Innocents and Others: A Novel

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The Millions Top Ten: November 2016


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.

The Sellout
4 months

2.
2.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
5 months

3.
3.

The Trespasser
2 months

4.
6.

The Underground Railroad
3 months

5.


Moonglow
1 month

6.
5.

Barkskins
6 months

7.
10.

Commonwealth
2 months

8.
8.

Here I Am
3 months

9.
7.

Pond
3 months

10.
9.

Innocents and Others
5 months

How fitting it is for Don DeLillo’s Zero K to move on to our Millions Hall of Fame in this, the month of November, the time of no baseball and, thus, no Ks. (I will not apologize for this joke; No I Said No I Won’t No.)
Speaking of baseball, others have pointed out the accuracy of Back to the Future II’s foretelling of our current American predicament — the Cubs winning the World Series; Biff Tannen ascending to a position of unimaginable power — and so in that regard, it’s fitting that an author who got his start around the time that movie came out would grace our latest Top Ten. Michael Chabon, of course, requires no introduction, and least of all from someone who’d build a strained Back to the Future II reference upon the foundation of a corny baseball joke. Nevertheless here we are.
Moonglow, is a welcome addition to this month’s list. In her preview for our site last summer, Tess Malone wrote:

We’ve all had that relative who spills their secrets on their deathbed, yet most of us don’t think to write them down. Chabon was 26 years old, already author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he went to see his grandfather for the last time only to hear the dying man reveal buried family stories. Twenty-six years later and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eighth novel is inspired by his grandfather’s revelations. A nearly 500-page epic, Moonglow explores the war, sex, and technology of mid-century America in all its glory and folly. It’s simultaneously Chabon’s most imaginative and personal work to date.

A few weeks ago, Chabon expanded on this balancing act between novel and memoir in an interview for our site:

[Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident…The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it.

That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen.
Elsewhere on the list, a few titles jostled around, but nothing dropped out altogether. Stay tuned for next month’s list, which will likely be influenced by our ongoing Year in Reading series.

This month’s near misses included: The Daily Henry JamesThe NestHeroes of the Frontier, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and The Girls. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2016


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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

The Sellout
3 months

2.
4.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
4 months

3.


The Trespasser
1 month

4.
5.

Zero K
6 months

5.
6.

Barkskins
5 months

6.
7.

The Underground Railroad
2 months

7.
10.

Pond
2 months

8.
9.

Here I Am
2 months

9.
8.

Innocents and Others
4 months

10.


Commonwealth
1 month

How to rule The Millions’s monthly Top Ten list:

Write and publish a great book.
Have the book’s protagonist’s voice praised for being “as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s.”
Win the Man Booker Prize.

Congratulations, Paul Beatty, you’ve done hit the trifecta!

We also welcome two newcomers to our list this month: Tana French’s The Trespasser and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, both of which had previously been featured on our Most Anticipated list.

French’s novel, the sixth in her Dublin Murder Squad series, focuses on the murder of a young woman ostensibly preparing for a date. Around here at The Millions, it’s tough to pick a resident Tana French expert – both Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki hold legitimate claims to that title — so site readers interested in a taste of French’s work should start by reading the author’s recent interview for our site, focusing on her penchant for using police interrogations as literary devices; Lepucki’s piece on French’s plotting; a conversation between both Edan and Janet about French’s writing; and the author in her own words recounting her Year in Reading.

Patchett’s work, too, is familiar to Millions staffers and readers alike. In her blurb for our Most Anticipated list, Lepucki wrote of Commonwealth:
A new novel by the bestselling author of gems like Bel Canto and State of Wonder is certainly a noteworthy publishing event. This time, Patchett, who also owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., takes on a more personal subject, mapping multiple generations of a family broken up by divorce and patched together, in new forms, by remarriage. Commonwealth begins in the 1960s, in California, and moves to Virginia and beyond, spanning many decades.
Meanwhile, this month we graduate two Top Ten mainstays to our Hall of Fame: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot. Fare thee well in Valhalla!
This month’s near misses included: The GirlsHeroes of the FrontierSigns Preceding the End of the World, The Nest, and The Unseen World. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2016


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.

The Sympathizer
6 months

2.
2.

Mr. Splitfoot
6 months

3.
9.

The Sellout
2 months

4.
7.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
3 months

5.
4.

Zero K
5 months

6.
6.

Barkskins
4 months

7.


The Underground Railroad
1 month

8.
8.

Innocents and Others
3 months

9.


Here I Am
1 month

10.


Pond
1 month

The Sellout rocketed up our Top Ten this month, jumping from ninth position all the way up to third. In a few weeks, when longtime frontrunners The Sympathizer and Mr. Splitfoot retire to our Hall of Fame, look for Paul Beatty’s satirical novel to lead the pack.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, both Girl through Glass and The Lost Time Accidents graduated this month, opening space for two new entrants on our list: Colson Whitehead’s universally acclaimed The Underground Railroad, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s somewhat less acclaimed Here I Am.
By now, Whitehead’s novel needs no introduction. The #1 bestseller has drawn praise from both Obama and Oprah, and in his review for our site, Greg Walkin noted how “Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display” throughout:

After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.

Yet by contrast, Safran Foer’s Here I Am has drawn a wider spectrum of reviews, ranging from the simply mixed and relatively positive all the way over to Alexander Nazaryan’s Los Angeles Times piece, the thrust of which can be pretty well understood just from its title: “With joyless prose about joyless people, Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’ is kitsch at best.”
Meanwhile, one title — The Nest — dropped from our monthly list, opening a spot for Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. In his review of the work for our site, Ian Maleney wrote that it “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other,” and noted how “much of the book examines the strange process of alienation anyone might experience as they find themselves with time and space to interrogate their own behavior, private or otherwise.” That sounds appropriate for the start of Autumn, if I say so myself.

This month’s near misses included: Heroes of the FrontierSigns Preceding the End of the World, The Girls, and The Queen of the Night. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2016

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.
2.

The Sympathizer
5 months

2.
1.

Mr. Splitfoot
5 months

3.
4.

Girl Through Glass
6 months

4.
5.

Zero K
4 months

5.
6.

The Lost Time Accidents
6 months

6.
7.

Barkskins
3 months

7.
9.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
2 months

8.
8.

Innocents and Others
2 month

9.


The Sellout
1 month

10.
10.

The Nest
3 months

“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner, who may have been unconsciously foreseeing Tessa Hadley’s novel, and its six-month run on our site’s Top Ten. While at times the book seemed likely to drop from our rankings – it began in tenth position and only once cracked the top three – it was nevertheless a gritty and determined run, now punctuated by its ascendance to our Hall of Fame.
Most of the other titles on our list bumped up a spot to fill The Past‘s void, and a solitary newcomer emerged this August in our ninth spot. There, Paul Beatty’s satirical novel, The Sellout, joins our list for the first time.
The Sellout has been mentioned fairly often on our site, dating back to last December when staff writer Michael Schaub called it, “One of the funniest books I read this year was also one of the best novels I’ve ever read.” (Knowing Schaub, he’s going to take full credit for the book’s appearance on our list now, nevermind the fact that it’s been a year since he wrote that line.)
But the praise didn’t end there. Several months after Schaub selected The Sellout in his Year in Reading, fellow Millions staff writer Matt Seidel wrote:

Beatty’s voice is as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s. … It is a lacerating, learned, witty, and vulgar voice — definitely not pejorative-free — brash and vulnerable and self-righteous in its jeremiad against self-righteousness of any kind.

Still more recently, Alcy Levya traced a through-line between some of Beatty’s lodestars – Richard Pryor, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dave Chapelle – to investigate the circumstances of the book’s creation, as well as its enduring importance:

In many ways, the comedian could very easily stand in place of the narrator in The Sellout: both being intelligent and hilarious with their keen and unfiltered views of our society, and both having to come to grips with the responsibility — and the cost — of being empowered to act on that vision. All of the characters, regardless of how completely absurd they seem, are reacting to living in a time in which Beatty also resides; one in which he is daring to call something “‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”

This month’s near misses included: Signs Preceding the End of the WorldHeroes of the FrontierThe Queen of the NightHomegoing and The Underground Railroad. See Also: Last month’s list.

These Aren’t Your Grandmother’s Fear, Paranoia, and Doom: A Conversation

Dana Spiotta and Michael Helm write fiercely intelligent portrayals of cultures in flux, so it’s no surprise they’ve been literary compatriots ever since they discovered each other’s work. Aside from a whirlwind real-life meeting at AWP, Spiotta and Helm’s dialogue has grown entirely over email — fitting for authors whose work explores modern technology in all its connective power and complexity. The following conversation took place over email in fall of 2016, in anticipation of Helm’s fourth novel, After James (September 6, 2016).

Dana Spiotta: What was the initial impulse or inspiration behind After James?  The opening section features a whistleblower and big pharma. We also have a storyline that comes out of the West’s relationship to the Middle East’s refugee crisis. Do you read or listen to the news and get inspiration for characters and stories? What draws you in?

Michael Helm: My novels usually begin with a sentence or image, or at least that’s when I become conscious of them. At some point a character or two comes clear, and the feeling of the book. The gains and problems become formal and stay that way to the end, but form touches the world, and it shows up in ways I can’t predict.

In After James I followed a dog into a story. I don’t know where most of the characters hail from but the story and setting come from the world. It’s the usual input-output with some transmutation of materials inside the mechanism. The storylines in After James came out of conversations I’d had, places I’d been, including the Turkey-Syria border region. The research builds the engine. The bass note in the engine is disquiet.

DS: Raymond Carver once described fiction as bringing the news from other worlds. I love that, and I have always thought that “other worlds” specifically meant imagining the lives of other people and escaping the tyranny of the self. Empathy is an ongoing subject for you, both crucial and challenging. How do you think about writing beyond your own experience?  To use Faulkner’s formulation, what relationship do “experience, observation, and imagination” have in your work and this work in particular?  What boundaries do you have if any about what can or should be imagined?

MH: A lot was made a couple of years back when a study at the New School found empirical evidence that reading literary fiction, as opposed to commercial fiction or non-fiction, made a person more empathetic. I think a lot of readers, hearing that, said, “No shit.” Language came about and evolved because we’re trapped in our skulls. Story came about because we’re trapped in our lives, with our pains and joys and sense of duration. Literary fiction allows us to escape not into fantasy, but out of ourselves, and to the degree that we believe in the fiction, we feel known, thought of, and naturally we then have feelings of community and others.

Cities of Refuge went at this question pretty directly. I learned which experiences I could and couldn’t responsibly inhabit, and brought the question to the surface as a kind of stated theme. After James is a bit more sly. Because it turns up the what-happens-nextness and seems to indulge in popular storytelling tropes, readers might think the only empathy required of them is to be found in things like simple fear, paranoia, impending doom. These aren’t normally complicated emotions, but my sense is that they’re ascendant, that we’re in a time with its own character of uncertainty. These aren’t your grandmother’s fear, paranoia, and doom.

Literary fiction allows us to admit the size of other lives. It stands in the place of the full admission that if we really empathized fully with the feelings of others, all others, we’d be fetal on the floor. I love a novel that just admits that. In your Stone Arabia, Denise has bouts of “debilitating sympathy,” with her memory ordered around “hyperpervious moments” so that even time seems colonized by observed pain. All that fear of sentimentality that shifted fictional art into the cool zones in earlier decades has been eclipsed by a fiction that’s just as smart and formally daring, but feeling, too.

DS: You have said in an interview that you don’t think of your books as idea-driven. That your characters have ideas, but that does not mean that your book is a novel of ideas. I wonder about that — is it such a terrible thing to have ideas in a novel? I understand pushing back on the notion of ideas imposed rather than organically formed — a novel is not a polemic. It should be embodied, and have doubt and beauty and mystery. Yet it seems to me that After James — and this is part of what I love about it — has a deep strain of philosophical inquiry in it. Can’t a novel be driven by character, story, and philosophical questions? Aesthetic questions? Language questions? I write to discover and I read to discover. Not just recognize.

MH: The U.S. publisher described After James as a novel of ideas disguised as a page turner. I have no objection to that. I don’t know where I said that other thing but I was probably trying to stop myself from saying that the books are driven by language, and that in fact I’m very interested in ideas, which can sound a bit precious. Maybe it’s just that the thing I’m first aware of is language, the way of saying, before the thing being said. With enough pressure on the sentences, story and character and ideas can be made into one substance.

In After James a couple of ideas in particular seemed to allow me find that substance. Genetic transference, the process of recombination, shuffled codes. And I wanted to mark the distinction between fear in popular story and the real thing. Certain kinds of novels and films find ways to gather our feelings meaningfully, to acknowledge our anxieties. Other, meretricious kinds of stories only reproduce the experience of consuming them. Because commercial fiction and film are so much a part of the surround, genre stories claim a lot of central ground in our lived experience. We constantly absorb stories that hold to the same precepts and conventions. I think we always need to expand the possibilities. I like squared-off stories, but I rarely find one that knows me or stays with me. And I worry that our many excellent entertainments are setting us up for an ending we don’t want.

These days real and false terror are both just clicks away. It’s worth thinking about what it means that the borders between them are getting harder to find.

DS: And, of course, language-as-a-system drives your novel. On the sentence level, we get the dynamic of language that obscures and reveals (the “pharmakon” of language as both “remedy and poison”). We also get a version of that problem in the second section, where you use crowd-sourced literary critique of a mysterious poet’s work to create slippages in meaning. You include a number of poems in the book and glosses on the poems. It must be challenging to write poems as a character. It takes a kind of confidence or authority. And you really have to trust in your own commitment to your construct. They can’t be your poems. Tell me about how you went about writing them. Was it challenging? Fun? Torture? Did you think about Pale Fire?

MH: I read a lot of poetry but have too much respect for the form to write it. The brains of most poets worth reading aren’t like novelists’ brains, but I found I could write the poems and fragments in the novel because they weren’t mine. The lines are fiction by other means. One or another character makes the point that they’re not good poems, so I hope that earns me some grace. And they’re anonymous, and enigmatic, so they come with a mystery they wouldn’t otherwise have.

I did think about Pale Fire. In Nabokov, there’s the poem, the balanced ambiguities, and the possible lunacy behind the gloss that accompanies it. But it’s one man’s reading of one poem. In my novel I was interested in the ways the Internet generates its own forces of ambiguity, lunacy, and control.

DS: You don’t use a conventional narrative structure in After James. The book is divided into three parts that are both discreet from one another and connected. Can you tell me how the structure evolved? Why is the middle section in first person and the other sections in close third? Time is also complex and fluid — can you also talk about how you use time or a timeline in this novel?

MH: I’d begun three novels that I thought of as related, and I knew I wanted two things. One was a movement in each and throughout from high artifice to meaning, to bring the overstoried, over entertained surround of our lives into the text, and then use it, if possible, to discover something new. I don’t know if I did this but I seem to recall wanting to do it.

And I wanted a connection between the parts that resisted neat fittings. I didn’t want to make a novel as puzzle, to be solved and put away. In revision, a small change in one part could ruin its resonance with another. The parts had to be offset just so. The idea was that as one part passes into another, there’s a ghosting effect.

The shift to first person in the second part just felt right. It made a hard cut and seemed to open comic possibilities. And it’s a young man’s story, and one of the things the first person can capture well is a young person’s interior wanderings and involutions.

The second part has a more certain setting. It happens around now, as historical events in the news seem also to be in the novel, though they aren’t topical so much as the latest instances of a standing condition. The other two parts seem to float between now and what’s coming. Maybe it’s the day after tomorrow. I didn’t want to get out ahead of our present transforming moment, to think it through, so much as simply to register it in its strangeness.

DS: After James contains a number of mysteries.  We get clues and it almost seems as though we can piece it together.  But you don’t give it all away — it has a resistance embedded in it, which feels dynamic and exciting to me as a reader, as if the book keeps buzzing after you finish it. The connections don’t feel too neat, and you give us just enough. Is that a matter of intuition, just withholding enough to create suspense and mystery but not so much as to create frustration?

MH: It’s intuition and trusting the reader. Readers especially are predisposed to pattern recognition and to apophenia, seeing patterns even when they aren’t there. Finding a seeming connection can be pleasurable, but so, too, can be sensing a mystery forming just beyond perception. By now we might have encountered this sense of mysteries both relenting and not in certain kinds of novels and movies. What becomes of the central question in 2666? How do the stories relate in Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy? As interesting as the mysteries in each story are the ways in which one story seems to reconstellate another.

DS: After James has technology as an explicit subject: how it shapes our thoughts and our interactions. Better than anyone else I have read, you capture the shocking loneliness at the heart of the Internet — to be both hyper-connected and totally isolated from one another is the paradox of contemporary technology. Can you tell me about using a very old-fashioned piece of technology — a long book — to address the implications and experiences of complex technological forces?

MH: Well thanks, but it seems to me that Innocents and Others explores, among many other things, the same paradox but through different old technologies, films as they once were made, and the telephone. Your novel gets at the same feelings and reminds us that connection and distance have existed together since we first found the means for remote contact.

DS: I am very glad to hear you see a connection between our books. I can’t separate people from the tools they use. Because we spend so much time interacting through machines, writing about that interaction feels urgent to me. But you bravely write into the specific moment we inhabit and then push beyond it. I love how mystical the technological becomes in After James.

MH: After James takes on specific technologies of science and art: drugs, language, genetic science, cyberspace, artistic reproduction. These both extend and erode the self in ways peculiar to the new century. Among the books behind this one is The Turn of the Screw (not that I’m comparing), but part one of After James isn’t so much a psychological novel as a psychopharmaceutical one, where reader and character together are left to try to distinguish the real from the projected.

Part two, a sort of cybermystery unfolding in an all too real world of political manipulation and violence, has antecedents in the literature of paranoia. The time for paranoia has come around again.

Part three is in some ways stranger for being both apocalyptic and not just plausible but actual. Most novels try to strike distinct characters, but we live now with the feeling that our own characters aren’t always distinct even to ourselves. Sometimes against our intent or wishes, our self gets diffused or repurposed against our will. I’m interested in these forces of incoherence. We don’t have to move the border very far for the self to fall apart. I like to quote T.E. Hulme’s line that “Man is the chaos highly organized, and liable to revert to chaos at any moment.” It’s a good description of humans, and of the kinds of novels I love most, taking order out to the edge of chaos.

DS: Pushing something until it becomes its seeming opposite, until it reveals a paradox. That’s what I mean by mystical — you play out the implications of various technologies until they seem almost spiritual. A little like DeLillo in Zero K, I think.

After James dwells in the natural world as well as the technological world. In fact, the vivid, sense-rich descriptions of the natural world give the reader respite from the hermetic worlds of human consciousness as well as technology. I love the precise-yet-lyrical writing you do to describe nature and how it manages not to get sentimental or soothing. It is beautiful and frightening, really. The people are isolated, but the world feels profoundly alive all around them.  It creates its own tension in the book, the relationship of the humans to their surroundings. Can you talk a little about that? Particularly in the first book and the last.

MH: We don’t just live in nature (as they say); we are nature (as they say), but where does the nature go when we extend ourselves into the artificial? Maybe art aspires to the condition of the material, phenomenal world. I grew up in Saskatchewan, in dry hyper-real light, on the flattest plate of land in the world. The climate there is extreme, swinging about 148 degrees Fahrenheit every six months. It’s a hard, beautiful landscape of the kind that drives some people nuts. You can’t pretend that the sublime is a mere concept in such a place.

I like the language we’ve laid over flora and fauna, and I tend to like people who know that language well. But the names of natural things point out better than anything, I think, the paradox of language itself. I stand before a tree, touch it, and try to see it fully. Then someone says its name — American beech — and it’s suddenly more sharply before me. But day by day, as the name is said over and over in my thoughts, the name begins to obscure the thing, and the tree seems to recede a little.

The natural world and its rhythms, which are especially pronounced in places with four distinct seasons like the part of the continent where you and I live, seem to make a great claim on my imaginative life. Every fall, as the weather turns, my dreams get wild. They seem to want to kill me. I know I don’t live outside of the natural world, but the ways it lives in me unexpectedly are profound.

There’s a bit of hard weather in the novel. Soon here in the anthropocene we’ll just call it weather. There was a time in poetry and fiction when we read imagined weather symbolically. We’ve screwed things up so badly now that we can read real weather politically.

DS: I get a lot of inspiration reading about other kinds of artists — architects, painters, and composers — and then relating it back to the novel. Sometimes I have a sense of being in dialogue with the history of the novel, and that excites me. Other times I think of novel-writing as deeply subversive and counter-culture, sort of spy work for team weird. What is the state of the novel in your view?  What interests you about the form? Where do you think the energy is these days?

MH: Maybe now, in this often senseless cultural decor, the novel is subversive precisely because of its long history. Wherever it is as an art form, I hope it’s ever more influenced by global literatures, especially stuff that’s outside of high realism presented conventionally. Lately we’ve had waves of things from far off. One year everyone’s reading Clarice Lispector, the next Knausgård, then Ferrante. Not all of this stuff is great but I like that people are talking and can have new orientation points. Maybe it’s not really yet a post-literate world.

The novel still does what it used to. Better than other narrative forms, through interiority and long time it can establish deep character. It can produce its own layering effects, inside a moment or within the whole structure. It allows for finely calibrated emotions and ironies. It can manage a greater tonal range, from humour to despair, than other story forms. It can handle ideas with enough time to do right by them. It can move around in time or memory to any degree it wants. And better even than visual art forms, I think, it seems in the work of some writers able to capture specificity and blur, the vibration at the edges of living things.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2016

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
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Mr. Splitfoot
4 months

2.
1.

The Sympathizer
4 months

3.
5.

The Past
6 months

4.
3.

Girl Through Glass
5 months

5.
6.

Zero K
3 months

6.
8.

The Lost Time Accidents
5 months

7.
10.

Barkskins
2 months

8.


Innocents and Others
1 month

9.


Ninety-Nine Stories of God
1 month

10.
9.

The Nest
2 months

There’s some jostling atop the list this month as Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot pulls ahead of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Likewise, there’s been a minor shake-up in the third and fourth positions as Girl Through Glass drops below The Past, and Zero K holds pretty steady.
The real mover in July, by contrast, was Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, which climbed three spots from tenth to seventh, a rise no doubt attributable to Claire Cameron’s strong endorsement in her “Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery.” Of course, highlighting this influence reminds one of Mary Shelley’s question from The Last Man: “What is there in our nature that is forever urging us on towards pain and misery?”
Meanwhile we bid adieu to What Belongs to You and My Name is Lucy Barton, both of which have punched one-way tickets to the literary Valhalla known to mere mortals as the Millions Hall of Fame. In their places we welcome two new arrivals.
Among those newcomers is Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, which Jason Arthur called “a novel about how intimacy works best from a distance” in his review for our site. “There is also so much more to this book that defies quick summary,” explained Edan Lepucki in her long, thoughtful interview with Spiotta, such as “technology and how it creates, bolsters, and distorts identity; making and consuming art; the responsibility and trespassing of representation; friendship; imagination; the fear of being unoriginal.” (P.S. Edan, did your resolution from last January work out?)
Joining Spiotta on this month’s list is Joy Williams’s Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which our own Nick Ripatrazone called “gorgeously written, sentence-to-sentence … arriv[ing] in vignettes that are condensed but not constrained; tight but not dry.” He noted forty-nine other reasons to read the book as well, in case you needed them, which you really shouldn’t because Joy Williams is one of America’s best living writers of short stories and fiction – and for my money she’s unquestionably the best author of travel guides.
‘Til next month, as they say!
This month’s near misses included: Signs Preceding the End of the WorldThe Queen of the Night, Heroes of the Frontier, The Girls, and Homegoing. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2016

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.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Sympathizer
3 months

2.
3.

Mr. Splitfoot
3 months

3.
4.

Girl Through Glass
4 months

4.
5.

The Past
5 months

5.
6.

What Belongs to You
6 months

6.
8.

Zero K
2 months

7.
7.

My Name is Lucy Barton
6 months

8.
9.

The Lost Time Accidents
4 months

9.


The Nest
1 month

10.


Barkskins
1 month

Fresh off the heels of its Pulitzer win, there’s a new number one in Millionsland: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. (He’s a Year in Reading alumnus, by the way.) If past success in any indication, then smart money rides on Nguyen’s debut novel soon heading to our Hall of Fame, where it’ll join the past six Pulitzer winners: All the Light We Cannot See (2015), The Goldfinch (2014), The Orphan Master’s Son (2013), A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), Tinkers (2010), and Olive Kitteridge (2009). You can read an excerpt of The Sympathizer at our sister site, Bloom.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, we graduate two novels this month — Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings — each of which took different paths en route to the honor. Johnson’s novel enjoyed a comfortable position on the rankings pretty much out of the gate, when it debuted in the seventh spot last December. It subsequently climbed to fourth position the next month, then second, and ultimately it held the top position in March, April, and May. James’s work, on the other hand, never climbed higher than the seventh spot, and most months it hovered around the ninth or tenth position. Nevertheless, it’s staying power that matters around these parts, and now both works are headed to the Hall of Fame together. I, for one, am heartened!
Filling the two open spots on this month’s list are recent novels by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Annie Proulx, both of which were featured in our Great 2016 Book Preview last January. (Bonus: Did you hear we published the Great Second-Half Preview this week?)
Sweeney’s novel, The Nest, was teased by Rumaan Alam in his 2015 Year in Reading entry, and has been described since its March release as “delightful,” “hilarious,” “lively,” and more. It focuses on four adult siblings waiting to cash in on their shared inheritance.
Meanwhile Proulx’s Barkskins was a lynchpin piece on our own Claire Cameron’s “Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery.” It focuses on greed, wilderness, and the desolation of our forests.
Truly, Millions readers are all over the map!
This month’s near misses included: Innocents and OthersThe Queen of the Night, Signs Preceding the End of the WorldWhy We Came to the City, and Everybody’s Fool. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2016

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.

Fortune Smiles
6 months

2.
2.

The Sympathizer
2 months

3.
10.

Mr. Splitfoot
2 months

4.
7.

Girl Through Glass
3 months

5.
5.

The Past
4 months

6.
3.

What Belongs to You
5 months

7.
4.

My Name is Lucy Barton
5 months

8.


Zero K
1 month

9.
8.

The Lost Time Accidents
3 months

10.
9.

A Brief History of Seven Killings
6 months

People love The Millions for a variety of reasons, but most of all I love The Millions because the site’s readers do things like buy tons of copies of The Big Green Tent, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s doorstop of a book about Soviet dissidents, which features almost as many characters as it does pages. Well, maybe y’all don’t buy literal tons of copies, but certainly a substantial amount of copies – enough over a six-month span that the book has now graduated to our hallowed Hall of Fame. And that’s an impressively bookish feat, so have a round of applause!
Filling that open spot is Don DeLillo, whose Zero K describes not the Atlanta Braves pitching staff, as one might reasonably expect, but instead focuses on what Mark O’Connell called “the desire to achieve physical immortality through technology.” (Read more in O’Connell’s interview with DeLillo, which gets into the author’s iPad usage, and how long it took him to write his latest novel.) It’s a concern that, in a certain sense, can be tracked through much of DeLillo’s past work, as our own Nick Ripatrazone recently made clear in his nice piece on the author’s oeuvre: “Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them.”
Elsewhere on our list, some shakers and movers but overall things held steady.
Clinging to the last spot this month is Marlon James, whose Brief History of Seven Killings remains one of the most memorable things I read in 2015, and who really, truly belongs in our Hall of Fame. What I mean to say is: y’all should buy a few more copies of his book to ensure its graduation in next month’s write-up – not only because we’ve come this close and it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s a fantastic book and one that you’ll return to months and years after finishing. For instance, consider this passage on the cultural variety of male loathsomeness, which I think about whenever I start feeling mean at the corner bar:

All of them came through Mantana’s. White men, that is. If the man is French he thinks that he gets away with saying cunt but saying you cohnnnt, because we bush bitches will never catch his drift. As soon as he sees you he will throw the keys at your feet saying you, park my car maintenant! Dépêche-toi! I take the keys and say yes massa, then go around to the women’s bathroom and flush it down the shittiest toilet. If he’s British, and under thirty, then his teeth are still hanging on and he’ll be charming enough to get you upstairs but too drunk to do anything. He won’t care and you won’t either, unless he vomits on you and leaves a few pounds on the dresser because that was such dreadful, dreadful business. If he’s British and over thirty, you spend the whole time watching the stereotypes pile up, from the letttttt meeeee ssssspeeeeeakkk toooo youuuuu slowwwwlyyyyy, dahhhhhhhhling beccauuuuuse youuuuuuu’re jussssst a liiiiiiiitle blaaaaack, speed of their speech to the horrible teeth, coming from that cup of cocoa right before bed. If he’s German he will be thin and he will know how to fuck, well in a car piston kind of way, but he will stop early because nobody can make German sound sexy. If he’s Italian, he’ll know how to fuck too, but he probably didn’t bathe before, thinks there’s such a thing as an affectionate face slap and will leave money even though you told him that you’re not a prostitute. If he’s Australian, he’ll just lie back and let you do all the work because even us blokes in Sydney heard about you Jamaican girls. If he’s Irish, he’ll make you laugh and he’ll make the dirtiest things sound sexy. But the longer you stay the longer he drinks, and the longer he drinks, well for each of those seven days you get seven different kinds of monster.

And this isn’t even in the top ten of passages from that book, either. So, for real, if you’re thinking about reading it, hop to it already. Take it from a monster.
This month’s near misses included: Innocents and OthersThe Nest, Signs Preceding the End of the WorldWhen We Came to the City, and The Queen of the Night. See Also: Last month’s list.

Neither Gift nor Curse: The Millions Interviews Rumaan Alam

I’ve been waiting for Rumaan Alam’s first novel since 1999. That year, I was a freshman at Oberlin College, and Alam was a senior who existed in a rarefied upperclassman orbit that I could only glimpse from a distance. He worked at The Feve, the town’s cool restaurant (and, at the time, its only real bar), he hung out with creative writing professor Dan Chaon (in my mind they are smoking cigarettes together, like, Hey, we’re real writers, scram, you runt), and he gave a senior reading at Fairchild Chapel, which is all stone walls and stained glass windows, ascetic and elegant. I don’t remember the specifics of what Alam read that evening — there was something about a painting, and rich people, maybe? — but I remember being enthralled by both the subject matter and the prose, which was graceful and authoritative. It seemed too good to have been written by a college student. I had this feeling that Alam would be a famous writer. I imagine this is what agents and editors experience when they read something they love: a buzz in the body, a hunch that you have found greatness.

I had to wait a few years, but my hunch has turned out to be correct: Rumaan Alam’s first novel, Rich and Pretty, is being published by Ecco Press, and many people already love it. Including me. Set in New York City, Rich and Pretty is about two women, Lauren and Sarah, who have been friends since their adolescence. The novel follows them through their 30s and asks essential questions about what keeps us connected to the friends we made in our youth, before romantic relationships (or lack thereof), ambition (or lack thereof), and competing worldviews got in the way. These are two quite different women, and Alam depicts them with such effortless wit that you almost don’t notice how poignant the story is. The passage of time is brutal and beautiful, and like the best narratives, Alam’s captures that movement perfectly. We aren’t who we used to be — and yet we are.

I had the pleasure of emailing with Alam about his book. What follows is our conversation.

The Millions: Early readers of Rich and Pretty have remarked how well you, a MAN (gasp!), capture these two female characters and their long-term friendship. I concur; the accuracy here is one of the novel’s great pleasures. Here is a terrific example: “At a certain point in her youth, back when it wasn’t inconceivable as it is now that she’d be out late, Lauren had decided that if it was after 11:30 she would, by default, take a taxi. She couldn’t afford a taxi, but neither could she afford to be raped or vomited on on the subway.” One, I love the sad-horror joke of not being able to “afford to be raped,” the nonchalant, inconvenienced language set against the gruesomeness and violence of the literal action. Two, you gracefully weave the everyday negotiation of being a woman, in a woman’s body, into the narrative, and in this way the reader’s understanding of the character deepens. That’s what feels true. Can you talk a little bit about inhabiting these women’s minds and bodies? Did it come naturally?

Rumaan Alam: Let me begin by saying this is my absolute favorite feedback to hear from readers who are also women; that I have successfully captured an experience that’s theirs but not mine. The line you isolate is, now that I look at it in this context, a rape joke. The least funny subject, addressed with humor. To me, this just sounds like something a certain kind of woman would think to herself or say to a friend she trusted. It sounds like something you would say, Edan. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote this line; I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote most of the book. It’s told in this very close third person that shifts between Sarah and Lauren; the authorial voice is much less me than it is the two protagonists. I would just…go into a weird trance state and write. I do know this: I found it easier to inhabit Lauren than Sarah. This is odd and unexpected. The book as baby metaphor never works for me (babies can’t be controlled; books can be) but these two are like my kids. I couldn’t choose a favorite but I can’t deny a kinship. Lauren’s particular self-awareness, her defensive reliance on humor, her pessimism (she’d say realism) are familiar to me. The irony here, without getting into any spoiler alerts, is that my life aligns more closely with the life that Sarah makes for herself. Minus the millions of dollars, alas.

TM: I like to write about a place I know well — Los Angeles — but with totally made-up scenarios and people and premises. My life is boring, fiction should not be. Do you come from that same school of thought? Can you talk about why you didn’t write a more autobiographical first novel? Do people ask you this more than they might ask it of another writer because you’re a gay person of color — as in, why are you not writing about “your people,” sir?!

RA: I didn’t know this was a school of thought, but my life is boring too. But I do have a philosophical answer about writing an autobiographical novel. When you are brown, as I am, there is a convention for how that autobiography is meant to work. There is a template. It is the literature of the immigrant, the literature of the first generation immigrant in my case. I simply could not see myself writing that book, bringing anything to that literature. You could say that my refusal to do so is a profound failure of the imagination; you could say that my refusal to do so is an act of rebellion. Naturally, I prefer the latter, but I realize that’s a little self-serving. I do at least have an Indian character in the mix in this book! She’s very much a supporting player, but she’s there. And gayness is a subject I think I avoid altogether in the book? To live this way — as gay, as brown — is neither gift nor curse; it’s simply fact. To have to write this way, though, strikes me as something of a curse. Representation is a terrible burden. Black and brown artists are constantly asked to stand for all black or brown people. White artists simply get to create.

TM: Another element I loved in this novel was its contemporary gaze. You are so good at writing about the delights and frivolities of our current world, and your gaze is sharp as a knife. For instance, at one point, Sarah, who is engaged to be married, glances at a pile of wedding magazines whose pages she’s dog-eared “for reasons she can’t recall. It just felt like what she should be doing — folding down pages and mentally filing away: mason jars for cocktails, Polaroid cameras left with the centerpieces, a basket of flip flops by the dance floor.”  These are three perfect details for a just-so, cool wedding circa 2016. Can we credit your magazine writing experience for this sharp-eyed cultural perspective? For me, the best writing is detailed and specific. What is your writing process like, for coming up with these delicious, specific lists?

RA: Process is such a weird, opaque thing. By the end of the long haul of writing and revising, I just knew these women. They were as real to me as anyone in my life; crazily, and eerily, they no longer are. But I used to think about them all the time, I used to think as them, I used to speak their dialogue aloud. It was a very odd thing. During the revision process, I borrowed a friend’s Manhattan pied-à-terre (I’ve always wanted to say that) and I went out one afternoon to Whole Foods and considered buying the expensive cut-up pineapple and I felt as though I had been…possessed. I was Sarah? I never, ever buy cut fruit in grocery stores. It’s a ridiculous waste of money! An entire pineapple is cheaper than a little plastic container of pineapple. Anyway. It’s not spiritual or anything. It’s more like psychosis, frankly. Somehow it was just clear to me that Sarah was the sort of woman who would plan a wedding in this manner, and that she would find the notion of a basket of flip flops by the dance floor alluring.

TM: I asked Dana Spiotta this question when I interviewed her for Innocents and Others, which is also about a friendship between two women who meet when they’re younger: Why do you think there’s been this surge of narratives about women friendships in the last few years, from the beloved “Galentine’s Day” episode of Parks and Recreation, to Ferrante fever, to The Girls of Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe, to HBO’s Girls? Do you have a sense of why we’re so hungry for these stories? Were there any friendship narratives that inspired Lauren and Sarah’s?

RA: I like to tell myself that this work was accidentally zeitgeisty. I started it in 2009, and I very much live in a weird cultural vacuum. Like, I am still not totally clear on who Taylor Swift is. But to be sure I was aware of these things in the culture, and honestly, I assiduously avoided them. I had never seen Girls until HBO finally unveiled that cheaper version of HBO for cheapskates like me. I absolutely love it, but am sure as hell glad I didn’t have it in my brain when I was writing this book (though obviously it’s quite different). I’d counter that narratives of intimacy between women have always been very common; it’s a theme in much of Alice Munro, it’s in Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?.(I have such empathy for the undergraduate writing teachers of the late-1990s whose students had all mainlined Lorrie Moore, as I did.) Many of my favorite works — Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret — are concerned with this particular question of the bond between women. I don’t know the Bible at all, but don’t Ruth and Naomi meet this criteria? When you write about friends, you can take the sex out of the equation, even if there is some lingering eroticism, which is nice. And with friends there’s volition; it’s different than writing about family, where the bond is a question of context, and more of a given. I have no great answer. Here’s a funny story: a long time ago I was at dinner with my husband and there were two men seated near us. Somehow by context we knew they weren’t lovers, or brothers, or colleagues. And my husband said, “I just don’t understand why one man would be friends with another man.” I still think this is the funniest story. Obviously, he’s kidding, but he’s onto something; the intimacy between men is a lot harder to untangle, at least for me.

TM: I really loved the structure of your book because it surprised me. I didn’t expect it to cover as much time as it does. Most of it takes place in the span of a few months, and then it covers more time in the final third so that we are moved farther into the future than I expected. It reminded me that novels can do whatever they want, formally. Was this structure clear to you from the get-go? Can you talk a little bit about the drafting of the novel and how it came to be what it is today?

RA: I began writing this work as a screenplay. I think you can see that in its reliance on dialogue. There was something, in my mind anyway, cinematic about this treatment. There’s a tight focus on this sustained period of a few months, and then two big leaps in time. I knew I wanted the book to end quite far from where it had begun, and the last thing I wanted was to write a 900-page novel, so this structure was also the easiest way to get there. The finished book is at once quite close and quite far from the original draft. There were structural changes, mostly having to do with shuffling the work so we bounce between perspectives more quickly, say every 25 pages instead of every 50. Revising this was by far my least favorite part of this entire process, and the day that I finished I bought myself a really expensive pair of shoes. But you’re right; novels can do whatever the writer asks them to. It may not work, but you can always ask.

TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you: What’s the last best book you read?

RA: I have been reading so much lately. Part of it is a consequence on transitioning from the business of book writing to the business of book publishing. Suddenly, I have colleagues! I think writers with books coming out — especially writers making their debut, as I am — kind of organize themselves into loose coalitions. It’s lovely. And that there are so many good goddamn books coming out this year makes me feel not competitive but…reassured. It really does. I was riveted by Jung Yun’s Shelter; Lindsay Hatton’s Monterey Bay is both evocative and lovely and quietly chilling and unsettling; Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls is a disarming portrait of a young marriage; Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun is a showstopper that takes on big themes in a most human way; Lynn Steger Strong’s Hold Still is this complex story about family that’s so honest as to be disturbing. What a great time to be a reader.

The Human Deep Within the Machine

Dana Spiotta’s new novel, Innocents and Others, pays homage to an early form of hacking known as “phone phreaking.” Phone phreaks would break into long-distance networks by learning the language of the telephone. With their mouths, or sometimes with whistles from Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes, phreaks mimicked the tonal frequencies and sequences that would trigger network switches. They made pitch-perfect 2600 Hz shrieks into headsets, resetting the trunk lines that would allow toll-free access to virtually anywhere. Their whistles and clicks forced phone companies to develop separate channels for carrying routing info. Their hacks began the encrypting process that has led to the recent standoff between Apple and the FBI.

But Spiotta doesn’t go there. Innocents and Others is not a parable of “disruption,” nor are Spiotta’s phone phreaks the antecedents of brogrammers. Her characters phreak for love. They don’t want to exploit the system or bypass the operator. They want to find the operator. Specifically, the character known as “Jelly” wants to reach something called an “inward operator:” “People who can connect you to wherever you want to go; they are deep in the machine…they were voices, humans, somewhere in the big wide world.”

Both of the main storylines of Innocents and Others feature women influencing Hollywood from somewhere in said big wide world, specifically from Upstate New York. There’s the story of Meadow and Carrie, longtime friends who become filmmakers and slowly drift apart, and the story of Jelly, former girlfriend of a pioneer phone phreak and a proto-catfisher with a heart of gold. From a darkened room in Solvay, an economically-depressed suburb of Syracuse, Jelly cold-calls Hollywood producers and seduces them over the phone. She becomes legendary and eventually attracts the attention of Meadow, who has moved from Los Angeles to Gloversville to make artsy documentaries that feed the late-20th-century desire for confession.

A novel about this kind of urge to find the human deep in the machine is to be expected, considering our current fascination with analog technologies, with the kind of reaching out and touching others that involves the vibration of tone sequences through wires and hands along switchboards. Spiotta’s treatment of this desire is the next chapter in her career-long flirtation with nostalgia, but the nostalgia of Innocents and Others is less escapist, more radical, than other recent homages to the pre-encrypted world.

For example, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) turns to the art world that sprung up in the abandoned factories of SoHo in the 1970s. The novel’s masterful representation of this world participates in a recent obsession with all things New York in the 1970s, an obsession Edmund White describes in his New York Times Style Magazine essay, “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?” Innocents and Others, on the other hand, does not promote longing for a super-cool era that has passed. Instead, it expresses a ruminative living with loss and longing that nurtures the kind of fellow feeling from which solidarity and renewal can grow.

The inward operators of The Flamethrowers are “China Girls,” office workers whose faces are filmed (usually alongside a color chart) and spliced onto the initial frames of film reels. Though the origin of the name “China Girl” is a bit of a mystery, their purpose is pretty straightforward: film processors used their images to calibrate color densities. In the Paris Review, Kushner says this about fascination with China Girls:

If the projectionist loaded the film correctly, you didn’t see the China girl. And if you did see her, she flashed by so quickly she was only a quick blur. They were ubiquitous and yet invisible, a thing in the margin that was central to each film, these nameless women that, as legend has it, were traded among film technicians and projectionists like baseball cards.

The China Girl does for film processing what the inward operator does for the analog telephone network. She is the requisite drop of humanity that calibrates machines that carry approximations of humanity. The China Girl highlights the role of anonymous workingwomen in the evolution of American culture. She gives us a new way of looking at what is already at the center of culture (movies). She is a reminder that if we look closely enough at, say, a length of film, we will find women trapped into standards.

Where Kushner’s China Girls represent the objectified women at the center of culture, Spiotta’s inward operators represent the radical possibilities that sound along the periphery. The voices of inward operators decentralize Jelly’s world. They signify its incredible depth and breadth. Most importantly, they carry the promise of intimate connection in a world where the means of connection are about to be encrypted. Unlike Kushner’s framed and fetishized women, Spiotta’s live beyond the reach of the subjugating dream factory. They continue to operate freely, triggering switches at the center of power — Meadow with her movies and Jelly with her phone calls.

And this interest in the radical potential of the periphery comes, I think, from the fact that Dana Spiotta has been living in Upstate New York for quite a while. Unlike such Silent-Generation writers as William Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, or Richard Russo, whose novels preserve Upstate village life in the amber of literary realism, Spiotta understands Upstate as the living ground of revolution. It’s home to the Erie Canal, which Spiotta has called “the Internet of the nineteenth century.” It’s ground zero of the Women’s Movement, radical fundamentalist Christianity, and the back-to-the-land movement. It’s where people go change the world, not where they go to escape from it.

Meadow, who fled L.A. for Upstate, is a master dissimulator who avoids being exploited, ignored, or fetishized. She makes jury-prize-winning documentaries that eventually earn her an Errol-Morris-but-in-a-bad-way rep, which spoils her chances at a long career (only one Oscar nod). She winds up living austerely Upstate — think Nicholas Ray circa We Can’t Go Home Again (1973) minus the posse. Her friend Carrie writes empowered-woman rom-coms and pretty much lives happily ever after.

Where Meadow is the alluring, complicated trickster that we hope to find in literary fiction, Jelly is unprecedented, a woman once seduced by a giant, bald, blind-from-birth, alpha phone phreak (Oz) who names her Jelly Doughnut because “she was soft and round and even sweeter on the inside.” Where Meadow maintains the magnetism of an edgy art student who only dates sultry, eyelinered boys, Jelly is never not assertively middle-aged, unattractive, and drawn to ugliness. Granted, Spiotta gives Jelly the more fulfilling sex life. But she has to earn it. Her sensuality is in part a result of a meningitis infection that caused her to lose her sight, which increased her interest in smell and sound. (It’s also the illness that brought her and Oz together.) For Jelly, there are no “good” or “bad” smells, only “real” or “cover” ones. “And she wanted everything to smell as it was. Actually. An armpit should smell of sweat and hair and skin.” Her sight eventually recovers, but her interest in feeling around for what is actual never subsides.

Her relationship with Oz is intense, very haptic, very sexual. He teaches her how to whistle the phone into submission. Oz’s favorite thing about phreaking is reaching an electronic switching station, where he can click and whistle at crossbar and Strowger switches. Jelly’s favorite thing, other than reaching an inward operator, is reaching an “open-sleeve circuit,” a kind of proto-chat room:

Their voices hanging in space, listening and laughing and recognizing each other. She was the only — the only — woman who phone phreaked. These were shy, awkward men. They gave her lots of attention, which she enjoyed, but they were never ever nasty.

But her real passion, her art, is listening. After a friend who cleans houses steals some rolodex numbers from a mansion on Mulholland Drive, Jelly starts calling Hollywood players, “not the really famous ones…the names you don’t know.” Developing a language that does for human connection what 2600 Hz whistles do for trunk lines, Jelly triggers the switches of anonymous, powerful men.

With strategically-deployed pauses and vocalizations, circumlocutionary skills that would impress even J.L. Austin, Jelly extracts intimacy from men who are otherwise dead inside. They have money and power, but it’s Hollywood power, which is to say that it’s the kind of empty compensation that leaves a man vulnerable to an anonymous, willing female ear. Jelly is an intimacy hacker, her pauses and “wordlets” keep men confessing not their crimes or dubious morals so much as their genuine impressions of what life feels like — impressions that can be delivered over the telephone.

Spiotta’s characters want to feel the weight of self and find that the best way to do so is to submit to the precarious tissue of intimate connection, connection that is not routed along encrypted networks or filtered through predictive analytics. Desire for such connection is what draws Denise Kranis, protagonist of Stone Arabia (2011), into the kitchen of the stranger whose sad story Denise had followed instead of attending to her own life. Stone Arabia is a novel about how we compensate for failures to connect, about how we craft the covers of our not-real lives.

Innocents and Others is a novel about how intimacy works best from a distance. As is made painfully clear when Meadow coaxes Jelly into the light, direct encounter tends to dissolve what remains of the means of connection. Jelly is all but ruined, China-Girled by Meadow’s movie. This coming together of the novel’s two plots is the least compelling aspect of Innocents and Others. Its nod to narrative unity is forced, but the best part about the nod is how convincingly it suggests that we were all better off talking to each other in the dark.

Tuesday New Release Day: Oyeyemi; Leyner; Spiotta; Lee; Parker; Greenridge; Baume; Tsabari

Out this week: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi; Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner; Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta; High Dive by Jonathan Lee; Crazy Blood by T. Jefferson Parker; We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenridge; Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume; and The Best Place on Earth by Ayelet Tsabari. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great 2016 Book Preview.

Resisting Neatness and Symmetry: The Millions Interviews Dana Spiotta

Reading a novel by Dana Spiotta is a dynamic experience because you’re never quite sure what tiny storytelling miracles it will offer next. The tone might shift, or the story might reveal something wholly unexpected. You might be pushed forward in time, or given sudden intimacy to a character that was held at a distance for so long. Every time I immerse myself in her work, I am reminded what a novel can do. There are no rules for storytelling, only instincts, emotion, and the brainy brain. Spiotta’s latest book, Innocents and Others, is about two female filmmakers, friends since attending high school in L.A., and a third woman who forges her most meaningful relationships over the phone with men she’s never met. How the three women’s lives intersect is one of the book’s little miracles. But there is also so much more to this book that defies quick summary: technology and how it creates, bolsters, and distorts identity; making and consuming art; the responsibility and trespassing of representation; friendship; imagination; the fear of being unoriginal. The week I was reading Innocents and Others, I kept saying to my husband, “I love Dana Spiotta!” To my new baby I’d sing, “Spiotta! Spiotta!” in a weird squeaky voice. To my four-year-old, I’d say, “Leave me alone, I’m reading.” It’s telling that I, a person who has never loved movies, loved this movie-loving novel.

Ms. Spiotta is also the author of Lightning Field, Eat the Document, and Stone Arabia. She answered my questions via email.

The Millions: Lately I’ve been interested in books that are readable but also create suspense in non-traditional ways. Innocents and Others fulfills this requirement: the shifts in narration, and the way the pieces fit together, create drama while bypassing the typical cause-and-effect-to-climax formula. In your books there are often a lot of structural surprises, such as a switch in perspective or time frame, or, even, a shift to a different narrative mode, be it a description of a movie scene, or an essay on a website, and so on. I love this! It keeps me from being able to categorize or truly know the narrative until I am finished and can step back and see it as a whole. Do you set out to write a book with these kinds of shifts and disruptions, or are they a byproduct of your process? I also wondered if you bring this point of view to your classes as a writing teacher. What are your thoughts on plot, for instance?

Dana Spiotta: You just gave a very perceptive description of some of my narrative strategies. And I like what you say about not knowing the book until you are finished and can see it as a whole. I do think a lot about structure: structural analogies and the engineering of the book as an integrated object. I think much of the deeper meaning in a novel is created by these kinds of formal decisions. It is one of the things I love about writing novels, truly. In the novels that have stayed with me, when I get to the end I want to go back and read the book all over again. You can only understand a novel’s shape when you reach the ending and see all the connections, the repetitions with variations. The rhythm and juxtapositions. All of that ideally will accumulate and resonate as much as the narrative itself. I don’t know how successful I am at creating meaningful novel shapes, and I am sure my idiosyncratic structures annoy plenty of readers. But I try to be organic about it and let the structure emerge as I work. Then as I revise, I become more deliberate about shaping it for meaning, but I always try to resist too much neatness and symmetry, or easy correlations. It has a lot to do with intuition, and what you find interesting as you are writing, I think. I use this Samuel Beckett quote for my own purposes when I talk to students (and myself) about structure: “The danger lies in the neatness of identifications.”

I don’t focus on plot in particular, but I do focus on character and conflict, though, and that leads to plot complications. And like some other novelists (and filmmakers), I sometimes skip important events and show the aftermath before I show the event. I did it in this novel because it felt right in the moment. And then I kept it in because it created something interesting to me. Dischronology works in a similar way to how cutting between various threads in a novel creates side-to-side momentum, not simply forward momentum. But it should never seem arbitrary, and I am always aware of the risks. One doesn’t want to feel that something is withheld simply to create narrative suspense. You better have some other, deeper reason for doing that. In Innocents and Others, maybe I was more interested in the consequences of actions than in actions themselves. I wanted the action refracted by the fallout from the action.

TM: For a novel that’s largely about film, there aren’t that many straight scenes (as there are in movies). Here, there are first-person essays, descriptions of movies made by the characters, retrospective musings on past relationships, and so on — time is nimble and elastic, and the narrative controls and contorts in a way that feels distinctly (and wonderfully) novelistic. As in: this could only work in a book. And yet, Innocents and Others feels really cinematic: there are distinct details, bright and memorable moments, and they are artful. People say that about your work, right, that it’s cinematic? What does that word mean to you, and to your writing?  And what is the difference for you, between the art of film and the art of novels? The similarities?

DS: I do describe some imaginary films in the novel, and within those films dramatic things happen. So I get more conventional scenes and action within the film story as well as in the “real” world of the novel. But they are filtered/framed through something: the consciousness of the viewer or a technological device or some other distortion.

I am not sure what cinematic means when applied to novels. I wanted to play with the grammar of film and visual culture, and I think applying ideas from one medium to another one is a way to discover new ways of making meaning. But I agree with the cliché that the best novels make the worst films. I think that fiction is concerned with language and consciousness in a way that film can’t be. Voice, consciousness — cinema can do a voice over, but it usually feels very performative, too talky, a bit artificial. Private thought, consciousness, is evoked visually: usually an actor’s face, a POV shot, images remembered in a montage. Language play and repetition — the way a word or a sentence or a even just similar syntax separated by 50 pages can make subtle and mysterious connections — that only works in a novel.

I do like to write about the experience of watching. In this book, and in my others, I wanted to explore what it feels like, in the body and mind, when we watch a film (or listen to music, or surf the Internet, etc). How our own subjectivity distorts what we see or how we understand what we see. I am interested in the primacy of visual information. And the deceptiveness of various technological mediations: movies, phones, the Internet, etc. And I am deeply interested in the thingyness of technology — how it shapes us both in body and mind.

TM: Stone Arabia ends with a first-person memory from 1972, and Innocent and Others also ends in an unexpected way, with a scene of someone the reader has only met once: a minor character whom we suddenly get this intense and beautiful access to — and even now, I’m not sure if it’s a filtered representation of her or as “real” as one can get in fiction. My husband said it was like how Don DeLillo’s Americana ends — with a scene that is quite different than what comes before, and is not commented upon or totally explained. (Full disclosure: I don’t remember the last scene in DeLillo’s novel, but my husband’s description was pretty entertaining.) Can you talk about your novel endings (without spoilers, I suppose…?), and how you come to them? How do you want your reader to feel when they finish one of your books?

DS: Your interpretation of and reaction to the end of Innocents and Others is spot on, wonderfully keen about what I was attempting. The ending of a novel is the most important aspect to me. As a reader, I have studied the ends of my favorite novels. The ending has to be of the case but also not predictable. It has to have a satisfying closure for the reader, but it doesn’t have to answer anything or shut it down. Instead it can open up or circle back. For example, my favorite ending is the famous ending of Ulysses. It works on a formal level, a narrative level, and a character level. We get an interior monologue, which is of a piece with but also an escalation of the stream of consciousness we get in the first third of the book. It fits the odyssey organizing principle, so in an important way it is inevitable. At long last we get to be intimate with Molly, someone we have heard about for the entire book, but this is the first time we hear from her mind directly. So on a narrative level we are primed and excited to hear from her. We really want it! She gives us another perspective on her son’s death, on her marriage, on her daughter, on her infidelity, on her body. It builds on the book’s way of seeing things from multiple perspectives. And finally, it ends on a moment of joy and love (that famous “Yes”) but it is a memory of a past moment, so it is poignant and resonates in multiple ways. It has a satisfying closure, a sure beauty, but it also changes how you look at the whole book (and this very particular relationship). So that, I think, is the gold standard of landing a book. Everything put in motion has to pertain. But it still has to swerve and avoid being too neat or schematic.

As for my own work, I try to surprise myself (and my reader) but still be true to the built-up meaning. I try to remember everything that has come before, both in form and content. Often I work by reading over everything that I have written so far before adding to it. When I get to writing the end of the novel, I have read it over and over and over. So it is all in my mind as I write, which I hope gives it the density of accumulated meaning that I strive for. I feel it is necessary to take a risk at the end, to reach beyond the previous borders you have set for yourself, to wild it up a little.

TM: There’s a lot about imagination in Innocents and Others. For instance, the imagined films of young Meadow Mori that don’t exist — and, yet, are there, sparkling in the land of potential. And Jelly, who loves to call men just to talk, muses how meeting one of her phone friends would only lead to disappointment: “the failures of the actual to meet the contours of the imaginary.” Of course I want to connect these two. Is art-making like that: is our future, unmade work perfect because it doesn’t exist yet, doesn’t have to face the harshness of the real? What parallels to writing are there here for you, either with Meadow’s filmmaking or Jelly’s phone calls?

DS: I wanted those things (making films or making phone calls) to be very specifically what they are and not a stand in for writing novels. But I think it would be disingenuous to say I don’t share some of the agonies of imagination vs. reality that these characters experience. Perhaps I am interested, broadly, in how people respond to the enormities of the wider world, or even the harsh realities of a local, quiet life. In Eat the Document, the question of how to respond (or answer back, or resist) was political and focused outward, with all the complications and consequences of those actions. In Stone Arabia, Denise tries to overcome her paralysis so she can connect in some way while her brother Nik retreats to his own private world, much like Jelly or Sarah in Innocents and Others. Meadow and Carrie make art. Most responses feel inadequate, failed in some way. And many of the things we attempt we later see as failures and mistakes. But there is something poignant and beautiful in those fractures in your ordinary life, the moments when you realize that you were mistaken or insufficient or what you did had an unintended consequence. The clarifying and humbling experience of shedding your delusions. (At one point, Meadow says she doesn’t mind that she might be a bad person, but she would hate not to know it.) But then what? I’m not so interested in truly “bad” characters. I’m interested in bruised idealists. And the ruptures that make you question yourself, that make you implicate yourself in your own life. These are when people are at their most human, I think. It is about questions, not judgments, and letting people be as complex and contradictory as they genuinely are. And I am curious about what people do after these moments. Especially over time as the days and years go by.

TM: I love the female friendship here between Meadow and Carrie, two very different people and filmmakers. Carrie remarks, “Unlike marriage, which must be fulfilling and a goddamn mutual miracle, a friendship could be twisted and one-sided and make no sense at all, but if it had years and years behind it, a friendship could not be discarded.” Man oh man I love this line and I’m not even sure I agree with it! Can you talk about characterizing these two women and their relationship? Also, what do you think about the rise in stories lately about female friendships, be it by Elena Ferrante, or on TV shows like Broad City. Any thoughts on why these stories are capturing us right now? What interests you about this kind of relationship?

DS: You have zeroed in on the quote that captures who Carrie is, and I am not sure I agree with her either. I like writing about non-romantic connections, writing about other kinds of relationships. The ones that endure and hum through our whole lives: siblings, parent-child, and long-held friendships. Maybe because there is no real mechanism for ending them? And because of that, you end up with someone in your life who is very different from you, who made very different choices. I like unconditional love as an idea. There are some friends that if I met them today, we might not become friends because we no longer have a lot in common. If we were married, we would get divorced because we “grew apart.” But I love those kinds of friends — they keep you honest and humble. They remind you of what you used to be and what you used to want. They are a form of memory.

TM: Because The Millions is a book site, I must ask, What’s the last great book you read? And because you are Dana Spiotta, I must ask, What’s the last great movie you saw?

DS: Several come to mind. The Joy Williams collection of essays, Ill Nature, is a radicalizing, provocative book. She argues with true passion and urgency. I found it tremendously persuasive — and, as always with Joy Williams, the sentences are flawless. I also loved The Visiting Privilege, the collected stories of Joy Williams. Her novels have taught me so much about writing, and to go back and read her stories makes you realize how extraordinary her work is, how accomplished and how mysterious. She is in a category of her own creation. Don DeLillo’s Zero K is a compassionate and radiant novel. The questions it asks about death (“Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?”) hit me very hard because I have been slowly losing my own father. I love DeLillo’s celebration of the “shaky complications of body, mind and personal circumstances,” his wonder at the details of the quotidian every day, and his joy in language and the mystery of words. The intensity of his noticing is epic. Did I mention that it is also funny — the dialogue in the first half is classic funny DeLillo. What else? It has the word “scatterlife” in it. It also has this one-sentence paragraph in it: “The world hum.”

The last great movie I saw was Force of Evil, which was directed by Abraham Polonsky in 1949 and stars John Garfield. Polonsky and Garfield were both blacklisted by HUAC shortly after this film came out. I have seen it many times and recently watched it with a friend who had not seen it. In Polonsky’s view, the system makes it impossible for any man to be good. Everyone in this movie is trapped and money makes it impossible to not be somewhat corrupt. But Polonsky shows us that even within the compromised morality of capitalism, there are moral choices. One can be less corrupt, less craven, or one can be more. The sort-of hero in this story, John Garfield, is a man who honestly admits his greed. He has that, a lack of self-delusion. But the insidious thing, the trap, is that all men must sink to the lowest possible point. The system rewards only the worst behavior. He tries to do one good thing for his brother out of guilt or loyalty. The two of them try to remain human, and they suffer for it. The system will crush everyone, however some will keep their dignity. Plus it has an iconic final scene on the pylons of the George Washington Bridge. But maybe the real greatness lies in the sad and beautiful face of John Garfield.

Walking Into the Book

Recommended Reading: The New York Times’s feature on Dana Spiotta. “When Dana Spiotta was working on her fourth novel, Innocents and Others, she sat beneath a huge bulletin board pinned with her sticky notes and research materials: lists of relevant words (passion, transformation, intimacy) and ‘seeing’ devices (zoetrope, stereoscope, camera obscura), and photographs of Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard and the Maysles brothers. ‘It’s like walking into the book,’ Spiotta told me. ‘You feel it all around you.’” To prepare for her upcoming release, revisit our review of Stone Arabia.

Flossing Your Teeth and Reading Dickens: Resolutions for the New Year

Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.

A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”

This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.

I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.

In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.

The Essayist
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:

But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.

The Poet
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:

My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more.  It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.

The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I  wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:

Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.

The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.

Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.

(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)

The Bookseller
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.

Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:

Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.

Reigning Authoress
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:

This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.

Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.

I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.

What’s your reading resolution for 2016?

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2016 Book Preview

We think it’s safe to say last year was a big year for the book world. In addition to new titles by Harper Lee, Jonathan Franzen, and Lauren Groff, we got novels by Ottessa Moshfegh, Claire Vaye Watkins, and our own Garth Risk Hallberg. At this early stage, it already seems evident this year will keep up the pace. There’s a new Elizabeth Strout book, for one, and a new Annie Proulx; new novels by Don DeLillo, Curtis Sittenfeld, Richard Russo and Yann Martel; and much-hyped debut novels by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Callan Wink. There’s also a new book by Alexander Chee, and a new translation of Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller. The books previewed here are all fiction. Our nonfiction preview is available here.

While there’s no such thing as a list that has everything, we feel certain this preview — at 8,600 words and 93 titles — is the only 2016 book preview you’ll need. Scroll down to get started.

January:
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: The latest novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge centers on a mother and daughter’s tumultuous relationship. In a starred review, Kirkus reports: “The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside — but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer.” Publishers Weekly says this “masterly” novel’s central message “is that sometimes in order to express love, one has to forgive.” Let’s hope HBO makes this one into a mini-series as well. (Edan)

The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley was described by one critic as “literary fiction’s best kept secret,” and Hilary Mantel has said she is “one of those writers a reader trusts,” which, considering the source, is as resounding an endorsement as one can possibly imagine. The English novelist is the author of five novels and two short story collections; in The Past, her sixth novel, siblings reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house. Most likely unsurprising to anyone who’s reunited with family for this sort of thing, “under the idyllic surface, there are tensions.” (Elizabeth)

Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Following her time-traveling debut, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (which is a member of The Millions Hall of Fame), Cantor’s second novel, Good on Paper, chronicles the story of academic and mother Shira Greene. After Shira abandons her PhD thesis on Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova, she takes an unfulfilling temp job. When Nobel Prize-winner Romei contacts her to translate his latest work based on Dante’s text, she couldn’t be more excited. But upon receiving his text, she fears “the work is not only untranslatable but designed to break her.” (Cara)

The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun: The latest novel by Morocco’s most acclaimed living writer focuses on the dissolution of a marriage between a renowned painter and his wife. Using two distinct points of view, Ben Jelloun lets each of his characters — man and wife — tell their side of the story. Set against the backdrop of Casablanca in the midst of an awakening women’s rights movement, The Happy Marriage explores not only the question of who’s right and who’s wrong, but also the very nature of modern matrimony. (Nick M.)

 

 

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams: Williams’s short stories operate according to the principles of Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie: making strange in order to reveal the ordinary anew. They are dense and dazzling oddities with an ear for patois and steeped deeply in the uncanny. Darkness and desire and despair and longing and schadenfreude and judgment roil just below the surface of seemingly pleasant exchanges, and, in their telling, subvert the reader’s expectations of just how a story unfolds. Williams’s previous collection Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty was a beauty. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her forthcoming, warns of linguistic breakdown, insistence, and restlessness. (Anne)

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: It’s been seven years since Samantha Hunt’s novel about Nicola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, was listed as an Orange Prize finalist. Now Hunt’s back with a modern gothic starring a scam-artist orphan who claims to talk to the dead; his sister who ages into a strange, silent woman; and, later, her pregnant niece, who follows her aunt on a trek across New York without exactly knowing why. Also featured: meteorites, a runaway nun, a noseless man, and a healthy dash of humor. Although it’s still too early to speculate on the prize-winning potential of Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s fantastical writing is already drawing favorable comparisons to Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, and her elegantly structured novel promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story. (Kaulie)

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela: Aboulela’s new novel transports readers to Scotland, the Caucasus, St. Petersburg, and Sudan. The protagonist is a Scottish-Sudanese lecturer researching “the lion of Dagestan,” a 19th-century leader who resisted Russian incursions, when she finds out that one of her students is his descendant. As they study up on the rebel leader, and the Georgian princess he captured as a bargaining chip, the two academics become embroiled in a cultural battle of their own. Aboulela’s fifth book sounds like a fascinating combination of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Matt)

Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson: With its intense competition and rivalries, the ballet world provides a novelist with plenty of dramatic material. Girl Through Glass alternates between late-1970s New York, where its heroine works her way into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and the present day, where she is a dance professor having an affair with a student. Exploring the exquisite precision of dancing alongside the unruliness of passion, Wilson’s novel looks to be on point. (Matt)

 

Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack: In her debut novel, Spivack, an accomplished poet, tells the story of a refugee family fleeing Europe during the final year of WWII. In New York City, where they’ve been laying low, we meet a cast of characters including a Hungarian countess, an Austrian civil servant, a German pediatrician, and an eight-year-old obsessed with her family’s past — especially some long-forgotten matters involving late night, secretive meetings with Grigori Rasputin. Described by turns as “wild, erotic” as well as “daring, haunting, dark, creepy, and surreal,” Unspeakable Things certainly seems to live up to its title. (Nick M.)

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: Greenwell’s debut novel expands his exquisitely written 2011 novella, Mitko. A meticulous stylist, Greenwell enlarges the story without losing its poetic tension. An American teacher of English in Bulgaria longs for Mitko, a hustler. Think the feel of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Greenwell’s lines tease and tear at the soul: “That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Place of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.” (Nick R.)

On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes: This novel about the ills of Europe generally and Spain specifically appears in English mere months after the death of its author, one of Spain’s premier novelists. Readers unmoved by, say, the sour hypotheticals of Michel Houellebecq will find a more nuanced, if no less depressing, portrait of economic decline and societal breakdown in On the Edge, the first of Chirbes’s novels to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa). (Lydia)

 

The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks: The second collection of short fiction by Sparks, The Unfinished World comprises 19 short (often very short) stories, surreal and fantastic numbers with titles like “The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies” and “Janitor in Space.” Sparks’s first collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was The Atlantic Wire’s small press debut of 2012. (Lydia)

 

 

And Again by Jessica Chiarella: This debut by current UC Riverside MFA student Chiarella is a speculative literary novel about four terminally ill patients who are given new, cloned bodies that are genetically perfect and unmarred by the environmental dangers of modern life. According to the jacket copy, these four people — among them a congressman and a painter — are “restored, and unmade, by this medical miracle.” And Again is a January Indie Next Pick, and Laila Lalami calls it “a moving and beautifully crafted novel about the frailty of identity, the illusion of control, and the enduring power of love.” (Edan)

February:
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster — nine million copies and still selling strong — Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire)

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story — “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi — and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya)

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: Whiting Award-winner Wray’s fourth novel, The Lost Time Accidents, moves backwards and forwards in time, and across the Atlantic, while following the fates of two Austrian brothers. Their lives are immersed in the rich history of early-20th-century salon culture (intermingling with the likes of Gustav Klimt and Ludwig Wittgenstein), but then they diverge as one aids Adolf Hitler and the other moves to the West Village and becomes a sci-fi writer. When the former wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from time, he scrambles to find a way back in. This mash-up of sci-fi, time-travel, and family epic is both madcap and ambitious: “literature as high wire act without the net,” as put by Marlon James. (Anne)

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin: Canin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Palace Thief and America America and a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Mathematical genius Milo Andret, subject of A Doubter’s Almanac, shares a home with Canin in northern Michigan. Milo travels to Berkeley, Princeton, Ohio, and back to the Midwest while studying and teaching mathematics. Later in the story, Hans, Milo’s son, reveals that he has been narrating his father’s mathematical triumphs and fall into addiction. Hans may be “scarred” by his father’s actions, but Canin finds a way to redeem him through love. (Cara)

Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Kirkus described this book as an ode to friendship, but it could just as easily be described as a meditation on mortality. Jansma’s second novel — his first was The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, published in 2014 — follows the intertwined lives and increasingly dark trajectories of a group of four young friends in New York City. (Emily)

 

 

Tender by Belinda McKeon: McKeon took her place among the prominent Irish novelists with her 2011 debut, Solace, which was voted Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel, Tender, follows the lifelong friendship of Catherine and James, who meet when they are both young in Dublin. At first she is a quiet college student and he the charismatic artist who brings her out of her shell, but McKeon follows their friendship through the years and their roles change, reverse, and become as complicated as they are dear. (Janet)

 

Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore: Tennant-Moore’s debut novel, Wreck and Order, brings the audience into the life of Elsie, an intelligent young woman making self-destructive decisions. Economically privileged, she travels instead of attending college. Upon her return from Paris, she finds herself stuck in an abusive relationship and a job she hates — so she leaves the U.S. again, this time for Sri Lanka. A starred review from Publishers Weekly says, “Tennant-Moore is far too sophisticated and nuanced a writer to allow Elsie to be miraculously healed by the mysterious East.” Tennant-Moore leaves the audience with questions about how to find oneself and one’s purpose. (Cara)

Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink: A few short years ago, Wink was a fly-fishing guide in Montana. Today, he has nearly bagged the limit of early literary successes, reeling in an NEA grant, a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and publications in The New Yorker, Granta, and the Best American Short Stories. “[T]hrough the transparency of his writing, at once delicate and brutally precise, the author gifts us with the wonderful feeling of knowing someone you’ve only met in a book,” Publishers Weekly says of Wink’s debut collection, which is mostly set in and around Yellowstone National Park. (Michael)

The Fugitives by Christopher Sorrentino: Ten years after Sorrentino’s much-lauded and National Book Award-nominated Trance, he returns with The Fugitives, called “something of a thriller, though more Richard Russo than Robert Ludlum,” by Kirkus. Within, struggling writer Sandy Mulligan leaves New York for a small, seemingly quiet Michigan town to escape scandal and finish his novel, and, well, does anything but. His name evokes Sorrentino’s father’s acclaimed novel Mulligan Stew, another tale of a struggling writer whose narrative falls apart. Mulligan’s novel suffers neglect as he befriends a swindler and becomes involved with an investigative reporter who’s there to uncover the crime; Sorrentino’s plot, in contrast, is fine-tuned. (Anne)

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Gappah’s first book, a short story collection called An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009. The Book of Memory is her first novel, and if the first sentence of the description doesn’t hook you, I’m not sure what to tell you: “Memory is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder.” The novel follows this “uniquely slippery narrator” as she pieces together her crime and the life that led her there. (Elizabeth)

Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher: In his debut work of fiction, Gallagher, a former U.S. Army captain, focuses his attentions on Jack Porter, a newly-minted lieutenant grappling with the drawdown of forces in Iraq. Struggling with the task of maintaining a delicate peace amongst warlords and militias, as well as the aggressive pressures being applied by a new commanding officer, Jack finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the nation he serves and the one he’s supposedly been sent to help. Described as “truthful, urgent, grave and darkly funny” — as well as “a slap in the face to a culture that’s grown all too comfortable with the notion of endless war” — this novel comes more than 12 years after George W. Bush declared, “Mission Accomplished,” and nine months before we elect our next president. (Nick M.)

Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney: West Berlin in the years before the Wall came down — “that petri dish of romantic radicalism” — is the lush backdrop for Pinckney’s second novel, Black Deutschland. It’s the story of Jed Goodfinch, a young gay black man who flees his stifling hometown of Chicago for Berlin, hoping to recapture the magic decadence of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar era and, in the process, remake and discover himself. In Berlin, Jed is free to become “that person I so admired, the black American expatriate.” Kirkus praises the novel for embodying the “inventive, idiosyncratic styles” now flourishing in African-American writing. (Bill)

Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka: The linked stories in Majka’s debut collection beg the question how much of ourselves we leave behind with each departure we make, as we become “citizens of the places where we cannot stay.” Kelly Link offers high praise: “A collection that leaves you longing — as one longs to return to much loved, much missed homes and communities and cities — for places that you, the reader, have never been. Prodigal with insight into why and how people love and leave, and love again.” You can read excerpts at Catapult and Longreads. (Bruna)

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal: De Kerangal, a short-lister for the Prix Goncourt, has not been widely translated in English, although this may change after this novel — her first translation from an American publisher — simultaneously ruins and elevates everyone’s week/month/year. The Heart is a short and devastating account of a human heart (among other organs) as it makes its way from a dead person to a chronically ill person. It is part medical thriller, part reportage on the process of organ donation, part social study, part meditation on the unbearable pathos of life. (Lydia)

You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine: A debut collection of crisp short stories about people in various forms of extremis — people with kidnapped sons, babies who won’t stop crying, too many cats. The scenarios vary wildly in terms of their objective badness, but that’s how life is, and the writer treats them all with gravity. (Lydia)

 

 

The Lives of Elves by Muriel Barbery: Following the hoopla around her surprise bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery, trained as a philosopher, became anxious about expectations for the next book. She traveled, and went back to teaching philosophy. She told The Independent that for a time she had lost the desire to write. Eight years on, we have The Lives of Elves, the story of two 12-year-old girls in Italy and France who each discover the world of elves. Barbery says the book is neither a fairytale nor a parable, strictly speaking, but that she is interested in “enchantment” — how the modern world is “cut off from” from its poetic illusions. (Sonya)

Square Wave by Mark de Silva: A dystopian debut set in America with a leitmotif of imperial power struggles in Sri Lanka in the 17th century. Part mystery, part sci-fi thriller, the novel reportedly deals with “the psychological effects of a militarized state upon its citizenry” — highly topical for Americans today. Readers of The New York Times may recognize de Silva’s name from the opinion section, where he was formerly a staffer. (Lydia)

 

The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick: Food writing fans may want to check out a novelization of the life of M.F.K. Fisher, focusing on, the title suggests, the more salacious personal details of the beloved food writer’s life. (Lydia)

 

 

 

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: At once erudite and phantasmagoric, this novel begins with a 16th-century tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo and swirls lysergically outward to take in the whole history of European conquest. It won awards in Spain and in Enrigue’s native Mexico; now Natasha Wimmer gives us an English translation. (Garth)

 

 

The Daredevils by Gary Amdahl: Over the last decade, Amdahl has traced an eccentric orbit through the indie-press cosmos; his mixture of bleakness, comedy, and virtuosity recalls the Coen Brothers, or Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man. The “Amdahl Library” project at Artistically Declined Press seems to be on hold for now, but perhaps this novel, about a young man riding the currents of radical politics and theater in the early-12th century, will bring him a wider audience. (Garth)

March:

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, at 18 and was later included on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Following her fifth release, the critically-praised novel Boy, Snow, Bird, in 2014, Oyeyemi is publishing her first collection of short stories. The stories draw on similar fairy tale themes as her past works. In What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Oyeyemi links her characters through literal and metaphorical keys — to a house, a heart, a secret. If you can’t wait to get your hands on the collection, one of the stories, “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” was published in Ploughshares this summer. (Cara)

The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison: With The Ancient Minstrel, our national treasure known as Jim Harrison returns to his greatest strength, the novella. Like Legends of the Fall, this new book is a trio of novellas that showcase Harrison’s seemingly limitless range. In the title piece, he has big fun at his own expense, spoofing an aging writer who wrestles with literary fame, his estranged wife, and an unplanned litter of piglets. In Eggs, a Montana woman attempting to have her first child reminisces about collecting eggs at her grandparents’ country home in England. And in The Case of the Howling Buddhas, retired detective Sunderson returns from earlier novels to investigate a bizarre cult. The book abounds with Harrison’s twin trademarks: wisdom and humor. (Bill)

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder: As a fan of sports talk radio and its obsessive analysis, I’m looking forward to Bachelder’s novel, which endlessly dissects the brutal 1985 play where Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington’s quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking his leg. In the novel, 22 friends meet to reenact the play, an occasion that allows Bacheler to philosophize about memory and the inherent chaos of sports. As he put it in a New York Times essay: “I’m moved…by the chasm…between heady design and disappointing outcome, between idealistic grandeur and violent calamity.” (Matt)

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: Sahota’s second novel is the only title on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist that has yet to be published in the United States. It tells the story of four Indians who emigrate to the north of England and find their lives twisted together in the process. Many critics cited its power as a political novel, particularly in a year when migration has dominated news cycles. But it works on multiple levels: The Guardian’s reviewer wrote, “This is a novel that takes on the largest questions and still shines in its smallest details.” (Elizabeth)

Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn: The author of the 1990s bestseller I Was Amelia Earhart here focuses on a wealthy New York family beset by internal rivalries and an involvement, perhaps unwitting, in a dark underworld of international crime. Mendelsohn’s novel hopscotches the globe from Manhattan to London, Rome, Laos, and Turkey, trailing intrigue and ill-spent fortunes. (Michael)

 

Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov: In this first novel from Penkov (author of the story collection East of the West), a young Bulgarian immigrant returns to the borderlands of his home country in search of his grandfather. Molly Antopol calls it “a gorgeous and big-hearted novel that manages to be both a page-turning adventure story and a nuanced meditation on the meaning of home.” (Bruna)

 

Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner: With novels like Et Tu, Babe and The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner was one of the postmodern darlings of the 1990s (or you may remember him sitting around the table with Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace for the legendary Charlie Rose segment). After spending almost the last decade on non-fiction and movie projects, he’s back with a new novel in which the fictional Mark Leyner reads from his autobiography at a reading set up by his mother at a New Jersey mall’s food court. Mark, his mother, and a few Panda Express employees share an evening that is absurd and profound — basically Leyneresque. (Janet)

Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: “Maybe I’m a writer so I have an excuse to do research,” Spiotta said of what she enjoys about the writing process. And yet, for all of her research, she avoids the pitfalls of imagination harnessed by fact. In fact, Spiotta’s fourth and latest novel, Innocents and Others, is nearly filmic, channeling Jean-Luc Godard, according to Rachel Kushner, and “like classic JLG is brilliant, and erotic, and pop.” Turn to The New Yorker excerpt to see for yourself: witness Jelly, a loner who uses the phone as a tool for calculated seduction, and in doing so seduces the reader, too. (Anne)

Prodigals by Greg Jackson: Jackson’s collection opens with a story originally published in The New Yorker, ”Wagner in the Desert,” a crackling tale of debauchery set in Palm Springs. In it, a group of highly-educated, creative, and successful friends seek to “baptize [their] minds in an enforced nullity.” They also repeatedly attempt to go on a hike. The wonderfully titled “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy,” in which a former tennis star enlists his houseguest in a bizarre project, and the eerily beautiful “Tanner’s Sisters” are two particularly memorable stories in this sharp and often haunting debut. (Matt)

Shelter by Jung Yun: Yun’s debut novel concerns Kyung Cho: a husband, father, and college professor in financial trouble who can no longer afford his home. When his own parents — whom he barely tolerates because they’ve never shown him warmth and affection — are faced with violence and must move in with him, Cho can no longer hide his anger and resentment toward them. The jacket copy compares the book to Affliction and House of Sand and Fog, and James Scott, author of The Kept, calls it “an urgent novel.” Yun’s work has previously been published in Tin House. (Edan)

99 Poems: New and Selected by Dana Gioia: A gifted poet of rhythm and reason, Gioia’s civic and critical pedigree is impressive. A previous chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia was recently named California’s Poet Laureate. In recent years Gioia’s critical writing has taken precedence — his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today” is already a classic in its genre – but this new and selected collection marks his return to verse. Graywolf is Gioia’s longtime publisher, so look for emblematic works like “Becoming a Redwood” next to new poems like “Hot Summer Night:” “Let’s live in the flesh and not on a screen. / Let’s dress like people who want to be seen.” (Nick R.)

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone,” writes Margaret Cavendish, the titular character in Dutton’s novel Margaret the First. Cavendish is “a shy but audacious” woman of letters, whose writing and ambitions were ahead of her time. The taut prose and supple backdrop of courtly life are irresistible. (Witness: quail in broth and oysters; bowls stuffed with winter roses, petals tissue-thin; strange instruments set beside snuffboxes.) Dutton is something of a meteor herself, as founder of the Dorothy Project and with two wondrous books already under her belt, including the Believer Book Award-nominated novel Sprawl. (Anne)

The North Water by Ian McGuire: A raw and compulsively readable swashbuckler about the whaling business, with violence and intrigue in dirty port towns and on the high seas. There are many disturbing interactions between people and people, and people and animals — think The Revenant for the Arctic Circle. This is McGuire’s second novel; he is also the author of the “refreshingly low-minded campus novel” Incredible Bodies. (Lydia)

 

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett: A young middle-class Nigerian man wakes up in his bed one morning to find that he has become white in the night. As a consequence, he loses his family but gains all manner of undeserved and unsolicited privileges, from management positions at various enterprises to the favors of beautiful women from the upper crust of Lagos society. His dizzying tragicomic odyssey paints a vivid portrait of the social and economic complexities of a modern megacity. (Lydia)

 

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest will hit shelves in March trailing seductive pre-hype: we learned last December that the book was sold to Ecco for seven figures, and that it’s the story of a wealthy, “spectacularly dysfunctional” family — which for me brings to mind John Cheever, or maybe even the TV series Bloodlines, in which one of the siblings is a particular mess and the others have to deal with him. But The Nest has been described as “warm,” “funny,” and “tender,” so perhaps the novel is more an antidote to the darkness in family dysfunction we’ve known and loved — fucked-up families with hearts of gold? (Sonya)

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera: A novel about a mother and daughter who leave Sri Lanka after a domestic disturbance and struggle to find happiness in the United States. Munaweera won the Regional Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia for her first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. (Lydia)

 

 

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan: A novelist examines the enduring fallout of a “small” terrorist attack in a Delhi marketplace, and the way that families, politics, and pain weave together. Mahajan’s first novel, Family Planning, was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas prize. (Lydia)

 

 

Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong: An emotionally suspenseful debut about the relationship between a mother and her troubled young daughter, who commits an unfixable indiscretion that implicates them both. (Lydia)

 

 

 

Dodge Rose by Jack Cox: This young Australian has evidently made a close study of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (and maybe of Henry Green) — and sets out in his first novel to recover and extend their enchantments. A small plot of plot — two cousins, newly introduced, attempt to settle the estate of an aunt — becomes the launch pad for all manner of prose pyrotechnics. (Garth)

 

 

High Dive by Jonathan Lee: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher could have been the title of Lee’s first novel, had Hilary Mantel not taken it for her 2014 short story collection. The similarities end with the subject matter, though. Where Mantel opted for a tight focus, Lee’s novel uses a real-life attempt to blow up Mrs. Thatcher as an opportunity to examine other, less public lives. (Garth)

 

April:
My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, the fifth installment of this six-volume autobiographical novel covers Knausgaard’s early adulthood. The book is about a love affair, alcoholism, death, and the author’s struggle to write. James Wood describes Knausgaard’s prose as “intense and vital […] Knausgaard is utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties.” (Bruna)

 

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: In Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Liz is a New York City magazine writer and Darcy is a Cincinnati neurosurgeon. Although the update is certainly on trend with themes of CrossFit and reality TV, Sittenfeld is an obvious choice to recreate Jane Austen’s comedy of manners. From her boarding school debut, Prep, to the much-lauded American Wife, a thinly veiled imagination of Laura Bush, Sittenfeld is a master at dissecting social norms to reveal the truths of human nature underneath. (Tess)

 

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: The author’s wife, Diana Colbert, died of leukemia in 2011 when their daughter was only three years old. Inspired in part by this personal tragedy, this second novel by the author of 2008’s Beautiful Children traces a day in the life of a young New York couple with a new baby after the wife is diagnosed with cancer. “I can’t remember the last time I stayed up all night to finish a book,” enthuses novelist Ayelet Waldman. “This novel laid me waste.” (Michael)

 

Our Young Man by Edmund White: White’s 13th novel sees a young Frenchman, Guy, leave home for New York City, where he begins a modeling career that catapults him to the heights of the fashion world. His looks, which lend him enduring popularity amongst his gay cohort on Fire Island, stay youthful for decades, allowing him to keep modeling until he’s 35. As the novel takes place in the ’70s and ’80s, it touches on the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. (Thom)

 

Now and Again by Charlotte Rogan: After harboring a secret writing habit for years, Rogan burst onto the bestseller list with her debut novel, The Lifeboat, which was praised for its portrayal of a complex heroine who, according to The New York Times, is “astute, conniving, comic and affecting.” Rogan’s second novel, Now and Again, stars an equally intricate secretary who finds proof of a high-level cover-up at the munitions plant where she works. It is both a topical look at whistleblowers and a critique of the Iraq War military-industrial complex. Teddy Wayne calls it “the novel we deserve for the war we didn’t.” (Claire)

Hystopia by David Means: After four published books, a rap sheet of prizes, and six short stories in The New Yorker, Means is coming out with his debut novel this spring. Hystopia is both the name of the book and a book-within-the-book, and it revolves around Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet who comes up with an alternate history. In Allen’s bizarre, heady what-if, John F. Kennedy survives the ’60s, at the end of which he creates an agency called the Psych Corps that uses drugs to wipe traumas from people’s brains. (Thom)

 

Ear to the Ground by David L. Ulin and Paul Kolsby: In this “rollicking” tale about 1990s L.A., seismologist Charlie Richter, grandson of the man who invented the Richter scale, heads to the City of Angels to work at the Center of Earthquake Science to prove his methods for predicting quakes. The book, co-written by an essayist and critic (Ulin) and a screenwriter and movie producer (Kolsby), comes with an introduction by Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders, and was previously serialized in the L.A. Reader. The novel will be published by the small but mighty Unnamed Press, an L.A.-based publishing house with a roster of quirky and formally daring books. (Edan)

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor: A fictional account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings told in conversations, fragments, and dreams. An excerpt is available at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading — the site’s editor called it “experimental, metaphysical, deeply unsettling, and important.” (Lydia)

 

 

Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine: In his publisher’s synopsis, the French writer Volodine’s multi-novel project sounds appealingly nuts: “Most of his works take place in a post-apocalyptic world where members of the ‘post-exoticism’ writing movement have all been arrested as subversive elements.” A recent critical essay in The New Inquiry furthers the sense of a cult in the making. Bardo or Not Bardo, a comedy the characters of which keep bungling attempts at reincarnation, may be a good place to begin the indoctrination. (Garth)

 

Letters to Kevin by Stephen Dixon: In 2015, it’s remarkably easy to make a phone call, so the latest novel by Stephen Dixon comes off as a Beckettian farce. The plot is absurd: in it, a man named Rudy sets out to call his friend Kevin Wafer, a teenager-going-on-college-student who lives across the country in Palo Alto. Rudy doesn’t have a phone, but when he tries to use a phone booth, a crane picks it up and deposits it (and Rudy) in a warehouse. Eventually, he gives up and opts to write a letter instead. Throughout, Dixon’s black-and-white drawings lend depth to his nightmare of inconvenience. (Thom)

The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest: Barely 30, Tempest has won awards for her poetry, performances, and recordings. Her long narrative poem “Brand New Ancients” found the through-line from Homer to Jay-Z. Now she turns to prose, in a novel about scrabbling young Londoners trying to outrun the past. (Garth)

 

May:
Zero K by Don DeLillo: When Jennifer Egan introduced DeLillo for his reception of the National Book Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, she noted “There will be no better way to understand life in the late-20th and early-21st century than reading the books of Don DeLillo.” Paranoia does not always lead to prescience, but DeLillo’s anxious eye toward the future has always been tempered by his identity as the son of immigrants and the Catholic spectacle of his youth. Zero K begins big: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” says billionaire Ross Lockhart to his son Jeff, the novel’s narrator. Jeff notes “We were sharing a rare point in time, contemplative, and the moment was made complete by his vintage sunglasses, bringing the night indoors.” No one is better than DeLillo at vaulting between registers of comedy and tragedy, between the consequence of eternity and the power of a single moment. (Nick R.)

LaRose by Louise Erdrich: On a summer day in North Dakota, 1999, a man named Landreaux stalks a deer along his property line. He shoots and misses, but he’s hit something else: his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty. Landreaux’s close with his neighbors, in part because he has a five-year-old son of his own, LaRose, and the boys were inseparable. Erdrich’s 15th novel explores the complicated aftermath of the death, as Landreaux and his wife decide to give LaRose to their grieving neighbors as retribution. (Emily)

 

The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller: As if living in a totalitarian regime wasn’t bad enough, the four friends in Müller’s novel must contend with the fact that one of them is spying on the group for the secret police. Capturing the fear and moral corruption of the final days of Romania’s Ceausescu regime — and inevitably drawing on her own persecution by the secret police — Müller won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 for her work. Now, her long-time translator Philip Boehm brings the classic to English readers. (Tess)

 

The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon: Haddon is nothing if not versatile. You know him for his international bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but did you know Haddon is also an illustrator, screenwriter, poet, winner of two BAFTAs, and has written 15 books for children? It might not come as a surprise that his new book is a departure: a collection of short stories. An expedition to Mars goes wrong, a seaside pier collapses, a woman is marooned on an island, two boys find a gun in a shoebox. The stories are billed as “searingly imaginative and emotionally taut.” (Claire)

Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet: In her 10th novel, Millet delves into the territory of the psychological thriller: a young mother, Anna, takes her six-year-old daughter, Lena, and flees her estranged husband, Ned, who’s running for office in Alaska. Anna and Lena go into hiding in a derelict hotel in Maine, which quickly begins to fill up with other guests; guests who, as the novel progresses, begin to seem less and less like ordinary tourists, even as Ned begins to seem more and more sociopathic. (Emily)

 

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub: What happens when you age out of your cool? It’s a topic that filmmaker Noah Baumbach has explored, and Straub is his literary counterpart. Her third novel follows three Brooklyn Gen X friends and former bandmates nearing 50 and handing off the baton of hipness to their children, stifled ambition and sexual frustration included. With the multigenerational structure, it would be easy to compare Straub to other masters of the genre like Meg Wolitzer or Jennifer Egan, but she’s already a master in her own right after The Vacationers, so Modern Lovers should prove to be a witty romp. (Tess)

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s new novel — his first since 2011’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending — concerns the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Barnes considers his character not just on a human level, as a young man fearing for his life and the safety of his family under Joseph Stalin, but also as a lens through which to examine the fall of the Soviet Union and the role of the artist in society. (Emily)

 

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo: There are two kinds of Russo aficionados — those who came to him through his hilarious 1997 academic satire Straight Man and those who started with his wry, brooding 1993 breakthrough Nobody’s Fool. The latter strain of Russophile will rejoice that Russo has brought back Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the irascible hero of Nobody’s Fool, who was played by Paul Newman in the movie version. Two decades on, Sully has learned from his doctor that he has at most a year or two to live, and spends the novel striving to keep the news from everybody he loves. (Michael)

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan: You had to know the person who’s spent more than a decade working at thoroughbred racetracks would choose to blurb the horse racing novel. Morgan, who was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 in 2010, has set both of her novels in her native Kentucky; this one centers on a powerful family aiming to breed the next racing great, and a young black man who comes to work for them and brings their prejudices into full view. It is described as “an unflinching portrait of lives cast in shadow by the enduring legacy of slavery.” (Elizabeth)

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin: Cronin brings his mammoth, vampire apocalypse horror trilogy to a close this spring with The City of Mirrors. The Twelve (godfather vampires) have been defeated, and their descendants with them, and the human colonists start to retake the world, no longer confined to their fortresses and hiding places. But are they really safe? (They’re not.) Zero — the vampire who created The Twelve — survives, and he’s mad as hell. The conclusion of this suspenseful, surprising, frequently heartwarming, more often creepy-as-shit series promises to go out with a bang. (Janet)

The Fat Artist and Other Stories by Benjamin Hale: Hale’s simian debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, was widely praised; it takes talent to craft the believable voice of a chimpanzee who has “finally decided to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs.” Hale recently co-edited an issue of Conjunctions titled “A Menagerie,” that collects bestial tales. The short story form allows Hale’s own penchant for invention to further shine. One story, “The Minus World,” investigates shadow, “unfinished or rejected levels that the programmers left floating around” in Super Mario Bros: “It’s as if Mario had traveled to the distant, frayed edges of space and time. He must look into the void. It’s a little frightening.” The Fat Artist, which includes stories about dominatrices and performance artists, is sure to please. (Nick R.)

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: In his third book and second novel, Imagine Me Gone, Haslett returns to the territory of mental illness — the subject of many of the stories in his award-winning debut collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. Margaret marries John, after learning of his serious struggle with depression, and later their eldest son, Michael, battles with despair as well. From Joy Williams: “[O]ne of the most harrowing and sustained descriptions of a mind in obsessive turmoil and disrepair that I’ve ever read.” Peter Carey, on the other hand, speaks to the hopeful elements of the novel — “both dreadfully sad and hilariously funny all at once. It is luminous with love.” (Sonya)

Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens: In her two previous novels, Erens has quietly built a reputation as a sharp stylist with a gift for bringing quirky outsiders alive on the page. In Eleven Hours, a very pregnant young woman arrives alone at the maternity ward wanting to give birth without a fetal heart monitor, IV tubes, or epidural anesthesia. The novel follows her 11-hour labor in the care of a Haitian nurse who is herself pregnant. “Erens evokes the layered experience of living in a body — its tides of memory, sensation, and emotion — like no other writer I know,” writes novelist Karen Russell. (Michael)

Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null: A collection of short stories set in the author’s native West Virginia, where people and landscapes and animals reap the wages of resource extraction. Null’s first novel, Honey from the Lion, was a historical novel about West Virginia’s timber industry. (Lydia)

 

June:

Barkskins by Annie Proulx: The award-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain returns with a new novel in June — 10 years in the making — about wilderness, the rampant destruction of forests, and greed. At over 800 pages, this ambitious novel spans over three centuries and travels from France to China to New England. (Bruna)

 

 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: If anyone was going to update The Taming of the Shrew, it should be the Pulitzer-winning Tyler, who is a keen observer of the nuances of the American family. In her take on the classic Shakespearean comedy, Kate is managing her odd scientist father’s household when his assistant might be deported, and the men scheme to keep him in the country with Kate’s help. Even though we think we already know the ending, the independent and contemporary Kate might have a surprise up her sleeve. (Tess)

 

They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine: Her new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, will solidify Schine’s reputation as “the Jane Austen of the 21st century.” When her husband dies, Joy Bergman finds that her children, Molly and Daniel, have an arsenal of weapons to fend off the woes of widowhood. But Joy is not about to take advice or antidepressants from anyone. When an ardent suitor from Joy’s college days reappears, Molly and Daniel must cope with their widowed mother becoming as willful and rebellious as their own kids. They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a compassionate look at three generations, all coming of age together. (Bill)

The Girls by Emma Cline: This debut follows two young women into the world of a Manson-ish cult in the 1960s. Cline won the 2014 Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review, which also published her essay about how she came to this material. (Garth)

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel: Ausubel’s first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, won the PEN Center USA Fiction Award and the VCU Cabell First Novel Award. The New York Times Book Review wrote that her story collection, A Guide to Being Born, “finds a way to record the tensions between the corporeal and the invisible” — that’s an excellent way to read all her mischievous, magical work, actually. Ausubel’s second novel is about a moneyed family on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s — except this moneyed family is out of dough. The terror of being broke spins parents Fern and Edgar off on separate, strange journeys; meanwhile, their three kids are left to fend for themselves “in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.” Maggie Shipstead calls it a “brilliantly imagined novel about family and fortune and the hidden knots between.” (Edan)

Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam: In Alam’s debut novel, Rich and Pretty, Sarah is the rich one and Lauren is the pretty one. They first met 20 years ago at a tony private school in Manhattan and became inseparable through high school, college, first jobs, and first loves. But now, all grown up and living very different New York lives, they have to navigate the tricky ways that the closest of friendships evolve, erode, and endure. Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers, says Alam, a Year in Reading alum at The Millions, has crafted a debut that’s “smart, sharp and beautifully made.” (Bill)

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Gyasi’s debut distills hundreds of years of of history into 300 pages, tracing the lives and legacies of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of them sold into slavery, one of them comparatively free. (Garth)

July and Beyond:
Home Field by Hannah Gersen: Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel is the story of Dean, a high school football coach in small town Maryland — and therefore a pillar of his community — whose life comes untethered after his wife’s suicide. Left to raise three children dealing with their mother’s death — a daughter at Swarthmore, an 11-year-old son acting out, and an eight-year-old son who barely understands it all — not to mention keep winning football games, Dean has to take stock of the life he thought he had, and how to move forward. (Janet)

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: FSG editor Eric Chinski knows Foer’s new novel — his first since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) — better than anyone (other than Foer himself of course). Chinski says of Here I Am, “It’s got this high-wire inventiveness and intensity of imagination in it, and the sheer energy that we associate with Jonathan’s writing, but it’s a big step forward for him. It’s got a kind of toughness; it’s dirty, it’s kind of funny, like Portnoy’s Complaint, it exposes American Jewish life.” It’s not, Chinski says, autobiographical in any strict sense, but does borrow from Foer’s life — the story of a Jewish family, divorce, and three sons, in Washington D.C. (Sonya)

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: In his new novel, Ball follows the trajectory of a brilliant teenager living an impoverished and increasingly precarious life in the absence of her parents. Her father is dead, her mother institutionalized, and when she discovers that there’s an arson club at her school, she finds herself rapidly running out of reasons not to set the world on fire. (Emily)

 

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery: How far does reasonable suspicion live from outright paranoia? Are they close neighbors; do they overlap? These are questions for Jeremy O’Keefe, a professor who has just returned to New York City after 10 years abroad, and suddenly finds himself the object of obsession for a pale young man from his past — or is he? (Nick M.)

 

 

Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Winner of the Amanda Davis Award from McSweeney’s and author of the novels Reunion and The Fates Will Find Their Way, Pittard now brings us the story of a young married couple, Mark and Maggie, on a road trip gone wrong. Maggie’s recently been robbed at gun point, and by the time they stop for the night at an out-of-the-way inn (without power), the two aren’t even speaking to one another. Frederick Barthelme calls it “a positively Hitchcockian misadventure” and the jacket copy dubs it a “modern Gothic.” (Edan)

Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton: Hatton (my quondam classmate) blends historical fact — the life of John Steinbeck circa Cannery Row — with the story of a young woman discovering the complexities of adult life. In the process, the novel illuminates the founding of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Celeste Ng, in her blurb, compares Monterey Bay, Euphoria, and The Signature of All Things. (Garth)

 

Losing It by Emma Rathbone: In her debut, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, Rathbone proved herself a wry observer of coming of age in difficult circumstances. Her second novel follows this theme, as protagonist Julia Greenfield visits her spinster aunt during a hot North Carolina summer to conquer her greatest insecurity: why she’s still a virgin at 26. Except her aunt is one as well at 58. What follows is a candid yet funny take on just what desire and love mean. (Tess)

 

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías returns with another masterful tapestry of noir-ish twists and digressive cerebration. A young man goes to work for a famous film director, and then finds himself entangled with the mysteries of the director’s wife. This one will be published in the U.S. in the fall. (Garth)

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