Infinite Jest

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Another Mask: On Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

I started Jhumpa Lahiri’s new memoir, In Other Words, expecting to find a story about the joys and struggles of learning Italian as an adult, and as a writer. I thought there might also be elements of travelogue, because I knew Lahiri had moved to Rome to master the language. But Lahiri did not write the book I was expecting -- and which I think many other readers might be primed for. Instead, she has written an elegant, if somewhat oblique, memoir about creative crisis. Let me be clear: Lahiri never uses the word "crisis" in her memoir, and I don’t mean to invoke it in an overly dramatic way, or to imply that Lahiri is in the midst of any kind of personal turmoil. I mean crisis in the sense of a turning point, and this book seems most animated by questions of change -- specifically, Lahiri’s desire to “take another direction” in her fiction. Immersing herself in Italian for three years was her way of forcing herself to change her relationship to language and storytelling. And it was a dramatic immersion: while living in Rome, she did not speak, write, or read in English. Additionally, she stopped reading in English for six months before her departure. It’s this last deprivation that struck me as most radical. To live in an English-speaking country and not partake of its literary offerings seems difficult for anyone, let alone a writer. Lahiri uses religious language to describe this choice: From now on, I pledge only to read in Italian. It seems right, to detach myself from my principal language. I consider it an official renunciation. I’m about to become a linguistic pilgrim to Rome. I believe I have to leave behind something familiar, essential. Suddenly none of my books are useful anymore. They seem like ordinary objects. The anchor of my creative life disappears, the stars that guided me recede. The above excerpt is translated from Italian, the language that Lahiri has been writing in for the past three years. Her memoir was first published in Italy, last year, and is now being released in the U.S. in a dual-language format, with the English translation by Ann Goldstein (best known for her translation of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels). Initially, Lahiri thought that she might translate her own work, but after translating one of her lectures from Italian, she found that her English was too strong, and that it was too tempting to rewrite everything. In her author’s note, Lahiri explains that she wanted the translation to “render my Italian honestly, without smoothing out its rough edges, without neutralizing its oddness, without manipulating its character.” The problem with Lahiri’s Italian is not that it is odd; instead it is sometimes smooth to the point of vagueness. In English, she is a wonderfully precise writer, but in Italian that precision is gone and her sentences can feel watered down. When she’s getting into complicated issues of identity and exile, I often wished she could switch to English. At the same time, her Italian has a simplicity that is very appealing -- and revealing. With so many linguistic limitations, Lahiri has nowhere to hide. When she first moves to Rome, she was compelled to write a diary in Italian, even though her written Italian was still rudimentary: I write in terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes. Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone. I grope my way, like a child, like a semiliterate...I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it’s the most genuine, vulnerable part of me. Throughout In Other Words, Lahiri works toward this “genuine, vulnerable” state. One reason she’s attracted to Italian, and to the project of learning a new language, is that it makes her feel childlike, and it makes writing feel “secret” and special. Another reason she’s attracted to Italian is that it’s a language that she chose for herself. Lahiri grew up learning two languages, Bengali and English. At home, she spoke Bengali to please her parents, who also spoke English but wished to preserve their native tongue. At school, she excelled in English to please her teachers. The two languages rarely overlapped, and when they did, they clashed. Although her parents spoke English well, their accents were strong, and Lahiri found herself speaking for them in public; at school, her ability to speak Bengali went unnoticed and unquestioned -- until her parents called at a friend’s house, and her private life was revealed. When she finally encountered Italian, the language represented a freedom from duty: I had to joust between those two languages until, at around the age of twenty-five, I discovered Italian. There was no need to learn the language. No family, cultural, social pressure. No necessity. Learning Italian also represents a kind of freedom for Lahiri in terms of her writing career. She became famous when her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize. The award changed her life, but it also changed her relationship to her creative process: Since then I’ve been considered a successful author, so I’ve stopped feeling like an unknown, almost anonymous apprentice. All my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible, inaccessible. But a year after my first book was published, I lost my anonymity. Reading those lines, I found myself thinking of the recent film The End of the Tour, which I reviewed favorably for this site, in part because I thought it did such a good job of discussing literary fame. That movie addresses the impending worldwide renown of David Foster Wallace, who, having just spent several weeks playing the part of Famous Author during his book tour for Infinite Jest, has to figure out how to get back to the oblivious, giddy part of himself that loves to make up stuff. The drama (and comedy) is in watching him try to escape himself while a reporter sticks a microphone in his face. Lahiri’s memoir is also haunted by the dream of escape, especially in the two short pieces of fiction that she includes as stand-alone chapters. They are by far the most emotionally resonant pieces of writing in the book, which goes to show how well the mask of fiction works for her. Lahiri says that writing in Italian is another mask for her, and it’s interesting to note how her stories in Italian differ from her stories in English. With only two very short fictions it’s hard to draw conclusions, but I think it’s fair to say that they are much more dreamlike than her previous work. In a brief passage in which Lahiri analyzes the autobiographical elements of her past stories and novels, she says that writing in Italian has allowed her to “move toward abstraction:” The places are undefined, the characters are so far nameless, without a particular cultural identity. The result, I think, is writing that is freed in certain ways from the concrete world. I now construct a less specific setting...Writing in Italian, I feel that my feet are no longer on the ground. For Lahiri, leaving the concrete world means leaving behind her parents’ experience, and the world they lived in. It’s a world she says she has tried to reconstruct in her fiction as a way of bridging the divide between India and America, the past and the present. She admits that it took her “a long time to accept that my writing did not have to assume that responsibility.” As a reader, I’ve always felt that sense of responsibility lurking in her stories, though I wouldn’t say it’s been detrimental. It may be what gives her prose its clarity and depth. Still, it’s refreshing to hear that Lahiri felt the need to break free. She describes In Other Words as “the first book I’ve written as an adult, but also, from the linguistic point of view, as a child.” That’s probably the best description of this book that anyone can give; it captures its in-between, searching qualities, and the way that it hints at new work to come.

Exclusive: New Fan-Designed Cover of 20th Anniversary Edition of ‘Infinite Jest’ Plus a Brief Interview with Michael Pietsch

February 23rd marks the 20th anniversary of the original publication of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and on that date, his publisher Little, Brown is putting out a new edition of the now classic novel with a new introduction by Tom Bissell. To recognize, as Little, Brown put it, " the deep way that so many readers have connected with the book over the last twenty years," the publisher held a contest allowing fans to submit their designs for the new cover. The winner, we can reveal, is Ohio-based designer Joe Walsh, who has dispensed with the sky imagery that has adorned all prior U.S. editions of Infinite Jest. Walsh's cover is spare and employs symbolic imagery with a playful undertone. After seeing the cover, we reached out to Michael Pietsch, CEO of Little, Brown parent Hachette Book Group, and David Foster Wallace's editor, to get his thoughts. The Millions: Beyond the commercial considerations, why is now the right moment to issue a new edition of Infinite Jest and what does the book have to say to today's readers? Michael Pietsch: I'm astonished that ten years have passed since our 10th anniversary edition with a foreword by Dave Eggers. It’s the publisher’s job to find ways to keep books fresh, and an anniversary like this seemed an unmissable occasion to highlight how alive the book still is. Infinite Jest is embraced and discussed by ever larger numbers of readers with each passing year. This new edition is a celebration of that vitality and an invitation to those who haven’t yet turned the first page. The book’s main ideas—that too much easy pleasure may poison the soul, that we’re awash in an ocean of pain, and that truly knowing another person is the hardest and most worthwhile work in the world—are truer now than they’ve ever been. Tom Bissell’s brilliant new Foreword calls attention to this far better than I can. TM: Why did Little, Brown decide to go with a fan-designed cover and what would David have made of that decision? MP: The internet has made it possible to see the massive amount of creative response readers have to Infinite Jest. I’d seen a lot of art connected to the book online, and it seemed that allowing readers who have loved it to submit cover designs for the anniversary edition was a way of honoring and highlighting all that creativity. I never presume to comment on what David would have made of this or any other aspect of our work. The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust wholeheartedly supported the idea of inviting fans to submit cover art. TM: What did David think of the covers and packaging of his books? MP: David sometimes made suggestions for cover art. For Infinite Jest he proposed using a photo of a giant modern sculpture made of industrial trash—an interesting idea, but one that our creative director felt was too subtle and detailed to work as a cover image. The cover image for the paperback of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one he suggested, and that I’ve always loved.

The Voice Trap: On the Perils of Authorial Parochialism

In 1998, David Foster Wallace published an essay titled “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment”[1] in Premiere magazine using not one but two pseudonyms. Though he was apparently outted against his will as its sole author, it seems strange to imagine he thought he could pull off the deception. Here’s the New York Daily News on the story: “The man of many words Bandana-wearing writer David Foster Wallace didn't appreciate our scoop last week that he was the secret author of an article in the new Premiere about the porn business. It wasn't that hard to unmask Foster…since the piece was littered with the same long-winded footnotes…used in his much-praised 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest. Even with such obvious clues, Foster doesn't think it was his writing style that exposed him, but rather that someone at Premiere ratted him out.” I didn’t read the Premiere article upon its release, but I don’t think I would have needed a rat to tell me who wrote it. As with most members of the relatively tiny literary community, had I been paying any attention I think it would have been pretty obvious. His voice is just that distinctive. It’s the same with any number of oft-parroted literary figures: Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Lorrie Moore, Cormac McCarthy. It works for other art forms too, of course. Show me a photo by Robert Mapplethorpe or Diane Arbus, an interminable camera movement by Bela Tarr, an Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” sequence, play me a track from an AC/DC album, and I’ll know, I’ll know, I’ll know without even having to think about it. Some people just have Voice. Among this generation of writers, there could be no Voice more recognizable and imitated than that of George Saunders. And with good reason, too. A style that singular, brilliant, and incredibly New Yorker-friendly is rarer than a lottery win. Like everyone, I was wild about Saunders’s first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. And, like everyone, I was absolutely crazy about his second collection, Pastoralia. When his third, In Persuasion Nation, was released in 2007, I bought it in hardback and gobbled it up just as eagerly as the first two, this time experiencing a just a hint of disappointment. Something seemed off, or -- more to the point -- not off enough. I liked the new stories, sure, but they filled me with an unsettling sense of familiarity. They just seemed so...well, so similar to his others. I closed the book, slid it into its place on the shelf, and said to myself, Enough Saunders. I get it. I get the funny, invented brand names and phony trademarks, the quirky intersection of erudition and stupidity on display in his characters inner (and outer) monologues. I get his “deadpan science fiction gloss,” as The New York Times labeled it. I just get it. However much I admired his work, it had started to seem like a magic trick I’d seen a hundred times. And the magic was wearing off. I’ve been faithful in my Saunders hiatus since then. That is until recently, when, as part of a story exchange with a friend -- picture a lazier version of a book club -- I agreed to read and discuss “Victory Lap,” from the much-lauded 2013 collection Tenth of December, first published, of course, in The New Yorker. I wasn’t particularly excited about the selection, but I figured at the very worst reading a new Saunders story would essentially be like rereading one of his old ones. I wanted to be wrong. But you know what? That’s exactly what it was like. Here’s a passage, in case you haven’t read Saunders in a while. We’re in the mind of a 14-year-old boy here: Hey, today was Tuesday, a Major Treat day. The five (5) new Work Points for placing the geode, plus his existing two (2) Work Points, totalled seven (7) Work Points, which, added to his eight (8) accrued Usual Chore Points, made fifteen (15) Total Treat Points, which could garner him a Major Treat (for example, two handfuls of yogurt-covered raisins), plus twenty free-choice TV minutes, although the particular show would have to be negotiated with Dad at time of cash-in. One thing you will not be watching, Scout, is ‘America’s Most Outspoken Dirt Bikers.’ Classic Saunders, right? There’s something undeniably great about having Voice like that, a voice you can’t escape, like Tom Waits. Or Cher. And, career-wise, the upside must be huge. Recognition. The feeling of attachment that fans have to artistic output they feel they know because it shares an essential sameness with the work that came before. And it’s good, too. I mean, fundamentally, Saunders is a terrific writer, a great observer, a clever entertainer. But that sameness -- it’s there, and it’s nagging. There’s a downside to that much voice. An unsurprisingness. A feeling of sloggy repetition and even self-parody. At what point, after all, does Voice become a slump? Reading “Victory Lap,” I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if Saunders did something completely different for his next book. Wouldn’t it be interesting if he wrote a historical novel or a techno-thriller, or even if he just played it straight and wrote about real feelings and people in a way that wasn’t couched in such predictable peculiarity, in a way that wasn’t so obviously him? Wouldn’t it be exciting to see him let down those droves of hard-won fans by swerving off in a completely unexpected direction? It’s a lot to ask, I realize. And he certainly doesn’t need to change. In fact, I might be the only one calling for it, given the MacArthur Fellowship he’s been awarded and the spot he once landed on TIME's list of the 100 “most influential people in the world.” Not to mention that I’m understating things dramatically by saying that the coverage of Tenth of December was ubiquitous and almost rabidly positive. Lest I be misunderstood, I completely appreciate everyone’s excitement over his work. I understand that he’s a Great Writer, and, according to everyone who has met him, an inspiring teacher and a hell of a nice guy. Still, it would be a pleasure to see him take a risk. Just as I would have loved a chance to see what David Foster Wallace might have come up with deprived of his usual toolbox of idiosyncratic tricks and techniques. Raymond Carver successfully navigated one of these big authorial shifts, as D.T. Max reported in his 1998 New York Times piece, “The Carver Chronicles,” writing: There is an evident gap between the early style of ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,’ Carver's first two major collections, and his later work in ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Where I'm Calling From.’ In subject matter, the stories share a great deal...But the early collections, which [Gordon] Lish edited, are stripped to the bone. They are minimalist in style with an almost abstract feel...The later two collections are fuller, touched by optimism, even sentimentality. The toolbox of which Carver famously deprived himself for his final collections was the often-oppressive editorial intervention of Gordon Lish, who arguably sapped the fullness from Carver’s early stories favoring a style much sparer than the author himself intended. After something of a battle between them, Carver wrested (or Lish ceded) control of his work, and the result is that his last collection swells where his early stories flatten. Again from D.T. Max at The Times: “Once Carver ended his professional relationship with Lish, he never looked back. He didn't need to. ‘Cathedral’ was his most celebrated work yet.” J.K. Rowling is another author who appears to have managed an enormous and worthy transition in her career and authorial voice, following up the insane success of the Harry Potter series with The Casual Vacancy, a full-on adult novel in a completely different voice, and a bestseller despite mixed reviews. For her next book, she zagged yet again, releasing a crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling. Interesting to note that Rowling chose to publish the latter pseudonymously, as Robert Galbraith. It’s not unusual for writers to use pen names when dabbling in genres other than the ones that clinched their fame, presumably for the same reason that writers fall into a reliance on certain “voices” or styles to begin with -- because the last thing writers want is to let down their fickle audiences. And what most readers want is more of the same. To be fair, this, too, is understandable. Nicholson Baker’s fiction always reads like Nicholson Baker, and I love reading his books. Same for Raymond Chandler, Anton Chekhov, E.E. Cummings, Marcel Proust, and a slew of other writers with incredible and incredibly-reliable voices. That said, I’d love to see what Proust might have done in another voice, in, say, science fiction or with the story of a pair of street urchins. Or how Chandler might have written differently to tell the story of a great romance, stretching beyond his comfort zone where something entirely fresh might be born. Maybe early writerly instruction is partly to blame for all this authorial parochialism. Aren’t we all told from the beginning that we must “find our voices?” What no one ever says is that once you wander into that swamp, you might do well to toil your way out of it again. It’s rare that you hear anyone praise authors for avoiding a reliance on a particular voice to begin with, as writers like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Richard Yates did, or as an author like Jennifer Egan continues to do. The careers of musicians might be instructive, the way they can change from one album to the next, as Madonna has famously done in all her various manifestations. Singer Joshua Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) abandoned his solo recording career as J. Tillman and his years of success with the indie-folkster band Fleet Foxes to try something completely different, an incarnation Stereogum dubbed “his shamanic lounge-lizard Father John Misty guise.” The result has been an incredible couple of albums and what will undoubtedly go down as the most interesting and creative period of his career. Bob Dylan should perhaps be everyone’s idol on this score. I often think about the gamble he took by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Everything went haywire afterwards, and he must have questioned everything. But that act did more than merely change his career, it changed culture. It’s no wonder that some artists aren’t inclined to veer into unknown territory, but the courageous ones prove that Voice is never more powerful than the moment an artist forsakes it. [1] The piece was later republished as “Big Red Son” in his collection Consider the Lobster. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Unwritten Profile: On The End Of The Tour

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to The End of the Tour, the new film about a five-day interview between the writer David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, is that I finally started reading Wallace again. I hadn’t read him since his death in 2008, which hit harder than I expected, considering I had never read his greatest work, Infinite Jest. I feel the need to confess this up front, because The End of the Tour revolves around Infinite Jest; it’s the book that Wallace is promoting on his tour, it’s the book that Lipsky reveres with a mixtures of envy and gratitude, and it’s the book that Jason Segal, the actor who plays David Foster Wallace, read in solitude in a cabin in “the California boonies” in order to prepare for the role. My excuse for never having read Infinite Jest is that I was in college when it was first published, too busy making my way through classic mammoth novels to have time for contemporary ones. And then, by the time I graduated from college, Wallace’s books, especially Infinite Jest, had been so thoroughly colonized by ardent fans and critics that it no longer seemed like much fun to read Wallace. In other words, he got canonized. But before he was famous—or maybe, it’s better to say, before I knew he was famous—there was a two-year period when Wallace seemed to speak only to me via my parent’s magazine subscriptions and the public library. No one I knew read Wallace, my older sister didn’t read him, and my parents, astonishingly, didn’t even like him—they thought his prose was too self-conscious. So, he was mine. My secret portal to a new way of thinking and writing about the world, a way of thinking and writing that was infected by cable television, by email, and by the then-nascent internet, “the Web”. Wallace was the future. It made sense that my baby boomer parents couldn’t receive the message and that no one in my boondock town had heard of him. In retrospect, my proprietary feelings toward Wallace make me laugh because it doesn’t take a great critical mind to notice that, hey, this guy can really write! It’s also funny because Wallace is one of those writers that everyone feels connected to in a secret, special way. That’s one definition of literary genius, that ability to get into people’s head, to make them believe that they aren’t even reading, that they’re somehow thinking the sentences. Lipsky describes Wallace’s literary gift as “casual and gigantic; he’d captured everybody’s brain voice.” The End of the Tour is based on Lipsky’s 2010 Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a book that is basically a transcript of Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace at the end of his 1996 Infinite Jest book tour. I read it after watching The End of the Tour, curious to see how closely the film followed it, and was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all the dialogue was taken from the book. That said, the book is subtler than the movie (as books generally are), shaggier, funnier, less plot-driven, and less manipulative. Still, I loved the movie. It brought me straight back to my late teens, and to the beginning of certain literary dreams. It also brought me back to the late nineties, which is another way of saying that there is no way I can be even remotely objective about a film that begins with strains of R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies”, a song so deeply stored in my memory banks that it inevitably dislodges the emotion-soaked memories surrounding it. If End of the Tour is actually a good movie, and not just a nostalgia trip for thirtysomethings like me, it’s good because it’s a road movie, and the cracked-open car windows let air and views of the open road into scenes that might otherwise be too cramped and talky. Because of bad weather, Lipsky and Wallace’s flights are cancelled, and they must drive the last leg of Wallace’s book tour. It’s an inconvenience that ends up being fortuitous for Lipsky, who observes that the interview only worked because of “the Henry Ford road trip equation: two men will become comfortable if they have to drive any distance in excess of 40 miles.” There’s something dreamy about a car trip, with the scenery whooshing by, with music playing, cigarettes burning (it’s the nineties, remember). Lipsky allows himself to get wistful in his introduction to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: When I think of this trip, I see David and me in the front seat of the car. It’s nighttime. It smells like chewing tobacco, soda, and smoke. The window is letting in a leak of cold air. R.E.M. is playing. The wheels are making their slightly sleepy sound of tape being stripped cleanly and endlessly of a long wall. On the other hand, we seem not to be moving at all, and the conversation is the best one I’ve ever had. It seems doubtful that this was one of Wallace’s all-time favorite conversations. Lipsky interviews him at the end of a hugely successful book tour, a moment that Lipsky imagines as joyful and triumphant. But Wallace is fretful and self-conscious. He’s between projects, rarely a comfortable place for a writer, and he’s made even more uncomfortable by his growing awareness of his fame. He knows he needs to protect himself against this new genius-writer persona, otherwise he’ll lose the almost childish sense of privacy it took to write Infinite Jest. At the same time, if there’s a public persona happening, he wants a hand in shaping it. Wallace’s simplest defense is to deny that he is famous, or that he even cares about fame, one that Lipsky tries to tear down throughout his interview. He wants Wallace to cop to his ambition, both because (presumably) he wants some good quotes for his profile, but also because Lipsky is a novelist, too. He can’t help being curious about, and more than a little jealous of Wallace’s success. But instead of getting satisfying descriptions of the pleasures of literary fame, Lipksy gets quotes like this (excerpted from Lipsky’s book, not the screenplay): I follow the crap. But I struggle much harder against the temptation to follow the crap. And I follow it from more of a distance—and yeah, I have some sort of idea of it. But have some compassion. I mean, I’ve already told you that, like, I gotta be very careful about how much of this stuff I take inside. Because I go home, and I spend a month getting this manuscript ready [his 1997 essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]. And then I got to start working on something else. And the realer this shit is to me, and the more I think about it—and, of course, you’re holding the tape recorder so that I will end up reading what I’ve said in this article. That will feed the self-consciousness loop. The irony is that Lipsky never ended up writing the piece that Wallace was so worried about reading. According to Lipsky, his editor changed his mind. This was a relief: “I tried to write, and kept imagining David reading it, and seeing through it, through me, and spotting some questionable stuff on the X-ray.” It seems important to me that Lipsky never wrote the profile, although the film doesn’t bother to mention it. If Lipsky had written the profile, he would have been forced to look at that “questionable stuff on the X-ray” and make a diagnosis. He probably would have had to cut all the Lipsky out of the interview, all the projections, all the posturing, all the angst, and figure out what story he wanted to tell about Wallace. But Lipsky couldn’t bring himself to do that, and so the material remains raw and unfiltered. It’s not clear what Lipsky is looking for when he presses Wallace, again and again, for a detailed report of what is feels like to be—what? Famous? Critically beloved? Quasi-canonized? A genius? The writer of Infinite Jest? The film tends to simplify the dynamic between the two men, with points of jealous conflict that don’t appear in Lipsky’s book. Jealousy is certainly an ingredient in Lipsky’s interview questions (and one he acknowledges in his preface) but the even simpler truth is that Lipsky was a young reporter without a lot of experience. Wallace was the first writer he ever interviewed. Jason Segal is already getting a lot of praise for his convincing portrayal of Wallace, but for me, Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation of David Lipsky was more revealing. His performance reminded me of the thrill of reading Wallace as a teenager, of the way, when you finished his essays and stories, you felt smarter, more analytical, more curious, more observant. At the very least, you’d learned a new word or two. And you wanted to use those words in a sentence, immediately! In The End of Tour, you see Lipsky imitating Wallace without even meaning to, picking up his pronunciation of certain words, his mannerisms, his jokes, and even trying his chewing tobacco (he spits it out immediately). There’s a great moment when Lipsky and Wallace are smoking cigarettes in the car with two of Wallace’s friends. The windows are cracked to let the smoke out but cold air is whooshing in, causing Lipsky to announce, gleefully, “we’re on a hypothermia smoking tour!” One of Wallace’s friends comments that it “sounds like something Dave would say”. She says it without any particular malice; it’s as if this has happened before, with Dave’s new friends. I recognized myself in that scene, and I recognized the generation of writers who continue to live and wrestle with his legacy.

David Foster Wallace In Brief

"Wallace’s fiction contains enormous cruelty... But it is also a deeply moral body of work. Its difficulties, and many of its cruelties, exist for specific reasons. Whether Wallace’s fraught projects are successes or failures is up to the individual, but these are judgments that all serious readers should want to make for themselves." Chris Power considers David Foster Wallace's short stories in an essay for The Guardian and argues that after Infinite Jest they just might be the most important work he produced.

Like Father, Like Son: Literary Parentage in Reif Larsen’s ‘I Am Radar’

Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a frustrating narrative wrapped in a beautiful work of art. Parts of it, story-wise, worked wonderfully, but many sections dragged ponderously along, and then the confounding and ill-fitting finale was rushed, as if impatient to be over. But the imagination of the novel­­ –– the lovely images annotating the text, T.S. himself –– is undeniable, as is the talent of its author. But one can always forgive a debut novel its ambition, so it was with much interest that I embarked upon Larsen’s second effort, I Am Radar, a measurably better novel than T.S. Spivet, both for its leanness and its grandness. It’s an epic page-turner filled with small, tender moments of wonder, beginning with its almost archetypally postmodern opening: It was just after midnight in birthing room 4C and Dr. Sherman, the mustached obstetrician presiding over the delivery, was sweating slightly into his cotton underwear, holding out his hands like a beggar, ready to receive the imminent cranium. Without warning, the room plunged into total darkness. The “imminent cranium” belongs to Radar Radmanovic, the center, if not exactly the protagonist, of this tale, and when the lights come back on in the delivery room, Radar comes out a pitch black baby -- was it the electrical event somehow? -- with white parents. It’s 1975 in New Jersey and rumors spread, leading Radar’s mother, Charlene, to find every doctor she can to figure what happened to her son. Soon, the family lands in Norway so that Radar can undergo an experimental procedure involving a machine called a vircator, which can emit a large electromagnetic pulse and somehow rid Radar of his skin abnormality. It works, Radar’s skin lightens until it becomes “a slightly yellowish, flushed cream color,” but it also causes Radar to suffer epileptic seizures. The procedure is overseen by a group of artists/activists/puppeteers called Kirkenesferda, who are, as a group, the real protagonist of I Am Radar. After the first section, we’re launched into various histories surrounding Kirkenesferda. First we learn of the group’s master puppeteer, Miroslav Danilovic and his father, Danilo, both caught in the precursors to the Bosnian War. Miro’s creations seem impossible, puppets with no puppeteer. We get the history of a man named Raksmey Raksmey who, as a baby, was found floating on Cambodia’s Mekong River in a basket. There is also a man in the Congo who is attempting to collect every book in the world. And finally there is Kermin, Radar’s father, who may have inadvertently caused a giant rolling blackout in New Jersey. If this all sounds eerily Pynchonian to you, that’s because it is. Deliberately. Charlene, Radar’s mother, is described reading The Crying of Lot 49, feeling “overcome with what we are able to accomplish with the simple constellation of words.” The phrase “gravity’s rainbow” appears. One sequence features the mysterious Tunguska Event from 1908, when, in the words of one character: There was a huge explosion in Siberia. It blew out two thousand square meters of forest, something like this. Eighty million trees destroyed. Center of explosion was seventy kilometers from Vanavara, but people there, they still feel heat blast all across their skin. The shockwave broke windows, collapsed woodsheds. It blew men right off their horse. It was powerful, so powerful. Stronger than an atom bomb. This perfectly Pynchonian (and perfectly true) historical event was also explored in Thomas Pynchon’s unjustly dismissed masterwork Against the Day, the novel to which I Am Radar is most closely aligned, in my eyes. But Larsen is doing more than simply riffing on one of his favorite author’s themes –– rather, he is riffing on many of his favorite authors' themes. One can, while reading, pick up references to Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Nikolai Gogol (Akaky Akakievich, the protagonist from one of my very favorite short stories, “The Overcoat,” show ups) and you can sense –– in the structure, in the prose, in the language –– the influence of Salman Rushdie, Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Mark Z.Danielewski, and, of course, Pynchon. This is a novel steeped in its own influences. Additionally, within this 653-page tome are fictional books, like, for instance, a book on the history of Kirkenesferda, which the narrator references throughout (replete with excerpts, images, and footnotes), and a novella on part of the life of Raksmey Raksmey. There is also Radar’s book, which, within the novel’s world, he hasn’t written yet. Is I Am Radar the book Radar will write? Well, yes and no. See, on page 621, there is an image taken, a note tells us, from “Radmanovic, R. (2013) I Am Radar, p. 621,” which would suggest that, indeed, the book we’re holding in our hands is this same book. Yet, just a little later, on page 641, another image credit refers to page 705. Radar, we are to assume, wrote his own version that extends beyond the story here and that we won’t get to read. So real books and fake books –– but what’s the point? Why engage in such esoteric literary pastiche? The short answer is that, like Radar and the other sons here, Larsen wants to declare himself. The primary emotional thread of I Am Radar is fathers and sons, of familial legacy and individual identity. Kermin and Radar. Miro and Danilo. Raksmey and his adopted father Jean-Baptiste de Broglie. Each son struggles with becoming their own person while still acknowledging (sometimes begrudgingly) their forebears. They are like their fathers, but they are different. Like father, like son...sort of. Larsen makes a clear connection between these literal fathers and sons and literary fathers and sons. Near the end of the book, as Radar and companions head up the Congo toward a massive secret library created by the man hoping to collect all the world’s books, an almost Biblical passage appears. It lasts nearly two pages, and comes in the form of a speech by Professor Funes, the ambitious collector who also happens to have “perfect and complete memory.” Because he can remember everything in great detail, he’s able to list all of the authors he read throughout his life. Here is a short excerpt: I read Defoe and Asturias and Sterne and Stendhal and Verga and Carducci and Blasco Ibáñez and Hugo and Verne and Balzac and Stendhal and Flaubert and Baudelaire and Sand and Verlaine and Paz and Maupassant and Ibsen and Wordsworth and Austen and Coleridge and Shelley and Keats and Blake and Scott and Carpentier and García Márquez and Puig and Cortázar and García Lorca. And so on, until it more or less moves it way up to “DeLillo and Mailer and Salinger.” This is like a personal version of Genesis or Chronicles with all those endless begats. Larsen, as the finale shows, acknowledges the great authors who came before him, how their influence on him is undeniable, unavoidable, deep –– but that he is still his own writer, one with formidable gifts and looming ambition. If not everything quite works in I Am Radar –– like, e.g., characters’ names sometimes change and are hard to keep track of, which lessens the emotional impact of some of their arcs; and sometimes it’s difficult to tell if we’re reading an omniscient narrator or borrowed information from one of the fictional books or some hybrid of the two –– it’s partly due to Larsen’s maximalist approach. How can any writer sustain perfection in such a large undertaking? It’s nearly impossible to do. Anna Karenina has parts that lag, that underwhelm (most notably Levin’s long diatribes on his serfs), as does Ulysses and The Brothers Karamozov and Infinite Jest. Novels like I Am Radar, which would technically fall under the “historiographic metafiction,” are especially prone to unwieldy excess and inscrutability. Pynchon’s books fall into that same category, and his novels are unquestionably flawed. And here is Larsen, continuing the legacy, in the same vein but in his own way. Like father, like son. Sort of.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2015

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Novel: A Biography 6 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 6 months 3. 3. My Brilliant Friend 4 months 4. 5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 6 months 5. 7. The Strange Library 4 months 6. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 3 months 7. 9. Dept. of Speculation 4 months 8. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 5 months 9. 10. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 3 months 10. - The Buried Giant 1 month   Well, folks, it's happened. The enduring success of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks has pushed the author to a Millions echelon so high that it's never before been reached. That's right: Mitchell is now the only author in site history to reach our hallowed Hall of Fame for three (count 'em!) different works. And with The Bone Clocks joining his past works, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell's latest achievement puts him ahead of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest,The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle), each of whom authored two Hall of Fame titles. Maybe this repeated success will be enough to coax him into a Year in Reading 2015 appearance. (ARE YOU LISTENING, PUBLICISTS?) Joining this month's list thanks to The Bone Clocks's graduation is Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, The Buried Giant. It's a book "about war and memory," wrote Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling in her extremely personal review of the work for this site. "But it is also about love and memory, and you don’t need to have lived through an atrocity to get it." Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that our own Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which is poised to graduate to our Hall of Fame next month, was the recent winner of The Morning News's annual Tournament of Books. (It beat out Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is also on our Top Ten.) The novel, which has earned the praise of George R. R. Martin, took the final match-up by a score of 15-2, which should be decisive enough to persuade all of you who haven't yet bought the book to do so immediately. Join us next month as we graduate three books and open the doors for three newcomers. Will they be among the "Near Misses" below, or will they be something new entirely? Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and The First Bad Man. See Also: Last month's list.

“On Stage as On Paper”

There's just something about David Foster Wallace's writing that makes people want to adapt it. We've written about this phenomenon before - there have been Infinite Jest-inspired radio tributes and music videosseries of illustrations, even a novel-in-legos. Interest in adapting Wallace's work doesn't seem to be slowing, and earlier this month Public Theatre put on an experimental performance of passages of his writing and interviews, A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which both Salon and Hyperallergic reviewed.

To Make Us Feel Less Alone: On ‘The David Foster Wallace Reader’

1. Little, Brown’s The David Foster Wallace Reader is, for my money, a total Gift, an appropriate word considering that Wallace believed that all True Art takes the form of a Gift (see Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for more on that). For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. Judged purely from the outside, the lengthy parade (especially since his death) of critics and writers extolling Wallace’s genius plus the sheer girth of his books could easily sway casual readers away. It’s a shame, and if this Reader accomplishes anything, it would be wonderful if some new Wallace fans emerged from its publication. For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. And this is what I’d like to do now: use this beautiful new volume as a means of dissecting DFW’s entire oeuvre and trying to make some claims about his work as a whole. To wit: STRAIGHTFORWARD, NO-BULLSHIT THESIS FOR WHOLE ARTICLE The David Foster Wallace Reader features excerpts from all three of his novels –– The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King –– as well as a sampling of his short stories – taken from the collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion –– and his essays––taken from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, and Both Flesh and Not –– and finally some examples of teaching materials Wallace used over his many years as a college professor at Emerson, Illinois State, and Pomona College. Viewed together, it’s impossible for me not to draw certain conclusions about the way Wallace wrote and the tools his used to meet his ends, and for me to lay all this out requires that we investigate his work through the lens of his nonfiction, at the center of which I believe we’ll find a key to Wallace’s technique and his philosophical goals, w/r/t literature and its purpose in the universe. The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, David Lynch, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction. Moreover, Wallace's complex mind and neurotic tendencies found their most successful (i.e. accessible and popular) outlet in nonfiction, and that although history may remember his novels and stories as his most important contributions to literature, his nonfiction is more successful in doing what he aimed to do with literature and more representative of who he was as a person and a writer. BRIEF INTERPOLATION VIS A VIS WALLACE'S FICTION I love Wallace's novels and short stories. For my money, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece, one that changed my perception of what fiction can do. "Good Old Neon" and "Forever Overhead" are two of the best short stories I've ever read. And The Pale King, I'll argue a little later, contained a mixture of Wallace's nonfiction style within it, an exciting yet sad revelation considering that it's the last of his fiction. I just wanted to make clear that I am not here to say that his fiction was difficult and therefore unredeemable. Rather, my contention here is that Wallace was not unlike an inventor who creates a new tool to assist in the creation of his latest device but whose tool sells better than his invention. 2. Basically, by the time of the publication of Signifying Rappers in 1989 (a book not excerpted in TDFWR), Wallace had already established certain tropes he would reuse and refine over the rest of his critical/journalistic career. Beyond mere stylistic elements, the main tropes are the way he employs an Ethical Appeal and how he becomes self-referential (a word he uses to describe rap as a whole) in the process; the other is his transparency w/r/t his approach, i.e., his seemingly involuntary tendency to tell you what he's about to do, essay-wise. Clearly these are postmodern techniques, but when you read this prose, it doesn't come across that way. Because without fiction's distancing Narrator, Wallace's voice seems simply honest and guileless and direct. He isn't trying to trick you into buying his authority; he isn't lying about his credentials; he isn't lying at all. He earnestly wants you to Trust Him, and he does so by explaining exactly what he's about to do. He just wants to be a regular guy, and if he has to destroy many conventions of nonfiction in order to do so, then so be it. A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE OF THE WAYS IN WHICH WALLACE'S POSTMODERN TECHNIQUE WORKS DIFFERENTLY IF NOT CONVERSELY IN FICTION AND NONFICTION, WITH A FURTHER ELABORATION ON ETHICAL APPEALS The main point here is that there is nothing implicit in a David Foster Wallace essay. Or, if anything is implicit, it's related to Wallace's approach, not his theses. In essay after essay, Wallace's directness remains. Just take a look at this passage, from early on in "Authority and American Usage": The occasion for this article is Oxford University Press's recent release of Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book that Oxford is marketing aggressively and that it is my assigned function to review. It turns out to be a complicated assignment. In today's US, a typical book review is driven by market logic and implicitly casts the reader in the role of consumer. Rhetorically, its whole project is informed by a question that's too crass ever to mention upfront: "Should you buy this book?" And because Bryan A. Garner's usage dictionary belongs to a particular subgenre of a reference genre that is itself highly specialized and particular, and because at least a dozen major usage guides have been published in the last couple of years and some of them have been quite good indeed, the central unmentionable question here appends the prepositional comparative "...rather than that book?" to the main clause and so entails a discussion of whether and how ADMAU is different from other recent specialty-products of its kind. The "question that's too crass ever to mention upfront" is, of course, stated here upfront. Wallace established the parameters of his essay directly, explaining not just what he's going to do but also how he's going to do it. In fiction, this kind of technique would certainly be considered postmodern. Think for a moment of the opening sentences of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought." Calvino (or, to be accurate, the Narrator) instructs the reader on how to read the book and what to expect from it. An opening like this in a novel jars a reader. We're reminded of the writer when we're not "supposed" to be, a reason many critics are dismissive of much postmodern fiction. But apply this same technique to an essay, and you get what amounts to a super successful Ethical Appeal, a tactic I want to argue is less postmodern and more sincere. Let's get back to "Authority and American Usage." In dissecting "how ADMAU is different from other specialty-products of its kind," Wallace focuses his attention on Garner's rhetoric. Since most usage guides are basically "preaching to the choir," they rarely include Ethical Appeals, which for Wallace "amounts to...a complex and sophisticated 'Trust me,'" which "requires the rhetor to convince us of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience's hopes and fears." What is Wallace doing in the block passage if not establishing those same qualities for himself? It's the regular-guy stance, something Wallace was deliberate about evincing. In David Lipsky's book-length interview with Wallace Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says, "In those essays...there's a certain persona created, that's a little stupider and schmuckier than I am...I treasure my regular-guyness. I've started to think it's my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I'm pretty much like everybody else." Yet Wallace was completely unlike everybody else. He was much, much smarter –– not just what he knew but how he thought –– but his prose glistens with "regular guyness:" his word choice and sentence structure, as well as his approach, which is to state everything upfront and proceed with intellectual caution. In the case of "Authority and American Usage," he does exactly what he's praising Garner for doing. He creates "a certain persona" that allows the reader to trust him: he asks "unmentionable" questions other reviewers would skirt; he establishes his knowledge of the genre (as in, e.g., his long footnote about being a "SNOOT"); and he tackles his subjects under the guise of being honest and direct, even about his biases. One must admit, though, that there's a bit of rhetorical sneakiness going on here. Wallace is brilliant in this way. He knows that he's too smart for most readers and that this intelligence will probably alienate them from his points. But instead of dumbing down his language (who, after all, would consider Wallace's prose to be "regular" in any sense?) or simplifying the subject, he acknowledges the inherent abstruseness or strangeness of the topic at hand. In his most famous essay, the hilarious “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he opens by questioning the entire premise of the piece and stating outright this dubiousness w/r/t the magazine he’s writing for: A certain swanky East-Coast magazine approved of the results of sending me to a plain old simple State Fair last year to do a directionless essayish thing. So now I get offered this tropical plum assignment w/ the exact same paucity of direction or angle. But this time there’s this new feeling of pressure: total expenses for the State Fair were $27.00 excluding games of chance. This time Harper’s has shelled out over $3000 U.S. before seeing pithy sensuous description one. They keep saying––on the phone, Ship-to-Shore, very patiently––not to fret about it. They are sort of disingenuous, I believe, these magazine people. They say all they want is a sort of really big experiential postcard –– go, plow the Caribbean in style, come back, say what you’ve seen. By setting himself up as unequipped for the task, Wallace makes each of his numerous observations all the more earnest and agenda-less. He seems like someone a bit over his head trying to do the job he was assigned. But of course we know how the scales were really tipped, as how fair is it, e.g., for someone of Wallace’s intellectual acumen to scrutinize the ad-copy of a cruise ship’s onboard publicity? Moreover, Harper’s had to know that Wallace wouldn’t exactly enjoy himself on such an excursion, since by reading anything he ever wrote one could discern at the very least what I’ll call intense neuroses just utterly emanating from his pages. Put the author of “The Depressed Person” on a 7-day cruise filled with skeetshooting and buffets and conga lines and what he calls Managed Fun? Seems like a perfect combination, right? But somehow none of these obvious motivations for the piece come across in the finished essay. Instead, Wallace’s schmucky, regular-guy rhetoric works like gangbusters and we come to Trust Him wholeheartedly throughout, despite the fact that many of his neurotic tendencies are wholly his and not “like everybody else,” as when he becomes dreadfully afraid that the head Captain is conspiring to eliminate him via the crazy suction of the toilets. He’s neurotic as hell, yet we always grant him Authority. In his fiction, Wallace-as-Narrator is also neurotic as hell, and so are his characters. See Hal Incandenza's ritual of sneaking off by himself through elaborate tunnels to smoke weed; or the narrator of "Good Old Neon," who circularly explains how fraudulent he is, even when he's admitting that he's fraudulent; or the numerous men in the various iterations of "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men." Not all of his characters are neurotic, but most of the protagonists are. Many of his character's neuroses can be summarized by the flash fiction piece that opens BIWHM, entitled "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life:" When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces. The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one. The main point of his little riff is that our desire to "be liked" often gets in the way of real human intimacy. None of the three characters have an honest interaction. All they did was "preserve good relations," which might make a moment less anxiety-inducing but ultimately makes life pretty sad indeed. But the neuroses on display in his stories and novels are decidedly not metafictional. There are exceptions, of course: the terminal novella "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" of Girl with Curious Hair takes place in an MFA writing program and parts of it "are written on the margins of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse," a seminal work of metafiction; and “Good Old Neon” (the acronym of which would be, if we used the atomic name of neon, “G.O.Ne”) and Infinite Jest employ some autobiographical details but nothing we would go so far as to call meta. Mostly, his fiction is heady, involved, experimental, satirical, and strange –– but not meta. At least not in the same sense his nonfiction is. In fact, Wallace found metafictional techniques to be limited. In an interview with Larry McCaffery (quoted in Zadie Smith's essay on BIWHM), he says: Metafiction...helps reveal fiction as a mediated experience. Plus it reminds us that there's always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language's self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. But we ended up seeing why recursion's dangerous, and maybe why everybody wanted to keep linguistic self-consciousness out of the show. It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals on itself. By the mid-seventies, I think, everything useful about the mode had been exhausted…by the eighties, it'd become a god-awful trap. 3. That is, until The Pale King. (The brouhaha over the posthumous publication of this unfinished novel indicates to me what Wallace's legacy will be. A final collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, was also published after his death, but it was met with much less fanfare.) Much of The Pale King consists of typical Wallace antics: mind-bogglingly longwinded descriptions of people's thoughts (read neuroses); conspiratorial upper-level managers discussing their tactics; long conversations that occur with little narrative description to go alongside them; interviews with the questions redacted to Qs; elaborate investigations into boredom; characters with ambiguous motives; a suggestion of plot rather than a relation, &c. Plus it contains some representative examples of the (oft-unremarked-upon) beauty of Wallace's prose, as in the opening (which is too long to quote here but I sincerely suggest you go check it out; it’s featured in TDFWR and it’s extraordinary). The astonishing power of this opening contains foreshadows for what's to come, but nothing that would indicate how truly radical (for Wallace) the novel would become. In one of the excerpts from TPK featured in TDFWR, we turn to an Author's Foreword, which begins thusly: Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that's mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true. Here, Wallace writes metafiction in the truest sense of the phrase: he literally steps into his own novel. Metafiction can take many forms, and many sophisticated examples don't actually require the novelist to become a character. Awareness of the novel as a text and referenced as such is all that's required of metafiction, but Wallace chooses to go the literal route. Of course, he can't do so without some meta-qualifications. He insists that this is "not some abstract narrative persona," distinguishing his meta-device from past iterations. He gets meta about his meta. What this amounts to is another kind of Ethical Appeal: he's assuring you that he, too, is aware of the metafictional convention but that he not up to those kinds of tricks. The opening of TPK is dense, descriptive and filled with arcane vocabulary. Its sentences are long and its purpose opaque. Whereas the Wallace-as-Narrator's prose moves very directly from the moment it starts. The syntax is simpler, its intention clearer. This is Wallace's nonfiction voice, which he rarely used in his fiction. Wallace believed, according to D.T. Max in his biography of Wallace, that "the novel was the big form, the one that mattered." More than that, Wallace was an unabashed moralist with a deep interest in human relationships (or lack thereof) in contemporary living. It's as if he didn't attribute as much creative importance to journalistic endeavors, despite his mastery of the form. Maybe Wallace would second William H. Gass’s note about his (Gass’s) nonfiction representing a “novelist insufficiently off duty.” At the very least, he kept his voices relatively separate. Allow me, for a brief pause, to back up that last claim, as I suspect many would disagree with the assertion. Here's a passage taken from Infinite Jest, in which Orin Incandenza decides to make the "extremely unlikely defection from college tennis to college football:" The real football reason, in all its inevitable real-reason banality, was that, over the course of weeks of dawns of watching the autosprinklers and the Pep Squad (which really did practice at dawn) practices, Orin had developed a horrible schoolboy-grade crush, complete with dilated pupils and weak knees, for a certain big-haired sophomore baton-twirler he watched twirl and strut from a distance through the diffracted spectrum of the plumed sprinklers, all the way across the field's dewy turf, a twirler who'd attended a few of the All-Athletic-Team mixers Orin and his strabismic B.U. doubles partner had gone to, and who danced the same way she twirled and invoked mass Pep, which is to say in a way that seemed to turn everything solid in Orin's body watery and distant and oddly refracted. Though this is quintessential Wallace, doesn't it sound a bit more like the opening passage of TPK than it does the meta section? A major development of Orin's life is explained here in a single sentence. Wallace in fiction-mode loved these kinds of periodic probing of a character's idiosyncrasies –– IJ is loaded with them. But the Wallace-as-Narrator in TPK uses a different (although undeniably similar) voice: In any event, the point is that I journeyed to Peoria on whatever particular day in May from my family's home in Philo, to which my brief return had been shall we say untriumphant, and where certain members of my family had more or less been looking at their watches impatiently the whole brief time I was home. Without mentioning or identifying anyone in particular, let's just say that the prevailing attitude in my family tended to be “What have you done for me lately?” or, maybe better, “What have you achieved/earned/attained lately that my in some way (imaginary or not) reflect well on us and let us bask in some kind of reflected (real or not) accomplishment?” It was a bit like a for-profit company, my family, in that you were pretty much only as good as your last sales quarter. Although, you know, whatever. (I apologize, by the way, for all the long-winded quotations, but Wallace isn't super-conducive to brevity.) So, there is still the same "regular-guyness" with his usage of colloquialisms like "the point is," "more or less," "pretty much," etc, and his final blasé conclusion: "Although, you know, whatever." But in a deeper way, this clearly is more aligned with the above-quoted passage from "Authority and American Usage" or “A Supposedly Fun Thing...” And that's what made TPK so special and promising and, consequently, so tragic. CONCLUSION –– AT LONG LAST –– IN WHICH WE RETURN TO WALLACE'S NONFICTION AND, PERHAPS, CONCLUDE A THING OR TWO All of which is to say that The David Foster Wallace Reader does a fantastic job of surveying Wallace’s work, and gave this enormous fan a chance to put my complicated thoughts on DFW on paper, to stop them (the thoughts) from swimming in my head like unhappy fish in a bowl and pick them out and set them free. To conclude: I agree with critic Michael Schmidt's assessment of Wallace's essays but not his novels, which Schmidt believes are "uneven." For Schmidt, Wallace "makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction," and his essays "entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres." And also: He reinvents the form from within, using its own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with "impartial" journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire. What is this but another way of saying he that he wrote meta-nonfiction? Here's how Wallace himself put it in Quack This Way, a book-length interview he did with Bryan A. Garner (whose usage manual was the subject of Wallace's "Authority and American Usage" essay excerpted above): "Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential." Wallace dove inside the tropes of the essay and stretched them until they seemed new, like a restored Victorian home updated with every contemporary amenity yet remaining classic and beautiful and timeless. His greatest asset in the essays, though, wasn't his experimentation, his rethinking of the form, but what he described to David Lipsky as his "regular-guyness." Though he used this voice in his fiction, it is employed with much higher success in his nonfiction. But this wouldn't have meant a damn thing if the voice didn't lead to something extraordinary. The voice is the invitation; the actual stuff going on in the essays –– that's the magic. Schmidt characterizes Wallace as "a postmodernist with premodern values," and I think this is key to his writing. Wallace was a polymath, a genius, a postmodern wizard, but at heart he was almost naïvely optimistic, almost sentimental (something particularly clear in his famous Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005, also not included in TDFWR). Wallace accomplished something many critics of postmodernism never believed was possible: he used the "tricks" and "gimmicks" of postmodern technique in the interest of human connection. He did this in his novels, too, but less successfully, maybe in part due to his tendency to "impersonate what he describes, even when the subject is debased, vulgar, boring," as James Wood put it. But his essays were genuine attempts to work through the topic at hand, to explain his thinking process to the reader as thoroughly and truthfully as possible, with limited filters. He earned our Trust through rigorous ethos and followed through with staggering intelligence and wit. As The Pale King shows, he could have used these techniques in fiction to considerable effect, but we'll never know where he would have gone intellectually or creatively. We only have what he left behind. And we also know that he did, at least, achieve what were to him the greatest aims of literature: to connect, to challenge, and to make us feel less alone.

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader's Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler's loupe was lodged in each eye. I'd turn to the door of my study -- Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that's just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn't look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all. This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they're too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people's work when they're working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer's maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being. The deeper cause of my reader's block, I can admit now, was my father's death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he'd published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don't know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief. Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn't read. I'd shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I'd say I was reading Humboldt's Gift, and he'd say, "But have you read Henderson the Rain King?" Or I'd say I was reading Middlemarch, and he'd say "Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?" I'd say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. "Okay, but there's this wonderful book..." There were times when I wondered if he'd actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn't read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste. But of course the novel's mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, "I want, I want, I want." A heart that could have been my father's. Or my own. And though that heart doesn't get what it wants -- that's not its nature -- it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion: "What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury...Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you." To which Henderson replies: "‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’" "‘Excellent,'" the king says: "Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition." The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability -- aren't these a reader's hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it's damn hard to come by. And so, though I'm already at 800 words here, I'd like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me. Light Years, by James Salter Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I'd always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter's prose -- and it is beautiful -- isn't the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever's beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark I've long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen's novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author's warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I've never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague. The Infatuations, by Javier Marías Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías's novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías's most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It's like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. "Don't open that door, Maria!" The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written. All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld's narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel's backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel I'd be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel's a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you're flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality. Dispatches, by Michael Herr If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you'd end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I've ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr's output has been slender, but I'd gladly read anything he wrote. White Girls, by Hilton Als This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O'Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als's virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It's hard to think of higher praise for a critic. Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy -- a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you'll read about how we got into the mess we're in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: "Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force." The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover's first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover's capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn't help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Infinite Grace: The Millions Interviews Caetano W. Galindo

  David Foster Wallace lives! How else could one explain the long-distance friendship that grew up between me and a person I have not yet met in person, and would probably never have known existed if it were not for our shared obsession with Wallace’s fiction? I am an anthropologist and filmmaker based at the Goeldi Museum of Belém do Pará in the Amazon region of northern Brazil, and got hooked on Wallace while reading Infinite Jest on the tiny screen of an iPod during an expedition to a Kayapó indigenous village. Caetano Waldrigues Galindo is a James Joyce specialist who teaches linguistics at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba, in southern Brazil, and who has just finished translating Infinite Jest into Brazilian Portuguese. Galindo kept a blog about the year-long translation process, a piece of Brazilian Wallaciana that was picked up by the Howling Fantods website and fan list-serve, Wallace-1 -- my haunt and halfway house ever since finishing IJ (though it is apparently not finished with me) -- and...Voilà. Companhia das Letras, Brazil’s premiere publisher of literary fiction and nonfiction, now part of the Penguin/Random House group, is bringing out a luxurious hard copy edition of Graça Infinita, Galindo’s Portuguese translation of Infinite Jest, on November 28. Companhia das Letras first introduced Wallace to Brazilian readers in 2005 with their publication of José Rubens Siqueira’s translation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Galindo has translated more than 30 books in all, including James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Stoppard, and Ali Smith, and is now busy on Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King. To celebrate the release of Wallace’s landmark novel in Brazil, I conducted the following interview with Galindo -- still virtually, via email. But I hope to meet him in person, finally, at the official book launch, where I also plan to show a short samizdat-inspired film. David Foster Wallace is still among us, and his singular voice will soon be heard by millions of new readers in Brazil. Glenn H. Shepard: You seem to prefer translating works and authors that are not only essentially "untranslatable," but also notoriously verbose: Joyce, Pynchon, now Wallace. Are you a masochist, or do you just enjoy intense mental activity? Caetano W. Galindo: Well, apart from Ulysses, all I've done is translate what my editors give me to do. Ergo, I cannot be considered a masochist: they're the sadists! But yes, this is the kind of literature I like, and thus what I read -- and "write" -- best. I think my publishers have found this to their liking. And yes, I really do enjoy the acrobatics. It’s kind of like chess: it’s much more fun to play against someone who's better than you are, even though you may end up losing. I like being forced to reach, to face problems I would not have conceived myself. I enjoy trying to recreate puns, acronyms, styles-within-styles, multiple voices: you know, all the hard stuff. What can I say? Back to the masochism hypothesis... GS: How did you first learn about David Foster Wallace's work? What else of his have you read? Why did you decide to start with Infinite Jest? CWG: I got to know about IJ when I was deep in my Ph.D. thesis on Ulysses. It was a time in my life when I thought nothing post-Ulysses was worth the effort: I was a real bore back then! “Badness was badness in the weirdest of all pensible ways,” as good ol' Jim J. would have it. Then I heard about this huge book, and many people I respect said I should check out. And so I did. That was 2005. I got hooked. After that I read pretty much everything Wallace wrote, and everything people were writing about him. When I sat down to translate IJ, I had read the whole book twice, and was deeply familiar with Wallace's voice and “tricks.” As a matter of fact, my fascination with the book was probably what landed me the job as a translator for Companhia das Letras. André Conti, the editor at Companhia das Letras who kinda headhunted me for them, is a big Wallace fan. From the moment I was hired in 2008 we had this dream of publishing IJ in Brazil. GS: How long did the translation take? What was your daily routine? Did you keep your deadline? Did you ever reach a point where you thought you might give up? CWG: It took me one year, which is actually pretty fast, considering [Ulrich Blumenbach spent six years on the German translation]. I was only able to do it so quickly because of my previous familiarity with the book and with Wallace's writing in general. I did not have a daily routine: I'm a college professor, and that takes pretty much all my time. Whenever I could manage to get a few free hours I would go at it for some high intensity translation. During that year my mother also died, after a very long struggle with cancer. Looking back -- what with those final weeks in the hospital with her, and the time it took me to get back to real life afterwards -- I almost don't know when it was that I translated all those hundreds of pages. But then again, one way or another, this is true of every book I have translated. I begin not knowing how I will be able to do it, and end up not knowing how I was able to do it. But I did keep my deadline, with one week to spare. I never thought about giving up. Even in those days after my mother's death, the perspective of having this huge work to go back to was a real incentive. Kind of a reality booster, you know? And something else, as well: a kind of solace, I guess. The book helped me keep going... GS: Very sorry to hear about your mother: that must have been tough. What was the most difficult passage in the book to translate? CWG: Off the top of my head? Kate Gompert. It almost kills you, being inside her head for so long. GS: How did you deal with Wallace's erudite vocabulary? What about all that sketchy French? CWG: Well, I like words. Funny, strange, exotic words. I teach the history of the Portuguese language at the Federal University of Paraná. So I have deep...ish pockets myself in that department. The problem with the French, though...As a French major, I just couldn’t turn a blind eye to all the mistakes. At first I thought I might exert the prerogative Francis Aubert claims for the translator as “final copyeditor.” However, in the end, and after talking to Herr Blumenbach, I decided to leave the mistakes, not knowing what else to do. Was it intentional? Am I to decide? Let the reader sort it out. GS: What did it feel like to spend so much time, so deep inside such a complicated plot, and such a complicated mind? CWG: It was a fascinating process. And in this book in particular, the sensation of being "inside" someone's head (pun intended) is really overwhelming. I love the book even more today, after having unraveled and re-raveled its inner workings. I could feel the plot: I could almost touch it. But you have to remember I was not working on a regular daily schedule. When I could, I clocked 10 hours. But then, the next day, I wouldn’t have time to translate at all, since I would have papers to grade, or other things to write, or students needing help, classes to teach. I think that helped keep me safe. Wallace's (or Incandenza's) mind seems to be exactly what the book is: a beautiful labyrinth. Enchanting. But dangerous... GS: What do you make of IJ's notoriously indeterminate plot? Did your interpretations or understandings affect your translation? CWG: As for the plot: well, I'm a translator. The guy designs a labyrinth. I reproduce the design with my own bricks and mortar. It's not my job to point any ways out, if there are any! As a reader, I do have my interpretation, but that's not what matters. As I tell students all the time, the translator's job is not to find an interpretation, but to try and find all interpretations, and keep these possibilities open for this new reader who's going to have only the translation as a guide. But, back to plot, you basically follow the original steps. No biggie. There's one thing I regret, though. A student of mine, Ana Carolina Werner, pointed it out to me. The final two words of the book, referring to the tide being "way out," also suggest the possibility of exit, escape. But there was no way to keep this double entendre in the Portuguese. GS: How did Wallace's death affect you, and your understanding of his work? What was it like to spend a whole year channeling a wraith? CWG: Well, it was a huge shock, for me and for everybody. It was like Primo Levi, or that moment in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors when the subject of the documentary (inspired by Levi) commits suicide. “How can this be?” The only man who seemed to be showing us, through all that was modern and new in his literature, a possibility for an old-fashioned answer to the great existential questions that have guided philosophers and writers for ages. And he kills himself. Probably everyone who reads this interview felt something similar. When I heard the news, I turned off my computer and played the piano for an hour or so, trying to empty my mind, or fill it with something else: I didn't know what to think. But back to the point: it does affect our reading. It would be a lie to say it doesn't. His literature is profoundly human, and profoundly personal, meaning that there is direct one-on-one involvement. You constantly feel like you are dealing with Dave himself, the person. All the scenes with Kate Gompert, the descriptions of pain, depression, pain...The fact of his suicide doesn’t clarify, it only makes it tougher. But it doesn't change the book’s potential. Because, in spite of personal "answerability" (to use Mikhail Bakhtin's word), he is not writing a memoir. He is creating worlds, characters, lives, and all that lives on, independently. It may change how we think of him, and of his relation to his subjects. But the book stands. About "channeling a wraith" -- Yes: a nice way to put it. In fact, it's not an easy expression to translate into Portuguese. But that's really what it was like. It felt very close, as if I were in his head. Or in Hal's, or maybe Jim's, but which were definitely inside his. I kept mourning, lamenting the fact that he was not there for me to write to him during the process. Even though I know he was not that keen on thinking about his translations. But I would have written. I wrote him a long letter once. Before. But I never sent it. GS: An independent Portuguese translation was published in Portugal prior to your own. Have you read it? How different is it from your own? Do you think Brazil warrants its own translation? CWG: I haven't read it, though I have talked to the translators. Very nice folks! A very competent job as far as I can tell -- they most kindly sent me their book. About the two translations: First, there is the problem with rights. You do not buy the rights for the Portuguese language as a whole, only for the country. So, officially I can't buy their translation in Brazil, and vice versa. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Anglophones should be reminded that the gap between European and Brazilian Portuguese is much wider than what you have between British and American English. As a matter of fact, I would be incapable of writing anything (translation or original) that would ever “pass” in Portugal as anything other than Brazilian vernacular Portuguese. Alison Entrekin, for instance, who is the greatest Portuguese-to-English translator alive today, is Australian and works for British and American publishers. I don't know anyone who could do that in both European and Brazilian Portuguese. GS: In the European Portuguese translation, the title is rendered as Piada Infinita, while you translate it as Graça Infinita. Explain. Doesn’t graça have mystical overtones, in the sense of religious grace? CWG: Well, that's the one I was afraid of...So here goes. First, there is the question of Brazilian versus European usage. Both piada and graça refer to jokes, or anything that is funny. But graça also has an extended meaning cognate with English “grace,” both in the sense of religious grace and physical gracefulness. In Brazil we have an expression, ‘não tem graça’, which means both “that’s not funny” but also, “that’s not nice”; there’s also ‘sem graça’ which means “awkward,” or literally “without grace.” Europeans use piada in almost exactly the same expression, não tem piada, “that’s no joke, that’s not nice.” So in Portugal, piada has a more extended range of meanings, somewhat like graça in Brazil, whereas piada in Brazil means only "joke." So we couldn't go there. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the expression "graça infinita" was used by Millôr Fernandes in his Brazilian translation of Hamlet. We were toying with the title Infinda Graça, which uses an older, more archaic word for "infinite," and which sounded good to my ears. But the Hamlet factor was a good argument, and we ended up with Graça Infinita. Finally, you are right, graça does sound religious-y. We didn't have that many choices to begin with, and I don't think this "mystical" undertone is wrong. Is it? There may be no “God” figure central to the novel’s narrative. But, sorry! I really do like this idea that the ineffable, the mystical (as good old Ludwig W. would have it) is always there, always lurking, always tempting. So I stand by our choice! GS: What about Infinite Jest do you think will appeal to Brazilian readers? Is there any Brazilian author who could be considered a "soul-mate" to Wallace, in some sense? Has Wallace exerted a notable influence on Brazilian literature? What Brazilian authors, contemporary or otherwise, would you recommend to Wallace fans? CWG: I think Graça Infinita (let me use my title, now that I’ve justified myself!) is of immense interest to anyone who is thinking about or wants to think about what it means to be a human inhabitant of this particular nook of world history. I hope readers in Brazil can see that, and can find in the book all it wants to communicate to us at this deep, human, level. As for a Brazilian “soul-mate”...well, here in Brazil, we have yet to arrive at such gargantuan hubris! Our best writers, right now, seem to be more concerned with short-ish studies. But we do have a new generation of very promising prose writers. Among them we find lots of readers of Wallace. People like Daniel Galera, Daniel Pellizzari. Wallace’s influence is felt in a number of ways. Wallace is probably the best prose stylist since Pynchon or Don DeLillo. But like both of them, he is also a deep thinker. And what he said, through his fiction and in his essays, is already a big influence on a whole generation of writers, even here. Brazilian authors I’d recommend? Hmm...There’s always the great Machado de Assis (I suggest Epitaph of a Small Winner)...João Guimarães Rosa, most definitely. The João Ubaldo Ribeiro of Viva o povo brasileiro. Someone more contemporary? The André Sant'Anna of O paraíso é bem bacana". Me... :) GS: Have you read translations of IJ into other languages? CWG: No. I'm only human! GS: What's next? Any plans to tackle Roberto Bolaño? CWG: I'm already at work on the musings of our nice friend "Irrelevant" Chris Fogle right now. My translation of The Pale King should be ready next year. But I’ll put that job on hold for the time being, because we want to publish a new translation of Dubliners, together with my own "Guide" to Ulysses for Bloomsday 2015. I may or may not translate Pynchon's most recent novel, Bleeding Edge. If my mentor and hero, the great Paulo Henriques Britto, is too busy, maybe I’ll get it. I'm hoping to do my fourth Ali Smith translation sometime next year. As for Bolaño: No: I don't translate from Spanish!

Name Your Darlings: Writers on the Titling Process

John Steinbeck found Of Mice and Men in a poem by Robert Burns; Joan Didion came across Slouching Towards Bethlehem in one by William Butler Yeats. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was scrawled in the bathroom stall of a Greenwich Village saloon, which Edward Albee entered in 1954. Many of Raymond Carver’s titles were changed by his longtime editor, Gordon Lish -- for better (“Beginners” became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) or worse (“Are These Actual Miles?” was replaced by the vague and perplexing “What Is It?”). F. Scott Fitzgerald first titled his most famous work Trimalchio in West Egg. Though eventually persuaded that The Great Gatsby was less obscure, easier to pronounce, and much preferred by his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald maintained that the final choice was “only fair, rather bad than good.” In lieu of a fateful bathroom visit or an assertive editor, how do authors find their titles? Many plumb the work of Shakespeare (Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, as well as a number of titles by Agatha Christie, were all inspired by the Bard); others, religious or not, turn to the old poetry of the Bible. Still more scour their own manuscripts in search of a string of words that might capture the novel’s spirit. And some, like Alice Munro -- whose latest title, Dear Life, was taken from a phrase she heard as a child -- find that the perfect moniker was in them all along. Still, the process of titling remains individualized and mysterious: methods range from intuition to reason, from revelation to painful labor. Here, five contemporary authors tell us about theirs. Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas: I knew my debut novel’s title would finish with the clause The Cat’s Pajamas, however I heard the beginning of the phrase only as a rhythm. It sounded like: Something something something The Cat’s Pajamas. When I realized the missing phrase included “2 a.m.” (the time bars close in Philadelphia, where the novel is set), it prompted me to clarify the 24-hour nature of the novel and use hours of the day instead of chapter headings. Then, all I had to do was figure out what happened at that fateful hour. For weeks, this question rotated in my subconscious as I conducted the errands of my life: what happens at 2 a.m.? WHAT HAPPENS AT 2 A.M.? Whatever it was had to synthesize what up until then are disparate story lines while staying true to my desire to keep the stakes realistic. I ticked through all the possible tricks: murder, mass suicide, alien invasion, but knew the answer would be somewhere in subtle middle distance, harder to write, but closer to the way I’ve found life actually works. One of the unexplainable mysteries of writing fiction is that I normally begin already knowing the title and last line. I can’t explain why. It’s a mystery. The stories for which I don’t already know these elements take longer. Perhaps because something hasn’t quite distilled, and my conception is still a piece of sand, battling a shell to turn itself into a pearl. Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits: When it was finally time to submit my novel to publishers, I had no title. I sat for a full day in utter paralysis, staring at the title page, my cursor blinking in 24-point font. I would type whatever came to mind, most of it nonsense, just to see how it looked, and it all looked ridiculous. I had spent the previous week taking long walks and speaking aloud every term that came into my mind when I thought of the manuscript, an embarrassing voice recording of my attempts to seem smart. I went to Shakespeare -- King Lear! I thought, there are some similarities, aren't there? Old guys, unraveling families. Never mind the fact that I had never really understood that play, not really, and didn't then when I skimmed it looking for my answer. Finally, I wrote my friend Stuart, who was one of the only writers I knew who didn't overthink things. He wrote back a few minutes later with a list of trivia about Connecticut. Facts and data, all surface details. Stuff that seemed hopelessly superficial. But there, at the bottom, under a list of nicknames was "the land of steady habits." And that was that. Ramona Ausubel, author of A Guide to Being Born and No One Is Here Except All of Us: Some titles come at me, wham, even before the story.  I wrote the story “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” after that sentence somehow appeared in my brain, having no idea what the story would be about.  Other titles are fought for.  For a good while, my first novel was titled The Constellation Makers, which is not a good title at all (I knew that, fortunately).  I had a long list of titles but I can’t remember the others because once I thought of No One is Here Except All of Us (which I took from a sentence in the book), I knew it was right and it never changed.  However, I assumed that if I was ever lucky enough to get the thing published, surely the publisher would nix my long, complicated title.  I assumed they would want something snappy (and that I’d hate it).  This is not at all what happened and I was so glad that I had gone for the thing I wanted instead of guessing at the desires of the industry—turns out uniqueness, at least in this case, was an asset.  Whatever the journey to a title, whether based on list-making and brainstorming and bouts with Thesaurus.com or one of those beautiful revelatory moments, I know the right title by instinct more than reason. Said Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy and When Skateboards Will Be Free: I titled my short story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy after one of the stories, A Brief Encounter With the Enemy. I know this may appear like an uninspired choice—indeed, it took me about one minute to come up with it—but I intended some subtlety behind it. For one thing, pluralizing the title helped to thematically link the eight stories, but more important is that it raised the question: who exactly is this enemy we keep encountering, and why? I'll leave that up to each reader to decide. Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves: I had been working with another title, The Real Estate of Edmund Leary, which I liked for the double-duty “real” was doing, but I didn’t prefer to include the name of a character in the title, particularly when the book was more explicitly Eileen’s than it was Ed’s. While re-reading Lear in preparation to teach it, I came to the line in Act 2, Scene 4, where Lear is wondering why Cornwall won’t appear, even though he’s been ordered to. To explain away the offense to his ego, Lear says, “Infirmity doth still neglect all office/Whereto our health is bound”—i.e., sickness prevents us from doing the duties we’re required to do when healthy. The next line elaborates on this theme: “We are not ourselves/when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind/to suffer with the body.” Lear justifies Cornwall’s flouting of his authority by appealing to the universal experience of being beholden to our bodies: when the body isn’t working, the mind doesn’t work perfectly either. I found rich resonance in the idea of locating both the mind and the body in Lear’s formulation in the brain, so that the body that isn’t working is the mind, in fact -- and then positing the mind in Lear’s formulation as what we think of as the spirit, the soul, the personality. When the brain isn’t working at its optimal best -- when there’s an obstruction of function through illness, or a fixation or obsession that springs from traumatic early childhood experiences -- the animating spirit of the person, what we think of as personality, is impaired as well. The phrase struck me immediately as being at the heart of my concerns in the book. We Are Not Ourselves suggests characters who are not at their best, who by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves. It also suggests that we’re always learning and evolving, that we’re works-in-progress. We are not ourselves yet, in a sense; there’s hope in that. In a different vein, we are not reducible to whom we appear to be in our biographies. We contain multitudes in our rich internal lives that our lived lives don’t reveal. Another resonance for me is that we need each other to experience the full flowering of our humanity and our greatest happiness. We are not only ourselves; we are not islands unto ourselves. I liked that the phrase opened up fields of interpretation that would extend beyond the more circumscribed concerns of my original title, so I grabbed it and didn’t look back. As soon as I knew it was the title, it was as if it had been the title all along.

The Strife of the Chase: The Prudence, Procrastination, and Persistence of the American Artist

“If we had the same dream every night,” Nietzsche wrote in 1873, “we would be as preoccupied with it as by the things we see every day.” The premise is simple: reality, at least what we perceive it to be, is a matter of continuity. But say you devote yourself to a single work of fiction, a single imagining, day after day for the majority of your life. What becomes of the real? When are you inside, and when are you out? Earlier this summer, Richard Linklater’s nostalgia project Boyhood premiered after 12 years in production. For a few days every year since 2002, Linklater assembled the same cast, centered on a young boy Mason Junior, and shot what Linklater has called a “document of time.” The marvel of Boyhood is that the plain spectacle of the aging cast allows Linklater to subvert the dramatic impulses of traditional cinema. The film repeatedly upsets the conventional setup-payoff paradigm of narrative filmmaking to achieve a nuanced, meandering, and quiet chronicle of the boy’s coming-of-age. Boyhood challenges viewers’ recourse to narrative by honing in on the unsorted miscellanea of growing up: doing the dishes, finding a dead animal in the yard, Mom and Dad arguing mutedly on the other side of a windowpane, irritant siblings redeeming themselves in small ways when it counts. As Linklater explains, “You see how life just accumulates.” Linklater’s 12-year shoot was motivated by an aesthetic persuasion about what time could afford. The magic of film editing or makeup or 12 lookalike Mason Juniors would have been inadequate to the purposes of Linklater’s sprawling yet understated film epic. Part of the production’s interest was accommodating and incorporating the real-life maturation of its cast: how adolescent postures endure into adulthood, how intonations and vocabularies evolve, how a body transforms slowly, and then all at once. All these personal transformations were then framed within the cultural narrative of the early 2000’s. Consider the film’s soundtrack: a year-by-year survey of American pop culture since 2002, beginning with Britney Spears. A document of time, then, is always also a curation of culture. What Boyhood proves is that sometimes “putting off” work is really a conviction about the opportunities and insights that come with taking one’s time. Call it an investment. Now, an artist’s apologia can get very slippery, very quickly. Artists are savvy at masking their excuses. Plenty are just plain lazy or too indecisive or too timid to dig in and confront the Beast. So what is the difference, or what is the threshold, between an artist who procrastinates for years and a prudent auteur, such as Linklater, who has a plan? These ambitious, bloated, and sometimes staggering ventures raise important questions about how a work’s scope determines its mode of production. How much time should be spent on a single work of art? Or inversely, how will the amount of time spent on a work ultimately shape what that work will become and what it will mean to the creator? What it will mean to us? I see Ahab on the quarterdeck lamenting to Starbuck: “For forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful lands, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep...what a forty years’ fool -- fool -- old fool, has old Ahab been!” Maybe the more urgent question is at what point has a work grown too much for its own good, taken on too much meaning? Why do our creative ambitions swell up and run out on us? Why, as Ahab poses, “Why this strife of the chase?” In 1956, shortly after publishing The Recognitions, William Gaddis sent a registered letter to himself outlining the premise of his second novel: “a young boy, ten or eleven or so years of age, ‘goes into business’ and makes a business fortune.” The purpose of Gaddis’s letter was to safeguard his idea from copyright infringement, a fitting launch for a book “projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in American today.” One provisional title was JR. JR consumed Gaddis for the next two decades until its publication in 1975, devouring almost everybody close to him: two marriages, two children, and a swarm of agents and publishers in between. In a 1974 letter to American novelist and film producer Warren Kiefer, Gaddis described day-to-day work on the novel “like living with an invalid,” a sentiment articulated in the text of JR itself when writer and physics teacher Jack Gibbs laments his own project of 16 years, a novel that shares its title with Gaddis’s last published work, Agapē Agape: “Sixteen years like living with a God damned invalid sixteen years every time you come in sitting there waiting just like you left him...God damned friends asking how he’s coming along all expect him out any day don’t want bad news no news rather hear lies, big smile out any day now.” Gibbs’s authorial melancholy and much of Gaddis’s own strife in completing JR were first figured in a character named Stanley from The Recognitions. Stanley, the novel’s holy fool, is an organ composer struggling to finish a requiem dedicated to his mother. At one point, he explains his dilemma: “It’s as though this one thing must contain it all, all in one piece of work, because, well it’s as though finishing it strikes it dead, do you understand?” Stanley’s qualm is a reiteration of Wyatt Gwyon’s insight earlier in The Recognitions: “There’s something about a...an unfinished piece of work, a...thing like this where...do you see? Where perfection is still possible?” Literary critic Morris Dickstein has identified this totalizing, perfecting ambition of American authors as the Moby-Dick or One Big Book syndrome. The syndrome stems from an effort to culminate and consolidate “the whole meaning of the national experience” -- hence the systems or encyclopedic novel. But a designation more appropriate to Gaddis’s JR and to a distinct set of experimental postwar American texts would be the mega-novel, a form elaborated by critic Frederick Karl in his essay “American Fictions: The Mega-Novel” as robust, multifarious fiction that strives to expropriate and counteract the cultural value attached to “mega.” Think MegaBucks or Mega Rich. The mega-novel subverts the dominative logic of late capitalism by turning capitalism’s multiplicities, apparatuses, and vocabularies back on themselves. Thus, in Gaddis’s words, “by developing and following through the basically very simple procedures needed to assemble extensive financial interests,” 11-year-old JR Vansant ruptures those very procedures of the financial infrastructure. Recognizing this inside-out ploy of the mega-novel, what is really a type of deconstruction, is critical to understanding the scope of JR and other oceanic postwar efforts. Unlike The Recognitions, JR has no chapter breaks, no epigraphs. It is composed almost entirely of unmarked dialogue. The text reels -- a continuous discord of voices and noise: money rustling, traffic, people up and down the street, in and out of office buildings, radio broadcasts, telephone calls, trash disposal, septic cacophony, “somewhere a urinal flushed,” the incessant moan and drone and oversaturation of metropolis. The novel documents the runaway qualities of cybernetic capitalism -- a barrage of unfiltered data and meaning, a cultural logic bent on the endless reproduction and circulation of signs -- and a child’s ability to exploit and undermine that system. Franzen famously denounced the novel as a haywire, nonsensical literature of emergency. And then a cast of forefront experimental authors denounced Franzen as a populist pundit. That is not the concern here. The question here is why JR took so long to write. In the 20-year span that Gaddis was working on JR, the U.S. experienced radical economic, technological, and cultural shifts. The maturation of war bonds and the confluence of corporate power brought about a postwar prosperity and consolidation of capital that completely altered the country’s economic landscape, not to mention hugely symbolic fiscal gestures under the Nixon administration such as the suspension of the gold standard in 1971. Telecommunication, information, and banking technologies boomed: the first operating system, videotapes, integrated circuits, magnetic stripe cards, satellites, cordless phones, personal computers, email, electronic payment networks, the first ATMs. Academia was recruited and incorporated by an immense military-industrial complex that was infiltrating universities in Cambridge and northern California. A war waged halfway around the world in Indochina. Color televisions flooded the market. Family sitcoms were replaced by soap operas, newscasts, variety shows, and daytime game shows. Capital was no longer anchored to anything real and culture was reproducing itself at a mile a minute, all while radars painted the coasts, sweeping for backscatter off something huge and unknowable. People were left to carve lives out of the maelstrom of signs: swipe, go, click, take, look, laugh, lock, switch, cut, ring, watch, wait, are you ready -- And then all of it came crashing down in 1973. Gaddis, meanwhile, was “being dragged by the heels into the 20th century:” fighting against the nerve-wracking hum of electric typewriters; failing to revert the copyright for The Recognitions, which was being printed unedited in paperback editions without his knowledge; freelancing for media companies; teaching; vying for reviews; calls to Western Union ringing on the phone in the next room -- “it’s almost always for Western Union whose number is 1 digit off ours;” and constantly strapped for cash -- “Will this tight rope walking ever end?” Was Gaddis continuously working on his novel day and night for 20 years? No. He was sidetracked by freelance writing projects and teaching positions to make ends meet, gigs that seemed to support his writing in paradoxical ways: “My work on [JR] this spring will be sporadically interrupted by a part-time teaching invitation which I had accepted in order to continue work on the book.” And even when he was able to work on the novel fulltime, Gaddis’s daily reports capture the writer’s infinite means of procrastination: 2:11 got notes for present sequence in book beside typewriter 2:13 suddenly realized I had better get cat food before stores closed Gaddis recorded about 12 hours of these minute-by-minute escapes. He too was suffering from the onslaught of postwar noise, a ceaseless stream of information designed, it seemed, to prevent anyone from working on a long novel that could expose such a system. The problem, ultimately, was distraction -- distraction from the Task -- a danger later elucidated by William Kohler, the narrator and monomaniacal digger of the ne plus ultra of long haul mega-novels, The Tunnel, William Gass’s 1995 doorstop that was 30 years in the making. “The secret of life is paying absolute attention to what is going on,” Kohler asserts. “The enemy of life is distraction.” If Gaddis’s novel was conditioned by the blur of postwar meanings, then The Tunnel's resolve was a revamped Protestant work ethic: persistent and monastic focus meant to mitigate the barrage of cultural noise and offer some sort of coherence in the “day-to-day wake-to-work regimen.” William Kohler appears diametrically opposite from Gaddis’s romping 11-year-old JR. Kohler is a ruminative midwestern history professor (with Nietzschean indigestion no less) struggling to write the introduction to his academic magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. Holed up in his basement, his wife upstairs, Kohler begins tunneling out behind the furnace and interposes into his masterpiece his staggered attempts at the introduction: “I slide these sheets between the sheets of G&I and wonder when I’ll run out of history to hide in.” Gass, notorious for overwhelming publishers with ideals about formal experimentation, initially wanted The Tunnel to be published unbound. “I knew I would never get my way,” he ultimately admitted. What becomes clear though is that The Tunnel, in its very conception, was a failed loose-leaf attempt, the detritus of a supposedly greater, more focused work. The conviction of Gass’s tome, however, is that the detritus of life is what ends up becoming central to our understanding and recollection of it. Shards of thought, flashes of memory, fragments of creation -- these are the leftovers and miscellanea that amount to a life, just as in Boyhood, except in The Tunnel, these things for William Kohler do not culminate in the Right Life, not the one he imagined for himself. Whereas Gaddis’s concerns in JR were the technologies of capital and information, Gass’s interest in The Tunnel was historical process, specifically, the inside of history. In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Gass elaborated the dark interior of objective histories: “The things that get left out of history are the very things that tend to undermine it, among other things, the first thing, is the historian himself, his nature.” Just as JR folded the procedures of capital markets back on themselves, The Tunnel breaks down the crystalline structure of historical process and deconstructs the inside-outside binaries we often use to describe historical formations. Thus Kohler anguishes, “Why must one bring the world into the tunnel, when the tunnel is supposed to be the way out?” Kohler finds himself depositing the dug-up dirt in empty desk drawers. He becomes surrounded by debris, digging his way out and his way in all at once, collapsing the distinction between escape and extraction. As Gass has explained, “Tunnels are not always escape tunnels or hiding tunnels...you dig for ore, you dig for gold.” Gass’s clarification offers a profound analogue for the author’s process. The work always takes you closer and further away at the same time, in the same stroke. Every sentence, every shovel-full becomes as self-dissociating as it is self-constituting, and by the same turns. Rather than digging out or digging in, you may just be digging for the sake of digging itself. Ahab coined an expression for this: madness maddened. The metaphor of the tunnel seems perfectly prefigured by Kafka’s unfinished short story, “The Burrow,” in which a nameless narrator manically digs a complex network of tunnels and eventually realizes, “[He] and the burrow belong so indissolubly together.” The stakes are clear: the work consumes you. Recognizing this wager, the sheer exhaustiveness of the Task, Gass once explained that, for him, The Tunnel “functioned as an avoidance book. Its unpleasant presence made [him] write other books in order to avoid writing it.” The scope of large works becomes overwhelming, unmanageable. Subject matter is demanding, then intimidating, and finally unapproachable. But these tomes are also slowed by more mundane matters of process. The ambitious scales are often counterpointed by the almost logistic labor of line-by-line editing, which, of course, is what any author bargains for. “One thing that takes so much time with JR,” Gaddis once explained, “seems to be that since it’s almost all in dialogue I’m constantly listening, write a line and then have to stop and listen.” In the same vein, Gass’s prose in The Tunnel was haunted by an absolute drive toward meter, rhythm, and precision. He admitted, somewhat resigned, “Who has time to wait between two syllables for just a little literary revelation?” But Gass was nostalgic for a prose style written for the ear, and in a 1976 interview with The Paris Review, in the midst of working on The Tunnel, he waxed, “One used to read Henry James aloud. It’s the only way to read him.” Are these works, then, merely the outsized products of minute compulsions? One can’t really talk about obsession, the long haul, and moving dirt without mentioning Michael Heizer, a renegade artist who turned his back on the New York City art scene in the 1960’s for the American desert. In 1972, Heizer began his magnum opus of earthworks, "City," an immense, stadium sized, minimalist land art installation in the middle of Nevada that is still under construction. Heizer pursues the same type of cultural investigation as Gaddis and Gass. “Part of my art,” Heizer explained in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, “is based on an awareness that we live in a nuclear era.” And in the same way that JR charted the rise of American corporate capitalism and The Tunnel observed the entire narrative of the Cold War, the development of Heizer’s bunker-like environment has not only been contemporaneous with, but geographically adjacent to the postwar saga of the National Academy of Science’s struggle to dispose of nuclear waste underneath Yucca Mountain. As the U.S. Department of Energy attempts to project the radioactive decay of depleted plutonium and uranium in the waste repository, Michael Heizer and his construction crews sculpt, grain by grain, a massive installation intended to last hundreds, if not thousands of years. Heizer challenges the techniques of military and industrial technology by way of a postmodern acropolis designed to endure alongside and even outlast U.S. materiel waste and the facilities it’s housed in. Better yet, Heizer is monitoring the government’s encroachment on "City," ready, if the Department of Energy proceeds with a nuclear waste rail line within view of his sculpture, to blow his work sky high. In a state that is 83 percent owned by the federal government, a man and his city resist. "City," when it is eventually open to the public, will be monumental. Rather than an installation within an environment, "City" will be an environment unto itself, one that raises questions about bleak military structures and vast urban developments in the middle of nowhere. Heizer’s project carries the same meticulousness of a compulsive prose stylist. “Mike wanted everything within a sixteenth of an inch,” one construction worker commented, “even on a concrete slab that was 78 feet by 240 feet.” The worker couldn’t quite articulate the concept behind "City," but he was able to appreciate its scope, which might very well be its meaning: “At the beginning I was lost...was this a stadium?...But gradually I got the idea. I can’t say exactly what it means now, but I know it has to do with history and with making something that will last.” It has to do with history. A sprawling work inevitably encapsulates its own history, the process of its own creation and the cultural narratives that run alongside it. This was Linklater’s prudence with Boyhood, and this is what happened with Gaddis’s JR. The novel contains and performs its own making, just as The Tunnel embodies the arc of its own development and "City" simulates the gradual rise of a desert metropolis. In composing The Tunnel, Gass recognized that, more than anything else, his primary working material was time: “The narrator moves steadily into the past as the novel proceeds, and there is an increasing sensitivity to what he remembers.” Time folds back on itself: “The past becomes more complete, is more real than the present.” What was true for Kohler was true for Gass: My mother was an alcoholic and my father was crippled by arthritis and his own character. I just fled. It was a cowardly thing to do, but I simply would not have survived...What is perhaps psychologically hopeful is that in The Tunnel I am turning back to inspect directly that situation, and that means I haven’t entirely rejected it. The long haul offers a regimen that skirts more stagnate, immediate vocabularies, those kneejerk interpretations that would reject or reduce the past. A novel, while remaining an ongoing task, repeatedly returns writers to the material of the past -- old pages, old iterations, the rituals of memory -- and the text becomes an experiment in deconstructing the linearity of time, in resisting the organizing powers of historical process. Writing sidesteps the obliterating force of the present, the barrage of the Now. The 30-year creation of The Tunnel took to heart a maxim articulated by Kohler near the end of the novel: “Writing is hiding from history.” This November will mark the 13th annual National Novel Writing Month, an internet movement launched to discipline writers and spur them into production. NaNoWriMo will bring to mind the many great works that were completed in a sprint, such as On the Road, which Kerouac penned in only three weeks, or Fahrenheit 451, which Ray Bradbury drafted in a basement library typing room in just nine days. It could be argued that rather than evading history, these feverish texts confronted it. Bradbury’s blaze may have been prompted by a fear of the midcentury book burnings in Nazi Germany. Or take Faulkner, who, the day after the stock market panic in 1929, pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and scrawled a title in the right-hand corner -- As I Lay Dying. He would complete the manuscript in a mere six weeks during his graveyard shifts at a power plant: “I had invented a table out of a wheelbarrow in the coal bunker, just beyond a wall from where the dynamo ran.” But Kerouac was accumulating writing on the road for years before stitching together his final manuscript. And Fahrenheit 451 was the culmination of five short stories that Bradbury had been working on for three years. Faulkner’s chronicle of Addie Bundren and her coffin was an extension of Yoknapatawpha County, an apocryphal world Faulkner had shaped previously in Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying was not only a title that Faulkner had tried twice before for earlier works, but the story itself was arguably an outgrowth of an unfinished manuscript, Father Abraham, that Faulkner abandoned in 1927. Fast-forward to 1996, and you’ll see that in his introduction to Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers asserted that Wallace wrote his masterpiece in only three years. Wallace did have an inspired spurt in Boston in the early '90s, but the truth about Infinite Jest was that DFW had been reworking fragments from way back in 1986. You see what I’m getting at. It’s difficult to say where a work of art comes from, to mark precisely when a novel is conceived or to chart the time during which it is made. But juxtaposing works that were supposedly produced in a panic with some of the long haul endeavors exposes the complex circumstances that surround all artistic creations and the ways that process, be it short or long, can be romanticized and mythologized. Artists procrastinate. They also persist. What is certain is that we carry ideas around for longer than we know, and part of the artistic venture is unearthing the source. “It’s almost hard to remember the impulses at the beginning,” DFW admitted. “It’s something you live with for years and years rather than something you just have an idea or a feeling and you just do.” Or as Gass explained of The Tunnel, “To the degree that this is an escape tunnel, you have to hide the entrance. And so the entrance to this book is hidden.” The problem, always, is finding one’s way back out again. During the difficult stretches, Gaddis may have considered his manuscript the invalid in the next room. But in his correspondence, it is evident that when Gaddis was able to fully engage his writing, he experienced complete affinity with the novel. As the book was finally verging on publication, Gaddis consoled his son Matthew: “I guess the house will gradually drain of strange (I mean unfamiliar not fully looking) faces,” speaking of young JR Vansant and the novel’s cast. After finishing the novel, Gaddis mused, “Maybe I can learn to talk like an intelligent adult again.” Gaddis had not spent the prior 20 years with an old man, nor had he turned into one. He had spent them with an 11-year-old boy, which is precisely why his novel was able to challenge the stultified adult vocabularies about money markets, educational bureaucracies, and publishing monopolies. It is a sentiment captured perfectly in an interview some years later when Gaddis explained that of all his work thus far, he cared most for his novel JR, because he was “awfully fond of the boy himself.” Does the long haul pay off? Maybe. Probably not. Part of the pursuit is learning to reexamine and shrug off these vocabularies -- ideas about investing, spending, and wasting one’s time, figuring out if it’s worth it, measuring output and productivity, taking stock of oneself, reevaluating oneself, earning respect -- vocabularies deployed to commodify and valuate our efforts, all in the interest of reducing us to that most basic currency: human capital. Maybe there is no real redemption, but redemption is an old gospel that has been repurposed by slot machines and a culturally constructed nostalgia telling you to Redeem your cash-voucher...Redeem your past. It has to be about something else now. The operative claim in The Tunnel, which appears early on in the novel, is that, “It is the dream of all men to re-create Time.” That dream, Gass proved, is fulfilled in the exhaustive process of creating a work of art that reformulates and overcomes the technologies of time in modern culture, technologies that would rather have us distracted, defeated, and subject to the slot machine “sleep-to-dream routine” of an over-simulated, over-stimulating network world. It takes figuring out what Time can mean in the first place, before it is dispensed to us, defined for us. When I write fiction, where am I? More importantly, when am I? Joshua Cohen, who completed his own mega-novel Witz a few years ago, once explained to me that, “The page has access to all of time.” Gass, it seems, and his ilk -- Linklater, Gaddis, Heizer, all of them -- discovered for themselves an interstice where every next day they could venture deeper into their own pasts, the underworlds of their own histories. They found that place where time does not flow in one direction, where memories and imaginings fold on to one another, where past, present, and future all become equally accessible. Illustration: Austen Claire Clements

The Millions Top Ten: May 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 6 months 2. 2. Beautiful Ruins 3 months 3. 5. Bark: Stories 2 months 4. 3. The Son 2 months 5. 4. Just Kids 5 months 6. 8. Eleanor & Park 2 months 7. 6. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 2 months 8. 9. The Good Lord Bird 2 months 9. - A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 1 month 10. 10. Jesus' Son: Stories 2 months   In order to graduate to our Hall of Fame, books must remain on the Millions Top Ten for more than six months. The feat has only been accomplished by 82 books in the series's five year history. Within that subset of hallowed tomes, though, eight authors have attained an even higher marker of success: they've reached the Hall of Fame more than once. This accomplishment is remarkable for two reasons: 1) the Top Ten typically favors heavily marketed new releases, so it means that these eight authors have more than once produced blockbusters in the past few years; and 2) because Top Ten graduates must remain on our monthly lists for over half a year before ascending to the Hall of Fame, that means their books must be popular enough to have sustained success. (In other words, marketing only gets you far.) The names of these eight authors should be familiar to Millions readers, of course. They belong to some of the most successful writers of the past 25 years: David Foster Wallace* (Infinite Jest, The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and — as of this month — Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle). (*David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction, actually, of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him.) Even money would seem to indicate that Alice Munro is poised to join this esteemed group next. Her Selected Stories graduated to the Hall of Fame shortly after her Nobel Prize was awarded in 2013, and her collection, The Beggar Maid, has been holding fast ever since. Meanwhile, the surprise re-emergence of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, which has been hovering at the bottom of the Top Ten lists these past two months, indicates that maybe he'll reach that group soon as well. His novella, Train Dreams, graduated in August of 2012. Changing gears a bit: the lone new addition to our Top Ten this month in the form of Rachel Cantor's mouthful of a novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World. The book, which was published last month, was featured in our Great 2014 Book Preview, during which time Millions staffer Hannah Gersen posed the eternal question, "It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for?" What more, indeed? Near Misses: Little Failure: A MemoirAmericanahStories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, and Tampa. See Also: Last month's list.

Selfie Sadism

Did David Foster Wallace predict our anxiety over selfies? At The Wire, Danielle Wiener-Bronner argues that Wallace was prescient in Infinite Jest. Although videophony, his concept of video-chatting, isn't the same thing as a selfie, the paranoia over looking good is strikingly current. "This sort of appearance check was no more resistible than a mirror. But the experience proved almost universally horrifying. People were horrified at how their own faces appeared on a TP screen."

Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith

1. I can still remember exactly where I learned certain words. I can recall Salman Rushdie's repeated use of assiduous in Midnight's Children. Or looking up pulchritude when I came across it in Zadie Smith's White Teeth. The first time I read the word fantod was not in Mark Twain, who popularized its usage, but in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, where it was invariably preceded by the word howling. Tennessee Williams taught me mendacity, and Thomas Pynchon taught me...well, he taught me a lot of words (among them: phalanx, faradic, tessellate, and hysteresis, as well as numerous words in numerous languages). Of course, I had undoubtedly read those words before reading each of the above works, but I had never absorbed them. The usage of the words in these novels and plays didn't just use the words –– they exploited the words for all they're worth. Saleem repeatedly attributes assiduity to his mother Amina in Midnight's Children. Mendacity is discussed at great length in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Zadie Smith makes the lovely observation that the ugliness of the word pulchritude doesn't match its meaning (Wallace, in his posthumous essay collection, Both Flesh and Not, notes that pulchritude is "part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adj.), classy, colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others."). I now associate these words with their respective authors. Every time I use one of them, it is as if I can feel the presence of my teacher over my shoulder. I am, in those moments, part of a tradition, albeit a small one. But what really excites me are authors who teach me new meanings to banal words. New words can be a joy, inasmuch as they remind me of the sheer vastness of language (not to mention my limited grasp of it), but the reconsideration of a word I already know –– now that is something. Defamiliarizing language reminds me that everything in language, even definition, is fluid, malleable, and open to inventive use. Shakespeare, obviously, is the easy example here. As Stephen Fry says, Shakespeare "made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got." He invented words (eyeballs, amazement, bedazzled) and reclassified others (the verb "to gloom" became "gloomy"). But for me personally, the writer who most tickles my linguistic fancy is Ali Smith, one of the most underappreciated writers working today. Ali Smith, appropriately enough, is one of the few writers (along with Nabokov, Stoppard, Woolf, Wallace, and Hitchens) who qualify as a "wordsmith." Her prose, however, isn't as rich or ornate as some of the other wordsmiths, but no one else can mine ordinary words for such rich, emotional meaning. Let's just start with some examples. Her latest novel, There But for the, exemplifies her remarkable acumen with quotidian language. Each of the four sections of the novel is named after the words of the title, and they also serve as the first word of the first sentence of each chapter. She mines "there" for everything it's got, beginning with the form of a knock-knock joke. Who's there? takes on new meaning once Anna, one of the protagonists, considers what it means to really be there, as in present. Her friend Denny tells her that he can "sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words...I was there. There I was." Suddenly the idea of thereness persists in her mind as Anna receives word that an old acquaintance has shut himself into a room at a dinner party, and refuses to come out: It was as if the whole outside world was TV soundtrack. Maybe there was a new psychosis, Tennis Players' Psychosis (TPP), where you went through life believing that an audience was always watching you, profoundly moved by your every move, reacting round your every reaction, your every momentous moment, with joy/excitement/dis-appointment/Schadenfreude. Presumably all professional tennis players had something like it, and maybe so to some extent did everybody who still believed in God. But would this mean that people who didn't have it were somehow less there in the world, or at least differently there, because they felt themselves less observed? Then, when Genevieve, the distraught homeowner, describes to Anna the situation with Miles and the dinner party, Anna suggests that Miles isn't "all there," to which Genevieve's precocious daughter replies: "He is all there...Where else could he be?" When Anna knocks on the door to Miles's newly adopted home, she asks, "Are you there?" In her memories of Miles, he tells her about a book he's writing, which begins, "There was once, and there was only once...Once was all there was," echoing the beginning of this novel, which begins, "There once was a man..." and goes on to set-up the dinner party fiasco. There is used, still in this section, in all of its varieties: "It's over there," "There," (as in, locating something and as in, There you go), or in the exchange, "What exactly is a pun therefore?" which yields the response, "What exactly is a pun there for?" The section ends with Anna saying, "I'm here," dropping one letter from the sections theme, creating a new word with a more intimate meaning. In lesser hands, all this verbal play would strike one as preening and obnoxious. In Ali Smith's delicate grip, words become emblems of the character's life. There introduces Anna's ponderous relationship with the world she's in, it questions Miles's sanity, it hints at the fable-like nature of the narrative, and it works as an introduction to the predicament that sets all of this into motion. This kind of gymnastic use of a single word is Smith's specialty, but instead of simply engaging in verbal pyrotechnics for their own sake (as, say, Barthelme arguably did), Smith wants to understand the dynamic between language and our inner lives. Can you really tell me, for instance, that you've never considered a word until its myriad meanings seem to encompass every aspect of your life? Well, even if you haven't, Smith has, and her constant quest for elastic language remains a singular pleasure in her work. In The First Person and Other Stories, she writes three tales named after fictional points of view: the title story and "The Second Person" and "The Third Person." Each one surprises you with what Smith means by the title. In "The First Person," a couple's almost cynical dynamic actually displays their burgeoning love for one another: You're not the first person I ever had really good talks like this with, I say. I know, you say. Been there, done that. You feel very practised. Thank you, I say. And you won't be the first person to leave me for someone else or something else. Well but we've a good while before that, with any luck, you say. And you're not the first person to, to, uh, to––, I say. To stump you? you say. Well. You're not the first person who was ever wounded by love. You're not the first person who ever knocked on my door. You're not the first person I ever chanced my arm with. You're not the first person I ever tried to impress with my brilliant performance of not really being impressed with anything. You're not the first person to make me laugh. You're not the first person I ever made laugh. You're not the first person full stop. But you're the one right now. I'm the one right now. We're the one right now. That's enough, yes? You're not the first person to make a speech like that at me, I say. Then we're both laughing hard again in each other's new arms. What a wonderful passage, how honest in so many ways. Smith shows here how, like language, we can embody multiple meanings, in this case the honest cynicism of relationships, that we've been through the dance before and that, in many ways, many of our emotional rituals are recycled and should thus lose power, but how despite all those logical thoughts, we feel love anyway. We feel new with a new love, even though we've felt new before, even though we've laughed in another's arms. Those thoughts don't matter, even though we're completely aware of them. We fall in love nonetheless. As if we never had before. 2. I'd like to ask a question here that Ann Patchett asked of Edith Pearlman: why isn't Ali Smith famous? Sure, her books have won numerous awards, but so have Pearlman's, and though her books are almost unanimously well acclaimed, she seems to only be known by writers. This kind of reputation usually draws the phrase writer's writer, but Smith, as I have argued, moves beyond mere linguistic innovation. Her books are soulful explorations of what it means to live inside our minds, with all the bouncy, circuitous thoughts that live in there with us. More than that, she is so immensely readable, her prose moves like the conversation of a witty friend. Accessible, playful and rich with insight, Smith has few peers. So: why isn't she famous? One answer might be Smith's tendency to beguile, not just in her books, but also in her career. She rarely sits down for an interview, does zero press for her books and consistently creates narratives with strange premises: a man refuses to leave a dinner party, a stranger upends a family when she appears at their home one night, a woman finds a child at a grocery store and can't rid herself of him. These are not the sorts of tales that ordinarily top the bestseller charts. Yet, would anyone expect George Saunders's books to sell well? Or, for that matter, Stephen King's? Most recently, Smith produced a book that defies categorization. Artful is, to me, one of the best and most unique works of literary criticism published in the last decade, yet it received minimal coverage, as if the reading world (in America, at least) responded to a new book from Smith with nonchalance: "Oh, that woman made another strange book." Sidestepping any conventional approach to analysis, Smith instead tells the fictional story of a woman who has lost her partner of many years. Her dead lover wrote a series of lectures on art and literature, thus the criticism done here is filtered through the point of view of a non-literary person who remembers her partner's work. A sense of mourning enters into the book, also of longing, of heartbreak, of love. Here's an example of the interplay between the emotional and the academic modes of Artful: There, I thought. I'm okay. I've moved a really heavy chair. I've changed things. And I've read sixteen lines in a novel and I've thought several things about them and none of this with you, or to do with you; I even read the phrase 'item of mortality' and thought of something other than you. Time heals all wounds. Or, as you used to say, time achilles-heels all wounds. Then you would tell the story of Achille's mother dipping him in the protective river, holding him by the heel between her finger and thumb; that's why the heel got missed out, didn't get protected. Which, you said, when it came to story, was what suspense meant. And from then on all time's arrows pointed at that unprotected heel. In this single passage, the narrator moves from personal reflection to broad insight and recollected literary analysis. What makes the choice of form here so wonderful is the way it reflects, to me, one's relationship with literature. Our brains (and, to be sure, our hearts) don't usually work like academic papers do –– we can't cite the exact quotation or prove our thesis at the drop of a hat. Instead, we recall the novels and stories and poems we've read and conjure a feeling or sensation we got when we first read them. Literature is a part of our unconscious life, just like past lovers, long-ago travels, and instances of pain and suffering and joy and hope. It is all mashed up into a messy medley of personal selfhood. Artful's narrator, then, becomes not just a tool for Smith's criticism but also a stand-in for the bridge between art and our selves. Art becomes a part of us yet exists independent from us, just like the people we love. Artful, though, engages in the academic approach as well, with Smith once again extracting as much as she can from single words. As the narrator rereads Oliver Twist, she remarks on the repeated use of the word 'green,' which is one of the first things the Artful Dodger (from whose name the book takes its title) says to Oliver when he meets him. In this same scene, Dodger asks Oliver about 'beaks,' which Oliver takes to mean "a bird's mouth." Dodger tells him that a beak is a magistrate, about which our narrator writes: It's like literality meeting a metaphor, I thought. Or –– no –– it's like a real apple meeting a Cezanne apple. It's as if Dodger speaks another language altogether; and it's as if Oliver has to understand that a beak can be more than one thing, and a mill, and all the words that come in the paragraph after too, a stone jug, a magpie. Everything can be more than itself. Everything IS more than itself. Underneath Smith's wordplay lies philosophical positivism –– like words, we all contain multitudes; we can be one thing and its opposite, or, like Smith writes of the Artful Dodger, whom Dickens refers to by various names, we are all "a work of shifting possibility." In a rare interview for a newspaper in Cambridge, where she lives, Smith had this to say about the instinctual connections you must make in order to allow a story to move where it wants to go: If you write something, you look at it, and maybe the word 'green' will turn up in four places in one paragraph, so then you think ‘what does green mean?’ It means immaturity, it means spring, it means newness, it means naivety. Then you look in those directions to see what the words wanted you to do. And there is a connection, just like she says. The word green appears again. Appears in Oliver Twist and in an interview with Smith. What, taking from Smith, are we to do with this? It would be easy to guess that Smith was probably working on Artful at the time of the interview (the piece focused on There But for the, Smith's book directly before Artful), but I'd like to think that it's more than that. I'm going to settle on newness, because whenever I think of Smith, new is a word that pops into my head. I wonder what she'd do with it. See what the words wanted you to do, she says. Smith follows words around like a detective, noting every street they walk down and every activity they engage in. She waits patiently for the telling moment, the odd behavior, and there (ahem) she finds its purpose, and the story seems to come along with it. Image Credit: Flickr/darwinbell

Waste Management: On Jonathan Miles’s Want Not

We are a society of consumers. In any of America’s 4,135 Walmart locations, you may find us observing our grotesque sacrament of consumption, enrobed in Duck Dynasty apparel and attended by trains of resource-gobbling offspring whose ominous chants for Monster Energy Drink and Despicable Me talking figurines can be heard halfway to the parking lot. We buy it; we break it, tire of it, or allow it to spoil; and we discard it. We are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and Black Friday is, as it were, our Black Mass. So, at any rate runs a popular line of self-flagellation -- but to what degree is it true? Jonathan Miles’s new novel, Want Not, hopes to make us think long and hard about this question. The book opens on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. Its three narratives, which cohere thematically but don’t much intersect in the contrived manner familiar to moviegoers, follow freegan squatters in Manhattan; the loathsome owner of a collection agency, his troubled wife, and his stepdaughter; and a middle-aged liguististics professor grappling with his failed marriage, his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, and a difficult project drawing on his knowledge of dead and dying languages. The squatter plot recalls Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy (2011), a novel about a Florida anarchist collective. There is, if not quite a love triangle, an odd domestic arrangement: Micah and Talmadge take on Matty, Talmadge’s childhood friend and fresh out of prison in Oregon. They lecture him about freeganism in a way that is also for the reader’s instruction, just as one Dan Brown character might explain the Priory of Sion to another. Gradually, these characters do assume real depth; a flashback to Micah’s own off-the-grid childhood and subsequent wanderings (as far as India) furnish the book’s most exotic, poetic passages, as in this description of Indian poverty: It wasn’t the makeshift blue shanties and lean-tos, or the women thrashing clothes on rocks, the men squatting to defecate in the shade of Peepal trees, or the naked, cinnamon-colored children cooling themselves in puddles -- all this was too familiar, even nostalgically comforting, to faze her. What wrenched her, instead, was the unnatural landscape of the poverty: the scale, the density, all the degraded details. The coolant-green, battery-acid-yellow swirls in the puddle those children were cooling in. The mustardy burning-trash haze that strangled the breeze those women were sucking into their lungs as they paused between thrashings. Matty goes through the motions of learning to scavenge, to salvage -- in one very effective nail-biter of a scene, he is nearly flattened in a trash compactor -- but his eye is on the main chance, and what he comes to find in his friends’ lifestyle is not salvation so much as criminal opportunity. Endowing Matty with this mercenary streak was a canny move on Miles’s part. It reveals a mature understanding that not everyone can be brought sincerely into the fold, that people will want what they want no matter how fully they may try to engage with the arguments of the pious. As for Elwin Cross Jr., the linguist, we encounter him just as he’s killed a deer with his Jeep Cherokee. There was, conveniently, a time in Cross’s youth when he pored over “the Foxfire books as if they were Talmudic scrolls,” and under the influence of wine and nostalgia he decides to take the kill home and butcher it. Waste not, want not. Miles describes this process so vividly and in so dignified a manner that, rather than making the reader squeamish, it may have him clicking over to the Cabela’s website. Other things that Elwin refuses to discard include his technically totaled Jeep; Christopher, the drunken, buffoonish son of his abusive neighbor; his father’s memories; the endangered languages of micro-ethnic groups. This may sound a bit too elegant, even pat, but it is mild in comparison with Dave Masoli, Miles’s laziest creation. Masoli is a Frankenstein’s monster of stereotypes. “An hour after eating Thanksgiving dinner,” Miles writes, Dave “was staring into the toilet with wide-eyed awe and admiration.” Yes, we are in for a bathetic rhapsody to a bowel movement -- in Dave’s view, a whole bowel symphony -- and like the scatological tableau in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, it doesn’t rise above the level of Tucker Max gross-out merely by being in an upper-middlebrow novel. It takes the book’s kitchen-sink approach to waste too literally and too far. Dave is obnoxious, greedy, unscrupulous, homophobic, racist, a cigar aficionado, and, of course, a Republican. Ostentatiously humanizing a caricature like this, as Miles ultimately does, may be worse than having drawn the caricature in the first place. It suggests that Miles believes he is being imaginative, or insightful, or even shocking in proposing that a person such as Dave might also possess a soul. That most people are walking contradictions should cease to astonish around the time one’s history teacher reveals that Hitler was a vegetarian and Stalin wrote love poetry. Miles’s plot, his superflux of character and incident, is at times as bloated as the America it examines. Want Not seems to crave pride of place with such “sprawling” books as Infinite Jest and Freedom. Miles includes an unsubtle advertisement for his own simile-laden prose style on the first page: One of his characters is “an inveterate analogizer who couldn’t help viewing the world as a matrix of interconnected references in which everything was related to everything else through the associative, magnetizing impulses of his brain. Back in college he’d read that this trait was an indicator of genius.” Want Not isn’t a work of genius, but it is a triumph of careful planning. It is a book designed for book clubs and high school classrooms. Its themes and morals are, like one of those barn-owl-pellet science kits, both easy to unpack and, if considered in the right frame of mind, fascinating. Its reach may exceed its grasp, but it earns that oft-abused adjective ambitious. With the lone exception of Dave Masoli, Miles’s characters are well drawn, convincing, and easy to care about; his prose is intricate but reads at a good clip. But the greatest compliment one can pay Want Not is that it turns out not to be a didactic novel about reducing, reusing, and recycling. It may be just the opposite, a subversive argument that we are focusing our attention on the wrong sort of waste. Elwin’s project is to help prepare a warning for a New Mexico HAZMAT dump, a message that will be intelligible to a civiliation of 10,000 years hence. It is an exercise in deep-time communication, and based on a real-life project at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. For all that well-educated Americans enjoy trash-talking themselves and their consumption habits, the deep-time warning makes us seem optimistically conscientous. Man, if by some miracle he endures another 10,000 years, may face far more serious threats than the presence of a radioactive junkyard. Yet he insists on making an effort to protect our children’s children’s children, ad infinitum. Good for him. Call it love or humanity or something like it. But let’s not forget our actual children. The book describes one heartbreaking miscarriage, one live birth consigned to and rescued from a dumpster. Miles’s main characters are people who need to be picked up, dusted off, and repaired. Sometimes one suspects that Miles is instructing us not to worry so much about abstractions. “[G]arbage was the only truthful thing civilization produced,” Matty thinks, “because that’s where all the dirty secrets went.” Ask any archaeologist: We are that garbage. We’re all headed for the same scrap heap, as is our species, as far as deep time is concerned. It’s to our great credit that we look to the future, but we shouldn’t let our very fleeting present go to waste, either.

January Books: A Reading List for the First Month of the New Year

What really begins in January, besides the calendar? Winter isn't even close to ending, and nothing but the new year is being born. But we do, nevertheless, like to start things when the year starts. Maybe it's that the quiet hibernation of the time, after the excess of the holidays, gives us the chance to reflect and resolve. Maybe, for those who believe, it's that our "decayed world," as Edmund Spenser introduced his Shepheardes Calender, has recently been refreshed by the birth of Christ. Or maybe it's just the arbitrary placebo effect of a change of digit and a clear new calendar page. What will you resolve to read in January? A new diet book? Will you try, once again, to finish Getting Things Done? Or will this be the year you'll read Proust, or Infinite Jest, or A Dance to the Music of Time? Or, might I humbly suggest, you could commence the healthful daily practice of reading a literary almanac. In the 366 daily pages of A Reader's Book of Days, I tell a thousand or two tales from the real lives of writers, as well as the lives they've invented. I also sum up each month with a short essay and a list of recommended reading, and that, I found, was the hardest part. Not that there wasn't enough to say. Quite the opposite: there was too much. Talk about arbitrary! No 400 words or short stack of books could fully represent a 12th of the literary year. So it's with a sense of incompletion that I offer my nine recommendations here for January, books and poems that begin, or hinge, or are contained in the year's first month. Aside from almanacs like mine, surprisingly few books actually start in January, by the way; one of those that does may be the most appropriate January book of them all, though it's not included below: Bridget Jones's Diary, which opens the year not with hope but a hangover. A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy (1909) What did Tolstoy, in his last years, believe was the great work of his life? War and Peace? Anna Karenina? No, this anthology he spent 15 years gathering, which mixed his own aphorisms with those of the “best and wisest thinkers of the world,” organized by a theme for each day of the year. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1936) As the southern summer opens up the South Pole for exploration, a scientific expedition led by professors Dyer and Lake discovers behind a range of unknown Antarctic mountains a vast, dead, and ancient city, one of the most evil and benighted of Lovecraft’s inhuman horrors. “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden (1940) With hatreds convulsing the world “like a baffling crime,” Auden composed one of his great long poems as a letter to “dear friend Elizabeth,” whose hospitality in his adopted home of New York helped him toward this vision of order in art and life during a time of tyranny. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968) You are far more likely to know Blade Runner than its source novel, set on a single January day in a post-nuclear 1992, which features, rather than Ridley Scott’s neon glamor, Dick’s equally thrilling and disturbing brand of stripped-down noir. Airport by Arthur Hailey (1968) Arthur Hailey wrote blockbusters like no one else, earnest and fact-filled dramas set in a series of massive industrial monoliths: banks, hotels, power plants, and, in this case, Lincoln International Airport in Illinois, during the worst winter storm of the decade, with one jetliner stuck at the end of a runway and another coming in fast with a bomb on board. “In California: Morning, Evening, Late January” by Denise Levertov (1989) Levertov’s pastoral is unseasonal in the temperate lushness of its California winter, and unsettling in its vision of the industrial forces invading and managing its beauty. The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992) Another novel overshadowed by its movie adaptation, The Children of Men, in a startling departure from James’s Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, uses the premise of a world in which human fertility has disappeared to examine the nature and lure of power. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000) Smith’s debut, which begins with Archie Jones's failed January suicide, has too much life to begin with a death: it overflows with not only the variety of multi-ethnic London but the exuberance of Smith taking her brilliant talent for its first walk out on the stage. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006) One of the omnivore’s dilemmas is how to navigate a world whose technology and global trade have accustomed even New Englanders to unseasonal luxuries like sweet corn and asparagus in the middle of January.

The Map and the Territory: Infinite Boston

Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House 1. On the overcast morning of February 23rd, snow still on the ground, I embarked with the students in my Harvard undergraduate seminar on a walking tour of Cambridge and Boston. We began at Harvard Square, walked northeast to Inman, south along Prospect St. to Central Square, and took the “T” out to the Warren St. station in the Allston/Brighton area. We toured the grounds of the Brighton Marine Health Center, and carried on up the hill to the surroundings of St. Gabriel’s Monastery, closed since 1978. From there we gazed back down at the imposing Brighton High School, and beyond that surveyed a vista of the city, and the territory we had crossed. The occasion for this outing was the inaugural Infinite Boston tour, a journey orientated by sites and events described in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. I borrow the phrase “Infinite Boston” from William Beutler’s website of that name, described on its homepage as “a limited-run essay series about the real-life Boston area locations” featured in Wallace’s novel. The site is choc-full of excellent photographs and illuminating descriptions of the various streets and spaces of the book. When confirmation came that I would be teaching “David Foster Wallace and his Generation” in the Spring semester, I contacted Mr. Beutler to see if he would be interested in leading an official tour. It turns out that he does not live in Boston, but in D.C. Instead, he kindly put me in touch with another Bill, Bill Lattanzi – Cambridge resident, playwright, science documentary maker, and part-time MIT professor – who undertook the pre-planning and did the honors in fine style on the day. I myself am not a native of Boston, or even of the U.S.: I am Irish-born, and hail from Dublin, a city inextricably bound up with another great twentieth-century novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Many visitors to my hometown are attracted by their reading of this modernist masterpiece – it’s a rare novel that can make a city famous, as a friend recently commented to me – and those cultural tourists are presented on arrival with a variety of tour options based on Joyce and his most famous book. A well-known quip about Ulysses has it that were Dublin to be destroyed, it could be reconstructed from the meticulous detail that makes up the novel. The same may not quite be true of Infinite Jest. The “metro Boston area” described in the novel is reconstructed in part as a future fantasia, and with the exception of Don Gately’s jaunty drive crosstown in a pimped-up Ford Aventura, no character comes close to covering the city as thoroughly as Leopold Bloom does in his perambulations. Nonetheless, Wallace’s vision, like Joyce’s, is significantly rooted in the vagaries and possibilities of place. This is something I came gradually to appreciate while living in Cambridge and re-reading Infinite Jest for our seminar. I have never thought of myself as having a particularly nuanced or consciously deep relationship to place. I don’t consider this a character flaw, exactly, more a trait that occasionally causes bemusement in me and mild exasperation in some of my friends, the more observant of whom might want to draw my attention to the contours of a street corner or an unusual pattern of plant life. In rural surroundings, I often find myself afflicted by the kind of gentle anxiety I imagine is common to the post-Romantic mind, whereby an abiding connection to nature is more regularly displaced by awareness of the absence of an abiding connection to nature. Even in cities, those hubs of the modernist spirit, I am capable of walking around lost in thought and the realm of ideas, barely recognizing the details small and large that make up urban life. This can be the case even upon visiting a city for the first time, when I should, in theory, be most open to fresh realities. But my natural affinity for theory over reality, for the ideal over the material, is probably what inspires the thing I like most about exploring a new city: studying and internalizing its representation on a map. Like some overly literalist version of the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, I need a cognitive map before I can begin to appreciate fully the territory that has inspired its construction. This want of affinity for the materiality of place is no doubt a contributing factor to the kind of literary criticism I write. The essays on Wallace I have published to date, for instance, have discussed his work mainly in the context of the history of ideas. I have written on the new kind of sincerity embodied in Wallace’s fiction, on his use of dialogue to explore logical, political, and cultural ideas, and on the challenges posed by his fiction to the norms of contemporary criticism. What I lacked before coming to the U.S. was an appreciation of the rootedness of his work in a specific geography. Before living in Cambridge, in other words, I had experienced only how the map could shape the territory. Re-reading Infinite Jest, and participating in Infinite Boston, allowed me to see how the territory might conversely underpin the literary map. 2. This recurrent language of map and territory is drawn, of course, from Infinite Jest itself, and particularly the famous Eschaton scene that takes place at Enfield Tennis Academy. Our tour took place on a Saturday, and for class two days later we read a long stretch through the middle of the novel, beginning with Eschaton and culminating in Gately’s brutal fight with the Canadian gangsters that occurs outside the novel’s other primary institutional site, Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic). At nearly 300 pages, this constituted approximately twice the usual reading for a class, the previous week’s meeting having been annexed by Presidents Day. In conjunction with Infinite Boston, however, these sections of the novel provided much food for thought and classroom discussion on the question of place. Eschaton is “an atavistic global-nuclear-conflict game,” but one renowned among the students who play it for its theoretical purity. It takes place on four contiguous tennis courts, which, as one of my own students put it in his mid-term paper, “represent a concrete war territory but are themselves only theoretical in nature.” This fragile distinction between theory and reality – an opposition that, owing to the representational quality of the Eschaton game itself, does not fold neatly onto map vs. territory – comes under pressure when snow begins to fall during the game. In response to the young participant JJ Penn’s suggestion that the snow should alter the calculations that constitute the game’s action, Michael Pemulis, an older student and “sort of eminence grise of Eschaton,” is apoplectic: “It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!” Pemulis might well be clear in his own mind on the rules, and on the necessary axioms that allow for the rules to apply – “Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game” – but all this “metatheoretical fuss” is both negated and sublated when Evan Ingersoll attacks Ann Kittenplan with a direct hit that he also claims is a strike against the world superpower she represents. Of course, Wallace is drawing attention here to the unreal idealities of global nuclear conflict during the Cold War, where game theoretic strategies often took precedence over the lives and concerns of real human beings. But the Eschaton scene is also a comment upon the role of fiction itself as a form of representation that takes the world as its object without becoming identical with it, or even being tied to it. The fact that real events such as falling snow and inter-player fights can “threaten the game’s whole sense of animating realism” tells us something important about the artifice of realism, but it also tells us something about place, and how it gets transmuted into fiction. In his entertaining new preface to the just re-published Signifying Rappers – wherein I learned that some of my favorite haunts in Cambridge were also David Wallace’s back in the summer of 1989 – Wallace’s co-author Mark Costello offers one reading of the way place fed into his friend’s writing in that book: “There’s a bounce in the prose that captures some of the fun, god-damnit fun, to be found around Boston that summer.” This sentiment locates the affective quality of place in the experience of the writer himself: a fun time generates bouncy prose. But the “elegant complexity” of the Eschaton scene teaches us that there are also other, and perhaps more interesting, ways to consider the relationship between writing and place. In Wallace’s personal library held at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, there is a book called A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest. A collection edited by Michael Martone, it dates from 1988, and Wallace might have encountered it soon after its publication or later in his career. If his markings are to be our guide, however, it seems clear that Wallace only ever read one essay from the book. This is the contribution by Martone himself, a short meditation entitled “The Flatness.” On the opening page, Wallace underlines some isolated words and phrases, but the only full sentence he marks is the third one: “The geometry of the fields suggests a map as large as the thing it represents.” This sounds, of course, like a Borgesian idea, and Wallace was a committed fan of Borges: in a review of a biography of the Argentinian author, Wallace called him “one of the best and most important fiction writers of the last century.” Nonetheless, the metaphysical conceit Martone invokes is in this case simply the precursor to a more aesthetic conceit, one that clearly attracted Wallace’s attention. Five pages later, in the final paragraph of the essay, he underlines the following sentences: “I grew up in a landscape not often painted or photographed. The place is more like the materials of the art itself – the stretched canvas and paper.” Beside this, Wallace writes in the margin, “Not object but medium.” Place not as the object of art, but as its medium. If we take this complicated idea seriously, then the “bounce in the prose” inspired by the writer’s subjective experience of place becomes supplemented, and even transcended, by a stronger claim to the centrality of place as the objective medium for art. And a medium is not only the canvas or paper on which art gets created; it can also be, as Marshall McLuhan informed us, the message itself. Moreover, for an advanced artist like Wallace, the medium is what provides the norms and characteristics whose exploration and expansion become part of his project, become part of what his art is attempting to articulate and express. Here the Boston of Infinite Jest (and its Midwestern counterpart, the flat Peoria of The Pale King) becomes the medium without which there would be no message, becomes the real boundary that limits but also enables the acts of the artist’s transformative imagination. 3. As we traveled from stop to stop on the tour, Bill alternated his commentary among relevant anecdotes from Wallace’s biography, his own reminiscences from 1980s Cambridge, and passages from Infinite Jest. Outside the Cambridge Hospital, he read aloud the scene of Poor Tony Krause’s post-seizure release back into the world. On the green line from Park St. to Warren St., I read the passage about Mike Pemulis’s drug run to obtain samples of “the incredibly potent DMZ” (the reactions of the train’s non-affiliated passengers remain unrecorded). Standing in the grounds of Brighton Marine Health Center, the students took turns reading the novel’s descriptions of the “seven exterior Units on the grounds of Enfield Marine Public Health Hospital.” Here we could remark on Wallace’s imaginative fervor in inventing the grim activities of the various Units – #1 treats “Vietnam vets for certain very-delayed stress disorders,” #4 houses “Alzheimer’s patients with VA pensions,” #5 is a home for catatonics – and simultaneously test the accuracy of his descriptions of the “seven moons orbiting a dead planet” against the realities of the place that inspired those descriptions. All of these buildings we could see for ourselves, in other words, so that characters’ movements could be imagined, and their sightlines reconstructed, with a new awareness of the possibilities the place provided. Bill and I had agreed in advance that we should end the morning by each choosing a favorite passage from the novel to read. Bill selected the scene of Mario Incandenza’s nighttime walk down the Enfield Hill to the grounds of Ennet House. When I sat down the following evening to finish the reading for class, I found myself entranced as never before by this scene, which directly precedes Gately’s fight. In keeping, perhaps, with my relative obliviousness to place, I don’t consider myself to have much of a creative visual imagination as a reader (something my fiancée likes to poke fun at me for), and so having a clear picture of Ennet House from the day prior enriched my experience in unanticipated ways. With the “real” Ennet House in my mind’s eye, I could better appreciate Mario’s warm feelings for the “crowded and noisy” authenticity of the halfway house, a place “where people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” I could see the darkness surrounding the buildings, the lights illuminating the residents of the house, the ramp on which they go outside to smoke, Mario smiling grotesquely but tenderly as he and his police lock stand tilted forward on the cusp of the hill. For my own concluding contribution to the tour, I chose a more ostensibly abstract passage, which I read aloud as we stood on the hill by the old monastery, overlooking the high school and the city: Schtitt’s thrust, and his one great irresistible attraction in the eyes of Mario’s late father: The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion. Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again. I don’t necessarily think that Wallace agreed with Gerhardt Schtitt’s analysis of tennis or of the self. The German coach’s “Old World patriarchal” values retain a whiff of fascism, something the capitalization of State alludes to here. Schtitt’s neo-Hegelian understanding of the relationship between self and other also denies the true existence of another who is not simply the occasion for meeting the self; this position is uncomfortably close to what Wallace will elsewhere say he most fears, the trap of solipsism. Nevertheless, when it comes to emotionally affecting passages of philosophically inspired prose, Wallace has few equals in literary history. It is difficult for me to read, even silently, those closing sentiments – “It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same...” – without being moved both intellectually and emotionally, without having my head throb heartlike, as Wallace suggested to his editor Michael Pietsch he wanted to achieve with Infinite Jest. What finally interests me most about this passage, however, is the discussion of boundaries and limits it contains. One of Wallace’s most profound historical projects involved trying to convince his generation of Americans that they needed to revalue and reestablish boundaries; rather than individual freedom inhering in a lack of restrictions, limits could be understood as animating and enabling. The boundaries of a game, and the boundaries of a self, were clearly two kinds of limits that fascinated Wallace. But there are also the boundaries set by the tennis court itself, the medium through which this particular confrontation with the truth of limits occurs. It might be, then, that the most enabling boundaries for any writer are the boundaries of the places he or she inhabits and knows well, real territories transmuted in the writer’s mind into maps of new territories that are then opened for exploration by readers. It is a well-established fact about Wallace that forging a connection between writer and reader was for him a central aim. I have found, as a reader of Wallace, that this connection can be deepened and extended by a trip around the Boston of Infinite Jest, the writer’s canvas, his territory, his map and his medium, all at once.

Devoutly to Be Wished: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Consummation

1. Having recently regained dry land after four weeks adrift in the first thousand pages of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s pelagic six-volume My Struggle (only to find myself confronted with a note-strewn desk and two large books bristling with the polychromic sticky tabs it now occurs to me I might have wanted to devise a reasonably consistent system for deploying), I’m troubled by the sense that if there’s ever been a literary project best left to speak for itself, My Struggle might be it. It’s also likely that the many liberties its author takes — with conventional narrative structure, with any readily discernible logic dictating some passages’ tortuous paths of thought, with grammatical norms, and even with the ordinarily sacrosanct writer’s mandate to eschew cliché — have overwhelmed the sector of my brain that transacts in sentences, paragraphs, rhetorical touch, and so forth, to the extent that I’m in for my own considerable struggle here as I try to transform the notes I scribbled down with seeming indiscrimination in several different notebooks, Book 2’s margins, on Post-its and the back of a gas bill that it looks like still needs to be paid into an orderly account of what it’s like to read Knausgaard. Nevertheless, some thoughts: The first thing I should emphasize is that I found myself consumed by My Struggle, swallowed whole in a way that recalled for me the experience of reading similarly mammoth works like Moby-Dick, JR, Crime and Punishment, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 2666 — Big Books that temporarily assume an autocrat’s control over their readers’ inner lives. And then since my ostensible focus here is Book Two: A Man in Love, I should also single out for praise this second volume while conceding that it’s in many ways merely an amplification of the first, and that this is both a merit and demerit. Which is to say that if you found yourself unable to put Book One down even during some of its most water-treadingly indulgent-seeming passages of plotless drift precisely because you were compelled by the minutiae of Knausgaard’s “struggle,” then you will find a lot to keep you reading through A Man In Love’s near-600 pages. If, on the other hand, you found the former book frequently irritating, disagreed with its author’s aggressive indifference to poetic niceties; if you considered it an unconscionably navel-gazing sprawl, the dull and the mundane speciously elevated to metaphysical heights the actual text rarely managed to reach...you may not make it through Book Two. I’m in the former camp: read both books hungrily and find myself already missing Knausgaard just a few days after turning A Man in Love’s last page, searching the Web for inexpensive crash courses in Norwegian, mostly just wishing Volume Three were available in English now. (At roughly five hundred pages per installment, the last four are presumably intruding nightly on heroic translator Don Bartlett’s sleep). Some readers will be put off by the prospect of a prose work of Proustian length written in sentences that lack Proust’s style, elegance, and grace; I, too, had a hard time with some of the silly all-caps interjections (“FUCK, SHIT, FUCK!”) along with the frequent, blithe lapses into rank cliché — “The time was ripe,” “It was now or never,” “She was clearly cut from the same cloth as me,” and so on. The writing is purportedly ungainly in its original Norwegian, too. And yet the coarse phrasing serves Knausgaard’s overarching purpose oddly well. While there’s very little polish at phrase-level, sentences are syntactically complex — circuitous, recursive, serpentine in the way bar-stool disquisitions on points of intense personal interest can be — and if consistently guilty of the serial-comma-splice, then also a reflection of the almost desperate speed with which Knausgaard seems determined to track every insight, notion, thought-line, argument, reflection through the labyrinthine warrens of whatever burrowing creature’s hole it’s drawn him down. Here he is, for instance, having just returned with his nursery-school-age daughter from a classmate’s birthday party: I returned the glass to the table and stubbed out my cigarette. There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with. The whole crowd of them could have burned in hell for all I cared. This was a role in my life. When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them. It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not. Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts. What was the problem? On the other hand, it would be unfair if the ratio of thought to action here left readers with the false impression that this is a 573-page book in which nothing happens. In passages that volley back and forth through time we see young Karl Ove decamp for Stockholm; sever ties with almost all of his old life in Norway, (which program includes leaving his first wife); fall in love again; remarry; fight to sustain (and then, once it’s begun to slip away, recover) the elation of those first few months of courtship as the new couple settles into everyday routine; witness his second wife Linda’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of their first daughter; give listless interviews and lectures on his books and ambivalence towards literary fame; discourse with friends and enemies on being, art, morality — but the sections I liked best, the ones that make the books worth reading, retreat from these episodes and trek into the underground of consciousness, where Knausgaard’s unchecked and frequently volatile reflections are no longer bound by the normative limits of decent speech and behavior in respectable company. 2. Some of these sentences and paragraphs are long, but they operate in a way very much unlike those of some other writers one tends to class as either maximalist or longwinded, depending on one’s feelings about length in prose: Thomas Bernhard, David Foster Wallace, or László Krasznahorkai. Bernhard’s read almost like parodies of manic, rabid, raving thought — they are very much internal monologues. And while they are unhinged at times, what seems like madness is really an insane deference to logic: a logic that will pursue the necessary consequences of first premises far beyond the boundaries of bourgeois comfort, into the truth that lies beneath and must be left to lie there unlooked-at if life will be lived, if family, colleagues, social circles are to be engaged — basically, if anything is to be done. Bernhard, like Beckett, is in this way very funny. His narrators’ better tirades follow their merciless logic to conclusions that are shocking or at least discomfiting not only because we can’t believe somebody’s saying this, but because of the disquieting sense that they might actually be true. Here is a representative passage from Concrete, in the midst of a mostly book-spanning “digression” from the narrator’s stated purpose, which is to write a definitive study of composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy: My preparations have now been going on for years, for more than a decade, as I have said. Perhaps, it occurs to me, I ought not to have interrupted them by doing other things, perhaps I shouldn’t have begun anything on Schonberg or Reger, or even contemplated the Nietzsche sketch: all these diversions, instead of preparing me for Mendelssohn, simply took me further and further from him. […] All these attempts […] had basically been merely distractions from my main subject; moreover, they had all been failures, a fact which could only weaken my morale. It’s a good thing I destroyed them all […] But I’ve always had a sound instinct about what should be published and what should not, having always believed that publishing is senseless, if not an intellectual crime, or rather a capital offence against the intellect. […] Had I published my essay on Schonberg I shouldn’t dare to be seen in the street any longer; the same would be true if I’d published my work on Nietzsche, although that was not a complete failure. To publish anything is folly and evidence of a certain defect of character. […] And what about my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy? […] Naturally I intend to publish it, whatever the consequences. For I actually believe that this work will be my most successful, or rather my least unsuccessful. I certainly am thinking of publishing it! But before I can publish it I have to write it, I thought, and at this thought I burst into a fit of laughter, of what I call self-laughter, to which I have become prone over the years through being constantly alone. The reason Concrete’s narrator can’t begin the monumental work to which he has devoted this phase of his life is that he foresees, correctly, that no matter how far he manages to go it won’t be far enough. Anything he writes will fall short of his vision, and while this insight is common enough to be a cliché, it’s a cliché that the artist who aspires to make art has to disregard if he’s ever to make anything. In other words, the productive artist necessarily suppresses his integrity, proceeds as if it weren’t true that anything he ultimately brings into the world will be, beside its incorporeal Platonic vision, a disappointment. What’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious in Bernhard is his narrators’ integrity, their refusal to compromise, to deceive themselves or allow themselves to be deceived into acceptance of the subtle deviations from the truth that are what enable us to go about our lives. Meanwhile, Krasznahorkai’s long sentences read to me much more like speech transcribed: musings, sermons, lectures, disquisitions, diatribes, and, above all, stories. They’re less internal than Bernhard’s; even when tracing a character’s unspoken thoughts they’re more like a figure talking to himself than a lunatic frantically looping along Bernhardian nightmare theme park rides, hurtling towards madness and death. Here, the former composer who has not only retired from creative life but sealed himself off from the depressed Hungarian small town in which The Melancholy of Resistance takes place has had (while hammering nails) a Saul-of-Tarsus-style revelation: It was indeed a sudden awakening, but, like all such awakenings, not wholly unheralded, for before he set out on his tour he had been aware only of the plainly laughable nature of his efforts, the chief of which was to prevent his left hand being battered to pieces, a piffling task to which he applied the whole might of his considerable intellect [that] […]laughable as it was, […] [intimated that] there was a deeper, more complex issue at stake, the nature of which was to allow him to master the art of banging in nails. He recalled various stages in his frantic efforts and the fact that even then […] he had suspected that any eventual resolution would not be due entirely to taking rational thought in the matter, a suspicion that had in the meantime become a certainty, for […]this apparently insignificant task had been resolved by a […] flexible attitude to permutations, the passage from ‘missing the point’ to ‘hitting the nail on the head’ so to speak, owing nothing, absolutely nothing, to concentrated logic and everything to improvisation […] He had arrived at the decisive moment of resignation, the happy little glimmer on the head of the nail conjured nothing more or less than a mysterious, unforgettable sensation that had surprised him on his way home, that despite the apparently insufferable condition of the town, he was glad simply to be alive […] Knausgaard, in contrast with Krasznahorkai and Bernhard, neither transposes creative-impotence-induced nerve-trauma nor conjures weirdly dialectic soliloquies. Instead, the image his prose—and even his subject—frequently calls to this reader’s mind is an author bent over his keypad, typing at very high-gear velocity: I began to work, sat in my new office on Dalagatan writing every day while Linda was at home with Vanja and came to see me for lunch, often worried about something but also happy, she was closer to the child and what was happening than me, for I was writing what had started out as a long essay [but] slowly but surely was growing into a novel, it soon reached a point where it was everything and writing was all I did, I moved into the office, wrote day and night, sleeping an hour here and there. I was filled with an absolutely fantastic feeling, a kind of light burnt within me, not hot and consuming but cold and clear and shining. At night I took a cup of coffee with me and sat down on the bench outside the hospital to smoke, the streets around me were quiet, and I could hardly sit still, so great was my happiness. Everything was possible. Everything made sense. Knausgaard’s purpose in My Struggle, explicit in its title, is to simultaneously depict, scrutinize and enact the process of writing the very work that narrates the story of its author writing himself through and ultimately out of his consuming need to write. It’s an impressive trick. If Bernhard’s books are often long uninhibited screeds “about” inhibited artists and writers, then Knausgaard’s first two volumes are “about” a man’s struggle to surmount the mundane impediments to his being present at his desk, feverishly cataloguing and endlessly carping about these same impediments to his being there. The most substantial narrative arc in these two volumes traces the composition of the memoir as it’s being composed — which means, since by default nearly every non-writing activity, obligation, interaction, and relationship constitutes a kind of roadblock in this composition’s path, antagonists abound: A few weeks after the novel was finished life began as a house husband, and the plan was it would last until next spring while Linda did the last year of her training at the Dramatiska Institutet. The novel writing had taken its toll on our relationship, I slept in the office for six weeks, barely seeing Linda and our five-month-old daughter, and when at last it was over she was relieved and happy, and I owed it to her to be there, not just in the same room, physically, but also with all my attention and participation. I couldn’t do it. For several months I felt a sorrow at not being where I had been, in the cold, clear environment, and my yearning to return was stronger than my pleasure at the life we lived. The fact that the novel was doing well didn’t matter. After every good review I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, after every conversation with the agent at the publisher’s when a foreign company had shown some interest or made an offer, I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, and I wasn’t very interested when it was eventually nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, for if there was one thing I had learned over the last six months it was that what all writing was about was writing. 3. It’s true that if this were all Knausgaard had to offer his readers, few would be inclined to indulge him for 3,000 pages (and furthermore provokes contemplation of how, for instance, a 3,000-page counter-memoir composed by Linda about her struggle to put up with her husband’s duty-shirking on the home front during their matrimony’s embryonic phase might read); but intricately textured, almost Altman-like social episodes compel a mesmeric attention that’s at times tough to account for rationally. At birthday parties, literary conferences, a christening, a funeral, in bookstores, flats, supermarkets, bars, a restless Knausgaard interacts with the whole rolling cast of people intimately or peripherally involved in his professional and private life. Much of the readerly fun to be found in these transcriptions of the interpersonal mundane inheres in the persistent dissonance between Knausgaard’s mild outward manner and the frank, often punishing perlustrations to which he subsequently subjects both his interlocutors and himself. An interview that on the surface seems to come off fairly well gets angrily dismissed as ersatz-High Culture fluff — vapid onanism Knausgaard validates by placidly agreeing to take part: The problem is what surrounds all these authorships, the flattery that mediocre writers thrive on and, as a consequence of their false self-image, everything they are emboldened to say to the press and TV. I know what I’m talking about. I’m one of them myself. Oh, I could cut off my head with the bitterness and shame that I have allowed myself to be lured, not just once but time after time. If I have learned one thing over these years, which seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following: Don't believe you are anybody. Do not fucking believe you are somebody. Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit. Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit. So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit. I also found it difficult to part ways with many characters. Knausgaard’s daughters, in particular, benefit from the filterless, unembellished presentation, probably because small children tend to do amusing, irritating, infuriating, and endearing things. Meanwhile, his friend and confidante, Geir, an academic equipped with copious wit and opinion, gets many of the book’s most entertaining lines, but also often makes both Knausgaard and the reader pause to think. Here he is with Karl Ove, Geir first: “I think it’s Sigurd Slembe. The time to act. To act or not to act. It’s classic Hamlet. To be an actor in your own life or a spectator.” “And you are?” “Good question.” A silence arose. Then he said: “I’m probably a spectator, with elements of choreographed action. But I don’t really know. I think there’s a lot inside me that I can’t see. And so it doesn’t exist. And you?” “Spectator.” “But you’re here. And yesterday you were in Bergen.” “Yes. But this is not the result of any decision. It was forced.” “That’s perhaps another way of making a decision, hm? Letting whatever happens do it for you?” “Maybe.” “That’s strange,” he said. “The more unreflective you are, the more active you are. You know, the boxers I wrote about had an incredible presence. But that meant they weren’t spectators of themselves, so they didn’t remember anything. Not a thing! Share the moment with me here and now. That was their offer. And of course that works for them, they always have to enter the ring again, and if you’ve been given a pounding in the previous fight it’s best if you don’t remember it too well, otherwise you’ve had it. But their presence was absolutely amazing. It filled everything. Vita contemplativa or vita activa, I supposed they’re the two forms, aren’t they? It’s an old problem, of course. Besets all spectators. But not actors. It’s a typical spectator problem . . .” Behind us, Christina stuck her head through the door. “Would you two like some coffee?” “Please,” I said. Book One’s critical event — the death of Knausgaard’s father — serves as a backdrop for the real story: Knausgaard’s breakthrough decision to build the first volume of his memoir around it; similarly, the less harrowing but no less felt drama of his grudging entrée into love and domestic life anchors A Man in Love’s story of a man fighting to reconcile that love with his almost inhuman artistic designs. No surprise that not all of the individuals who came across versions of themselves in these pages were pleased with their portrayals. (The threat of legal action on the part of certain relatives resulted in Knausgaard and his Norwegian publisher agreeing to change a few names.) But in light of Knausgaard’s overall intent, they’re probably depicted accurately — not as a Dickensian cast of characters acting out one grandly shared humanist drama but rather as figures who on occasion drop by to complicate Knausgaard’s ongoing struggle to write something great. These aren’t quite people in the ordinary sense but a near-endless series of person-shaped impressions — shadows flitting across the beam of the author’s incandescently projected vision. If anyone is conscious of just how cold this frequently can make him seem, it’s certainly Knausgaard himself, who throughout both volumes lapses into long handwringing fits of self-loathing and  -condemnation, agonized by his sense that he’s letting down everyone he ought to love. 4. I call this sometimes-sociopathic-seeming tendency to reduce in their representation real people to sources of personal annoyance “accurate” because, with astounding single-mindedness (or monomania, if you prefer), Knausgaard conceives of and then executes the writing project that both consumes him and sequesters him from life. He’s Ahab, only with the final volume’s publication — which reportedly concludes with whatever the Norwegian is for “I am no longer an author” — he’s gone and caught the whale. One interpretation of a literary quest to kill its own author might be that it’s perverse: in seeking to extinguish the artistic impulse, the author aims to annihilate not only the ambition that has driven him throughout his adult life, but an identity built up and burnished over decades. If Knausgaard is no longer an author, what is he? What will he be? And then, from a career-lensed perspective, killing the whale is suicide. I’ve often wondered whether Wallace unintentionally terminated the novelist in himself with Infinite Jest; certainly the title of his final short-fiction collection, as well as that volume’s persistently bleak takes on the value of an individual’s drive to achieve anything, suggests a despair of ever returning from the wasteland that a book of near precedent-less critical approbation can exile its author to: after you’ve done it, what are you supposed to do? Just as Joyce could not in the ‘30s send Bloom off on another Dublin tour, so Wallace’s next novel couldn’t be I.J. Redux. On the other hand, few, if any, authors aspiring to compose literary art that I know of start out with the intent to make anything less than what they privately conceive of as an as-yet-unshaped, but inchoate and most importantly possible Perfect Book. This is the reason they decide to write. Reality — in the form of family life, financial circumstance, the tundra of the market, self-assurance eroded by critique or, probably worse, indifference, failure, doubt, exhaustion, time — eventually intervenes. Very few people, whether they would admit as much or not, particularly in the first inferno of ambitious burn, are willing to go down with the whale. Poverty, obscurity, irrelevance, low social standing, and so forth all seem more romantic, less intolerable, more like the plot of some young person’s adventure tale, less like the despondence-inducing signatures of failure and a wasted life at eighteen than they do when you find yourself approaching middle age. In William Gaddis’s JR, another massive meditation on ambition, art, and time, an aging, alcoholic, seemingly doomed writer is perpetually haunted by visions of windows closing, chances slipping away or already long lost to time. Since finishing my own first book, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to chart a course forward, or at least get started on some sort of new project, but have been mostly stymied by a sense that I’m just not sure what I really want to do next. I’m so much more alert to the discouraging reality that no matter what I wind up doing, committing to that work will entail an implicit decision not to try my hand at any number of other things. Granting that this might not strike your average global citizen as an existential concern on the order of the triumph of Capital, rising sea, and inequality levels, to say nothing of the looming rise of the machines, it matters to me — because I only get the handful of decades I’ve already blown through a few of, and the passage of time doesn’t seem to be bringing with it a corresponding surge in my vitality, so that the issue isn’t only that I can’t decide what kind of book I’d like to write, don’t even know how I’d like to write, I’m sick of my own sentences these days, and then I don’t know whether I should focus mainly on telling a story of sorts, and if so do I have any stories worth telling, and in this era of scattered insular intellectual and aesthetic camps, what kind of reader do I want to engage, and most of all what kind of work can I see myself committing to for the however many years it will take to complete — I can’t imagine even starting something new unless the need to carry it home takes hold of me with such force that I can’t not be working on it.... And the maybe-obvious Knausgaard link here is with the man’s sheer desperation — a desperation to emerge from all of this: the torpor, muddled thinking, indecision, and self-loathing; terror of more windows closing, fear of failure, envy, ambition so smothering it chokes off all but the most frantic exertions of will to open up the word-processing program and for Christ’s sakes just begin, the solipsism I recognized too well and have only really ever slipped free from, somewhat paradoxically, when hard at work, when the gaze is abruptly turned outward, and I’m able to see people again, see with them — perceive, if only fleetingly, that each has her own struggle, just as I do mine...in other words break out of the self’s airless solitary confinement: creative immersion as a kind of efflorescent opening out to the world at large. My Struggle provides the reader with a portrait of an artist whose sometimes-quixotic-seeming-endeavor to narrate his struggles with life and art in their entirety consumes, possesses, captivates him, in that last verb’s literal sense, and thereby sets him free. When Knausgaard tells his wife he must leave her at home to care for their recently born daughter, must write; when he won’t compromise even after she threatens to leave him, take the kid with her, then does; and when he furthermore dispenses with every last aesthetic consideration aside from this scribomaniacal need to write, he is both chronicling and dramatizing his own refusal to abandon the pursuit...and it’s this monstrously intact integrity with which he undertakes and then completes his masterwork that answers any question about the madness of a project that, like a rocket fired straight up into the sky, takes aim at its creator and terminates in the obliteration of his authorship, his hunger to create. It’s Knausgaard’s consummation, a triumph that emancipates the husband, father, son, and friend: the author is dead, leaving what’s left of the man free to walk away from his leviathan — preserved forever now in art’s time-cheating formaldehyde — freed from the echo chamber of thwarted intent, in order to emerge, maybe for the first time, into life.

Reading for Instructions on How to Live: The Millions Interviews Suzanne Scanlon

The first line of Suzanne Scanlon's novel, Promising Young Women, is a knockout -- “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” -- and from there the book only continues to deliver jabs of trenchant insight and fine-tuned language. The novel proceeds in a series of fragmented portraits that follow the young Lizzie, actress and wandering, suicidal soul, through a series of psychiatric institutionalizations, most significantly in the SS Roger, a ward for super-sensitives. Promising Young Women is a writer’s novel in its preoccupation with language and its many facets, and it’s also a performer’s novel in its concern for the performative, and especially in the (re)performance of texts it's aligned with, like Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Curtis White likens the experience of reading Promising Young Women to riding a wave: “The reader is driven before the story like something driven before a wave. And that is a deeply pleasurable feeling.” And Kate Zambreno, in her 2012 Year in Reading, called the book “a series of fragmented, poetic portraits...marked by Suzanne’s really gorgeous, wry, erudite voice.” Suzanne and I corresponded via email in a conversation that touched on the ways narratives are codified to create meaning, the liberating experience of reading and working with David Foster Wallace, and art as "the impossible trajectory of hope." The Millions: The epigraph for Promising Young Women contains three quotes; I’d like to focus on the first two, by Clarice Lispector and Ariana Reines, that allude to the inevitable interdependency of literature and life. Lispector’s quote, “She wanted to explain that that’s what her life was like, but not knowing what she meant by ‘that’s what it’s like’ or ‘her life’ she didn’t answer,” implicates language and all of its inadequacies (an idea you return to throughout the book) while Ariana Reines’s asks if a book can sufficiently construct other worlds and transport the reader between these worlds: “Can a book carry you into the world you have to pretend doesn’t exist most of the time, can a book carry you back out into what first made you alive.” With this in mind, how do literature and life intermingle for you as a writer, and also in what way does this interaction speak to your vision for Promising Young Women? Suzanne Scanlon: I'm not exaggerating when I say that much of my identity has been founded or invented or re-created on the books I've read. I've always read that way -- for instructions on how to live, as Flaubert put it. There have been times in my life when the worlds/ideas offered within a book -- Virginia Woolf or Marguerite Duras or Shakespeare or Erica Jong -- were immensely comforting to me -- a balm, a relief from the limitation of the worlds/ideas most present in so-called real life. I guess I'm also very influenced by and interested in writing that, as Ben Lerner put it in an interview, recently, “collapses the distinction between art and life.” I wanted the referenced literature to be central to the life of Lizzie, she has collapsed this distinction in her mind (for better or worse), such that while she's lying in the quiet room, having been administered a shot of Thorazine, she's thinking about Virginia Woolf. That's funny to me, and problematic and true; it might be as dangerous to her as it is her salvation. TM: I’d love to hear you talk about the performative aspects of writing as an actress and theater critic -- how does writing character in fiction compare to taking on a role as an actress? What inspiration does your writing draw from theater and acting? SS: As a theater student, I was very early educated on a voracious reading of plays, of going to the theater -- part of why I went to college in New York. Theater has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember and I think the world of it is great training for a writer. I recall very well the excitement of my first exposure to Beckett, Ionesco, Chekhov, Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn, Karen Finley, to name only a few playwrights -- it was simply magic to discover these writers. And in a contemporary sense, I think some of the most interesting writing these days is happening for the theater (Young Jean Lee, Annie Baker, my dear friend David Adjmi, to name a few); there's an attention to language, to rhythm, and an openness to experimentation that isn't always valued in (mainstream) fiction. There's also a playfulness, an awareness of the futility/absurdity of language, the artifice -- but with a persistent sense of hope, which is taken for granted in the theater. Erik Ehn once said that the theater is about “the impossible trajectory of hope” and I never forgot that. I suppose that's what I think all art should be. TM: You touch on the power of spoken language in your story (or is it an essay?), “How I Lost My Dictionary,” where the narrator is carjacked by a boy claiming he has a gun that he never reveals: “This is a stick-up. If you say something, does it make it true? If you call your finger a gun, does it make you powerful? Do the words matter?” In Promising Young Women, it seems that the psychiatrist’s diagnoses function in the same way -- if Roger says Lizzie is sicker than he thought then this becomes truth. In what way do words matter, especially in the ways they define identities and catalyze interactions? In what way is life a performance? SS: Thank you for reading that piece! Yes, that's long been a concern and, at times, obsession of mine. The way narratives get codified and repeated to create meaning. There was a time when this terrified me -- the way that naming, labeling, delimits identity. As a parent, I see it anew: how a child may take to a label s/he is assigned (shy, smart, naughty, etc.) and then live up to it; the way families begin very early to assign, and repeat narratives (the lazy one, the difficult one, the responsible one). When Roger uses the term “Designated Patients” this speaks to the same idea -- there is always a scapegoat, one to play the role -- we like to limit identity and are less comfortable understanding the self as a fluid, multivalent thing. If we did accept that, we might see that we are all more alike than we could bear. TM:  Many reviews of Promising Young Women have remarked on the number of literary allusions folded into the relatively short novel -- from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Ariel, from Joyce's “The Dead” and Ulysses,, from Tolstoy and Melville, too. You’ve also borrowed scenes and structural devices and integrated them into Promising Young Women, and specifically scenes from The Bell Jar. This strikes me as a form of acting, perhaps in the sense of adopting roles of other novels and acting them out within your own. It also seems like an intriguing, fresh take on allusion. Could you talk more about the literary ancestors and allusions and borrowing, and how these play into the novel for you? SS: Well, you know David Foster Wallace, who was my teacher at one point, does this throughout his work -- he samples, alludes directly and indirectly -- this is something I learned reading his work, and also through things he said. Reading him was mind-blowing: Wow, you can do that?! It was as if he gave me permission. I didn't realize what fiction could be. I can say that about many writers, I guess, but for someone alive at the same time as I was -- it felt huge. I remember reading “The Depressed Person” for example, and thinking, wow, so you can take that language and turn it around, make it do something else? Perform it, yes. I think his work is very performative, hysterically shifting, constantly referencing other works, other writers, while becoming his own. Taking on the role of Plath, of course, using her words -- well, it is easier in a novel than it is in real life. Just as Lizzie plays a woman who puts her head in the oven, I can play with Plath's novel. I feel quite privileged, in fact, to be able to learn from Plath -- to recognize her genius and the truth of her writing -- and yet to have lived in a moment which has allowed me to approach it as one voice among many, one within a dialectic. TM: The artist/writer Alexandre Singh recently laid out his own beliefs on the simultaneity of art-making by referencing Borges's idea, that “every new artist causes the past to become deeper and richer. The past isn’t a dead, fixed place but one to which we’re constantly looking back to, discovering things, seeing things anew.” How do you envision this playing out within your writing? (Or do you?) To what extent do you see literature as enabling a dialogue with writers past and present (and future)? SS: I do love the idea of the past as a shifting place, open to revision -- and I like his idea that interviews are fictions! Yes, I feel like various dead writers are dear friends of mine -- from Woolf to Plath to Duras to DFW -- their lives and lessons and warnings and urgings are constantly informing my own, challenging my own. In this book, in writing in part about my mother's death, I was both performing her life (which is supposedly fixed in the past, a space we are meant to leave behind) and her death. I was inventing a mother and then finding a way for her to die, to allow her to die. To move her to that place so that I might move there. I don't know if that was conscious, but that's how I see it now. For years I longed to speak to her, to get her advice, and I suppose a comfort in writing is being able to create her as much as I create a self. TM:  I was impressed by the verve and tone of the narrative voice -- from the striking opening line, “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” to aphorisms like, “There is a kind of loneliness that comes from being with people.” Much is said about the failure of communication, about the gaps between what is said and what is conveyed, about distances that cannot be bridged, about the utter failure to find the words, to convey messages. Very few writers who attempt this are able to communicate this breakdown so well. And yet this focus on the failure of language, its limitations, this occurs with a novel that, of course, relies on words. Would you speak more to the general weariness here, and also specifically the weariness towards language -- the gaps and spaces? SS: Well, yes, a general weariness. But I think the joy of writing is the feeling of reaching across or through those gaps. I love this essay by Susan Griffin where she states that her favorite moment in writing is “when the writing falls short.” I, too, find that exhilarating -- that even at times the awareness of its limitation is comfort. This essay is in John D'Agata's Next American Essay which also contains an essay by Annie Dillard, who is always working toward and around and through these gaps. I am not wearied when I read a line, a paragraph of hers or a line of DFW's. I'm regularly thrilled by the movement toward or across that impossibility. I suppose there was a time when I felt like Lizzie the narrator -- that it was a waste to even try. The older I get, the more grateful I feel to have the chance to try, to work within and against a tradition. TM: One of the things that Lizzie says she learns on the S.S. Roger -- the psychiatric ward for super sensitives where Lizzie is a patient -- is that she’s a cipher: “I am an empty thing. A fragmented mutating subject.” This is central to Lizzie’s desire to try on identities through acting, and is echoed through the novel’s structure. The novel, too, is a fragmented mutating subject, told from various overlapping perspectives. I’m wondering if you could talk about the role of this structural system in Promising Young Women (or other structural systems you were/are drawn to). Did you consciously define the novel against the traditional male bildungsroman, with its phallic Freytag triangle and climax? Also, in this sense, are there other literary influences to this novel/your writing, that aren’t as conspicuous as, say, the Plath? SS: No, it was not consciously defined against the bildungsroman, though I have been interested in what I read as female bildungsroman (like The Bell Jar or Kate Chopin's The Awakening) and so in that way it's a subversion. Many of my favorite books are fragmented in structure, resisting linear plot or redemption -- perhaps especially work by women -- Lydia Davis, Claudia Rankine in Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Maggie Nelson, also The Lover, Jesus’ Son, Beloved, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I think that while revising certain sections of PYW I was rereading both The Bell Jar and Infinite Jest. These novels might seem dissimilar but both are kind of anti-coming of age stories and both, of course, contain descriptions of depression that feel inspired, true. Also, my editor, Danielle Dutton, is a brilliant writer and reader and her vision for fiction and this book truly made these fragments cohere, essentially made this a book. There was a time when I saw these as a collection of linked stories, but she saw it as a novel. TM: The phrases “Promising Young Women” and later, “Girls with Problems,” are such taglines for the ways that young, attractive, women are romanticized, and even exulted, for their dependencies, their great sadnesses and weaknesses, and who become projects for the men, like the psychiatrist and like the boyfriend, who want to or need to help. While the book exposes these clichés (much like it maligns Friends, whose laugh track and faux cheery camaraderie alienate Lizzie) does participation in this system become a self-fulfilling prophecy? How does one break from the loop, and where does Lizzie and the SS Roger fall into this? SS: Honestly, I don't know how to break from the loop, save from becoming an artist who is both outside and inside. I think getting older helps, too. It's much easier not to be a young woman, though everywhere you go you're told to feel bad about getting older. I think Lizzie wants to be part of this system as much as it wants her. I think it is a mutual dependency. I don't see it in black and white terms; one can be exploited and helped all at once. But yes, self-fulfilling prophecies abound -- as with the naming of someone ill or sick; she lives up to this idea of herself, which is an idea that she, on some level, wants/needs to believe at this point in her life. Part of her breakdown then becomes a gift, a breakthrough -- a total embracing of an identity in order to exhaust it, perhaps, to wear it out. If that makes any sense.

The Old Corner Bookstore Is Now A Chipotle

1. Summertime, and I spend my days working in a museum located in downtown Boston. Over the months, I learn how to count a cash drawer, teach Italians the meaning of a state sales tax, and struggle with how exactly to break the news that the Old Corner Bookstore is no more. “Well?” The older couple across the counter brandish their map and press on, looking expectantly at first me and then my manager, to whom I have turned for help. My manager grimaces. “You’re not going to like the answer.” 2. “Think libraries are boring? Proper Bostonians would beg to differ. Once renowned as a hotbed of writers, the city remains a haven for readers. The continuing popularity of these institutions is a case in point.” The Fodor’s travel guide has nothing else to say about the city’s literary past. Boston. Once this was the Athens of America, the Hub of the Universe; no longer. Anne Bradstreet, America’s first poet, walked these streets, as did Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Most of Infinite Jest is set in Boston. The Atlantic was founded in this city. e. e. cummings is buried here. But for all these names, all these movements, all this history, Boston has, like other American cities in the new millennium, faded from literary prominence. On its face, this seems an exaggeration; there are journals, there are bookstores, there are eager young writers spilling forth from all the schools that litter the city. This is the digital age, after all; weren’t these kinds of physical borders supposed to dissolve -- wasn’t the Internet supposed to create connections previously impossible in the days of pen, ink, and paper? But I am a child of the digital, and let me tell you this: sometimes it feels as though every young writer I know is in the process of moving down to Brooklyn. And this bothers me. -- Why? 3. On certain fall days in Boston the air veers sharp, humming like a too-charged cell phone, and I understand why they hung witches here. The cliché of New England and the absolute rule of New England is its weather, and this is the season in which our ears prick, our senses grow fearful; soon, the trees will wither. The literature of Massachusetts seems to reflect this fear. It is a literature of insanity, of extreme emotion; “Boston!” the teenage lunatics of Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted cry, in between bouts of failed suicide attempts, “Boston! You could jump out at a red light and split.” In the old Ritz-Carlton, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath used to meet after poetry workshops to down martinis and discuss their respective death wishes. And the Old Corner Bookstore? -- Built in 1712, the building itself was erected to replace the ruins of Anne Hutchinson’s home, that Puritan woman cast out of Boston for talking to God. Today, the Old Corner Bookstore sits, as its name implies, on the corner of Washington and School Streets, five minutes from Downtown Crossing and perhaps another 10 from the Common. It is a squat building, many windowed, and on its left side hangs a brief green sign. “Timothy Crease built this structure as his apothecary and residence shortly after the great fire of 1711 destroyed Anne Hutchinson’s house on this site,” reads the sign. “Timothy Carter opened the Old Corner Bookstore here in 1829. Between 1845 and 1865, the booksellers Ticknor and Fields established the building’s lasting literary significance as the publishers of Hawthorne, Longfellow, Stowe, Emerson, Thoreau, and other prominent American and British authors, who often gathered here...In 1960, civic leaders raised money and established Historical Boston Incorporated to acquire and preserve this site.” Now, this sign is the last vestige of the bookstore’s past. Though tourist maps still mark it as a landmark, today the Old Corner Bookstore is no more. Today, the Old Corner Bookstore has been replaced by a Chipotle. October. Witch season in New England. I visit the Chipotle out of curiosity. At 11:30 in the morning it is empty, save for its workers, and inside it is all red walls, steel counters, and the kind of eco-platitudes now necessary to convince office employees to buy fast food. Vats of lettuce sit next to vats of salsa stand next to vats of sour cream. I speak with Jessica, the store’s assistant manager, who has worked at Chipotle for over two years. I ask her if people come in asking for the Old Corner Bookstore. “All the time,” she says, nodding. “At least a couple times a month. There are a lot of pamphlets on it. Some people are disappointed but most move on.” On the wall behind her, a sign informs me that this is “food with integrity.” A dozen meat strips sizzle on the open stove; Chipotle’s chicken, boasts another sign, “is raised without antibiotics and fed a diet free of animal by-products.” But I cannot tell what animal is being cooked. “Personally, I think it’s slightly sad how easy it was to get,” Jessica says, referring to the building. She brightens. “But everyone at Chipotle was really excited to get this spot because of the history, the chance to be a part of Boston’s history. This is the oldest retail location in Boston.” Lunchtime approaches. Soon the restaurant will be filled, Jessica assures me, and I leave, not wanting to get in the way. Outside the air is brisk. The sun is bright. I wouldn’t say no to one of Plath’s martinis. 4. The oldest retail location in Boston. Technically, this is true. In the weeks that follow my Chipotle visit I work, intern, and read the dozen or so New York-based but not New York-centric blogs, journals, and papers that stand alongside more local offerings in my RSS feed. I try to write this essay. I tell myself that it is no mistake that I am writing this on the heels of the announced Penguin-Random House merger; I consult the books that crowd my shelves and feel a small, withered sense of triumph whenever the copyright page points to a New York publishing house. I attempt to draw parallels between U.S. politics and to argue against monopolies and to say something pat about the digital. The results are unconvincing. November comes, and so too does that famous New England cold. When I exit the warmth of the red line I brace myself against Central Square’s wind, and the sidewalk’s bricks are red and the buildings are brick-laced and even when I close my eyes the lids remain red, always red: inescapable. I open them. I do not want to be a cliché. I think of this on the walk home, dreading my return to this essay, and immediately feel annoyed with myself. But to be 22 and a writer and a liberal arts graduate, on top of it, seems in this day and age to bring with it a certain stigma, a whiff of that dreaded scarlet letter: hipster. Lena Dunham and Thought Catalog and that New York Times article on irony: to distance myself from this epithet, this implicit accusation of frivolity, I latched onto a city that once surpassed New York: Boston, where “history sticks / like a fishbone in the city’s throat,” to misquote Robert Lowell. “You do of course realise that your entire blog sounds like you are a hipster desperately trying to be so cool as to not to appear to be one, right?” an anonymous commenter once wrote on my blog. I tried to shake it off; I tried to laugh. Why get upset over something on the Internet, right? But in the game of authenticity that has consumed my particular subset of 20-somethings, even the act of writing turns self-conscious, a method of avoiding vulnerability. What Was the Hipster? asked n + 1 two years ago; the hipster was me. The Old Corner Bookstore is no more. Sometimes I read old writing of mine and wonder what I was trying to hide. At the same time, I do, in fact, find myself agreeing with The New York Times, as late in the game as that article appeared. There is a glibness to so much of the writing of my generation; an artificial exposure of the self. No matter how many confessional blog posts or top 10 lists concerning what it’s like to be a Millennial I read, I still feel no closer to the writer. Between us, there is always a screen. “God is in your typewriter,” a priest once begged a despondent Anne Sexton. Perhaps it is time to listen. Image courtesy of the author.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 6 months 2. 3. This Is How You Lose Her 3 months 3. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 4 months 4. 6. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 2 months 5. 4. NW 3 months 6. 5. Telegraph Avenue 3 months 7. - Both Flesh and Not 1 month 8. 7. Gone Girl 4 months 9. 10. A Hologram for the King 4 months 10. 9. The Patrick Melrose Novels 6 months   With our November list, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava is enjoying the final month of its miracle run at the top before graduating to our Hall of Fame next month (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava before it goes). A Naked Singularity will join Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, as the Booker winner, which has just been inducted Mantel's first Thomas Cromwell book, Wolf Hall, is now also a Hall of Famer. Moving up to number two on the list, Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) continues its climb, surpassing D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Wallace looms large on our list as his posthumously published collection of essays Both Flesh and Not debuts at number seven. The book is the third by Wallace (after Infinite Jest and The Pale King) to appear on a Millions Top Ten list. The new Paris Review anthology is another big mover, hopping two spots in its second month on the list. We've got an interview with one of the editors. Near Misses: The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, The Fifty Year Sword, The Round House, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month's list.

“The Human Heart is a Chump”: Cataloging The Pale King

1. It's 4:30pm and I'm at a desk on the nearly windowless fourth floor. I sit surrounded on all sides by shelves I can’t see over and I'm willing myself, I’m determined, not to cry. When you catalog an archive, you might imagine that there's a set of strict rules and guidelines that will make it clear how, precisely, to organize, separate, and label materials. You might imagine that there's a rubric or handbook of some kind that you can wield against the utter chaos of thousands of sheets of paper arranged in no perceptible order. Stacks of paper barely contained by their binder clips and enormous red rubber bands, stacks of paper that weigh a ton, stacks of paper that all look the same. I am the cataloger of David Foster Wallace's final work, The Pale King, and I'm here to tell you that in cases like these, the rules will only get you so far. It isn’t long before the careful methods of the archivist start to look feeble against the mass of information I’m trying to contain. The more likely truth is that you've never once imagined anything about the cataloger's job. This job is an invisible one. An archive like the Harry Ransom Center is so viscerally structured that it seems governed by something inhuman. The impression of perfection you get from its rows of gray manuscript boxes filled with numbered manila folders and clean, soft, white sleeves seems impossible, mechanized, sterile. It's like some kind of hospital, and the patients are sheets of paper in various states of health, but the bed linens are always the same blinding degree of white. There doesn't, at first glance, appear to be any human involvement in the archiving process. My handwriting on each of the folders of The Pale King materials — small, slanty, usually a hair off center — is the only giveaway. I’m a graduate intern at the Ransom Center and I had the unexpected opportunity to dive headfirst into the most recent installment of David Foster Wallace’s papers. I also happen to be a reader and a scholar of his work, so this project intrigued me. That’s an understatement. I’ve worked extensively in the collection as a PhD student in the UT English department and I’ve presented papers on marginalia in his book collection. The chance to catalog the Pale King came up while I was writing a master’s thesis on Wallace’s Midwest, and I jumped at it. Everyone warned me that cataloging is an extremely dull, painstaking process, that the cataloger is required to operate as more machine than human. (I expected that it would be especially boring, considering I was cataloging a book about boredom.) And, I’ll be honest, much of it was slow and repetitive. But as I worked my way through the materials, something about this archive hit me right in my most human part. I found myself unable to operate as either cool cataloger or curious scholar. Without my realizing it, reading and sorting the collection took me way deeper into emotional territory than I tend to go. It’s hard for me even to explain. It seems like I might as well say, here at the outset, that mine is not the voice, the type of voice, most heard in the realm of written commentary on David Foster Wallace and his work. David Foster Wallace is a boys’ club. Ask anyone. Many others will have a lot of things to say about this set of papers. I expect to read comments from the members of the Wallace-l listserv, from certain reporters and bloggers, from the scholars I know, from the writers who always have something to say when it comes to Wallace. Most will be men and some will fit stereotypes that I don’t need to describe. Don’t be surprised if my take sounds a little different. 2. I begin with a delicacy that is paralyzing. I fear getting anything out of order, out of place. I fear removing the rubber bands, the paper clips, the numbered Post-it notes. I’m distinctly aware that if I mess up, if I lose the order, the order is lost. That if I damage anything, there is no replacement. This is always the tricky, taxing part of archival work. The sense of responsibility is kind of overwhelming. I have to take out all the staples I find, because they make the paper deteriorate faster. Staples take me about five minutes each, using a thin metal wand, hands shaking. The process feels unnecessarily violent. This collection is more than a decade’s worth of amassed writings — on tablets, notebooks, reused stationary, on floppy discs I recognize from an era long past, on identical pages printed and reprinted — belonging to a writer whose method appears to be mindful anarchy. An elaborate spreadsheet accompanies the cartons when they arrive. It’s the one that Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch used to compile the wreck of pages into the thing we know of as The Pale King. I study it diligently, but it doesn’t really help to find a way into the chaos. I’ve read the book three times by the time I begin to catalog it, so I feel like I should know my way around. Still, I follow the spreadsheet like a map and I hew to the physical order in which the sheets arrived. One of the itemized lists I read indicates that this is the order in which they were found. There are phrases like “From his desk”; “From his wire basket.” The visual landscape of a workspace emerges. I’m struck by the physicality and the ordinariness these phrases suggest. It doesn’t take long for me to feel strangely connected to the things I’m reading, to the drafts and the handwriting, the voices that emerge in the margins. I get emotionally invested very quickly. Even without a clear avenue through the papers, I'm pretty damn sure that you're not supposed to get your own snot all over the materials. That's definitely a rule. This is where the willpower comes in. Keep it together, I tell myself. You are a machine. You are processing information. Everything can be reduced to a discrete data point. Yes, I'm a reader and a scholar of this author’s work. But I'm nobody's fan girl. I didn't think this would be so hard, so fraught. Just as I’m about to get carried away by a wave of weird sentimentality, I see a familiar phrase from The Pale King smiling up at me as I fit the draft into its folder: “the human heart is a chump.” No kidding. I handle precious, singular objects everyday at my job, to the extent that it risks becoming rote. I don’t see why this should be any different. But it’s the closeness I have to the maelstrom of someone’s writing process, the closeness to the really difficult questions asked again and again, plus the responsibility I feel toward preserving every iota of it — it makes my task seem impossible. There's too much life here to contain in boxes, folders, and telegraphic lines in a finding aid. Stephen Cooper, who cataloged the rest of the Wallace collection in 2010, advises me to take notes on what I find. I am supposed to write down pertinent details that need to be included in the finding aid and to flag pages that require repairs by our conservation team. What I do instead is I write down everything I observe about the stack of pages. I find myself writing sheets upon sheets of notes, all in pencil, about every item. I do this without really thinking about how it could be useful. I spend close to an hour on the first rubberbanded batch of materials. Stephen walks by and I hear something to the effect of, "Whoa. That's a lot of notes." I look down at what I've done and realize that none of it will go into the finding aid, that all this detail is what people come to the archive to find out for themselves. Each of my attempts to do this job flawlessly fails. I renew my efforts at detachment. Again and again I confront the fact that I am up against a mystery, a labyrinth of pages, and that it's the puzzle itself we're trying to preserve. Not solve. Just maintain. Let live on. My job is to organize it all just enough to preserve the wonder of its discovery. The most important thing is not to lose any information; no data can escape in the transaction. It’s the cataloger’s mantra. This is a tender operation. This is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a cocoon of my own sweltering nostalgia. Some things I find cut me. Some of the notes I read and I can feel my face aging. Do you know what that feels like? This archive is a chronicle of a final work. It is a chronicle of depression. It is the best thing I've ever read. These are not the normal cataloger's problems. 3. You're probably wondering what's in the archive. For the most part, these are handwritten and typed bits and pieces and scenes from the book published as The Pale King. Other titles for the book include Glitterer, Sir John Feelgood, and my personal favorite, What Is Peoria For? There is a mass of material labeled "freewriting." The same scenes are written and rewritten many times. There are lists upon lists of characters and possible names for them. There are maps. There are printouts of tax returns, pixilated images of enormous offices divided into cubicles, of actual tingle tables used by the IRS, there’s a map of Peoria. (Each of these has about a million tack points in it, or double-sided tape on the back, which suggests he had them posted up on his walls.) Throughout the margins of the collection there is a conversation between the writer and himself. There are notes that refer to the publication of Infinite Jest in 1996; some of the dates on the floppy discs precede it. There is the underlined word "panic." And there are encouraging stickers that say, with a ridiculous face, "You did it!” "Good effort!" I make a mental note to acquire some stickers like these for myself. Some of the drafts are printed on Illinois State University letterhead with the convoluted motto "An equal opportunity/affirmative action university encouraging diversity" at the bottom of every page. I develop an intimate relationship with the angle of his staples, his evolving weights of paper, his process of starting over and over and over. The writer that comes through is nervous and uncertain, intimidated by his own harsh judgments. This feels familiar enough to me. This sounds like most writers. I’m not interested in some kind of David Foster Wallace myth-creation, some kind of canonization. We've arrived at that moment where now everyone has to weigh in and have their say over what type of person this writer was, how he treated others, what we can deduce about his psychology and how that can unlock his writing. Everyone's running around with a new revealing fact. The way the cult of personality has taken over much of the discussion of Wallace’s work is something I find deeply aggravating. So if you’re waiting for me to construct a narrative for the ten years in which this archive was compiled or to explain something new about this person I never met based on the things he wrote down, well, I’m not going to. I don't want to tell you any story about any person I never knew. I want to tell you the story of how I got to dive down deep into a mess of papers and how I came up laughing or crying or unable to speak. I want to tell you about connectivity. The secret, best, juiciest, and most exhilarating part of working in archives is the way they reach out and form webs; each thing points you to something else, gives you new things to read and avenues to explore. It’s constantly bewildering. The network of connections that most captivates me in The Pale King archive is the one that appears in Wallace’s notebooks. Some of them resemble what you might call commonplace books, if we lived in the 1700s. They are archives of Wallace's reading practices, quotes and clippings, words and their definitions jotted down. They are works of art, in and of themselves. The covers include: blue-eyed Cuddly Cuties kittens; characters from Rugrats; butterflies; and a waterlogged iteration of that omnipresent Klimt print. Many of the notes in these books describe people or places in the Midwest, Wallace’s home region that appears frequently in his writing. My own research is on place in contemporary literature, and I’m writing this thesis on the Midwest, so needless to say these capture my attention. The notebooks are filled with scraps of Midwestern dialogue that read like overheard bits of conversation, jokes, sayings. The voices that populate these notebooks sound very much like my parents, my grandparents; I’m from Illinois, too. I'm doing that thing here, committing that fallacy where I start to see my own experience, my own identity reflected back at me in someone else's work. I’m in the middle of reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire right now and my role as cataloger, religiously removing rubberbands, sometimes reminds me of that book’s narrator. Not in a very good way, either. It's a crazy thing to do, to start seeing your reflection in things that have nothing to do with you. But then, the untold truth about scholarly work, maybe about research of any kind, is that it's always personal. It's always about going after the unsolved mysteries of your own existence, your own heart. For as long as I’ve been able to figure, I've been trying to figure out what it means to grow up in a place that doesn't seem to know it exists, and Wallace’s writing really helps with that. The Midwest he describes looks an awful lot like the one I know. Much real estate in the notebooks is devoted not to complex philosophical musings or elaborate plot design (though there’s plenty of both). Instead, I find brief, piercing comments on what it’s like to be alive everyday. There are a lot of notes on all the really basic parts of being a person — dealing with weather, enduring routine, running errands. There is a description of marriage that begins one notebook with the line, “It’s a lie that marriage means the end of romance.” It goes on to connect the theory of boredom that concerns much of Wallace’s later work with the reality of a long-term relationship. Descriptions like these, breakdowns of the most basic and impossible elements of quotidian life, are the things that speak to me. Every reader of his stuff seems to have her own version of what it’s about, and the version that compels me is this highly attuned reflection on the mundane, on lived experience. And then, in between the Midwesternisms and the reflections, there are references to books and articles, generative pieces of research or things come across by accident. This is where the archive really shines. There are quotes from books I’ve read and recognize, and quotes from things I’ve never heard of and write down on post-it notes and stuff in my pockets. I write down so many new words. Each day I get home and empty pockets full of notes. 4. I find it almost impossible to finish cataloging. I spend days away from the fourth floor, ruminating over things I've read and unable to return to my place in the pages. I read things that really piss me off. I read things that frighten me. I read things that delight every bone in my body. When I'm working on it, I feel as though I've gone underwater. One day I forget to leave at five. The clock on the fourth floor has stopped at some point while I've been working. When I finally get up I find the elevator has been locked. I linger in full awareness that many other people will have at this archive once it's open. I’m possessive in a way that makes me uncomfortable. It’s been difficult to sit at the reference desk in the Reading Room over the last year, overseeing hundreds of scholars as they dig through Wallace’s papers. I’m excited to see so much interest, scholarly and personal, in something I care about. I’m thrilled to see serious academic work come out of these collections and, frankly, it’s exciting to see this many young people taking the time to visit an archive. Pilgrims to the archive have an unmistakable glow about them. But still, there’s always that feeling on my side of the desk. Other people will find things I missed, they will write about things I would never disclose. They will be either more or less guilty than I am of a word I find in the butterfly notebook: "Apohenia — seeing connections where none exist." When they call up the Pale King materials, many of these visitors will be looking for details to flesh out the persona they’ve been honing for this writer, to enhance the image they’ve been cultivating. And so I guess what I want to suggest is that maybe there’s room for other lines of inquiry here. Maybe, instead of formulating a theory that explains a person's life or death, we could instead ask the questions that this archive asks of us as readers: what is a person for? How should a person be? What does life look like in all the parts of the world that don’t usually get described in detail? What should we pay attention to? How should we pay attention? How can fiction help us pay attention? Those are the questions that stick with me. I don’t know what people will find in these folders or how they’ll choose to interpret this new installment to the record of Wallace’s works. What I’m certain they will discover is that within the boxes, numbered 36-41, lies not a single unfinished work but an infinite web of possible works. The Pale King as we know it is, in the end, just one of these, one possible iteration. There are many years of life left in these pages. I hope other readers of the archive experience something like the joy and wonder and despair and unending strangeness I've felt, swimming around in another person's thoughts for a few months. Image via bill_comstock/Flickr

A Supposedly Brief Interview with D.T. Max

The Conde Nast building is located just off Times Square, an uncomfortable area of NYC I try to avoid like the dickens. The flashy billboards and the noise and the crowds disturb me, and I wasn’t at all pleased to see a person in a dirty Elmo suit waving at me. I did not wave back at Elmo because I had other things on my mind, namely an appointment to talk with D.T. Max, a New Yorker staff writer, author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery (check out the Amazon.com book description and read what “prions” are; they will frighten you), and most recently the author of a biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. The new book tells the difficult, at times joyful, but ultimately sad story of Wallace's life, couching it in a forward-driving narrative that is difficult to put down, bridging the life and the work in a way that is sensitive to the complexity and ambition of Wallace’s literary project. All told, the book promises to do what a good literary biography should do: return old readers to the work and gain new readers for the work. I met Max inside the Conde Nast building’s “cafeteria” where he was kind enough to purchase your interviewer a small drip coffee and chocolate chip cookie. “Cafeteria” is in quotes because the place was really more like a fine dining restaurant or night club with large twelve-person booths and low lighting and high windows and an aura of exclusivity — pretty much the opposite of my idea of “cafeteria.” Despite my confusion, Max and I settled into an hour long conversation about his book, a truncated and edited version of which follows. The Millions: What initially drew you to Wallace? Was his work the kind of stuff you typically read? D.T. Max: Well, I had this long love affair with David — embarrassingly enough, I loved the wrong book. I loved Broom of the System for most of my 20s and 30s. It was only when I wrote the piece after his death that I found out he had turned on the book. I didn’t know that he referred to it as written by a very smart 14 year-old. It stunned me. TM: Well you put up a pretty good defense of Broom in your book. DTM: You can’t take something away from me that I love! I think the book’s terrific. But I do see what he’s saying. So I grew — one of the pleasures of the book was that I grew as a reader and I grew as a Wallace reader. So where I always appreciated Infinite Jest, writing about David and reading Infinite Jest made it richer and richer. And I was also just willing to be engrossed in Infinite Jest in a whole different way. (I’m talking about now when I was working on the magazine article.) But then when I was done with the magazine article I felt I just barely scratched the surface. I felt like what I’d written was very focused on his later years. I wanted to do something that was bigger and wider and less focused. I was very affected by people who said things to me like, “He was much happier than you portrayed him as,” and, “You didn’t catch his laughter.” So let me try to do a book and catch his laughter. TM: So what was your approach to the biography? DTM: Well one thing I was trying to do in the book was if David wrote realistic fiction for a world that was no longer real, then I felt an obligation to write a biography for a world that was no longer real. I wanted — not to extent that it was impossible for the reader to negotiate — I wanted to in some ways strip away some of the biographical conventions, in terms of what you can know and what matters, so that his story would feel a little more consonant with who David was and how he wrote. Really the two great factors in David’s writing are an affection for the reader and a refusal to write realistic fiction, so you’ll notice that the book has an emphasis on story. It begins, “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s.” And then the last line of the book is, “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.” And the idea is that we’re dealing with story, that every story is a ghost story, and among other things that’s a gloss on biography. TM: Same with the epigraph from the Oblivion story “Good Old Neon” (“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant”). DTM: Absolutely. TM: I was thinking about the epigraph as talking about the limits of language and storytelling, and also that your subject lived in his head to a great degree, which poses particular challenges for a biographer. DTM: Yes well, you know, I wanted to make David live in a modern way, the way his characters live in his fiction — slightly more than a classic biography would provide. I don’t know if I achieved it or if anyone will notice it — but for instance I don’t try to do every year of David’s life. I think every year is in there, but I’m doing it more as memory would do it, almost like a memoir written by another person. It was a big effort to keep stuff out. There’s lots of wonderful things I left out. TM: Were the decisions about what to exclude surrounding Wallace’s family hard? The relationship between Wallace and his mother seemed like delicate terrain. DTM: It is delicate, but it’s also really hard to know. The biggest impediment to telling is knowing. And even when you think you know do you ever really know something as delicate as relationships? TM: The relationship between Delillo and Wallace surprised me. DTM: What surprised you? TM: I didn’t imagine the relationship as Wallace looking for advice, bouncing his anxieties about writing off him, Delillo playing the role of the consoling father, especially in the letter where Delillo tells him he belongs to elite club of writers who suffer. DTM: “Let the others complain about book tours.” It’s a wonderful line. TM: The Franzen relationship, too — I was surprised that Franzen had a little more power in the relationship. I always imagined Wallace as the more domineering author, I guess on the basis of his reputation as the Big Novelist with the Big Book. But Franzen really steered him the whole moral fiction direction. DTM: Well, Franzen caught him at a “teachable moment.” David’s just out of rehab, he feels he can’t write well anymore. I think if he met him at any other time in his life he would have bounced right off him — they knew each other before — Jon just keeps offering his ideas in a modest way — forthright way — eventually he catches David when he’s open to the ideas. He’s desperate. What’s stronger than to look for both your life and your writing? He was looking for both obviously. That’s one thing that makes him a great biographical subject is that there’s so little division between the work and the life. TM: Part of the fun of your book is catching Wallace when he’s exaggerating and misrepresenting himself. DTM: Oh God, I’m sure he got some by me. I took all the letters at face value initially. And then when I began to think a little bit harder about some of the exaggerations in the non-fiction I would see similar patterns in the letters. And I began to think, you know, this seems like a very unlikely scenario. He mentions that he goes and plays a basketball game in this rough neighborhood — this is the letter to [critic] Steven Moore when he talks about his nose being broken for the second time — and so he breaks his nose, but that doesn’t really sound like David. David was sort of fearful, basically. TM: And you say he wasn’t much of jock. DTM: He was and he wasn’t. But playing basketball with a bunch of rough street kids is not something he would have done. And then, theoretically, he has his nose broken again during a fight with a downstairs neighbor over Wittgenstein’s Mistress, so when he writes that to the editor [of Wallace’s piece on Markson] — what better way to show your commitment to the piece? And also fundamentally David was a joke writer, he loved jokes. He began as a joke writer at Sabrina at Amherst. So then I asked Mark Costello who lived with him at the time who said, “No, David never had a broken nose.” So then I began to suspect a lot of things weren’t true. TM: Did you feel any kind of special responsibilities writing the first biography? DTM: Responsibilities, oh yeah. I mean, it’s a privilege. The privilege of being first is that it’s all new. You’re not glossing someone’s gloss. I’ll be glossed eventually — in the near future probably. So that’s the advantage. But the disadvantage is that you will be rewritten and new things will be found. More correspondence will surface. You can’t help that. But what’s the ultimate goal of the biography? It’s certainly to bring readers to David’s writing. And in that sense to be the first after his death to bring readers to David’s writing is a very special job. You want to do it the right way. You have to really show them how this writer can matter to them, and if the book does that I’d be very, very pleased. If you can take a reader who’s on the fence about David and whether it’s worth the effort and get that reader to really dig into Infinite Jest — I would think that’s really exciting. TM: So that was your audience, people who had heard the name but not read the work? DTM: Maybe one level more involved than that. Maybe people who read the cruise ship piece [“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally published in Harper’s as “Shipping Out”] when it was offered to them or at least thought they’d like to, or who always looked at Infinite Jest, maybe given it as a present, tried 70 pages. They would be people who could come back to David — I think they’re already on their way back to him, so it’s not as if I’m starting any sort of trend that isn’t already underway. I mean, he has this quasi-readership that almost no writer has, and I would love it if that quasi-readership became a readership for him. TM: Do you think it’s surprising he went into fiction? Wallace says he uses more of his brain when writing fiction, but with all the logic and sports in his background — he’s not a typical literary type. DTM: George Saunders has interesting things to say about that — he comes from an engineering background. You know, on some level fiction for David was never what I think it is for an ordinary or even an extraordinary writer of the John Updike variety. David’s always seeing the seams and the struts — it’s always artificial — that’s probably why he had issues with The Pale King because he never gets past the artificiality of what he’s creating. There’s a wonderful quote by Thornton Wilder that fiction is the art of orchestrating platitudes. And I think for David that was always difficult because he had seen so far beyond those platitudes. I don’t think he was ever somebody for whom characters were really alive. The closest he comes is Infinite Jest. Of course the reader and writer see things from different perspectives, but I don’t think for David those characters were ever really alive in quite the way that other writers experience their characters as alive. TM: Why do you think people care so much about his work? DTM: It’s many things, but it’s not really that he had any answers for people. Because when you read the biography you have to understand how much he struggles with things that most of us have fairly compact. But he never stops taking his life seriously and he never stops taking the reader’s life seriously. And I think that’s the connection: you never stop mattering to him and he never stops mattering to himself. He never quits in that way. And I think that even non-readers of David’s books must be getting that now, given what’s gone on with his reputation, the amount of places you see his name, even how the Kenyon College speech has become so well known, deservedly so. But it’s an aspirational speech. It’s not what David achieved, it’s what he wanted to achieve. In the end you are the writer you are, and if there’s anything David teaches us it’s very hard to change the writer you are, and I had to be a writer who was interested in his efforts and difficulties. Because I never saw him as the pure joyous person that some people insisted he was. TM: “Saint Dave.” DTM: Well, I think the “Saint Dave” name is valid in the sense that I think what David teaches you, which is what a saint should teach you, is to take yourself and your life seriously. I don’t think he’s a candidate for the sainthood on the basis of his behavior, but many saints weren’t. So I don’t disown the saint idea. There is a way in which, faced with the massive seductions of modern culture, he did a pretty good job of pushing them away. Certainly in those later years there’s a kind of saintliness to his behavior — TM: A kind of literary saint in his defense of fiction. DTM: A literary martyr really. With Malcolm Lowry — who else never finished their last book? TM: Ralph Ellison… DTM: Another good example. I don’t remember him having agonized over his last book. David was never that way. He agonized over it. That’s what makes it so sad. So, no I don’t disregard the saint idea. I think Franzen had it right. He said at one of the memorial services that there’s nobody who seemed simpler and delightful on first meeting who grows more and more complex, yet all the same — he didn’t say appealing — but all the same endearing. In other words, as you get to know David better you just don’t like him in the same simple way that you started liking him. I think that’s got it exactly right. TM: It sounds like you really enjoyed working on the book. DTM: I loved thinking about him, writing about him, being in his head, reading his letters. I’d be very sad if the book makes people feel that he’s any less worthy of their love. The goal is the opposite. The quality that he has that he cares about you — that he cares about you caring about yourself. That’s very uplifting. I don’t think you get that from most writers.

Excerpt: The Opening Paragraphs of D.T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace

Six months after David Foster Wallace's suicide, The New Yorker published a novella-length piece by journalist D.T. Max on Wallace’s last difficult years and his encompassing effort to surpass Infinite Jest. That article started the drumbeat for two books: The first, The Pale King, was released last April and pored over by critics and readers; the second, Max’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: The Life of David Foster Wallace, arrives next week. The biography was written with the cooperation of Wallace’s family and is the first definitive treatment of the author’s life. What follows are the book's opening paragraphs: Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s. He was born in Ithaca, New York, on February 21, 1962. His father, James, was a graduate student in philosophy at Cornell, from a family of professionals. David’s mother, Sally Foster, came from a more rural background, with family in Maine and New Brunswick, her father a potato farmer. Her grandfather was a Baptist minister who taught her to read with the Bible. She had gotten a scholarship to a boarding school and from there gone to Mount Holyoke College to study English. She became the student body president and the first member of her family to get a bachelor’s degree. Jim and Sally had their daughter, Amy, two years after David, by which time the family had moved to Champaign-Urbana, twin cities in central Illinois and the home of the state’s most important public university. The family had not wanted to leave Cornell—Sally and Jim loved the rolling landscape of the region—but Wallace had been offered a job in the philosophy department in the university and felt he could not turn it down. The couple were amazed when they arrived to see how bleak their new city was, how flat and bare. But soon, happily, Jim’s appointment turned into a tenure-track post, Sally went back to school to get her master’s in English literature, and the family settled in, eventually, in 1969, buying a small yellow two-story house on a one-block-long street in Urbana, near the university. Just a few blocks beyond were fields of corn and soybeans, prairie farmland extending as far as the eye could see, endless horizons. Here, Wallace and his sister grew up alongside others like themselves, in houses where learning was highly valued. But midwestern virtues of normality, kindness, and community also dominated. Showing off was discouraged, friendliness important. The Wallace house was modest in size and looked out at other modest-sized houses. You were always near your neighbors and kids in the neighborhood lived much of their lives, a friend remembers, on their bikes, in packs. Every other kid in that era, it seemed, was named David. There was elementary school at Yankee Ridge and then homework. The Wallaces ate at 5:45 p.m. Afterward, Jim Wallace would read stories to Amy and David. And then every night the children would get fifteen minutes each in their beds to talk to Sally about anything that was on their minds. Lights-out was at 8:30 p.m., later as the years went on. After the children were asleep, the Wallace parents would talk, catch up with each other, watch the 10 p.m. evening news, and Jim would turn the lights out at 10:30 exactly. He came home every week from the library with an armful of books. Sally especially loved novels, from John Irving to college classics she’d reread. In David’s eyes, the household was a perfect, smoothly running machine; he would later tell interviewers of his memory of his parents lying in bed, holding hands, reading Ulysses to each other. For David, his mother was the center of the universe. She cooked his favorites, roast beef and macaroni and cheese, and baked his chocolate birthday cake and drove the children where they needed to go in her VW Bug. Later, after an accident, she replaced it with a Gremlin. She made beef bourguignonne on David’s birthday and sewed labels into his clothes (some of which Wallace would still wear in college).

The Great Taxonomy of Literary Tumblrs: Round Two

[Ed Note: Don't miss Part One and Part Three!] Six months ago, I rounded up a list of my favorite literary Tumblr accounts. Half a year later, I’m pleased to see those blogs still going strong. I’m also pleased to see that a pile of the names on my Wish List came around to the land of likes and reblogs. In that regard, some shout outs are in order: Picador Book Room (and its “Sunday Sontags”) has become a favorite of The Millions’ social media team; The Strand made its way onto the blogging platform and we’re all better because of it; Poetry Magazine continues to draw from its enviable archives to bring some really exciting content to our Dashboard; and — whether it’s due to my friendly dig or their own volition — The Paris Review’s presence has been especially awesome of late. Indeed, the literary community on Tumblr is growing stronger by the day, and it has to be noted that a lot of that growth is due to Rachel Fershleiser’s evangelism and infectious enthusiasm. (An example of Rachel’s work was recapped recently by Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling as part of our own Emily M. Keeler’s Tumblr-centric #LitBeat column.) Alas, six months in the real world is different from six months online, and Tumblr now has not only its own Storyboard curatorial system (run by the vaguely Soviet-sounding Department of Editorial), but it’s also grown by a few million blogs. The site boasts a growing number of blogs that have inked book deals. Rachel maintains a running tally of poets and writers who use the platform in exciting ways. This past week, Molly Templeton organized a blog, The How-To Issue, specifically aimed at countering the gender imbalance in the recent "How-To" installment of The New York Times Book Review. As a testament to the number of smart, engaged literary folks on the site, that blog has since received posts from a Salon writer, a former New Yorker staffer, and quite a few artists and freelancers. So with all of that in mind, I’ve decided it’s time for another list — a better list, a bigger list. This list aims not only to cover blogs I missed last time, but also new blogs that have been born only recently. To that end, my rubric has been simple: 1) I’ve chosen blogs I not only believe to be the best and most compelling accounts out there, but also blogs that were overlooked on the last list — in some cases, readers helped me out in the last post’s comment thread. 2) I’ve done my best to ensure that these blogs are active members of the Tumblr community. 3) I’ve tried to make sure that the content on these blogs is “safe for work,” however I am but mortal, and perhaps some NSFW material will slip in between now and when you read this list. For that reason I can only caution you to use your judgment as you proceed. For your convenience, I’ve organized the list in a similar manner as last time. “Single-Servings” are blogs organized around one or two particular, ultra-specific themes. The rest of the categories should be self-explanatory. Please feel free to comment and shout out the ones I omitted or did not cover in Part One. 0. Shameless Self-Promotion The Millions: duh! 1. Single-Servings Book and Beer: The combination of everybody's favorite duo will tease you from your office chair. Match Book: Or is it, instead, that books and bikinis are an even better pair? Movie Simpsons: An encyclopedic recap of every film reference in The Simpsons. Now open to submissions. Underground NYPL: Pairs well with CoverSpy. I've yet to find a match, however. The Unquotables: Brought to you by Dan Wilbur (Better Book Titles, which is going to be a book!) and Robert Dean. The premise is simple: Gandhi didn't say that. Infinite Boston: A catalog of the locations mentioned in The Great Bandana's Infinite Jest. Write Place Write Time: Remember our WriteSpace project? (Which we Storify'd?) This is ongoing. The Composites: Composite sketches of characters in famous literature. Creepy ones, at that. Poets Touching Trees: Happy Arbor Day, poets! You Chose Wrong: The tragic fates of mistaken "Choose Your Own Adventure" readers. It's like reading The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Doodling on Famous Writers: Those warped lines beneath Proust's eyes really suit him. Old Book Illustrations: A visual treat for nostalgic book nerds. Visual Poetry: Exactly what it says it is, yet also much more. PBS' This Day in History: So much better to get this stuff on your Dashboard than in your inbox. Historical Nonfiction: This blog pairs well with the one above. Follow both and you'll rival Howard Zinn in no time. Writers and Kitties: I have often wondered about that particular feline-author bond. Page Twenty Seven: The text from one reader's collection of twenty seventh pages. Book Storey: Eye candy for lovers of book design. 2. Requisite "F*** Yeah!" Blogs Books! Book Arts! Manuscripts! 3. Foundations, Organizations and Writing Centers 826 Valencia: Dispatches and success stories from the California writing center focused on kids aged six to eighteen. It was co-founded by Dave Eggers. The National Book Foundation: They'll announce finalists for their big awards in October, so you've got some time to get acquainted with the foundation. The Moth: Fabulous stuff from the story gurus. I'll let Kevin Hartnett take it from here. The Poetry Society of America: Nice to see the nation's oldest poetry non-profit embrace one of the newest mediums for storytelling. Harry Ransom Center: They have more than David Foster Wallace's papers, you know. The Academy of American Poets: The organizers of National Poetry Month deliver some excellent Tumblr material, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't super relieved when they finally found Rob. PEN Live: A great example of a fresh, exciting way to use the blogging platform. PEN Live covers events put on by the PEN American Center. Poets & Writers: A great source of guidance for creative writers. Button Poetry: Performance poetry delivered straight to your Dashboard from the Twin Cities. VIDA Community: The creators of publishing's annual gender-imbalance list curate a really interesting list of updates on women, culture, and writing. 4. Humorous Sh*t My Students Write: Proof positive that more MFA graduates should be teaching in secondary schools. The Monkeys You Ordered: These literal New Yorker cartoon captions are topped only by this one comment applicable to all of them. What Should We Call Poets: Based on the grandmother that started them all. This is the GIF blog poets deserve, but not the one they need right now. Title 2 Come: You can never follow too many GIF blogs. This one is for for writers of every stripe. News Cat GIFs: Same as above. Last but not least, this one is for journalists. (Who like cats.) Least Helpful: The worst of the worst reviews from the annals of the internet. Hey, Author: It's like a Regina George's Burn Book for the literati. Alt Lit Gossip (Can be NSFW): HTMLGiant is leaking. 5. Literary, Cultural and Art Magazines or Blogs Recommended Reading: Home of the marvelous ongoing fiction series run by Electric Literature. Words Without Borders: Spreading the gospel of international and translated literature one Tumblr post at a time. Tin House: You (should) know the magazine. Now you should know their blog. VQR: The brand new companion to the invaluable source for great long-form and narrative journalism. n+1: They recently decided to kill off their Personals blog, so perhaps this one will become more active. New York Review of Books: Need I introduce them? Also, not to be missed, check out the NYRB Classics blog, A Different Stripe. Granta: Follow these guys for updates on the magazine's new releases and competitions. Guernica: Hey, you're spilling your art into my politics! Full Stop: Who else would recommend Errol Flynn's memoir, posit an alternate Olympics Opening Ceremony, and then review the work of Victor Serge? Vol. 1 Brooklyn: As their banner says, "If you're smart, you'll like us." Rusty Toque: An online literary and arts journal backed by Ontario's Western University. Book Riot: How can you help loving the kind of people who reblog photos of Faulkner's oeuvre alongside galleries of literary tattoos? Berfrois: Some highbrow curiosities for that eager, eager brain of yours. Literalab: Dispatches from Central and Eastern Europe, which as anybody who knows me knows to be my favorite parts of Europe. Triple Canopy: The online magazine embraces yet another means of communicating. fwriction review: Finally an honest banner: "specializing in work that melts faces and rocks waffles." (See also: fwriction) Little Brother: The latest project from our own Emily M. Keeler. Asymptote: Dedicated to works in translation and world literature. Glitterwolf Magazine: Devoted to highlighting UK writers and writers from LGBT communities. The Essayist: Aggregated long-form writing from all over the place. 6. Major, General and More Well-Known Magazines Smithsonian Magazine: "Retina" consists of the best visual content from Smithsonian Magazine. The American Scholar: Follow them. You'll be more fun to talk to at cocktail parties. Boston Globe: News and photos, and we all know they've got plenty of both. Salon: Finally! We get to read Salon without actually having to go to Salon.com! The Morning News: Our friends who host the annual Tournament of Books have a Tumblr presence, too. Mother Jones: Politics and current events, ahoy! Tomorrow Mag: Ann Friedman & Co.'s new venture. Lively Morgue: Typically awesome photos from The New York Times archives. Bonus: This article covers the ways in which twelve news outlets are using Tumblr in innovative, fresh ways. 7. Publishers (Big Six) -- Note: Many of these blogs are used by the imprint or publisher's marketing team, but you'll find that some of the most successful publisher Tumblrs are getting more focused and specific. This is an interesting development, and I encourage more of the same. Also: This list is only a small sampling of the publisher Tumblrs on the site -- just naming all the ones from Penguin would amount to its own post! Random House Digital: Dispatches from the Random House digital team. Vintage Books Design: As they say, "vintage design from Vintage designers." Harper Books: The publisher's flagship imprint sets up shop on Tumblr. The Penguin Press: They publish Zadie Smith, in case you need validation of their taste. Simon Books: Straight from Rockefeller Center to your Dashboard! Pantheon: News and miscellany from Random House's literary fiction and serious nonfiction imprint. Penguin English Library: Celebrating the Classic Penguins we all love so much. Plus, get a load of that animated masthead! Back Bay Books: Little, Brown's paperback pals. Their list of authors is incredible. Mulholland Books: This group fully embraces Tumblr's multimedia capabilities. A solid A+ in my book. Penguin Teen: Excellent content for younger readers. Free Press Books: Let's just say these folks enjoyed the week Michael Phelps had at the Olympics. HMH Books: Be sure to check out their Translation and Poetry blogs, too. Riverhead: Of all the publisher Tumblrs, they boast the cutest mascot. Little, Brown: Their Daily First Line posts are tantalizing. 8. Publishers (University Presses) Duke: Hate the basketball team, love the press. (And their blog.) Chicago: Their posts are excellent. Continually substantial and interesting. McGill-Queens: Fun Fact: some folks up North would have it that Harvard is "America's McGill." Cambridge Exhibitions: Alerts and updates on the myriad academic conferences and events attended by the CUP staff. 9. Publishers (Indies and Little Ones) Chronicle: These folks have been known to turn Tumblr blogs into books, so of course they know their way around the platform. Grove Atlantic: I'm not a tough sell, but giving away books related to The Wire is my kryptonite. Open Road Media: Worth a follow for their YouTube discoveries alone. Two Dollar Radio: They published Grace Krilanovich's book (the one I recommended), so you know they're good. Timaş Publishing Group: These Turkish publishers are so generous, they give away eBook credits on a bi-weekly basis. Quirk Books: These Philadelphia-based publishers sure find a lot of pretty bookshelves to reblog. The Feminist Press: The important indie operating out of NYC delivers some really interesting, innovative stuff in addition to the classics they "rescue." The Lit Pub: Recommendations from The Lit Pub's staff. Muumuu House: No doubt this account is run by Tao Lin's legion of interns. Overlook Press: Their About page even features a TL;DR version. They get Tumblr. Arte Público Press: Your dashboard destination for U.S. Hispanic literature. Coffee House Press Interns: Bonus "little" points because it's run by their interns. Unmanned Press: They just joined Tumblr, but their "Sunday Rejections" posts seem promising. 10. Authors (Direct Involvement) -- The Tumblr "Spotlight" list can be found here; it's not comprehensive, but it lists accounts you're sure to enjoy. I've listed one of each author's books alongside their names. Additionally: YA Highway, an excellent resource for fans of Young Adult books, maintains a great directory of YA Authors. Emily St. John Mandel: Millions staffer whose most recent book is The Lola Quartet. Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer whose most recent book is If You're Not Yet Like Me. Patrick Somerville: This Bright River. Neil Gaiman: American Gods. Roxane Gay: Ayiti. Sheila Heti: How Should a Person Be? Emma Straub: Other People We Married. Jami Attenberg: The Middlesteins. Bonus: check out her advice, too. Nathan Englander: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Matthew Gallaway: The Metropolis Case. Miles Klee: Ivyland. John Green: Looking for Alaska. Alexander Chee: Edinburgh. Tayari Jones: Silver Sparrow. Rosencrans Baldwin: Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down. Tao Lin: Richard Yates. Dan Chaon: Stay Awake. Christopher Dickey: Securing the City. 11. Authors (Indirect Involvement) Reading Ardor: Two readers go through Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. Chuck Palahniuk: Don't forward this blog to any Turkish publishing houses. John Banville Spectates Tennis: Serving up some observations on tennis. (I'll excuse myself now.) Martin Amis Drinking: This should really just be a livestream video feed of Amis at all times. A. O. Scott Zingers: The film critic's best one-liners. Fitzgerald Quotes: F. Scott's got lines for days. Reading Markson Reading: Brainchild of Millions contributor, Tyler Malone. 12. Poets -- As with the authors list, Tumblr's poetry "Spotlight" can be found here. Leigh Stein: Dispatch From the Future. Michael Robbins: Alien vs. Predator. Paolo Javier: The Feeling Is Actual. Full disclosure: Paolo was one of my college professors. Zachary Schomburg: Fjords Vol. 1. He's also one of the founders of Octopus Magazine. Saeed Jones: When the Only Light is Fire. This blog is really cool. It's like the poet's global travelogue. 13. Bookstores -- I'll list the location of each one. Unabridged: Chicago's Lake View neighborhood. Community Bookstore: Park Slope, Brooklyn. McNally Kids: Manhattan. Skylight Books: Los Angeles. Open Books: Chicago. Emily Books: The Internet. Mercer Island Books: Seattle. Luminous Books: East London. Politics & Prose: Washington D.C. Micawber's: St. Paul. City Lights: San Francisco. 57th Street Books: Chicago's Hyde Park. The Little Book Room: Melbourne, Australia. Tattered Cover: Denver. Uncharted Books: Chicago. Green Apple Books: San Francisco. Taylor Books: Charleston, WV. 14. Libraries Darien Library: Excellent posts from one of the best libraries in the nation. Looks Like Library Science: “Challenging the librarian stereotype.” Live From the NYPL: Events and goings-on at the NYPL. Library Journal: The editors of LJ share what they're reading. School Library Journal: Ditto for their scholastic counterparts. Espresso Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Public Library has an espresso on-demand book printing machine. How cool is it that it has its own blog, too? 15. BONUS SECTION DEVOTED TO @Horse_ebooks -- Everybody's favorite Dadaist Twitter handle has a devoted following on the blogging platform. Horse_ Fan Fiction: Look no further than your Twitter timeline for the best writing prompts on earth. Annotated Horse_: A valuable resource for the inevitable scholarly study of Horse_'s oeuvre. 33, Pyramid, and Dalton: Max Read's impressive catalog of recurring Horse_ themes. 16. Wish List Oxford American: Maybe not the best time for the magazine at the moment, but my wish from last time still stands. Garden & Gun Oxford University Press More authors and poets!   [Ed Note: Don't miss Part One and Part Three!]

Infinite Boston

Earlier this month William Beutler, a D.C. based writer, started a blog about the landmarks in Boston that inspired the landscape of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Beutler does a great job chronicling the real-life history of different buildings and explaining how DFW altered them to fit into his novel.

Miles to Go: Notes on Marathon Reading

1. The house was packed to bursting. It was a simple enough premise, yet I had never been to a reading structured the same way: favorite passages delivered by a long list of participants, both published authors and anonymous enthusiasts. Nobody occupied the podium for significantly longer than five minutes. Covered in the panorama: the opening of “Little Expressionless Animals,” the introduction of mathematically intricate Everything and More (about getting out of bed in the morning), self-loathing reflections on the cruise-ship hypnotist from essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a few pages of “Good Old Neon,” a good deal from the diving board in “Forever Overhead,” one of the more fiendish relationship monologues in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” an introductory, in-flight sequence from The Pale King (its then recent release, the ostensible spark for the event) and several selections from Infinite Jest, including, most memorably, Don Gately’s dialogue with the specter from his hospital bed and the footnote on the fate of Avril Incandenza’s beloved dog. The David Foster Wallace Memorial Readathon spanned three to four hours in the basement of Greenpoint bookstore WORD. Not everyone saw it through; the crowd thinned just a little for the latter half. Now and again my own attention took trips around the block and back. But can I say this? You could feel the love. Here was a group turned out to commemorate the brilliance of one guy’s colossal strivings, his dogged humility, the beautiful nuance and intricate recursions of a mind pushing past the simple given, which mind was everywhere and nowhere in the spaces between those of us gathered to follow his words as they were given life, and enlivened in turn, by each speaker, the glittering humor in their eyes, a sense of having been found. What experience the author mined at extremes of individual solitude gained in the audience a forgiveness, a redemption, a gentle receptivity of spirit. That feeling belonged to everyone. The point, it became enormously clear, was not that David Foster Wallace stepped wretchedly into the inky hereafter, leaving us only to mourn, to puzzle the question of his life, or to take heed by seeing around his work to “The Depressed Person.” It was that he first succeeded at writing volume on volume of powerful prose, fiction and non, the concentrated, interwoven achievement of which we could feel, supersedes -- present tense -- the fragmenting wonder-farm telenexus in which every last one of our imaginations dissolve on the descent to wherever it is we will land in our desire to pass on whatever it is we will pass on. And by “us,” zooming out now in my longing from that one room in Greenpoint, I mean, people. Everyone. 2. To anchor a marathon reading an author must have created a singular story. As it happens, the Wallace reading at WORD registered among the first in a decided upswing in recent marathon literary events. In the past year, New York City has seen and heard readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s "Bartleby the Scrivener", Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and, to bend genres, which the marathon reading inherently does, Elevator Repair Service’s productions of The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby. As these things usually go, lit marathons happen during the holiday season and June 16th AKA Bloomsday. The New York City marathon reading in longest standing is actually not of fiction but poetry: the St. Mark’s Church New Year’s event during which scores of poets give breath to their own verse and that of others. It dates to the '70s. When they opened a new community space in Greenpoint, editors at lit journal Triple Canopy were well aware in choosing to organize a reading in late January (duration: 53 hours) that a motley group of NYC artists had once gathered every New Year’s Day at the Paula Cooper Gallery to orate Stein’s The Making of Americans; the practice began in the '80s, going on hiatus with the new millennium’s arrival. On both the East and West Coasts, Bloomsday inspires numerous lit marathons around Joyce, whether the text is Ulysses or, for the more fearless, those willing to snatch beauty and truth from the mouth of nonsense, Finnegans Wake. With the holiday in mind, the Housing Works in Soho stages a four-hour reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In response to popular sentiment, the same organizers played a part last November in bringing to fruition a reading of "Bartleby, the Scrivener" near what was then occupied Liberty Square. As well, the novelist Jonathan Lethem undertook, with help, a marathon reading of his own Chronic City over several nights in the fall of 2009. Lynne Tillman, author most recently of novel American Genius, A Comedy and story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, has participated in several recent marathon events. When asked what might illuminate the trend, she spoke to an unlikely source of interest: “The Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading” conducted initially in 2007 and subsequently reenacted annually at MOMA (see the current video installation, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War”). As the prison camp at Guantanamo continues to operate, a collective of artists bring unedited transcripts of U.S. military tribunals to the public eye. Another source from the art scene is performance artist Marshall Weber, who, since 1994, has delivered solo lit marathons of titles ranging from William Vollmann’s The Rifles to Homer’s The Odyssey to The Bible. As for what might spur such a marathon into being, Weber writes on the Brooklyn Artists Alliance’s website: “The cycle is an evocation of the hope contained in human literature and the joy of street reading as well as an exorcism of the demonic forces of illiteracy, fundamentalism and textural literalism.” 3. Regarding the marathon reading, poet Barbara Swift Bauer offers by e-mail: “I think what’s important is that it is a way of publicly honoring the writer.” There is something wonderful about how a great author’s voice refracts through a reading audience gathered for such an observance. Writing is a solitary activity; writing a novel especially so. Just imagining the effort required is enough to make many readers, or reading attendees, go pale. We think of novelists almost as advertisements of individuality, exemplary studies of what a person can achieve in solitude. In a marathon reading, something of the division between individual and collective is closed: see anonymous members of the audience glow as the author’s individuated voice carries through them. Not coincidentally, such readers’ own individuality stands out all the more: which passage of the author’s work did the reader choose? How does the reader deliver the given passage that so many of us looking on have read before? In Constantine’s Sword, his epic history punctuated by memoir, novelist and historian James Carroll envisages the birth of Christianity unfolding. In the chapter called “The Healing Circle,” he correlates how he and other loved ones grieved the loss of a friend with the methods those nearest to Jesus might have followed in commemorating his passing: Lament. Texts. Silence. Stories. Food. Drink. Songs. More texts. Poems. We wove a web of meanings that joined us...Our circle was an extended American version of the Irish wake, of Italian keening, of African drumming in honor of ancestors. It was a version of the Jewish custom of ‘sitting shiva,’ from the Hebrew word for seven, referring to the seven days of mourning after the death of a loved one...To imagine Jesus as risen was to expect that soon all would be. With its immersive, beatific reach the lit marathon stands in funny relation to organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. At a time when church attendance in many parts of the country is down, even as the voting power of the evangelical bloc stands in ever sheerer relief, children of the heartland and of the South continue to head for the coasts, where lit marathons multiply. There exists a definite likeness with organized religion’s governing impulse in the reverence inherent to the marathon reading. In one sense, carrying on to an audience like a non-ordained minister is the height of Christian heresy (though, certainly, most fiction is less offensive than, say, your average goth rocker’s sacrilegious imagery); in another, a novel might be the brilliant lived sermon that found no root in organized religion as currently composited. Faith and doubt exist in dialectic, after all. It is difficult to believe the person who claims to know one while having no experience of the other. Perhaps it is the seeming disproportion of a full novel's demands that gives readers in the heartland pause. On his having steered clear of the lit marathon phenomenon, one Midwestern-based novelist writes, “People here don't seem to think that they should make a lengthy claim upon your attention.” Another, raised in the South, reflects that perhaps he has never participated in a lit marathon for the simple reason that he has “always been inclined toward an early bedtime.” A veteran of many a writers’ conference and their attendant readings refers to the marathon variety as “a perfect storm of not-likingness.” In that inclination for avoidance, we can recognize that the work of an artist must remain a thing apart. Tillman shakes off religious connotation in describing the pull of the marathon, even as her language borders it: "There’s so little ritual in our lives, or at least in my life, and there is an aspect to these marathons that’s ritualistic. It’s about as close to ritual as I get. Myself, I don’t use that kind of language, but there’s something, I would say, about participating in a reading in a room full of people, most of whom you don’t know, and being part of an event that is one of reverence for books, and love of books. There isn’t all that much love of books in our culture anymore—not the larger culture." The marathon reading usually gives fair indication of that intra-fictional divide between the canonical, the career-driven, and the striving -- even as any feeling of great division melts away over the marathon’s immersive course. In the latter hours of a long reading, it can feel that the story being told is the only story there is to tell, or at least the only one that could bring together the group with whom you as listener or reader have now weathered so many hours. “There were maybe 40 people around for the conclusion near midnight Sunday night,” wrote Sam Frank of Triple Canopy. “People kept coming in to this room full of cult members, the Church of Stein, consecrating our new space with half a million words.” Said Amanda Bullock, director of public programming at Housing Works (she dubbed their reading of Dickens’ The Christmas Carol “a 5k”): “It's fun I think for the readers to read the work of someone they admire, in tribute, and to all hang out.” Of participating as both reader and listener, Tillman muses, “The distribution of pleasure is greater. You have a more comradely feeling with your fellow readers, and since it’s not your own work, it’s less nerve-wracking. I mean, you want to do a good job because you want to do a good job; but it’s not your work. When I was a kid, I got a lot of pleasure being read to; if you can get into that mood, and because a marathon is so long, maybe it allows you to get there, you can feel more dreamy. Also there's something about it that may be very comforting, like watching the same movie again.” Seizing something like a movie’s active engagement, recent years on the West Coast find theater groups such as Word for Word trying on for marathon-size new titles like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, while, out east, the Elevator Repair Service ushered in theatergoers by the hundreds to experience their rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As imagined by Elevator Repair Service amid the boredom of weird modern office-place pastiche, Fitzgerald’s novel takes possession of the workers and whatever unspoken ambition brought them there: the slump-shouldered drone at the outmoded computer takes on the role of Nick; the janitor becomes Tom, the well-dressed sales rep, Daisy. The distant, slow-speaking boss assumes the guise within the guise of Gatsby himself. The story never leaves the one room. This particular marathon’s focus is not a novel to the exclusion of all else, but the manner in which we bridge Fitzgerald’s words with our present being. The actors win laughter by calling attention to how their own unique features do -- or do not -- match the ideal of those described on the page. Jim Fletcher, who plays Gatsby, tilts his head to show a pronounced bald spot as Nick reads of his host’s exemplary head of hair. An antic hive of allusiveness (rarely have sound effects been so integral to a marathon reading), Gatz owes much to the sensibility of a show like The Simpsons: the modernist classic spruced up by myriad post-modern threads. The woodenness with which Fletcher speaks Gatsby’s lines underscores the character’s dubious identity; it also hints at how a novel, that which aspires to stand outside time, cannot but recede, adopt layers of age that will either diminish or augment its resonance. In this way, those famous closing lines of Fitzgerald’s seem to rattle the limitation of their own artifice (“boats against...”), a flair that would ripple outward in the later work of such authors as Barth, Barthelme, Borges, Carter, Coover, DeLillo, Pynchon -- and Wallace. If it has happened yet, no one told me, but to imagine a marathon reading around Infinite Jest makes for an entrancing pause. (Make it in summer when teachers are free; encourage costume; start working on those pharmaceutical pronunciations.) Few novels parade an aesthetic of such exhaustive intelligence, the humor of All Too Much; the characters on its pages grapple with their own slides and recoveries in the way of All Too Much.  The book’s addictive depths were built to give ballast. Where Fitzgerald casts feeling across the brow of novelistic self-consciousness, Wallace revels in oiling and refashioning the squeaky wheel of novel-ness, to arrive at what the enterprise represents at its core, the entire literary lineage. The lit marathon tempts a similarly immense question by bringing the reader out of seclusion. Of the way it wraps around us, exhausts our capacity to pay attention while also abiding our coming and goings -- we can drop in, drop out, and when we get back, chances are good it will still be there -- the poet Susan Terris, echoing Tillman, reflects, “I guess the singular joy of the marathon reading is being read aloud to, which most of us love -- exactly in the same way we did when we were children.” Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes

Out of Reach: Notes from the David Foster Wallace Symposium

Bound copy of "Corrections of Typos/Errors for Paperback Printing of Infinite Jest" from David Foster Wallace to Nona Krug and Michael Pietsch. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center. “It’s more intense every time I think of him,” said the woman in line behind me. We were waiting to get into the opening panel at last month’s David Foster Wallace Symposium in Austin. She wore a black and white sundress (more appropriate for 90-degree Texas-in-April weather than, say, my blazer and wrinkled gray wool pants), and spoke in the elevated volume of someone who wants her private conversation to be heard by a crowd of strangers. “The longer he’s dead,” she continued, eliciting reflex-type coughs from her audience, “it’s like he’s more dead.” To be honest, before the conference, I imagined that my task as an observer would consist mainly of plucking quotes like this from the air — of eavesdropping my way into conversations among Wallace devotees that would seem, both in the moment and on further reflection, cliché and naïve and, like, ten percent crazy. I think I expected to vindicate my own normal-seeming degree of Wallace fandom by exposing myself to the extremist sect of his readers — folks who wear Enfield Tennis Academy t-shirts (ETA being the fictional setting of Infinite Jest), or who are apparently in the process of trying to memorize the entirety of that 1,000-page novel (endnotes and all), or who participate regularly in the longstanding Wallace email listserv (1,200 strong, according to its creator and moderator Matt Bucher), and have ready responses to questions like “How do you characterize the influence of Lacan on Broom of the System?” In one of the weirder moments during the proceedings, JT Jackson (who apparently makes the rounds on the circuit of DFW events) asserted to a panel that Wallace had been an un-credited writer of Good Will Hunting, and that if we wanted the truth, we should all “ask Matt about it.” Jackson has long gray hair and spindly gray mutton chops. He wore an olive green military-style jacket and introduced himself to me as a “good jarhead” that served during Vietnam. A classmate of Wallace’s in the MFA Program at the University of Arizona, he seems very invested in exposing hidden truths about Wallace’s life. [Ed. Note: Please see Jackson's comment at the end of this piece for his responses.] I guess this is to say that the symposium had its share of characters one might expect to find in a David Foster Wallace novel. But thinking back to two days of talking about suicide, love, literary commitment, illness, perfection, and grief, it seems silly to sneer at the earnestness of readers who understand Wallace’s work much more deeply than I could ever hope to. I can’t report feeling any closer to a resolution about how writers should carry forward Wallace’s considerations of the constitutive struggles of ordinary life. The symposium did repeatedly drive home the obvious fact that I don’t miss him as badly (and can’t miss him as badly) as the people who knew him personally. Not just as a spectral, textual, complex set of sometimes life-changing ideas about the world, but rather as a fleshy, six-foot-plus, pain in the ass, bandana-ed human dude who once asked Rolling Stone to provide a special caregiver for his dogs with “emotional issues” before covering the McCain campaign in 2000, and who left behind friends and family and a heap of paper that now sits in catalogued boxes for the rest us all to decipher, dissect, and translate. More importantly, it revealed something of the motivating force behind our collective desire to discover for ourselves the ordinary humanness of writers we admire, and the ways we go about trying to do it by opening those boxes full of paper. The event was made up of a series of moderated discussions among some of Wallace’s closest literary collaborators and friends, and was being held to consider the archive of unpublished story drafts, correspondence with editors, excised chapters of Infinite Jest, personal copies of John Barth novels, etc. It’s the kind of collection that the Harry Ransom Center — which acquired the steroidal volume of material for more than half a million dollars and meticulously prepared it for public use — will have to marshal serious ingenuity to protect against the drool of rabid pilgrims that visit their headquarters on the UT-Austin campus during the coming years. Among the conference’s participants were Bonnie Nadell (the agent who stumbled across Wallace’s work in a slush pile in 1985 and worked with him for the subsequent 23 years); Michael Pietsch (the Little, Brown editor who helped Wallace bring Infinite Jest into the world, and assembled the posthumous Pale King from pieces that Wallace left behind); critics and writers (some of whom openly expressed their intimidation at having to face a crowd of hyper-smart DFW junkies); and Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, whom I talked with after the final panel. As the room emptied, I asked her what it felt like to know she wouldn’t ever find another DFW story in her inbox. I immediately regretted it. Yank back the curtain around Wallace’s genius and one finds a cast of fairly normal-seeming smart literary characters — people who pull the levers of the publishing industry’s machinery and who started careers hoping to work with someone like Wallace. I don’t think they ever expected to expend publicly this kind of emotional energy to describe the loss of a friend, and the question seemed crass, insensitive, stupid. “It’s an intense sadness,” she said, as I felt the blood come to my face, “and being here brings it back. We haven’t spent too much time talking about that today. But it’s really sad.” I stood there, pretending to be a real-life journalist, inspecting the pattern of the carpeting and managed to capture her last sentence: “He wasn’t going to give us something easy.” She was referring to his stories and the challenges that Wallace presented his editors. But I ended up wondering whether this could stand as an encapsulation of a sentiment that ran throughout the symposium. It’s not easy — especially not when so many readers still feel the pain of personal loss with regard to Wallace. Many found it hard enough to say the word “suicide.” They said “early death,” “untimely death,” “untimely end,” “unfortunate end,” “tragic way that he died,” and even “the way he resolved himself.” They want to get into the archive to find a personal version of an answer to “why?” or alternatively, simply want clues about his writing process and about the way that his written work evolved — to look over his shoulder. Christopher Gordon flew down from Boston to attend the conference with his son Noah. Together, they embodied these two most prevalent reasons for wanting access to the material. The elder Gordon, a mental health professional who has read Infinite Jest three times (the number of times one has gotten through the book has become a sort of currency — everyone gives you their “number”), wants to know more about Wallace’s use of psycho-pharmaceuticals. Meantime, Noah teaches high school English in New York and told me that the archive would help him demonstrate to his students the difficulty of creative activity. “I want to expose how much work goes into writing,” he said, adding, “When you’re a student, you only see the gift.” He was talking about the polished final products that we hold in our hands and store on our e-readers. In other words, we can too easily assume that writing “just happens.” The party line throughout the entire conference was that this new archive would precisely help us understand the evolution of Wallace’s ideas, and that this in turn would help us comprehend his life, his work, his mind. All of this has clear academic value and it’s the kind of thing that places like the Ransom Center put in their website mission statements. But the symposium made it plain that most of us also go to archives, or attend conferences on the lives of authors, or coordinate desperately with Public Relations professionals in the hopes of meeting the friends of authors (totally hypothetically, of course) to experience a sense of enhanced emotional proximity to the person we knew only in book form. Despite our coolly intellectual association with the “death of the author,” the freedom of the reader, the independence of the text (as a friend of mine puts it plainly: “fuck biography”), we cling to the shards of evident ordinary humanity that an archive lays out for us. On page 30, Wallace corrects the age of one of the characters in the book. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center. “Any time you go into an archive, you get this burst of excitement,” said D.T. Max, whose biography of Wallace Every Love Story is a Ghost Story will be published this September. We sat outside the Ransom Center underneath its large trees during a break in the symposium. “You see how somebody writes. You see their handwriting. There’s nothing like that moment of delight.” When I asked if he thought that Wallace fans are unique in the depth of their desire to see this kind of material, he answered unequivocally in the affirmative. Some of these fans will be disappointed because not all of the material will be available. Wallace’s personal collection of self-help books has been quietly removed. Shortly after the appearance of an online article analyzing the marginalia in those books, they were closed off. It seems understandable — though I identify with the frustration of researchers who contend that the self-help books would offer insights into Wallace’s own reflections on his mental illness. The archive will tell an incomplete story and this fact reminds us that its contents are contingent on raw and real emotions: that there’s a hierarchy in which readers come second (personal bias here, having met Wallace’s wife Karen Green and having observed the rigidity of grief in her posture as she patiently answered an attendee’s questions about her husband’s views on religion: rightfully so). I’m not an expert on Wallace’s work. But I remember sitting on the curb outside an aquarium-themed bar in Washington, DC (one of the five worst establishments in the world) on a September night in 2008. I’d just learned about his death via text message from an ex-girlfriend. It was awful. I was blubbering with disbelief and shock and an unexpected sense of loneliness and stupidity that I’d be this upset about the death of a stranger. I remember thinking that there were other people out there who deserved to be more upset — people who knew him as more than a dust-jacket picture. Yet as it turns out, even for some of the people who knew Wallace personally, the most difficult memories to talk about are the ones dealing with his writing. Pietsch choked up when he described the process of editing The Pale King. He told his audience that Wallace was trying to unlock the “hallucinatory possibilities of boredom” — to explore ecstatic human freedom in desolate-seeming moments of mental life. It was tough to watch him characterize the almost unfathomable difficulty of this challenge, and to describe the degree to which his friend fought it. He had to cede the floor to Nadell, looking down at the stage as she picked up the thread of the conversation. Over breakfast the next morning, Pietsch told me about reading the first 250 pages of the manuscript, which began from the perspective of a character named David Wallace. “Reading those first words,” Pietsch said, “I was able to forget he wasn’t alive for a little while.” How strange this moment must have been: the aliveness of the character and the realness of the voice strong enough to overshadow actual death (though one hesitates to concede that he was less dead). Isn’t the achievement of this kind of togetherness the motive force behind reading itself? Don’t we hope to connect at an irreducible level with the consciousness of another person in this way? And doesn’t fiction offer us the promise that this kind of experience can help us understand how to live? To his fans, Wallace struggles more mightily in his work with these kinds of questions than any author of his generation, though they’re certainly at the heart of a lot of fiction that Wallace didn’t write. He was, as Pietsch puts it, “an extraordinary mind struggling with the challenge of ordinariness.” But what we seem to be searching for in an author’s archive (or even in a biography, a memoir, or whatever) is precisely an indication of the ordinariness of their struggle. So although we say we go to fiction for what we think is a unique set of experiences, we still crave the tangible evidence that an author was a person: that Wallace made sometimes-unreasonable demands of his editors, that he hid in hotel rooms while on assignment, that it was harder for him than the effortlessness of his prose would suggest. When I asked Pietsch about the challenges of working with Wallace in everyday life, he responded with a tennis anecdote, telling me about a time when David had ask him to play a few sets. “I demurred,” he said, “but David said ‘trust me, it’s great. What I’m really good at is putting the ball just outside your range.’” I grew up on tennis courts (and sometimes think I’m doomed to forever find the overlaps between tennis and literary life). I know from experience that these kinds of players — torture-experts who can, at will, place a crosscourt forehand or down-the-line backhand just two inches beyond your panting body — are the worst people to play. Their befuddling facility with your personal limitations gets inside your noggin. You feel as though they have elemental knowledge, not only of your athletic ineptitudes, but your moral and intellectual shortcomings. They know about the time you peed your pants in first grade, about your unreported short-term capital gains, about your secret belief that recycling is bullshit. Yet to duel against this kind of brain can also provide the best and most fulfilling kind of joys, both on the court, and on the page. Perhaps this tennis-like skill marks the unique quality of Wallace’s genius and explains the unique fervor of his readers. He rarely overwhelms us or bludgeons us into submission with the sheer force of his intellect. He uses big words and asks us for patience, and drives us nuts with the freaking footnotes. But the fact that his work is so addictive to so many arises from the tantalizing closeness of his observations of ordinary life to our own experience. He puts the ball just out of reach. When we go up against him, we push our capacities for attentiveness to their limit. We want to see the world the way he does, and feel like we almost do — and maybe an archive suggests that by seeing the remainders of his ordinary life, we might get closer. It might reveal that his effortless-seeming performance requires an enormous amount of effort. But we might have to come to terms with the fact that he’ll remain out of reach.

A Novelist Unmoored from Himself: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

1. When will Haruki Murakami finally get a Nobel Prize? Around this time every year, the question grumbles around Japanese literary circles. And around this time every year, the answer is the same: better luck next time. For my part, I've always observed this ritual with a jaundiced eye. Murakami, for all of his success and considerable stylistic accomplishments, just wasn’t Nobel-worthy (hold your flames until the end, please). His output is impressive and his fiercely devoted readership has made him one of the world's bestselling non-English novelists. But his books, which I had once found fresh and engaging, became increasingly predictable. If he hadn’t reached the limits of his talents, then it seemed that he was at least stuck in a very deep rut. But with 1Q84, Murakami's latest, the bandwagon’s out of the ditch, and I am jumping on board. The book, which was a blockbuster in Japan, is Murakami's finest work: nuanced, brilliant, gripping, philosophical but never tendentious, self-assured, cleverly post-modern yet authentic, and possessed of a haunting surrealism that by this point surely deserves its own adjective: Murakamian? Fans will find much to love. Murakami’s personal obsessions and eccentricities are on full display: cats, oddly-formed ears, European composers and novelists, and little people with strange powers. And yet, the book feels fresh in a way that Murakami hasn’t felt in a long time. It sees the familiar with new eyes. Reading it is like falling in love again for the very first time. Murakami’s work has always depended on subverting its readers’ sense of the familiar. His stories mostly take place in an off-kilter version of reality that seems the stranger precisely because of its similarity to the world we know. 1Q84’s brilliance is founded on more or less the same principle. It is instantly recognizable, yet inexplicably strange. A Murakami novel as it might be written in a Murakami novel. The premise is high-concept, but somehow unpretentious: two people, a novelist Tengo and a part-time assassin/fitness instructor Aomame, find that they have been transported from the “real” world into a fictional one complete with two moons, giant, glowing chrysalises woven from thin air, and a dead goat that serves as a portal to yet another world. Basically, it’s a love story. And a very affecting one at that. As might be expected, both the novel and the world in which it's set, the eponymous 1Q84, are self-consciously literary creations, one written by Murakami and the other by the writer, Tengo, who finds himself trapped in his own book, a high stakes literary fraud based on the work of a mysterious teenage girl. Although there are a few heavy-handed ventures into explicit meta-fictional commentary (a gun, which in contravention of Anton Chekov’s famous maxim, never goes off), the border between fiction and reality, whether Murakami’s or Tengo’s,  is never explicitly drawn, and the whole enterprise is carried out with such zest and lightness of touch that it never occurred to me to question the concept. The brisk pacing doesn’t hurt, either. The book is a doorstop of the order of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, but unlike those shambling monsters, it features a gripping, tightly plotted narrative that's readable enough for the beach. Whereas Murakami's previous books often built slowly and ended ambiguously, exploring in the meantime only the most quotidian aspects of his bizarre alternate realities, 1Q84 hits the ground running and never stops. Except for a slow jog of exposition in the middle, the book, which traces the mysteriously intertwined lives of Tengo and Aomame, keeps up its quick pace through over 900 pages, putting on an extra burst of speed as it comes tearing through the finish line. Most incredibly for a book of this length, it manages with only one exception to tie all of its plot threads into an elegant ending better suited to a thriller than the elephantine social novel it resembles. As a novelist, Murakami has proven himself to be a world class marathoner. 2. After the English release of Murakami's last novel, After Dark, critics, myself included, began to wonder if Murakami was capable of writing something that moved beyond the intensely personal (and by definition limited) confines of his best work and into the world at large. His most ambitious previous novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, hinted at the possibility, but never quite achieved it. Although the book expanded the physical and historical limits of Murakami's world, it failed to push beyond the psychological boundaries of his main character, a cerebral, often anonymous cipher that was not quite Murakami himself. It seemed that Murakami--like the protagonist of the classic, almost psychedelic Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World--had become a prisoner of his own mind. And as time went by, that durance became a mini-genre of sorts: noir as therapy, detective stories where the sleuth trolls for clues in his own psyche but never solves the case. The essential mystery of these novels was how do you escape your own head? It seemed the puzzle was one that neither Murakami nor his characters were able to solve. 1Q84 seems to propose a tentative solution to this conundrum: self-awareness. For the first time, Murakami does not just write, but observes himself writing. And he has expressed this new awareness of himself as a novelist in an ingenious irony. Tengo, like Murakami has so often done, literally and unwittingly writes himself into his own novel. And, yet, Tengo is not Murakami. Nor, for that matter, are any of the other characters. The result is that, for the first time, Murakami is, as a novelist, unmoored from himself. The disassociation allows him the freedom to explore multiple perspectives, and his successful expansion into the third person has opened up a world of themes that were unavailable to him during his long period of solitary confinement. Murakami’s liberation--the book alternates chapters between the perspectives of Tengo, Aomame, and, by its third and final section, a hideously ugly private eye named Ushikawa--leads the characters to revelations that would have been unthinkable in any of his previous works. The difference is striking, and it produces some truly sublime descriptions of the  human condition, expressed with Murakami’s wonderful simplicity and economy: (Tengo) was already thirty, but yet to have a sense of himself as an adult. It just felt to him like he had spent thirty years in the world. Or this passage, near the end of the book, that I never before would have imagined Murakami capable of: One evening, as the cold wind blew and she kept watch over the playground, Aomame realized she believed in God. It was a sudden discovery, like finding, with the soles of your feet, solid ground beneath the mud. It was a mysterious sensation, an unexpected awareness... 3. In part, 1Q84's achievement comes from Murakami's decision to write about Japan. In previous novels, Murakami seemed reluctant to seriously engage with his own country, most often placing his characters in a world that combined a fantastical fourth dimension of his own private obsessions with a jazzy transnational “West,” built on Russian novels, Beatles music and blue jeans. Much like his characters, most of whom are expats in their own lives, Murakami refused to directly engage with his environment, choosing instead to hide his characters away in caves and wells and cabins in the woods, where the only society they kept was their own. For all its fantastical elements, however, 1Q84 is very much about modern Japanese society. It grapples with the kind of front-page social issues we expect to find in Jonathan Franzen's latest: the historical legacy of World War II, the aging of Japanese society, and, most prominently, the rise of religious cults that led to the infamous sarin-gas attack on Tokyo's subways. The difference is both superficial and profound. With the exception of his career-making novel Norwegian Wood, a work of straight realism, Murakami has generally avoided the material signifiers of Japanese culture. His characters eat pasta and other western food. They sleep in beds, rather than on futons. They move through the kind of culture-neutral spaces, business hotels and luxury apartments, that form the archipelago of the developed world. To a certain extent, this cultural shorthand is what has made Murakami's books so popular internationally. Appreciating them requires no understanding of Japan, only a few weeks spent in any major metropolis. While Murakami’s other novels could have taken place anywhere, 1Q84 could only have happened in Japan. The book starts and ends in a uniquely Japanese locale, one of the elevated expressways that ribbon above Tokyo, and is peppered throughout with Japanese locations, situations, and references, both historical and otherwise, that feel nothing short of integral to the whole. Even the almost reflexive allusions to Western culture--in true Murakami fashion an obscure Czech composer and several European fashion designers are name checked in the book's first several pages--for the first time seem to reflect something essential about Japan itself, a country that connects East and West in much the same way as the elevated expressway connects the story’s realfictional and metafictional worlds. The result is a novel that feels more complete than any of Murakami’s previous work. Where much of his oeuvre feels somehow hollow at its core, like a literary Potemkin village, 1Q84 has real substance. It lacks the sense of rootless detachment that has characterized so many of his books, instead grounding itself and its characters in something real. 4. A few weeks ago, in preparation for 1Q84’s release, the New Yorker published an excerpt from the novel called “Town of Cats.” In the story--one of many stories within stories that fill the book--Tengo reads a piece of short fiction, written by an obscure European author, about a man who travels by train to a town populated by giant talking cats. Fascinated by the town, he decides to spend the night, watching the cats as they go about their daily lives. By the time he’s ready to go home, it’s too late. He waits and waits, but the train never comes. After a few nights, he realizes it never will. Tengo is fascinated by the story and reads it several times. He tells it to his dying father and his friends. Eventually, in the retelling, he realizes that he, too, lives in a town of cats, and if he’s not careful, he’ll die there. Reading 1Q84, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Murakami came to the same conclusion. Will Murakami ever win the Nobel? A member of this year’s prize committee was quoted as saying that the prize has been too heavily weighted towards Europe in recent years. The comment has no doubt given fresh hope to grumblers across the world. Whether they will be vindicated or not, only time will tell. In the meantime, there is one thing that everyone should be happy about. With 1Q84, Haruki Murakami has finally left his town of cats.

Staff Pick: Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Here, in its entirety, is the "plot" of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style: On a crowded Paris bus at around midday, the unnamed narrator observes a young man taking an older gentleman to task for deliberately pushing him and stepping on his feet. Then a vacant seat appears, and the young man rushes to occupy it, thus bringing the confrontation to an abrupt end. About an hour later, the narrator happens to pass the same young man as he is standing in front of the Gare St-Lazare, being informed by a friend that he ought to have another button sewn onto his coat. That’s it. Literally nothing else happens in the book. And it’s not as though Queneau spins this dull succession of non-events into some kind of mock epic, or crams his narrative so full of detail and description that it metastasizes into the sort of exploded view of the insignificant that Nicholson Baker trafficked in with his early fiction. By the end of the first page, you have learned everything you are ever going to know about the events on which the book focuses. What Queneau does do, however, is re-narrate this same scenario a further 98 times, in a series of distinct styles. The book is like a sequence of false starts, as though its author were attempting to begin a novel with no sense of the tone or attitude he wants to strike, and so becomes trapped in a comic holding pattern of writing and rewriting. Each of the 99 sections is given a simple and utilitarian title — “Notation,” “Hesitation,” “Precision,” “Official Letter,” “Insistence,” “Comedy,” “Philosophic,” and so on. From this at once laughably and ingeniously simple premise results one of the great high-concept show-off acts of twentieth century fiction. It’s laughable because this is, obviously, no sensible way to go about writing a book. It’s an amusing idea that you would imagine might be best left as merely that, as the kind of droll "how-about-this" notion that might be floated to other writers well into the home stretch of a night’s drinking. It’s good for a chuckle, certainly, but not something you would really want to sit down and actually knock out a book on. What’s ingenious, though, is how Queneau actually manages to transcend his own absurd restrictions by remaining punctiliously within them at all times. By being so staunchly committed to its shallowness, in other words, the book somehow contrives to seem kind of profound. (It’s very much one of those books, by the way, that steers you away from words like “novel” and “fiction” toward more generically non-committal terms like “composition” and “work” and — may God forgive me — “text”). The only way to read Exercises in Style is to just gird your loins and do it in one sitting; otherwise, its pleasures and frustrations are in danger of getting spread too thin. It should be experienced, I think, as the overwhelming imposition on the reader’s good will and patience it was surely intended to be. It also has a powerfully cumulative effect that requires compression in time in order to be fully felt, and it benefits from a mounting sense of absurdity that would be lost if you were to just pick it up intermittently. (I’ve read it both ways, I should say, and I’m convinced the single-sitter is the only way to go. Its neatly partitioned structure and its utter lack of plot or character might suggest otherwise, but don’t be fooled. It can also comfortably be read in a couple of hours.) Much of the joy of reading it, which is also a kind of exasperation, is in wondering what he’s going to do next and whether he’s going to be able to pull it off. To give a sense of what Queneau is up to here, it’s worth providing a few examples of the way he goes about it. This is how the section headed “Surprises” begins: “How tightly packed in we were on that bus platform! And how stupid and ridiculous that young man looked!” And this is from “Homeoteleuton”: “On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at a great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate, and ejaculate: ‘Oi, mate!’” The “Official Letter” section relates the entire incident as though it were the subject of a formal complaint to an office of some or other bureaucratic body: “I beg to advise you of the following facts of which I happened to be the equally impartial and horrified witness. Today, at roughly twelve noon, I was present on the platform of a bus...” One of my favorite exercises is entitled “Blurb.” It’s not just that it’s funny; it's also one of the purest examples of metafictional effrontery I’ve ever come across. It’s good enough and brief enough to warrant quoting in full: In this new novel, executed with his accustomed brio, the famous novelist X, to whom we are already indebted for so many masterpieces, has decided to confine himself to very clear-cut characters who act in an atmosphere which everybody, both adults and children, can understand. The plot revolves, then, round the meeting on a bus of the hero of this story and of a rather enigmatic character who picks a quarrel with the first person he meets. In the final episode we see this mysterious individual listening with the greatest attention to the advice of a friend, a past master of sartorial art. The whole makes a charming impression which the novelist X has etched with rare felicity. Queneau’s stochastic method might put you in mind of one of those invariably lame improvisational comedy setups whereby a performer has to switch registers according to an audience's shouted commands — delivering, say, a funeral eulogy first as infomercial sales patter, then as rap-battle braggadocio, then as bawdy Elizabethan comedy. And the book is, in an obvious sense, pure play, sheer diversion. Its effect is subtly paradoxical, like a less harrowing version of Chatroulette: you can be pretty sure what you’re going to get when you turn the page, but you have no idea in what form to expect it. A maximal level of monotony integrated, in other words, with a maximal level of variety. By turns frustrated and delighted with Queneau’s exploration of the limitless possibilities of limitation, I was reminded of a particularly memorable passage about the mathematics of tennis in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Schtitt, the quasi-mystic coach at Enfield Tennis Academy, is said to understand the sport as not a matter of reduction to pattern and order, but as one of “expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth,” as a “diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent.” Like tennis in Schtitt’s (and Wallace’s) understanding of it, Queneau’s literary game is all about the way in which an infinity of things can happen inside a finite and tightly delineated space. The book feels as though it could have been published last year, despite the occasional archaisms of Barbara Wright’s 1958 English translation (which, given the presumably immense difficulties of translating such a self-conscious piece of writing, is itself a work of playfully restricted art). The barefaced cheek of its linguistic divertissements seems to anticipate the simultaneously nifty and irritating textual gimmickry of some of Jonathan Safran Foer’s work. There’s “Pig Latin” (“Unway ayday aboutyay iddaymay anyay essyay usbay Iyay oticednay ayay oungyay anmay...”), there’s “Spoonerisms” (“One May, about didday, on the bear fatborm of a plus...”), and there’s a whole sequence of “Permutations” by groups of words and letters of increasing numbers (don’t even ask). Exercises in Style was first published in French in 1947, and so it slightly predates the Nouveau Roman. It also precedes the formation of the Oulipo group — of which Queneau was a co-founder and which numbered Georges Perec and Italo Calvino among its members — even though, with its linguistic games and its creative restrictions, it is often seen as one of the movement’s exemplary works. The closest thing I can think of to an immediate predecessor is Chapter 14 of Ulysses, the "Oxen of the Sun Episode" set in the National Maternity Hospital, which is narrated in a progression of historically advancing styles, from the birth of language, through Old and Middle English, the language of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, right through to early 20th Century Dublin slang. The effect is quite different, however, because Joyce’s stylistic ventriloquisms are in the service of the substantial theme of gestation and birth. Queneau’s substantial theme, on the other hand, is style itself. Though it seems the slightest kind of literature imaginable, Exercises in Style in fact places a very heavy weight of significance on its seemingly inconsequential diversions. “On the surface,” as John Banville puts it in The Book of Evidence, “that is where there is depth.” Queneau’s book seems all surface; it appears, as it were, to be all stylistic mouth and no narrative trousers. But it makes, or implies, some radical claims about the relationship between form and content, not least that the former isn’t simply a vehicle for the latter, but rather the way in which it is constituted. It is not so much an exercise in the privileging of style over substance, in other words, as an argument for the consubstantiality of the two. Just as in Kantian epistemology there is no separating the act of perception from the thing perceived, what we see through Queneau’s linguistic kaleidoscope is that there is no isolating the thing expressed from the mode of expression. Or, to put it another way — which the book exhaustively establishes as something one can always do — the ediummay is the essagemay (if you’ll orgivefay the iticralcray ichéclay).

Infinite Jest Inspires Infinite Tributes

First Poor Yorick Entertainment emerged as a "visual exploration of the filmography of James O. Incandenza and the world of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." Then, as The New York Times reports, "Parks and Recreation" co-creator Michael Schur paired up with The Decembrists to direct a music video inspired by the book. (You can watch the video on YouTube.) Now, thanks to this Radiolab podcast (and an alley-oop from @nateharris), another one of the novel's scenes is brought to life.

Oprah, Amazon, and The Rise of Therapeutic Fiction: Timothy Aubry’s Reading as Therapy

1. Why do people read literary fiction? This is the puzzle motivating English professor Timothy Aubry’s new study of American reading habits, Reading as Therapy. And it’s a good question. After all, everyone knows that America has a dead or dying literary culture, yet novels—including “literary” novels—continue to be written at a record-setting pace. Many of these novels find no audience, but some of them find a huge one. The audiences for such “best sellers” cut across class, gender and race, and their enthusiasm and size, contra highbrow suspicions, cannot always be attributed to clever marketing. What, Aubry asks, makes certain books appealing to broad bases of readers? How is it possible, given the supposedly dire literary climate, that an emotionally lacerating novel like The Kite Runner, or a famously difficult one, like Infinite Jest, can become a best seller, and, at least for a short time, a ubiquitous subject of national conversation? There are easy and cynical answers to such questions. Perhaps people are drawn to novels that affirm their own self-image as intelligent, or empathetic—or maybe they look to fiction to validate selfish impulses and desires. Academics  are frequently attracted to such explanations, as they are  to glib dismissals of popular taste as founded on entertainment or shock value. This is just one of the things that distinguishes Aubry’s approach from much of what passes for scholarship in English departments today. Rather than searching for the “true cause” behind the embrace of certain books in America, Aubry takes readers at their word. What he finds is that most readers do not expect novels simply to entertain or inform them. Rather, they treat fiction “as a practical dispenser of advice or a form of therapy.” That is, they expect it will help them deal with problems in their lives. This diagnosis may come as no surprise to most non-academics, and it will remind some of Jonathan Franzen’s advocacy for the “Contract” model of literature in his 2003 essay, “Mr. Difficult.” The real power of Aubry’s book, however, lies in the close attention he pays to the way the “therapeutic paradigm” shapes the encounter between various American authors and their audience. The six novels Aubry treats—in addition to Infinite Jest, and The Kite Runner, he covers Toni Morrison’s Paradise, Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife —are all best sellers (with four bearing Oprah’s O-shaped seal). They might seem radically dissimilar, though, in the challenges they pose for readers. Infinite Jest and Paradise are experimental works that frustrate easy readerly identification, while Divine Secrets and The Pilot’s Wife both offer conventional immersion in a stirring domestic narrative. A Million Little Pieces was thought to be a heroically confessional memoir, before being revealed as a manipulative fabrication. Yet Aubry insists that the six books have something deeper in common: each acknowledges the supremacy of the “subjective interor,” which its American readers know to be “the site of greatest importance, complexity, depth and fulfillment in the world.” Although Aubry is agnostic about the value of this development, he has no doubts about its pervasiveness. The novels Americans read most, and how they read them, now inevitably reflect the triumph of the therapeutic. 2. In chapter after chapter, Aubry shows the therapeutic model at work through his sensitive readings, not only of the novels themselves, but also of data—TV interviews with authors, Amazon.com reader reviews—often ignored by critics. His first chapter, on Toni Morrison’s complicated Paradise, draws heavily from a transcript of the Oprah Winfrey Show. The episode devoted to Paradise begins with several audience members complaining to Morrison that they don’t “get” the book. Morrison responds by asking them what exactly they “don’t get.” It turns out, according to the author, that they have gotten more than they think. Moreover, she attempts to validate her readers’ initial confusion by affirming “that it is precisely the point that they not ‘get’ everything in the text.” The episode thus develops as an object lesson for middlebrow readers coping with “difficult” modern fiction. But the interaction works the other way as well. According to Aubry, the episode is also a testament to the way difficult fiction justifies itself to therapeutic culture. The point is crystallized when an audience member questions the artistic value of Paradise, on account of its difficulty: I was lost because I came into—I really wanted to read the book and love it and learn some life lessons; and when I got into it, it was so confusing I questioned the value of a book that is that hard to understand. Here is Aubry’s insightful gloss on the comment: The woman’s remark merits consideration. She, like many of Winfrey’s audience members, approaches literature with passion and a readiness to challenge herself intellectually. Paradise’s difficulty, however, effectively blocks her critical engagement. Her response echoes the observations made by [Oprah’s friend] Gayle King and Winfrey that Paradise might simply be “over our heads,” impossibly inaccessible…. Their comments imply a critique of the elitism and exclusiveness that characterize the entire world of so-called high culture along with the academic institutions, such as Princeton [where Morrison teaches], that support, celebrate, and embody this world. The comments, as Aubry points out, pose a special problem for a writer like Morrison who (in the paradoxical manner of  many “highbrow” writers) claims to value inclusivity and tolerance even as she fills her novels with textual mysteries likely to defeat the enthusiasm of the common reader. And it is symptomatic that the author, aided by Winfrey, responds to the complaint, and others like it, by stressing that the difficulty of the book has a therapeutic purpose—namely, to help the reader deal with disorientation, and confusion, in life. “You have to open yourself,” Winfrey tells the woman, “It’s like a life experience. It’s getting to know people, getting to know people in a town. It’s not everything laid out.” There is much to be said about such exchanges, and much of it gets said by Aubry. Just as important is what he does not say. Aubry does not conclude that the readers in Oprah’s audience are simply deluded or naïve. To be sure, their questions about the “payoff” of Morrison’s experimental strategies place them in a somewhat precarious position (what does it mean for a book to pay you off?), but no more precarious than Morrison’s (in what sense can she guarantee that her book is “worth” the effort it requires?). The “payoff” of the scene for Aubry’s readers, anyway, is clear. We get to watch as a critically acclaimed contemporary writer attempts to justify her practice to precisely the kind of readers she claims to be writing for. Can she do it? It will depend, Aubry implies, on whether she can make the case to such a reader that the novel, including its difficult or experimental elements, has therapeutic value. 3. If Paradise and Infinite Jest raise the question of how difficult literature can serve popularly therapeutic ends, the other books Aubry treats, like Wells’s Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Hosseini’s Kite Runner, pose a different question: Does what is often known as “sentimental literature” do enough to engage its readers politically or morally? Aubry’s answer to the question, explored most forcefully in his exceptional final chapter, is a qualified “yes”—or, at least, a “more than you might think.” The chapter is structured around Aubry’s reading of thousands of Amazon.com reviews of The Kite Runner. Aubry interprets the reviews against arguments by academics like David Damrosch and Lawrence Venuti, who worry that normal readers have trouble “identifying” with foreign-born characters while also respecting their “otherness.” In fact, Aubry argues, the Amazon reviews reveal a surprisingly sophisticated variety of responses to the book, with readers balancing their recognition of the novel’s alien setting against their conviction that it speaks to “universal themes.” Aubry is aware that nobody in the academy any longer believes in literature as a repository of universal themes (a view Damrosch, for instance, equates with “amateurism”); against this prejudice, he stresses that it is only because the reader believes the novel addresses such themes that she is willing to seriously, and morally, concern herself with the particular story of Kite Runner’s traumatized Afghani protagonist, Amir. Of course, empathy is a long way from political action, and left-wing commentators (beginning back with Benjamin and Brecht, and continuing now with Fredric Jameson and nearly everyone with a PhD in English), have long criticized sentimental art for promoting the illusion that strong feelings constitute an adequate response to suffering and injustice. One of the charms of Aubry’s method is that, as with Oprah’s enthusiasts, he refuses to condescend to the Amazon “amateurs” who claim to have had their curiosity, and sometimes their political conscience, aroused by Kite Runner. “I am now fascinated by Afghanistan and want to learn as much as possible about the country,” reports one reviewer. Another believes the novel may help Americans “begin to understand what has been done to the Afghani people.” Indeed, even in cases where readers articulate no political message, Aubry emphasizes that strong emotions can have effects far beyond momentary shifts in mood; and it is impossible to predict how the readers of Kite Runner will integrate their literary experience with other aspects of their lives. 4. The most common criticism of therapeutic fiction—that it functions for its readers as an escape from the social world—is therefore reductive, Aubry convincingly claims, since it “deliberately disregards the social character and social purchase of therapeutic discourse.” If there is any weakness in Reading as Therapy, however, it is in how often Aubry feels the need to insist on this point, as if he can never quite get clear of the now-conventional academic piety that art’s “justification” need be discovered in its political or social effects. In his conclusion, Aubry asks two questions which he pretends are really one: “What, after all, can contemporary novels accomplish?” and “What influence do they exert upon the public sphere?” What influence literature has in the public sphere is not a pointless question, but it is one that has been, so to speak, answered to death by cultural critics over the past four decades. What novels accomplish for their individual readers, on the other hand, seems the question Aubry has spent the book answering in therapeutic—which is to say primarily private—terms. Therapy would seem to be precisely the process whose accomplishments cannot be objectively quantified; presumably, a novel like Kite Runner could have no discernible political effect and still succeed as therapy. In a rambling Amazon review quoted at length in the Kite Runner chapter, reader Roy Munson finally concludes that: True redemption can only be found within the soul, and for each person redemption requires a separate definition and asking price. This book carries within it a whirlwind of human emotions, and a universal link to what we are intrinsically—connected. Any thought of separateness is in the mind. The feeling Munson describes, and which he presumes it has been the novel’s task to demonstrate to him, is akin to the “oceanic” emotion Freud identified as basic to the religious mindset. Academic critics, long hostile to terms like “redemption” and “soul,” have tried for some time now to convince their readers that literature can or should be about culture or politics or economics; the result has been that academic critics no longer have any readers. That art speaks to the inner-lives of men and women, and encourages empathy between them, remains the prevailing assumption of the average reader, not to mention most of its creators (cf. David Foster Wallace’s oft-quoted assertion that fiction makes us “less alone inside”). Whether that assumption is voiced in quasi-religious (as in Munson’s case), or in therapeutic (as in Oprah’s) terms, it is not clear that commentators on literature can or should do without it. As Aubry shows, it may be just this assumption that accounts for the remarkable persistence of the novel today.

D.M.V.: An Incomplete List of Writers Who Met Death by Motor Vehicle

Is it my imagination, or do an inordinate number of writers die in motor vehicle accidents?  Maybe I tend to notice these grisly deaths because I'm a writer, an avid reader of obituaries, and also a car lover with a deep fear of dying in a crash.  But I'm convinced by years of accumulated empirical evidence that writers outnumber the percentage of, say, nurses or teachers or accountants who die in car and motorcycle accidents.  (Similarly, an inordinate number of musicians seem to die in plane crashes, including the Big Bopper, John Denver, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ritchie Valens and Ronnie Van Zant, to name a few.) Why do so many writers die in motor vehicle mishaps?  Are they reckless drivers?  Prone to bad luck?  Likely to indulge in risky behavior?  I don't pretend to know the answer(s), but I have noticed, sadly, that writers who die in crashes are frequently on the cusp of greatness or in the midst of some promising project; sometimes they're at the peak of their careers.  I offer this list in chronological order, aware it isn't exhaustive.  Feel free to add to it in the comments.  Think of this as a living tribute to writers who left us too soon: T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) – Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean's Oscar-winning 1962 movie, opens with the death of its subject.  T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole), the archaeologist/warrior who helped unite rival Arab tribes and defeat the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, was whizzing along a road in rural Dorset, England, astride his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle on the afternoon of May 13, 1935.  A dip in the road obscured Lawrence's view of two boys on bicycles, and when he swerved to avoid them he lost control and pitched over the handlebars.  Six days later he died from his injuries.  He was 46. Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence's account of his experiences during the Great War, made him an international celebrity, though he called the book "a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people."  An inveterate letter writer, Lawrence also published his correspondence with Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, E.M. Forster and many others.  He dreamed that victory on the desert battlefield would result in an autonomous Arab state, but negotiators at the Paris peace conference had very different ideas, prompting Lawrence to write bitterly, "Youth could win but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age.  We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven on earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace." Seven Pillars of Wisdom still speaks to us today, as the U.S. fights two wars in the region during this convulsive Arab Spring.  Lawrence could have been writing about Americans in Iraq when he wrote these words about his fellow British soldiers: "And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours." Nathanael West (1903-1940) – Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein, wrote just four short novels in his short life, but two of them – Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust – are undisputed classics.  After graduating from college he managed two New York hotels, where he allowed fellow aspiring writers to stay at reduced rates or free of charge, including Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell.  When his first three novels – The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934) – earned a total of $780, a demoralized West went to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting. There he enjoyed his first success.  He wrote scripts for westerns, B-movies and a few hits, then used his experiences in the trenches of the movie business to brilliant effect in his masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939), which satirizes the tissue of fakery wrapped around everything in Los Angeles, from its buildings to its people to the fantasies that pour out of its dream factories.  The novel also paints a garish portrait of the alienated and violent dreamers who come to California for the sunshine and the citrus and the empty promise of a fresh start.  West's original title for the novel was, tellingly, The Cheated.  It was eclipsed by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which was a published a few weeks before it and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, then was made into a hit movie.  West wrote ruefully to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Sales: practically none." In April of 1940 West married Eileen McKenney.  Eight months later, on Dec. 22, a day after Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack, West and McKenney were returning to their home in Los Angeles from a bird-hunting expedition in Mexico.  Outside the farming town of El Centro, West, a notoriously bad driver, gunned his sparkling new Ford station wagon through a stop sign at high speed, smashing into a Pontiac driven by a poor migrant worker.  West and McKenney were flung from the car and died of "skull fracture," according to the coroner's report. Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, closes her book with what I think is a fitting eulogy: "Dead before middle age, Nat left behind no children, no literary reputation of importance, no fine obituary in the New York Times ensuring immortality, no celebrity eulogies, just four short novels, two of them unforgettable.  When a writer lives only 37 years and ends up with very little reward, it might seem a waste, until you look at what he did.  For Nathanael West, what he did seems enough." Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) – Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell's only novel, was published in the summer of 1936.  By the end of the year it had sold a million copies and David O. Selznick had bought the movie rights for the unthinkable sum of $50,000.  Mitchell spent the rest of her life feeding and watering her cash cow, work that was not always a source of pleasure.  Her New York Times obituary said the novel "might almost be labeled a Frankenstein that overwhelmed her," adding, "She said one day, in a fit of exasperation as she left for a mountain hideaway from the throngs which besieged her by telephone, telegraph and in person, that she had determined never to write another word as long as she lived." She gave up fiction but continued to write letters, and her correspondence is filled with accounts of illnesses and accidents, boils and broken bones, collisions with furniture and cars.  In fact, she claimed she started writing her novel because "I couldn't walk for a couple of years." On the evening of Aug. 11, 1949, Mitchell and her husband John Marsh were about to cross Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta on their way to see a movie.  According to witnesses, Mitchell stepped into the street without looking – something she did frequently – and she was struck by a car driven by a drunk, off-duty taxi driver named Hugh Gravitt.  Her skull and pelvis were fractured, and she died five days later without regaining consciousness. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whose familiarity with failure surely colored his opinion of Mitchell's staggering success, said of Gone With the Wind, "I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind." Albert Camus (1913-1960) – He had planned to take the train from Provence back to Paris.  But at the last minute, the Nobel laureate Albert Camus accepted a ride from his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard.  On Jan. 4, 1960 near the town of Villeblevin, Gallimard lost control of his Facel Vega sports car on a wet stretch of road and slammed into a tree.  Camus, 46, died instantly and Gallimard died a few days later.  Gallimard's wife and daughter were thrown clear of the mangled car.  Both survived. In the wreckage was a briefcase containing 144 handwritten pages – the first draft of early chapters of Camus's most autobiographical novel, The First Man. It closely paralleled Camus's youth in Algiers, where he grew up poor after his father was killed at the first battle of the Marne, when Albert was one year old.  The novel was not published until 1994 because Camus's daughter Catherine feared it would provide ammunition for the leftist French intellectuals who had turned against her father for daring to speak out against Soviet totalitarianism and for failing to support the Arab drive for independence in the country of his birth.  Camus dedicated the unfinished novel to his illiterate mother – "To you who will never be able to read this book."  He once said that of all the many ways to die, dying in a car crash is the most absurd. Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) – In his essay on Wallace Stevens, written when he was 37, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote prophetically, "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times...  A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems." In the 1960s, as his 50th birthday approached, Jarrell's poetic inspiration was in decline.  While he didn't stop writing poetry, he concentrated on criticism, translations and children's books.  He also sank into a depression that led him to slash his left wrist and arm in early 1965.  The suicide attempt failed, and a month later his wife Mary committed him to a psychiatric hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C.  He was there when his final book of poems, The Lost World, appeared to some savage reviews.  In The Saturday Review, Paul Fussell wrote, "It is sad to report that Randall Jarrell's new book... is disappointing.  There is nothing to compare with the poems he was writing 20 years ago...  (His style) has hardened into a monotonous mannerism, attended now too often with the mere chic of sentimental nostalgia and suburban pathos." Though stung, Jarrell returned to UNC-Greensboro in the fall, where he was a dedicated and revered teacher.  In October he was back in Chapel Hill undergoing treatments for the wounds on his left arm.  On the evening of Oct. 14, 1965, Jarrell was walking alongside the busy U.S. 15-501 bypass, toward oncoming traffic, about a mile and a half south of town.  As a car approached, Jarrell stepped into its path.  His head struck the windshield, punching a hole in the glass.  He was knocked unconscious and died moments later from "cerebral concussion."  The driver, Graham Wallace Kimrey, told police at the scene, "As I approached he appeared to lunge out into the path of the car."  Kimrey was not charged. Was it a suicide?  A tragic accident?  We'll never know for sure.  One thing we do know is that this brilliant critic, uneven poet and inspiring teacher died too young, at 51, the same age as his heroes Proust and Rilke. Richard Farina (1937-1966) – There was a time when every young person with claims to being hip and literary absolutely had to possess a battered copy of Richard Farina's only novel, that terrific blowtorch of a book called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. Like a handful of other novels – Tropic of Cancer, On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest come immediately to mind – Farina's creation was as much a generational badge as it was a book.  Farina's novel, which recounts the picaresque wanderings of Gnossos Pappadopoulis, was published in 1966, after Farina and his wife Mimi, Joan Baez's sister, had become a successful folk-singing act.  The best man at their wedding was Thomas Pynchon, who'd met Richard while they were students at Cornell. On April 30, 1966, two days after the novel was published, there was a party in Carmel Valley, California, to celebrate Mimi's 21st birthday.  Richard decided to go for a spin on the back of another guest's Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  The driver entered an S-curve at excessive speed, lost control and tore through a barbed-wire fence.  Farina died instantly, at the age of 29.  Pynchon, who later dedicated Gravity's Rainbow to Farina, said his friend's novel comes on "like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch." Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) – For a writer who lived such a long and fruitful life – he was a teacher, environmentalist, decorated novelist and author of short stories, histories and biographies – Wallace Stegner does not enjoy the readership he deserves.  "Generally students don't read him here," said Tobias Wolff, who was teaching at Stanford in 2009, the centennial of Stegner's birth.  "I wish they would." It was at Stanford that Stegner started the creative writing program and nurtured a whole galaxy of supernova talents, including Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, George V. Higgins, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone.  He won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award but was ghettoized as "the dean of Western writers."  In a cruel irony, this writer who deplored "the stinks of human and automotive waste" was on his way to deliver a lecture in Santa Fe, N.M., on March 28, 1993, when he pulled his rental car into the path of a car bearing down on his left.  The left side of Stegner's car was crushed, and he suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone.  A heart attack and pneumonia followed, and he died in the hospital at the age of 84. For all his love of the West, Stegner knew it was no Eden.  He once told an interviewer: "The West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it.  The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that too.  The West is rootless, culturally half-baked.  So be it." Steve Allen (1921-2000) – Though best known as a television personality, musician, composer, actor and comedian, Steve Allen also wrote more than 50 books on a wide range of topics, including religion, media, the American educational system and showbiz personalities, plus poetry, plays and short stories.  Lovers of Beat literature will always remember Allen for noodling on the piano while Jack Kerouac recited passages from On the Road on "The Steve Allen Show" in 1959. On Oct. 30, 2000, Allen was driving to his son's home in Encino, California, when his Lexus collided with an SUV that was being backed out of a driveway.  Neither driver appeared to be injured in the fender bender, and they continued on their ways.  After dinner at his son's home, Allen said he was feeling tired and lay down for a nap.  He never woke up.  The original cause of death was believed to be a heart attack, but a coroner's report revealed that Allen had suffered four broken ribs during the earlier collision, and a hole in the wall of his heart allowed blood to leak into the sac surrounding the heart, a condition known as hemopericardium. On the day of his death Allen was working on his 54th book, Vulgarians at the Gate, which decried what he saw as an unacceptable rise of violence and vulgarity in the media. W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) – It has been said that all of the German writer W.G. Sebald's books had a posthumous quality to them.  That's certainly true of On the Natural History of Destruction, his magisterial little exploration of the suffering civilians endured during the Allied fire-bombing of German cities at the end of the Second World War.  I should say his exploration of the unexplored suffering of German civilians, because the book is partly a rebuke, a challenge to his shamed countrymen's willed forgetfulness of their own suffering. I lived for a time in Cologne, target of some of the most merciless bombing.  I've seen photographs of the city's Gothic cathedral standing in a sea of smoking rubble.  I've heard old-timers talk about the war – men grousing about the idiocy of their military officers, women boasting about how they cadged deals on the black market.  But I never heard anyone say a word about the horror of watching the sky rain fire.  Until Sebald dared to speak. He produced a relatively short shelf of books – novels, poetry, non-fiction – but he was being mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate until Dec. 14, 2001, when he was driving near his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter Anna.  Sebald apparently suffered a heart attack, and his car veered into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck.  Sebald died instantly, at the age of 57.  His daughter survived the crash. David Halberstam (1934-2007) –  David Halberstam died working.  On April 23, 2007 he was riding through Menlo Park, California, in the passenger seat of a Toyota Camry driven by a UC-Berkeley journalism student.  They were on their way to meet Y.A. Tittle, the former New York Giants quarterback, who Halberstam was keen to interview for a book he was writing about the epic 1958 N.F.L. title game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts.  As the Camry came off the Bayfront Expressway, it ran a red light.  An oncoming Infiniti slammed into the passenger's side and sent the Camry skidding into a third vehicle.  The Camry's engine caught fire and Halberstam, 73, was pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma.  All three drivers survived with minor injuries. Halberstam made his mark by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting in the New York Times that questioned the veracity of the men leading America's war effort in Vietnam.  Eight years later he published what is regarded as his masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, about the brilliant but blind men who led us into the fiasco of that unwinnable war.  He went on to write 20 non-fiction books on politics, sports, business and social history.  I think The Fifties, his re-examination of the supposedly bland Eisenhower years, contains all the virtues and vices of his work: outsized ambition and pit-bull reporting shackled to prose that's both sprawling and clunky.  Like so many writers with big reputations and egos to match, Halberstam never got the tough editor he needed. The book he was working on when he died, The Glory Game, was completed by Frank Gifford, who played for the Giants in that 1958 title game.  It was published – "by Frank Gifford with Peter Richmond" – a year after Halberstam's death. Doug Marlette (1949-2007) – Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and creator of the popular comic strip "Kudzu," published his first novel in 2001.  The Bridge spins around the violent textile mill strikes in North Carolina in the 1930s, in which Marlette's grandmother was stabbed with a bayonet.  The novel is set in the fictional town of Eno, loosely modeled on Hillsborough, N.C., the hot house full of writers where Marlette was living when he wrote the book.  When Marlette's neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus, read the novel in galleys, he saw a little too much of himself in the composite character Ruffin Strudwick, a gay man who wears velvet waistcoats and sashays a lot.  Gurganus called the publisher and demanded that his name be removed from the book's acknowledgements.  A bookstore cancelled a reading, charging Marlette with homophobia, and Hillsborough became the scene of a nasty literary cat fight between pro- and anti-Marlette camps.  People who should have known better – a bunch of writers – had forgotten Joan Didion's caveat: "Writers are always selling somebody out." Marlette produced a second novel, Magic Time, in 2006.  After delivering the eulogy at his father's funeral in Charlotte, N.C., Marlette flew to Mississippi on July 10, 2007 to help a group of Oxford High School students who were getting ready to stage a musical version of "Kudzu."  The school's theater director met Marlette at the airport.  On the way to Oxford, the director's pickup truck hydroplaned in heavy rain and smashed into a tree.  Marlette was killed at the age of 57.  He was at work on his third novel when he died. Jeanne Leiby (1964-2011) – In 2008 The Southern Review named a woman as editor for the first time since Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks founded the literary journal at Louisiana State University in 1935.  The woman was Jeanne Leiby, a native of Detroit who had published a collection of short stories called Downriver, set in the corroded bowels of her post-industrial hometown.  Her fiction had appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Greensboro Review, New Orleans Review and Indiana Review.   Leiby had also worked as fiction editor at Black Warrior Review in Alabama and as editor of The Florida Review before taking the job at The Southern Review. On April 19, 2011, Leiby was driving west on Interstate-10 near Baton Rouge in her 2007 Saturn convertible.  The top was down and she was not wearing a seat belt.  When she tried to change lanes she lost control of the car and it hit a concrete guard rail and began to spin clockwise.  Leiby was thrown from the car and died later at Baton Rouge General Hospital.  She was 46. At the time of her death Leiby was, by all accounts, performing masterfully at a thankless job.  Due to punishing state budget cuts, she had slimmed The Southern Review down, cancelled some readings and other events for the journal's 75th anniversary in 2010, and ended the annual $1,500 prizes for poetry, non-fiction and fiction.  She did all that without a falloff in quality.  She was also working to merge The Southern Review with the LSU Press. In a conversation with the writer Julianna Baggott, Leiby confided that during her job interviews at The Southern Review she'd offered her opinion that the journal had gotten stodgy and that it was too Old South and too male.  One of the first things this woman from Detroit did after she got the job was to lower the portraits of her predecessors – all men – because she thought they were hung too high. Don Piper (1948 -     ) – Don Piper might be the most intriguing person on this list.  He died in a car crash – then came back from the other side to write a best-seller about the experience. On Jan. 18, 1989, Piper, a Baptist minister, was driving his Ford Escort home to Houston after attending a church conference.  It was a cold, rainy day.  As he drove across a narrow, two-lane bridge, an oncoming semi-truck driven by a trusty from a nearby prison crossed the center line and crushed Piper's car.  When paramedics arrived at the scene, Piper had no pulse and they covered his corpse with a tarp.  Since I can't possibly improve on Piper's telling of what happened next, I'll give it to you straight from his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven: Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven... Simultaneous with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension or description.  Only that. In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven. Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people.  They stood in front of a brilliant, ornate gate...  As the crowd rushed toward me, I didn't see Jesus, but did see people I had known... and every person was smiling, shouting, and praising God.  Although no one said so, I intuitively knew that they were my celestial welcoming committee. Piper recognized many people who had preceded him to the grave, including a grandfather, a great-grandfather, a childhood friend, a high school classmate, two teachers and many relatives.  His story continues: The best way to explain it is to say that I felt as if I were in another dimension... everything was brilliantly intense... (and) we began to move toward that light...  Then I heard the music... The most amazing sound, however, was the angels' wings... Hundreds of songs were being sung at the same time... my heart filled with the deepest joy I've ever experienced... I saw colors I would never have believed existed.  I've never, ever felt more alive than I did then... and I felt perfect. Alas, perfection was not destined to last. A fellow preacher had stopped at the scene of the accident to pray. Just as Piper was getting ready to walk through the "pearlescent" gates and meet God face-to-face, the other minister's prayers were answered and Piper, miraculously, rejoined the living. This, surely, ranks as one of the greatest anti-climaxes in all of Western literature. Nonethless, 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, has sold more than 4 million copies and it has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for the past 196 weeks, and counting. (Image: Orange Car Crash - 14 Times from eyeliam's photostream)

Kindle-Proof Your Book in Seven Easy Steps!

A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I'd been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an "illustrated fiction" into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with "the future of the book." In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and '70s "experimental" literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out - replete with color photography and typographic mayhem - Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I'd just published would never work on it. Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac's for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions: At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses.... [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest... In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the "provincial" Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for "sellout." (Not to mention - horrors - a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon - not with Field Guide, anyway. To "sell out," you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the "beautiful" book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce. Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are: Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book Step 1. Use Color The iPad and Barnes & Noble's NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet.  As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn't it cool...in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould's Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it's good enough for a Nobelist, isn't it good enough for you? Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that "photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen" of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy ("glossy"?) magazine readers are apparently "flocking" to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it's worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we're seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it's the literary equivalent of abstract painting's retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations - as in Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring - or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams' Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader. Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle's remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski's House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel or William H. Gass' The Tunnel - difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass' lead in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there's white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler's There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It's available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don't think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds "the 'powerpoint' chapter...extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.") Step 4. Run With Scissors The opening story of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It's a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn't - and couldn't - exist. Step 5. Go Aleatory Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar's Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau's "A Story As You Like It." But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn't matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover's "deck of cards" story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates... Step 6. Put It In A Box Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, "pile of pages" aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can't be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney's, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman's archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition. Step 7. Pile on the End Matter This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren't palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren't you likely to hit "The End" and think: I'm done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I'm thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text. Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books: 1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object. 2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book...though, given the $35 cover price, I can't imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it. 3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I'll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov's and Jonathan Safran Foer's. There. I've done it. 4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel's conclusion rises...and falls. 5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen? 6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a "male version" and a (slightly different) "female version," bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon! 7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text - which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further - to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can't blame a guy for trying. 8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan "poetry machine" is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you'd just have to build in a "shuffle" function) - though by equivalence rather than reproduction. 9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I'd bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann's detractors would argue that's a good thing. I'm not so sure... 10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children's librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what's called a full-bleed)...and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book's explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen...but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can't, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad...perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.

The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels

I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed. I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that. Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading­­. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility? There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, "chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers." This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the "sad paradox" that "now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench." Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being "a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books," and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity. And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since. You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, "that was monumental." But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it. The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.) And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture. I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a "good" side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in. In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the "Wandering Rocks" episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin: Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves. If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. "Men who receive good when they expect evil," Machiavelli wrote, "commit themselves all the more to their benefactor." When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.

He Was Water: Kenyon Grads Remember David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech

On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College.  In the years since, the speech has come to play an important role in the way Wallace's work is received and remembered.  Depending on who you ask, the speech is the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction, or it is a powerful practical guide for how to live a good life, or—in the way the speech has been marketed since—it's an example of how a vibrant, challenging artist can be packaged for mainstream consumption. Or it's a chilling precursor to Wallace's suicide.  On a hot Ohio morning, Wallace described for the Kenyon grads the day-in-day-out difficulties of grown-up American life.  He beseeched his audience to fight hard to remain conscious and alert through the long slog of adult life; he urged them to be vigilant about exercising control over what they think and how they construct meaning from experience.  These, maybe, are some of the challenges that Wallace himself ultimately could not bear. The portable wisdom of the speech, layered with Wallace's complex and tragic pathos, landed the address on Time Magazine's best commencement speeches of all time list, and caused it to be reproduced as a book, This is Water, which was published a year after Wallace's suicide and achieves book-length by dedicating a page to each line of the 22-minute address. I recently began to wonder: What did the Kenyon grads think when they heard Wallace deliver it on that hot Ohio morning?  I was curious whether Wallace's speech seemed important in real time or whether it was hard to perceive amid the hurrah of a graduation weekend.  This is a question to ask of any event that grows in significance over time, but it seemed particularly relevant here given the themes Wallace spoke about.  "The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see," Wallace said in a slow, even voice.  I wondered if this same idea might have described the reception of Wallace's speech as it echoed over the gathered crowd. To answer my question I reached out to Kenyon grads through friends of friends and through the Class of 2005's Facebook page.  "I'm a journalist writing a piece about the commencement speech David Foster Wallace delivered to your graduating class and I'm wondering if you'd be willing to answer a few short questions," I said in my introductory email.  After hitting send, I often had the odd feeling that I was badgering these people.  I worried that they were tired of talking about an event that maybe had become more important to the rest of us than it had ever been to them. What do you remember about your reaction and the reaction on campus when Wallace was announced as the commencement speaker? Jackie G.: I was on the committee that decided to ask him to be our speaker. I had no idea who he was until one of my friends on the committee told me about him.  We wanted to focus on a meaningful message. This was much more important to us that having a big name everyone would know.  We wanted a speech with a message that was personal to our class.  So I guess it would be more accurate to say we wanted our class to be the intended audience of the speech. Megan H.: I had not heard of David Foster Wallace before the announcement that he was to be our commencement speaker. Gabe S.: I personally knew nothing of him. A couple friends of mine had heard of him and read a couple of his works. The feeling I got from people was "huh, this could be interesting." What was your impression of Wallace as he delivered the speech? Mike L.:  The one emotion I remember is intensity: he was clear, driving, and inwardly focused.  He also didn't say anything dismissively. Whether it was his technique or his real feeling I have no idea, but he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance. Sitting here, I picture a guy at a radio in a bunker intercepting a message, then reading it off to someone else, wasting no time and enunciating every syllable. Jackie G.: He seemed a little nervous at first. He also seemed like someone who had something to say that was worth hearing.  He was a little disheveled and didn't stand up straight when he spoke.  He seemed earnest, like he really wanted to say something to us. Hoped he could say something meaningful or useful to us. Gabe S.: This guy was peculiar, in the most captivating way. I remember he held his head at a slight angle, so that his hair (which was pretty long) would sort of droop over half of his face. It wasn't in a pretentious way at all, but also not entirely shy -- it seemed like in a way he just didn't care about where his hair was: He was concentrating way too hard to notice maybe. He had a very level, even voice. Slow and deliberate and thoughtful. He seemed like he didn't do anything without first thinking about it. What was your reaction immediately after the speech?  Was it clear you'd heard a better than average commencement address? Mike L.: For the next few hours, we were graduating. Ceremony, cap-throwing, photographs.  No one changed their day over the speech or got distracted from their graduation emotions for very long. The first people I clearly remember saying anything about the speech were the parents. It looked like an ice-breaking thing. Hey, I'm ____'s mom, our kids know each other. Wasn't that a good speech? There were shared affirmations about the grocery store story. Megan H.:  I don't remember if I spoke much with anyone about it that afternoon.  It was a whirlwind trying to find friends, and parents and professors for pictures before it was our time to leave for good. But I knew after that what I had heard was pretty special. Gabe S.: My reaction immediately after the speech was "Holy crap that was awesome." But what hit me the hardest about his speech was that it contained zero crap, zero preaching or ideology or politics or really anything at all that could even be taking as a suggestion. He stood there in front of us as one of the most humble people I've ever seen in front of an audience, and talked about life.  The fact that he prepared this speech for us made me feel incredibly honored. Since graduation, have you returned to the speech or read any of Wallace's other works? Mike L.:  There were four of us who all read Infinite Jest that year after graduation.  We e-mailed each other constantly about the book and our thoughts and our jokes about the book. I read it mostly in bars, after work in Manhattan. I can remember which stools I chose for IJ time. Jackie G.: I kind of surprise myself when I say that I have not. I do spend time thinking about his speech, particularly the part about being at the checkout counter and remembering that you don't know the context of other people's lives. I remember this part a lot in my daily life, particularly when I'm annoyed or frustrated with other people who I don't know well or at all. Gabe S.: I re-read it once. Embarrassingly, it was when I was moving, and I was packing a bookshelf. I have my printed copy (which we were given post-graduation) with me still, and I don't plan on ever giving it up. I know it's in book form, but that's not the same. Mine is "original" and I intend to have my kids read it when they go off to college, and when they are done.

The Burden of Meaningfulness: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

In the late David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, IRS employee Claude Sylvanshine is a “fact psychic.” This means he is periodically overwhelmed with cascades of “ephemeral, useless, undramatic, distracting” information about other people. When he eats a cupcake, for instance, he knows where it comes from, who baked it, and a sprinkling of vital statistics about its baker–his “weight, shoe size, bowling average, American Legion career batting average.” As the details proliferate, it becomes obvious that the sum does not add up to a person. What Sylvanshine learns about others isn’t, and can’t be, insight: it arrives with no context and no narrative, touched off by minimal contact or none at all, and he has no means of organizing or using what he knows. The information is raw, “fractious, boiling,” and its accumulation oppresses him. Some of it presents visually, “queerly backlit, as by an infinitely bright light an infinite distance away.” Sylvanshine’s gift gives him a headache. Wallace himself, of course, was something of a fact psychic, possessed of freakishly sensitive awareness and unsure of its human use. To read his work is to encounter great drifts of detail, drifts which have contributed, along with his books’ sheer length, to the perception of his work as excessive or maximalist. Wyatt Mason notes in The New York Review of Books that those who characterize Wallace’s fiction this way sometimes imply a failure of control or restraint, as if “however smart he was, he wasn’t smart enough to write fiction that didn’t distract the reader with yieldless shows of virtuosity.” But Wallace’s canonization, now close to complete, means these criticisms no longer have much bite. Mostly we feel that Wallace’s headlong, encyclopedic, garrulous manner was born of necessity, not indulgence, that the stylistic innovations, including the massed detail, grew not from vanity but from some kind of mimetic imperative to reflect back to us our dizzy, painful, teeming, inconclusive lives. This vision of Wallace is of an artist in full possession of his art, his every choice considered and confident. Even so, D.T. Max, writing for The New Yorker, finds traces in the years before Wallace’s death of a different sort of author, one who had come to doubt the style he’d become known for and grown dissatisfied with himself as a writer, even believing, Max suggests, that he might not be “the kind of person who could write the novel he wanted to write.” How deep this unease went it’s impossible to say, though it does seem that Wallace was conscious early on of the costs exacted by his stylistic choices. In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery, he worried about writing “sentences that [were] syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them.” Still, if he was aware of the risks of his approach, he seemed certain, at least in 1993, that they were worth running. About his project at the time (probably Infinite Jest), he said, “Whether I can provide a payoff and communicate a function rather than just seem jumbled and prolix is the issue that’ll decide whether the thing I’m working on now succeeds or not.” An unfinished novel almost by definition doesn’t provide a payoff or carry out its “function.” This means we can’t know whether the unfinished book was also unfinishable, an insoluble puzzle. (Though some novels--Kafka’s Castle for example--seem more eloquent and even “successful” for being incomplete.) Certainly Wallace had set himself a problem masochistic or quixotic in its difficulty: how to write an interesting novel about that byword for tedium, the IRS? And how to write a religious novel–which is what The Pale King is, in its preoccupation with grace, illumination, and purpose–about the most disenchanted and secular of professions, namely accounting? Employees of the IRS, fact psychics or not, don’t want for hard numbers. The question is whether, along with the data, they can acquire a sense of vocation and vision, of meaningful work in a meaningful world. It is a question whose implications point inward, to the novelist’s own profession, and outward, to the status of human activity generally in what we have come to call an “information society.” If Infinite Jest was about addiction, entertainment and distraction–about avoiding the truth–The Pale King is about the opposite phenomena of boredom and attention, about staring at the world instead of looking away. And if Infinite Jest was quintessentially a novel about fuckups and misfits, The Pale King is a novel about reliable employees, people who go to work each day and get there on time. Claude Sylvanshine is one of a handful of primary characters, low-level IRS employees mainly (many of them rote examiners, or “wigglers,” in IRS lingo), whose stories appear and reappear over the course of the book’s 539 pages. Among these narratives, assembled from Wallace’s manuscripts and notes by his longtime editor Michael Pietsch, glimmers a constellation of minor characters, all linked by their association with “the Service.” The relations among the cast blink on and off as the book progresses, alternately intensifying or falling away. There is no central protagonist per se, unless you count David Wallace, the self-described author of what he claims is a memoir written primarily for financial gain. Not a lot happens in The Pale King, exactly. The plot, such as it is, emerges from a left turn in early-eighties-era tax policy Wallace calls the Spackman Initiative, an attempt to narrow the tax gap (the shortfall between what is owed to the government and what is actually collected) by increasing the efficiency of collection (essentially, cracking down on non-compliance) so that the government can lower marginal tax rates without losing revenue. As their elephantine employer struggles to reinvent itself, the wigglers, in varying states of mental and bodily discomfort, writhe in place: “R. Jarvis Brown turns a page. Ann Williams sniffs slightly and turns a page. Meredith Rand does something to a cuticle.” Wallace wants us to see what the examiners, at the height of their boredom, can’t, quite: the relation of the human skeleton to the bureaucratic thumb bone turning the page. The world of The Pale King is, with a few exaggerations and inventions, our world, where the baroquely ramified division of labor has given rise to jobs only distantly related to their purpose. The low-level examiners at the Midwest Regional Examination Center suffer a common plight: jobs of drastic tedium and invisible value. Some employees try to survive, improbably but amusingly, by treating their work as a vocation in the religious sense of the term. So Chris Fogle is bewitched by the eerily composed teacher of a high-level accounting class who describes tax preparation as a heroic calling. “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is,” the teacher declares, absurdly, as if he were a POW. In Fogle’s moment of conversion, the physical world amplifies, details announce themselves, and Fogle sees so much so keenly that he can intuit even the little he can’t see: I was aware of how every detail in the classroom appeared very vivid and distinct, as though painstakingly drawn and shaded, and yet also of being completely focused on the substitute Jesuit, who was saying all this very dramatic or even romantic stuff without any of the usual trappings or flourishes of drama, standing now quite still with his hands again behind his back (I knew the hands weren’t clasped–I could somehow tell that he was more like holding the right wrist with the left hand) and his face’s planes unshadowed in the white light. Advanced Tax isn’t the first place Fogle has looked for redemption. In his earlier “wastoid” phase, he tells us, he took a drug called Obetrol for the quality of consciousness it afforded, especially “an ability to choose what one concentrates on” which differentiated it from smoking pot. Pot made you think about whatever your eyes lit upon, but Obetrol let you select and name your perceptions–“The cigarette burn is black and imperfectly round.” It was this final level of awareness, Fogle says, which he calls “doubling”–perceiving yourself perceiving, aware you are aware–that made the feeling special. Accounting appeals to him aesthetically–it is orderly, and in its orderliness, beautiful–but also (hilariously) spiritually. A similar state of awareness possesses Meredith Rand when she engages a hyper-perceptive examiner named Drinion at a bar. Under Drinion’s  observation she receives an infusion of attention like nothing she’s ever experienced. Importantly, the experience reminds her of paying attention herself. Here is another of Wallace’s spiraling (and attentive) sentences: The only kind of experience she could associate with it involved their cat that she’d had when she was a girl before it got hit by a car and the way she could sit with the cat in her lap and stroke the cat and feel the rumble of the cat’s purring and feel every bit of the texture of the cat’s warm fur and the muscle and bone beneath that, and that she could sit for long periods of time stroking the cat and feeling it with her eyes half-shut as if she was spaced out or stuporous-looking but had felt, in fact, like she was the opposite of stuporous–she felt totally aware and alive, and at the same time when she sat slowly stroking the cat with the same motion over and over it was like she forgot her name and address and almost everything else about her life for ten or twenty minutes, even though it wasn’t like spacing out at all, and she loved that cat. As Wallace inventories the varieties of distraction and absorption, he proposes that the burden of meaningfulness falls not on the task or the object at hand, but on the quality of the attention paid. It is one’s orientation to work that matters, not the substance of the work, one’s orientation to circumstance, not the circumstance itself. Happiness nests in perception. Such a proposal unavoidably implicates the experience of reading this book. Also, more generally, the experience of reading itself. Does it matter what you read, or only how? In the case of The Pale King, I discovered that my eye sometimes wanted to trace zig zags instead of mowing steadily from one page to the next. Almost invariably I took the numbers and names pertaining to tax code as atmospheric and skimmed them. I at first resented the trademark footnotes. (But grew to love them: many explain vital information, and one even contains a blow job, or footjob, as I’m tempted to call it). As one might expect given Wallace’s sensibility, events receive a swirling, almost obfuscating treatment, the event itself nearly effaced by context or interpretation. It can be hard to figure out what’s happening, who’s talking, who’s who. But what generated the most readerly friction for me was not the quantity of detail so much as the difficulty of knowing how to take it. By non-avant garde standards, a detail is doing its job if you don’t question its function, if it fills out the portrait without puncturing it. But Wallace wants punctures. To McCaffery, he said he wanted to “antagonize” the reader, then corrected this to “aggravate” for its suggestion of intensification. (Or inflammation, I kept thinking: the detail as mosquito bite or bee sting). So we are more than once reminded that what is called Level 2 of the Midwest Regional Examination Center is not, as one would assume, the second floor, but actually the ground floor, due to an aborted excavation project. Such a detail says something about the contorted bureaucratic nature of the REC, but also suggests that the information will be necessary in terms of plot, that we’ll “need” it for something later on. But these hints are more often than not teases, tricks, feints. Wallace’s characters themselves worry about such questions–what is the point of all this elaborateness? They frequently ponder the very elements that, in a less self-conscious book, would be charged with making them real to us. In a conversation about drug experiences in the sixties, an unnamed character complains, “I’m saying if I say Baxter-Bathing or Owsley or mention Janis’s one dress she wore you think in terms of data. There’s none of the feeling attached to it–this was a feeling. It’s impossible to describe.” Similarly, he isn’t concerned that “Sweater Puppies” produce no nostalgia, he’s concerned that they produce no feeling at all, that the fact, isolated, has no emotional valence. In a day-long training session the new IRS recruits are taught something similar about the insufficiency of mere information. “Get rid of the layman’s idea that information is good,” two trainers tell a batch of trainees, among whom sits the fact psychic Sylvanshine. “That the more information the better. The phone book has lots of information, but if you’re looking for a phone number, 99.9 percent of that information is just in the way.” Sylvanshine’s interest is piqued as the second trainer chimes in: “Information per se is really just a measure of disorder.” The examiner’s job is ultimately the ability to sniff out a return worth auditing. The best can bypass vast amounts of meaningless information and in the exercise of his intuition concentrate on that small subset which is meaningful, a task any virtuosic performance of which requires virtuosic powers of attention. Thus the bureaucratic import of an examiner like Drinion, whose immense powers Wallace literalizes by making Drinion actually levitate as his focus crystallizes. Drinion holds the mental secrets that, replicated, are the key to the IRS’s new goals. Capture Drinion’s tricks and the IRS can do away with its main obstacle–the limitations of the humble examiner. AAnd if the examiner’s needs are everyone’s needs–for stimulation, for a job whose value is visible, for work that requires skill and affords pleasure–there is something worrisome at work in Wallace’s fictionalized IRS. The Pale King closes, at least in Pietsch’s reconstruction, with a mysterious chapter in which an unidentified subject appears to study the techniques of deep concentration. “The way we start is to relax and become aware of the body,” a graying, pleasant-faced woman instructs. “It is at the level of the body that we proceed. Do not try to relax.”  The subject must learn how to relax, presumably, so that he can work more efficiently, so that he can generate more revenue, so that the bureaucracy can grow. The mantras of meditation, co-opted in service of the Service. The unfinished quality of the book means there is something especially undecidable about such a scene. Is Wallace in earnest when he proposes that anything at all, even tax examination, can be the object of religious mindfulness? Or is he parodying such a view? Probably he is doing both. After all, the optimistic proposition that how we interpret our lives determines our experience shades easily into a more sinister one. If the burden is on us to make the best of any awful circumstance, such a suggestion can be bent to excuse any amount of awfulness. Wallace seemed truly to believe in the virtues of attention and its capacity to afford grace, as can be seen from his now-famous commencement address at Kenyon College. And yet The Pale King reveals a tormenting quality to relentless mindfulness, to an unrelieved awareness of the world. Claude Sylvanshine, buried under the clutter of everything he knows, fears there is basically something wrong with him, that he is “simply ill-suited, the way some people are born without limbs or certain organs.” He suffers because he can’t exercise any authority over his perceptions, can’t choose, can no more piece together meaning from the fact-shards raining down on him from other people’s lives than he can from his own experience. This is Sylvanshine’s lament: “What if he was simply born and destined to live in the shades of Total Fear and Despair, and all his so-called activities were pathetic attempts to distract him from the inevitable?” And in it we hear the terrible sound of Wallace’s own worry. When it first became known that The Pale King existed it seemed especially tragic that Wallace hadn’t left us with a finished manuscript, and it is. And yet the book’s inconclusiveness keeps alive his questions, and ours, in a way a completed work wouldn’t. After my first reading was over, as I returned to certain parts, seeking out this or that thing I’d liked or thought I’d misunderstood, previously opaque information revealed itself to mean something, and the book, wonderfully, seemed to move and breathe. But this is an unfinished novel, one arranged (if quite beautifully) by someone else’s hand. As much sense as it settles into, it will still escape us. It escaped him.

Adam Levin’s The Instructions and the Cult of the Child

The IQ Bubble Oskar Schell, age nine, is a genius.  Likewise Billy Argo and T.S. Spivet, both 10. At 14, Alma Singer is at least hella precocious. And with subspecialties including M-theory, French horn, and the Future of Humanity, her contemporary Ruprecht van Doren is off the charts (though with a name like Ruprecht van Doren, you’d sort of have to be). Genius is, by definition, exceptional, and until recently it was only in Lake Wobegon and the films of Wes Anderson that all children could be above average. But in the last few years the Anglo-American novel, full of characters like the foregoing, has come to resemble a kind of overdriven gifted-and-talented program: one your own kid would never make it into. To be sure, the ‘tween geniuses of Jonathan Safran Foer et al. are not without precedent. It’s been almost two centuries since Dickens loosed his intrepid moppets on the streets of London. (Little David Copperfield is, if not quite Mensa material, surely a Child of Distinction.) And American literature has always been unusually interested in kids. If much of Russian fiction, as Dostoevsky reportedly said, emerged from Gogol's overcoat, our own novelistic tradition might be said to have emerged from that of Mark Twain, who found in his Hannibal boyhood both a wellspring of vernacular comedy and a nexus of the great American tensions: freedom versus settlement, the individual versus society, the past versus the future. Huck Finn rendered James Fennimore Cooper’s Mohican fantasias on the same themes instantly old hat. Who needs noble savages when you’ve got adolescents? (Is there any difference, in the end?) Even in America, however, literary innocence has historically been a rigged game. With its tropism for irony, the novel as a form prods its protagonists toward experience, toward compromise, and toward “sivilization” – in short, to growing up. Unless, that is, the child is more civilized than the man, as seems to be the case with the current bumper crop of prodigies. These kids’ real forebears are not Augie March or Maisie Farange, but comic book superheroes, Harriet the Spy, and – preeminently – the novels of J.D. Salinger. Like the Glasses, they seem too good for the lousy adult world, and perhaps too good to be true. In this (and, it must be said, in its gargantuan length), Adam Levin’s literary debut, The Instructions, would seem to be some sort of apotheosis. Its 10-year-old narrator and protagonist, Gurion Maccabee, is not just another kid genius with an improbable name; he’s also worldly, charismatic, quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, a martial artist, a sometime-telepath, a devout half-Ethiopian, half-Ashkenazi Israelite…and, oh, yeah: quite possibly the Messiah. It’s easy to see why, even if you liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet, you might feel you need this wisenheimer’s 1,000-page scripture like you need a hole in your head. But The Instructions turns out to be, for better and for worse, something like the Only Kid Genius Novel You’ll Ever Need. That is, it simultaneously makes good on the subgenre’s promise and exposes its limitations. And en route to its wacko finale, it begins to illuminate the begged question: Why so much genius? Why now? And a Child Shall Lead Them The Instructions opens with our narrator inside a cage. Or rather, CAGE—a special facility within Aptakisic Junior High School for students with behavioral problems. It isn’t explained at first how this CAGE works, exactly, or what those initials stand for. What we get, instead, is Gurion’s voice—baroque, headlong, impertinent, a gallimaufry of high-flying excursus and middle-school pidgin (“banced,” “snat,” “chomsky”). His monologue (“Scripture,” he insists) careens from linguistics to theodicy to how to build your own small arms from household oddments. Underneath, though, a single question niggles: What’s a kid like you doing in a place like this? Levin parcels the answer out slowly. Which turns out to be a good thing, because the plot—basically boy meets girl, girl’s a goy, mayhem ensues—is a pretty thin reed on which to hang three pounds of book. The entire novel covers only the four days leading up to what a mock-prefatory note has hinted will be some kind of in-school insurrection (variously referred to as “the Damage Proper;” “the 11/17 Miracle;” and “the Gurionic War.”) In the absence of much action, it’s the mystery of Gurion’s personality that keeps us reading. Well, that and to see what kind of crazy shit he’ll say next. As any kid genius will, Gurion tap-dances all over the line between precocity and preciousness. Levin, who studied with George Saunders at Syracuse, clearly admires the miglior fabbro’s demotic hijinks, and Gurion often achieves a Saundersish charm, both in rat-a-tat dialogue and in casual stabs of description that bring the world of junior high back like yesterday’s hot lunch. Ron Desormie “taught Gym in shorts that his wang stretched the crotch of”—you pretty much had me at “wang.” But just as often there’s an inability to leave well enough alone (Desormie also “hummed out a melody with lipfart percussion and aggressively dance-walked and thought it was strutting.”) Such compulsive effervescence is both a liability and an asset. On the one hand, it flattens the characters around Gurion (with a couple of exceptions), and thus the stakes for the impending “Miracle”-cum-“War.” Eliza June Watermark, his shiksa love-interest, is more a cluster of attributes than a fully formed person. The keepers of the CAGE are, like the lipfarting, dance-walking Desormie, cartoons. And I’d swear that Flowers, the middle-aged juju man who guides Gurion through the writing of the scripture we are even now reading, is actually Bleeding Gums Murphy, from The Simpsons: Even if what you write about is boring, you can’t be writing boring. Seem to me like you want to write about you wang, anyhow. Now you wang—that’s a good example cause it’s boring to me […] One thing ain’t boring to me about you wang is how you’re callin it wang. On the other hand, Levin ain’t boring, which is important, when your scripture is also a tome. And our inability to see actual people behind Levin’s antic renderings is a powerful corollary for what will come to seem the narrator’s egocentrism, the child trapped inside the prodigy. Youthful Confusion The first half of The Instructions is also enlivened by lengthy “inserts”: emails, school assignments, a psychological assessment. Through these chinks in the monologuist’s armor, we begin to glimpse Gurion from angles other than his own. Flowers may not be, as therapist-in-training Sandra Billings suggests, his “imaginary friend” (after all—disappointingly—Mr. and Mrs. Maccabee can see him, too), but her otherwise reasonable conclusions and the vehemence with which Gurion doth protest remind us that, like any scripture, this one is open to interpretation: It may be the case […] that Gurion is by nature an ideal student. […] On the other hand, it may be the case that Gurion, once an ideal student, has become […] the dangerous and even doomed boy indicated by his record. It is in this kind of irony, rather than in verbal vaudeville, that Levin begins to earn the jacket-copy comparisons to David Foster Wallace. His greatest gifts are also, as Gurion would put it, his most “stealth”: a dialectical intelligence, and crucially, a sense of paradox. The specific paradoxes to which the novel keeps returning involve justice, peace, and power. And these are not mere abstractions, confined to the Torah stories that obsess Gurion; their real-world consequences range from in-school bullying to foreign policy. Such subtexts, handled subtly at first, come crashing into the foreground in a bravura set-piece near the novel’s midway point. The child prodigy thinks back to September 11 of his kindergarten year, and to events it takes more than a high Myers-Briggs score to comprehend. In the novel’s second half, “The Gurionic War,” Levin dispenses, somewhat disastrously, with these insertions, leaving us with hundreds of pages of unadulterated prodigy. If this shaves a few ounces off the book, it also lays bare the geologic pacing of the plot. And the solipsism of Gurion's point-of-view becomes not just something that seduces the other Aptakisic ne’er-do-wells, but something inflicted on the reader. It’s as if The Instructions has painted itself into a corner. Nonetheless, there’s always the possibility that Gurion will run up a wall, or sprout wings, and so we press on to the long-promised climax. I’m not going to spoil that climax, other than invoking Einstein’s suggestion that no worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its conception. On the level of action, Levin gives us a significant payoff—he has to, after so many pages, or we’d want to egg his house—but in aesthetic terms, I was unpersuaded. Until. Until the abrupt return (right around the point where Philip Roth makes a cameo) of other, opposing voices. The novel’s conclusion, as distinct from the climax, juxtaposes several points-of-view and timeframes, throwing the central questions of Gurion’s existence back into high relief. And what saves the novel from self-indulgence is that they are also among the burning ethical questions of our time. For example: who has the right, in a fallen world, to dispense justice? Who has the right to judge? And what separates a savior from a lunatic? Cult of the Child It can't be an accident that the current boom in novels about kid geniuses (or wizards) coincides with the dawn of a new age of catastrophe: buildings falling, anthrax, school shootings, wars, near economic collapse, and the palpable twilight of the American empire. Back in the ‘60s, establishment types liked to imagine that the young people mucking up the nation’s campuses were merely restaging their childhood as politics – acting out their Oedipal fantasies. Now, though, it has begun to seem that the terms are reversed; that we are trying to escape our political traumas by returning to childhood. Botox, Facebook, Pixar, skateboards and ringer tees… In particular, Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s, which publishes The Instructions, has made childhood into a cult phenomenon. Its quarterly is nostalgic in ways big (design) and small (plenty of coming-of-age stories), and most of its best books (What is the What, The Children's Hospital, Here They Come) center on the experiences of children. Indeed, childhood delimits the McSweeney's aesthetic as such—the meringue of whimsy on top, and underneath the moral fiber that is our birthright. (“I am tired,” runs one epigraph to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering...er... Genius. “I am true of heart!”) The editors of N+1, precocious themselves, were quick to spot this. "Eggersards returned to the claims of childhood,” they noted in their first issue. But they were incorrect to claim that “Transcendence would not figure in [Eggersard] thought,” as anyone can tell you who remembers that moment at the end of AHWOSG where Dave and his kid brother run back and forth on the beach chasing the world's most symbolic frisbee. To be a child is, for the duration of that childhood, to be transcendent. The kid genius is, then—almost uniquely in our culture—a nakedly utopian figure (though a conservative one, in that his promised land lays in the past). He is wise. He is powerful. He is moral. The grinding compromises of bourgeois life and the adult obtusenesses that stands in for it do not concern him; growing up is selling out. He will, like Oskar Matzerath of The Tin Drum (for whom Foer’s Oskar is presumably named) stay small, and, in so doing, stay pure. Putting Away Childish Things At its best, the kid genius novel works as a kind of allegory, albeit at the cost of turning everything—even the world-historical—personal. At its worst, it represents just another flight from the ethical, into the ready embrace of the aesthetic. In the end, the signal achievement of The Instructions is that it manages to reopen the communicating channels between these binaries. In so doing, this entertaining novel clears at least one of the hurdles of art: its strengths become inextricable from its weaknesses. Levin’s willingness to hew to the boundaries of his character’s skull—a kind of cage inside a CAGE inside a cage inside a cage—may sometimes make us wish Gurion would just take a Xanax and go to bed. But it also brings us into the presence of a fully realized consciousness, which is surely one of the noblest tasks of fiction. To call The Instructions a young man’s book is to say partly that Levin, who himself may be a kind of genius, has many books ahead of him. And like Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, that other hypertrophied iteration of the kid genius novel, this one ultimately keeps in view a world of very adult consequences. To the innocence we’ve been protesting this last decade, it manages to restore connotations of blindness, gullibility, and misapprehension. And so it may mark both the culmination and the dissolution of its subgenre—a turn away from the handsome doll-furniture of our childhood rooms, and toward the world writ large. Sidebar: A Brief Timeline of the Literary Kid Genius Seymour Glass, Seymour: An Introduction (1963) Simons Everson Manigault, Edisto (1984) Phillip, A History of Luminous Motion (1989) Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest (1996) Magid Iqbal, White Teeth (2000) Ludo Newman, The Last Samurai (2002) Oskar Schell, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) Blue van der Meer, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006) Billy Argo, The Boy Detective Fails (2006) Rumika Vasi, Gifted (2007) Saul Dawson-Smith, The Truth About These Strange Times (2008) T.S. Spivet, The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009) Ruprecht van Doren, Skippy Dies (2010) Gurion Maccabee, The Instructions (2010)

Most Anticipated: The Great 2011 Book Preview

If 2010 was a literary year of big names -- featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few -- 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that's likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace's final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy. In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers' time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we're looking forward to -- 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need. January or Already Out: Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher's Weekly writes in a starred review, "the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal." Baxter's previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.) The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection "exquisite and almost excruciating." (Emily M.) While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie.  Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.”  Perhaps.  But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are.  Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best.  Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob) Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren't likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one "The Campaign Trail" which one early review describes as imagining "the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada." (Max) February: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker "20 Under 40" writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star 'gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin) Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus's memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin) When the Killing's Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan) The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work -- marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility -- that includes an alphabet book of dead children ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.") Alexander Theroux was Gorey's friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey's death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.) Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression "black dog"? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog--literally, he's a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt's fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister.  British reviewers have been quite taken with the book's whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.) The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.) Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like "discovered," as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it's true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu--Budapest before World War II--and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia) West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison's new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town's founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It's a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.) The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human -- to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan) Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan) March: The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there's certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year's most anticipated, but what's the point of having a website if I can't use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max) You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics.   Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.”  Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master.  One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya) The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the "20 Under 40" list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick) At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir.  Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing.  In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”  Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob) Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne) Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer's impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer "the most productive of slackers" and described the British collection as seeming to be "constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author's fascinations." (Max) All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet.   We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production.  On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya) Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson's Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max) Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world--that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne) This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick) The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne) April: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used "entertainment." Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity - reportedly including two stories from Oblivion - offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss - a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious - lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn't get to write, may it be so. (Garth) The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty'er, Bezmogis' The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family's fate. (Kevin) The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian's last novel, The Children's Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker's "20 Under 40 List." His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism's forebears: Shakespeare. It's a retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth) Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years--and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy--weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne) Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth) The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn't quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. "The Tragedy of Arthur" is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max) The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O'Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O'Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to "share" it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth) The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X's manifesto against higher education for all: "America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns." And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X's bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America's lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren't cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It's like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante's "Shadow Scholar" piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.) The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan) Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7' x 7' tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother's suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max) My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children's books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream -- until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher's jacket copy, captures the moment when American "dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear." (Bill) Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen's Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max) Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle's collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys' trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the "Full English Breakfast," I thought of this story. (Max) Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn't seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd's great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia) Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth) There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic "20 Under 40" list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper's labeling 32-year-ole Butler "one of the voices of his generation," that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max) May: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We've reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max) Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year's Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain "science fiction, aliens and spaceships." The title refers to "a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe" where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville's track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill) Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate's large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric "The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea," appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio's Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max) To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter's illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya) Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove.  Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating.  In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty.  Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy.  When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob) The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley's latest is described as a "novel in two parts." An early review in the Financial Times calls the book "darkly elegant" with "two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff." (Max) Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes's latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection's over-arching theme: "Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death." (Max) The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting "the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him," from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max) June: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. "This one was a picnic," Patchett says of State of Wonder, "because I didn't have to make everything up wholesale." (Bill) The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen's next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure's Lament? ("May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto," Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen's immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen's forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.) The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs--a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne) Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume.  In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob) The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max) Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav's third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks "Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?" Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max) July: Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max) Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year "in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life." The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux's time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max) The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock's debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick) August: House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya) Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl's beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl's academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl's agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan"—is that without Blue, Pessl's nothing. Can she--could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)--generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue's? (Emily W.) Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds.  Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend.  But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob) Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist's father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty--scant news punctuating long periods of silence--which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar's experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia) Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers's The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick) September: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami's three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell's 1984 - in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 - and the book's plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create "a mysterious past, different than the one we know." (Kevin) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college - presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition - to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth) October: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max) November: Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas' A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the '80s, and Imre Goldstein's translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly - as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates - he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception - psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg's appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth) Unknown (fall and beyond): The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop -- as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya) The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a "sickly old tortoise" named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. "If people really think that (this is plagiarism)," Houellebecq sniffed, "then they haven't the first notion what literature is." Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize. (Bill) The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn't find a buyer for this story of "cults of personality and terrorism" and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by...er...The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as "America's Best Writer." Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people's minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth) Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin's first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill - mostly for good - like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney's house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney's list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth) The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author's bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max) Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet: Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson's book will, one imagines, address Dante's exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia) River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 - the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn't come around again. This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita... A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I'm forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I'm sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction. Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray's Skippy Dies and Adam Levin's The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the 'tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there's likely more good stuff to come. Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe's more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds - Long Island - with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño's incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira's wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite. Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard's Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding - a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train - but don't be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time. Notwithstanding which, the best new novel I read this year was...what was that title again? Oh, right. Freedom. When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel's 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it - ruminative, learned, patient, just - embodies its greatest virtues.  And the third was The Magician's Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics. Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov's Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov's story "The Duel" was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas. And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy's Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that's even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it's about as close to perfection as you'd want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035...  by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions

Another David Foster Wallace Book Out Soon

Yesterday we noted that The Pale King is now available for pre-order. It turns out another new David Foster Wallace book will be out before the long-awaited final novel hits shelves. In December, Columbia University Press will put out Wallace's undergrad thesis Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. From the publisher description: "Long before he probed the workings of time, human choice, and human frailty in Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant philosophical critique of Richard Taylor's argument for fatalism. In 1962, Taylor used six commonly accepted presuppositions to imply that humans have no control over the future. Not only did Wallace take issue with Taylor's method, which, according to him, scrambled the relations of logic, language, and the physical world, but he also called out a semantic trick at the heart of Taylor's argument."

Is Big Back?

Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid...at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question. If the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time's Lev Grossman postulated that "the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm." And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript  to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell's "a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it," but "a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original." Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), "One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages.... One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels." But if, as Grossman suggests, the "literary megafauna of the 1990s" no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time's interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America's bookstores - not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody's The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison's Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías' Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin's The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like "literary megafauna" (or less charitably, "phallic meganovels"), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture. Not so long ago, the phrase "long novel" was no less redundant than "short novel." The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages - the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda... Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count. In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There's nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one's mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn't want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I've read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn't Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span. Publishers' willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney's may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher's bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it's been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency. To be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it's roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn't actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann's megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie's Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let's not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer... On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They're expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy's Women and Men (1191 pp), "It's so good I had to read it twice." For a deeper explanation of the long novel's enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we're told we're becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, "I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles" (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, "Look at me!" But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace - to be, once more, a solitary reader - may also be at play in the rise of "the Kindle-proof book": the book so tailored to the codex form that it can't yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions' editions of B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson's Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser's Microscripts. At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader.  In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer's habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One  of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) "dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range." And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time! One doesn't want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that's a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.

An Infinite Frolic of His Own: Joshua Cohen’s Witz

Joshua Cohen’s mammoth (“Gog, Magog, Goliath”) Witz is the new 800+ page novel to vie for your entire summer reading schedule; to make half your book club drop out; to inspire annotations, wikis, lexicography cults. It will be the ire of the lazy reviewer. Dybbuks of lazy reviewers past (perhaps the ones responsible for the reception of The Recognitions) will ascend from Gehenna, boring into the bodies of our current critical ilk, to make right the horrible aesthetic sin of their mortal life. But will the spirits succeed? Or will our arbiters of questionable taste quote from the first hundred leaves and take a nap? The ground is ripe for high praise. Cohen has proved adept at handling his image and early reception. He’s young (29, and he already has three novels and three story collections out, mostly through tiny presses that do well for his street cred), attractive, and knows how to draw attention. The barbs thrown at Chabon and Safran Foer in the New York Observer alone were enough to get the ball rolling. The buzz is the rare combination of both existing and deserved. Witz (Don’t make a fool out of yourself: the “W” is a “V”. It’s Yiddish for joke.) is the tale of the extinction of all Jews save the newborn grown man (with beard and glasses) Benjamin Israelien (ben Israel Israelien). 18 million Jews die on Christmas Eve 1999. America reacts by rabidly embracing Benjamin’s religion (Its name unmentioned, the book conspicuously leaves the word “Jew” as a void, the same one where Witz's God is hiding.) even as he continues in his apathy toward it, eventually fleeing from his handlers and crossing the country and back, finding his way into Polandland where lies Whateverwitz, Whywald, Nohausen, where the few remaining gentiles are sent for their refusal to convert. The plot is simple and linear, a steel skeleton supporting Cohen's otherwise omnidecadent Babel tower. Cohen recently remarked in The Daily Beast that he found his father's friend's assertion that Witz was the Jewish Ulysses to be an insult. "Problem is ... Ulysses is already the Jewish Ulysses." I predict (well, I’ve already seen) a lot of Infinite Jest and Gravity's Rainbow referencing as well, and while they aren't too Jewish, so there could be a Jewish them, Witz isn't at all a Jewish them either. It's not a Jewish anything other than a Jewish Itself. It's big, it's difficult, and it's stylistically shooting off a salvo of fireworks the whole way through, but other than those similarities to our other favorite modernist or postmodern bricks, readers of Witz will find out right away that Cohen is doing his own thing. Cohen's sentences cascade on and on, with clause after clause snaking down the page. Then a lone period allows you a rest and the next sentence attacks, a sensory assault. If I had to compare Witz to anything it would be to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I'll explain. A few sentences in each chapter move the plot forward. A change occurs in Cohen's world (a few more Jews die, a few more "Goyim" convert, Ben is in favor, Ben is out) or Benjamin moves to a new location. Sometimes this change even occurs off  the page. Then the rest of the chapter is dedicated to the landscape that these small advances in plot create. Roll in the canvasses. There are cityscapes (New York; Miami). There is reservation land and the Mormon stronghold of Utah (the Mormons are notoriously hard to convert). The bulk of the final sixth of the novel takes place in (and here the Bosch is obvious) the hellscape of the aforementioned Polandland: "...A ram ensnared in a thicket, look, and missing its horns; sheep sheared naked, then garbed in the Skin of the Unicorn, see; locusts, my God they're Locusts, Samuel ... storks on parade; geese born of barnacles, grown from a remained grove of trees, hemiformed, varibirthed, the progeny of Ziz or from zat; deer sniffling the most streaks of snails; gelatinous worms splitting earth; ostricheggs boiling on the back of the salamander, slithered from flame; an ass without rider talking its own tour to itself..." it goes on. If you think you would enjoy pages of that, Witz is it. I'll admit that there are not a few times where the reader may strain to comprehend what is happening. The last 30 pages in particular go from Jewish Ulysses to Jewish Finnegans Wake. Not that it's just this mass of difficult-to- relate descriptions, but at times the amount of detail can be so overwhelming as to make the reader feel like she is wading in nothing but a swamp of combinationwords and faux Proper Nouns. Here I also note that this novel is beyond bleak. Forget Pynchon's ultimately optimistic humanism (yes, I would say it overwhelms even his paranoia), or David Foster Wallace's you-could-call-it-religious outlook, or Alexander Theroux's you-should-call-it-religious outlook. I could still enjoy the novel, but it was difficult for me to see through Cohen's beautiful brown eyes at times. Cohen doesn't imagine a way out of his nightmare world, only eternal return. Post-catastrophe most people remain born into “professions and marriages already vetted by their Parents, your Parents' Friends, our Stockbrokers, and God, becoming Fathers and Mothers they'll never kill because that would mean above all their own destruction.” I'm talking a lot about style and saying little about content. I think it will be a while before we get some good analysis. Who will be the first to read this thing three, five, eleven times? Probably not this reader of modest pace. To the first person who reads Witz and even looks up every word they don’t know, let alone makes notes toward a Unified Theory, I wish you luck. Let us pray Witz secures Cohen his due in his own time.

The Worth of the Wasted: Shakespeare and Bradley

1. I’m guessing that most readers these days know A. C. Bradley secondhand, through the excerpts and quotes found in the study materials for the Arden series and the other popular editions of Shakespeare’s plays.  This is a shame, because Bradley is a better critic in full than he is in bits and pieces, and Shakespearean Tragedy continues to be an exciting book for anyone interested in literature. Bradley’s specialty is the passionate discussion of literary characters in vivid, consuming detail.  He feels that exploring the mind and actions of Hamlet or Iago is worth every last bit of effort we can give it.  He has a point—one that applies to the work of many modern writers as much as it does to Shakespeare.  It would be fascinating, for instance, to see the Bradley touch brought to bear on books like Underworld or Infinite Jest. 2. In the history of literary criticism, Bradley is a worthy successor to Johnson and Coleridge, two of the earlier writers whose names and opinions spring up repeatedly in Shakespearean Tragedy.  Like his predecessors, Bradley still instructs and amuses long after most of the general literary theories of his time have fallen away. The first edition of Shakespearean Tragedy came out in 1904, and is based on work Bradley prepared for teaching at Oxford, Liverpool and Glasgow.  The volume takes the form of a set of imaginary lectures, largely a series of detailed examinations of the most important characters from Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. Bradley’s learning is formidable.  He has an easy acquaintance with the imposing German tradition of Shakespeare scholarship, along with an elegant, lightly-worn knowledge of the many influences Shakespeare drew upon for his writing. At heart, though, Bradley’s method is personal.  He says what he thinks of Shakespeare’s characters, and why he feels they matter to our understanding of life.  Obviously, this approach exposes him to ridicule.  His only real shield against failure is his own insight into people, based on his inevitably dated and incomplete notions of human nature.  In the end, he can’t begin to tell us more about Hamlet or about the world than Shakespeare tells us himself.  Bradley knows this, and his modesty is appealing.  He assumes that good literature always has more to give us than even the best critics can express in topic sentences and abstractions.  And it’s precisely Bradley’s humility—his willingness to embrace his ultimate defeat—that allows him to polish and display certain facets of Shakespeare we aren’t likely to have seen so sharply on our own. 3. The Hamlet lectures are the standouts here.  Bradley highlights Hamlet’s disastrous failure, which leads not only to his death but to the deaths of many others, including his mother and the young woman he has loved—a domino fall of wasted lives that goes far beyond the intended murder of Claudius. Mentally and emotionally, Hamlet is both overwhelming and exasperating.  His mind whirls with all the clashing thoughts and passions that come out in the abrupt swerves of his thrilling verbal agility.  Whatever the motives for his delays and decisions, we never doubt his intelligence or the complexity of his feelings.  He has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters, even though I suspect most of us would rather see him from the safety of the audience than change places with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for some of those abusive conversations at Elsinore. Bradley confronts us with one of the play’s many mysteries:  Why does Shakespeare show us this smart, resourceful, startlingly changeable young man destroying himself and everyone around him?  Elizabethan tragedy is a long way from our modern appetite for uplifting stories about sympathetic people overcoming adversity.  In Hamlet, nobody overcomes adversity—everyone is crushed by it.  Yet Hamlet remains an exhilarating play, and Hamlet an exhilarating character.  He isn’t likeable in any narrow sense, but his flaws are electric, a high-voltage display of humanity at its most disorienting. 4. For Bradley, Hamlet’s key mistake is his failure to kill Claudius while the king is praying.  At this point, Hamlet has seen Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the-play and has confirmed that Claudius is the murderer of Hamlet’s father.  With loving attention to counterarguments and conflicting evidence, Bradley sets forth the different possible reasons for Hamlet’s hesitation, from his stated refusal to kill someone in the middle of a prayer to the less conscious repulsion that Hamlet now feels for all human action.  “His whole mind is poisoned,” Bradley says.  In Bradley’s view, Hamlet is serious about his stated reasons, yet he also follows emotional, philosophical and mystical impulses that he barely comprehends. It’s characteristic of Bradley that he chooses less to limit the possible interpretations here than to open them up and allow a wide and sometimes contradictory range of options.  Many modern critics are so polemical that they sound like lawyers defending a consortium of tobacco companies.  Bradley, in contrast, takes an inclusive approach that seems nicely suited to fiction in general.  Fiction writers have the advantage of not needing to settle on a single explicit thesis.  Instead, they can grow as many vines and branches of motive and implication as a story allows.  Few authors are better at this than Shakespeare:  it seems to have been a natural part of the way he thought about life.  This is one reason his poetry tends to be so suggestive, filled with images that unfold in many different directions at once. At any rate, Hamlet’s refusal to kill the praying Claudius is, Bradley claims, the turning point of the play: So far, Hamlet’s delay, though it is endangering his freedom and his life, has done no irreparable harm; but his failure here is the cause of all the disasters that follow.  In sparing the King, he sacrifices Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, the Queen and himself. Bradley feels that, from this scene on, Hamlet’s melancholy combines with the circumstances around him to bring about the story’s increasingly out-of-control destruction—starting, of course, with the reckless murder of Polonius.  Have you ever wished that, just once, the gun-toting hero of an action movie would accidentally shoot the wrong person during a car chase and spend the rest of the film facing the consequences of his mistake?  Well, that’s a bit what Shakespeare does with Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, which leads to Ophelia’s suicide, the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the quadruple slaughter of the swordfight scene. 5. Bradley believes that all this devastation throws into high relief the waste of Hamlet’s special alertness to the world and its mysteries.  “Hamlet most brings home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity, and the sense of doom which not only circumscribes that infinity but appears to be its offspring,” Bradley writes.  Hamlet is, in Jamesian terms, an unusually vital vessel of experience, and the waste of his life is a more catastrophic version of the waste of all our lives, all our potentials: We seem to have before us a type of the mystery of the whole world, the tragic fact which extends far beyond the limits of tragedy.  Everywhere…we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship.  And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end.  Tragedy is the typical form of this mystery…and it makes us realize so vividly the worth of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the reflection that all is vanity. A passage like this is obviously overreaching, but it’s overreaching in a way that feels entirely appropriate to Hamlet.  Bradley risks bombast in criticism of this sort, but so does Shakespeare in most of his best plays, and critics need to throw off their restraint sometimes and write as freely as Bradley has written here.  We can quarrel with his language, we can disagree with some of his assumptions, but this passage has more than enough insight in it to excuse its flaws. 6. Bradley loves guiding us through the tragedies scene by scene, giving us his views on the characters’ words and acts.  Every page hums with energy:  Bradley has an expert sense of pace, and carries us along from one brisk comment to the next. He has much to say on Othello, all of it interesting.  Although most of the criticism is delightfully specific, Bradley also does what Shakespeare surely wanted us to do, and draws from our encounters with Iago a fuller attention to certain forms of cruelty: 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, is pleased with his victim’s pain, not from any disinterested love of evil or pleasure in pain, but mainly because this pain is the unmistakable proof of his own power over his victim.  So it is with Iago.  His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction. Later, in his lectures on Macbeth, he teases out the title character’s thread of dark inner poetry: Macbeth’s better nature—to put the matter for clearness’ sake too broadly—instead of speaking to him in the overt language of moral ideas, commands, and prohibitions, incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify.  His imagination is thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe. In addition, Bradley is as good on the tragedies’ secondary characters as he is on Hamlet and Iago.  He stands up for Ophelia against the old charge that her mental collapse is a result of her personal weakness: …her critics hardly seem to realize the situation, hardly to put themselves in the place of a girl whose lover, estranged from her, goes mad and kills her father.  They seem to forget also that Ophelia must have believed that these frightful calamities were not mere calamities, but followed from her action in repelling her lover. Similarly, with Kent in King Lear, he clarifies that character’s particular mix of nobility and foolishness: One has not the heart to wish him different, but he illustrates the truth that to run one’s head unselfishly against a wall is not the best way to help one’s friends. 7. In the years after his death in 1935, Bradley took some beatings for his belief that Shakespeare’s characters can be treated as people and not as fictional conceits.  Looking back on these complaints now, they seem overstated.  Any extended character study, with its presumption that a character has some independent life or personality outside the text, relies as much on imagination as on scholarship.  Bradley isn’t merely critiquing Shakespeare—he’s writing a fiction of his own.  Still, to critique one fiction with another fiction is both defensible and potentially exciting, and shouldn’t bother readers who enjoy Borges or Nabokov or Sebald.  If we take Bradley as an artist—a role his modesty would probably deny—his fictional versions of Shakespeare’s creations are rich achievements.  Besides, Bradley always sticks closely to the plays themselves, and grounds his speculations in his intimate study of the tragedies’ theatrical and poetic details. I suspect that Bradley would want us to end by giving less credit to him and more to Shakespeare.  Again and again, Bradley takes up these four tragedies and uses them to bring his personal observations about the world into focus.  He approaches the plays as if they were a collection of powerful lenses, and puts them on when he wants to look at things that are too distant or too obscure for his unaided sight to make out as clearly as he would like.  This is one of the ways that many of us use good writing, and Bradley’s method has a straightforward intelligence to it that still impresses, and always entertains.

Literature is a Manner of Completing Ourselves: A Reader’s Year

The late American philosopher Robert Nozick begins his tome, Philosophical Explanations, with this paragraph: I, too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book even to bring reading to a stop. I have not found that book, or attempted it. Still, I wrote and thought in awareness of it, in the hope this book would bask in its light. That hope would be arrogant if it weren’t self-fulfilling--to face towards the light, even from a great distance, is to be warmed I first read that opening paragraph in 1981 when Philosophical Explanations was published. Thirty years later and I have still not completed Nozick’s 650 page “essay.” Despite his protestations, Nozick did perhaps accomplish that self-fulfilling hope of which he speaks. Perhaps he did write the unreadable book, though I seriously doubt it. This reader is not throwing in the towel just yet. The book is still on my side table and every so often the bookmark gets lifted out of the cramped dusty seam on the left side of a page and removed to the cramped dusty seam on the right side of the page. I call that progress. I was thinking about this today as I was flying home from my daughter’s graduation. I do my best thinking on airplanes. It is ironic--and probably of consequence--that I now avoid air travel as best I’m able. I am obviously missing a great deal of good thinking as a result. When I do fly, I keep my Moleskine handy because I’m smart enough to know that I’m only smart enough on a plane--and I don’t want to miss anything. (The great Bruce Chatwin was a Moleskine user. When I became aware of this fact fifteen years ago I was in London and searched high and low for a shop(pe) that carried it, figuring that if it was good enough for Chatwin, it would certainly be good enough for me. But alas, the Moleskine was no more--defunct, kaput. What a success story, up from the ashes, phoenix-like, the Moleskine is now the Kleenex of journals.) As I was saying, I was thinking of Nozick and this passage today. Specifically, I was contemplating this after investing a year, June to June, reading and reviewing books for a literary blog. The year began with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and ended with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, maybe the two best book-ended modern examples of what Nozick sought, the unreadable book. But Nozick was super smart and I’m sure if I made my way through these books, he would have done so with just a modicum of the energies I mustered. No, they are not unreadable books. I read Bolaño and Wallace, along with 27 other books during these twelve months. And I wrote a review of each one. A person can learn something exercising such discipline. I determined today, five-hundred fifty miles an hour, 30,000 feet up, I needed to explore what I’d learned. So, walk with me, if you so desire, while I try to figure that out. First, the reading list June, 2009 to June, 2010: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen Snakeskin Road by James Braziel Self’s Murder by Bernhard Schlink Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer An Underachiever’s Diary by Benjamin Anastas Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving This is Water by David Foster Wallace The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley Johnny Future by Steve Abee The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell Zen and Now by Mark Richardson The Truth About Love by Josephine Hart The Infinities by John Banville The Last Station by Jay Parini The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace There is quite a mix here, from the aforementioned Bolaño to Wallace and everything in between. There are serious books on the list. Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer, for example. And Padgett Powell, John Banville and Peter Matthiessen rank high on the serious meter of contemporary fiction. Pynchon, Tyler, Doctorow and Irving are literary names of distinction and note. Fresher names like Chabon and Hart, Doerr and Kennedy were unknown to me and I was powerfully impressed by what they can do, putting pen to paper, as it used to be called. Buckley is a hoot and Parini an education. What I’m trying to get at here, is the general across-the-board nature of these readings. No specialist here, I read with the modest distinction of the simply curious. There is a little something for everyone on this list and that affords me the latitude to speak generally about the experience. I am a reader first. If I were an addict, I would get high and while high, presumably, worry about where I was to get my next fix. Reading is not all that different, I think. As a reader, I am always looking over the binding thinking about the next read, in some instances, longing for it. Some books, like some highs, are better than others. But even with not-so-good books--and there where two this past year I did not see to completion--I will come back to the drug, seeking the next high. I will always be a reader. Of this I am certain. A few years ago I did a project on the homeless in Baltimore. I spent a year talking to, interviewing and photographing men living on the streets of the nation’s ninth largest city. Ultimately, I called the project, One Hundred Gentlemen of Baltimore. Of the 100 men I worked with, there was one in particular, Lonnie, who stood out. Lonnie lived in the bushes behind the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. This was not a random location, for Lonnie was a reader. “Reading is my drug of choice,” he told me. “It changes your mind and it’s legal.” That’s why he chose to camp behind the B&N. They tossed books into the dumpster and he would dumpster dive at night and come up with armfuls of new reads. “The life-style [of homelessness] is addictive,” he said. “I have no responsibilities, no bills, no commitments. It’s the life I’ve chosen. It gives me the time to do what I want. My thing is books.” This is an extreme case of being a reader, of giving the discipline--for being a serious reader is, indeed, a discipline--one’s entire heart and soul. It is said that Erasmus bought books first then, with whatever money was left, would buy food. Erasmus would understand Lonnie, I am sure. I cannot claim such heroics. Early in my marriage, before we had money that could in any fashion be considered discretionary, I bought books and snuck them into the house. I didn’t hide booze or drugs, I hid books. I should not have spent the little money we had that way. But it simply could not be avoided. The books listed above were all given to me by the publishers. I gave up not a penny, which sort of gets me back to balance from the early days. One knows he has arrived when he gets his books for free. This year, the year I’m currently in, I’m reading selections of my own choosing. Some are old books, some I’m reading for the second time. There is a lot of biography on the list. After a year of reading mostly fiction I have a hankering for being grounded in time and space. It will be a study of a different sort, equally rewarding, I hope. Last year, I chose a few of the books I reviewed, but many were suggestions by my editor, not assignments in the strict sense, just books suggested because of my literary interests. In the main, they were all reading adventures, set upon without map or compass. That is to say, I read without much knowledge of book or, in some cases, author. It’s sort of like a blind tasting of reading, an idea I find compelling. The reading experience is different when a review is due. One pays attention, takes notes, attempts to understand the chronology, the narrative, taking nothing for granted; glossing over is a no-no, as is basic laziness. The reviewer can’t be given completely to the story, but must maintain an objective perspective. It is different from the untethered reading experience. But these are practices which, I believe, reward all types of reading and are good to exercise in general. I got in the habit a few years ago of always having a pencil in my hand while I read. It was a prop mainly, just a device to remind me to pay attention--sort of like having a camera in your hands when out on the town. There were a couple books, however, where I said, Screw That and gave myself the experience. 2666 was a book which fell into this category. Some things in life you must just simply give in to. I don’t regret my weakness. When someone finds out you review books, they will ask for recommendations, so the thoughtful reader-reviewer must be thinking about appeal and accessibility should this happen. For instance, a friend recently read David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. She loved it. I loved it. It is a pure gem, but is deceptive, leading the first-time Wallace reader to believe he writes everything like This is Water, which is concise and pithy. She asked me if she should next read Infinite Jest. I hedged. I didn’t know her well enough to know if she was the reader for IJ. Wallace once said that the reader wants to be reminded of how smart he or she is. I can understand that. He didn’t, however, worry should the reader not feel smart, or worse, feel stupid. We all know that feeling, no? I loaned her my copy and told her to give it a once over to see if it appealed to her. She was going on a trip and decided that carrying a three pound book didn’t make much sense. Things work out in odd ways sometimes. Nabokov, as close a reader as “close reading” ever produced, commented somewhere that a book is well written if it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That, I think, is as good a measure of the literary experience as I can think of. I read some books last year where I would pause and quietly declare, yes! The gooseflesh crawled. The hairs stood at attention. I’m not a golfer, but I think it--the reader’s yes! sensation--is a sensation somewhat akin to the clear-knock sound of a well hit ball. It’s what keeps you coming back again and again. Susan Sontag said something that strikes close to home for me. She said that literature “enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” One might deduce from this that literature, or the broader artistic experience, is a manner of completing ourselves. Not to sound too high-minded, but I seek the experience where art and my life combine and the distinction between the two erodes. That is why I read. I hope for the experience of which Sontag spoke: the creation of inwardness. Perhaps to some degree I fear myself lacking and wish for more. Again, we all must sometimes carry that weight. Might that be the impetus for all human striving and art?--but that is a different conversation. In my reading, I was alert for Nabokovian hair-raising art. I found it more times than I would have hoped, which encourages me. Consider this sentence, for example, from John Banville’s The Infinities: “Time too is a difficulty. For her it has two modes. Either it drags itself painfully along like something dragging itself in its own slime over bits of twigs and dead leaves on a forest floor, or it speeds past, in jumps and flickers, like the scenes on a spool of film clattering madly through a broken projector.” I find that to be a surprisingly lovely metaphor. Or, this pithy gem from Anne Tyler: “She collected and polished resentments as if it were some sort of hobby.” Wonderful. And then there was the time while reading 2666 that I realized I was three pages into one single sentence, a Nile-like flowing stream of words, words like water pouring over polished granite. It was beautiful and I was in awe. It is not just about the prose, though that is something important and inescapable. I can better stomach a poorly constructed story, the brick and mortar of which, the prose, is well mixed than other way around. The fact is, if the author knows how to mix mortar, she is likely good at construction too. Going back to golf, if you can smash it down the fairway, you’d better have a good short game once you get on the green. It’s been my experience that if a writer can put together words in an appealing fashion, she can also string together a story of those appealing words. It rarely works the other way around. Hemingway said that you knew a book was good if you were sad that it came to an end. I wager, given the opportunity, you can say the same thing about life. To me that is the point. Reading is an extension, a way of putting out feelers like a spider plant seeking new soil. It is the manner in which we, to Sontag’s point, create inwardness. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen enough in this reader’s year. Too often I grew tired and wanted it over. By Hemingway’s measure, when this occurred, these books weren’t good. But I don’t think it was the book’s fault necessarily. It was more likely an impatient reader champing at the bit. That is a problem I have. I am learning to savor as best I can. Reading Infinite Jest was a good exercise at savoring. I read only ten pages a day. Ten pages a day for a book 1038 pages long. Do the math. I have moved to Maine from out of state and my library is following me slowly, volume by volume. I didn’t have to move all at once so have taken pains and culled through my library. My plan has been to bring along with me only those books I wish to keep. My library consists largely of books read. But there is a surprising number of books purchased and shelved for a future read. This process of moving and reviewing my library has afforded me this knowledge: There is nothing so profound as an unread library. I don’t think many people understand that. They don’t recognize the potential for inward creation inherent in the unread library. It is, as I said, profound, and speaks to the suggestion that we all think better of ourselves than we’ve yet to realize. A writer cannot help but read a good book and be envious. A reader cannot help but read a good book. Period. Read on.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Inherent Vice 2 months 2. 2. Zeitoun 3 months 3. 8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 3 months 4. 6. (tie) The Skating Rink 2 months 5. (tie) - Asterios Polyp 1 month 5. (tie) 10. Felonious Jazz 5 months 7. - Cloud Atlas 1 month 8. - The Year of the Flood 1 month 9. - The White Tiger 1 month 10. (tie) - Future Missionaries of America 1 month 10. (tie) - Imperial 1 month 10. (tie) 9. Netherland 4 months Four inductees to The Millions Hall of Fame plus gridlock in the tenth spot on our list meant room for plenty of new titles on the list in September. Graduating to our Hall of Fame were four illustrious titles, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, Matthew Diffee's The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker, and Carl Wilson's Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. The former two titles are good examples of our readers' taste in fiction (Wao in fact won our recent readers' poll of the best fiction of the decade). The latter two are niche titles that sparked an enduring interest in readers despite relatively minor mentions at The Millions. Newly appearing on the list are some recently published titles. Asterios Polyp, which we reviewed not long ago, Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood and William T. Vollmann's Imperial, which were both on our most recent Most Anticipated list, and Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer, who was an interviewer and an interviewee for us in June. Also debuting are Cloud Atlas, which emerged as a big favorite in our Best of the Millennium project, and The White Tiger. That one's a bit of a mystery because we haven't talked about it much, but it did, of course, win the Booker Prize a year ago. Finally, Inherent Vice and Zeitoun hold on to their positions, but there are still several new releases on tap for the fall, so they may be challenged soon for the top spots. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - Inherent Vice 1 month 2. 5. Zeitoun 2 months 3. 4. The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker 6 months 4. 2. Infinite Jest 6 months 5. 6. Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste 6 months 6. (tie) 7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 6 months 6. (tie) - The Skating Rink 1 month 8. 8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 2 months 9. 10. Netherland 2 months 10. 9. Felonious Jazz 3 months Thomas Pynchon staged an impressive debut in August, hitting number one in The Millions Top Ten as Inherent Vice hit shelves. Garth, our resident Pynchon expert, shared his thoughts on the post-modern detective story just this week. Also debuting on our list in August is yet another title from Roberto Bolaño. Out of the gate, The Skating Rink is looking less like a footnote in Bolaño's prolific career and more like another Bolaño masterpiece, receiving impressive notices from the likes of Wyatt Mason in The New York Times (a "short, exquisite novel") and Scott Esposito in The Quarterly Conversation ("well worth your time"). The book was also on our most recent "Most Anticipated Books" list. Graduating to our Hall of Fame (after being on our list for 6+ months) are two books that have been surprise Millions favorites. Kitty Burns Florey's Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences was the jumping off point for a grammar rodeo that Garth put on analyzing a snippet of a speech by President Obama. The upshot? A Venn diagram of Millions readers and grammar lovers would show quite a lot of overlap, I now suspect. Also newly honored in our Hall of Fame is prizewinner Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which inspired Edan to pen her much discussed "Mom Book" essay. Other notable action: Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, recently reviewed around here and generally getting outstanding notices, shot to the number two spot in its second month on the list. Next month should be quite interesting as we're poised to have four titles join the Hall of Fame, freeing up room for lots of newcomers. See Also: Last month’s list.

Ask a Book Question: #74 (Just One Book)

Elizabeth wrote in with this question: This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college.  The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives.  To be charged with selecting the "one novel of a person's life" seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift.  I don't know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.)  My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be? Several of us pitched in on this one.  Some of us took Elizabeth's question literally, wondering what "one novel" we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives.  While others put themselves in Elizabeth's shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person's reading experience.  Here are our answers: Garth: The hypothetical here - if you could read just one novel - strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there's only going to be one. I'm tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I've got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you'd want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone. Edan: My suggestion - Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut -  may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it's highly readable.  It's important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn't read much won't tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn't a movie buff (read: me) won't sit through a John Cassavetes film).  Secondly, there's a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase "So it goes" repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time.  I'd love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others - book worms or not - would, too.  And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous.  If you love his books, there are others to discover.  Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life. Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I'd pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others - a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites - modern and classic - but strategically I'll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me.  I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing - playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become "unstuck in time" and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers - kids, really -  are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut's playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other. Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone: "You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again.  I have tried that book for years--generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco--and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad--Robinson Crusoe.  When I want advice--Robinson Crusoe.  In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many--Robinson Crusoe.  I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.  On my lady's last birthday she gave me a seventh.  I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.  Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain." And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written. Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a "desert island book," the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill. Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever.  Their lives were in my hands.  I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it.  Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them.  Never underestimate a college student's unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring.  Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them.  Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on.  Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels.  Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it's "Make love not war, save the planet"). Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!)   It's true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel.  I also found interesting Noah's and Garth's idea (reading the question as looking for a "desert island book") that length is critical.  With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis' The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years.  Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the "first" and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote.  But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not - bear with me here - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen?  Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn't expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it. Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth.  Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth's question on your own site or in the comments below.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2009 – And Introducing the Hall of Fame

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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This month we're also introducing our Hall of Fame. Any book that's been on our list for six months graduates to the Hall of Fame both to designate those books as all-time favorites of Millions readers and to make room for new books on our list. Our Hall of Fame begins with two inaugural inductees. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences 6 months 2. 5. Infinite Jest 5 months 3. 3. Olive Kitteridge 6 months 4. 6. The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker 5 months 5. - Zeitoun 1 month 6. 4. Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste 5 months 7. 7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 5 months 8. - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 1 month 9. 10. (tie) Felonious Jazz 3 months 10. - Netherland 2 months Graduating from our list to our Hall of Fame are Roberto Bolaño's 2666 and Elaine Dundy's Dud Avocado, two very worthy books to inaugurate this new feature. Also disappearing from the list are Bolaño's The Savage Detectives and Donald Ray Pollock's Knockemstiff. Joining our list for the first time is Dave Eggers' new book Zeitoun, an immigrant's story in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. The book was recently featured on our "Most Anticipated" list. Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is our other debut. The Swedish writer's series of posthumously published mysteries have gained quite a following in the States. The book's only appearance on The Millions was to kick off a Book Question piece about "closed-room mysteries." Millions readers, if you've read Larsson, let us know what you think. Meanwhile, Joseph O'Neill returns to our list after appearing on our initial top-ten list at the beginning of the year and then getting bumped off. Maybe President Obama's mention of the book a few months back is continuing to generate sales. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2009

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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for June, the list is also in our sidebar.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences5 months2.2.26666 months3.4.Olive Kitteridge5 months4.6.Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste4 months5.7.Infinite Jest4 months6.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker4 months7.10.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao4 months8.5.The Dud Avocado6 months9.8.Knockemstiff4 months10. (tie)9.Felonious Jazz2 months10. (tie)-The Savage Detectives2 monthsAs summer set in, the titles on our list stayed mostly static. Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives returns to the list. Meanwhile, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is seeing some interest, probably from folks wanting to participate in Infinite Summer, a TMN sponsored group read of the book. Junot Díaz's Oscar Wao may be getting a boost from its inclusion in the higher reaches of our Prizewinners list last month. Finally, Olive Kitteridge continues to be a favorite among Millions readers, and Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog is still at the top thanks to the enduring interest in Garth's essay on the grammatical proclivities of our current president. Look for some changes to the list in the coming months as an impressive slate of new titles hits bookstores.Have you been reading any of the books on our Top Ten list? Let us know what you think of them.See also: Last month's list.

Curiosities: The Aerosol Ebook Enhancer

One way to go green: the San Francisco Public Library is making library cards from corn.The New York Times mines the data from its integrated dictionary feature to find the words its readers most frequently look up: sui generis, solipsistic, louche...Bill Simmons talks basketball with The New Yorker (via)Inspired by the attention surrounding J.D. Salinger's lawsuit to block an unauthorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye, Patrick Brown at Vroman's has put together an impressive, involved post cataloging and discussing literary remixes.It's not too late to get in on TMN's "Infinte Summer," a summer-long group read of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.For those ebook fans who miss that "new book smell."Speaking of enhancing ebooks, what happens to book signings in the age of the ebook? Sign the Kindle?!Sonya Chung's thoughtful take on Dan Baum's Twitter essay about being fired from The New Yorker, including a comment from Baum himself.Mark Sarvas says don't fear the Kindle at HuffPoCarolyn Kellogg shares some satire for the bookish set.The Millions' Collaborative Atlas of Book Stores and Literary Places has now been viewed over 500,000 times!From TMN, "A Terrifically Bad Idea: 10 cafes, 10 macchiatos, one morning, by bike."High concept fun from The Washington Post: "We asked authors which book character they would like to accompany them for a day on the beach." (thanks Arna)Wikipedia find of the week: List of child prodigies.Further Reading: Jeff Hobbes' "Open Letter to Kanye West" generated many supportive comments from other proud readers.

Ether Between the Covers: Gifting Books in a Digital Age

I.The other day, while looking for books to buy my future nephew, I recalled The Real Mother Goose, a classic I had loved as a kid. I could conjure the cover, with its illustration of a witch and a baby, riding a giant, flying bird (a goose, I guess). And the border was checkered - the squares were black and white. I remembered the size of the book in my small hands, and the texture of its cover, and the thickness of the pages inside. It thrilled me to think that my sister's son might hold this book, and love it, like I had.For a period, novelist Katherine Taylor brought The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier to dinner parties. "Wine is boring," she told me. "Books last longer." Later, she took to giving everyone Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, which, she said, "is not as dinner-party appropriate, but it was a gorgeous and largely overlooked book I thought my clever friends should read." Now Ms. Taylor has moved onto handing out Maurice Sendak's The Nutshell Library.My husband and I met and became friends in the summer of 2000 as coworkers at Book Soup. At the end of the summer, when I was due to return to Oberlin College in Ohio, he gave me a copy of Goodbye Columbus. On the first page, he had written a note: "Edan - For the summer. Thanks. Patrick." Of course we got married.I love giving and getting books as gifts, and I've been wondering lately how the digital age will alter this ritual. Don't get me wrong: I am not against the electronic book. As others have pointed out, ebooks will most likely inspire consumers to be more adventurous in their reading tastes. Nothing will go out of print, and the convenience is obvious. (I kind of want to read Infinite Jest on my iPhone - imagine how light it would be. Wait a minute... I don't have an iPhone!) Once DRM goes away, and it will, the pass-it-on aspect of books will just explode. Book as mp3. Book as gossip. (If only that sexual astrology paperback we passed around in ninth grade had been digital...) In general, the ebook is a good thing for readers and writers. I prefer reading paperback novels, but if someone wants to read the book I'm writing on a fancy device, that sounds okay.So, let me make this clear: I'm not announcing the purity of print books over their digital brethren. I don't want to wax poetic (not too much, anyway) about the sensual pleasures of print books, how they feel and smell, the weight of them - although that must account for something, because what fun will it be to receive an ebook for your birthday? Will anyone even bother? The emergence of a new technology implies the death of another, and the rise of the ebook could mean that no one will ever again give you a novel for hosting a dinner party. I think I'm in mourning.II.Why do people give books as gifts, anyway? I don't mean just any book, but a specific book. Why did Patrick give me that copy of Philip Roth's first novel? What did it imply?Last week, a woman came into the bookstore to get a copy of A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. She said she always gives it as a gift to people she's getting to know. Those who love the novel as much as she does become her friends for life.I have a friend who likes to give Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being to women he's interested in romantically. I told him he shouldn't be dating anyone who hasn't already read it.For many of us, books are cultural signifiers: if you like this, you will like that, and I will like you. A book serves as an aesthetic litmus test, a conversation starter, a way to understand one another through a third party. The act of giving someone a book is an important performance; it's not just the book, but the exchange itself, and that's why a digital copy won't mean as much. You could email someone a love letter, but if you write it by hand... Well then.So, this: Reading is both a public and private act. It's private in the sense that no amount of discourse can mirror or capture the intimate experience a reader has with a book and its author. But that discourse is precisely why it's public - the blog posts, the reviews, the conversations over coffee, all of that affects and informs your reading experience. When you give someone a book you love, you're inviting them to understand a private encounter you had with a text. It's the fusing of the public and the private, the social and the intimate.III.I've recently realized that I'm also mourning reading in public, because e-readers will change that game as well. If a book is a cultural signifier, then the act of reading a book in public conveys important information to other readers. I always check out what people are reading: in coffee houses, at the beach, in bars, on airplanes. I am taking note, I am building a reader's identity. It's like - what kind of jeans is your soul wearing? It saddens me deeply to think about how this kind of signal will be lost with the popularity of ebook devices. What can an anonymous Kindle tell me about your inner life, and about what entertains you?Of course, the privacy of an e-reader is appealing, too. There are times when I want my private experience of reading to be just that - private. With a Kindle, I could read Stephenie Meyer on the bus without embarrassment. When I'm reading David Foster Wallace on my (nonexistent) iPhone, I won't have to worry about some geeky douchebag hitting on me.Again, I see the value of this new technology. I get it. I just can't seem to let go of what will be lost...

The Millions Top Ten: May 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for May, and we update the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences4 months2.2.26665 months3.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker3 months4.5.Olive Kitteridge4 months5.6.The Dud Avocado5 months6.4.Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste3 months7.-Infinite Jest3 months8.7.Knockemstiff3 months9.-Felonious Jazz1 month10.-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao3 monthsWe had one new arrival on our list for May and two titles that returned. Readers were curious enough to try out Bryan Gilmer's Felonious Jazz after he wrote about his experiments with pricing the ebook version of the novel. Returning to our list after a one month hiatus are two classics of contemporary literature, Infinite Jest and The Brief Wondrous Live of Oscar Wao. Departing from our list are Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, The Lazarus Project, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and The Savage Detectives.Also notable is the continued strength of Olive Kitteridge, which appears to have many fans among Millions readers. If you've been reading any of the books mentioned above, we'd love to hear about it in the comments.See also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for April, and we'll be updating the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences3 months2.2.26664 months3.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker2 months4.4.Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste2 months5.5.Olive Kitteridge3 months6.7. (tie)The Dud Avocado4 months7.7. (tie)Knockemstiff2 months8.-Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned1 month9.9.A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again4 months10. (tie)-The Savage Detectives2 months10. (tie)-The Lazarus Project1 monthWe have two debuts on our list this month. Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project and Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Max wrote about the former in connection with his Tournament of Books judging duties in March and wrote up the latter late last month. Anne also wrote about Lazarus late last year.Meanwhile, Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives returns to the list after initially appearing on our inaugural list and then disappearing.The top-five books in April remained unchanged from March, with Sister Bernadette still putting in a strong showing on the continued popularity of Garth's Presidential sentence diagramming post.Disappearing from the list this month are two standout works of contemporary fiction, Infinite Jest and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.Let us know if you've been reading any of our "top ten" books. We'd love to hear about it.See also: Last month's list.

Curiosities: Friendship’s Offering

The Millions Walking Tour of NYC Indie Bookstores is only a week away. Get all the details and RSVP.Little Dorrit is must-see-TV in the Packer household.For those considering undertaking Infinite Jest, we recommend Slate's Audio Book Club discussion.Meanwhile, in the first installment of New York Magazine's new "Reading Room" feature, participants get, er... wet."'I never wanted to write this book,'" [Alec Baldwin] tells us... 'It was also a book I never wanted to read, but here we are, Alec and I, making the best of a bad situation.'"The influence of the late J.G. Ballard, who died this week, reached from Jonathan Lethem to Thom Yorke.What's Bret Easton Ellis up to? Not much, apparently.An inspired blog feature collects one-star Amazon reviews of the classics (via HTMLGIANT).In praise of Peter Handke and A.J. Liebling.Senator Arlen Specter realizes that there's no way to endear yourself to Republican primary voters like writing for The New York Review of Books.William H. Gass goes for baroque. (via The Complete Review)Some small presses are trying out a subscription model.The earliest known dust jacket for a book has been found. (via LitKicks)The Orange Prize shortlist has been announced.Ben Yogoda writes a defense of common English.Trade paperbacks thrive in tough times. (Our suggestion: make them even smaller.)Earth Day was this past week, and now we know: used books are "greener" than new.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2009

Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out the original introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences2 months2.2.26663 months3.-The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker1 month4.-Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste1 month5.4.Olive Kitteridge2 months6.3.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao3 months7. (tie)-Knockemstiff1 month7. (tie)7.The Dud Avocado3 months9.8. (tie)A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again3 months10.5.Infinte Jest3 monthsWe have three debuts on our list this month.The Rejection Collection is a book edited by New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee that, as its title suggests, collects cartoons that didn't quite make it into the New Yorker. And it's not that these cartoons weren't good enough to get in, it's that they were just a little "off," too weird or even off-color to grace the magazine's hallowed pages. We wrote about the book when it came out in 2006, and we also wrote about its sequel, The Rejection Collection Vol. 2: The Cream of the Crap when it appeared in 2007.Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is another quirky addition to the top 10. It's a part of the 33 1/3 series of books about songs. Carl Wilson's entry, about a Celine Dion song, was singled out by Dan Kois in his Year in Reading post in December. Reading the book, Kois said, "was to be both inspired and filled with despair."Finally, we also add Donald Ray Pollack's collection Knockemstiff, newly out in paperback. Knockemstiff was another Year in Reading selection. Kyle Minor described the book as "Eighteen wild and wooly stories from southern Ohio, in which a lifetime's experience is distilled to nine or twelve pages of the most thrilling sentences I've ever read." And he compared it to Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.Meanwhile, sentence diagramming tome Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog remains at the top thanks to the enduring quality of Garth's recent post parsing President Obama's sentences.Dropping from the list are Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle, and J.K. Rowling's work of Potter lore The Tales of Beedle the Bard.See Also: Last month's list.

Inter Alia #16: Footnoting D.T. Max’s DFW Piece

Well, Wyatt Mason beat me to it. Over at his blog, Sentences, the Harper's critic has registered a couple of cavils with D.T. Max's powerful, fascinating New Yorker article on David Foster Wallace, "The Unfinished." First, Mason suggests, Max makes his case for The Broom of the System at the expense of what may be a better book, Girl With Curious Hair. Second, Max might have profitably spent more time on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, and the nonfiction. I suppose it shouldn't surprise me to find Mason anticipating, more eloquently, my own response to "The Unfinished"; I find him to be our most astute critic of Wallace (by which I mean, of course, the one whose thinking most resembles mine).It's important to note, as Mason does, that these are minor quibbles, mere footnotes to Max's achievement. (In my case, think of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy pontificating from the front row.) But they also betoken the immense, almost maternal protectiveness some readers feel toward Wallace's reputation. We feel about Infinite Jest as William H. Gass does about Finnegans Wake: "Not to have been... influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time." Our underlying anxiety is that the Kakutanis of the world will deprive our grandchildren of the beautiful thing we ourselves have been blessed to witness. And so, with an eye toward posterity - toward those who have not yet experienced Wallace's writing first-hand - I humbly submit three additional footnotes to "The Unfinished."1) It seems to me that there's an assumption in certain passages of the article that writing fiction posed a "risk to [Wallace's] mental health," without sufficient evidence to discount the possibility that the causal arrow might have pointed the other way. In general, Max exhibits an admirable tact on the subject of Wallace's depression and addictions; he wants to extend to the author the dignity that is his due. It seems important, therefore, that we not turn "The Unfinished" into an explanation of Wallace's suicide. In particular - for the sake of reading the forthcoming The Pale King with a clear head - one wouldn't want to succumb to the temptation to say that this last novel pushed Wallace over the edge. Writing is a form of daily frustration; it can also be, as Max shows, a source of daily grace.2) Because "The Unfinished" suggests that Wallace "began to develop a taste for journalism" in the wake of the publication of Infinite Jest, rather than in the early 1990s, it skirts a more thorough examination of the relationship between Wallace's fiction and his nonfiction.3) Perhaps most significantly, Max summarizes a bit too approvingly Wallace's sense that he had never "hit his target." Indeed, Wallace's attempt to do so becomes the narrative hinge of the article. But many who have read Infinite Jest will feel differently.On the subject of his own creations, the novelist is, at best, an unreliable witness. As Robert Musil writes in that other unfinished monument, The Man Without Qualities:He loves creation as long as he is creating it, but his love turns away from the finished portions. For the artist must also love what is most hateful in order to shape it, but what he has already shaped, even if it is good, cools him off; it becomes so bereft of love that he hardly still understands himself in it, and the moment when his love returns to delight in what it has done are rare and unpredictable.It is seemly for an artist to never be satisfied with past achievements, as Wallace no doubt knew, but it's readers who get the final word. As time passes, Infinite Jest looks closer to Wallace's stated target - "morally passionate, passionately moral fiction" - than any other English-language novel of its era. I felt this way before Wallace's death, and I still do.(P.S.: You got me, Andrew.)Bonus link: Sam Anderson's take on "The Unfinished," from New York Magazine

Thinking of a Dream I Had: The “Formative Novel”

So, it's the early hours of the morning and I'm fast asleep. I dream the following:I'm in an empty restaurant, deep in conversation with someone I'd never met before. Even in the dream, this person is meant to be a stranger - a Millions reader named Oliver. (I had recently watched a new BBC version of Oliver Twist, though the person in my dream was in no way urchinlike).He is relating to me the fascinating and sordid details of his life. After a pause, I proclaim to Oliver that I know what his "formative novel" would be: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Though I've never actually heard the phrase "formative novel" before, I seemed to imply a novel whose spirit and tone most closely impacted the life that dream-Oliver would go on to lead. Not so much the plot of the novel, and not the author's autobiography. I was apparently matching up the tone of the book with the tone of the reader's subsequent life.I then went on to tell Oliver that my Millions colleague Garth's "formative novel" would be David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. (I don't know this to be true. I suspect that Garth's passionate appreciation of David Foster Wallace planted the notion in my head several months ago. Nevertheless, dream-Garth's "formative novel" was Infinite Jest).Oliver then asks me what my "formative novel" would be. I contemplate for a moment and then respond: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. This is a curious choice as I hadn't read it until about five years ago, when I was already well into my 30s. Still, the accessibly off-kilter humor of the novel does seem a good fit. Had I read it at an impressionable age, I suspect that it would qualify as a close match for the tone of my subsequent adult personality.The dream then took an odd turn. I was lying on my back on the sidewalk, still in conversation with Oliver, as a pack of schoolchildren and their teacher hurdled over me, never once looking down or stepping on me.Oliver then morphed into Jack Lemmon, circa The Apartment, and I jolted awake, and reached for a notebook and pen.So: what would your "formative novel" be? This requires not just a reading of the novel, but a certain amount of self-awareness. Try to match the tone of the novel with the tone of your life or of your personality. I guess it doesn't matter when you read it. It's fine if you read it later in life and retroactively match it up with your life. And, Garth, feel free to set the record straight.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2009

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Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out last month's introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.-Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences1 month2.1.26662 months3.2.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2 months4.-Olive Kitteridge1 month5.3.Infinte Jest2 months6.-Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-19631 month7.4.The Dud Avocado2 months8. (tie)5.The White Boy Shuffle2 months8. (tie)6.A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again2 months10.8.The Tales of Beedle the Bard2 monthsDebuting on the list this month in the top spot is Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, fueled by a huge amount of interest in Garth's post diagramming one of the president's sentences. With that post still quite popular, don't be surprised if this quirky title stays on our list for quite some time.Another debut is Susan Sontag's Journals and Notebooks. This collection of writing from Sontag's younger years was highlighted in a recent post by Anne that got some attention.Also new on the list is Elizabeth Strout's collection Olive Kitteridge, a National Book Critics Circle finalist and a Year in Reading pick from Manil Suri. Those two mentions were quite brief, however, and the recent interest in the book by Millions readers intrigues us. If you've read Kitteridge, let us know what you thought of it in the comments.Finally, dropping off the list this month are The Savage Detectives, The Northern Clemency, and Netherland.See Also: Last month's list

eBook Evolution: Amazon and Google on Different Paths

Amazon sucked the all the air out of the literary room this week with its announcement of the new iteration of its Kindle reading device. That the announcement was coming had been no big secret to anyone paying attention and pictures of the device had been floating around online for at least five months, but nobody seemed to mind. The Kindle is just about the only game in town when it comes to sexy new gadgets for the book club set.With Kindles hitting doorsteps in less than two weeks' time, however, and hands on reviews generally positive, if not glowing, it may be time once again to assess the ebook landscape.Interestingly, while a watershed event in the evolutions of ebooks has likely occurred this month, the Kindle 2 unveiling is only one of the nominees for that honor. Also in the running is Google's "1.5 Million Books in Your Pocket" announcement last week. For those who missed it, Google has engineered a mobile version of Google Books, for use on iPhones and phones running Google's own mobile operating system. Right now it lets people access the public domain books that Google has scanned and automatically converts the scanned pages into standardized fonts for ease of reading on mobile devices.Looking at the Amazon option and the Google option, you can begin to see two separate, though not necessarily mutually exclusive paths that ebook evolution will follow. The Kindle path is one of verisimilitude with the printed page, a uni-tasker that wants to provide an experience as close to that of being a book as possible while using technology to improve upon the book by, for example, being lighter and letting you carry multiple titles in one small package. Somewhat surprisingly, the early reviews of the Kindle from the gadget-hounds at venues like Gizmodo eschew their usual demands for "smaller" and "slicker" in wishing that the Kindle were more book-like not less, asking for things like a bigger screen and a sturdier rubber backing rather than "slick aluminum and plastic." Moreover:Before they address the needs of some hypothetical super weakling who has the aesthetic sense of [Apple designer] Jon Ive, the cerebral voracity of Rain Man and the vision of Mr. Magoo, Amazon must address the needs of very real readers who read only a few books and magazines at a time, who like to download classic non-copyrighted lit and work-related documents for free, and who like to leaf through pages randomly. This last thing is important, though it may be insurmountable: Airport-friendly page turners don't really require non-linear random-access reading, but everything smart from Harry Potter to Infinite Jest does, and that's one concern that the Kindle, or any ebook reader, still does not address well.If the Kindle will evolve to become more and more book-like, Google's path is much simpler. As our handheld gadgets have added ever more features - cameras, email, music and video playing capabilities - they have become ravenous multi-taskers, seeking out new functions to devour and turn into must-have features. If we are to be a society that reads its books on little electronic devices, one can sensibly argue, then this device will also be my cell phone, camera, mp3 player, and everything else. After all, we only have so many pockets. The Kindle may become the preferred device of the discerning and prolific reader, but the iPhone, or something like it, will do just fine for everyone else.Even as ebook evolution follows both paths, the expanding capabilities of the devices will open up huge opportunities for newspapers and magazines to blend print and electronic publishing, and who knows what new media business models may blossom out of this new hybrid medium.The final, and maybe most important piece, of the dual path ebook story, is the content. As has been the case with all "format wars" - VHS vs. Beta, HD DVD vs. Blu ray - the format that is able to attract the content is the format that wins. But in this case, the two formats may be able to exist and mature side by side because both have incredible access to the content for their devices. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that the vision for Kindle is "Every book ever printed in any language, available in under 60 seconds." The Google Book search vision is "We see a world where all books are online and searchable." Both companies have the technical muscle and have built the relationships (and, in Google's case, the legal foundation) with publishers to make good on these claims. With no clear edge in content for either format, both formats have the capacity to survive and thrive.This, of course, leaves out a third format - the physical book. As long as there is demand for books, they will survive as well. And with publishers and copyright holders maintaining a firm grip on their digital rights (and digital book piracy nonexistent) the new ebook formats represent new revenue streams for publishers that should exist comfortably alongside the old dead-tree model.

The Millions Top Ten

We've added a new feature to The Millions sidebar. We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our inaugural Millions Top Ten list, and we'll be updating the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.-26661 month2.-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao1 month3.-Infinte Jest1 month4.-The Dud Avocado1 month5.-The White Boy Shuffle1 month6.-A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again1 month7.-The Savage Detectives1 month8.-The Tales of Beedle the Bard1 month9.-The Northern Clemency1 month10.-Netherland1 monthLet us know if you've been reading any of these books. We'd love to hear about it.

The Millions Quiz: The Glaring Gap

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?

Millions Meta-Data 2008

Before we get too far into 2009, let's take a look at what was keeping readers interested on The Millions in 2008. This year, I'll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, and we'll start with the "evergreens," posts that went up before 2008 but continued to interest readers over the last year:Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Our "definitive" literary pronunciation guide continues to bring people to The Millions. I guess people really do want to know how to pronounce Goethe.Hard to Pronounce Literary Names: Underscoring the interest in pronunciation, even our first, aborted attempt at the pronunciation post remains popular.Food Fight: Anthony Bourdain Slams Rachael Ray: For whatever reason, there remains an abiding interest in the bad blood between these two food (and publishing) celebrities.A Year in Reading 2007: 2007's series stayed popular in 2008.The World's Longest Novel: Ben's profile of this work of record-breaking performance art continues to fascinate.Why Bolaño Matters: 2008 was the Year of Bolaño, but Garth's 2007 piece helped set the stage.The Reading Queue Revisited: My goofy way of picking books to read.Reading List: World War 2 Fiction: There are a few books still on my wish list as a result of this post.A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2005: My ridiculous attempt to catalog all the New Yorker fiction in 2005. Will I ever do it again? Maybe.A Rare Treat for Murakami Fans: Pinball, 1973: Ben dug up a link to a "lost" Murakami novel, and the post has remained a constant draw for his fans.And now for the top posts written in 2008:A Year in Reading 2008: It was a big hit this year.The Best Sports Journalism Ever (According to Bill Simmons): This fruitful list of sports writing links hooked a lot of fans.Big in Japan: A Cellphone Novel For You, the Reader: Lots of big-name outlets covered the cell phone novel story in 2008, but only The Millions had a translated excerpt.Haruki Murakami in Berkeley: A rare American appearance by Murakami generated many memorable quotes.David Foster Wallace 1962-2008: Few did a better job of trying to make sense of the literary world's great tragedy in 2008 than Garth did with his compassionate piece.The Most Anticipated Books of 2008: Books we all looked forward to.On Our Shelves: 45 Favorite Short Story Collections: Short story fans can get lost in this one.The Most Anticipated Books of the Rest of 2008: More books we all looked forward to.Obama and the Faulkner Quote: In the most memorable election year in a generation, politics crept in everywhere. Even at The Millions.Google Settlement Could Change the Literary Landscape: Google continued to roil the publishing world in 2008.Where did all these readers come from? Google sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers come from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2008:Conversational Readingkottke.orgThe Elegant Variationmimi smartypantsThe Morning NewsThe Complete ReviewMarginal RevolutionMaud NewtonThe New York Times Lede BlogNathan BransfordFinally, we can look at our Amazon stats to see what books Millions readers were buying in 2008. Here are the top-10 books bought by Millions readers over the last year.2666 by Roberto BolañoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot DíazInfinite Jest by David Foster WallaceThe Savage Detectives by Roberto BolañoThe White Boy Shuffle by Paul BeattyA Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster WallaceHear the Wind Sing by Haruki MurakamiLush Life by Richard PriceThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

Millions contributor Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of the novella A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a 2008 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction. This year, his work appeared in the anthologies Best New American Voices and Best of the Web.When it comes to books, I'm less a gourmet than a gourmand. It's not that the slim, perfect novel doesn't excite my palate, but when I'm in the middle of a sensational meal, I want it never to end - or at least to give the illusion of infinitude. And so I hunger for big books - thousand-calorie entrees I wrap rubber bands around to keep the bindings intact.This year, as I approached my thirtieth birthday, these big books appealed to me with even greater urgency. At some point soon, the demands of family life and the writing life are going to leave me with less time for "loose, baggy monsters," and so I've been trying to get the important ones under my belt. After all, there are only so many behemoths out there, right? Well, it turns out that big books share certain Hydra-like properties with books in general. This year, I knocked off ten enormous tomes; I added about twenty to my "to-read" list.The best of the best - the book that came closest to being everything I want in a novel - was Mortals (712 pp), by Norman Rush. It's a funny book, in that it forgoes the immediate pyrotechnics of Rush's first novel, Mating (a mere 474 pp), which I also read this year. Still I'm convinced that, once you've acquired a taste for Rush's penetrating yet hugely compassionate voice - his astonishing negative capability - you will find Mortals to be one of the two or three best American novels published this decade. And it just gets better as it goes along: the 100-page climax is almost literally explosive.A close second was Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (893 pp), a novel I'm still thinking about, half a year after first reading it. As with Mortals, I hesitate to recommend diving straight into it; you might want to learn to trust Bolaño, as I did, by first reading his more trenchant performances (Nazi Literature in the Americas (227 pp including epilogue) (review), then Distant Star (149 pp), and then The Savage Detectives (still comparatively lean at 577 pp) (review)). But 2666 is a cabinet of wonders, and a landmark in contemporary letters.Inspired by Joshua Ferris' 2007 Year in Reading entry, I went on a late-period Henry James bender this year, which (to return to the food metaphor) is sort of like gorging on lobster with a heavy cream sauce. In its rich evocation of human subjectivity, The Wings of the Dove (711 pp) is a dazzling technical achievement, but it's James' deep feeling for his characters that makes this my favorite of his novels. Of course, if the representation of subjectivity is to your taste, I should also recommend Under the 82nd Airborne (230 pp in The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg) (review), in which our finest short story writer refines into deft turns of phrase what James took pages and pages to do. I think of Eisenberg and James as two-thirds of a triumvirate: Discoverers of the American Mind. The third third is Saul Bellow, with whom I spent most of June. Of the several books I read, Mr. Sammler's Planet (260 pp) struck me as the most surprising, courageous, and challenging.Ms. Eisenberg's advocacy, at a PEN World Voices panel, persuaded me to sate my appetite for German-language literature with Robert Walser's Jakob van Gunten (176 pp), a bewitching (and blessedly brief) evocation of adolescence. I also marveled at Alfred Döblin's pitch-black Berlin Alexanderplatz (378 closely printed pp). Then I turned back to the big American novel. Joseph McElroy's Women and Men (1192 pp) is the longest book I have ever read, by a good 150,000 words. It took me six weeks to finish, at least, and, python-like, I'm still digesting, but the achievements in sections like "Larry," "the future," and "Alias Missing Conversation" rank with the best of Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace.Speaking of Wallace, the best book I re-read this year was Infinite Jest (1079 pp with footnotes), which was fresh in my mind when news of the author's death reached his readers. IJ still looks to me like the fictional high-water-mark of a generation. I welcome debate on this point, but revisiting the book debunks claims that Wallace is too intellectual, too indulgent, or too stylized; here, he does everything the ten next-best American writers can do, and does it better (see, e.g., pp 851- 981). That we'll never get to see another novel from him is an incalculable loss.Fortunately for us, the reservoir of literary talent in his generation runs deep; following other writers as they advance the cause of fiction forward is a kind of consolation. Trance (505 pp), by Year in Reading participant Christopher Sorrentino, was the book by a young American that most impressed me this year (review). The writing - tough, funny, elegant, jive - really astonished me, as did the way the novel mobilizes the 1970s in service of the now. I guess all history really is present history.The work of nonfiction I most enjoyed in 2008 was Janet Malcolm's Gertrude and Alice: Two Lives (224 pp). Malcolm is at least as good a critic as she is a journalist; her approach to literature is refreshingly humble, nimble, curious, and delighted. (I'm reading her Chekhov book now (205 pp.)) I only made it halfway through Gertrude Stein's novel The Making of Americans this summer (it's an annual endeavor; 925 pp), but Gertrude and Alice, which I devoured in a single, lovely July day, was a welcome substitute. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Timothy Donaldson's book on the development of alphabets, Shapes for Sounds. Reading it is like sitting in on a lecture by the most brilliant professor in the department. It is also - not incidentally - a triumph of design on the order of David Macauley.Finally, I have to say something about political books, which functioned this year as quick, bitter palate-cleansers. For eight years, a small corps of investigative journalists - Hersh, Wright, Mayer, Packer - has been working to keep our government honest. I'd like to nominate Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman for inclusion on this honor roll. In addition to being a riveting, lively, and infuriating read, his book, Angler (384 pp), introduced me to one of the most fascinating literary characters I've yet encountered: Richard B. "Dick" Cheney. For pure, mysterious "lifeness" (to borrow the most useful term from James Wood's How Fiction Works (248 pp)), Cheney rivals Wallace's Don Gately, and Rush's Ray Finch, Bellow's Artur Sammler, and Eisenberg's many protagonists. We'll be chewing over (or choking on) his legacy for years to come. It's a good thing we'll have good books, large and small, to nourish us along the way.More from A Year in Reading 2008

Ask a Book Question: #68 (Building a 21st Century Contemporary Fiction Syllabus)

Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I've hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year's syllabus. We currently read Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace ("E Unibus Pluram") to Chuck Klosterman ("The Real World"). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more "critical" eye.So. I'm trying to replace Fortress for this year's class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year's students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven't read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I'm currently considering Bock's Beautiful Children, Ferris' Then We Came To The End, Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers' Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I've tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven't. Of the four you're considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It's told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they're written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It's equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage's DeNiro's Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys - where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage's debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn't say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen's All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus - not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages - oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) - not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into - particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book ("Fame - fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.").Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition - almost zeugma perhaps? - in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political - the sublime and the ridiculous - are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith's desire to sleep with the vice president's daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that "refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order" and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it's an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I'd had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction - Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis' The Thin Place; Lydia Davis' Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon's The Question of Bruno - may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn't care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two "21st Century" books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders' Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty's The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It's interesting that the students didn't like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven't read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones's two collections - Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children - Jones's stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones's The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying "reveal" at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven't already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.

Ask a Book Question (#59): Books for Recent Graduates

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Bryan wrote in with this question:I'm a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I'm a huge fan of the Millions. I'm attaching a recent reading list, if there's any chance you'd be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 - april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy's Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known - n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O'HaraSwann's Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan's recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a "very testosterone-y" reading list and added, "I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets)." Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several "upgrades" that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow's Herzog. If you're going to read Exley, read A Fan's Notes, and "Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature," Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan "needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O'Hara, and Hemingway," all authors featured on Bryan's list.In thinking and discussing Bryan's list, we also hit the idea of a "staff picks" for recent grads - a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson's version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don't let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey's argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you're holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you're untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you've been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age - mid-twenties or so - when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell's social soul. "I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny."Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.

Inter Alia: Authority, an Anniversary, and Book Reviewing

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines a fungus that grows on another fungus; a nuclear reaction fueled by the byproducts of nuclear reactions; and movies whose audiences watch an audience watching them. For this kind of derivative process, he invokes the adjective annular, which the O.E.D. defines as "ringlike" or circular, but which presumably shares some roots with "annul" - to make into nothing. Last week, reading John Freeman's strange piece in the online Guardian (via TEV), I felt I was in the presence of annular writing: writing about writing about writing. I wade into yet another consideration of the state of book reviewing, then, at the risk of saying nothing about nothing. Nonetheless, I'm going to take this opportunity to advance a couple of propositions I've been thinking about lately.The first is that talk in certain quarters about crises in book reviewing, newspaper journalism, online recommendation systems, and so forth is really an extension of a conversation that's been going on for at least decades now: one about a more general crisis of authority. Ever since the wheels of modernity set to work on the fixed stars by which we navigate our culture, we've been trying to figure out what to look to instead. Technology is only just catching up with us.Those attached to tradition have always tended to look at the democratization of information warily. For example, I learned in this week's New Yorker about Walter Lippmann, whose 1922 book Public Opinion argued that the average American "lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct." According to Eric Alterman, Lippmann proposed that crucial decisions about that world be made by "intelligence bureaus," which would be given access to all the information they needed to judge the government's actions without concerning themselves with democratic preferences or public debate.This sounds like a nightmare, elitism reduced ad absurdam. Yet the assumption that the dispersal of the authority once held by, say, Edmund Wilson and The New York Times must, ipso facto, produce smarter decision-making doesn't hold water either. The information superhighway may lead to enlightenment, but it offers exit-ramps to every conceivable variety of cant.For a while now, I've had the nagging feeling that there's a third way we've been neglecting, some kind of solution to the crisis of authority. And then, in the Alterman article, I found another reason to love John Dewey. To wit:Dewey did not dispute Lippmann's contention regarding... the public's vulnerability to manipulation. [But] the foundation of democracy to Dewey was less information than conversation. Members of a democratic society needed to cultivate what the journalism scholar James W. Carey, in describing the debate, called "certain vital habits" of democracy - the ability to discuss, deliberate on, and debate various perspectives in a manner that would move it toward consensus.This, I think, is why book reviews play a vital, if circumscribed, role in any democracy. I'd also like to think (not coincidentally) that this is the project that we - you and I - are engaged in here at The Millions. Five years into a conversation Max started, I'm consistently impressed by the civility, acuity, and enthusiasm of those who comment on the site (as I invite you to do below). Which leads me to my second proposition: the problem with pre-modern notions of authority has always been that they're non-consensual. For all its failings, the web is one arena where authority is earned instead of inherited. And so, on the occasion of our fifth anniversary, I'd like to thank you for granting authority, in whatever measure, to us.

In Pictures

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A collection of striking photos of numerous well-known contemporary writers, in two galleries. Somehow these pictures exude the literary.Blogger lonelysandwich makes the only half toungue-in-cheek observation that the original cover of tennis fan David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest shares a color scheme with those Andre Agassi Nikes that were all the rage in the early '90s.George Saunders appeared on Letterman last week, as you may have heard. onegoodmove put the clip online.

Pynchon Wikified: A Reader’s Aid

I wanted to follow up on my attempt to review Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day by sharing a few resources I found helpful. After reading the book, which took 23 days, I barnstormed through a lot of reviews, many of them silly. A couple I found insightful are available in complete versions online. Luc Sante's "Inside the Time Machine" appeared in The New York Review of Books. Michael Wood's "Humming Along" appeared in The London Review of Books. Each of these reviews, in its own way, reaffirms the valuable role the long-form book-review plays, and speaks to the ongoing relevance of publications like the NYRB, the LRB, The Believer, and Bookforum.Even more useful, for me, was a recent phenomenon: the wiki. Though I still tend to privilege the O.E.D. over AskJeeves, I can't think of an instance where the Internet has proven more congenial to literary study than it has in the case of the Pynchon wiki. Where readers of Joyce and Nabokov had to wait years for annotations of Ulysses and Lolita to appear, AtD annotations have appeared online at roughly the speed it takes to read the book. Annotations contributed collectively, and subject to collective revisions, help correct for ideological bias and factual error.Though obsessive decoding of texts can sometimes obscure the richer pleasures of a difficult novel, the wiki, because it's a more casual reading experience than a thick volume of annotations, seems to make frivolous annotation more transparently frivolous. At the same time, it makes it easy for a novel reader to pause, retrieve crucial information, and then return to the book. I can only hope wikis for books like The Recognitions, The Tunnel, and Infinite Jest are forthcoming.

The World of Tomorrow, Today: An Attempt at a Review of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day

Let us for a moment, reader, move beyond the dreary cacophony of snap-judgments - the mindless hatchetwork of critics who abandoned the novel halfway through, the predictable enthusiasms of the Elect, the hedged bets of those who managed to finish just in time for deadline. Let us distance ourselves from the welter of conflicting reports, reviews, and rumors swirling in the cultural Aether. Let us imagine for ourselves a time-machine; let us step inside; let us hurtle 100 years into the future and look back on the unexplained event that was Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day. Let us, that is, undertake a project not unlike the project of the novel itself. Reader, let us try to make it mean something.1.The year is 2107. Thomas Pynchon is, not surprisingly, well-represented on bookshelves. Still in print, still read. Thanks in no small part to the late-period efflorescence of Mason & Dixon, (and of course the extraordinary seventh and eighth novels), the man is now recognized as one of the 20 or 30 Great American Voices: tough and tender, erudite and foolish, and oddly, it turns out, elegiac. Witness, for example, Against the Day's aging matriarch Mayva Traverse, here in the employ of the Oust family:Too fast almost to register, the years had taken Mayva from a high-strung girl with foreign-looking eyes to this calm dumpling of a housekeeper in a prosperous home that might as well be halfway back east, set upwind from the sparks and soot of the trains, where she kept portraits and knickknacks dusted, knew how much everything cost, what time to the minute each of the Oust kids would wake (all but the one maybe, the one with the destiny), and where each of the family was likely to've gone when they weren't in the house...her once spellbinding eyes brought back, as field-creatures are re-enfolded at the end of day, into orbits grown pillow-soft, on watch within, guarding a thousand secrets of these old Territories never set down, and of how inevitable, right from the minute the first easterners showed up, would be the betrayal of everyday life out here, so hard-won, into the suburban penance the newcomers had long acceded to. The children in her care never saw past the kind and forever bustling old gal, never imagined her back in Leadville raising all species of hell...Were B.R. Meyers still living, he would doubtless be able to pick this apart: there's a mixed metaphor, the imprecision of "re-enfolded," a dangling modifier or two... But what did B.R. Meyers make of Melville? Damn it, Pynchon's is great American prose, its looseness and openness to error being what makes it American as well as great. And if Pynchon's bardic breath remained as long as it was in Gravity's Rainbow, his syntax, we now know, gradually grew clearer. Notice the ellipsis in the middle of that first sentence, giving the reader room to rest. Notice the way the eyes are then "brought back" syntactically as well as figuratively. Notice the range of the diction, from the sublime to the vernacular. Notice what Anthony Lane, way back in the year 1997, called "a resolute refusal to turn pretty." In the late works, as in the early ones, Pynchon flirted with portentousness, but some inner gravity kept his language rooted.From 2107, it is likewise easy to see that Pynchon's accomplishment did not end with his sentences and paragraphs and novels, but extended to the aesthetic, cultural, and political possibilities they disclosed for several generations of artists. Here, on our adamantium coffee table, lies a moldering copy of Bookforum's 2006 festchrift for Gravity's Rainbow... and a dusty Tin House Books edition of Zak Smith's illustrations. And across the room, on a glow-in-the-dark desk, are stacks of novels by the writers Pynchon transformed. Without Gravity's Rainbow, no Infinite Jest. No White Teeth. No Mao II. (Or fill the time capsule with your own favorite "hysterical realists" (to excavate an old James Wood formulation.)) Not since Yoknapatawpha paved the way for Macondo did an author, for better or worse, open up so much territory for his peers.In the context of these achievements, local and global - and in the context of Pynchon's public invisibility (itself possibility-disclosing) - the appearance of each novel generated extraordinary expectations. Mason & Dixon, published exactly 110 years ago, raised the bar higher, proving that Pynchon was capable of equaling if not surpassing his own masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow. Then Against the Day arrived, a seeming aberration. No one could agree. It was either his best novel or his worst. It was neither. It was both, sometimes on the same page. In a career full of oddities, it was itself an oddity (which maybe made it, via the kind of Rube-Goldberg dialectic Pynchon always excelled in, his most representative novel.)2.The plot, such as it is, concerns three groups of characters entangled both by accidents of circumstance and by the common denominator of innocence lost. It is Hamlet by way of Jules Verne, B. Traven, and Graham Greene... a revenge delayed for no apparent reason, in this case for 900 pages.First, we have the Traverses, a rough-and-tumble family in the mining country of Colorado, circa 1890. The murder of the patriarch, terrorist-cum-freedom fighter Webb Traverse, presents his offspring - hedonistic Reef, dutiful Frank, brainy Kit, and rebellious daughter Lake - with the motive for revenge, if not the means. Later, in Europe, Kit becomes mixed-up with a set of Oxbridge youth playing spy-games for the Great Powers. Meanwhile, above or slightly to the side of it all hover the Chums of Chance, a semi-fictitious gang of boy aeronauts, and their pals from other dime-novel genres: the detective Lew Basnight, the mad scientist Merle Rideout, and assorted hangers-on.Having had 100 years to ruminate on it, this is about as concise as I can get. Like every Pynchon novel, this one is a chain of substitutions: a quest is undertaken, only to be abandoned when another, more interesting quest surfaces. (This series, receding toward a vanishing point, forms a V.). Their very insolubility is the great lesson enforced by these quests.What is new in Against the Day is the way the insolubility of the quests points to questions of character, rather than to the philosophical impossibility of pinning down answers at a time of increasing entropy. That is, the Traverses' failure to avenge their father's death is their own damn fault. They have plenty of chances to kill Webb's killers (Lake ends up married to one, and Kit ends up the protege of another). But they are bruised, they are weak, they are stupid, they are easily tempted. They are, in a word, feckless, and much of the drift of the novel as a whole is their drift, across continents and years...The Chums of Chance, by contrast, are all duty. Bound by a naive but endearing code of honor, they zoom around in their airship seeking to set everything right. Somehow they, too, fail, but their failures seem more honorable than those of the earthbound characters they look down on. In the course of the book, both Chums and Traverses undergo an education that brings them closer to one another, philosophically.But maybe this is too concise to do the book justice. In the course of its generous length, Against the Day also encompasses a World's Fair, a World War, mathematical conferences, time travel, trips to the mythical city of Shambala and the anti-Earth, proto-psychedelic trips, labor unrest, and a truly bizarre interlude at a Harmonica Marching Band Academy. The list could go on (and would, if I were Pynchon). And because this is Pynchon, there is both high-minded theorizing and low humor: slapstick, puns, talking dogs, and Pig Bodine.The jokes, in fact, are funnier than in Pynchon's earlier novels... madcap Groucho-Marxist interludes often float gloriously free of their context:"How much do you know of La Mayonnaise?" she inquired.He shrugged. "Maybe up to the part that goes 'Aux armes, citoyens..."And in dozens upon dozens of set-pieces totaling hundreds and hundreds of pages, the painful progress of the Traverse kids, the Chums, and even minor characters like Mayva (mentioned above) are rendered with bristling, autumnal clarity. Pynchon transports us to a time when the future seemed to promise dozens of possibilities for utopia - technological, political, mathematical - and then, just as we begin to forget that these promises are doomed, he makes us feel what it must have felt like when they failed, culminating in the killing fields of the First World War.The numb evasions of the Traverses, at their most compelling, are allegories for our own.3.Having gestured, then, toward some of the wonders that await between the covers of Against the Day, I'd like to address the question of why it ultimately falls short of Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon... why it still feels, 100 years later, more like an arithmetic extension of the Pynchon oeuvre (by a whopping 50%, in terms of page-count) than like a geometric enlargement of it.First, there are a couple of flaws in the writing. Pynchon does moments very well - his dialogue has never been better, his description rarely so. He likewise does the panoramic chronicle well, but for vast stretches of Against the Day, he seems to abandon everything in between. We get staccato bursts of scene with minimal set-up: two pages, page break, one page, page break, and then suddenly six months elapse in a single paragraph. What gets lost in the meantime? Well, character, for one thing. Though the Traverse kids and several of their lovers and friends gradually attain a fullness of personality, several key players, including a key dyad, never do. Both Webb Traverse and his plutocrat nemesis Scarsdale Vibe remain more abstractions than characters, and neither of their deaths affects the reader as it does the characters in the book. Thus the grief and helplessness of Webb's children seem more artifacts of their status as Pynchon characters than outgrowths of the novel's chain of events. We are never grounded in Webb, and we need to be. Or to put it another way, we find out too late that we should have been paying attention to him.The absence of a mid-range lens on the action also, in the long fourth movement of the book, makes the reader wonder if the author is as adrift as his characters... waiting for something interesting to turn up. Too often that something interesting is another character. People cross paths in this novel with astounding frequency, by authorial fiat, and though there is certainly a knowingness to the way these encounters are set up - e.g. "when who should turn out to be in Transylvania but Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin!" - the stylistic tic has diminishing returns. Because we can't fit them into any pattern, the encounters cease to be meaningful, and thus believable.Finally, the thematic force of Against the Day is more dispersed than that of its predecessors. Though the title does in fact begin to resonate (at first I thought it sounded like a new James Bond movie), it never quite rises to the level of controlling metaphor. Instead, we are left to with a couple of large arcs that never quite intersect, and thus can't bear the load of an entire novel.One of these arcs is really interesting, and involves the possibility of existing in more than one position in space and time. Characters in Against the Day are constantly troubled by the sense that they are living more than one life in alternate worlds, or in the future, or in the past. It turns out that in 1900 this seemed scientifically quite possible... it wasn't space that seemed conquerable then, but time. Pynchon has terrific fun with the idea of "bilocation," and stirs up a whole hornet's nest of metaphysical questions in the process.Set against this is the idea that everything basically comes down to the same thing: the Manichean struggle of dark against light (against the day). Sometimes Pynchon codes darkness as a good thing (darkness as anarchy vs. light as order), and sometimes he codes it as bad (darkness as fear vs. light as love), but the dualism persists throughout the novel, and seems to undercut the rich sense of possibility "bilocation" introduces. Or maybe that's the point. But it seems to me that Pynchon's already said what there is to be said on the subject of good vs. evil, and that the creamy middles are what he does best these days.4.Ultimately, the inhabitants of the future will read Pynchon for the same reason people did back in 2007: because he does exactly what the hell it wants to. In this way, Against the Day is very much of a piece with his previous books. Though it may not be as structurally sound as Gravity's Rainbow, it is certainly as imaginative. And if it lacks some of the depth of Mason & Dixon's title characters, it builds on that book's ethical maturity, laying out a vision of right and wrong for the post-utopian age it turns out we're all living in. To tax Against the Day with plotlessness or bloat, as some reviewers apparently did once upon a time, is like berating an overstuffed couch for not being an Eames chair. To assess it as a failure is itself a failure. We may not reread Against the Day annually, or even read it twice, but no fan of Pynchon - and there are many of us, still - will regret a month spent in the company of this anarchic, capacious book.

A Year in Reading: Two Umbrellas

I discovered Season Evans' blog after she, a Philly native, gave me some advice about my new city. Now she's come through again with a post about the best books she read this year:On the top of my list is Play It As it Lays by Joan Didion. The focus is so strong and so sure and so meticulous. Each time I read anything she writes, whether it's a novel or an essay, I learn just a little bit more about the potency of precise narrative. The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio came in a close second for its succinct and arresting prose style. In third place is Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson because it is the book I wanted to write.Others:The Rainbow Stories by William T. VollmannInfinite Jest by David Foster WallaceFicciones by Jorge Luis BorgesPlatform by Michel HouellebecqThanks Season!

Dave Eggers Waffles

Dave Eggers, as you may have heard, was tapped to write a new introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The piece glows with praise for the gigantic novel, as one might expect (since such intros are, in many cases, packaging to sell the novel.) However, as The Rake has discovered, this isn't the only time that Eggers has written about Infinite Jest. He was, in a 1996 review, very disparaging of the book. Perhaps Eggers has changed his mind about Infinite Jest, or perhaps the offer to write the intro was simply too tempting to turn down. As ever, I'm willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, but this smacks of opportunism.
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