The year began with Mexican beaches and ceviche and morning yoga during a much-needed sanctuary from Chicago winter and the latent anxiety that was plaguing me. This was an ideal setting to engage in the drama of someone else’s fucked-up life and fraught desire—perhaps I was seeking catharsis of some kind? Well, if so Elizabeth Ellen’s auto-fictional novel Person/a, provided it. Person/a is a tale of a once-requited turned unrequited love cum obsession, accompanied by a crumbling marriage (no surprise) and self-imposed isolation. The novel includes emails and chat sessions and text messages and almost like a preface, rejections to Ellen’s manuscript queries. It’s all so wonderfully messy and unnerving, it feels like it shouldn’t hold but it does. In an age where I Love Dick has been subsumed by the mainstream, Person/a still reads as raw and suppurating. Fleur Jaeggy’s I am the Brother of XX didn’t fare as well at the beach. No fault of the book that the sun was too adamant, the breeze too gentle for its dark melancholia, its haute cynicism. It’s better read on a bleak winter day, when the air is already laced with desperation. I am not sure how one writes so beautifully about melancholy, how to make envy so alluring, and yet Jaeggy’s a master.
Obsession runs through yet another favorite — Lynne Tillman’s Men and Apparitions is an obsessive’s compendium. The sprawling novel contains anthropological disquisitions on photography and our cultural inundation in images, and ends with the narrator Zeke’s attempt to delineate the new masculinity belonging to the sons of second wave feminists. Zeke’s survey on the “New Man” ends the novel, with questions Tillman had posed to male subjects accompanied by a selection of answers. Tillman’s choice to open the novel to a survey of voices conjures a conversation from Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, where the narrator argues that novels are not very good at conjuring our contemporary reality and that documentary fiction, such as Svetlana Alexeivich’s “novels in voices” seem to do a much better job.
Despite my skepticism about any dog-centric story (the dog here being the narrator’s inheritance from the titular dead friend), The Friend became my constant companion for a few short days. Nunez plays with the conceit of the novel in a way that brings the “truth” of the main narrative into question, it’s a wonderfully surprising turn, and that’s as much as I’ll say to avoid spoiling it.
Many of the novels that stayed with me hijacked my expectations of what a novel is or can do. Dubravka Ugresic’s novel Fox was sly enough to seemingly shift forms while reading. I knew it was a novel going in, and yet by the time I was in the thick of it I questioned this until I was assured the book was definitively nonfiction. But then there were moments that gave me pause — such as when on a butterfly hunt, Nabokov’s companion’s skirt flies up to reveal a butterfly resting on her pubis. What’s true and what’s not? Fox is cunning and places this ambiguity at the forefront, for the novel is concerned with what makes up a narrative and, specifically, how stories come to be written.
Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is nothing like Fox in its material — confronting a deep-seated ambivalence and desire about becoming a mother — and yet both books retool the novel’s form. Heti engages with the I Ching as a dialogic partner as she delves into an inquiry about whether Sheila and Miles should have children, and with uncanny results. (Incredibly, Heti notes that the answers from her coin tosses have not been manipulated.) If you aren’t subsumed by the desire to have children, if you’re female and an artist and that window of opportunity is closing, how do you decide? Heti’s commitment to exhausting the question illuminates fears wedged in the crevices of my own mind, such as how can you be both writer and mother without some type of neglect or resentment towards one or both roles? (which I know isn’t true, and yet…)
I picked up Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks while visiting family in a small coastal town in Oregon, a town serendipitously much like the one where the book is set. Being there I felt even more subsumed by the lush language and descriptions of the coast and dense forest, and was in awe of the nearly mystical powers possessed by herbalist abortionist whose power is derived from her knowledge the natural surroundings. Also, I was delighted to learn that ‘red clock’ means ‘womb’.
Delight is just the word I’d use to describe reading Sabrina Orah Mark’s story collection Wild Milk, whose tales are surreal and playful and seem deceptively simple despite their profound linguistic and imaginative play. Rita Bullwinkell’s collection Belly Up is just as playful and profound, though her stories delve deeper and darker. They floor me with unexpected turns, slippages into the surreal, and their vast emotional registers.
I’m a little late to the party, as everyone’s championing Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel, but I just encountered her Find Me this summer. I read it twice, and became obsessed with its own obsessions with memory and loss and what’s inaccessible, its esoteric theories about immunity to the ongoing epidemic, and the fracturing effects of trauma and absence. On Joy’s ever-meandering bus ride, all seems like a dream: the bus is never heading where she thinks, she keeps getting deterred on her way. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for life, or perhaps she’s she lost her mind? I love that both readings seem plausible.
Unlike Joy, Sequoyah in Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking knows where his mother is (she’s incarcerated); though like Joy he’s suffered abuse and has been shuffled through the foster system. He’s so tender and adrift, but finds connection in his relationship to his older foster sister Rosemary, and their shared Native American heritage. They’re all so flawed and awkward and completely alive on the page.
The dead do talk in Shelley Jackson’s Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children. It’s an enigma of a novel about a boarding school for stuttering children whose impediment, or rather, gift, allows them to effectively speak the dead’s voices . The novel is a linguistic and imaginative feat, as well as a gorgeous object to behold. Interspersed between chapters is documentation of artifacts, images, and illustrations, which only an imagination as wonderfully freaky as designer Zach Dodson could pull off. Is it a cliche to say it’s enchanting? Though Riddance’s main obsession is with a murder mystery, at its core it’s also a philosophical consideration of translation and writing, and the voices that exist beyond the grave.
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Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker gives readers a long-awaited account of the experimental writer as a living, breathing, fucking, and frequently, sick human being. Masterful in detail, drawing on deep archival sources and interviews, Kraus’s account grounds Acker’s project in the physical environments of late-20th-century New York, California, and London. Consider, for example, the beautiful sentences Kraus uses to open the book’s main action:
New York City, 1971:
The bed, rarely made, floats in a room painted orange with big violet stars.
She spends most of her days and nights in the bed, sleeping and writing. Her hair is cut short. Twice, unable to do anything with it, she shaves it off.
The inside of the closet is violet, matching the stars. The room could be anywhere, really, although in actual fact it’s on the sixth floor of a building in Washington Heights, upper Manhattan, straddling the corner of Broadway and 163rd Street. There are gates on the two skinny windows, facing north onto 163rd. Even in 1971, the old prewar building, with its large corniced lobby, had seen better days.
Moving through the shabby, abject places where Acker lived and worked, After Kathy Acker adds to a growing literature that examines the lives of bohemian writers of 1970s and 1980s New York and the relationship of these writers with the impoverished around them. Like Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire in the previous century, and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg in earlier decades, these writers developed sympathies for their neighbors that drew on their lived proximity to such poverty. Acker lived close to the bone in the 1970s, alongside segments of the population rapidly being labeled an unproductive “underclass” responsible for the country’s economic and moral woes. In the early 1970s, Washington Heights was holding on, but barely. It was just across the river from the scene of the city’s worst urban destitution, the South Bronx, and residents knew what was coming. By the 1980s, the neighborhood would be overrun with crime.
Acker knew the spaces of poverty well, and these spaces animate her literary project. By detailing Acker’s lived life, Kraus offers new perspectives on the contours of Acker’s work, particularly as these relate to the welfare state that ameliorated poverty. One of the most prominent features of Washington Heights is the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. The center became important to Acker in 1971, when pelvic inflammatory disease drove her into its doors. In her unpublished journals, she recollects, “I walk into wooden hospital, emergency exit for Columbia Presbyterian hospital. Largest room wood walls puke yellow. Or rot yellow. […] In front of folding chairs, wood booths. I sit in chair. I hurt.” The scene is shocking and ordinary, disturbing and workaday. It is one of thousands that occurred in New York alone in the 1970s, especially as the municipal hospital system began to fall apart in the wake of the 1975 fiscal crisis.
Kraus’s I Love Dick is well-known for blurring biography and fiction, and Kraus finds her own project in Acker, showing us how Acker’s project drew on her lived life. The hospital scene from Acker’s journals would resurface throughout her early fiction, appearing in some version in The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973), I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac (1980), and Great Expectations (1980). In Tarantula, for example, it becomes “woman vomits blood over floor, wood booths with tiny filthy white curtains for doctors’ rooms in front of wood chairs on wood floor filthy, doctor yells at one man you haven’t taken your medicine now you’re going to die of T.B. man is skeleton sit down not next to anyone we’ll call you man sits down next to me.” In Nymphomaniac: “Ahead of me I see an old guy sitting in a folding chair. Everyone’s screaming pain. A doctor standing next to a filthy curtain which swings from a wood frame says, “Mr. Smith”…Doctor walks in: I think she’s a nurse. She tells me she’s a doctor. I lay down, she sticks a silver thing into my cock. Each time she turns it, I hurt more. Everything becomes total pain. I’m screaming. Everyone in the examining room’s screaming. I tell the nurse to stop.” Acker’s characters have always suffered in exaggerated ways; she’s particularly fond of torture as a motif. Acker figures its contours carefully and slowly, preserving them through their repetition across her work. She brings the simple, terrible space of the emergency room to her larger project, documenting her lived encounter with an impersonal—but useful and helpful—system.
By this point in the national discussion of health care, this scene is familiar: Woman without insurance gets deathly ill and goes to the emergency room or, today, urgent care. What happens next is also familiar: Acker writes in her journal, “Doctor won’t see me until I pay for last visit & this visit. I hate being yelled at. Otherwise I wouldn’t have paid.” To pay, she found work doing sex shows but had to take pain pills during them to “walk without screaming.” This scene became part of Acker’s literary project. Kraus uses it as an example of what she calls “the strength, and also the weakness” of Acker’s writing: Acker’s tendency to rewrite memories until “they became conduits to something a-personal, until they became myth.” In this case, Kraus meant that “in book after book, Acker would describe the cycle of despair of doing sex work to buy medicine so she could keep on doing sex work,” adding, somewhat cynically, that Acker “[crafted] these months of her life into something more allegorical than her actual life on West 163rd Street.” The weakness of this account is that the episode is limited; the strength of this account is that it becomes impossible to ignore after it appears for the third time.
Part of that allegory told a story about institutions like Columbia Presbyterian. Acker’s work, up to and including her death from cancer in 1997, has sometimes been read as a wide attack on the institutions that dominate the private lives of individuals. Acker was associated with a wide body of anti-institutional critical theory, particularly that of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Michel Foucault. Kraus doesn’t indicate whether Acker attended the 1975 Schizo Culture conference run by Sylvère Lotringer, at which all three men spoke. But certainly, by 1977, Acker was published alongside these men in the issue of Semiotext(e) based on the conference. The Schizo Culture conference might be called the birth of the academic left’s long critique of the welfare state, at least in the United States. In the conference proceedings, one finds early examples of the Foucauldian critique that dominated the U.S. academy in the 1980s and 1990s. This critique often took as its target the welfare state that expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, part of what has been called the Fordist compact between government, industry, and unions. At a local level, New York hospitals had aggressively expanded their mission and physical footprint during this time, increasing in particular their mental health services. It’s doubtless true that this expansion meant more surveillance and control over the poor in particular.
But there’s another way to view all this: Even as she evolved this memory into a critique of the medical system, Acker was showing how it worked, especially in New York, for impoverished Americans, while also showing the dire consequences of its limitations. She’s immersed in that waiting room; her journals take care to observe not just the color of the walls but the way doctors are behaving toward other patients, the way everything seems in need of repair, the way everyone has to sit for hours in pain. In this respect, those years at 163rd Street seem to have marked Acker in ways other than myth, as manifested by passages like this one from Blood and Guts in High School: “Most people are what they sense and if all you see day after day is a mat on the floor that belongs to the rats and four walls with tiny piles of plaster at the bottom, and all you eat is starch, and all you hear is continuous noise, and all you eat is starch, and all you hear is continuous noise, you smell garbage and piss which drips through the walls continually, and all the people you know live like you, it’s not horrible, it’s just…” Yes, the poor are part of the myth: Acker often used the poor to signal her protagonists’ abjection and position outside of power. But Acker was also not the only one deploying the poor as part of a myth. As the historian Michael Katz emphasizes, the image of the “undeserving poor”—whether as represented by “urban crisis” or “underclass,” forms a key part of those discourses aimed toward destroying the welfare state, a narrative whereby welfare is blamed for “economic stagnation and social decay.” Such discourses emerged during the Nixon administration and operate with equal vigor through Paul Ryan and Donald Trump.
These privatizing discourses were everywhere in the 1970s but took some time to solidify as a target of leftist critique, a problem shaped by everything from the legacy of McCarthyism to the rise of identity politics. Arguably, the rise of French theory in the academy didn’t help. As the moment of “high theory” has faded in the academy, such discourses have begun to be reassessed. In this context, critics such as Bruce Robbins have begun describing the irony of institutional critique in the post-Fordist moment of the welfare state’s decline. In Upward Mobility and the Common Good, Robbins argues that while the welfare state was an “imperfect historical form,” it nevertheless represents “a defensible common program in which the glaringly different interests of the poor and needy, on the one hand, and elite experts, on the other…appear to be resolved.” In the context of privatization, Robbins argues, “the persistence of the Foucaultian school in interpreting the welfare state as an apparatus of domination” has come to seem, at best, open for debate. Acker may have allied herself with that Foucaultian school, especially in Empire of the Senseless and other late works, which depict hospitals and prisons as part of a Burroughsian nightmare. In that 1971 emergency room, though, Acker isn’t concerned with being surveilled: She wants conditions to improve, both for both herself and for the elderly man with tuberculosis waiting alongside her.
As Joshua Freeman describes in Working-Class New York, the system that Acker encountered in 1971, however imperfect, was pretty good. Elsewhere in the country, the postwar medical system was compromised from the beginning. Labor had to fight not only doctors, hospitals, and insurers but often the government as well. New York, though, had two things going for it: a dense concentration of unionized workers and independent-minded doctors. Combined, these produced in the postwar years what Freeman calls “an exceptional health care delivery system.” As Freeman quickly adds, though, that system came under pressure in the late 1960s. By 1971, The New York Times editorial board was warning its readers of the impossibility of providing quality health care to all Americans in the wake of a threatened strike and the establishment of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, an organization that quickly moved to demand a 5 percent cut in hospitals citywide. After the city’s 1975 fiscal crisis, cuts were made even more widely.
Reflecting on a letter Acker wrote to Ron Silliman about New York’s 1975 fiscal crisis, Kraus describes “welfare, unemployment insurance, and disability SSI” as “de facto grants that funded most of New York’s off-the-grid artistic enterprises.” In the 1970s, writers and artists like Acker needed the welfare state. I don’t say this to point out Acker’s hypocrisy, as if Acker were Ayn Rand requiring Social Security in her dotage. I instead mean to point out that a desire for more care, not less care, has been present in Acker’s work from the beginning. In the midst of the welfare state’s breakdown in the 1970s, Acker in Nymphomaniac showed her readers how the “poor who can have no lovers, who long to die” deserved better than a hospital that “was the worst hell I had ever been in.” Certainly, they deserve better than, as Acker describes in her journals, a choice between going without medical care and doing sex work while taking pain medication “so that I can walk.”
The health care system haunts After Kathy Acker. It can’t help doing so: Acker’s 1997 death was, in part, a consequence of her refusal of chemotherapy, a refusal that Acker herself attributed to the high costs of getting care without health insurance. In other words, while Acker’s refusal is sometimes attributed to her career-long critique of the biopolitical control of health care, it’s equally the case that Acker simply lacked access to health care. Had the Affordable Care Act been in effect in 1996, there’s some likelihood that Acker, as a visiting professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, would have been at the very center of the policy: an independent contractor, one of the “many self-employed people in San Francisco” who “bought their own coverage,” as Kraus suggests Acker might have done without subsidies (and a $260,000 trust to her name). But in following the idiosyncratic Acker through spaces of poverty, Kraus has already made the case for a different world, one in which the self-employed, like the impoverished, find quality service that doesn’t turn dystopian. That world became more possible with the Affordable Care Act, legislation that Acker the writer might have hated but that Acker the cancer patient might have used.
Image: Columbia University Medical Center
It’s the (second) most wonderful time of the year: Millions Most Anticipated Great Second-Half Preview time! Below you will find just shy of 80 wonderful books to get you from July to December 2017. We’ve got new titles from big names (Erdrich! Eugenides! Ward! Messud!); we’ve got stellar debuts (Zhang! Clemmons! Rooney! Khong!); we’ve got translated gems (Binet! Szabó! Krasznahorkai!); we’ve even got cross-genre celebrities (Weiner! Hanks! McKibben!).
The Millions Previews — both our semi-annual long lists and our newer monthly offerings — are some of the best things we do at this site. As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote yesterday, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The site has been running for 14 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.
Please enjoy the rich offerings below, come back August 1 for the monthly preview, and prepare yourselves for 2018 (which, according to our agents in the literary field, is going to be a doozie).
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: A retiree has sold his station wagon to buy a lifelike sex doll, his daughter’s come home after running out on her paranoid tech billionaire husband, and another man’s been sexually assaulted by a dolphin. Just so you know what you’re getting into: all of this happened in the first 60 pages of Nutting’s new novel, a darkly comic exploration of familial and romantic love, and how technology warps both. (Read our review.) (Nick M.)
Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam: Klam was one of The New Yorker’s original “20 Under 40” writers in 1999 and published a story collection, Sam the Cat, the next year. And then nothing. For 17 years. Now at last, Klam is publishing his debut novel, about a has-been cartoonist who leaves his family behind to teach at a weeklong arts conference where he rekindles an affair with one of his students, the unhappy wife of a Wall Street titan. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Klam is hilarious. (Michael)
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: The buzz around this debut is more like a roar. Thandi is caught between black and white, America and South Africa. When she loses her mother, she has to try to connect the dislocated pieces of her life. While Clemmons has recently burst to prominence, she has long been doing the work to get there. She teaches literature and creative writing, her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Transition, the Paris Review Daily, she is co-founder of Apogee Journal, and a contributing editor to LitHub.com. The best part? She’s got a two-book deal. (Claire)
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich: Nobel Prize—winner Alexievich is best known stateside for her Voices of Chernobyl, where she documented the stories of survivors of the nuclear disaster, but it’s her first book The Unwomanly Face of War that established her as an oral historian. Alexievich gave voice to the less documented women’s role in WWII by interviewing female gunners, pilots, medical workers, and others. She writes: “Their words and feelings? A whole world is hidden from us. Their war remains unknown…I want to write the history of that war.” First published in English in 1985, this new edition is translated by the renowned Russian duo Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. (Read our interview with her.) (Anne)
My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye: A novel “in the existentialist tradition” that both obscures and exposes xenophobia in contemporary French society, the story of provincial school teachers Nadia and her husband, Ange, is described by the publisher as “surreal, allegorical, and psychologically acute,” and by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “revelatory and devastating.” NDiaye, winner of both the Prix Goncourt and Prix Femina, is the author of 13 works of fiction, seven of which have been translated into English. She also co-wrote the powerful, artful film White Material with Claire Denis. Despite comparisons to Elena Ferrante and Doris Lessing, she is little known in the U.S.; hopefully this will change. (Sonya)
Refuge by Dina Nayeri: Nayeri’s first novel, A Teaspoon of Earth, follows a young girl as she grows up in post-revolutionary Iran and dreams about her sister’s life in America. Refuge, Nayeri’s second novel, also centers on a young Iranian girl, Niloo, but this time the story is flipped: Niloo flees Iran, leaving her father behind, and grows up in Europe. Twenty years later, she’s a sophisticated academic struggling to navigate her connections to her family, a growing community of Iranian refugees, and her adopted homeland. A nuanced look at what it means to seek refuge; novels don’t get more timely than this. (Kaulie)
The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt: Maybe you’ve heard of Hunt’s last novel, Mr. Splitfoot? It’s in our Millions Hall of Fame, and Hunt’s been interviewed for the site. She’s also published in The New Yorker and been reviewed (glowingly) by almost every major publication. Now she’s back with her first collection of short stories and, in true Hunt style, they’re bizarre, beautiful, and haunting. Dead dogs come back to life, women turn into deer, and there’s at least one killer robot; there’s also suburban loneliness and anxiety mixed with a healthy dose of witty humor. What more could you ask for? (Kaulie)
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: In Rooney’s debut novel, former lovers and current best friends Frances and Bobbi are Trinity College students turned spoken word artists who become entangled in the lives of Melissa and Nick, an older married couple with married-people problems. Much has been made of Rooney’s age (she was born in 1991), and her sharp, funny dialogue. Her editor calls her the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” and in its review, The Guardian notes, “Her hyperarticulate characters may fail to communicate their fragile selves, but Rooney does it for them in a voice distinctively her own.” (Edan)
Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco: In this 2013 debut, the Spanish novelist spins a dystopian yarn tracking a young boy’s flight into the wild. There he is confronted by an ancient goat herder bearing wisdom that trust is a hard-won commodity, and once violated, often too fragile to ever be redeemed. Described as “harrowing,” “stark,” “violent,” and “parabolic,” Out in the Open provides a timely and certainly intense meditation on the role trust plays in cultural progress and preservation. A reliably literate, fluid Margaret Jull Costa translation makes for a gripping read. (Il’ja)
A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen: A long essay exploring, of all things, a mime. Wen, a former radio producer, pens this tribute to Marcel Marceau, the “artist of silence,” who in addition to being the most well-known mime in history was also a Holocaust survivor and member of the French Resistance. Kirkus raves “Readers will marvel not only at Marceau, but at the book itself, which displays such command of the material and such perfect pitch.” (Lydia)
The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat: In this hybrid work of memoir-criticism, prolific writer (and Year in Reading alumna) Danticat reflects on the death of her mother, part of a longer meditation on the way that artists cope with death. Michiko Kakutani writes that Danticat “wants to learn how to use language to try to express the inexpressible, to use her art to mourn.” (Lydia)
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Khong, who was an editor at Lucky Peach, brings us a debut novel about a 30-year-old woman who’s moved back home with her parents to help with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Told in short vignettes that span a single year, Goodbye, Vitamin has, according to Justin Taylor, “breathed fresh life into the slacker comedy, the family drama, and the campus novel.” In its starred review, Booklist writes: “In her tender, well-paced debut novel…Khong writes heartbreaking family drama with charm, perfect prose, and deadpan humor.” (Edan)
South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby: Just when you think you’ve seen all the books, along comes a comedy of manners about climate change starring a ragtag team of cultural misfits at the edge of the world. Shelby’s novel grew out of a(n award-winning) short story, but its scope is capacious; in an advance review, Year in Reading alum Robin Sloan says “South Pole Station is a portrait painted with the whole palette―science and politics; art and history; love and frostbite―and all of it crackles with the can’t-make-this-up details of life at the bottom of the world.” (Kirstin)
Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz: 1960s and 70s L.A. party girl and writer extraordinaire Babitz is having a revival. Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company were recently published by NYRB Classics, and now her novel Sex and Rage is being re-issued by Counterpoint. Readers can’t seem to get enough of her writing and it’s hard to imagine literary L.A. without her voice. That’s because Los Angeles is not just a setting in her work, it’s not a character, it’s not a myth, or a lover. It’s love itself. (Zoë)
The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor: Fermor, who died in 2011, is perhaps best known for the books chronicling his youthful tramp across Interwar Europe—drinking and frolicking and picking up a half-dozen languages along the way. Here, in his only novel (originally published in 1953), the action is concentrated on the island of Saint Jacques, whose French aristocracy is in the midst of Mardi Gras revels. A volcano looms over the picturesque town in carnival, an outsized force of nature in this slender work as florid as it is fun. (Matt)
Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen: The latest by the man behind the labyrinthine Book of Numbers kicks off with a situation that’s nothing if not explosive. Two Israeli veterans, Yoav and Uri, decide to spend a year in New York with Yoav’s cousin, a right-wing American patriot who runs a tri-state moving company. In short order, the two get enlisted to work as ruthless eviction-movers, which leads inevitably to one homeowner seeking revenge. (Thom)
A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma: The title of Sharma’s new story collection is apparently ironic—“An apter phrase might be ‘bad luck and isolation,’” according to Kirkus Reviews. David Sedaris deems the stories “complex, funny enough to laugh out loud at but emotionally devastating,” and the Kirkus reviewer does ultimately concede that the stories exhibit “a psychological acuity that redeems their dark worldview.” Fans of Sharma’s Family Life may be interested in a story that seems to have been the seed of that novel. And if you’re interested in a sneak, the title story and “You are Happy?” (among others) were both published in The New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard: In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn about his first novel, Short Century, Gerrard succinctly described the plot of his second: “It’s about a machine that tattoos epiphanies on the forearms of its users. That is my attempt to question and honor one of the major ideas of fiction, which is that fiction should lead up to an epiphany.” This new work explores the effects of such epiphanies—the narrator’s tattoo reads “Dependent on the Opinion of Others”—on the inscribed-upon individuals and society as a whole. The result, according to Publishers Weekly, is a “wildly charming, morally serious bildungsroman.” (Matt)
I Hear Your Voice by Young-ha Kim: One of Korea’s most prolific and celebrated authors brings us a new novel, translated by Krys Lee, about two young men on the streets of Seoul: Jae, who is abandoned as a baby and becomes a leader of a powerful motorcycle gang, and Dongyu, who runs away from home as a teenager to follow Jae. Booklist remarks: “this is a wrenching examination of discarded youth, abuses of power, and the irreparable disintegration of societal structures,” and John Darnielle is a fan, saying, “Young-ha Kim is kin to those writers of more experimental times than ours: Daniel Defoe and Thomas Nashe, writers who followed their stories and themes into whatever haunted, humid dark corners they found, and who weren’t afraid to linger in those places to see what else might be there. (Edan)
Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina: Part memoir and part historical fiction, this unusual book uses recently declassified FBI files to trace the escape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray. With a fake passport, Ray managed to elude capture for 10 days in Lisbon, Portugal. Muñoz Molina’s fascination with this story has to do, in part, with his personal connection to Lisbon, a city that was the inspiration for his first novel, Winter in Lisbon. Muñoz Molina recounts Ray’s hideouts in Lisbon in 1968, while also looking back on his own memories of the place, when he lived there in the late 1980s, and was just getting started as a novelist. Throughout the narrative, Muñoz Molina reflects on the writing process itself, and how he came to construct Ray’s narrative. (Hannah)
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud: Following The Woman Upstairs, Messud’s new novel tells the story of lifelong friends Julia and Cassie. Their paths diverge and the result is a story about adolescence that contrasts a childhood’s imaginary world against adult reality. Messud, who will always have my heart for her response to a question about an unlikeable female character, tackles big questions with complex and nuanced novels. It looks like this will deliver. (Claire)
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Sour Heart is Lena Dunham’s first pick for her imprint at Random House, which is a delight since Zhang is a powerful fiction writer who offers an intimate look at girlhood. Karan Mahajan says that the book, which is narrated by daughters of Chinese immigrants, “blasts opens the so-called immigrant narrative.” And Miranda July reveals that Sour Heart will come to “shape the world—not just the literary world, but what we know about reality.” (Zoë)
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta: Here is how Mrs. Fletcher, the seventh novel by the author behind The Leftovers, begins: a woman named Eve Fletcher gets an anonymous text with a simple and unsubtle message: “U R a MILF!” The message, over the course of several months, drives Mrs. Fletcher to grow obsessed with a MILF-porn website, which leads to some unsavory consequences in her day-to-day life. It doesn’t bode well that she’s also the director of a senior center. (Thom)
The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: French intellectual history is unlikely whodunit territory, but leave it to Binet to mine comic and genre gold from the milieu of 1980s Paris. Set into motion by the sudden (and real-life) 1980 death of cultural critic Roland Barthes, Binet’s novel features all the literary and cultural heavyweights of the time—Butler, Derrida, Deleuze, Eco, Foucault, and Kristeva—while also, in a Calvino-like touch, including a hunt for a manuscript that purports to unlock hitherto unknown linguistic mysteries. Highbrow hijinks ensue, obviously. (Kirstin)
The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk: The 10th novel from Nobel Prize-winning Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman is a story of fathers, sons, and myths. Master Mahmut, a traditional Turkish well-digger, and his young apprentice work hard at their back-breaking trade, searching for water in a barren land, until an accident changes everything; the “demonic” voice of a red-haired woman haunts the survivor. Allusions to Oedipus Rex and Shanameh, stories of patricide and filicide, fill the novel, but there’s more than a little mystery here as well. And since this is Pamuk, you can be sure to find plenty of musings on the clash between modernism and tradition, new and old. (Kaulie)
New People by Danzy Senna: The fifth book from Senna, whose previous work includes the best-selling novel Caucasia and a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, about her parents’ marriage. Like her earlier work, New People explores complex issues of race and class, following two light-skinned black Americans who marry and attempt to have it all in Brooklyn in the 1990s. In her review for The New Republic, Morgan Jerkins writes “What this novel succeeds in is creating a dense psychological portrait of a black woman nearing the close of the 20th century: inquisitive, obsessive, imaginative, alive.” (Lydia)
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard: What’s newsworthy about Autumn is what it is not: it’s not an entry in the epic (and still going) My Struggle, which made Knausgaard famous. Instead, it’s book number one in a new, unrelated project, which the author refers to (naturally) as the Four Seasons Quartet. Conceived as a “lexicon for an unborn child,” the projects consists of hundreds of very short texts, each of which tackles a different everyday object. “Now, as I write this,” the first entry begins, “you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into. And I know nothing about you…” (Thom)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: Described as “a modern-day Antigone,” Home Fire follows Isma Pasha, a British woman who comes to America in pursuit of her Ph.D., her beautiful younger sister, and their brother, who’s haunted by the legacy of their jihadi father. Add in a rival London family, an increasingly tense political climate, an impossible romance, and remorse in Raqqa, and perhaps you can begin to see the Grecian similarities. The latest novel from Shamsie, whose Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Home Fire should prove moving and thought-provoking, even for those who never cared much for Antigone. (Kaulie)
The Mountain by Paul Yoon: In his second published story collection, Yoon presents six distinct stories set at various times—past, present, and future—and all across the world. Throughout, characters are linked not by personal connections to one another, but instead by a shared theme: how they reconcile violent, traumatic pasts with their present-day lives. (Nick M.)
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard: The Ribkins are quite the talented family. Johnny Ribkins, now 72, can make a precise map of any space, whether he’s been there or not. Johnny’s father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale walls. His cousin belches fire. This black American family once used their powers to advance the civil rights movement, but when disillusionment set in, Johnny and his brother turned their talents to a string of audacious burglaries. Now Johnny’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from a mobster—or he’ll swim with the fishes, as they say. Praised by Toni Morrison and Mary Gaitskill, Hubbard arrives on the scene with an auspicious bang. (Bill)
White Plains by Gordon Lish: Would we be highlighting this collection of literary odds and ends from a tiny indie press if its author were not the erstwhile Captain Fiction, editor of Raymond Carver’s early stories, and one of American fiction’s most infamous provocateurs? Probably not. Even the publisher’s own promotional materials expend more words on Lish than on the book he has written, enigmatically subtitled Pieces and Witherings. But whatever else can be said about the man, Lish is among the most influential literary figures of his generation. His own work, though wildly uneven, is worth a read. (Michael)
After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus: In her life and work, radical punk writer Kathy Acker assaulted the male hegemony of narrative fiction with her transgressive experimental books, including Blood & Guts in High School and her re-appropriation of Great Expectations. As true to these ideals in life, Acker begat a full mythology. “Acker understands that writing without myth is nothing,” writes Kraus, Semiotext(e) editor, author of I Love Dick, and now author of Acker’s first biography. After Kathy Acker, according to Sheila Heti, “feels like it’s being told in one long rush of a monologue over late-night drinks by someone who was there.” (Anne)
Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah: Gurnah’s Gravel Heart is a book that may remind some readers of the author’s Man Booker Prize finalist, Paradise. It circles around the falling of a society, herein Zanzibar, in the wake of colonial disruption. The protagonist, Salim, is caught in the midst of all this, and his slow spinning—internally and externally—revolves into a moving portraiture of a man caught in a web of things, hard and difficult. The structure of the book pays homage to William Shakespeare, and it may this that solidifies Gurnah’s ninth novel as an ambitious work worthy of attention. (Chigozie)
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: The book industry trades in superlatives, but the buzz for this debut novel stands out. To read it is to become an evangelist for it, apparently, and Stephen King says he’ll remember it forever. It’s about 14-year-old Turtle Alveston and her “tortured but charismatic father,” from whom she’s gradually realized she needs to escape, with the help of her one and only friend and an arsenal of survival skills. (Janet)
Eastman Was Here by Alex Gilvarry: Artistic ambition, intellectual misogyny, and Saigon provide the backdrop for Gilvarry’s second novel, whose Norman Mailer-like protagonist seeks to reclaim his former journalistic eminence by chronicling the end of the Vietnam War. It turns out, however, that no matter how far from home you go, you take your troubles with you; and the titular Eastman finds that his ghosts, like those of the nation that created his oversized public persona, can’t be outrun. Year in Reading alum Saïd Sayrafiezadeh says “Eastman Was Here is a wildly entertaining book, intoxicatingly written and deceptively profound in its insights into the nature of celebrity, country, marriage, war and the pitfalls of being a writer.” (Kirstin)
Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: This debut was described by The Guardian as a “clever and funny take on domestic life and Nigerian society.” Set in the 1980s, the story centers around the familial—and family planning—struggles of a young woman trying to conceive. She does everything she can, including ascending the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, goat in tow, only to have her in-laws foist a second, and presumably more fertile, wife, upon her feckless husband. Published earlier this year in Britain, the novel was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. (Matt)
The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek: Kobek had a surprise hit on his hands with 2016’s I Hate The Internet, his self-published satirical novel that lambasted the tech industry’s distortion of San Francisco. After that novel published to favorable reviews—including one from Dwight Garner in The New York Times—and strong sales, Kobek is returning with The Future Won’t Be Long.The forthcoming novel is a prequel to Internet that finds a younger version of Internet’s protagonist, Adeline, as a struggling young artist in New York. Written before Internet, Won’t Be Long tracks Adeline and her friend Baby as they navigate, in Kobek’s words, “the decaying remnants of Punk New York.” We can expect this novel to observe that decay with the same wit that characterized Internet. (Read our interview with him.) (Ismail)
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: New Orleans native Sexton’s debut novel tracks the sliding fortunes of three generations of a black family in her hometown, as they move from tenuous middle-class respectability during World War II through the ravages of the War on Drugs, the crack epidemic, and the psychic calamity of Hurricane Katrina, casualties of the American Dream that has unraveled from Jim Crow to Donald Trump. (Bill)
To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie: Ten stories whose settings range widely from WWII Kansas City to New York City to western Massachusetts to woodsy Wisconsin to rural Minnesota and the Twin Cities—from a writer who’s been working the biz side of indie publishing for decades. Foreword Reviews writes: “What is remembered; what is missed; what will never be again…all these are addressed with the tenderness of a wise observer whose heart is large enough, kind enough, to embrace them all without judgment…intense and finely crafted.” From Kirkus: “…Summie writes elegantly of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, with their disappearing farmland, aging population, and winters that are both brutal and engendering of intimacy.” Summie’s debut marks her later-life chapter, and you can read about that in our interview with her here. (Sonya)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Ward returns with her first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones. Ward’s two books between, a memoir (Men We Reaped) and a book of essays she edited (The Fire This Time), deal head-on with racism in America and the woeful ways it’s still deeply embedded in our society. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s southern-steeped voice is just as keen and continues to take on the South’s murky history, this time through the young Jojo as he travels with his drug-addicted mother and baby sister as they go to pick up his father just released from prison. (Anne)
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Krauss’s fourth novel follows the lives of two Americans in Israel in alternating chapters. The first character, Jules Epstein, is a recently-divorced, retired lawyer drawn to a rabbi; the second, a novelist named Nicole, is recruited by a mysterious literature professor working on a project about Franz Kafka. Krauss’s novel A History of Love has been rightly praised, but this new book might send people back to her equally intriguing debut, Man Walks into a Room, another investigation of what happens when our lives are radically transformed. (Nick R.)
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: With her 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, Ng proved she is a powerful storyteller of multifaceted families and the women within them forced to make difficult decisions. Her sophomore effort tangles multiple families in a drama of class and race in a Cleveland suburb. When single mother and artist Mia Warren moves to Shaker Heights, she rents from the well-off Richardson family. Of course, the initial fascination with the Warrens turns sour when they are pitted against the Richardsons in a town rift about a family adopting a Chinese-American child. (Tess)
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: National Book Award winner McDermott is simply one of the finest living Catholic writers, and her new novel looks to capture the spirit of her previous work: families and cultures strained by the optimism of faith tempered by the suffering of reality. A man’s suicide early in the novel leaves behind his pregnant wife. She is comforted by The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, a Brooklyn convent. A generational novel sure to appeal to longtime McDermott fans, and to bring-in new readers as well. (Nick R.)
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride: McBride returns to fiction for the first time since winning the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, his masterly novel about the exploits of the doomed abolitionist John Brown and his entourage. McBride’s new book, Five-Carat Soul, is a collection of stories told through the eyes of an antique toy dealer who makes the score of a lifetime; the poor kids in a neighborhood band called the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band; a mixed-race child who believes he’s the son of Abraham Lincoln; a boxer; a lion; a doctoral student who uncovers a beautifully complicated war story. Five-Carat Soul will thrill fans of McBride’s unmistakable fictional voice. (Bill)
The Golden House by Salman Rushdie: Rushdie’s 13th novel—heralded by his American publisher as a return to realism—is concerned with the lives of the extremely wealthy in Obama-era Manhattan. On Obama’s inauguration day, a mysterious billionaire named Nero Golden and his three adult sons move into a “cloistered community” in Greenwich Village. Their young neighbor René, drawn in by the family’s glamor, finds himself increasingly entangled in their lives, while elsewhere in Manhattan, another billionaire—or, well, perhaps we should go with “self-proclaimed billionaire,” because who knows—begins an improbable campaign for the presidency. (Emily)
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison: This volume collects the great novelist’s Norton lectures at Harvard University, giving those of us who didn’t get to attend a glimpse at Morrison’s thoughts on race and otherness, and how these things affect literature and lives around the world. The lectures also include revealing discussion of her own novels. With an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Lydia)
Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander: Though the latest by Englander takes place on three different continents, at heart it’s a novel about the conflicts of modern Israel. Z, or rather Prisoner Z, has been held at a black site in the desert for close to 12 years, where the only company he’s allowed is a single guard. The one official who knows about him is a comatose figure named The General. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn who Z really is: an American operative who compromised Israeli state secrets. (Thom)
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó: Why does writing this vivid take so long to find its way West? Equal parts lament, paean, and family saga, Szabó’s 1969 novel (and 2007 Prix Cévennes winner) in Len Rix’s legato English translation captures handily the “double tragedy of eastern Europe”—razed by Nazis and rebuilt by Communists. The unquiet spirits of post-war Budapest put meat on the bones of the Soviet joke that “only the past is unpredictable,” and one less-than-silent witness of the sins and slights of a shattered community harbors no illusions about permitting the living to exist peaceably in the soft-focus sentimentality of their survival. (Il’ja)
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke: I heard Locke—award-winning author of Pleasantville, a writer on Fox’s Empire, and a native of Texas—say that she wanted to write something about the black experience in the South that wasn’t only about prejudice, but showed that complexity and love and joy exist even in oppressive systems. I may be paraphrasing poorly, but I’m excited to read her book, which is about a black Texas Ranger trying to solve the murders of a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman. (Janet)
The Living Infinite by Chantel Acevedo: Acevedo’s third novel is a retelling of the life of the Spanish princess Eulalia, born four years before the revolution that removed her mother, Queen Isabella II, from the Spanish throne. After an upbringing in the Spanish court and in exile, Eulalia traveled first to Cuba and then to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, with secret hopes of finding a publisher for her scandalous memoir. (Emily)
The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson: It is 1930, in Cotton County, Ga., and Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter, gives birth to two babies, one light-skinned, the other dark. A field hand is accused of her rape, lynched, and dragged behind a truck down a road known as the Twelve-Mile Straight. So begins this second novel by the author of the radically different Ten Thousand Saints, set in New York’s gritty Lower East Side in the 1980s. “This is the kind of novel you sink into, live inside,” says Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling, about The Twelve-Mile Straight. (Michael)
Draft No. 4 by John McPhee: McPhee has been producing lithe nonfiction pieces like “Uncommon Carriers,” “The Ransom of Russian Art,” and “Coming Into the Country” for The New Yorker for 54 years. That alone should provide sufficient incentive to sit up and listen when the man offers a primer in the how, the why, the who, and the humor of getting at the story without sacrificing the art. And that’s what Draft No. 4 is: eight crunchily practical, previously published New Yorker essays/workshops on the craft of creative nonfiction. Written by the departmental dean, no less. (Il’ja)
A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe: Rowe’s two previous books—How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake—were collections that walked the line between short fiction and prose poetry. A Loving, Faithful Animal, her exquisite first novel, is concerned with the long shadow of war across generations. Rowe tells the story of a fractured family in 1990s Australia after the father, a Vietnam War veteran, leaves home. (Emily)
Border by Kapka Kassabova: When Kassabova was a child growing up in Iron Curtain-era Bulgaria, the country’s isolated southern borderland—where Bulgaria meets Turkey and Greece—was rumored to be a relatively easy crossing point into the West, and so the region swarmed with migrants, soldiers, and spies. In Border, a work of narrative reportage, Kassabova returns to a region whose natural beauty is matched only by the complexity of its political and cultural landscapes: the Communist-era spies have long since departed, but the borderland, Mark Mazower wrote recently in The Guardian, remains “an environment that does not spare the unlucky or the vulnerable.” (Emily)
The Doubles by Scott Esposito: Esposito wears many literary hats as founder of lit blog Conversational Reading and its companion journal Quarterly Conversation; as director at Two Lines Press; and as a columnist at Lit Hub writing on strategies for enduring the Trump Presidency. With The Doubles, he turns his focus to film and through film, back to his own life. Mathew Specktor writes that through this prism, Esposito “arrives at something magnificent: a work of sustained criticism that is itself a work of high art and a profound meditation on how the art we see becomes who we are.” (Anne)
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Six years after her quirkily brilliant novel-in-stories A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer, Egan is back with a noirish historical novel set in wartime Brooklyn. At the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Anna Kerrigan becomes the nation’s first female diver, repairing ships that will help America win World War II. Through a chance encounter, she meets nightclub owner Dexter Styles, who she hopes can help her solve the riddle of her father’s disappearance years before. (Michael)
Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides: Surprisingly, this is Eugenides’s first collection of short fiction—a debut of sorts from an author best known for his novels, especially his sprawling, Pulitzer Prize-winning saga, Middlesex. The stories in this collection span Eugenides’s 25-year career, and many were originally published in The New Yorker, including the story “Baster,” which was adapted into the 2010 romantic comedy The Switch. (Hannah)
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien: After the massive success of Man Booker Prize shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the world has realized that Thien is one of the most gifted and powerful novelists writing today. Her previous novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, set in Cambodia during the regime of the Khmer Rouge and in present day Montreal, explores the aftermath of war. It was published in Canada 2011 and will now be released in the U.S. for the first time. Welcome to the party. (Claire)
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A collection of new and previously published essays on the Obama years, from the writer whose access to and insights about the former president were beautifully documented in The Atlantic essay “My President Was Black.” The new collection includes an interview with Obama. (Lydia)
A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg: A decade after it first appeared, Hallberg’s debut illustrated novella is being reissued in a newly designed edition. It arrives two years after Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions, published his breathtaking first novel, City on Fire. Field Guide consists of 63 interlinked vignettes with accompanying photographs and annotations, which probe the inner workings of two families in the New York suburbs. The book’s subtitle would have delighted John James Audubon: “Concerning chiefly the Hungates and Harrisons, with accounts of their habits, nesting, dispersion, etc., and full descriptions of the plumage of both adult and young, with a taxonomic survey of several aspects of family life.” Taxonomic is the perfect word for this gorgeously executed little marvel. (Bill)
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: Machado is a talented essayist; particularly notable are her pieces for The New Yorker, including “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!,” one of the finest examinations of the adjunct crisis in America. Her fiction deals with more surreal fears, with sharply-drawn pieces like “Horror Story” in Granta: “It started so small: a mysteriously clogged drain; a crack in the bedroom window.” Stories like “The Husband Stitch” are marvels of language and experimentation. A fiction debut to watch. (Nick R.).
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks: Yes, it is that Tom Hanks. A collection of 17 short stories involving typewriters, which the author also collects in real life. This is the debut collection of the 60-year-old cinema lion. According to The Guardian, everything came together for Hanks as a fiction writer when he published this story in The New Yorker in 2014. (Lydia)
The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón: Award-winning writer Alarcón returns with a new short story collection that features a wide range of memorable characters. The King Is Always Above the People examines immigration, Latin American families, Los Angeles, and much more. Alarcón has received much critical acclaim for his previous books and his most recent novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, was a finalist for the 2014 Pen-Faulkner Award. (Zoë)
Here in Berlin by Cristina García: The Cuban-born American writer García—novelist, journalist, poet, anthologist, and National Book Award finalist—transports us to Berlin for her seventh novel. An unnamed Visitor, armed with a camera, goes spelunking in the German capital, seeking to reckon with the city’s tangled, living history. The result is a series of snapshots: a Cuban teenager taken as a POW on a German submarine; a female lawyer still haunted by her childhood in the bombed-out suburbs of Berlin; the son of a Berlin zookeeper who fought to protect the animals from both bombs and a starving human populace. These and other ghosts still walk the streets of García’s bewitching contemporary Berlin. (Bill)
A Natural by Ross Raisin: Named one of Granta’s “Best Young British Novelists” in 2013 and the author of books (God’s Own Country, Waterline) about intense loners, Raisin places his latest protagonist within a more communal setting: a soccer (or rather football) club. The novel follows a young, gay player navigating the sporting world. As Raisin explained in an interview, the subject threw some British publishers off, who explained their reasoning thusly: “We don’t know how to sell it to women because it’s about football, but at the same time we don’t know how we sell it to football supporters because it’s got gay in it.” Quite the dilemma, but thankfully not all were scared off the pitch. (Matt)
Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia: Ferocity is the latest from Europa Editions, which also publishes Elena Ferrante (as well as gems like Treasure Island!!! and The Elegance of Hedgehog). Pitched as Gillian Flynn meets Jonathan Franzen, Ferocity won the 2015 Strega Prize, Italy’s preeminent fiction prize, and concerns a dead woman, her brother who’s set on figuring out what happened to her, and Southern Italy in the 1980s. Sign me up. (Edan)
Vacationland by John Hodgman: Known variously for his work on The Daily Show, his podcast and New York Times Magazine column—both titled “Judge John Hodgman”—his role as “the PC” in those Mac commercials in the aughts, and three books of fake facts, Hodgman is a unique and hilarious public figure. Hodgman’s new book—a memoir about fatherhood, aging, travel, and his home state of Massachusetts—is the most (maybe the first) unironic thing in his career. (Janet)
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: A new offering from Erdrich on the heels of her National Book Critics Circle Award win for LaRose last year. The new book takes place during an environmental cataclysm—evolution has begun reversing itself, and pregnant women are being rounded up and confined. A pregnant woman who was adopted in infancy from her Ojibwe birth mother returns to her mother’s reservation to pursue her own origin story even while society crumbles around her. (Lydia)
Don’t Save Anything by James Salter: November 2017. I remember hearing Salter read his heartbreaking story “Last Night” to a captivated audience in Newark, N.J., at Rutgers University—it was a moment of shared intimacy that I’ve rarely experienced at a reading. Salter had a presence both on and off the page. Don’t Save Anything collects Salter’s previously uncollected non-fiction; essays that appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, People, and elsewhere. The book’s title comes from a line from one of Salter’s final interviews: “You try to put everything you have in a book. That is, don’t save anything for the next one.” (Nick R.)
Mean by Myriam Gurba: In her coming-of-age nonfiction novel about growing up queer and Chicana, Gurba takes on misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism with cutting humor. Mean will make you LOL and break your heart. Mean has already received advance praise from brilliant, badass feminist writers Jill Soloway, Michelle Tea, and Wendy C. Ortiz. Gurba’s previous book Dahlia Season won the Edmund White Award and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. (Zoë)
Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman: This fall Dorothy Project publishes Houses of Ravicka, the fourth book in Gladman’s series of novels set in the city-state of Ravicka and told in the author’s nimble prose. The books catalog the intricacies of language and architecture and their intersection—something Gladman’s recent Prose Architectures from Wave Press does quite literally. As The Renaissance Society notes, “Gladman approaches language as a space to enter and travel within, and her writing is attuned to the body as it moves through architectures of thought and experience.” In this latest volume, Ravicka’s comptroller tracks the ways the houses in the city-state shift with time. (Anne)
The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai: The Hungarian author has described his style as “fun in hell.” With this, the seventh! New Directions translation of his work, English language hell just got even more fun. A giant with an H2O fixation and a Portuguese child quarry slave on a quest for the surreal are just two of the characters met in this short story collection that examines the practicalities of cultural entropy, and stylistically sacrifices little of the author’s depth, range, and extraordinary stacking of subordinate clauses. These stories should provide the uninitiated with a workable introduction to Krasznahorkai and his formidable oeuvre. (Il’ja)
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner: The creator of Mad Men and former writer and producer for The Sopranos applies his screenwriting chops to literary fiction with this debut novel. Set in a privileged milieu in modern-day New York, it’s been described as “a dark fable,” “a collision course,” and, most intriguingly, by Philip Pullman, as a story characterized by an “ice-cold mercilessness reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh.” At 144 pages, this novel apparently cuts to the chase and doesn’t spare any of its characters. (Hannah)
Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben: Is it a surprise that the debut novel from one of our best-known environmental activists focuses on grassroots resistance? In backwoods Vermont, two radicals use an underground radio show to recruit people interested in seceding from the United States. What follows is a zany, witty, and altogether timely imagination of modern resistors. (Nick M.)
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: A collection of essays on music, culture, and personal history from the poet and Year in Reading alum (and MTV News writer, before MTV News made their woeful decision to “pivot to video”). Terrance Hayes writes, “Abdurraqib bridges the bravado and bling of praise with the blood and tears of elegy.” (Lydia)
The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski: British writer Diski won a wide following with a strikingly clear-eyed chronicle of her battle with the lung cancer that killed her last year at the age of 68. The Vanishing Princess, her only collection of short stories, is now available in the U.S. for the first time, and it will be welcomed by fans of Diski’s piercing nonfiction and dreamlike novels. In the story “Short Circuit,” Diski mines her own stays in mental institutions to pose an old but not unreasonable question: are the people we regard as mad the truly sane ones? (Bill)
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Şafak: Şafak is one of Turkey’s most popular novelists, and her fiction and nonfiction has been translated around the world. Three Daughters of Eve, her 10th novel, takes place in contemporary Istanbul, but looks back on an earlier era, as Peri, a wealthy housewife, recalls her friendship with two fellow students at Oxford University. Together, these three young women became close through their studies, debating the role of women in Islam, and falling under the influence of a charismatic but controversial professor. The scandal that broke them apart still haunts Peri. (Hannah)
The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.
As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.
I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.
We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).
You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.
I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.
One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.
I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.
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My year in reading was a strange one for me, like only one year previous in my life thus far: I had finished a novel — The Queen of the Night, due out in Feb. 2016 — and so the year was that peculiar kind of annus horribulis, in which you try to keep a lid on your ego and act casual, all while you wait for your novel to appear in stores with all that implies. You dutifully prepare your events, your website, and your life for a period of time that has no certain borders and that will have little relationship either to what you fear or what you desire. And everyone’s advice never changes: start on finding your next project, so you have at least a relationship to it and aren’t caught out by what eventually happens.
To get through this as a writer is a little like splitting into two: one of you heads off into the woods of your own self while the other becomes some public version of you, making its way like a renegade balloon from the Thanksgiving Day Parade that just keeps inflating.
My reading then was both a little like it always is — a mix of books I’m teaching and books I simply wanted to read — but several ideas for what my next book will be were already underway and auditioning for my attention — a mystery novel, a novel I’ve put off writing for nearly two decades, a space opera, and a collection of essays. In order to think about them and to also get my work done, I planned two new classes: one on autobio, as autobiographical fiction is increasingly called, and one on plot. And it is true that I do have a few more answers now than I started the year with, but I also had a lot of fun.
In the first half of the year, I read autobiographical fiction and some nonfiction work that ran along its edges: Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, for example, which I remember suffered by comparison to The Woman Warrior back when I first read it, but which seems to me now a bravura performance in its own right: her attempt to imagine her way into the silences inside the men in her family’s history. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel, is still as relevant as ever and as immaculately made — line for line, the prose is a wonder. Colette’s puckish first novel, Claudine at School, was like finding a whole other writer after her later novels, which I already knew. Edmund White’s The Married Man paired beautifully with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, two very different stories of the personal social cost of trying to hold on to and even love your obsessions (and not just be obsessed with them). And I reread Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark alongside Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and thought about how each portrays a way of transcending the first person while also staying firmly in it.
Once summer began, I dove into Charles D’Ambrosio’s fantastic collection of personal essays and criticism, Loitering, which I read alongside Jan Morris’s majestic metafiction, Hav — a plotless novel written as travel writing of the oldest best kind. It describes her trip to an entirely fictional country, and done with a thoroughness of detail that is so convincing, I am still stunned Hav doesn’t exist.
I then prepared for my plot class with some favorites. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was as chilling as ever, a way of thinking about the present — and describing it — by inventing a past instead of a future. I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire the more for knowing at last what life is like now as a professor (I hadn’t read it since undergrad). Likewise Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I now think of as a way to describe America through the lives of two women and a single Ohio town. Reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals for structure meant finding the fretwork is actually a spine.
Throughout, I mixed in the new: Like many, I devoured Hanya Yanagihara’s astonishing A Little Life. And then I also read from the more than new, books you can read next year: Garth Greenwell’s breathtaking What Belongs to You, which is a little like if Marguerite Yourcenar returned to us with Bruce Benderson’s obsessions, and Chris Offutt’s new memoir of the secret estate his father left him (and the secrets in it), coming in March — My Father, the Pornographer.
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I’m suffering from that complete lack of perspective that afflicts us when we try and enforce a strict linear timeline on our lives; that is to say, to borrow a dumb driving metaphor, that objects in my figurative rearview mirror are closer than they appear, and the books I read at the beginning of 2014 and throughout 2014 have all blended together in that grey matter soup sloshing around my skull, and so I’m now going to name my favorite book of the year as one that just happens to be a book I read very recently, but so what, this is my entry and I can do what I want.
I found Artful at my favourite book store in Brooklyn and put it down because I had already spent too much money that weekend, a rare exercising of willpower. Three weeks later I went back to that same bookstore, after having tried to navigate a delayed flight and a city shut down by a marathon and a friend who had left me his empty apartment and yet had failed to leave me either his keys or his Wi-Fi password; I thought about weeping, but instead dragged my suitcase to buy the book I wanted because I thought it would make me feel better, which it did not. I was on edge and paranoid and convinced, once I got the keys, that I wasn’t alone inside the apartment. If I had known Artful was a ghost story I might not have read it. When I got to the part of the book where the narrator’s dead lover shows up in her living room to steal her teacups I felt compelled to get up and check the closets for, I don’t know, ghosts? As though they were perhaps just waiting in my friend’s linens for me.
Ali Smith’s collection of four essays, ostensibly about time and form and literature and art and film and trees and the Greek language, but actually the story of a woman grieving her recently deceased partner, put me on watch for ghosts and relaxed some weird tension I hadn’t even known I was holding until I read it: “Books,” Smith writes early in the book, “need time to dawn on us.” We wouldn’t listen to a piece of music just once to fully understand it, she explains, a fact anyone who has heard “Anaconda” can relate to. “[W]e tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once…it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them, because books are produced by books more than writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.”
I mean, it’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s not really common sense either. Since childhood, I’ve clung to books the way babies cling to their preferred blankets, believing in their soothing or restorative properties, even if I knew how they would end. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite book of the year because I sometimes think I only have favorite books, full stop, and they are books I’ve been reading and re-reading for years with a really high level of guilt about it; like, do I really need to read I Love Dick for the 16th time? I know how it ends. I need something else, I suppose, the rhythm of something I’ve heard before.
This year, I read and re-read my favorite books like it was a guilty pleasure, ashamed to be shunning all the new books that had come out, books that probably would’ve expanded my worldview or taught me something useful, but fuck it, Ali Smith gave me permission to take some time to understand the book in front of me. In 2014, I read Bluets twice in the same plane ride and Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Changing My Mind, four times in five months. I read Kate Zambreno’s reissued novel Green Girl six times as I wrote a very long article about it, Over Easy by Mimi Pond twice, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit four times. I read the same two pages of Susan Sontag’s journals as many times as it took until I thought I understood what she was saying even though I’m still not entirely sure I do. It’s the books I read just once that are probably a sign of doing something wrong, either on my part or the books’ part, because I haven’t found a way to make them part of this linear narrative of books I keep circling back on, the books that follow me as I try to turn the peripheral objects of my life into symbols of some sort of meaning or permanence or ratings like “best” and “worst.”
All of this is to say: I really don’t know what my best book of 2014 was, but since that terrible weekend in Brooklyn, I’ve read Artful cover to cover three times.
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If judging a book by its title, a reader might opine that Where Art Belongs, the eighth volume in Semiotext(e)’s “intervention series” would include: a consideration of spaces and contexts conducive to creativity and also art making, a list of places that inhibit art appreciation or stifle creativity, as well as, a discussion of the aforementioned spaces, places, and contexts, that leads to a conclusion of where, in fact art belongs.
However, Chris Kraus’s book by this very-same title does not offer manifestos, sweeping judgments, prescriptions, nor proscriptions. Kraus’s nuanced approach is more akin to a cultural anthropologist who considers creativity in its natural habitats, the spaces where art comes into being; where collaborative and destructive energies merge to mount momentary feats of brilliance; where repetitive, nearly obsessive photographs of landscapes shot through windshields of moving cars, or within New York apartments (dust bunnies included) form an oeuvre; where absence lends presence; where words equal art, and art envelops all.
It seems that Kraus believes no space is entirely barren, or incapable of sparking inspiration. For example, she examines the creativity of American Apparel founder Dov Charney, and aligns his creative corporate vision with the 1960’s artists collective Chia Jen, or The Family, as described by member (and choreographer) Simone Forti: “The life we lived in common provided a matrix for the profuse visions we lived out in various twilights.” Kraus posits that in contemporary culture, corporations like Charney’s may channel creative energy that once resided solely within art’s realm, and in doing so become a kind of art. She goes on to say:
From its manufacturing philosophy of vertical integration to its marketing and the deliberate location of its gallery-esque stores in urban neighborhoods on the cusp of gentrification, American Apparel resonates against the economic and psychogeographic state of the culture like a gigantic work of conceptual art. As an artwork, it is breathtakingly brilliant in ambition and scope.
Kraus shows that the contemporary world is linked by unlikely connections–a world where prison laborers make computer keyboards that generate profits for a corporation that funds a foundation, a foundation which, in turn, supplies mosquito-netting to an African country to prevent malaria on a grand scale. Tracing such disparate connections is an art unto itself. With technology, distance has collapsed, and with physical distance, other barriers and demarcations, too. Commercial products now mimic conceptual art, in that “far more creativity goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves.”
This diminishment of the object as a commercial product parallels the disappearance of the object from the work of art, as Kraus states: “all art is now conceptual, deriving value through context, at a second remove.” Disappearance also figures significantly in Kraus’s essay “No More Utopias,” which examines the work of performance artists Bas Jan Ader and Elke Krystufek. In 1975, Jan Ader disappeared while crossing the Atlantic on a solo voyage to Europe–he was completing the third and final act of his performance piece, In Search of the Miraculous. The grand myth of Ader’s disappearance has informed Krystufek’s work, and provided her with inspiration. From the beginning, Krystufek’s artwork has been marked by her excessive and extravagant appearance, in countless self-portraits, and later in hybrid portraits/self portraits of figures like Lenny Bruce and Katherine Mansfield, whose physiognomy blends with Krystufek’s. However, Kraus notes that in some of Kryustefk’s most recent work, she does not appear. Instead she follows a man with her camera, and chooses to document decorative style over human figures. Kraus doesn’t state this outright, but by drawing the comparison she leads the reader to consider how Krystufek’s identification with Ader may have influenced her withdrawal from her own work.
In Where Art Belongs Kraus performs a parallel disappearing act. She has played prominent roles in both her fiction and in Video Green, her first book of essays on art, which also chronicles her California life, her dominant/submissive practices with various boyfriends and lovers, her housekeeper’s incapacitation from AIDS, and even ties in details about tenants. And in her first novel, I Love Dick, Kraus’s namesake, Chris, is the lead character, who develops an obsession with a prominent art school theorist, an obsession which she channels into letter writing and collaboration with her husband on how to best seduce Dick, which in turn becomes a kind of performance art. Kraus often creates intimacy through self-revelation and prostration on the page, and part of her genius resides in masking where reality cedes to fiction.
However, in Where Art Belongs, Kraus stands back from the narrative. Her opinions, personal interjections, and asides pepper the essays, and she appears in an essay about the Sex Workers Art Show, but she allows for distance. It seems that she riffs off Ader’s disappearance, Krystufek’s transformation, and also the subtlety of photographer Moyra Davey’s self revelations. Kraus admires the way Davey reveals herself, specifically the way she deals with her chronic illness. Kraus compares this to how Walter Benjamin writes grief: “ Davey’s writing is informed by illness, but it isn’t about illness. Life, as Deleuze once observed, isn’t personal. Davey offers herself as a protagonist to lead us towards recognitions that arise in a heightened intellectual/emotional state through correspondence.”
In Davey’s essay, “Notes on Photography and Accident,” Davey claims her writing process is like a photographer’s: “I go out into the world of other people’s writing and take snapshots. These ‘word-pictures,’ like Benjamin’s ‘pearls’ and ‘corals,’ have Sontag’s ‘talismanic’ quality, and from them I can make something.” If there is one guiding force in the art Kraus examines–whether it’s Davey’s gathering of fragments, or the collaborative elements of collectives like Bernadette Corporation and Tiny Creatures, or even American Apparel–it’s the emergence of an organic creativity, of collaborative generation, of making art from the unexpected and improvising, of reveling in the chaos of art, of life.
Kraus opens Where Art Belongs with an essay on the Tiny Creatures Gallery in Los Angeles, and this essay begins with founder Janet Kim’s Tiny Creatures Manifesto: “Tiny Creatures is not a gallery. It is Tiny Creatures. / Tiny Creatures is not a venue. It is Tiny Creatures.” Art is one grand experiment; it is generative, not sterile, forced, or overly refined. In this aspect, Kraus aligns Tiny Creatures with bohemias of generations past, from the East Village of the ’80s to other earlier “artistic experiments of the last half century.” The spirit remains the same, it’s only the spaces and contexts that change. Kraus mentioned that she began to write about Tiny Creatures after the gallery closed, but says it was significant that she spoke to the members while their stories were still “unsanitized.” And while institutions, art museums, and corporations may be easy stand-ins for sterility, Kraus’s investigation also demonstrates how creativity will resurge in unlikely spaces, how it will burrow in and burgeon wonderfully, like brilliant flowers growing between sidewalk cracks.
This book is a lot smarter than I am. It’s a lot smarter than most of us. And yet smart really isn’t the word I want to describe the thing—this memoir or novel, who cares what it is—so much as dismantling. Dismantling of its author and anyone who decides to pick through what feelings come loose. I Love Dick is a chrestomathy of experience that schools us in abjection and desire. It’s about the filmmaker Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lotringer, who, together and apart, fall into an unrequited threesome with the eponymous Dick after one dinner with him at a sushi bar in Pasadena. Unrequited insofar as Dick becomes an off-scene repository for the stuff of Chris and Sylvère’s marriage (they write him letters) and, later, for the stuff of Chris—what she talks about when she talks about love. There is art, genocide, schizophrenia; there is Simone Weil, Flaubert, activist Jennifer Harbury, and artist R.B. Kitaj. The book is full of allusion—“Does analogy make emotion less sincere?” No!—and adventures in form (180 pages of letters—some from Chris, some from Sylvère, some from both—alongside third-person interludes) that make this one of the messiest, most honest, and epic revelations of self out there.
Eileen Myles, in her forward to my edition, calls I Love Dick a cunty exegesis (now there’s a phrase that rolls off the tongue), and though the book is absolutely engaged with the subject of female desire, I think it’s more about the psychic experience of failure—its appeal and fallout. As Kraus writes, “If art’s a seismographic project, when that project meets with failure, failure must become a subject, too. Dear Dick, That’s what I realized when I fell in love with you.” And what I realize whenever I think about what seems so disappointing apropos form in contemporary literature, apropos its sense of order and through-line and ease of consumption, which is its disregard for failure as one of the most—if not the most—vital and inevitable experiences of being alive. To be honest about failure, to make of its role a case study, is always going to be a messy affair. Kraus quotes the poet David Rattray—“Honesty of this order threatens order”—and, if you push it far enough, as Kraus does, it turns form away from order and towards an intermingling of the raw, the troubling, the ecstatic.
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Edmund Wilson encouraged his second wife Mary McCarthy’s first forays into fiction by shutting her in a room for three hours and asking her to write a story. Author Shirley Jackson’s husband Stanley Hyman, a literary critic and writer for The New Yorker, devised strict writing schedules for her. And with the money from Jackson’s royalty checks, he purchased a dishwasher to make more time for her writing. Alice B. Tolkas tended to domestic duties so that her partner, Gertrude Stein, could pursue her literary endeavors. As Stein said, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around and do so much nothing, really do nothing.”
Stein’s statement sounds like an exaggeration, but is it really? While most writers don’t have the dispensable time to become geniuses of Stein’s definition, writing requires a certain amount of intellectual autonomy. One common bond linking McCarthy, Jackson, and Stein—three women featured in Elaine Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers—is that their spouses allowed them the time and solitude required to imagine, write, and produce. Even if their spouses’ approaches were controlling or their motivations questionable, the writing flourished.
Showalter also profiles Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a popular writer from the early 1800s who never married. Sedgwick felt deeply ambivalent about remaining single, which is reflected in her story “Cacoethes Scribendi,” in which a group of four sisters, one married, take up writing as a hobby. The daughter who refuses to write seduces and marries the only eligible bachelor in town. With his proposal, Sedgwick writes, the girl’s mother and aunts “relinquished, without a sigh, the hope of ever seeing her an AUTHOR.” Sedgwick implies that marriage and writing are antithetical, and that a woman loses hope of becoming an author, and perhaps even remaining one, once she’s married.
Of a contemporaneous writer, Fanny Fern, Nathaniel Hawthorne critiqued:
The woman writes as if the Devil was in her and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. Generally women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly; but when they throw off the restraints of decency and come before the public stark naked… then their books are sure to possess character and value.
While social mores have changed, books written by women about marriage and other domestic topics continue to crowd Hawthorne’s categories of “feebleness and folly,” and flourish. We need not look far for proof. Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Committed, topped the New York Times Best Sellers list last week. The book’s narrative wrestles with the issue of whether or not Gilbert should remarry (she does). While some women writers and collections featuring their stories, such as This Is Not Chick Lit, attempt to thwart expectations of the usual modes of feminine domesticity and decency, they remain a minority. At least these women are no longer considered possessed.
Likewise, the anxiety of maintaining the distance and time to write within a romantic relationship continues to plague women (and men alike). Henry James’s “The Lesson of the Master” touches on this conundrum from the male perspective. In James’s story, the fledgling writer Paul Overt takes advice from the esteemed “master,” Henry St. George, and chooses his writing over pursuing a potential paramour. Overt travels abroad and pens a well-regarded novel, but returns home to find that the happy and unproductive St. George nabbed his girl. Overt wonders if he made the right choice by following intellectual passion instead of romance. Or if he really needed to make a choice at all.
Speaking of romantic choices, at HTMLGiant Nick Antosca recently posted a provocative list of reasons why writers should not date writers. He claimed that writers are less likely to let their significant others use writing as an excuse to avoid social obligations. But I’m wondering if he’s wrong, and that writers should date writers, who will likely understand the importance of clearing time and mental space to write. In spite of the control McCarthy’s and Jackson’s husbands exerted, their marriages show that liaisons with other writers can help make the space to write within the constraints a relationship. What matters most, it seems, is the agreed upon arrangement.
Katie Roiphe (of recent note for her New York Times essay about the sad state of male sex writing, which Sonya responded to here) wrote about unconventional couplings in her book, Uncommon Arrangements, which profiles seven unusual marriages in Britain between 1910 and World War II. Roiphe calls them “marriages à la mode” (a name she borrowed from a Katherine Mansfield story) to underscore the ways these couples, triads, and more complex entanglements sought imaginative, and at times almost untenable, set-ups to fulfill their needs and romantic desires.
These arrangements didn’t provide equal satisfaction for everyone involved, but for the writers who flourished a few common foundations aided their craft. Having money helped matters, of course. The young journalist and novelist Rebecca West was seduced by the older, established, and very married H.G. Wells, who fathered her child. He provided a house for West and their son, but he also chose to stay with his wife. This may have been a wise decision on Wells’s part—because it also helps as a writer to have a wife. By wife, I mean a partner who tends to the cleaning and cooking, watches the children and oversees the social affairs. Gender doesn’t matter, although in these cases a woman always occupied the role. An extremely devoted friend also suffices.
Take Katherine Mansfield as an example. Her on-again, off-again and highly impractical romance with the writer and editor John Middleton Murry developed out of a sense of mutual respect but offered little stability. When Mansfield contracted tuberculosis and had to spend winters abroad due to her health, Murry remained at home in England. Instead, Mansfield’s friend Ida Baker accompanied her, cared for her, and even woke to toast her in the middle of the night when she completed a story. These were some of Mansfield’s most productive years.
Retaining separate residences, a room of one’s own if you will, also provides space for lovers to write. The writer Vera Brittain married the academic George Catlin, who offered her “as free a marriage as it lies in the power of a man to offer a woman.” When he found a teaching position at Cornell, she moved with him across the Atlantic, but after the first year she returned to England and stayed. Roiphe writes: “It was [Vera’s] elaborately articulated position that a woman must be productive, and if that productivity was compromised by her domestic arrangements she had an obligation to change them.” And so Vera enlisted her dear friend Winifred Holtby as a third party in their marriage. Winifred would share the London residence, the expenses, and travel as she liked. She was Vera’s housemate and back-up nurse. Mary Wollstonecraft’s unlikely marriage to William Godwin (unlikely in that both opposed matrimony in their writing) never resulted in cohabitation. According to Cristina Nehring’s account of their romance in Vindication of Love, Wollstonecraft and Godwin kept separate flats, twenty doors apart, and sent notes to each other via a messenger.
In contrast to these rather dated romances, Chris Kraus’s epistolary novel I Love Dick depicts an even more ostentatious arrangement between a husband and wife named Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer, the Columbia professor, editor, and philosopher who is also Kraus’s real-life husband. As Chris’s infatuation with her husband’s colleague Dick develops into an all-consuming obsession, Chris devises ways to seduce him. She talks candidly with Sylvère about her obsession in hyperbolic exchanges reminiscent of those shared by teenage girls.
Chris and Sylvère are no longer having sex, but the external charge Dick supplies reignites their passion, at least temporarily, as husband and wife start collaborating, by writing love letters to Dick on Chris’s behalf. Sylvère makes phone calls; he imagines he’s Charles Bovary to Chris’s Emma. Chris continues to write, passionately and desperately. She turns her love-induced graphomania into performance art, and then into an epistolary novel. We as readers are led to believe that the letters she wrote to Dick, in turn, form the foundation of this book. For Kraus, love wasn’t just inspiration, it was art, it was all.
Chris’s obsession with Dick is central to the novel, but he also remains removed. Her husband, in turn, provides encouragement, companionship, and, surprisingly, acts as a collaborative accompanist within her fantasy.
If I Love Dick portrays a contemporary marriage à la mode, it also reflects the ways that the feminine role has changed—and resisted change as well. Kraus admits that in spite of her husband’s renown in the art world, at the time she wrote the book, no one took her seriously. Her anonymity gave her freedom to take risks.
Falling in love didn’t stunt Kraus’s writing. It inspired her. She said in an interview, “when you fall in love with someone the greatest rush is that you can be so many more sides of yourself with them than with anyone else in the world.” Dick’s distance allowed her to imagine, to fantasize, to write her fantasy into existence. Kraus has certainly thrown off the restraints of decency, and of privacy. No doubt, Hawthorne would pay her the compliment.
[Image: Virginia Woolf’s writing desk in her study in Rodmell, England.]