literature.
The new Library of America two-volume collection, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, dusts off nine lesser-known novels that illustrate the breadth and depth of what was happening in science fiction during that decade. With its crisply typeset cloth volumes totaling almost 3,000 pages, the sturdy box is a welcome reminder of past joys for some readers and a striking introduction to fresh futuristic wonders and Cold War chills for others.
What American Science Fiction first does right is tacking immediately to lesser-known waters. Note that the collection’s title and subtitle say nothing about the “Greatest” and just calls its material “Classic.” By removing himself from the need to quantify the cream of the era’s crop (like the Library’s near-definitive 2009 Jonathan Lethem-edited set of Philip K. Dick novels), Wolfe avoids putting together a decade’s greatest-hits package that would have made for phenomenal reading — Fahrenheit 451, Foundation, Time Out of Joint, Childhood’s End, and Canticle for Leibowitz, would be a few obvious inclusions — but held fewer surprises. This makes for a less-than-perfect set, with at least two of the nine novels (Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and Algis Burdys’s Who?) not quite deserving classic status, fun as they are. Many of the others, though, are long-overdue for reappraisal.
The opening novel is Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953). It’s a spry satire on consumerist manias, groupthink, and advertising, in which an ad man working on the account to convince the people of Earth to emigrate to faraway Venus gets caught up in a plot that sees him stripped of his wealth and identity and plunged down the socioeconomic ladder (much more slippery in this starkly Malthusian future). The sly jabs at the inner workings of Madison Avenue feel spot-on due to Pohl’s work as an ad man after the war and could have been easily used in a non-genre novel of the time. But more ingeniously subversive is the book’s scabrous view of that unholy nexus of propaganda where consumerism almost becomes equated with patriotism; a dark shadow of the modern era that Pohl and Kornbluth could well see growing already in postwar America.
The only woman among these nine authors, Leigh Brackett was an anomaly in her field for other reasons. The classic image of the twentieth century science fiction writer is one barely removed from the Parisian garret, a writer churning out stories and novels that quickly disappear from print for extremely meager rewards. Brackett, however, was a respected Hollywood institution who knocked out scripts like Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye when she wasn’t writing for the pulps. (The wit that she honed on films like The Big Sleep also showed up in her late-career work on The Empire Strikes Back.)
The characters in Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955) are far removed from her fast-talking smartass movie stars, though it contains many elements familiar from her Westerns. Interestingly the only post-apocalyptic novel in the collection, it’s set a couple generations after a nuclear war has decimated America and left behind a bone-deep aversion to technology. Her teenage protagonist Esau lives in a straight-laced Ohio village of the so-called New Mennonites, whose quasi-Amish ways had once been thought “quaint and queer because they held to the old simple handcraft ways” but proved an evolutionary success after the destruction. Because of fears that any technological progress or urbanization will put humanity back on the ladder to nuclear war, settlements over a certain size are prohibited. Young Esau is, of course, curious about the outside world, particularly the long-rumored Bartorstown, a secret city where pre-war technology is supposedly still used. Brackett uses Esau’s Western-style adventures away from his little village (complete with torch-wielding mobs, wagon trains, and threatening bands of wanderers on the high plains) as a kind of cautionary tale of a cautionary tale. Fear loops back in on itself in her story where dreams are systematically dashed and a perfectly logical cautionary principle turns quickly into stifling conformity and lynch-prone crowds. Society’s inherently contradictory impulses have rarely been more stark.
While Brackett put her humor on hold for more serious things, for the quick-witted Double Star (1956) Robert Heinlein shelved the half-baked philosophical ponderings that can make works like Stranger in a Strange Land such strenuous undertakings. The novel is a brisk adventure about a jumped-up actor (“The Great” Lorenzo Smythe) who gets hired by some mysterious operatives to pretend to be a famous politician. It’s all told from Smythe’s preening point-of-view, which veers from arrogance (“If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he’s a spaceman”) to the prideful reflections of a man who considers himself the next coming of John Barrymore. Although the story is set in a future where the solar system is ruled by a Moon-based parliament presided over by a ceremonial Emperor and includes a race of curious, Ent-like Martians, Heinlein’s more interested in snap-crackle-pop political comedy and thespian satire. Like most of the best science-fiction, he keeps the futurisms working in the background and lets his characters move the story. According to the editor’s notes, Heinlein had actually hoped the novel (originally titled Star Role) would “finally crack Collier’s, the Post, or some other adult and not-SF-specialized market.” It’s a sign of how cut off from mainstream literature science fiction was at the time that even a swift-paced story like this with such a rousing the-show-must-go-on vibe couldn’t vault the genre barrier.
A book that was more successful at breaking through into the mainstream market was Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (1956). Later made into the film The Incredible Shrinking Man, and sometimes republished under that title, it takes a stupendously simple premise — a man named Scott starts shrinking one day; nothing the doctors do can stop it — and investigates all of its physical and emotional effects with precise and empathic acuity. Like many of the novels in this set, Matheson’s story focuses on people trying to adapt to impossible circumstances. Most of the novel is set in the basement of Scott’s house, where he has been lost ever since shrinking down to a few inches in height. While he battles each day to survive — trying to avoid drowning in tiny drops of water, nibbling on giant cracker crumbs, evading a monstrous spider — Matheson weaves in flashbacks about his descent from husband and father to curiosity, annoyance, and finally mystery. Matheson’s best work, like I Am Legend, has always had a depressive, existential quality to it, and this is no different. There’s very little of that stereotypical gee-whiz factor here that one would associate with science fiction of the era, and quite a bit more horror about losing one’s humanity.
The what-is-human? question gets gnawed over in a couple other novels here. The lesser of the two is Algis Burdys’s Who?. It’s a comparatively straightforward Cold War-styled story that translates Le Carre’s Smiley / Karla dialectic into a slightly futuristic setting where the worldwide conflict of stasis is being waged between the Allied Nations Government and Soviet Socialist Sphere. An Allied scientist, Lucas Martino, who was horribly wounded in a lab explosion and somehow ended up in Soviet hands, is returned to the Allies as a heavily metalized cyborg creation. Theoretically he’s Martino, but nobody quite buys it. There are plentiful possibilities for exploration here, but they’re hampered by some square-jawed dialogue (“Aren’t we all human beings?”) and a less-than-thrilling plot.
Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953) also digs into this investigative conundrum, but with many novels’ worth of imagination. With the care of the true master and the audacity of a magician, Sturgeon weaves together the stories of several young people who discover they have some form of telekinetic abilities and then merge into a unit that’s part-family and part post-homo sapiens multi-unit being. Together, the near-silent idiot savant, the developmentally disabled baby who can’t speak but mentally communicates like a genius, and the teleporting twins must both fight to survive in a threatening world and also understand the limits of their awesome powers. What thrills in the novel isn’t the wow factor of what they can do (teleportation and the like), it’s the dark chill of Sturgeon’s prose. It careens from gothic, Shelley-esque views of the monster-at-loose to the anguished Steinbeck-ian trauma of the outsider, cockeyed humor, fairytale wonder, and some potent examinations of morality (it’s easy here to see the influence the book must have had on Thomas Disch’s work), this is very simply a marvelously resonant and haunting work that can stand easily among the other great novels of the decade.
In A Case of Conscience (1958), James Blish also tackles themes as weighty as Sturgeon, but with much less impact. One of the few books here that spends any substantial time off-Earth, Blish’s novel has a scientific commission studying whether the distant planet of Lithia is good for colonization and whether its twelve-foot reptilian natives are safe for human contact. A potentially dynamic plot about the first Lithian coming to a crowded Earth — moved mostly underground after pollution and war — and fomenting revolution gets lost in knotty theological arguments put forward by a Jesuit member of the commission. It all ends in an anarchic and potentially xenocidic muddle, but Blish at least keeps his prose passionately engaged throughout.
More of a muddle is Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (serialized 1958, published as novel 1961). One of his “Change War” stories about an epic conflict being waged across all time periods by two vaguely delineated groups (the Spiders and the Snakes), it takes place in a so-called “Recuperation Station” for soldiers returning from their hopscotch missions. Narrated by Greta, a former Chicago girl who works there as an entertainer, the novel begins with high promise:
Our Soldiers fight by going back to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help our side win the final victory a billion or more years from now. A long killing business, believe me.
Leiber brings the fast-talking brio of his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales to this high-concept piece, using Greta to give it a raggedly funny and sad voice. But as the story progresses, with concerns rising over the increasingly shredded fabric of time and the possibility of deeply cynical manipulations behind the scenes, Leiber’s volleying dialogue tends to spiral out of control and blur his already tangled narrative. There’s almost more vision here than Leiber know what to do with; there are worse problems.
The jewel of this collection is Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956). A rocketing fantasia alight with apocalyptic Blakean visions and flights of fancy (it was published in England as Tiger! Tiger!), it’s the “vengeful history” of one Gulliver Foyle. Sole survivor of an attack on his spaceship, he is spotted and then left for dead by another ship that happens to come by. Burning with supernova rage, he becomes a singleminded machine for revenge, a spaceshifting precursor to Donald E. Westlake’s Parker. Tearing through Bester’s kaleidoscopic vision of a future where now-commonplace teleporting, or “jaunting,” has fundamentally altered society (in one instance: nobody bothers building fences anymore), Foyle is one of the great science-fiction antiheros. Around him, Bester crafts one of science fiction’s most memorable worlds, a gilded time of corporate clans (Sherwin-Williams, Esso, Greyhound), disappearing racial differences (again, jaunting), and outlawed religion. It’s a baroque style unusual for science fiction of the time, but instead of weighing down the story, Bester’s decorative lines help it sing. His opening lines seem just as fresh now as then:
This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice … but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks, but nobody loved it.
At its best, science fiction is always considering history, where we stand in it, where it’s taking us, how we’re mangling or ignoring it. This is a collection that does all of that, and delivers some of the American century’s most sparkling fiction, to boot.
Even a slight familiarity with pop culture provides the awareness that Scandinavian crime stories are ascendant — due in part to Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s internationally bestselling trilogy. There are, of course, numerous other practitioners of the crime genre from ice-bound precincts — Åke Edwardson, Karin Fossum, Anne Holt, Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and Arnaldur Indriðason, and so on.
Norwegian Jo Nesbø, whose CV includes stints as a stock trader, cab driver, musician, and soccer player, has seen six novels featuring his driven and single minded Oslo homicide detective, Harry Hole, published in English translation. Harry likes jazz, ’80s rock, booze, and solving crimes. And, naturally, Hole resents and resists authority — a burdensome characteristic for a big city policeman. All of which produces entertaining and, dare I offer, suspenseful reading.
In our face-to-face chat we talked about American crime writers, Nesbø’s ineptitude as a taxi driver, who is making a movie from his book, Lord of the Flies, his reading habits and more:
Robert Birnbaum: How do you pronounce your name?
Jo Nesbø: Ah, well. Outside Norway I prefer Jo Nesbø (both laugh). It’s the simple version. The Norwegian version is Ug Nespa.
RB: Say it again.
JN: Ug Nespa.
RB: Is there a “g” at the end of your first name?
JN: No there’s not.
RB: Sound’s like it. There’s a hard sound at the end. And Harry Hole is pronounced how?
JN: Same thing — outside Norway I am happy with Harry Hole and so is he, but in Norway it’s Hahree Whoule.
RB: Since your book is translated, it must be first written in Norwegian, yes?
RB: When you think about American crime fiction, there are a number of icons that people around the world refer to — Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and Thomson. Is there someone like that in Norway?
JN: Yeah, you have [Henrik] Wergeland. [He] is recognized as the godfather of Norwegian crime literature. In Scandinavian crime you have to go to the ’70s — Maj Sjöwall andPer Wahlöö founded the modern Scandinavian crime novel based on social criticism.
RB: And more procedural.
JN: It was. So everyone in Scandinavia who writes a crime novel, whether they l know it or not, they are influenced by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
RB: You have a varied CV — how did you come to writing?
RB: You were a stockbroker, a rock and roller, soccer player, taxi driver.
JN: I was a really bad taxi driver. I was famous for it.
RB: Bad sense of direction or poor driving?
JN: Just bad driving. Lack of concentration. But I come from a book reading home. My mother was a librarian. My father was a book collector. And so he would always be reading. So I started reading as soon as I could tell the letters [of the alphabet]. The first novel that I made my father read to me was Lord of The Flies by William Golding. A Nobel Prize winner. I wish I could say I chose that book because I have good taste, but I liked the cover. It was a pig’s head on a stake. Actually, when I wrote my first novel at the age of 37, none of my friends were surprised that I had finally written a novel. They were more like, “What took you so long?” It took some time, but it came very naturally.
RB: I am a little confused. There are eight novels in the Harry Hole series and four have been published in the U.S. [there are actually six available, with a seventh on the way in fall 2012]?
JN: I’m a bit confused myself. Because the first two novels feature Harry Hole in Australia and then in Bangkok, Thailand. And when we started selling the rights abroad we decided we would not sell the rights to the first two novels because they were a bit far-fetched — a Norwegian detective in Australia and Thailand. So we started with the third novel, but then the U.K. and later on the U.S. decided they would publish them out of order. So it is a bit confusing. Not only are they out of order, but also they are in different print sequences in different countries.
RB: And Headhunters?
JN: That’s a stand-alone.
RB: And Harry Hole is not in it at all?
JN: No, he is not mentioned and he is not there.
RB: Headhunters has been made into a movie in Norway — will it play in the U.S?
JN: Yes, which is rare. I just came back from Cannes and we showed it to distributors and the American distributor was so happy with it that it will be shown in at least 15 cities.
RB: Is Working Title the distributor?
JN: No, they bought the rights for one of the Harry Hole stories.
RB: Which means they effectively bought them all.
JN: Yah, yah.
RB: Working Title is the Coen Brothers?
JN: That’s right. That was their opening line when they phoned me. Because I had turned down offers for the Harry Hole series for a long time. Not that I don’t love movies, but they’re so strong compared to novels, so I wanted to keep that universe untouched. But they phoned me with a great opening line — “Hi, we are Working Title and we made Fargo.” (both laugh) And so I said, “OK, I’m listening.”
RB: Why did they mention Fargo, of all their films?
JN: I think they had a hunch that I liked that movie. It was probably on my top 10 list of movies ever.
RB: That’s great. I always have liked them, but I gained a lot of respect for them in the way they re-made True Grit.
JN: I just saw the first part of True Grit on the plane — I hadn’t seen it. And the dialogue was great. And I was curious because I hadn’t seen the original and it was really whippy great dialogue. It reminded me of Deadwood. Different, but still with great attention to dialogue.
RB: I recommend the novel Deadwood by Pete Dexter.
JN: I didn’t know there was a novel. Is it written in the same, almost Shakespearean way?
RB: Dexter is a great American writer, most well known for Paris Trout.
JN: I’m so ignorant.
RB: Is this your first visit here?
JN: No, I was here two years ago [for a book tour] and I was here before that. My father grew up in New York, in Brooklyn, with my grandparents. So I have some ties and bonds with the U.S.
RB: Besides gruesome deaths, what would define and distinguish Scandinavian crime literature? As opposed to American?
JN: Hopefully, Scandinavian crime has — the quality is good. You do have bad Scandinavian crime lit — but I think what separates it from not only American, but the rest of Europe also, is there is a tradition stemming from the ’70s that it was OK to write crime literature. It was prestigious. Sjöwall and Wahlöö sort of moved the crime novel from the kiosks into the bookstores, meaning that young talented writers would use the crime novel as vehicles for their storytelling talents. And so you have had good crime novelists, good writers, who would, from time to time, write so-called serious literature and almost all the well-known, established serious writers in Scandinavia have at one time written a crime novel. It’s sort of a thing that you do. You must have a go at genre.
RB: Here it seems acceptance of genre fiction as legitimate has come later. Elmore Leonard is championed, by among others Martin Amis, Michael Connelly, and George Pelecanos.
JN: James Lee Burke.
RB: I have read three of your books — and you have avoided what I think is the reason I don’t read series. Harry Hole is not predictable and clichéd. You know some of his habits, but the plots aren’t cookie cutter. What’s on your mind when you write the next Hole story? When are you done with him — how old does he get to be?
JN: That’s a secret.
RB: You know?
JN: I know — I have a storyline for him. He is not going to have eternal life. And he is not going to rise from the dead. So after the second novel, I sat down and wrote his story — I am not 100 percent sure how many books there will be, but if we are not near the end, we are nearer the end.
RB: Philip Kerr, who has written seven Bernie Gunther novels, says that the problem with writing a series is that the author usually writes one or two too many. They don’t know when to stop. Will you know when to stop?
JN: I don’t know. (laughs) I have no idea. Hopefully somebody will tell me. As long as the books sell, probably they won’t.
RB: Sales and quality don’t necessarily correspond.
JN: Actually, I think that — I am reading Jim Thompson on the plane. He had to write to pay the rent. I am so lucky I don’t have to write. I don’t have to sell books. So I can focus on what I want to do — what’s interesting. Do I know when to stop? Yes. It will not be decided by sales numbers. From the start I wrote for myself and two friends that I wanted to impress — two friends that had more or less the same taste in culture. And it’s still the same. Those are the two guys I am writing for — they don’t know this. If they say, “I read the last book and it was OK, then I am over the moon.”
RB: OK is good?
JN: OK is great.
RB: Do you have first readers?
JN: Yah, at the publishing house.
RB: But not friends?
JN: No, nothing like that. I have four or five people at the publisher. They coordinate their opinions and we sit down and have a meeting.
RB: Chandler was in the same situation as Thompson — so it goes. So, there is a limit to the Harry Hole. Are you already thinking about other fiction that you want to write?
JN: I am.
RB: How far ahead are you in your aspirations and goals?
JN: Other series or novels? I don’t like to think that long term. The problem is that I have more ideas than I have time. So I have — I am 51 now. I probably won’t be able to read all the books I want to read. And I won’t have the time to write all the books I want to write. So I try to give them the right priority, meaning that— — I have a children’s book series that I am working on now. There will be one more book in that series. And then a stand-alone children’s book. And then I will finish the Harry Hole series. I have some ideas for maybe a new series. I haven’t quite decided yet because I want to write this stand-alone thriller. When you write, it’s important to do it while you have the enthusiasm for the idea. Maybe the most important period of your writing is when you are convinced that your idea is the best idea any writer ever has had. So you have to use that energy, because the time will come when you wake up in the morning and you will doubt your idea. And then it’s good that you have already more than half–
RB: That doesn’t happen when you start something?
JN: Not when I start. And it doesn’t really happen that often. I wake up in the morning unsure. It did happen two years ago. I had been working on a novel for a long time and I started doubting. I went to my publishers and they were quite happy with it. But they had some suggestions and I immediately knew that they read it the way I read it myself. And what I did was delete the whole novel. Two years’ work out the window. Like I said, I am in the fortunate situation that I don’t have to publish books to pay the rent.
RB: It sounds like you don’t encounter writer’s block.
JN: No, I never experienced writer’s block, no.
RB: Do you have to write every day?
JN: I try to write every day, and I can write almost anywhere. I have been writing on the plane coming here. I thought our meeting was at four o’clock, so I was planning to write for an hour. When we are done here, I am going to write for two hours before my next meeting.
RB: Sounds like you love it.
JN: I love it. I started writing so late in life. I was 37 — I had worked, as you said, as a taxi driver, a stockbroker. A fishing trawler. I had many kinds of jobs. And I know this is the greatest job that you can have. To actually get up in the morning and people are paying you to do what you really want to do. To come up with these stories. It’s unbelievable having that as a job.
RB: Do you go for periods without writing?
JN: I don’t. Not really. Like I said I have more ideas than I have time. When I am going on vacation with my daughter for a week, she says, “Daddy, don’t bring the laptop, ok?.” I say, “No, no, no, I won’t.” Like an alcoholic, I will have it hidden somewhere. No, I have one week a year that is sort of sacred, that I don’t write.
RB: Can you imagine not writing?
JN: I can. I had a long life not writing, so I can imagine. But it would a poor life, that’s for sure.
RB: What is life like for a successful writer in Norway — do you live in Oslo? Is there a literary circle?
JN: I live in Oslo and there is a literary circle. I guess I am not part of it. I never was. I have my friends before I started writing and I stick with them. We hang out and do things.
RB: No publishing parties and movie openings?
JN: Not really. I probably did that more when I was a musician. And you get tired of it — talking about books, talking about writing. I do that enough when I am traveling. It’s good to go back home and go rock climbing or just talk about Bob Dylan — anybody but me. When I first started talking about myself at interviews like this, I though this must be the best job ever. To have people absolutely listening to you, talking about yourself for hours and hours. So I was a bit surprised when after a couple of years I felt I was getting tired of myself. Listening to my own voice, retelling the story of my life.
RB: Answering the same questions–
JN: You know this interview is a bit better than most–
RB: Well, thank you. Is there a big boom in writing programs, MFA programs in Scandinavia as in the U.S?
JN: Ah, yah. Something happened in the ’90s that suddenly writers became pop stars. They started being interviewed on talk shows and they started having their own shows called Book Box — there was an old building in Oslo where they had an indoor pool. They started interviewing writers there. They were like rock concerts. Actually, they had rock concerts in the same arena. It would be sold out — just for a writer being interviewed for 45 minutes. Ever since that, all the young talented people, they want to become famous writers because they would be treated like pop stars.
RB: What is the book business like in your part of the world? Is it prospering?
JN: It is. Norway — I am not sure about Sweden and Denmark, but Norway is one of the best countries in the world to be a writer. Both economically and artistically. I just went to France and I asked a bookseller there, “How many writers can write full time?” He said, “Probably, 50 or 60.” In Norway there are probably 200. Which has a smaller population — smaller than Massachusetts — 4 or 5 million.
RB: Which Americans do you try to read? How do they filter into Norway?
JN: I guess European literature has traditionally been more important in Norway than American. But myself, maybe because my father grew up here, I was influenced by American literature from a young age. Mark Twain, who I still regard as one of the great American writers. And Ernest Hemingway. Later on I read the Beatniks — Jack Kerouac. I was a great fan of Charles Bukowski.
RB: And contemporary novelists?
JN: Michael Connelly. James Lee Burke. There are so many greats. I didn’t read that much crime fiction before I started writing it myself. I can remember reading Lawrence Block. Dennis Lehane, of course. His Mystic River. I went to Asia and I bought 10 crime novels that were supposed to be good. Out of the 10, I found one good book — which was Mystic River.
RB: It’s also a great movie with Robert Mitchum. You are here for an extensive charm initiative?
JN: I will be here for nine days, trying to charm as many [people] as I can. Toronto, NYC, and the West Coast.
RB: By the way, how is it that your father grew up here?
JN: My grandmother left Norway for the U.S. when she was 16 and then she went back and met my grandfather. They made my daddy. And they went back to Brooklyn. To a part of Brooklyn where you had many Scandinavians in the ’20s and ’30s.
RB: Do you watch crime movies?
JN: I do. When I started writing I was probably more influenced by crime movies based on novels than the original novel. In some cases the films are better than the novels. The Godfather is probably a better movie–
RB: Someone is actually writing a prequel. What a god-awful idea.
RB: Did the HBO series The Wire make it to Norway?
JN: Yes. I have seen it and it’s great. The most interesting thing happening in storytelling right now is probably in American TV series. Breaking Bad–
RB: Justified based on an Elmore Leonard character — pretty funny. Are there original serials like that in Norway?
JN: We do, but with a small population and limited resources — there is a Danish series that made its way at least to the U.K. It’s called The Crime.
RB: It’s called The Killing here. A female cop tries to solve the killing of a young girl–
JN: That’s it. Are you seeing the original series?
RB: No, it must be made for the U.S. It’s in English and set in Seattle using American actors.
JN: Yah, the original is shot in Copenhagen. It’s great, if you can get it. It has subtitles.
RB: When I saw The Wire, I never saw it in episodes — I got the DVD and watched four or five hours at a time. It seems counterintuitive to watch these long stories a piece at a time.
JN: I agree. Watching the DVDs is like books, you decide when to consume the story. But don’t forget Charles Dickens would serialize his stories.
RB: Who knew the difference then? What is it, a new phenomenon?
JN: I think he was the first one who did it — if not, it was unusual to do that. I heard he would receive letters from his readers advising him how the story should go. And he would actually listen to them.
RB: Dickens was fascinating character. I’ve read a few novels where he actually appears as a character — Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Joseph O Connor’s Star of the Sea. What kind of music do you like — jazz appears a lot in the Hole books?
JN: Jazz and American rock from the ’80s. I still play about 50 to 60 gigs a year. I play guitar and I sing. So most of the gigs are with my bass player. We also go touring with my old band. We are going touring this summer — just for a few festivals. Just for fun. We keep the tour short enough so we don’t kill each other (laughs). So we are having fun.
RB: Do you tour outside Norway?
JN: No, the lyrics are in Norwegian and I don’t think the music makes sense outside Norway.
RB: Who comes to Norway to play? Anyone big?
JN: Most of them — either to Oslo or Stockholm or to Copenhagen — which is not so far from where I live in Oslo.
RB: Do you travel in Scandinavia?
JN: The land is more or less the same — just different dialects.
RB: Danish is understandable?
JN: No you have to read Danish. They speak funny. Actually, and I love Danes, but Danish is difficult. Children all over the world learn their mother tongue at the same age except for one country — Denmark. It takes a little longer.
RB: Apparently Dutch is unpronounceable by anyone except the Dutch. That’s how the Dutch Resistance tripped up spies in World War II. So will you participate in the making of the Harry Hole movie?
JN: The deal is done. I am an executive producer. I have a veto when it comes to the director and screenwriter. And that was what was important to me. I wasn’t too eager to sell the rights for the books as long as I was writing the series. So that was a condition — that I would have veto. The first time we met they said, “We can’t do it like that. We can’t go to Martin Scorsese and ask him to write a screenplay for this unknown Norwegian writer and if he likes it then maybe this unknown Norwegian writer will say yes. And have you direct the movie.” I said, “I completely understand but that is my condition. I am happy not to have the series filmed, yet.”
RB: Is it difficult that once the film is made there will be a tangible character and so when you write–
JN: That was one of the reasons I wasn’t eager to have it filmed, you know. I‘d rather there be a 1,000 Harry Holes in the heads of my readers than one character defining him.
RB: Having said that, who do you think may be a good Harry Hole?
JN: I have no idea.
RB: Norwegian or American?
JN: I have been thinking hard — Nick Nolte is probably too old. But I have no idea.
RB: Do you like Harry Hole?
JN: I do. He is a bit annoying at times. But most of the time I like him.
RB: Because he comes through — for truth, justice, and the Norwegian way?
JN: I mean he is irritating. He always has to do things the difficult way. He can’t ever — he has this problem with authority. And in my opinion he should try to avoid authority more, instead of always picking a fight. He’s a bit annoying in that sense. He is not the kind of guy I would like to hang out with — he is a bit too intense.
RB: He doesn’t really have any friends. One guy — his tech guy; he is sort of a friend. Even his colleagues who seem to respect him don’t gravitate to him. He is a tough cookie. His girlfriend obviously has problems with him.
JN: I think women want to save him more than that he is pleasant to be around. But he has one childhood friend — the hard drinking taxi driver. Apart from that, a psychologist and women.
RB: Often in crime stories, the crimes are not that important. Certainly in Raymond Chandler, in The Big Sleep who could figure that one out. Or in Chinatown where you are told not to try to understand “because it’s Chinatown.” In the Harry Hole stories, you do plot out a crime and have surprising solutions and endings. It’s something you care about?
JN: Yes. I like the dialogue you have with the reader — I am going to give you a chance to sort out the riddle. And I will give you enough information to solve it. I am not going to give you all the vital information from the last 30 pages. But before that, at least you have a chance. That was what Dennis Lehane did in Mystic River — there was a bit of information in the middle of the book and an experienced reader or writer — you could probably tell, okay, here is the killer.
RB: I liked his standalone novel about the 1919 Boston Police strike, Any Given Day.
JN: Yah, yah.
RB: It mentioned the Great Molasses Flood where a big vat of molasses escaped killing 19 or 20 people and wreaking untold havoc. Robert Parker also wrote a number of series and I thought his best work was a standalone, All Our Yesterdays. Did you read Parker?
RB: When The Road came out, I wasn’t in the mood to read it. But I did read a post-apocalyptic novel by Jim Crace called Pesthouse. Twenty years hence, most of America has been destroyed and survivors are searching for safe areas and viable communities. And of course they encounter obstacles. It came out around the same time as McCarthy’s book and was overshadowed by it. Do you know of Jim Crace?
JN: No. There are so many writers. We been sitting here almost an hour now and you are mentioning well-known writers and I don’t know about them. I probably should be embarrassed, but I am not. There are so many books and we don’t have time to read them all.
RB: It is frustrating. If you read 200 books a year, you still don’t scratch the surface.
JN: How many do you read a year?
RB: I may complete 150.
RB: I start a lot more. I used to feel bad about not finishing a book. I’m better at that.
JN: I ‘m a slow reader. I read more like 30 a year. It’s a crazy thing — there so many talented writers that you are not going to hear about. That’s why I feel so privileged and lucky to be able to come here after years of writing and have a name in Europe and hopefully some day in the United States. It’s not enough to be good.
RB: Is your backlist available here now? Harper has four, Knopf as two. The others?
JN: The first novels will translated to English next year. Harper will probably keep the backlist.
RB: Which one will be made into a movie?
JN: The Snowman.
RB: The new one.
JN: Actually that’s the previous one — the next one is called The Leopard.
RB: All right, thank you
JN: Thank you.
Image courtesy of Robert Birnbaum.