Three recent works, an updating of a Franz Kafka story, a rambunctious saga, and a cautionary tale about the home-wrecking potential of home-buying provided my reading sustenance this summer. Each is predominantly about appetite — for food, sex, fame, money, adventure — and its potential wasting effect on the human soul.
By making the narrator of his first novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, a talking chimp — and an orotund one at that — Benjamin Hale pushed the boundaries of the human. He does the same, quite literally, in the title story from his new collection, The Fat Artist, in which a man attempts to become the fattest — or rather, heaviest — man alive under the glare of Guggenheim museum-goers. The artist, Tristan Hurt, is “blessed with the gift of bullshit” and, in thrall to the “fame drive,” has made a name for himself through a series of “ugly, angry, abrasive, disgusting, violent, scatological, pornographic, antisocial, and antihuman” installations. Or as he succinctly sums up his aesthetic: “I lived as if my parents were dead.”
And that’s before he plants himself in a glass box, vowing to eat whatever is brought to him by visitors attracted by the ghoulish spectacle. Hale’s glib showman doesn’t register with the same intensity as Kafka’s starving artist-saint, or even the “young panther” that replaces him, but Tristan, blessed with a liberal arts education, is by far the best theoretician:
…in a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self-abnegation no longer retains this primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first-century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior. How often have you heard a woman describe a rich dessert as “sinful”? To eat is to sin—in secular society, the body replaces the soul. Good and evil are no longer purely spiritual concepts—these words have been transubstantiated into the realm of the flesh.
Aquinas, who laid out five specific kinds of overindulgence, might have raised an eyebrow at the claim that eating has just now become a moralized behavior. Tristran’s is a facile argument for a facile character, but that doesn’t mean the provocateur hasn’t stumbled on the culminating project of his career, in which his ego and self-loathing swell in equal measure.
Something of a “fat artist” makes an appearance in Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table as well: Willy the Whale, a carnival act who dies after eating “half a hogshead of raw crawdads in an hour.” Willy the Whale’s is one of many prodigious appetites in the lusty novel, which could hardly find a more fitting epigraph than Ben Jonson’s “On Gut:” “Gut eats all day and lechers all the night/so all his meat he tasteth over twice….” (Pollock’s debut collection of stories, Knockemstiff, also had its share of lust and gluttony, their connection highlighted in a brief portrait of two women “who, out of sheer loneliness, end up doing kinky stuff with candy bars, wake up with apple fritters in their hair.”)
Early on, we meet a hermit preaching the virtues of asceticism and waxing rhapsodic on the “heavenly table” awaiting us in the afterlife: “Won’t be no scrounging for scraps after that, I guarantee ye.” The rest of the story is about how that celestial vision is translated, or mistranslated, in the earthly realm where human appetites run amok. I say “human” appetites, but one of the more chilling scenes involves a satiated intestinal worm working its way out of a corpse.
The Heavenly Table opens on the Georgia-Alabama border in 1917 as a white sharecropping family shares “a bland wad of flower and water fried in a dollop of leftover fat.” When one of the widowed father’s three sons makes a wisecrack he doesn’t appreciate, a swift chokehold dislodges even that meager repast from the offender’s throat. The father soon dies, and with his passing the novel’s atmosphere of hardscrabble abstemiousness dissipates. The novel shifts tone from eerie Southern Gothic to Rabelaisan picaresque, and the feast, “pork chops thick as a bull’s cock, beefsteaks the size of wagon wheels, buttered biscuits as hot and fluffy as…tits,” begins. And with the feast, a lot of shit — a scrupulous latrine inspector is among the central characters.
First, the three sons gorge on a sick hog: “People most always have a big feed after a funeral, don’t they?” They gorge again after murdering their employer, an exploitative landowner who spends “comfortable evening[s] alone drinking brandy in the dark and idly thinking of all the women he had molested over the years.” The crime commits them to a fugitive life as semi-competent bank robbers — the “Jewett Boys” as they are known in the tabloids — a journey taking them north towards Meade, a southern Ohio town catering to the various needs, and vices, of a nearby army camp preparing soldiers to go overseas to fight in the First World War. Along with a memorable meal — “eight lobsters, along with boiled potatoes and slaw, an entire plate of macaroons” — Meade offers them an opportunity to whet other appetites. “Shit, I could have gone five or six if I’d known what I was doing at first,” says one brother after a visit to the local brothel, the Whore Barn.
Along with books, women, and booze, books are avidly consumed. The brothers have memorized one of their few possessions, a pulp novel called The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. It is “filled…with every act of rape, robbery, and murder that [the author’s] indignant syphylitic brain could possibly conceive.” (The elder, and most refined, brother covets more refined fare, fantasizing about a well-lined bookshelf rather than a well-fed stomach.) Another character partly blames his son’s dissolution on getting his hands on a copy of Tom Jones, a similarly rollicking episodic adventure. In the novel’s most hamfisted scene, it suddenly dawns on an army officer trained in classical literature that he is gay. His harrowing, ill-fated attempt to lose his virginity to a ravenous hotel maid is less revelatory than a flashback to his college reading syllabus: “After all, his revered Greeks and Romans had written so much about it. Buggery. Pederasty. Homosexuality.” The Eureka moment brings tears to his eyes, and the formally staid lieutenant is indulging in drug-fueled orgies by week’s end. L’appétit vient en mangeant…
In brief, passions, and portions, are outsized in The Heavenly Table, which gives it an indigestible quality. The fast-moving adventure and gallery of grotesques consistently entertain, but as one shovels down the novel’s 72 chapters, the concentrated flavor of the exquisite opening becomes a distant memory.
Faintly audible behind all the novel’s noise is an elegy for a world threatened by the “ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of twentieth century capitalism.” A ravenous economic system produces ravenous subjects, and jumping to the ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of the 21st century, we meet two such subjects in Joe McGinniss Jr.’s Carousel Court.
Carousel Court takes place close to the present, during the recent housing crash, yet it feels post-apocalyptic, Flip This House meets The Road. Nick and Phoebe have relocated from Boston to California, planning to rent in Los Angeles and renovate a house in Serenos, Calif., an inland development. The young couple spare no expense in their “virtual homebuilding” — an hourglass pool, Italian marble bathroom, and an indoor climbing wall, which, as events spiral downward, stands as a mocking reminder of their upwardly mobile aspirations. Nick loses his job, the economy tanks, and the 30-something pair are marooned among “rotting five-bedroom corpses,” their desolate neighborhood visited nightly by “mountain lions and bobcats, pit vipers, and Latino gangs trolling for new turf.” They have bitten off more than then they can chew, and are now at risk of the “barren landscape fold[ing] in on itself, this patch of earth swallowing” them whole.
Their underwater mortgage is actually less disastrous than their caustic marriage — an epistolary novella could be constructed entirely out of their hostile text messages — which from the start is threatened by a mismatch in drives. Try as he might to satisfy it, Nick recognizes a hunger in his wife he can never satisfy, “an appetite that seemed to border on compulsion.” The most pronounced, and intoxicating, feature of her beautiful face is “that jaw of hers,” seductive and menacing, even more so as it juts out more prominently from her emaciated face. Phoebe’s hunger is entirely figurative; indeed, her diet consists primarily of booze and Klonopin, and her budget-busting trips to Whole Foods are less about eating, or feeding her child, than restorative glimpses of paradise: “She’ll linger in the wide, bountiful aisles, the cool air, the welcoming faces, and mist will cleanse fresh-cut kale, and time itself will stop.” Allen Ginsberg saw the ghost of Walt Whitman in a supermarket in California; Phoebe has had her own, distinctly yuppie vision of the heavenly table.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Click here to visit Bloom, where Donald Ray Pollock will be the featured author throughout the week.
The rolling hills of Southern Ohio may not seem, at first, a likely place for serious mischief and mayhem, but the fiction of Donald Ray Pollock makes one think the devil himself is tainting the groundwater.
The eighteen linked stories of Pollock’s first book, Knockemstiff, published in 2008 when the author was 53, tornado through this town of the same name — a “holler” of four hundred endangered souls plus a couple of general stores, bars, a church, and a ballfield. The action of Pollock’s second book, the 2011 novel The Devil All the Time, ranges into West Virginia and farther afield along American interstates and back roads, but its heart is still Knockemstiff and its surroundings, where a paper mill sulfurs the air and poor folk live in trailers with open sewage. Residents are related to at least half of everyone else. An OxyContin addict in the story “Blessed” describes the view on his way out of town to a clinic where his wife sells her blood: “The damp, gray sky covered southern Ohio like the skin of a corpse. The landscape was the seemingly endless row of squat metal buildings full of cheap junk for sale: carpet remnants, used furniture, country crafts.”
I understand left-behind towns where agriculture and some rough industry barely support a few of the luckier ones, but my rural Maine upbringing in no way prepared me for the depravity and squalor of Knockemstiff. What’s more, the death-skinned sky and rotten-egg air turn out to be sterile compared to the insides of people’s heads.
The fictional Knockemstiff is based on a real town of the same name, where Pollock grew up. “It was claustrophobic for me,” Pollock said in a 2011 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross. “I was one of those kids — I was always unsatisfied. I always wanted to be somebody else and somewhere else. And so from a very early age, you know, I was thinking about escaping the holler.”
Indeed most characters in Pollock’s work want to get the hell out; but fear of the unknown and of being alone knock ‘em back. In “Dynamite Hole,” a mentally damaged man has lived on scraps in the woods since escaping the Vietnam draft decades earlier. He still fights his disapproving father in his head, admitting something curious, provincial, and utterly believable: “How could I have told that old man, the way they were drafting and killing boys left and right, that I was afraid of the fighting nearly as much as I was scared of leaving the holler?” In the title story, the clerk at the general store says about an old flame toward whom he still feels tender and who’s about to leave town with a lunkhead named Boo Nesser, “Ever since she started putting out for the boys, she’s been looking for someone to take her away. I wish I could’ve been the one, I really do, but I don’t figure I’ll ever leave the holler, not even for Tina. I’ve lived here all my life, like a toad stool stuck to a rotten log, never even wanting to go into town if I can keep from it.”
Donald Ray Pollock’s parents ran a small general store in Knockemstiff, where he worked as a teenager before dropping out of high school at 17 to work at a meatpacking plant. Not long after that he took off for Florida, where he worked at a nursery for a few months, until his father called to say he could get him a job at the paper mill in Chillicothe, just 13 miles from Knockemstiff. It was a union job with benefits, and Pollock knew he wasn’t likely to find anything better, so he returned. He settled in at the mill, married and divorced twice, had a daughter, filed for bankruptcy, and often drank too much. After about 14 years, he looked around and saw that the other guys who’d been hired at the same time had stacked up some accomplishments — homes and cars and families. “When I got sober [in 1986] I was living in this little, very small apartment above the garage. It was about the size of a hotel room and I’d been living there for about four or five years. I owned a black and white TV that my sister had given me and I had this old ’76 Chevy that had the whole side of it smashed in. And that was it.” He wasn’t jealous of his friends, but he still felt like a failure.
In his 30s, Pollock decided to go to college, earning a degree in English from Ohio University. He didn’t take any writing workshops then, even though the fantasy of being an author sometimes lit up the back of his mind. When Pollock was 45, his father retired from the paper mill. Seeing that leaving the mill job meant the end of his father’s working life unsettled Pollock and reignited his desire to try writing stories: “I just decided I had to try something else. Some other way to spend the rest of my life.”
His self-education in fiction writing began with typing out stories he admired by authors like Hemingway, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Yates, and Denis Johnson. In this way, elements of craft became visible. He submitted his pieces to The Journal, the literary magazine published by the English Department of Ohio State University, and connected with Michelle Herman, one of the editors, who eventually convinced Pollock to enroll in the MFA program there.
Erin McGraw, one of his teachers at OSU, noted in a New York Times profile by Charles McGrath that she consistently had a hard time reconciling the “gentle, extremely gracious person” in her classroom with the “dark, violent, often lurid” stories he wrote. Even after winning the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship — awarded to “an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise” and carrying a $35,000 prize — Pollock evinces genuine modesty and shyness, both in his soft, twangy voice (lawg for log) and in photos. And Pollock’s successes have only continued: this year, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
Though the back cover of Knockemstiff announces the stories as a “genuine entry into the literature of place,” what Pollock is writing is the literature of extremity. In another New York Times piece, this one profiling the town itself, Pollock says, “Knockemstiff had a reputation for being a really rough place. When I started writing, I took that and cranked it up a few amps.” Though the landmarks of Pollock’s world feel accurate down to the last junk heap, characters are pushed hard into dire circumstances with which they can only cope through extraordinary action. “Gothic hillbilly noir,” is how Pollock once put it, and indeed there is a traceable line of descent in his fiction from the Grimm Brothers’ original gothic tales.
In the acknowledgements to Knockemstiff, Pollock makes clear that the rapists, murders, whores, pedophiles, and junkies in his stories are of his own creation: “My family and our neighbors were good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need.” It’s desperate need — for food, companionship, recognition, a fix — that motivates Pollock’s people to both commit and endure gruesome deeds. One of the most tragic is Todd in “Schott’s Bridge.” Todd likes men, and he’s smart enough to know that his only chance at survival is to use the savings his grandmother left him and get out of town. But because “loneliness always got him into trouble quicker than anything,” Todd moves in with a roughneck named Frankie, whose face is disfigured by a scar. Once a month, Frankie spends a few days with an old hag [who]
didn’t give a damn what he looked like, as long as he could make his hog leg stand up. On Sunday evenings, he’d come back to the fish camp bruised with denture marks and loaded down with food she packed for him: dusty jars of preserves, bread sacks of bloody turtle meat, sometimes a soggy pie.
To Todd, Frankie adds, “My God, she’s awful. I might as well stick my dick in that jar of peaches.” The two men pass the time smoking, snorting, and dropping whatever they can get their hands on. A bad batch of “mildewed Lebanese hash” makes their gums bleed; their spit coats the floor with sticky blood. As expected, Frankie eventually steals Todd’s savings, but not before raping him and beating him up. Todd is at fault for trusting whom he shouldn’t and lacking the confidence to care for himself, but he’s otherwise a victim, unlike many other characters in Pollock’s work (the father in “Discipline” who pumps his kid up on steroids until his heart bursts, for example), whom the reader can’t help but feel is severely culpable.
It’s not easy to inject moments of grace into such brutal stories, but Pollock often cracks open a raw beauty I wouldn’t have thought possible, given the subject matter. In “Hair’s Fate,” a young boy getting off on his sister’s doll gets caught in the act by his father:
Trapped in the bright July sunlight pouring in through the open doorway, he was at that point in his fantasy where Gloria was begging him to split her in two with his big, hairy monster; his poor hand couldn’t have stopped if the old man had chopped it off and thrown it to the dogs. With a shudder, he unloaded his juices all over Lucy’s plastic face, the crooked orange mouth, the bobbing blue eyes. Then, like an omen, a black wasp glided down from the rafters and landed gently on top of the doll’s fake blonde hair.
The pace masterfully slows, and our gaze into the bright summer light shifts to an insect, small and natural.
I’ve been focusing on Pollock’s stories because I’m impressed by his skill for repeatedly plunging the reader into convincing, eviscerating worlds. He’s written some of the most arresting opening lines I’ve read in a long time: “I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.” Pollock rockets the reader into a highly particular time and place. He never wastes our time circling about the airfield looking for a spot to touch down. We’re immediately there, in the thick of it. Pinned right where Pollock wants us.
Like any art that traffics in the grotesque—I think, for example, of Goya’s Los Caprichos — Pollock’s fiction is not for the faint of heart. While a reader is always helpless in that she can’t influence the outcome of the story, rarely have I felt so hopeless. Pollock’s people appear destined to suffer, as if some rotten, misbegotten force has wrapped them tightly around its finger. In the stories of Flannery O’Connor, to whose fiction Pollock’s is often compared, I’m often baffled by why people do what they do, their mean and murderous impulses, and O’Connor’s own essays suggest that such mysteries are intentional. By contrast, in Pollock’s world, violence is clearly beget and perpetuated by humans: reading Pollock’s fiction makes me admit, with reluctance and discomfort, that people who act badly for reasons beyond their control — poverty, abuse, addiction — are still morally corrupt. Just as when Pollock explains failures in his own life as a result of his own choices — “where I had ended up was my own fault,” he says, adding that if he’d wanted to go to college as a young man his father likely would have helped him, “but that’s not the route I chose” — the author shows us again and again that these down-and-out southern Ohioans make terrible decisions. At the end of “Blessed,” for example, the Oxy addict realizes his son is not deaf and mute — he simply doesn’t talk when his father is around. The father recognizes this moment as one of great potential: he could spare his wife and kid, starting now, by leaving them alone. But then he remembers another bottle in the medicine cabinet, and we know their misery will continue.
Pollock achieves in his two books a powerful moral paradox, one that must undergird any fiction with staying power. He reveals with great care and specificity characters who are both trapped in cycles begun by those who came before and who could, if they really wanted, nudge their lives and those of others toward the better, rather than the worse. In Knockemstiff, there’s no such thing as a victimless crime.
For more on Donald Ray Pollock, and other authors who “bloomed” after the age of 40, visit Bloom.
Expanding the scope and upping the intensity of his debut story collection, 2009’s excellent Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock’s debut novel, The Devil All the Time (out this week in paperback), is a descent into a cauldron of blood spilled in the name of deliverance.
When the novel opens in 1957, Knockemstiff, Ohio (a real town, or “holler,” where the author was born, and near which he still resides) is a place where “four hundred or so people lived…connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another…” Pollock uses this setting to stage an examination of the devil’s omnipresence in life and death on earth, or at least on the back roads and in the backyards of his corner of the American interior.
Roaming among several intersecting stories, The Devil All the Time is a book about the intimate side of violence, and how this is maybe the only form that true worship can take. His characters peer as far as they can into the interior of evil, in themselves and in others, desperate to catch a glimpse of something real and beautiful hidden there.
Their stories aren’t about seeing through the darkness; they’re about touching the darkness and feeling how substantial it can be. Luckily for any reader who makes the trip to Knockemstiff, Pollock renders this darkness quite substantial indeed. Without ever verging into the supernatural, his brand of homespun grotesquerie achieves moments of genuinely satanic power.
Despite the dismal cloud that hangs over his vision of the Ohio small town, Pollock himself has recently lived out a pretty rare kind of success story. He worked as a laborer and truck driver for Mead Paper until he was fifty, then quit, got an MFA from the University of Ohio, and now, a few years later, has two books out, both garnering praise from critics as well as from more established noir authors like Chuck Palahniuk and the late William Gay. He’s even been hailed as an heir to Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.
I don’t think it’s wrong to place him near the Southern Gothic tradition, but not only is he very much from and of the Midwest and not the South, his work is also not quite Gothic. His vision shares neither O’Connor’s faith in ultimate redemption buried in the depths of apparent damnation, nor Crews’ knack for recasting every sad array of lost souls as a carnival of lusty, drunken freaks. Both are forms of levity, while Pollock’s world is sunk deep into a rock bottom that only gets deeper.
The Devil All the Time presents rural American Christianity in the mid-20th century as a snake pit of sadistic preachers, copious bloodletting, and displays of faith forced upon congregations of superstitious illiterates. The set pieces may hark back to O’Connor, but, here, the center is as rotten as the skin.
Nevertheless, Pollock stakes out a theological center of a different kind. It is to be found in his inquiry into how people decide to do evil so as to grasp the simultaneous reality of good. Unlike in O’Connor, good is not a force that defeats evil from within, but rather a force that exists inside of evil and cannot be separated from it, nor ever reached by other means.
In Knockemstiff, it’s both or neither.
In the opening section, Willard Russell, a traumatized WWII vet, tries to cure his wife’s cancer by pouring sacrificial blood over a “prayer log” in the woods behind his house. He comes out here “every morning and evening to talk to God.” Thinking back on it years later, his son, Arvin, recalls the conviction with which his father “fought the Devil all the time.”
Out at this log, as in the many killing chambers that the novel winds its way through, spiritual life is conducted not only in private, but in secret. When Willard feels “the urge to get right with his Maker” he knows he’s “going to need some woods to worship his way.”
Only in the hushed enclosure of the woods, or in the speed and barrenness of the open road, can the soul manifest its hideous contours and admit the reality of its fear, free of the burden of declaring a kind of faith it doesn’t actually feel.
By standing or pretending to stand as bastions against the devil’s incursion, the town and the church deliver themselves wholesale into the devil’s clutches. The Devil All the Time, as a novel concerned with the manifold delusions and aspirations of private spirituality, makes its way ever further from the sites of official congregation, and deeper into the wilderness.
Watching his father lose his lifelong fight, Arvin learns that the devil beats everyone, taking especial pleasure in punishing those who tried to resist. Pollock’s devil will not be denied, but he will cut a deal.
Among those in the devil’s camp are Roy and Theodore, a spider-handling End Times preacher and his crippled sidekick. These two gleefully profane the pulpit of the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified, but they’re nothing compared to the Tennessee preacher who turns up later on and begins preying on young girls. Spiteful and morose, his only consolation is that “his mother had decided all those years ago that he was going to be a preacher. All the fresh young meat a man could stand if he played his cards right.”
And then Pollock gives us Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband and wife who cruise the Midwest and the South, “always on the hunt…in a black Ford station wagon purchased for one hundred dollars…” They pick up young male hitchhikers, drive for awhile, and then Carl asks if they’d like to have sex with his wife.
Once the hitchhiker and Sandy are naked on a picnic blanket just out of view of the road, Carl interrupts them with a gun and a sharp object, hoping for the pleasure of dismembering the young man and photographing the process in loving detail before finally deigning to kill whatever’s left of him.
Marking the extreme end point of the road that all the characters are heading down, Carl believes that murdering strangers is “the one true religion, the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.”
This need to call the devil onto the mortal plane underlies all of the novel’s expressions of cruelty and desire. The Tennessee preacher finds it by cheating on his wife, because “he needed for a woman to believe that she was doing wrong when she lay with him, that she was in imminent danger of going to hell.” By eliciting this fear in others he proves to himself that he still has “some chance of going to heaven…”
Carl looks at two old bigots in a diner. As he begins to fantasize about killing them, “it was electric, the sensation that went through him just then.” He “couldn’t explain it, but he sure as hell could feel it. The mystery… ”
This sensation only lasts a moment, and it’s only a sensation, not a tangible insight, but it’s enough to shock him out of the state of living death in which he is otherwise interred.
The novel may not be Gothic, but the grotesque is vital to both its aesthetic and its theology.
In Knockemstiff and the many middles of nowhere that surround it, the degradation of the body is not a mirror for the degradation of the soul. It is, rather, a natural and simultaneous counterpart to it.
Carl’s “belly was starting to hang over his belt like a peck sack of dead bullfrogs,” and “his fat, pale, unshaved face looked like some cold and distant star.” Sandy, the “bait” that lures the hitchhikers in, is “rail thin and dirty-looking. Her face was caked with too much makeup, and her teeth were stained a dark yellow…” Overhead, “the sun popped out like a big, festering boil in the sky.”
Since death is so prevalent and so vivid, it’s easy to forget the role that life plays. But the grotesque, coming from the idea of the “grotto,” where entities bubble up in endless random forming and reforming, has to allow life and death to bleed together as equally mutable states of being, just like good and evil.
Out at the prayer log, Arvin and his father watch as “maggots dripped from the trees and crosses like squirming drops of white fat.” This shrine doesn’t work to prevent death, but it does work to open a grotto in the Ohio woods.
Unlike much of the existentialist tradition, The Devil All the Time is about fullness, not about emptiness. Throughout its engagement with murder and death, the novel’s focus is always on that which remains on earth: the murderer, the corpse, and the feeling of the devil’s presence, not of God’s absence. There is no transcendent escape from the mire, but, the deeper in you sink, the richer things become.
Remembering O’Connor’s statement that her stories dramatize “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil,” I asked myself whether there’s any grace in the territory held by Pollock’s devil.
I think not exactly. Rather than attesting to the stable reality or unreality of grace, Pollock attests to the reality of the human need to keep looking. The novel descends into the same conundrum as its characters, sympathizing with their plight but never claiming an overarching perspective from which to judge the efficacy of their pursuits. Pollock stands by his disdain for preachers by never becoming one.
All that’s clear at the end is that if the divine cannot find its way into this world through piety and prayer, it’ll find another way, enlisting the help of anyone willing.
The willing here are, of course, those who become agents of extreme violence. The Devil All the Time is not a book against or even really about violence. It’s a book of violence.
So why go where it wants to take you?
I don’t know if I believe in God or the devil. But I do believe in fear – fear of unseen forces, of other people, and of myself.
There’s a part of me that wants nothing more than relief from this fear. It wants to read a book like this and say, “These are just bad people, doing bad things, all of it made up.” This is the part that wants to lock the door when it hears the devil knocking, and then pretend not even to have heard.
But underneath this is a part of me that terrifies the other part. It’s a part that derives pleasure and even nourishment from inhabiting the minds of characters like these, granting them reality by consenting to imagine them.
It’s the part of me that, like all of the monstrous people in this book, just wants to touch the mystery. It wants to believe that this mystery exists on earth, and not in some other world that can only be glimpsed in dreams, or that must be accepted on a preacher’s say-so.
I don’t think I could touch it by doing the things that Pollock’s characters do – that’s why I’m driven to reading and writing – but I wouldn’t be a reader and writer at all if I couldn’t relate.
It’s the part of me whose greatest fear is not of hearing the devil at my door, but of not letting him in when I do.
The other day, I got my paws on an advance copy of Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, which will be released this May by Red Lemonade, an imprint of Cursor, Richard Nash’s start-up publishing community. I loved the cover, which reminds me of some of Ed Ruscha’s paintings, and a sentence early on pleased me greatly: “He always orders a Tofu Scramble and makes me write a fucking essay to the cook.” Oh how I love an ornery waitress!
Then I turned to the back cover, and read Veselka’s bio:
Vanessa Veselka (Portland, OR) has been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, an expatriate, an independent record label owner, a train-hopper, a waitress and a mother. Her work has appeared in Arthur, Bust, Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll, Tin House, and elsewhere. Zazen is her first novel.
Sex-worker? Train hopper? Wow, I thought, I need to get out more. I suppose if I’d had such a dramatic and compelling past, I might include those facts in my own bio. But would I? I tend to prefer only a listing one’s writing-related achievements, however, I recognize this might be closed-minded and uptight of me. My preference of author bio favors academic and publication history over life and work experience, though one could argue–and do so convincingly–that that isn’t necessarily what matters most. Why should one kind of bio be any more relevant than another?
Still, I can’t help but feel a tinge of annoyance when I read that John Brandon wrote his second novel Citrus County while working “at a Frito-Lay warehouse and a Sysco warehouse.” How cute. I admit, I did laugh at this next line: “During another part of the writing of this book he was unemployed,” and I felt relieved to learn that during the novel’s revision, he’d received a fellowship from the University of Mississippi.
And there’s Benjamin Hale, author of the debut novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. From his bio we learn not only that he’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but also that he’s been “a night shift baker, a trompe l’oeil painter, a cartoonist, an illustrator and a technical writer.” Oh. I see.
And there’s my friend Joseph Mattson, author of the novel Empty the Sun. The last line of his bio reads:
An epical rambler–miles under him include work as a farmer, dishwasher, getaway driver, and in healthcare for the clinically mentally insane–his home base is Los Angeles.
I have to wonder why Joseph didn’t include his years-long tenure at Book Soup, where he’s the man behind the beautiful signage. (It could be his mention of the “clinically mentally insane” is a veiled reference to that job…) Is graphic design too stable and predictable an occupation for the author of a novel as whiskey-soaked as Empty The Sun? Probably. For when it comes down to it, this is just a question of branding.
Most of the time, the choice to include non-writing information suggests that the author is an outsider, or wants to be considered one. Donald Ray Pollack, for instance, worked 32 years in a paper mill before the publication of his short story collection Knockemstiff. This implies that his worldview has been honed by far more than reading, writing, and teaching writing; he has an MFA, but he’s not like the rest of those MFA-grads (yawn) who have debut story collections! And his bio works: I’m interested in his distinct point of view, and also, I don’t see why he shouldn’t include an activity that was a decades-long career. Readers are concerned with authenticity, even when what they’re reading is fiction.
The thing is, a bio that focuses on the author’s non-writing jobs bothers me in the same way those new Levi’s ads bother me; “All work is equally important” the billboards read, the text paired with black-and-white photographs of beautiful be-denimed men, usually standing in fields. Am I really supposed to believe these guys are farmers? Please. As Americans, we romanticize manual and/or blue collar labor, even as we ignore the real people who do these jobs today–or are losing these jobs either to technology or to a cheaper workforce overseas. A walk through the men’s department at Macy’s proves the current obsession with the working class: a $200 flannel, anyone? Last week in Brooklyn, I saw hordes of men in work boots, plaid shirts, and the hats of longshoremen–and I’ll let you in on a little secret: these men weren’t headed for the docks. Levi’s knows that people who can afford designer jeans do not want to see themselves as administrative assistants, or worse: creative writing teachers. Maybe Doubleday knows this as well; I get the feeling that Pollack’s bio stuns anyone who has not worked in a factory.
Or is my annoyance at the non-standard bio about something else? With the authors who have held a dozen, motley jobs, I worry that book writing is just a hobby for them, a one-off thing, another occupation in a long line of them. God damn the dilettantes multi-talented! Or is it because such a bio suggests that writing, and the devotion to that pursuit, isn’t worthy enough for its own three-line biography? Maybe it’s that tired idea that writers are lame, sheltered wimps who haven’t really lived. “Please!” these bios call out. “I’m more than just a writer! I am worthy of your admiration and respect!”
I’m sure this is all stemming from my own insecurities. Part of me is embarrassed by the fact that I’ve pursued writing since I was a kid, that I did not have a long and colorful life before I put pen to paper. I’m probably just envious. I can’t blame the writers whose bios spotlight a different kind of life, a different part of life. As I said, it’s all branding, in the end. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
The truth is, every published writer has been faced with summing themselves up in just a few sentences. It’s not easy, and a bio isn’t a fixed thing–or at least not until you’re dead. Until then, it (hopefully) evolves with each new publication, each year lived. The decision of what to include and exclude persists throughout one’s career.
The real question, then, is: What makes a writer? Unfortunately, a few sentences cannot answer that. A writer is made by writing, and by reading, and by living: going to work, and eating, and being bored, being loved and being hurt, being held by your mother (or not), by sleeping, by waking up from bad dreams, by erasing one sentence, and rewriting it, erasing it again. All that, you see, cannot be summed up in a jacket flap.
Maybe these other writers are onto something. Maybe I should revise my bio approach. How does this sound:
Before Edan Lepucki published her first novel, she was an independent bookseller, a cheesemonger, a team member at Jamba Juice, a bored salesgirl at an art gallery gift shop, a law firm receptionist, a file clerk, and a model for children’s exercise wear. She had her first kiss when she was twelve, but didn’t lose her virginity until college, where she was a member of a hip-hop dance group and lived in a house with a broken heating system. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but the MFA program at Syracuse had been her first choice, but they rejected her ass. Her parents didn’t graduate from college, and neither did her older sister, so, you know, she’s not some stuffy professorial type. Please buy her book, which–let the record show–did not glide easily into publication, despite her quote-unquote literary pedigree.
Now please, kind reader, buy my novel. I’ll let you know when it’s out.
If 2010 was a literary year of big names — featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few — 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that’s likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy.
In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers’ time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we’re looking forward to — 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review, “the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal.” Baxter’s previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.)
The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection “exquisite and almost excruciating.” (Emily M.)
While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie. Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.” Perhaps. But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are. Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best. Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob)
Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren’t likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one “The Campaign Trail” which one early review describes as imagining “the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus’s memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin)
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan)
The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work — marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility — that includes an alphabet book of dead children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.”) Alexander Theroux was Gorey’s friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey’s death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.)
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression “black dog”? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog–literally, he’s a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt’s fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister. British reviewers have been quite taken with the book’s whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.)
The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.)
Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like “discovered,” as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it’s true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu–Budapest before World War II–and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia)
West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison’s new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town’s founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It’s a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.)
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan)
Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan)
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there’s certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year’s most anticipated, but what’s the point of having a website if I can’t use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics. Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.” Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master. One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40” list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick)
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir. Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing. In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob)
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.” (Max)
All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet. We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production. On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya)
Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson’s Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max)
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world–that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne)
This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick)
The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so. (Garth)
The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty’er, Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate. (Kevin)
The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian’s last novel, The Children’s Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 List.” His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism’s forebears: Shakespeare. It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth)
Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years–and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy–weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne)
Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth)
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn’t quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. “The Tragedy of Arthur” is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max)
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O’Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O’Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to “share” it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth)
The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X’s manifesto against higher education for all: “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X’s bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America’s lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren’t cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It’s like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante’s “Shadow Scholar” piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.)
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan)
Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7′ x 7′ tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother’s suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max)
My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream — until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, captures the moment when American “dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear.” (Bill)
Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max)
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle’s collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys’ trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the “Full English Breakfast,” I thought of this story. (Max)
Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd’s great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia)
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth)
There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic “20 Under 40” list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper’s labeling 32-year-ole Butler “one of the voices of his generation,” that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max)
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We’ve reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max)
Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year’s Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain “science fiction, aliens and spaceships.” The title refers to “a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe” where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville’s track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill)
Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate’s large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio’s Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max)
To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter’s illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya)
Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove. Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating. In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty. Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy. When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob)
The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley’s latest is described as a “novel in two parts.” An early review in the Financial Times calls the book “darkly elegant” with “two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.” (Max)
Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection’s over-arching theme: “Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.” (Max)
The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting “the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him,” from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “This one was a picnic,” Patchett says of State of Wonder, “because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.” (Bill)
The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen’s next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament? (“May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto,” Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen’s immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen’s forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.)
The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs–a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne)
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume. In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob)
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max)
Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav’s third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks “Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?” Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max)
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max)
Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year “in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life.” The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux’s time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max)
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock’s debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick)
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl’s beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl’s academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl’s agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan”—is that without Blue, Pessl’s nothing. Can she–could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)–generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue’s? (Emily W.)
Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds. Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend. But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob)
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist’s father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar’s experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia)
Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college – presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition – to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth)
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the ’80s, and Imre Goldstein’s translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly – as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates – he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception – psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg’s appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth)
Unknown (fall and beyond):
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn’t find a buyer for this story of “cults of personality and terrorism” and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by…er…The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as “America’s Best Writer.” Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people’s minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth)
The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author’s bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max)
Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet:
Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson’s book will, one imagines, address Dante’s exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia)
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?
How long do you expect the books on your shelves to last? The oldest book I own is a Victorian-era edition of The Collected Poetical Works of Samuel T. Coleridge, purchased from a street vendor for $15 some years ago. It’s an absolute beauty: a heavy little volume, solidly constructed, cloth-bound in bright blue with hand-painted vines and gold lettering on the front. The paper is thick and smooth, and—this is what I find most remarkable about it—hardly discolored by time. Well over a hundred years after publication, the paper is a bright and even cream. I fully expect that this book will outlast me. I can see no reason why it shouldn’t persist for another century or far longer.
I don’t, of course, expect this kind of longevity of all my books. I recently pulled my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient down from the shelf for the first time in some years, and was surprised to discover that the pages had gone yellow. I’m used to thinking of yellowed pages as a sort of pre-existing condition among books of my acquaintance, something I’d expect to find in the 1965 editions of books picked up in second-hand stores. But for all that, the yellowing and increasing brittleness weren’t entirely unreasonable: my copy of The English Patient is a trade paperback, and while trade paperbacks occupy something of a gray area in terms of paper quality—typically nicer than a mass market paperback, but in most cases not as nice as a hardcover—one doesn’t really expect them to last forever.
Hardcover books are a different matter. I’ve been buying a fair number of first edition hardcovers recently, one every two or three months. I happen to know a few people who are in the habit of publishing novels and I feel very strongly about supporting writers, so I often find myself buying first editions at readings and book launches. This is an expensive habit, and I tell myself that if I didn’t know the authors in question I’d just wait for the paperback, but I can’t say that the expenditure bothers me—hardcovers are beautiful, and they look so solid on my shelves. They look like they should last forever.
But a few months ago I purchased a book that rattled this assumption. An acquaintance published his debut novel with one of the major New York houses, and I acquired it at a book launch party. When I picked it up in the store, I was startled by how light it was: a hardcover with the weight of a paperback. Later, flipping through the book at home, I discovered why this was. The paper was so thin that I could read the words “Chapter One” through the title page. For all intents and purposes, the book was printed on tracing paper.
I had essentially purchased a disposable first edition hardcover, and it made me a little angry. Aside from the obvious—I’d just spent $26.95 for a book that will turn yellow and become brittle in a matter of years—I found that I was angry on the writer’s behalf. He’d spent years of his life on his novel, a book lauded as an astounding debut, but his publisher didn’t value him highly enough to print his book on paper that might reasonably be expected to outlast him. In another decade or so, perhaps sooner, the pages of his book will be as yellowed as the paperback of The English Patient that my aunt gave me for Christmas when I was fourteen.
I spoke recently with Melissa Klug on the subject of paper quality. Melissa is a director of marketing at Glatfelter, a paper manufacturer with locations on three continents, and she’s involved with their Permanence Matters initiative. I met her online a year and a half ago or so, when I ventured nervously onto Twitter to promote my first book, and we’ve run into one another in person a few times since. She’s one of my favorite people online, an avid reader, and she’s the person I vent to in private when I buy an expensive book that turns out to have been printed on tracing paper.
The Millions: How did you wind up in the paper business? Did you always have an interest in the field?
Melissa Klug: I grew up in a small town called Chillicothe, Ohio, where the major industry of the town was, and still is today, a large paper mill. At the time I was growing up it was a part of a company called Mead (which most people know from school supplies like my childhood favorite, the Trapper Keeper.) It is such an integral part of the community that people called it “The Mead.” For readers of The Millions, it might be most interesting to know that the paper mill is about 5 miles away from the setting of Knockemstiff, and the author of that book, Donald Ray Pollock, was a papermaker at the mill for several decades before becoming published.
At the end of college I had interviewed at a lot of places, and was deciding on the path my life might take. I had offers that would take me in different directions, but the one that felt the most right was to become an employee at the paper mill. I sold paper in New England for two years, and after that went back to Ohio to the mill and have been in several different positions since then, mostly in the sales and marketing field. In 2006, the paper mill in Chillicothe was purchased by Glatfelter, who has been making paper for books since the 1800’s. As a result of that, we began making book paper in Ohio, and I was fortunate to become the Director of Marketing for several lines, including the one closest to my personal love—books.
TM: I wonder if you would tell us a little bit about the Permanence Matters initiative.
MK: Eight years ago we started to notice the shift in buying patterns from free-sheet Permanent Paper to groundwood paper for hardcover books. Groundwood is the type of paper used in newspapers and mass market paperbacks, and its production is such that it is much lower-quality and degrades more quickly than traditional book publishing paper—this is called free-sheet, or what we at Glatfelter term Permanent Paper. Groundwood is certainly an acceptable paper for some categories of publishing—few people would expect a $6 mass-market paperback to look pristine for years.
However, what we began to notice around eight years ago was a shift to the use of groundwood for first edition hardcover books. This has accelerated with the decline in newspaper print sales—the paper mills which used to manufacture newsprint for papers now have a tremendous amount of open capacity that has to go into something, and they’ve shifted to groundwood publishing papers.
In 2008, we decided that we wanted to take a more public stand about this issue. We launched the Permanence Matters campaign to educate and activate the literary community about the rapid degradation of the quality of books. While we realize that much of the publishing industry is moving their attention to e-books, we still believe there is an important place for print books in the future of publishing, and want people to recognize that e- and p- books are not an either/or proposition, but rather an “and.”
TM: It’s an interesting issue. It seems to me that most people don’t really notice the paper quality in the books they buy, unless the quality’s either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad, but we expect our books to last a long time. How pervasive has this problem become?
MK: Many people know about the “acid paper crisis” which got a lot of publicity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Many authors and other publishing industry notables banded together, and publishers lobbied for paper mills to produce only acid-free paper. After this, people felt comfortable that books would endure because the paper mills began producing only alkaline paper (which allowed the paper to endure much longer.) But as I mentioned, approximately eight years ago we started to notice a shift in order patterns, as more publishers were moving some titles to groundwood.
As the years progressed, more and more titles began to shift from free-sheet Permanent Paper to groundwood, until now, when well over 50% of the New York Times hardcover bestseller list is now printed on groundwood. Someone recently challenged me on this, saying that the New York Times list isn’t necessarily what literary people would consider the most important works of current literature. This degradation in paper quality isn’t only happening to non-literary works—many award-winning works, including many of the 2009 National Book Award nominees and one of the major category winners, are also not printed on free-sheet Permanent Paper.
This is what I know professionally. But personally I am, first and foremost, a reader. I have noticed a marked decline in the quality of the paper in the books I’m reading personally (almost all hardcover books, first or second editions.) In the past six months, I have had a number of books whose paper is so flimsy feeling and looking that I was extremely frustrated to have spent money on it. I read a book on vacation in March which was literally almost see-through—words from the opposite pages showed through (by the way, major bestselling author, big five publisher.) My personal feeling is, as publishing turns its head increasingly to e-books, the physical production values of print books will decline even more (all the attention will go to e, few will be paying attention to physical print copies.) This is saddening both personally and professionally.
TM: As you see it, what is at stake here?
MK: I truly believe that we are at a critical crossroads in publishing. As the attention, bandwidth and energy of publishing turns to e-books, we are concerned that what is currently a trend toward lesser quality print versions of books will then become a landslide. Our stance in a world of e- and digital, very simply, is: If you are going to print a book, it should be on permanent paper. Our concern is the longevity of print books in the future—if many book editions will be digital, this is less permanent than a print version—as our CEO recently said, “My last laptop lasted 3 years”—and if a print version itself is not permanent, these words will not endure. Digitization is not a fail-safe answer to preservation, especially as formats change almost constantly. Print is still the most enduring way to preserve a work. As we see it, it’s the future of the printed word.
I also don’t want to lose sight of the “book as object” or “book as art”—I believe it’s important to still view important works as permanent artistic objects. I get an email each day from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the “piece of the day” which I enjoy looking at–but I still wish to know that I could go see it in person to gain the nuances of that work. Books are no different.
TM: Have publishers been receptive to the Permanence Matters message? Have you encountered any resistance?
MK: We do try to be careful and walk a bit of a tightrope on the initiative, as we are a paper supplier to both major publishers as well as smaller publishers, and it is not our goal to alienate or upset them—they are incredibly important to us. One of our goals is to educate publishing employees as well—to help them make thoughtful decisions about the print production of books, and to start a dialogue with them.
TM: What’s next for Permanence Matters?
MK: We launched a new website at Book Expo America, www.permanencematters.com, one that will have more educational components rolling out this summer. One of the great aspects of the new site is a video interview with the director of book conservation at Johns Hopkins University, and we have educational components about the true costs of print books, among many other features. Additionally, we are launching a blog called “Gutenberg Girls” which will be co-written by myself and a coworker, which will allow us to more casually discuss issues within the book publishing industry as well as write about the books we’re reading.
Although we are in the business of making and selling paper, I can tell you that we have many employees who are extremely avid readers and are troubled by this issue, and thus Permanence Matters is much more a personal passion than a business initiative. Also, we are not the only company that makes free-sheet book publishing paper, and we support the shift back to permanent paper whether we are the beneficiary or not.
TM: Has the decline in paper quality impacted your buying habits at all? I know you’re an avid reader, and given your line of work, I imagine you must find yourself noticing the quality of the paper in all the books you buy. I’m wondering if you ever find yourself hesitating to buy a first edition hardcover because you can tell it won’t last.
MK: It has absolutely changed my buying habits. Professional hazards make me more cautious about what I buy—often, when I know a book is on groundwood, I will either wait for it to come out in paperback, or I will get it on audiobook instead of spending the money to buy a book which will yellow and degrade on the shelf. I buy a lot of books, so there is a financial impact of me choosing to shift what would have been hardcover purchases to either a library lend of an audiobook or a paperback purchase. Based on comments I’ve heard from book buyers, and an increasing number of articles I come across on the internet about book quality, I believe we may be on a precipice of people starting to change their purchases based on the poor quality of the finished product.
An interesting facet of all of this is that we’re not talking about enormous cost differentials here: according to the Permanence Matters website, the savings a publisher might expect to realize by printing a book on groundwood rather than higher-quality paper amounts to about ten cents a book. And yes, in the current publishing environment every cent counts, but I’d like to respectfully suggest here that some things are worth paying for.
The day after our interview, Melissa sent me some photographs. The below images, courtesy of Permanence Matters, show what happens to a book printed on groundwood when it’s left out in the sun for a mere two days. A sticky note was left on the page for the entire two-day period to show contrast.
I think our books deserve better.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This month we’re also introducing our Hall of Fame. Any book that’s been on our list for six months graduates to the Hall of Fame both to designate those books as all-time favorites of Millions readers and to make room for new books on our list. Our Hall of Fame begins with two inaugural inductees.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Graduating from our list to our Hall of Fame are Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and Elaine Dundy’s Dud Avocado, two very worthy books to inaugurate this new feature. Also disappearing from the list are Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff.
Joining our list for the first time is Dave Eggers’ new book Zeitoun, an immigrant’s story in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. The book was recently featured on our “Most Anticipated” list. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is our other debut. The Swedish writer’s series of posthumously published mysteries have gained quite a following in the States. The book’s only appearance on The Millions was to kick off a Book Question piece about “closed-room mysteries.” Millions readers, if you’ve read Larsson, let us know what you think.
Meanwhile, Joseph O’Neill returns to our list after appearing on our initial top-ten list at the beginning of the year and then getting bumped off. Maybe President Obama’s mention of the book a few months back is continuing to generate sales.
See Also: Last month’s list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June, the list is also in our sidebar.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences5 months2.2.26666 months3.4.Olive Kitteridge5 months4.6.Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste4 months5.7.Infinite Jest4 months6.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker4 months7.10.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao4 months8.5.The Dud Avocado6 months9.8.Knockemstiff4 months10. (tie)9.Felonious Jazz2 months10. (tie)-The Savage Detectives2 monthsAs summer set in, the titles on our list stayed mostly static. Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives returns to the list. Meanwhile, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is seeing some interest, probably from folks wanting to participate in Infinite Summer, a TMN sponsored group read of the book. Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao may be getting a boost from its inclusion in the higher reaches of our Prizewinners list last month. Finally, Olive Kitteridge continues to be a favorite among Millions readers, and Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog is still at the top thanks to the enduring interest in Garth’s essay on the grammatical proclivities of our current president. Look for some changes to the list in the coming months as an impressive slate of new titles hits bookstores.Have you been reading any of the books on our Top Ten list? Let us know what you think of them.See also: Last month’s list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May, and we update the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences4 months2.2.26665 months3.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker3 months4.5.Olive Kitteridge4 months5.6.The Dud Avocado5 months6.4.Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste3 months7.-Infinite Jest3 months8.7.Knockemstiff3 months9.-Felonious Jazz1 month10.-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao3 monthsWe had one new arrival on our list for May and two titles that returned. Readers were curious enough to try out Bryan Gilmer’s Felonious Jazz after he wrote about his experiments with pricing the ebook version of the novel. Returning to our list after a one month hiatus are two classics of contemporary literature, Infinite Jest and The Brief Wondrous Live of Oscar Wao. Departing from our list are Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, The Lazarus Project, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and The Savage Detectives.Also notable is the continued strength of Olive Kitteridge, which appears to have many fans among Millions readers. If you’ve been reading any of the books mentioned above, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.See also: Last month’s list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April, and we’ll be updating the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences3 months2.2.26664 months3.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker2 months4.4.Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste2 months5.5.Olive Kitteridge3 months6.7. (tie)The Dud Avocado4 months7.7. (tie)Knockemstiff2 months8.-Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned1 month9.9.A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again4 months10. (tie)-The Savage Detectives2 months10. (tie)-The Lazarus Project1 monthWe have two debuts on our list this month. Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project and Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Max wrote about the former in connection with his Tournament of Books judging duties in March and wrote up the latter late last month. Anne also wrote about Lazarus late last year.Meanwhile, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives returns to the list after initially appearing on our inaugural list and then disappearing.The top-five books in April remained unchanged from March, with Sister Bernadette still putting in a strong showing on the continued popularity of Garth’s Presidential sentence diagramming post.Disappearing from the list this month are two standout works of contemporary fiction, Infinite Jest and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.Let us know if you’ve been reading any of our “top ten” books. We’d love to hear about it.See also: Last month’s list.
Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out the original introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences2 months2.2.26663 months3.-The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker1 month4.-Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste1 month5.4.Olive Kitteridge2 months6.3.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao3 months7. (tie)-Knockemstiff1 month7. (tie)7.The Dud Avocado3 months9.8. (tie)A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again3 months10.5.Infinte Jest3 monthsWe have three debuts on our list this month.The Rejection Collection is a book edited by New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee that, as its title suggests, collects cartoons that didn’t quite make it into the New Yorker. And it’s not that these cartoons weren’t good enough to get in, it’s that they were just a little “off,” too weird or even off-color to grace the magazine’s hallowed pages. We wrote about the book when it came out in 2006, and we also wrote about its sequel, The Rejection Collection Vol. 2: The Cream of the Crap when it appeared in 2007.Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is another quirky addition to the top 10. It’s a part of the 33 1/3 series of books about songs. Carl Wilson’s entry, about a Celine Dion song, was singled out by Dan Kois in his Year in Reading post in December. Reading the book, Kois said, “was to be both inspired and filled with despair.”Finally, we also add Donald Ray Pollack’s collection Knockemstiff, newly out in paperback. Knockemstiff was another Year in Reading selection. Kyle Minor described the book as “Eighteen wild and wooly stories from southern Ohio, in which a lifetime’s experience is distilled to nine or twelve pages of the most thrilling sentences I’ve ever read.” And he compared it to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.Meanwhile, sentence diagramming tome Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog remains at the top thanks to the enduring quality of Garth’s recent post parsing President Obama’s sentences.Dropping from the list are Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, and J.K. Rowling’s work of Potter lore The Tales of Beedle the Bard.See Also: Last month’s list.