For years I have been unsuccessfully recommending true crime books to friends. The second you tell someone you’ve just read a mind-blowing book about Jeffrey Dahmer that they simply must read, they start to back away from you. The first rule of reading true crime, evidently, is that you don’t talk about reading true crime. And yet I’m clearly not the only one reading (or watching) it. Books by Ann Rule and Harold Schechter are perennial bestsellers; the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer have led to a resurgence in true crime popularity, with more people reading it than ever before. The question is, why? Does true crime permit people to “ventilate their sadistic impulses…in a socially acceptable way”? Or does it serve as a “kind of guidebook for women, offering useful tips for staying safe”? Or do these stories prompt us to “take a long, hard look at the contexts in which such atrocities arise” and “how we as a society deal with them”? None of those reasons resonate with me, although that last one comes closer than many. So why do I read (and in some cases, re-read) these narratives that describe such horrifying things, things that scare me and break my heart? Why can’t I look away? Some of the first true crime books I read were the ones everyone reads: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the narrative of the 1959 murders of a Kansas farm family, is respectable enough to be on many high school reading lists. Likewise, Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, about the murder of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and several others, perpetrated by Charles Manson and members of his “family,” has sold many millions of copies. More recent classics like David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, also don’t require digging to find. Simon’s journalistic account of a Baltimore homicide department and the cases they worked became the basis for the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street (and arguably paved the way for The Wire); Kolker’s investigation into the lives of the women killed by the (as yet uncaught) Long Island Serial Killer was named on many “best of” book lists of 2013. But I have also read a lot of true crime that doesn’t make the bestseller lists. There was Stacy Horn’s surprisingly gentle The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, about murder cases solved (or not) years after they were given up as unsolvable. Although largely a police procedural, Horn’s book is also notable for the details given about the victims: teen Christine Diefenbach was on her way to buy milk and a magazine; drug dealers Linda Leon and Esteban Martinez were killed while their three young children listened in the next room. There was also Jeanine Cummins’s A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, an excruciating blend of family memoir and crime. When Cummins’s two cousins and her brother went to see an abandoned area bridge that doubled as a teen hangout spot, they were assaulted by a group of men who raped the women and finished by pushing all three of their victims into the Mississippi River to drown. Surviving and crawling to safety, Tom Cummins then underwent a second ordeal when the local police targeted him as the killer of his cousins. Although I don’t really read true crime to learn how to protect myself, I did take away at least one lesson from that book: Lawyer up. A Rip in Heaven was the first true crime book that I tried to recommend to friends. I’m sure no one took me up on it, and I can’t blame them; re-reading the book now, my stomach is in knots for the victims because I know what’s coming. But I didn’t learn my lesson: when I read John Backderf’s graphic memoir My Friend Dahmer, about his high school acquaintanceship with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, I wanted everyone to read it. In that book I learned that Jeffrey Dahmer, on a high school field trip to Washington D.C., got himself and a couple of friends invited into vice-president Walter Mondale’s office. All of a sudden it was clearer how Dahmer, in subsequent years, proved to be adept at talking himself out of sticky situations with police officers. How do you not recommend the book from which you learn that? Overall Backderf painted a picture of such a struggling and disturbed young man that, in his preface, he had to tell his readers to “pity him [Dahmer], but don’t empathize with him.” Empathizing with anyone in true crime narratives is tricky business. Of course you empathize with the victims, although you hope you are never among their ranks. What is even more horrifying is when you recognize something in the experiences of the killers. It has been years since I read Jean Hatzfeld’s oral history of the Rwandan genocide, Machete Season, in which he interviewed Hutus who had been charged with multiple murders of their Tutsi neighbors, and yet I will never forget the chill I got when I read this line: “Killing was less wearisome than farming.” I grew up on a farm, where we worked all the time, and then bad weather would come along and ruin all your work anyway. God help me…just a little bit…I got what the murderer was saying. [millions_ad] This autumn, for the first time, I read Dave Cullen’s multiple-award-winning narrative Columbine, about the 1999 school shootings in Littleton, Colo.. At the time I hadn’t paid much attention to the shootings—you live in a culture that loves guns, you’re going to have school shootings, I figured—but it gives me pause now to read about the events and the psyches of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters, and to read about how involved both their sets of parents were in their lives. I say “involved,” although it is impossible to know, really, how close either boy was to his parents. If you read enough true crime you start to question even basic vocabulary. What does it mean to be involved? Or close? Or a psychopath? Because I have little boys, the subjects of boys and depression and anger are now all subjects that are on my radar. As such, I followed up Columbine with Sue Klebold’s (mother of Dylan) memoir A Mother’s Reckoning. The day I picked it up from the library I had both my boys with me, and we headed back to the kids’ nonfiction section so they could browse, and I could stand nearby looking over books for myself. As I paged through the Klebold memoir, my concentration was interrupted by half-shouts from the kids’ computer area: “Shoot them!! Come on, kill ‘em kill ‘em kill ‘em, God, you’re a terrible shot, move over and let me do it.” About four tweeny little boys were playing what must have been some multi-player shoot-‘em-up game. What were the odds, I wondered, that I would be listening to these nice little suburban boys chant variations of the words “shoot” and “kill,” while I paged through a book written by the heartbroken mother of a murderer? It struck me that day that there is no use pretending that violence is something that only happens to the Other, perpetrated by the Other. We are surrounded by it on all sides, even when we try to construct our safe enclaves. Violence is a great exploiter. All it requires is bad luck, a foolish miscalculation, human weakness, or some combination of those factors to make its presence felt. Although monstrous deeds are front and center in these true crime narratives, they are not really about monsters. These are stories about humans: we are messy, we are imperfect; sometimes it is easy to succumb to anger and hatred; sometimes we are the victims, at other times, the perpetrators. But if there is no use hiding from violence, equally there is no denying the presence of its flip side: compassion. And there is also compassion in true crime narratives: in the doggedness of the cops and investigators who are employed by society to try and solve cases; in the dedication of the legal system workers who prepare for trials for weeks, months, years; not least in the fortitude of authors who research and write these stories to bring them out into the open. All of those people work to restore dignity to those whose dignity, along with their safety or their mental equilibrium or their lives, was taken away from them. True crime is not easy to read. It is even harder to talk about, and it’s almost impossible to recommend to other readers (without sounding a bit like a prurient psychopath yourself). But if 2017 taught us only one thing, I would hope it is that before you can start to try and solve problems, you have to admit problems exist. We have to tell the stories, and we also have to listen. That is why I read true crime. Image Credit: Flickr/Ash Photoholic.
Recommended Reading: On the forgotten journalism of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee's forays into journalism included a 1,200-word profile of Officer Dewey, the lead investigator in the series of murders which were the focus of Truman Capote's seminal In Cold Blood, and another short profile of Capote himself for the newsletter of a Book of the Month Club which had selected In Cold Blood as its monthly read -- seriously.
In 2010, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric became an unlikely bestseller and was immortalized here at The Millions by Steven Dodson. Rhetoric functions on a micro scale, and some of its instructive value may even come across as perfunctory because, like linguistics and grammar, we all regularly employ rhetorical techniques without knowing their names. But even for those familiar elements, there is still use in learning its definition and seeing some effective examples. For instance, here is Ward Farnsworth on asyndeton, which is when a writer omits a conjunction that would ordinarily be there: a. The omission of the conjunction is irregular and unexpected, and thus can create a moment of emphasis. b.The omission suggests that each of the items has independent force… c. Omitting conjunctions may suggest that the items mentioned are restatements of one another, or that each is a substitute for the last, rather than a list of independent entries. And so on through the letter g. Though we all undoubtedly have read and used asyndeton, it is unlikely that many were aware of the term or had heard it defined so eloquently. People rarely realize the linguistic tools in their arsenal but still use them to their full effect; English speakers can conjugate a verb into the pluperfect verb tense, successfully and comprehensively, without ever having heard of it by name. Besides helping common readers understand the things they’re already saying and making them very easy to understand, Farnsworth also takes you on a tour of literary efficacy. Rhetoric as a subject, and Farnsworth as a writer, are not interested in the larger and more ineffable artfulness of literature -- structure, setting, character, dialogue, et al (and good thing, too, because those components are not teachable the way rhetoric is, and often those how-to-write-better volumes end up discouraging and daunting, as if one’s inability to learn from The Great Gatsby or In Cold Blood pointed to an overall failing. I’ve read over a dozen such books, and mostly they succeed only at showing just how great the great writers are, and just how large the gap between you and them really is). Farnsworth focuses on subtler and more achievable examples, like this one for asyndeton, which comes from former MP Neil Kinnock: “The House of Lords must go -- not be reformed, not be replaced, not be reborn in some nominated life-after-death patronage paradise, just closed down, abolished, finished.” This is an extremely effective use of asyndeton but it’s also clear and practically instructive example. You can see how you might use it. Farnsworth’s Rhetoric succeeded despite the many barriers to success in the marketplace for a book on classical writing because it repeatedly and implicitly reiterates the reasons these rhetoricians and writers were so successfully and memorably communicative. But instead of merely extolling their virtues and leaving the aspiring writer in the literary dust, Farnsworth, by getting down to the nitty-gritty of sentences, actually winds up doing something much more worthwhile -- that is, he uses iconic figures as representative examples without making the reader feeling hopelessly inadequate. When Charles Dickens or Herman Melville, et al, put all their sentences together, something enigmatic and more profoundly artful emerges -- but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the sentences without even stepping into the paragraphs or the chapters in which they appear. With his last book, Farnsworth was able to make ancient methodologies relevant, the craftsmanship of major authors explicable, and the fine and minute mechanisms teachable. And all of it done with typical British primness -- i.e., with unceremonious eloquence, zero contemporaneous sources, and little humor -- which actually aids in Farnsworth’s project, because it means he doesn’t fuck around. With each chapter set up like an entry in a dictionary, his Rhetoric is like an encyclopedia of selected terms, less essayistic than it is economical, which ought to make it dry and dull. There is no fat in Farnsworth’s work, but it’s nonetheless a nourishing meal. Now, six years on, Farnsworth has produced a sequel (a term associated more with Hollywood franchises than with manuals on literary technique). Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor duplicates its predecessor in approach and structure and voice and directness, and for all intents and purposes is just as fun and accessible, too. But Farnsworth’s latest subject, the metaphor, makes his follow-up better and more insightful than the first one, but also, in some ways, less useful, a fact that has less to do with Farnsworth’s skill and more to do with the metaphor’s nuanced utility. It is not that Farnsworth doesn’t do an excellent job illuminating the various ways we use language to compare things -- sometimes the only means of apt description -- or that his examples are less instructive or applicable. Rather, it is that the metaphor is simply employed far less often than the enormous toolbox of rhetoric, and, when it is used, its power stems less from its structure and more from the lucidity and the inventiveness and the clarity of the comparison. Metaphors have a quality of “wrongness,” as Walker Percy put it in 1975’s The Message in the Bottle (a book way too recent to have assumed Farnsworth has read it), and “that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness.” Farnsworth, of course, is acutely aware of his subject’s elusiveness and sets about his project with clear-eyed fortitude: Good metaphors are not usually the result of calculation and planning; they are made intuitively, just as they are consumed, and often well up from sources that seem half-conscious (as perhaps they are; we dream in metaphors). They process of educating the intuition and imagination is best carried out with light doses of theory and long immersion in examples. This books supplies illustrations in heaping quantities. It puts related cases near each other to invite comparisons of comparisons, to inspire the eye, and to suggest, in a short space, the range of uses that a give metaphorical idea may have. Moreover, he separates out what he sees as the general effect of metaphor types from the specific content of individual cases, and because -- as was his practice in his Rhetoric -- Farnsworth spends no time extolling the skills of his paragons, the types emerge as cumulatively edifying instead of discretely intimidating. He also disavows the arbitrarily emphasized distinction between metaphors and similes, choosing instead to include all literary comparisons in the one term. Farnsworth knows the score and makes a point to simplify things down to their most instructional essence. But as we all know, the best laid plans of mice and academics mean shit in the end. So how does Farnsworth, in a practical sense, approach the enterprise? Is he successful? What can an ordinary reader (or an aspiring novice) gain from it? And lastly but most significantly, are the insights as transferable as they were in Rhetoric? The answer to the first question is that his approach remains exactly the same -- that is, dividing the metaphor into usage subcategories, briefly commenting on their effects, and providing, to use his term, “heaping quantities” of demonstrative quotations. The answer to the second -- regarding whether or not he’s successful -- is a resounding hell yes. Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor is a feat of elegant demystification. The metaphor, for all its slipperiness, turns out to be just as divisible and as generalized as rhetorical devices, though the classifications are different. Whereas rhetoric comes equipped with esoteric terms and specific definitions, here Farnsworth delineates the various sources from which comparisons are made -- “the animal kingdom; nature (apart from animals); human behavior, circumstances, and institutions; stories of various kinds, as from history, myth, or literature; [and] man-made objects: machines, architecture, tools, etc.” Though, as Farnsworth admits, this list is a tad reductive, the book is all the better for it, as it points to a seemingly obvious but oft-obscured fact that although the things writers hope to describe or communicate are infinite, the things to which they refer in order to do so are, in a sense, not. Thus is Farnsworth able to focus on the finite material of metaphorical referents -- which are, again in a loose sense, somewhat stable -- without having to bother with the original item or idea those referents aid in depicting. Writers, then, can begin with their own content and then can mine Farnsworth’s text for potential sources -- and what’s more, there is also intelligent commentary on each source’s tonal implications and general efficacy. It’s quite a brilliant strategy, both in its utility for writers and the inherent insight Farnsworth’s divisions suggest about his subject -- i.e., that metaphors can be defined by the things to which they compare rather than the things being compared. To use a classic metaphor, if the world is a stage, Farnsworth’s lessons lie inside the theater; the world, on the other hand, is up to you. But here’s the rub: any sentence you write is filled with rhetorical potential, so even a cursory glance at rhetoric’s principles can greatly assist your impact; metaphors, meanwhile, are less frequently employed, so even though the lessons of Farnsworth’s Metaphor are more nuanced and astute, they are also less applicable. Now of course anyone picking up the book will know what they are getting into and so probably wouldn’t even register (let alone complain about) such a subtle distinction. I only make this comment because of the wild success of its predecessor -- which is why this new work exists in the first place -- and, more importantly, to disavow any attempt to connect the immense value of this book with its sales and how it does or does not fail to live up to financial expectations. Farnsworth’s Rhetoric was a good book for a wide audience; Farnsworth’s Metaphor is a great book for a smaller one. But for those who venture into Farnsworth’s level-headed take on murky abstractions, the benefits will be less far-reaching, less comprehensively employable, but they will also be richer, longer-lasting, and as demystifying and powerful as the strongest metaphors -- an unexpected perspective that allows you see the thing anew, or even for the first time.
On May 10, 2009, Rodrigo Rosenberg, a hotshot Guatemalan lawyer, was murdered a few blocks away from his house. Days later a video declaration surfaced in which Rodrigo openly accused the then Guatemalan president, Álvaro Colom, of his death. "If you’re watching this video it is because I’ve been murdered,” he said in the recording. Rodrigo also accused Colom of murdering Khalil Musa, one of his clients, and his daughter Marjorie weeks earlier. As the investigation wore on, it was revealed that Rodrigo and Marjorie had been involved in an affair. After a thorough inquiry, the United Nations Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) declared that Rodrigo -- possibly depressed by the death of Marjorie, who he called the love of his life -- had orchestrated his own murder. This sensational case is the inspiration for The Mastermind (Akashik Books), the latest work by Guatemalan author David Unger. This new thriller presents the acute current state of corruption and political turmoil of Guatemala, as well as the intense, dangerous relationship between Guillermo and Maryam -- Rodrigo and Marjorie’s literary counterparts. Despite writing exclusively in English, Unger was awarded Guatemala’s Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature 2014. He is the author of the novels The Price of Escape and Life in the Damn Tropics, and he has translated 14 books from Spanish into English. We caught up with David for a quick chat about his new book near his office at CUNY, where he teaches literary translation. José García: What interested you in this case? David Unger: A lot of people talked about this story as an example where reality surpasses fiction; as a writer that really bugged me. I took it as a challenge. But also, because I hadn't written anything that dealt with current events in Guatemala. I had written about the Armed Conflict or the United Fruit Company's involvement with the country, but not of what has happened recently, and I wanted to explore that. JA: What made you want to fictionalize the case? You could’ve done a journalistic piece, or remain closer to the facts, but you didn’t. DU: In my last novel, The Price of Escape, I did a lot of research about the relationship between former president Jorge Ubico and the United Fruit Company. I wanted to understand the backstory of what happened then. In this case, I chose not to, primarily because I am familiar with some of Guatemala’s current history. Rodrigo’s case is very recent. I thought I could write a novel without the heavy research I put into the previous book. Also, I was mostly interested in the relationship between Rodrigo and Marjorie. JA: Something that was mostly overlooked by the media. DU: We barely know anything about it. We don't know what her relationship with her husband was. What we do know is that there was a lot of passion between Rodrigo and Marjorie. I don’t think he was arrogant enough to think his own death could change the country. But I think he was a very passionate guy who might have felt that the best part of his life was over and that he wasn't going to find another woman like Marjorie. For me, that was the story right there. JA: You have mentioned that you wanted to remain distant from the facts, to stay away from articles and documentaries. But, did you do any research at all while writing your novel? DU: No. Zero. I didn't want the fact to affect my fiction. There was an article published in The New Yorker about the case I read a couple of times while writing, but that was just to check some minor facts about the context. I wanted to stay as far away from the facts as possible. I wanted to write the opposite of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. JA: Can you mention a few other Guatemalan or Central American writers that might help the American audience understand the region? DU: First Miguel Angel Asturias’s Señor Presidente (The President). Then maybe the novels of Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Mosquera, Victor Montejo, the works of Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Roque Dalton, he’s a poet that needs to be looked into. Then there's Jacinta Escudos or Arturo Arias too, they have been translated into English. Also, there’s an anthology entitled And We Sold the Rain that included Central American short stories of the late-'80s and early-90s that they might find interesting. JA: What is the role or responsibility of the fiction writer while dealing with historical events? I’m thinking of The Man in the High Castle or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. DU: Primarily I think the writer has to write whatever he or she wants to write about. The writer’s responsibility is to creativity. However, I do think there are some limitations. One cannot write a novel, for example, about José Efraín Ríos Montt (former Guatemalan president officially charged with genocide and crimes against humanity) and mess around with the facts in order to clean his reputation or attend a personal interest. One has a historical responsibility while addressing atrocities.
August is the only month the name of which is an adjective. But is August august? There’s nothing majestic or venerable about it. It’s sultry and lazy. It’s the height of the dog days, over which the dog star, Sirius, was said to reign with a malignity that brought on lassitude, disease, and madness. “These are strange and breathless days, the dog days,” promises the opening of Tuck Everlasting, “when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.” It’s not only the heat that can drive you mad; it’s the idleness. Without something to keep you occupied, there’s a danger your thoughts and actions will fall out of order. It was during the dog days of August that W.G. Sebald set out on a walking tour in the east of England in The Rings of Saturn, “in the hopes of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” He couldn’t just enjoy his freedom; he became preoccupied by it, and by the “paralyzing horror” of the “traces of destruction” his leisured observation opened his eyes to. It strikes him as no coincidence at all that the following August he checked into a local hospital “in a state of almost total immobility.” What evil can restlessness gin up in August? “Wars begin in August,” Benny Profane declares in Pynchon’s V. The First World War, one of modernity’s more thorough examples of the human instinct for destruction, was kicked off in late June with two shots in Sarajevo, but it was only after a month of failed diplomacy that, as the title of Barbara Tuchman’s definitive history of the war’s beginning described them, The Guns of August began to fire. “In the month of August, 1914,” she wrote, “there was something looming, inescapable, universal that involved us all. Something in that awful gulf between perfect plans and fallible men.” In some editions, The Guns of August was called August 1914, the same title Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used for his own book on the beginning of the war, a novel about the calamitous Battle of Tannenberg that exposed the rot under the tsar and helped bring on the years of Russian revolution. Not everyone is idle or evil in August. Many stay behind as the cities empty out in the heat, as Barbara Pym reminds us in Excellent Women, the best known of her witty and modestly willful novels of spinsters and others left out of the plots novelists usually concern themselves with. “‘Thank goodness some of one’s friends are unfashionable enough to be in town in August,’” William Caldicote says to Mildred Lathbury when he sees her on the street toward the end of the month. “‘No, I think there are a good many people who have to stay in London in August,’” she replies, “remembering the bus queues and the patient line of people moving with their trays in the great cafeteria.” Put your idleness, if you're fortunate enough to have some, to good use with these suggested August readings: The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1875) What better use for idleness than an appreciation of someone else's industry? In this case, the laconic record of the dramatic first expedition through the unknown dangers of the Grand Canyon by the one-armed geology professor who led it in the summer of 1869. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915) Among the threads in Ford's intricately woven "saddest story" is the date August 4, which runs through the doomed life of Frances Dowell like a line of fate, or of self-destructive determination: it's the date, among other things, of her birth, her marriage, and her suicide. Light in August by William Faulkner (1932) Faulkner planned to call his tale of uncertain parentage “Dark House” until he was inspired, by those “few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall” and “a luminous quality to the light,” to name it instead after the month in which most of its tragedy is set. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946) Embedded in Warren’s tale of compromises and betrayals is a summer interlude between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, the kind of young romance during which, as Jack recalls, “even though the calendar said it was August I had not been able to believe that the summer, and the world, would ever end.” The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946) It’s the last Friday of August in that “green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old,” and on Sunday her brother is going to be married. In the two days between, Frankie does her best to do a lot of growing up and, by misdirection, she does. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952) It’s hard to state how thrilling it is to see the expectations and supposed rules of the novel broken so quietly and confidently: not through style or structure but through one character’s intelligent self-sufficiency, and through her creator’s willingness to pay attention to her. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962) It only added to the aura surrounding Tuchman’s breakthrough history of the first, error-filled month of the First World War that soon after it was published John F. Kennedy gave copies of the book to his aides and told his brother Bobby, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.” Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka (1967) One of literature's most notoriously failed (and best documented) courtships was sparked by Kafka's August 1912 encounter with Felice Bauer. By the end of the evening, despite -- or because of -- what he describes as her "bony, empty face," he reported he was "completely under the influence of the girl." The Family by Ed Sanders (1971) and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (1974) The terrible events at the Tate and LaBianca households on the night of August 8, 1969, were recounted in these two pop-culture tombstones for the 60s, one by Beat poet Sanders, writing from within the counterculture that had curdled into evil in Charles Manson's hands, and one by Manson's prosecutor that's part Warren Report and part In Cold Blood. The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley (1981) Bradley's nearly forgotten modern classic concerns two incidents in Chaneysville, Pa: the shooting -- self-inflicted, the legends say -- of 13 escaped slaves about to be captured, and the mysterious August death, a century later, of a black moonshiner of local wealth and power, whose son, in attempting to connect the two, pulls together a web of personal and national history. "The Fall River Axe Murders" by Angela Carter Carter's fictional retelling of the August 1892 murders of which Lizzie Borden was acquitted by a jury but convicted by popular opinion is a fever dream of New England humidity and repression that will cause you to feel the squeeze of a corset, the jaw-clench of parsimony, and the hovering presence of the angel of death. The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995) A book -- call it a memoir or a travelogue or a novel -- grounded in an August walk through Suffolk, although Sebald could hardly go a sentence without being diverted by his restless curiosity into the echoes of personal and national history he heard wherever he went. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000) In August, in a seaside village in southwest France, Bourdain tasted his first oyster, pulled straight from the ocean, and everything changed: “I’d not only survived -- I’d enjoyed.” Image Credit: Flickr/Paulo Otávio
Last year offered many treats for readers: long-awaited new books by Donna Tartt and Norman Rush; the emergence of Rachel Kushner as a literary superstar; the breakout success of George Saunders. 2014 offers more riches. This year we'll get to crack open new books by E.L. Doctorow, Richard Powers, Sue Monk Kidd, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, Mona Simpson, Lydia Davis, and Peter Matthiessen. Our own Edan Lepucki and Bill Morris will have new books on shelves in a few months. Look ahead to the hazy end of summer 2014 and a new novel by Haruki Murakami will be hitting American shores. All of these and many more are the books we're looking forward to this year. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 89 titles, this is the only 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. January or Already Out: Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Say what you will, but Shteyngart is putting the fun back in literary life. If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for his fourth book and first memoir, Little Failure, well, start your new year with a giggle or two and be prepared to be delightfully convinced by the romantic (if not quite “erotic”) affection between Shteyngart and James Franco in pink bathrobes. But seriously, folks—I’m guessing Adam Gopnik’s blurb is just what the Chekhov-Roth-Apatow of Queens (now upstate) was hoping for: "I fully expected Gary Shteyngart's memoir of his search for love and sex in a Russian-Jewish-Queens-Oberlin upbringing to be as hilarious and indecorous and exact as it turns out to be; what I wasn't entirely prepared for was for a book so soulful and pained in its recounting of the feints and false starts and, well, little failures of family love. Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart! What could be better?" (Sonya) The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Don't expect to find Sue Monk Kidd's third novel at the library anytime soon because Oprah has already selected it as her newest Book Club read. She praised the book as a "conversation changer" regarding how we think about womanhood and history. The novel follows two headstrong women trying to make a change in the Antebellum South. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation owner, trades slavery for abolitionism and the suffragist movement. Her slave Handful has equally progressive desires, and the two form an unlikely friendship. (Tess) Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow’s latest novel, his twelfth, is “structured as an extended series of conversations between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and an unnamed man who initially appears to be his psychotherapist,” according to Publishers Weekly. Their conversations focus on Andrew’s guilt over giving up his daughter after her mother died. Given Doctorow’s reputation as king of the American historical novel, it’s worrying that early reviews complain of a lack of clarity about exactly when the story takes place, but no one dramatizes complex ideas better than Doctorow. (Michael) The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar: Lena is on the brink of an early midlife crisis: her career is stalled, she feels disconnected to her adopted country, and her marriage is faltering. She finds romance with a similarly lost academic, Ben, and the two embark on an affair in a cabin in Maine. Yet Lara Vapnyar's sophomore novel is more than just a sexy romp in the woods. Up north, Lena reflects on a romantic and mysterious summer she spent at a Soviet children's camp 20 years before. Early reviewers have called Vapnyar's latest a "Russian Scheherazade." (Tess) On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Many of Chang-rae Lee’s novels are firmly grounded in reality, examining the worlds of displaced outsiders from the Korean War to the lives of immigrants in the present-day United States. His latest book leaps further afield, into the realm of speculative fiction, in a dystopian American future where declining urban neighborhoods have been transformed into “highwalled, self-contained labor colonies,” whose Chinese immigrant residents work catching fish for the surrounding elites. As with any good dystopian work, it promises to highlight and draw parallels with growing inequalities in our own society, which might “change the way readers think about the world they live in.” (Elizabeth) Perfect by Rachel Joyce: When two seconds get added to clock time because "time was out of kilter with the natural movement of the Earth" in the 1970s, two young boys worry if the world will ever be the same. In the present day, a man is so crippled by his OCD that he struggles to maintain a normal life outside the psychiatric hospital. Rachel Joyce weaves these parallel narratives together in her highly anticipated followup to bestseller and Booker longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Perfect has garnered great reviews in the U.K. with Susanna Rustin at The Guardian lauding it as, "ambitious, darker and more honest." (Tess) Orfeo by Richard Powers: Richard Powers' novels are often laced with serious science, with narratives that delve into the complexities of genetic engineering, computer coding, and cognitive disorders. In Orfeo Powers returns to the pairing of DNA coding and musicality from his Gold Bug Variations, with a tech-age take on the Orpheus myth. Orfeo follows a retired music professor who's built a DIY genetics lab where he finds musical patterns in DNA sequences. When his dog dies unexpectedly, the FBI seizes the lab, and he goes on the lam. It seems that DNA and music are inextricably paired for Powers, who noted in an essay on having his genome sequenced, "If the genome were a tune played at a nice bright allegro tempo of 120 beats per minute, it would take just short of a century to play." (Anne) The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah: Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, detailed his experiences of the conflict and its aftermath in his 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone. His debut novel, which Edwidge Danticat has called “formidable and memorable,” tells the story of two friends who return to their village after the war and their struggle to restore a sense of order and normalcy in the space between an unspeakable past and an uncertain future. (Emily) Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: At Columbia’s M.F.A. Program, Ben Marcus teaches a course called “Technologies of Heartbreak”—a nifty coinage that also points to the two poles of Marcus’s own aesthetic. In his mind-blowing story collection, The Age of Wire and String, and in the first novel that followed, Marcus gravitated toward the technological: meat masks, air bodies, soft machines... Seldom did one encounter a normal human being. But his most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet, placed wild invention at the service of more straightforward emotion. It’ll be worth watching to see where Leaving the Sea comes down; it’s likely to be good either way. (Garth) A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor: Anybody else miss Kurt Vonnegut? Rachel Cantor is here to fill the void with her debut novel, which mixes the comic with the speculative in a voice that one early reviewer described as “Terry Pratchett crossed with Douglas Adams.” It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for? (Hannah) Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: In a small Japanese town, eight people disappear from their homes with only a playing card marking their doors and absences; one man, a thread salesman, confesses to the crimes and is put in jail, but refuses to speak. These disappearances form the mystery around which Jesse Ball's fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, is constructed, and which obsess a journalist who shares Ball's name. Interview transcripts make up the central text of a story ultimately concerned with speech, silence, and the control of information. (Anne) The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Abani is both a novelist and a poet, and he brings a poet’s instinct for sublime language to his latest work, a crime novel set in Las Vegas. Salazar, a detective, is determined to solve a string of recent murders before he retires. He enlists the help of an expert in psychopathy, Dr. Sunil Singh, who is haunted by a betrayal of his loved ones in apartheid South Africa. “Here in Vegas,” Abani writes, “the glamor beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.” (Emily) February: A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: In his seminal novels, the late W.G. Sebald more or less obliterated the line between essay and fiction, if one even existed in the first place. Here, Sebald explores the lives and work of Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, and other artists. The book is labeled nonfiction, but one imagines that this capstone to the English translation of Sebald’s work will offer many of the satisfactions of his novels. (Garth) Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor: Along with his colleague Matt Bell, Kyle Minor was the subject of a flame war in a recent comment thread here at The Millions. But the imputation of log-rolling struck me as unfair. As someone who’s never met, spoken with, or seen Kyle Minor, I can say that the Guernica excerpt of his as-yet-unpublished novel, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, was one of the more memorable pieces of fiction by a young writer I read in 2012. I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to see the rest, but in the meantime, Minor’s latest story collection, Praying Drunk, promises to explore some of the same territory. (Garth) Bark by Lorrie Moore: New Lorrie Moore! Let us rejoice! Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection since the miraculous and magnificent Birds of America came out fifteen years ago. Some of these eight stories might be familiar; The New Yorker published “Debarking” back in 2003, and “The Juniper Tree” in 2005. All of these stories, new to you or not, should be about as pun-filled, clever, and devastating as we’ve come to expect from Moore, who is arguably the best American short story writer alive today. (Edan) MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach: Although its title and implied dichotomy will pain any person who writes things and is neither an MFA-holder nor connected with the NYC publishing scene, Chad Harbach's collection of commentaries on the two major drivers of the literary economy promises to deliver valuable collective insight on the current state of writing in America. Harbach first conceived this dichotomy in 2010 in an essay for n+1 (available online at Slate), wherein he made intriguing and provocative statements on, among other things, the rise of the MFA program ("an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market") and argued that the "university now rivals, if it hasn't surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world." The book will feature contributions from writers, editors, and teachers at various stages of their careers, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, Keith Gessen, Maria Adelmann, Emily Gould, and Alexander Chee. (Lydia) Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li: Two things intrigue me right off the bat about Yiyun Li’s new novel—its title, and this, from the publisher: “Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed.” A murder mystery! And from a writer as patient, observant, and precise as Li. Given Li’s gifts of insight into human nature, the story will surely evolve less around whodunit? and more around what really happened? and does it matter? The eponymous kindness seems to have been bestowed upon one of the three friends, Moran, by a man who was once her husband, at a time when she fled into—and presumably believed in the kindness of—solitude; all of which is yet more intriguing. (Sonya) The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol: Molly Antopol’s debut is a collection about characters lost in the labyrinth of recent history. Stories are set against various geographical and historical backdrops—the McCarthy witch hunt, Communist-era Prague, Israeli settlements. The book has been accumulating some promising advance praise. Adam Johnson, for instance, has written that “Not since Robert Stone has a writer so examined the nature of disillusionment and the ways in which newfound hope can crack the cement of failed dreams.” Antopol was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year. (Mark) An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel is reclusive seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Sobi, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut who spends her time translating books into Arabic and then stowing them away, never to be read. The book is an exploration of Aaliya’s inner life—of her memories of Lebanon’s troubled recent history and her own turbulent past, and of her thoughts on literature and art. Colm Tóibín has compared it to Calvino and Borges, describing it as a “fiercely original act of creation”. (Mark) Thirty Girls by Susan Minot: In 1996, The Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped a group of 139 young teenage girls from a convent school in Uganda, holding them captive. The deputy headmistress of their school, Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the kidnappers and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls; the remaining thirty were kept and subjected to a long ordeal of captivity and brutality. Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls, is a fictionalized account of this mass abduction and its aftermath. Minot tells the stories of these abductees, interweaving them with that of an American journalist named Jane Wood who is interviewing them about their experiences. In 2012, Minot published an extract of the same name in Granta’s “Exit Strategies” issue. (Mark) Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux: The British broadcaster and novelist Marcel Theroux, a son of Paul Theroux, wants to have it all in his fifth novel. Strange Bodies is a high-concept literary thriller that flirts with science fiction while making inquiries into language, identity and what it means to be human. The concept is this: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months, yet one day he turns up to visit an old girlfriend. He leaves behind a flash drive containing something as unbelievable as he is—a cache of letters supposedly written by Samuel Johnson. This smart novel's central conceit is that we are all, like books, made of words. (Bill) The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton: Known for his wide-ranging curiosity and penchant for philosophical musing, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, Religion for Atheists, and The Art of Travel has turned his attention to the news. This branch of the media that incorporates everything from war to celebrities getting pizza is almost omnipresent in our lives, and de Botton here examines how that affects us and how much longer the news can get bigger. (Janet) The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert: Schaffert’s fifth novel, which he describes on his website as “a love story (with ghosts),” is set in the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. The fair marks a point of possible transformation, both for Omaha—still in some ways a Wild West town, but yearning for the glamor of Chicago—and for the actors, aerialists, ventriloquists, and assorted hustlers who descend on the city for the fair. Schaffert brings his trademark lyricism, precision, and exquisite character development to a love story between a ventriloquist and a secretive traveling actress. (Emily) A Life in Men by Gina Frangello: Gina Frangello is a true champion of indie literature—she’s an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown and has appeared repeatedly on the annual "Who Really Books Chicago” list—and yet she somehow finds time to write her own books, too. Frangello’s fiction is often sexual, seductive, forward, and frank. Her latest novel, A Life of Men, promises more in the same vein, with a story about two young friends, one recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, who travel the world seeking to fill their lives, however brief, with a wealth of experience. (Anne) Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic: Ugresic has published several distinguished works of fiction, but her wide-ranging, boundary-blurring essays on politics and culture may be the ideal entry point for English-language readers. Here, in pieces originally published in The Baffler and elsewhere, she ranges from Occupy Wall Street to Ireland’s Aran Islands. For a preview, check out Arnon Grunberg’s tribute to Ugresic, published here last year. (Garth) What's Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson: Adam Wilson follows up his debut novel Flatscreen, a dark comedy of suburban listlessness, with a collection of stories taking place across the modern American landscape (the title story, which appeared in the Paris Review and was later included in the Best American Short Stories of 2012, describes a movie set in Texas and opens with the immortal question, "'What is this cockshit?'") Like Flatscreen, What's Important is Feeling promises youthful- to middle-aged angst, ennui, relationship troubles, and weed. (Lydia) March: Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Teju Cole's peripatetic, meditative Open City drew comparisons to Sebald and Coetzee and firmly placed Cole on the map of young authors endowed with serious smarts and talent, who engage in cultural critique—and this holds true whether he’s writing about race, class, and post-colonialism, or Tweeting about drones. Cole’s novel Every Day Is for the Thief is an “amalgamation of fiction, memory, art, and travel writing” originally culled from his blog (now removed) about a young Nigerian revisiting Lagos and a version of the book was published in 2007 by Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press. (Anne) What Would Lynne Tillman Do by Lynne Tillman: I ask myself this question all the time - WWLTD? - and here, in a thick abecedarium of essays introduced by Colm Tóibín, Tillman offers a variety of answers. A crib sheet: sometimes Lynne Tillman would crack wise; sometimes Lynne Tillman would offer an insight so startling I had to go back and read it twice; always Lynne Tillman would do something smarter and finer and better than I would. And that’s why you, too, should be reading Lynne Tillman. (Garth) The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant: Early reviews have compared Poissant’s stories, which ply the literary territory between realism and allegory, to the work of Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. In one story from this debut collection, a man throws his teenage son out a window when he learns the boy is gay, seeking reconciliation only after helping free an alligator from a golf club pond. In another, two parents confront the unusual complications of having a newborn baby that literally glows. Poissant, whose stories have appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and The Atlantic, also has a novel in the works. (Michael) Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi's newest novel will be her fifth, not bad for a writer who will celebrate her 30th birthday later this year. Oyeyemi's 2009 novel, White is for Witching, won a Somerset Maugham Award (the prize is given to British writers under 35) and she was named to the Granta Best Of Young British Novelists list last year, following the 2011 publication of Mr. Fox, the novel that introduced Oyeyemi to many U.S. readers. Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi told the Times last year, is "about a woman named Boy who tries to avoid becoming a wicked stepmother and really doesn’t know if she’s going to manage it." (Max) The Brunist Day of Wrath by Robert Coover: Coover’s enormous follow-up to his first novel, Origin of the Brunists, has been delayed several times, but this spring, it should finally see the light of day. Coover’s recent short stories in The New Yorker suggest he’s still near the top of his game. (Garth) Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov: A new translation of a Dovlatov novel is like Christmas morning for the English-speaking world; and this one from his daughter, no less. Pushkin Hills, published 30 years ago, is one of his most popular novels in Russia (posthumously, along with all his work). Said The Guardian of the translation that first hit the UK last fall: “Alma Classics have been searching for a suitable translator for years. Now the writer's daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, has captured her father's style. . . [she] only took on the task of translating it after the publishers rejected a previous translation and numerous samples.” The story is, of course, autobiographical, featuring “[a]n unsuccessful writer and an inveterate alcoholic, Boris Alikhanov. . . running out of money and . . . recently divorced from his wife Tatyana, who intends to emigrate to the West with their daughter Masha.” From The Independent: "Vodka-fuelled mishaps, grotesque comic cameos and—above all—quick-fire dialogue that swings and stings propel this furious twilight romp from the final days of Soviet power." Counterpoint is publishing the book in the U.S. (Sonya) All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat, because it’s one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu. The author of the The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air—both concerned with Africans fleeing their countries—returns this year with All Our Names, an elegiac love story about pair of African men separated by a political revolution: one in exile, and another in their war-torn homeland. Split across two narratives—one in the past, one in the present—All Our Names dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change. (Nick M.) Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn: Billed as an In Cold Blood for the 21st century, Walter Kirn's non-fiction book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade tells the story of how this celebrated critic, essayist and novelist (Up In the Air, Thumbsucker) got duped by a man who claimed to be a Rockefeller but turned out to be an impostor, a child kidnapper and a brutal murderer. Part memoir, part true-crime story and part social commentary, Blood Will Out probes the dark psychological links between the artist and the con man. (Bill) Mount Terminus by David Grand: The titular hilltop in David Grand's third novel roosts high above sunny, sleepy pre-Hollywood Los Angeles. Mount Terminus is a refuge for grieving Jacob Rosenbloom, whose wife died back East. Jacob's invention, the Rosenbloom Loop, has revolutionized the budding art of filmmaking, and he's determined to use his invention's earnings to protect his son, Bloom, from the family's past. But Bloom, a dark, brooding genius, is prodded by his very different half-brother to come down from Mount Terminus and meet the world. This novel, 11 years in the making, becomes that rarest of things: a plausible myth, an intimate epic. (Bill) Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An acclaimed Israeli novelist, Grossman found an American audience with 2010’s To the End of the Land, an epic novel of love and war hailed as a masterpiece. He returns with a allegorical novel one third its length that tells the story of Walking Man, who walks in circles around his town in an attempt to come to peace with his son’s death. Having lost his own son in 2006, Grossman here probes the meaning of loss, memory, and grief. (Janet) Sleep Donation by Karen Russell: The newly minted MacArthur grantee mines the fertile territory between short story and novel. In Russell’s lightly science-fictionalized world (which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like my house) a deadly insomnia epidemic is spreading. The well-rested can help out the afflicted by donating their excess sleep—but scarce supplies force everyone to reevaluate the line between gift and commodity. This is the first title from Atavist Books, so expect some bells and whistles in the digital edition. (Garth) Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley: Like Alice Munro and Evan Connell, Hadley’s devotees exclaim that her sophisticated prose and skill with character transcend their subject—the unfortunately named “domestic fiction.” Her fifth novel, Clever Girl follows the life of Stella from her adolescence in the 1960s to the present day. Stella’s life, in every description, is ordinary, but illuminates both the woman living it and the times around her. (Janet) April: Updike by Adam Begley: What’s left to say about John Updike that Updike didn’t already say exhaustively, and say better than anyone else could have? Yet Adam Begley has apparently found enough fresh material, or a fresh enough angle on the well-trod, to fill 576 pages. For a primer on Updike, there’s no way this book can surpass Nicholson Baker’s U&I, but it’s always a good sign when a literary biographer is a novelist himself. (Garth) Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis: "Can't and Won't," the title story from Lydia Davis's new collection of short and short-short stories playfully pokes fun at the brevity of her fictions. In this two-sentence story the author is refused a literary prize, because of the laziness evident in his/her frequent use of linguistic contractions. Quite the contrary is true with Davis’s work, where much of the flare is tongue in cheek. Concision and precision invigorate her fictions, and apparently the prize committee agrees, as Davis was just awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. (Anne) And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: In her fifth novel, Julia Glass revisits two beloved characters—Malachy Burns and Fenno McLeod—from her first novel, the National Book Award-winning Three Junes. The publisher’s description assures us, however, that the novel will range and weave and shift perspectives—as all Glass’s novels do—among new characters as well. In an interview with Bloom earlier this year, Glass, who debuted with Three Junes at age 46, said: “I suspect that I simply can’t help exploring a story from many angles. . . I have to look through as many windows as I can reach; now and then I resort to a ladder.” When interviewer Evelyn Somers described Glass as “fearless” in the way she weaves together complex stories, Glass replied: “I like the idea of being 'fearless,' but sometimes I think the complexity of my novels is more related to another trait I have: I’m an overpacker. . . Call me a maximalist. I won’t be insulted.” (Sonya) Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: The plot of this novel revolves around the true history of the Hungarian gold train, a trove of stolen valuables that was seized by American soldiers during World War II but which was never returned to its rightful owners. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of the treasure-seizing soldiers must look into the turbulent past—and into her own turbulent life—when her grandfather gives her a jeweled pendant with a murky history. (Hannah) Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932 by Francine Prose: Francine Prose's 20th novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, is framed as a biography by a French feminist high school teacher. The subject of this fictional biography is Lou Villars, based on an historical figure, a professional athlete, lesbian, cross-dresser and German spy who became a torturer and was executed by the Resistance. One early reader claimed she could smell the nicotine on the fingers of Prose's fictional French biographer. Woven into the text are sections of a fake Peggy Guggenheim memoir and a fake Henry Miller novel. The latter, Prose reports, "was super fun to write." (Bill) Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken: The novelist, short story writer, and memoirist Elizabeth McCracken, whose novel The Giant’s House was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, has earned a reputation as a writer of rare empathy and descriptive powers. Thunderstruck, her first short story collection in twenty years, charts the territory of family, love, and loss. In their review of the collection, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions.” (Emily) Frog Music by Emma Donoghue: Best known for the 2010 bestseller Room, Donoghue latest novel sees her returning to historical fiction (four of her eight novels are historical), this one based on a still-unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco. After her friend is killed by a gunshot through a boardinghouse window, Blanche—a burlesque dancer, prostitute, and the only witness—is forced to seek justice on her own. (Janet) All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: This second novel from British thirty-something sensation Evie Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, 2009) is about a woman named Jake who, along with a flock of sheep, is the only inhabitant on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain. The novel came out abroad last year and revolves around a mysterious predator stalking Jake's flock, picking off her sheep one at a time in gory fashion. As The Guardian put it in a review last June, the novel is "not a ruminant whodunnit exactly; it is a thoughtful and intense account of a young woman seemingly determined to disappear from the world's radar." (Kevin) In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen: 86-year-old lion of American letters Peter Matthiessen has written his first novel since Shadow Country and what he told the NY Times may be his "last word." A novel based upon his own experience attending three "Bearing Witness" Zen retreats at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, In Paradise will describe one attendee's experience of meditation in a former concentration camp as a non-Jew of Polish descent. (Lydia) Family Life by Akhil Sharma: Sharma’s first novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway and the Whiting in 2001. More than a decade later, the Indian-born writer publishes his second novel, which begins in Delhi in 1978 and tracks a family’s migration to the United States. “Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes,” the publisher writes, “leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land.” For a introduction to Sharma’s writing, his first short story in twelve years, about cousins living in Delhi, was published in The New Yorker this past spring: “I wrote this story as soon as I had e-mailed the novel to my editor,” he told New Yorker fiction editor Deboarah Treisman. “Get thee behind me, devil is what I thought about finishing the novel.” (Elizabeth) With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst: If 2012 was the year of Clarice Lispector, when New Directions issued four new translations of her seminal works, then 2014 may very well be the year of Lispector's friend and fellow Brazilian author, Hilda Hilst. Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first work translated into English, and it made appearances on my best of 2013 reading list as well as Blake Butler’s. Two more Hilst translations debut this year, with another from Nightboat (Letters from a Seducer) and Melville House's publication of With My Dog Eyes. This title seems apt, as Hilst produced much of her work after retreating to an estate where a pack of more than one hundred dogs roamed. For a taste, check out the excerpt Bomb published last summer. (Anne) Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman: Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English, Traveler of the Century, was an enormous feat of fabulism, and was critically acclaimed when it appeared here in 2012. Talking to Ourselves demonstrates Neuman’s range by running in completely the opposite direction. This comparatively short work is set in the present day, and alternates among the voices of three family members. For those who missed Traveler of the Century, it may be an equally potent introduction to Neuman’s work. (Garth) Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval: Saval, an n+1 editor, has produced what may be an essential volume on a subject that bedevils so many of the over-educated and under-employed among us: the office. It is likely the rare desk jockey who hasn't, in a fugue of 3pm boredom and amid a din of inane small talk, wondered "why does it have to be like this?" Cubed looks for an answer, exploring how the office as we know it came to be, "starting with the smoke one-room offices of the 19th century and culminating in the radical spaces of the dot-com era and beyond." (Max) Casebook by Mona Simpson: The consistently excellent Simpson returns with what sounds like a riff on Harriet the Spy: the story of a boy investigating his parents’ disintegrating marriage. The coming-of-age narrative is complicated here, though, by the disintegration of the possibility of privacy in the age of Facebook, or Snapchat, or whatever we're all on now. Am I the only one hoping that the “stranger from Washington D.C. who weaves in and out of their lives” is Anthony Weiner? (Garth) Off Course by Michelle Huneven: Michelle Huneven, author of Blame and Jamesland, returns with an engrossing and intimate new novel set in the early 1980s. Cressida Hartley is a young PhD candidate in Economics who moves to her parents’ shabby vacation cabin in the Sierras; she ends up getting drawn into the small mountain community there—in particular, its men. According to the jacket copy, Huneven introduces us to “an intelligent young woman who discovers that love is the great distraction, and impossible love the greatest distraction of all.” Publishers Weekly says that “Cress makes for an eerily relatable and heartbreaking protagonist.” If you haven’t yet read a book by Huneven, whom Richard Russo calls “a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent,” then you’re in for a treat. (Bonus: Michelle Huneven’s beautiful essay, “On Walking and Reading At the Same Time.”) Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon: There’s no such thing as a predictable birth—a fact that maddens parents-to-be but eventually makes for a whopper of an anecdote. If your Aunt Mildred can tell a good story about her scheduled c-section, imagine the tales that writers like Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and The Millions' own Edan Lepucki can spin. (Hannah) All the Rage by A. L. Kennedy: The Independent once described A. L. Kennedy as “one of nature's Eeyores”: “She knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.” So the Scottish writer’s sixth collection of short stories—billed as “a dozen ways of looking at love, or the lack of love”—should likely be avoided by the overly sentimental. But it promises to be marked by the dark humor that pervades her work—the “Department 5” (“a shadowy organisation about which it’s best you know nothing”) page on her website gives you a good taste. (Elizabeth) Vernon Downs by Jaime Clarke: Clarke, the co-owner of Newtonville Books in Boston, offers a slippery roman-a-clef, or simulacrum thereof. A sad sack writer becomes obsessed with a more famous colleague, the titular Vernon Downs, who despite his lack of a middle name, bears more than a passing resemblance to Bret Easton Ellis. This is the intriguing debut title for a new indie called Roundabout Press. (Garth) May: The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry: The Irish poet, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry's new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, tells the story of Jack McNulty, an Irishman who served in the British army in the Second World and has washed up in Accra, Ghana, in 1957, determined to write down the story of his life. Jack is an ordinary man who has seen extraordinary things—as a world traveler, soldier, engineer, UN observer and ill-starred lover. Once again Barry, a repeat contender for the Man Booker Prize, deftly twines his own family history with the rumbustious history of the Irish in the 20th century. (Bill) The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: Michael Cunningham’s sixth novel is set in New York City in 2004 and tells the story of two brothers facing loss. One brother, newly bereft, experiences a religious awakening; the other, whose wife is gravely ill, falls into drug use. It sounds like a tearjerker of a story, one likely to be made even more heartrending by Cunningham’s graceful prose. (Hannah) My Struggle, Book III by Karl Ove Knausgaard: It’s not really news anymore that Knausgaard’s unfolding project (unfolding into English, anyway; in Norwegian, it’s already complete) is phenomenal. But now that FSG is handling the paperback editions (replete with Williamsburg-ready jacket design) you’ll be hearing even more about My Struggle. And it’s true: you should read it! Start Book I now, and you will have caught up by the time Book III comes out. (Garth) Lost for Words: A Novel by Edward St Aubyn: St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet of novels, based on his own upbringing, center around the nasty dealings of a family in the English aristocracy. (James Wood diminishes regular comparisons to Waugh and Wilde, saying that despite surface similarities, St Aubyn is “he is a colder, more savage writer than either.”) His newest novel is somewhat of a departure then, a “a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.” Readers hesitant to leave the Melrose family behind can rest assured that the new novel promises to be just as cutting as those before it. (Elizabeth) Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer’s latest sees the prolific journalist, essayist, and novelist chronicle a two-week stay aboard a US aircraft carrier. As the tallest (well, second-tallest), oldest, and easily most self-conscious person on the boat, Dyer occupied an odd position on the crew, one which forced him to reconcile his own bookish life with a lifelong interest in the military. (Those readers with Army experience may not be surprised to learn that the text is heavy on acronyms.) (Thom) An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: If Roxane Gay wrote it, I’ll read it. Perhaps best known for her thoughtful and engaging essays about all kinds of topics, from Orange is the New Black to Twitter to Paula Deen’s racism, Gay will publish not only a book of essays in 2014, called Bad Feminist, but also this first novel. In An Untamed State, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of one of Haiti’s richest men, is kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days by a man who calls himself the Commander. Mat Johnson says, “An Untamed State is the kind of book you have to keep putting down because you can’t believe how good it is. Awesome, powerful, impossible to ignore, Roxane Gay is a literary force of nature. An Untamed State arrives like a hurricane.” (Edan) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blind French girl and a young German boy navigate the perils of occupied France in the latest by the author of Memory Wall. The French girl, Marie Laure, flees Paris with her father, eventually holing up with her agoraphobic uncle in his house on the coast of Brittany. The German boy, Werner, a mechanical whiz, parlays his aptitude into a spot in the Nazi army. The Nazis ship him off to Russia and then from there to northern France. If we can trust Abraham Verghese’s endorsement, the story is “put together like a vintage timepiece.” (Thom) The Vacationers by Emma Straub: The highlight of Emma Straub's short story collection, Other People We Married, was the romantically lost but sympathetic Franny. We left the collection wanting to read an entire novel on her, and fortunately, Straub has done just that with her second novel after Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures. Surprisingly, Franny is still married to Jim, and the Post family and friends are off to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th anniversary. Yet not everything is tranquil as the Mediterranean Sea, and the vacation dredges up embarrassments, rivalries, and secrets. (Tess) To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: To read a Joshua Ferris novel is to stare at the gaping emptiness just below the surface of modern life—and, quite often, laugh. In this third novel from the author of the much-beloved Then We Came to the End, dentist Paul O’Rourke discovers that someone is impersonating him online, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account all mysteriously created in Paul’s name. As he looks into who has stolen his identity and why, Paul begins to fear that his digital doppelgänger may be better than the real thing. (Michael) The Painter by Peter Heller: An expressionist painter with a penchant for violence tries to outrun his own crimes in this novel by the author of The Dog Stars. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, thought he’d settled into a peaceful life in his home in rural Colorado. One day, Stegner witnesses a local man beating a horse, and the act so enrages him that he hunts down the man and kills him. He then sets off on a Dostoevskyan quest, one which sees him make sense of his actions while hiding his crime from the cops. All the while, in spite of his turmoil, he keeps painting. (Thom) Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro: When a group of thirty-something parents gather at a ramshackle beach house called Eden, no serpent is required for the sins, carnal and otherwise, to pile up. Fierro, founder of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, argued in The Millions last year that writers need to put the steam—and the human sentiment—back into sex scenes in literary novels. You may want to keep Fierro’s debut novel on a high shelf, away from children and prudish literary snobs. (Michael) The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour: Porochista Khakpour is the author of the blazingly original (pun intended!) novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects. In her new novel, its hero, Zal, is born in a rural Iranian village to a mother who believes he is evil because of his pale skin and hair. For the first ten years of his life he’s raised in a cage with the rest of his mother’s birds—eating insects, shitting on newspaper—until he is rescued by a behavioral analyst who brings him to New York. The Last Illusion recounts Zal’s struggles and adventures in this foreign land, where he befriends a magician, and falls for a supposed clairvoyant. Claire Messud writes, “This ambitious, exciting literary adventure is at once grotesque, amusing, deeply sad—and wonderful, too.” (Edan) The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner: A generational drama set on fictional Loosewood Island, about the King family vying to maintain control of a centuries old lobstering dynasty. Early reports speak of meth dealers, sibling rivalry, and intra-lobster boat love as the main threats to Cordelia King's attempt to preserve the family business. In an interview last April, Zentner (Touch, 2011) also allowed that one of the characters has "a Johnny Cash tape stuck in the cassette player in his truck." (Kevin) Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo: I’m particularly excited about Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel Wonderland—not only because its protagonist is a female indie musician, the likes of whom have not made it into novels often, if ever (think about it); but because said musician, Anna Brundage, is on a comeback tour at age 44. Bloomer! From the publisher: “Wonderland is a moving inquiry into the life of a woman on an unconventional path, wondering what happens next and what her passions might have cost her, seeking a version of herself she might recognize.” D’Erasmo herself, who spent a decade as a books editor, first for the Village Voice and then Bookforum, did her own later-blooming comeback as a debut novelist at age 39, and now a professor at Columbia. (Sonya) The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Rachman follows The Imperfectionists, a pitch perfect novel-in-stories set at a dying English-language newspaper in Rome, with a novel about a bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg, who was kidnapped as a child and then adopted by her kidnappers. In a narrative that hopscotches the globe from Bangkok to Brooklyn to the border towns of Wales, Zylberberg is lured into setting off on a journey that will unravel the mysteries of her past. Never one to worry overmuch about plot credibility, Rachman is a master of wringing pathos from essentially comic tales. (Michael) The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings: Seven years after the publication of The Descendents—which you might remember because of a certain movie adaptation starring George Clooney—Kaui Hart Hemmings returns to the themes of familial loss, grief, and unexpected turns of fate all cast against gorgeous scenery. In The Possibilities, a Colorado mother loses her son in an avalanche near their Breckinridge home. Coping with her loss, and trying to piece her life back together, she’s suddenly confronted with something she couldn’t have seen coming. (Nick M.) American Innovations by Rivka Galchen: It's been six years since readers were introduced to Galchen via her ambitious debut Atmospheric Disturbances (James Wood called it "a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability.") Since then she has been chosen as one of the New Yorker's 20 writers under 40 and produced an impressive body of unusually lyrical science journalism (on topics like quantum computers and weather control). Galchen's new collection American Innovations reflects an experiment of another sort. Per publisher FSG, "The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters." “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Gogol’s “The Nose” are among the stories mined. (Max) Funny Once by Antonya Nelson: Antonya Nelson’s new story collection brings together short pieces from the last few years as well as a previously unpublished novella. In the title story, a couple, united by a shared propensity for bad behavior, reckons with the consequences of a lie they tell to their friends. In “The Village,” a woman comes to grips with her feelings about her father's mistress. In “Three Wishes,” the novella, a group of siblings deals with the fallout of their brother’s death. Like much of the native Kansan's work, the collection takes place largely in Heartland and Western settings. (Thom) June: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez: The Book of Unknown Americans, the second novel by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Cristina Henríquez, begins as a love story between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl. After the girl suffers a major injury, the story moves from Mexico to a cinderblock apartment building in Delaware populated with immigrants from Latin America. From there the novel expands outward to become a symphonic love story between these immigrants and an impossible America. Told in a multiplicity of voices, the novel manages that rare balance of being both unflinching and unsentimental. In doing so, it rewrites the definition of what it means to be American. (Bill) Summer House With Swimming Pool by Hermann Koch: Last year, in a “Books of the Times” review, Janet Maslin took Hermann Koch’s novel, The Dinner, out into the town square for a public flogging. A funny thing happened though: the book ended up a bestseller. A bestseller translated from the Dutch, no less! Koch’s misanthropic view of contemporary life seemed to resonate with American audiences, and his latest appears to offer more of the same. Here, a murder disturbs the idyll of a group of friends on vacation together, bringing far darker currents to the surface. (Garth) Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek: Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago was, like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, practically required reading in writing programs in the late '90s and early Aughts. Dybek’s voice was lusher than Johnson's, and more openly romantic, but equally poetic. His follow-up, I Sailed With Magellan, sometimes let that lushness grow too wild; the gritty Chicago settings of the earlier book gave way in places to nostalgia. But a new Dybek volume is always welcome, and this year offers a treat: the simultaneous publication of two. Paper Lantern is a group of love stories, while Ecstatic Cahoots gathers together the kinds of short shorts that so memorably punctuated The Coast of Chicago. (Garth) I'll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-sook Shin is one of Korea’s most popular novelists. In I’ll Be Right There, set during a period of political turmoil in 1980s South Korea, she uses European literature to bridge experiential differences between East and West. The novel concerns a highly literate woman who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend after nearly a decade of separation. The call triggers a flood of memories, and she finds herself reliving her intense and tumultuous youth: memories of tragedy and upheaval and of profound friendships forged in a time of uncertainty. (Emily) In the Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds: The third novel from British writer Foulds takes place at the end of World War II and follows two Allied soldiers during the final push to sweep the Germans out of Italy. In an interview last July with the Hindustan Times, Foulds previewed the book, saying, it "would like to give the reader a sense of history as being very complicated and rapid in these high-conflict situations. It is one thing after another. The events are too massive to care for particular individual stories, so there are a number of stories. For a while, one is unsure if they are going to converge but they do." (Kevin) July: California by Edan Lepucki: In July, Millions staffer and preferred writing teacher Edan Lepucki will follow up her novella If You're Not Yet Like Me with her first full-length novel, California, a post-apocalyptic number set in, er, California. Lepucki's debut follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness and straddles the (complementary) domestic and dystopian spheres, addressing horrors like marital strife, pregnancy, and the end of society as we know it. Dan Chaon called it "a wholly original take on the post-apocalypse genre." (Full disclosure: I have eaten meals with Edan, squeezed her baby, and admired her tiny dog. My feeling of anticipation regarding this novel is thus not impartial.) (Lydia) Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Our own Bill Morris, a Motor City native, tells the story of Willie Bledsoe—once an idealistic black activist, now burnt-out and trying to write a memoir about the '60s—who joins his brother to drive a load of illegal guns up to Detroit in 1968. While in Detroit, Bledsoe becomes the top suspect in an unsolved murder from the previous year's bloody race riots. The book will dive deep into some of Morris's great fascinations: cars, Detroit, and the The Indigenous American Berserk that lurks below the surface. (Kevin) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: A couple of years back, Charlie Jane Anders—writing on i09—declared that Harkaway had invented a new genre: existential pulp. That might be as good a way as any to describe his wildly inventive ouevre, which involves ninjas, mimes, doomsday machines, schoolgirl spies, shadowy secret societies, and mechanical soldiers. His third novel, Tigerman, concerns a burnt-out sergeant of the British Army, Lester Ferris, who is sent to serve out his time on Mancreu, a shady former British colony slated for destruction, where he encounters a street kid in need of a hero. (Emily) Friendship by Emily Gould: Emily Gould’s debut novel charts the friendship of two women who, at thirty, have been closely entwined in one another’s lives for years. Bev lives the kind of aimless life that’s easier to put up with at 23 than at 30. Amy has been coasting for some time on charisma, luck, and early success, but unfortunate decisions are catching up with her. A meditation on friendship and maturity in an era of delayed adulthood. (Emily) Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann writes so much that you forget it’s been a blue moon since he’s published a work of fiction. And that book won the National Book Award! This collection is said to comprise a bunch of ghost stories—perhaps less inherently promising than, say, a Vollmann essay on how the FBI mistook him for the Unabomber, but still liable to fascinate. One of the remarkable things about Vollmann’s story collections is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts; I'm eager to see how these stories connect. (Garth) The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: If orbital “space mirrors” reflecting constant sunlight upon Oranzheria, a massive greenhouse in Petroplavilsk, Russia, doesn’t pique your interest, then I can’t do anything for you. These are the mysterious devices at the heart of Josh Weil’s second novel, which follows two twins, Yarik and Dima, who were inseparable as children, but who have grown apart in adulthood. Today, the two work in the collective farms of Oranzheria, the “great glass sea,” to harvest crops for the benefit of the place’s billionaire owner. What follows is a story of two brothers on oppositional paths, each hoping to reconvene, all set against the backdrop of an “alternative present-day Russia.” (Nick M.) The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: Doug is an academic interested in the poetry of Edwin Parfitt. As it happens, Doug’s mother-in-law owns a former artists’ colony where the poet had long ago been an artist in residence. Fancy that. But for whatever reason, she prohibits Doug from entering the estate’s attic, where file cabinets of Edwin Parfitt’s papers are said to be located. After asking around, however, Doug ultimately gains access to some of the files—only to find that they are much more disturbing than he could have imagined. What ensues is a fragmented narrative, split between 1999, 1955, and 1929, in which readers see glimpses of the present day, the near past, and the final days of the artist colony, all the while affected by the enduring legacy of the estate’s original owners. (Nick M.) August: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: When Murakami’s new novel—his first since the in-all-ways-gigantic 1Q84—came out in Japan last year, there were apparently 150-deep midnight queues outside Tokyo bookstores. It sold 1 million copies in its first week alone. This is a novel, let’s remember, not a new Call of Duty game. And such were its unit-shifting powers in its author’s country that it caused a significant spike in sales of a particular recording of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” piano pieces described in the novel, leading to a swift decision by Universal Music to reprint CDs of the recording to meet Murakami-based demand. The novel tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man mysteriously ostracized by his friends. It stands a good chance of selling a few copies in English translation too. (Mark) The Kills by Richard House: The second section of this four-part novel is called “The Massive”; it’s a title that could have stood for the whole. House’s sprawling quadruple-decker, longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a literary thriller set against the background of the Iraq War. Intriguingly, House created extensive digital video and audio supplements that unfold alongside the narrative. Not sure how that works, though, if you’re going to be reading on boring old paper, as I am. (Garth) More from The Millions: The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Walter Benjamin would have loved this guy Tom Knox. In our age of mechanical reproduction, for starters, Tom Knox is an immaculate work of artifice. He keeps cranking out books even though he doesn't exist. Tom Knox, you see, is the pen name for Sean Thomas, a peripatetic British novelist, journalist, blogger, and travel writer. What's more, The Babylon Rite, the fourth novel by "Tom Knox," works overtime to live up to Benjamin's dictum that all great works of literature must either dissolve a genre or invent one. Actually, The Babylon Rite doesn't just dissolve a genre. It pours half a dozen genres into a literary Waring blender, hits the puree button, and serves up something that can only be called the first archaeological Knights Templar Meso-American whodunit Dan-Brown-send-up international drug-cartel Mafia splatter-fest of a cult thriller. There's hair on the walls of this novel, to quote one of the killers in Truman Capote's genre-dissolving "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood, which may be the ur-text of the trend Walter Benjamin yearned for back in the 1930s. In fact, there's so much blood gurgling through the pages of The Babylon Rite that it seems almost beside the point to say that the novel is a three-headed beast. Three groups – a journalist and a grieving woman in England; a team of archaeologists in Peru; and a pair of overworked London homicide cops – are all trying to unlock the secret ceremony of the medieval Knights Templar, the so-called Babylon Rite, that turned them into crazed, fearsome warriors and now, apparently, is causing corpses to pile up on two continents. Since the beating heart of this novel is the ingenious ways Tom Knox kills off his darlings, maybe the best way to understand this new genre is simply to catalog the slaughter. Here, then, is the coroner's report, including victims and means of dispatch: 1. Museum curator, killed by truckful of gasoline ramming into a gas station that sits over a secret underground archaeological museum. Apparent murder. 2. World's foremost authority on the Knights Templar, killed by driving his car into a brick wall at high speed. Apparent suicide, possible murder. 3. Russian ambassador's nephew, killed by severing his own feet and one hand, then trying to cut off his own head, all with a very expensive kitchen knife. Apparent suicide, assisted by gay porn videos and, possibly, drugs. 4. Heir to a German fortune, killed by self-decapitation with chainsaw. Stone cold suicide, no doubt about this one. 5. Journalist's lover, killed when crushed by a car while riding her bicycle at night in Australia under the influence of alcohol. Apparent accidental homicide. 6. London party girl, dies after slicing off her own lips, nostrils, earlobes and cheeks. Apparent suicide. 7. American archaeologist in Peru, shot twice outside a tomb of the pre-Colombian Moche civilization. Murder, possibly by members of a Mexican drug cartel. 8. Daughter of world's foremost authority on the Knights Templar, dies after slitting her own throat during drug-induced sexual frenzy. Apparent multi-orgasmic suicide. 9. Murderous Italian mafioso, shot by police sharpshooter. Justifiable homicide. 10. London homicide cop garrotted during stake-out. Murder, no known suspect. 11. One Amazon riverboat captain and one deck hand, decapitated by drug cartel bad guys. Double homicide. 12. Amazon guide, killed when a drug cartel leader slices open his thigh and inserts a carnivorous "vampire fish" in the wound, which proceeds to devour the hapless Amazon guide from the inside. Murder. 13. Mexican drug cartel boss killed when his intended rape victim slits his throat with a razor blade concealed in her mouth. Justifiable homicide, self-defense. 14. Cartel bodyguard, killed by single gunshot. Homicide, but nobody will miss this dirtbag. 15. Zeta cartel thug, shot by a journalist. Justifiable homicide, leaving artsy spray of blood and innards on wall. 16. Archaeologist heroine, killed by self-inflicted throat slashing. Drug-induced suicide, partly explained because she realizes she is suffering from terminal Huntington's Disease. So there you have it, well over a dozen dead bodies killed by the whole arsenal – explosives, kitchen knife, chainsaw, gun, motor vehicle, piano wire, straight razor, hit-and-run, machete, and intestine-eating fish. If this book were a movie, it'd be a shoo-in for the Joe Bob Briggs Drive-In Hall of Fame. For all this rococo violence, though, the prose is generally pedestrian and frequently downright laughable. Here's Dan, the head of the team of archaeologists examining pre-Colombian ceramics in Peru, in conversation with his lover/understudy Jessica: (Dan) gazed right back at her. "Of course, if your theory is in any way correct it means virtually all the erotic practices of the ceramicas, the cermicas eroticas, must depict sexual acts the Moche actually performed. Rather incredible, no?" "Not incredible. That's my perception. They did it." "Sex with animals?" Dan was half-laughing, yet his expression was sickened. "Women masturbating dying men, men who had been half-flayed? Sex with skeletons, foreplay with mutilated corpses? Christ." "Bestiality and necrophilia, in fervent variety. Yep, I reckon that's what they did." Yep, I reckon that's what they did – coming after such a litany of kinky death, that sentence is all the proof you need that "Tom Knox" has ears made of pure tin. I thought it was impossible to top that line, but I thought wrong. Here's the Aussie journalist Adam, zonked on a sex- and violence-inducing drug, gunning down a Mexican drug cartel thug, (killing #15 from the above list): The urge was orgasmic. And irresistible. Adam lifted the gun, and he fired, exultantly. He had never shot a gun in his life: but this was so good. The bullet slammed the man to the wall, silhouetting him with a corona of his own blood, another Jackson Pollock on the wall, the abstract expressionism of death. This writing is so bad. But people don't read books like this for the lambent and lyrical prose found in most literary fiction about emperors or maladies or the incredible lightness of splendid suns; people read such books for the storytelling, period. And while it's often possible to hear the gears of the plot groaning, there's no denying that the pages fly by as The Babylon Rite races toward its drug-fueled, hyperventilated blood bath of a climax. That, in all fairness, is not nothing. There has been a lot of giddy talk lately about the crumbling of the walls that once divided literary genres into tidy fiefs. In our brave and blurry new world, categories matter far less than the quality of the writing. Cross-pollination is king. Elmore Leonard's crime novels have drawn raves from highbrows, including Walker Percy. To the delight of many readers, myself included, writers as diverse as Patricia Highsmith, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville, William Gibson, John le Carré, and Philip K. Dick have busted out of the ghettos of their various genres and attracted readers who once steered clear of literature's shadowy precincts. As Emily St. John Mandel put it here recently, "Le Carré is worth reading whether you like genre fiction or not." The literary novelist Kate Atkinson is now rubbing shoulders on the bestseller lists with that prolific corporation known as James Patterson, with no apparent discomfort to either party. Claire Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs, is literary fiction that owes a large debt to such psychological horror films as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Everything is fair game for the novelist today – horror, thrillers, porn, fairy tales, pulp, splatter, comics, text messages, vampires, computer games, e-mail, tabloid headlines, sit-coms, spies, zombies, and, yes, such conventionally lofty sources as Shakespeare and Jane Austen and the Bible. And readers are richer for it. It turns out that Capote's "non-fiction novel" did more than blend two forms. It stretched the way we categorize and think about books, inspiring other hybrids that would have once seemed oxymoronic, even sacrilegious, but are now perfectly acceptable. One such book is The Roadmap by the former Burmese political prisoner Ma Thida (writing under the pseudonym Suragamika), which bills itself as "documentary fiction." In a very real sense, In Cold Blood made The Roadmap possible. In addition to genre-dissolvers, -creators, and -blenders, there is also a new crop of genre-jumpers. John Banville writes literary fiction with his right hand, then shifts gears and writes noirish crime novels, as Benjamin Black, with his left. Banville has called Black "my dark twin and brother." The two appear to get along famously. Which doesn't mean that all writers who mix, dissolve or create genres automatically produce great literature. Sometimes, quite the opposite. Bad writing is still bad writing, no matter what the label says. With The Babylon Rite, Tom Knox has proved this beyond any doubt. Yep, that's what he did.
In all of American letters there is no tale sadder than the biography of Truman Capote. A true prodigy, Capote was publishing stories in national magazines by his early twenties, and published his first novel at age 24. After dabbling in writing for the theater and the movies, he returned to prose, first with the classic 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and then eight years later, his masterpiece, the “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, about the senseless killing of a Kansas farming family. And then...nothing, or very near to it. Capote lived 18 years after the publication of In Cold Blood, much of which he spent working on a novel with the painfully ironic title Answered Prayers. When he published a few chapters of the book in Esquire, the real-life counterparts of his characters, many of them wives of business titans who had brought Capote into their glamorous circle, were so offended they shunned him. If there was ever any more of that novel than those controversial opening chapters, he never showed them to anyone. Instead, he got fat, grew estranged from his long-suffering lover Jack Dunphy, and bounced from lover to lover, living as a sad, lonely has-been until his death in 1984 from liver disease. But before his wilderness years, before his cringeworthy turn in the Neil Simon movie Murder by Death, before the six years it took him to write the true-crime thriller that made his name and destroyed his health, there was the charming, coquettish boy-man whose bedroom eyes stared back at readers in the famous jacket photo for his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. “A Beautiful Child,” is the title of a gossipy memory piece Capote wrote about Marilyn Monroe, but his descriptions of his female subjects always contained more than a few brushstrokes of self-portraiture, and for more than a decade, from the publication of his first stories in the mid-1940s until he set out for Holcomb, Kansas, to investigate the quadruple-murder of the Clutter family in 1959, that’s who Capote was: American literature’s beautiful child. This month Random House is celebrating the work of this gifted and tragic boy genius with a handsome new Modern Library edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Voices, Other Rooms. In May, the Modern Library will bring out a new edition of his Complete Stories, many of which were written during his early career. The justification for these new editions is slim at best. Breakfast at Tiffany’s turns 55 this year, but today many more people know the movie with Audrey Hepburn than have read Capote’s original novella. Capote himself is now best known as the flamboyantly gay elf with a squeaky voice played first by Philip Seymour Hoffman and then by Toby Jones in the competing movie versions of the tale of Capote’s experiences reporting and writing In Cold Blood. If Capote the writer has been eclipsed in the public mind by Capote the Hollywood movie character, no one is more to blame than Capote himself. An incurable glory hog, Capote lived as much of his life as he could in the limelight, hopping onto the sofa of any TV talk show host who would have him and jetting around the world in the company of glamorous women from Babe Paley, wife of CBS President Bill Paley, to Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy. Capote, in his way, was a reality TV star before there was reality TV, always on stage, gossiping and backstabbing, forever plotting to push other people off the island. Behind all that needy self-display, though, there was a serious, preternaturally confident author, one of the most naturally gifted America has ever produced. In his excellent and unbearably sad biography,Capote, Gerald Clarke recounts the story of the day in 1945 when Capote appeared at the offices of Mademoiselle with a short story he had had written. Capote was by then 21, but with his delicate features and high, girlish voice, he looked and sounded like a child, so when he told the fiction editor’s receptionist that he had a story he wished to submit, she told him, “That’s fine, little boy. Have you got your name and address on it?” Capote’s answer, now legendary, but also in keeping with his boundless confidence in his talent, was: “I’ll wait while they read it.” Within months, the magazine had published one of Capote’s best-known early stories, “Miriam,” a spooky little tale about a girl with an evil temper. The only child of an alcoholic mother and a big-talking traveling salesman father who landed in jail for writing bad checks, Capote spent much of his early life with relatives in the rural South and never went to college. His only real job, a brief stint as a copyboy for the New Yorker, ended when he was fired for walking out of a reading at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference by poet Robert Frost, a frequent contributor to the magazine. Without an education or meaningful connections in the literary world, the man-child who sat waiting for the editors at Mademoiselle to read his work, and the young writer who turned out stories those editors couldn’t ignore, was entirely self-invented, which may help explain the high-strung tone and quirky subject matter of the early stories, which seem designed to shock the reader into attention as much as to entertain or edify. This is certainly true of Other Voices, Other Rooms, a self-consciously lurid tale of 13-year-old Joel Knox who sets off in search of his missing father and ends up in a kind of Warner Brothers back-lot stage set of Southern-fried weirdness, all swamplands and ruined Gothic splendor. Other Voices would be a forgettable bauble of mid-century Southern fiction had its author not gone on to be Truman Capote, and were it not so revealing of the passions and demons that fueled his later work. The novel’s hero, a transparent stand-in for its author, has been effectively orphaned, and when asked to pray, is stumped: [A]ll his prayers in the past had been simple concrete requests: God, give me a bicycle, a knife with seven blades, a box of oil paints. Only how, how, could you say something so indefinite, so meaningless as this: God, let me be loved. This is the leitmotif for Capote’s entire life and career. All his characters wish only to be loved, and finding it impossible to be loved in any conventional way, seek love wherever they can find it, sometimes creatively, sometimes in ways that destroy themselves or others. In Other Voices, Joel’s father is alive, but reduced to a pathetic grotesque, a quadriplegic kept in a box who can communicate only by dropping red tennis balls to telegraph his distress. Instead, Joel finds his father figure in his deliciously odd Cousin Randolph, who watches him from an upstairs window wearing a woman’s dress and towering white wig. At the novel’s end, Randolph in drag beckons to Joel from the window, and Joel, finally understanding who he is, goes to him “unafraid, not hesitating,” pausing only briefly to look back “at the boy he had left behind.” If Other Voices allowed Capote a vicarious coming out, by the time of Breakfast at Tiffany’s ten years later, his sexuality was largely a settled issue. Readers coming to the novella for the first time – especially those who know only the movie version which turns Capote’s narrator into a sort of heterosexual rent boy who falls for the party girl Holly Golightly – may be surprised how unambiguously gay the novella’s narrator is. It is so obvious, so integral to his non-sexual intimacy with Holly, that it hardly bears mentioning, which allows Capote to focus on a different kind of doppelganger, the pretty young society girl who, like her creator, survives in New York on her ability to charm herself and those around her into believing she is as charming and beautiful as she wishes herself to be. Yes, yes, Hepburn created an icon in her portrayal of Holly Golightly, with her little black dresses and her cigarette holder, but Capote’s original is so much richer, so much more interesting. The novella, with its cartoonishly named central characters, Holiday Golightly, Rusty Trawler, and Sally Tomato, is no more a realistic portrayal of New York in the war years than Other Voices is of the Depression-era South, but here the distortions bring one closer to the truth of what Manhattan meant to creative-class strivers of Capote’s generation. In Capote’s telling, New York is a kind of Emerald City, where all those hurt or looked down upon in their hometowns can come to reinvent themselves, except that here Dorothy herself is the Wizard of Oz, pulling the levers of fashion and witty talk that create the beautiful mirage. Holly Golightly, Capote’s most enduring character, represents the creative side of his obsessive need to be loved. Born Lulamae Barnes in Tulip, Texas, and married off at the age of 14 to a local country doctor whom she soon abandons, Holly is a wholly self-invented figure. She makes her living off “tips” from her gentleman suitors, but she is not, strictly speaking, a whore, nor is her appeal merely sexual. She makes a place for herself by being a feminine chameleon, at once a sex kitten to the men who pay her tips, a surrogate daughter for the lonely mobster Sally Tomato whom she visits every week at Sing Sing, and a would-be American trophy wife for a Brazilian diplomat. When her act fails, and the police come after her for helping Sally Tomato run his criminal gang from behind bars, she vanishes, leaving behind nothing but her pet cat, resurfacing years later in Africa where a tribal artisan has fallen in love with her and carved her image into wood. This, one senses, is the trick Capote himself was trying to pull off in his constant, almost compulsive, self-reinventions, from seductive boy-genius novelist, to Broadway playwright, to screenwriter, to journalist, to public personality and court jester of the most privileged circles of New York’s financial elite. But people, unlike fictional characters, are always themselves, and eventually their pasts catch up to them. This, for me, is the hidden story behind In Cold Blood. The book focuses on the murderer Perry Smith, yet another orphan with artistic tendencies – he wrote poetry and painted – but Smith, ugly and runted, doesn’t possess the talent or capacity for self-belief of a Holly Golightly, and when his dreams fail, he can’t take on a new life and so instead he destroys life. His target is an obvious one: a good, clean Kansan farming family whose love for one another is as real as it is conventional. Looked at in this way, it isn’t hard to see why In Cold Blood so completely shattered Capote: in Perry Smith, and his check-kiting partner in crime Richard Hickock, Capote was encountering his nightmare image of himself, what he could become if he ever lost his chameleon-like talent. And, God love him, he reported it all honestly. Capote may have fudged a few details, but he stuck it out till the bitter end, telling in excruciating detail the events of that bloody November night in the Clutter home, and then staying with Smith and Hickok until they were hanged for their crimes. In the sweeping narrative of twentieth century American literature, Capote is typically reduced to a colorful footnote, a young star who flared early and then collapsed in on himself, becoming a black hole of grasping need. In part, this is due to a prejudice against true-crime nonfiction, the genre in which he did his greatest work and indeed helped invent. There is probably no greater book on the darkness lurking in the American heartland than In Cold Blood, but because it shares a shelf with schlocky thrillers, it doesn’t get the critical respect it would if it were purely a work of imagination. Ultimately, though, the damage to Capote’s literary reputation is mostly self-inflicted. True, he wrote two genre-defining works, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, along with some truly great stories, including the heartbreaking “A Christmas Memory.” But he could have done so much more. Capote is hardly alone in coming to a sad end. Ernest Hemingway shot himself in despair; Tennessee Williams, a contemporary and close friend of Capote’s, choked on a bottle cap after more than twenty years of creative failure. But they got their major work done. Capote didn’t. Yet for all this, he remains worth reading because unlike most self-deceiving people he was also a genius, and part of that genius was a capacity to look honestly at his own deceptions, even if in life he couldn’t help being misled by them. Illustration by Bill Morris
1. Reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, you get used to sudden changes in geography. Always convinced that the real party is in full swing elsewhere, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are continually hopping in the car, exclaiming “Yes!” and “Phew!” as they tear off to another city, another coast. Of course, the sadness of On the Road — published in 1957, as the booming interstate highway system was beginning to pump homogeneity through its capillaries — is the characters’ slow realization that things fall apart in one place as well as another, and by the novel’s halfway point, Dean’s urgings to head to the next city inspire a certain weariness in the reader. But there’s one move that makes the reader sit up, for it signals a shift not so much in the novel’s location as in its metaphysics. It’s announced, with no warning, by the minor character Stan Shephard, who poses an innocuous question less than a hundred pages from the novel’s end: “Is it true you’re going to Mexico?” It is true, and if this is a natural turn for Kerouac’s restless protagonists to take, it also signals that On the Road, which Louis Menand says “made America a subject for literary fiction,” is turning its back on the big, sad nation that is its raison d’être. It’s an uneasy proposition, one that leaves the reader stricken with the sort of helpless nausea felt at the crest of a roller coaster’s hump. Of course, excitement is mixed in there, too. Even if you know little more about Mexico than the drug violence and immigration debates that define it in American news cycles, its name alone connotes some promise of exotic adventure, Montezuma’s gold and so forth. And if you have an ounce of sympathy for Sal and Dean, after so much dreary wandering, you want to believe Dean when he cries, “Man, this will finally take us to IT!”, even though you know it will not. As Sal says, there’s just something different about driving to Mexico: “It was no longer east-west but magic south.” Two other major American works of this period concurred in this assessment of Mexico’s appeal: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966). Though vastly different, these three books — the urtext of the Beat Generation, the great American picaresque, and the definitive modern True Crime account — all contain characters that believe Mexico will cure their American disease. Sal and Dean; Augie March and his lover Thea Fenchel; the murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith — at one point or another, they all locate the American Dream south of the border. And with each duo’s decision to leave the U.S. for Mexico, the queasiness provoked by Stan Shephard’s question arises once again. Why is this? Why don’t the Paris leanings of the Lost Generation or Pynchon’s demented spins of the globe provoke a similar response? The answer has to do with these books’ portrayals of Mexico as the last, best hope for a renewed frontier; their failure to find it marks the end of the end of American writers’ romance with the West. 2. When Frederick Jackson Turner declared the closing of the frontier in 1893, he made no mention of Mexico, and why would he? Americans have always been less than precise in articulating Mexico’s role in their nation’s Westward Expansion. Mexico ceded an astounding half of its territory to the States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848. Dictating terms that followed predictably from the expansionist rapacity that prompted the conflict, the United States acquired California, Nevada, and Utah — as well as most of New Mexico and Arizona and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Even after this grab, Americans continued to take advantage of a border even more porous than today’s leaky boundary, treating Mexico as America’s exotic backyard. “The Border” came to signify less a delineation than a land where the United States shaded into Mexico, an effect seen in the lazy deployment of the term “Western,” used to describe tales that often take place to the south, in Mexico or in territory formerly belonging to it — the Alamo, Rio Bravo, and The Searchers, to name just a few. The Mexican territories that became American states were much faster to develop than the country they once belonged to, and so to the adventurous American mind of the twentieth century, Mexico appeared as a land of contiguous exoticism, both different from America and under its thumb. In The New Yorker in 1979, the great Mexican writer Octavio Paz observed: “In general, Americans have not looked for Mexico in Mexico; they have looked for their obsessions, enthusiasms, phobias, hopes, interests — and these are what they have found.” In one sense, Paz is mistaking an American attitude towards the world in general for an American attitude toward Mexico in particular. But it is true that Americans in Mexico feel a sense of ownership not possible in Europe thanks to distance, an entrenched and “civilized” culture, and a mostly white population. Paz’s dictum certainly applies to the characters drawn by Kerouac, Bellow, and Capote. They constantly mistake myths for truths, projecting a blend of primitive fetishizing and general touristic ignorance onto their surroundings and calling the result Mexico. Thus it is that Sal can place himself above “the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore,” despite having just presented us with a grinning border official who is that stereotype incarnate: “Welcome Mehico,” he says. “Have good time. … Everything fine. Is not hard enjoin yourself in Mehico.” The same goes for Augie March, who travels to Mexico with his new lover, Thea Fenchel, to train an eagle to hunt. Augie blithely attributes the locals’ enthusiasm for the bird (Thea thinks her endeavor will make for some lucrative National Geographic articles) to “the ancient respect” the bird enjoys “from the old religion and the great class of knights in those days of obsidian sword slaughter that Díaz del Castillo witnessed.” Augie may be better read than Sal and Dean, but he’s hardly better informed. Where do these ideas come from? As with many twentieth-century American misconceptions, a large share of blame can be yoked to Hollywood. Consider Capote’s description of a Phillips 66 map that the dreamy Perry Smith reads in a diner: Ink-circled names populated the map. Cozumel, an island off the coast of Yucatan, where, so (Perry) had read in a men’s magazine, you could “shed your clothes, put on a relaxed grin, live like a Rajah, and have all the women you want for $50-a-month!” … Acapulco connoted deep-sea fishing, casinos, anxious rich women; and Sierra Madre meant gold, meant Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a movie he had seen eight times. Perry Smith was hardly the only American in those years whose image of Mexico was intertwined with Humphrey Bogart; while driving south, Dean invokes “those enormous Sierra Madre mountains we saw in the movies.” This stuff was in the air. In the 1950s, a group of American film stars that included John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Errol Flynn bought the Hotel Los Flamingos in Acapulco, ushering in an era when Mexico changed from an exciting land of “diseases, robbery, and the dangerous population” (Augie’s words) into an exciting land of marketable adventure and saleable exoticism. “Just say the words and we’ll beat the birds/Down to Acapulco Bay,” sang Frank Sinatra, who began frequenting the resort with the Rat Pack. In the years to come, Acapulco played host to Howard Hughes’ last days, Liz Taylor’s third wedding, and JFK and Jackie’s honeymoon. “I didn’t realize right away how many visitors from the cool and cold were paying their good dough to be here,” says Augie March. The movies and tabloids lent commercial legitimacy and glamorous appeal to the entitlement and avarice that hadn’t changed since the days of Jimmy Polk. Even if you couldn’t afford to join the party, you could still find a good time in your own price range (like Sal and Dean, who run up a thirty-six dollar tab in a whorehouse) or plan to strike it rich quick like Dick and Perry, whose moneymaking schemes include diving for sunken treasure, deep-sea fishing, and chauffeuring stolen cars. For a time, it works. “This is finally it. The way it ought to be,” sighs Perry, fishing from a boat hired by a wealthy German who takes the fugitives into his patronage. “Still,” Capote writes, in the language that wields the ethically dubious power of inspiring sympathy for two killers, “he knew that it couldn’t continue — that it was, in fact, destined to stop that very day.” 3. “For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant,” wrote Frederick Jackson Turner in his Frontier Thesis. In other words, a frontier’s time as a frontier is limited. What these characters think they seek in Mexico is what the theologian Belden Lane in his book Landscapes of the Sacred calls chora (borrowing Plato’s term for “space”) meaning a place of unique power, often of a spiritual character. But, as Paz said, Americans don’t really look for Mexico in Mexico — they look for a more perfect America, at once free of materialism and more conducive to it. This is an untenable quest, and soon, by engaging in the same mad dash for money and luxury as they did in the U.S., Mexico becomes to these characters what Lane calls topos, a space like any other, just a spot on the map. Boredom and disappointment ensue. 4. “It was one fiesta after another meantime,” says Augie March: The band plunged in the zócalo, clashed, drummed, and brayed; the fireworks bristled and ran off in strings, the processions swayed around with images. A woman died of a heart attack at a five-day drunk party, and there were scandals. Two young men, lovers, had an argument about a dog and one of them took an overdose of sleeping pills. In this impassive retelling, you can detect the weariness of settlement, novelty passing from this latter-day frontier like heat from a corpse. At one point, Augie tellingly describes the writers, financiers, and layabouts he encounters in Mexico as “the American colony.” The myths that these Americans sought in Mexico — Augie’s obsidian sword slaughter and Perry’s buried treasure and Sal’s “great, grave Indians” — have been crowded out by the single great truth of gain. “I saw anew how great a subject money is in itself,” Augie says, reconsidering his reasons for coming south. It’s money that drives Dick and Perry north, back into the jurisdiction of the laws that will ultimately put them to death; they simply run out of it. It’s Augie’s eager libido that destroys the armature of his stay in Mexico, his relationship with Thea, which comes crumbling down with excruciating inevitability. Augie hangs around Mexico, and sees the exiled Trotsky. (In his younger years, Bellow traveled to Mexico specifically to meet Trotsky. His timing was spectacularly bad, arriving the day after an assassin sank an ice pick into Trotsky’s skull.) Augie perpetrates the most vividly-described breakup bender in any novel, before nonchalantly returning home: “Anyhow, I felt now that there was something about the effect of Mexico on me, that I couldn’t hold my own against it any more and had better get back to the States.” This dissembling is typical of Augie; it’s his own desires that are having an effect on him, of course. Mexico represents the buoyant Augie’s lowest point. Though he recovers much more nicely than Sal and Dean or Dick and Perry, it’s no accident that Bellow situates his convalescence in Chicago, the beating heart of Augie’s America; only there can he reorder his priorities and resume his quest for a metaphysical frontier. And what of Sal and Dean, the wayward pair with whom we began? Their appetites get the better of them, too, as Sal fulfills Emerson’s grim prediction that “Mexico will poison us”: “Then I got fever and became delirious and unconscious. Dysentery.” The restless Dean leaves Sal while he’s laid up, back to New York for (what else?) a woman. “All that again?” asks a crestfallen Sal. “All that again, good buddy,” says Dean. In these ragged retreats from Mexico lies the fullest answer to the question of why Stan Shephard’s question is so unnerving even before any borders are crossed. These Mexican ventures inspire both fear and hope — the fear of discovering that America is both Death Valley and Gopher Prairie, simultaneously too large and not large enough for our insisting dreams, and the hope that there are more frontiers to discover. Their departures both surrender and reaffirm the American promise that we all want to believe in, even as we deny it; their empty-handed returns only confirm the folly of keeping the faith. In these sad dispatches from Mexico, Kerouac, Bellow, and Capote anticipated the post-Vietnam pessimism about Mexico that artists like Sergio Leone and Cormac McCarthy would make de rigueur. They were the first to spot the evening redness in the south. Image: Cam Villay/Flickr
Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays famously opens with the question, “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.” I’m one of the people who asks. Samuel Coleridge might have called the search for Iago “the motive hunting of motiveless malignity,” but I lack the capacity to accept that certain truths are just inscrutable. I reason that because fictional characters are born in the mind of the author, their actions must necessarily stem from something resembling Kantian categorical imperatives. Within the confines of their own logic, their actions make perfect sense. There is internal consistency and cause and effect. The system is governed by rules; the game is to discern exactly what those rules are. It’s a cliché that nothing is more interesting to people than other people, but in essence, those of us who ask about Iago do so because he is not so different a puzzle from human beings. He is only a more tantalizing one, because his author has deliberately controlled what we see and know of him, as though dispensing clues. But the prize for solving a literary conundrum is the same as for solving a human one: if I can figure out Iago, I can figure out Hamlet, I can figure out anyone and I can figure out you. 1. As An Aside Having searched for Iago predominantly throughout other works of fiction, I think it is worth pointing out that I’m aware of the tenuous merit of this project. It’s considered fairly dubious practice to explain the motivations of real people via fictional characters. But what about explaining the motivations of fictional characters via other fictional characters? Let alone fictional characters created long after the fictional characters in question? Won’t that turn into something of an analytical Ponzi scheme? It may also be worth noting that real world psychology, if not always an exact science, is farther along than any such fictional goose chase. Iago might simply be found in the entry under “Antisocial Personality Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV for demonstrating "a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” Real world sociopaths have been described in detail in nonfiction, from Charles Manson in Helter Skelter to Dick Hickock in In Cold Blood. Dick Hickock has “one of those smiles that really work,” an IQ of 130 and the sort of toughness that “existed solely in situations where he unarguably had the upper hand.” Dick even looks exactly how Iago should look: “his own face enthralled him. Each angle of it induced a different impression. It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful ...” But I’m not interested in diagnosing Iago, per se. I’m not trying to discern what he looks like, or what his childhood practices might have been. I am searching for the emotional truth of his nature, which (as Tim O’Brien famously opined) may be better found in another fictional story than in facts. 2. Excerpts From A Guide To Literary Sociopaths The sort of villains in popular fiction that enjoy the same level of celebrity as Iago include the likes of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. The common thread through many a literary sociopath is, as you may have noticed, that they have extremely evil-sounding names. Sociopaths in fiction are often intended to either appeal to readers’ fantasies that good and bad could be so easy to identify in real life, or are so absurdly riddled with diabolical clichés that they are parodies of themselves (like the pantheon of villains in Pynchon’s and Heller’s comic masterpieces, or Jasper Fforde’s Acheron Hades, who explains in his memoir, “Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit,” that the “best reason for committing loathsome and detestable acts - and let's face it, I am considered something of an expert in the field - is purely for their own sake.”) But there is something far more understated, and sinister, about Iago as a villain. Like Zoe Heller’s Barbara Covett from Notes on a Scandal, Daphne Du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers, or perhaps even Brontë’s Heathcliff, the real evil that Iago inflicts is upon the people to whom he is closest. He is the godfather of villains who rot from the inside out. Destroying those to whom one is closest reeks of a certain sort of motivelessness. Kevin Frazier, in his excellent essay on A.C. Bradley here at The Millions, points to the following discussion of Iago from Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy: To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog ... So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction. What strikes me most about this passage is that the examples chosen for being akin to Iago’s cruelty suggest that Iagoesque cruelty is almost commonplace. Horrifying though it is, there is nothing particularly rare or exotic about a man bullying a wife or child, or about thwarted superiority craving satisfaction. The implication is that it might not be such a mystery why Iago’s victims line up so willingly to be abused. Likewise, there might be nothing so superhuman about Iago’s power to abuse them. From Katherine Dunn’s sublime novel Geek Love, the following description of Arturo Binewski, the book's megalomaniacal villain, struck me as pure, undifferentiated Iago: “He seems to have no sympathy for anyone, but total empathy.” Empathy is a curious source of power. Relatively speaking, it is unglamorous in the extreme - it is of the sort best suited to Dostoevsky’s contention in Crime and Punishment that “Power is only given to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up.” Far more than any sheer irresistibility, the ingratiating, servile role Iago must steadfastly play for both Desdemona and Othello is the key to his seductiveness. Othello the Venetian general might be a natural leader, but Iago cannot be puppet master without being puppet himself. He succeeds as long as he does solely because the near-sightedness of his victims prevent them from asking - not “why would he lie?” but - “why doesn’t he have any life of his own?” 3. How I Picture Iago When He Is Off-Stage In Geek Love, while attempting to gain total control over his family, Arturo Binewski starts bugging the room of his sisters Iphy and Elly. Reports his documentarian Norval: I find this depressing. The idea of Arty sitting and listening to hour after hour of footsteps, pages turning, toilet flushing, comb running through hair. Elly’s conversation has been reduced to the syllable mmmmmm and Iphy is not in the mood for song. Her piano is covered with dust ... and Arty is listening to her file her nails. 4. A Comic Detour That villainy can be pathetic is a well-explored contradiction in fiction. Brett Easton Ellis’ oddly beloved misanthrope and American Psycho Patrick Bateman and his ilk suffer from the incurable disadvantage of being impossible to take seriously. Their particular breed of literary sociopath consists, perhaps naturally, of comic characters, because there is something so pathetic about hating absolutely everyone. Grandiose ambitions aside, these characters are as paralyzed by issues as Phillip Roth’s Portnoy, and just about as menacing. In Sartre’s darkly funny "Erostratus," the narrator sends out over a hundred letters announcing the following: I suppose you might be curious to know what a man can be like who does not love men. Very well, I am such a man, and I love them so little that soon I am going out and killing half a dozen of them; perhaps you might wonder why only half a dozen? Because my revolver only has six cartridges. A monstrosity, isn’t it? And moreover, an act strictly impolitic? Now, there is a relationship between the extent to which someone declares themselves to be a particular thing, and the extent to which he or she actually is that thing - and that relationship is plainly inverse. The comic sociopaths are so desperate to be taken seriously that they can never be taken seriously, and so fumbling and impotent in their attempts that you know they will only get themselves into trouble. Returning now to Othello and the genre of tragedy, if you subtract the comedic element from being pathetic, who are you left with? 5. The Regular Joe I suppose I always knew I’d arrive here at the end. Dunn gets here first, of course. In one of Geek Love’s final notes on Arturo, his documentarian writes: General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile. I myself have held most of the opinions in this spectrum at one time or another ... however, I come to see him as just a regular Joe - jealous, bitter, possessive, competitive, in a constant frenzy to disguise his lack of self-esteem, drowning in deadly love, and utterly unable to prevent himself from gorging on the coals of hell in his search for revenge. What Dunn so evocatively indicates is that the trick to the complexity of characters such as Arturo is that there is no complexity. The documentarian’s final notes on him ring of disgust upon making this discovery - self-disgust, and perhaps even a little disgust for his subject. Likewise, we build a labyrinth of motive and mythology around Iago because for all of his manipulation and the epic destruction it causes, we believe - or hope - he must be a monster. We are wont to compare him to the vilest of both real world and fictional sociopaths. We resist stripping away at him, knowing we will be sorely disappointed by what we find underneath.
So that you may get to know us better, it's The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today's Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven't read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I'll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I'm looking forward to it). I haven't read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, or Infinite Jest - I tend to avoid big books. I'm too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I'm a scared wimp, but I'm thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I've started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I've made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I'm also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven't even read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven't read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That's right, I haven't read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I've never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that's about it. Aside from excerpts, I've never even read Homer.I'll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I'm not exactly sure what I'm missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote - I've actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I've never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I've done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I've also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction - that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I've done quite well with modern British fiction, and I've also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I've delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace's encyclopedic prose, I'll actually finish Infinite Jest. It's mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly "I Never," there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I've never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story "Hills Like White Elephants"), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven't read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine - not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors - my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer's "A Reader's Manifesto" at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers' extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy's "muscular" style were as much (more) than I'd ever need of McCarthy's much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses - give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I've never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King... Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school... So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus... and that's pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I'm not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading - secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I'll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I've had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I've been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it's the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I've never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I've long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I've only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I'd like to try Anna Karenina next. I've also never read Lolita. Updike's passing this week reminded me that I've never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo's books and Foster Wallace's. By Philip Roth, I've read only Portnoy's Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can't even recall that I haven't read, but I'll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
Sara Ivry is a senior editor at www.nextbook.org, where she hosts a weekly podcast on books, culture and ideas.I'd never read anything by the British writer Howard Jacobson until this year, when I picked up Kalooki Nights to prepare for an interview. Hilarious, shocking, provocative, it relishes in the breadth of Jewish postwar experience (Orthodoxy, assimilation, paranoia, Nazi fetishism, who's trying to pass) through the eyes of one Maxie Glickman, an occasionally louche cartoonist from Manchester who marries only women with umlauts in their names (Chlöe, Zöe, et al.) and whose childhood friend has gassed his parents, but that hardly makes the man a villain! Pardon that far too simple description; what makes this novel a knock-out is its maturity and richness of story infused with both compassion and yuks about, for instance, misreading the silent "k" in knish or a teenager's ruse to feed his date biryanis so she gets hot under the collar and needs someone to blow on her.At the urging of a friend I rented Infamous in July and then decided, finally, to read In Cold Blood when I went a week later to semi-rural Connecticut to visit my folks. At dinner I'd tell them about the book's latest developments, about the Clutters' horrible deaths in Kansas, about Perry Smith's tragic childhood that almost seemed to excuse his crime. Then, one day that week, I picked up the newspaper and read about three brutal murders, a mother and her daughters, in a town not too far away by two men who'd met in a halfway house. What seemed in In Cold Blood like an account of random violence in an altogether different time and place was made current, and my mother suggested I stop reading Capote's book, since we had been reminded with a jolt how close by brutality lurks. Despite how grim the news was, I couldn't put the book down. Even though I knew how it ended, I wanted to read Capote's telling of how it ended, and made sure every night that all doors and windows were locked tight.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Norman Mailer, a colossus who bestrode worlds both literary and journalistic - and, at his best, combined them - has died of acute renal failure, according to the Times. Mailer had been in poor health for some time, and, given his hospitalization last month and his advanced age, his death comes as no surprise. And yet, in another way, it seems shocking: of the celebrated Jewish-American men who remade our literature in the middle of the last century (Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Salinger), Mailer seemed the most ecstatically alive. He rarely shied from a fight, or turned down an opportunity for self-promotion on the grounds that it might be beneath his dignity. Pursuing a life that would be its own kind of art - or at least entertainment - he indulged a vast range of interests: sports commentator, filmmaker, celebrity, co-founder of the Village Voice, mayoral candidate, drunk.... And this prodigious energy, this tendency to follow it whither it led, may explain why, of the authors cited above, his ratio of dross to gold was the highest. One occupation Mailer never seriously explored, to my knowledge, was editor.That said, his death should clarify certain things about the Mailer canon, among them this: When he was good, he was brilliant. I cannot claim to have waded through Ancient Evenings, but The Executioner's Song, in its own strange way, surpasses the journalistic achievements of Capote's In Cold Blood, and leaves almost every other novel written in the Seventies looking morally and intellectually trivial. A writer less vainglorious - less convinced of his own ability to get all of life on the page - could never have written this book. In a way, Mailer was the last of the Romantics, more an heir to Byron than to Hemingway. Let us hope that his own heirs will be able to see through the glare of his celebrity to the writer, the sly rope-a-doper, who hid behind it.
When I was a kid, I read People magazine. I mean read it. As in every week. A couple of years into my subscription, I could name the husbands of Elizabeth Taylor, the number of cars owned by Jay Leno, the blood-type of every member of the house of Windsor. Weirdly, People also taught me a lot about serial killers.This was during the era of Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter, and in between its celebrity puff pieces and heartwarming tales of uplift, People lingered voyeuristically over every lurid detail of every serial killing, real or imaginary, from Florida to Alaska. Even now the names are coming back to me. Ted Bundy. Aileen Wuornos. You know: People. Especially compelling, for a ten-year-old (and, apparently, for everyone else who read People) was any whiff of weird sex. Of course, from a ten-year-old's point of view, all sex is weird sex. As all violence and loneliness and pathology seem obscurely familiar. But anyway, I gobbled this serial-killer stuff up like Halloween candy, though I knew I shouldn't. And, as with the candy I'd stashed throughout my room, my People binges would leave me feeling sick to my stomach and rotten inside.I was doing a pretty good job repressing this, my brief and shameful fascination with serial killers, until last week, when I read Robert Graysmith's Zodiac Unmasked. I had just seen David Fincher's scrupulous movie about the Zodiac killer who terrorized Northern California in the early 70s. My engagement with this movie was (I thought) deep, thoughtful, moral... not at all voyeuristic or creepy or weird. Then on the way home I had to go and buy Graysmith's book, one of the sources for the movie. I read 450 pages in just over 24 hours.I cannot with any confidence say that this is not the worst book I've ever read. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, Robert Graysmith's sequel to his bestselling Zodiac is itself a crime-scene: missing transitions, felony-grade solecisms, metaphors even more overwrought than this one, interspersed with anxious self-congratulation. It is the anti-In Cold Blood. Which makes it all the more mysterious that I couldn't put it down.One explanation is that Graysmith essentially turns the killings into a dime detective novel, gaming the material for suspense.Another possible explanation lies in all the ways the Zodiac killings do not resemble detective novels. The clues do not line up to point in a single direction (despite Graysmith's best efforts). Every pattern is broken. The puzzle-solving part of the mind, frustrated, cannot let go of the crime, even if the moral sense longs to. Thus we run over the facts again and again, hoping that this time, they will yield some proof and we can relax again.The brilliance of Fincher's movie is that it dramatizes this compulsion onscreen. Jake Gyllenhaal, as cartoonist-cum-gumshoe Graysmith, offers an objective portrait of our corrosive fascination with violence. In the grip of his obsession, he resembles a ten-year old (which may explain why Graysmith writes like one). In the book, by contrast, the real Graysmith effaces himself; we are left to feel the sickly fascination ourselves. Maybe this is the more honest approach. Still, I prefer the clinical lens to the pornographic one. Fincher himself, in a couple of early scenes (as in much of his earlier work), stoops to aestheticism. But if a distressingly well-crafted murder scene lowers a veil between the audience and the victim, what can we say about a sentence like "Only the most extreme adversity could prevent this prophet of death from gloating over the proliferation of his obscene word?"Ultimately, the movie Zodiac felt more like an adaptation of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song than of Graysmith's Zodiac writings. Like Mailer, Fincher is interested in murder as a window into human nature. And like Mailer, Fincher is as interested in the traumatized bystanders as he is in his killer. It may not be easy, watching Zodiac or reading The Executioner's Song, to get over the creepy feeling of being compelled by the suffering of others. But at least these made me think about that feeling. Zodiac Unmasked just let me feel it.
After Sakincali Piyade I embarked on my Chicago trip and returned to The Fortress of Solitude, which I finished during the journey. Next was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which I had been meaning to read for a long time. The release of Capote with Phillip Seymour Hoffman rekindled my desire to read In Cold Blood, as I did not want to see the movie prior to reading the book. So, I dove into the gruesome story of the Clutter family murder in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. Capote divided In Cold Blood to three sections and created two parallel storylines, both of which make his narrative very fluid, factual and captivating. Given that in our time we have been witnesses to more outbursts of seemingly aimless violence than previous generations (Red Lake High School, Columbine), In Cold Blood does not come across as shocking as it might have when the Clutter murders took place and when the book was published in 1965. The unfolding events also show that the Clutters were not murdered by a random psychopath, rather by two ex-cons, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who were motivated to rob the estate. The murders described in In Cold Blood may not surprise the modern reader but Capote's masterful chronicling of the events and extensive research that leads to the psyche of the Clutters, Perry Smith, Dick Hickock, investigator Alvin Dewey and the characters surrounding the murder arouses a sense of real familiarity with the events and leaves the reader wondering why the world works the way it does. I found myself wondering why the outstanding citizens, as exemplified in Herb Clutter's honesty and dedication to society and Nancy Clutter's impeccable record as a student and as a role model to all the young girls of Holcomb, always seem to be victim to society's ills. I also thought about delusional and broken men such as Hickock and Smith: two men who had troubled childhoods, had been in and out of jail, tried to - and succeeded at times - to make an honest living, but always relapsed and turned to wicked means, the most disturbing of which resulted in the Clutter murder. I enjoyed In Cold Blood immensely, not because the story is particularly interesting or fresh, but because of the insightful details that Capote presents and the issues it brings up with regards to society and life.After In Cold Blood I read nothing but The Economist and other news outlets for two months. I really enjoy reading The Economist and it is my favorite news publication, but two months of not reading any literature made me sad. When I last visited my friend John he asked me what I was reading and I told him nothing at the moment, implying that I was looking for a book that would drag me back to the wonderful world of literature. His suggestion was Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. Since I was so impressed by The Fortress of Solitude, another recommendation from John, I started the novel right away and, as had happened with Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, could not put the book down, even at the expense of sleep. Lionel Essrog is the main character of Motherless Brooklyn and suffers from Tourette's syndrome (that's when you cannot control what your saying and your mouth/brain spurts out profanities or meaningless words at random, mostly when you are under stress/strain). The title works magnificently to describe Lionel and his three friends from St. Vincent's Orphanage in Brooklyn: Tony, Danny and Gilbert. The motley four work for Frank Minna, a shady small time mobster whose murder at the outset of the novel sets off the chain of events. The demise of Minna is dramatic for each individual as he was more than an employer to them: a father figure to Lionel and Gilbert, a role-model/rival for Tony and a comforting personage for Danny. Immediately after Minna's murder Lionel and Tony get on the case to find the killers, but it soon appears that whereas Lionel is sincere in his desire to find the suspects, Tony has other motives. Lethem takes you through a fast two days through Lionel's eyes, prompting Tourette's in you, embedding tics in your mind and causing you to read compulsively to reach a resolution. The mystery is intricate yet Lethem drops hints all along for the careful reader to decipher the plot. But if you get carried away with Lionel's Tourette's (as I did) chances are that you will be as oblivious, yet simultaneously, surprisingly and equally alert, to everything that unfolds. The ending will, nevertheless, put a smile on your face.If Motherless Brooklyn put a smile on my face in the end, Anneannem (My Grandmother) by Fethiye Cetin did the exact opposite. A good balance I might add. Lethem had me in 5th gear by the time I finished Motherless Brooklyn and I picked up Anneannem, which my friend Ela had brought me from Turkey and urged me to read, for a light read. The memoirs that Cetin relates are a mere 116 pages and I figured it would be a good transitional book between Lethem to Dostoyevsky. I started reading Anneannem on Sunday morning and Cetin's style, as well as the romantic light under which she presented her story, captivated me. I took a break a quarter of the way through and went outside to enjoy the day. I called one of my grandmas on my way to the movie theater, just to hear her voice and rejoice in her presence. When I went to bed at night I picked up Anneannem and it kept me up until 3, crying, thinking and feeling emotions that were left alone for a long time. Cetin's grandmother was an Armenian separated from her family during the Turkish deportation of Armenians in World War I. She was brought up by a Turkish family in Maden, Elazig in Eastern Turkey. She and the seven other girls that were separated from their families at the same time managed to preserve their heritage despite being converted to Islam and marrying Turks. Cetin grew up in her grandmother's house, when, after her father's unexpected and early death, her family moved in with the grandparents. It was, however, not until very late that Cetin learned about her grandmother's past and, in the process, became one of her sole confidantes regarding the hardships she lived through. As Cetin relates her grandmother's story, she also tells the reader of her own frustrations, embarrassment and disillusionment with the official Turkish line regarding the Armenian deportation. Horanus Gadarian's story is heart wrenching, it makes one wonder how people can cause such pain on their neighbors, their fellow countrymen or, simply, to each other. Horanus's wisdom and love for not only her family but towards all who sought her company is awe-inspiring. Cetin manages to trace Horanus's family in the United States and tells the story of a very touching reunion after her grandmother's death. Anneannem is a captivating little book that in the space of a 116 pages tickled my own pleasant memories and admiration of my grandparents, had me thinking about the cruelties that humans suffer in each others' hands and the beautiful Armenian culture that Turkish officials did their best to destroy. Finally, Anneannem impressed me for its candid and lovely storyline. Unfortunately, Anneannem too is only available in Turkish.I have just begun my first Russian novel, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Wish me luck, I probably won't be writing again for a while, especially because I intend to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest after this one. Of course, all of this planning is subject to change on impulse. Good luck and good reads everyone, cheers!(So, that's all from Emre for a little while. Thanks, Emre! -- Max)Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5Emre's previous reading journal
In the meantime I received William Boynton's The New New Journalism from my old roommate Ayse and started reading it. Boynton's carefully structured questions provide for a similar flow for each author he interviews, thus highlighting the differences in style, discipline, and inspiration in each author. The New New Journalism is a great look into the minds of some amazing authors of our time, providing interesting information as to how they pick their topics, as well as quirky information about how they go about getting their work done. Another great side of Boynton's book is that it ties the New Journalists of Tom Wolfe to today, and provides a great reading list. I already added Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Coyotes by Ted Conover, There are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz and American Ground by William Langewiesche to my already long reading list. Another advantage is that you can pick up the book and read about any author included for a brief period and then rest the book a little.I wanted to take a break from The New New Journalism and turned to The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, which had been sitting on my shelf since my birthday. Nancy, who presented me with the novel, was upset that the hard cover edition she bought had an unremoveable Oprah's Book Club sticker on it, which I promised to cover with an It was in Nancy's Book Club First sticker, but I did not get around to that yet. Regardless, The Corrections blew my mind. The main reasons I wanted to read the novel were the discussions on The Millions and the fact that almost everyone I know in my age group had laid hands on it fairly recently. So, I turned to it on a hot sticky New York evening, cranked my AC and sat in my room all night reading. The next day was a Friday, and I was so stuck to the story that all I could do at work was sit at my desk and keep reading, pretty much non-stop, until I finished the novel on Sunday night. At about 4 AM on Monday morning, I emailed my boss and let her know that I would not be able to attend work because of the severe depression that The Corrections caused in me. Here is why: I loved the novel and Franzen's style, and although Enid comes across as a very stereotypical bickering mother, and Alfred's dementia - with it's stark contrast to his past - is a common disease in our times, and Chip is readily accessible, lovable, and charismatic, and Denise is righteously immoral in her actions, and Gary is a self-pitying bastard, and that every piece of the story seems banal when looked at from this perspective, the mere reality of The Corrections moved me deeply. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Franzen organized the book and related the individual stories of each character, and how, that, in the very end, reaches a lukewarm resolve. Finishing The Corrections I felt as if I should be happy about the outcome, but the price that was paid, the thought that this story could take place in my life, and that some of the characters - though maybe through different relations - might exist around me caused an inexplicable sadness. All the sobbing aside, I discovered soon upon finishing The Corrections that discussing the cast of a probable Hollywood movie based on the novel makes for a great conversation. I remember reading with great interest when the discussion took place on The Millions and at this point the only person I can contribute to the fray is Sam Rockwell as Chip. That said, The Corrections is probably better off left alone by Hollywood, and a wonderful read for all those who want to glimpse into a bit of Americana, as well as a bit of themselves.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
The book bloggers are all waiting for the announcement of the National Book Award winner, and I, too, have to wonder what will happen once we know the recipient of the award in the fiction category. These women have gotten a lot of grief from folks who think they shouldn't be there. What I'm wondering is will the NY Times and all the rest end their crusade and graciously accept the winner, or will the winner, whoever she may be, have to bear more criticism on her own. We shall see. In the meantime I have dug up some old links that are, unlike all this NBA stuff, not very timely, but they are good, so I wanted to share them with you:First, take a look at Jonathan Yardley's fantastic discussion of the American novels that are, to his mind, the best of the last 125 years. He calls it "State of the Art."The discussion among my fellow book bloggers about the Paris Reviews magnificent decision to put all of their interviews online has got me thinking about the recently departed George Plimpton, which is why I was happy to find this wonderful interview that he conducted with Truman Capote about In Cold BloodFinally, there are two types of people in this world... well, not really, but in this post from earlier this year, Michael at 2Blowhards explains the difference between movie people and book people and a lively discussion follows.Well, that's enough from the old bookmarks file. Expect more timely news sometime soon.
Some bloggers mentioned Penguin UK's "goodbooking" campaign last spring when it was first announced, but now that it's been up and running for a while, I wanted to revisit it. Oh... my... God. Apparently it's not possible to get people interested in reading unless you provide them with a Maxim magazine-style melange of bold graphic design, a dumbed-down system for rating books, and busty models handing out cheques for a thousand pounds. Somehow the idea that an unsuspecting guy will be presented a large sum of money this month by a hired model for reading Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country? doesn't quite compute. Setting aside the models for a moment, have a look at the bizarre rating system that they have concocted to get people interested in reading their books. So, if I'm reading this right, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood delivers three doses of death, two of crime, and one each of fast cars, greed, and politics. But don't worry everybody, this isn't just a ridiculous marketing ploy, it has been scientifically proven that "women are attracted to men who read books." (P.S. it's ok if you're gay.)Oh, those crazy Brits... anyway, on to more serious matters. Earlier this week, several book bloggers (myself included) posted about books that could help people digest/deal with/move on from Tuesday's election. Now, an Ask Metafilter thread, inspired by book bloggers, asks, "Can books make a difference?"Speaking of important books, here's a batch of lists that cover some different takes on what makes up the canon of great literature.I suppose everyone has noticed the new look for The Millions. Pretty snazzy, eh?