When Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Iowa Writers’ Workshop in May, everyone—including me—was starstruck. He talked about a prevailing belief back in his college years at Berkeley. “People say literature saves the world,” he said. “No, it doesn’t. But social movements do.”
At a time when democracies around the world keep making bad decisions and young writers feel the urge to facilitate social changes, Nguyen’s role as one of the leading public intellectuals in the literary world is both inspiring and motivating. He is aware of the underrepresentation of minority groups in literature, but he also understands that great fiction is much more than making one’s community look good. He views the customary writing adage “Show. Don’t tell.” with suspicion. As writers, we need to make great art and bring to light vital social issues, he says, rather than simply trust that readers will understand.
In the following interview, we talked about the aesthetics and politics of his brilliant novel The Sympathizer; how his literary education has nourished his writing; and how he deals with opposition and hostility from people with very different worldviews.
The Millions: I’d like to start by talking about The Sympathizer. Like everyone, I was hooked from the beginning: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” This distinctive perspective challenges the binary thinking that people often have. We cannot use words like “good” or “bad” to describe the narrator; we cannot use words like “failure” or “victory” to describe the war. How did you come up with this premise?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I had to write a novel. And I wanted to write an entertaining novel—that was also a very serious novel at the same time—and a novel that would grapple with politics, history, and obviously the Vietnam War.
The spy novel was the genre that was a perfect fit for all of these concerns. And also because I enjoyed reading spy novels, so I knew the genre very well. And as a writer, I gravitate toward both highbrow literature, like modernism, and so-called lowbrow literature, the genre literature. I don’t agree with any of these classifications, but the spy novel would allow me to bridge all these things.
Lastly, the idea of making a man of two minds and two faces was there from the very beginning, because I wanted the novel to be a cultural critique as well. I wanted the novel to deal with both cultural divisions—the so-called East-West divide—but also ideological divisions between capitalism and communism in the Cold War. So that’s where the man with two minds came from. And in order to make that seemed organic and not simply something that I was forcing onto the book, I made him a mixed race—half Vietnamese and half French—and someone who was both infatuated with capitalism but also a devoted communist. Putting all of these elements into his character made these theoretical ideas very organic as the plot unfolded.
TM: To follow up on that: In his book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois said that this American world yields “no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” He ever feels his “twoness”: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts,” “two warring ideals in one dark body.” Also, the opening of The Sympathizer pays tribute to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wonder if African-American literature has influenced your writing and the way you perceive the Vietnamese and other previously colonized Asian communicates (e.g. Korean, Filipino)? If so, how?
VTN: I have another book called Nothing Ever Dies. And the title comes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And in my book, the section where I talked about W.E.B. Du Bois, the quote that you just mentioned to me, and Du Bois’s notion of the inevitable twoness of the Negro that he sees himself through his own eyes and those of others, is also true in many ways for Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. You see that also in the work of someone like Chang-Rae Lee, in the thoughtful Native Speaker.
It’s no doubt that African-American literature has been very influential on me. I think that African-American writers have created, in the United States, the body of literature that is both most politically committed and yet also most aesthetically elevated. I mean, the masters, the most accomplished practitioners of African-American literature—like Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison and many more—have demonstrated that you can be both politically and artistically engaged at the same time. And that if you are, in fact, a minority in this country, you need to do both at the same time. So, their model of aesthetic and political commitment was very important for my own work.
TM: Who are some of the other writers you most admire, and what else do you feel you have learned from them?
VTN: You know, I had a very good literary education as a student when I was growing up before I went to college. So that meant that I had read some of the modernist and classical literature of the West. And then when I got to college, I also encountered African-American literature and Asian-American literature, including Maxine Hong Kingston. And so I’m trying to bring all these different strands together. So Asian-American literature in general has been very influential to me, including Kingston, but also, for example, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, which I mentioned, and many other works, because they foreground Asian-American experiences. And among other Asian-American writers that I haven’t included, there would be the classics like John Okada, Carlos Bulosan, Frank Chin. Contemporary writers, after Kingston, like Susan Choi—her book, The Foreign Student—or Julie Otsuka, in her novels about the internment.
When writing The Sympathizer, I wanted to write a novel that was a so-called minority novel and that was unapologetic about being a person of color in the United States, but also a novel that could contend with both the Vietnam War canon and American literature as a whole. Hopefully it will be an American novel that will also have a presence internationally. So that was why it was important to The Sympathizer to directly confront the Vietnam War, so that I could contest the narratives of American writers of the Vietnam War, like Tim O’Brien, just to name the most famous example. And in writing The Sympathizer, I had my eye directly on how this novel would fit at the canonical level of American literature. Because I had studied writers like Herman Melville and William Faulkner, I wanted this novel to gesture at these major novels and their major concerns, their major themes about American literature and culture.
And finally, in writing The Sympathizer, I was also reading European modernist literature, because I always felt that this was not going to be the great American novel; this was going to be the European modernist version of the American novel. So that would be writers like Dostoevsky, Louis-Ferdinand Celine from the 1920s in France, Antonio Lobo Antunes from the 1970s in Portugal. So I really wanted this to be a novel that was both very specific to being Asian-American and American, but also to have those global ambitions as well.
TM: You grew up in the age of “narrative scarcity.” In other words, there were not many stories told from an Asian-American point of view. Because of this, minorities cared more about their representation as a group on the big screen or in fiction. Did you consider the potential reaction of your readership while you were writing? Did you do anything to avoid being misunderstood or misinterpreted?
VTN: I was worried about those kinds of things. When I wrote my short story collection The Refugees, most of which was written before The Sympathizer, I was concerned about how my audiences would respond to my work, both Americans in general but also Vietnamese readers. And when I wrote The Sympathizer, I decided that I no longer cared what my audiences thought, that in order to write the novel that I wanted to write, I had to stop caring. Because even as conditions of narrative scarcity were true, which they are, I don’t think a writer can allow herself or himself to be shaped by those conditions. We should be aware of narrative scarcity, but we can’t let our writing be shaped by that. For example, the anxiety that because there are so few stories about us, we have to write our stories to make our own community look good, whatever that community is.
The Sympathizer is written from the perspective of a communist spy. And when I did that, I knew that my community, which is the Vietnamese-Americans, many of them would reject the novel because communism is completely antithetical to Vietnamese-Americans. But I couldn’t care about that. And then I knew many Americans would reject the novel because the novel was a very strong critique of American culture. But I couldn’t pay attention to that either, not to write the novel I wanted to write. So that can be a tricky position for writers who live in narrative scarcity, we have to be aware of that condition. We have to fight back against it, but we can’t let our work be driven by the anxieties around narrative scarcity.
TM: Have any of your family members read the novel? What was their feedback like?
VTN: I don’t know about how many members of my own family have read the book. I don’t ask. That could be an awkward question to ask. But I think they are very proud of me, as are many people in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community. So when The Sympathizer came out and got uniformly great reviews, it made, I think, very little difference in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community, because like most communities, they don’t read, not on the average, right? I’m exaggerating a little bit. I mean, certainly, some Vietnamese-Americans sought out the book, and I got some very good feedback from them. But I also knew that a lot of Vietnamese-Americans were not reading the book, because they didn’t read books or because they heard it was from the perspective of a communist spy, and they just refused to engage. But after the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, all of a sudden, all these Vietnamese-Americans that never read the book and might never read the book were suddenly proud of me. And in Vietnam, the case was similar. But I think the difference the Pulitzer made is that it made more of them read the book. So in Vietnam, for example, even though the book is not available, apparently young Vietnamese readers who can read English will seek the book out in English. Because I encounter quite a few of them, who are foreign students in the United States and who told me that the book offers them something that is completely unavailable in Vietnam, which is history that is completely antithetical to the government’s point of view.
TM: If I am not wrong, the narrator is loosely based on Pham Xuan An, the Vietnamese man most beloved by American journalists during and shortly after the war. Can you say more about how you balance historical fact with fiction? What do you expect your readers to take away from a setting that is both real and imaginative?
VTN: In writing The Sympathizer, I felt that I had a fairly unique opportunity to engage with real historical events and real historical characters, because so much of what I knew about the war in Vietnam, and how it affected Vietnamese people, is fairly common knowledge in the Vietnamese refugee community but is not talked about widely or known widely to the rest of the world. It was actually relatively easy to construct the plot of the novel, because almost all the events are drawn from history. Very little in the novel in terms of major historical events are made up. And yet, for most people, this would be a completely new story. Writing this historical novel, I had an easier time probably than a lot of other historical writers would writing about events that are more widely known. And the major challenge was to put in enough historical detail so that the events would be convincing without writing a history book where there would be too much information. And so I always had to read much more than what actually appeared in the book. But the history from the book is drawn both from my fascination with the Vietnam War—over the last 30 years, I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies—but also from some very specific research I had to do for the novel. So, for example, while I knew that the Fall of Saigon had happened and I knew the general outlines of that, I still had to go and read 10 or 15 books on the Fall of Saigon in order to construct first 50 pages of the novel at a level of novelistic detail that would be compelling for the reader.
TM: Did you collect oral history?
VTN: No, that’s a completely different skill set for journalists. That’s not the book I wanted to write.
TM: Back when you visited Iowa City in May, you discussed your decision to open the novel in Saigon. You said that if the story had begun in the States and ended in the States, it would have been all about the life and death of the American dream. This inspired me to think about the prevailing immigrant narrative. Even though a lot of those stories intend to challenge the American dream, they are still built upon the assumption that the immigrants are attracted by the American dream in the first place, which, like you mentioned before, “affirms America to Americans.” But you identify as a refugee writer. Can you say more about the potential differences between a refugee narrative and an immigrant narrative?
VTN: I think that immigrant and refugee narratives overlap. We cannot completely separate them all the time. But as you were saying, immigrant narratives generally have a trajectory of moving from one country to the other country. And the immigrant narrative implies settling down in the new country. So we leave one home and we build another home. In the context of the United States, where the immigrant narrative is very strong, that idea of settling in the United States inevitably affirms this American mythology of the American dream. So that even when immigrant stories talk about how difficult life in the United States might be because of racism or economic challenges and so on, nevertheless, the very existence of the immigrant story itself—the immigrant novel that we’re reading—is evidence of the success of the immigrant story and the American dream.
The refugee story introduces other elements that can unsettle the immigrant and American dream story. These elements include, most critically, the fact that many refugees that come to the United States have come because of something the United States has done in their country of origin. The refugee writers, simply by acknowledging that history, introduce some troubling elements into the American story. So the existence of Vietnamese refugee writers talking about Vietnamese refugees, acknowledging the history of the war in Vietnam, means that the Americans who read these books or anybody who reads these books has to at least acknowledge this war took place. Now, the problem is, where the refugee and immigrant narratives overlap is that many refugee writers still, in the end, even as they acknowledge the refugee origin, including American intervention, often end with settlement in the United States. So that in the end, the refugee story looks like an immigrant story. And that’s why I think a lot of Vietnamese-American literature that deals more with refugees ends up focusing on what happened in the United States.
Writing The Sympathizer, I did not want to do that. If I look at the way that American literature has dealt with the Vietnam War, it’s bifurcated. It’s mostly Americans who get to write about the war in Vietnam, and it’s mostly the Vietnamese who write about the Vietnamese refugee experience in the United States. And when there are refugees who write about both parts, they write about their civilian experiences of the war in Vietnam and then the refugee resettlement. The Vietnamese soldiers who could write these war stories don’t write in English. So typically their story is only available in Vietnamese. What that means is that Americans still get to define the war. And so The Sympathizer is unique, I think, in this landscape by refusing the immigrant story, using the refugee narrative to demonstrate these contradictions of American intervention, and directly confronting the actual war in Vietnam, in a way that Americans are not used to. So I think that’s how the book is different, by deploying the refugee perspective.
TM: In your opinion, what is the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story? Do you have to train different muscles for different genres? If so, how?
VTN: I spent 20 years writing that short story collection The Refugees, and I think I exercised a lot of muscles, but maybe very different muscles and I never really coordinated everything together. So even now I could not explain to you what I’m doing in each of those stories and why I made the decisions that I did. It was, for the most part, a very intuitive process of trial and error in writing each story, which is very frustrating to me. Because I’m not a natural short story writer and I don’t have very good understanding of the short story form, it took a very long time to write that book. But I was exercising muscles.
So when it came time to write the novel, all of a sudden, it felt that I could put all these muscles together and work much more quickly, much more powerfully. And in the context of the novel, it felt much more natural. So it wasn’t as though there was no connection between short stories and novels; it was that they exercise different physical/mental capacities that I had. And with the novel, I feel like I can explain almost every single decision that goes into the book, and I can explain almost anything about the book that you could ask me about. It took two and a half years to write that novel versus 20 years for The Refugees, even though The Sympathizer is more than twice as long. So I don’t think I could have written The Sympathizer without having first written The Refugees. That being said, I would never want to go back to writing short stories and try to exercise those muscles again.
TM: Do you read to exercise your muscles?
VTN: Yeah. I tried to read books that personally move me both in terms of their story and concerns, but also how they move me at the level of a sentence. So unfortunately, I often pick up a book, I’ll read the first sentence or first paragraph, and I will decide immediately if I’m going to continue reading. I have so little time; I cannot afford to waste time on a book that doesn’t move me in every respect, but especially at the level of a sentence. Unfortunately, you know, in my life now, I have to read a lot of books that I would not necessarily pick up except that I’m reading books because I’m doing favors for other people and writing blurbs and things like that.
But in terms of reading for my own work, I tried to find books that I think are going to teach me something about some kind of literary technique or political concern that I need to know. So with The Sympathizer, it was very important for me to have discovered, again, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night or Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, because both of those books were doing things at the level of the sentence and at the level of politics. And the whole novelistic forms were not typical. They were very inspiring for me. And then finally when I’m actually writing, I try to read poetry, because the rhythm, the use of images, the use of sound, and these kinds of things are very important for me, in terms of trying to construct sentences and deploying images that are almost as concentrated as what you would find in poetry.
TM: I really enjoyed the introduction you wrote for The Displaced. You said something beautiful about memory. Your personal memory of displacement cultivates sympathy and empathy in you; remembering the best of humanity allows us to form an ideal that we can hope and work for. But others may go in the exact opposite direction for the same reason. Their past trauma teaches them to be self-centered to protect themselves; their recollections of the worst of humanity become the reason why we must close off our borders. Currently, the two groups cannot even have a conversation with each other. What’s your suggestion for a writer who aspires to speak to the latter group?
VTN: To the ones whose minds and hearts are closed? I think it’s very difficult because writers live and work oftentimes in environments and an entire marketplace that are different from the environments and marketplaces of people who are opposed to immigration and to refugees, for example. As writers, we like to believe that if we write an important story, the story will move people and change hearts and minds, because that’s our background; we’ve been moved by stories. But the people who really need to have the hearts and minds moved are oftentimes the people who are not going to be reading what we write, either because they don’t read literature or because they’re reading different kinds of books. And I can tell, based on my own personal experience; because I can go on amazon.com and see on my author page where my books are being sold, they are sold mostly in the so-called blue parts of the country, the coasts and big cities. But there are huge swaths of America where the books are not sold, and that is oftentimes a rural or red America. So that means that authors—especially literary authors who are writing fiction and poetry and so on—we have to be realistic about what our writing can actually do.
And we have to recognize that if we have a message that is not just an aesthetic message but also a political message, oftentimes we have to do different things to get that message out there, which is why I write op-eds. And I go give lectures in different parts of the country, because people who read my op-eds oftentimes are not people who are reading my books. And even in the context of the publications I write for, like The New York Times, Washington Post, or Time, they’re certainly not leftist, and sometimes they’re not even liberal. And so it is actually gratifying to see sometimes that people, like even childhood friends of mine who would not read my books, get Time. Or when I go give lectures, I have to go sometimes to very red parts of the country. And even if I’m giving these lectures in the blue parts of a red area, like a university, sometimes there will still be people who show up who are hostile to what it is I have to say. So they have to listen. And I have to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes I get some very difficult questions from people who come from a completely different perspective. So the work of changing hearts and minds is oftentimes not just at the level a book, but also at the level of personal interaction and going out there and having these kinds of conversations, trying to meet people where they’re coming from.
TM: How do you deal with hostility?
VTN: I think that I’m still relatively fortunate, because I know that women and women of color, especially in particular, get the criticism much worse than I do. As for me, I still get hostility, but it’s oftentimes restricted. You know, people will write me emails, they will send me letters that are very critical, but they’re still polite. The worst I heard is “Go back to where you came from,” which is bad, but not that bad compared to what people may actually have said. Social media allows people to have much more direct confrontations; people will send me messages on Twitter, or Facebook, or through my personal website. And sometimes, rarely, the conversations will be face to face. So people have said things very critical to me in an audience. But again, that doesn’t happen that often. And it’s happened less since I won the Pulitzer Prize. And so I think there are all these layers of insulation that I have that other people, particularly women and women of color, may not.
How do I deal with that? In a face-to-face moment, it’s important to have those moments, to not back away from that and to have that conversation. I don’t have a problem with that. And then with other kinds of written communication, sometimes I’ll respond. And sometimes these conversations will have an immediate dead-end, because the other person is so angry that we can’t have a conversation. But sometimes we exchange a few emails or communications, and we actually move forward a little bit in terms of understanding each other a little bit more.
TM: That brings me to my next question. How has the Pulitzer Prize changed your life as a writer? Have the changes been good, bad, or both?
VTN: Both. I mean, obviously I’m not complaining. There are negatives, challenges, but they’re completely outweighed by the positives. And the negative is that there has been a huge imposition on my time. So I’m about a year and a half behind in delivering my novel to my publisher. If I were to quantify how much time the Pulitzer cost me, that’s how much: a year and a half, because of giving lectures and responding to people and blurbing people’s books and things like that. The positives are that I’ve earned a lot more money. Because of the Pulitzer Prize, there’s no doubt about that. And that’s afforded me more time to write, my audiences have grown. I went from having no foreign edition to 30 foreign editions of The Sympathizer, because of the Pulitzer. So it’s turned me into more of an international author.
And it’s given me the prestige and the opportunity to speak to audiences I would never get to speak to before, both in terms of lectures but also in terms of op-eds. So I think the Pulitzer has, in every way, transformed my status as a writer, and it’s made me want to live up to that status, to use the Pulitzer for good and for other purposes.
The final challenge of the Pulitzer power play is what people will say about the novel that I’m writing now.
TM: I don’t want to get writers to talk about their ongoing projects. But in one of your previous interviews, you mentioned that you are working on a sequel to The Sympathizer. I only want to ask this question: What do you hope to achieve with this sequel?
VTN: Well, I think I want to write a good novel. That’s the most basic thing to do. And I want to write a novel that lives up to The Sympathizer, both in terms of its entertainment, but also its politics. And, let me set the expectations low and say, it won’t probably be better than The Sympathizer, but I hope it was at least be good and can live up to the reputation of that first novel.
But besides that, I think, going back to our earlier conversation about how I situate myself in terms of other bodies of literature and so on. Obviously, narrative scarcity, one of the problems for the so-called minority writer is that we get pigeonholed. We write a book that’s ostensibly about “our experience,” in my case, being a Vietnamese refugee in the Vietnam War. And we’re allowed by dominant culture to own that little piece of territory with the expectation that we won’t break out. That’s a trap. Because on the one hand, we want to break out; on the other hand, we don’t want to feel as if somehow we can’t write about what we just wrote about. I think about Philip Roth, arguably and possibly a minority writer, but definitely a majority writer. And no one now would ever say, “Oh, Philip Roth is only a Jewish writer, because he only wrote about Jewish experiences,” right? For me, the challenge is the same. That in the second novel, in the sequel, I’m still dealing with Vietnamese people, Vietnamese refugees and so on, which I’m not reluctant to do and I’m not apologetic about. But also, at the same time, I want to make the claim that just because I’m still writing about Vietnamese refugees and the consequences of the war, it doesn’t mean that it’s “only” about these things. In fact, we can write about these things, and yet they still are universally important. It’s up to me to prove that. But it’s also up to me to challenge readers who would not be able to see that.
TM: One last question: What are some of the habits that you think aspiring writers need to develop?
VTN: There are so many, but I think if there’s only one, that is to write a lot. Some writers would say you have to write every day. I don’t think that’s true. But I do think it’s true that you have to write a lot. No one ever became a writer by writing 100 hours. I think almost everybody has become a writer by literally thousands of hours. So however you choose to do it, you’ve got to do it. Whether it takes you five years or 10 years or 50 years. You can’t be a writer unless you do that.
And what goes along with writing a lot is enduring a lot. You have to endure rejection, obscurity, mockery, miscomprehension, apathy, that no one cares that you want to be a writer. And, in fact, life will constantly throw obstacles in your way. For me, one obstacle is I live in California, so to spend thousands of hours writing I have to sit in a room and not go outside and enjoy the sun. That may not be much of an issue in Iowa but it is here in California. So we endure and sacrifice a lot. So if you cannot write a lot, if you cannot endure, if you cannot sacrifice, then you should probably choose another passion.
The interviewer would like to thank Alyssa Asquith and Philip Kurian for their generous and thoughtful contributions to the interview.
In early July, I was able to sit down and interview Sergio De La Pava, the explosive, encyclopedic author who heralds a new era of the novel. A public defender in New York City, Sergio wrote his first novel on the commute to and from court cases, self-publishing the nearly 700-page A Naked Singularity in 2008. When it was republished by the University of Chicago Press, it received the PEN/Robert Bingham prize for Debut Novel. Since then, his second and third novel, Personae and Lost Empress, received similar acclaim from readers and critics alike. A writer on the periphery of the American literary scene, Sergio De La Pava’s response to art is electric, charged and ready to jolt complacency with the art form.
The Millions: What did literature mean to you before you began writing? In a public conversation with other authors, you explained that your interest in writing began at around seven or eight. In your latest novel, a young boy loses his father and, during that morbid transition from winter to spring, he discovers Emily Dickinson, titling a personal essay “Emily Dickinson is Saving My Life and I Can’t Even Thank Her,” and while I know that’s the intimate relation each reader has to literature, each of your novels contends with the moment an individual receives such profound experience with literature that they in turn become an artist. In A Naked Singularity, you’ve got the protagonist Casi working on an immense project; in Personae, we as readers discover the fragments of a man’s oeuvre after his death; in Lost Empress, it’s Nelson De Cervantes with Emily Dickinson and Dia Nouveau with Joni Mitchell. What was it for you?
Sergio De La Pava: I think initially, my relationship with literature was something similar to what Nelson De Cervantes experiences in the terms of, I don’t want to say initial experiences with literature, but ones the ones that persist and remain memorable, it feels like a life-raft, it feels in some sense like saving your life and allowing you to continue to navigate what has been to me a very confusing and ultimately frightening experience, meaning life. I think what I depicted, with respect to Nelson, is that means by which you find nothing so blatant as guidance, but almost consolation, such that x, y, and z may be true, but it’s also true that these poems or this novel or work of art was created.
When I refer to the seven or eight-year-old thing, I was referring to that age when I spent a summer in Colombia, and I remember kind of missing the English language above all things. I remember coming across Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea in English in my grandmother’s house. I devoured that, I distinctly remember that being the first time I made this leap between the fact that something like that exists and the realization that someone had to have created it, an individual behind this experience. It seems obvious now, but when you’re seven or eight it’s not, something like clouds, something you don’t question how it exists. But with this book, it was the first time I realized a guy like Hemingway is the reason this book exists, and it was probably the first time I remember thinking I wouldn’t terribly mind if I was the reason one of these books existed. That’s something that’s always stuck in my mind. It wasn’t so much about the artistic experience of the book, though for a 7-year-old it was intense, it was more about the realization there’s these people that identify as writers and they’re the ones responsible for books that exist or don’t exist. A lot of my novel Personae deals with that earliest question, of who gets to be called writer, who decides to dive into an activity in this more intense way than readers could experience.
TM: In the end of that public conversation I mentioned, you were asked to give a book that summarily defines the experience of being in New York, and you give Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, you described the novel as being able to “marry aesthetic concerns while still having a more revolutionary message to it… all [your] novels are trying to ferment nonviolent revolution.” Each artist, I believe, must engage in what that marriage means to produce. Whether they end up producing such as work as Invisible Man is not as important for that artist as their asking how they will use literature to advance aesthetic and cultural concerns. What works or authors became for you that marriage of aesthetic and political concerns you would place your work alongside?
SDLP: Do you think every novelist has political concerns? It would seem that—well, what book is popular right now?—it would seem that the author of The Marriage Plot did not have political concerns. But you are right that I pretty clearly do, right? I will say that all the aesthetic concerns that I have when I sit down to write a novel absolutely trump any political concerns. They are by far more paramount, more important. Because I am engaging in an activity where there is no reality, and nothing can exceed the aesthetic achievement. If my political concerns were paramount, then I would write an op-ed or a nonfiction book as many have done and very skillfully. In those situations, my concern would be those political realities I’m resisting in, what I’m agitating for, those options are open to everybody. When I’m functioning as a novelist, the demands of the novel have to be paramount. The reason I brought up Invisible Man is that it clearly has to me a political purpose but at no point do I feel that that political purpose overrides the aesthetic achievement of the novel. As somebody who has this whole other career that is almost all political purpose, I have to be more careful, maybe, than most, in writing the novel. I have to be more careful, that it doesn’t become a didactic piece of journalism because that’s a preexisting category I can feel free to engage in whenever I want to.
TM: And you have!
SDLP: The kind of concerns that build up and overflow in my mind, that cause me to write a novel, are rarely political. They feel more philosophical or poetic. Those feel to me the driving force of the novel. The politics of it, the radical agenda or whatever you want to call it, is quite often a function of the setting where the philosophy and poetry is happening.
TM: I think that act of achieving a political statement as a result of the aesthetic work connects well to what Ellison was about. I’m interested to know which American authors, like Ellison, might’ve provided a framework to search for truth, and who you eventually had to move past to develop your own work.
SDLP: Well I don’t necessarily identify with someone because they’re American. I go by language, I go by writing in English. To me a country is essentially an invented, if not meaningless, then low-meaning thing. I don’t take particular meaning from the fact I was born in the United States. English, now that’s a different story. English colors everything that happens in the work. The language colors everything. Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, to name writers who wrote in English. Certainly a lot of translated works have been important to me, but those were the seminal figures, always tempered by the thought that “great, they did what they did, but it’s time for an updating.” Those are all writers who stopped writing at least 80 years ago. In a lot of ways, I think the distance of time makes those influences more useful than looking to contemporaries or colleagues or doing the same thing you are and looking for inspiration there. It’s never worked that way for me.
TM: So it’s not necessarily the questions proposed in say, To the Lighthouse may not provoke today; it’s that enough time has passed that you feel them worth revisiting? Do they serve greater inspiration because of their distance?
SDLP: I suppose I don’t have a good grasp by what we mean when we say “inspiration.” Everything has “inspired” me to write but that’s not the same as saying I’ve found joy in or found profitable every single thing I’ve read. Often times, I receive negative inspiration, where I say “I don’t like that, I don’t think that’s what the novel is for, that that’s how you execute a novel.” And that can be more useful than sitting there and going “well, that novel’s as close to perfection.” When you think about it, in many ways, we as humans act out with dissatisfaction a lot more often than we do with satisfaction. A lot of the times when I’m reading, I receive this dissatisfaction, a wanting, and a highly critical response, and those serve as more useful than something that is masterful. When something’s masterful, to me, it’s done. There’s nothing left to say. There’s nothing left to do in response. I often wonder: If I were insanely impressed by the majority of novels I’ve read, would I even write? I probably wouldn’t. I think it’s the opposite. Part of the reason I write is because I find modern novels so lacking.
TM: It seems your latest novel, Lost Empress, was the attempt to bridge two very distinct styles of novel together. In a previous conversation, you used Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice as examples of these two styles. I’m wondering, using this term of translation, how did you translate the experiences of previous novels into this work?
SDLP: The novel is limitless, there’s more than Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice. I think what I meant was that I was inspired to take two conceptions of the novel that seemed like they will not mix and so Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice are two seemingly different novels in a way no other two novels could seem as different. The challenge was this: If the novel has the ability to subsume any category into its form, can you prove that by marrying these two wildly different concepts, without the infrastructure showing? That challenge can excite you, make you go “yeah, I can do that,” and that excitement can carry you for the next four years. I have a lot more freedom with that challenge than, say, translation, because there’s a hardcap to how much I decide Anna Karenina is before it no longer fits into the idea of translation. When I do this, I’m doing it with my terms and nobody’s going to tell me it doesn’t fit.
TM: I would say that while each of your work contends with reality, Lost Empress questions what is real and how we define that. Not just translating experience but transcribing it. We have this character, Sharon, a CO for paramedics, who breaks down after decades of listening to calls in which children are maimed and assaulted. But her coworker doesn’t console her, she says “that’s as real as realism gets.” I’m wondering how you can talk about the act of writing as a series of freedoms but also have your characters confront and rebel against the tragic fictions you pit them against. Is this perhaps where you attempt to bridge the two conceptions of the novel, the fantastical reproduction of reality and reality’s strenuous subjugation?
SDLP: I’ve always had this weird sensation that the world depicted in the novel is as real as ours; it’s just a matter of perspective. I feel that the conclusions I draw from immersion in a fictious, well-done novel can easily be applied in this world, with a reality that hits us every day. I don’t make distinction, I get upset about things that happen in novels and I don’t find any consolation in being told they’re a fictitious character. When I would write Sharon’s narrative, it would upset me as much as if she were like any other person I knew in life. That’s probably not the healthiest attitude, but that’s part of the reason why I inject things that are uncontroversially true of our world, such as a Rikers Island inmate guidebook or Joni Mitchell or Salvador Dali, because the facts about them are verifiably true. Part of the reason I don’t draw distinction is because convention would have us place the fiction below reality. whereas I think that fiction should be placed alongside reality.
TM: When you say you have a visceral reaction, it’s well understood. In that public conversation, someone brought up the fate of the character Nuno in Lost Empress and you looked like you were sucker-punched, you said “well, I care a lot about him, and I’m sad that it ended.” It’s this character you spent a lot of time with, but even though you say you’re with this freedom to write the novel, your characters actively protest their existence within the novel, shouting “truth in everything!” On this idea that characters are aware of what’s happening, could you say something on where you think the novel heads in the 21st century? Throughout your work, you’re referencing pop culture and pop media such as TV, the novel Lost Empress begins with the decree “let us enter into peals of laughter,” and the opening scene is in the form of a sitcom script. Though the structure of the script disappears, the kinetic quips remain in stark contrast to the looming darkness that bridges the novel’s first and second act. I’m wondering if you did this in respect to new media that competes with the novel, or if this was an aesthetic concern.
SDLP: I don’t care about the new media, I really don’t. I don’t accept that television is the new novel, that’s silly. It’s just as dumb as it ever was. I’m not competing with that stuff because I will lose, I will lose in a first-round knockout. My novels are asking that you enter into a completely different space than the one you’re in when you binge-watch Breaking Bad. I mean I watched all of Breaking Bad and The Wire and I enjoyed that but it’s not the same as when I read Mrs. Dalloway or Moby Dick or The Confidence Man.
TM: And yet your novels interject that media constantly.
SDLP: My novels, I hope, attempt in some way that just because you’re in the world where you read The Confidence Man or Bartleby The Scrivener doesn’t mean you have to forsake all the pleasures of a quick one-liner like you said. The narrator at the beginning of Lost Empress says “we’re gonna keep this pretty light,” and then, clearly, he fails to keep it light. Sharon’s abused, people are kept in isolation by the Grand Jury. But the attempt was there in the beginning, like a screenplay for a screwball comedy, and then reality keeps interjecting to the point where it can’t sustain. And you see there’s this thing where privileged people can keep it light, but ultimately none of us can keep it light, because this commonality of experience of that desolating experience will win out, or simply time’s up. There’s a character in Lost Empress, the Theorist, who describes two timelines: that of the reader and that of the novel. You know he’s experienced our reality because he describes the David Tyree catch, and he’s the only one who’s been in our timeline that’s also in Nuno’s timeline, so he says “this timeline that we’re in is ending,” and that’s verifiably true by the fact the novel’s ending, but that’s also true for the reader’s timeline, regardless of the world you’re in. And that’s not necessarily the most salient fact of your life, I hope not, that’s not that productive. But it’s there and it colors the events of life, in Personae especially, the fact that life is so fragmentary and fast.
TM: As a reader of these narratives, we can pick and choose where and when we pick up and drop off, but then what does that do for the truths of your characters? Sharon decides to remain in an abusive relationship with her husband to ensure her son’s success, a quarterback decides to suffer terminal brain damage to win a football game, Nuno escapes prison only to realize his world is ending; what makes them matter? Not in the moralistic sense you object to, but what is the saving grace for theirs and our lives by the novel’s end?
SDLP: Nuno lays this out for us at the end of the novel rather explicitly. Despite the fact there is an ending, he finds merit in all things by the fact they happened. He lays it out for us, when people say “oh, humanity’s but a speck of dust in the history of the universe,” well that’s a dumb thing to say! It’s never been about how long we’ve been around or the value of an uninhabited planet. He tackles this sense of insignificance head on because that desire to be heard is the value. Not because what we’re going to say results in x, y, and z, but because we could manage to do something. And there are people who will disagree, who say that because life has an end renders everything meaningless. That’s a view. I don’t think that’s a logically impossible view, but I don’t share that view and I don’t think anyone in that novel shares that view. Sharon decides to create meaning from her life by ensuring her son’s survival, and she could be wrong of course, but that’s for everybody to decide for themselves. That’s what we do as human beings. Why did I put a suit on today and come into my office? Because I decided that helping someone within the machine of the criminal justice system has meaning. I could be wrong, I guess, because that seems unlikely. When you experience that meaning, such as when I’m raising my two-year-old, that doesn’t feel meaningless, it just doesn’t. It feels like meaning irrespective of the entire fate of humankind.
TM: It makes me wonder about the kind of person who is satisfied by meaninglessness, or whose fear of meaninglessness is correlated to a lack of morality. These people seem to lack the experience of meaning made by living a full life.
SDLP: Right. It’s like pessimistic authors who take these works where everyone is evil and wrong and the world is mean. That’s a weird proposition, that I think is done by infantilized writers who take on this worldview and get praised for their “honesty.” But those type of people ignore the other half of humanity, like that guy who volunteers on Sundays to bathe the elderly. You’re going to tell me that that person’s evil, that their actions are meaningless? Those writers who suffuse their work with meaninglessness have to categorize and ignore the others. I feel like it is just as intellectually dishonest to find everybody good as it is to find everybody bad. Neither one feels fair.
TM: So your fiction is an attempt at something more honest to life.
SDLP: I don’t think these are optimistic works, but I don’t think they’re pessimistic works either. I’m attempting to grapple with the fact that humanity is capable of terror and greatness.
Several years ago, I spent a summer traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to visit the Ralph Ellison papers stored at the Library of Congress. I had long been enthralled by Invisible Man, Ellison’s seminal 1952 novel of race and identity in the waning years of Jim Crow. But I wasn’t taking the train into the nation’s capital twice a week because of anything he had published during his lifetime. I was there to immerse myself in the26 folders containing the thousands of pages of drafts and notes for a second novel Ellison had spent 40 years writing but never completed.
Ellison began work on the untitled novel (long excerpts of which were published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting . . .) less than a year after the publication of Invisible Man. He had envisioned it as a sweeping tragedy of race in America centered on the story of a boy named Bliss, whose skin appears white but whose parentage is ambiguous. Adopted by a former black jazz trombonist turned preacher named Alonzo Hickman, Bliss would eventually discover the protean power of racial ambiguity and reinvent himself as a white, race-baiting United States Senator from Massachusetts. Years after his ascent to political prominence, he would deliver an improvised speech on the Senate floor that would be cut short when his estranged son attempted to assassinate him from the balcony. After being shuttled to a local hospital, Bliss would confront his own tragic past alongside the man who had raised him.
Shortly after Ellison died in 1994, his wife, Fanny, implored Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, to tell her whether her late husband’s second novel had a beginning, a middle, and an end. As Callahan sifted through the reams of writing that filled Ellison’s home office, he found only fragments, some of which were virtually novels unto themselves.
As I sat in the Library of Congress’s reading room poring over drafts swamped with marginalia, paragraphs for episodes that never materialized, and ephemera scribbled on the backs of grocery store receipts and old envelopes, I was alternately entranced and dismayed. Amidst this thicket of sentences and ideas, I had hoped to discover a plan, an ending, or—better yet—an explanation for why this writer of the first order hadn’t completed what he was certain would be his magnum opus. I never found any of these. Instead, I was given an inside view of artistic struggle stretched across decades that had resulted not in the conquest of an author over form but in a sprawling curiosity cabinet of literary possibilities.
The duration and singular focus of Ellison’s work on his second novel seemed to me without parallel in literary history. Even Robert Musil, who had spent two decades laboring over The Man Without Qualities (still only half the time Ellison spent), managed to publish two volumes of the work during his lifetime. Ellison’s failure to finish his novel struck me as something for the record books, unintentional though it may have been. The thrill I felt in living in Ellison’s unfinished world—where a scrawled note or a stray revision could shuttle me down a new intellectual rabbit hole—was distinct from my experience with completed novels. It was more collaborative, more free-wheeling, more alive with—for lack of a better word—novelty. And it led me to wonder if unfinished novels constituted a genre of their own and, assuming they did, whether it would be possible to assemble a canon of literary catastrophes.
After scouring archives and bibliographies in search of this canon, it became clear that not all unfinished novels are unfinished in the same way. The most familiar type, I discovered, were those left unfinished at an author’s death that would have almost certainly been completed had the author lived a year or two longer. This is especially true of unfinished novels from the Victorian era, a period known for prolific writing. Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Wilkie Collins’s Blind Love, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters are just a few examples. Later in the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert died while writing Bouvard et Pécuchet. And more recently, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño managed to produce a fair-copy manuscript of his masterpiece, 2666, before he died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50.
Some novels left unfinished by authorial death are also haunted by mortality, which makes their unfinishedness feel more fitting. Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, about a group of hypochondriacs languishing at an English health resort, is such a novel. Its obsession with illness infects the narrative, enervating the central courtship plot. According to the critic D.A. Miller, the novel’s prose is similarly depleted, which led him to quip that Sanditon is the sole Austen novel to feature a death, that of the author as inimitable stylist.
There are occasions, too, when an author, anxious about the fate of their unfinished work, seeks to destroy it before it can be made public, incineration being the preferred method. Franz Kafka asked this of Max Brod in the 1920s and Vladimir Nabokov of his wife and son in the 1970s. Nikolai Gogol took it upon himself to burn most of the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in 1852. In 2016, the late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett told his friend Neil Gaiman—in what I take to be a wry commentary on this trope of literary obliteration—that he wanted all his unfinished projects “to be put in the middle of the road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.” This request was executed last fall in Salisbury, England, by a steamroller named Lord Jericho.
But the most interesting unfinished novels, to my mind, are those whose authors strived tirelessly to complete them but who, finally, couldn’t.
The term we often hear used to describe this vague condition is “writer’s block.” This pseudo-psychological diagnosis is so common as to be immune from critique. Yet it profoundly mischaracterizes the turmoil and energy that are elemental to literary failure. It implies immobility and obstruction when, in fact, unfinishedness is often a consequence of overflow and excess. Mark Twain wrote multiple iterations of his unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger, Nathaniel Hawthorne aborted three romances in as many years at the end of his life, and David Foster Wallace generated heaps of prose for The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.
A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.
Ralph Ellison’s agony was visible in the ebb and flow of his writing process. Periods of concentrated forward momentum were followed by periods of furious revision and, occasionally, of inertia. What he produced is a work that stretches both up (via his obsessive rewriting of episodes) and out (the sequences he wrote in his later were sometimes hundreds of pages long) as he ceaselessly searched for a coherence that ultimately evaded him. Although Ellison continued to assure even his closest confidantes that he would complete his novel, certain episodes he composed late in life betray his own suspicions that the work might, perhaps, be unfinishable.
In a particularly poignant sequence from the 1980s, the elderly preacher Hickman spies a tapestry depicting Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel. Breughel’s original painting imagined the grand tragedy of Icarus’s hubristic flight to the sun within a medieval world whose daily rhythms of commerce and labor reduce the boy’s fall to insignificance. The painting is so alive with the mundane activities of normal folk that Icarus is but a dot in the distance, unacknowledged by the painting’s occupants and barely visible to the viewer. As Hickman ponders the tapestry and teases out its many meanings, Ellison seems also to be reflecting on how his own novel had become a picture frozen in time, its central tragedy overwhelmed by the elaborate world he had built around it.
Although Ellison never capitalized on this insight into his own work, one can hypothesize an alternate universe in which he had embraced the unfinishability of his novel and published it as a fragmentary narrative without conclusion. Such a decision wouldn’t have been without precedence either.
In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”
One of the most famous examples of this kind of work is also among the earliest. Laurence Sterne’s rollicking 18th-century comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, begins with its titular narrator declaring his intention to relate the story of his life only to get hopelessly lost in digressions that derail any narrative momentum. Like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights, he writes to defer death, every digressive thread extending his life by a few pages. Sterne published the novel in parts between 1759 and 1767 (about two volumes every two years) with the hope that he would never stop. “The whole machine,” observes Tristram, “shall be kept a going [for] forty years.” The fact that the ninth and final volume ends four years before its narrator’s birth proves just how long Sterne could have kept this up. He died in 1768.
Ellison never wrote an ending to his second novel. In the four decades he worked on it, he jotted only a few scattered notes hinting at the aftermath of his tragic hero’s death. As it stands, the novel abruptly ends in a small hospital room in Washington, D.C., with the old preacher resting beside the nearly lifeless body of his adopted son as the latter prepares to draw his last breath. That he never does leaves readers on a narrative precipice with neither catharsis nor resolution to comfort them.
That Ellison never finished his novel does not diminish his achievement, but it does alter our view of it. Unfinished novels prod us to relinquish conventional approaches to reading and to seek literary pleasure elsewhere than narrative unity. They demand that we attend to dead ends as well as to false starts, to charged silences as well as to verbal excesses. They ask us to see what meanings can be gleaned from a process that has not yet hardened into product. Though their plots may be arrested, this fact does not make them any less arresting.
Image Credit: LPW.
“The novel is told from the perspective of an unnamed African-American narrator who considers himself to be socially invisible due to the color of his skin,” writes Variety. Following in the footsteps of its adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu is in the beginning stages of adapting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Read our own editor Lydia Kiesling on Ellison’s Invisible Man.
When, in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s, book critic Sam Sacks critiqued the state of contemporary war fiction in a review called “First Person Shooters,” the subtitle made his position clear: “What’s missing in contemporary war fiction.” Pay attention to that last bit. Sacks wasn’t asking a question, he was writing a prescription: Escape the “cul-de-sac of personal experience” or risk “settling into the patterns of complacency that smoothed the path to the Terror Wars in the first place.” However, if he had punctuated with a question mark, the answer would have been less hyperbolic, and a bit obvious: diversity.
This problem is not fresh to contemporary war literature. In the Spring 1997 issue of African American Review, Jeff Loeb cited alarming statistics from Sandra Wittman’s 1989 bibliography Writing About Vietnam: African-Americans accounted for just six of nearly 600 novels, four poetry collections, and four of almost 400 memoirs written about the Vietnam War. To sum up, African-Americans wrote roughly one percent of Vietnam’s literary record. By contrast, African-Americans made up 12.6 percent of the American force in Vietnam between 1965 and 1969.
Not much has changed since Wittman and Loeb first sounded the alarms. LaSalle University’s collection of Vietnam War multimedia—LaSalle and Texas Tech possess the most comprehensive collections I’m aware of—lists 8,053 entries, but categorizes only six under the subject matter search “African American Veteran Biography.” Just two are memoirs you can hold in your hands. Multimedia and Loeb’s essay comprise the rest of the entries. I used to think that the reason I could only point out one Vietnam book by a African-American vet—the poetry collection Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa—was due to my ignorance of what I imagined to be a wealth of African-American-produced war literature. The truth has proven far more uncomfortable.
In his critique, Sam Sacks can be forgiven for another thinly-veiled jab at MFA-produced writing and its effect on the literature of The Forever War, versus focusing on its lack of diversity. He’s a critic after all, forever tilting at the windmill of The Secret Sauce. Hell, I laud him for paying attention in the first place. Forever War literature rarely appears in widely circulated book reviews.  Nonetheless, the subject of identity is important ground to tread in any consideration of contemporary war literature; especially now, as identity-related brushfires have sprung up across the country.
A little research reveals that the genre came of age against a backdrop of identity-related controversy. Twelve years after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, Toni Morrison’s Beloved was up against Philip Roth and some guy named Larry for the 1987 National Book Award. When Paco’s Story, Larry Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel, was announced, the literati were flabbergasted. Michiko Kakutani began her column the next day with the breathless “What happened?” and 48 authors signed a letter in The New York Times Book Review that alleged something short of racism on the part of the National Book Award judges for passing Morrison over in favor of the white Larry Heinemann.
While its rare successes have been far less contentious, contemporary war literature since Vietnam hasn’t changed too much: mostly white and male. Under the categorization “Books: History: Military: Afghan War: Memoir,” Amazon spit a list of 177 back at me, a number which decreased by a handful after I ruled out the puzzling inclusions of The Letters of Virginia Woolf and a book by the 19th-century Frenchman Stendhal. So far as I could tell, there were 10 authors of color. Peruse the virtual stacks for a book about The Forever War, and the odds are solid that what ends up in your checkout cart will have been written by a white guy or gal.
Expanding an identity-based evaluation of contemporary war literature to gender provides some cause for optimism. But for every Rule Number Two, Heidi Squier Kraft’s Iraq memoir, there are a dozen memoirs, novels, and collections by male veterans. It’s a trend that extends to even the essays and reviews that consider war literature. In consult with Rutgers University Professor of English and retired Army Lt. Col. Peter Molin, I assembled a list of 17. It isn’t all-inclusive, but women have written only a fraction of them, and fewer of those women were veterans. If there is an empirical evaluation of readily available contemporary war writing, critical or creative, it’s hard to argue that it is not largely written by men.
In my experience, you have to go looking for work by women veterans, and all indications point to literary writers who are taking their time to perfect their craft through shorter work. An essay by Katherine Schifani, an Air Force veteran of Iraq, won literary journal The Iowa Review’s 2014 Jeff Sharlet Prize, and Marine Corps veteran Teresa Fazio’s short story “Float” won Consequence Magazine’s 2016 Fiction Prize. I know of at least five women veterans who are at work on their service-related memoirs, and most are around a decade removed from their time in the military. I look forward to the day I open their well-wrought books.
The lack of women’s veteran narratives might have something to do with what’s considered a “traditional” war story: the old blood-and-guts combat book. And despite women having engaged in combat during The Forever War, combat job specialties—infantry and special operations, namely— remained closed to women until 2016. Earlier this year, Task & Purpose broke the news that a woman was due to report to the storied 75th Ranger Regiment as the first female special operator in the history of the U.S. Department of Defense. It’s simply a matter of time until women like her pen memoirs of their war experiences; until an armchair historian thrills to the tales of a female Navy SEAL a la Chris Kyle’s American Sniper.
By contrast, plenty of Americans of color have served in combat specialties during The Forever War. So while the combat exclusion might explain the lack of women’s books, the reasoning falls short with regards to the lack of diverse narratives. As of 2015, the Department of Defense was 41 percent non-white. Expecting to see author demographics fall cleanly in line with such a statistic is a tad simple, but it’s fair to ask why so few veterans of color publish books.
Drew Pham, a Vietnamese American Army officer and Afghanistan combat vet, believes it’s a matter of “privilege and access.” In an email exchange, he wrote, “the arts are a luxury. If you aren’t raised with much exposure to that world, it seems like the distant domain of the social elite.” He noted that unlike many of his fellow officers, he “needed the Army to attend college.” In other words, if college is just something you do along your way to a commission in the service, then you might have come from a place that could afford to expose you to the arts. Conversely, if the only way you’re going to college is because you got a military scholarship, you come from a background of necessity. And while all writers, myself included, tend to think of our work as “necessary,”Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy is a pyramid for a reason.
Pham, now clear of the military and an editor of the online journal The Wrath-Bearing Tree, went on to say that the remedy is representation:
If marginal[ized] people don’t see themselves represented, then the literary world seems inaccessible to them. For my part, seeing another Vietnamese-American writer like Viet Thanh Nguyen win the Pulitzer made me think that I could make a life out of writing fiction. The veteran writing community is small and tight-knit, and as a community we have to make a concerted effort to lift up marginalized voices rather than reproduce the biases—however unintentional—that dominate society.
Mary Doyle, on the other hand, was told to “reflect the angst of being black” by her white MFA workshop cohorts, as she put it in a phone interview. “I couldn’t relate,” Doyle said, citing that trying to adopt the feedback gave her an inauthentic feeling. She ended up leaving her MFA program for financial reasons, but noted that her awareness of how she fit into white expectations of a black author began then. A black woman who enlisted in the Army Reserves in 1979, Doyle served 17 years in military public affairs before embarking on a 21-year-and-counting career as an Army civilian employee. During that time, she’s co-authored the memoirs of two black women veterans, and written a series of mystery novels featuring a black protagonist named Master Sgt. Lauren Harper. Doyle threw in the towel with mainstream publication after being pushed by agents and editors to better reflect “The Black Experience” in her writing, and now self-publishes.
Doyle seemed as puzzled as I over the lack of diversity in contemporary war literature. However, she was also quick to point out that the current political moment is
bound to generate words on the page in one way or another from people of color. I also think it will be the kind of thing publishers will find in their comfort zone…the racial divide, the conflict that comes from speaking out in the voice of the other. It’s what they always want and what they expect. So hopefully, the lack of diversity we see in military writing will get an injection of new voices…now that racism, white supremacy and all the other topics that go along with that are so prevalent…again.
This makes sense to me, a layman when it comes to the murky world of what books get published. But my gut warns me that even timely subject matter might not be enough. In 2015, Lee & Low, “the largest publisher of multicultural children’s books in the United States” according to their website, conducted a survey of the publishing industry based on data from eight review journals and 34 publishers. Including their own staff, Lee & Low sent out 13,237 surveys, and 3,415 returned complete. The data: 79 percent white, 88 percent straight, 92 percent non-disabled, 78 percent women. I’d like to have seen more data on the books published by some of the surveyed publishers just to get that last nail in the coffin, but selection bias seems firmly at play when it comes to race and books. And if it is, the odds will ever be against the veteran writer of color so long as the publishing industry continues to look like this.
Until conditions change, we’ll have to widen our gaze and do a little digging. Brian Castner, a veteran and author of two books of war nonfiction, noted that Ralph Ellison and Alex Haley both served in WWII, but neither wrote about their military experiences outright. For a more contemporary example, he noted Wes Moore, a black Army veteran and author of the bestselling The Other Wes Moore, and I was surprised to learn that Pulitzer Prize-winner Gregory Pardlo was once a Marine Corps Reservist. None would argue any of these black writers should have written military-themed books. But it won’t stop me from wishing they had.
A high school English teacher who can afford one Vietnam book on the syllabus will fall back on the familiar, not the obscure. It will be The Things They Carried, not Dien Cai Dau; A Rumor of War, and not the oral history of black Vietnam veterans, Bloods. What we read is what we buy; the bought books make the lists, and before long, the canon conceives itself. And until the canon becomes more inclusive, its narrative will remain singular and simplistic.
Facing issues of class and race, it becomes clear that there are no bromides to remedy The Forever War’s literary lack of diversity. But one can hope that as Pham and Doyle indicated, increased consciousness in tandem with current events might spur a growing production of gender-, race-, and ethnically-diversified voices within the military writing community. One can hope that we might draw lessons from the Vietnam War’s legacy of near-erasure of non-white experiences; that the growth of veterans writing workshops and anthologies will represent to future generations a more complete picture of The Forever War.
The grim reality is that The Forever War shows no indication of ending anytime soon, a fact that Sacks chooses rather niftily to ignore when concluding his thesis against a backdrop comprised of the literature of previous wars. The war my generation began has become the next generation’s to conclude. If there is a perverse truth to the current state of affairs in contemporary war literature, it is this: there appears to be plenty of time left on the clock for the canon to grow.
 According to the 2004 version of The Oxford Companion to Military History
 I am aware of only two other well-heeled critical surveys: George Packer’s “Home Fires” in The New Yorker and Michiko Kakutani’s “Home Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill A Bookshelf.” Kakutani was one of the few book critics to regularly review contemporary war books.
 Professor Joseph Darda’s essay in Contemporary Literature, “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness After Vietnam,” made me aware of the controversy.
 The Amazon results included works by non-U.S. authors.
 Ellison’s early drafts of The Invisible Man prominently figured the recovered journal of a dead Merchant Marine named Leroy. Ellison, like Jack Kerouac, served in the Merchant Marine during World War Two.
Image Credit: Army.mil.
On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure:
It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
When someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered.
But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books.
After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time — after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today — consumerism, consumption — and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example.
In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley’s own interest in “reform eugenics” at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book — one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers). Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel — and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint — they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power.
I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves — these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor.
There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study.
We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term.
Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline — the “savage meeting civilization” — that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre — what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification — Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.”
Satire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins:
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.
Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children…he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.”
I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort — it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel.
So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance — that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed — and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy — that which brought Donald Trump to the White House — at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it.
People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.
With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers:
What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade?
We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds.
The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened — beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” — that rape was
the price one has to pay for staying on…they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.
Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid…about what human beings do to other human beings” — such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” — yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote:
Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it…A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel…I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion…The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life.
For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility.
Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre:
For the South African novelist…how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing?
Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: “[C]ontemporary political novels — the ones that sell, at least — are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through…is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.”
Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist — David Lurie is — her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal — are as relevant as they’ve ever been.
In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence.
That’s a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men — which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop — and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much.
Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described — the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck — all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.”
But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn’t be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life’s Work, although again it’s not fiction. But I don’t suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant — finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now.
I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn’t participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again…on and on, and I haven’t even gotten into international issues!
I don’t want politics to be a source of entertainment — there is too much at stake for that — and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don’t misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let’s keep them separate.
But maybe that isn’t possible.
Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel’s novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it’s whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn’t feel overtly political; it’s concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn’t shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth — with black slaves, for starters.
The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family’s history: for instance, one mother’s goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can’t have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming.
Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the “finest form of free entertainment ever invented.” It’s a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.”)
Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like “They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain’t makin’ carpenters who know what nails are for.” And this year, crazy has gone national, though it’s New York, not Texas, to blame.
That’s why I’ve been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer’s wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There’s a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it’s the perfect Austin novel.
The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something’s gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there’s not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it’s happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump).
The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it’s a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y’all. Or at least we meant to.
One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics — with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall.
Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head.
I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about.
At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk.
Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable.
As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.”
As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world — to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman — feels like a slow death.
Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice — the most important political weapon there is.
Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
After 74 entries, hundreds of books, and more additions to our reading list than we can count, sunset has come for our latest Year in Reading. The series was, if we can dispense with humility for a moment, a huge success, featuring more great essays written by more great authors than we’ll ever know what to do with. It also reminds us, as always, how thankful we are for our readers.
As for our contributors, this year’s roster was an eclectic bunch, including one Pulitzer Prize winner, two frontmen for popular bands, and all five National Book Award finalists, including this year’s winner. It included one novelist, Eimear McBride, whose debut earned high praise from James Wood just a couple of months ago. It also included our staff, which delivered, among other things, an awards ceremony in miniature and a poignant meditation on college life. It blew us away, in other words, and we’re just glad we can run something this wonderful, year in and year out.
Per a tradition started by our own Nick Moran (and partly inspired by our own Janet Potter), we’ll cap things off by handing out our own bespoke awards. If past years are any indication, these awards will immediately become very coveted, so if you happen to see one of the winners on the street, be sure to congratulate them profusely, or perhaps gaze upon them with a mixture of fear and awe.
First up: high accolades are due for those books which our entrants consistently named among the best things they read this year. Top honors go to Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, which got shout-outs from Eimear McBride, Jess Walter, Hannah Gersen, Rachel Fershleiser and Scott Cheshire. Leslie Jamison agreed with Scott Cheshire and Molly Antopol, respectively, in her choice of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and Charles d’Ambrosio’s Loitering. Our own Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was popular, as well — Julia Fierro, Mark O’Connell and Bill Morris all named it one of their favorites. Each book will receive a Millions Year in Reading Circle Award.
In the nonfiction category, The Favored Comrade Award for Interest in Russian History goes to Stephen Dodson, who delved into his enjoyment of Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science with a detailed aside about the motherland. In a long, comprehensive paragraph, he namechecked Peter the Great, Joseph Stalin, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, at one point describing how odd it is that Pavlov never received punishment for his criticism of Stalin’s regime. It’s a great introduction to the book’s topic, as is Nick Moran’s piece on Last Train to Paradise, which goes home (again) with a Golden Jetski for All Things Floridian. Maureen Corrigan, for her choice of a history of Dutch New York, wins the Van Wyck Award for Interest in Nieuw Amsterdam.
The Gutenberg Award for Time-Saving Technology goes to audiobooks, which allowed two entrants, Michelle Huneven and Julia Fierro, to read more than their schedules might have otherwise allowed. After reading an essay on Jane Austen, Huneven listened to the audiobooks of Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre, while Fierro used audiobooks to get some reading done while knitting. We salute them for their productivity, and resolve to take more advantage of the format in the future.
Speaking of new formats, The Franz Kafka Award for Not Just Thinking Outside the Box But Actually Setting It On Fire goes to Blake Butler, who devoted his remarkable entry to a book that appears only in his dreams. The book, which his dreaming self discovered while locked in a cage, is thin, nearly endless, and bound in transparent leather. Each page contains a color, “full and flat,” which his dreaming self could read, and — ah, dang. It’s beyond our description. Go read it yourself.
Our final prize, the Steve Martin Award for Total Honesty About Parenting, goes jointly to Mark O’Connell and Lydia Kiesling, who both wrote about their reading lives in the wake of new parenthood. Lydia, writing four days before her due date, set out a great list that included John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in spite of the palpable influence of “so-called nesting hormones.” Mark, after a year of reaching children’s books aloud, had some thoughts to share about new children’s classics: “Let me tell you, I read seven shades of shit out of Peck Peck Peck by Lucy Cousins.” We salute them both, and hereby grant them a night each of uninterrupted sleep.
And that’s it! Thanks go out again to our readers and contributors, and we hope you all have a fruitful end to the year. If you missed any part of the series, be sure to go back to our main entry for The Year in Reading 2014.
P.S. Thanks also go out to The Millions staff, foremost among them C. Max Magee, our singular founder and editor, as well as Adam Boretz, whose work on the editorial side made A Year in Reading possible. We also need to thank Kaulie Lewis for her work on social media, and, of course, all of our staff writers for their contributions to our year-end series and the whole year leading up to it.
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I don’t know when this entry will run, but I am writing it on a Friday, and I’m supposed to have a baby on Tuesday. I’ve been home since Wednesday, prowling around the house — if a very pregnant person can be said to prowl — feeling lumpy and alert and expectant. It’s safe to say I’m weirding out a little. For weeks I have been in the grip of so-called nesting hormones, which are real, and which remind me of being in college and taking other people’s adderall to finish a term paper, except the term paper is cleaning baseboards, or finally buying a decent set of towels after reading a lot of information about what makes a towel nice, or creating tasteful yet affordable shared adult/baby bedroom decor out of an old calendar and 12 discount frames from Amazon. I’ve been reading a lot of Amazon reviews, so many that it doesn’t feel like I’ve read much of anything else.
But that’s not true — I read a book of essays by Nora Ephron. And I read this article in Harper’s, about squadrons of elderly people living in campers and humping merchandise through an Amazon warehouse. Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck; I feel bad about my ankles, and my strenuous participation in late capitalism. I feel bad about the number of huge cardboard boxes filled with tiny things I’ve gotten from Amazon. I don’t want to buy any more things from Amazon, but I don’t know how I will get my cat litter, or new hooks for my shower curtain, or a tiny dehumidifier that fits in a closet, or a ceramic space heater with automatic shutoff and remote control so the baby doesn’t freeze in our cold little house. I don’t know where I will read 400 earnest assessments of which Pack and Play is the best Pack and Play. Did I mention I’m weirding out a little?
Speaking of late capitalism, last week I read four children’s books by Beverly Cleary, because I have been thinking about what it means to have a family and to be middle class and the Ramona books feel like a portrait of a kind of family and life that is maybe on its way out in America. I read select passages from The Chronicles of Narnia to get in a more cheerful frame of mind, but not The Last Battle, because that’s the one where everyone dies. I read the first few pages of Renata Adler’s Speedboat because people are always talking about it on Twitter, but I didn’t understand what was happening and I took a break and then accidentally returned it to the library. I read some stories by Julie Hayden, and want to read more, but there aren’t very many to read. I read Rabbit, Run, which I had always assumed that I’d read and it turned out I hadn’t, and which I probably shouldn’t have read while nine months pregnant since it depressed and angered the hell out of me.
I read Invisible Man. I read Austerlitz. I read The Patrick Melrose Novels and was not as charmed as I had hoped to be. I read new things, The Good Lord Bird and Life After Life and The People in the Trees and Dept. of Speculation. I read Americanah over a blissful Easter Sunday, which I spent in bed eating popcorn in an empty house. I read Station Eleven over the course of a blissful regular Saturday, with my cats and my blanket. I read Thrown, which filled me with envy of people who are professional writers. I read Submergence. I re-read Dance to the Music of Time and The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Howards End and everything by Donald Antrim. I read small parts of a vast number of books about pregnancy and babies and felt overwhelmed with details regarding the cervix. I read all of Labor Day, because Edan is in it, and I found most of the entries frankly alarming, but less so than the comments on BabyCenter. I read a lot of studies about what the numbers on a nuchal translucency mean, and many opaque articles about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
As with every year, there were a lot of things I wanted to read and didn’t. I didn’t read anything by Norman Rush and I didn’t read anything by Ivan Turgenev or Katherine Mansfield or Karen Russell or Ben Lerner.
There were a lot of things I wanted to write and didn’t. I didn’t write an essay about my great-grandmother Vera. I didn’t write my Anita Brookner reader, or an essay about late capitalism, or a novel. Parenthood, as far as I know, is not a condition characterized by increased productivity, so I don’t know what will happen to these plans in the new year. I will say I have found pregnancy, for the most part, unexpectedly generative and wonderful. I mean, obviously, it’s generative, but I mean generative of things other than blastocysts and embryos, or of strong feelings regarding towels. I mean of thoughts about life and books and writing. The first real things I ever wrote I wrote after I met my husband and fell in love; maybe loving a new person will open other horizons. Maybe it won’t. It’s impossible to say. For now I’m just weirding, watchful.
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June is sickly sweet; it’s insipid. Is that because it’s so warm, or because it rhymes so easily? June / moon / spoon / balloon… But while Robert Burns happily rhymed his “red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” with a “melody / that’s sweetly played in tune,” Gwendolyn Brooks burned off any sugar in the terse rhythms of “We Real Cool”: the rhyme she finds for “Jazz June”? “Die soon.”
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
June is called “midsummer,” even though it’s the beginning, not the middle, of the season. It’s the traditional month for weddings — Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is overflowing with matrimony — but it’s also the home of another modern ritual, graduation day — or, as it’s more evocatively known, commencement, an ending that’s a beginning. It’s an occasion that brings out both hope and world-weariness in elders and advice givers. It brought David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address reprinted as This Is Water, perhaps as close as he ever came to the unironic statement his busy mind was striving for.
But the graduation speech is an especially potent scene in African American literature. There’s the narrator’s friend “Shiny” in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, speaking to a white audience like “a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life,” and there’s Richard Wright, in his memoir Black Boy, giving a rough speech he’d composed himself instead of the one written, cynically, for him. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is invited to give his class speech before the town’s leading white citizens, only to find himself instead pitted in a “battle royal” with his classmates, while in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a young student follows a white dignitary’s patronizing words to the graduates with an unprompted and subversive leading of the “Negro national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (whose lyrics, to bring the tradition full circle, were written by none other than James Weldon Johnson).
Here is a selection of June reading for the beginnings and endings that midsummer brings:
McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)
One of American literature’s most memorable — and most disastrous — weddings ends, after an orgy of oyster soup, stewed prunes, roast goose, and champagne, with Trina whispering to her groom, McTeague, “Oh, you must be very good to me — very, very good to me, dear, for you’re all that I have in the world now.”
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
Five days after Joyce met Nora Barnacle on a Dublin street, and one day after she stood him up, they went on their first date. Eighteen years later, he celebrated that day — June 16, 1904 — with a book.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1942/2004)
After reading Colette’s account of the migration out of Paris forced by the German occupation, Némirovsky remarked, “If that’s all she could get out of June, I’m not worried,” and continued work on her own version, “Storm in June,” the first of the two sections of her fictional suite she’d survive the Nazis long enough to complete.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)
It’s a “clear and sunny” morning on June 27 when the men, women, and children of an unnamed village assemble to conduct their annual choosing of lots.
“The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara (1959)
Writing during the lunch hour of his job at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara gathered the moments of his afternoon into a poem: the train schedule to Long Island, a shoeshine, the “quandariness” of choosing a book, the sweat of summer, and the memory of how Billie Holiday once took his breath away.
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin (1964) and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” by Eudora Welty (1963)
On the day (June 12, 1963) Medgar Evers was assassinated, Baldwin vowed that “nothing under heaven would prevent” him from finishing the play he was working on, about another notorious murder of a black man in Mississippi, while Welty, on hearing of the murder in her hometown of Jackson, quickly wrote a story, told from the mind of the presumed killer, that was published in The New Yorker within weeks.
Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
Is the greatest beach read the one that could keep you from ever wanting to go into the water again?
Blind Ambition by John Dean (197?)
We know the story of the June 1972 Watergate break-in best from All the President’s Men, but Dean’s insider’s memoir of how it quickly went wrong, co-written with future civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is an equally thrilling and well-told tale.
The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1977)
We’ve never quite known what to do with The Public Burning, Coover’s wild American pageant starring Nixon, a foul and folksy Uncle Sam, and the Rosenbergs, whose June execution is at its center: it’s too long, too angry, too crazy, and, for the publisher’s lawyers who said it couldn’t be released while its main character, the freshly deposed president, was still alive, it was too soon.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979)
Sleepless Nights begins in a hot, blinding June but soon fragments across time, into memories from the narrator’s life — which closely resembles Hardwick’s — and stories from the lives of others, a method that has the paradoxical effect of heightening time’s power.
Clockers by Richard Price (1992)
It’s often said that no modern novel can match the storytelling power of The Wire, but its creators drew inspiration from Price’s novel of an unsolved summertime murder in the low-level New Jersey crack trade, and for their third season they added Price to their scriptwriting team.
When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud (1995)
Bali is hot but dry in June, while the Isle of Skye is gray and wet, at least until the weather makes yet another change. Messud’s first novel follows two English sisters just on the far side of middle age who find themselves on those distant and different islands, reckoning with the choices they’ve made and suddenly open to the life around them.
“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx (1997)
Meeting again nearly four summers after they last parted on Brokeback Mountain, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are drawn together with such a jolt that Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth.
Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
Three Junes might well be called “Three Funerals”–each of its three sections, set in summers that stretch across a decade, takes place in the wake of a death. But the warmth of the month in Glass’s title hints at the story inside, and the way her characters hold on to life wherever they find it.
Image via circasassy/Flickr
I recently read Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, in which she spoke with American Communists past and present (1977), and asked what they had to say about it all. Her accounts described people who were perpetually waiting for “the revolution around the corner”; eventually, the revolution proved to be too long in coming. In Gornick’s book, the power that Communism offered its adherents really came through, sometimes in a creepy way, as people described a willingness to abandon spouses and families in service of the party’s aims. But I don’t think I’ve read a book that better conveys the sheer ordering power of ideology, any ideology, than Invisible Man, wherein the advent of Communism, christened “The Brotherhood” by Ellison, actually has a perceptible effect on the novel’s form.
The first half of Invisible Man is meandering chaos as the narrator encounters people who hugely affect his movements in the near- and the long-term. Casting an eye around your frame of reference, you reach for comparable narratives, like the Odyssey or the Divine Comedy, where itinerant heroes have adventures, or bump into people and listen to them say astonishing things at length. But Invisible Man has something else going for it, a nightmarish sense of powerlessness. This is partially a function of events; nothing goes the way it is meant to for the narrator and, by extension, his reader. He is invited to deliver his graduation speech to a gathering of white town fathers, and instead gets thrown into the boxing ring with a bunch of other terrified black boys. At college, he is assigned to ferry around an important white benefactor, and by solicitously catering to the man’s whims, ends up in a black dive full of rioting mental patients and prostitutes. In this interlude I felt that molasses-like feeling characteristic of bad dreams. The narrative brilliantly impels anxiety through its disjointed quality, which it shares with one of Ellison’s great influences, “The Waste Land”:
“What is wrong with this gentleman, Sylvester?” the tall one said.
“A man’s dying outside!” I said.
“Yes, and it’s good to die beneath God’s great tent of sky.”
“He’s got to have some whiskey!”
“Oh, that’s different,” one of them said and they began pushing a path to the bar. “A last bright drink to keep the anguish down. Step aside, please!”
The narrator is then duly punished for letting the benefactor go astray. He is sent to New York, gets a job (no thanks to his evil college president), gets blown up, gets electrically lobotomized, and gets discharged back into the world without knowing his ass from his elbow:
Things whirled too fast around me. My mind went alternately bright and blank in slow rolling waves. We, he, him — my mind and I — were no longer getting around in the same circles. Nor my body either. Across the aisle a young platinum blond nibbled at a red Delicious apple as station lights rippled past behind her. The train plunged. I dropped through the roar, giddy and vacuum-minded, sucked under and out into late afternoon Harlem.
And then the Brotherhood appears, to bring order to the chaos. Discovering the narrator’s remarkable powers as an orator, they send him for his training in the science of social change. Maybe I’m imagining it all, but once I arrived at this point in the novel, I lost my sense of anxiety and impotence. Not only the substance of the narrator’s life, but the text itself, took a form I could more easily follow. That’s the beauty of Marx’s ideas; a man can get control over his own story. Sooner or later, though, he will realize that someone else is writing the story for him: “The world was strange if you stopped to think about it; still it was a world that could be controlled by science, and the Brotherhood had both science and history under control.”
Soon, like many people in the twentieth century, the narrator finds that for all their science, the Brotherhood is thinking at a scale that has ceased to be relevant to the particular circumstances of men like him, or his Harlem neighbors, who worry about getting evicted or shot by the police. The people he calls “the transitory ones”:
…ones such as I had been before I found Brotherhood — birds of passage who were too obscure for learned classification, too silent for the most sensitive recorders of sound; of natures too ambiguous for the most ambiguous words, and too distant from the centers of historical decision to sign or even to applaud the signers of historical documents. We who write no novels, histories or other books.
Reading Invisible Man, I thought about The Adventures of Augie March, which was published a year later, and which also describes meandering and haplessness in the face of unforeseen circumstances. Bellow and Ellison were friends and roommates, and their novels form a pair of sorts. But Bellow’s meanderings seem so often to lead to opportunity; they can be described as “rollicking.” In America it is the privilege of the white man to rollick, even if he is a poor Jew born into moderate squalor. The black man, in this novel at any rate, can only be fucked around; his hope, in this novel, is to discover his own way of doing things. I say “man” because a woman in this novel can only be fucked, full stop; she does haven’t much hope of decent treatment, by the novelist or anyone else. Too obscure for learned classification, women are chattel and bait.
I felt Ellison’s novel invited me to compare its narrator to Augie March and feel sorrowful for the injustice inherent in American life, but Ellison may have protested this. In his great essay “The World and the Jug,” a riposte to the critic Irving Howe, Ellison criticized Richard Wright for his belief in the novel as a weapon. “True novels,” Ellison wrote, “even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life and therefore are ritualistic and ceremonial at their core. Thus they would preserve as they destroy, affirm as they reject.” And Invisible Man does end, somehow, on an affirmative note, even though the narrator is living underground and philosophizing from some kind of vast coal scuttle. The reader’s chaos and disorientation returns, but this time, things seem like they are in hand:
In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived…Thus having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge.
As with American Communism, there is something of a pall over Ellison’s legacy — a sense of things left undone, a general wanting in his solidarity with other black writers and intellectuals. He repudiated the influence of Wright on his literature, when Wright gave him his first leg up as a young writer. He is said to have taken a dim, threatened view of later generations of black writers. But it seems to me that Ellison, as a black writer, was never quite allowed, by himself or others, to relax comfortably into the quirky individuality, even dickishness, that was the birthright of his white authorial contemporaries.
Invisible Man was Ellison’s only novel, his other work a smattering of stories and essays. Among his essays, he is chiefly remembered for the aforementioned stirring and dramatic exchange with Howe, a white man who, evidently, was not expecting pushback when he praised, with offensive qualifications, Invisible Man in an essay about Richard Wright and James Baldwin:
What astonishes one most about Invisible Man is the apparent freedom it displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country — I say ‘apparent’ because the freedom is not quite so complete as the book’s admirers like to suppose. Still, for long stretches Invisible Man does escape the formulas of protest, local color, genre quaintness and jazz chatter.
Howe’s assessment of Black writing, as something dictated by the social conditions that “formed a constant pressure on his literary work…with a pain and ferocity that nothing could remove,” prompted an exchange that would go three rounds and would lead Ellison to lob this stinger: “Many of those who write of Negro life today seem to assume that as long as their hearts are in the right place they can be as arbitrary as they wish in their formulations.” Referendums on the relative fairness of Ellison’s and Howe’s remarks continue to be published today.
I thought of Ellison when reading a modern-day exchange about race between public intellectuals — Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. In a powerful essay in The Atlantic, Coates refutes the belief, shared by conservatives and progressives, in some derelict streak in black culture, and points instead to white supremacy as one of the “central organizing forces in American life.” In the context of Coates’s argument, Ellison might seem to willfully downplay this force, emphasizing in his response to Howe that his own influences took the form of Marx, Freud, Eliot, Pound, Stein, and Hemingway, books which “were to release me from whatever ‘segregated’ idea I might have had of my human possibilities.” But in Coates’s piece I heard strong echoes of Ellison’s rejection of white attempts to universalize and pathologize the black experience, as here:
Oddly enough, I found it far less painful to have to move to the back of a Southern bus, or climb to the peanut gallery of a movie house — matters about which I could do nothing except walk, read, hunt, dance, sculpt, cultivate ideas, or seek other uses for my time — than to tolerate concepts which distorted the actual reality of my situation or my reactions to it…I could escape the reduction imposed by unjust laws and customs, but not that imposed by ideas which defined me as no more than the sum of those laws and customs.
While Ellison evidently wanted to be remembered more for his fierce advocacy of the individual and the artist and his need for representation — “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority,” he once told The Paris Review — his writing to Howe here is a resonant comment on the right of people to say who they are, rather than be told. In this he speaks even for the obscure birds, those men out of time, about whom the Invisible Man asked in his thrilling final line: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you”? And still today, people do not hear.
The review of Invisible Man in the New York Times began, amazingly, “Ralph Ellison’s first novel, ‘The Invisible Man,’ is the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read.” Ellison never completed his gargantuan second novel, Juneteenth, which was Frankensteined and published after his death to thin reviews. For whatever reason, he paid the cost of being, as he put it “an individual who aspires to conscious eloquence.” But if Invisible Man is the most fully-realized embodiment of your conscious eloquence, that’s a hell of a legacy. How else might that Times review have begun? “The most impressive work of fiction by an American”? It would not have been an audacious claim.
Want to reverse a book ban? Start giving away free copies of the novel at your bookstore. Earlier this week, we reported that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was taken out of the Randolph County, NC school curriculum. But less than week later, the ban has already been lifted due to intense community backlash and a local bookstore undermining the decision. Board member Matthew Lambeth said, “I felt like I came to a conclusion too quickly.”
Every year, like clockwork, a few brave administrators ban a classic book in time for the opprobrium of Banned Books Week. This year, the brave administrators in question work in Randolph County, NC, where Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison will no longer be on the curriculum. Why? Real quote: it’s a “hard read.” (Related: Kelsey McKinney on banning The Bluest Eye.)
The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life. We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth.
So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high.
We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below. Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa.
We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section.
Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University
How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem.
Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away – but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world.
Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders?
If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change.
Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography
The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since.
“Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed.
But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.”
Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”
At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want?
Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas
John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label.
He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction.
A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made.
DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora.
Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America
Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America’s mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood.
The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?
Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito’s failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a “hostile take over bid,” Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father’s capitalist-patriarchal throne.
The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones’ tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women’s liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power.
Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo’s out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit.
After Puzo, none of America’s epic stories, Ahab’s or Gatsby’s, Hester Prynne’s or Invisible Man’s, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot’s admission to the “great tradition.” The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo’s omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own.
Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry
It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel.
The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden.
“But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.”
And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere.
Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues.
Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us?
Kirk Curnutt, Troy University
On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive.
Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental.
The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem.
My only compensation?
I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market
Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum
Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent.
But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction.
In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation.
Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist.
Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile.
Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself.
Priscilla Wald, Duke University
When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries.
Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.”
The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel.
Hester Blum, Penn State University
Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville’s terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped — and, crucially, shapers — of parts that jostle together, join and repel.
There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being “dismasted.” We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a “dumb brute,” rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: “he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter (“The Quarter Deck”). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.
What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements — a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing “inscrutable malice,” or the minutia of cetology — and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity — to try come to know — the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
In the fifth episode of the hit sitcom New Girl, a self-styled stud tries to impress an Indian-American woman by declaring that he loves India. When pressed for details, he stumbles his way through the following catalogue:
I love Slumdog. I love naan. I love pepper. I love Ben Kingsley, the stories of Rudyard Kipling. I have respect for cows, of course. I love the Taj Mahal, Deepak Chopra, anyone named Patel. I love monsoons. I love cobras in baskets…I love mango chutney, really, any type of chutney.
The point is clear: the average American’s knowledge of Indian culture is superficial, stereotypical, and offensive. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the joke — and an Indian-American woman in a leading role on primetime TV — confirms how much Indian culture has permeated American pop culture. This should not be surprising: With a population that increased to 2.8 million from 1.7 million between 2000 and 2010, Indians are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America. They may also be one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in literary fiction — in America and the larger Anglophone world.
Fiction written in English by authors of Indian descent has been critically acclaimed and commercially successful for decades. Now a new wave of talent has arrived: In 2012, the Indian-American writers Rajesh Parameswaran and Tania James published their debut short story collections — I Am An Executioner: Love Stories and Aerogrammes, respectively — while British-Indian author Hari Kunzru published his fourth novel, Gods Without Men: While it may be too soon for these authors to have achieved the heavyweight status of a Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, their imaginative, provocative, and well-crafted books suggest the continuation of a literary legacy and a move into “post-post-colonial,” “post-ethnic” territory.
Parameswaran, James, and Kunzru inherit three decades of Anglo-Indian literary success. Rushdie’s magical realist novel Midnight’s Children, about a boy born on the precise moment of Indian Independence, won the Man Booker Prize, the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. His most notorious novel The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death threat from Ayatollah Khomeini that sparked international controversy and massive sales, an experience upon which he reflects in his memoir Joseph Anton, recently excerpted in The New Yorker. In recent years, the Booker has gone to Arundati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, a hybrid of Invisible Man and Native Son set on the subcontinent. And as recently announced, the six authors shortlisted for the 2012 Booker includes Jeet Thayil, born in India, raised in Hong Kong, India and the U.S., and the author of the novel Narcopolis, about a 1970s opium den.
The new wave is also indebted to Lahiri, who rocked the American lit establishment — and book clubs nationwide — with Interpreter of Maladies, an understated, pitch-perfect short story collection that captured the domestic dramas and existential malaise of upper class Indian Americans, mostly in bourgeois Boston. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was followed by the novel, The Namesake, later a Mira Nair-directed movie, and Unaccustomed Earth, another stunning and more ambitious story collection that cemented Lahiri’s reputation as the marquee Indian-American fiction writer and a master of short fiction.
Beyond heritage, Parameswaran, Kunzru, and James have similar pedigrees. Parameswaran went to Yale for college and law school, Kunzru went to Oxford, and James went to college at Harvard and grad school at Columbia. (Rushdie went to Cambridge). Too old to be wunderkind, all are still young by literary standards: James is 31, Parameswaran is 40, and Kunzru is 43. And while they hail from Michigan and Texas, Kentucky, and London, all three now live in the New York area. Perhaps a brunch is in order?
True to their heritage, all three address issues of Indian identity. In the central storyline of Gods, an Indian-American man marries a Jewish-American woman and the incipient tensions in their marriage combust after their son disappears. In “Ethnic Ken,” a story in Aerogrammes, an Indian-American girl plays with a brown-skinned version of Barbie’s boyfriend; the doll apparently cost half the price of the “regular” Ken. In one of the many tragicomic stories in Executioner, an unemployed Indian computer salesman pretends to be a doctor — the paradigmatic profession for high-status Indian Americans — with ghastly consequences. In their treatment of ethnicity, all three books join Lahiri in a subgenre that one of James’s characters, an aspiring screenwriter, calls “not quite Bollywood, not quite Hollywood: Indians in America or England Torn Between Identities.”
Nevertheless, all three authors transcend the stereotypical expectations of “ethnic” fiction, including the notion that characters must share their author’s ethnicity.
Several stories in Executioner and Aerogrammes feature non-Indian characters. And the Indian-American protagonist in Gods shares a stage with non-Indians including an 18th-century Spaniard, a 19th-century Mormon, and a contemporary (Caucasian) British rock star. Even among the Indian characters, there is diversity: James’s Indian characters speak Malayalam, the language of the state of Kerala, Kunzru’s Indian characters speak Punjabi, spoken in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan, and Parameswaran’s titular executioner speaks in a parody of Indian-accented English: “Normally in the life, people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanors.” Such simple differences may remind Western readers that India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot and internationally engaged country, not a monolithic, homogenous, insular place.
As if to distance themselves from ethnicity and nationality, all three authors experiment with non-human characters. The narrator of one story in Executioner is an elephant; another is a murderous, guilt-stricken tiger, a literal version of Adiga’s titular “white tiger.” A story in Aerogrammes concerns a chimpanzee that nearly convinces a woman he is human. Strangest of all, Gods opens with a cryptic fable with characters named Cottontail Rabbit, Gila Monster, Southern Fox, and the protagonist Coyote, who sets up a meth lab in the desert. Take that, Kipling.
Regardless of species, all three books grapple with physical, emotional, and existential despair, albeit in different tones and moods. Gods is cerebral, somber, and grim. As he did in the reverse outsourcing fable Transmission, Kunzru assaults his characters until they break, and relents only after they have lost nearly everything. (For the film, perhaps Werner Herzog or P.T. Anderson could direct?) By contrast, Aerogrammes is sweet, sad, and painfully earnest. Characters are naïve, blind, or delusional, whether it’s the Indian wrestlers who don’t realize the sport is supposed to be fake, or the boy who refuses accept his mother’s new husband. There’s pain suffering in Executioner, too but it’s often undercut by humor or an authorial wink, either implied or in meta-fictional parentheses or footnotes.
While Aerogrammes essentially falls into the category of realist fiction, Parameswaran and Kunzru flirt with other genres. Besides the two talking animal stories, Executioner includes a spy thriller, “Narrative of Agent 974702,” and a science fiction tale, “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319).” Perhaps most fantastical — yet paradoxically most credible — is the cult at the center of Gods, a desert commune that fuses Christianity, Buddhism, New Age, and Alien Worship into an explosive whole. Then again, as Kunzru semi-subtly implies, such a group is not so different than the Europeans who Christianized Native Americans or Mormons who found Zion in the American West.
While fundamentally contemporary, all three books derive depth from history. In Executioner, the meta-fictional tale “Four Rajeshes” concerns a railway clerk in colonial India at the turn of the 20th century and his version of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. The opening story in Aerogrammes features a pair of Indian wrestlers who arrive in England in 1910 to engage in literal and figurative battles with their colonial overlords. Perhaps because it is a novel, Gods is even more historically ambitious, with a storyline that spans more than 200 years. Ultimately, all three authors use history to transcend personal experience, shattering the expectation that “ethnic” fiction must be autobiographical. In a way, they all respond to the question that Rushdie poses in Joseph Anton when recalling his inspiration for writing The Satanic Verses:
The great question of how the world joins up — not only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live.
In terms of style and structure, Aerogrammes is the most conventional of the three. The plainspoken prose obeys the aesthetic in which the writer’s voice is secondary to the story. The nine stories are more or less uniform length, each about 20 pages. Ultimately, James seems to value cohesion and consistency over shock and surprise. Parameswaran takes the opposite tack. His voice is always strong and varies widely from story to story; some seem like the work of different authors. If the books were Beatles albums, Aerogrammes would be Rubber Soul, the harmonious whole with songs of essentially equal weight, and Executioner would be The White Album, a hectic hodgepodge of competing voices. (Speaking of The Beatles, didn’t they help bring Indian music and spirituality into Western popular culture?)
Gods splits the difference between these two extremes. Like Executioner, it’s grandiose, sprawling, and dense. With its multiple points of view, multiple settings, and non-linear structure, it often reads like a collection of loosely linked stories. Some plots literally converge; others merely inform each other. Yet over 369 pages, Kunzru maintains cohesion. Part of this may stem from his use of the close third person point of view (which James does in most of her stories). It may also be a matter of experience; perhaps on their fourth books, James and Parameswaran may find a similar balance of ambition and unity.
For all the merits of these books, the question remains: is this literary boomlet an anomaly, a coincidence, or a harbinger? Will these books be a curiosity or a gateway to wider American interest in Indian culture? Will more Indian Americans join Govs. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley as high-profile politicians? Will we see more Indians Americans in popular entertainment: TV, movies, sports?
In a poignant scene in Interpreter of Maladies that sums up the cultural barriers at the heart of the book, an American woman tries to buy Hot Mix, an Indian snack. The Indian clerk dismisses her with four words: “Too spicy for you.” Perhaps one day, that scene will seem outmoded, if not unfathomable.
RJ Smith doesn’t draw an exact line marking when James Brown, the 5’6” son of a South Carolina turpentine maker, became James Brown, Sex Machine/Black Elvis/Mr. Please, Please, Please/etc. But I will.
It happens about a third of the way through Smith’s remarkable new book, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. Brown’s smash album, Live at the Apollo, has just spent 66 weeks on the pop charts, vaulting the performer from the sweaty dives of the chitlin’ circuit into a higher, neon-lit level of exposure. Money is pouring in fast enough for Brown to buy a mansion in Queens with a moat, and, after $65,000 in renovations, an interior lined with faux leather and pictures of himself. The singer has renovated his body, too. He pays a California dentist to fix the gap between his teeth and hires a traveling hairstylist to whirl his hair into shining bouffant praised, in the slang of the time, as “expoobident.”
Meanwhile, Brown’s tour is becoming more militaristic. He hires goons to clear the way to and from shows. Onstage, he fines his musicians for missed notes or wrinkled uniforms. Offstage, he is armed and ready. “You notice how many pictures of James Brown, he’s got a coat over his arm?” the Rev. Al Sharpton asks, in the book. “That’s because he had his gun under it.”
Most importantly, Brown is leaving behind blues, rock, doo-wop, and gospel in favor of a raw sound filled with screams, popping bass, and furious counter-rhythms. He is inventing the genre we currently refer to as “funk.” Smith describes the singer’s February 1965 stop in at a converted barn in Charlotte, N.C., where a control booth sits in the old hayloft. “It was time to record a tricky piece of rhythm Brown had been thinking about for a while,” he writes:
The musicians set up, playing this and that while waiting for the boss to arrive. Finally, Brown’s customized white Cadillac with the tinted windows appeared, and the singer swaggered in. “He stopped the place. You just knew that somebody of significance was present,” said Clay Smith, Arthur’s [the owner of the studio] boy. Constantly in motion and talking so fast he could have used a translator, Brown was not one of the guys. “James was in charge,” Arthur Smith remembered later. “I knew I owned the studio, but I knew he was going to do what he wanted to there.”
What Brown wanted to do was lay down a strutting, macho anthem marked by explosions of brass and a guitar that sounds like chrome wheels spinning. He hums a melody to the sax player and a bass line to the bassist. He thumps out a beat for the drummer. He watches a trumpet player struggle, fires him, then re-hires him moments later. And when the singer is ready, he screams out a set of lyrics scratched on a sheet of paper. The song is called “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
“Keep on Fighting” is the title of the chapter in which all of this takes place. And no matter how many superhero movies you have seen, the transformation it describes is exhilarating. Like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman or Clark Kent becoming Superman, we have just watched James Brown become Soul Brother Number One.
A former Los Angeles magazine editor and contributor to Blender, Spin, and The Village Voice, Smith is not the flashiest, most purely talented writer to take on the Godfather of Soul. That title, I believe, goes to Jonathan Lethem for his dazzling 2006 Rolling Stone profile, “Being James Brown.” (More on that in a minute.) In the beginning of The One, Smith struggles slightly to find the tone to tell this story. Some of his images fall flat, like when he writes that the chord structure of “Cold Sweat” was “as visionary and protean as Frida Kahlo’s one eyebrow.” At other times, his voice cracks when he reaches beyond his natural range. His description of the “lachrymose mood” of Brown’s early ballad “Try Me” feels over-academic for a performer as lusty and physical as Brown. Elsewhere, Smith sounds uncomfortably un-academic. After a street fight with estranged band members early in his career, Smith ventures inside Brown’s head. “At least them motherfuckers weren’t gonna be calling him Monk Brown to his face anymore,” he writes, in an ill-advised estimation of J.B.’s inner monologue.
As a funk nerd (an oxymoron, but still true), I have other quibbles with the book. I would have liked to learn more about the nine children Brown fathered with nearly as many mothers. We see them playing Monopoly with real money during one scene, then suing for royalties later on, and that’s about it. I would have also relished a glimpse or two more inside the marathon, early-’70s recording sessions that produced “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing,” “Mind Power,” and other predecessors of modern hip-hop.
But, it would be unfair to judge Smith’s book on a few slip-ups, especially when the majority of the book feels so good. Like his subject, Smith is man of stamina and drive. The fruits of his prodigious reporting are evident on every page: a secret tape of Richard Nixon whining “I don’t want any more blacks, and I don’t want any more Jews, between now and the election,” before a visit from Brown at the White House; a heartwrenching moment when Brown’s guitarist, Jimmy Nolen, asks his wife to pass on a message to Brown after Nolen’s death. “’The next person you get to work for you,’ the wife dutifully reports to The Godfather, ‘I hope you treat them better than you did us.’”
These facts and details provide a driving, powerful rhythm for the book, and, over time, the story seeps into your bones. In a scene that is jarringly reminiscent of the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we learn that, as a young man in Augusta, Ga., Brown was blindfolded and thrust into a boxing ring for a “battle royal,” while wealthy white men smoked cigars and looked on. Later in Brown’s career, we learn that country musicians in Nashville recorded a white-response to “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” with the lyrics, “I’m proud and I’m white with a song to sing…” We are also there inside Brown’s Learjet when the engine stalls and the plane begins to drop precipitously. After the engines kick back in, Brown calmly turned to an acquaintance and asks if he was scared. When the man says, “Yes,” Brown responds, “It’s not your time. You with me.”
Smith’s reporting is never better than his account of the singer’s 1967 trip to perform for troops in Vietnam. From the USO press release describing “primitive and somewhat savage” beat of Brown’s music to a walkie-talkie squawking, “Get ’em out of there, there’s a mortar attack coming in” as the band traveled between shows, we are not simply reading, anymore. We are being hauled across time and space to an amphitheatre carved out of a hillside east of Saigon:
At the end of a song, from behind the stage, the musicians suddenly heard the unmistakable ack-ack-ack of American guns firing on VC to the rear. Everybody was watching the band, and now they were really watching, as confusion and then anxiety played across the musicians’ faces. Finally, one of the guys sitting cross-legged at the front of the stage spoke to the band: “Aw, don’t worry. We won’t let Charlie get ya!” And then Brown took the microphone and continued the show: “Hit me!”
Indeed, it Smith’s dogged research that leads to the book’s greatest achievement. James Brown was a man who went to extreme lengths to conceal any signs of weakness. The author includes plenty of examples of this — going back on tour the day after his son Teddy’s funeral, for example — but he also provides access to the man during rare moments of distress. We watch Brown nearly knock out his teeth as he learns the tip-the-mic-drop-to-a-split-then-bounce-back-catch-the-mic trick that would later appear effortless. As his grip on the singles charts weakens in the late 1970s, we see him tell his trombonist, Fred Wesley, to write knockoffs of other artists’ hits, like David Bowie’s “Fame.” (This was “a head-scratcher,” Smith writes, “because ‘Fame’ itself is a pale version of Brown’s 1970s sound.”) And when the IRS comes searching for millions in unpaid taxes we watch the collision of Brown’s colossal ego with one of the few forces strong enough to tame it. With the government threatening to throw a padlock on his mansion, Brown summons his accountant, Fred Daviss, to downtown Augusta one night, where they sit quietly in the singer’s van. His hair was tousled. He was sweating. “Finally, he reached under the seat and pulled out a sack of money, like he was extracting a molar,” Smith writes. “’Hold on to it as long as you can,’ he told Daviss, ‘But then pay ’em.’”
“Someday, someone will write a great biography of James Brown,” Lethem wrote in Rolling Stone in 2006. “It will by necessity, though, be more than a biography. It will be the history of a half-century of the contradictions and tragedies embodied in the fate of African Americans in the New World; it will be a parable, even of the contradictions of the individual in the capitalist society, portentous as that may sound.”
Smith has written such a book: a clear, linear, trustworthy account of one of the most complex and influential musicians in American history. His biography upholds the mystique of a man whom characters in the book call “black messiah,” “the personification of Blackness,” “the ultimate god of funk,” a man with “more musical genius than Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart put together,” and, in the case of a disgruntled former drummer, “a black Hitler.” At the same time, it gamely steers through the cloud of myth and misinformation that Lethem identified as “The James Brown Zone of Confusion,” and returns the singer back to earth.
Toward the end of Brown’s life, the author ushers readers into a new James Brown Zone of Confusion — one based entirely in reality. The elderly Brown’s life was marked, on one hand, by laurels from the Kennedy Center and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, on the other, ever-stranger behavior due to drug abuse. The collision of these two worlds, as Smith reports, was often surreal. At one point Brown gets a young Wall Street investment banker to secure a $30 million loan against his future music royalties. When they meet each other to finalize the deal, Brown asks the startled banker, “You ever smoke gorilla [PCP]?”
All of this is not to say that The One is the “definitive biography of James Brown,” as the book’s promotional copy reads. Such a book will never exist. Smith’s book is not a substitute for Fred Wesley’s indispensable, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman or many of the pieces (including Lethem’s) in 2008’s The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul. “Entire forests have been decimated to build the newsprint mountain that recounts his exploits, declarations, and influence,” wrote Nelson George in the introduction to that anthology. The term “definitive” attempts to seal off a man whose music, if not his heart, still thumps on.
On vinyl, on YouTube, and in the musical DNA of countless current performers, James Brown lives for a new generation of writers like me, who want to drop to the floor in splits; to dance, scream, and sweat, in his honor. RJ Smith has perhaps gone further than any writer before in telling this man’s story, but his book is not definitive. It is merely expoobident.
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In the 35 year period in which he has made 17 films (among which are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus 7, Men With Guns) MacArthur grant-winning director John Sayles has also published seven books, including the National Book Award-nominated Union Dues and two full-bodied novels, Los Gusanos and, most recently, A Moment in the Sun. And yet, as he mentions in the conversation that follows, he has never received one note or letter from anyone who has read any of his books — a correction the cross-country reading tour (in a rented Prius) Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi embarked on, will no doubt make.
A Moment in the Sun, in nearly 1,000 pages, delves into a sketchily acknowledged period of American history — the rise of Jim Crow, effectively thwarting Reconstruction in the South, the road to the Cuban Spanish-American War, American imperialism running rampant in the Philippines, and the greed-fed Yukon gold rush. As it happens, the American involvement in the misnamed Philippine insurrection also serves as the setting for Sayles latest film, Amigo.
This, my second chat with John Sayles (we last met in 1995 for his Cuban exile novel, Los Gusanos), turned out to be a lengthy conversation touching on his new opus, his new film, the perils of independent film making, and any number of asides and anecdotes from a full and storied creative life.
Robert Birnbaum: Its International Free Press Day — in case things like that matter to you. I haven’t seen any reviews of your new opus. Maybe because it is too long for reviewers?
John Sayles: There have only been the publishing trade magazines, Kirkus and those. One of them called it a cat-squasher of a book.
RB: How imaginative. I saw an article on the fact that you are visiting every state including Alaska.
JS: Just about, yeah.
RB: Is that fun?
JS: Yeah, I like reading. The book is long enough so I am reading a different chapter every night so I don’t get bored with it. One thing that is nice is that it is almost all independent bookstores.
RB: The chains seem to be going out of business (laughs). Who would have thought it?
JS: Also the chain stores don’t do readings in the mall that often. I have written three novels before this and a couple of short story collections and to this day I have never gotten a letter from someone who has read one of my books. I run into people who have seen my movies all the time. Most people don’t know I write books.
RB: Didn’t you win a National Book Award or something?
JS: That didn’t change anything. I was nominated.
JS: A short story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood. But that was about five years ago or so. Nation Books published it — they hadn’t done fiction before so it was pretty new to them. Doing readings is kind of like theater, where you are looking at your audience. Which is nice for a book, to actually see somebody who is going to read the book or at least buy it.
RB: Unlike most book tours, which is one sealed tube after another — you are out among the people.
JS: We like driving across the country.
RB: Are you rejiggering your budget now that gas prices are soaring?
JS: No, but we are renting a Prius. I am almost too big for a Prius but it’s OK. Mexico is just about out of oil — which will be good for the pollution in Mexico City.
RB: The week I was there it must have been really unusual because it was not bad at all.
JS: They have a few good days, but the rest of the time it’s like breathing bus exhaust.
RB: I’ve lost track of Mexican politics — did they just have an election?
JS: They are about to have a big one. What’s happening is that the narcos have a bigger army than the government.
RB: That stuff is ripe for fiction — lots of books are coming out of the borderland. My favorite is
“I think it’s going to be cultic,” Philip Roth said recently on the future of the novel. “I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.”
Of note is the fact that Roth was speaking to Tina Brown, master of ceremonies at The Daily Beast, an online attention-mill that roughly a year after running the quotation in question subsumed old school bearer of the magazine journalism standard Newsweek (inviting visions of joint enterprise, DailyNewsBeast). If the universe online can seem to undercut cherished notions of a solitary speaker delivering polished wisdom and revelation from the mountainside, by democratizing the availability of virtual mountainsides and slaking the requisite for polish – diversion always just a finger’s click away (hey, look at that…) – then it may well fall to the serious novelist to play early Christian to, for lack of a better imperial throne, Gawker’s Rome.
Where, after all, are the fictional characters more obsessing than Charlie Sheen and the commentary he provokes? Good novels are the shields we raise in Charlie Sheen’s defiance.
To snag an allegory from Adam Levin’s The Instructions (as the early Judeo-Christian/Rome analogy is likewise snagged, 10-year-old protagonist Gurion Maccabee wrestling with his role at the head of such a defiance), reading a novel is akin to entering a defile, “a thin breach through which only one person could pass at a time, a space that an army would have to break ranks in order to trek.” It is the solitary nature of a novel’s undertaking – the enchantment and transport of fiction, a shared secret – that gives it such formative weight for the individual reader.
Days, weeks, months spent reading a book can’t be replicated by the blaze of movie-viewing, slippery ephemera, an experience vertiginous for want of words. Fiction can trigger strong feeling, and with a book in your lap, you own it – you read where you want to read, the story proceeds when you will it to proceed. In marginalia, you can record what a given sentence means to you. No such option exists in a movie theater, save for what gobbledygook you manage on your cell. Consciousness of any feeling the story elicits can slip away in the light of the lobby, the smell of popcorn, your companions’ faces, seen again as if for the first time…
Chase that insight later (rent the movie, cue it up on your laptop), and what you may end up with are actors and pretense and motions, the drama of it all, minus what it was you brought to that moment originally, your own feelings made strange, superfluous. “Charlie Sheen,” you may find yourself saying, should Charlie Sheen be the star of the movie in question, “Remind me again of who it is I am.” But Charlie the F18 – he doesn’t know either.
What you need, truly, is quiet and a book. What you need is a room of your own with a view of the bay. What you need is an apple and a bowler hat, a footstool on which to cross your ankles. Do such prescriptions, undergirded by the assumption that you need to be told what’s worth valuing, sound “cultic”? See how slippery is the off-ramp from the mass-media superhighway.
Sometimes, taking ourselves less seriously is a good idea. Rather than binding everything in the filigree of words, pure excitement has its time and place, a place free of time – always among the young, and who doesn’t want to linger in youth’s hop-along self-assurance? To be undifferentiated, one of the smiling among the smiling, eyes sleepy, comfort a given.
A book, in contrast, appears a tying down. What happens to you alone, the very aspect that gives a novel its sway, can be felt never to have happened at all, should there be no other face to acknowledge it. So mass media derive their dominance, for no matter the quality of the entertainment, you can turn to your companion exiting the theater and say, “Hey, how about that?” In contrast, a book that you read, one less than well publicized, becomes a kernel carried around for months, or years, before reciprocal consciousness is encountered.
The deepening of feeling that goes with carrying that something, a novel’s two covers arguably the very foundation of the private self, may mirror, on its release into the everyday, the fanaticism of the true believer. Have you read the Levin? You must read the Levin. (Mind, this is a hypothetical voice; I’m not telling you that you have to read anything.)
Four recent novels, Adam Levin’s The Instructions among them, take the cultic as their departure point: Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine and Will Self’s The Book of Dave, being the other three. (Somewhere around the bend awaits Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely.) While The Gospel of Anarchy and Big Machine portray cult largely as madness – albeit a seductive sort of madness – The Instructions and The Book of Dave render cult as that other thing it can be: the basis of a new religion (madness, be damned). All four invite reading, tongue-in-cheek, of sections of their text as scripture. The Instructions, naturally, is entirely scripture.
Taylor, in his debut novel, is a soul well familiar with the online storm, formerly a brave of HTMLGiant. That would be neither here nor there were his novel not so clearly a nod to the force the web holds on the mind.
The Gospel of Anarchy opens with a drum solo: David, an ambivalent telephone survey operator in Gainesville and aficionado of online porn (“I imagined the girls in a kind of march, an endless parade celebrating—what? Themselves, I guess, or me.”) in the way that Jake Barnes saw bull and finely coiffed matador, decides to share nude photos he has of his ex with a listserv of fellow pervs. He only takes the courtesy of blackening out her face beforehand (a nod to Tucker Max?: “In so doing I had made her anybody—nobody. She was raw material now. She was YOUR FACE HERE.”). Self-destruction attained, he walks out the door and into the street, destination nowhere: “This was my life,” David reports.
Until making some new friends, that is, residents of a commune called “Fishgut.” New friends, and new lovers, Katy and Liz, dynamo and devotee, who take him into their bed and belief system, a work in progress. For the first time in his life, David finds himself in church, there discovering “veneration of presence, the breaking down of the walls that make each of us one and one alone. A thing that is three that is also one. Godhead.” But this apprehension of religious experience (see the novels of Marilynne Robinson) seems a glaze, to race on its way to truer interest: the commune’s own encompassing mythos, “anarcho-mysticism,” the fervor for its founder’s return. “On Hypocrisy,” “A Different Trip Another Time Another Rain” and “The Moral” read the entry headings of the journal left behind by the mystery man.
Taylor excels at deploying the word “still,” which is appropriate for a writer so gifted at depicting whimsy and volatility. Or, put another way: freedom, terrible freedom. Soon enough, The Gospel of Anarchy departs from David’s point of view, the narrative never quite touching down with such sure footing.
Uneven as the web itself, a bold casserole of sensual encounter and deranged proclamation (“My silence was the secret of the secret, the silence of the mystic rose that was fully blossomed within me…”), the fact that Anything is still Something in Taylor’s work figures as nothing short of miracle. Loudly, even rapturously, Taylor succeeds in making the clamoring passion of his characters real, their raw, mercurial yearning a cry for “a world newly established.” In terms of acts of God, The Gospel of Anarchy is a tornado, tearing up the hill where rock ’n roll and cult meet. As Katy muses about an old Indian folktale evidently doctored by Christian conquerors:
There’s something beautiful about it also, sort of running concurrently with the monstrosity. She can’t put her finger on it exactly, but it has to do with ideological miscegenation, how all cultures are just hodgepodges, collages, patch jobs. Try putting it this way: the monstrosity is the beauty.
Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, on the other hand, has the feel of earthquake, low, rumbling tremors years in the building. The Millions’ Edan Lepucki endorsed this one not long ago, duly citing its principal charm: voice. As a play on James Wood’s hysterical realism, a category that dates most certainly to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Big Machine lets loose a zany, nonsensical plot that never fails to stay grounded in the mind of narrator Ricky Rice. If the plot flabbergasts, LaValle’s attention to character will not, even to those of bit players simply passing through. His novel, like Taylor’s, takes fanaticism as its focus. “To be an American is to be a believer!” a vagrant portentously shouts at the novel’s outset. “But y’all don’t even understand what you believe in.”
Spinning off tropes of serial noir and horror (e.g. vagrant as prophet), LaValle pits sweet good against callous evil, semi-recovered heroin addict Ricky (“Almost three years without a kiss. That’s a lot of love to lose.”) dropping his job as janitor in Utica, NY, to make for the great north woods of Vermont. Happy to ditch the grit of janitorial work, Ricky still entertains doubt after receiving mysterious summons: “When he gets you out into the country, well, there’s too many tales about this going badly for a guy like me, and I couldn’t help but ponder the possibilities.”
The possibilities lead to a compound miles from anywhere – not so different from a writers’ colony, actually (LaValle makes the likeness overt in his acknowledgments) – where Ricky finds he has been selected to take part in a special directive to cull weird and captivating headlines from the mundane: “The Washburn Library doesn’t care who you were, only who you want to be. Out here we don’t call you cons. Out here you’re Unlikely Scholars.”
When the library’s existence is threatened by a former disciple named Solomon Clay, Ricky and an authoritative white-haired stunner named Adele Henry are sent to the fictitious Bay Area peninsula, Garland (like Oakland just across from San Francisco), to try to sort things out. Devils who might be angels, a doomed millionaire and vagrants willing to act as suicide bombers all figure in the ensuing mayhem.
The present action notwithstanding, Ricky’s repressed past functions as counter narrative: Ricky was raised in a cult, one whose three matriarchs (“the Washerwomen”) rewrote the Bible to conform to a more familiar context: “Finally you actually listen and ask yourself, Was there really a woman named Josephine in the Bible? Malik and his coat of many colors? Luther parted the Mississippi?”
With humor and the deliberation of the self-doubting, Ricky grapples with his abrupt emergence on the world at large. Ungrounded, he is prone to manipulation by the Dean of the Unlikely Scholars, a man running his own sort of cult. If “Taxation Without Representation Is Tyranny” was the rallying cry against the British, then “Love Without Reciprocity Is Madness” could be that against Cult. And what a kind of madness it is.
Late in the novel, Ricky wonders what his father saw in the Washerwomen’s doctrine, a passage that Taylor’s novel directly echoes:
Their main idea was pretty straightforward: the Church is broken. Which one? Take your pick. All choices were correct. The Church, that abiding institution, had stopped working. A new church had to take its place. Something small and defiant and renewed with concern. Which is about as traditional an idea as Christianity has.
The Book of Dave explores civilization on the post-apocalyptic island of Ham, where the engraved ravings of a mentally unbalanced, 20th century taxi driver named Dave have been taken as revelation. As such, all children must split time between their mothers and fathers, who live in gender-segregated communities, Dave’s wife having left him and taken their boy some five hundred-plus years before.
The Book of Dave would have made an excellent novella or short story. The satire wears thin after page 100 or so (the word “irony” crops up again and again, the Hamites’ manner of denoting metal – for a while, a good joke) and the dialogue, rendered between English slang and text message (“Eye bin 2 ve playce vair ee berried ve Búk, an ee cum 2 me, an ee giv me anuvvah Búk – yeah, a nú I”), is often virtually indecipherable. Regardless, The Book of Dave headed the pack of this most recent spate of novels chronologically, and its take on the virulence of misogyny is more resonant than nicety allows.
Reaching back, what are the seminal 20th century novels about cults? Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (capitalism and its never-ending wonders as cult), and, long live the Chief, Tom Wolfe’s novelized non-fiction The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s all there: charismatic leader (Ken Kesey), enforced belief (be groovy), claustrophobic togetherness (are you on the bus or…?). The drama of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is Kesey’s reckoning with just how cult-like the following he has garnered is, a lesson on spectacle and enthrallment that must speak directly to the modern gods of pop culture – and their marketing gurus. One lesson to take away? Wear cool pants.
Counter to Wolfe’s classic, the anti-heroes of each of the more recent titles are on the inside. They drink the Kool-Aid (if not in quite as dark a sense as that phrase connotes today). The stubborn skepticism of LaValle’s Ricky Rice is the closest thing to Wolfe’s cock-a-doodle-dooing at a remove, outsider on the inside and the outside at once. Of the Pranksters and the fervor of their belief in Kesey, Wolfe writes, setting the undercurrent of his antic history: “And still the babies cry.”
James Ross published just one novel in his lifetime. This is a rare thing because of a paradox that lies at the heart of novel writing: it demands such sustained focus, such persistence, so much raw pig-headed stubbornness that anyone who does it once almost invariably does it again, and again, and again. Once is almost never enough. The agony is just too delicious. Yet after his debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, appeared in 1940, James Ross published a dozen short stories but no more novels. When he died in 1990 at the age of 79, he could have been a poster boy for that rarest and most tortured breed of novelist: the one-hit wonder.
Truth to tell, They Don’t Dance Much was not a very big hit. When Ross met Flannery O’Connor at the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the late 1940s, O’Connor wrote to her agent: “James Ross, a writer who is here, is looking for an agent. He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much. It didn’t sell much.”
Yet Ross has always had a fiercely devoted, if small, band of acolytes. I count myself among them. So did Raymond Chandler, who called Ross’s novel “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story.” Another fan is Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones, who last year picked They Don’t Dance Much as one of his 10 favorite crime novels. In his New York Times review of a 1994 novel called Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale, the gifted novelist Daniel Woodrell listed some of Lansdale’s “country-noir” predecessors, including James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson. “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned,” Woodrell wrote, “though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot. He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind. They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man’s voice speaking when he has a witch’s brew of a tale to tell. No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required…”
True on every count. There is abundant savagery in Ross’s novel, including a graphic description of a man getting tortured, beaten to death, dumped into a vat off bootleg beer, then burned. But the savagery has a point – it is almost always a by-product of greed – which is a very different thing from saying it points toward some sort of moral, or even some species of authorial judgment. Ross was too cold-eyed, too much of a realist to care about such niceties. As he put it himself: “Some reviewer said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting. My…aim was merely to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.”
The “straightforward power of a man’s voice” in this case belongs to the novel’s narrator, Jack McDonald, a down-on-his-luck North Carolina farmer who is about to lose his exhausted 45 acres for non-payment of back taxes. Jack jumps at the chance to go to work as cashier for a roughneck named Smut Milligan, who’s about to expand his filling station into the biggest, noisiest, nastiest roadhouse for miles around, a bona fide knife-and-gun club that attracts a barely literate, frequently drunk, occasionally violent and largely worthless clientele. With this crew – and a ringleader like Smut Milligan – it’s inevitable that there will be blood.
The straightforward power of Jack’s voice is established in the book’s opening sentences: “I remember the evening I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn.”
Ross needs fewer than 50 words to tell us many valuable things: that his narrator is the shiftless type who hangs around filling stations; that Charles Fisher is so rich he can afford the very best, including a purring new Cadillac that drinks high-test gas; and that Fisher isn’t the sort of rich man who lords it over the hired help.
Ross continues: “Fisher’s wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.”
In addition to being straightforward, this writing has the great virtue of compression, which means its seeming simplicity is both a mask for and the source of its deep complexity. Writing this way might look easy, but it’s not. Writers as diverse as Hemingway, Joan Didion and Elmore Leonard are proof, as are their legions of tin-eared imitators.
Another of the novel’s many pleasures is the way Ross uses money to do something all successful novelists must do – bring his story to life in a particular place at a particular time. In this he’s reminiscent of Balzac, who managed to mention money at least once on every page he ever wrote. To cite just a few examples from Cousin Bette: “It cost me two thousand francs a year, simply to cultivate her talents as a singer” … “At the age of fifty-two years, love costs at least thirty thousand francs a year” … “Tell me, are you worth the six hundred thousand francs that this hotel and its furnishing cost?”
Money is every bit as important, though not nearly as plentiful, in Ross’s fictional North Carolina mill town called Corinth, a stand-in for the hamlet of Norwood where he grew up. The time is the late 1930s, when the Depression is ending and the Second World War is beginning. In that place at that time, Ross tells us, a bottle of beer cost 10 cents, a steak sandwich cost 40 cents and a pint of “Breath of Spring” corn liquor cost a dollar. A cotton mill worker earned $40 a month while the more skilled hosiery mill worker earned that much in a week, though the work frequently drove him blind by the age of 30. All this is a shorthand way of establishing the thing that is not supposed to exist in America but always has and always will: a class system. Another tool Ross uses to expose it is his characters’ speech.
Here’s a bit of social analysis from one of the roadhouse regulars: “Oh, Yankees is got the money… They’s a few folks in Corinth got money too. Henry Fisher is got plenty of money. But folks like that go to the beach and to Californy, and to Charlotte, and up Nawth to spend it. They ain’t comin out here for no amusement.” And here’s Charles Fisher pontificating to a visitor from the North about the South’s troublesome white trash: “The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress. They are, in the main, fearful of new things… I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning.”
Jack, who lost his farm and can’t afford to pay for his mother’s burial, has a low opinion of the higher-ups: “They were the people that are supposed to be nice folks, but like a dram now and then. And when nobody is looking like to kiss somebody else’s wife and pinch her on the behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course.” That accidentally, of course establishes Ross’s kinship with all true storytellers since Homer, his understanding that all classes – that is, the whole human race – is essentially unimprovable, an eternal mix of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion, horror and humor.
Which brings us to Ross’s greatest gift of all, his sly wit. Here’s Jack describing the woods around the roadhouse: “It was still down there toward the river. You could hear the mosquitoes singing, ‘Cousin, Cousin,’ just before they bit you. When they got their beaks full of blood they’d fly off singing, ‘No kin, No kin,’ just like humans.”
And here’s Jack asking Smut about a gift he gave the sheriff:
“What was that you gave him in the paper sack?” I asked.
“A quart of my own private Scotch. Confound his time, he ought to appreciate that. I paid four bucks a quart for that stuff.”
“I didn’t know the sheriff drank,” I said.
“He don’t drink much. Just takes a little for medicine when he has a cold.”
“You think he’s got a cold now?” I asked.
“I understand he keeps a little cold all the time,” Smut said.
Even such wonderfully wry writing couldn’t keep the book from slipping into obscurity. Then in 1975, 35 years after its original publication, the novel was re-issued in hard-cover by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Lost American Fiction series edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Ross was about to retire after 20 years as a political reporter and editorial writer at the Greensboro Daily News, which followed stints as a semi-pro baseball player, farmer and IRS clerk. A few years after his retirement, I took a newspaper job in Greensboro and happened to rent an apartment a few blocks from where Jim and his wife, Marnie Polk Ross, lived. I was still in my twenties, still more than a dozen years from publishing my own first novel, and so naturally I was in awe of a writer who’d hob-nobbed with Flannery O’Connor and written a novel that had just been anointed a classic. Beyond that, Jim Ross became a friend to me and many other young writers in town because he never offered false praise and yet he had a way of making us believe in ourselves. He showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression – that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time – and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery. It was the sort of encouragement and inspiration only the luckiest aspiring writers get. Coming from Jim Ross, it meant the world.
While visiting Greensboro recently, I pulled up to the house where Jim spent his last years. To my surprise, Marnie was out in the front yard in lemony sunshine, raking leaves. Though I was uninvited and unannounced and hadn’t seen her since Jim’s funeral 20 years ago, she invited me in, gave me a glass of ice water, and started telling me stories, which is something Southerners of a certain age still tend to do.
Right off, she stunned me. She told me a college professor named Anthony Hatcher had visited her a while back, expressing an interest in writing some sort of scholarly article about Jim. She’d given Hatcher all of Jim’s papers, including the 318-page manuscript of a novel called In the Red. I remembered Jim mentioning something about a second novel when I first met him, back in the 1970s. When I’d asked him if he planned to try to publish it, he’d said, “It’s no damn good.” Then his voice had trailed off. I assumed it was unfinished, or unpolished, and that he had never showed the novel to anyone. Marnie set me straight.
“Jim tried very hard to get it published,” she said. “He sent it to (the agent) Knox Burger, but nobody wanted to publish it. I think that rejection had a lot to do with Jim’s declining health. I think Jim was kind of a pessimist and he didn’t really expect it to sell. He hoped it would sell – writers are always hoping their work will sell. They want it more than anything, but it doesn’t always happen.”
Knox Burger, I learned later, was the fiction editor at Collier’s when the magazine published two of Jim’s short stories in 1949, “Zone of the Interior” and “How To Swap Horses.” (Jim also published short stories in the Partisan Review, Cosmopolitan, the Sewanee Review and Argosy.) Burger went on to become a book editor and then, beginning in 1970, a celebrated literary agent. If he couldn’t sell your novel, your novel was in serious trouble.
So Jim Ross, it turns out, was something even more tortured than a conventional one-hit wonder. He was an unwilling one-hit wonder, a writer who went back to the well and wrote a second novel and then gave up because nobody bought it and he convinced himself it was no damn good. There can’t possibly be anything delicious about that kind of agony.
Rosemary Yardley, a former newspaper colleague of mine and a good friend of the Ross’s, remembers visiting Jim in Health Haven Nursing Home, where he was frequently admitted in his later years due to debilitating osteoarthritis. Jim called the place “Hell’s Haven.”
“I asked him about that novel,” Rosemary told me, “and he said, ‘I tried to sell it but they don’t like the way I write anymore. I don’t write what they look for today.’ He was probably right. He wrote old-fashioned stories in the sense that they always had a good plot.”
Finally I reached Anthony Hatcher, who lives in Durham, N.C., and teaches journalism and media history at nearby Elon University, which Jim Ross attended for one year. “I re-read They Don’t Dance Much last year,” Hatcher said, “and when I learned that he left the college under mysterious circumstances, I became extremely interested. I decided I would dive into the life of Jim Ross. I tracked down Marnie, some of Jim’s former newspaper colleagues, his sister Jean Ross Justice (a short story writer and widow of the poet Donald Justice) and his sister Eleanor Ross Taylor (a poet and widow of the fiction writer Peter Taylor). I’m still collecting archival material. In addition to the In the Red manuscript, which is based on political figures in Raleigh, there’s a 113-page fragment of a novel called Sunshine In the Soul. My initial thinking is that I would write about Jim Ross the fiction writer – his published novel and short stories – and then tackle the unpublished work. I would love to do an in-depth treatment of Jim Ross and his place in the Greensboro literary scene, going back to the days of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 1930s.” Hatcher plans to take an eight-month sabbatical next year to work on the book.
So Jim Ross was an unwilling one-hit wonder who might yet have another day in the sunshine. This unlikely twist of fate got me thinking about other writers who stopped publishing after they sold their first novels, for reasons that range from rejection to writer’s block to drink, drugs, depression, shyness, madness, a loss of interest or a loss of nerve, or the simple realization that they said all they had to say in their one and only book. The most famous are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Less well known was Anna Sewell, who was not a professional writer but scored a major hit with Black Beauty in 1877. A few months after the book was published she died of hepatitis. That is just plain wrong. (Ellison and Henry Roth, who published his second novel 60 years after his debut, Call It Sleep, have recently joined Vladimir Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño in publishing novels after they died, which can’t be an easy thing to do.)
And then there is the group I think of as Mislabeled One-Hit Wonders – writers who actually published more than one novel but will forever be identified with the one that made their names. J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) come immediately to mind. Those books dwarfed everything else their creators wrote, which is a both a tribute to those books and an unfair slap at their sometimes very fine but terminally overshadowed brethren.
And finally there’s the curious case of Dow Mossman, who published a novel called The Stones of Summer in 1972, then evaporated. Thirty years later, a fan named Mark Moskowitz made a documentary film called Stone Reader, about his love for the novel and his quest to find its mysterious author, who, it turned out, was hiding in plain sight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the house he grew up in. Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio was so taken by the movie that he invested $200,000 in its distribution and paid Mossman $100,000 for the right to re-issue the novel in hard-cover. The reclusive Mossman suddenly found himself on one of the most improbable book tours in the history of American publishing.
Moskowitz’s motivation for making the documentary was simple: “I can’t believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear and never do anything again.”
Well, believe it. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It sort of happened to Jim Ross and Ralph Ellison. Many people wrongly think it happened to J.D. Salinger. It definitely happened to Harper Lee. And it almost never ends as it ended for Dow Mossman, whose book tour took him to Boston, where one day in the fall of 2003 he found himself puffing a cigar while gazing out at the Charles River and talking to a newspaper reporter. “I don’t think I’ve caught up with the reality of it yet,” Mossman said. “It’s pretty unreal.”
What happened to Mossman is way beyond unreal. It’s just about impossible.
Update: Don’t miss our newest “Most Anticipated” list, highlighting books for the rest of 2010 and beyond.
There’s something for every lover of fiction coming in 2010, but, oddly enough, the dominant theme may be posthumous publication. Roberto Bolaño’s relentless march into the canon has inured us to the idea of the bestseller from beyond the grave (and of course, for as long as there have been literary executors, this has been nothing new), but beyond the four(!) new books by Bolaño we also have have potentially important works by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, intriguing new books from Robert Walser and Ernst Weiss, a guaranteed bestseller from Stieg Larsson, and, looming in 2011, the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace. Perhaps, amid all this, it is a relief to hear that we have many exciting books on their way from those still with us, including Elizabeth Kostova, Joshua Ferris, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, and many others.Special thanks to The Millions Facebook group for helping us compile this list.January (or already available)
Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison: Fitting that this book preview starts off with a posthumous novel. Ellison’s unfinished opus will not be the the only posthumous work to grab readers attention in 2010, but it will be perhaps the one with the most history attached to it and maybe, in the accounting of those who manage the canon, the most important. Ellison famously struggled to complete a second novel after the landmark publication of The Invisible Man. After Ellison’s death, Juneteenth was cobbled together by his literary executor John Callahan and met with decidedly mixed reviews. But, as a 2007 article in the Washington Post argues, Three Days Before the Shooting, the result of years of work by Callahan and co-editor Adam Bradley, was always meant to be the true Ellison second novel. Readers will soon find out if it’s the masterpiece they’ve been waiting for for decades.The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: If your debut effort (in this case, Then We Came to the End) gets nominated for a National Book Award, you are on the express train to literary stardom. Quickly, however, focus shifts to the sophomore effort. For Ferris, early signs look good. Word is that The Unnamed is dark in tone, darker than and by all early accounts dissimilar to TWCTTE. The protagonist Tim’s affliction is that he’s unable to stop walking. In an early review, Bookforum likes it and says “Ferris possesses an overriding writer’s gift: a basic and consistent ability to entertain while spurring engagement.” See also: Joshua Ferris writing at The MillionsMonsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication will continue in 2010 with as many as four (that I was able to find) books by the Chilean author published. Bolaño has been unmistakably one of the biggest publishing stories of the last few years, and publisher New Directions has been capably and speedily adding title after title to the Bolaño shelf at your local bookstore. Monsieur Pain (January) is about a Peruvian poet with a chronic case of hiccups. Antwerp (April) has been described as both a prose poem and a crime novel. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories, as is The Insufferable Gaucho (August?), which was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And look for more Bolaño in 2011. Garth may need to start updating his Bolaño Syllabus on a quarterly basis.Fun with Problems by Robert Stone: Fun with Problems will be Stone’s first collection of short fiction in twelve years. And his first book since his 2007 memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (see Garth’s review).Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: Boyd’s novel is already out in the UK where it has been receiving characteristically good notices. “There are tantalising hints of a broader ambition in William Boyd’s wide-ranging new thriller,” said The Guardian. The book is ostensibly about a man on the run, but Boyd, in an interview with Edinburgh Festivals alluded to the depth that The Guardian picked up on, “It’s a chase. And the drive is that the man is being hunted. But like the last four of my novels, it’s also about identity, about what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city.”The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova – The follow-up to Kostova’s big selling The Historian (the first ever first novel to debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) promises to be just as densely detailed as its predecessor, weighing in at a hefty 576 pages. Recently departed Kirkus has some quibbles with the plot machinations, but says “lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers.” PW adds “The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer.” See Also: Elizabeth Kostova’s Year in ReadingIn January, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Ernst Weiss’ Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer some 70 years after the novel’s appearance in German. Enthusiasts of German-language literature have compared Weiss favorably with his contemporary Thomas Mann and his friend Franz Kafka, but he has remained something of an unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Already, Joel Rotenberg’s translation has begun to remedy this neglect. An excerpt appeared in A Public Space a while back. (Garth)February
Point Omega by Don DeLillo: Anticipation for DeLillo’s forthcoming book has been decidedly truncated. Publisher Scribner first tweeted about DeLillo delivering the manuscript in June, and the book will hit shelves a scant eight months later. One reason for the quick turnaround might be the book’s surprising slimness, coming in somewhere between 117 pages (says PW) and 128 pages (says Scribner). Imagine: reading an entire DeLillo novel in an afternoon, or perhaps just over lunch. So will the book’s slight profile belie some interior weightiness? A recently posted excerpt may offer some clues, and PW says “Reading it is akin to a brisk hike up a desert mountain—a trifle arid, perhaps, but with occasional views of breathtaking grandeur.”Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields: We’ve already discussed Shields’ forthcoming “manifesto” quite a lot at The Millions. It was first noted, in glowing terms, by Charles D’Ambrosio. This prompted me to dig deeper in a longer look at the book. From my sleuthing, and noting blurbs by J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, and others, I posited “the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest [in 2010].” The book now sits on my desk, and while haven’t yet jumped in with both feet, I can report that it is both structurally (a lettered and numbered organization scheme whose logic is not immediately discernible) and stylistically (deep thoughts, reminiscences, aphorisms, and pop culture nuggets abound) unique. It will be interesting to see if readers decide the book coalesces into a successful whole. This just in – British publisher Hamish Hamilton reports that Zadie Smith will be writing up the book in The Guardian soon. See Also: David Shield’s Year in ReadingThe Infinities by John Banville: Banville follows up his Booker-winning effort The Sea with a novel with a rather unique conceit: it is narrated by the god Hermes. The reviews hint at further oddities. In The Guardian, for example, “Old Adam, a physicist-mathematician, has solved the infinity problem in a way that’s not only led to some useful inventions – cars that run on brine, for example – but also proved the existence of parallel universes, a category that includes the one he inhabits. In this novel, Sweden is a warlike country, and evolution and relativity have been discredited.”Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett: Haslett made a big splash in 2002 when his debut effort – a collection of short stories called You Are Not a Stranger Here – was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Union Atlantic, his first novel, takes the depths of the recent financial collapse as a backdrop (which explains why a work of literary fiction is getting notice from publications like American Banker). PW gave it a starred review and insinuates it might be a seminal novel of that particular historical moment. Esquire recently published the novel’s prologue. It begins, “Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral’s staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each.”March
Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s new novel was discussed extensively in Daniel Zalewski’s New Yorker profile of McEwan in February 2009. More recently, the magazine published an excerpt from the novel. The book’s protagonist is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and it appears that the book’s chief drama will arise in his becoming embroiled in the climate change “debate.” The book is also being called a satire, but, to the extent that several of McEwan’s books have elements of satire, it’s unclear whether Solar will be much of a departure for McEwan. The excerpt in the New Yorker would seem to indicate it’ll be a typical, and probably quite good, effort.The Ask by Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte had a breakout hit with Home Land in 2005. His follow-up novel was reviewed recently in The Quarterly Conversation, which says “let’s be frank: this is a hard novel to review. The Ask makes for your heart with its claws so efficiently that it leaves you torn and depleted. How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?” Ultimately, TQC decides The Ask “isn’t quite as good as Home Land. The latter was nearly perfect in idea and execution—an ’80s high-school movie gone sick with nostalgia for its own John Hughesian past. The Ask is more generationally diffuse. While just as snot-blowingly funny as its predecessor, The Ask is more devastating in its pitilessness.”The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee: Bookdwarf read this one recently and says Lee “offers no easy endings or heartwarming coming-together, instead bringing to life a powerful, unpredictable, and occasionally painful story.”Burning Bright by Ron Rash: Rash’s follow-up to Serena is a collection of stories. The book’s title story appeared in Ecotone in 2008.One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode by Ingo Schulze: Garth has been talking about Schulze here for at least two years. Most recently he wrote “The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.” The English (and somewhat illogical) title of Schulze’s new book would seem to obscure the unifying theme of the new collection, whose title, translated directly from the German original, is Cell Phone: Thirteen Stories in the Old Style. According to an abstract for a paper in the journal German Monitor, “the cell phone functions in many stories as a threatening symbol of exposure to pressures and problems that make East(ern) Germans feel ill at ease.”So Much for That by Lionel Shriver: More hot button issues. Just as Ian McEwan’s forthcoming novel is informed by climate change, Shriver’s latest takes on the healthcare debate.
The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s novel is already out in the U.K. where Hilary Mantel wrote, “It is the author’s mix of scorn and compassion that is so bracing. Sometimes she complicates simple things, snarling them in a cat’s cradle of abstraction, but just as often, a sentence rewards with its absolute and unexpected precision.”Silk Parachute by John McPhee: This new collection by McPhee is built around what FSG’s promotional material calls “McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing.” “Silk Parachute” is, especially for the typically measured McPhee, a brief, tight, funny and emotional essay (It’s available here as a .doc file). The rest of the new collection is composed of McPhee’s recent New Yorker essays on lacrosse, “long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe ‘on the chalk’ from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France.” Since McPhee’s most recent collections have had fairly strong thematic threads running through them, this more loosely tied book sounds like a bit of a departure.Long for This World by Sonya Chung: And, of course, Millions contributor Sonya Chung will see her debut novel Long for This World arrive in March. Sonya wrote about the peculiar challenges of settling on a book design in a recent essay.April
The Notebook by Jose Saramago: Nobel Laureates can do “blooks” too. The Notebook is the collected entries from 87-year-old Saramago’s blog, O Caderno de Saramago. The book, “which has already appeared in Portuguese and Spanish, lashes out against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, the Pope, Israel and Wall Street,” according to the Independent, in its report on the book’s Italian publisher dropping it for criticizing Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi. Despite his age, Saramago is a busy man. In addition to The Notebook, there’s an August release date in the U.K. for a new novel, The Elephant’s Journey, which “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria,” and Cain, “an ironic retelling of the Bible story,” was recently published in Portuguese and Spanish.Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Carey’s new book is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and wields two narrators. Olivier, the de Tocqueville “character” is, like de Tocqueville, the heir apparent of a wealthy family. Parrot is his clever servant who also happens to be a spy and all around rake. Early reviews from Australia, where the book is already out, have been strong. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a tour de force, a wonderfully dizzying succession of adventures and vivid, at times caricatured, characters executed with great panache.”The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle: This book wraps up Doyle’s The Last Roundup trilogy (previously: A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). This time Henry Smart has gone to Hollywood and then back to Dublin. A bomb blast there turns him into an accidental hero.What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy: This short story collection is already out in the U.K. The Spectator likes it: “The hardest thing about the advent of a new collection of stories by A.L. Kennedy… is the search for synonyms for ‘brilliant.'”Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: Though Martel’s previous effort, Life of Pi, was far from universally loved, the book became something of a literary phenomenon, putting up sales impressive even for a Booker winner. As a result, nearly a decade later, Martel’s follow up is one of the most heavily anticipated books of the year. As before, it seems Martel will be trading in talking animals, a taxidermied donkey and monkey. More details: The book is about the Holocaust, reportedly. It’s Canadian publisher has called it “shocking.” And Martel is comparing it to Animal Farm.The Big Short by Michael Lewis: Original set for November 2009, the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short has been pushed back to April. In October 2008, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been many books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest. Noir by Robert Coover: An excerpt of this new novel by “pioneering postmodernist” Coover was published a while back in Vice. It is introduced thusly: “Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something—like truth or beauty, the ineffable—and became over the course of its writing a kind of companion piece to Ghost Town, which played with the western genre and mythology the way this one plays with the hard-boiled/noir genre and urban myth. It was the French who discovered and defined noir; consequently, this book will have its first publication in Paris, in French, in the spring of 2008.”May
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis: This book, long in the works, has been evolving as Amis has struggled to write it. In 2006, he told The Independent it was, “blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme.” As it turns out, the autobiographical bits were causing Amis trouble. He told the National Post in August 2009, “it turned out it was actually two novels, and they couldn’t go together. So I wrote The Pregnant Widow, [that’s] one half of it, and the other half I started, and it will be very autobiographical, the next one.” Subsequent comments from Amis appear to indicate the two book solution is still the plan.
Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms is reportedly a sequel to Ellis’ first novel Less Than Zero. First sentence of the novel? “They had made a movie about us.”The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer: Orringer received more than the typical notice for a debut short story collection when her 2003 How to Breathe Underwater was named a New York Times Notable Book, landed on various other lists, and picked up a small prize or two. It’s looking like that promising first effort may translate into a “big” novel for Orringer in 2010. Library Journal reported a 60,000-copy first printing for The Invisible Bridge – the book follows a trio of Hungarian brothers in Budapest and Paris before and during World War II – and it carries with it a blurb from Michael Chabon (“To bring an entire lost world… to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul… takes something more like genius.”)The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson: Larsson’s nordic crime fiction (which has won Larsson posthumous stardom in the States) isn’t exactly in The Millions wheelhouse, but, with nary a mention on the site, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vaulted into our Millions Top Ten and has stayed there. When Millions’ readers get behind a book, it’s often worth taking notice. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the final book in Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” (Dragon was the first and The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second). Though just becoming well known in the U.S., Larsson was the second top-selling author in the world in 2008. Part of Larsson’s sudden success is his odd path to (posthumous) publishing fame. Larsson was a journalist and activist who died of a heart attack. The manuscripts of his novels were found after his death. He had apparently written them just for fun. Five years later, the books are a publishing sensation.Private Life by Jane Smiley: There’s not much info on this one yet other than that it follows a Missouri woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: Pullman (famous for his His Dark Materials children’s series) will once again be courting controversy with this new book. According to The Guardian, “The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul.” In addition, the book will be released on Easter in the U.K. and is part of Canongate’s “Myths” series of books. Pullman also wrote an introduction to that series.The Microscripts by Robert Walser: The pothumous publication of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, reproducing, front and back, the notecards on which Nabokov hat charted this unfinished work, was met with no small amount of scorn. This year, another posthumously published book, based off of notecard scrawlings, may be met more favorably. The story behind Walser’s Microscripts is fascinating. From the New Directions blog: “Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper… covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card… Each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment.”June
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: After Black Swan Green, a departure from the frenetic, layered Cloud Atlas which was broadly considered one of the best novels of the last decade, Mitchell fans may be pleased to hear that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is being described as a return to form. It’s long (512 pages) and set in Japan in 1799. The Guardian says, “Mitchell returns to the big canvas with this historical novel set in a Japanese outpost of the Dutch empire.”An American Type by Henry Roth: Here’s another interesting posthumous publication. Roth is revered for his 1934 novel Call It Sleep and his 1990s “comeback” effort, the Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, and so news of this book, “discovered,” according to the publicity materials, “in a stack of nearly 2,000 unpublished pages by a young New Yorker editor,” will surely interest readers. A little more detail from the publicity materials: “Set in 1938, An American Type reintroduces us to Roth’s alter ego, Ira, who abandons his controlling lover, Edith, in favor of a blond, aristocratic pianist at Yaddo. The ensuing conflict between his Jewish ghetto roots and his high-flown, writerly aspirations forces Ira, temporarily, to abandon his family for the sun-soaked promise of the American West.”A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This new novel by National Book Award nominee Egan sounds like it’s as ambitious and layered as Look At Me–and I’m sure it’ll be as addictively readable as The Keep. According to Amazon, it centers on the life of Bennie Salazar, “an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs,” and the narrative traverses various eras and locales, “from the pre-Internet nineties to a postwar future.” Color me intrigued. (Edan)July
Update: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: A reader points out in the comments that Shteyngart has a new book coming out and since we absolutely would have included it had we known about it, here it is. A recent item at The Rumpus has the scoop: “His new novel is set slightly in the future. When he started writing it a few years ago, he envisioned a world where the world’s economy had collapsed and the central banks had to bail out the Big Three automakers. As that came to pass, he had to keep changing his novel, which got bleaker and bleaker. And now it’s set in ‘a completely illiterate New York,’ he said. ‘In other words, next Tuesday.'”
Sympathy for the Devil: This is a long way off so it’s hard to say how good it will be, but it sounds pretty cool: an anthology of stories about the devil from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others.I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. This means that English-speaking readers will get to see I Curse the River of Time, first published in Norwegian in 2008, later this year. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.”
C by Tom McCarthy: At Ready Steady Book in September 2007, Mark Thwaite asked McCarthy: “What are you writing now?” And McCarthy responded: “Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon.”Unknown
Nemesis by Philip Roth: News of this novel was announced nearly a year ago, but there is no release date thus far and not much is known about it beyond that it’s “a work of fiction set in the summer of 1944 that tells of a polio epidemic and its effects on a closely knit Newark community and its children.”Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Jonathan Franzen’s follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, is likely to cause a stir when it appears, most likely in the fall. Among the prominent media narratives – the backlash, the backlash-to-the-backlash – will be the length of the novel’s gestation. Really, though, in novelist time (as distinct from internet time), nine years is a mere blip – particularly when you publish two books of nonfiction in the interim. Far more remarkable is how tight-lipped Franzen has managed to be about the novel’s content. From various obscure interviews, we’ve managed to cobble together the following: 1) The novel has something to do with U.S. politics, of the Washington, D.C. variety. 2) Franzen’s original conception of how those politics would intersect with the narrative changed radically in the writing, likely shifting from an “inside baseball” look at bureaucracy toward the personal. 3) Germany, where Franzen has spent some time recently, “will play an important role in the novel.” 4) After two New Yorker short stories notable for their smallness and misanthropy, the excerpt from the novel that appeared last year was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our “Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel.” (Garth)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Wallace’s unfinished opus is sure to be a blockbuster when it appears – April 2011 is the latest word on a release date. The Howling Fantods, home to all things DFW, has been staying on top of the story. A recent report contained a number of tidbits, including this: “The subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it’s all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity.”There are many other exciting books coming out in 2010 not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in 2010 in the comments section below.
Books aren’t too long, they’re too big. They don’t fit in your pocket or purse. You have to cram them into backpacks or shove them under your arm. And I’m not even talking about hardcovers (I can’t afford those); I’m talking about these big paperbacks. Sure, some of them look pretty but wouldn’t it be great to have a paperback stowed in my jacket pocket, ready for an idle moment? If you’ve ever been to a used book store, you’ve seen that they used to make books like this, small and pocket-sized. These books weren’t limited to the mysteries, romances, and mega-bestsellers that garner “mass-media” releases these days. On my bookshelves I have editions of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, for example. They aren’t the editions you’ll find by clicking the links I’ve provided, instead they fit very nearly in the palm of my hand. I’ve always been enamored by those little books, the Dells, the Bantams, the Penguins and the rest, but I’ve been thinking about these little books a lot more of late because I spend a lot of time on public transportation these days. And, frankly, it’s a pain to maneuver a big book around on a crowded bus or train. It’s no fun trying to extricate my book from my bag only to cram it back in hastily when I arrive at my destination. I can tell my fellow travelers experience the same difficulties, too. I would make a plea for publishers to bring back the pocket-sized books that I love, but I know that probably won’t happen. I’m told that publishing company consolidation in the 1980s and an ever-growing concern for the bottom line have made that impossible. But if you want to relive the glory days of the paperback, take a look at these very cool sites: The Paperback Revolution (a stunning presentation of the glory days of the paperback book) and Edward Gorey’s legendary covers for Anchor books (read the article and then click the link at the bottom to see the covers).
I recieved this note from a reader the other day and I enjoyed it so much I thought I would provide it for public consumption. Enjoy: I came upon your blog this morning and I liked it. The meta of the blog is a noble idea and I wish you the best. Thought you might appreciate a little ditty I penned- SummapoetaSumma was a bookie, not the Vegas thing where 5 will get you 10, but a fairy thathung out around ink and parchment and leather bindings. Summa hung out around books.Sometimes bookies are call library angels, but Summa bristled at this nomenclature.She was always quick to point out that angels were entities that had been very bad,that were now trying to be good. Not so with fairies. Fairies had always favoredphun and play and giggle, wiggle, laughing. Why be bad when having phun was so muchbetter?Summa’s full moniker was Summapoeta. She favored the short sweetest of poems to thedrudgery of wading through the ramblings of fools and their novels. Yes, beauty toSumma was to say much with little. – And unto my beckoningit did comea perfect point of celestial splendorand with this light I now seethe beauty amongst the shadows.- to Summa this was a zillion times more beautiful than any novel.I have always liked the concept of library angels or book fairies, an invisible handthat seems to lead you to what you need.You can catch some of my other stuff on http://robertdsnaps.blogspot.com. Hint -Some of the big ones hang out in the archives.Doing time on the ball,”d”I love libraries and I love the idea of “library angels and book fairies.” Libraries can be incredible, mystical places. Anyone who has been to the New York Central Library or the Los Angeles Central Library knows it… and anyone who has read the work of poet, writer, philosopher and blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, knows the power of the library as well… see his Collected Fictions for various magical library tales. My favorite fictional library? It would have to be the library in Richard Brautigan’s novel, The Abortion. In this library, anyone can walk in and place their own handmade book on shelves that gather no dust, and the book will remain there for posterity, for anyone who wishes to see it.Bookfinding… Classic Literatures and my Broken Down CarI feel no particular affinity for my car. It is very average and there is nothing romantic about it. And yet, living in Los Angeles, I depend upon the car perhaps more than any of my possessions. Somehow though, this unassuming car of mine must be really tuned into my psyche, because it seems to collapse sympathetically when ever my life hits a rocky patch. During my various periods of full and gainful employment, my car has behaved admirably, quietly doing it’s job, asking and recieving no special notice from it’s owner… very unassuming. However, whenever I am scrimping and struggling, my car seems to feel my pain and its insides deteriorate and fail, seemingly reacting to the stresses felt by its owner. And so, naturally, with a rent check looming that may be beyond my means, I brought my car to a trusted mechanic for routine and necessary maintainance, and sure enough my trusted mechanic, after spending some time under the hood and under the car, quickly identified several areas where my car was teetering on the brink of total collapse. Having seen the decay with my own two eyes, and resigned to the fact that my car’s chronic desire to push me ever deeper into credit card debt, I set out on walk, not often done in Los Angeles, to kill time while my car was unde the knife.Along my way, I passed several bookstores peddling both new and used books, many of which I would like to have owned, none of which I could afford. So, I was much pleased to come upon a Goodwill store in the course of my travels, one with many shelves of dusty paperbacks going for 49 cents a piece. Many of the usual thrift store suspects were present, mounds and mounds of bestseller fodder from two decades ago, but I was able to lay my hands on three classic novels that I am very pleased to add to my growing library. First I found an old Signet Classic paperback copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Dickens has long been one of my favorites, and I am especially fond of Great Expectations and Hard Times. Many consider Bleak House to be his greatest work. I also found a copy of one the most important American novels ever written: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Finally, I came across a novel that I had not heard of before working at the bookstore. Somehow I went through life without any knowledge of Carson McCullers, who as a 23 year old wrote a Southern gothic masterpiece called The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. But now I own the book, and I can’t wait to read it.