Reviewing John Irving's Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn't Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better? It was a feeling I'd had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth's great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title! You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis's The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don't Mean Anything). In Graham Greene's The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn't quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy's All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King's The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher). King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in 'Salem's Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne's imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan's Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark. Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight's fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk. There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike's wonderful Bech stories. Bech's first novel, a '50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig ("which is," Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in "The Bulgarian Poetess," "St. Bernard's expression for the body"). And Bech's blockbuster bestseller (Updike's alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it's practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech's published work, including such echt-realistic entries as ""Lay off, Norman," New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3." In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can't its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books? Perhaps it's simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don't Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you've got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they've dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf. Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed--but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator's anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn't begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine's Way (now that's a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): "Jean Malaquais [Mailer's mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. 'Who is that?' 'A novelist more talented than yourself.'" But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman's early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth's own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it's generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear. Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna's novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing's central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull's novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger's nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don't mean anything. And the phrase "a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary" exactly describes the plot of Irving's Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego's imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading. Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren't called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren't intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be "realistic" (in the sense that Henry Bech's book titles, in Updike's stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it's another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand. Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don't live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas? Image Credit: Wikipedia.
How many seminal works of 20th-century literature were created by refugees? Just judging by the Nobel laureates who were exiles from their homeland -- a list that includes Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz, and Joseph Brodsky -- one might assume that themes of exile and homelessness permeated the modernist literary canon. But that wouldn’t be true. Many writers continue to inhabit their native soil in their imagination long after they have moved beyond its borders. Thomas Mann never wrote a novel about the plight of a German exile on the shores of Malibu. Alas, I wish he had. Solzhenitsyn continued to devote his energies to writing about Mother Russia even after spending 18 years in southern Vermont. The model for these writers is the great James Joyce, who left Dublin in 1904 only to obsess about it for the rest of his life. For every writer who grappled with the refugee experience in fiction, as did Singer, you will find a half dozen who skirted over it with indifference, even as they lived through the trauma of a displaced life. As strange as it sounds, if I were forced to identify the defining literary works on the subject, almost every one on my list would be an old epic or scripture: The Odyssey (oddly enough, Joyce’s own role model for Ulysses) with its account of the hero’s exile from Ithaca; The Aeneid, with its tale of refugees from Troy; Paradise Lost, which opens with Satan and his crew receiving an eviction notice from Heaven; and, of course, the Book of Genesis, which kicks into high gear when the protagonists are sent packing from the Garden of Eden. But these are not novels, and none of them deal with the modern experience of exile. For that I turn to Vladimir Nabokov and his novel Pnin. This Russian émigré would seem an unlikely candidate to focus on the plight of refugees. Nabokov left his homeland behind at the end of his teen years, was educated at the University of Cambridge, and was so successful at assimilation that he learned to write the Queen’s English better than the Queen -- and her subjects too. If one is seeking a success story from the ranks of the displaced, Nabokov is the ideal candidate. Not only did he survive as a writer in his new language, but he became that greatest of rarities, an American literary lion who was also a bestseller. Yet Pnin arrived at bookstores before Nabokov had tasted these successes. And even literary acclaim could never assuage the bitterness of displacement and family tragedy. Nabokov’s father was killed in 1922 by another Russian exile and his brother Sergei later died in a German concentration camp. Around the time of his father’s death, the young author’s engagement to Svetlana Siewert was broken off because of her parents’ concern that Nabokov could not earn enough to support their daughter. His subsequent marriage to Véra Evseyevna Slonim brought with it subsequent risks because of her Jewish antecedents. When Nabokov left for the in the U.S. aboard the SS Champlain on May 19, 1940, he had already spent two decades of nomadic existence as a man without a country. He was not coming to America to seek fame and fortune, but rather as a last desperate move to escape the Nazis, who would enter Paris in triumph a few days later. These experiences set the tone, of bitterness mixed with nostalgia for a vanished world, that permeates the pages of Pnin. The main character, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a comic figure on the campus of Waindell College. His old-fashioned continental ways and thick Russian accent are mimicked and ridiculed. His improvisations and mispronunciations turn familiar terms into extravagant variants -- for example, his order of whisky and soda ends up sounding like “viscous and sawdust.” When asking for the receipt in a restaurant, the best he can come up with is a request for the “quittance.” His appearance, his gestures, and his general lack of awareness of American manners are fodder for campus gossip and mockery. Pnin has much to offer the college community, but his Old World erudition is not valued at Waindell. The students have little interest in what he teaches, and the faculty treat him as an amusing distraction. Nabokov clearly turned to his own life story as the basis for this book, and I suspect that many of the jokes at Pnin’s expense are drawn from those the author experienced firsthand. His willingness to turn his quasi-autobiographic protagonist into a comic figure is extremely brave -- readers can’t help wondering whether they are getting an invitation to laugh at Vladimir Nabokov himself. But as the book progresses, the tone gradually shifts. During the first hundred pages, you might even assume that this is a comic novel. But as the tragedy of Pnin’s life unfolds, in flashbacks and reminiscences, the reader is shocked into a deeper awareness of the reality of the refugee’s life in exile. The more we understand Pnin, the better we grasp how the whole fabric of his existence has been torn apart by the whims of history. The novel ends with us watching a professor offer a caustic impersonation of Pnin that goes on and on and on. But, by this juncture, we are no longer laughing. Pnin, like any refugee, is just one many. He is, as Nabokov reminds, a small part of “the active and significant nucleus of an exiled society which during the third of a century it flourished remained practically unknown to American intellectuals.” And why were these individuals so greatly misunderstood? Well, for the very same reasons that refugees are feared today: because of the danger they pose to society. For Americans of the Cold War years, “the notion of Russian emigration was made to mean by astute Communist propaganda a vague and perfectly fictitious mass of so-called Trotskyites (whatever these are), ruined reactionaries, reformed or disguised Cheka men, tided ladies, professional priests, restaurant keepers, and White Russian military groups, all of them of no cultural importance whatever.” For Nabokov, who usually makes his views known indirectly in his novels, such plain-spokenness is unusual. This is a raw novel from a polished author, but raw in the best sense of them all. Nabokov may have been a great success at mastering the nuances of English and navigating through the U.S. publishing industry, but he had deep scars from his forced nomadic life, and refused to hide them in the course of this deeply moving book. In many ways, this novel is a deeply personal as his memoir Speak, Memory. Although Nabokov is far better known today for Lolita, Pnin was his breakout book, the work that brought him to the attention of the U.S. literary community. Even before he could secure an American publisher for Lolita, Pnin found a receptive audience and got rave reviews. His previous writing in English had garnered little notice, but now he was seen as a rising literary star. The first printing of Pnin sold out in just one week, and Newsweek proclaimed Vladimir Nabokov as "one of the subtlest, funniest and most moving writers in the United States today." You could still read Pnin for the humor today, but I think that misses much of the point. Nabokov originally wanted to call this book My Poor Pnin, and I suspect that he found more to weep over than laugh about in his refugee’s story. Nabokov would occasionally return to themes of nomadism and exile in later works -- in Pale Fire, or even Lolita, which is very much a novel of wandering and homelessness. But in their evocation of the lost life of the exile, they never match the power of this 60-year-old book. Nor did any other writer of that era. There are other outstanding 20th-century novels that address the plight of the immigrant. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club make it on my shortlist of must-read books on the subject. And in the 21st century, the refugee novel has emerged as a important category of fiction in works by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Mohsin Hamid, and others. But Nabokov’s Pnin gets my nod as the great forerunner of these works, the 20th-century masterwork on displacement in a time of sociopolitical upheaval. In a tumultuous period that found millions forced out of their homeland, and even more dead because they stayed behind, Nabokov was the most acute at turning these cumulative tragedies into a deeply personal novel that rings true on every page. In the current day, when exiles find themselves even less welcome wherever their sad fate sends them, we do well to remember that earlier generation, and how much we owe them. Perhaps we should also consider how often we still misunderstand the refugee’s plight. This book is a very good place to start that process.
Imagine a man introducing himself to you, repeatedly. The man is a novelist, and he tells you that he is going to fill you in about his novels. This he does, in part -- but he also frequently digresses, informing you about some particular of lepidoptery -- the collecting and studying of butterflies -- or else waxes lyrical about the game of chess. In the course of telling you about his writings, he regularly seems to be insulting your own ability to read. He is certainly insulting towards readers by profession -- critics, academics -- and he also has many unkind words for some of the most celebrated writers in modern history. Yet despite the condescension, there is some residual warmth in his words. This man is Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, author of Lolita and Pale Fire and well over a dozen other novels. At least, this is Nabokov as you might read him across the many forewords and introductions that he wrote for his own works. It is a strange thing that an author should find himself in the position of introducing his own writing as thoroughly and as many times as was Nabokov, and it might be equally as strange, too, that any author should want to do so. But the fact remains that, after the enormous and explosive success of Lolita in 1955, and as he and his son Dmitri Nabokov were beginning the process of translating the first of his Russian novels into English in 1959, Nabokov, aged 60, took it upon himself to acquaint properly his English-speaking readers with his works. Nearly all of the nine forewords to the translations, beginning with Invitation to a Beheading (first published in Russian in 1936), address the fact that the novels are the products of an artist in exile. The wealthy aristocratic Nabokov family was, when the writer was young, forced to flee Russia during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. They took up in London at first (and Vladimir and his brother attended university in Cambridge) before they settled in Berlin. During the Berlin years, Nabokov lost his father to a political assassination, and gained a wife, the love of his life, Véra Nabokov. Nabokov spent 15 years in Berlin, the city where he published the majority of his Russian-language novels -- novels that feature the haunting cityscapes of Nabokov’s Berlin, but which were also part of the author’s ongoing long-distance relationship with the Russia he had left behind. “What joy!” he wrote in a letter of the period, on the occasion of remembering his home country; “What agony, what heart-rending, provoking, inexpressible agony.” But with mounting political tensions in Berlin at the end of the '30s, the Nabokovs were once more forced to emigrate -- first to France, and then, in 1940, to the United States. From that point on, he wrote all his novels in English. What do the manifold forewords to his translated works tell us about reading Nabokov’s novels? One of their most striking and most consistent features is not that they are an exercise in how to read, but rather that they instruct in how not to misread. That is to say, Nabokov’s phrasing is often extremely negative. Take his remarks upon himself in the foreword to Bend Sinister: I am not ‘sincere,’ I am not ‘provocative,’ I am not ‘satirical.’ I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of ‘thaw’ in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent. This litany of "am nots" is extraordinary, but not unique in the forewords. Nabokov elsewhere repeatedly insists, as he does in Bend Sinister, that his books “are not carriers of this or that ‘idea.’” “Despair,” for instance, “in kinship with the rest of my books, has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth.” Nabokov’s warning: do not hunt for truth! You will only come away disappointed, or (more importantly for him) with the wrong idea about the author. Not content with turning the reader away from social and political truth, Nabokov also wants to dissuade us from drawing comparison between himself and other writers. “Spiritual affinities,” he writes, in the foreword to Invitation to a Beheading, “have no place in my conception of literary criticism.” And it is just as well that Nabokov is unlike other writers, because the majority of the so-called "greats" are anything but great in his eyes. For him, “Literature of Ideas,” is nothing other than “topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster” (he has in mind Honoré de Balzac, Maxim Gorky, and Thomas Mann). Franz Kafka and George Orwell are repeatedly presented as opposites: Kafka the “great German writer,” Orwell “the mediocre English one.” Kafka “that great artist,” Orwell a purveyor of “illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction.” Some of Nabokov’s best, most barbed comments in the forewords relate to his fellow writers: I presume there exist readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called ‘powerful’ and ‘stark’ by the reviewing hack. (Lolita) This is an especially cutting statement. Not content with assaulting the Literature of Ideas, Nabokov has turned his gaze to the judgment of reviewers and readers. It is this kind of outrageous comment that, in the forewords, bleeds into Nabokov’s actual and direct insults to the intellect of his readers. Here, for example, is how Nabokov introduces hints about the coded imagery of The Luzhin Defense in its foreword: “I would like to spare the time and effort of hack reviewers -- and, generally, persons who move their lips when reading and cannot be expected to tackle a dialogueless novel.” This is cutting, to be sure, and it is also very funny. But there is a more significant feature here, which is that the hints and tips he is about to share with us, the things we might have missed in the novel, are not real. He describes things that are simply not in the novel. We must, by necessity, all join the ranks of lip-moving readers, because there is no way we could have caught Nabokov’s uncatchable details. If, therefore, we are expecting the forewords to be some safe space, untainted by the lies and mistruths of the novel form, we should clearly think twice. The foreword is, for Nabokov, a place in which to play as much as any of his more properly fictitious works -- at times more so -- and Nabokov delights in blurring the line between the inside and the outside of a text. Consider Pale Fire, a 999-line poem that only becomes anything like a "novel" once it is read within the frame of the preceding (fictional) foreword and the subsequent (fictional, and greatly substantial) commentary text. Or consider Lolita, in which the fate of the novel’s male and female leads is only revealed, subtly and in an off-hand manner, within its own fictional foreword. This foreword, an academic pastiche penned by one "John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.," has got the better of at least one major publisher to date -- Penguin had thousands of copies of its deluxe hardback reissue of Lolita pulped after the publishing house discovered that the foreword -- which it had mistaken for an academic yawn from yesteryear and had chosen to discount -- was in fact a vital part of the novel. Major online booksellers still, confusingly, list "John Ray" as a secondary author of the Penguin edition. But perhaps we should have a little pity on the wayward printers of Nabokov’s novels. After all, he hardly made it easy to determine text from paratext in his works, and he made it all the more difficult with his later fore/aftword "Vladimir Nabokov on a Book Entitled Lolita" (it would surely have been a foreword had it not interfered with the fictional one already in place). The essay, tucked at the back of reprints of the novel, begins: “After doing my impersonation of suave John Ray...any comments coming straight from me may strike one == may strike me, in fact -- as an impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov talking about his own book.” Vladimir Nabokov: author, narrator, object, reader (“may strike me, in fact!”). Nabokov's presence is, at such moments, discernible at every layer of his book, and this ensures that we can never be certain where he really is -- or isn’t. He toys with this a lot. Here is, for instance, the amusing table of “Other Books by the Narrator” from the first pages of Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the last novel published before his death: In Russian: Tamara (1925) Pawn Takes Queen (1927) Plenilune (1929) Camera Lucida (Slaughter in the Sun) 1931 The Red Top Hat (1934) The Dare (1950) In English: See Under Real (1939) Esmeralda and Her Parandrus (1941) Dr. Olga Repnin (1946) Exile from Mayda (1947) A Kingdom by the Sea (1962) Ardis (1970) You don’t need a depth of knowledge about Nabokov to recognise that those are all transformations of his own novels, and that his narrator (Vadim) is a sort of Dostoevskian doubling of the author himself. Lolita becomes A Kingdom by the Sea, lifted from the second line of Edgar Allan Poe’s "Annabel Lee" (Humbert Humbert claims that the precursor to Lolita was an "Annabel Leigh"). Some are Russian puns -- Nabokov’s The Gift was Dar in Russian, here The Dare of 1950. My favorite is Camera Obscura, which went under the title of Laughter in the Dark in the U.K, and is here receives the subtitle Slaughter in the Sun. The point of such paratextual fancies is to have us question whether a book really begins on its title page, whether it really ends on the words "THE END." And what about Nabokov’s "hack reviewers" and critics? It might seem surprising, to anyone with an academic background at least, that there exists no work of "Collected Prose" with all his introductions, nor "Nabokov: The Forewords." But perhaps his academic readers are shamed into inactivity by the forewords themselves; they are, after all, an attempt to get in the last word in an ongoing dispute between author and critic. And critics, academics, and reviewers take a beating in Nabokov’s pre- and post-ambles. The essay on Lolita tuts over the “careless” approach of reviewers; after noting a few niceties in his own book that critics appear to have missed, Nabokov grumbles “It is most embarrassing for a writer to have to point out such things himself.” The essay itself is a warning against tiresome interrogation by academics: “Teachers of literature are apt to think up such problems as ‘What is the author’s purpose?’ or still worse ‘What is this guy trying to say?’” It is worth remembering that both Nabokov and Humbert Humbert were teachers of literature at universities -- “English literature, where so many poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds.” Perhaps the most damning anti-critical comment of this kind, though, is found in the surprisingly self-reflexive foreword to Bend Sinister: Well-wishers will bring their own symbols and mobiles, and portable radios, to my little party; ironists will point out the fatal fatuity of my explications in this foreword, and advise me to have footnotes next time (footnotes always seem comic to a certain kind of mind). In the long run, however, it is only the author’s private satisfaction that counts. Is it indeed! We are on the threshold of a novel, and here is its author telling us pre-emptively that our response to it will not count. We can do all the symbol-hunting we want, but this book remains Nabokov’s party. Amongst the schools of literary criticism, psychoanalysis is uniquely singled out for a stern thrashing by Nabokov. In fact, Sigmund Freud’s name appears in almost every one of the forewords, and where he is not named he is alluded to. Let’s savour just a few choice dismissals: All my books should be stamped Freudians, Keep out. (Bend Sinister) The Viennese delegation has not been invited. If, however, a resolute Freudian manages to slip in, he or she should be warned that a number of cruel traps have been set here and there in the novel. (King, Queen, Knave) My books are not only blessed by a total lack of social significance, but they are also mythproof: Freudians flutter around them avidly, approach with itching oviducts, stop, sniff and recoil. (The Eye) The disciples of the Viennese witch-doctor will snigger over it in their grotesque world of communal guilt and progresivnoe education. (Invitation to a Beheading) The attractively shaped object or Wiener-schnitzel dream that the eager Freudian may think he distinguishes in the remoteness of my wastes will turn out to be on closer inspection a derisive mirage organized by my agents. (Despair) The little Freudian who mistakes a Pixlok set for the key to a novel will no doubt continue to identify my characters with his comic-book notion of my parents, sweethearts and serial selves. (The Luzhin Defense) At the close of the catalogue, we have a portrait of a man who loathed the idea that some autonomous scholar with training in psychoanalysis might rummage around in his works and discover, against the author’s wishes, some unplanned truth or other. Part of the grumble relates to method. As Nabokov writes in the essay on Lolita: Everybody should know that I detest symbol and allegories (which is due partly to my old feud with Freudian Voodooism and partly to my loathing of generalizations devised by literary mythists and sociologists. Actually, Freudian Voodooism and literary critical generalizations amount to much the same thing in Nabokov. In his famous lecture on "Good Readers and Good Writers," he tells us that "In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected." For Nabokov, Freud and his ilk were getting it the wrong way round, by hurling ideas at the human mind or at a book, and trying to make them stick. But ultimately, Nabokov’s contempt for psychoanalysis seems less a critique of the validity of the psychoanalytic method (though it is in part that), but more a real anxiety on his part. By attacking Freud so thoroughly and so consistently, he expresses a real fear that his works might be misinterpreted or wrongly appropriated (surely Freud would have plenty to say about the surfacing and resurfacing of this very anxiety?). Nabokov is also clearly and deeply concerned about his own reputation, and that, above all, is what the forewords are: a steady and consistent retroactive effort to save face. After the storms of Lolita, Nabokov’s name would forever be associated with the themes of his novel, and commentators would routinely suggest that Humbert Humbert and his author were closer in nature than Nabokov would have liked people to know (Nabokov recalls in a letter a suspicious sea captain who wanted to know why the author had chosen such a salacious subject -- “he was rather calé on Freud; he had not read Lolita”). Nabokov knows as well as any follower of Freud that there is plenty to be read into the often outrageous content of his works -- perhaps the best he can do is resignedly play games with readers who are interested in analyzing his psyche through his prose. Consider the foreword to his own "literalist" translation of Eugene Onegin, in which he takes to task reviewers who praise above all else "readability: “'Readable,' indeed! A schoolboy’s boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less than does its commercial poetization.” Whatever we think of the criticism, this is an intrusion rendered hilarious through its lack of necessity, and one might well wonder what Freud would have said. Beyond baiting psychoanalysts, what did Nabokov want to achieve with his various forewords? The further bafflement of his readers? The presentation of the "right sort" of truth? Probably he wanted precisely the proliferation of questions I am now asking, and not to provide answers. The forewords are, at any rate, a sort of literary mask -- the "impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov" -- and it is one that extends well beyond Nabokov’s writings and into his life. It is well known that Nabokov meticulously prepared answers to television interviews; he explains, in a foreword to the collection of his essays and interviews Strong Opinions, that “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” He would prepare a “typescript to be presented as direct speech” for his in-print interviewers. In the film Nabokov: My Most Difficult Book, the author, and close friend of Nabokov, Edmund White incisively remarks upon the character of these masks as a product of the fall from aristocratic dignity into the double exile of Germany and then America: “a lot of the aloofness that you see in Nabokov is a kind of wounded pride.” The wounded pride is that of an émigré writer. After all the humorous huffing and puffing, all the tricks and traps and underhand maneuvers on the author’s part, the forewords exist, after all, to locate the English-language versions of Nabokov’s books within the context of a person in exile. In his essay on Lolita, before he had taken up the task of translating and introducing his previous works, he writes that the best of his Russian novels “are not translated into English, and all are prohibited for political reasons in Russia.” Nabokov believed, at this point, that the readers of his best works didn’t live in Russia, but also that they weren’t native English speakers. They were émigrés. They were the “tremendous outflow of intellectuals that formed such a prominent part of the general exodus from Soviet Russia” that he writes about in the foreword to Bend Sinister. They are outsider readers for an outsider writer, one who, perhaps, never quite managed to come to terms with his own celebrity. He built masks to be playful, yes; but he built masks to stay where he felt comfortable: on the outside. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Like most other art forms, fiction has undergone many configurations over the years, but its core has remained, as always, the aesthetic pleasure of reading. When we read, we connect to the immaterial source of the story through its outstretched limbs. The “limb” or variants of it are what the writer has deemed fit for us to see, to gaze at and admire. It is not often the whole. But one of the major ways in which fiction has changed today -- from the second half of the 20th century especially -- is that most of its fiction reveals all its limbs to us all at once. Nothing is hidden behind the esoteric wall of mystery or metaphysics. The writers who do well to divvy up their fiction into fractions of what is revealed to the reader are the writers who tend to achieve transcendence, which, according to Emmanuel Levinas is recognized “in the work of the intellect that aspires after exteriority.” In fiction, a form of art expressed through letters, exteriority in this sense approximates meaning. For the writer endures himself to turn that which is interior inside out for the reader to see. Writing, then, is an act of turning out that which is in. The triangular writer then is he who projects meaning relentlessly yet systematically to the reader, and in the process of which readers glimpse something else. And then, something else. They see a man standing on the top of a cliff about to descend to his death, but they also see a cause -- perhaps a nation’s communist past -- standing there, about to plunge to its end. When, in a text written more than 2,000 years ago, a character says, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,” the percipient reader hears at least two things: (a) In keeping with His miracles to this point, the said temple could be destroyed and this man, Jesus, can raise it up again with his miraculous power; (b) Once one has read to the end of the gospel of Matthew, one understands that “the temple” in fact means the man himself. It is he who will be killed, and he who will be raised again. This multi-layered meaning is, in the biblical concept, necessary because of the spiritual property of the book, and hence deemed “exegetic.” But the writers of triangular fiction achieve this in their fiction too. This is because the “divvying up” into fractions or parts that eventually become one and whole often works to more than one level of interpretation. The works of fiction that achieve transcendence are those works that lend themselves to this multi-layered interpretation. I believe that fiction should work on at least three levels of interpretation: The personal, the conceptual, and the philosophical. In other words, the shape of the core of great works of fiction must be triangular -- it must be emotional, cerebral, and sublime. The personal level of interpretation is that basic level where the story meets the reader at his most human level. I will prop up three novels by some writers of this kind of fiction, Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart). A young black girl in Jim Crow America who desires blue eyes. We know such a child has existed, and probably still does, and we cringe at the futility and even folly of such a desire. But we cannot deny its unvarnished humanness. A middle-aged man who has a crushing desire for a young pubescent girl whom he names his “nymphet.” We appreciate the humanness of his lust, and are disturbed/moved by it. Or a pre-colonial strongman of an Igbo village who has risen through hard times and established himself, his small kingdom, his traditions, and all that exist within the boundaries of his compound -- and even beyond -- “with a strong hand,” and then an encounter with a group of foreigners destroys all of that and brings him to become the lowest among his kinsmen, an akalaogoli, who cannot be accorded the common honor of a burial. We can understand these characters and their stories as the writers, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, and Chinua Achebe have created them on this personal level. But we can see, too, that much more lies behind these personal stories. The marigolds blossom, desire the bleak sun, and die, and in their protracted destinies share equivalent fate with Pecola. We see that the lust that fuels and drives Humbert Humbert, the lust in which he is imprisoned, is revealed in the thickets of language in which he is caught. But the aggregate meaning of the entire enterprise stretches beyond the page to the authorial intention expressed in the account of the monkey who, on being given a paper and pencil and taught the human art of drawing, draws the first thing in its mind: the bars around its cage. From this bar, its existence is enclosed and constrained. It cannot leave it. Its desire to leave comes and dies, unfulfilled, in futility, until it again surrenders to the reality that it will remain imprisoned. This is the distinct quality of the lust that possesses, and eventually destroys, Humbert Humbert and Lolita. In Things Fall Apart, we can see, too, the ascension and power that Okonkwo acquires, and its flourishing when, at its peak, he receives various titles, and even has his daughter wedded. Then, an internal crisis erupts within him and slowly tears him apart. As he breaks down because Nwoye, his first son, has joined the ranks of the enemy, we also see -- simultaneously -- the villagers of Umuofia trying to understand what to do with their own brothers who have joined the white man’s religion and ways, causing the tribe to fall part. It is at this point that it becomes clear that Okonkwo isn’t merely an individual; he is Umuofia, he is an entire civilization, and it is not he alone but everything that falls apart. The marigold, the monkey, the village of Umuofia -- these become philosophical images on which these writers have constructed the personal stories of individual characters. On these things and on the vested characters, these triangular writers make profound philosophical statements while carrying through with strong, engaging plots. They are able to achieve this synchrony of vision because of the conceptual layer of their narratives. Morrison’s introspection into the head of her primary character is matched with an unblinking gaze from the outside through a girl her age, in Claudia. Thus, we are looking into Pecola, and looking at her at the same time. Humbert Humbert’s story is itself caged in bars. The writer within the story has died by the time the story is being published, and thus cannot change or touch anything in the manuscript. He cannot answer for anything that has been said, nor make restitution for anything that may require restitution. And within the precincts of the story itself, he is enslaved by an effusive, unguarded language as fecund as a wasteful forest, within which he himself gets lost. It is an imbroglio that yields, nonetheless, affecting flights of lyricism and ambient prose. And on the man on whom a poor beginning had been bequeathed, his rise is chronicled through a third person voice that intermittently strays into the omniscient. We see the knife that tears him within as it slides through the civilization of the Igbo people. It is thus too difficult to not say, most definitely, that these three novels -- The Bluest Eye, Lolita, Things Fall Apart --were conceived because their writers had diligently set themselves “the design of rendering the work universally appreciable” according to Edgar Allan Poe. Poe provides in that seminal essay that he had hoped to achieve this by seeking to “contemplate” the “beautiful,” a literary esotericism reached only by focusing on the effect of that which inspires beauty, and not the commodity of the beautiful itself. This is because “when indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect -- they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul…” This is the trajectory by which writers of triangular fiction approach literary truth. For, in their works, that which is personal is at the same time a philosophy, and at the same time a conceptual/artistic conceit. And as we read, we can not help but notice the transcendent power of triangular fiction.
Vladimir Nabokov spent twenty years translating “the first and fundamental Russian novel,” Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. His battle with the text sparked an intellectual debate with his former friend, Edmund Wilson. The Paris Review has his notes. Pair with our own Lydia Kiesling’s thoughts on Lolita.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain We humans love to swap vocabularies. Spend a day with someone hot on quintessential and it’s likely that in the following days or weeks quintessential will crop up in your own speech or writing. Is this problematic? Not especially. Quintessential is a fantastic word. However, it’s good to be mindful of this phenomenon when you sit down to write, lest the words of other writers end up on your page. As the editor of Slush Pile Magazine and the long-time senior reader of unsolicited fiction at Harvard Review, I am consistently up to my elbows in slush pile. Here are a handful of words and phrases that I see all too often: 1. Impossibly Remember in The Princess Bride how the Sicilian keeps calling everything “inconceivable” and at some point Inigo is like, yeah, all of that stuff that you keep calling “inconceivable” is actually -- you know -- conceivable? This is the basic situation with “impossibly.” When used as an adverb, “impossibly” means absolutely nothing and in zero cases does it make the sentiment better, stronger, or more precise. Here are just a few examples from the slush pile, the Internet, and the novel of a woman sitting next to me on a plane: “Sitting at the desk is an impossibly perky woman.” “In such a short time, I’d fallen impossibly in love.” “The sun was even higher, impossibly high” “Lindsay was so impossibly fashionable, so together” “They dry themselves out on the beach, using towels that are impossibly soft.” “I used to shun migrant traditions, but now I find them impossibly moving.” But the highest frequency with which I encounter “impossibly” is in sentences like, “He was impossibly tall." Or, “His eyes were impossibly blue.” Or, “she had impossibly long legs.” None of those things are impossible. They might be remarkable, extraordinary, unfathomable, fantastic, or mind-boggling, but they are not impossible. If you catch yourself using “impossibly,” just take a moment to think about what you are trying to say and whether or not it is true that her legs were impossibly long. Were they coiled beneath her like so many yards of spaghetti pasta? No? In that case, impossibly is not the word you need. 2. Ridiculously In terms of contemporary usage, “ridiculously” is just another version of “impossibly:” “Girls from Indiana are ridiculously sexy.” “DeLorenzo’s didn’t accept reservations so I got us there ridiculously early.” However, in the case of “ridiculously” there is a caveat -- it is great to use when something is actually ridiculous: “It was over. Everyone had gotten what they wanted. Ridiculously, I felt like crying.” 3. Skitter/Skittered/Skittering skit·ter ˈskidər/ verb move lightly and quickly or hurriedly. "the girls skittered up the stairs" draw (bait) jerkily across the surface of the water as a technique in fishing. It is easy to understand how and why “skitter” gained popularity. It has a nice element of onomatopoeia, for starters. Unfortunately, all of our writing peers now put it to use any time something or someone goes scampering, scuttling, scurrying, skipping, bounding, tumbling, scooting or even blowing: “The prairie grasses swayed in the breeze and little clouds skittered across the sky.” “Another blast made Jack dive beneath the bed and the phone skittered across the floor.” “Each season the trail south would be blockaded by ice strata the mules skittered over.” “Lightning illuminated her face as it skittered across the darkening sky.” “She tried to straighten her hair as she skittered across the wide-planked floor.” As the shortlist above illustrates, while “skitter” is certainly the mot du jour, there are many other ways to capture the action. Why limit yourself? 4. Feelings Moving Like Weather Patterns Across Faces “Leon watched her face out of the corner of her eyes. It was like the sky when a gust of wind drives clouds across.” Sound familiar? This sentence was written in 1856 by Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) but this conceit has been used too many times -- probably before, and definitely since -- to count. 5. Shocks of Hair "He was a tall distinguished looking young man with a shock of red hair." “His handsome head with its shock of black hair, roughly cropped.” “The little hero of this tale has a shock of blond hair.” “I'll never forget the first time I saw him -- the wild shock of black hair.” “He was a long, loose-framed man with a shock of red hair and vivid green eyes.” “Penelope was born with eyes the color of midnight stars and a shock of black hair.” “She was an angel with midnight blue eyes and a shock of blond hair.” “To an immense shock of black hair, he united a bushy beard of the same color.” And my personal favorite: “He was tall and exceptionally attractive, with piercing eyes, and a shock of white hair.” If you Google “shock of ____ hair” and “Google books” you will find thousands more of these. 6. "...All Sharp Angles and Jutting Limbs..." Who was the first person to use "sharp angles" and "jutting limbs?" I don't know, but I defy you to find a contemporary piece of writing without at least one sharp-angled limb-jutting character. It's over, everyone -- done. Just delete, delete, delete and think of some other way to describe your graceless adolescent characters. 7. Slumping Shoulders, Furrowed Brows, & Flashing Eyes These three expressions seem to come readily to writers in need of conveying defeat, trouble, and anger. It’s like they’re always on deck and begging the coach (that’s you) to put them in cold. I got this one, coach, they whisper in your ear while you’re writing. But keep these babies benched. They need to sit out a few innings: ““What did you tell her about me?” he said, eyes flashing with suspicion.” “Cold drops of sweat stand on his furrowed brow. His hands are clenched.” “The boy's shoulders slumped and he began to groan.” “I can see it in their shoulders -- slumped and weighty.” “She bowed her head and shuffled out with her shoulders slumped.” “He found Adam leaning against the wall, his hat low over his eyes and his shoulders slumped.” That last line is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck. The novel is a particular favorite of mine. I’ve included it here to point out that these expressions (unlike “impossibly”) are not inherently useless, just common. And their commonness risks making your writing seem less than fresh. Consider, on the other hand, how delightful “slumped” is when divorced from “shoulders”: “On some of the graves there were pale, transparent little national flags slumped in the windless air under the evergreens.” (Vladimir Nabokov, from Lolita) So evocative! So refreshing! 8. In Conclusion All of us are susceptible to these Trojan Word-Horses, and none of us will escape them entirely. However, for the sake of your writing -- and for the patience of editorial staffs everywhere -- keep one eye on what’s trending. If it sounds familiar, you’ve probably read it somewhere before. And, believe you me, so have we. Image Credit: Flickr/Ervins Strauhmanis.
Nabokov once described himself “as American as April in Arizona,” which is an odd thing to call yourself when you’re a lepidopterist Russian expat. In Nabokov in America, Robert Roper explores why Nabokov felt he was so American, and how his journey to that identity influenced his writing of Lolita. At The Literary Review, Ian Sansom reviews Roper's book.
Two debut novels – one freshly published, the other on its way to becoming a classic – have reminded me that for the past century American writers and artists have been obsessed with that shimmering, sexy, liberating, lethal contraption known as the automobile. Small wonder. Is there a more potent metaphor for American restlessness, for the American hunger for status and sex, for the American tendency to wind up, broken and bloody, in a ditch? In a thesis written in 2007, a doctoral candidate named Shelby Smoak neatly summed up the role of the automobile in American fiction as a way for characters to experience “violence, sacredness and consumption.” Reversing this order, cars give writers and artists a way to talk about that unholy troika: status, escape (including sexual escapades), and death. In the bargain, the automobile, which introduced the concept of planned obsolescence back in the 1930s, is the shiny embodiment of American capitalism’s relentless quest to make consumers hunger for the next new thing, whether they need it or not. The first of the two debut novels that brought all this home to me is Lot Boy by Buffalo native Greg Shemkovitz, just published by Sunnyoutside Press. It’s the story of Eddie Lanning, a twentysomething fuckup in Buffalo who works as the titular lot boy, performer of the lowliest tasks at the Ford dealership founded by his late grandfather and now run by his father, who’s dying of cancer. All Eddie wants to do is hook back up with his former girlfriend and get the hell out of Buffalo. To finance his escape, Eddie’s working a scam selling hot auto parts from the dealership, which inspires this rosy portrait of the local scenery: To get here, you have to go through a shitty part of South Buffalo to get to an even shittier section, until you cross a bridge into the wetlands and fields and eventually hit the rundown industrial lakeshore. Seeing all this decay and frozen debris pass by my windows, I realize that the only reason anyone would come here is to sell stolen auto parts to somebody who would only come here to buy them. Among its many virtues, this novel offers a peek behind the curtain of a world few people have experienced – the claustrophobic, corrupt, filthy, noisy, inefficient and mind-numbingly banal world of a Big Three car dealership. Reading Lot Boy, you’ll find yourself rooting for Eddie’s escape, while coming to understand why the American automobile industry went so far down the toilet that the U.S. taxpayer had to reach in and pull it out. Here’s the terse but uplifting author note at the end of this winning novel: “Greg Shemkovitz left Buffalo.” Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at age 79, published his debut novel in 1972 to foam-at-the-mouth critical praise but modest sales. The Car Thief is the sometimes brutal, sometimes tender story of a troubled teenage boy named Alex Housman whose biography has much in common with Weesner’s. Alex’s hard-drinking mother abandoned him in infancy, and after spending some time in foster care he’s now growing up in a Michigan factory town, living with his alcoholic father, an autoworker. To give his “uncounted” life some account, Alex steals cars and takes them on aimless drives before abandoning them and stealing again. It’s the only means of self-expression available to a boy in such stunted circumstances. Here’s the novel’s opening: Again today Alex Housman drove the Buick Riviera. The Buick, coppertone, white sidewalls, was the model of the year, a ’59, although the 1960 models were already out. Its upholstery was black, its windshield was tinted a thin color of motor oil. The car’s heater was issuing a stale and odorous warmth, but Alex remained chilled. He had walked several blocks through snow and slush, wearing neither hat nor gloves nor boots, to where he had left the car the night before. The steering wheel was icy in his hands, and he felt icy within, throughout his veins and bones. Alex was sixteen; the Buick was his fourteenth car. There is not a shred of sentimentality or self-pity in this book, and it never sinks to the dreary level of a treatise on “the juvenile delinquent problem.” This is a work of art, fuelled by all those purloined Buick Rivieras and Chevy Bel Airs. In the end, like Lot Boy, it is less a coming-of-age story than a story about our shared yearning to escape. Here are a dozen other writers and artists who have used the automobile to tell stories about Americans on their way to escape, status and death, sometimes all three. This list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. Feel free to offer your own additions:
In his lifetime, Vladimir Nabokov travelled widely, logging many years each in St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Ithaca, New York, where he wrote Lolita while teaching at Cornell. His peripatetic history explains why few people know he spent a summer in Utah, during which he spent a lot of time chasing butterflies and fishing in the streams. In The American Scholar, an excerpt of Nabokov in America, an upcoming book by Richard Roper. You could also read our own Garth Risk Hallberg on Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor.
"I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years." -Publisher passing on Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (quoted in Rotten Rejections by Andre Bernard) Ruth Nanette, the most powerful book editor you’ve never heard of, had just sent back her poached halibut at Gramercy Tavern, the famed Manhattan eatery where we were meeting for lunch. “I ultimately wasn’t drawn to the dish’s central character,” Nanette explained. “Let’s see if the papperdelle tells a more engaging story.” As the waiter disappeared with the fish, I leaned back to study the 44-year-old tastemaker sitting across from me. At 29, she had become the youngest ever editorial director of a major publishing house imprint -- Random House’s Blank Page Books -- a feat made more impressive by her never having bid on, let alone published, a manuscript during her entire career. Before I could make any observations about her appearance for this profile, Nanette flipped the script and delivered one of those witheringly honest appraisals that have made her renowned in literary circles. “Despite its evident merit, your face isn’t resonating with me. It starts promisingly enough with your forehead, but then gets muddled in the middle with the introduction of that bulbous nose, before abruptly concluding with a weak chin. Also, your ear hairs indicate a general level of sloppiness.” But surely those minor flaws could be overlooked given so noble a brow, I protested. And I could easily grow a beard that would hide my deficient jaw line... She cut me off. “Your face just doesn’t meet my needs right now. And frankly, this is not a topic I’d like to pursue at the moment.” I had resolved to pitch her my novel during the interview, but if she could be so blunt about my physiognomy, how brutal would she be about my prose? I dropped the matter and asked her about her career trajectory. “I started out rejecting genre fiction,” she told me. “However, I soon discovered that my real passion lay in turning down literary fiction. So I reached out to Marilynne Robinson, whom I heard was looking for a new editor, and got her to send me the manuscript for Gilead. In the end, it wasn’t for me, but rejecting such a legend really got my name out there.” Nanette received a degree in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley, where she misread Roland Barthes’s essay, “The Death of the Author,” for the first time. “It’s continued to be a seminal text for me over the years, especially because I haven’t yet found a single living writer suitable for publication.” I wondered whether she still thinks back on those heady Northern Californian days now that she’s an industry superstar. “Sometimes I do fantasize about moving back West,” she admitted, “but Manhattan is still the center of the publishing world, which will come in handy if I ever decide to put out a title.” After graduating from Berkeley, Nanette enrolled in the Columbia Publishing Course, a mecca for aspiring editors. She then landed an internship at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where she turned heads by clearing out their slush pile in a matter of weeks. “I’d rush to haul the manuscripts to the Fresh Kills landfill during my lunch breaks,” she fondly recalled. “It was like CrossFit avant la lettre.” I hopped in a cab with Nanette back to her corner office, which I wasn’t entirely surprised to find unstaffed. (“Don’t get me started on vetting assistants.”) Framed above her desk was a letter from Ollendorff, one of the several publishing houses that rejected Marcel Proust. It read: My dear fellow, I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep. Noticing my gaze, she started to gush about the brave editor who wrote the encased missive: “He’s my hero! I’ve passed on the last eight National Book Award winners, but I’d gladly publish them all for one shot at telling Marcel that Remembrance of Things Past ‘wasn’t a great fit for us.’” I asked Nanette about the new digital landscape -- “I think it’s wonderful, so many new, fresh voices to tune out” -- and if there were any publishing trends she’d noticed. “From what’s come across my desk, Drone POV novels are going to be big, but I try to stay away from anything too topical.” The one area in which Nanette seems willing to relax her exacting standards is her love life. She is set to marry husband number seven later this summer, but she has no regrets, speaking of her collection of exes as a cherished “backlist” of sorts. “I’ve looked at all the men in my life as editorial projects, mainly because I’ve never had an actual editorial project. And as with any book you’re endlessly tinkering with, sometimes you just have to let go.” Pivoting away from her private affairs, I dug into her financials. How is Blank Page Books, which is gearing up to put out yet another content-less catalog, still around? “I take our advertizing budget and invest it in the stock market, so we’re actually the best-performing imprint in the whole company,” Nanette said. “Bertelsmann is thrilled with us.” As I watched her screen phone calls and print out form letters, I was struck by her seemingly endless reserve of energy. Indeed, apart from her editorial duties, she plans to return to the Columbia Publishing Course in the fall, this time as an instructor. “I’ll be teaching a class on negotiating with literary agents. The trick is, always be willing to walk away.” I asked one last question before closing my notebook, one to which every writer and agent is dying to know the answer: Will Nanette ever decide to publish a book? “Call me a romantic, but I still think the right manuscript is out there waiting for me. I just hope I haven’t passed on it already.” Image Credit" Flickr/Asim Saeed (Misa Khan)
In one of his essays, the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe stated that “no one be fooled by the fact that we write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it.” That “we” is, in essence, an authoritative oratorical posture that cast him as a representative of a group, a kindred of writers who -- either by design or fate -- have adopted English as the language of literary composition. With these words, it seems that to Achebe the intention to do “unheard-of” things with language is a primary factor in literary creation. He is right. And this should be the most important factor. Achebe was, however, not merely speaking about the intention of his contemporaries alone, but also of writers who wrote generations before him. Among them would be, ironically, Joseph Conrad, whose prose he sometimes queried, but who embodied that intention to the extent that he was described by Virginia Woolf as one who “had been gifted, so he had schooled himself, and such was his obligation to a strange language wooed characteristically for its Latin qualities rather than its Saxon that it seemed impossible for him to make an ugly or insignificant movement of the pen.” That “we” also includes writers like Vladimir Nabokov of whom John Updike opined: “Nabokov writes prose the way it should be written: ecstatically;” Arundhati Roy; Salman Rushdie; Wole Soyinka; and a host of other writers to whom English was not the only language. The encompassing “we” could also be expanded to include prose stylists whose first language was English like William Faulkner, Shirley Hazzard, Virginia Woolf, William Golding, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, and all those writers who, in most of their works, float enthusiastically on blasted chariots of prose, and whose literary horses are high on poetic steroids. But these writers, it seems, are the last of a dying breed. The culture of enforced literary humility, encouraged in many writing workshops and promoted by a rising culture of unobjective literary criticism, is chiefly to blame. It is the melding voice of a crowd that shouts down those who aspire to belong to Achebe’s “we” from their ladder by seeking to enthrone a firm -- even regulatory -- rule of creative writing. The enthroned style is dished out in the schools under the strict dictum: “Less is more.” Literary critics, on the other hand, do the damage by leveling variations of the accusation of writing “self-conscious (self-important; self-aware...) prose” on writers who attempt to do “unheard-of” things with their prose. The result, by and large, is the crowning of minimalism as the cherished form of writing, and the near rejection of other stylistic considerations. In truth, minimalism has its qualities and suits the works of certain writers like Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and even, for the most part, Chinua Achebe himself. With it, great writings have been produced, including masterpieces like A Farewell to Arms. But it is its blind adoption in most contemporary novels as the only viable style in the literary universe that must be questioned, if we are to keep the literary culture healthy. One of the insightful critics still around, Garth Risk Hallberg, describes this phenomenon in his 2012 New York Times Review of A.M Homes’s May We Be Forgiven with these apt observations: The underlying problem here is style. Homes’s ambitions may have grown in the quarter-century since The Safety of Objects was published, but her default mode of narration remains mired in the minimalism of that era: an uninflected indicative voice that flattens everything it touches. Harry gets some upsetting news: 'Two days later, the missing girl is found in a garbage bag. Dead. I vomit.' Harry gets a visitor: 'Bang. Bang. Bang. A heavy knocking on the door. Tessie barks. The mattress has arrived.' Hallberg goes on to describe, in the next two paragraphs, the faddist nature of the style: Style may be, as Truman Capote said, 'the mirror of an artist’s sensibility,' but it is also something that develops over time, and in context. When minimalism returned to prominence in the mid-80s, its power was the power to negate. To record yuppie hypocrisies like some sleek new camera was to reveal how scandalous the mundane had become, and how mundane the scandalous. But deadpan cool has long since thinned into a manner. Its reflexive irony is now more or less the house style of late capitalism. (How awesome is that?) As a non-Western writer, knowing the origin of this fad is comforting. But as Hallberg pointed out, context, not tradition, is what should decide or generate the style of any work of fiction. Paul West noted in his essay, “In Praise of Purple Prose,” written around the heyday of minimalism in 1985, that the “minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy -- the human bond with ordinariness.” This rationale, I dare say, misunderstands what art is and what art is meant to do. The essential work of art is to magnify the ordinary, to make that which is banal glorious through artistic exploration. Thus, fiction must be different from reportage; painting from photography. And this difference should be reflected in the language of the work -- in its deliberate constructiveness, its measured adornment of thought, and in the arrangement of representative images, so that the fiction about a known world becomes an elevated vision of that world. That is, the language acts to give the “ordinary” the kind of artistic clarity that is the equivalence of special effects in film. While the special effect can be achieved by manipulating various aspects of the novel such as the structure, voice, setting, and others, the language is the most malleable of all of them. All these can hardly be achieved with sparse, strewn-down prose that mimics silence. The sinuous texture of language, its snakelike meandering, and eloquent intensity is the only suitable way of telling the multi-dimensional and tragic double Bildungsroman of the “egg-twin” protagonists of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Roy’s narrator, invested with unquestionable powers of insight and deliberative lens, is able to maintain a concentrated force of focus on a very specific instance, scene, or place, or action. Hence, the writer -- like a witness of such a scene -- is able to move with the sweeping prose that will at once appear gorgeous and at the same time be significant and memorable. Since Nabokov’s slightly senile narrator in Lolita posits that “you can always trust a murderer for a fancy prose style,” we are able to understand why Humbert Humbert would describe his lasped sexual preference for Dolores while in bed with her mum in this way: “And when, by means of pitifully ardent, naively lascivious caresses, she of noble nipple and massive thigh prepared me for the performance of my nightly duty, it was still a nymphet’s scent that in despair I tried to pick up, as I bayed through the undergrowths of dark decaying forests.” Even though the playfulness of Humbert’s elocution is apparent, one cannot deny aptness -- and originality -- of the description of Humbert’s response to the pleasure his victim is giving him is. It is not, however, that the “less is more” nugget is wrong, it is that it makes a blanket pronouncement on any writing that tends to make its language artful as taboo. When sentences must be only a few words long, it becomes increasingly difficult to execute the kind of flowery prose that can establish a piece of writing as art. It also establishes a sandcastle logic, which, if prodded, should crash in the face of even the lightest scrutiny. For the truth remains that more can also be more, and that less is often inevitably less. What writers must be conscious of, then, is not long sentences, but the control of flowery prose. As with anything in this world, excess is excess, but inadequate is inadequate. A writer must know when the weight of the words used to describe a scene is bearing down on the scene itself. A writer should develop the measuring tape to know when to describe characters’ thoughts in long sentences and when not to. But a writer, above all, should aim to achieve artistry with language which, like the painter, is the only canvas we have. Writers should realize that the novels that are remembered, that become monuments, would in fact be those which err on the side of audacious prose, that occasionally allow excess rather than those which package a story -- no matter how affecting -- in inadequate prose. In the same vein, describing a writer’s prose as “self-conscious” isn’t wrong, it is that it misallocates blames to an ailing part of a writer’s work. Self-consciousness is a term that mostly describes the metafictional qualities of a work; it cannot, in effect, describe the use of language. “The hand of the writer” can appear in the framing of a story, in its structure, in the characterization, in the form of experimental works and frame narratives, but it cannot appear in its language. “Self-consciousness” cannot be applied to the use of words on the page, just as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart cannot be accused of self-conscious tune or Yinka Shonibare of self-conscious art. Self-consciousness or pomposity cannot be reflected in a piece of writing, except in its tone, and in fiction, this is even harder to detect. What can be reflected in a piece of writing is excess and lack of control, which can stand in the way of anything at all in life. What critics should be calling out should be pretentious, unsuccessful gloss that lacks measure and control. They should call out images that might be inexact, ineffective, or superfluous. When critics plunge head-on against great writers (Don Delilo, Cormac McCarthy, etc.,) in the manner of B.R. Myers’s agitated fracking masquerading as “criticism," they only end up scaring other writers from attempting to pen artistic prose. Fear might be what many writers writing today seem to be showing by indulging in the writing of seemingly artless prose. Authorial howls of artful prose as created by James Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Hazzard, are becoming increasingly rare -- sacrificed on the altar of minimalism. Hence, it is becoming more and more difficult to differentiate between literary fiction and the mass market commercial genre pieces, which, more often than not, are couched in plain language. The gravest danger in conforming to this prevailing norm is that contemporary fiction writers are unknowingly becoming complicit in the ongoing disempowering of language -- a phenomenon that the Internet and social media are fueling. Words were once so powerful, so revered, that, as culture critic Sandy Kollick once observed, “to speak the name of something was in fact to invoke its existence, to feel its power as fully present. It was not then as it is now, where a metaphor or a simile merely suggests something else. To identify your totem for a preliterate gatherer-hunters was to be identical with it, and to feel the presence of your clan animal within you.” But no more so. Too many words are being produced in print and visual media that the power of words is diminishing. There are now simply too many newspapers, too many books, too many blogs, too many Twitter accounts for words to maintain their ancestral sacredness. And as writers adjust the language of prose fiction to conform to this era of powerless words, language is disempowered, leading -- as Kollick further points out -- to the inexorable “emptying out of the human experience,” the very object fiction was meant to preserve in hardbacks and paperbacks. It is therefore necessary that writers everywhere should see it as their ultimate duty to preserve artfulness of language by couching audacious prose. Our prose should be the Noah’s ark that preserves language in a world that is being apocalyptically flooded with trite and weightless words. “The truest writers,” Derek Walcott said, “are those who see language not as a linguistic process, but as a living element.” By undermining the strongest element of our art, we are becoming unconscious participants in the gradual choking of this “living element,” the life blood of which is language. This we must not do. Rather, we must take a stand in confirmation of the one incontestable truth: that great works of fiction should not only succeed on the strength of their plots or dialogue or character development, but also by the audacity of their prose. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Those of you with some knowledge of Pale Fire and Lolita won't be surprised to learn what Nabokov thought of dinner parties. Namely, he thought they were awful, vaguely surreal events, held largely by drunkards with overriding appetites for drama. At The Paris Review Daily, Sadie Stein quotes a passage from “The Vane Sisters” to explain why "It’s hard to think of someone you’d want less at a midcentury faculty tea, save maybe a seething Shirley Jackson.” You could also read our own Garth Risk Hallberg on Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor.
A little over three years ago, I interviewed Scott Donaldson here about the craft he has been practicing with distinction for more than 40 years -- the researching and writing of literary biographies. At the time Donaldson was writing a book with the working title of The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography, a sort of summing up of his career, its highlights and stumbles, its maddening difficulties. In that interview I asked Donaldson why he called his chosen line of work the impossible craft. He replied, in part: Well, because if you try to construct the ideal figure for a biographer, you realize he or she has to be so many different kinds of things that no human being could possibly achieve. You’ve got to be a detective, you’ve got to be a drudge, tracking down every possible fact you can; at the same time you’ve got to be insightful as hell, you have to be psychologically acute, you have to take an objective view of things without losing sympathy for your subject...And let’s say that the most important reason of all it’s an impossible craft is that you cannot know what someone else’s life was like. The Impossible Craft has now been published by Penn State Press, and in it Donaldson offers this concise justification for the writing of literary biographies: “knowledge of the (writer’s) life throws light on the work and vice versa.” This statement is debatable at best, and Donaldson acknowledges as much, citing a master writer and a master critic. “Yet,” he writes, “it may be regarded as ‘childish,’ as Nabokov commented in his afterword to Lolita, to expect a work of fiction to reveal significant information about an author. The critic Hugh Kenner maintained that he learned more about Samuel Beckett from watching a two-hour film of him playing billiards than from Deirdre Bair’s long biography.” Aside from the unknowability of any person’s life, there are a number of factors that make the literary biography a dubious proposition, and Donaldson, to his credit, addresses them head-on. For starters, he points out, writers are by nature expert embellishers, exaggerators, and outright liars. You simply can’t believe a word they say -- unless, I would suggest, it’s between the covers of one of their books. As John Cheever, one of Donaldson’s biographical subjects, once wrote, “I have been a storyteller since the beginning of my life, rearranging facts to make them more interesting and sometimes more significant. I have improvised a background for myself -- genteel, traditional -- and it is generally accepted.” For another thing, writers live most of their lives inside their own skulls while alone in a room with the door closed. Few of them lead lives of action, or even mildly compelling activity. This helps account for the fact that literary biographies tend to be dull as dust. Exceptions who prove this rule are Ernest Hemingway (another of Donaldson’s biographical subjects), especially when he’s on a safari or in a fistfight, or Anton Chekhov in the penal colony on Sakhalin Island, or Jack London in the Klondike, or Jack Kerouac in Mexico. Come to think of it, the only literary biography I’ve read that was also a ripping good yarn was Geoffrey Wolff’s Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby. Crosby’s life -- and Wolff’s account -- had it all: Paris in the '20s, old money, war, drugs, drink, wild sex, costume balls, poetry, fast cars, literary stars, and, finally, a sensational murder-suicide. What’s not to love about a story like that? Donaldson comes at the dullness question a bit sideways. After acknowledging that the makers of great literature often have “otherwise insignificant or even reprehensible private lives,” he then takes a curious swipe not at biographies of writers but at movies about writers: “Depicting what a writer does is boring, and so it is that films about authors are almost universally awful.” Almost. One of my favorite movies is Naked Lunch, not because I’m a particular fan of the book or of William S. Burroughs, but because David Cronenberg’s film makes such ingenious use of lizards and bugs, and he hasn’t tried to film the words that wound up on the page, but rather the warped state of mind that put them there. The movie is not about a writer; it’s about writing. That said, I’ll concede Donaldson’s point about the dreary awfulness of most movies about writers, including Henry and June (Henry Miller), The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles), and, at the risk of offending the Coen Brothers’ many worshippers, Barton Fink (George S. Kaufman?). The best part of Donaldson’s book, for me, is the final section, “The Cheever Misadventure.” Maybe this is so because of my abiding love for Cheever’s writing, and maybe it’s partly because I interviewed Donaldson for a newspaper article in 1988, shortly after his Cheever biography was published, and I came away impressed by Donaldson’s acuity and his pit-bull doggedness. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed reading Donaldson’s new account of how the Cheever biography was begun on a gust of high hopes and then got dragged through the mud of familial acrimony and legal wrangling -- and how Donaldson came through the ordeal bruised but game to do it all over again because, as he puts it, “writing the Cheever was the most stimulating and fascinating work of my life.” I enjoyed Donaldson’s candid dissection of his many “mistakes” in dealing with Cheever’s widow and three children, including the blunder of allowing himself to be seen as competing with the literary ambitions of Susan and Ben Cheever. I also enjoyed Donaldson’s comparison of his Cheever biography with Blake Bailey’s more expansive, award-winning follow-up from 2009, which included this jab disguised as an admission of another mistake: “But (Bailey) fell into the trap -- as I had also done in my Cheever biography -- of putting in too much of what he had found out. The reader is weighed down by repetitive mentions of Cheever’s obsessive drinking, sexual yearnings, marital complaints, cruel parenting, and terrible loneliness.” If Donaldson’s Cheever book was too long at 416 pages, as some reviewers felt, then Bailey’s 770-page doorstop is a case of serious bloat. Donaldson can’t resist quoting the critic Jonathan Yardley’s withering assessment of Bailey’s “vast inert pudding of a book,” and John Updike’s lament that it made for “a dispiriting read.” Without venturing to compare the two books, I will say, having written journalism and historical fiction, that any writer who empties his notebook indiscriminately is making a fatal mistake. I, for one, am not holding my breath in anticipation of Bailey’s forthcoming biography of Philip Roth. Much as I enjoyed reading The Impossible Craft, and much as I admire Scott Donaldson as a researcher and writer, something was happening inside me as I turned the pages. I’ve never been a big fan of literary biographies -- or of non-literary biographies, for that matter -- but by the time I reached the end of this book, a vague misgiving had hardened into a conviction. It was beautifully expressed by W.H. Auden when he said, “Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste...(The writer’s) private life is, or should be, of no concern to anybody except himself, his family, and his friends.” With a flourish, Gustave Flaubert added, “The artist must manage to make posterity believe that he never existed.” I agree with Nabokov’s assertion that it’s “childish” to expect a work of fiction to reveal significant information about an author, and I also agree with the inverse -- that it’s childish to expect an author’s life to reveal significant information about his or her fiction. In other words, with books -- with any art form -- the work is everything and the artist’s life and personality are nothing. I would even argue that interest in artists’ lives can be damaging because it distorts and deflects attention from what truly matters, which is the artist’s work. So here’s a modest proposal for you: We should outlaw literary biographies. Just stop allowing the things to be made. Basta! From now on, people who want to know about the life of a writer will have to glean their knowledge from that writer’s books. Attention will be focused where it belongs, and it will be heightened, sharpened, enriched. Fiction sales will soar. As an extra benefit, writers won’t have to worry that their deplorable drunken debauches and escapades and infidelities will be captured for eternity between the covers of books. Writers will, at last, be free to be their imperfect selves. Of course I realize it’s unlikely that my modest proposal will come to pass. It’s like hoping for a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles, or super PACs, or Jeb Bush. Ain’t gonna happen. As Donaldson concludes, “Dedicated professional craftsmen continue to write biographies for an audience of interested readers. That will not stop until humans lose their curiosity about each other and about the way they lived and loved and did their work.” Much as I hate to admit it, he’s probably right.
On an August 2013 episode of The New Yorker's Fiction Podcast, author Donald Antrim read and discussed Denis Johnson's short story “Work.” Antrim said he remembered the liberation he associated with reading the story when it was published in The New Yorker in 1988: “At the time, I was trying to write stories myself, but they were somewhat dead and I think I felt a little lost...I think reading Denis Johnson had to have something to do with a sense of permission, a sense of freedom to do something that I didn’t understand fully and didn’t know how to imagine or envision.” Antrim’s revelatory experience of reading the stories in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son – a linked collection that follows the drug-addled wanderings of a narrator known as “Fuckhead” -- is far from unique. In 2012, Illustrator Jane Mount compiled My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection in which 100 contemporary cultural figures shared the books that mattered to them most. Jesus’ Son was tied alongside James Joyce's Ulysses as the third most selected book. They both only trailed behind Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, and Herman Melville's Moby Dick. On The New Yorker podcast, Antrim goes on to describe some of the unusual techniques in Jesus’ Son that have rattled so many readers and writers. Antrim notes the clipped and disoriented structure to many of the stories and scenes. He remarks on the speed of the narrative transitions. He says that there’s “an incoherence in the thought process that actually has a coherence.” Then, as is the case on each episode of the podcast, Antrim reads the selected story: “I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.” Antrim proceeds through a story in which the narrator and his friend Wayne go to rip copper wire from an abandoned house. Then Wayne visits his wife while Fuckhead waits in the car. Then they go to the bar where they spend all the money they just made scrapping the copper wire. The story ends with Fuckhead gawking at the angelic bartender. “I’ll never forget you,” he thinks. “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.” New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman tells Donald Antrim about how she recently interviewed Denis Johnson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She says, “I asked him about this book, about Jesus’ Son...he’s quite dismissive of it when he talks about it now, and he said it’s just a rip-off of Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry...” Antrim says that he’s never read Red Cavalry, and the discussion of Jesus’ Son, on its own terms, continues on. But what does Denis Johnson mean by calling his most iconic book a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry -- a classic of early 20th-century Russian literature? Johnson’s book features a ragtag cast of addicts in rural America, engaged in efforts of drug procurement and petty crime that almost always go wrong. Red Cavalry, on the other hand, features the title army during the Russian-Polish campaign, the Soviets’ first military effort toward spreading Communism to the rest of Europe. In terms of locations and circumstances, the books are radically different. But, on closer look, they actually do share a lot in common. “The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head,” Babel writes in the opening story of Red Cavalry (as translated by Peter Constantine). “The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.” In an introduction to Red Cavalry, Michael Dirda writes, “Violence and brutality mingle with a surreal, sometimes poetic beauty...This juxtaposition of an elevated literary style with coarse soldier’s talk, of strikingly original analogy with harsh naturalistic observation, lies at the heart of Babel’s achievement. In every way the stories yoke together opposites.” Jesus’ Son actually works with a similar set of tools. “The sky is blue and the dead are coming back,” Johnson writes. “Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breast.” Using “elevated literary style” alongside “harsh naturalistic observation,” both writers convey haunting and brutal landscapes. Babel: “Stars slithered out of the cool gut of the sky, and on the horizon abandoned villages flared up. With my saddle on my shoulders, I walked along a torn-up field path...” Johnson: “There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground...” Both books feature frequent and intense poetic violence. Babel writes of Dolgushov who lies in the mud with his exposed heart beating and his intestines spilling out. “[He] placed his blue palms on the ground and looked at his hands in disbelief.” Johnson writes of McInnes, who’s been shot in the stomach and is dying in the backseat of a car. “[He] was white and sick, holding himself tenderly.” Both writers seem to be geniuses of metaphors on the sky. Babel: “The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.” Johnson: “The sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge.” What gets quickly lost when I put particular sections side-by-side like this is how radically different each book still really is. In a Red Cavalry story, a young Jewish soldier will accost an old woman and murder her goose to prove he’s not an intellectual sissy. In a Jesus’ Son story, a drugged-out hospital orderly will try to save a litter of “bunnies” in the desert to prove he’s not a fuck-up. “It’s a name that’s going to stick,” his friend Georgie tells him after he sits on and kills the rabbits. “‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave.” Considerable narrative overlaps between the two books also exist, but they tend to be circumstances that are realized in newly distorted ways. In one Red Cavalry story, the narrator transcribes another soldier’s letter home about, among other things, his brother Fyodorovna being “hacked” to pieces. “I wrote it down without embellishing it,” the narrator says, “and am recording it here word for word.” In Johnson’s “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” the narrator carefully shaves the face of another man in rehab, while that man tells him the story of each of his scars. “Are you going to change any of this for your poem?” he asks. “No,” the narrator says, “It’s going in word for word.” Babel’s “Ivan and Ivan” and Johnson’s “Two Men” both feature men hitching rides who are perceived-to-be-faking deafness. Kirill Vasilyevich Lyutov shouts, “Are you deaf, Father Deacon, or not?” Fuckhead says, “Look...I know you can talk. Don’t act like we’re stupid.” "What sort of person is our Cossack?” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty." He stops, and then writes, “Omit the ‘revolutionary spirit.’” The same things might be said of Fuckhead. In “Out On Bail,” he steals and cashes Social Security checks from a dead tenant’s apartment, but he says he’s always believing he should be finding an honest way to make a few dollars, always believing he’s “an honest person who shouldn’t be doing things like that.” In “Dirty Wedding,” he mourns the death of his ex-girlfriend Michelle, who he once abandoned at the abortion clinic for a hooker at the Savoy Hotel: “[Michelle] was a woman, a traitor, and a killer. Males and females wanted her. But I was the only one who ever could have loved her.” One of the more pronounced elements of both books is their narrative messiness. In The New York Times book review of Jesus’ Son, James McManus wrote, “The narrator's inability to construct a ‘well-made’ story, or even to keep the facts of his life straight, expressively parallels the rest of his dysfunctional behavior.” McManus is talking about how Jack Hotel dies of a heroin overdose at the end of “Out on Bail,” and how, in the next story, Hotel returns, smokes hashish, and remarks, “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” as McInnis bleeds out in the back of the car. An early story in the collection is titled “Two Men.” Later in the book, in “The Other Man”, the narrator begins: “But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one...” In “Emergency” -- the prescription-pill-loaded narrator -- undermining the entire story he had been telling up until that point -- stops and reflects, “Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them.” He decides, “It doesn’t matter. What’s important for me to remember is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up.” In the final pages of the story, the narrative logistics turn impossible. Fuckhead and Georgie return to the hospital, possibly the same day they left. Then the narrator remembers how, just hours earlier, they had picked up their AWOL friend, Hardee, and how Georgie swore he’d get him across the border: “I think I know some people,” Georgie said to him. “Don’t worry. You’re on your way to Canada.” Red Cavalry -- in oftentimes strange and beautiful ways -- is also haphazardly constructed. In “The Story Of A Horse,” Khlebnikov, a self-proclaimed white-stallion enthusiast, fails to reclaim his horse from Savitsky. Khlebnikov spends several days crying and writing a petition for his horse on a tree stump. At the end of the story, he’s discharged from the army as an “invalid” for his poor health and battle wounds. Ten stories later, in “The Continuation of the Story of a Horse,” the narrator reminds the reader of the disagreement between Khlebnikov and Savitsky, then transcribes a pair of no-hard-feelings correspondences between them; the horse only receives a brief and fairly inconsequential mention. “Thirty days I have been fighting in the rear guard, covering the retreat of the invincible First Red Cavalry and facing powerful gunfire from airplanes and artillery,” Savitsky writes to Khlebnikov. “Tardy was killed, Likhmanikov was killed, Gulevoy was killed, Trunov was killed, and the white stallion is no longer under me, so with the changes in our fortunes of warm Comrade Khlebnikov, do not expect to see your beloved Division Commander Savitsky ever again.” In another story, the same vivid and incredibly specific metaphor shows up twice: “Trunov had already been wounded in the head that morning. His head was bandaged with a rag, and blood trickled from it like rain from a haystack,” the narrator reports early in the tale. Later he says, “At that moment I saw Trunov creeping out from behind a mound. Blood was trickling from his head like rain from a haystack and the dirty rag had come undone and was hanging down.” Babel was an active soldier in the Red Cavalry army while he was writing many of his stories. The dangerous and dismal conditions under which the material was gained likely made smooth story construction quite difficult, even if that ever was an ambition. “Under machine gun fire, bullets shriek, a dreadful sensation, we creep along through the trenches,” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Some Red Army fighter is panicking, and, of course, we are surrounded.” Similar to what McManus describes in his review of Jesus’ Son, in Red Cavalry it’s also fitting that tales are so surreal and fractured. Johnson, meanwhile, was originally writing Jesus’ Son as a piece of memoir. He said, "Originally, in fact, I wasn't even going to publish it. But then I added a lot of things that never happened to me, though almost everything in there actually happened to someone I know or heard about.” The conditions under which the books were written share another important similarity: both were written with a sort of wild-eyed desperation. Babel joined the army, on the advice of his mentor, Maxim Gorky, to find material for his writing in the hopes of getting published. “My birthday,” Babel wrote in one of his early journal entries, “Twenty-six years old. I think of home, of my work, my life is flying past. No manuscripts. Dull misery.” In 1990, Johnson after a rough stretch and a rocky conclusion to his second marriage, owed $10,000 in taxes. He called his editor at FSG: "I told him, 'I'll make you a book of short stories; all you have to do is pay off the IRS.'” Jesus’ Son vaulted to a cult popularity among contemporary readers and writers that’s hard for many other individual story collections to measure up against. Maybe Flannery O’Connor achieves a similar level of cultural cachet with A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Maybe Ernest Hemingway does with In Our Time. Jesus’ Son, though, was the collection chosen more frequently than any other in Jane Mount’s My Ideal Bookshelf. Similarly, on The New Yorker's Fiction Podcast, Denis Johnson has been the most selected writer -- three times with all three stories from Jesus’ Son. On a 2009 episode, before Tobias Wolff read “Emergency,” Deborah Treisman laughed and said, “I’ve had three other writers ask to do this very story while I put it on hold for you.” Is what Denis Johnson said true, though? Is Jesus’ Son just a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry? “Rip-off” seems to be the wrong word. It borrows heavily, yes, but it seems to me Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than West Side Story is a “rip-off” of Romeo and Juliet. Or, in keeping with the Johnson-Babel theme of stark and brutal poetry, Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than Apocalypse Now is of Heart of Darkness. With any of these works, even adaptation or re-creation seem to not entirely be the right words; in each case, the follow-up deviates wildly from what might be considered its source material. In Jesus’ Son, the stories and execution certainly have a lot in common with Red Cavalry and -- in considering them closely -- it seems right for Johnson to acknowledge his debt. But do the similarities diminish any of the virtues of either book? Even more than in the case of the most liberal of re-creations, adaptations, or “rip-offs,” it seems to me that each book is still its own radical thing. After Treisman tells Antrim, on the 2013 podcast, that today Johnson is dismissive of the stories in Jesus’ Son, Antrim says, “Well, he has his own attitude about what he did a long time ago. I have a tendency to write things off after 20 years, too. I’m not a particularly good judge of what I do. Maybe he’s not a particularly good judge, over time, of what he’s done.” Antrim pauses in thought, and then adds, “And that’s probably as it should be.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of those rare few classic novels that translates well to the big screen. To some extent, this was intentional -- Nabokov often wrote fiction with an eye to selling film rights. John Colapinto writes about the author’s relationship with the cinema over at Page-Turner. You could also read our own Lydia Kiesling’s Modern Library Revue of Lolita.
Welcome to a very special episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! In a holiday-themed installment that's sure to become an instant classic of weekly Internet shows sponsored by literary websites, Janet and Michael celebrate the end of the year the way they always have: with trivia and regret. Discussed in this episode: tours de force, Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra, Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Constance by Patrick McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates, Woody Allen, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Benedict Cumberbatch, emoji, Guns N' Roses, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, regrets, 10:04 by Ben Lerner, Jeff VanderMeer, The Fever by Megan Abbott, minor traffic incidents. Discussed in this episode, but cut for time: Guy Clark, Jason Diamond, Emmylou Harris, the city of Memphis, cricket bats, Oy, I'm Right Knackered, Innit? by Zadie Smith, Gerald Ford, whiskers on kittens, cream-colored ponies, snowflakes. Not discussed in this episode: "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger. But why not? Why not?
This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader's Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler's loupe was lodged in each eye. I'd turn to the door of my study -- Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that's just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn't look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all. This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they're too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people's work when they're working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer's maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being. The deeper cause of my reader's block, I can admit now, was my father's death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he'd published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don't know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief. Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn't read. I'd shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I'd say I was reading Humboldt's Gift, and he'd say, "But have you read Henderson the Rain King?" Or I'd say I was reading Middlemarch, and he'd say "Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?" I'd say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. "Okay, but there's this wonderful book..." There were times when I wondered if he'd actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn't read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste. But of course the novel's mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, "I want, I want, I want." A heart that could have been my father's. Or my own. And though that heart doesn't get what it wants -- that's not its nature -- it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion: "What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury...Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you." To which Henderson replies: "‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’" "‘Excellent,'" the king says: "Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition." The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability -- aren't these a reader's hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it's damn hard to come by. And so, though I'm already at 800 words here, I'd like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me. Light Years, by James Salter Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I'd always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter's prose -- and it is beautiful -- isn't the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever's beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark I've long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen's novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author's warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I've never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague. The Infatuations, by Javier Marías Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías's novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías's most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It's like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. "Don't open that door, Maria!" The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written. All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld's narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel's backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel I'd be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel's a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you're flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality. Dispatches, by Michael Herr If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you'd end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I've ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr's output has been slender, but I'd gladly read anything he wrote. White Girls, by Hilton Als This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O'Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als's virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It's hard to think of higher praise for a critic. Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy -- a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you'll read about how we got into the mess we're in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: "Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force." The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover's first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover's capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn't help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Old School, by Tobias Wolff: This limpid novel offers up a vivid anatomy of the adolescent sensibility. The challenge in writing about high-school age kids -- particularly the sort of generally well-off and healthy kids that populate this book -- is that the whole world lies before them, and even if they fail, they have years to recover. The stakes always feel high to adolescents, but adults tend to look back on all but the worst dramas from that period with the wistfulness of veterans who have stared down life’s real problems. Wolff, though, manages to make the stakes inOld School feel high even to an adult reader by never condescending to his characters. He gives them baroque angsts and passionate urges, but he also gives them a sense of proportion and an innate understanding of their own moral failings. Wolff takes seriously the predicament of a narrator, at any age, who wants more than he has and is willing to sink into a morass of moral turpitude to get it. He allows his narrator to fail and to know that he’s failing. After visits by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand (both personalities are dramatized unforgettably here), some gamesmanship around a chance to meet Ernest Hemingway provides the narrator an opportunity to enact the sort of calamitous bad judgment that can lead to profound regret and tip one over into adulthood. Adulthood, the book seems to argue (and this is where Wolff’s lack of condescension to his teenage characters comes through most beautifully) is just childhood with greater responsibilities and without the benefit of an apparently limitless future. The stakes, we feel at the end of this book, were really as high as they felt all along. The child is father to the man. Our regrets stay with us. Dean Makepeace set up the visit with Hemingway and hinted at knowing him personally, but he had no acquaintance with him. The dean put himself into a mental prison as a result of that bit of dissembling, but how much different is that prison from the tortures of adolescence? We may run from ourselves, Wolff seems to say, but we’ll never get very far -- which sounds like a curse, but looks like a blessing at the end of this affecting book. The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes: What’s chilling in this book, beyond the dramatization of the way memories are corrupted by time, is the notion that it’s possible to see one’s present self in a positive light and not realize how much one’s own past actions have negatively affected others. The selves we take pride in, the parts of us we’re willing to be readily identified by, this book reminds us, are filtered versions of ourselves. Over the course of the novel, the narrator strips away the layers of his own illusion -- or rather, he has them stripped away from him by force. And that is probably what is most disturbing about this beveled gem of a book. We cherish the progressive notion that if there is a moral imbalance in our lives, we will address it, but how can we address what we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the existence of entirely? We bury our mistakes so successfully that we no longer feel accountable for atoning for them. Much of life is a détente between whom we want to think we are and whom we are. This book is a draught of cold air, a slap in the face, a wakeup call. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid: The way the second-person narration functions in this novel is a thrill to behold. Hamid keeps things tense by keeping them indeterminate. Part of that tension springs from the extraordinary politeness and deliberateness of Changez’s overtures to his unheard interlocutor (“if you will permit me”) which read as sinister somehow -- something more out of the register of “The Cask of Amontillado” than any book of etiquette. The very fact that that politeness scans as sinister is part of the driving engine of this book. The frisson one feels in reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes from the way Hamid implicates the reader in the narrator’s disillusionment. One is forced to interrogate one’s own assumption -- the title leads us to it, archly -- that the narrator has chosen the path of jihad. Could he not simply harbor non-violent objections to a way of life he’s come to disagree with? And his interlocutor, about whom we know so little -- is he a regular civilian or an intelligence agent of some sort? I was spellbound by the artistry of a book that succeeds at the challenging task of making possible two diametrically opposed interpretations -- that Changez is a jihadist, and that he is an ordinary man in an intense conversation who may be being radically misunderstood. As the book approaches its climactic final moment, the pitch of emotions rises subtly, inexorably, and one feels like a lobster in a slow-boiling pot. The book is a triumph of form, but it’s also an opportunity for an extended self-analysis on the reader’s part, and an argument for a more empathetic understanding of the lives of people on the margins. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell: So much has been said about this extraordinary book that one wonders what one might add to the conversation. Still, it ought to be observed that in another writer’s hands, this material might have yielded a series of bloodless experiments. Instead, what we have is a full-blooded, big-hearted, human story. Mitchell’s triumph is to make every leap in time, every technological novelty feel utterly necessary, and to wring an astounding amount of emotion out of settings that could easily have felt cold and clinical. By scrupulously rendering the everyday reality of his characters’ lives, Mitchell earns the right to go to outlandish places in his telling. There is no ironic distance from the more conceptual material, no winking at the reader. He’s taking it all seriously, even the oddball stuff. We relax in the hands of a storyteller who will see to every detail and think through the larger implications of every choice. We settle in for the ride. And what a ride it is. One of the under-remarked aspects of this book is what a page-turner it turns out to be, how thoroughly engrossing. Mitchell’s talents seem to know no bounds. The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates: A book whose astringent worldview makes Revolutionary Road seem at times almost cheerful. These characters fail each other over and over, and fail themselves. I felt a keen sympathy for the divorced Walter Grimes when he’s visited by his young daughters at work. He’s not a reporter, the way they think he is; instead, he works at the copy desk. He’s not ashamed, just a little embarrassed, but their disappointment is palpable, and it sets the stage for this story of disillusionment on a grand scale. These sisters are estranged early and spend their lives running on parallel paths toward disappointment in men, in marriage, in careers, in life itself. They fail to meet, even when they’re in each other’s presence. There aren’t a lot of people to “like” in this book, but The Easter Parade provides the greatest antidote I can think of to the assertion that a book has to be populated with likable characters for it to be enjoyable. The impossible beauty in Yates’s sentences would be balm enough by itself, but when you combine it with the extraordinary perception about humanity on every page, one is left feeling less alone on the planet knowing that someone like Yates once walked around taking things in and caring enough about people in their flawed humanity to attempt to reproduce them convincingly on the page, however odious they could be at a given moment. He somehow loves everyone, even when he’s skewering them. The gorgeousness of Yates’s prose and the heartbreaking accuracy of his insight into our sometimes-dark hearts provide enormous emotional sustenance. The care he takes in getting his sentences right, in staring accurately into a moment, is its own kind of embrace. One need not get the milk of human kindness from Yates’s characters to get it from his books. 10:04, by Ben Lerner: Among the many pleasures in reading this astonishingly nimble book is watching to see where this consciousness will take you. There are so many surprises here, so many things seen afresh with that particular sort of attention that Ezra Pound calls for in ABC of Reading, wherein to know a fish really well is to know it back and forth, to study it for weeks until it is a moldering pile of bones, but one has learned something about it. The thing that’s known in this case is the way the mind works, the tortuous byways one’s thoughts can wend on the path to an ever-receding but tantalizing total understanding of the workings of the universe for a fleeting moment. Lerner gives his narrator extreme perceptiveness, hyper-articulacy, great curiosity, and a laconic voice that suggests more emotional exposure at any given moment than he is prepared to handle. The triumph of this book -- with its impacted sentences that involute on themselves and interrogate the meanings of words and pack as much signification as possible into each unit of cognition -- is to present observations of such freshness, originality, and vivacity that they instantly feel like old wisdom one has had access to for years. Everything in this book one hadn’t seen before Lerner wrote it suddenly becomes an article of longstanding faith, a core principle one has lived by. I was particularly captivated by his discussion of the numinous power in “totaled” art, damaged works that have been declared valueless by an insurance company. Lerner spins the word “totaled” into a captivating riff that extends in several meditative directions. Seeing that art for what it was was just one of many new ways of perceiving the world that this book gave me as gifts. But the greatest gift this book gives is its willingness to slow everything down, to stop time for long enough to get everything thought and everything said that can be thought and said in a given moment. This preoccupation with accuracy and comprehensiveness makes the narrator a prison of his perceptions at times, because he sees with a fly’s eyes, taking in every stimulus around him and folding it into whatever thesis he is constructing in his mind at a given moment. In a culture that insists on speed and thoughtless consumption, Lerner’s willingness to parse a moment down to its component parts is a welcome corrective. My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh: This gutsy book (coming in 2015) examines the effects of a rape on both the victim and the community she grows up in in Louisiana. The identity of her attacker is unknown. The narrator is a classmate of hers who also happens to have had an obsessive crush on her for years. Right away, we know we’re in complicated territory. Like Lolita and The Stranger before it, My Sunshine Away understands that every confession is also an attempt to convert listeners to the speaker’s worldview. We’re not sure whether this confession will end in a revelation of evil or renew our faith in humanity, but the deft structural control, artful prose, and extraordinary psychological acuity on display mean we’re riveted either way. As we parse the narrator’s words to determine what he’s capable of, we conspire with him to direct attention away from the person who needs it the most, namely the victim. Walsh captures how the fear of discovery in untidy urges can turn ordinary people into monsters of pragmatism. The last third snaps with a tautness of a thriller, and Walsh keeps the reader guessing until the very end, as the best mystery writers do, but this is literature of the highest order, an elegy for lost youth everywhere and an argument for empathy at all costs. This book asks the essential questions: How much responsibility do we have to each other? Can we reassemble the pieces of broken lives? Walsh hints at answers, but none is more potent than the fact that he’s engaging such profound questions in the first place. Small Mercies, by Eddie Joyce: Small Mercies, also coming in 2015, is the Staten Island novel you didn’t know you were waiting to read. It’s also the best novel yet at capturing the human suffering that resulted from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Rather than writing a safe-remove “systems” novel about the roots and impacts of the attacks, Joyce takes on the more ambitious task of bringing vividly into focus one of the 3,000 people who died that day and the family members and friends who pressed on in the wake of their unspeakable loss. In telling the story of the demise of beloved Bobby Amendola -- son, brother, husband, friend, lover of life, Staten Islander, firefighter -- and the divergent ways his loved ones responded to it, Joyce tells the story of all New York during that heartbroken, haunted period. Joyce understands the role one’s native place plays in the development of one’s character, and he has a gift for choosing resonant details and peeling back the layers of emotion in ordinary moments. He builds his story around the negative space created by Billy’s absence, alternating perspectives throughout to provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of a people in grief. Small Mercies effortlessly tackles weighty subjects -- the value of the bonds of family in changing times, what debts we owe the dead and ourselves, what to make of the American Dream of prosperity in an era when America’s influence is on the wane -- without being weighed down by its own seriousness of purpose. The high-spirited characters in this book have such a good time even when grieving that it’s easy to fall in love not only with Billy’s memory, but with most of the flawed-but-human people who will carry that memory around in them for the rest of their days. Redeployment, by Phil Klay: Klay does outstanding work to make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar. We think we know war stories, and he makes us see that we don’t know these war stories. Whatever our preconceptions about war are, Klay estranges us from them. The bewildering array of technologies, the arcane system of acronyms, the rules of procedure in the contemporary theater of war, with military contractors, ubiquitous improvised explosive devices, and a direct engagement with civilians that dwarfs even that in Vietnam -- all these are, for the reader who has never seen them personally, deeply unfamiliar, and Klay makes that unfamiliarity palpable. In the end, though, war stories or not, these are stories about people in different states of crisis on either side of a divide, American or Iraqi, and Klay makes their experiences feel familiar enough to allow an enormous transference of empathy. The way the soldiers eat cobbler at the end of "Frago" stands in for so much about the way they try to preserve their humanity in the midst of inhuman psychological challenges. And the end of the title story, “Redeployment,” is a heartbreaker, with the narrator’s mind fuzzy as he tries to remember what he was going to do with the body of the beloved dog he has killed. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the mental disturbance he is going to have to deal with going forward, as he tries to live a normal life. When the narrator of “After Action Report” says, “It was another three weeks before I got home and everybody thanked me for my service. Nobody seemed to know exactly what they were thanking me for," it captures the predicament of civilians dealing with veterans in an era when there isn't pervasive military service, and wars are fought on distant shores for reasons that remain abstract or inscrutable to ordinary people, and the experience of war, in part due to the technological advances, departs so radically from the one described in history books or movies. Part of this book’s argument is that the story of the senselessness of war needs to be told afresh in every generation for it to be heard at all. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Parentheses aren't just the mark of a lazy or verbose writer. They can also bracket personal pain in a narrative. At The New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey explores the power of the parenthetical detail, such as Lolita's "My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three." Pair with: Vulture's "The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature."
"If one-sentence stories are as common as snowflakes, one-sentence novels are as rare as white ravens." At The New Yorker, Brad Leithauser writes about the one-sentence novel or the point when the story builds to a particular sentence. To give you an example, here's one of his favorites from Lolita: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art."
As Upworthy-style headlines sweep the internet, aiming to snag as many clicks as possible by pandering to as many whims and obsessions as possible, the dignified mystery of the great book title stands in stark contrast. The Upworthy headline had been widely satirized on other websites and social media, including some folks applying them to book titles, so my Millions colleague Nick Moran and I were inspired to muse as well — what if books were whorishly titled, optimizing our search engines rather than our imaginations, rather than leaving us to discover who Oliver Twist was or who was proud and who was prejudiced? Leave your own optimized book titles in the comments or on twitter with the hashtag #litworthy. The Shiniest Guy In School Had Her at “You’re My Particular Brand of Heroin” He Didn’t Want to Dance with Her When They First Met. Now He Really, Really Does. Watch This Kid Burst Into Tears When He’s Refused Some More Porridge They Told Him White Whales Were Impossible to Hunt. That’s When He Went Literally Crazy. You Thought Millennials Were Bad? Watch These British Kids Totally Nail Chaos Theory. Some Guy With Two First Names Proves That “Nymphet” Is The Grossest Word In English. You’ll Never Guess Which of the Four Sisters the Hot Neighbor Kid Ends Up Married To This Guy Didn’t Tell His New Governess About His Secret Ex-Wife In The Attic. What Happened Next Really Burned Him Up. Watch How Complicated This Guy’s Road Trip Gets When He Lets A Group of Dwarves Plan It. The Most Powerful Dark Wizard in the World Tried to Kill Him When He Was a Baby. On Page 4,305 You’ll Find Out Why. We Thought We Could Beat On Against The Current Without Being Borne Back Ceaselessly Into The Past. Boy, Were We Wrong. You Know How You’ve Been Looking for the Secret to Eternal Youth? This Guy With a Really Ugly Painting in His Attic May Have Found It. Here's One Weird Trick To Get Out of Paying Your Rent Forever He Paid For A Prostitute But The Pimp Punched Him Anyway. What A Phony.
The two books I’ve been recommending the most this year are both by Michael Clune. Now an English professor and a literary critic, Clune spent his grad-school years as a self-described heroin junkie at Johns Hopkins, an experience he documents in his brilliant memoir, White Out (Hazelden, 2013). Structured as a conventional recovery narrative (Clune hits bottom, goes to jail, gets sent to rehab, and gets better), the book doubles as a phenomenological description of addiction: of what heroin does to memory, perception, attention, and time. Clune’s central Proustian metaphor is that addiction is a "memory disease." Unable to forget the first time he did heroin, the addict keeps doing heroin as a way of returning to that past moment. "At every instant," he writes, "the addict inhabits at least two times at once: the first time he did it and the next time he will do it. Right now is the switchboard." The drug emerges, in the book, as a kind of mesmerizing madeleine: the addict can’t even look at it without falling into a memory trance (the "vial of dope" is just a "pane of clear glass, and he’s watching his first time through it"). But this is less a matter of nostalgia, Clune insists, than of permanent novelty. Being addicted means never getting used to the sight of the drug. It remains endlessly vivid and transfixing, every single time you see it. Unlike other objects -- which eventually grow familiar and dull and "disappear inside our habits" -- heroin is "immune to habit": "Something that’s always new...that never gets old." For Clune, "the white tops are still as new and fresh as the first time. It still is the first time in the white of the white tops. There’s a deep rip in my memory." Clune’s meditations on this time-traveling whiteness -- rendered throughout in hypnotic, staccato sentences -- yield some of the book’s most sublime and beautiful writing. His attempts to convey the timelessness, and eternity, and dilated duration of dope consciousness occasionally resemble mystic poetry: e.g., his dope brain "has roots that reach through time and drink from everywhere;" his dope eye "doesn’t have any bottom" ("and I see into the bottomlessness of things"); the dope powder "carries the white down into the tiny neural tunnels where the body manufactures time." In addition to these dithyrambic passages, the book contains laugh-out-loud scenes with junkies, dealers, and a defense lawyer; charming childhood memories involving Candyland; and moving accounts of Clune’s daily practice of sobriety ("The only way to recover from the memory disease is to forget yourself...You must make forgetfulness into a habit. Like a waterwheel that continually pours forgetfulness over your life"). Harrowing and hilarious as a recovery memoir, White Out is also a memorably lovely essay on memory: it maps a mind that’s haunted -- as most minds are -- by nostalgia, time, and whiteness. After finishing White Out, I ordered the other book Clune published this year, a scholarly study titled Writing Against Time (Stanford University Press). Like his memoir, this book is concerned with the possibility of permanent novelty: namely, with sensory and aesthetic experiences that never get old, no matter how many times you enjoy them. "Time poisons perception,’"he writes in the opening chapter. "No existing technique has proven effective in inoculating images against time." Following the literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, Clune proposes that one of the roles of art is to fashion time-resistant images: by presenting familiar objects in surprising ways, art rescues them from habit. Or, in Shklovsky’s famous phrase (from his essay "Art as Technique"), art can "make a stone feel stony." The problem for Clune is that, in the real world, even artworks aren’t immune to time: the catchy pop song, the captivating painting, the visionary poem -- with repeated exposure, they all end up fading. So Writing Against Time looks at works of literature that imagine hypothetical, habit-proof objects, virtual models for what endless novelty might actually feel like. In one chapter, Clune analyzes "imaginary music" throughout literature, ranging from Vinteuil’s compositions in Proust to Apollo’s melodies in Keats. In a chapter on Lolita, he demonstrates how nymphets function for Humbert Humbert as "addictive images," in exactly the same way that opium does in De Quincey’s Confessions (or that heroin does in White Out): every time Humbert Humbert sees a nymphet, it’s like the first time he’s seeing a nymphet. The book keeps pursuing this project in surprising places, from John Ashbery’s poetry to classic sci-fi novels. In a bravura chapter on 1984, Clune identifies a Shklovskian agenda in Oceania’s propaganda, which consistently misrepresents reality (Winston has to remind himself that "stones are hard, water is wet"). When Winston drinks from a bottle labeled "Gin," he’s shocked that it tastes like "nitric acid;" ditto the "Chocolate" bar that tastes like "the smoke of a rubbish fire." Because Winston never knows what to expect, every sensory experience is heightened. For Clune, this is a case of fascist phenomenology: the government is imposing "a set of false expectations of the world" to frame people’s perceptions. As a result, "doublethink exposes the citizens of Oceania to constant intense, unfamiliar, unexpected, and shocking sensations." There’s an analogy here for Clune’s methodology: by framing familiar books in unexpected ways, he shocks the reader into seeing them differently. They become new again and freshly pleasurable. In this respect, each example of vivid novelty serves -- for the reader -- as an experience of vivid novelty, and several times the ingenuity of Clune’s close reading made me want to stand up and cheer. Along with White Out, Writing Against Time was the best thing I discovered in 2013. Taken together, they complete a profound portrait of how people use art, drugs, sex, and meditation to slide outside of memory and "arrest the flow of neurobiological time." More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
As NASA readies its next Mars launch for today, we’re getting used to the idea of entertainment in space. Recently, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, shot a music video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” onboard the International Space Station and it quickly went viral. It’s had about 19 million views on YouTube — about half the population of Canada. And then Lady Gaga announced that she’ll be shuttling into space to perform a single track in 2015 as part of Zero G Colony music festival. But where’s all the literature in space? Actually, it turns out poetry is fairly well represented and there’s more on the way come Monday. But it’s pretty much a fiction desert up there. There are two poetry recordings making their way through interstellar space. In 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, and the former has officially left the embrace of the solar system. It’s traveled roughly 12 billion miles since it was launched, becoming the first man-made object to reach the cusp of interstellar space known as the heliopause. For 36 years the probe has been carrying the Golden Record, Earth’s mix tape for future humanity or curious aliens who know how to spin vinyl, whoever finds it first. Etched into the grooves of the Golden Record (it’s actually gold-plated copper) are 116 photographs of earthly life, 90 minutes of music — from Bach to Blind Willie Johnson to a Navajo night chant — greetings in 54 languages, and a sonic essay that features wind, rain, birdsong, and the yowl of a wild dog. Because there is also a written Presidential address from Jimmy Carter, NASA felt that it should acknowledge the role of Congress by including a list of its members, many of whom advocated for the space agency in Washington during the 1970s. There are also two recorded poetry excerpts. The French delegate to the UN, Benadette Lefort, quotes the first two stanzas from Baudelaire’s poem “Elevation” in Fleurs de Mals: Above the lakes, above the vales, The mountains and the woods, the clouds, the seas, Beyond the sun, beyond the ether, Beyond the confines of the starry spheres, My soul, you move with ease, And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave You wing your way blithely through boundless space With virile joy unspeakable Anders Thunboig, Sweden’s UN delegate, follows suit by reading from Harry Martinson’s poem “Visit to the Observatory.” Compared to the Austrian delegate’s utterance — “As the chairman of the Outer Space Committee of the UN and the representative of Austria, I am pleased to extend you our greetings in this way” — the Swedish and French sentiments feel like outpourings of pure, terrestrial emotion. So there’s a smattering of poetry wending its way through space and apparently there’s more on the way. Over the summer, NASA announced that it would be hauling more than 1,000 haiku on this month’s launch of its Mars-bound spacecraft, Maven, courtesy of a University of Colorado Going To Mars competition (the winning entry: It’s funny, they named/ Mars after the God of War/ Have a look at Earth). But where’s the fiction drifting through the dark sea of ionized gas? Outside of whatever the crew of the International Space Station happens to have on their Kindles and iPads, it’s a fictional wasteland up there. If we could make the Golden Record all over again, wouldn’t we send at least one Chekhov story? And I’m pretty sure aliens or our distant future cousins would gladly swap out the list of congressional members for passages from Lolita or Madame Bovary. What follows is a completely biased, unrepresentative sample of what I consider to be fictional cornerstones worthy of sending into the galactic void. In the spirit of compression — there’s only so much a copper-plated LP can hold — I limited myself to scenes or moments from fiction of the 20th century. My apologies to the three preceding literary centuries. And the current one. The prologue from DeLillo’s Underworld The road trip from Nabokov’s Lolita The first encounter with Septimus Warren Smith in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway The scene in which Viri gets measured for custom shirts in James Salter’s Light Years The first fevered dream in Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider The harrowing moment when the Professor realizes his fate in Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode” The scene on the beach between Seymour and Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” The final dialogue between The Misfit and the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” The scene where Otto and Sophie seek respite at their country house in Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. The opening pages of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, leading up to the line “This is the great invention of our time.” Like all lists and mix tapes, this is a wildly imperfect one. It fails to take account of world literature and it’s probably got a heavy male bias. Asking for a top ten from any writer forces them to dispense with things they should include to things they must include. It’s reasonable to ask: what would anyone make of these fictional slivers without the full context of the story or novel in question? On the other hand, they’d probably glean more about our planet from these vivid and fraught moments, from the crafting of human language, than they would from the Voyager photos of a supermarket and the Sydney Opera House. As it turns out, these selections have something in common with the Golden Record’s most intimate recording—the sound of a woman’s body as she experiences the first throes of romantic love. As Ann Druyan has described elsewhere, when she was first falling in love with Carl Sagan — to whom she was married until his death in 1996 — she went to Bellevue Hospital so they could record the sounds of her body. If the aliens can follow the scientific notation we’ve posted for them and fathom how to place the stylus into the gold-plated grooves, they’ll hear Ann’s smitten metabolism and the thrumming of her love-addled heartbeat. In other words, they’ll have direct access to human interiority. If we’d sent along some of our best and most haunting fiction, the effect might have been the same. "Eye of Mars" image via NASA/Wikimedia Commons
I used to watch to a lot of DVDs with the audio turned to the commentary track. And not just the monumental works of cinematic wonder the every frame of which is worth analyzing and puzzling over. I worked at a video store -- Sneak Reviews in Charlottesville, Va., one of those great labyrinthine stores stocked like an archive -- and, bringing home DVDs indiscriminately, I found that even a terrible movie could be saved by simply flipping over and listening to the director, writer, or cast, chat away. Though some have taken great pains to push the commentary track to new heights of performance (see the one for the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, in which the possibly fictional artistic director “Kenneth Loring” claims scenes were shot upside-down and in reverse), I was more struck by the commentary tracks that are compelling accidentally: people going on tangents, revealing things obliquely they might later regret. Stallone may be dull as a dial-tone for most of his commentary on Cliffhanger, but the end, when he sounds apologetic and genuinely depressed about his life and career, turns out to be the only engaging and human moment on that disk. A friend once even showed me a porno with a commentary track. While the director offers her insights into the filming process, along with increasingly belligerent rants about her colleagues, she gets completely shit-faced. After about 30 minutes, she passes out, and for the rest of the movie, you can hear her snoring breezily in the background. It’s bizarrely compelling, and if I could remember the title, I’d recommend it heartily. It was around this time that I considered writing a short story in the form of a commentary track for an imaginary movie. I never did write that story (it was probably a terrible idea), but it did get me thinking about all the ways that texts supplementary to larger stories -- or “paratexts,” as they’re officially known -- can themselves become stories. Now, years later, I’m publishing my first novel, Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, which takes the form of one long cease-and-desist letter. Paul McWeeney’s sister is about to publish a nonfiction book in which she accuses their late father of being the Black Dahlia murderer, so in order to save their father’s name, Paul writes a letter to the publishers trying to refute his sister’s claims. As the novel started to take shape, and I realized that Paul’s story would become a discursive commentary on his sister’s story -- which itself is a discursive commentary on their father’s story -- I began revisiting other books with similar configurations. Pretty soon, I imagined these books forming a loose genre, the Paratext Novel, stories that take the form of -- or at least have the pretense of being -- explicit exegeses of other stories, real or imagined. But perhaps “genre” is not the right word, since these books are not concerned with establishing and enforcing conventions. They are interested in exploring how commentary mediates our lives, how we are so steeped in supplementary material that we rarely directly experiencing whatever it is that material supplements: a phenomenon that these books respond to by making “commentary tracks” more human sites of engagement. Like a lot of people, I still haven’t gotten around to watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, but I found Geoff Dyer’s book Zona -- in which he offers a commentary/summary (which he argues is an “expansion”) of the film -- fascinating, in part for how Dyer’s parallel self-revelation reminds us how we understand our own stories by encountering others. Now, when we pick up a novel, chances are we’ve already seen not just others’ commentary, but also the novelist’s self-commentary in the form of interviews and even articles like this. Whenever a writer comments on his or her own work, there’s inevitably an attempt -- futile and foolish -- to control how readers engage with that work. But, in these books, attempts at controlling the (ostensibly central) story spin wonderfully into their own stories, illustrating and celebrating the impossibility of narrative intervention and the chaos beneath the illusion of control. Since listicles have become the new popular form of supplementary text, here are the top five paratext novels that have been buzzfeeding around my brain. 1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov: The paratext urtext, or at least the best known, Charles Kinbote’s deranged commentary on John Shade’s 999-line poem features, on its first page, this non-sequitur: “[John Shade] preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” Kinbote’s first interjection here is absurd, hilarious, and even violent in how it forces himself into someone else’s story. As with Lolita, the narrative hinges on control. In that earlier novel, Humbert Humbert not only controls Dolores Haze physically but narratively as well, since he is the one allowed a voice. In Pale Fire, Nabokov more explicitly curates, but also balances, this dynamic, revealing John Shade’s story -- the tragic loss of his daughter that is the impetus for the poem -- before Kinbote tries to absorb it into, and suppresses it with, his own story. It wasn’t until I read Claire Messud’s reminiscent The Woman Upstairs -- about a schoolteacher who becomes obsessed with her student’s family -- that I realized Kinbote is not just infiltrating Shade’s art; he’s infiltrating Shade’s family. 2. U and I by Nicholson Baker: True, this is not technically a novel, but Nicholson Baker’s “closed book examination” of John Updike’s work reads like no other work of nonfiction I’ve read. Though I would never encourage anyone to not read Updike, ignorance of his oeuvre should not keep you from reading U and I. After all, occasional ignorance certainly doesn’t stop Baker himself, as he misremembers and misunderstands, corrects himself and confesses lapses. That is partly why this book is so strange and so funny, but also because it’s the most honest portrayal of a reader’s relationship with a writer I’ve ever come across: one-sided, heavily mediated, existing entirely in his imagination. In Baker’s literary hero-worship, we begin to realize what we probably knew all along, that it uncomfortably echoes a bastard kid striving for legitimacy, and for simple fatherly validation. 3. Edwin Mullhouse by Stephen Millhauser: The full title, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, hints at Millhauser’s interest in complicating the commentary track’s implicit attempt at narrative control and usurpation. This novel takes the form of a biography of Edwin Mullhouse, a supposed literary genius, who wrote a novel called Cartoons before dying mysteriously at age 11. His biographer and friend, Jeffery Cartwright, also a small child, is an insanely precocious Boswell whose relationship with his subject grows increasingly unsettling. Whereas in Pale Fire, John Shade has his brief moment at the microphone before Kinbote rushes the stage, in Mullhouse we have no unmediated access to Edwin -- and no unmediated access to the ostensible cause for Edwin’s celebration, his novel Cartoons -- which makes for a more disorienting reading experience. In the fictional introduction, the fictional Walter Logan White writes, “I myself have sternly resisted the temptation to read Cartoons, knowing full well that the real book, however much a work of genius, can no more match the shape of my expectations that the real Jeffrey could.” In creating a commentary track that seems to have supplanted Edwin’s novel, Jeffery seems to have supplanted Edwin, a figurative death equally resonant to Edwin’s literal death that illuminates the entire friendship we see develop between the two. 4. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: If we close Edwin Mullhouse wondering how much of Edwin’s genius is imagined and manipulated by his biographer-cum-creator Jeffery, in The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips -- both author and character -- relocates this distrust to the familiar battle between Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians. In the 250-page introduction to a recently recovered Shakespeare play, which might actually be a forgery by his father, the character of Arthur Phillips lays out a childhood fraught with questions of trust and veracity. After the introduction, Phillips presents us with the play in question, and it’s a stunning act of impersonation. Seeing the son’s introduction followed by (what might be) the father’s work reminds us how familial this narrative hijacking really is, just as all of these works ultimately boil down to simple family arguments, an interruption around the dinner table: No, let me finish this story. 5. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes: Though published in 1985, this novel, featuring narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite’s discursive commentary on Flaubert’s life and work, is my most recent addition to this genre. I borrowed it from my dad after a recent trip to France, where my girlfriend and I visited the Musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Medecine. Flaubert’s childhood house in Rouen is now a museum dedicated to both his work as a writer and his father’s work as a surgeon. Although the museum’s marriage of literary and medical does at first feel incongruous, it does form a kind of commentary track, inviting us to see the work of father in son in concert. For example, a sly curator has throughout displayed passages from Gustave’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, and the son’s quote that “all men of letters are constipated” is displayed not far from the father’s very invasive-looking devices to unblock reticent colons -- both of which, consolation and cure, would be resonant to anyone suffering the effects of a French diet. Mostly, though, it’s the areas of seeming discord that are most striking. The room featuring Gustave’s childhood scribbles is right next to the room featuring the embalmed cadavers that good ol’ Dad tinkered with two centuries ago. And it’s not just human bodies that are preserved there; you can also see Flaubert’s actual parrot, taxidermied and propped on a bench in a closet. In the lobby, adjacent to an uncomfortable exhibit on Napoleonic-era gyno exams, they sell copies of Flaubert’s novels alongside Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which is “possibly the wittiest anti-novel since Nabokov’s Pale Fire.” Or at least that is how The Boston Globe describes it in the blurb printed on the back. Which is to say: I haven’t read the actual book yet -- it’s still sitting patiently on my coffee table -- but according to the paratextual commentary on the novel, the blurbs and reviews that I have read, it seems entirely appropriate.
I interviewed graphic designer/creative director John Gall for the upcoming book that I co-edited with Yuri Leving entitled Lolita - The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov's Novel in Art and Design being published this month by Print Books. In it, eighty graphic designers provided their own cover designs for Nabokov’s famous novel; and design luminaries, scholars, and the Nabokov-obsessed contributed essays discussing the difficulties inherent in representing visually the themes of this great and controversial novel. To top it off, Mary Gaitskill has written a very wonderful preface. John Gall is the creative director for Abrams Books and previously spent fifteen years as art director for Vintage and Anchor books, where he was responsible for at least two Lolita covers, not to mention the redesign of the entire Nabokov catalog (minus Lolita). John Bertram: Nabokov wrote: “I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls.” And: “Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for LOLITA (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway—that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.” What weight do you give this and his other well-known opinions about what should or should not appear on the cover of Lolita? John Gall: I completely agree with Nabokov on what I think is his main point: No little girls. On the other hand, his description of what he would like reads beautifully but would be a complete yawner as a cover. It is so non-specific that it could be the cover of almost any novel ever written. A question I like to ask myself when designing a cover is: “Can this be the cover for any other book?” The closer you get to a “yes,” the worse off you are. There are two directions for this cover: either you take the title head on and go with some representation of Lolita, or you don’t. But be careful; the land of metaphor is filled with furrows and ruts and roads going off into the distance. All that being said, I love the concept of “pure colors” as an approach. “Melting clouds” . . . ? JB: Dieter Zimmer concludes “Dolly as Cover Girl” with: “Which cover do you consider the best? . . . It is exactly this loaded question that each publisher must ask him- or herself when attempting to decide which of the artist’s sketches will appear on the front of a book. For such decisions there exists no theoretical apparatus, only the intuition of the individual responsible for making the final decision.” What, no theoretical apparatus? JG: No marketing research either! Ah, the intuitive decision. This is what makes designing covers both wonderfully rewarding and incredibly exasperating. The research and theory and conceptual rigor are the responsibility of the designer. They need to bring that to the table. No one else will. No one is going to ask for more intellect on a cover, especially in the commercial book-publishing world. When designing, I employ both the conceptual and the intuitive. Cover art is for the brain and the eyes. I’ve seen too many visually stilted covers that apply their concept too strenuously, leaving us with a flat, boring design. JB: Peter Mendelsund eloquently writes in “Fictions”: “in attempting to sell a book, designers must, not always, but sometimes, pander to...a public which can on occasion lack the interpretive subtlety to parse literary subtext — i.e., if the general reading public expects a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform on a Lolita jacket, then book buyers and booksellers will also be expecting a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform on a Lolita jacket; and one can then reasonably assume that marketing departments in publishing houses will want them as well. In the end, going backward, upriver towards its source, even editors begin to take their cues from misinformed readers at large.” That certainly covers a multitude of sins. What do you think? JG: Peter is spot on about this, though it is a fine line between pandering and communicating. I am trying to connect to as many people as possible with a cover. How do you do that without dumbing things down? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had covers shot down because they are too “smart” or too clever, or worse “I don’t get it.” It can be seen as a liability. You won’t reach the people who don’t want to think for more than a second about what they are looking at. I think a more interesting question might be: Why do people expect a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform or a girl in sunglasses with a lollipop? Is it all Kubrick’s fault? It wasn’t always marketing departments and editors forcing this issue. This stuff originated at the source. Lolita is not only a book but also a cultural touchstone, and it carries a lot of baggage. There is so much visual reference associated with this book. There have been hundreds of covers. These schoolgirl uniforms and lollipops are all part of the visual language attached to the book. This has to be dealt with in some way. The visuals associated with the book are probably better known than the book itself. For my very first attempt at designing the cover for Lolita, I attempted a typographic solution. After this was shot down, I made the decision to see if there was a way to reinterpret the iconography. JB: Duncan White notes that “Lolita has been repeatedly ‘misread’ on the cover of Lolita and frequently in a way to make her seem a more palatable subject of sexual desire.” I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the cover you designed within this context and the more time I spend with this partial topography of a young girl’s face the more it becomes enigmatic, dissolving into a tabula rasa. Is it a stretch to suggest that your intention was provide an image upon which the viewer projects his or her own ideas about Lolita? JG: This cover came about after a previous, more pointed design was rejected. I decided to see if I could put a twist on a classic image associated with Lolita: the lips. The lips we see on the final printed cover were originally positioned on the page vertically, giving the image a dual meaning — mouth or genitalia? It was cover as Rorschach, though a heavily weighted Rorschach. The responses to the cover ranged from revulsion to the publisher asking to have a printout framed for his wall. Lolita will sell 50,000 books per year regardless of what is on the cover. Is it worth it to a publisher to put something on a cover that will turn off a segment of the readership? I don’t think so. Is it worth it to do something controversial with the cover of a controversial book? It doesn’t need it. The sphinxlike representation of Lolita on the final cover is intentional. I wanted her barely there, elusive. I also read it as if we are Humbert, fixated on a particular detail of Lolita’s anatomy. I don’t like the idea of designing something that is wide open to interpretation. I think it’s a bit of a cop-out. But for classic books like this, a book that can be interpreted in a number of different ways, I think it is OK to get out of the way with the design. By the way, when the anniversary edition came out there was a mention of the cover on Page 6 of the New York Post saying this was, to paraphrase, “the steamiest cover yet for Lolita”. If they had only seen the previous version. JB: Ellen Pifer bluntly calls the novel “a threnody for the destruction of a child’s life” an assertion I find it difficult to dispute. How does this shape your responsibility to Lolita JG: I don’t think it is ever a good idea to represent the most horrifying aspects of a book on its cover. JB: Why was Lolita not included in the most recent shadow-box redesign? JG: We had recently repackaged the book for its 50th anniversary and didn’t feel the need to rejacket the book so soon thereafter. I have a plan in place for putting Lolita in the box format when the time is right, which will hopefully be soon. JB: You mentioned that you would not “give this as an assignment in a million years” to your cover-design class. Why not? JG: I think it is a project that is too easy to get wrong, too hard to get right, and with not enough room to experiment in between. It is not just this title. There are a number of books that I have found to be not only difficult for students but for professionals as well. The Great Gatsby, On the Road, Catcher in the Rye — have you ever seen a really great cover for any of these books? Certainly, there are iconic covers — Catcher in the Rye’s yellow-type-on-red-background Bantam paperback—but is the actual design that amazing? Not especially, but as an artifact it transcends mere design discussion. When coming up with projects, I look for titles that can be interpreted a number of different ways (OK, Lolita does fall into this category). Judging by the responses I’ve seen to your project, I may have to rethink this. I also don’t like to give out assignments for projects I am presently or have recently worked on. JB: What will your next Lolita cover look like? JG: I really cannot imagine a scenario where I will be designing this cover again.
The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life. We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth. So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high. We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below. Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa. We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem. Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away - but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world. Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders? If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change. The Ambassadors Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since. “Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed. But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.” Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.” At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want? Corregidora Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label. He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction. A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made. DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora. The Godfather Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America's mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood. The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who "The Godfather" is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it? Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito's failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a "hostile take over bid," Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father's capitalist-patriarchal throne. The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones' tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women's liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power. Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo's ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo's out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit. After Puzo, none of America's epic stories, Ahab's or Gatsby's, Hester Prynne's or Invisible Man's, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot's admission to the "great tradition." The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo's omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own. Invisible Man Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel. The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden. “But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.” And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere. Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues. Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us? The House of Mirth Kirk Curnutt, Troy University On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive. Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental. The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem. My only compensation? I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market Lolita Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent. But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction. In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation. Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist. Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile. Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself. The Making of Americans Priscilla Wald, Duke University When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries. Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.” The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel. Moby-Dick Hester Blum, Penn State University Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville's terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped -- and, crucially, shapers -- of parts that jostle together, join and repel. There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being "dismasted." We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a "dumb brute," rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: "he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose." There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter ("The Quarter Deck"). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a "heart-stricken moose" would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken. What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements -- a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing "inscrutable malice," or the minutia of cetology -- and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity -- to try come to know -- the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world? Image via Wikimedia Commons
“What [Vladimir] Nabokov is actually doing in Lolita is deliberately drawing on all manner of anti-Semitic propaganda, from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to Nazi caricatures of the Jewish ‘type,’ to create in Humbert Humbert the anti-Semitic cliché of legend, rather as, say, Chaucer draws on medieval misogynist writings to create in the figure of the Wife of Bath the archetypal shrew of his male audience’s nightmares.”
Lolita has been, for decades, a great inspiration to cover designers, and all those great covers inspired architect John Bertram to hold his own cover design contest to see who could best re-imagine Nabokov's classic. The resulting competition has now inspired a book, coming in August, with a cover by designers Sulki & Min that references a letter Nabokov sent to his American publisher, Walter J. Minton of Putnam, in April 1959 about the cover design for Lolita. "I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls. If we cannot find that kind of artistic and virile painting, let us settle for an immaculate white jacket (rough texture paper instead of the usual glossy kind), with LOLITA in bold black lettering." More: An interview with Bertram.
In early February, Amity Gaige's third novel, Schroder -- about a father named Erik Kennedy, who built his life on an elaborate lie and kidnaps his daughter, Meadow, following the bitter breakup of his marriage -- was published by Twelve. In the weeks following the book's release, Gaige -- who was my professor at the University of Rhode Island in the early 2000s -- and I corresponded via email about the writing life, assumptions made about female novelists, and how no one will ever be able to write like Nabokov. The Millions: Schroder is receiving positive reviews and even being described as your breakout book. Does that have any meaning for you as a writer? Was the experience of writing and publishing Schroder any different for you than it was for O My Darling or The Folded World? Amity Gaige: Breaking out sounds wonderful. If it means that lots of people read Schroder, then I will be happy to call it my breakout book. My other books were written with the same goal as Schroder -- to write as well as possible about deeply felt themes. But maybe it’s significant that I wrote Schroder very quickly -- it felt “channeled.” If you want to talk about the publishing side, that’s been a very different experience, too. I have an editor and publicist at Twelve who’ve been focused like assassins on each stage and challenge of bringing out a book. They responded to the book with gut responses, they hand-delivered it to people, they approached everything creatively and passionately. As for reviews, critical reaction is and always will be something I value highly as a writer -- somebody serious and intelligent talking back to me after a long writerly confinement, if you will. But I also value hearing from readers, booksellers, librarians, total strangers. I’ve gotten some interesting emails asking for help with parenting or custody arrangements. I don’t mind. I get energy from the feedback. TM: Along the same lines, how do you see your writing evolving over the course of your career? In what ways are you a different writer than you were in 2005 when O My Darling was published? AG: Writing O My Darling felt like chiseling stone -- hard and painstaking. It took me a long time to realize that I was simply learning how to write a book, an activity that isn’t inborn. I say while knocking on wood that each book has been easier to write than the next. My 30s have been a heady time personally. Having children, losing loved ones, coming to larger understandings about life; if these things change me, then I hope they change and broaden my writing. TM: In your novels, a recurring theme is the strength of relationships and the ways they are tested. You recently described Schroder as “a pro-marriage book; a balled-up and then uncrumpled valentine.” Can you talk a little about the importance of this theme in your work and how your take on it in Schroder is different than in your other novels? AG: A smart piece of recent criticism said that the book does not use the 19th-century marriage plot but the “twenty-first century divorce plot.” Schroder concerns what happens after love is over -- or in this case, discredited. I’ve always been preoccupied by the transience or ephemerality of experience, good and bad. As a minor character in the book says, there is the temptation to try and “box up” experience and “keep it.” But happiness -- and love -- cannot be possessed, controlled, quarantined...In Eric’s case, he’s dealing with the unwieldy fact that he still loves his ex-wife even though she has completely washed her hands of him. She thinks that because he’s a liar, he lied about loving her. But I don’t think he lied about loving her, and I guess that’s the uncrumpled part of the valentine. I didn’t really answer the question, though. I’m not sure why I keep writing about marriage. Marriage is just a metaphor for human relationships in general. It’s the relationship in which we live or die in terms of our own self-concept, in terms of our reputations with ourselves. TM: Let’s talk about Erik Kennedy/Schroder. You’ve said you feel “a lot of ambivalence towards him” and certainly navigate between his good qualities and his terrible qualities when portraying him to readers. Was this a difficult balance to achieve? A lot of importance is often placed on the “likability” of characters. Was this something you thought about as you were writing Schroder? AG: Well I find Eric likeable, but in the way you love a classic naïf. The narrator of Updike’s “A & P” or Dowell in The Good Soldier. You think, wow, what a limited person, but at least he cares about something. If I had to choose between the extremes of sentimentality and cynicism, I’d always choose the former. But yes, I do feel ambivalence towards Eric. What he does in lying to his wife is unconscionable. And I think part of the poignancy of the father-daughter relationship here is that his daughter is fated to wise up, and to eventually be really furious at him. She loves him now because he’s all she knows. But how messed up would Meadow be as a grown-up? Schroder suggests, I think, pretty messed up. TM: Was it difficult to write Erik’s young daughter, Meadow? What are the challenges you faced portraying a child? AG: My son was probably about four when I started writing Schroder. I poured all the love, amusement, and self-doubt I felt on a daily level as a parent into the characterization of Meadow. Also, my son just said a lot of fabulous things, and I wrote them down word for word and gave them to Meadow. When people cite their favorite lines from the book -- and these are often Meadow’s lines -- I have to laugh and say, Let’s face it, the best lines in this book were written by a six year old. TM: You’ve said the book was in some part inspired by the Clark Rockefeller case and what he said about some of the happiest moments of his life being spent with his daughter after he abducted her. How did the idea for Schroder come about and evolve as you wrote the novel? AG: As you mention, Schroder began with the seed from that now-infamous ripped-from-the-headlines story, one I deliberately never followed. But that story was relevant only in that I was already preoccupied its themes: identity, parenthood, immigration, self-invention...Can you be a fraud and still love others sincerely? Can you be a troubled soul and also a loving parent? I am of the Chekhov school in regards to literature “posing questions correctly” as opposed to answering them. Wondering now if I have -- even privately -- answered these questions -- I think no, not conclusively. Eric is still new to me, and as I travel around reading from the book, my attitude towards him alternates between compassion and bitterness. TM: Schroder functions as an apology/confession from a man with an elaborate false identity. Both of those elements have a rich literary history. How does your novel fit into that literary landscape? AG: I am sure there is a buried influence of Dostoevsky, even Poe, both of whom I read at a fairly young age, probably assuming these men were describing the inevitable lunacy of adulthood...I loved the hair-tearing confessions of deeply inconscient madmen-narrators, driven by guilt to confess. But Schroder is probably my agon-with-Nabokov book. Nobody writes like Nabokov; nobody ever will. What I would give to write one sentence like Vladimir! I adore Lolita, but I am more conscious of the influence of Pale Fire. Maybe it’s a minor point, but the fact that Eric’s document is “written” is so important to the novel, just as “written-ness” is central to Kinbote’s confessions in Pale Fire. This is where I saw the need, in Schroder, for footnotes, playlets, questionnaires...But of course all these examples I give were written by men. I think it’s true that I simultaneously “honor, update, and reject” some of these literary antecedents with Eric Kennedy/Schroder. (I’m referring to a statement here in Kathryn Shultz’s lively New York Magazine review.) I think I give Eric a softer side than most of these men-written-by-men. My gender seeps in between the lines, in the ways I judge him or his effect on the women in his life, in the sadness I feel about what remains an essential otherness... TM: The writing of female authors -- particularly those who write about relationships -- is often marginalized into two categories: “chick lit” or “women’s fiction.” As a woman and author of literary fiction, is this something you ever think about when writing? Do you think the perception/reception of novels by women is changing at all? AG: No, I never think about it in regards to my own work. But do I think the perception/reception of novels by women is changing at all? Not sure. The contemporary woman novelist still faces some troubling assumptions when she tries to publish. However, I was recently on two different panels with extraordinary women writers (Claire Messud and Victoria Redel, Karen Russell and Claire Vaye Watkins). All of these women are acclaimed writers, not to mention inspiring speakers. I like to think of their confidence -- and success -- as a bellwether. TM: You once advised “stay[ing] true to your artistic vision, even if you fail in other ways” -- also noting a quote from Mario Vargas Llosa: "That is what authenticity or sincerity is for the novelist: the acceptance of his own demons and the decision to serve them as well as possible." Can you talk about how accepting your demons/decisions and staying true to your vision has served you over the course of your career? AG: I think many writers write out of a longing to be understood -- to be heard, legitimized, respectabilized. So if you’re not staying true to your artistic vision, what good is it for that vision to be legitimized? It’s not going to be gratifying. Of course, in some ways, you don’t have a choice about sticking to your artistic vision. Llosa says this, too -- that writers don’t choose their themes, but rather that these themes are foisted upon them by personal history; Updike even said the same thing about style, that a writer’s style is inherent to him, simply the written equivalent to how the world “hits his or her nerves.” I don’t mean to say you should ignore criticism, especially when it’s made repeatedly, nor should you cling to some unbending, macho notion of integrity. For some people, compromise is radical. I say, surround yourself with trustworthy people, put your knife between your teeth, unplug, stop talking, and write. TM: What are you working on now? AG: Playing with my baby daughter. Wondering what her future will be like for her.
1. Earlier this year, my friend Dave Tompkins emailed me with “a random Nabokov-related question.” (How did he know that that is my favorite kind of question?) There was a passage he was trying to find, “from either a Nabokov short story, or possibly Lolita,” concerning telephone poles. “He's on a train, or in a car, and notices the succession of telephone poles he passes, seemingly being repeatedly knocked back -- or down -- by the window frame,” Dave wrote. “Does this ring a bell?” I remembered the image, something we’ve all witnessed, but that only Nabokov thought to hammer — beautifully, emphatically — into prose. I couldn’t recall where it appeared. Pnin? Sebastian Knight? (Lots of train travel in both.) Dave wrote again the next day: “So i sat in Book Court and scanned Lolita for an hour. No telephone poles there! Must be in the [short stories]. I'll keep at it.” A little later, Speak, Memory swam into my mind, and I emailed Dave the good news that our quarry had been located. (It turns out they are telegraph poles.) I liked that Dave would remember that image, enough to want to track it down. And I loved when, months later, I started reading Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, and found this patch on p. 36. Tall, innocent Oppen Porter is leaving his hometown after the death of his father and heading by bus to the titular city, where he will live under the care of his aunt. I missed my bicycle already, bicycle travel was the perfect speed, traveling at this speed was pointless, you missed everything. But then I figured that if I was going to be a man of the world, I should learn to appreciate other modes of transport, I should give the bus a fair shake, and so I opened my eyes and I opened my mind and I saw something I never would have noticed on a bicycle unless I was going very, very fast down a very long hill. Because of the speed of the bus and how I was exerting no effort, the telephone wires on the side of the road, sagging between poles, went up and down with the same rhythm as my heartbeat. 2. Crushes: Joe Meno's Office Girl, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl; Don Lee’s The Collective (an alternate universe in which the main characters are all Asian American artists); Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? and Anouk Ricard's Anna & Froga; Sarah Manguso's The Guardians (memoir) and Jane Yeh's The Ninjas (poetry). New credo is line from Yeh's "Sherlock Holmes on the Trail of the Abominable Snowman": "O tempura, O monkeys." 3. I was afraid to even open John Connolly and Declan Burke’s Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, because don’t I have enough to read already? But there was an essay from Bill Pronzini, which I had to read — Pronzini was one of the earliest champions of Harry Stephen Keeler. I’m glad I took his recommendation and downloaded Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel (1953), a dose of pure noir, packed with humor and jolts and darkly elegant writing. Two scenes are seared into my memory — but this is a spoiler-free space. Please read and we’ll compare notes. 4. Two stories by David Gordon, "We Happy Few" (Five Chapters) and "Man-Boob Summer" (Paris Review) — pure pleasure. 5. Online: Mary-Kim Arnold's Tumblr (formerly known as We Pitched a Tent at Night), is a lyric essay unfolding in real time. Title of the year: "Finishing Bluets in a Strip Mall Gym in Livonia, NY." And I loved Rob Horning's gonzo dissection (in The New Inquiry) of a transcendentally abysmal Van Morrison album cover. Horning writes: "It’s like [Morrison] is daring his audience to listen to it. The message seems to be: 'See how indifferent I am to the surface things of this world? I put out my music with this on the cover. That’s how far I have moved beyond petty commercial posturing. Fuck you, here’s a rainbow.' ” 6. Devin McKinney's The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda and Dylan Hicks's Boarded Windows. (I suppose I think of them in the same breath because their names begin with the same letter and they are both soft-spoken Midwesterners.) I didn’t think I cared as much about Fonda as I do about the Beatles (the subject of McKinney’s previous book, Magic Circles), but McKinney made me pay attention. This is biography as poetical, political essay. Boarded Windows is a self-assured debut that comes with a sort-of soundtrack, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, which you should listen to right now. "Thank You For Your Postcard" is a perfect short story, constrained by what can fit on a 3x5 piece of decorated cardboard: "Later on the soles of our shoes/Were white with Tuileries dust/Thank you for your postcard/I read it on the bus." More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The title of Joseph Epstein’s Essays in Biography is a bit misleading. Most of these pieces are not really essays, at least not in the rarefied Montaignean or Emersonian sense, but rather book reviews, usually of biographies or collections of letters. Being an occasional reviewer of books myself, I mean not to cast aspersions upon what is frequently thankless, almost always ill-paid work. I do not begrudge anyone the chance to slap old verdicts between hard or softcovers and run a kind of Fleet Street victory lap. In my experience, collections like these make for great reading. Few books have given me more enjoyment than, say, Evelyn Waugh’s Essays, Articles and Reviews or the six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s Essays. Besides, 15 minutes with Middlemarch takes the reader from the Brookes’ table to the Brookes’ library; 15 minutes with Donat Gallagher’s Waugh omnibus takes one from a Santa Claus outside the flagship New York City Macy’s to P.G. Wodehouse’s villa in Le Touquet. Not, as attention spans continue to atrophy, an unworthy consideration. Essays in Biography, Joseph Epstein’s 23rd book, is no exception to this rule. Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar and a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and The Hudson Review, is an old reviewing hand. This king-sized volume is his fourth (and largest) collection of reviews. An abridged table of contents restricted to subjects whose last names begin with S should give an idea of the present collection’s scope: George Santayana, Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Susan Sontag, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Epstein almost always manages to offer both a witty capsule biography and a judicious estimate of his subject’s merits qua novelist, historian, memoirist, or center-fielder. He tends, however, to be less insightful about the actual books he is reviewing than about their subjects en tout, which might explain (without actually justifying) the Axios Press’s decisions to call these 38 pieces “essays.” Bound to elicit peals of outrage is the dust jacket’s assertion that Epstein is “the greatest living essayist.” Whether he has earned this accolade is open to question; he certainly does not deserve it on the basis of this collection alone. But Epstein strikes me as being worthier than most. Throughout the five or so decades during which he has been a professional writer, the quality of his output has not decreased, as an hour or two spent with Middle of My Tether (1983) and In a Cardboard Belt! (2007) should make clear. Still: better, I think, to ignore these marketing fudges and just read the book. Essays in Biography is divided into four not very well thought out sections: “Americans,” “Englishmen,” “Popular Culture,” “And Others.” Here we have a textbook example of faulty parallelism: two nationalities, one cultural demarcation, and one catch-all. There are other problems, too. “Americans,” at nearly 300 pages, is three times as long as any of the other sections. Surely Bohemia-born Erich Heller, who sits beside Solzhenitsyn and Xenophon in “And Others,” was at least as British as his fellow naturalized citizens T.S. Eliot and Isaiah Berlin, who appear here as “Englishmen.” An Englishman, by the way, is “A man who is English by descent, birth, or naturalization; (typically) a man born in England or of English parents;” while George Eliot, filed under “Englishmen,” was simply not a man. These pieces ought to have been arranged along more interesting (and logical) thematic lines or else simply appeared in the order in which Epstein wrote them. Any attempt to sum up a book like Essays in Biography is bound to read like a balance sheet: approvals on the right-hand column, disapprovals on the left. Of the figures considered here, I would say that Epstein “approves” of some 26. Epstein’s affinities are elective and occasionally eclectic, but rarely eyebrow-raising. He admires George Washington, George Santayana, T.S. Eliot, and Max Beerbohm; was friends with Irving Kristol, John Gross, and Erich Heller; and does not think highly of Henry Luce, Susan Sontag, or Gore Vidal. Readers who remember that Epstein was voted off the island at The American Scholar for being (in his words) “insufficiently correct politically” will not be surprised to learn that my right-left dichotomy above works politically as well. The “heavy bag” of Irving Howe’s “largely false ideas. . . marred much of his criticism and guaranteed the irrelevance of his politics;” Arthur Schlesinger “turns out to be a man on whom everything was lost;” Sontag “had no notion that not literature but self-promotion was her true métier.” The exception to this is his 34-page retrospective on Adlai Stevenson, which originally appeared in Commentary in 1968. Epstein calls the liberal Illinois senator “a fundamentally decent man in a political climate where decency was a rare commodity,” a judgment that this reactionary critic wishes more of his fellows had offered of the late, yeomanly George McGovern. If Senator Stevenson sees him at his most indulgent, then Saul Bellow, his old racquetball partner, shows Epstein at his most caustic. According to Epstein, Bellow was dishonest, gullible, manipulative, lecherous, and resentful; a betrayer of friends, a holder of grudges, and a chronic changer of his own mind. Moreover: Despite all the prizes and critical praise, one comes up against the possibility that Saul Bellow wasn’t truly a novelist. He could do extraordinary, even marvelous, things: draw a wondrous cityscape; describe a face at the MRI level of detail; capture the comedy in self-presentations; soar in great lyrical, and even more in intellectual and metaphysical, flights. The problem was that he couldn’t quite seem to land the plane. His endings never quite fit, which is to say, work. He couldn’t do the first, essential thing that novelists with vastly less talent than he know in their bones how to do, which is to construct convincing plots. Even to a Bellow passionné much of this will ring true. Still, when this piece appeared in the December 2010 issue of The New Criterion, I remember asking myself why Epstein had bothered. After all, in “My Brother Eli,” a short story that had appeared four years earlier in The Hudson Review, he made more or less the same charges against a thinly-disguised Bellow. (He even directed at “Eli” Sandra Hochman’s claim that the author of The Adventures of Augie March “didn’t know a clitoris from a kneecap.”) James Atlas’s reasonably sympathetic biography does not leave one with the impression that Bellow was an especially decent human being. But I do not think that Bellow, in whose life Epstein admits he “was never a central figure,” really deserves the animus Epstein directs at him both here and in such far-flung places as his essays on, respectively, the life of Isaac Rosenfield and the correspondence of V.S. Naipul and Paul Theroux, both of which also appear in the present collection. Enjoyable as they are, some of Epstein’s shorter pieces do not seem like they belong with others in this collection: the scope of the pieces on John Frederick Nims, Susan Sontag, and George Gershwin is simply too restricted for them to appear alongside, say, his near pamphlet on Henry Luce. The titular conceit at the heart of Essays in Biography also prevents the inclusion of some of Epstein’s best recent work, including “Heavy Sentences,” a hilarious and incisive review-essay from the June 2011 New Criterion that helped set in motion a reissue of Style, F.L. Lucas’s long out-of-print guide to prose composition. Kingsley Amis, in one of those feats of hilarious contrarianism he was always performing, famously savaged Lolita in The Spectator. The most memorable part of his review is a catalogue of Nabokov’s stylistic tics that appears after a longish quote from the novel: “No extract...could do justice to the sustained din of pun, allusion, neologism, alliteration, cynghanedd, apostrophe, parenthesis, rhetorical question. French, Latin, anent, perchance, would fain, for the nonce -- here is style and no mistake.” For Amis, all self-conscious attempts at “style” amount ultimately to nothing more than “a high idiosyncratic noise-level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax and diction.” Amis’s point is, or should be, well-taken. A style that is not the literary expression of an appealing personality -- archness alone does not qualify -- is simply annoying. The most common criticism of Epstein I know is made more or less along these lines. He is, some would argue, a great prose stylist but not a very deep thinker, a septuagenarian poseur who has admittedly mastered euphony but whose prose leaves one feeling a bit cold. I have never found this to be the case. Like his mentor A.J. Liebling, Epstein dispenses real wisdom with what looks like insouciance but is really just old-fashioned agility. The most marked characteristic of his prose is a maddening subtlety that allows him to be breezy without sounding flippant, to appear learned without being pedantic, and, most strikingly, to be moral but never moralistic. His personality escapes the page with such force that, having read at least two horizontal feet of his books, one is almost tempted to think of him as a witty, fair-minded, loquacious uncle. Thank God for Uncle Joe.
The suburban Dick and Jane characters of A.M. Homes’s oeuvre smoke crack, set their homes ablaze, lust for Barbie dolls, and teach teenage girls the art of perversion. In her new novel, the trend continues with a duplicitous protagonist whose actions take us straight to the divided heart of human consciousness. Spineless college professor and Nixon scholar Harold Silver is wearing his brother’s pants. He’s using his brother’s driver’s license, living in his brother’s home, and taking care of his brother’s kids. Younger taller brother George, a successful TV executive and the more charming, more mercurial half of the pair, has killed wife Jane after finding her in bed with brother Harry. Within the first few pages of the novel, Jane is dead and George has been exiled to The Lodge, an in-patient facility for wealthy murderers with good insurance, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces of his brother’s dramatically disaggregating life. A year later, Harry will reminisce on the night he stood pressed against Jane over the greasy carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey and he’ll ask the question that serves as the title of the book: “May We Be Forgiven?” Wait. Rewind. May who be forgiven? We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about the plot. The twists and turns in May We Be Forgiven are classic A.M. Homes. At first glance, Harry is a bumbling everyday man who imagines himself, much like his unlikely hero Richard Nixon, an unassuming salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who just happens to find himself in one compromising situation after another. He stumbles onto his brother’s internet porn where people advertise their bare bits like a pride of lions on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then, as if there’s no other option, he drives across town for a real-time tryst with a woman who insists on paying for sex because she wants a man who can feel both the pleasure and the degradation. Later, we find Harry seeking redemption at a church meeting where, under the alias Nit, he divulges his darkest secrets to a group of people who respond by asking if he has a drinking problem (oops, wrong meeting). After several visits to The Lodge, things get even stranger when George is transferred to The Woodsman, a “low-cost survival-of-the-fittest penal colony” where micro-chipped prisoners police themselves under constant satellite surveillance, also Wild Kingdom-style. Somewhere amidst murder, kinky sex, and Harry’s budding relationships with a collection of random strangers, is a nested story about impeached President Richard Nixon. Homes’s satire on the troubled history of the American Presidency not only adds a layer of complexity to Harry’s character, it also raises questions about our ignorance of American institutions of government. But, as with the rest of the novel, she administers this medicine with a dose of scintillating humor. For instance, in Harry’s theory of Presidential politics, there are two types of Presidents: one type has a lot of sex and the other type starts wars. In short, says Harry, and “don’t quote me because this is an incomplete expression of a more complex premise -- I believe blow jobs prevent wars.” One can certainly follow the advice of the dust jacket and read the novel as a darkly comic tale about a family reinventing itself after a series of blunders and tragedies. But wouldn’t it be more fun to pay attention to the book’s duplicity, its cornucopia of references to history, culture and authors like John Cheever, who appears in the novel as an apparition, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who shows up indirectly when George tells Harry to mind the black spot on his Gertrude Jekyll roses? Wouldn’t it be more interesting, in other words, to read Harry as a man who doesn’t know he’s gone mad and whose brother George, like the ghost of Cheever, is also an apparition? Scenes where Harry asks George if “we screw[ed]...the neighbor lady” leave the impression that there’s more going on here than pathologically blurred boundaries. Similarly, when Harry looks in the mirror and watches his face divide and fall in half, when he considers himself as much a murderer as George, and asks himself why he’s out of context as if he doesn’t really exist, we feel a sense of vertigo. This does beg the question, who is the “we” asking to be forgiven in the opening paragraph of the novel? Certainly readers will find in Harry echoes of the adulterer, John the Baptist, praying for us all to be forgiven our sins. Homes repeatedly plays upon religious irony, including one of my favorite scenes at a Yom Kippur service in which Harry joyously proclaims, “I am guilty. I am guilty of even more than I realized I could be guilty of...,” while a rabbi recites a litany of familiar sins. Beneath the surface, Harry never really connects his guilt with his actions. He’s a multifaceted character who projects everything dark and desirous onto a brother he can’t distinguish from himself, suggesting that the “we” is a beastly side of Harry, personified in George. But this remains an open question because Homes is a novelist who immerses readers in the world of her characters and keeps them there from beginning to end. May We Be Forgiven is a novel that never breaks that pact. This, friends, is the crowning achievement of the novel. As unreliable narrators go, Homes’s fraternal doppelgänger outdoes both that of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and the unnamed insomniac putz who fights with his alter-ego in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The difference is that there’s a certain rationality in the two wildly popular precursors, which allows the reader to sit back and watch the character’s insanity unfold. James Wood calls this kind of narration “reliably unreliable.” Referencing seminal examples of unreliable first-person narration like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Nabokov’s Lolita, Wood argues that these novels teach us how to read the character’s instability because their authors alert us to it and show us how to plug the holes. In May We Be Forgiven, the reader doesn’t have the luxury of distance. From page one, she is inside Harry’s head, inside his body, feeling his dizzying confusion, perhaps even hallucinating up a whole makeshift family, unable to distinguish reality from a dream in one moment and just a regular guy in the next. This places Harry Silver in the far more rare category of “unreliably unreliable” narrators, a category populated by only a handful of novels, most notably the underground man of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. David Foster Wallace said that good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. This book may not be the first choice for those who want to be comfortable. Its point of view is unsettling, even outright disturbing. At times, I felt like I was sitting on the weighted bob of Foucault’s pendulum (also noted in the book), the background shifting constantly and characters appear and disappear as the pendulum swings from one context to the next. Other times, I felt as though I was inside an Escher piece, from one angle viewing a perfect portrait of a mad man; from another, a world that looked frighteningly familiar, Harry’s madness a symptom of the fragmented, dissociated, techno-happy culture we live in. While Homes’s tragicomedy may trouble some readers, it meets and far exceeds Wallace’s criteria for good fiction. For readers like me who choose Homes’s work because it reminds us to be courageous and shows us how to do it, May We Be Forgiven does not disappoint: it gives us a rare journey inside the divided heart of human consciousness, not a brief visit from a safe distance. A.M. Homes remains the most daring voice of her generation and May We Be Forgiven is her magnum opus.
Publishing for publishing’s sake was the last thing Danielle Dutton had in mind when she founded her independent press called the Dorothy Project three years ago. “Starting a press simply to add to the piles and piles of books in the world (or just in my house) wasn’t interesting to me,” Dutton said via email. “I’ve long admired presses that seem to carve out a specific niche all their own, such as Dalkey Archive (where I worked for four years before starting Dorothy), or Siglio (a press out of L.A. that focuses on work at the intersection of art and literature, and which, incidentally, published my second book).” To that end, Dorothy follows a disciplined model: two books a year with the goal “to seek out and publish writing that takes risks, that surprises and challenges and delights us as readers; to have a tightly curated list; and to work to create beautiful book objects.” The focus on quality over quantity has had good results. “We’ve been incredibly lucky so far for a new small press,” Dutton said, citing “good coverage” for the press itself and many reviews. “I’m very thankful for that, and I wonder if reviewers and editors have been intrigued by our constraint-based plan (only two books per year, all the same size, mostly written by women). We’re doing something specific, and maybe that is, for better or worse, an ‘angle’ by which to approach us.” Well-known, experimental writers such as Ben Marcus have taken notice: for The Millions’s 2011 “Year in Reading” series, he recommended the Dorothy Project’s reprint of Barbara Comyn’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Future projects will include the final book in Renee Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy, and a collection of stories by Amina Cain. The two books Dutton selects each year are intended to form a contrast. “This year’s two books — Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler — both deal with madness. Both are debut novels from younger American women writers. But stylistically they’re worlds apart, and the fact that they came together as a perfect pair was somewhat accidental.” Both go on sale this month. Fra Keeler begins as an investigation by an anonymous, male narrator into the mysterious death of the title character. The first scene shows him buying Keeler’s house from a realtor. (Certain) events of the unfriendliest category are now unfolding. I cannot put my finger on these events; I cannot pinpoint the exact dimensions of their effect. The truth is, I haven’t been the same since Fra Keeler’s death. Some deaths are more than just a death, I keep thinking, and Fra Keeler’s was exemplary in this sense. And it is the same thought since I left the realtor’s office: some people’s deaths need to be thoroughly investigated, and, Yes, I think then, Yes: I bought this home in order to fully investigate Fra Keeler’s death. We’re not told what the narrator’s relationship is to Keeler, why he needs to go so far as to buy the man’s house, or where he came up with the money. These omitted facts — carefully ignored pieces of character- and plot-information — belie how much this narrator depends on the momentum of his thoughts to keep his story moving. The manic energy in the language sustains a careful, unsettling tension that’s central to the plot and the novel’s meaning. We soon learn that this man is a keenly intelligent person suffering not from grief over Keeler’s death, but extreme curiosity and paranoid fixation. After telling how he moved into Keeler’s house, he suddenly stops to say, ominously, “Things creep up on us when we deny their existence. ...I must retrace,” and then he dives into a flashback that takes up the bulk of the book. In terms of plot action, he accepts a package from the mailman, makes a phone call, looks out the window, drinks water in the kitchen, goes for a walk in the nearby canyon (the valley of death?), and visits a neighbor. Meanwhile, he muses on causation and the nature of time, sits in a canoe he finds in the time-traveling yurt that’s appeared in the yard, and later decides that all of humanity’s perception of time is a “purified lie.” Headaches and dizzy spells come and go. He grows suspicious of an old woman in the neighborhood, then sees her face — or his own mother’s face — in a dream, accusing him of throwing acid at her. Van der Vliet Oloomi’s spare, clear language sets this novel apart from other fiction about mental illness. The controlled tone adds complexity to the narrator’s unreliability as we maintain an immediate awareness of who he is versus what he’s telling us. Well-placed surreal scenes are also described plainly, and then mocked sometimes, as in this moment where a cactus turns into an old woman: I spotted a cactus a few feet away. The stems were bowing down toward the ground. Not like a light bulb, I thought, this cactus, and I walked one full circle around it. It is a green mass of death, I thought. I stood there for a while, the cactus occupying the whole space of my brain, just as the sky had occupied it a moment earlier. I mused over the shape of the cactus until a chubby, toothless old lady formed in its place. She stared at the horizon. She said, “Take a good look, because this is me now, this is me as I am dying.” I felt a second pang go through my chest. I didn’t know if it was the cactus talking, or the old lady. Weren’t they one and the same, hadn’t they emerged from the same entity? Then, I thought, what rot, the things in one’s head. Because images just appear, an old lady out of nowhere, where the cactus had been. One minute, and then the next, what is the use of these things? He’s a kook with depth. As a person, he comes across as witty and self-effacing, not powerfully cold and psychotic. He later comments on why madness may be necessary in life, and makes moral judgments about other people’s behavior. Naturally, these aspects humanize him and elicit our sympathy and it doesn’t hurt that he acts like a lovable goofball at times. “Dumb as a lobster, you are Mr. Mailman,” he says at one point, while after a snack and a stroll, he says with childlike joy, “How helpful the slice of bread had been, the walk in the canyon!” He would be charming. But there’s the book’s violent ending to consider. And as I did, I saw this charm being put to a specific purpose. As I thought about it, Fra Keeler reminded me of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, Roberto Bolano’s The Third Reich, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Reticence, not to mention big classics like Crime and Punishment and Lolita. And what emerged as I considered a bit of context was that one vital aspect is Fra Keeler’s construction: the ending recasts the whole tenor of the book, illuminating who that realtor truly was and who the narrator might really have been. Then something clicked: the book had ingeniously play-acted a role I had wanted it to perform. From this angle, Fra Keeler can be viewed as a critique of the attraction many writers, readers, critics, and scholars have to the clichéd glamor of evil, who fetishize the gorgeous anguish associated with men struggling with mental illness. And once we make this connection between novels that revel in spectacles of madness to the male violence at its roots (see Raskolnikov, Humbert, et al), and after we acknowledge that readers thrill to such spectacles and scholars add them to the canon – should this not prick at the conscience and urge us to examine our tastes? Sure, it may only be fiction. But our enjoyment of it says a lot. Avoiding this issue seems to do ourselves and these male characters (and their male shadows in the real world), a disservice, waiting as it were for the next male-ghoul to be put on mad-parade in front of us to jab and laugh at as we turn the page — while pretending we’re actually learning more about the glory, jest, and riddle of the world. To be clear, Fra Keeler does not abuse its male narrator in this way. Van der Vliet Oloomi hints sympathetically that war, that poisoned source of eternal male vainglory, is what might have driven the narrator to violence and madness. Rather, one of the things Fra Keeler does is offer a wondrously clear lens to those who want to examine tastes that have been taught to lurch grotesquely in the direction of male anxiety, mental illness, and violence when seeking so-called good literature.
Following up her post about Judy Blume’s Forever, our own Lydia Kiesling writes about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for PEN American Center’s ongoing series for Banned Books Month. It's a book, Kiesling writes, which serves as an "exhibition of a uniquely talented person at the zenith of his powers." (This isn’t the first time she’s discussed the book, by the way.)
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I'd learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary's office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves... (As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it's about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were "stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat." Gary Fisketjon's industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.) ...so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. "What's this?" I asked. "That's a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates," Gary said. "Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it." I took it. I read it. I loved it. It's the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife's death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son's girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I'll carry that image in my head as long as I live. Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I've been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they're just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand. Over the years I've developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles: 1. An Unforgettable Character's Name This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes: Shakespeare's Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he'd gone with Yorick, that "fellow of infinite jest," which no doubt puts me in a minority of one). Walker Percy's Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: "What nuns don't realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.") Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon). Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (two icons who became franchises). Cormac McCarthy's Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word "debauched"). Jane Austen's Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn't dream of saying so). Stephen King's Carrie (you've got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig's blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what's not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker). 2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere Elmore Leonard's Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre). Gore Vidal's Duluth (alluring precisely because it's so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire). Karen Russell's Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida). Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson's other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home). Geoffrey Wolff's Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – "a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod" – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God's inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops). Thomas Pynchon's Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel). Marshall Frady's Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it's one of my all-time favorite books). Then, on the downside, there's James Michener's Hawaii (a title that's about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space). 3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences Josephine Hart's Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel's title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son's fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion). James Dickey's Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder). Martin Amis' novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it's bursting with the things that made America great – "fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs"); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips). William S. Burroughs' Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985). Harry Crews' Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews). 4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell's runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow). Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter's Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America's state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers' unions. According to this harridan-hottie, "The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office." Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn't fat!) Robin Cook's Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock). Mark Kurlansky's Cod and Salt (books that claim, breathlessly and falsely, to be about simple things that single-handedly changed the history of the universe). 5. One-Letter Titles You can't get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O'Connor reminded us, and if you're a book title you can't be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z: Andy Warhol's A (you'd have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let's be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist). Fred Chappell's C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection). Tom McCarthy's C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy's first novel was titled Remainder). John Updike's S. (it's the initial of the novel's protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert). Thomas Pynchon's V. (no, Pynchon's first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it's a woman's initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?). Georges Perec's W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp). Vassilis Vassilikos' Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it's about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand). In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
In the lead story of Rajesh Parameswaran’s acclaimed first collection, I Am An Executioner, a Bengal tiger escapes from an American zoo and runs amuck. “The Infamous Bengal Ming” is hair-raising, but all I could think of while reading it was: Not one more tiger-escaping-from-zoo story? Tiger Lit has never been so popular. Look at the number of award-winning fictions in the last decade in which tigers escape from zoos. There’s Rajesh Parameswaran’s story (the collection may well win a prize); Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife; Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-finalist play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; Carol Birch’s Booker-shortlisted Jamrach’s Menagerie; Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winner The White Tiger, in which the tiger’s escape is a metaphor for breaking out of the cage of poverty; and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which also bagged a Booker. And we’re just talking tigers here, not animals-escaping-from-zoo fictions, which would give us Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life, Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, and no doubt several others. All kinds of besotted, bombed-out, starving, mangy, metaphoric and misunderstood man-eaters are now on the loose. Not since Humbert Humbert got into his car with a different sort of lust have our literary highways been more unsafe -- or more exhilarating. From the roars of approval that have greeted each new work, it would appear that critics and jurors, having tasted blood, can’t get enough of this killer app generously spattered with words like rippling, rolling, muscular, tawny, fiery, flaming, red, pink, orange, carrot, golden, amber, yellow, black, musky, sour, and, of course, stripe-lashed. The grandfather of modern escapee Tiger Lit is probably the noted Indian writer R. K. Narayan, whose A Tiger for Malgudi, published in 1983, ends with a former circus tiger and a yogi wandering companionably into the hills. Ironically, very few contemporary Indian writers in English would dare to write about tigers today (except metaphorically like Adiga did) for fear of being pummeled for peddling exotica -- Adiga got pummeled anyway for peddling poverty -- even though the tiger, widely worshiped for its unlimited power and fertility, is about as exotic to India as poverty is. All the fictions mentioned above are essentially Western (Adiga’s apart), despite a dander of Indianness, in that either the writer or the tiger is a person of Indian origin (except for Téa Obreht who is Serbian-American and her tiger Siberian, but whose novel evokes India through its frequent invocations of Kipling’s The Jungle Book). Both Rajesh Parameswaran and Rajiv Joseph are Indian-American, and all the cats are Bengal tigers -- Joseph even specifies, with what one hopes is parochial satire, that his cat is from the Sunderbans in “West Bengal”, thereby ruling out any chance of it being Bangladeshi. The tigers are a mixed bunch ranging from the mangy to the magnificent. Some of them are regular chaps with a healthy disdain for man, others are Blakesian creatures tormented by their dietary preference for juicy children. Indeed, a spiritual subtext runs like spoor through these works, deepening the roots of textual kinship beyond that of a common plot line. Perhaps this braiding of reality and fable into a meaty mysticism is inevitable in stories where tigers are orphans, atheists, metaphors, stowaways and ghosts; where they fall in love with their zoo keeper and are petted by little boys, deaf-mutes and derelicts; flee German, American and NATO bombs; catch flying fish alongside a young boy on a lifeboat; bite the hand that feeds them and, in an aching passage on what war does to caged animals, chomp on their own legs to assuage their hunger. At the raw, red heart of this literature beats the central question: where do animals fit in the social contract? Do they fit in the deadening comfort of the zoo, where they are fed pounds and pounds of glistening red meat and organs without having to raise a whisker? How do displacement and captivity deform their souls? What happens during war? In every story, the wild and jagged chiaroscuro of the tiger’s stripes is offset against the leaden symmetry of its cage. "Captivity and freedom," says Parameswaran in an interview to Granta, "are fundamental themes in American history and in literature broadly. Vladimir Nabokov says that Lolita was inspired by the story of an ape in a zoo ‘who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing every charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage." Obreht says that she felt a sneaking sympathy for Kipling’s universally reviled Shere Khan, and that her own tiger was a kind of corrective to that mean, buffoon image. Clearly, she speaks for her pack. When the various tigers break free, and the killings begin, authorial awe is palpable in the treatment of the way this endangered predator discovers its primitive natural instinct, its livid sense of smell, and the unbelievably sweet taste of freshly killed meat. Despite occasional lapses into sentimentalism and garrulity -- tiger spiritualism can get tricky -- these imaginative and empathetic fictions go a long way to deepening our understanding of the shared mammalian impulses of love, violence, freedom, and above all, a lust for life. "The Infamous Bengal Ming" by Rajesh Parameswaran This story could easily be called "Lost in Translation." Ming the tiger is in love with his bald, chubby zoo keeper Kitch. But then Kitch mistakes Ming’s love for aggression and smacks him on the nose with a thin, long stick that he always carries but has never ever used before. Hell hath no fury like a tiger scorned. Ming pounces on Kitch, and love bites him like a vampire, “just once, hard and quick” in the neck. But never having hurt a man in his life, Ming is clueless about his own strength and is aghast at what he has done. He tries desperately to lap at Kitch’s neck to stanch the flow, and then, in a spine-tingling introduction of menace, realizes that he can’t stop licking because “Kitch’s blood was delicious.” In that one line, a killer is born. Ming breaks free, and feels a “strange and terrifying euphoria.” The story continues in this darkly comic vein with the bungling, well-meaning tiger trying to help a human cub (even though it smells terrible) by using his giant mouth to provide “a warm, comforting womb for it,” only to be filled with self-loathing when he realizes that he has “stupidly, inadvertently, recklessly suffocated it.” He even roars encouragingly at it from his “hot and humid lungs” but it refuses to stir. Parameswaran’s prose has the tender-savage texture of a rare steak veined with blood, and even though one feels a juddering revulsion when Ming the merciless chomps blissfully on fresh viscera and declares, “I have never felt so much love in all my life,” it also feels utterly and helplessly right. Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch Jamrach’s tiger is trigger rather than theme of Birch’s Victorian-era novel. He stars only in the first few pages of the story, when he breaks out of his cage and meets dreamy, young Jaffy Brown. That brief encounter in a filthy London market, during which Jaffy strokes the tiger on the nose and is gently picked up by the scruff of his neck, radically changes his fortunes. By the time Jaffy is carried home to his mother, his head, which a few minutes ago, was smaller than the tiger’s paw, now feels larger that “St. Paul’s dome” and is bursting with tiger love. Not only is this regal tiger-man cub encounter (based on a true event) an inversion of the Shere Khan-Mowgli hate-fest, but Birch gives us with what is easily one of the most eloquent descriptions of a tiger’s face as seen through a boy’s wonder-struck eyes. Her calm, Zen-like paean has resonances of Blake’s “fearful symmetry”, but instead of the dread hand of fear, an intense stirring of awe is what one feels. Here’s Jaffy talking about his tiger: The Sun himself came down and walked on earth…This cat was the size of a small horse, solid, massively chested, rippling powerfully about the shoulders. He was gold, and the pattern painted so carefully all over him, so utterly perfect, was the blackest black in the world. His paws were the size of footstools, his chest snow white…He drew me like honey draws a wasp. I had no fear. I came before the godly indifference of his face and looked into his clear yellow eyes. His nose was a slope of downy gold, his nostrils pink and moist as a pup’s. He raised his thick, white dotted lips and smiled, and his whiskers bloomed…Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose. Even now I feel how beautiful that touch was. Nothing had ever been so soft and clean...he raised his paw—bigger than my head—and lazily knocked me off my feet. It was like being felled by a cushion. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph Rajiv Joseph’s brutal play was inspired by a bizarre but true news report of a tiger in a bombed-out Baghdad zoo biting off the hand of an American soldier. This scathing critique of the Iraq war uses grotesque comedy and magic realism to devastating effect. Joseph’s tiger chomps the right hand of a soldier who is sweetly but stupidly trying to feed it a Slim Jim. The tiger is then shot dead with Uday Hussein’s gold gun which the solider has looted along with a gold toilet seat he plans to flog on eBay. Tiger becomes a mangy, ghetto-mouthed ghost who stalks through the city saying “motherfucker” and gets completely spooked by the “burned and skeletal” animal topiary in Uday Hussein’s private garden, an eerie stand-in for a perverted Eden. “I mean, what the fuck is this supposed to be?...Vegetative beasts?...People. First they throw all the animals in a zoo and then they carve up the bushes to make it look like we never left.” The tiger hates the fact that his ghost has been condemned to wander this burning city, and thinks of himself as Dante in Hades. In a broader examination of war and man’s affinity for violence, he recalls how he had once devoured a girl and a boy, and wonders if that makes him evil, only to solemnly conclude: “It wasn’t cruel, it was lunch.” The only reason this damning play managed to be staged on Broadway – which loves bombshells but hates bombs – was because it had the crowd-pulling cat on its cast. Unfortunately, the tiger’s precious monologues are the one off-key note in this otherwise pitch-perfect play. Like the one-handed solider who pays a young Iraqi prostitute to stand behind him and help him jerk off because his new robotic right hand can’t do it and his left hand can’t get the angle right, the tiger’s belabored intellectual masturbation has the same cack-handed feel. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht Obreht’s novel has one main tiger (the titular husband) and two in walk-on roles, though walk-on is a cruel term for Zbogom (Freedom) who, crazed with fear and hunger during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, begins to “eat his own legs, first one then another,” in a bloody metaphor for the fragmentation of the country. The main tiger is another war victim, but of the German bombs that pounded Belgrade in 1941. By the time he breaks free, he is mangy, missing teeth and a “host for leeches.” The streets are littered with corpses, so he feasts on “the dense watery taste of the bloated dead” until he makes his first kill, a juicy young calf, and is sent into an ecstasy of longing for fresh meat, bovine or human. He begins to haunt a mountain village, and the villagers, who have never seen a tiger before, are convinced that a yellow-eyed devil has descended. The only two who are unafraid are the narrator’s grandfather, then a young boy addicted to Jungle Book, and the butcher’s wife, a teenage, deaf-mute Muslim girl with large eyes and a runny nose, whom the butcher calls bitch and beats to a pulp. Obreht’s novel is deeply political but curiously nameless — there are no Serbians, Bosnians or Allied Forces, and the country is not identified. The only two outsider-enemies who are identified are the tiger and the Muslim girl. A brief and wondrous kinship ignites between these two outcasts. She steals out at night to feed him meat from the smoke house, and when the butcher mysteriously dies and she turns out to be pregnant, the village is convinced that she has become the tiger’s wife. This fable was inspired by Beauty and the Beast, and Obreht is on the mark when she says that the tiger’s voice “came very naturally to her and felt right.” With crafted, velveteen prose, she evokes the tiger’s mythic presence, his warm, sour smell and “big red, heart clenching and unclenching under the ribs.” The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga Balram Halwai, a desperately poor man from rural India, and the titular character of this unsparingly harsh novel, is employed as the chauffeur of a corrupt feudal family in Delhi. Servant and master represent the two Indias -- the India of darkness and the India of light, and Balram is consumed by an almost deranged desire to escape his India, haunted as he is by the memory of his tubercular rickshaw-puller father. Nor is he satisfied with the bones that have been thrown him -- a new uniform and regular meals. “In the old days,” he says, “there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days there are just two castes: men with big bellies and men with small bellies and only two destinies: eat or get eaten up.” The predatory analogy recurs when he compares the plight of the poor to hens in a chicken coop. “Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.” Balram doesn’t want to be eaten. The law of the jungle says that the only way not to be eaten is to become the eater, the tiger. But not any tiger. He realizes this when he visits the National Zoo in Delhi, where he sees that rare and special beast, a white tiger, pacing restlessly in his pen like “the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film.” The tiger, he says, was “hypnotizing himself by walking like this -- it was the only way he could tolerate his cage.” Suddenly, the tiger stops, turns and looks him in the eye. In that piercing, epiphanic moment, so potent that he faints with rapture, Balram realizes that he “can’t live the rest of his life in a cage.” If he has to kill to break free, well, the India of Light has gotten away with murder. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel A garrulous, funny, and moving fable of faith and survival, which Barack Obama called “an elegant proof of God and the power of storytelling.” But first things first. Martel’s talkative narrator, the Hindu-Muslim-Christian Pi Patel, should get a gold medal for coming up with the most extravagant analogies ever used to describe a tiger's bits and pieces -- including its feces. Pi’s heightened observations are the result of him being shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger called Richard Parker for company. So here goes. The “flame-colored carnivore” has paws larger than “volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica” and a round head larger than the “planet Jupiter;” his mouth is “an enormous pink cave” with teeth like “long yellow stalactites and stalagmites” and a tongue “the size and color of a rubber hot-water bottle;” his ears are “perfect arches;” his feces (which hungry Pi tries to eat and spits out) “a big ball of gulab jamun but with none of the softness;” his mating cry “as rich as gold or honey and as spine-tingling as the depth of an unsafe mine or a thousand angry bees;” and his leaping body “a fleeting, furred rainbow.” Want more? Pi is positively rapturous on his first-mate’s “carrot-orange face:” “The patches of white above the eyes, on the cheeks and around the mouth came off as finishing touches worthy of a Kathakali dancer. The result was a face that looked like the wings of a butterfly and bore an expression vaguely old and Chinese.” For 227 days, during which he swings between boredom and terror, Pi and the Kathakali-Chinese butterfly coexist. They make it because Pi manages to cow the horribly seasick tiger with shrill blasts from an orange whistle and keep them both alive by catching turtles and flying fish, having cannily divined that the zoo tiger looks upon him as a food provider and will spare him if he continues to provide. As his salt-encrusted body blisters and burns and his clothes fray to shreds, the vegetarian Pi discovers the joy of drinking “the fresh-tasting fluid from the eyes of large fish.” He goes from being sick with fear of Richard Parker to the realization that without him for company, he will lose the will to survive. Eventually, his prayers to Jesus, Mary, Muhammad, and Vishnu are answered and the two mammals are saved. But Pi is devastated, when, without so much as a backward glance Richard Parker slinks into the Mexican jungle. For the rest of his life he is haunted by this cold-hearted desertion, the lack of a proper goodbye. Perhaps Pi might derive some consolation from what the Indian poet Eunice de Souza has to say about Richard Parker’s haughty species in a poem called “Advice to Women:” Keep cats if you want to learn to cope with the otherness of lovers. Otherness is not always neglect – Cats return to their litter trays when they need to. Don't cuss out of the window at their enemies. That stare of perpetual surprise in those great green eyes will teach you to die alone. Image Credit: Wikipedia
I read Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor for Jennifer Byrne’s First Tuesday Book Club in Australia, and I loved it. A kind of Lolita from Lolita’s point of view. And thinking of Australian authors, I have to say I think Gail Jones is absolutely brilliant, in her writing and also in person. Her most recent novel is Five Bells. I read Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses finally this year (I realize I was slow on this one), and I think it deserves all its acclaim. This book has it all: a compelling, surprising, important story, well-drawn characters, beautiful landscape description, reflection that has you wondering about your own life, etc. I reviewed Ross Raisin’s new novel, Waterline, for the Financial Times, and I think this second novel confirms him as an exciting talent. In the U.S., I blurbed Keith Scribner’s new novel, The Oregon Experiment, because I just absolutely loved it. In the midst of anarchists and chaos, he offers uncommon sympathy and grace in a marriage lost then found, and redemption from what we fear most, that we can’t run from who we are, that the past is waiting to ambush us. 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.
I’ve always loved recommending books to people. At parties, I’ve been known to hold hostages in front of my bookshelves. I have, however, always preferred to let the books speak for themselves. I like sharing passages more than impressions, and I think that’s the best route to take. I read some great books in 2011. Below, I’d like to share some with you. Think of this as me standing in front of my bookshelf, pulling out some titles as I ramble on, and then opening to pages I think you should read. Don’t worry. I’ll hold your drink. The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich -- A book that grew in my mind after I finished it. I remember opening my mouth a lot as I read it, nodding unconsciously, losing focus on the narrative to admire the prose. To read Krilanovich’s book is to be hypnotized. Now, months later, I recall bits of phrases, such as how one drug-addled punk’s eyebrows fluttered and raised like a manic toilet flusher. That’s the language she used. Excerpt: Our town is doomed. We’re just hanging out waiting till it turns into the next thing, then we’ll go to sleep. Just build your shit around us, we’ll only go out at night anyway… The town slipped in and out of consciousness, depending on where you went. All the little twigs scraped at the ground like lace fans spread at the sun. Buckdancer’s Choice, James Dickey -- Dickey’s best known work is the film adaptation of Deliverance. In particular, his best known work is that one scene from Deliverance. Less known but nonetheless incredible is the man’s verse. A true American master, Southern or otherwise. These poems will inhabit you, and you’ll return to them often, and be better for it. Excerpt from “The Firebombing”: But in this half-paid-for pantry Among the red lids that screw off With an easy half-twist to the left And the long drawers crammed with dim spoons, I still have charge -- secret charge— Of the fire developed to cling To everything: to golf carts and fingernail Scissors as yet unborn tennis shoes Grocery baskets toy fire engines New Buicks stalled by the half-moon Shining at midnight on crossroads green paint Of jolly garden tools red Christmas ribbons: Not atoms, these, but glue inspired By love of country to burn, The apotheosis of gelatin. The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley -- Everyone knows Brave New World, but few have read Huxley’s historical nonfiction. Primarily about a French Jesuit priest’s sex scandal turned witch hunt turned public execution, The Devils of Loudun is also an interesting glimpse into Huxley’s ruminations on religion and mysticism before he experimented with mescaline. The work he wrote immediately after this one was The Doors of Perception, and you can see the beginnings of those thoughts here. Excerpt: Sex can be used either for self-affirmation or for self-transcendence -- either to intensify the ego and consolidate the social persona by some kind of conspicuous “embarkation” and heroic conquest, or else to annihilate the persona and transcend the ego in an obscure rapture of sensuality, a frenzy of romantic passion or, more credibly, in the mutual charity of the perfect marriage. If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino -- This book will hurt your head in the best way possible. Excerpt: You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice -- they won’t hear you otherwise -- “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone. The Avian Gospels, Adam Novy -- A man and his son can control birds. A judge is out to get them. War is perennial. If you’ve watched this video of a murmuration of starlings, you understand the beauty of bird swarms. If you read the book’s opening passage, you’ll want to read more. Excerpt: So many buildings had already been destroyed, the solitary walls like ruins submerged in flames, the city like an ocean of flames. Circles of maniacs prayed in the middle of the streets, and flapped their arms like birds. Teenage conscripts lay trapped beneath rubble, crying for their mothers, while comrades tried to get them out. Cats hauled their kittens through the ruins, and vultures swooped to seize them; a donkey gave birth inside a restaurant where dogs sipped at puddles of champagne, and cut their paws on broken bottles. Explosions shook the Earth; Katherine hardly kept her balance. Cobblestones zoomed past her head. A girl tried to carry a newborn foal on her back. Whoever won the war would rule ruins, be the king of stones and buzzards. Fires hurled themselves against the sky, as if in rapture, the city a cathedral of flame, flames like penitents to the sky. An elderly man thought his beard was in flames, and slapped at his face as he ran, calling, It burns! It burns! Men writhed on spears which had been rammed into the ground in perfect rows, a field of pain. Women carried infants like footballs. Birds choked on smoke and died mid-flight, raining in a deathstorm. Blood-Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, John Jeremiah Sullivan -- When I read the much-deserved hype pieces about Pulphead, I was disappointed by their failure to mention this book. Blood-Horses is, like most of Sullivan’s writing, a memoir that feels like it’s about you. It’s about horses, yes, but it’s also about a young man and his father, about the concept of bloodlines, and about the pursuit of beauty and perfection in the natural world. Excerpt: There is a passage on the tape [of Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont win] that I noticed only after watching it dozens of times. It occurs near the end of the race. The cameraman has zoomed up pretty close on Secretariat, leaving the lens just wide enough to capture the horse and a few feet of track. Then, about half a furlong before the wire (it is hard to tell), the camera inexplicably stops tracking the race and holds still. Secretariat rockets out of the frame, leaving the screen blank, or rather filled with empty track. I timed this emptiness -- the space between Secretariat exiting and Twice a Prince entering the image -- with my watch. It lasts seven seconds. And somehow each of these seconds says more about what made Secretariat great than any shot of him in motion could. In the history of profound absences -- the gaps in Sappho’s fragments, Christ’s tomb, the black panels of Rothko’s chapel -- this is among the most beautiful. Packing For Mars, Mary Roach -- I’m a sucker for well-written science books. Susan Casey’s The Devil’s Teeth explained scientific fact in a way I could grasp: she has a line about sharks predating trees. Roach writes like she taught Casey everything she knows. This book was a delight. Excerpt: You never think about the weight of your organs inside you. Your heart is a half-pound clapper hanging off the end of your aorta. Your arms burden your shoulders like buckets on a yoke. The colon uses the uterus as a beanbag chair. Even the weight of your hair imparts a sensation on your scalp. In weightlessness, all this disappears. Your organs float inside your torso. The result is a subtle physical euphoria, an indescribable sense of being freed from something you did not realize was there. Orientation and Other Stories, Daniel Orozco -- I wanted to dislike this book. I always feel cheated when a publisher releases a collection of stories I’ve read before, and I feel doubly cheated when the author is mostly famous for a single story he wrote more than a decade ago. (“Orientation,” by the way, is only the second most depressing thing about office life I read this year. Early in January, I found Theodore Roethke’s “Dolor.”) The point is that I went into this book hating it. I was proven so, so wrong. Read “Shakers” and you’ll know why. Excerpt: When they hit, rats and snakes hightail it out of their burrows. Ants break single-file ranks and scatter blind, and flies roil off garbage bins in shimmering clouds. On the Point Reyes Peninsula, milk cows bust out of feed sheds and bolt for open pasture. Inside aquariums in dentist offices and Chinese restaurants and third-grade classrooms, fish huddle in the corners of their tanks, still as photos of huddled fish. Inside houses built on the alluvial soils of the Sacramento Delta, cockroaches swarm from behind walls, pouring like cornflakes out of kitchen cabinetry and rising in tides from beneath sinks and tubs and shower stalls. Crows go mute. Squirrels play possum. Cats awaken from naps. Dogs guilty of nothing peer guiltily at their masters. Pigeons and starlings clatter fretfully on the eaves and cornices of buildings, then rise en masse and wheel away in spectacular rollercoaster swoops… Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, Philip Connors -- Reading this book was an exercise in personal restraint. Resisting the urge to read too rapidly, as I wanted to savor the experience. Restraining my jealousy for Connors’ apparently marvelous life. Resisting the urge to drop what I was doing, pack my bags, hit the Gila Forest, and embark on a career in fire watching. Excerpt: As in Frisbee golf, so in hiking: the movements of my limbs help my mind move too, out of its loops and grooves and onto a plane of equipoise. I have been followed all my life, in the chaos of my thoughts, by a string of words: song lyrics, nonsense phrases, snatches of remembered conversation, their repetition a kind of manic incantation, a logorrhea in the mind, and all of them intermingled with sermons and soliloquies-- the spontaneous talker weaving his repetitive spell. At other times, tired of words themselves but intrigued by their internal mechanics, I find myself unconsciously counting syllables in sentences, marking each one by squeezing the toes on first my right foot, then my left, back and forth in order to discern whether the final tally is an even or an odd number. (Eighty. Even.) Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov -- This book is one everyone knows but few have actually read. (Moby-Dick is the exemplar of this type.) I’m actually glad I put off reading this one for as long as I did. I feel like its significance was built up so high-- my expectations were built up so high -- that when the book met and exceeded all of these things, it was all the more impressive. Much is said about Nabokov’s linguistic acrobatics, and his artistry is a highlight of this book, but less is said about Nabokov’s ability to wax terrifying and then suddenly hysterical within a few pages. This book is wickedly funny, but it’s also just wicked. Excerpt: We came to know the curious roadside species, Hitchhiking Man, Homo pollex of science, with all its many sub-species and forms: the modest soldier, spic and span, quietly waiting, quietly conscious of khaki’s viatic appeal; the schoolboy wishing to go two blocks; the killer wishing to go two thousand miles; the mysterious, nervous, elderly gent, with brand-new suitcase and clipped mustache; a trio of optimistic Mexicans; the college student displaying the grime of vacational outdoor work as proudly as the name of the famous college arching across the front of his sweatshirt; the desperate lady whose battery has just died on her; the clean-cut, glossy-haired, shifty-eyed, white-faced young beasts in loud shirts and coats, vigorously, almost priapically thrusting out tense thumbs to tempt loose women or sad-sack salesmen with fancy cravings. 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.
Empathy in fiction is a strange thing. It is possible to experience an imaginative connection with a character in a novel that would almost certainly be beyond us were that character a real human being in the world. A character’s actions, no matter how terrible, are often secondary to the way in which he or she is presented, particularly when that character is a first-person narrator. Lolita's Humbert Humbert is an extremely obvious -- and an obviously extreme -- example of this. He’s a murderer, a kidnapper, a pedophile and, in a way that manages to seem somehow independent of these attributes, a fundamentally distasteful person. And yet we want to spend time with him. We want to hear what he has to say, and not just because it’s so horrible, or because of the famously fancy prose style in which he says it. There’s a part of us that connects with him, even as we recognize that we would never, or could never, do the ugly things he does. He is, as a fictional creature, more human to us than any of his countless real-world counterparts. If we’re talking in purely utilitarian terms -- if we stick to the basic moral spreadsheet of his actions -- Eli Sisters, the narrator of Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt’s Booker-shortlisted The Sisters Brothers, is probably a worse guy than Humbert Humbert. As a professional hit man in the gold-rush era American West, he has, in partnership with his older brother, Charlie, killed an awful lot of people. And he doesn't seem to have any particular inclination to conceal the unpleasantness of his actions from the reader (he is not, as far as it’s possible to tell, a remotely unreliable narrator). He lives an ugly life in an ugly world. About a third of the way into the novel, for instance, we see him perform an astonishingly unpleasant sequence of actions. Charlie has just shot a prospector who had been holding Eli at gunpoint. The bullet having relieved him of the back of his skull “like a cap in the wind,” the presumably (but not explicitly) dead prospector’s brain is now exposed. Eli then informs us that he “raised up my boot and dropped my heel into the hole with all my weight behind it, caving in what was left of the skull and flattening it in general so that it was no longer recognizable as the head of a man.” His rage still unsubdued, he disappears into a forest and lowers his trousers, ostensibly to check the state of his leg after its being prodded by the barrel of the prospector’s rifle. He briefly considers returning to the body to mutilate it further, but decides against it. “My pants were still down,” he recalls, “and after collecting my emotions I took up my organ to compromise myself.” This, we are informed, is a technique suggested to him many years previously by his mother as a means of dealing with his sometimes unmanageably violent temper. The remarkable thing about the scene is the way in which deWitt makes this horrible stuff seem as though it were happening to Eli. We see him not so much as the perpetrator, but as the victim, first of the prospector’s aggression, then of his own rage. When he stamps on the man’s already adequately traumatized cranium, we wince not so much for the sickening brutality of the act he commits as we do for Eli’s own sake -- out of sympathy for someone who is not nearly as cool a customer as he needs to be in his line of work, and for someone whose propensity toward savage violence might reveal a deeply scarred psyche. The prospector himself barely enters into the emotional equation; he is merely the cause, and then the focus, of Eli’s rage. Empathy in fiction, as I’ve said, is a strange thing. And the fact is that Eli is an extremely likeable character. We want him to get along, even when getting along involves murdering people for no other reason than that he’s being employed to do so. The plot is an extremely simple one: Eli and Charlie have been instructed by their boss, a ruthless businessman referred to as the Commodore, to travel from Oregon to San Francisco in order to assassinate a former associate with the delightful name of Herman Kermit Warm. They don’t know why Warm has to die, and neither do they express any real interest in the question; they simply know they have to find him via a go-between named Henry Morris and murder him. Eli wants to stop killing. It’s not that he feels any particular guilt about it, so much as that he’s just sick of the blood and the suffering and constant danger. He has little natural aptitude for or attachment to the art of murder. Eli has vague plans to open a drapery shop once the Warm assassination is complete, but Charlie -- by far the more accomplished and enthusiastic killer, and the dominant brother -- dismisses and ridicules Eli’s plans to settle down and go straight. We’re in familiar territory, in other words; deWitt doesn’t have much apparent interest in subverting his chosen genre. The novel’s structure is episodic, with each short chapter detailing a tightly delineated incident, and advancing the brothers further along their trajectory towards San Francisco and the doomed, mysterious Warm. There are countless diverting episodes along the way. The brothers spend the night in an abandoned house with an old woman who appears to be a witch; the portly Eli falls for a hotel manageress who bluntly informs him she prefers less bulky men, and so he tortures himself with a 19th-century version of a crash diet; Charlie inflicts a series of debilitating hangovers upon himself and overdoes it on the curative laudanum. They meet an impressive array of vividly drawn characters on their travels, whom they as often as not rob, murder, or in some other way mistreat. DeWitt’s exploitations of the picaresque form are striking, and he has a wonderful way of exercising his comic gifts without ever compromising the novel’s gradual accumulation of darkness, disgust, and foreboding. Much of this has to do with Eli’s narration, which is a strange and lovely linguistic artifact, curiously formal in its delivery and yet intimate and unguarded. Early on, Eli suffers a grotesque swelling of his head and visits an amateur dentist who, after inflicting a series of minor atrocities on his oral cavity, introduces him to the new concept of oral hygiene. He shows Eli “a dainty, wooden-handled brush with a rectangular head of gray-white bristles” and demonstrates “the proper use of the tool, then blew mint-smelling air on my face.” Eli’s evangelical conversion to this new “method” provides a running joke throughout the book, but it is also one of the countless wonderful ways in which deWitt humanizes a narrator who would otherwise be in danger of seeming, if not quite monstrous, then certainly a very bad person. Later, he bonds with the hotel manageress through their shared enthusiasm for the newfangled brush and paste. It’s one of the novel’s many moments of quiet, restrained absurdity: I elected to show the woman my new toothbrush and powder, which I had in my vest pocket. She became excited by the suggestion, for she was also a recent convert to this method, and she hurried to fetch her equipment that we might brush simultaneously. So it was that we stood side by side at the wash basin, our mouths filling with foam, smiling as we worked. After we finished there was an awkward moment where neither of us knew what to say; and when I sat upon her bed she began looking at the door as if wishing to leave. The scene appears to be playing coy; the shared vigour of the tooth-brushing seems like an obvious stand-in for a more erotic intimacy. But we already suspect, and will soon find out for certain, that the woman is nowhere near as chaste as Eli wants to portray her here (she’s already had a grubby commercio-sexual exchange with Charlie upstairs), and neither is the novel itself. The scene is a sort of reverse feint, in other words, in that it seems to be doing more than it is, as opposed to doing more than it seems. It really is about Eli’s enthusiasm for the toothbrush, and his delight in sharing his enthusiasm with a woman to whom he has taken a shine. Even when he’s involved in much grimmer activities, he is a curiously innocent man. The stiff-backed composure of his language, though, is the major source of his charm. It’s hard not to smile at words like “equipment” and “method” being applied to the accoutrements of tooth brushing, and it’s impossible not to like Eli for the childlike joy he takes in them. Eli may be a likeable guide, but the territory he takes us through is bleak and nightmarish, teeming with malice and greed, with violent lusts and blank antipathies. Comparisons to Cormac McCarthy have inevitably been made, and it’s a reasonably fair point of reference, but the connection finally has more to do with subject matter than style. It’s hard not to think of Heart of Darkness, too, what with the mounting sense of dread, the confrontation of the bestial forces beneath the veneer of civilization, and the apparently Kurtzian figure of Warm. There are moments of fierce visual potency that seem like a gift to whoever might end up directing the seemingly predestined film adaptation (I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coen Brothers were already mustering their forces). There’s a particularly chilling descriptive passage, for instance, where Eli is skinning a bear he is forced to shoot when it attacks his beloved horse, Tub. His observation of the skinned animal amounts to an eerie vision of nature as an engine of death and ruthless, unceasing assimilation. “The carcass lay on its side before me,” he tells us, “no longer male or female, only a pile of ribboned meat, alive with an ecstatic and ever-growing community of fat-bottomed flies. Their number grew so that I could hardly see the bear’s flesh, and I could not hear myself thinking, so clamorous was their buzzing.” DeWitt then inserts a visual detail which is both beautiful and utterly grotesque, and which caused me to put down the book and pause for a moment in order to savor its inspired creepiness. “When the buzzing suddenly and completely ceased,” Eli recalls, “I looked up from my washing, expecting to find the flies gone and some larger predator close by, but the insects had remained atop the she-bear, all of them quiet and still save for their wings, which folded and unfolded as they pleased.” There is something unaccountably horrible about that moment of silence and, in particular, the wings folding and unfolding “as they pleased.” It’s entirely peripheral to the narrative, and to the scene in which it takes place, and yet it somehow encapsulates the stark and singular malice of the world the novel portrays. The book becomes incrementally darker the closer the Sisters boys get to tracking down Warm, but it never comes close to being overwhelming, or even, finally, all that disturbing. For all that Eli’s narrative is beautifully composed, and for all the vividness of deWitt’s depictions of mid-19th-century California as a hellish chaos of gold-rush greed, the novel feels, in the best sense, like a high-grade entertainment. The darkness it conjures is closer to Frank Miller than Cormac McCarthy. Even its most troubling moments have a cartoonish aspect to them. The depiction of the removal of Tub’s infected eye by a spoon-wielding stable hand, for instance, is unflinchingly graphic, but there’s a sly preposterousness to the scene in the first place, a knowing gratuitousness, that makes it more gross than genuinely harrowing. Similarly, the passage in which Warm dictates the words to be inscribed on a friend’s tombstone refuses to be fully serious even as it stares down life with seemingly Nietzschean intensity. “Most people,” he intones, “are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change their lives for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood -- weak blood, diluted -- and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing.” By the time Warm’s dictation reaches its bombastic conclusion (“There is no God”), it has long since been tipped over into absurdity by its sheer length and grandiosity, both of which attributes render it comically ill-suited to tombstone inscription. A comparable effect is achieved elsewhere, when Warm recalls his sociopathic father, a German inventor who was forced to flee to America due to his “specific area of deviancy” (presumably sexual, although never actually identified). The elder Warm’s inventions are insane, but strangely believable. One of them provides a disturbing distillation of the desires for power, wealth, and primacy that fuel the savage economy the novel portrays. “He invented,” Warm tells Eli, “a gun with five barrels that fired simultaneously and covered three hundred degrees in one blast. A hail of bullets, with a slim part, or what he called Das Dreieck des Wohlstands -- The Triangle of Prosperity -- inside of which stood the triggerman himself.” There are many moments of genuine humour in The Sisters Brothers, but deWitt is also very good at this kind of queasily unfunny joke. The kind of joke, in other words, which is in no more or less terrible taste than history itself. There is a sense, toward the end of the novel, that deWitt has not done quite as much with his endearing narrator and his compelling narrative style as he could have. The a-to-b of the plot is a little too straightforward to be satisfying, and there’s not much to be had in the way of an emotional pay-off in the jarringly sweet final pages. Despite the depravity and violence he depicts (and is responsible for), Eli never gets much beyond establishing that the world is a dark and unpleasant place, and that he vainly wishes it could be otherwise; there’s not, in this sense, ultimately a whole lot of moral heft. But perhaps that doesn’t matter all that much when a book is so consistently enjoyable as this. The Sisters Brothers is as entertaining a novel as I have read in a long time, and there’s always a lot to be said for entertainment, even on the Booker shortlist.
1. A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on? 2. My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail. I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book. Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor. 3. I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler? These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus. Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces. But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best? 4. Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description. Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel. 5. It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom? The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery. In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on. (Image: fading contrail from dnorman's photostream)
Though I could easily rattle off the titles of two dozen novels I love, cherish, and reread, I would struggle to name half a dozen short stories that affected me similarly. I simply don’t love the short form. That was until I read my first Rebecca Makkai short story “The Briefcase”. I fell in love with the form that day— at least Makkai’s version of it— and I wasn’t surprised when Alice Sebold chose it for the 2009 The Best American Short Stories anthology. Others are smitten with Makkai’s work, too. Salman Rushdie, Richard Russo, Geraldine Brooks, and Dave Eggers have all chosen Rebecca’s short stories for anthologies. This, again, is no surprise. Her first sentences and paragraphs coax readers into the narrative and before they realize, Makkai is ferrying them on an adventure that enthralls, resonates and, often times, disconcerts. She has done it again with her debut novel, The Borrower. The first pages drew me into the story as 10-year-old Ian Drake lures children’s librarian Lucy Hull into his life. Before Lucy fully understands the situation and its implications of her involvement with young Ian, she is off on a surreptitious, cross-country escapade with her most enthusiastic patron. I conducted this interview by email as the last time Rebecca and I met, we lost track of time and I missed two trains and had to literally run to catch a third. The Millions: Like your main character, your occupation brings children to great books. How did your experience as an elementary school teacher influence your characterization of the librarian Lucy Hull? Rebecca Makkai: I’ve read out loud to children for half an hour every school day for the past eleven years, and that daily engagement with children’s books has kept them very much a part of my literary landscape. And part of my job is to be a book-pusher. At times I feel a bit like some skeezy drug dealer, hanging out at the edge of the playground, going, “If I can get them to try it just this once, I’ll have them hooked!” Although I’m a very different person than Lucy, and her world is pure fiction, I did use that one element of my own life – the sublime satisfaction of connecting children with the books that will become their favorites. What makes that same feeling urgent and even desperate in Lucy’s case is the fact that this is one of the only ways she can help her patron Ian, who is being fed a whole different set of fictions – very damaging ones – by his parents and church. TM: Though Lucy is first reluctant to acknowledge the sexuality of 10-year-old Ian, she acts when Ian’s religious parents take him to a church that specializes in gay reprogramming. Was this church – Glad Heart Ministries – based on a real group? RM: Disturbingly, it was inspired by many, many different groups, though none directly. One of the largest and most egregious programs is Exodus International, which has hundreds of chapters, a youth ministry, and even (no kidding) an iPhone app – although, to be fair, they’re actually not the most hateful group out there, by a long shot. We never meet “Pastor Bob” in the book, but the few things we do learn about him are remarkably predictable of the leaders of these groups – including his being caught in a gay bar and trying to play it off. TM: Ultimately, it is Lucy's belief in the power and complexity of fiction that allows her to let go of Ian. Is her faith in the fictional narrative similar to your own? RM: If you consider not just books but also movies, TV shows, fairytales, urban legends, the narratives of song lyrics and video games, etc., it’s clear that despite doomsday laments about the demise of literature, we are still a species that lives in fictional worlds almost as much as in the real one. We need stories on some fundamental level that go far beyond any one medium or industry, and I think we need them for the same reasons we need to dream. You know how if you keep someone from dreaming in a sleep lab, they go crazy? I imagine the same might be true for absorbing fictions. And just as dreams allow us to work things out that we never could have understood consciously, I think narratives keep us sane by letting us process the world without the filter of our own lived experience. Lucy recognizes that for Ian, a story would be far more effective than a nonfiction book about growing up gay, which would just embarrass and distance him. What she doesn’t realize until later is how much her own senses of self and family have been predicated on some necessary and merciful fictions. TM: What books directly influenced or inspired this novel? RM: I kept both Lolita and Huckleberry Finn close on hand as I wrote, and these are books that Lucy uses as touchstones throughout. There are many riffs on classic children’s books (or certain types of book) scattered through the text, but in structure I tried to parallel those two and also The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as much as I could. And there’s some Catcher in the Rye thrown in for good measure… All the iconic runaway books are part of Lucy’s frame of reference, and the fact that (not coincidentally) they all share some similarities of structure made it easier to follow all of them simultaneously. TM: As a narrator, Lucy is slippery and unreliable. She claims to work at the public library in Hannibal, Missouri, but we later learn she has only adopted this town’s name for the sake of her story. Why did Lucy choose Hannibal to set off her road trip tale? RM: Because it’s the starting point of Huckleberry Finn. In my mind (and, as implied in the story, in Lucy’s), Twain enshrined it as the ultimate launching pad for the American road story. It’s the middle of the country, the middle of nowhere, and yet it’s on the banks of this enormous river that can sweep you right out of town. An interested reader could find a lot of parallels there: a child and adult running away together, with a lot of bungling and a lot of confusion as to who’s rescuing whom. There’s also a passage when they cross the bridge to Cairo, Illinois that’s a very direct reference to Huck and Jim’s point of no return. But yes, she is pretty slippery, isn’t she? I have a weakness for unreliable narrators. Because who’s ever met a reliable one in real life? TM: While Ian is literally running away, Lucy is doing so metaphorically. Both are fighting against others’ perceptions of them. Lucy doesn’t accept the stereotype of the quiet, wallflower librarian, but she also doesn’t fully embrace her family’s rebellious nature. In this respect, you and Lucy are similar. Writers, like librarians, are perceived as being poorly dressed introverts and your earlier work was heavily influenced by your father’s experience in the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution. Is this novel as much about Lucy’s self-actualization as your own? RM: Well, I am pretty poorly dressed right now, but that’s probably not what you’re really asking. Probably the only other element of the story that’s autobiographical, aside from the aforementioned book-pushing habit, is my experience as a first-generation American. My family isn’t Russian, and my father is a retired linguistics professor who (unlike Jurek Hulkinov) has no Mafia ties that I’m aware of, but the worldview that I grew up with, of seeing America as a miraculous but flawed refuge from quite recent danger, is one that infuses a lot of my fiction. And like Lucy’s family, the Hungarian side of my family has a fairly disturbing history – more disturbing than Lucy’s, actually, by quite a bit, although it’s not something I’m ready to write about yet. The night before my wedding, my father asked me (for reasons that are still unclear) whether I considered myself an American. In some ways, I think this book is my answer. TM: Both this novel and most of your short stories are political. What are the difficulties in writing politically charged fiction? RM: I don’t find it difficult so much as unavoidable. It’s funny, even when I think I’m writing a very apolitical piece (because it’s not directly about politics or revolution), it will end up being about race or class. You’d think I’d be a loudly political person in real life, but really I limit myself to voting and occasionally talking back to NPR when I’m alone in the car. And maybe that’s just what my stories will always be about, whether I want it or not – in the way that a Roth story is always about sex and a John Irving story is always about dismemberment and bears. I think that whether I’m writing about a revolution or a bomb shelter or a public library, what I’m drawn to is the power structure – who’s in charge, who’s being oppressed, who’s working their way up that ladder. There’s a lot of drama inherent in that, and it’s not so much that I have a political ax to grind as that this is where I tend to find the story. I do think that if someone sets out to write fiction just to prove a certain political point, though, it becomes unbearable. It’s why I can’t stand Tolstoy. I think politics can be the subject, but not the point. TM: You and your short works have appeared in The Best American Short Stories four times in a row. Did your writing process change significantly in order to write a novel? RM: The Borrower actually had a very long gestation: I started it in 2000, long before I’d published any short fiction. It was several years before I began working on it seriously, and I abandoned it and came back to it many times in the nine years till its completion, but it was always there, lurking in the background. I do have to switch gears, though, between short and long stories. The pacing is obviously very different: a short story will either compress a very long time into a few pages, or (more commonly) take a small moment and delve into every detail. As a novelist, unless you’re Virginia Woolf, you have to find the midpoint between those two extremes if you’re going to maintain the reader’s interest over the long haul. In The Borrower, I have three different (unmarked) sections with different paces: In the first part of the book, Lucy needs to see Ian’s deterioration over several months. When they leave town together, she becomes very aware of time, since every minute they’re gone makes her more culpable. Time is marked out very carefully in terms of hours, meals, days, nights. And then the last section backs off and gives a more telescopic view of the months and even years after the main incident. It’s not an uncommon structure in novels, of course – broad view, narrow focus, broad view – but I don’t think I ever was so consciously aware of it as a reader until I wrote this book. The other adjustment I need to make between my shorter and longer work is in the depth and pace of characterization. Since you have fewer words in which to establish a character in a short story, you need (and can get away with) some broader strokes. In a novel, those broader strokes, piled over many pages, can come off as caricature. That said, most of the peripheral characters in The Borrower are intentionally larger-than-life, and I made the decision, for better or worse, to paint some of them with a very large brush – partly for comic effect, and partly because the world of this novel is a somewhat surreal one. In my novel in progress, that isn’t the case at all. I have to remind myself to slow down, and that we don’t need to know everything about a character the moment he opens his mouth. TM: As a mother to a small child and infant and as a teacher who works full-time outside the home, how do you find time to balance your responsibilities and creative self? What advice would you give to writers who are struggling with this balance? RM: Before you make me sound like a superhero, I should point out that there's still some laundry on my closet floor from spring break. Which was almost three months ago. So I suppose the answer is that I let a lot of little things slide, in favor of the bigger things. I also find that I do a lot of my writing when I’m not actually writing. In a very busy week, I might not get any real uninterrupted time at my computer (or that time might come when I'm too exhausted to use the English language responsibly), but then on Saturday I’ll hit the ground running with everything I’ve thought of all week long, in the shower, in the car, at the grocery store. I suppose it’s a slightly depressing modern take on Wordsworth's going off on those long walks in the lake country and coming home with odes fully composed. My version involves composing in the pediatrician's waiting room, then hurrying off to Starbucks to type like a maniac. The key for me is to find the middle ground between feeling sorry for myself and expecting too much of myself. Come to think of it, maybe that's the key to everything. TM: What other things are you working on? RM: I’m trying to get my stories to gel into some sort of collection, but I feel like a camp counselor with a cabin full of unruly girls refusing to coexist. And I’m working on my second novel, which is tentatively called The Happensack. It’s the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse. I’m rather smitten with it right now, which is probably why I’m neglecting the laundry.
1. Dry Spell I'm going through a period where I'm not reading very many novels. I really hate this. To me, every period of reading stagnation is the beginning of the slippery slope, which will lead you to one day parrot the refrain your bookish, childhood self heard from all the adults in view: "I miss reading," and "I used to read a lot, too." Telling a young bookworm that reading is something people might stop doing is like telling people who just fell in love that a day will come when they won't want to have sex all the time. No one is trying to hear this. Many of the books I have read are indexed by place and time. Usually there is nothing particularly meaningful about the occasion, and the memory is populated by mundane details--this book goes with a bus in that city; that one under the hostess stand at that restaurant; the other belongs in a purse I used to have, and wish I had still. But there is a flash point where the book you are reading is exactly the book you should and want to be reading at that moment, and the combination renders the occasion of your reading so intensely pleasurable that you remember it for years as a halcyon day in your life. In a dry spell, I find myself fantasizing about these greatest hits of my reading past, fetishizing afternoons on couches lost to time. These are not the kind of memories with a facile cinematic chronology--it's impossible to create a montage of a girl supine for eight hours with Of Human Bondage. And while you can think long about a particular book--its plot or its meaning--there is no narrative to an epic reading of a book as there is with other life moments (He said x, and then he kissed me; the phone rang, they rescued Timmy from the well.) Reading memories are intensely boring to describe to someone else in any detail. Reading memories are cat memories--a sunbeam, a warm spot, a heaven-sent breeze, distant voices. Often, there are snacks. 2. Food I was moved by Leah Carroll's poignant essay about the foods in which she takes comfort. I am a creature of habit, and I form periods of intense attachment to foods, just as I do with books. For me, many comfort foods are profoundly connected to my reading memories; books, like food, provide rich and varied nourishment, often greater than the sum of their ingredients. Taken in conjunction, books and food are a potent, comprehensive, and very private source of happiness. Proust's madeleine would feel more real to me had Proust, upon discovering the power of the cookie, obtained a huge box and eaten them while reading all seven Chronicles of Narnia. On a summer Saturday, probably 2004, I mixed tuna fish in my mother's style--with plain yogurt, a touch of mayonnaise, green onion, black pepper, and lemon--and spread it on melba toast crackers. I poured a coca-cola over ice. I took the plate to the couch, lay down, and read Lolita all the way through. And verily it was one of the most pleasant days of my life. I remember a tuna fish sandwich and The Blind Assassin, sprawled on the same couch, on the same kind of summer afternoon. Tuna fish is writ large in my reading life, but only prepared in this precise way (with yogurt; the bread can be different, and sometimes I put mustard). When I need to manufacture happiness, I make tuna fish. The fall I read 2666 coincided with my rediscovery of a very plain spaghetti I remembered eating every day one summer in my childhood--a spaghetti with butter, salt, and a mild cheese. Unsurprisingly, given its flavor profile and ingredients, I was crazy for this dish with a kind of fevered passion, which is just how I felt about 2666. The day I cranked through most of volume 2 was a day I did two things that are almost impossible: I read with a blinding hangover and I read while eating spaghetti. I think I made the spaghetti twice that day, so abandoned was I to hangover and booklust. Like 2666, part of the appeal of the spaghetti was how delicious it was, and its impossibility as a permanent and frequent fixture in my snack rotation. I was wild for the book, and the spaghetti, but you cannot read 2666 every day, and butter spaghetti must be used infrequently, lest it lose its great effect, and you develop a pallor. It was not my first spaghetti madness. One lonely high school summer spent in a new country, I plundered my parents' pantry of commissary-bought cans and dry goods. I invented a version of canned clam sauce, heavy on white wine, and ate it every afternoon while reading the assembled works of A.S. Byatt. Possession tastes like canned clams and coca cola with a splash of wine; it sounds like the beetle that tapped faintly from behind the living room wall. In 2005 I read The Sea, The Sea, and my encounter with Charles Arrowby's homely yet intensely provocative food interests coincided with (or influenced, possibly) a period during which I ate cabbage and carrot salad every single day for several months. (Fear not, gentle readers, I ate other things too.) An Arrowby meal, for the uninitiated: . . . spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil . . . Then spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill. Boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soya oil, and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in. With these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef. In my beloved salad, the red or green cabbage is thinly sliced, the carrots grated. I add tiny slivers of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and a lot of salt. At the end, I drag my bread across the bowl and it is stained orange with the remaining oil and the life blood of carrots. I know this as a Greek winter salad, but my beloved roommate of the period made cabbage and carrot in her home Tatarstan. Cabbage and carrot is home food across great distances. I remember eating a bowl of this and a loaf of the airy bread procured from my corner shop, lying on the bed with Iris Murdoch's best novel, and smoking cigarettes. This memory is especially riddled with nostalgia--now there are no more cigarettes, there is no more bread eaten in number 5 Happy Street (actual address) in a distant Istanbul suburb. I still make cabbage and carrot salads, but they are simulacra. Some foods are not my own creation. Another summer I spent every one of my lunch breaks eating xoriatiki salata from the same cafe while reading the majority of Stephen King's novels. Greek salad and The Stand are intimations of heaven on earth. During some weeks I was left to my own devices I contrived to eat the platonic ideal of chicken and rice at Philippou, the most wonderful restaurant in all of Greece, every day that I had the money to acquire it. That's where I read Under the Volcano. I went back years later and took my beloved, but I cannot recapture the feeling of those hot days in a cool room, the whir of fans and the silverware clinking on the plates of the regulars, the ruination of Geoffrey Firmin. Probably my nostalgia is less for the these books and these tuna fish crackers, but for lost places, lost summers, lost time (Oh hallo, Marcel--do pass the madeleines). Every passing year makes an afternoon spent on the couch less an inalienable right and more of a louche extravagance. Every year I see more clearly the first-world silliness of a spoilt youth eating dozens of baked chicken portions in a classy Athenian restaurant. I wouldn't talk sense into her now, though. These memories are too precious. All is not lost and melancholic. The dry spell will end, god willing. There are still books to read in snatched half-hours; there is passionate reading in our future. There is still tuna fish and cabbage salad. (Image: Dijon-Cilantro Tuna Salad on Whole Grain Bread from galant's photostream)
Normally I'm not much interested in knowing about the moment when a big book gamboled (or shuffled) onto the scene, but I like to think about Lolita hitting the shelves in its unobtrusive green wrappers. What did the first buyer think, fondling those fragile, flexible volumes? Who was the first person to purchase this signal event in the English language? (A signal event in English, by a Russian, about sex with children, published by a French purveyor of mostly-filth of a pretty banal sort.) I don't have much to say about my "process," such as it is, but I'll tell you that I was feeling parched, critically speaking. I just reread 1984 with an eye toward revueing. George Orwell compels people to muster profundities about the current state of affairs. He plucked all of the smart ideas about politics out of the ether and arranged them on paper for us to wantonly reinterpret to fit the times. But what can I think or say about 1984 and these times we're in? I love George Orwell to distraction, but he gives me a blockage. When you want the consolation of art, and not to figure out what it has to do with labor unrest in Wisconsin or the fate of Planned Parenthood, what can you read but Lolita? When you are feeling mute, who better to remind you of the wondrous lexical depth and fecundity of the English language but Nabokov, the aforementioned Russian, writing of the aforementioned sex with children? To whom could I turn for sweet release but Lolita (light of life, fire of loins, etc.)? Ironic that a book full of death (cf. Amis) and sex with no question of offspring imbues this particular parched reader with a sense of renewal and intellectual fertility. Of course, said renewal and fertility don't necessarily translate to the speedy conception of pithy remarks about the book itself. To produce even 600-1000 words on this novel in a hitherto un-utilized combination is a nervewracking proposition. Tonight I will probably dream that a scowling Martin Amis is putting a cigarette out on my neck. Or Nabokov himself will appear and tell me that he’s having a party but I’m not invited. And that's okay. It's like this with any novel, but with Lolita especially: it's not what you can do for the book, but what the book can do for you. Lolita has caused so many people to wring their hands and besiege librarians on behalf of those delicate blossoms, the children. To be sure, it is a very disgusting book. The rape of Lolita: "a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child," after which the fiend Humbert buys "four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set," and so on. And then, "At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go." This is viscerally horrible. And yet this book, with its veritable panoply of horrors, is maybe the most bracing and perfect work of art I know. Nabokov said "for me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss." By that arresting measure, Lolita is a triumph, the ne plus ultra of the novel form. Sometimes I get a little teleological in my interpretation of the world, but words are on my mind these days. I went to a career fair for would-be linguists, wherein a lively presenter told the assembled that if we could give a snappy presentation in our target language, we had come to the right place. Feeling inadequate to even a deeply un-snappy presentation in any language, I thought of Nabokov with wonder. How might his want-ad read? If you can write a prose miracle in the target language, this is the job for you. Yet, Nabokov, in his own remarks on the novel, tells the reader My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled rich, infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses--the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions--which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way. The author's apologia for his linguistic shortcomings manages in one lengthy sentence to be finer than anything most "native illusionists" could muster. Any reviewer of Nabokov is in danger of excessive quoting; it feels rather pointless not to let Nabokov do the talking. Here's Humbert on reproduction: "The tiny madman in his padded cell." Now Humbert on Humbert: "I am like one of those inflated pale spiders you see in old gardens." Just as he takes English and puts it through its paces, Nabokov, "trying to be an American writer and claim only the same rights that other American writers enjoy," tells Americans of our vast spaces, our Hell canyons, our dusty cow paths: Independence, Missouri, the starting point of the Old Oregon Trail; and Abilene, Kansas, the home of the Wild Bill Something Rodeo. Distant mountains. Near mountains. More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill; south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone, relentless peaks appearing from nowhere at a turn of the highway; timbered enormities... With Humbert and beleaguered Lo we pay our entrance fee (children under twelve free) to caves and gardens and ghost towns, the spectacular majesty and equally spectacular vulgarity of the American landscape, in which the compass ever swings from the sublime to the ridiculous. What this book does for me, with its unparalleled linguistic verve, is remind me of what language and art can do. Art restores us to life's possibilities even as it offers solace from life's trouble. For Humbert, art is his and Lolita's single mausoleum, their brilliant and grotesque offspring: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art." Even if you're not a mad pervert genius, for my money there's no better refuge.
Before I say anything about Kenneth Slawenski’s compelling but adoring biography of J.D. Salinger, I have a question: does anyone really, really understand just why Seymour Glass blows his brains out at the end of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”? The editors of The New Yorker didn’t, although they eventually published it. John Updike didn’t, but that didn’t keep him from calling the story a classic. Vladimir Nabokov thought it was an “A-plus story” but never said why. The story was published in 1948, three years before The Catcher in the Rye, and it's been confounding readers ever since. You remember what happens. A married couple, Seymour and Muriel, are vacationing in Miami. Muriel, pretty but vapid, sits alone in a hotel room, drying her nails and talking on the phone to her mom, who wants her to come home. The mom thinks Seymour is crazy. She cites instances, says something about the army releasing Seymour from the hospital too soon. Muriel shrugs it off and talks about fashion. Meanwhile, Seymour is on the beach talking to Sybil, a little girl he has come to know. They talk about Muriel, whom Seymour doesn’t seem like. Apropos of nothing, Seymour quotes T.S. Eliot. Seymour and Sybil take a raft and hit the waves. He tells her about bananafish, which crawl into underwater caves, eat so many bananas they can’t get out, and die. Sybil claims to see such a fish and Seymour suddenly decides to go back to shore. He heads for his hotel room. On the elevator up, he accuses another guest of staring at his feet and being a God damned sneak about it. He goes to his room, sees Muriel asleep on the bed, puts a gun to his head and fires. End of story. WTF? Critical analysis seems to turn on the little girl’s name: Sybil, therefore Sibyl, the mythological seer. Slawenski, a good if somewhat stiff reader of Salinger, offers an even more complicated theory that suggests Seymour spent too much time reading Eliot and Blake. Both ideas may be perfectly correct, but they ignore the fact that Seymour packed the gun to begin with, beside which Eliot and mythology just seem like so much literary filigree. Presumably, Seymour feels trapped, like the bananafish, but the events of this day offer less than perfect motivation. It’s not clear even Salinger knows why Seymour killed himself, because he keeps coming back to it in subsequent stories, as if there’s something he forgot to say, some detail he meant to add. The story is the kickoff to Nine Stories, a classic collection distinguished by ambiguity and ellipsis. It was also the beginning of a long journey. In the 25 years of Salinger’s publishing life, Seymour was his constant companion, evolving in seemingly autobiographical ways as the author became more immersed in Eastern philosophy. He’s the brilliant spiritual loner, too preoccupied with the next world to connect with this one, and in death he becomes a ghost his family cannot exorcise. In Franny and Zooey, Seymour’s little sister has a nervous breakdown on the road to spiritual perfection. In Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, a hilarious social comedy, brother Buddy recalls the disastrous events of Seymour’s wedding day. In Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy circles around his memories of Seymour, trying to make some sense of him. It’s Salinger’s most direct effort to say who, what or why Seymour is, and it’s a numbing experience; little more than an endless ramble, and quite the longest novella ever written. Buddy mentions a short story he wrote in the late forties, where Seymour “not only appeared in the flesh but walked, talked, went for a dip in the ocean, and fired a bullet through his brain in the last paragraph.” But the Seymour of the story, he says, was actually more a reflection of Buddy himself, written not long after Seymour’s death, after the both of them had “returned from the European Theater of Operations.” The story, he says, was written using a German typewriter. In other words, Seymour (or Buddy, who seems to be channeling him, even though he gets little more than static) was tormented by what he saw in the war, as Muriel’s mother suggested, specifically in Germany. That seems like it should be the last word, except that it’s not. We still have Salinger’s bizarre final testament to Seymour: "Hapworth 16, 1924", which landed with a thud when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, taking up a whole issue and marking Salinger’s final publication. It’s composed of seven-year-old Seymour’s impossibly brilliant 65-page letter home from summer camp, in which we learn that he has already died and been reincarnated several times. It was a strange, unbelievable prequel: the young man who killed himself in a Miami hotel room was actually a homegrown Dalai Lama! As character development goes, it feels desperate. It was also a retread, as the young Seymour isn’t all that different from the title character of Salinger’s story “Teddy,” another child genius touched by some kind of Zen-like divinity. After that, the clock stopped. Salinger was dead as a writer but, in his Seymour-like way, lives on. His books have never gone out of print, and his earliest and best work remains distinct, irreplaceable, and influential. By the time he got to Hapworth, alas, he had eaten his last banana. He was 46, holed up in a remote house in tiny Cornish, N.H., living off royalties that by the mid-1980s were bringing him about $100,000 a year. He devoted what turned out to be the next half of his life to saying nothing and saying it loud enough for all the world to hear. Rumor had it he still wrote and even completed a few novels, but that remains to be seen, or not seen. Reading Salinger’s biography is a little like reading the fiction: the more time you spend in his company, the more anxious you are to leave. As far as telling the story, this book has a lot of merit. Slawenski collates all the known facts, tracks his movements over the years, and shows how his art was shaped by both World War II and religion. He does an especially good job of putting Salinger’s experiences in context, particularly where his military years are concerned. On the other hand, he lacks detachment. He doesn’t hide the warts, but he doesn’t always notice them. To paraphrase Updike paraphrasing Salinger, he loves the author more than God does. He does a very thorough job, however, and it’s not his fault that his subject turns into such a fusty, frosty, petulant bore. The book starts off quite interestingly, as Slawenski presents a young man who was a little like Holden Caulfield, the narrator of Salinger’s most famous novel: born to an affluent Manhattan family, he attended prep school, and was a bit of an outsider. Far from being a self-loathing manic-depressive, he was arrogant and cocky. The family called him Sonny. He was tall, lanky, affable enough to serve on the entertainment staff of a cruise ship, and he got dates. Among his early conquests was Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright, whom he found attractive and classy but also vain and dull. When she dumped him for Charlie Chaplin, he turned her into Muriel Glass. Readers know Salinger on the basis of the four slim books he allowed into print, which together give the impression he’s never been anything but mature and polished. The 22 stories that make up Salinger’s apprentice work apparently tell a different story; as described here – and Slawenski makes one wish they don’t stay uncollected forever – they were largely commercial fiction that showed promise and occasionally impressed the right people. When the story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was accepted by The New Yorker in 1941, Salinger was poised to enter the big leagues. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the magazine postponed publication for five years; the story of a rich kid on a date in Manhattan, where he does a lot of drinking, talking and crying, suddenly seemed irrelevant. While the delay was a crushing blow, it probably helped Salinger in the end. He joined the Army and took his character Holden with him. He would see extensive action in the war and participate in key events: he was in Normandy on D-Day, when a full two-thirds of his division was wiped out, spent a bleak winter fighting off Nazi forces in the Hürtgen Forest and, thanks to his command of the language, even worked in counterintelligence as his regiment moved into Germany. “The notion of J.D. Salinger rushing from house to house, seizing villains, and grilling them under naked lightbulbs might appear absurd to us today but that is exactly what happened,” Slawenski writes. After thinking he had seen the absolute worst the war had to offer, he helped liberate Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later said, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.” In the end, he would receive five battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation for valor. Through it all, writing in barracks and foxholes, he was finding Holden’s voice. What began as a series of stories would eventually be shaped into one long picaresque tale about a troubled kid with a messianic complex, wandering through Manhattan, pondering society at its most phony and the city at its most vomity. “I know this boy I’m writing about so well,” he told an early editor. “He deserves to be a novel.“ The story took on a tragic dimension; the specter of dying young – like Holden’s brother 10-year-old brother Allie, who remains forever innocent -- hangs over the novel. The novel’s famous final lines were Salinger’s own answer to why he would later find the war so hard to talk about: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” The novel that resulted, The Catcher in the Rye, is a masterpiece of narrative first person voice: self-observant but not always self-aware. Holden reveals himself in ways he fully intends – cynical, smart-alecky, funny, romantic – and ways he doesn’t, exactly; he’s immature, annoying, and at times a bit of a phony himself. He speaks in a jazzy, rhythmic argot of goddam, moron, “like a bastard,” “kills me,” “depressed the hell out of me,” and ”sexy,” which can mean either attractive or horny. It’s a voice as genuine as Ishmael, Huck Finn, Humbert Humbert, or anyone else you care to name. The war affected other Salinger stories as well. Like Sergeant X in “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” Salinger suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, in a strange life- imitates-art-imitates-life twist, he supposedly fell in love with his first wife, Claire, because she embodied his imaginary war orphan, Esme, and would serve as the inspiration for Franny Glass. During this time, Salinger, who was raised in a joint Catholic-Jewish household and had embraced Zen Buddhism, studied the 1,000-plus pages of The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, which completely changed his game. It was the book that proclaimed the gospel of Vedanta, a monotheistic religion that absorbs a lot of religious traditions, “accepting all faiths as being valid as long as they lead to the recognition of God.” As Slawenski explains: “The aim of Vedanta is to see God, to become one with God, by looking beyond the shell and perceiving the holiness within” – all of which he started working into his fiction from that point, most successfully in Franny and Zooey. The two long stories that make up this novel have a fascinating publishing history, as both were published separately in The New Yorker and one almost didn’t make it. Fiction editors William Maxwell and Katherine White couldn’t stand “Zooey” and rejected it. Editor William Shawn not only overruled them, but also worked on the story with Salinger for months. Both stories were a huge success with readers; much less so with critics, who found both characters a couple of preening, self-absorbed, condescending ninnies – views which Norman Mailer suggested “may come from nothing more graceful than envy.” I think the novel is the best exposition of Salinger’s own religious quest, and in a curious, roundabout way reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; it erases the line between “religious novel” and “novel about religion.” It’s also very energetic. Slawenski ably digs away at the novels Vedantic ideas, but he misses the fact that it’s so dramatically, irrepressibly alive. He misses Franny, the greatest college girl in American Literature, with her spiritedness, her “irreproachably Americanese” figure, and her thoughts running a mile a minute as she burns through one cigarette after the next. Speaking of which, it’s one of the greatest cigarette-smoking novels ever written. Everyone smokes like a freight train; every cigarette has character, every puff has an idea. Smoking is what releases the torrent of thoughts between the two characters as they thrash out the possibilities of praying without ceasing. Zooey drags on his stogie “as if it were a kind of respirator in an otherwise oxygenless world.” It may also be the first novel where there really is such a thing as chicken soup for the soul. If Slawenski doesn’t always feel the verve of Salinger’s fiction, he does feel his pain, which is considerable. The man was besieged by enemies from every corner. Over and over in this book, I found myself wondering: how it is that a brave, dedicated Nazi-hunter, a genuine inglorious basterd, could get so completely sidetracked by editors who make suggestions to his precious copy or reject it, or publishers who want to pimp out his books with crass covers, or a crummy Hollywood adaptation of a story, or media invaders or readers showing up on his lawn. For a veteran of Hürtgen and Dachau, it seems like small potatoes, and nothing unusual for anyone bent on being a successful writer. But J.D. was simply not the kind of guy to weather the frustrations and get back to his typewriter. He lived in a small world that demanded unswerving loyalty. If you’re an agent like Dorothy Olding, who protects his privacy with your life, or an editor like William Shawn, you’re on the side of the angels. If you’re Story magazine editor Whit Burnett, who bungled an anthology that Salinger was banking on, or his English publisher Jamie Hamilton, who made the mistake of letting a bad paperback cover slip his notice, you’re alienated forever. Slawenski is so quick to take Salinger’s side in all this that at times he sounds like a posthumous enabler. As far as the facts go, I found little to question outside of one: the news that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published in 1948, inspired Lolita would likely come as a surprise to Nabokov, who was writing his masterpiece at least as early as 1947 (longer than that if you include the early draft from 1939). Anyone looking for clues to Salinger’s lost years is going to be disappointed: 40 pages covering 45 bland years of marital battles and legal troubles. Perhaps that’s all there is. Maybe, as Buddy Glass once said, “where there’s smoke there’s strawberry Jello, seldom fire.”
No one knows why we have brains. We take for granted the brain’s associated functions—emotion, contemplation, special awareness, memory—and yet the reason some life on earth has a brain and other life doesn’t is an unanswerable question. Daniel Wolpert, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, theorizes the fundamental purpose of our brains is to govern movement, something necessary to humans but which trees and flowers can live without. Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a brief and pithy recounting of Foer’s exploration of the fuzzy borders of his brain—a marveling at how and why it’s able to do something quite unexpected. Foer is a science writer and enthusiast of curiosities who’s worked for Discover, Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Esquire. Moonwalking with Einstein is a chronicle of his year training to compete in the U.S. Memory Championships—an arcane competition among adherents to the method of loci, an ancient memory technique that makes it possible to retain great volumes of random information. According to the theory, more commonly known as the Memory Palace, the human brain is capable of retaining huge amounts of information subconsciously. Details about color, texture, light, smell, and spatial arrangement are all absorbed in an instant, whether or not we’re aware of it. But we lose all the less immediate information, even when we want to remember: telephone numbers disappear, faces lose their names, and the year the Mexican-American War is irretrievable. According to the method of the Memory Palace, first formulated by the Greek poet Simonedes, hard-to-retain facts can be pinned in place by transforming them into visual icons in an imagined location. Each fact would become a representative image--the more bizarre and lascivious the better. These images would be placed in a childhood home or a college dormitory, any intimately remembered location. In this way memory becomes a process of traveling through a non-sequitur mental landscape instead of a flailing for disappearing facts. In mid-2005 Foer was a struggling, young writer living in his parents’ house in suburban Washington D.C. trying to make a living as a freelance writer. After a chance visit at the Weightlifting Hall of Fame, Foer started wondering if there was a Hall of Fame for smart people. Some cursory searches led him to the U.S. Memory Championships, where a small and eccentric group of mental athletes compete at memorizing long strings of two-digit numbers, the order of cards in a deck, and matching 99 faces and names after five minutes of exposure. Ed Cooke, a confident young British competitor with a roving imagination, tells Foer that these seemingly impressive feats are within anyone’s grasp. Even Foer could become a competitor. Foer decides to test the theory and accepts Cooke’s tutelage. As he begins his training routine, picking locations for his own memory palaces and building a network of imagery to associate with various playing cards and number combinations, Foer also intersperses a survey of the brain’s biology and some of its strangest outliers. He starts with the Greeks who considered memorization an essential part of human learning. “The great oral works transmitted a shared cultural heritage held in common not on bookshelves, but in brains,” Foer writes. One literally internalized philosophers’ arguments, histories, and poems. Knowledge didn’t come through exposure but through rumination and concise mastery born out of recall. Today we know where to look for answers, but the Greeks carried the answers within as instantly recallable memories. The extent to which we’ve delegated the workings of memory to Google prompts a scary question about our culture. “What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?” It’s a sensational question and Foer--wittingly or not—proves our memories are mostly constant, and there isn’t actually a dramatic difference in mental capacity between memory champions and everyone else. Before beginning his memory training Foer visits K. Anders Ericsson, a professor and researcher at Florida State University’s Department of Psychology. Foer describes Anderson as the “expert expert,” most popular for his theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field, an idea Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize in Outliers. Anderson and his aids spend three days studying Foer before his training, and again a year later after he has set the U.S. record by memorizing the order of a deck of cards in 1 minute and 42 seconds. While Foer’s ability to recall numbers has increased more than two-fold, his functional memory—the everyday process that’s not given the luxury of palaces and non-sequitur burlesques—remains largely identical. In fact, Foer recalls taking the subway home after a dinner in downtown D.C. with friends to celebrate his achievement. Upon getting back to his parents’ house he remembered that he’d actually driven to the dinner and had left his car parked downtown without any further thought. One of the overarching questions in Moonwalking with Einstein, then, is not whether we’ve been impoverished by the fleeing of memory techniques, but rather why memory masters don’t seem to gain any irrefutable benefits from leading their field. Indeed, Foer describes a few people with brains predisposed to having powerful memories in dysfunctional terms. There is S., a Russian journalist in the late 1920’s who never took notes in editorial meetings and still remembered addresses, names, and instructions perfectly. He was the subject of a seminal neuropsychological study on the brain and memory, and yet he had trouble holding a job and experienced many of the same traits that would later be ascribed to autistic savants. Then there is Kim Peek, the Utah man who memorized phonebooks and was the inspiration for the movie Rain Man. Peek’s memory didn’t need the rigorous training and discipline practiced by mental athletes. And yet he required a caretaker (his father) all his life and never held a job or moved beyond the thrill of memorizing town populations and mountain elevations. Foer acknowledges the perversity required to take a normally functioning memory and force it to work more like Peek's or S’s. At one point he has to stop using the image of his grandmother in his card memorizing routine because the vulgar actions he subjects her to are too disturbing. Cooke similarly excised his mother from his practice, preferring instead celebrities and sports figures who can be contorted, defiled, and penetrated without rippling any darker waters. In order to memorize faster and in greater volume, one has to push one’s brain to the outer limits of incoherence. To create a record of external order the memorizer must make a non-sequitur carnival of their inner orders, connecting a 5 of Clubs to the image of Dom DeLuise karate kicking Pope Benedict XVI, or a queen of spades to Rhea Perlman anally penetrating ex-NBA star Manute Bol. What rescues these discrepant fantasies is the tie to a rather dull system of real world meanings, which might not have been worth remembering in any case. What’s most interesting about Foer’s book is not its value as an idea exploration—he well documents how the Memory Palace has already been exploited by salesman and self-promoters—but in the kernel of a confession about his own life. Foer describes Moonwalking With Einstein as participatory journalism, but he never gets very far in describing who he is and what lay beneath the ordered surface of his account as a grown man living with his parents, trying to make a career out of writing stories about the country’s largest popped corn kernel, whilst privately carrying on a year-long project of memorizing random number strings aided by a pair of blackout goggles. Foer writes in a conversational but distant vernacular, like someone telling a curious story at a cocktail party and all the while talking around the less entertaining truths below the surface. His describes Perlman’s and Bol’s encounter as a “highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress.” It’s belabored for comic effect, but the obfuscation deadens the image itself, scandalizing something that is a natural product of Foer’s creativity. In this regard, Moonwalking With Einstein fits handily inline with the recent tradition of “big idea” books that take a breezy survey of scientific inquiry and discover some general truisms. In place of George Plimpton’s lyrical self-awareness it has Gladwell’s impersonal concision and Steven Johnson’s sense of portent without quite proving anything. Given enough time, all science writing—no matter how casually or clinically it is presented—winds up being wrong. Likewise, any work of participatory journalism that finds the undertaking more interesting than the author is bound for obscurity. What endures is the record of the human experience not the best scientific explanations our generation—and one’s past—could come up with. Foer is moving all around some of the most personal ideas in human experience--the intersection of the erotic imagination, nostalgia, lust for new experiences, and the tiny electrical impulses that accompany them. When Foer wonders if the loss of poetic immersion once common in antiquity is debilitating today, I immediately think of Lolita. “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” As with Wolpert’s theory that the brain is necessary for movement, Foer describes the idea that everything we understand in the world is built on the recorded images of the past. This is how we can all have such different experiences of fixed historical events—the election of a president or two hours in a movie theater. This is why both the places that form the locus of memory, and the ghostly signifiers that populate them, are unique to the holder of the memory--always a childhood home or school. And yet all we are ever doing is moving from one place to the other, creating muscle memory for a neuron to send out an electrical pilgrim from one place to another. When I criticize Foer for being impersonal, it is a product of my own confessional instincts. My own writing is the kind of memoiristic turning of the embers that has become a cliché in an age of blogs and self-published novels by thrift shop dilettantes, who seek to prove themselves by bending the non-sequitur memory into something sensible; an image that will survive with or without its associated deck of cards. In the same way that science writing winds up being wrong in some way or another, few of my own scraps of memory have been true. There is always some detail wrong. I once described an ex-girlfriend with black hair. “I have brown hair,” she wrote me after reading it. I’d moved across the country for her so hair color was a painful thing to get wrong. Likewise, the details of my childhood, travels, career, who was there during big events in my life—these details are all less there than I think. So too Foer’s mnemonic Greeks, who remembered The Odyssey in the broad strokes but varied the details and line orders while still thinking they had it syllable for syllable. When I try and pull a specific image through the blurred depth of field time sets in between, I find the need to invent something becomes instinctual, almost thoughtless. This is the spirit moving through Foer’s book, the Albert Einstein who moonwalks down an empty suburban hallway—a figure that never was, now a memory that can’t be erased.
My dictionary is the sturdy, hardback two-volume edition of The New Shorter Oxford English much loved by editors the world over - even if they have to keep it on the bottom shelf so the bookcase doesn’t topple over. Although it’s an effort to pull it out and I’m always concerned about a possible hernia or crushing my dozing cat in the event of a misstep during transit, there is no way in Hades I will ever use an online version. Nothing beats the individually carved furrows for each letter of the alphabet, the “looking up” process that my print version permits. I do not want or need to know the meaning of a word instantly. I enjoy the minor workout my mind receives in scanning the page, calculating if I need to flip forward or turn back in order to finally, satisfyingly arrive at my destination. Such pleasure is usually diminished by the brand of “ever so pleased with itself” fiction that clubs you over the head as many times as possible in each sentence with mysterious words that do little more than highlight the author’s need to prove he is much smarter than the you. John Banville, I’m looking at you here. Like most people, I don’t wish to feel moronic when reading, even if it is uncomfortably close to the truth. This is part of what made Aleksandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles such a revelatory reading experience. Yes, he used words I’d never heard of, and once I had hired a crane to lug my dictionary to the table, it stayed there. In fact, I felt like such an idiot I started looking up words I thought I knew the meaning of, only to discover that I had often been sorely mistaken. Let me throw a few examples at you, see how you fare. Fenestral. No? What about edentate? Numinous? Yet Hemon is no show-off who ate the OED for breakfast. He evidently loves the dictionary, but keeps his language simple and straightforward, with these fabulous words thrown in occasionally, giving the impression he has only just discovered them himself and is reveling in sharing them with you. This glee in the English language stems from the fact that in 1992, at age 28, Hemon was stranded in Chicago when war broke out in his native Bosnia. His fiction is replete with mentions of how fortunate he was not to be in Sarajevo at the time, but tinged with regret that he will never understand the conflict that tore his country apart as well as someone who was there. Hemon had already written several stories in his native language but only began writing in English upon his absorption into American culture. Unable to return to his homeland, Hemon worked as a bike messenger, a doorknocker for Greenpeace, in a bookstore, and eventually as an ESL teacher. His English language stories began to appear in American literary journals in 1995, and by 1999 he had his first piece picked up by The New Yorker. Naturally a collection of his early stories followed a year later, The Question of Bruno. No less a talent than Zadie Smith ruefully commented, “The Question of Bruno is all right I suppose if you appreciate multilingual genius types who learn the language in six months, write with great humour and style and then get compared to Nabokov in the New York Times.” A novel, Nowhere Man, featuring one of his earlier characters, Jozef Pronek, came out to considerable acclaim in 2002 but it was a 2004 genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation that marked a dramatic upswing in his career. Half a million dollars in his pocket meant Hemon was able to travel back to Sarajevo with his childhood friend, the photographer Velibor Bozovic to research his superb 2008 novel, The Lazarus Project. This investigation into the real-life 1908 murder of Jewish immigrant Lazarus Averbuch by Chicago’s then Chief of Police, George Shippy, is illustrated with Bozovic’s photography and is a telling meditation on the life of a migrant. One year after its release, Hemon’s most recent book of short stories, the aforementioned Love and Obstacles, appeared. The question of how a writer manages to express himself so well in a language that is not his own and in such a short space of time is perhaps a puzzling one, but Zadie Smith hints at the answer in her summation of his first collection. Hemon taught himself English by reading Nabokov’s Lolita—an insanely daunting task. In a 2008 interview with the Guardian, Hemon explained, I didn’t know half the words. At the beginning I would start underlining the words I didn’t know on the page, but then I started underlining too many, so I started writing them out on notecards, and whenever I read, I made lists of words and then looked them up in the dictionary. It’s a technique Nabokov probably would have appreciated, given that he drafted his novels on index cards. (His most recent posthumous publication, The Original of Laura, is in fact presented as a series of perforated index cards, designed to be removed and shuffled by the reader, even if it is difficult to imagine philistines tearing apart Chip Kidd’s design.) “Lolita is the bomb,” Hemon told the Guardian. Reading it in English after reading it in translation “was like the difference between listening to an orchestra live and through a phone.” Applying Nabokov’s love of English to his own work caused some ire among reviewers at first, who felt that beneath the startling words lay an understanding of grammar and diction that left something to be desired. But Hemon, who has stated in several interviews that he speaks much better English than he does Bosnian, wanted to embrace Nabokov’s willingness to experiment with language. In a 2008 interview with BOMB magazine, he said that during the ESL classes he taught, he would identify the roots of certain English words in the home countries of his students, thus allowing them to lose their fear of the world language. “The thing with English,” he suggested, is that its borders can be pushed. It can be transformed and recharged. At the same time, because it is so fluid, so limitless, people feel that the rules and idiomatic strictness must be enforced - otherwise the foreigners will take the language away. This defiant ‘owning’ of English is evident throughout Hemon’s work. As a Bosnian writing in English he feels none of the trepidation most non-English writers do about “getting it wrong.” Released from such constrictions, his prose is natural and flowing, peppered with rich, satisfying phrases. A slug in the rain is described so: “The wet dew on its back twinkled: it looked like a severed tongue.” A “wet loaf of bread” is seen to have “excited ants crawling all over it, as if building a pyramid.” The ass of a horse taking a poop opens slowly, “like a camera aperture.” Hemon is also unafraid of inserting himself into his narratives, albeit in a heavily disguised and exaggerated form. His protagonists are often Bosnian men living in Chicago, despite his abhorrence of “the memoir craze,” as he puts it. “I hate it beyond words. It’s a crisis of the imagination.” Hemon cleverly deflected any criticism of his seemingly autobiographical stories in an interview with The New Yorker last year. He describes hurting the ligament in his hand one morning and losing control of his car while talking on the phone with his sister in London. He sideswipes his neighbor’s parked car and knocks on their door to confess. When no one answers and he notices the door is unlocked, he ventures inside to see if they are home. In the living room he spots a strange vase in the shape of a monkey head and picks it up for a closer look. His injured ligament lets him down and he drops the vase, smashing it. Now mortified, he scurries out of the house with the new intention of admitting nothing. This sounds like a perfect Hemon short story, except he then admits that he did not actually call his sister, though she does live in London. He caused no damage, did not trespass and saw no monkey-head vase. The only parts of the tale that actually happened were that he hurt his hand one morning and still drove his car. Yet such is Hemon’s mastery of language that even a casual recounting of the story during an interview is compelling enough to be believable. Hemon has built his own version of English. It is fluid and clever, refreshingly free of the jarring attempts to dazzle the reader often found in contemporary literary fiction. He is the first writer I have read who made me wish I could forget all the bad habits and lazy tics ingrained through virtue of being born a native English speaker, that I could start again from scratch and build a formidable lexicon such as his – simple, elegant and imbued with a profound love for the beauty of forgotten words.
Like its protagonists Yvonne and Geoffrey, Under the Volano and I were just reunited after a long separation. I read other books, it's true; I cheated with this novel's close friends and relatives. But I had my own problems, and Under the Volcano makes itself hard to love. It's brilliant and tedious, winsome and unbearable, moving and maddening and sad. I feel close to Under the Volcano because I wrote my undergraduate thesis about it. Together we drank the hair of the dog while reflecting on life's failures; together we threw away our minds. Specifically, the thesis was about Under the Volcano and The Divine Comedy. While Dante urged me to strive up, up, up toward heaven's crooning saints and brightly-lit pinwheels, Malcolm Lowry lit my cigarette and told me it's always nighttime inside the bar. It was a confusing period in my life. When I left school, thesis haphazardly completed, I was sick of Lowry and his monumental fuck-ups and his wasted life and his ragged, mostly unreadable oeuvre. I never wanted to think about him again. I came back because I wanted to remember what it was that had so arrested me about Under the Volcano six years ago. My recollection of the novel was blurry, obscured by memories of the college years. So I reread it and understood that this is a book you must come back to again and again. That's true in the literal sense; when you read the last page you are compelled to start from the beginning; the novel is a wheel. But go back to it months and years later. The real power of this novel is in its inevitability. There is something especially sad and bitter about the jaded heartbreak of the foregone conclusion. Moreso than most novels, Under the Volcano is veritably handcuffed to its author. Malcolm Lowry's general failure at life management and his frequent misfortunes are nearly impossible to set aside while thinking about this novel. The man's alcoholism was legendary. I remember reading that he underwent a ghastly detox technique wherein he sat in a small room lit with only a red lightbulb while doctors injected him with a powerful sick-making compound for days. After a week, he escaped and went on a two-day bender, during which he drank everything. Apart from the staggering drinking problem, Lowry's possessions and manuscripts tended to get lost or catch on fire. Then, when he finally managed to squeeze out a real masterpiece, it got a withering "Briefly Noted" in The New Yorker: "...for all his earnestness he has succeeded only in writing a rather good imitation of an important novel." Under the Volcano was the only output of Lowry's where he was able to step outside of himself for the sustained period of time necessary for creation. The novel could only be about a person ruined by alcohol, because alcohol was the major disaster of Lowry's own life. Under the Volcano has the curious effect of quite vividly and painfully transmitting the alcoholic's grinding, ever-present need to drink. Perhaps this says more about my own variety of temperament, but I found myself putting down the book to Google whether there was a mezcaleria in my neighborhood (pero no). Even while reading in horror about the Consul (Geoffrey) unable to put socks on his alcohol-sodden, neuritic feet, I was gripped by his craving for fiery booze and five hundred cigarettes. In his Consul, Lowry also managed to write the frenetic, mostly incoherent scholar of arcane texts that Lowry himself patently was. The Consul is obsessed with Kabbala, among other things; his fevered interest, his drinking, and his references' very opacity render him unable to finish, or start, the definitive text he alleges to have been working on for years. Lowry, with his fetish for certain large and complex texts and systems of belief (e.g., Dante, Buddhism), was similarly unable to extricate himself from his head and his sources to write consistently good work. Lowry's self-awareness, much in evidence as he labored over this novel, is the more heart-rending given his own untimely and ignoble end, choking on his vomit from overdose (which was, according to various people, an accident, a pseudo-suicide, or a maybe-murder). The New Yorker's brief note notwithstanding, Under the Volcano's power is not strictly in the unavoidable comparisons between its protagonist and its author. Quite apart from its autobiographical significance, it is beautifully constructed and written, although the prose can be frustrating, and the whole experience is disorienting (like being drunk, then really drunk, then sober, then drunker than before). Its difficulty is also its success, I feel more than ever after this recent reading. I love the opening pages of the novel, the retrospective Laurelle and the farcical Dr. Vigil, the inversion of Dante's sober and silver-tonged Virgil: "I sended a boy down to see if he would come for a few minutes and knock my door, I would appreciate it to him, if not, please write me a note, if drinking have not killed him already." I love how sensory the novel is, the things it allows you to see and smell and feel, even the aching limbs and the clamoring hangover that follow an all-night bender. Among other things, it's a novel of place, with Quauhnahuac (Cuernavaca) a character unto itself. As with Dante, geography is important to Lowry, and as with Dante, the geography is sometimes confusing; it seems to defy the laws of physics. The place teems with ravines and hills and roads that, no matter where one goes, seem to lead (titularly) to the volcano. Sweeping statements are dangerous, but I'm feeling bold this evening; I'm drinking paisano-flavored Carlo Rossi. So here goes: In my little universe, Under the Volcano and Lolita are the alpha and the omega of twentieth century literature in English. I don't mean necessarily that we need employ the bogus notion of "best," simply that between them they exemplify the artistic possibilities of literature. Between them, they define things that literature sets out to do and does. At the level where theme and style converge, Under the Volcano is the great hangover of the Western Hemisphere of the forties, worn out from its newly concluded horrors. Lolita is its bright, shiny, hopelessly corrupt new dawn. The novels' respective styles, influences, and preoccupations between them cover a lot of ground. Even their authors neatly occupy two important provinces of the literary lion: Nabokov the eerily prolific, the presentable, the consummate virtuoso; Lowry the wreck, the shit-show, the consummate artistic temperament. The Formalist quibbler will argue that Lowry should remain outside his text, that it must stand on its own merits. I think the novel has plenty of formal merits, but I still reject this position. How can I not think about Malcolm Lowry? He steps off the page of this novel and says, "Please understand me." Like Dr. Vigil says of the Consul, "Sickness is not only in body, but in that part used to be call: soul. Poor your friend, he spend his money on earth in such continuous tragedies." That's real prescience; that's heartbreaking.
I planned to review The Original of Laura back when it first came out last year, but I found that I didn’t have much to say. The book was marketed as the final unfinished novel of Vladimir Nabokov, and as a “masterwork that was nearly destroyed.” Really, though, it’s just a jumble of disconnected fragments, in such rough form that they can’t be evaluated. Still, some reviewers have been extraordinarily hostile to The Original of Laura, and have given Nabokov absurdly harsh treatment for this batch of handwritten index cards that he specifically insisted should never be published. It seems only decent to remind everyone that this isn’t the volume to use as proof of much of anything about Nabokov’s writing. The Original of Laura doesn’t show a falling-off in Nabokov’s powers as a novelist. It shows little except that he died before he could put the novel on paper in anything even hazily resembling publishable form. Reading some of the reviews, you can come away with a sense that the text is far closer to completion than it actually is. Not a single sustained sequence, not a single fully developed character, not a single clear line of narrative emerges from these short, disjointed scraps of writing. Nabokov is one of the least straightforward novelists in history, and his books can’t really be understood in isolated or incomplete pieces. Imagine evaluating Pale Fire on the basis of, say, early drafts of Nabokov’s handwritten index cards from thirty or forty pages of the least revealing parts of Kinbote’s commentary, without even a single index card from the main poem. The fragments of The Original of Laura have something to do with someone named Flora and someone named Wild, and something to do with some book called My Laura, and something to do with Wild’s notion of mentally dismembering his body as a form of death-by-willpower. Yet since this is Nabokov, it’s not only possible but probable that the relationships among these elements are far from obvious. Even the most seemingly clear aspects of the fragments are part of larger patterns that we will simply never recover, and that it’s irresponsible for us to pretend we can examine. I understand why some of the reviews have been so nasty. The book has been brought out in an expensive, ornate edition, accompanied by a lot of off-putting pre-publication hype. Yet Nabokov isn’t responsible for that hype, and his son Dmitri Nabokov has acted with integrity by insisting that the book appear in a form where its incompleteness can be seen and instantly grasped. Indeed, Dmitri Nabokov has taken some weirdly disproportionate hits for the aspect of the book that deserves the greatest praise. He hasn’t hidden the unpolished, provisional state of the text. Instead, he has heightened it, reproducing the handwritten index cards so we can inspect for ourselves just how far the book is from being done. Critics who have attacked him for his textual decisions should lighten up (and should keep in mind that he’s a first-rate translator who has earned his place as the protector of his father’s legacy). Besides, would we really be happier with an edition of the novel where a team of editors had quietly cleaned up the prose and attempted to pull everything together into a falsely unified story? Whether the fragments should have been published at all is a harder question. I think Nabokov’s last wishes should have trumped our curiosity, even if the writing had been in a more nearly finished form and had amounted to a great final work. Again, though, Dmitri Nabokov has been savaged for his open, decades-long struggle with a decision that many other literary estates have made much more secretively, often ignoring or downplaying the author’s desires in an attempt to avoid criticism. Outsiders might not agree with Dmitri Nabokov’s decision to publish, but it was his choice to make, and he had the courage to make it without trying to minimize the difficulties of his position. It seems to me he’s being punished mainly for his honesty, for doing in a straightforward and honorable manner what many literary estates do with cynical, calculating furtiveness. This isn’t a minor point. With the publishing world’s old standards and traditions dissolving all around us, why should we go out of our way to rip into people who make a special effort to take their literary duties seriously? Dmitri Nabokov is, after all, responsible for bringing out, among many other books, The Enchanter and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov—two valuable posthumous Nabokov works where the son’s editing and translating are exemplary. Indeed, Dmitri Nabokov’s lifelong dedication to his father’s writing deserves a far more appreciative assessment than it has lately generated. This will be corrected in the long run, but why not just go ahead and correct it today? Vladimir Nabokov has every reason to be grateful for his son’s devotion. Anyway, The Original of Laura is out now, and we can see that Nabokov was right to believe his final fragments weren’t yet ready for publication. This knowledge should remind us how high Nabokov’s standards were for his craft. It should also free us to turn back to the books that he actually saw into print. From The Eye to Lolita and Pnin, from Glory and Laughter in the Dark to Speak, Memory and Pale Fire, Nabokov’s best writing will last long after The Original of Laura is properly forgotten.
0. PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance. (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain) 1. The best prologue I ever read was an epigraph. The book in question was from my early reading days, before I had come to understand that epigraphs were a common thing. The quote was a prelude to a ripping fantasy yarn by Raymond Feist and was from the pen of Shakespeare: We were, fair queen, Two lads that thought there was no more behind But such a day to-morrow as to-day, And to be boy eternal. The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare I would never hold that book up to any critical scrutiny today, but Feist’s talent for setting off an epic coming-of-age story with quotes about how great it was to be young—and to imagine anything was possible—had a kind of perfect intonation. Having taken up the mantle "writer," epigraphs have taken on a significance of another sort. Just what purpose epigraphs serve, where they come from, and how the source from which they were drawn affects the story in which they are embedded have all bubbled to the surface. Among the most pressing questions for me: should epigraphs be thought of as part of the text, a sort of pre-modern, post-modern device, like tossing a newspaper clipping into the body narrative? Or are they actually a direct invitation by the author, perhaps saying, “Look here, for from this inspiration came this tale?” Put another way, are they part of the book or part of the author, or both, or neither? People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an “apposite quote that sets the mood for a story and to give an idea of what’s coming” or “a quote to set the tone like a prelude in music” or as a “foreshadowing mechanism” or “like little appetizers of the great entrée of a story” meant to illuminate “important aspects of the story [and] get us headed in the right direction.” Humbug, say I. Humbug. 2. Epigraphs have a long history. As early as 1726, one can find in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the cousin of the epigraph, a fictitious “note from the publisher” explaining that Gulliver is in fact a real person and these his true papers. Yes, Lolita got that from somewhere. But even Gulliver’s fictionalized note, that cousin to the epigraph, can be traced to Cervantes and Don Quixote (published in 1605) wherein the author assures us that: My wish would be simply to present it to thee plain and unadorned, without any embellishment of preface or uncountable muster of customary sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies, such as are commonly put at the beginning of books. Author’s Preface to Don Quixote (following, one should note, several sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies) And so it is certain that even in the time predating the texts which we now call the canon, and some would assert Don Quixote the first “novel,” the epigraph and its ilk were widely entrenched into the formula for literature. The point is, of course, that epigraphs have been around for a long time. 3. So to the question of how we are to read epigraphs, one must first decide whether there are ‘bad’ epigraphs and ‘good’ epigraphs, and if so, how these categories might arise. I have already described something which many would characterize as an example of a good kind of epigraph, that quote which seems to connect in a fundamental way with the text. Like, perhaps, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Yet, of course, epigraphs cannot be too explicit, too clear or too thematic or it ruins the whole endeavor. If the author gets up on a soapbox and declares “this is an important novel” well then the ship’s sailed. That’s why William Styron starts Sophie’s Choice with this quote from André Malraux: “...I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.” Clearly these are not the only types of epigraphs that succeed. Nabokov hit a home run with his epigraph for The Gift with this quote from a Russian school-book: "An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable." Which reveals that sometimes it is enough to be clever. Ander Monson's Neck Deep and other Predicaments has an epigraph from the Chicago Manual of Style: "A dedication intended to be humorous will very likely lose its humor with time and so is inappropriate for a serious book destined to take a permanent place in the literature." Again, very clever. So clever epigraphs work. However, two kinds of epigraphs do not work. The first is any serious literary epigraph to a Harry Potter book, like for instance, this one from The Deathly Hallows Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal. William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude Perhaps one will call me hypocritical for allowing a quote from Shakespeare to grace a munchy fantasy novel and then to turn around and say that the epigraph to a Harry Potter book falls flat. I would simply note that the fantasy novel in question actually took itself seriously whereas Harry Potter tried to have it both ways—and the William Penn quote is about life and death, which would have been inappropriate to any book that wasn’t. Rowling should have selected something on the theme of love and friendship to be true to the work she published. Another sort of epigraphical failure is in Blood Meridian. McCarthy uses one of those triple-epigraphs which I’ll address in a moment, and the third epigraph, after two highfalutin contemplations on darkness and death he adds this: Clark, who led last year's expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped. THE YUMA DAILY SUN McCarthy has an important point here, which is that people have been scalping each other since forever. Unfortunately, it would have come out more candidly through the mouth of one of his characters. The big problem is that in a semi-biblical masterwork, the only part of the entire overarching text that ever makes any reference to normal-sounding speech is this tiny bit of a 3-part epigraph. So this sets out an objective standard. Epigraphs must count as part of the text because they affect the way the text is read, and therefore are tied more to the text than to the author. They belong to the text, regardless of the way the author feels. Also, as these epigraphs make clear, they are clearly not sources of inspiration for the story. Quite often they are tacked on. 4. So epigraphs abide by certain principles, and they do not always work. Quite often they come across like throat clearing, sort of a “here it goes” before the author gets into the work. Especially when an author has more than one epigraph, which seems to have become only more common. So when searching for an epigraph, the most important part of the endeavor should be how the quote integrates with the novel as a whole. Does it fit the tone, and does it take on a deeper meaning, or lend a deeper meaning, because it’s there? (As a quick aside, I would like to say that overt references to Dover Beach should be restricted to epigraphs. In a striking number of novels, the poem is actually a plot point giving rise to a significant epiphany. I’m looking at you Fahrenheit 451 and most especially Saturday.) But the question remains: How does one determine precisely the tone an epigraph should take? Herman Melville in Moby-Dick has probably one of the longest and most interesting (and most tonally consistent) epigraphs ever. He spends several pages just talking about Whales. But again, isn’t it just—too much? Would it not have been a better epigraph if he had simply included only this one from among all his myriad quotations: October 13. "There she blows," was sung out from the mast-head. "Where away?" demanded the captain. "Three points off the lee bow, sir." "Raise up your wheel. Steady!" "Steady, sir." "Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?" "Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!" "Sing out! sing out every time!" "Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there--there--THAR she blows--bowes--bo-o-os!" "How far off?" "Two miles and a half." "Thunder and lightning! so near! Call all hands." --J. ROSS BROWNE'S ETCHINGS OF A WHALING CRUIZE. 1846. A similar question of “too much” arises in Sophie’s Choice and other texts in which the author seeks to use an epigraph in another language. Given the fact that most readers will not be speakers and therefore cannot see the intricacies in tone and the shades of meaning in that other language’s words, one wonders whether the author is writing the epigraph to himself or to the reader. If we are to think of epigraphs as part of the main text, then this foreign-language snippet needs to stand on its own, it can’t just be authorial vanity, right? Although, since his editor let him plant it there in the original German or French, one wonders if this means that epigraphs are thought to be more like dedications in the publishing world than the main text. 5. Finally, one wonders why epigraphs are always at the beginning of the book. Some stories end and make you want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. How moving it would be to me to finish a book and turn the page, sad that it’s all over and read an epigraph that reflects on all that’s come before.
Lawrence Weschler has observed, astutely, that writers tend to move from Romanesque to Gothic. The early work will be thick, solid, even heavy; only with decades of experience does the writer learn to chisel away excess, as the builders of Notre Dame did: to let in the light. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov, however, the converse seems to obtain. Of the major edifices he erected in English, his last, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), is his most excessive, both in its difficulty and in the pleasures it affords the (re)reader. That excess begins with sheer length. At 589 pages (plus endnotes!), Ada is twice the size of your average Nabokov paperback. Nor would it be fair to call Ada a page-turner; even as it hews to the plot of the "family chronicle," it elaborates on the textual gamesmanship of its immediate predecessor, Pale Fire (1962). Riddles, anagrams, and puns abound. This is not to mention the density of intertextual allusion, which makes Humbert Humbert look like Duran Duran. What I've come to think of (somewhat unfairly) as the grad-school response to such allusiveness - treating each sentence like a puzzle to be solved - isn't always the best way to approach to a tough text. With Finnegans Wake, for example, a willingness to let things wash over you can be the difference between sublimity and seasickness. With Ada, however, if you aren't playing along at home with your Nabokov decoder ring, you're probably missing something. And the anagrammatic annotator "Vivian Darkbloom" has left us a set of valuable hints in the end matter. (A brilliant, if half-complete, online annotation offers further assistance. Would that one of these sites existed for each of our Difficult Books!) Ada's greatest puzzle, in all senses, is its setting. The opening line - a misquotation from "Anna Arkadievitch Karenina" - signals that the world of this novel will be a somewhat garbled translation of our own: an "anti-Terra." In place of Borges, Anti-Terra has Osberg. In place of French Canadians, it has Russian Estotians. It is sometimes called Demonia. "Our demons," we are told, "are noble iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the eighteen-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere where our splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had become nothing but vicious monsters, disgusting devils." In short, Nabokov has thrown us into the deep end, and expects us to stitch our own life preservers. Doing so means reconstructing the history and geography not only of anti-Terra, but also of "Terra" - the mythical "sphere" alluded to above. This mirror-world turns out to be, from our standpoint, nearer to reality, but from the perspective of of anti-Terra, as far-out as Zembla. Who but those wacky New Believers could possibly credit the existence of Athaulf the Future, "a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform...in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country?" The novel's other key dyad is Van and Ada Veen - the first cousins-cum-siblings (long story) whose love lies at the heart of the book. The incestuous nature of their affair would seem to present readers with yet another difficulty. But Ada is "about" incest only in the way that Lolita is "about" pedophilia, or Moby-Dick is "about" fishing. Which is to say, it isn't. In his wonderful book The Magician's Doubts (which prodded me to pick up Ada in the first place), the critic Michael Wood proposes that the novel's subject is in fact "happiness" - generally felt to be the hardest thing to write about. And in the face of Nabokov's superheated imagination, even Wood's generous reading feels a little reductive. Ada is also about freedom, writing, desire, passion, and what time and distance do to all of the above. Ultimately, Nabokov manages a kind of Proustian magic trick: he recovers, through evocation, the very things whose losses he depicts. His exquisite, synesthetic sentences render the past present, the time-bound timeless. And they bring this author, not noted for his sympathetic disposition, so close to his hero that the difference disappears. Van Veen's peculiar ardor becomes universal; to read the description is to share in the experience:The males of the firefly, a small luminous beetle, more like a wandering star than a winged insect, appeared on the first warm black nights of Ardis, one by one, here and there, then in a ghostly multitude, dwindling again to a few individuals as their quest came to its natural end.And:After the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips and her softer skin had been established - high up in that dappled tree, with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping - nothing seemed changed in one sense, all was lost in another. Such contacts evolve their own texture; a tactile sensation is a blind spot; we touch in silhouette.Aesthetically, intellectually, and even morally, this is a Difficult Book par excellence. It demands a lover's patience. But sentences like these are our steadfast consolation for submitting to the wiles of Ada. More Difficult Books
Luckily, I have been keeping a list. I began the year with Tom Hodgkinson's lovely How to be Idle, which is a very very good way to begin a year of reading. Immediately then to The Twelve Terrors of Christmas (Updike / Gorey). Thereafter, Kicking the Leaves, an old favorite. This is in my opinion, Donald Hall's best volume of poetry. I have read it dozens of times. Then a short travel with a writer I had never read, Gyula Krudy, whose Sunflower, courtesy of NYRB was enormously pleasing and atmospheric. Then Botvinnik: 100 Selected Games, for those of you who read chess-notation with joy and pleasure. That old Soviet master had a fearsome will. Then Last Days by Brian Evenson, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, Life of Johnson by Boswell (wonderful -- even the ambition of reading it and carrying it about with one is wonderful). Then Fowles, The Collector, and Out by the very resourceful Matsuo Kirino. Read Out if you, like myself and also the previously mentioned Evenson, spend time thinking about how bodies ought to be disposed of. At this point, I went to another old favorite, Robert Walser's Selected Stories. If you must read something, please forget about what anyone else has to say and read Walser's selected stories. There's a lot of posturing about contemporary writing, but the truth is -- most of it isn't any good. That's where Walser comes in, from the first quarter of the last century, riding the wagon from his Swiss sanatorium. He'll fix your modern day ills with ease. I went to Leonard Gardner next, and his Fat City, which I read in one sitting. Delicious! Do you like prize-fighting? I do. Then Zen Antics courtesy of Cleary, and Lolita while on a train to Michigan, and Hass's Field Guide (not an actual field guide). At this point we are partway through the year, and I am considering the class I will teach in the fall, a class on derive, which sends us into: Society of the Spectacle by Debord, Revolution of Everyday Life by Vaneigem, Nadja by Breton, The Character of Physical Law by Feynman, A Pattern Language by Alexander, Ishikawa, Silverstein, and Koolhaus's Delirious New York. I will leave you then, there with me in the summertime. Of later books, I will mention but one: Bears: A Brief History by Brunner (a remarkable book). Do you like bears? More from A Year in Reading
I have seriously mixed feelings about this book. First off, it is part of the group of post-war novels by/about American men who are peeved because getting old is boring and their wives aren't very sexy. Please forgive my bawdy language, but let's call them the My Dick novels, with major sub-genres My Dick is Great and I Feel Bad About my Dick. I used to read these without discrimination, but one day the veil fell from my eyes and I realized that these books could bring about a serious crisis of self-esteem for me, a lady who loves a man. One doesn't need constant reminders that one's significant other will stare in horror at one's posterior fifteen years from now, and try to do it with the underaged person responsible for looking after the children for whom, theoretically, one will have compromised one's parts in order to expel. Nor does one need to be told that, even if you should have the marvelous good fortune to keep your libido and your teeth and your satin skin and sense of humor, it won't make a whit of difference, as the man in your life will be pulled inexorably toward sex with teens. I don't care if these accounts are based on life's hard facts, and are therefore imbued with a verisimilitude that some say makes art great. Some things are just tedious after the hundredth time. I'm told that women get increasingly humorless as well as physically repulsive as the years go by, but I like these novels if they are really funny. The Water-Method Man, for example, is one my favorite novels, although John Irving is an important figure in the My Dick movement. Deliverance by James Dickey, though, is the opposite of funny. The leather vest that Burt Reynolds is wearing on the cover of my copy is funny, but that is the only thing. Most people are familiar with the storyline, immortalized as it was by Reynolds and said vest. For those of you who haven't heard the twang of dueling banjos, here's what happens: the narrator has three friends, one of whom is very muscular (he's the narrator's favorite). The narrator also wants to fondle the girl who is a model at his ad agency and has a golden eye or something. The narrator and his three friends decide to go canoeing on a river without a map or a clue; they pack some beers and bows and arrows (naturally) and hit the road. It's all very sinister from the get-go. Then they're on the river, and terrifying rednecks (who have done more toward furthering redneck discrimination than any other rednecks in art), rape one of them. The rednecks are about to assault the narrator, but the muscled one, Lewis, shoots one of them through the chest with an arrow. The other redneck gets away and hides, kills one of the friends, Lewis breaks his leg, and then it's up to the narrator to stop being such a soft-living, house-having nancy all the time and find that bastard and kill him with his primal man essence. Which he does, after some feats of strength and things that sound like they hurt a lot. All of this is told in a self-consciously poetic way, as if the author wrote it while sitting behind a duck blind with a camouflaged typewriter, looking at a picture of Walt Whitman and listening to Wagner. Sometimes I was (very marginally) enjoying it and sometimes I was thinking that if I must read about scary, disgusting things I'd rather get my copy of The Stand out from under the bed and at least have a good time. Then I wouldn't have to read sentences like this one: "The standing there was so good, so fresh and various and continuous, so vital and uncaring around my genitals, that I hated to leave it." Good grief. Why is this book one of the best books of the century? Why, Modern Library? Really, the more I think about it the more I think it's less "mixed feelings" I have about it than "fierce loathing." My main complaint is this: Bobby has been raped, Lewis the muscled one has killed the redneck, and they're all four standing around talking about what to do, and the narrator goes ahead and says: I moved away from Bobby's red face. None of this was his fault, but he felt tainted to me. I remembered how he had looked over the log, how willing to let anything be done to him, and how high his voice was when he screamed. What a super attitude to have about your friend who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint! Ecce homo! Basically the narrator is feeling pretty smug about not being the one to get "cornholed" (his charming term), and about the fact that dreamy Lewis was put out of commission and it was up to him to save the day! I'm not one of those literal-minded turds who thinks Lolita or, I don't know, The Collector, are offensive, because I understand that you can write about things and not do them or think them yourself. It is not the novelist's job to provide an edifying story or a lovable narrator. However, not only was I pretty lukewarm about the alleged Everyman of Deliverance, the writing style did not, for me, elevate things in any meaningful way. It felt like a missed opportunity, in a sense. A novelist could use a moment like this to provide a neat example of how rape culture and victim-shaming hurt everyone, men and women alike. I mean, the narrator's basic position on the issues is that sexual assault victims are embarrassing and gross, and the best thing to do is to a) shun them and b) kill everyone. There's a lot of pithy stuff there. I'm likely missing something. I think there is something zeitgeisty happening in the novel, something to which I'm not privy. Maybe it's a generational thing. Maybe it's a Vietnam thing. Obviously, it's a dick(ey) thing. On that note, Happy Thanksgiving.
Elizabeth wrote in with this question: This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the "one novel of a person's life" seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don't know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be? Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth's question literally, wondering what "one novel" we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth's shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person's reading experience. Here are our answers: Garth: The hypothetical here - if you could read just one novel - strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there's only going to be one. I'm tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I've got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you'd want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone. Edan: My suggestion - Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut - may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's highly readable. It's important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn't read much won't tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn't a movie buff (read: me) won't sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there's a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase "So it goes" repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I'd love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others - book worms or not - would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life. Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I'd pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others - a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites - modern and classic - but strategically I'll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing - playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become "unstuck in time" and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers - kids, really - are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut's playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other. Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone: "You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years--generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco--and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad--Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice--Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many--Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady's last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain." And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written. Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a "desert island book," the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill. Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student's unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it's "Make love not war, save the planet"). Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It's true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah's and Garth's idea (reading the question as looking for a "desert island book") that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis' The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the "first" and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not - bear with me here - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn't expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it. Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth's question on your own site or in the comments below.
So that you may get to know us better, it's The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today's Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven't read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I'll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I'm looking forward to it). I haven't read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, or Infinite Jest - I tend to avoid big books. I'm too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I'm a scared wimp, but I'm thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I've started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I've made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I'm also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven't even read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven't read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That's right, I haven't read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I've never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that's about it. Aside from excerpts, I've never even read Homer.I'll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I'm not exactly sure what I'm missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote - I've actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I've never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I've done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I've also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction - that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I've done quite well with modern British fiction, and I've also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I've delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace's encyclopedic prose, I'll actually finish Infinite Jest. It's mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly "I Never," there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I've never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story "Hills Like White Elephants"), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven't read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine - not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors - my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer's "A Reader's Manifesto" at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers' extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy's "muscular" style were as much (more) than I'd ever need of McCarthy's much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses - give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I've never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King... Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school... So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus... and that's pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I'm not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading - secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I'll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I've had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I've been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it's the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I've never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I've long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I've only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I'd like to try Anna Karenina next. I've also never read Lolita. Updike's passing this week reminded me that I've never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo's books and Foster Wallace's. By Philip Roth, I've read only Portnoy's Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can't even recall that I haven't read, but I'll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
In 1699, at the age of 32, Jonathan Swift wrote a list of resolutions for himself that he titled "When I come to be old." The first of these was, "Not to marry a young Woman." Improbably, reading this Swiftian direction set me compiling a list of movies in which men and women disregard his advice. I can't say it's in any way particularly timely, or suited to the season - unless nothing says "summer" to you like a nymphet in a bikini and heart-shaped sunglasses or Dustin Hoffman in full diving gear at the bottom of a pool.The GraduateManhattan - oh, beauty and the beast: Mariel Hemingway in bed with Woody Allen. A great movie, and a beautiful movie (even if you find WA occasionally repulsive).Kubrick's Lolita (1962)Lolita (1997) The Kubrick Lolita goes in more for the "humor" of Nabokov's novel - a lot of slap-stick-y scenes with Peter Sellars as Clare Quilty. I prefer the remake because it goes in more for the tragedy. Jeremy Irons walks the monstrous/charming line superbly and Dominique Swain is more convincing that Sue Lyon as Lolita.Pretty Baby - Louis Malle's beautiful and creepy film about the daughter of a prostitute in a New Orleans whore house. A too young Brooke Shields, with Keith Carradine and Susan Sarandon.The Professional - remember Natalie Portman singing "Like a Virgin" to a flabbergasted Jean Reno?Beautiful Girls - Portman again, reprising her "old-soul" girl-woman vibe from The Professional opposite Timothy Hutton. (not that surprising that Portman was offered the Lolita role for 1997 remake)Lawn Dogs - highly recommended: Young Sam Rockwell and very young Mischa Barton. The solace and dangers of friendship in a deeply creepy suburbia.Harold and Maud - for the series of staged suicide scenes and Cat Stevens soundtrack alone, this is worth a watch, but there’s so much more...Venus - The great Peter O'Toole playing, as far as I can tell, himself. And he is charming. Plus the enormously fat actor now of Harry Potter/Uncle Vernon fame (once of Withnail/Uncle Monty fame) as one of O'Toole's pals (Richard Griffiths).Last Tango In Paris - Really old Marlon Brando and really young French hottie: borderline porn - kinda gross (not recommended to the faint of heart, or really anyone at all)Shopgirl - Steve Martin, Clare Danes, Jason Schwartzman, and Pete Sampras' babe wifeLost in Translation - another former goofball (Bill Murray) makes good as a serious leading man opposite Scarlett JohanssonY Tu Mama Tambien - not the rollicking good time the previews suggested it to be: brace yourself.Notes on a Scandal - Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett at their finest.American Pie - the movie that brought us "milf"The Good Girl - Jennifer Aniston playing a downtrodden housewife and Jake Gyllenhall (whose character renames himself Holden Caulfield) as her co-worker paramour at the Retail Rodeo.Laurel Canyon - Francis McDormand and Alessandro Nivola are the May-December pair, ably supported by Kate Beckinsale, Christian Bale, and Natasha McElhone. A good movie for repressed graduate students.
I.What is style... and how does one achieve it? Our English teachers admonish us to enliven our verb choices, to reach for colorful synonyms... and we imbibe the idea that style means not sounding like anyone else, that styles are as distinctive as handwriting. As, indeed, some are. When we encounter "aurochs and angels and the durable pigments of art," we know we're in the presence of Nabokov; "There was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun" announces Hemingway like a calling card.But how many legions of writers, in search of style, have settled for Lolita-lite, or cadences half-in-Ernest? Or conversely, aiming for originality, have ended up mired in pretension? It's too easy, pursuing individuation en masse, to sacrifice one's native freedoms to someone else's idea of what style should be.So what, really, can we say about style? That some writers have more of it than others. (These we call "stylists.") That it's possible to be a fine writer and to sport a neutral style. (I'm not sure I could say of a sentence, "Only Ian McEwan could have written this.") And that a very few writers, in the course of a lifetime, manage to elevate more than one style to a state of perfection. Such is the case of Leonard Michaels, whose late novel, Sylvia, achieves a pellucidity as uniquely his as the ferocious defamiliarization of his early short stories. So, what is style? For the time being let's leave it at this: it's the thing Leonard Michaels has in spades.II.On the stage of late-Twentieth-Century American fiction, Leonard Michaels cuts, to my mind, a somewhat tragic figure. The tragedy being that I wouldn't hear of him until the summer of 2007, when I read Wyatt Mason's essay "The Irresponsibility of Feelings" in Harper's. My subsequent reading would confirm Mason's intuition that Michaels is one of the major literary artists of our time. But before FSG's recent resuscitation of the Michaels catalogue, most of his fiction had fallen out of print.The reasons for this are manifold, but we can point to a couple of obvious ones. The first is that Michaels, like his beloved Byron, seems to have been born under a bad sign. Raised on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Michaels came of age in that no-man's-land between the Beat Generation and the Summer of Love. In New York's bohemian precincts, the alienation of the former persisted, but without the political agitation that focused it. Drugs were rampant, but had not yet become a Utopian "culture." Psychotherapy was taken seriously enough to drain most of the fun from sexual liberation, but not seriously enough to save troubled young people like Michaels' first wife, Sylvia Bloch, who would, in 1963, commit suicideMichaels evokes this milieu beautifully in his second book of stories, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (now reissued as part of The Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels). His fictional stand-in, Phillip Leibowitz, is, like Michaels, a working-class kid, a basketball player, a son of immigrants. Watching Leibowitz struggle with dingy walkup apartments, harrowing relationships, unsavory sexual encounters, druggy intellectuals, and poverty, we sense Michaels' own alienation. For Michaels was, however ambiguously, an autobiographical writer.Which brings us to the second reason for his lack of renown: Michaels' writerly practices were completely at odds with the emerging structures of the publishing world. Where editors prize prolific authors, Michaels was an obsessive rewriter of his own work. (Sylvia: a novel was first "Sylvia" the story-length memoir.) Where publicists seek ways to pitch books to readers, Michaels transgressed serially against every manner of classification. How to market a book like 1990's Shuffle, which combines new short-stories with previously published fiction, essays, and fictionalized (or not) journal entries? This isn't to knock the publishing industry; in my own urge for linearity, I don't know which version of The Men's Club to read. It is, however, to salute Michaels for his fortitude. He was an artist, and he persisted in his quiddities. And every ten years or so, they would produce a substantial, integral work of literature. Going Places. I Would Have Saved Them... The Nachman Stories. And Sylvia.III.To read a Michaels story from the 1970s is to feel oneself in the presence of a visionary, a furious expressionist. Here, from "The Captain," is a bit of description of a sadomasochistic (and possibly imaginary) sexual encounter:"On a shelf about chest high lay three hundred sausages, coiled in convoluted complications, a monster brain. A long gray iron chain. The prospect of such appetite suffused me with feelings of poverty, no education, and moral shock, but in one clean movement of self-disgust I laid on hands like he who knows. The chain chuckled as my fingers pierced its holes."Michaels' first language was Yiddish, and here we see him toying with the varied registers of English as though discovering them for the first time: the Biblical, the clinical, the philosophical, and the visceral. All of Michaels' stories do this, in one way or another. Typically, his sentences are savagely compressed, forcing the reader to reconstitute their full meaning. Language is gloriously obtrusive.By the 1990s, however, Michaels' prose had become a clear-running stream. Here is how he begins Sylvia:"In 1960, after two years of graduate school at Berkeley, I returned to New York without a Ph.D. or any idea what I'd do, only a desire to write stories. I'd also been at the University of Michigan, from 1953 to 1956. All in all, five years of classes in literature. I don't know how else I might have spent those five years, but I didn't want to hear more lectures, study for more exams, or see myself growing old in the library."Shorn of its figurative tangles, relaxed, decompressed, this is a style that insists, "this is this, and that is that, and this is the way things stand." It is a style that doesn't shy from statements of truth. Which makes it the perfect vehicle for a reassessment of Michaels' first marriage and Sylvia Bloch's death.IV.Sylvia is a slippery title in two ways. First, it tempts us to conflate Michaels' first wife with her fictional namesake. The Sylvia we meet in the book is a woman dancing on the edge of the abyss: volatile, secretive, obsessive. But she is also a less than round character, and in shaping his narrative, Michaels largely elides Sylvia's past and the parts of her present not contiguous with her husband's life. From a certain feminist perspective, this might be a source of critique, but really, all it means is that this is a novel. It retains the intimacy of its origins as a memoir, but can behave more freely with its characters.Which brings us to the second tricky thing about the title: really, Sylvia isn't about Sylvia at all. It is about the man who marries her, and the wonder of Michaels' account is its lacerating honesty. The narrator doesn't suffer through Sylvia's psychic disintegration as the cost of loving her; in some way her instability is the catalyst for his love. When he meets her, he finds himself "hypnotized by Sylvia's exotic flashing effect." The unsettlingly speedy commencement of their sexual relationship only deepens the attraction.Sealed inside an increasingly hermetic folie a deux, the narrator cannot bring himself to see Sylvia's violent outbursts and compulsions and depressions as symptoms, and in this way contributes to her disintegration. Then, awakening to Sylvia's illness, he finds himself pulling away from her, abandoning her to her fate. Years later, what unifies his two perspectives - the one from inside and the one from outside - is a steady sense of guilt."My body lusted. That was my secret infidelity, never confessed to my journals. Despite the daily misery of marriage, I wrote that I loved Sylvia. I wrote it repeatedly into my journals, and I wiped sincerely pathetic tears from my eyes. 'I love Sylvia.'"These journal entries are interspersed throughout the narrative, and only deepen the sense of ferocious candor. And what we see beneath the surface is pathetic, in the Greek sense: two suffering souls who can live neither with nor without each other. The narrator resists any attempt to exculpate himself for Sylvia's death or, conversely, to overstate his fault. What he does do is document (and offer an antidote to) the solipsism of youth. And we are forced to wonder: Given better friends, better family, better conversation, and a better marriage, might Sylvia have survived?"In the conversational style of the day," Michaels writes, "everything was always about something; or, to put it differently, everything was always really about something other than what it seemed to be about... The plays and sonnets of Shakespeare and the songs of Dylan were all equally about something. The murder of President Kennedy was, too. Nothing was fully resident in itself. Nothing was plain."In making plain the suffering of two people, Sylvia reveals that style in the truest sense is not merely a set of aesthetic choices; it is the outward display of an author's ethics. In writing this book, Leonard Michaels honored Sylvia's death by trying to see his own connection to it clearly. He tried to let their life together be fully, fictionally, resident in itself. And beneath the layers of resentment, short-sightedness, and reproach, Sylvia became a final act of love, a testament of "desperate happiness."He would have saved her if he could.
I wanted to follow up on my attempt to review Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day by sharing a few resources I found helpful. After reading the book, which took 23 days, I barnstormed through a lot of reviews, many of them silly. A couple I found insightful are available in complete versions online. Luc Sante's "Inside the Time Machine" appeared in The New York Review of Books. Michael Wood's "Humming Along" appeared in The London Review of Books. Each of these reviews, in its own way, reaffirms the valuable role the long-form book-review plays, and speaks to the ongoing relevance of publications like the NYRB, the LRB, The Believer, and Bookforum.Even more useful, for me, was a recent phenomenon: the wiki. Though I still tend to privilege the O.E.D. over AskJeeves, I can't think of an instance where the Internet has proven more congenial to literary study than it has in the case of the Pynchon wiki. Where readers of Joyce and Nabokov had to wait years for annotations of Ulysses and Lolita to appear, AtD annotations have appeared online at roughly the speed it takes to read the book. Annotations contributed collectively, and subject to collective revisions, help correct for ideological bias and factual error.Though obsessive decoding of texts can sometimes obscure the richer pleasures of a difficult novel, the wiki, because it's a more casual reading experience than a thick volume of annotations, seems to make frivolous annotation more transparently frivolous. At the same time, it makes it easy for a novel reader to pause, retrieve crucial information, and then return to the book. I can only hope wikis for books like The Recognitions, The Tunnel, and Infinite Jest are forthcoming.
Come the new year, Ben will be joining us as a regular contributor. I'll leave formal introductions until then, but in the meantime, he decided to get a jump on things by sharing the best books he read in 2006:Since reading The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll several years ago in a back alley, flea trap of a hotel in Nadi, Fiji, I've been lending myself to a series of flawed and inherently hopeless business schemes in the hope of not just getting rich quick, but adding to my life even one iota of the melancholic romance the book so neatly distilled. For better or worse, my ventures have amounted to nothing more than a series of lessons in humility, and, in the process, they consumed a large part of my free time. Which is a long way of saying that I didn't have much time to read this year.Of the books I did read, I will unequivocally recommend three, none of which were written in 2006. (Life is short, books are many and often long, so I prefer to wait a few years until a book has received some kind of critical imprimatur before digging in.)My first recommendation is Graham Joyce's The Tooth Fairy. It's a coming of age story that deals with a young boy's relationship with a malevolent, gender ambiguous tooth fairy (the age old story), and the resulting consequences for his family and friends. The tooth fairy's presence is (much to my pleasure) never really explained, but her (?) antics serve as a catalyst for a long and engaging series of seemingly unrelated incidents that come together in the last few chapters with an extremely satisfying snap. The writing and humor are sharp enough to make your eyes bleed, and the characters are so well developed that by the end you won't know if you're crying because of the resolution's poignancy or just because it's time to say goodbye.Book number two, The Orchid Thief, gained some notoriety when Charlie Kauffman "cinematized" it several years ago, ending up with a film not so much based on the book as about the book. His film, Adaptation (IMDb), which dwelled on the Sisyphean process of wringing a screenplay from a story that is, for all intents and purposes, unfilmable (at least by Hollywood standards), piqued my interest in the book, and when I found it on my grandmother's coffee table, I immediately dove in. I am pleased to say that while the word "unfilmable" might be the stuff of screenwriter's nightmares, it's a compliment when used here. Susan Orlean's tale of a man and his orchids spins off into a fascinating and sometimes surreal account of passion - what it is, what it isn't, why some people have it, and why some people (namely Susan herself) don't. On the way she introduces us to alligator wrestlers, Victorian explorers, and real estate scam artists, drawing from these disparate characters' lives the threads of a tapestry that when woven together makes you realize why people still bother to write books in this age of moving pictures.Last but not least, book number three is one that I've read at least once a year every year since I first read it several years ago. Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes was a Christmas present that spent many lonely years on my bookshelf before I finally picked it up and realized what I'd been missing. If any book has so neatly captured the essence of the long malaise that we call life in these United States, I have yet to read it. Exley's book is in turns appalling and laugh out loud funny, but it is always brutally, unflinchingly honest. Billed as fiction, the story follows Exley, as himself, as he wanders across the country, working odd jobs, getting married, going insane, reading Lolita, drinking himself to death, and pursuing an unhealthy obsession with the New York Giants. If suffering has ever created art, then this it. For my money, it's as close as anyone has yet gotten to the "Great American Novel."Thanks Ben!
Google has put together a special page on its "Books" site devoted to frequently banned books in recognition of "Banned Books Week," the American Library Association initiative to protect intellectual freedom and raise awareness about attempts to ban books. This year, the event takes place from September 23 to 30.The Google tie in to this, I think, illuminates the importance of the company's efforts to digitize books and make them accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. In this way, even if a frequently challenged book like Lolita or Beloved is made inaccessible to a curious reader, it will always be available online. (via)
My recent post about the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions has generated an interesting thread at The Comics Journal Message Board. Included is word of upcoming additions to the Penguin series as well as a great round of pairing famous comics artists with classic novels to come up with such combinations as R. Crumb doing a cover for Lolita and Tony Millionaire doing the cover for Gulliver's Travels.
This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov's personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov's death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov's wife Vera -- "They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue 'Colias verae' or the dark 'Maculinea aurora Nab.'" -- reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov's lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov's expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
I recently noticed a couple of interesting books about the newspaper biz, and, more specifically, the New York Times. City Room is Arthur Gelb's memoir of his career with the paper. He was there from 1944 to 1999, a career that saw him rise from night copyboy to managing editor. The book is an account of the vast changes in the business over that time, both in process of producing the paper and in the business itself. Over time, manual typewriters and wise guy reporters have given way to laptop computers and media conglomerates; Gelb, however, retains the ability to see the inherent specialness that lies at the center of the "paper of record." Backstory: Inside the Business of News, on the other hand, is a more critical exploration of the news media. Ken Auletta is the media reporter for the New Yorker, and this collection of articles from the last ten years serves to paint a picture of the thorough modernization of mass media. The centerpiece of the book is a profile of Howell Raines the controversial executive editor of the Times who was ousted in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. I've always enjoyed Auletta's articles, so it would have been nice to see new material from him rather than this collection of previously published material, some of which is no longer extremely relevant.Vintage This and Vintage ThatIf you've been inside a bookstore in the last few days, you may have noticed a display featuring a collection of sleek new books. Vintage, a paperback division of Random House devoted to putting out paperback editions of modern literary fiction, has put out a classy series of "readers" which compile various snippits of work from 12 of the most luminous 20th century writers into individual volumes. The selection of writers is interesting and fairly eclectic (necessarily so, for reasons I will get into shortly). Martin Amis, James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Joan Didion, Richard Ford, Langston Hughes, Barry Lopez, Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, V. S. Naipaul, and Oliver Sacks each have their own attractive little book. Now, there are two schools of thought on this sort of thing. The first is that by pulling easily digestible segments from this or that book you can snare the more cautious, less adventurous reader by offering something that seems less daunting. I can imagine this scenario: cautious reader is a bit intimidated by the idea of picking up a book by Nabokov or Hughes and diving in, but when they see these slim, little Vintage "readers," they think, "Hey, I can handle this, I'll give it a go." After reading a "teaser" chapter from Lolita, our cautious reader is hooked, and everybody is happy. The world has gained a more adventurous reader and Vintage (which is to say Random House) has sold an additional book, Lolita. But don't throw a parade just yet. "Readers" like this, or digests as they are sometimes known, have been around for a very long time, perhaps hundreds of years. Individual books are something of a luxury compared to earlier times, when condensed versions of books and digests were far more affordable than the real thing, in terms of bang for the buck, for the general reading public. Nonetheless, I think there are problems with this particular series, primarily that it is a little too easy to look at these books as "movie trailers" or catalogs with pricetags for other Vintage publications. And, indeed, at just $9.95, these books aren't meant to land on readers' bookshelves, they are meant to sell more books. Even if I try to keep things in perspective, to acknowledge that it is better that they are hawking Didion and Munro and Naipaul rather than the Atkins diet or American Idol, I would still prefer that if someone is going to walk into a bookstore with intention of purchasing a single book (as is so often the case), that they read an entire book by any author at all, whether he or she measures up to James Baldwin or not. I don't know if the inherent "goodness" of the Vintage writers can overcome the sales pitch packaging, which brings me to another point. Though these books are marketed as a collection of the best of the best, the really only represent the best of Vintage books. A reader who is overly devoted to this series will miss countless amazing writers. Finally, there is a predictably PC, overly marketed quality to the whole endeavor: among the twelve, there are two African American writers, two Hispanics, and two non-minority women, and since the folks in editorial feel like they've got their bases covered in that department, the folks in marketing worked up a catchy sales pitch, Vintage this and Vintage that, though it sounds to me like they are selling Vodka, not Murakami.So, thoughts? Am I overreacting? Let me know by pressing the "comments" button below.