"To start with, look at all the books." This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend's always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, "Fourteen books? Really?" Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me? So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I've been writing essays about them. Some of them I've published. My essay "The Art of the Epigraph," published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I'm turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books. I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I'm just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I've even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and "Opening Sentences" popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category. Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I'm not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence––after the book design, title, and epigraph––is among the reader's first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly. But how do they work? What's makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all? As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina; "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," from Austen's Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens's "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…" from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen's case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They're great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don't need to be cued into the game so directly. Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself," expressed a woman's small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with, "They're out there." J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel's famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose. It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel's aims, but this isn't––and shouldn't––always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which opens with, "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically," and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here––the first-person-plurals "our" and "we"––are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: "This was more or less Constance Chatterley's position." The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the "tragic age" remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will "England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking"? Jumping ahead a number of decades, let's examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: "The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen." Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay: "My idea," Chip said, "was to have this 'hump' that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it's a classic modernist strategy. There's a lot of rich suspense toward the end." Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the "rich suspense" of the rest? It's hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper's essay "Why Bother?" He writes: I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn't sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn't incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I'm doing is simply better than Crichton's. Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen's style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip's girlfriend (who couldn't make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening's value: "You see, though," he says, "the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form––gender, power, identity, authenticity––and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?" Though Chip's argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren't necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they're looking, as Franzen himself wrote, "for a way out of loneliness." I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can't begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it's the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: "Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closetlike room he rented on Stoliarny Place." From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary. A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn't believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The "exceptional heat wave" (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows––subtly, maybe inexpressibly––that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn't.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: "I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man." You do not get any grander than that. In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line's efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something "offputting" at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea. Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer's beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: "On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time." Simple, direct, yet enticing––suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they're fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur––a kind of historical importance––to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect––and the opening sentence reflects that. Eleanor Catton's whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale––no other word for it––with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here's how Catton answers those questions: "The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met." Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you've got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence: From the variety of their comportment and dress––frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill––they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway––deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain. Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip's screenplay, "prefigured" in that opening. Except here, Catton's work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you'd have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader. Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old. Both Wolitzer's and Catton's openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn't mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness. Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, "Call me Ishmael," from Melville's Moby Dick. Melville's line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it's not their real name, so "Ishmael" appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator's exiled status. Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville's line in Cat's Cradle: "Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John." Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we're given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that's the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is––you guessed it––swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut's Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales––religion and politics. Zadie Smith's allusive opening of On Beauty isn't nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut's (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: "One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father," and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster's Howards End, which goes: "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sisters." Smith's is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer "to whom," she writes, "all my fiction is indebted." But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster's titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith's novel may have borrowed Forster's title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrow her title from Elaine Scarry's essay "On Beauty and Being Just.") Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I've seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka's famous, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect," from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka's famous sentence with wit and originally. His story "Samsa in Love" from The New Yorker takes this approach: "He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa." Now that's interesting. In Kafka's time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We're used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character. But, you know, that's Murakami. Most writers aren't as imaginative. And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth's Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: "Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over." This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath's mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are "maddeningly improbable." Roth really does his reader a favor––if you're not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn't the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there. Toni Morrison's Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: "They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time." The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the "white girl" is; she joins the list of millions––billions, even––of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: "Don't be afraid." Song of Solomon: "The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o'clock." And, of course, Beloved: "124 was spiteful." Morrison's prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition––to, in part, "work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary"––has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches. I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I'm a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You've earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out. Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit's incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: "Those who saw him hushed." The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening––hell, about great literature in general: it's amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness. Image via Thunderchild7/Flickr
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. 2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist. Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year? I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W >6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - P, C 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
1. I don't know what I'm preparing for. My whole life I've considered valuable certain experiences, accomplishments, and knowledge simply because I imagine they'll be useful to me in the future. I'm beginning to doubt this proposition. Here's an example. For the last ten years, I've kept a Word document for quotes. Any time I come across a worthy passage, I file it away. By now, the file has grown to over 30,000 words from hundreds of books, articles, poems, and plays. I do this not in the interest of collecting quotable prose or for the benefit of inspiration or encouragement or even insight. What I'm looking for are potential epigraphs. You see, I love epigraphs. Everything about them. I love the white space surrounding the words. I love the centered text, the dash of the attribution. I love the promise. When I was a kid, they intimidated me with their suggested erudition. I wanted to be the type of person able to quote Shakespeare or Milton or, hell, Stephen King appropriately. I wanted to be the type of writer who understood their own work so well that they could pair it with an apt selection from another writer's work. If I ever wrote a novel, I told myself, about a writer, maybe I could quote Barbara Kingsolver: "A writer’s occupational hazard: I think of eavesdropping as minding my own business.” Or maybe one of Philip Roth's many memorable passages on the writer's life, like: No, one’s story isn’t a skin to be shed — it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you. Or, taking a different tack: It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom — not on a schedule, in command of yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything. But once one’s writing, it’s all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there’s no better occupation to choose. Your memory, your diction, your intelligence, your sympathies, your observations, your sensations, your understanding — never enough. You find out more about what’s missing in you than you really ought to know. All of you an enclosure you keep trying to break out of. And all the obligations more ferocious for being self-imposed. In some cases, I'd read something that was so eloquent and succinct, so insightful, I'd be inspired to write something around it, even if I didn't have anything to go on other than the quote. Aleksander Hemon's The Lazarus Project is positively riddled with possible epigraphs. Right away, on page two, we get this: "All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” (Recognize that one? If you do, that's because it has already been used as an epigraph for Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, except McCann changes all of the I's to we's.) Then, on the very next page, this: "There has been life before this. Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there.” A few pages later: "I am just like everybody else, Isador always says, because there is nobody like me in the whole world.” On page 106: "Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes." That one made me want to write about a despotic father and the son who's trying to avoid following in his footsteps. I didn't have a great need to write that story, but the quote would have fit it so perfectly I actually have an unfinished draft somewhere in my discarded Word documents. This is, of course, a stupid way to go about crafting fiction. I learned that lesson. You can't write something simply because you've found the perfect epigraph, the perfect title, the perfect premise –– there has to be a greater need, a desire that you can't stymie. Charles Baxter once wrote, "Art that is overcontrolled by its meaning may start to go a bit dead." The same is true of art overcontrolled by anything other than the inexplicable urge to put story to paper. I know this now. Yet I still collect possible epigraphs. And so far, I have yet to use a single entry from my document at the beginning of a piece of fiction. 2. Epigraphs, despite what my young mind believed, are more than mere pontification. Writers don't use them to boast. They are less like some wine and entrée pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class. Writers must teach a reader how to read their book. They must instruct the tone, the pace, the ostensible project of a given work. An epigraph is an opportunity to situate a novel, a story, or an essay, and, more importantly, to orient the reader to the book's intentions. To demonstrate the multiple uses of the epigraph, I'd like to discuss a few salient examples. But I'm going to shy away from the classic epigraphs we all know, those of Hemingway, Tolstoy, etc., the kinds regularly found in lists with titles like "The 15 Greatest Epigraphs of All Time," and talk about some recent books, since those are the ones that have excited (and, in some cases, confounded) me enough to write about the subject in the first place. A good epigraph establishes the theme, but when it works best it does more than this. A theme can be represented in an infinity of ways, so it is the particular selection of quotation that should do the most work. Philip Roth's Indignation opens with this section of E.E. Cummings's "i sing of Olaf glad and big": Olaf (upon what were once knees) does almost ceaselessly repeat "there is some shit I will not eat" For a book titled Indignation, this seems a perfect tone with which to begin the novel. Olaf's a heroic figure, who suffered unrelenting torture and still refused to kill for any reason, which means Roth here is also elevating the narrative of his angry protagonist to heroic status. Marcus Messner is a straight-laced boy in the early 1950s, attending college in rural Ohio. Despite his best efforts, Marcus gets caught up in the moral hypocrisy of American values, winding up getting killed in the Korean War. Marcus and Olaf are, as Cummings wrote, "more brave than me:more blond than you." Authors do this kind of thing all the time. They borrow more than just the quoted lines. In Roth's case, it was Cummings's moral outrage about American war he wanted aligned with his novel. In Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, she opens with two separate passages from Proust's In Search of Lost Time: Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years. The unknown element in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but does not abolish. The theme of Egan's novel is time and its effects on us –– how we survive or endure, how we perish, how things change, etc. –– a fact established here by quoting the foremost authority on fictive examinations of time, memory, and life gone by. But more than that, Egan is connecting her novel –– which is full of formal daring and partly takes place in the future –– to a canonical author whose own experimentation has now become standard. Like the music industry in her book, the world of literature has changed, maybe not for the worse but irrevocably nonetheless, and Proust's monumental achievement has become, to most modern readers, an impenetrable and uninteresting work. Egan's choice of epigraph places her squarely in the same tradition. The Modernism of Proust gave way to the Postmodernism of Egan. Years on, to readers not yet born, A Visit from the Good Squad may seem a hopelessly old-fashioned relic. Such is the power of time. James Franco also opens his story collection Palo Alto with a selection from In Search of Lost Time, but the effect is severely diminished in his case. First of all, the quoted passage reads: There is hardly a single action that we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything. Though a fitting passage for a work that focuses on young, troubled California teenagers, there is nothing other than the expressed idea that justifies Franco's specific use of Proust as opposed to anyone else. And Franco attributes the quotation to Within a Budding Grove, which is the second book in, as Franco has it here, Remembrance of Things Past. Those two translations of the titles are, by now, somewhat obsolete, the titles of older translations. Within a Budding Grove is now usually referred to as In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower. There is something a tad disingenuous about Franco's usage here, a more transparently self-conscious attempt to legitimize his stories, something he didn't need to do. His stories, despite some backlash he's received, are pretty good. Some writers are just masters of the epigraph. Thomas Pynchon always knows an evocative way to open his books. His Against the Day is a vast, panoramic novel that features dozens of characters in as many settings. The story begins at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 and goes until the 1920s, a period of remarkable technological change the world over. Electricity had been commercialized and was becoming commonplace. Tesla was conducting all his experiments. Pynchon reduces all of these pursuits to a wonderfully succinct quote: It's always night, or we wouldn't need light. –– Thelonious Monk First of all, have you ever even thought about the universe in this way? That darkness is its default setting? Secondly, have you ever heard a more beautiful and concise explanation for one of the great plights of humanity? We're afraid of the dark, and the desire for light (both literal and metaphorical) consumes us. Referencing Monk does the opposite of referencing Proust. Pynchon's working with high theme here, but he's coming at it with the spirit of a brilliant and erratic jazz artist. His so-called "beach read," Inherent Vice takes place at the end of the 1960s, an era that clearly means a lot to Pynchon. Earlier, in Vineland, radicals from the 60s have become either irrelevant eccentrics or have joined the establishment. It's a strange, mournful meditation on the failures of free love. Inherent Vice takes a similar approach. Doc Sportello is a disinterested P.I. for whom the promise of that optimistic decade offers very little. That optimism is where we begin the novel: Under the paving-stones, the beach! –– Graffito, Paris, May 1968 A very pointed reference. Paris in May of 1968, of course, was a hotbed of protest and civic unrest, a time of strikes and occupations, and, for hippies and radicals, a harbinger of the changes to come. Well, Inherent Vice takes place on a beach. No paving-stones need be removed for the beach to appear. Yet the promise of the graffito –– i.e., that beauty and natural life exist under the surface of the establishment –– seems, to Doc Sportello (and us, as readers, in retrospect) a temporary hope that, like fog, will eventually lift and disappear forever. In the end, as Doc literally drives through a deep fog settling in over Los Angeles, he wonders "how many people he knew had been caught out" in the fog or "were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep." He continues: Someday...there'd be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog. The fog will lift, and the dream of the 60s will become a memory, murky but present. For Doc, and for us, all he can do is wait "for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead." For many, Inherent Vice was a light novel, a nice little diversion, and it mostly is, but for me it has more straightforward (and dare I say, sentimental?) emotional resonance than many of Pynchon's earlier novels. And this epigraph is part of its poignancy. Doc's complicated personal life becomes a panegyric for an entire generation, all in the form of a "beach read." Sometimes, though, epigraphs offer a different kind of poignancy Christopher Hitchens’s last collection of essays, Arguably, opens with this: Live all you can: It's a mistake not to. –– Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors Hitchens, by the time Arguably was published, had already been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He knew he was dying. This epigraph stands as Hitchens's final assertion of his unwavering worldview. Even more retrospectively moving are the epigraphs of Hitch-22, a memoir he wrote before the doctors told him the news. One of these passages is the wonderful, remarkable opening of Hitchens's friend Richard Dawkins's book Unweaving the Rainbow: We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here. Though I'm not sure how "ordinary" Hitchens viewed himself (he seems to have thought a great deal of himself), this still seems an uncannily prescient sentiment to be quoted so soon before his diagnosis. But maybe my all-time favorite epigraph comes from Michael Chabon's recent Telegraph Avenue: Call me Ishmael. ––Ishmael Reed, probably This is one of the cleverest, funniest, and most arrogant epigraphs I've come across in recent years. "Call me Ishmael" is, as we all know, the opening sentence of Moby Dick. Ishmael Reed was a black experimental novelist, author of the classic Mumbo Jumbo, a writer steeped in African American culture not depicted in mainstream art. Chabon's novel takes place in Oakland and focuses, in part, on race. It is Chabon's most direct attempt to write a Great American Novel (it even suggests as much on the inside flap of the hardcover), with its grand themes and storied setting, its 12-page-long sentence, its general literariness. By framing his book with an irreverent reference to one of America's definitive Great American Novels, placed in the mouth of a black writer, Chabon both announces his intention to write a Great book and denounces the entire notion that there can be Great books. How does the supposed greatness of Moby Dick speak to the black experience? What does its language offer them? So here, the most revered sentence in American literature becomes, for a man named Ishmael, a quotidian utterance, a common request. Call me Ishmael. Just another day for Ishmael Reed. And Telegraph Avenue works like that, too. It's just another day for Archy and Nat, the book's main characters. Is Telegraph Avenue Chabon's Moby Dick? His Ulysses? Perhaps. But it's certainly in conversation with those books; the epigraph makes that much clear. Epigraphs are, ultimately, like many components of art, in that they can pretty much accomplish anything the writer wants them to. They can support a theme or contradict it. They can prepare readers or mislead them. They can situate a book into its intended company or they can renounce any relationship with the past. And when used effectively, they can be just as vital to a novel's meaning as the title, the themes, the prose. An epigraph may not make or break a book, but it can certainly enhance its richness. And, more, they can enhance the richness of the epigraph itself. Because of Michael Chabon, I can never look at Moby Dick's famous opening the same way again. When I read Cummings's poem "i sing of Olaf glad and big," I have a new appreciation for its political implications. Literature is wonderful that way. It isn't merely the creation of new work; it's the extension of the art itself. Each new novel, each new story, not only adds to the great well of work, it actually reaches back into the past and changes the static text. It alters how we see the past. The giant conversation of literature knows no restrictions to time or geography, and epigraphs are a big part of it. Writers continuously resurrect the dead, salute the present and, like epigraphs, hint at what's to come in the future. 3. Now that I think about it, I realize that all those quotes I'd been saving up over the years finally have a purpose. Since I've become a literary critic, I've mined my ever-growing document numerous times, not for an epigraph, but as assistance to my analysis of a literary work. I've used them to characterize a writer's style, their recurring motifs or as examples of their insight. These quotations have become extremely useful, invaluable even. In fact, I see my collection as a kind of epigraph to my own career. At first, I didn't understand their import, but as I lived on (and, appropriately, as I read on), those borrowed words slowly started to announce their purpose, and when I revisit them (like flipping back to the front page of a novel after finishing it), I find they have new meaning to me now. They are the same, but they are different. Like Pynchon writes in Inherent Vice: "What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”
Miniatures on a Broad Canvas At the National Book Awards ceremony in New York City on November 2, E.L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On that night he joined a rarefied posse of past recipients that includes Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, John Ashbery, and Elmore Leonard, among others. The award formalized something legions of readers have known for more than half a century: E.L. Doctorow is a national treasure. While I wouldn't presume to single out one of Doctorow's dozen novels or story collections as his "best" book, I do think it is fair to say that, so far, his best known and best loved work is the novel Ragtime. And I would argue that this has also been his most influential book, the one that has done more than all the others to change the way American authors approach the writing of novels. Ragtime, like so much of Doctorow's fiction, is pinned to a particular, acutely rendered moment in American history. In other novels he has taken us back to the Wild West (Welcome to Hard Times, 1960), the Civil War (The March, 2005), post-bellum New York City (The Waterworks, 1994), the Depression (World's Fair, 1985, winner of the National Book Award; Loon Lake, 1980; and Billy Bathgate, 1989), and the Cold War (The Book of Daniel, 1971). In Ragtime he takes us back to the years immediately preceding the First World War, when America and much of the world lived in a state of dreamy innocence, oblivious that twinned calamities loomed. The book's theme, as I read it, is that such innocence is an untenable luxury, then and now, and its inevitable loss is always laced with trauma, pain, and bloodshed. To heighten the trauma, Doctorow first builds a nearly pastoral world. Here is the novel's serene opening: In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair. In just four deceptively simple sentences, Doctorow has established the novel's tone and central strategy. The key word in this passage is seemed, for it hints that this stout manse will not be able to provide the stability it promises. More subtly – and crucially – Doctorow also establishes a slippery narrative voice, which will be a key to the novel's success. When we learn that "Father" built this house, we assume that the man's son or daughter is narrating the story. Later references to "Grandfather" and "Mother" and "Mother's Younger Brother" and "the Little Boy" reinforce the familial sleight of hand. But three sentences after the intimate introduction of "Father," Doctorow switches to the impersonal third-person plural and tells us that after "the family" took possession of the house, it seemed that "their" days would be warm and fair. It is a deft shift of focus, a quiet, barely noticeable pulling back, but it gives Doctorow the freedom to have it both ways – to paint miniatures on a broad canvas. The strategy is crucial to everything that will follow. The novel was stylistically innovative in other ways. The paragraphs are long, unbroken by quoted dialog. This allows Doctorow to immerse the reader in the seamless atmosphere of a particular place and time. In the middle of the novel's long opening paragraph, Doctorow plays the gambit that will become the novel's signature and the source of its enduring influence on the way many American novelists work right up to today: he starts injecting historical figures into his fictional world. The gambit unfolds like this: "Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes. In New York City the papers were full of the shooting of the famous architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, eccentric scion of a coke and railroad fortune. Harry K. Thaw was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated beauty who had once been Stanford White's mistress." A few lines later Emma Goldman, the revolutionary, strolls onto the page. Soon after that, Harry Houdini wrecks his car, "a black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout," in front of the family's house in New Rochelle. Five pages in, and Doctorow is already off to the races. In the course of the novel we'll meet the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Dreiser, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and Emiliano Zapata. With one exception – a luncheon meeting between Ford and Morgan – the appearance of these historical figures feels unforced and plausible. Doctorow's historical research is obviously prodigious, but the reader never feels that the author is emptying his notebook or showing off. The historical details, such as Houdini's "black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout," are chosen carefully and slipped into the narrative without fanfare. In other words, Doctorow's mastery of his material and his narrative voice prevents the novel's central conceit from sliding into mere schtick. From Kohlhase to Kohlhaas to Coalhouse All writing comes from other writing, and of course E.L. Doctorow was not the first writer to populate a fictional narrative with historical figures. It just seemed that way to many people when Ragtime was published, to great fanfare, in the summer of 1975. But as Doctorow happily admitted in an interview in 1988, Ragtime sprang from a very specific source – an 1810 novella called Michael Kohlhaas by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The parallels between the two books are unmistakable. In Kleist's novella, the title character is based on an historical figure, a 16th-century horse dealer named Hans Kohlhase, who seeks justice when he is swindled out of two horses and a servant, a campaign that wins the support of Martin Luther but eventually leads to Kohlhass's violent death; in Doctorow's novel, the black musician Coalhouse Walker mounts an equally fierce campaign for justice when his pristine Model T is desecrated by a company of racist firemen, a campaign that wins the support of Booker T. Washington but eventually leads to Coalhouse's violent death. "Kleist is a great master," Doctorow told the interviewer. "I was first attracted to his prose, his stories, and the location of his narrative somewhere between history and fiction... Ragtime is a quite deliberate homage. You know, writers lift things from other writers all the time. I always knew I wanted to use Michael Kohlhaas in some way, but I didn't know until my black musician was driving up the Broadview Avenue hill in his Model T Ford that the time had come to do that." Ragtime's Ragged Spawn I read Ragtime not as a conventional historical novel – that is, a novel that hangs its fictions on a scaffold of known events – but rather as a novel that makes selective use of historical figures and events to create its own plausible but imaginary past. Yes, Doctorow did his research and he includes factual renderings of numerous historical figures and events, but these are springboards for his imaginings, not the essence of his enterprise. Put another way, Doctorow is after truth, not mere facts. But as he set out to write the book he understood that a prevailing hunger for facts had put the art of conventional storytelling under extreme pressure. He explained it this way in a 2008 interview with New York magazine: "I did have a feeling that the culture of factuality was so dominating that storytelling had lost all its authority. I thought, If they want fact, I'll give them facts that will leave their heads spinning." And when William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of the novel, Doctorow remarked, "I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates." I think he's right. Doctorow's selective use of historical figures and events lends Ragtime its air of verisimilitude without robbing him of the freedom to imagine and distort and mythologize. It is, for a writer of fiction, the best of all possible worlds. Small wonder, then, that Doctorow's strategy, radical in 1975, is now so commonplace that it's impossible to keep up with the torrent of novels, short stories, and movies that owe a debt to his act of transgression. (For an interesting take on how transgressions can become commonplace, go see the 100th-anniversary recreation of the Armory Show, currently at the New York Historical Society. Works by Duchamp, Matisse, and Gauguin that shocked America in 1913 – the precise moment when Ragtime is set – are now part of the Modernist canon, tame and acceptable.) Colum McCann, the decorated Irish writer now living in New York, is among the many writers who have come around to Doctorow's way of writing novels. McCann's early fiction is loosely based on historical events but populated with fictional characters. Then in 2003 he published Dancer, a fictional telling of Rudolf Nureyev's life. McCann's National Book Award-winning novel from 2009, Let the Great World Spin, pivots on Philippe Petit's mesmerizing high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Earlier this year, McCann published TransAtlantic, a triptych that fictionalizes the stories of three journeys across the ocean by actual historical figures: the aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown; the abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and the former U.S. Senator and peace envoy George Mitchell. In an interview with The Guardian, McCann explained his shift toward historical figures and events over the past decade by citing a maxim from the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz: "The real is as imagined as the imaginary." It follows that the imagined is as real as the real. McCann added, "I said about 12 years ago that writing about biographical figures showed a sort of failure of the writer's imagination." And then? "Absolutely busted. Because then I wrote Dancer...and then more or less ever since I've been hovering in this territory." He's not alone. Here is a list, far from exhaustive and widely varying in quality, of Ragtime's progeny, with some of the historical figures who appear in each work: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Marilyn Monroe); Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (John Brown); Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (the mass-murderer Harry F. Powers); Hollywood by Gore Vidal (William Randolph Hearst, Warren Harding, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks – not to mention Vidal's more conventional historical novels such as Lincoln, Burr and 1876); The Public Burning by Robert Coover (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, the Marx Brothers); Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More); The Women by T.C. Boyle (Frank Lloyd Wright); DaVinci's Bicycle by Guy Davenport (Picasso, Leonardo, Joyce, and Apollinaire); Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda and Scott, Hem, Ezra Pound); Dead Stars and Still Holding by Bruce Wagner (Michael Douglas, the Kardashians, a Russell Crowe look-alike and a Drew Barrymore look-alike); The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Franco, Truman, Stalin, Churchill, Mao); and the movies Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks meets Elvis, Bear Bryant, JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon) and Zelig (Woody Allen brushes up against Babe Ruth, Adolph Hitler, and others in this faux documentary, with added commentary from the real-life Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim). The last three items on this list illustrate the dangers of the strategy Doctorow pursued in Ragtime. In each of these three works, the central character encounters historical figures by pure chance and for no good reason, other than to amuse the reader or audience, or show off the filmmaker's technical wizardry. There is nothing organic or plausible about any of these contrived encounters, and they drag the works down to the level of mere schtick. On the other end of spectrum is one of Ragtime's worthiest successors, the under-appreciated 1990 novel Silver Light by David Thomson, a writer best known for A Biographical Dictionary of Film. The novel takes the central conceit of Ragtime – fictional characters interacting with historical figures – and then gives it a delicious twist. Using the medium he knows so well, the movies, Thomson gives us a rambling cast of characters, a mix of real and imagined people and – here's the twist – the actors who played some of them in movies. It was not until I read the extensive Note on Characters at the end of the book that I understood the histories of these people. The character Noah Cross, for instance, was lifted directly from the 1974 movie Chinatown. The (real? imagined?) character Susan Garth is the cantankerous 80-year-old daughter of a cattle rancher named Matthew Garth, who was played by Montgomery Clift in the 1948 Howard Hawks movie Red River, which was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase. Thomson makes superb use of this layered source material. In a scene that goes to the heart of such fiction, Thomson puts Susan Garth on the Red River set outside Willcox, Arizona, in 1946 with Hawks, Clift, and John Wayne. No one on the movie crew is aware that Susan is the daughter of the character Clift is playing in the movie. She has told Hawks her name is Hickey, and when Clift arrives on the set, Hawks performs the introductions: "Miss Hickey...may I introduce Mr. Clift, our Matthew Garth?" The spurious father and the unknown daughter shook hands, worlds and fifty years apart. "Interesting role you've got," said Susan. "Well, look," grinned Clift, tolerantly, "this is just a Western, you know." "Still," she persevered, "the real Garth. He was an unusual fellow." "Hey, Howard," whined Clift, "was Garth a real person? Is that right?" Delicate and dangerous, Howard saunteringly rejoined them. "There are no real people," he told them. "See if they sue." There are no real people; there are only the ones we can imagine truly. When I read Hawks's made-up words, I could hear echoes of Clifford Geertz and Colum McCann and E.L. Doctorow and every writer on my incomplete and ever-growing list. The I's Have It This homage to Ragtime would not be complete without mention of two related strains of fiction. In the first, a writer places a historical figure at center stage and then attempts to channel that character's voice and enter his mind. One of this strain's early avatars was the wildly popular 1934 novel I, Claudius, in which Robert Graves set out to refute the conventional view that the man who ruled the Roman Empire from 41 to 54 A.D. was a stuttering, doddering idiot. (Graves followed it a year later with Claudius the God.) Jerry Stahl took on a similar revisionist challenge in 2008 with I, Fatty, a look into the dark soul of the supposedly sunny silent-movie star Roscoe Arbuckle. Other figures from history, literature, and myth who have become titles of I, ______ novels include Hogarth, Iago and Lucifer. And then there are such masterpieces of ventriloquism as Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, Margeurite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, and Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (whose narrator, fictional 111-year-old Jack Crabb, recounts his encounters with such historical figures as Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok). In the Epilogue to Little Big Man, Ralph Fielding Snell, the fictional character who tape-recorded Jack Crabb's reminiscences of the West, offers this caveat about their veracity: "So as I take my departure, dear reader, I leave the choice in your capable hands. Jack Crabb was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions." Or maybe he was both. Does it matter? This novel, like Ragtime, is distinguished not by the facts it relates, but by the truths it reveals. The second strain is something that has come to be known as "self-insertion," which sounds like a sexual kink but is actually the increasingly common practice of writers inserting themselves, as characters with their own names, into their novels and stories. The practice – gimmick? – has proven irresistible to Ben Marcus, Jonathan Ames, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Philip Roth, and Nick Tosches, among others. As the wave of postmodernism became a tsunami, this trend was probably inevitable; mercifully it's not yet universal. I can't imagine coming across a character named E.L. Doctorow in a novel by E.L. Doctorow. His imagination is too rich and too demanding to allow such a thing. Too Much Like Work With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination now upon us, it's worth noting that the events in Dallas in November of 1963 continue to inspire a steadily growing shelf of American fiction, movies, and TV shows. Among the writers and filmmakers who have mined the assassination for fictional ends are Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Oliver Stone, Bobbi Kornblit, J.G. Ballard, and Stephen King. For readers operating under the illusion that novelists and filmmakers use historical figures and events as crutches for a hobbled imagination, listen to Stephen King's thoughts on the research that went into the writing of his novel, 11/22/63: "I have never tried anything like that before and I'm not sure I would ever want to try it again because, man, it was too much like work." E.L. Doctorow has been doing that hard work for more than half a century, producing novels and stories that have illuminated the American soul by bringing American history to life. It's why he deserves his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It's what makes him a national treasure.
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel's Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain's major literary awards (though the book hasn't quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel's Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
TransAtlantic is not a novel that lends itself to three sentence synopses. It is a work that spans 150 years, four generations, and a single length of dark, alluring ocean. Themes of loss, innovation, and identity carry over from Colum McCann’s previous novel, the stunningly beautiful Let the Great World Spin, but make no mistake – this is not a book you’ve read before. Moving from the historical record of Frederick Douglass’s tour of Ireland and the world’s first flight across the Atlantic by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown to the imagined lives of the women who knew them, Transatlantic asks its readers to redefine where memory ends and the past begins. Via email, I asked McCann to elaborate on the novelty of ice harvesting, explore the deeper meaning of tea, and tell me if he ever worries he’ll run out of ways to describe his homeland. The Millions: TransAtlantic meditates on the many meanings of flight, from the voyage of Alcock and Brown to the universal search for a place to belong. What first kindled your passion for the subject of flight? Colum McCann: To be honest, I’m not really all that interested in flight in general, but I was corralled by the idea of this particular flight by Alcock and Brown. Or rather I was taken by the image of two men emerging from the horrors of the First World War to pilot a modified bomber across the expanse. It’s not a forgotten flight but it’s not as well-known as, say, Lindbergh’s solo flight, which occurred seven or eight years later. Once I started researching it, I was truly amazed, not only by the prowess and bravery of these men, but also by the fact that there were a lot of misconceptions about the flight on the Internet. There are rumors, for instance, that Brown went wing-walking when he was up in the air, which is not only ridiculous but impossible. The wings were largely linen and would not have held his weight. I learned a bit about flight in the course of my research and I even co-piloted a small plane while out on a visit to Fargo. And I learned that I didn’t want to pilot a plane ever again – I was terrified! TM: Frederick Douglass plays an integral role in your book’s narrative. As a novelist, do you feel an obligation to accurately portray the historical figures that appear in your work? CM: I definitely feel an obligation to get the texture correct. I hope my Douglass is texturally true. Facts can be misdirected and shoehorned in. Texture is a different story. It relates to an idea of general honesty. I want my Douglass to be authentic. I want him to emerge in all his complications. For example: I give him a pair of barbells when he is in Ireland. I know for a fact that he had barbells later in his life because they are on display in a museum in Washington D.C, but I have no idea whether he brought them with him to Ireland. But it says so much about his character – his vanity, his stubbornness, his awareness of his body in space, his forward-thinking, his stamina. Furthermore, I have the barbells made from old slave chains. This is poetic license but hopefully poetic enough that it rings true. The same goes with Senator Mitchell. While I am forensically true to much of the peace process, there is so much more that I invent and imagine. Mitchell was very kind and trusting. He allowed me to create a fiction. This is very brave on his part. For example I have him holding a soiled diaper on the first page of his section. The history books don’t have our leaders changing diapers. But fiction can do it. Fiction is very agile in this respect. It can get into all the various corners. TM: One of TransAtlantic’s biggest revelations for me was this notion of selective remembrance. While the stories of men like Alcock, Brown, Douglass, and Mitchell are interred in history books, we often fail to chronicle the people who existed beside and among them. Was getting a chance to reposition the spotlight part of your inspiration for this novel? CM: I am interested in the idea of who owns history and who has a right to tell it. The smaller, more anonymous moments are the glue of history. We have a responsibility to what some might call the “little guy.” Often the little guy is a woman, in fact. Women are often excluded from the history books. As if guns and testosterone rule the world. In writing about the women, I felt like they were partly correcting a little corner of history. I wanted the women to have power, to own the novel, to say that their story mattered, not only to themselves but to history too. I wish I could say that I set out to do this initially but I’d be lying. I discovered this on the way, partly because I was shocked by how much of my own narrative was being owned by men. TM: Your book almost convinced me to build a time machine so that I could try my hand at harvesting ice. What research went into that segment of the book? CM: What a nice way to put it. Yes, a time machine. That’s what fiction can become. I might have to steal that line from you. It is such a powerful way to step into the past. I remember hearing about the ice harvesting years ago and tucking it away into the recesses of my mind. It was a beautiful image and one I couldn’t shake. It took a bit of research, but mostly just library visits and some shuffling around on the Internet. But libraries are still so much deeper than Google – that’s where I found most of my information. TM: Towards the end of the novel, Hannah observes “there isn’t a story in the world that isn’t, in part at least, addressed to the past.” Is part of the work TransAtlantic does to wrestle with the question of when exactly something becomes the past? CM: Faulkner said that the past is never dead, in fact it’s not even past. I like this notion. In fact, I feel that the past can sometimes expand the further we get away from it. For instance, Douglass’s visit was largely forgotten in Ireland for about 150 years. Scholars began to “rediscover” it in the 1990s and then when Obama came to Ireland he hailed the Douglass visit. And so it became alive again. But of course it had changed. Our relationship to history is constantly expanding. It develops lungs and every now and then we have to exhale. Of course it’s very important to examine how and why the past infiltrates the present moment. We become more and more layered when we begin to examine the past. TM: You’ve challenged yourself to describe Ireland and its surrounding geography in much of your work. Do you ever worry you’ll run out of words to describe it? CM: Oh, never. I hope not. No language could ever be exhausted by any landscape, in particular Ireland. TM: TransAtlantic traverses a lot of history. In a way, the tradition of tea drinking felt to me like a glue, a constant link that bound the decades as your story progressed. Do you write with those kinds of concerns in mind, or do things like the tea organically inherit a thematic intent as the prose evolves? CM: The tea took on its own life. It began to stew in the novel so to speak. I thought to myself, “oh shit, should we really have another cup of tea here?” And then it became an odd link. Both Mitchell and Douglass were teetotalers and that helped. And the Irish drink more tea per capita than any other nationality in the world. TM: When you’re in the middle of writing about 1845, is your nightstand stacked with books about that time period or do you prefer to read about vastly different times and places? CM: Not my nightstand, but yes my office desk. On my nightstand I have contemporary novels and poems that perhaps somehow infiltrate my dreams. But the funny thing is that I can’t remember my dreams in the morning...I have no idea why. TM: In researching the novel, did you come across any tidbits of history you really wanted to include but couldn’t fit in? CM: I had a real dilemma about whether or not to include the horrific bombing on Omagh a few months after the peace process. It was the very last kick of a dying horse. But I thought it would confuse the ultimate message, which is that peace was achieved. It was a quandary for me. I also wrote a huge amount about the bombings of Belfast during World War II. I spent months researching them, but they felt wrong and didn’t contribute to the progress of the novel. Sometimes, as the saying goes, you have to murder your darlings. TM: Several characters speak on the idea of taking the war out of the plane, and in a way, you’ve taken the war out of your book. The American Civil War as well as World War I & II all occur in some fashion during TransAtlantic without ever taking center stage. Do you feel your fiction is better equipped to grapple with war when it’s set outside of the battlefield? CM: This is something that was certainly on my mind. There have been times I have written directly about war, but this time I wanted to grapple with something much more airy and ephemeral -- the idea of peace and the desire for peace. And so I left much of the war on the outside, like a rumor, or a cloud. TM: You recently said in an interview that an ocean of sorts divides book one and book two of TransAtlantic, with the first shore housing real-life male characters and the second playing home to their fictional female contemporaries. Where then does book three fit into this mapping of your novel? CM: Book three was the holy trinity for me. It completed the gulf between the two sections. It flits in and out of fiction and non-fiction, hopefully with ease. And it is the only first-person account in the book. It’s almost as if Hannah, the narrator, has narrated the whole book. I always wanted to get to the present day as well. So the novel goes all the way up to 2012. TM: Reading about Brown and Alcock’s flight across the Atlantic makes you really take stock of how little time we spend marveling at the fact that we can now fly through the air pretty much as we please. Did writing TransAtlantic change the way you perceive the hassle of going to the airport and taking a flight? CM: They flew in an open cockpit. The tip ends of their hair froze. They drank brandy to keep themselves warm. They basically flew a boat of air and linen and two Rolls Royce engines across the water. Every time I fly and begin wanting to complain about the tepid taste of the chicken marsala, and the lack of a good movie in the economy seats, I think of our two lads making their way across the expanse! A good dose of humility always helps.
A dozen years ago Colum McCann told an interviewer that novelists who write about real historical figures are, in his opinion, guilty of a failure of imagination. A week ago McCann told an interviewer that what interests him, increasingly, is the "real that's imagined and the imagined that's real." In the dozen years since the first of those two interviews, McCann has published four novels that testify to this evolution of his novelistic enterprise. The novels all used real historical figures, to varying degrees and with widely varying degrees of success. First came Dancer, in 2003, built around the ballet sensation Rudolf Nureyev -- his youth in Russia, his defection to the West, and his flowering in the hot house of 1970s New York City. It was followed three years later by Zoli, set largely in Slovakia, the fictionalized telling of the life of a renowned Gypsy writer of poems and songs. Then came McCann's break-out novel, Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award in 2009. And now he is out with TransAtlantic, a novel built around three very different voyages across the ocean, from the New World to Ireland, that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries. In this new novel, as in everything he has written, McCann brings deep historical research to his story. This is very different from saying he writes "historical novels," a term he claims to detest. On the other hand, he has also admitted to the truism that all novels are, in some sense, historical. McCann's use of historical figures in his fiction has produced what I have come to think of as an inverse barometer of his work's quality: the more heavily he relies on historical figures, as distinct from history, the weaker his writing is; the more sparingly he uses historical figures, the stronger the writing is. And when he places imagined characters in historical settings, his writing shades toward the sublime. For these reasons, I think his 1998 novel, This Side of Brightness, stands as his strongest book. It tells the story of the immigrants, the sandhogs, who dug the train and subway tunnels beneath the streets of New York City, then it telescopes to tell the story of a homeless man living in those tunnels years later, trying to live down a lifetime of dark regrets. These fictional characters come to vivid, bruising life precisely because of McCann's meticulous research, which serves as the springboard for his fertile imagination and wickedly beautiful prose style. Dancer, on other hand, is a work of portraiture that feels handcuffed by its historical backdrop, rich and grim and florid as it sometimes is. We meet Andy Warhol, Margot Fonteyn, President and Jackie Kennedy, among others. But the story never takes flight, despite some plush writing, such as this sketch of a popular gay cruising spot in Central Park in the 1970s: oh the Rambles! all the scraddlelegged boys strung out in silhouette! all the tramping of weeds! all the faces shoved into brambles! all the bandanas in back pockets! all the drugs fermenting in all the bodies! all the horsewhips and cockrings and lubricants and chewable delights! all the winding paths! the soil indented with the patterns of knees! the moon out behind a dozen different trees! Johnnie Ramon with his shadow long on the grass and oh so tautly bowed! yes! Victor and the Rambles know each other well, and not just for nature walks, once or twice he has even accompanied Rudi there, because Rudi sometimes likes the tough boys, the raucous ones, the hot tamales who come down from the Bronx and Harlem. Even such firecracker prose cannot ignite the novel. Zoli is just as closely based on historical figures, and it feels just as tightly handcuffed and inert. Perhaps sensing that he needed to change direction without changing horses, McCann opened Let the Great World Spin with Phillippe Petit's breathtaking hire-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 (at about the time Rudi Nureyev was cruising the Rambles for rough trade). After that bravura opening, McCann pulls back to examine the lives of a handful of fictional New Yorkers who witnessed Petit's historic walk, and the result is some of his best writing since This Side of Brightness, writing that brings all layers of the city to life, high and low and middling, then peoples it with a diverse gallery of characters and takes us not just into their minds but into their marrow. It's a blissful marriage of the imagined and the real. Coming in the wake of that performance, TransAtlantic feels like a relapse to many of the flaws that bedeviled Zoli and, to a lesser extent, Dancer. The first half of the new novel -- what I have come to think of as the male half -- unspools the story of three trans-Atlantic journeys that end in Ireland: the first non-stop airplane flight, in 1919, by two English veterans of the Great War, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown; the former slave Frederick Douglass's trip by boat in 1845 to lecture and write and raise money for the cause of abolition; and the years of repeated crossings by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell that resulted in the Good Friday Accords in 1998, bringing an end to the Troubles that had tortured Northern Ireland for more than a generation. These historical figures do not come to life on the page. They are little more than ideas and the roles they must play to advance McCann's novelistic scheme. We never enter their marrow because they are little more than dots awaiting connection. Fortunately, McCann returns to form in the second half of the novel -- the female half -- telling the stories of several generations of women, some of whom were introduced as minor characters in the first half. Now we're inside a Civil War hospital, we're learning how ice was harvested in the 19th century and what the streets of St. Louis looked and sounded like. Our guides through these worlds are the remarkable women who descended from Lily Duggan, a maid in the house where Douglass stayed during his Irish sojourn, a woman who made her own trans-Atlantic crossing to America in 1846 to escape the coming famine. McCann employs a style here that seems like a willful repudiation of his ability to write gorgeous prose. I can only guess that he was striving for an incantatory tone. To my ear, the effect is merely jarring, as in this description of George Mitchell musing in his Belfast office: He cracks the window further. A sea-wind. All those ships out there. All those generations that left. Seven hundred years of history. We prefigure our futures by imagining our pasts. To go back and forth. Across the waters. The past, the present, the elusive future. A nation. Everything constantly shifted by the present. That taut elastic of time. Even violence breaks. Even that.Sometimes violently. You don't know what this means, Senator. Fortunately, there are also flashes of the kind of writing that made This Side of Brightness and Let the Great World Spin so unforgettable. Here's the scene aboard a ship setting sail from America in 1929: "A bell rang and a cheer went up. The boat was far enough to water. An opera of anti-Prohibition toasts unfolded. The air itself seemed to have already drunk several glasses of gin." Here's how Emily, a journalist, confronts the terror of sitting down to write: "Stories began, for her, as a lump in the throat. She sometimes found it hard to speak. A true understanding lay just beneath the surface. She felt a sort of homesickness whenever she sat down at a sheet of paper." And here's Emily interviewing Teddy Brown at his home for a 10th-anniversary article about his historic flight aboard the Vickers Vimy: "This was his performance now, she sensed, he brought a breezy irony to his fame. She laughed, drew back a little from him. His days now were an ovation to the past. She knew he had probably talked the Vickers Vimy out of himself, hundreds of interviews over the years. She would have to turn away from the obvious, bank her way back into it." I could have used much more fine writing like this. Here's hoping that next time out Colum McCann sticks with the history he does so well, writes the kind of prose only he can write, and steers clear of his Alcocks and Browns, his Douglasses and Mitchells. Real historical figures are a crutch this wildly gifted writer doesn't need. His imagined characters are so much more vivid, alive and real.
Reared in the dressing rooms of the 18th century, the novel can often seem out of place in our age of LOLcats and Angry Birds. But in spite of its advanced age and sometimes stuffy reputation, the old chap is surprisingly nimble. In the technological tumult of the past decade, for example, YA went through puberty, electric literature moved out of the ivory tower, and the literary novel was successfully (for the most part) cross-pollinated with a number of more exotic genres. In the midst of all this, a strange literary beast has reemerged, a hybrid of the short story and traditional novel. This newly reinvigorated genre -- let’s call it the polyphonic novel -- uses a chorus of voices and narrative styles to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Think Nicole Krauss’s Great House or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Just as polyphonic music combines melodies to create texture and tension, the polyphonic novel collects a multiplicity of distinct, often conflicting voices around a single place, family, object, or idea. Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze. Drawing inspiration from classics like The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, and John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, contemporary polyphonic novels make music from the messy cacophony that is life in the 21st century. Bypassing traditional notions of character and plot, polyphonic novels create meaning at the intersection of seemingly random plot lines. Harmonies are found in the artful assemblage of disparate voices. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “A plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” Eschewing objectivity and uniformity, polyphonic novels rely instead on simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices. Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, is a perfect example of the genre. The book traces four Londoners as they attempt to understand, escape, and make their way through Kilburn, the working-class neighborhood where they all grew up. With each new narrator, the novel loops back on itself, answering and expanding upon questions raised by previous sections. Towards the beginning of the book, for example, one of the main characters watches her best friend and her best friend’s husband exchange a glace across a crowded party. “She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all.” Two hundred pages later, we have begun to understand the glance in all its sad complexity. The seemingly enviable couple is really nothing but “an advert for themselves,” “like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.” Polyphony is particularly well-suited to excavations of the urban landscape. (For what is a city if not a collection of conflicting voices?) In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann mobilizes a chorus of seemingly incongruous voices to conjure a portrait of New York in the 1970s. Skipping between narrators -- an aging prostitute, an Irish monk, a judge, and an irresponsible young artist, to name just a few -- McCann creates a dissonant, yet synchronistic world nearly as vivid and wonderfully cluttered as the city itself. But polyphonic novels need not live in the city. Take, for example, Hari Kunzru’s brilliant Gods Without Men, which layers the Mojave desert with a progression of characters searching for meaning in the void. Narrators pop up and fade away. They build doomsday bunkers, military bases, and geodesic domes. They spend decades looking for truth, but the quiet mystery of the desert subsumes them all. As the final narrator writes, “that which is infinite is known only to itself and cannot be contained in the mind of man.” Contemporary polyphonic novels come in a wide variety of flavors. Many find structure in the family. Others, like The Imperfectionists, are shaped around the extended family of the workplace. Ian McEwan’s Atonement centers around a single act of accusation. While Great House and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book follow a single object through history, dipping in and out of the lives of those who have possessed it. And then there are those polyphonic novels built on nothing more than an idea. Swirling around seemingly unapproachable concepts such as authorship and fictionality, aging and time, novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit From the Goon Squad use a variety of forms and styles to create a sense of scope that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a single narrator. It can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between these most disparate polyphonic novels and linked short story collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Emma Donoghue’s Astray. Often, unfortunately, this border is delineated by marketing departments eager to attract readers (who, as conventional wisdom would have it, are drawn like moths to those two tiny words, “a novel,” tucked away at the bottom of the book cover). As Jay McInerney grumbled in a recent review: “I suspect that if Dubliners had been published in recent years it would have been marketed as a novel.” Whether or not his assessment is true, many readers agree with McInerney’s basic premise. Indeed, a quick perusal of Goodreads reveals a sizable cadre of those frustrated by polyphonic novels’ lack of traditional plot and character development. As one reviewer on the Great House page wrote: “writing a book of short stories, fitting them together Tetris-like, and calling it a novel DOES NOT MAKE YOUR BOOK A NOVEL.” Even some professional critics seem flummoxed by polyphony (see, for example, Douglas Copeland on Gods Without Men or Mike Peed on Let the Great World Spin). While certain readers and critics might be frustrated by shifting genre boundaries and non-linearity, the polyphonic novel has found favor among those responsible for giving out literary awards. Almost all of the books mentioned above have won (or should win) major literary prizes. The finalists for the past decade of Pulitzers, Bookers, and National Book Awards include quite a few works that could be described as polyphonic. This might be a coincidence, or a peculiar bias of the awards’ judges. Regardless, these awards indicate that the polyphonic novel occupies an important sector of the contemporary literary landscape. With each foray onto the Internet, each ping and clang, we are searching for meaning in a haystack of data, balancing perspectives, trying to find reason in a cacophony of opinion. Is it any wonder we are drawn to fiction that reflects this new way of being, to a form that’s uniquely suited to our fragmented and globalized century? The novel survived the advent of radio, cinema, and television, thanks in large part to its pliability. And the novel will continue to survive so long as it continues to adapt.
2013 is looking very fruitful, readers. While last year offered new work from Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, Michael Chabon, and many more, this year we'll get our hands on new George Saunders, Karen Russell, Jamaica Kincaid, Anne Carson, Colum McCann, Aleksandar Hemon and even Vladimir Nabokov and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as, beyond the horizon of summer, new Paul Harding, Jonathan Lethem, and Thomas Pynchon. We'll also see an impressive array of anticipated work in translation from the likes of Alejandro Zambra, Ma Jian, László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marías and Karl Ove Knausgaard, among others. But these just offer the merest hint of the literary plenty that 2013 is poised to deliver. A bounty that we have tried to tame in another of our big book previews. The list that follows isn't exhaustive - no book preview could be - but, at 7,900 words strong and encompassing 79 titles, this is the only 2013 book preview you will ever need. January or Already Out: Tenth of December by George Saunders: Tenth of December is George Saunders at his hilarious, heartbreaking best, excavating modern American life in a way that only he can. In "Home," a soldier returns from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a deteriorating family situation. In "Victory Lap," a botched abduction is told from three very different perspectives. Tenth of December has already prompted an all-out rave profile from the New York Times. And for those George Saunders super fans out there, yes, there is a story set at a theme park. (Patrick) Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright: While Wright was working on his 25,000-word take-down of the Church of Scientology for The New Yorker (where he is a staff writer), a spokesman for the organization showed up with four lawyers and 47 binders of documentation. “I suppose the idea was to drown me in information,” Wright recently told the Times, “but it was like trying to pour water on a fish.” The investigation has blossomed into a full-length book that’s shaping up to be as controversial as anything that crosses Scientology’s path: Wright has been receiving numerous legal missives from the church itself and the celebrities he scrutinizes, and his British publisher has just backed out—though they claim they haven’t been directly threatened by anyone. (Elizabeth) Umbrella by Will Self: Shortly before Umbrella came out in the UK last September, Will Self published an essay in The Guardian about how he’d gone modernist. “As I've grown older, and realised that there aren't that many books left for me to write, so I've become determined that they should be the fictive equivalent of ripping the damn corset off altogether and chucking it on the fire.” Umbrella is the result of Self’s surge in ambition, and it won him some of the best reviews of his career, as well as his first Booker shortlisting. He lost out to Hilary Mantel in the end, but he won the moral victory in the group photo round by doing this. (Mark) Revenge by Yoko Ogawa: English-reading fans of the prolific and much-lauded Yoko Ogawa rejoice at the advent of Revenge, a set of eleven stories translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder. The stories, like Ogawa's other novels (among them The Diving Pool, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and Hotel Iris) are purportedly elegant and creepy. (Lydia) Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra: Drop the phrase “Chilean novelist” and literary minds automatically flock to Bolaño. However, Alejandro Zambra is another name those words should soon conjure if they don't already. Zambra was named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish Language Novelists in 2010, and his soon-to-be-released third novel, Ways of Going Home, just won a PEN translation award. The novel has dual narratives: a child’s perspective in Pinochet’s Chile and an author’s meditation on the struggle of writing. In Zambra’s own words (from our 2011 interview): “It’s a book about memory, about parents, about Chile. It’s about the 80s, about the years when we children were secondary characters in the literature of our parents. It’s about the dictatorship, as well, I guess. And about literature, intimacy, the construction of intimacy.” (Anne) Scenes from Early Life by Philip Hensher: In his eighth novel, Scenes from Early Life, Philip Hensher “shows for the first time what [he] has largely concealed in the past: his heart,” writes Amanda Craig in The Independent. Written in the form of a memoir, narrated in the voice of Hensher’s real-life husband Zaved Mahmood, the novel invites comparison with Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Described as a hybrid of fiction, history, and biography—and as both “clever” and “loving”—the inventive project here is distinctly intriguing. (Sonya) Exodus by Lars Iyer: Exodus, which follows Spurious and Dogma, is the eminently satisfying and unexpectedly moving final installment in a truly original trilogy about two wandering British intellectuals—Lars and W., not to be confused with Lars Iyer and his real friend W., whom he’s been quoting for years on his blog—and their endless search for meaning in a random universe, for true originality of thought, for a leader, for better gin. (Emily M.) February: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell: Russell’s short stories are marked by superb follow-through: many succeed due to her iron-clad commitment to often fantastical conceits, like the title story of her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which draws a powerful metaphor for adolescent girlhood in an actual orphanage for girls raised by wolves. Last year saw her debut novel, Swamplandia!, nominated for the Pulitzer prize; this year, her second short story collection—and another batch of fantastical conceits—finally arrives. Just imagine the characters in this title story, trying to quell their bloodlust, sinking their fangs into lemons under the Italian sun. (Elizabeth) My Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak: When Maurice Sendak died last May he left one, final, unpublished book behind. It is, according to a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a beautiful, intensely serious elegy for Sendak’s beloved older brother Jack, who died in 1995. The story, illustrated in watercolors, has Guy (a stand-in for Sendak), journeying down the gullet of a massive polar bear named Death- “Diving through time so vast—sweeping past paradise”- into an underworld where he and Jack have one last reunion. “To read this intensely private work,” writes Publisher’s Weekly, “is to look over the artist's shoulder as he crafts his own afterworld, a place where he lies in silent embrace with those he loves forever.” (Kevin) Benediction by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf’s previous novels, which include Plainsong and Eventide, have all taken place in the fictional Colorado town of Holt, which is based on the real life city of Yuma. His newest work is no exception. It is a network of family dramas in a small town, most of which revolve around loss or impending loss, strained relationships, and efforts to grapple, together, with the pain the characters face in their own lives and feel in the lives of those around them. (Kevin) See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid: For See Now Then, her first novel in a decade, Jamaica Kincaid settles into a small town in Vermont, where she dissects the past, present and future of the crumbling marriage of Mrs. Sweet, mother of two children named Heracles and Persephone, a woman whose composer husband leaves her for a younger musician. Kincaid is known as a writer who can see clean through the surface of things – and people – and this novel assures us that "Mrs. Sweet could see Mrs. Sweet very well." (Bill) The Bridge Over the Neroch: And Other Works by Leonid Tsypkin: Like Chekhov, Tsypkin was a doctor by trade. In fact, that was all most people knew him as during his lifetime. At the time of Tsypkin's death, his novel Summer in Baden-Baden, one of the most beautiful to come out of the Soviet Era, remained unpublished, trapped in a drawer in Moscow. Now New Directions brings us the "remaining writings": a novella and several short stories. (Garth) How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields: Like his 2008 book The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, which was nearly as much a biology text book as it was a memoir, How Literature Saved My Life obstinately evades genre definitions. It takes the form of numerous short essays and fragments of oblique meditation on life and literature; and, as you’d expect from the author of Reality Hunger, it’s heavily textured with quotation. Topics include Shields’s identification with such diverse fellows as Ben Lerner (his “aesthetic spawn”) and George W. Bush, the fundamental meaninglessness of life, and the continued decline of realist narrative fiction. (Mark) The City of Devi by Manil Suri: Manil Suri is perhaps best known for his first novel The Death of Vishnu, which was long-listed for the Booker and shortlisted for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award. The City of Devi, his third novel, takes place in a Mumbai emptied out under threat of nuclear attack. Sarita, a 33-year-old statistician, stays in the city to find her beloved husband, who has mysteriously vanished. She ends up teaming up with a gay Muslim man named Jaz, and together they travel across this dangerous and absurd and magical landscape. According to Keran Desai, this is Suri’s “bravest and most passionate book,” which combines “the thrill of Bollywood with the pull of a thriller.” (Edan) Breakfast at Tiffany's & Other Voices, Other Rooms: Two Novels by Truman Capote: Holly Golightly is turning 55, and to mark her entry into late middle age, the Modern Library is reissuing Capote’s dazzling 1958 novella that made her and Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue showroom into American icons. The short novel is paired with Capote’s (also brief) debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, a strange and haunting semi-fictional evocation of Capote’s hauntingly strange Southern childhood. Modern Library will also reissue Capote’s Complete Stories in March. (Michael) Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash: Ron Rash has earned a spot as one of the top fiction writers describing life in Appalachia with his previous books, The Cove, Serena, and One Foot in Eden. His newest collection of short stories tells of two drug-addicted friends stealing their former boss’s war trophies, of a prisoner on a chain-gang trying to convince a farmer’s young wife to help him escape, and of an eerie diving expedition to retrieve the body of a girl who drowned beneath a waterfall. (Kevin) The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne: If you have ever wondered what, if anything, is going on inside the head of one of those kiddie pop stars who seem animatronically designed to make the tween girls swoon, then Jonny Valentine may be for you. Winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award for his first novel Kapitoil, Wayne has built a reputation for offbeat wit in his humor columns for Vanity Fair and McSweeney’s, as well as “Shouts & Murmurs” pieces in The New Yorker. Here, he channels the voice of a lonely eleven-year-old pop megastar in a rollicking satire of America’s obsession with fame and pop culture. (Michael) Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun: English poet, novelist and short story writer James Lasdun’s new book is a short memoir about a long and harrowing experience at the hands of a former student who set out to destroy him and through online accusations of sexual harassment and theft. J.M. Coetzee has called it “a reminder, as if any were needed, of how easily, since the arrival of the Internet, our peace can be troubled and our good name besmirched.” (Mark) Fight Song by Joshua Mohr: Joshua Mohr’s previous novels—Some Things That Meant The World To Me, Termite Parade, and Damascus—formed a loose trilogy, each book standing alone but all three concerned with a mildly overlapping cast of drifting and marginal characters in San Francisco. In Fight Song, Mohr is on to new territory, “way out in a puzzling universe known as the suburbs,” where a middle-aged man embarks on a quest to find happiness, to reconnect with his distant and distracted family, and to reverse a long slide into purposelessness. (Emily M.) March: Middle C by William H. Gass: Not many writers are still at the height of their powers at age 88. Hell, not many writers are still writing at 88. (We're looking at you, Philip Roth.) But William H. Gass has always been an outlier, pursuing his own vision on his own timetable. His last novel (and magnum opus) The Tunnel took thirty years to write. Middle C, comparatively svelte at 400-odd pages, took a mere fifteen, and may be his most accessible fiction since 1968's In The Heart of the Heart of the Country. It's a character piece, concerning one Joseph Skizzen, a serial (and hapless) C.V. embellisher and connoisseur of more serious forms of infamy. The plot, such as it is, follows him from war-torn Europe, where he loses his father, to a career as a music professor in the Midwest. Not much happens - does it ever, in Gass? - but, sentence by sentence, you won't read a more beautifully composed or stimulating novel this year. Or possibly any other. (Garth) The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout: Maine native Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge, her novel in the form of linked stories. Strout's fourth novel, The Burgess Boys, is the story of the brothers Jim and Bob Burgess, who are haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children in Maine. They have since fled to Brooklyn, but they're summoned home by their sister Susan, who needs their help dealing with her troubled teenage son. Once they're back home, long-buried tensions resurface that will change the Burgess boys forever. (Bill) The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte: Sam Lipsyte returns to short stories with his new book The Fun Parts. The collection contains some fiction previously published in The Paris Review, Playboy, and The New Yorker, including his excellent "The Climber Room," which ends with a bizarre twist. Several of the stories, including "The Dungeon Master" and "Snacks," explore the world from the perspectives of misfit teens. As with all of Lipstye's stories, expect his absurdist humor and a just a touch of perversion. Get excited. (Patrick) Red Doc> by Anne Carson: It’s been more than a decade since Carson, a poet and classicist, published The Autobiography of Red, a dazzling and powerful poetic novel that reinvents the myth of Herakles and Greyon: hero and monster reworked into a story of violently deep unrequited love. Red Doc> promises to be a sequel of sorts, with “a very different style,” “changed names,” and the spare preview is incredibly intriguing: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.” (Elizabeth) A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee: Author of The Privileges, arguably the best novel about haute New York in the boom years of the past decade, Dee returns with another tale of family life in the upper reaches of New York society, this time post-recession. When her husband loses his job as a partner at a white-shoe law firm, Helen Armstead finds a job at a PR firm, where she discovers she has an almost magical, and definitely lucrative, gift: she can convince powerful men to admit their mistakes. But this is a novel, so her professional success does not necessarily translate into success in her personal life. (Michael) Speedboat by Renata Adler: This novel, first published in 1976, brings to mind the old saw about the Velvet Underground. Not everybody read it, but everybody who did went on to write a novel of his or her own. Adler is primarily known for her acerbic New Yorker fact pieces, but, like her omnicompetent contemporary Joan Didion, she is also a terrific fiction writer. This fragmented look at the life of an Adler-like journalist may be her Play It As It Lays. Writers still urgently press out-of-print copies on each other in big-city bars near last call. Now it's getting the NYRB Classics treatment. (Garth) Mary Coin by Marisa Silver: Following the success of her novel The God of War, The New Yorker favorite Marisa Silver returns with Mary Coin, a novel inspired by Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” photo. The book follows three characters: Mary, the mother in the photograph; Vera Dare, the photographer; and Walker Dodge, a contemporary-era professor of cultural history. Ben Fountain says it’s “quite simply one of the best books I’ve read in years,” and Meghan O’Rourke calls it “an extraordinarily wise and compassionate novel.” (Edan) How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s previous novels were The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke. His third borrows the structure of self-help books (chapter titles include "Avoid Idealists", "Don’t Fall in Love", and "Work For Yourself") to follow a nameless man’s ascent from a childhood of rural poverty to success as a corporate tycoon in a metropolis in “rising Asia.” (Emily M.) The Tragedy of Mr. Morn Vladimir Nabokov: I furrowed my brow when I saw Nabokov's name on the preview list, imagining a horde of publishers rooting through his undies for hitherto undiscovered index cards. But this is a very old play, in the scheme of Nabokov's life--written in 1923, published in Russian in 2008, published in English this spring. The play is about royalty, revolutionaries, allegories; "On the page," writes Lesley Chamberlain for the TLS, " the entire text creeps metonymically sideways. Its author weaves language into a tissue of reality hinting at some veiled, mysteriously interconnected, static truth beyond." I'm not sure what that means, but I think I like it. (Lydia) The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon: Sarajevo-born, Chicago-based author Aleksandar Hemon—winner of the MacArthur “genius grant” and editor of Dalkey Archive’s stellar Best European Fiction series—abandons fiction for essay and memoir in his fifth book, The Book of My Lives. The title alludes to and, as far as we can tell, calls upon Hemon’s New Yorker essay “The Book of My Life,” about his former literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. Just as Hemon’s novel Lazarus Project straddled the fiction/nonfiction divide, The Book of My Lives isn’t strictly memoir, pushing boundaries of genre now from the nonfiction side. (Anne) The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma: Kristopher Jansma, academic and Electric Literature blogger, drawer of daring and controversial parallels on the digital pages of our own august publication (Is The Killing like or not like Kafka?), publishes his debut novel on the first day of spring. The novel features young writers, young love, artistic competition, girls, jaunts. I predict that at least one blurber will reference This Side of Paradise. (Lydia) A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal: In the 2003, "a young Oklahoman who work[ed] in New York" stole the eleventh issue of McSweeney's from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and T.C. Boyle with a story - well, scenario, really - called "Weena." Maybe I only loved it so much because I, too, was from outlands like those it so lovingly described. Still, I've been keeping an eye out for that young Oklahoman, Benjamin Lytal, ever since. I assume that A Map of Tulsa, too, is about coming of age in Tulsa, a city that looks from the window of a passing car at night "like a mournful spaceship." (Garth) In Partial Disgrace by Charles Newman: Newman, the editor who put TriQuarterly on the map in the 1960s, was once spoken of in the same breath with the great dark humorists of postwar American writing. Even before his death, in 2006, his novels were falling out of print and his reputation fading. If there is any justice in the republic of letters (which is a big if), the belated publication of his incomplete masterwork, a sprawling trilogy set in a fictional Mitteleuropean nation to rival Musil's Kakania, should put him permanently back on the map. (Garth) The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: J.M. Coetzee, Nobel laureate and two-time Booker Prize winner, continues to explore the plight of the outsider in his new allegorical novel, The Childhood of Jesus. It's the story of an unnamed man and boy who cross an ocean to a strange land where, bereft of memories, they are assigned the names Simon and David before they set out to find the boy's mother. They succeed, apparently, only to run afoul of the authorities, which forces them to flee by car through the mountains. One early reader has called the novel "profound and continually surprising." (Bill) April: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: The beloved author of Case Histories, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and Started Early, Took My Dog (among others) is out with the stor(ies) of Ursula Todd. In 1910, Todd is born during a snowstorm in England, but from then on there are parallel stories — one in which she dies at first breath, and one in which she lives through the tumultuous 20th century. As the lives of Ursula Todd continue to multiply, Atkinson asks what, then, is the best way to live, if one has multiple chances? (Janet) All That Is by James Salter: Upon return from service as a naval officer in Okinawa, Philip Bowman becomes a book editor during the “golden age” of publishing. The publisher’s blurb promises “Salter’s signature economy of prose” and a story about the “dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition.” In our interview with Salter in September, he told us it was “an intimate story about a life in New York publishing,” some 10 years in the making. From John Irving: “A beautiful novel, with sufficient love, heartbreak, vengeance, identity confusion, longing, and euphoria of language to have satisfied Shakespeare.” Tim O’Brien: “Salter’s vivid, lucid prose does exquisite justice to his subject—the relentless struggle to make good on our own humanity.” April will not come soon enough. (Sonya) The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: The Emperor's Children, Messud's bestselling novel from 2006, did as much as anyone has to bridge the gap between the social novel and the novel of consciousness her husband, James Wood, has championed in his criticism. Now, Messud returns with the story of a Boston-area woman who becomes entangled with a Lebanese-Italian family that moves in nearby. Expect, among other things, insanely fine writing. (Garth) The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: In a review of her most recent book, 2011’s The Uncoupling, the San Francisco Chronicle declared that, “At this point in her career, Meg Wolitzer deserves to be a household name.” Wolitzer’s tenth novel begins at a summer camp for the arts in 1974, and follows a group of friends into the adulthood. They’re all talented, but talent isn’t enough, and as they grow up, their paths split: some are forced to exchange their childhood dreams for more conventional lives, while others find great success—and, as one might imagine, tensions arise from these differences. (Elizabeth) The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner: Rachel Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba, was lauded for its evocative descriptions and its power of suspense. Kushner will surely call on both talents for The Flamethrowers, as her heroine first becomes immersed in a late ‘70s New York downtown scene peopled by artists and squatters, and then follows a motorcycle baron to Italy during the height of the Autonomist movement. Images are central to Kushner’s creative process: a ducati, a woman in war paint, and a F.T. Marinetti lookalike riding atop a cycle with a bullet-shaped sidecar were talismans (among others) for writing this book. (Anne) Harvard Square by André Aciman: In 1970s Cambridge, Massachusetts, a young Harvard graduate student from Egypt wants to be the consummate American, fully assimilated and ensconced in the ivory tower as a literature professor. Then he meets Kalaj — an Arab cab driver who denigrates American mass culture and captivates the student with his seedy, adventurous life. Harvard Square tells the story of this young student’s dilemma, caught between the lofty world of Harvard academia and the magnetic company of his new friend. (Janet) Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel: Woke Up Lonely is Fiona Maazel's first novel since being named a "5 Under 35" choice by the National Book Foundation. The book focuses on Thurlow Dan, the founder of the Helix, a cult that promises to cure loneliness. Ironically, Thurlow himself is profoundly lonely and longing for his ex-wife, Esme. The book has been compared to the work of Sam Lipsyte and Karen Russell, and if there's one phrase that continually appears in early reviews and press materials, it is "action packed." (Patrick) The Dark Road by Ma Jian: Ma Jian, whose books and person are both banned from China, published his third novel The Dark Road in June (Yunchen Publishing House, Taipei); the English translation will be released by Penguin. The story: a couple determined to give birth to a second child in order to carry on the family line flee their village and the family planning crackdown. At Sampsonia Way, Tienchi Martin-Liao described it as “an absurd story” that uses “magical realism to describe the perverse reality in China.” The publisher describes it as “a haunting and indelible portrait of the tragedies befalling women and families at the hands of China’s one-child policy and of the human spirit’s capacity to endure even the most brutal cruelty.” Martin-Liao tells us that the book’s title, Yin Zhi Dao, also means vagina, or place of life and origin. (Sonya) The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard: Stothard’s second novel (after Isabel and Rocco) follows an unnamed 17-year-old narrator as she flies from London to L.A. for the funeral of Lily, a mother she never knew, the proprietess of The Pink Hotel. While the hotel’s residents throw a rave in Lily’s honor, her daughter steals a suitcase of Lily’s photos, letters, and clothes. These mementos set her on a journey around L.A., returning letters to their writers and photos to their subjects and uncovering the secrets of her mother’s life. Longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize, The Pink Hotel has been optioned for production by True Blood’s Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin. (Janet) Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perišic: Perišic is one of the leading new writers to have emerged from Croatia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In this, his first novel to appear stateside, he offers the funny and absurd tale of two cousins from Zagreb who get caught up in the American Invasion of Iraq, circa 2003. Perišic speaks English, and assisted with the translation, so his voice should come through intact, and a blurb from Jonathan Franzen never hurts. (Garth) May: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Few details have been released so far about the third novel from international publishing juggernaut Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns). In a statement posted to Penguin’s website, Hosseini explains, “My new novel is a multi-generational family story as well, this time revolving around brothers and sisters, and the ways in which they love, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for each other.” (Kevin) My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard: The first part of Knausgaard's six-part behemoth was the single most stirring novel I read in 2012. Or is the word memoir? Anyway, this year sees the publication of Part Two, which apparently shifts the emphasis from Knausgaard's childhood and the death of his father to his romantic foibles as an adult. But form trumps content in this book, and I'd read 400 pages of Knausgaard dilating on trips to the dentist. There's still time to run out and catch up on Part One before May rolls around. I can't imagine many readers who finish it won't want to keep going. (Garth) You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt: You Are One of Them is Pushcart Prize-winner Elliott Holt's debut novel. You might be forgiven for thinking she'd already published a few books, as Holt has been a fixture of the literary Twittersphere for years. Holt's debut is a literary suspense novel spanning years, as a young woman, raised in politically charged Washington D.C. of the 1980s, goes to Moscow to investigate the decades-old death of her childhood friend. (Patrick) The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien: In a letter to his American publisher two decades after abandoning The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien expressed regret that he’d left the epic poem unfinished (some suggest it was cast aside as he focused on writing The Hobbit, published in 1937). Nearly eighty years later, the work has been edited and annotated by his son, Christopher, who has written three companion essays that explore the text and his father’s use of Arthurian legend in Middle Earth. Tolkien fans will be grateful for the uncharted territory but unused to the book’s bulk, or lack thereof: in the American edition, poem, notes, and essays clock in just shy of 200 pages long. (Elizabeth) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The author of the critically acclaimed novels Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus, both set in Adichie’s home country of Nigeria, now turns her keen eye to the trials of cultural assimilation for Africans in America and England. In the novel, a young Nigerian couple leave their homeland – she to America for an education, he to a far more unsettled, undocumented life in England. In their separate ways, each confront issues of race and identity they would never have faced in Nigeria, where they eventually reunite. (Michael) Red Moon by Benjamin Percy: Percy, whose previous books include the novel The Wilding and the story collection Refresh, Refresh, imagines a world wherein werewolves have always lived among us, uneasily tolerated, a hidden but largely controlled menace, required by law to take a transformation-inhibiting drug. He describes his new novel as “a narrative made of equal parts supernatural thriller, love story and political allegory.” (Emily M.) A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel: A short story collection that includes the author's New Yorker debut, "Atria". If that piece is any indication, the book is more than a bit fabulist – the plot involves a girl who finds herself pregnant and worries she'll give birth to an animal. The specter of parenthood, as the title suggests, appears in numerous guises, as does the reinvention that marked the protagonists of her novel (the genesis of which she wrote about in our own pages). (Thom) The Hanging Garden by Patrick White: The last work of Nobel Laureate Patrick White gives his homeland an Elysian feel. At the beginning, we meet two orphans, Eirene Sklavos and Gilbert Horsfall, whose parents both died in separate conflicts early on in the second World War. They escape to a house in suburban Sydney and bond in a lush little garden. As with most things published posthumously, the story is a little bit scattershot, but early reviews out of Oz (and our own take) say the book is worthy of its author. (Thom) Love Is Power, or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett: Barrett’s middle name, Igonibo, means stranger, though he’s no stranger to all things literary: he chronicled his childhood bookishness in our pages last year, and his father is Jamaican-born poet Lindsay Barrett who settled in Nigeria, where the younger Barrett was born and still lives. The streets of Lagos provide the backdrop for his second story collection, Love Is Power, or Something Like That. His first was called From the Cave of Rotten Teeth, and rotting teeth seems to be something of a recurring motif. It’s picked up at least tangentially in this book with “My Smelling Mouth Problem,” a story where the protagonist’s halitosis causes disturbances on a city bus ride. (Anne) The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer: George Packer reveals the state of affairs in America in his ominously-titled new book, a history told in biographical inspections of its various residents (read about one, a lobbyist, in a truly riveting excerpt in The New Yorker). The bad news, probably, is that American is fucked. The good news, I learned from an interview in The Gunn Oracle, the paper of record at Packer's high school, is that Packer didn't become a proper journalist until age 40, which is sort of heartening, and may officially qualify him for Bloom status. (More bad news: no posted vacancies at The Gunn Oracle.) (Lydia) Pacific by Tom Drury: Drury’s fans will be ecstatic to learn that his new novel focuses once again on the inhabitants of Grouse County, Iowa, where two of his four previous books, The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams, also take place. In this new novel, Tiny Darling’s son Micah travels to L.A. to reunite with his mother who abandoned him years before, while back in the Midwest, a mysterious woman unsettles everyone she meets. The novel tells two parallel tales, plumbing both the comic and tragic of life. Yiyun Li says that Drury is a “rare master of the art of seeing." This novel is sure to prove that—yet again. (Edan) Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm: The title of this collection comes from a 1994 New Yorker profile of the artist David Salle, in which Malcolm tried in 41 different ways, without success, to penetrate the carefully constructed shell of an artist who had made a bundle during the go-go 1980s but was terrified that he was already forgotten by the art world, a has-been. Malcolm trains her laser eye on a variety of other subjects, including Edward Weston's nudes, the German photographer Thomas Struth, Edith Wharton, the Gossip Girl novels, and the false starts on her own autobiography. (Bill) June: Transatlantic by Colum McCann: Known for deftly lacing his fiction with historical events – such as the high-wire walk between the twin towers that opened his National Book Award-winning novel, Let the Great World Spin – McCann threads together three very different journeys to Ireland in his new novel, Transatlantic. The first was Frederick Douglass's trip to denounce slavery in 1845, just as the potato famine was beginning; the second was the first transatlantic flight, in 1919, by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown; and the third was former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell's repeated crossings to broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In an interview, McCann said it's the aftermath of such large historic events that interests him as a novelist: "What happens in the quiet moments? What happens when the plane has landed?" (Bill) The Hare by César Aira: A recent bit of contrarianism in The New Republic blamed the exhaustive posthumous marketing of Roberto Bolaño for crowding other Latin American writers out of the U.S. marketplace. If anything, it seems to me, it's the opposite: the success of The Savage Detectives helped publishers realize there was a market for Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and the fascinating Argentinian César Aira. The past few years have seen seven of Aira's many novels translated into English. Some of them, like Ghosts, are transcendently good, but none has been a breakout hit. Maybe the reissue of The Hare, which appeared in the U.K. in 1998, will be it. At the very least, it's the longest Aira to appear in English: a picaresque about a naturalist's voyage into the Argentinean pampas. (Garth) Taipei by Tao Lin: Indie darling Tao Lin officially enters the world of big six publishing with his eighth published work, Taipei, an autobiographical novel beginning in 2009 and concerning a few years in the life of a 25-year-old protagonist moving from Taiwan to New York City and Las Vegas. In an Observer interview from 2011, Lin said that the book “contains a marriage, somewhat extreme recreational drug usage, parents, [and] a book tour” – all of which should be familiar subjects to people who’ve followed Lin’s exploits on Twitter, Tumblr and his blog over the past few years. (And especially if you’ve been one of his “interns.”) (Nick) In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell: Matt Bell’s novel is an exploration of parenthood and marriage, and it carries the premise and the force of myth: a woman who can sing objects into being and a man who longs for fatherhood get married and leave their hectic lives for a quiet homestead by the side of a remote lake. But as pregnancy after pregnancy fails, the wife’s powers take a darker turn—she sings the stars from the sky—and their grief transforms not only their marriage but the world around them. (Emily M.) His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: Stephen Dixon, a writer known for rendering unbearable experiences, has built his 15th novel around a premise that is almost unbearably simple: A man named Martin is thinking about the loss of his wife, Gwen. Dixon's long and fruitful career includes more than 500 shorts stories, three O. Henry Prizes, two Pushcart Prizes and a pair of nominations for the National Book Award. His Wife Leaves Him, according to its author, "is about a bunch of nouns: love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscence, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving." (Bill) Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: The novels of the great Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai have recently begun to break through with American audiences. Thus far, however, we've only glimpsed one half of his oeuvre: the one that deals (darkly, complexly) with postwar Europe. Krasznahorkai has also long taken an interest in East Asia, where he's spent time in residence. Seiobo There Below, one of several novels drawing on this experience, shows a Japanese goddess visiting disparate places and times, in search of beauty. (Garth) Carnival by Rawi Hage: True to its title, Carnival – which takes place in a city loosely based on the author's hometown of Montreal – takes the reader on a tour of a place well-populated with odd and eccentric characters. The protagonist, Fly, is a cab driver with a penchant for binge reading. We learn that he chose his name to draw a contrast with a group called the Spiders. The Spiders are a loose collection of predatory cab drivers, who choose to wait for their customers rather than to hunt them on the streets. Fly himself, too, is no slouch when it comes to weirdness – he says that his mother gave birth to him in front of an audience of seals. (Thom) Cannonball by Joseph McElroy: Of the American experimental novelists of the 1960s and 1970s, Joseph McElroy may be the most idiosyncratic. He specializes in what you might call information architecture, overloading his narratives with nonfictional data while strategically withholding the kinds of exposition that are conventional in fiction. The results speak for themselves: moments of startling resonance, power, mystery…and topicality. His work has previously tackled the Pinochet regime, artificial intelligence, and, in his terrific recent story collection, Night Soul, terrorism. Now he turns his attention to the Iraq War. (Garth) On the Floor by Aifric Campbell: Banker-turned-novelist Aifric Campbell takes on the testosterone of the eighties. At Morgan Stanley, she saw firsthand the excesses of the era, which drove young female analysts to develop “contempt” for other women. As a product of that environment, her main character, Geri, feels like a “skirt among men.” She lacquers her ambitions with conspicuously feminine gestures and modes of dress. In an interview with the Guardian, Campbell pointed out that she used to race greyhounds, which gave her a “certain logic” that helped her in banking and writing. (Thom) July: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff passed away last summer at the age of 47, shortly after completing this slender novel “written entirely in verse.” His previous books have been largely satirical, so this final work is a departure: stretching across the country and the twentieth century, the novel’s stories are linked by “acts of generosity or cruelty.” Ira Glass, who brought Rakoff to the airwaves for more than a decade, has described the book as “very funny and very sad, which is my favorite combination” (a fair descriptor of much of Rakoff’s radio work, like this heartbreaking performance from the live episode of “This American Life” staged just a few months before his death.) (Elizabeth) Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: In his third novel, Aw writes about Malaysian immigrants to contemporary Shanghai, featuring an ensemble cast who hail from diverse backgrounds; their stories are interwoven, and counterpointed with the lives they left behind. Aw, who was a practicing lawyer while writing his first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won accolades for his debut: longlisted for Man Booker Prize, International Impac Dublin Award and the Guardian First Book Prize; winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region). (Sonya) August: Night Film by Marisha Pessl: This much-anticipated, oft-delayed follow-up to Pessl’s bestselling Special Topics in Calamity Physics originally set to come out in 2010 is now scheduled – no, this time they really mean it – in the fall. The novel is a “psychological literary thriller” about a young New Yorker who sets out to investigate the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, daughter of a reclusive European movie director. (Michael) The Infatuations by Javier Marías: Javier Marías’s new book, translated by Marguerite Jull Costa, is his 14th novel to be published in English. It was awarded Spain’s National Novel Prize last October, but Marías turned it down out of an aversion to receiving public money. It’s the story of a woman’s obsession with an apparently happy couple who inexplicably disappear. It’s his first novel to be narrated from a woman’s perspective, so it will be interesting to see how Marias manages to accommodate his penchant for detailed descriptions of ladies crossing and uncrossing their legs. (Mark) Clare of the Sea-Light by Edwidge Danticat: My time at the University of Miami overlapped with Danticat’s, though unfortunately I never took her creative writing course. I did, however, see her speak at an event for the English department during my junior year. She was astounding. There are prose stylists in this world and then there are storytellers, and rare are people like Danticat who are both. She read from her memoir Brother, I’m Dying, which features one of the most devastating and personal depictions of our wretched immigration system ever written. Haiti has always been an remarkable place – a nation built with equal measures of hope, passion, charm, malfeasance and tragedy. In this forthcoming story collection, Clare of the Sea-Light – which draws its title from a piece she originally published in Haiti Noir – we can expect the prodigiously talented author to render each aspect of the place beautifully. (Nick) Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Caleb Crain’s debut novel, which concerns the topic of “youth,” borrows its title from W. H. Auden’s 1929 poem “[It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens]” and takes place in the Czech Republic during the last decade of the 20th century. Look for Crain, a journalist, critic and banished member of the NYPL’s Central Library Plan advisory committee, to use research and insight from his previous book – a provocative look at male friendship, personal lives, and literary creation – in order to give Jacob Putnam and the rest of the characters in Necessary Errors a great deal of interwoven influences, covert desires and realistic interaction. (Nick) September: Enon by Paul Harding: In 2009, the tiny Bellevue Literary Press published Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Tinkers tells the story of George Washington Crosby, an old man reliving the memories of his life as he dies surround by family. Enon, named for the Massachusetts town where Crosby died, is about his grandson, Charlie Crosby, and Charlie’s daughter Kate. (Janet) October: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-bestselling Eat Pray Love put her on Time Magazine’s list of most influential people in the world, and then Julia Roberts played her in the movie adaptation. What many fans of that memoir don’t know is that Gilbert started her career as a fiction writer, penning a short story collection, Pilgrims, and the novel, Stern Men, which was a New York Times Notable Book in 2000. Now, 13 years later, she returns to the form with the publication of “a big, sprawling, epic historical novel that takes place from 1760 to 1880, following the fortunes of a family called the Whittakers, who make their name in the early botanical exploration/proto-pharmaceutical business trade.” That description is from Gilbert herself, taken from this candid, illuminating and entertaining interview with Rachel Khong for The Rumpus. (Edan) Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: Sunnyside Queens has long held a contrarian perspective. In the 1920s, as urban development projects washed over the outer boroughs, the folks in Sunnyside did all they could to keep the place from turning into a cookie-cutter suburb. Driveways were banned and garages were disallowed. Instead of lawns, the neighborhood’s designers recommended long courtyards that spanned the entire length of blocks – these were meant to encourage mingling and space sharing. It’s no doubt this spirit of dissent, skepticism and opinionated egalitarianism that’s drawn Jonathan Lethem to the neighborhood as the centerpiece for his new novel, a “family epic,” which focuses on three generations of American leftists growing up in the outer borough. (Nick) Unknown: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Washington Post critic Ron Charles broke the news recently that Thomas Pynchon will have a new book out from Penguin this fall called Bleeding Edge. (Though Penguin says the book has not yet been scheduled). Charles said the news of the new book was confirmed by two Penguin employees and that "everything is tentative" at this time. More as we know it, folks. (Max) Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: There's still not much to report on Rush's latest, a novel of love and friendship set in upstate New York on the eve of the Iraq War. In October, though Granta Books in the U.K. announced an autumn 2013 publication date, so here's hoping... (Garth) The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The fifth of Vollmann's Seven Dreams books to appear, The Dying Grass will most likely not see print until summer of 2015, according to his editor. First up is Last Stories, a collection of ghost stories slated to hit bookstores next year. Assuming there still are bookstores next year. (Garth) Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt: Your Name Here seems to be stuck in a holding pattern at Noemi Press, befitting, one supposes, its tortured publication history. In a recent Believer interview, DeWitt suggested that the version that appears in print, if it appears in print, may not be the same as the .pdf she was selling on her website a few years back. Chunks may have been spun off into other works of fiction. Whatever the damn thing ends up looking like, we eagerly await it. (Garth) Escape from the Children's Hospital by Jonathan Safran Foer: Foer returns to childhood, to trauma, and to interwoven voices and storylines. The childhood here is Foer's own, though, so this may mark a kind of departure. We'll have to wait and see, as no publication date has been set. (Garth) More from The Millions: The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2011/2012 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad moved up thanks to landing on the IMPAC shortlist and is now in some rarefied company among the most honored books of the last 20 years, while The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Late on the uptake and plenty of attention for this one already, but the novel that engaged me on the most levels this year was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. The first large section, about the Jesuit priest Corrigan, is by far the most impressive, and could almost be read as a novella on its own. But fortunately it doesn’t have to be, as the rest of the vignettes build on and complexify it, to prismatically round out McCann’s fever-dream vision of New York in the 70s. Another fun novel for me this year was Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. Yan’s style here is maximalistic, headlong, sloppy to be sure, but bursting with life; or rather, lives -- human and otherwise. A Chinese landowner is executed at the dawn of the Cultural Revolution, and the story follows him literally to hell and back, again and again as he’s reborn in a progression of animal incarnations. Each time, he winds up near his former family and participates in its dramas, goes on animal adventures, and witnesses the hardships, cruelties, and absurdities of life in China over the last half-century. Mo Yan himself shows up as a character from time to time. As for nonfiction, through a chain of references in other reading, I arrived at The Evolving Self, written by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan in 1982, and found it illuminating. Kegan’s topic here is how consciousness evolves over the course of a human life in a progressive spiral of individuations and communal reframings. He posits five main stages of mental evolution, from ones roughly corresponding to infancy and childhood to later ones tracking growing leaps outward as our sense of self and otherness shifts and refines. Some people land on tribal identifications; some get trapped in ideology (which, given the election year coming up, may help you at least start to comprehend some of your fellow citizens). Each stage allows for new stabilities, and each can eventually bump up against its limits, at which point anxiety and depression ensue. Not everyone arrives at the fifth stage, an “interindividual balance” that can take as its object its own psychic administration. It’s a nuanced argument, full of colorful examples from case studies and quite a few literary allusions too. What about stages beyond these -- are they possible? Well, there’s a shelf of books I could recommend on that subject too. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
If you're like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people. And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the "best" book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don't). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer's bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages. With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one. As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader. Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet. Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints. Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin. Nick Moran, The Millions intern. Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate. John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass. Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions. Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org. Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley's Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading. Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way. Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding. Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories. Duff McKagan, author of It's So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N' Roses. Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Amy Waldman, author of The Submission. Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World. Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married. Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen. Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States. Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen. Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend. Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions. Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There. Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times. Mark O'Connell, staff writer at The Millions. Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry. Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me. Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season. Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm. Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic. Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood. Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles. Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India. David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California. Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories. Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper's Lament. Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown. Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium. Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season. Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org. Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions. Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions. Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions. Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel. Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes. Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case. Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones. Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich. Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama. Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination. Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens. Belinda McKeon, author of Solace. Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire. Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast. A.N. Devers, editor of Writers' Houses. Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings. Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls. Rachel Syme, NPR contributor. A Year in Reading Wrap Up Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr. Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2010/2011 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad unsurprisingly had a good showing with judges. Meanwhile, the IMPAC win puts Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin on our list, and the shortlist nod does the same for Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, P 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Colum McCann can add the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award to the long list of accolades he has received for Let the Great World Spin. The book is a Millions Hall of Famer and our coverage of the title has been fairly extensive. Previously: Digging into the 2011 IMPAC Longlist, The Eclectic IMPAC Shortlist Has Arrived.
The IMPAC Award shortlist was announced today. The IMPAC sets itself apart with its unique approach. Its massive longlist is compiled by libraries all over the world before being whittled down by judges. This makes for a more egalitarian selection. It's also got a long lead time. Books up for the current prize (to be named June 15th) were all published in 2009, putting the IMPAC more than a year behind other big literary awards. There's a distinct upside in this. By now, nearly all the shortlisted books are available in paperback in the U.S. The IMPAC also tends to be interesting for the breadth of books it considers.This year's shortlist is typically eclectic, representing four countries and ranging from bestsellers, to relative unknowns.Galore by Michael Crummey (excerpt, At The Millions, Michael Crummey's "Whale Music")The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (excerpt, In his Year in Reading, Sam Anderson suggests some edits.)The Vagrants by Yiyun Li(excerpt, At The Millions, Yiyun Li on Per Petterson)Ransom by David Malouf (excerpt)Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (excerpt, A Millions Hall of Famer)Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol OatesJasper Jones by Craig Silvey (excerpt)Brooklyn by Colm Toibín (excerpt, Edan's Year in Reading)Love and Summer by William Trevor (excerpt)After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld (excerpt)
1. To blurb or not to blurb? This seemingly innocent question was put to me for the first time a couple of weeks ago when a paperback review copy of a non-fiction book arrived in my mailbox. I knew it was coming. The author, Earl Swift, is a former newspaper colleague and an old friend, and he had written earlier to say he was hoping I would give his new book a blurb. At the time I didn't even consider saying no because, as a blurb virgin, I thought I was simply being asked to do a friend a small favor. I had no idea I was agreeing to walk across an artistic, personal and ethical minefield. When I opened the envelope, my heart sank. The book's title had that distinctive rotten-egg aroma of something that came out of the hind end of a focus group. It's called The Big Roads. Worse, the subtitle is one of those 15-car pile-ups that sound like somebody in the focus group was trying way too hard: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. All the subtitle lacked was three exclamation points. What had I gotten myself into? Earl Swift, as I say, is an old friend, but I also know that he's a dogged reporter and a deft writer. (Full disclosure: when we first met I owned a pink-and-black 1954 Buick and he was driving a creamy white 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible. Never underestimate the power of classic Detroit pig iron to make two men bond.) So of course I wanted Earl's book to succeed. Besides, he had shrewdly softened me up in advance by telling me how my first novel had changed his life: "I remember reading (it) and thinking: I'm a newspaper writer. This guy's a writer who happened to work for a newspaper. I'm not overstating the case to say that reading that book helped prod me to get serious about my own work. It was a wake-up. True story." Now Earl was counting on me. What should I do if the book was as bad as its generic title and breathless subtitle? Was I obliged to lie in my blurb like most other blurb writers presumably do? Or did ethics require me to back out and, in doing so, break an old friend's heart? 2. I'll admit that I'm swayed by blurbs from time to time even though I've always thought of them as suspect, vaguely sleazy. I suppose I'm suspicious partly because I was a big fan of Spy magazine in its heyday, and my favorite feature was "Logrolling in Our Time," a hilarious and devastating monthly roster of writers who shamelessly plugged each other's books. It was my first hint that book publishing might not be the gentleman's game it then pretended to be. That it might, in fact, be a sweaty little orgy of incest. In due time, I got a glimpse of how blurbing actually worked. When my second novel was nearing publication, someone in my agent's office persuaded the best-selling author Nelson DeMille to read a galley of the book, which is set in Southeast Asia in 1963 and climaxes with the American-backed assassination of South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem, less than three weeks before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. DeMille, to everyone's amazement, sent back the following blurb: "This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel that captures time and place, an illumination of a pivotal point in history. Bill Morris is an exceptionally gifted and savvy writer. The comparison to Graham Greene is fully merited." When I got my jaw off the floor, my first thought was, This is bullshit! Nobody in his right mind would compare me to a god like Graham Greene! But then I let it sink in for a while and I thought, Hmm...I've got no quarrel with "wonderfully atmospheric" or "exceptionally gifted and savvy." And even if the Graham Greene bit is bullshit, it's the kind of bullshit I can learn to live with. So I kept my mouth shut and let the publisher put DeMille's quote on the front flap of the dust jacket. Did this blurb sell any books? Sadly, we'll never know. 3. To find out if blurbs help sell books, I decided to conduct a highly unscientific survey. I asked several well read friends the following questions: Do you ever buy books on the basis of blurbs? If so, do you have to know something about the blurb writer, or will any intriguing blurb do the trick? Marianne Schaefer, a woman who makes documentary films and devours science fiction and fantasy novels by the metric ton, said, "Yes, blurbs from respected publications frequently convince me to buy a book. If I know the blurb writer and really like his or her writing – Neal Stephenson, say, or China Mieville – I'll do further research about the book because it's possible the blurb writer is a friend of the author." Now comes the juicy part. "I have also not bought a book because it was blurbed by a writer whose recommendations I distrust. Ursula K. Le Guin is a perfect example. If she liked a book, I know it's politically correct, female-empowering, pretentious crap." Sara Nelson is probably as close to an authority as anyone on the question of whether or not blurbs sell books. She was once editor in chief of that industry bible, Publishers Weekly, and she's now books director of O, the Oprah magazine. For good measure, she's also an omnivorous reader and the author of a book about reading, So Many Books, So Little Time, which got its share of blurbs from brand-name authors. "A feast," wrote Pat Conroy. "A joy," wrote Susan Isaacs. "A smart, witty, utterly original memoir about how every book becomes a part of us," wrote Augusten Burroughs. Most writers would kill their own mothers for such blurbs. Nelson told me, via e-mail, "I always look at blurbs when I'm in a bookstore, and I'm always intrigued by them, but...I'm more interested in figuring out how/why this particular author got that particular author to blurb him ('Oh right, they have the same agent!') than in thinking like a consumer. Obviously this is not typical. When I was at Publishers Weekly, I often spoke to consumers about their buying habits, and usually asked if blurbs influenced their book-buying decisions. Most of the time their answer was 'yes' – so I guess that's why we keep going after blurbs. But of course there's no way of knowing" if they work. Many writers who have hit the best-seller lists or won major awards have a strict policy of not writing blurbs. Some even talk about being in a "blurb-free zone," which sounds like a bad Rod Serling spinoff. Colum McCann, who won the National Book Award in 2009 for his novel Let the Great World Spin, admits that he has been tempted to step into the blurb-free zone. The reason is simple. "In the past week I got exactly eight books in the post to blurb. Eight!" he wrote in an e-mail. "I also got six separate e-mail requests from publishers and friends. Then I got two requests from former students. That's a total of sixteen requests in just one week. The mailman hates me!" That works out to 832 blurb requests per year. "I feel so damn guilty not being able to blurb all the books, but it is just plain impossible," McCann went on. "I've been trying to institute a policy of no blurbs, but I understand their necessity. They're not even designed for readers since I think most people see through the bullshit factor. They are designed more for bookshops and just helping to get the books on the shelf... But again I understand the necessity. The blurbs for Let the Great World Spin (by Richard Price, Dave Eggers, Frank McCourt, Amy Bloom, John Boyne) were very, very important to its initial bookshop push. They helped the book succeed." Frank McCourt, by the way, never entered the blurb-free zone. Prior to his death in 2009 he was a tireless blurber, a true champion of other writers, proof that some authors write blurbs even if they're not trying to curry favor with other writers as possible sources of future blurbs. The prolific McCourt did, however, tend to get a bit repetitious, which seems to be an occupational hazard for serial blurbers. He wrote that Peace Like a River by Leif Enger has passages "so wondrous and wise you'll want to claw yourself with pleasure." He also wrote, "Open to any page of Helen Gurley Brown's I'm Wild Again, and you'll claw yourself with pleasure." And of Colum McCann's 1998 novel This Side of Brightness, McCourt wrote, "In language that makes you claw yourself with pleasure, he powerfully evokes the stink of the present and the poignancy of the past." We can only hope that McCourt was diligent about trimming his fingernails. As for McCann's theory that blurbs help to get books on store shelves, Toby Cox, owner of Three Lives & Company in New York's Greenwich Village, has his doubts. "When I buy books I do it by looking through publishers' catalogs, and they have blurbs," Cox told me. "A blurb generally doesn't sway me that I should bring a particular book into the store, but it does give me a feel for how a publisher is trying to position a book." As for his customers, "If the blurb is by a favorite writer of theirs, it may have an influence. For my market it's mostly reviews and word of mouth that sell a book. I think you can probably trace most blurbs back to a connection – the author and blurb writer are friends, or they have the same editor or the same agent – so I tend to take them with a grain of salt." One man who decidedly did not take blurbs with a grain of salt was the writer who coined the word, a turn of the last century humorist named Gelett Burgess (1866-1951). The cover of his 1906 book Are You a Bromide? shows a woman identified as MISS BELINDA BLURB IN THE ACT OF BLURBING. She's shouting the book's praises in no uncertain terms: YES, this is a "BLURB"! All Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn't We? Say! Ain't this book a 90 H.P., six-cylinder Seller? ... WE consider that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked into the coal bin, telephoning for "Information." WE expect to sell 350 copies of this great, grand book. It has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck. No hero, no heroine, nothing like that for OURS, but when you've READ this masterpiece, you'll know what a BOOK is, and you'll sic it onto your mother-in-law, your dentist and the pale youth who dips hot air into Little Marjorie until 4 A.M. in the front parlour. This book has 42-carat THRILLS in it. It fairly BURBLES. Ask the man at the counter what HE thinks of it! He's seen Janice Meredith faded to a mauve magenta. He's seen BLURBS before, and he's dead wise. He'll say: This Book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!! 4. Aware that I had a lot of tough acts to follow, I dug into The Big Roads. The title still bugged me, not only because it was bland but because I had a much better one: Six Sidewalks to the Moon. From the research I'd done while writing the novel that prodded Earl Swift to get serious about his own work, I happened to know that President Dwight Eisenhower, the putative father of our interstate highway system, had once gushed that this engineering marvel would require enough concrete to build "six sidewalks to the moon." But my misgivings began to evaporate when I reached page 5, where Swift notes that the interstates used enough concrete to "fill sixty-four Louisiana Superdomes to the rafters." No flies on Earl! Soon my dread was replaced by relief, then pure delight. Earl Swift is still a deft writer, but the dogged reporter has turned into a prodigious researcher, a real-live historian, someone's who's willing to paw through acres of archives, troll the internet, conduct interviews, and read every available book, government report, biography and article on his subject. Along the way he gives us delightful thumbnail histories of motels, McDonald's golden arches and that mother of all tourist traps, South of the Border. And he can be drolly funny. One man "seized on the task like a pit bull on a flank steak." And Ike "wasn't much of a detail man" but he did adhere to a "rigorous golf and vacation schedule." Perhaps the book's greatest achievement is to dispel the prevailing myth that the interstate highways popped fully formed out of Dwight Eisenhower's shiny, empty skull. They did not. Nothing did. As good as it is, the book isn't perfect. It could have used a bit more...artiness. Earl does quote a beautifully surreal passage about road-weary motorists that James Agee wrote for Fortune magazine in 1934, but he missed the chance to illustrate his point that the flame-throwing, technicolor cars of the 1950s had outgrown the roads they traveled on and, as a result, the country seemed to need the interstates. Here's Richard Yates on the subject, from his immortal novel Revolutionary Road, which was written at the precise moment when Ike was talking about all those sidewalks to the moon: "Their automobiles didn't look right either – unnecessarily wide and gleaming in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each splatter of mud, they crawled apologetically down the broken roads that led from all directions to the deep, level slab of Route Twelve. Once there the cars seemed able to relax in an environment all their own, a long bright valley of colored plastic and plate glass and stainless steel – KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT – but eventually they had to turn off, one by one, and make their way up the winding country road..." I was off the hook but I still had to write the blurb. Thinking of Pat Conroy and Susan Isaacs, I wanted to open with something pithy. A joy ride, I thought. Not bad. Now follow it up with something that has gush and go to it. An epic tale of... No, that's as flat as the title. After many false starts and wrong turns, I came up with this: Earl Swift has written the best kind of popular history – one that paints vivid portraits, debunks myths and brings to life the fascinating and appalling stories behind the creation of that massive mixed blessing known as America's interstate highways. It may not have been a work of art but at least it wasn't bullshit. I re-read it a dozen times, then typed it into an e-mail addressed to the book's editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. My finger hovered over the keyboard for a long time. I'm no Colum McCann, but once my blurb got published I had visions of the mailman dropping off stacks of review copies in front of my door. Did I really want to dive down that rabbit hole? I took a deep breath. Then another. And then I hit Send. Yes reader, I blurbed him. (Image: Librairie le Bleuet from gastev's photostream)
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2011 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 162 novels on the list, nominated by 126 libraries in 43 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2009 (including translations). Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers. Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least seven libraries. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (14 libraries representing Canada, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States) Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (13 libraries representing Belgium, England, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United States) The Help by Kathryn Stockett (11 libraries representing Barbados, Hungary, Maldives, and the United States) Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (10 libraries representing Australia, Canada, England, India, Italy, South Africa, and the United States) A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (7 libraries representing the Greece, Norway, Spain, and the United States) The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (7 libraries representing Barbados, New Zealand, Poland, Scotland, and the United States) The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck (7 libraries representing Croatia, Germany, Greece, and Norway) You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few: In Canada, The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre, Galore by Michael Crummy, and The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon In the Netherlands, Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa In Australia, Lovesong by Alex Miller There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those: From Denmark, The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard From Estonia, Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby From Jamaica, Inner City Girl by Colleen Smith-Dennis From Mexico, Season of Ash by Jorge Volpi Escalante From Trinidad and Tobego, Anna In-Between by Elizabeth Nunez
I find it difficult to separate a book from the experience of reading it. I spent a great deal of time on tour this summer, reading at bookstores from southern California to New Hampshire, and I encountered Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 toward the end of all this, a hot day in Ann Arbor when I had some time to kill before an event. I was traveling with Unbridled Books’ sales director, who I’d name except that he once stated a preference for being a silent partner in these things. He’d been driving me all over the state of Michigan so that he could talk to independent bookstore owners and I could read at their bookstores. We’d done the same thing in New England a month earlier. We spent an hour or so in the Dawn Treader Book Shop (“Ann Arbor’s Best Browse”, according to the bookmark.) I feel an inordinate amount of guilt when I buy used books from living authors (the lost royalties! The book that doesn’t appear on the sales numbers and thus lessens the odds of the publisher wanting to buy the author’s next book!) but I do it anyway sometimes, and I’d spent a small fortune on new books that week. I picked up Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, which I liked, and Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, which strikes me as a small masterpiece. It was a bit of a leap of faith—the copy I picked up was a small green hardcover, cloth-bound and missing its jacket, so there was no synopsis or any other indication of what the book was about—but my traveling companion pointed at it and said “Have you read this? It’s quite good,” and I’m susceptible to the recommendations of people who read a lot. I read the first two chapters in the bookstore and decided I couldn’t continue to live without reading the rest. The next day my flight home from Michigan was canceled, which wasn’t entirely surprising—I was, after all, flying Delta, which in my experience seems to suffer from an unusual degree of difficulty in getting its planes off the ground—and I found myself with five hours to kill in the Detroit airport. For the first time that week, my habit of buying a book at every tour stop seemed sensible. I found a quiet corner and read Montana 1948 in its entirety. I’ll let you guess when and in which state the book takes place. It’s summertime, and the narrator is twelve-year-old David Hayden. His father, Wesley, is the sheriff of their fictitious small town. His uncle Frank is a war hero and a highly respected local doctor, the favorite of their domineering rancher father. David is close with the Sioux woman who works in the household, Marie Little Soldier. When she falls ill one morning, David’s parents call Frank to look in on her. But not only does Marie refuse treatment, she refuses to be left alone in the room with the doctor, and flies into a panic when he comes close. When pressed, she tells David’s parents that Frank has been molesting local Native American women and girls for years. She’s dead within days, ostensibly of pneumonia; but she had been showing signs of recovery the day before she died, and David saw his uncle leaving their house around the time of her death. It’s a well-plotted story, but the marvel of this book is the quiet lucidity of the prose. I’m frequently drawn to literary pyrotechnics, fractured narratives and jigsaw-puzzle structures—Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin—but the linear simplicity of the story is captivating in an entirely different way. A story that could easily spin off into melodrama is told with utmost calm and restraint. In the afternoon I spent with this book, I hardly noticed I was stranded in an airport.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Reality Hunger 5 months 2. 5. Stoner 6 months 3. 8. Tinkers 2 months 4. 6. The Big Short 4 months 5. (tie) - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 1 month 5. (tie) - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 1 month 7. 10. Wolf Hall 6 months 8. 9. War and Peace 3 months 9. - The Girl Who Played With Fire 1 month 10. - Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 1 month With four books -- The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, The Mystery Guest, Let the Great World Spin, and The Interrogative Mood? -- graduating to our Hall of Fame, we have plenty of room for newcomers on our latest list. The late Stieg Larsson, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is already in our Hall of Fame, has the rest of his trilogy make the list, The Girl Who Played With Fire and the recently released The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Meanwhile, David Mitchell's new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was released only a few days ago, debuts tied at number five, and Geoff Dyer's 1998 bio of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which was recently championed by David Shields in these pages, debuts in the last spot on the list. And it's Shields' controversial Reality Hunger that's still holding on to our top spot. Near Misses: Twilight of the Superheroes, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Then We Came to the End, The Imperfectionists See Also: Last month's list
As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this. I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on. On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree. It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up. No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world. But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power. He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise. But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition. Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read. So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance. And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine. This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders. All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.) Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere. Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day. [Image credit: Tim]
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Reality Hunger 4 months 2. 2. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 6 months 3. 4. Let the Great World Spin 6 months 4. 5. The Mystery Guest 6 months 5. 6. Stoner 5 months 6. 8. The Big Short 3 months 7. 9. The Interrogative Mood 6 months 8. - Tinkers 1 month 9. 10. War and Peace 2 months 10. 7. Wolf Hall 5 months This month, David Shields' controversial Reality Hunger slips into the top spot. Shields recently offered an energetic defense of the book and an accompanying reading list. Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which appeared at the top of our panel's list and number eight on our readers' list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. We've been learning more about Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is the surprise Pulitzer winner and small press hero, Tinkers by Paul Harding. Near Misses: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Twilight of the Superheroes, Then We Came to the End 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. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Corrections 6 months 3. 3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 5 months 3. 2. Reality Hunger 3 months 4. 4. Let the Great World Spin 5 months 5. 10. The Mystery Guest 5 months 6. 9. Stoner 4 months 7. 6. Wolf Hall 4 months 8. 5. The Big Short 2 months 9. 7. The Interrogative Mood 5 months 10. - War and Peace 1 month Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, which appeared on both our panel's list and our readers list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. Our panel's winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, stays in the top spot. We've been looking forward to Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is a classic. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace landed on lots of reading lists after we published Kevin's thoughtful meditation on the book and what it means to be affected by great art. Near Misses: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, Asterios Polyp, The Known World, Tinkers, Solar, Twilight of the Superheroes See Also: Last month's list
1. I’m working on my third novel these days, and since I’m still deep in the mudflats of the first draft, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about questions of structure. Specifically, how many complications of time and viewpoint a novel can stand and remain viable—and by “viable”, I think I mean both “elegant” and “not completely baffling.” I find myself drawn equally to sheer unrelenting linear simplicity, wherein one thing follows another along a consistent timeline from the point of view of a single character (Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, for instance) and to virtuosic displays of shifting viewpoints and fractured time (Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin.) I think it’s fair to say that I adore a fairly wide range of styles and structural ideas, and yet one thing that I’m consistently troubled by is what I’ve come to think of as the Trojan Horse novel: the book that’s structured as a delivery system for something entirely unrelated to the plot. I bought a book last week that I’d never heard of before: Ghosts, by César Aira. A slim novella with one of the most understatedly lovely covers I’ve ever seen—all staticky grey, slightly luminescent, with raised text in an unobtrusive font—and an equally wonderful premise. Ghosts takes place over the course of a single day in Buenos Aires, the final day of an unspecified year. It’s December 31st, and the family of Raúl Viñas is preparing for the New Years celebration. Raúl is a Chilean builder, and he’s been serving as the night watchman on a construction site for the past year; his family lives in a makeshift apartment on the roof of the structure, beside the still-empty rooftop swimming pool, while Raúl and his crew construct high-end residences on the seven floors below. The project is somewhat behind schedule, some of the exterior walls still absent, the apartments open to the searing air. “The heat was supernatural,” Aira writes, and so too are most of the building’s inhabitants. The site is occupied by a drifting population of ghosts. Visible to Raúl and his family, a little eerie, but apparently harmless and no cause for real alarm. In fact, given that the rooftop apartment doesn’t have a fridge, the ghosts are occasionally useful for wine-cooling purposes: Raúl Viñas was keeping fourteen bottles of red wine cool, using a system he had invented, or rather discovered, himself. It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold. The ghosts are a transparent population of naked men, covered head-to-toe in construction dust, floating through walls and floors on their own mysterious errands. They've been around for as long as the family has lived on the construction site, but on this last day of the year, something seems different; more and more of them appear as the day goes on, and they seem possessed of a certain urgency. As the day fades toward evening, with the party well underway, Elisa’s teenage daughter Patri slips away from the celebration. The ghosts on the lower floor of the construction site seem to be moving with unusual purpose, and so Patri asks one of them why he’s in such a hurry. The ghosts are throwing their own party at midnight, he tells her. Would she like to come? Patri considers the question. “Of course,” the ghost tells her, “you’ll have to be dead.” 2. Ghosts was a wonderful read. I’m glad that I found it. Aira’s work is beautiful, even profound—he elevates the mundane details of a day spent preparing for a party, the grocery shopping and the cleaning, the cooking and the household gossip, to something of a revelation. The characters are alive, except of course for the ones who aren’t, and the set-up is inspired. And yet this book, in my entirely subjective opinion, flirts with disaster: it veers off, halfway through, into a ten-page essay about architecture. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I like my fiction to keep moving, and ten pages is an awful lot of real estate in a 139-page novella. And the delivery, in this case, can’t quite be called seamless: a sophisticated ten-page musing on the similarities between architecture and literature, on the social structures of the Bushmen and Zulu as reflected in the respective arrangements of their villages, on the “mental city” (e.g., Joyce’s Dublin) is shoehorned into the siesta dream of an uneducated teenager who doesn’t read very much (“But in Patri’s dream the architectural analogy was developed a little further.”) My feeling on the matter is that if you want to write an essay about architecture, you should probably just write an essay about architecture and get it published somewhere, instead of using your novel as a kind of envelope. This is one of the major criticisms I’ve read of Ayn Rand: that her novels weren’t novels at all, but thinly veiled presentations of her philosophy. Trojan horses, in other words. (My major criticism of Ayn Rand is that I find Objectivism sociopathic, but that’s beside the point.) 3. On the other hand, am I being unfair? Much of the ten-page interlude in Ghosts is fascinating, and as far off the rails as it pushes the book that carries it, I’m glad to have read it. I wonder if Trojan horses are ever justified—how much extra freight, aside from the weight of the plot itself, a novel can reasonably be expected to carry. I lifted my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient down from the shelf just now. (It’s a shock, incidentally, to see that the pages are beginning to yellow; I think of this book as my contemporary, having requested it for Christmas when I was fourteen or so, and I remember when these pages were white.) There is no obvious narrative reason for Ondaatje to spend two pages naming various winds, and yet the opening sentence of that section is among my favorite of all the sentences I’ve read in my life: There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. There is the africo, which at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia. The arift, also christened aref or rifi, which scorches with numerous tongues. These are permanent winds that live in the present tense. There are other, less constant winds that change direction… This goes on for a while. I’m certain that others will disagree with me—as the writer and critic Edmund Wilson wrote, no two people ever read the same book—but I find Ondaatje’s digression weightless. It’s partly a question of relativity: ten pages in a 139-page novella is very different from two pages in a 301-page novel. But much more importantly, Ondaatje’s digression exists solidly within the world of his book. The difference lies partly in the presentation—Patri’s sophisticated dream isn’t believable, or it isn’t believable that Patri would dream it; but two pages of notes on desert winds aren’t out of place in the personal journal of Ondaatje’s highly intelligent and well-traveled burn patient. It seems to me that a good novel, one that holds a reader’s attention for three hundred pages, requires a kind of sustained enchantment. Structurally, a good novel can survive almost anything—multiple first-person narrators, long digressions, wild shifts in time and space—but forcing an essay or a philosophy into the narrative breaks the spell, and breaking a novel’s spell is fatal.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Corrections 5 months 2. 5. Reality Hunger 2 months 3. 10. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 4 months 4. 6. Let the Great World Spin 4 months 5. - The Big Short 1 month 6. 9. Wolf Hall 3 months 7. 3. The Interrogative Mood 4 months 8. 4. Austerlitz 6 months 9. 7. Stoner 3 months 10. 8. The Mystery Guest 4 months Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which was the readers' favorite in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. That allows our panel's winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, to take over the top spot. Of late, readers have begun looking forward to Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is Michael Lewis' look at the financial crisis of the last two years, The Big Short. Of the hundreds of books on the topic, Lewis' was one of the most widely anticipated, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Near Misses: Asterios Polyp, The Known World, War and Peace, Then We Came to the End, Union Atlantic 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 February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Cloud Atlas 6 months 2. 2. The Corrections 4 months 3. 4. The Interrogative Mood 3 month 4. 3. Austerlitz 5 months 5. - Reality Hunger 1 month 6. 6. Let the Great World Spin 3 months 7. 8. Stoner 2 months 8. 5. The Mystery Guest 3 months 9. 10. Wolf Hall 2 month 10. 7. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 2 months New to the Top Ten list this month is Reality Hunger, a book by David Shields.. We had an early look at the book, a two-part interview with Shields, and Shields' shared his Year in Reading in December. Dropping from the list is Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. Meanwhile, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections stayed atop the list, but that top spot will open up next month as Cloud Atlas is poised to join the Hall of Fame. See Also: Last month's list
I usually avoid talking about how much I love small presses. Partly because my feeling is that I’m so completely, obviously biased (both my novels are published by a smallish independent press, and I’m very happy with this state of affairs) that my opinion on the matter doesn’t carry much weight, and partly because the topic can quickly degenerate, among certain of my more committedly small-press-published novelist friends, into an “and I wouldn’t want to be published by a major press anyway, because they sometimes publish garbage” kind of a conversation, which I’m not really down with: it’s not that I have any desire to be published by anyone other than Unbridled Books, it’s just that I’m baffled by the idea that I’m expected to seriously condemn the houses that brought us Await Your Reply, Brooklyn, and Let The Great World Spin. And yet: every now and again I’ll come across a book published by a small press that somehow seems, for all its dazzling excellence, like it might not have made it past the front door at a major publishing house. I’m not sure where I first heard about Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, published last November by Dzanc Books; I think perhaps it was from one of the guys at ThreeGuysOneBook. Shoeshine Cats doesn’t seem to have been very widely reviewed, which strikes me as a minor tragedy—this is one of the best and most wholly original books I’ve come across in a while. The title character is Shushan Cats, a Jewish gangster famous throughout the five boroughs of Kestin’s version of 1963 New York, but the story is narrated by Russell Newhouse—twenty years old, an orphan, coasting effortlessly through his course work at Brooklyn College, mostly preoccupied with trying to sleep with the largest possible percentage of Brooklyn’s young female population. Russell has recently been recruited to take the minutes for the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, a sleepy organization of immigrants in Brooklyn. He’s the only member of the Society who might reasonably be considered young, and he’s there only because his late father was a member. His cohorts are older Jewish men, foreign-born; their children are entirely assimilated, but for these men, Kestin writes, “American was not a noun but a verb: you had to work at it.” The Bhotke Young Men’s Society’s anxiously under-Americanized members have voted to change the official language from Yiddish to English, and Russell’s English is impeccable. Midway through Russell’s first meeting as official minute-taker the doors fly open, and Russell meets the notorious Shushan Cats for the first time. Kestin is a master of character description: “The figure who stood there—it seemed for minutes—was one of those small men native to Brooklyn who appeared to have been boiled down from someone twice the size, the kind who when a doctor tries to give him an injection the needle bends.” Shushan Cats would like to join the Society. Membership in the Bhotke Young Men’s Society comes with a cemetary plot in Queens, and Cats’ mother has just died. Within minutes Russell has been recruited to plan the gangster’s mother’s funeral. Within days Shushan Cats has disappeared and Russell has been installed as his protégé and unlikely successor. He finds himself at the helm of a criminal enterprise, forced to navigate a New York City underworld wherein the suits are well-tailored, the language sharp, and control of the Fulton Fish Market hangs in the balance. The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is a fast, fearless, darkly comic book, the sort of thing that other writers read and wish they’d written. This is a feverish world, a refracted angle on 1963 New York that feels more vivid than reality. I find it admirable in part for its tinge of the improbable, its impossible suavité and secret rooms. Kestin catches us up in a gritty enchantment. Where the book falters slightly is when Kestin breaks the spell: every so often we’re snapped out of the narrative with a brief digression meant to place this world in a historical context. We’re told that a purse purchased by Shushan Cats’ sister for $150 would be worth more than $1500 today, for instance, and of the Fulton Fish Market, Kestin notes that it “would later be relocated to the Bronx, thus freeing up valuable real estate for the stock brokers and bankers who would be buying condos on this site…” But it isn’t immediately apparent that the 2005 relocation of the Market is relevant to a story set in 1963, or that a note on inflation between early ‘60s and the present adds to the story; interruptions like these, in my entirely subjective opinion, serve only to distract us. But the faltering is slight. I loved this book. I think that in some ways The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats represents the best of what small presses have to offer: freshness and originality, a unique voice, a boldness too frequently absent from our literature. Bonus Link: A Year in Reading: Hesh Kestin
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 January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Cloud Atlas 5 months 2. 4. The Corrections 3 months 3. 3. Austerlitz 4 months 4. 2. The Interrogative Mood 2 months 5. 9. (tie) The Mystery Guest 2 months 6. 5. Let the Great World Spin 2 months 7. 8. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 2 months 8. - Stoner 1 month 9. 9. (tie) Asterios Polyp 5 months 10. - Wolf Hall 1 month January saw two more books graduate to The Millions Hall of Fame, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Larsson's books have been the beneficiary of a surge of interest in the late Swedish writer's series of thrillers. Eggers' Zeitoun has won much praise for its nuanced look at one immigrant New Orleanian's Katrina story. New to the Top Ten list this month is Stoner, a book by John Williams from NYRB Classics. The novel was singled out for praise as part of our Year in Reading series by Millions contributors Patrick and Edan as well as by Conversational Reading's Scott Esposito. Also debuting is Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The book was also named a finalist recently for a National Book Crtics Circle Award. 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 December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Cloud Atlas 4 months 2. - The Interrogative Mood 1 month 3. 7. Austerlitz 3 months 4. 5. (tie) The Corrections 2 months 5. - Let the Great World Spin 1 month 6. 4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 6 months 7. 1. Zeitoun 6 months 8. - The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 1 month 9. (tie) 7. (tie) Asterios Polyp 4 months 9. (tie) - The Mystery Guest 1 month December saw a flurry of activity as four books made their first appearances on the list. Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood, endorsed by both Jonathan Lethem and Rick Moody, caught readers' interest. Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin has been building momentum since its National Book Award win. I also reviewed it here and last month, Reif Larsen wrote glowingly of the book. Our recent interview with superstar translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky clearly got readers interested in their latest effort, a Tolstoy collection. And David Shields' Year in Reading contribution, while eclectic, nonetheless drew readers' focus to Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest. Powered by continued interest in The Millions' Best of the Millennium series, where the book had a strong showing on both out panel list and our readers' list, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas took over the top spot in the Top Ten. And finally, dropping from the list were Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and The Wild Things by Dave Eggers. See Also: Last month's list
This past summer, I spent three weeks writing up in the Catskills. My neighbor happened to be Philippe Petit, the infamous funambulist who walked the Twin Towers way back in 1974. We shared a couple of dinners together and he showed me his timber frame barn, which he had carefully built by hand using all of the traditional post and beam tools—adzes and chisels and flarens. Inside this barn, he performs illusions and balletic feats of gravity for an intimate audience of fifteen, and though it was a cold and rainy afternoon when he showed me around, and though it was just he and I in this tiny theater carved by hand, I could not help but be transported into the world of that space, the world of believing that everything you thought to be true might in fact not be true at all. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which uses Petit’s wire walk as an ephemeral nucleus for the lives of a dozen interconnected characters, reminded me of that afternoon, and not just because of Petit’s presence in each: more than any other novel in recent memory, McCann’s kaleidoscopic narrative creates completely immersive, self-contained story spaces that you simply don’t want to leave, so that when he does turn the dial and chapters into the next character’s world—from the estranged Irish brothers living in the decomposing Bronx to the neurotic grieving mother of a Vietnam soldier on Park Ave—you are caught in the paradox of the shifting literary masterpiece: you hate the author for daring to pull you from this cockpit, even while knowing that he has created the cockpit, just as you also know that the cockpit he will plop you down into next, and the movement into that cockpit, will ultimately reward you more than the original world you were so loath to leave. Much of your trust in this operatic migration is of course due to McCann’s simply exquisite prose—at times pinpoint Nabokovian specific, at times reaching and luminous in the tradition of the most sublime Irish writers (or even Cormac McCarthy, perhaps, though the terrain here is not borderland and mud and saddlebag but rather spray paint and heroin and underpass). I generally am suspicious of the novel composed of rotating viewpoints, partly because it is just so fucking hard to pull off, but mostly because I am a traditionalist at heart, and any sort of overly-purposeful stacking of the narrative symphony that gestures at being the next Great Social Novel usually makes me feel like the author is breathing down my neck and takes me out of the everyday meat and bones of the story—why I care about the characters in the first place and the details of that sweltering city and the last sunlight coming in through the groin of the water towers. You don’t want to feel like a novel is straining to be great. There are times when even this masterful concoction treads lightly into this dangerous territory, mostly when the text bows its head in italics, but McCann really has come as close as any mortal can to capturing a particular place/time/gestalt/graffiitied desperation by rotating the lens of humanity across a bench full of impossibly rich and imperfect players. Quite simply, this is a book to marvel amongst and then to wonder what on earth comes next. Other hot mentions from 2009: The Invention of Air by Stephen Johnson, which is such a sneaky, brilliant book supposedly about the renaissance electrician/evangelist Joseph Priestly but is in fact a blooming meditation on how luminous, lasting ideas are created, cultivated, and cross-pollinated across ordinary men of genius. The Lazarus Project by Alexander Hemon. Just started this one again. Hemon’s sentences are bell-tight beautiful but also slippery and layered. I find I have to read them twice to really digest the countermelodies and glissando at work here. Such a good book that grows with age. Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic. Keep a notebook at your side as you read this novel disguised as a hagiographical dictionary of the mythical Khazar empire. There are so many delicate nuggets to savor here, such as: ”Every afternoon at five o’clock when the shadow of the Mincheta turret fell on the other side of the rampart, Lady Ephrosinia Lukarevich, a respected noblewoman from Lucharitse Street, would pick up her porcelain pipe, fill it with the yellowest tobacco, which had been kept in raisins over the winter, light it with a lump of myrrh or a pine splinter from the island of Lastovo, give a silver coin to a boy from the Stradun, and send the lighted pipe to Samuel Cohen in prison.” More from A Year in Reading