Long for This World: A Novel

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October Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semiannual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month — for more October titles, check out the Great Second-Half 2016 Fiction and Non-Fiction Previews.

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett: The Mothers begins when a grief-stricken 17-year-old girl becomes pregnant with the local pastor’s son, and shows how their ensuing decisions affect the life of a tight-knit black community in Southern California for years to come. The church’s devoted matriarchs — “the mothers” — act as a Greek chorus to this story of friendship, secrets, guilt, and hope. (Janet)

 

 

A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem: Lethem’s first novel since 2013’s Dissident Gardens has the everything-in-the-stewpot quality that his readers have come to expect: the plot follows a telepathic backgammon hustler through various international intrigues before forcing him to confront a deadly tumor — as well as his patchouli-scented Berkeley past. Though it remains to be seen if A Gambler’s Anatomy can hit the emotional heights of Motherless Brooklyn andThe Fortress of Solitude, it will be, if nothing else, unmistakably Lethem. (Jacob)

 

The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine: I love a novel the plot of which dares to take place over the course of one night: in The Angel of History, it’s the height of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, and Yemeni-born poet Jacob, who is gay, sits in the waiting room of a psych clinic in San Francisco. He waits actively, as they say — recalling his varied past in Cairo, Beirut, Sana’a, and Stockholm. Other present-time characters include Satan and Death, and herein perhaps lies what Michael Chabon described as Alameddine’s “daring” sensibility…“not in the cheap sense of lurid or racy, but as a surgeon, a philosopher, an explorer, or a dancer.”  (Sonya)

Nicotine by Nell Zink: Zink now enters the post-New Yorker profile, post-Jonathan-Franzen-pen-pal phase of her career with Nicotine, a novel that seems as idiosyncratic and — the term has probably already been coined — Zinkian as Mislaid and The Wallcreeper. Nicotine follows the struggle between the ordinary Penny Baker and her aging hippie parents — a family drama that crescendos when Penny inherits her father’s squatter-infested childhood home and must choose “between her old family and her new one.” Few writers have experienced Zink’s remarkable arc, and by all appearances, Nicotine seems unlikely to slow her winning streak. (Jacob)

The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung: Her second novel (after Long for this World), this ambitious story is a multigenerational saga about family, race, difference, and what it means to be a lost child in a big world. Charles Lee, the African-American patriarch of a biracial family, searches for meaning after a fatherless childhood. His connection with a caregiver, Hannah, uncovers her Korean immigrant family’s past flight from tradition and war. Chung is a staff writer at The Millions and founding editor of Bloom, and her work has appeared in Tin House, The Threepenny Review, and BOMB. Early praise from Nayomi Munaweera compares Chung’s prose toElena Ferrante or Clarice Lispector, “elegant, sparse, and heartbreaking.” (Claire)

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky: Dermansky’s Bad Marie featured an ex-con nanny obsessed with her employer and with a tendency to tipple on the job. The protagonist of her latest is a less colorful type: a struggling novelist suffocated by her husband, also a struggling novelist. When her former boss dies in a crash, Leah is willed the red sports car in which her nurturing friend met her end: “I knew when I bought that car that I might die in it. I have never really loved anything as much as that red car.” What is the idling heroine to make of the inheritance and the ambiguous message it contains? (Matt)

 

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Margaret Atwood joins authors Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, and Anne Tyler in the Hogarth Shakespeare series — crafting modern spins on William Shakespeare’s classics. Hag-Seed, a prose adaptation of The Tempest, follows the story of Felix, a stage director who puts on a production of The Tempest in a prison. If Felix finds success in his show, he will get his job back as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. The Tempest is one of Atwood’s favorites (and mine, too), and Hag-Seed should be an exciting addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series. (Cara)

 

The Mortifications by Derek Palacio: Palacio’s debut novel follows his excellent, tense novella, How to Shake the Other Man. Palacio shifts from boxing and New York City to the aftermath of the Mariel boatlift, set in Miami and Hartford, Conn. Here Palacio’s examination of the Cuban immigrant experience and family strife gets full breadth in a work reminiscent of H.G. Carrillo’s Loosing My Espanish. (Nick R.)

 

 

The Trespasser by Tana French: In her five previous novels about the squabbling detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad, French has classed up the old-school police procedural with smart, lush prose and a willingness to explore the darkest recesses of her characters’ emotional lives. In The Trespasser, tough-minded detective Antoinette Conway battles scabrous office politics as she tries to close the case of a beautiful young woman murdered as she sat down to a table set for a romantic dinner. On Goodreads, the Tanamaniacs are doing backflips for French’s latest venture into murder Dublin-style. (Michael)

 

The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin: It’s not without good reason that Jin has won practically every literary prize the United States has to offer, despite his being a non-native English speaker — he is something of a technical wizard who, according to the novelist Gish Jen, “has chosen mastery over genius.” Steeped in the terse, exact prose tradition of such writers as Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy, Jin’s work is immediately recognizable. His newest novel, The Boat Rocker, follows in the same vein. It finds Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin, a fiercely principled reporter whose exposés of governmental corruption have made him well-known in certain circles, wrestling with his newest assignment: an investigation into the affairs of his ex-wife, an unscrupulous novelist, and unwitting pawn of the Chinese government. (Brian)

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: Semple, formerly a writer forArrested Development and Mad About You, broke into the less glamorous, less lucrative literary world with 2013’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (her second novel), which this reviewer called “funny.” In this novel she sets her bittersweet, hilarious, perceptive gaze on Eleanor, a woman who vows that for just one day she will be the ideal wife, mother, and career woman she’s always known she could be. And it goes great! Just kidding. (Janet)

 

No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Khaled Khalifa: This novel, Khalifa’s fourth, illuminates the prelude to Syria’s civil war, and humanizes a conflict too often met with an international shrug. Tracking a single family’s journey from the 1960s through the present day, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City closely examines the myriad traumas — both instantaneous and slow-burning — accompanying a society’s collapse. As of this year, the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates there to be 65.3 million refugees or internally displaced persons around the world, and more than 4.9 million of those are Syrian. For those hoping to understand how this came to pass, Khalifa’s book should be required reading. (Nick M.)

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang: Entertainment Weekly has already expressed excitement about former journalist Chang’s novel, calling it “uproarious,” and in her blurb, Jami Attenberg deemed The Wangs vs. the World her “favorite debut of the year.” Charles Wang, patriarch and business man, has lost his money in the financial crisis and wants to return to China to reclaim family land. Before that, he takes his adult son and daughter and their stepmother on a journey across America to his eldest daughter’s upstate New York hideout. Charles Yu says the book is, “Funny, brash, honest, full of wit and heart and smarts,” and Library Journal named it one of the fall’s 5 Big Debuts. (Edan)

About My Mother by Tahar Ben Jelloun: Frequent Nobel-shortlister Jelloun, who the Guardian calls “Morocco’s greatest living author,” has a newly translated novel–a mother-story set in Fez and Tangier that explores the familiar ravages of Alzheimers. (Lydia)

 

 

Truevine by Beth Macy: One day in 1899, a white man offered a piece of candy to George and Willie Muse, the children of black sharecroppers in Truevine, Va., setting off a chain of events that led to the boys being kidnapped into a circus, which billed them as cannibals and “Ambassadors from Mars” in tours that played for royalty at Buckingham Palace and in sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Like Macy’s last book, Factory Man, about a good-old-boy owner of a local furniture factory in Virginia who took on low-cost Chinese exporters and won, Truevine promises a mix of quirky characters, propulsive narrative, and an insider’s look at a neglected corner of American history. (Michael)

Upstream by Mary Oliver: Essays from one of America’s most beloved poets. As always, Oliver’s draws inspiration from the natural world, and Provincetown, Mass., her home and life-long muse. Oliver also writes about her early love ofWalt Whitman, the labor of poetry, and the continuing influence of classic American writers such as Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Hannah)

A Year in Reading: 2013

Another year of living, another year of reading. And, if you’re like us, when you look back, you’ll mark out the year in books — weeks, months, even whole seasons that will forever be wedded in the mind to a memorable reading experience. Each book put back on the shelf becomes a postcard reminder.

And now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, we become the postcard collectors, learning where the minds of some of our favorite writers and thinkers traveled in 2013.

For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2014 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2013 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl, author of Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City.
Alice McDermott, author of Someone.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for The Walkmen.
Sergio De La Pava, author of A Naked Singularity
Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing.
Norman Rush, author of Subtle Bodies.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure.
Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon.
Garth Risk Hallberg, staff writer for The Millions, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
David Gilbert, author of And Sons.
Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger.
Jason Diamond, literary editor at Flavorwire, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever.

Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Michael Nye, author of Strategies Against Extinction.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives.
Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.
Edwidge Danticat, author of  Claire of the Sea Light.
Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor of io9.
Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge.
Scott Turow, author of Identical.
Chang-rae Lee, author of  The Surrendered.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers.
Tom Drury, author of Pacific.
Gabriel Roth, author of The Unknowns.
Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Paul Harding, author of Enon.
Janice Clark, author of The Rathbones.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods.
Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors.
Mohsin Hamid, author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Lola Quartet.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City.
Tess Malone, intern for The Millions.
Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of Long for This World.
Kathryn Davis, author of Labrador.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask.
Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin.
Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil.
Kelly Link, author of Monstrous Affections.
Olivia Laing, author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking.
Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed.
Kate Milliken, author of If I’d Known You Were Coming.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Parul Sehgal, editor at the New York Times Book Review.
Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird.
Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.
Kevin Barry, author of Dark Lies the Island.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape.
Ann Hood, author of The Obituary Writer.
Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction.

The Long and the Short of It: Linked Story Collections Bridging the Divide

1.
I’m just not a short-story writer, a few fiction writers have said to me recently, young authors who’ve written one or two novels.  I’m struck by the statement, because I wonder often about this – the difference between long form and short form, process-wise – and have been tempted to make the declaration (to myself, at least) as well.  At this point, I empathize with the statement, but am not quite ready to go there.

I wrote short stories earlier in my writing life because, well, that’s what They told us to do. And They were right.  You do need to work on several stories, soup to nuts, to hone craft and process, narrative structure, revision skills; to experiment with voice, point-of-view, subject matter.  Of course you can practice and develop all these by writing a novel; but it will take you much much longer.  Consider how many story drafts get partially or completely tossed into the literal and/or virtual garbage as you figure out what you are really writing about; how many novels do you want to write and trash as part of your learning process before your stamina gives way to defeat? Practice works best on a manageable scale.

But I never felt like I hit my stride with short stories.  I published several, and even won some awards, but of all the stories I’ve written, I’m probably proud of one, maybe two of them.  One story, which won a fairly prestigious award, was so bad in my opinion, that I completely destroyed it – hard copy and digital.  (I recently contacted the publication that sponsored the award, and they too have no record of it; poof! – I am not a short-story writer.)

When I happened upon the novel that would become Long for This World, it was liberating and exhilarating.  All that room, the freedom to move among settings, cultures, time periods, points of view.  The license to spend three or four years working on something, keeping notebooks full of ideas and sketches and scenes, filtering anything and everything through the lens of The Novel I’m Working On; indulging my mind and imagination in layers of world and character and idea.  This is my medium, I started to think; this is how I experience life – big and messy – what existence means to me.  I am a kitchen-sink writer: throw it all in, everything you care about in one, interconnected world, glorious heterogeneity; then shape something out of it.

But look: I’ve written one novel (and a second monster of a novel draft), and I’m not even 40 yet.  Is it really time to decide what kind of writer I am?  Developing as a writer is indeed so much about knowing thyself; about riding the tailwinds of your strengths, not spinning your wheels trying to be a different kind of writer than what you are.  David Means said recently in a New Yorker podcast, referring to Raymond Carver, “Style is a maneuver around what you can’t do […] around things you can’t deal with.”  Barry Hannah said, “Be master of such as you have.”

On the other hand, the sculptor Henry Moore said that contentment is having an impossible goal, the absorbedness (Donald Hall’s word) of pursuing it.   To me, the short story is this miraculously compressed form, elegant and complex, small in shape but large and deep in meaning; it has the capacity for perfection in a way that the novel does not.  Many writers work their way “up” to writing a novel; perhaps my artistic trajectory will be to work my way “down” to writing gorgeous, perfect short stories.  Who knows?  I look forward to finding out.

2.
In the meantime, I am lately obsessed with the form we refer to as “linked” stories.   Sometimes these are called “story cycles” or “a collection of tales about _____.”  As a reader and developing writer, I cannot get enough of this form: compression and vast heterogeneity in one!  The stories in this sort of collection may vary widely in style, voice, point-of-view, scope.  Often they are held together by a single character, or perhaps a place/culture; or both.

The “link” can be strong or weak, explicit or implicit.  From where this writer sits – aesthetically, developmentally – the linked collection is a potential new “home” for development of craft.  If 20 pages never quite feels like enough; if you and your world /your character have more business to tend to at the end of this particular narrative arc; or if that minor character got cut from a story but is still breathing and pulsing and waiting to go on stage; well then off you go to the next story in the “cycle.”  At the same time, you can work within the framework of compression, of small moments, of elegant lines and movement; you can write and sustain a standalone piece that is driven solely by the energy of voice; you can work at mastering the power of simplicity without sacrificing prismatic complexity.  Ah, the joy, the absorbedness, of the impossible goal.

3.
Some of my favorite linked collections:

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – short “tales” of life in the fictional Midwestern town of Winesburg.  We get to know many different characters, and all the stories reveal the essential (and ironic) loneliness of living in a place where everybody knows your name.  Haunting, romantic, a masterpiece of the achingly grotesque inner lives of human beings.

Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber – both form and content are stunning in this National Book Award finalist.  The collection is subtitled “A Ring of Stories,” and indeed they are meant to be read in sequence; a minor mention or character in one story becomes the heart of the next (and we start and end with a contemporary character named Alice). In between we traverse centuries and continents, along with the timeless experiences of faith and passion, each story novelistic in scope. Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely,” and there is that delicate, not-quite-taut sense of wholeness in Silber’s work.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx – Proulx’s Wyoming is a brutal and unforgiving place, but not one that we can’t all on some level relate to: you may not be a rodeo bull-rider, but you probably know what it is to feel wounded and constrained by your parents’ flaws; you may not be a gay cowboy, but you may know the pain and dangers of hiding (and revealing) your deepest passions in a hostile environment.  I particularly love the diversity of form within the collection; stories range from two to 40 pages long, from sharply humorous flash fictions to vast, novelistic canvasses.

Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant – like many devotees of Gallant, I don’t know what took me so long to get to her.  Her stories I suppose are difficult, in the sense that the prose is dense, intelligent, original.  This is not “summer reading.”  The series of five Linnet Muir stories are the ones I’ve enjoyed most and exemplify exactly what I love about linked stories; each story stands alone, but together they sing.  I recommend them for anyone who is weary of mopey-smart-girl stories but wants to be inspired by excellent mopey-smart-girl stories.

Stories by Leonard Michaels — I love the stories about a character named (Phillip) Leibowitz, as both a youth and an adult, including “Murderers,” “City Boy,” “Getting Lucky,” and “Reflections of a Wild Kid.”  The character may not be exactly the same character in all the stories, but again that’s the beauty of the form; maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. Michaels didn’t assemble these stories to form a collection, he used the linked form more liberally.  Before he died in 2008, Michaels was also working on a series of stories about a mathematician named Nachmann.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson  — the nameless through-line narrator of these stories is an excellent study in compelling unlikeability.  He sees the world so vividly, and ecstatically; though only when he’s high or experiencing some kind of violence or brutality.   The reader lives in that uncomfortable tension throughout, and enjoys it.  By the final story, our anti-hero settles down a bit, though (we find ourselves hoping) not too much.

Fidelity by Wendell Berry – in these five stories, Berry revisits the world of Port William, Kentucky, the territory for all his fiction, and even some of our favorite characters like Andy Catlett, Berry’s presumed fictional persona.   Berry’s fiction is both warm and harsh, in the way that perhaps only a farmer-poet-essayist-fictionwriter-activist can be.

Stories by Anton Chekhov – Chekhov’s stories are not linked, per se, but as I wrote in a previous essay here at The Millions on the good doctor, there is something to be said for reading them in groups, in succession – as if together they make up his Great Novel, his population of characters all really aspects of One Universal Character.  To my mind, the stories are linked by Chekhov’s acute vision of humanity – as flabby and flawed, yet earnestly suspended in perpetual longing.  As readers, we recognize that longing, its tragedy and vitality.

Lastly, it’s been many years since I’ve read either of these, but The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro and Dubliners by James Joyce are two widely acclaimed and beloved linked-story collections that are worth mentioning here.  John Gardner wrote about the former, which revolves around two characters, Flo and her stepdaughter Rose: “Whether [it] is a collection of stories or a new kind of novel I’m not quite sure, but whatever it is, it’s wonderful.” The latter, of course, is Joyce’s searing portrait of his home city in the early 20th century, captured in 15 stories, one of which, “The Dead,” is considered by some the greatest short story ever written.

4.
Art is long, as they say.  Writing well, in any form or genre, is a marathon, not a sprint.  Far in the distance, many training miles ahead, I see that perfect gem of a story, those immortal 5,000 words that will leave the hundreds of thousands of others I’ve scribbled and typed, maybe even published, in the dust.

(Image: Chains – rusted from knottyboywayne’s photostream)

Literary Endings: Pretty Bows, Blunt Axes, and Modular Furniture

1.
In “Hunger Was Good Discipline,” from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes about his short story “Out of Season”:
I had omitted the real ending of it which was that the old man hanged himself.  This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.
In a recent interview with Jennifer Egan at Guernica, the interviewer mentions a review of Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep in which the reviewer, Maureen McClarnon of Booklsut, declared the ending section unnecessary:
The Keep is easily the best book I’ve read all year.  Actually, allow me one small qualification: it’s the best if one disregards the last section […] the book has this excellent ending, but what’s with all of those extra pages? What, an entire extra section? […] I don’t think it was necessary, or that it made the book stronger; the last section is there to tie up some loose narrative ends that could have been left dangling. If the reader has fully bought in to the whole willing suspension of disbelief package for the duration of the book, why burst the bubble?
The Guernica interviewer added that “most readers I’ve spoken with disagree.” Egan’s response to the review:  “Whatever. To me, there was no question that it was the right thing to do. And it was probably the hardest part of the book to write.”

During the dark days of revising and seeking publication for my novel, Long for This World, a friend and veteran (former) literary editor read the manuscript and encouraged me with her praise.  I remember in particular her saying, “The ending is one of the strongest and most memorable I’ve read,” which I was especially glad to hear, because the ending felt right to me as well.  During the Q&A at a recent reading, I called on a woman sitting in the far back who shouted boldly: “I really enjoyed the book, but I hit the ending like a brick wall.  It felt unfinished.”  To which I replied, “Um, well, I… guess it’s always better to leave people wanting for more?”

2.
Christopher Allen Walker wrote here at The Millions: “It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption, found in the resolution of the plot.”  If there is such thing as an “average reader” – and I’m not sure there is – then perhaps, yes, a survey would show that resolution is preferred over open-endedness.  And yet my examples above show that readers (and writers) are quite mixed on this.  Even Hemingway has fans and detractors, particularly in regards to his stories, the endings of which do sometimes feel like an amputated limb whose corporal existence lingers as a ghost-like sensation.

It’s tempting to imagine a linear spectrum of ending “types,” with tied-up-in-a-bow on one end, chopped-off-with-a-blunt-ax on the other. But really, there are so many different kinds of literary endings.  What constitutes “satisfying” for different readers?  I wonder if a particular reader tends to enjoy one kind of ending across the board, or is there a more complex alchemy of writer and reader that happens, book by book? As readers, do writers prefer the same kinds of endings that they write?

3.
Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely.”  I’ve always loved this quote, because it implies that a work of art is a whole thing, as opposed to an assemblage of component parts.  I’m guessing Jennifer Egan did not think of her ending as modular; in other words, she didn’t consider it “an ending” at all, but rather “the last XX pages of the work.”  Often, when advising writing students about endings, I suggest that if the ending isn’t quite working, the revision needs to be focused somewhere earlier on, not as much (and certainly not exclusively) on the last section, page, or paragraph.

That said, all this brings to mind an interesting example of an artist working toward an ending: the DVD of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love includes outtake scenes, most of which are alternate versions of a particular middle section, and of the ending.  Each of these scenes represents a drastically different ultimate emotional affect, and the mixing and matching of them does feel a bit like modular-furniture rearrangement (an apt metaphor for a filmmaker whose aesthetic is very designerly).  Is the forbidden-love relationship between the main characters one of 1. (passionate) consummation or 2. (passionate) abstention?  If the latter, does the tension/longing stay with 1. both characters long into the future, or 2. just with one of them?  Do the characters 1. reunite or 2. never cross paths again?  If the former, is it by chance or by design, and, either way, what is the emotional tenor / ultimate implication of that reunion?  Wong shot many different possibilities; it seems he needed to play them out in order to decide.  As much as I loved the film as is, watching all these possibilities and “doing the math” afterwards feels like the appropriate complete experience; it makes doubly clear that the final version — the most minimal and the most poignant — is the right one, the best one.

5.
Here are some adjectives I often hear applied to endings:

memorable
surprise / twist
heartbreaking / tear-jerking
dramatic
melodramatic
resonant
haunting
anti-climactic
ambiguous
unresolved
hopeful
dark
cheesy / sentimental
ballsy
sublime

6.
Following are a few of my own favorite kinds of endings and some examples:

Endings that make you go, HOW did the writer DO that? and thus make you want to re-read immediately:
“The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, “Safari” by Jennifer Egan, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates each does something at the end that feels like a stomach-turning shift, and yet it works; you are jarred, but just the right amount.  In writing classes, these endings are sometimes described as “surprising but inevitable.”  (This is perhaps the most common type of successful ending, so I’ll unpack it a bit.)

In “The Point,” an adolescent narrator whom you’ve been with for 15 pages reveals/confesses something shocking to you.  The narrative tone also shifts abruptly, from wry/humorous/lyrical to unflinching and direct.   You should feel strong-armed by the author, but you don’t; you realize this is just what you’ve been wanting to know, and in just this voice, all along.

In “Safari,” Egan’s omniscient narrator flashes forward from a present time in which the main characters are children, to a crystal-ball future.  It’s disturbing, both in terms of what is revealed in the crystal ball, and also in terms of the reader’s stability; somebody is spinning the room on its horizontal axis, has switched your flat screen for a 3D Imax.  When the narration returns to the present, you feel the buzz of the spin, but your feet re-plant on the ground; it works beautifully.

In Revolutionary Road, at the very end of the novel, we finally get the female protagonist’s (April Wheeler’s) narrative point of view.  Just for a moment – and at just the right moment – we are right inside her head.  As with “The Point,” we realize it’s what we’ve wanted all along, and we marvel that the writer has engendered that craving, over the previous 200-some pages, at a slow simmer, so skillfully.

Endings that leave you speechlessly marooned in emotion / sensation:
John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” and James Salter’s “Last Night” jolt you out of intellect into something you can’t think your way through or out of.  Cheever does this with that stunning final image:
I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water.  I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.
Salter does it with an ostensibly neat and tidy closing paragraph that creates so much dissonance vis-a-vis the emotional disturbances of the story thus far (an affair, an assisted-suicide gone wrong), you find yourself trapped in a kind of feeling-thinking purgatory, your response relegated (arguably elevated) to the realm of pure sense.

Endings that cannot be summed up in words:
Certainly there are literary examples of this, but Kelly Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy comes to mind first.  Perhaps this is a dog owner’s thing, but I remember a friend describing to me the ending, trying to reassure me (since I have low tolerance for dead-dog movies).  “You’ll be all right,” she said.  “Lucy [the dog] comes out just fine.”  This is correct, strictly speaking, but there is nothing “just fine” about the ending of this movie.  It’s  emotionally and narratively understated, but wrenchingly sad; nowhere near “just fine.”

Endings That Can Be Interpreted in More Than One Way:
When very different readings of an ending can be equally resonant, that’s what I call masterful.  I am thinking of Walter Kirn’s story “Hoaxer,” a coming-of-age story in which a boy’s ambivalent relationship with his unstable father comes to a head.  On an outing with his father, the boy commits a definitive act; the act could be interpreted as a door-closing rejection, or as a claim on intimacy/connection.  Either reading is both moving and disturbing in light of the story’s intricate characterizations to that point.  Amazing.  The other example that comes to mind is Hemingway’s notorious six-word story, which, according to Peter Miller, came about in this way:
Ernest Hemingway was lunching at the Algonquin, sitting at the famous “round table” with several writers, claiming he could write a six-word-long short story. The other writers balked. Hemingway told them to ante up ten dollars each. If he was wrong, he would match it; if he was right, he would keep the pot. He quickly wrote six words on a napkin and passed it around. The words were: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Of course, the question the reader is left with is, why were the shoes never worn? There are countless ways to read this “ending,” mostly tragic; and yet anything from miscarriage (tragedy) to mis-gendering (comedy) could explain it.  As gimmicky and over-quoted as this story has become, it really is brilliant; inclusion and omission working together perfectly.

Endings you can’t even remember because the rest of the book/story was so good:
The unmemorable ending is sometimes a work’s strength.  I feel this way about Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (and I read this very recently), which is memorable for every gorgeous sentence and image, and for its dream-like, first-person-plural voice; decidedly not for its narrative Whodunnit or Whydunnit or even Howdunnit (a penultimate suicide scene).  The novel doesn’t so much bring you to “an ending” as it does absorb you deeply all throughout, in an experience of language and longing, mystery and unknowing (reopening the book just now, though, I must admit that the last sentence is quite beautiful).  I experienced Roberto Bolaño’s story collection Last Evenings on Earth, in a similar way.  I would never describe a Bolaño story by saying, “This happens, then this, then it ends like this.”  The stories seem to end for no other reason than that the story has now been told and there’s no more to tell; the “action” is in the story-telling itself, the rich emotional and psychological interplay between the Narrator and the Narrated.

7.
How to end an essay about endings? Hmm… at this point, I take off my reader’s hat and don my writer’s (in this case, it’s a Chilean chupalla — a cheap imitation, of course).  I suspect that writer and reader will often part ways when it comes to endings (even in the same person).  As a writer, I tend to have more questions than answers with regard to my characters, my story, my subject.  Will this satisfy the reader?  The writer never knows, sometimes does not particularly care.  In this case, my considerations have run their course. The End.

[Image credit: Tiago Ribeiro]

The Millions Interview: Sonya Chung

Aside from being a fellow contributor to The Millions, Sonya Chung is the author of the debut novel, Long for this World, a beautiful book that focuses on the small but complicated negotiations of a family, and larger, global questions of identity, art, and happiness.  Sonya and I met for the first time last fall, and I was excited but nervous to read her novel.  What if I didn’t like it?  To my relief–and joy–I loved it.  It’s so gracefully told, and rich–not to mention riveting.  Of the book, author Kate Walbert says,  “An intricately structured and powerfully resonant portrait of lives lived at the crossroads of culture, and a family torn between the old world and the new, Long for This World marks a powerful debut from a young writer of great talent and promise.”  I concur.  In this interview, Sonya and I discuss her book, the publication process, and what’s it’s really like to go from human to author.

The Millions: I was impressed with how effortlessly you moved from one character’s perspective to another in this book.  The choice to give war photographer Jane, the Korean-American daughter of Han Hyun-kyu, her own first-person perspective seemed almost intuitive. Was it?  The jacket copy calls your novel a “pointillist triumph”, and that’s accurate: these differences in voice ultimately make up a whole, united story.  How did these shifting perspectives come about, and why is Jane the only one who speaks in the “I”?

Sonya Chung:   Thanks for your kind words, Edan.  And, you are correct: I knew early on that the story would span multiple cultures and settings, and I knew that sections would pivot among points of view.  I tend to write without a detailed outline, but I have these intuitive (good word, your word) backdrops that guide and propel me.  Polyphony was one of these backdrops.  It’s a word/idea that I first grasped as a literary structure (as opposed to a strictly musical term) via Milan Kundera, who was an influence in graduate school; and saw the form modeled in novels like As I Lay Dying, Julia Glass’s Three Junes, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, DeLillo’sUnderworld, Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us, and many others.

Even with its global canvas, Long for This World is ultimately a family novel; and to me, all families are deeply, radically polyphonic.   Jane is a Western character, American born, and of the younger generation; she is also individualistic, relative to her native-Korean counterparts, so it “sounded” right in my ear that she would narrate in a first-person voice (I write very much in an aural way).  Conversely, I heard the more traditional Korean characters in third-person, and with a bit of narrative distance (it was almost as if I, the author, was paying these older characters their narrative-distance respect).  Ultimately, the collage form provided a way for this multi-layered story to be told compactly, with the shifts in voices/perspectives becoming a part of the story-telling itself.

[Note: see my comparative review essay for The Millions about multi-voiced novels; apparently, this form has been on my mind a lot!]

TM: Although the book only has a few snippets of foreign language, the dialogue often reflects, in English, that the characters are speaking Korean; this is managed by imbuing the speech with a distinct formality.  At one point, Han Jae-kyu notes that his brother Han Hyun-kyu–whose been living in America for so long, “seems to have lost, during his years in America, an intuitive sense for the humbled “I”: juh, instead of nah; the manners of apology, overstated in good measure, and self-effacement.” I wonder, did these “manners of apology” influence the actions and destinies of your Korean characters, versus those who have been Americanized?  How has moving away from Korea changed Han Hyun-kyu and his wife, Lee Woo-in?  As you were writing, did you focus centrally on questions of culture–those behaviors and rituals that are either inherited, learned or discarded?

SC: This question has a bit of the “nature vs nurture” debate in the subtext, I think.  My perspective on that is very much both/and, i.e. these characters are at once shaped by culture/circumstance, and also by something essential in each of them.  I never conceived of any character as exclusively a metaphor for his cultural experience, but at the same time each character’s backstory does exert a pressure on the present.

For example, the semi-romantic collision between Han Hyun-kyu (who emigrated to the US as a young man) and his sister-in-law Han Jung-joo occurs mostly because the cultural alchemy is just right: they are the same but not the same, Han Hyun-kyu being both native Korean from a small town, and also shaped by Western romanticism. On the other hand, in a scene between Jane and her brother Henry, Jane is trying to better understand their mother— a character who has caused the family grief — by painting her own version of her mother’s childhood, and Henry’s response is, “Shit goes down.  People survive.  You overdo it with Mom sometimes.”  Later, when Jane tries to trace her own struggles back to something in her childhood, the Korean artist Chae Min-suk basically responds with, “That’s too bad.”

I’m fascinated by the fact that individuals raised in basically the same circumstances can evolve so differently; in Long for This World, this is very much the case, and one of the novel’s central concerns is how to manage/understand this randomness, this mysterious sense that some people are strong, some are weak, some people survive, some don’t.  Is it culture, family, individual spirit, God, chance, all of the above?

TM:  It took me almost two years to write a first draft of my novel, but I feel like I was floundering for the first nine months.  I always find it helpful to hear from other young writers how the process was for them.  How long did it take you to write your book?

SC:  About three and a half years, from when I started to when an agent took me on.

TM: Can you describe for readers how you found your agent?  My own search–though it now, thank goodness, has a happy ending–was harrowing.

SC: Finding an agent was tough — a wilderness time, not for the faint of heart.  But I basically “followed directions,” did what teachers and writers advised: I made a list of contemporary writers I most admired, flipped to the Acknowledgments pages of their books, and found out who their agents were.  I wrote succinct query letters.  I followed submissions guidelines.  Over a period of several months, I received both form-letter rejections and some very thoughtful, thorough ones.  I came very close with three different agents; after the third turned me down, I wallowed and fretted for a few months.  Then, miraculously, two friends whom I’d asked to read the manuscript came back with comments — both honest and encouraging.  “You’re much closer than you think you are” were the magic words, the refueling I needed to dig in to a final, significant revision.  With a new manuscript, I found a champion in Amy Williams — who’s been wonderful, as both agent and friend.  In retrospect (that darned 20/20 hindsight), I probably sent the manuscript out too early; in my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t ready.  But I was impatient and hungry for affirmation, so I flung it out there.  I don’t recommend that.

TM: What was it like, once you found your agent, getting published?

SC: Finding a publisher was weirdly fast, given the long road of writing, revising, finding an agent.  I met with Amy on a Tuesday, she sent the manuscript out to editors that Thursday, we had an offer on Monday. It took a week for it to sink in, and even then, I don’t think I quite understood just how lucky I was.

TM: Has anything surprised you about the publication process?

SC: Pretty much everything has surprised me.  I knew almost nothing about publishing a book, and it’s funny — well, sometimes not so funny — how people in the biz expect that you would.  In other words, there’s no Orientation Day for New Writers.  I would get these emails referencing “second pass pages” and have no idea what that was; or I’d get a manuscript in the mail with a deadline but wouldn’t know what I was expected to do with it exactly. I was surprised by how long some things took and how quickly other things moved.  It became pretty predictable that what I feared would happen didn’t, and what I never saw coming did – maybe kind of like life?  I’m glad to have the first book under my belt; next time (assuming there’s a next time), I’ll know a little better.

I was a little surprised by how gut-struck I was when the hardcovers came in.  For a first-time author, there is nothing like the hardcover.

TM: How about touring and promoting your book?  Do you find that an easy or fulfilling aspect of being a published author?

SC:  The social networking aspect of publicity – what most authors are now expected to do – is a mixed bag.  It’s wonderful and energizing to connect with other writers and enthusiastic readers in this direct, boundary-less way; but it’s also time-consuming and creates a weird sort of self-consciousness that I’m not sure is conducive to the writing process (Kazuo Ishiguro talked about this in a great interview several years back).

These days, the writer perhaps feels both more control and more responsibility, with regard to how much attention her book gets: if you want to go gangbusters on blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, scheduling your own book tour events, you can do that, and to good effect, but the amount of time/energy you can devote is also endless.  If you happen to be a natural networker, it definitely works to your advantage; if, like many writers, you prefer the writing cave, it can be burdensome.  There are some days when I realize I could spend 12 hours just exchanging emails and Facebook messages with people who might “open doors” for publicity and events. It’s definitely a choice, and you want to make sure that you’re continuing to choose to write in the midst of all that networking.

With the book tour these days, authors are encouraged to be “lean and mean” and strategic about it.  No more 20-city book tours!  As for the experience, maybe I’ll start by saying what, for me, it’s not: it’s not exactly “exciting” or “fun.” Those seem to be the two expectations – “Are you excited? Are you having fun?” Primarily, it’s work, which is not a bad thing at all – it’s just distinct from the romanticized notion that it’s glamorous or the pinnacle of dream-fulfillment. I don’t mean to be down on it.  It’s absolutely gratifying to meet readers and to hear their good questions or that they’ve been moved by your book; booksellers are a special group of people, and it’s a privilege to connect with them in person; your friends and family roll out endless generosity, support, and hospitality. But book touring is also a lot of scheduling and shuttling and talking talking talking, and also, in a way, performing.  After returning from an intense book-events trip a few weeks ago, I sat down to my blog, which I had not updated in several days, and found myself writing, essentially: “Hi everyone.  I have nothing to say.  I am all talked out.”

TM:  I think for debut writers, it’s both exhilarating and slightly scary to have people reading something you worked on for so long. It would be for me. Have the people close to you read your book, and if so, what’s been the reaction?

SC: It’s very strange when your friends and family read your book.  After the release date, I started getting emails and Facebook notes – “I’m reading your book!”  I thought, “You are?”  Promotions had taken up so much space in my head, I forgot that people would actually be reading the thing.  Most of my friends and family are not writers, and some aren’t even avid readers; so it’s been gratifying to hear that people like the book, that it seems to have an “all things to all people” quality to it, which surprised me, frankly.  I worried that the book might not be that accessible, because it’s complex in structure and perhaps more densely populated than some other novels. A number of people have said they “couldn’t put it down,” that it was a “page-turner.”  I love that, because the narrative is fragmented, and I know that agents and editors sometimes shy away from that because of the readability factor.

Of course, not everyone will connect with your work; my expectations were pretty low about this, I know all too well that you can love a person but not love her books (and vice versa).  So overall I was pleasantly surprised.

TM: It’s interesting to me that you weren’t considering the readability of your novel, because it is such a page-turner.  When I’m writing, I’m (perhaps unhealthily) obsessed with the question of readability, perhaps because I find it’s such a pleasing quality in other people’s books.  As you were writing Long for This World, did you imagine for yourself a reader?  How did you perceive of their reading experience?

SC: That’s interesting that you think about the reader.  Maybe somewhere between you and me is a good, healthy place to land?  I did not, and do not, consider the reader when I’m writing.  The work is a contained world for me, unto itself, it has its own internal energy and design; and when I sit down to work I’m like the astronaut landing on Planet Novel.  I’m worried that this is going to sound pathologically narcissistic, but “the reader” – during early drafts – is me.  Going with the astronaut analogy, it’s me who needs to be able to find good air and solid footing and navigate the place while I’m in there.

This does raise challenges later on.  For example, I named the characters from inside the astronaut suit. During the editorial process, it became clear that the Korean names were going to be tough for native English-speakers (siblings in a Korean family typically have similar names, e.g. Han Hyun-kyu and Han Jae-kyu).  But by then, their names were their names, they weren’t going to change, so we decided to put a character list in front to help readers navigate (I’m also now considering an audio pronunciation guide for my website).  I suppose I’ll incorporate that experience as I go forward, but generally speaking I find that, for me, cracking open that door to self-consciousness lets in all kinds of monsters.

TM: It certainly can!  I suppose my imagined reader is me–and also not me.  I certainly write what I would like to read, but my writing is also for some imaginary person, someone who lives across town, perhaps, and reads in the tub, and in line at the post office, and during breakfast.  She has impeccable taste, of course.  This lady, she absolutely loved your book!

Review of Sonya Chung’s Long for This World

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Lisa Peet at Open Letters Monthly / Likefire blog on Millions contributor Sonya Chung’s novel Long for This World: “When a novel, particularly a debut novel, is referred to as ‘ambitious,’ there’s usually an implicit ‘but’ present… Chung takes on the dynamics of family—what draws it together and what pulls it apart—through the eyes of a number of players, male and female, old and young, Korean and Korean-American. Both her subject matter and her approach are ambitious, to say the least. The only ‘but’ in my reaction, however, is but she pulls it off—and admirably.”  Read the full review.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2010 Book Preview

Update: Don’t miss our newest “Most Anticipated” list, highlighting books for the rest of 2010 and beyond.

There’s something for every lover of fiction coming in 2010, but, oddly enough, the dominant theme may be posthumous publication. Roberto Bolaño’s relentless march into the canon has inured us to the idea of the bestseller from beyond the grave (and of course, for as long as there have been literary executors, this has been nothing new), but beyond the four(!) new books by Bolaño we also have have potentially important works by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, intriguing new books from Robert Walser and Ernst Weiss, a guaranteed bestseller from Stieg Larsson, and, looming in 2011, the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace. Perhaps, amid all this, it is a relief to hear that we have many exciting books on their way from those still with us, including Elizabeth Kostova, Joshua Ferris, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, and many others.Special thanks to The Millions Facebook group for helping us compile this list.January (or already available)
Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison: Fitting that this book preview starts off with a posthumous novel. Ellison’s unfinished opus will not be the the only posthumous work to grab readers attention in 2010, but it will be perhaps the one with the most history attached to it and maybe, in the accounting of those who manage the canon, the most important. Ellison famously struggled to complete a second novel after the landmark publication of The Invisible Man. After Ellison’s death, Juneteenth was cobbled together by his literary executor John Callahan and met with decidedly mixed reviews. But, as a 2007 article in the Washington Post argues, Three Days Before the Shooting, the result of years of work by Callahan and co-editor Adam Bradley, was always meant to be the true Ellison second novel. Readers will soon find out if it’s the masterpiece they’ve been waiting for for decades.The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: If your debut effort (in this case, Then We Came to the End) gets nominated for a National Book Award, you are on the express train to literary stardom. Quickly, however, focus shifts to the sophomore effort. For Ferris, early signs look good. Word is that The Unnamed is dark in tone, darker than and by all early accounts dissimilar to TWCTTE. The protagonist Tim’s affliction is that he’s unable to stop walking. In an early review, Bookforum likes it and says “Ferris possesses an overriding writer’s gift: a basic and consistent ability to entertain while spurring engagement.” See also: Joshua Ferris writing at The MillionsMonsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication will continue in 2010 with as many as four (that I was able to find) books by the Chilean author published. Bolaño has been unmistakably one of the biggest publishing stories of the last few years, and publisher New Directions has been capably and speedily adding title after title to the Bolaño shelf at your local bookstore. Monsieur Pain (January) is about a Peruvian poet with a chronic case of hiccups. Antwerp (April) has been described as both a prose poem and a crime novel. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories, as is The Insufferable Gaucho (August?), which was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And look for more Bolaño in 2011. Garth may need to start updating his Bolaño Syllabus on a quarterly basis.Fun with Problems by Robert Stone: Fun with Problems will be Stone’s first collection of short fiction in twelve years. And his first book since his 2007 memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (see Garth’s review).Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: Boyd’s novel is already out in the UK where it has been receiving characteristically good notices. “There are tantalising hints of a broader ambition in William Boyd’s wide-ranging new thriller,” said The Guardian. The book is ostensibly about a man on the run, but Boyd, in an interview with Edinburgh Festivals alluded to the depth that The Guardian picked up on, “It’s a chase. And the drive is that the man is being hunted. But like the last four of my novels, it’s also about identity, about what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city.”The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova – The follow-up to Kostova’s big selling The Historian (the first ever first novel to debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) promises to be just as densely detailed as its predecessor, weighing in at a hefty 576 pages. Recently departed Kirkus has some quibbles with the plot machinations, but says “lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers.” PW adds “The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer.” See Also: Elizabeth Kostova’s Year in ReadingIn January, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Ernst Weiss’ Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer some 70 years after the novel’s appearance in German. Enthusiasts of German-language literature have compared Weiss favorably with his contemporary Thomas Mann and his friend Franz Kafka, but he has remained something of an unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Already, Joel Rotenberg’s translation has begun to remedy this neglect. An excerpt appeared in A Public Space a while back. (Garth)February
Point Omega by Don DeLillo: Anticipation for DeLillo’s forthcoming book has been decidedly truncated. Publisher Scribner first tweeted about DeLillo delivering the manuscript in June, and the book will hit shelves a scant eight months later. One reason for the quick turnaround might be the book’s surprising slimness, coming in somewhere between 117 pages (says PW) and 128 pages (says Scribner). Imagine: reading an entire DeLillo novel in an afternoon, or perhaps just over lunch. So will the book’s slight profile belie some interior weightiness? A recently posted excerpt may offer some clues, and PW says “Reading it is akin to a brisk hike up a desert mountain—a trifle arid, perhaps, but with occasional views of breathtaking grandeur.”Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields: We’ve already discussed Shields’ forthcoming “manifesto” quite a lot at The Millions. It was first noted, in glowing terms, by Charles D’Ambrosio. This prompted me to dig deeper in a longer look at the book. From my sleuthing, and noting blurbs by J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, and others, I posited “the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest [in 2010].” The book now sits on my desk, and while haven’t yet jumped in with both feet, I can report that it is both structurally (a lettered and numbered organization scheme whose logic is not immediately discernible) and stylistically (deep thoughts, reminiscences, aphorisms, and pop culture nuggets abound) unique. It will be interesting to see if readers decide the book coalesces into a successful whole. This just in – British publisher Hamish Hamilton reports that Zadie Smith will be writing up the book in The Guardian soon. See Also: David Shield’s Year in ReadingThe Infinities by John Banville: Banville follows up his Booker-winning effort The Sea with a novel with a rather unique conceit: it is narrated by the god Hermes. The reviews hint at further oddities. In The Guardian, for example, “Old Adam, a physicist-mathematician, has solved the infinity problem in a way that’s not only led to some useful inventions – cars that run on brine, for example – but also proved the existence of parallel universes, a category that includes the one he inhabits. In this novel, Sweden is a warlike country, and evolution and relativity have been discredited.”Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett: Haslett made a big splash in 2002 when his debut effort – a collection of short stories called You Are Not a Stranger Here – was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Union Atlantic, his first novel, takes the depths of the recent financial collapse as a backdrop (which explains why a work of literary fiction is getting notice from publications like American Banker). PW gave it a starred review and insinuates it might be a seminal novel of that particular historical moment. Esquire recently published the novel’s prologue. It begins, “Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral’s staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each.”March
Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s new novel was discussed extensively in Daniel Zalewski’s New Yorker profile of McEwan in February 2009. More recently, the magazine published an excerpt from the novel. The book’s protagonist is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and it appears that the book’s chief drama will arise in his becoming embroiled in the climate change “debate.” The book is also being called a satire, but, to the extent that several of McEwan’s books have elements of satire, it’s unclear whether Solar will be much of a departure for McEwan. The excerpt in the New Yorker would seem to indicate it’ll be a typical, and probably quite good, effort.The Ask by Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte had a breakout hit with Home Land in 2005. His follow-up novel was reviewed recently in The Quarterly Conversation, which says “let’s be frank: this is a hard novel to review. The Ask makes for your heart with its claws so efficiently that it leaves you torn and depleted. How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?” Ultimately, TQC decides The Ask “isn’t quite as good as Home Land. The latter was nearly perfect in idea and execution—an ’80s high-school movie gone sick with nostalgia for its own John Hughesian past. The Ask is more generationally diffuse. While just as snot-blowingly funny as its predecessor, The Ask is more devastating in its pitilessness.”The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee: Bookdwarf read this one recently and says Lee “offers no easy endings or heartwarming coming-together, instead bringing to life a powerful, unpredictable, and occasionally painful story.”Burning Bright by Ron Rash: Rash’s follow-up to Serena is a collection of stories. The book’s title story appeared in Ecotone in 2008.One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode by Ingo Schulze: Garth has been talking about Schulze here for at least two years. Most recently he wrote “The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.” The English (and somewhat illogical) title of Schulze’s new book would seem to obscure the unifying theme of the new collection, whose title, translated directly from the German original, is Cell Phone: Thirteen Stories in the Old Style. According to an abstract for a paper in the journal German Monitor, “the cell phone functions in many stories as a threatening symbol of exposure to pressures and problems that make East(ern) Germans feel ill at ease.”So Much for That by Lionel Shriver: More hot button issues. Just as Ian McEwan’s forthcoming novel is informed by climate change, Shriver’s latest takes on the healthcare debate.
The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s novel is already out in the U.K. where Hilary Mantel wrote, “It is the author’s mix of scorn and compassion that is so bracing. Sometimes she complicates simple things, snarling them in a cat’s cradle of abstraction, but just as often, a sentence rewards with its absolute and unexpected precision.”Silk Parachute by John McPhee: This new collection by McPhee is built around what FSG’s promotional material calls “McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing.” “Silk Parachute” is, especially for the typically measured McPhee, a brief, tight, funny and emotional essay (It’s available here as a .doc file). The rest of the new collection is composed of McPhee’s recent New Yorker essays on lacrosse, “long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe ‘on the chalk’ from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France.” Since McPhee’s most recent collections have had fairly strong thematic threads running through them, this more loosely tied book sounds like a bit of a departure.Long for This World by Sonya Chung: And, of course, Millions contributor Sonya Chung will see her debut novel Long for This World arrive in March. Sonya wrote about the peculiar challenges of settling on a book design in a recent essay.April
The Notebook by Jose Saramago: Nobel Laureates can do “blooks” too. The Notebook is the collected entries from 87-year-old Saramago’s blog, O Caderno de Saramago. The book, “which has already appeared in Portuguese and Spanish, lashes out against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, the Pope, Israel and Wall Street,” according to the Independent, in its report on the book’s Italian publisher dropping it for criticizing Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi. Despite his age, Saramago is a busy man. In addition to The Notebook, there’s an August release date in the U.K. for a new novel, The Elephant’s Journey, which “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria,” and Cain, “an ironic retelling of the Bible story,” was recently published in Portuguese and Spanish.Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Carey’s new book is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and wields two narrators. Olivier, the de Tocqueville “character” is, like de Tocqueville, the heir apparent of a wealthy family. Parrot is his clever servant who also happens to be a spy and all around rake. Early reviews from Australia, where the book is already out, have been strong. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a tour de force, a wonderfully dizzying succession of adventures and vivid, at times caricatured, characters executed with great panache.”The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle: This book wraps up Doyle’s The Last Roundup trilogy (previously: A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). This time Henry Smart has gone to Hollywood and then back to Dublin. A bomb blast there turns him into an accidental hero.What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy: This short story collection is already out in the U.K. The Spectator likes it: “The hardest thing about the advent of a new collection of stories by A.L. Kennedy… is the search for synonyms for ‘brilliant.'”Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: Though Martel’s previous effort, Life of Pi, was far from universally loved, the book became something of a literary phenomenon, putting up sales impressive even for a Booker winner. As a result, nearly a decade later, Martel’s follow up is one of the most heavily anticipated books of the year. As before, it seems Martel will be trading in talking animals, a taxidermied donkey and monkey. More details: The book is about the Holocaust, reportedly. It’s Canadian publisher has called it “shocking.” And Martel is comparing it to Animal Farm.The Big Short by Michael Lewis: Original set for November 2009, the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short has been pushed back to April. In October 2008, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been many books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest. Noir by Robert Coover: An excerpt of this new novel by “pioneering postmodernist” Coover was published a while back in Vice. It is introduced thusly: “Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something—like truth or beauty, the ineffable—and became over the course of its writing a kind of companion piece to Ghost Town, which played with the western genre and mythology the way this one plays with the hard-boiled/noir genre and urban myth. It was the French who discovered and defined noir; consequently, this book will have its first publication in Paris, in French, in the spring of 2008.”May
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis: This book, long in the works, has been evolving as Amis has struggled to write it. In 2006, he told The Independent it was, “blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme.” As it turns out, the autobiographical bits were causing Amis trouble. He told the National Post in August 2009, “it turned out it was actually two novels, and they couldn’t go together. So I wrote The Pregnant Widow, [that’s] one half of it, and the other half I started, and it will be very autobiographical, the next one.” Subsequent comments from Amis appear to indicate the two book solution is still the plan.
Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms is reportedly a sequel to Ellis’ first novel Less Than Zero. First sentence of the novel? “They had made a movie about us.”The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer: Orringer received more than the typical notice for a debut short story collection when her 2003 How to Breathe Underwater was named a New York Times Notable Book, landed on various other lists, and picked up a small prize or two. It’s looking like that promising first effort may translate into a “big” novel for Orringer in 2010. Library Journal reported a 60,000-copy first printing for The Invisible Bridge – the book follows a trio of Hungarian brothers in Budapest and Paris before and during World War II – and it carries with it a blurb from Michael Chabon (“To bring an entire lost world… to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul… takes something more like genius.”)The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson: Larsson’s nordic crime fiction (which has won Larsson posthumous stardom in the States) isn’t exactly in The Millions wheelhouse, but, with nary a mention on the site, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vaulted into our Millions Top Ten and has stayed there. When Millions’ readers get behind a book, it’s often worth taking notice. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the final book in Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” (Dragon was the first and The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second). Though just becoming well known in the U.S., Larsson was the second top-selling author in the world in 2008. Part of Larsson’s sudden success is his odd path to (posthumous) publishing fame. Larsson was a journalist and activist who died of a heart attack. The manuscripts of his novels were found after his death. He had apparently written them just for fun. Five years later, the books are a publishing sensation.Private Life by Jane Smiley: There’s not much info on this one yet other than that it follows a Missouri woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: Pullman (famous for his His Dark Materials children’s series) will once again be courting controversy with this new book. According to The Guardian, “The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul.” In addition, the book will be released on Easter in the U.K. and is part of Canongate’s “Myths” series of books. Pullman also wrote an introduction to that series.The Microscripts by Robert Walser: The pothumous publication of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, reproducing, front and back, the notecards on which Nabokov hat charted this unfinished work, was met with no small amount of scorn. This year, another posthumously published book, based off of notecard scrawlings, may be met more favorably. The story behind Walser’s Microscripts is fascinating. From the New Directions blog: “Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper… covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card… Each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment.”June
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: After Black Swan Green, a departure from the frenetic, layered Cloud Atlas which was broadly considered one of the best novels of the last decade, Mitchell fans may be pleased to hear that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is being described as a return to form. It’s long (512 pages) and set in Japan in 1799. The Guardian says, “Mitchell returns to the big canvas with this historical novel set in a Japanese outpost of the Dutch empire.”An American Type by Henry Roth: Here’s another interesting posthumous publication. Roth is revered for his 1934 novel Call It Sleep and his 1990s “comeback” effort, the Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, and so news of this book, “discovered,” according to the publicity materials, “in a stack of nearly 2,000 unpublished pages by a young New Yorker editor,” will surely interest readers. A little more detail from the publicity materials: “Set in 1938, An American Type reintroduces us to Roth’s alter ego, Ira, who abandons his controlling lover, Edith, in favor of a blond, aristocratic pianist at Yaddo. The ensuing conflict between his Jewish ghetto roots and his high-flown, writerly aspirations forces Ira, temporarily, to abandon his family for the sun-soaked promise of the American West.”A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This new novel by National Book Award nominee Egan sounds like it’s as ambitious and layered as Look At Me–and I’m sure it’ll be as addictively readable as The Keep. According to Amazon, it centers on the life of Bennie Salazar, “an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs,” and the narrative traverses various eras and locales, “from the pre-Internet nineties to a postwar future.” Color me intrigued. (Edan)July
Update: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: A reader points out in the comments that Shteyngart has a new book coming out and since we absolutely would have included it had we known about it, here it is. A recent item at The Rumpus has the scoop: “His new novel is set slightly in the future. When he started writing it a few years ago, he envisioned a world where the world’s economy had collapsed and the central banks had to bail out the Big Three automakers. As that came to pass, he had to keep changing his novel, which got bleaker and bleaker. And now it’s set in ‘a completely illiterate New York,’ he said. ‘In other words, next Tuesday.'”
August
Sympathy for the Devil: This is a long way off so it’s hard to say how good it will be, but it sounds pretty cool: an anthology of stories about the devil from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others.I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. This means that English-speaking readers will get to see I Curse the River of Time, first published in Norwegian in 2008, later this year. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.”
September
C by Tom McCarthy: At Ready Steady Book in September 2007, Mark Thwaite asked McCarthy: “What are you writing now?” And McCarthy responded: “Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon.”Unknown
Nemesis by Philip Roth: News of this novel was announced nearly a year ago, but there is no release date thus far and not much is known about it beyond that it’s “a work of fiction set in the summer of 1944 that tells of a polio epidemic and its effects on a closely knit Newark community and its children.”Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Jonathan Franzen’s follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, is likely to cause a stir when it appears, most likely in the fall. Among the prominent media narratives – the backlash, the backlash-to-the-backlash – will be the length of the novel’s gestation. Really, though, in novelist time (as distinct from internet time), nine years is a mere blip – particularly when you publish two books of nonfiction in the interim. Far more remarkable is how tight-lipped Franzen has managed to be about the novel’s content. From various obscure interviews, we’ve managed to cobble together the following: 1) The novel has something to do with U.S. politics, of the Washington, D.C. variety. 2) Franzen’s original conception of how those politics would intersect with the narrative changed radically in the writing, likely shifting from an “inside baseball” look at bureaucracy toward the personal. 3) Germany, where Franzen has spent some time recently, “will play an important role in the novel.” 4) After two New Yorker short stories notable for their smallness and misanthropy, the excerpt from the novel that appeared last year was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our “Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel.” (Garth)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Wallace’s unfinished opus is sure to be a blockbuster when it appears – April 2011 is the latest word on a release date. The Howling Fantods, home to all things DFW, has been staying on top of the story. A recent report contained a number of tidbits, including this: “The subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it’s all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity.”There are many other exciting books coming out in 2010 not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in 2010 in the comments section below.

The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far): An Introduction

Ah, 1999… We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we’ve gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the ’00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers.

It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.

To that end, we’ve conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” The results were robust, diverse, and surprising.

We’ve finished tabulating them, and this week, we’ll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we’ll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we’ll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and “Best of the Rest” lists.

This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle.  We hope you’ll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed.

The List
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Panel

Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News.
Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone.
Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books
Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions.
Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction.
Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors.
Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus.
Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation.
Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed.
Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.
Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions.
John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio.
Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists.
Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels.
Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas.
Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet.
Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions.
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1.
Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction.
Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books.
Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions.
Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants
Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books.
Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance.
C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions.
Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books.
Laura Miller is the author of The Magician’s Book and is the book critic at Salon.
Meghan O’Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX.
Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer.
Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions.
Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review.
Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1.
Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions.
Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World.
Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books.
Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook.
Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books.
David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books.
Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books.
John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass
Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions.
Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine

Methodology
Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like “kissing your sister,” voted to break them.

Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

Welcome Sonya

Today, we are officially adding a new regular contributor to The Millions. Those of you who have been reading The Millions for the last several months will be familiar with Sonya’s writing (collected here). Particularly recommended are Sonya’s essay on the complications of choosing a book cover design for her forthcoming novel and her clever piece about flirting with books. Her bio:Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World, which will be released by Scribner in March 2010. She is currently at work on a second novel, Sebastian & Frederick. You can learn more about Sonya and her work at www.sonyachung.com.Welcome Sonya!

Free is a Complicated Word, or, The Idea Coincidence

Sonya Chung’s first novel, Long for This World, will be released by Scribner in March 2010. She is currently at work on a second novel, Sebastian & Frederick. You can learn more about Sonya and her work at www.sonyachung.com.Here’s how it happens: an idea, or a question, or a theme begins to take shape in your mind. There is a tipping point, when it moves from background to foreground. Then: you see it everywhere. You are wearing Idea-X-colored glasses, everything speaks to this idea; it is a prism through which All Can Be Considered and Understood.Lydia Kiesling noted a related phenomenon in her essay here at The Millions, “The Reading Coincidence.”Throughout my life as a reader I have noticed this thing happening over and over; a book I read after finishing a seemingly unrelated book turns out to be linked to the previous book in some way… Every book you read in a short period of time mentions one of the other books you just read, or a movie you saw last week, or even, like, a dream someone told you against your will? Doesn’t it? And isn’t it weird?… What is it called? Is there, perhaps, a pertinent volume of Remembrance of Things Past to which I should address myself?It is weird. And I don’t know either to whom or what we should “address ourselves” in order to understand. But following is the anatomy of my Idea Coincidence around the notion of free:June 11 – My blog response to Dan Baum’s twitter-essay about being fired from the New Yorker. I ponder the tensions between institutional sanction and intellectual-creative freedom.June 19 – A friend refers me to D.H. Lawrence’s “The Spirit of Place” from his Studies in Classic American Literature. “Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing.” June 25-27 – I read Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader, inherits New England farm land in the early years of the American slave trade. He and his English wife Rebekka, are orphaned (literally and emotionally, respectively), free from family ties; and they reject church-community ties, forging instead a life of untethered self-determination. “They leaned on each other root and crown. Needing no one outside their sufficiency. Or so they believed… Those [church] women seemed flat to [Rebekka], convinced they were innocent and therefore free.”Then, a week of being haunted by Rebekka’s fate: Jacob dies of smallpox, she contracts the same; her isolation engulfs her (her children have also died). Their makeshift family – a Native American bondswoman, two cast-off slave girls, two indentured servants, and a blacksmith (a free black man) – begins to come apart:They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guessOn death’s door, in feverish lucidity, Rebekka asks, “Were the Anabaptists right?… [Was] her stubborn self-sufficiency outright blasphemy?… She had only to stop thinking and believe.” She recovers, then joins the church; her deal with God. The indentured servant Scully observes: “Mistress passed her days with the joy of a clock. She was a penitent, pure and simple. Which to him meant that underneath her piety was something cold if not cruel.” Was Rebekka, the only technically free woman in the novel, ever truly free?July 2 – In an effort to shake off some of Morrison’s (and Rebekka’s) haunting presence, a light movie rental, Waitress, by Adrienne Shelley. Protagonist Jenna Hunterson, played by Keri Russell, wants to break free of her tyrannical, dim, pathologically love-hungry husband Earl, but finds herself unhappily pregnant with his baby. In the end, she finds her freedom in the mother-child bond.July 5 – I read Adam Zagajewski’s heady essay, “Toil and Flame,” on Polish painter Jozef Czapski. For Czapski, freedom was a way of seeing, an inner disposition. “Seeing must be governed by one principle alone, the principle of ‘inner freedom'” – which, according to Zagajewski, is rooted in Keats’s negative capability, and a dynamic “not-knowing” that is essentially religious – “very strong faith and very strong doubt alongside a complete inability to stay fixed in one single, stable metaphysical conviction.” July 9 – Publishers Weekly article on the hoopla around Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Upon its release, angry readers accused Anderson of claiming that everything online should be free. Says Anderson: “… the book is not about how everything should be free, but about how the economics of free are developing in the increasingly digital world… I knew that the word ‘free’ was a misunderstood, confusing word, and it has triggered fear and longing in equal amounts. I’m now dealing with the consequences of just how complicated the word is.” July 14 – Bezalel Stern’s guest post at The Millions on Richard Ford’s Independence Day. Stern: “Real independence, Ford posits, is all about making connections. Independence is with people.”What does it all mean? The fulcrum for me is Morrison’s Rebekka. She is “free” – a white woman, living outside of religious institutionalism, unobligated to crown or lineage or patriarchy; free from the dictates of group or creed. Tied only to one person, one man, her kind (and equally untethered) husband Jacob. She has arrived at this station through a series of choices – in each case making a calculated determination to trade in the devil she knows for the devil she doesn’t:”…her father got notice of a man looking for a strong wife rather than a dowry… her prospects were servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest… marriage to an unknown husband in a far-off land had distinct advantages… America. Whatever the danger, how could it possibly be worse?Religion, as Rebekka experienced it from her mother, was a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred. Her parents treated each other and their children with glazed indifference and saved their fire for religious matters… It was when [the Anabaptists] refused to baptize her first-born, her exquisite daughter, that Rebekka turned away. Weak as her faith was, there was no excuse for not protecting the soul of an infant from eternal perdition.But then here is Lawrence, cautioning against a dangerous kind of “masterless-ness,” a specifically American version of freedom defined in negative terms, and by flight:Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came here for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it?… They came largely to get away… That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been… Which is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be…Zagajewski/Czapski bring Morrison and Lawrence together for me: Rebekka possessed some strain of Czapski’s inner freedom, a dynamic not-knowing; her “weak faith” was her faith – faith and doubt together. Partnered to Jacob, she was able to sustain a living doubtful faith, her own version of what Lawrence terms a “deep, inward voice of religious belief” to which an individual must be “obedient” in order to be truly free. One of my favorite moments in the novel is this exchange between Rebekka and the Native American servant Lina, Rebekka’s closest confidante:R: I don’t think God knows who we are. I think he would like us, if He knew us, but I don’t think he knows about us… He’s doing something else in the world. We are not on His mind.L: What is He doing then, if not watching over us?R: Lord knows.The strength of Rebekka’s doubt-faith only fails her after Jacob dies; her essential solitariness, and the demons of her cut-off past, are no longer counterbalanced by her flesh-and-blood life of goodness and freedom with the man on whom she bet everything. Morrison paints her as a tragic figure – strong enough for a free, uninstitutionalized life only as long as a man anchors her world; in his absence, the thin-threaded ties that have bound her to her motley household of strays fray and unravel abruptly.Morrison’s socio-historical context is specific; but the implications may echo into the present universal. Where does our freedom, our “masterless-ness,” leave us in the end? For modern, ambitious urban-dwellers, for instance, who’ve fled constraining or otherwise unfamilial families, the tenuousness of patchwork community and makeshift family simmers uneasily beneath busy lives of creativity and/or career. Will these new and sometimes unconventional threads hold? Perhaps independence is indeed about “making connections,” as Ford’s Frank Bascombe comes to realize (according to Bezalel Stern); but the nature and context of those connections matters. Not all of them will endure. And true freedom seems to be a condition that reaches for both depth and permanence.Is it the parent-child connection that is, in the end, The Profound and Enduring Bond which engenders a true inner freedom? Both Morrison and Adrienne Shelley posit motherhood as a miraculous road to freedom – as if childlessness is a woman’s specific version of Lawrence’s masterless-ness. The slave girl Sorrow in A Mercy gives birth to a child and then renames herself:She had looked into her daughter’s eyes; saw in them the gray glisten of a winter sea while a ship sailed by-the-lee. “I am your mother,” she said. “My name is Complete.Waitress’s Jenna Hunterson also looks into her newborn daughter’s eyes and is instantly endowed with clarity, courage, a moral center. No longer desperate to flee, she finds liberation right where she is, in the identity of mother. (Hmm… Maybe this is a “Mom Book” question.)”Free” is a complicated word indeed, Chris Anderson. And while at first the commercial use of the word may not seem relevant, it does raise relevant questions: free equals something for nothing, in the parlance of commerce. At no cost. But it seems clear that true freedom does indeed come at cost. The uproar over Anderson’s book reveals a fear that the cost of “free” would be borne disproportionately by media organizations, artists, content providers. For Dan Baum, the cost of creative freedom was a burned (or at least singed) bridge with a powerful cultural-media institution, as well as the financial stability that I would guess “freed” him in many ways. Fellow freelancers out there may feel the cost of your freedom from institutional-employment daily: isolation, financial worry, wide swings in self-esteem (my attitude toward my freelancer’s freedom has been known to shift by the hour, depending on what does or does not arrive in my email box).In the end, I address myself to you, thoughtful reader. “I would rather start a conversation about free, even in wildly misinformed, polarized, noisy ways, if it gets people thinking,” Anderson said about his book.Perhaps to start we can embrace our dynamic not-knowing – all that we might be fleeing and whatever doubt-faith undergirds our present freedom. We can wonder if we are on God’s mind, if self-sufficiency is really a virtue; if we should have children (or not) or live closer to (or further from) our biological families; if we should keep freelancing or take a real job; what free means and what it really costs. Suspended between drudgery and flame is what Jozef Czapski called his work, implying perhaps that only in the liminal state can we fully experience the process of freedom – living out choices and circumstances, forging and casting off various ties that bind – all of which ultimately teaches us what it means to be free.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Designing a Book Jacket…”

Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.

I.
If you’ve ever wondered what goes into designing a book jacket, you’re not alone. It was one of the things that seemed a bit mystical to me when my novel went into production. In fact, the process remained shrouded in mystery up until the moment I received an email from my editor with jpeg attachments of a few prospective designs.

Let me back up by saying that one of my favorite quotes is a line from indie actor/filmmaker Steve Buscemi, who said, in a profile in The New Yorker a few years back: “There’s something about being naïve. Really interesting things come because you don’t know what the rules are, what you can and can’t do.” I went into the publication process with little-to-no knowledge of what goes into producing, promoting, or releasing a book. And I had a vague sense that it might be fruitful to maintain some measure of that ignorance; that becoming immersed in the ins and outs of production and marketing could be detrimental, both to my writing process and to the publisher’s ability to do its job. How much of a sausage-making expert did I really want to become, and how useful to the publisher would my porky hands be?

II.
In the current publishing environment, this is a rather old-fashioned way of thinking, and unrealistic. Much more pro-activity is expected and required from authors, now that marketing budgets (for unknown writers, especially) are dwindling; and readers have come to expect and crave more personal connection with authors. As Farrar, Straus & Giroux Publisher Jonathan Galassi put it in his recent interview for Poets & Writers, “We’re selling authors, not books. We’re selling people the illusion of an experience with an author… They want the full experience.”

So it’s a somewhat complex relationship, an intricate dance. Contractually, the book no longer belongs to the author. And yet collaboration each step of the way is ideal. When it came to the book jacket, I was invited to be involved, and my input was both valued and incorporated; at the same time, I sensed that fussiness would be received as such, and knew that, technically speaking, the final decision was not mine. As a first-time novelist, new to the dance, I felt a little like I had two left feet.

III.
I did not have a specific picture in mind of what I wanted my book’s jacket to look like. But I did have a vague idea of what I didn’t want it to look like. I did not want the design to be too literal; I myself am drawn to jacket covers which are more evocative of a novel’s essence than descriptive of its plot or characters (I dislike, for instance, the movie-poster jackets of books which have been made into films, which often present celebrities’ faces for characters you’d rather imagine).

I also knew that conveying the cultural elements of the novel in a jacket image could be tricky. In a recent article in Hyphen Magazine, books editor Neelanjana Banerjee expresses a frustration with the easy cultural tropes that are often used for the covers of novels by Asian Americans – fans, geishas (or other painted-faced women in traditional East Asian dress), dragons, chopsticks, lotus blossoms (I would add peonies, cranes, and scantily clad Asian temptresses) – to “mark” the books in an exoticized way and thus, presumably, sell more books to readers attracted to the familiarly exotic – whether or not those tropes best represent the novel’s actual thematic content or storyline.

So when I received the jpeg attachments, I was relieved to find that each of the drafts centered around a dream-like (non-literal) main image; which did not include any of the above-named objects or tropes (none of which are particularly relevant to the novel). The image was a rather spare photograph of a single, hatted (i.e. wearing a canvass sport hat commonly seen in the southern regions of South Korea), female figure, shot from the back, looking out into an illuminated horizon – somehow both figurative and abstract at once in its facelessness – that I thought evoked the emotional core of the novel quite well.

IV.
What’s strange about the jacket-design process is that the people who are weighing in are in a sense the least qualified to provide an informative gut-level response – a simulation of that half-second book-browser reaction. My agent, my editor, and I have all (obviously) read the book, so we came to the image as anything but blank slates. After considering my initial (positive) reaction, I registered a concern that the image was a tad too abstract, and that it would not be clear to someone who did not know the story what the figure was doing (she is taking a photograph).

So I forwarded the attachments to a couple of trusted friends, one of whom knew almost nothing about the story (about a Korean family, mainly an immigrant father and his American-born photojournalist daughter who find themselves reverse-migrating to the father’s village hometown in South Korea), the other of whom knew a little. I asked them, simply, “What do you see here?” The former wrote: “I see a white woman looking off into the distance, most likely taking a photograph.” The latter wrote: “I love it! But why is the woman white?”

Whaa?

This, you may have guessed, was not at all the response I was expecting.

V.
I mentioned these responses to my editor. She was shocked; it never occurred to her that the figure would be perceived as non-Asian, nor did it to me. As I looked more closely, brightening my screen settings, I saw that the woman’s hair had brownish highlights, accentuated by the light emanating from the horizon; it also had a slight wave to it. I thought, this must be what my friends are reacting to. So I asked my editor (trying not to trip over my two left feet) if she could track down the origins of the image, to see if it was a composite and might be altered. While she was (justifiably) dubious that the perceptions of two people warranted an alteration, she kindly agreed to do the research.

In the meantime, I sent the image to a dozen other people. I literally received six responses identifying the woman as Asian or “non-determinate race” and six responses identifying her as white (one person even used the word “WASPy”). I was stumped. What’s more, there was no discernible pattern in the responses, no correlation between response and respondent: people of Asian descent, people of non-Asian descent, people who knew the story or didn’t, male or female, political persuasions one way or another – the responses were all over the place. (One of the people who identified her as white was a Korean American woman who herself had brownish wavy hair.) By the twelfth response, I just had to laugh. Fascinating! This was turning into a kind of Rorschach test.

My editor wrote me back with the results of her research: no, it was not a composite and thus could not be altered. But, as it turned out, the model in the image is in fact Korean; and here, attached, is a photograph of her from the front. Did this help settle it for me?

Well, no. Not really.

VI.
What is the primary function of a book jacket? The adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is, to me, despite its cliche status, rather sophisticated in its irony; because in fact we know darn well that not only can you judge a book (and, to some limited degree, the metaphorical person to which the adage refers) by its cover; but that a good many book-buyers do judge books by their covers. I was encouraged to focus on the question, “Does it make someone want to pick up the book and find out what it’s about?” In the case of this design, I’d say sure, and most of the respondents would, too. Regardless of the racial identity of the figure, the emotional evocation is, I think, compelling overall.

But would the perceived race of the figure affect one way or another whether someone would pick it up? And what about after the half-second impression? Has the jacket cover fulfilled its purpose at that point? Would finding that the character is of a different race than initially perceived (and that the story is a bicultural story) affect the reading experience? And does the fact that the “truth” of the image matches the “truth” of the story – that the model is Korean – matter, if the reader does not have access to this background?

The questions spiraled out from there: how much does the author’s name affect the reader’s expectation of the novel’s content? Does the name “Chung” on the cover incline readers to certain assumptions? What does it mean that some segment of the population expects that an Asian woman would have straight black hair though not all of them do? Is it productive to work at meeting the expectation, or is the time ripe in our culture to test the waters of deviation and diversity? I could also hear in my head the voices of Ethnic Studies activists and feminist scholars challenging the tyranny of Western beauty standards and the blondifying of Eastern cultures.

What to do?

VII.
There is actually an end to this story, and a rather anti-climactic one. (No dramatic showdown between author and publisher, no grand moral stances taken.) As my editor and I discussed it further, we realized that her computer screen was showing black hair. So I asked her to send me hard-copy printouts of the image; and as it turned out, it was in fact variations of screen views that created different hair-color shades and thus impressions. The hard-copy showed black hair, and without the highlights, the appearance of the wave was slightly less pronounced. We liked the image all along, and we knew it would be hard to recapture all that we liked about it if we went back to the drawing board. We decided to go forth.

I am still a little nervous – having no control over the final printing process, color-correcting, etc. – about what this cover will look like. But I also realized that as each response piled on one after the other in my inbox, I was beginning to delight in the wackiness of the whole thing. Would Jane, the character in the novel, be so easily identified or defined by race? She is unambiguously an American of Korean descent; but she is also many other things: a war photographer, sister, daughter, lover, survivor of trauma and tragedy. She is a woman looking for her life in the wake of death. She would never deliberately deceive; but she would embrace the essential mystery of identity, the complexity of perception from the viewpoint of the beholder.

And – no surprise – so do I.

Surprise Me!

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