Look at Me: A Novel

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The Death of the Ingénue

My high school’s theater department put on two Shakespeare plays a year, and when I was old enough to audition, I ran to the front of the line – not to read for the part of Juliet in that year’s headlining Romeo and Juliet, but rather for her lesser known, and much more intoxicating complement, the lady Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Miraculously, I got the part. At the time, I was young and knew little of the play save the recent Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson adaptation, but quickly found myself madly in love with this character: a strong-willed, funny, independent wordsmith. For years, I envisaged Beatrice and her ilk as the exemplar of female empowerment in literature and theater, and yet while I’ve personally fixated on the Beatrices that have populated the centuries, I’ve done so because it is clear they were the exceptions to the rule. The rule, in fact, was Juliet. It was Beatrice’s younger cousin, Hero. It was Bianca and Disney princesses and anything that presented an ingénue as a leading lady. Sadly, for every Scarlet O’Hara, there is a Melanie Hamilton offsetting an absurdly independent protagonist. Clearly this paradigm is what has propelled literature forward, but lately, as I’ve explored my bookshelves, it seems as though this requisite stock character, as antiquated as its stock cousins, is finding its way off the pages of great novels, leading me to believe that she has been graciously euthanized by literary fiction. And thankfully so.

The ingénue in contemporary fiction is a powerful mirror against which society is reflected, and its notable absence is indicative of ambitious thirst for change. That there has been a gradual evolution on the page that is sadly not reflected even off the page for female writers, female politicians, and female business leaders is significant in this long-awaited evolution. Pinning down the issue to the paltry representation of women writers in reviews and literary journals as explored through the latest VIDA counts extrapolates the problems women writers face in representation, coverage, and reviews, and there is much work to be done to establish equality. Yet this lack of real estate does not mean that there is a deficit of powerful female characters written today.

When looking directly at the content of contemporary fiction, however, I am as excited as I was when I got the part of Beatrice back in the mid-1990s. Writers, both male and female, are creating strong, authentic characters who can stand on their own. There may be criticism on the outside, but directly on the page, this glorious affirmation of strong-willed women drives me as a writer, as a lawyer, and as a woman, to know that we are represented on the page, whether instantly likable or not. As an aside, perhaps the hotly contested debate currently surrounding this question in fact hinges on the lack of ingénues populating today’s great novels. A simple glance at titles reflects this: The Woman Upstairs, Look At Me, Gone Girl, State of Wonder, On Beauty, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Hours, and even in non-fiction with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. None of these books apologizes for anger, frustration, strength, manipulation, power, emotion, sensuality. And mostly, none of these books requires a supporting ingénue waiting in the corner, ready to cry foil to a Lizzy Bennett or Jane Eyre or even Catherine Earnshaw.

In contemporary society and fiction, women run companies, perform surgeries, and question their desire to even have children. Dr. Marina Singh and Dr. Anneck Swenson battle wits in the South American jungles of State of Wonder, almost inverting the stereotype by making an ingénue out of the missing male doctor, Anders; Eva Khatchadourian begs people to question her “traditional female values” by often wishing she never had a child in We Need to Talk About Kevin; and women of three generations dominate The Hours, portraying this very evolution of the literary female character in a single brilliant narrative. I could continue to list the novels, but it would probably exceed my word count, so instead, it’s probably better to review how we got to this point.

It’s not that strong women were absent from literature in the past, but rather that they were welcomed with antithetical reception: if not written amongst a flock of female stereotypes (read, “the villain,” the “mother,” the “nurse”), they may have needed the ingénue as a foil to the less commonly recognized strong women of the time. In contemporary culture, however, no one denies the presence of strong, successful, complex women in every facet of society, and likewise, readers are not shocked when they turn up in great literature. It is simply that contemporary literary fiction portrays a realistic society so that ingénues are no longer needed within the texts — as foils or otherwise.

When looking back at some of our most beloved “strong women in literature” from Shakespeare to Victorian England to the early 20th century, almost none of these women is allowed to exist on her own, almost as if the supporting ingénue (or another stock female character) must balance the strong woman so that society may rest. This seesaw of female identity so portrayed in literature of the past seemed necessary in order to propel forward movement. By having the rare and special woman on one end and the stock female (usually the ingénue) on the other, their interaction pushed the story forward, enabled the game of wits to persist, and flexed the narrative into motion.

Beatrice, the gloriously witty self-effacing, proud bachelorette of Much Ado About Nothing, vows never to marry and is teased, mocked, and pitied as a result, countered by the requisite companion ingénue in the banal Hero. Kate of The Taming of the Shrew, who we all know and love as the girl who just didn’t want to fit in, is deemed eponymously shrewish by her unabashed expression, and of course, is, of course, neutralized by her ingénue of a sister, Bianca. Portia, the brilliant heiress of The Merchant of Venice, stands initially as a stellar example of intelligence, power, and leadership, but in order to fulfill her needs as an ingénue, she must impersonate a man. Although pillars of force, these women cannot be fully portrayed without a veil of disbelief, either by unrivaled presentation beside a flattering ingénue or the forced portrayal of a man, so that societal equilibrium of the time is restored.

Fast-forward to early 19th century England, not far from the domination of yet another female monarch, and strong women in literature are still not singularly permissible. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, the presumed model of the era, is a wonderfully suspicious, intelligent representation of female strength, yet still must be presented beside her exhaustively ingénuesque sisters, so that we all know how rare and special a creature she is. Lizzy Bennett is sublime, and I share a name and nickname with her, so I can’t help but beam with pride whenever she is listed amongst the feminist wonders of the literary world; but the sad truth is that she is so well cited because she is the outlier. Society does not yield a sea of stereotypes in order to hone in on a strong woman, and nor should literature require this pool of ingénues, out of which we may select and conclude that, indeed, Ms. Bennett is different.

Even in late 19th/early 20th century literature, women who battled this stereotype were plagued with depression and expropriated labels. In England, Virginia Woolf wrote of depression and isolation, while in America, Charlotte Perkins Gilman openly divorced her husband, but not before writing about post-partum depression in an incisive story that had never been seen before on the page. Sadly, these women committed suicide, and their autobiographical roles were neither accepted nor credible by the male literary establishment, reflecting yet another mirror of their times. Their characters, however, have lived on, refusing to succumb to literary archetypes. Had they been written as ingénues, they would have evolved into that other stock character of “the madwoman in the attic.” Unfortunately, by removing the label of ingénue and refusing to share the scenes with a classic ingénue, these characters and their architects met a tragic end.

Now, however, strong female characters reign aplenty in literature without their necessary ingénue escorts, slowly eroding the role of that stock accompanying character. It’s not that these strong female characters newly exist, or that they suddenly gained mass appeal, but rather that they are surviving on their own. They are flawed, beautiful representations of women that provide depth, understanding, and sympathy, regardless of their periodic unlikeable actions. They bear their identities proudly, and never require an accompanying convention to confirm their individuality, so that the role of the primary and supportive ingénue is no longer required.

I recently went to hear Isabel Allende speak about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook. At the Q&A, a young aspiring female writer rose to ask a question that surprised a majority of the audience. “You write a lot of strong women in your books,” she said, before asking, “Has there been anyone who has influenced you?” Allende either didn’t understand the question or wanted to emphasize the lunacy of it, and after three attempts replied: “Do you know any weak women?” Needless to say, a resounding uproar of applause emerged from the previously unobtrusive audience. This is not a topic that is far from the consciousness of the literary establishment, nor is it one that should be. It is so prevalent on people minds and hearts precisely because of its relevance. Readers don’t want to see any more ingénues or stock characters. They want to see the people that they know, the strong women who populate their lives, because, as Isabel Allende so bluntly and perfectly stated, there really aren’t weak women.

I’m not naively suggesting that contemporary fiction has conclusively banished the ingénue from its pages; nor am I claiming that the character is close to her coffin in certain genres, but I am suggesting that that she should be. Fiction, as any vital art form, serves a purpose to reflect society in its emotional, environmental, and political nuances. It informs us, teaches us, reflects humanity in its reverie. If the ingénue, which may be dying in literary fiction, begins to fade in all genres of contemporary literature, if we accept the evolution of the young female protagonist in literature, we may stop expecting women off the page to play that stock role, as well. By exiling the word to the trash bin or perhaps feeling a little bit guilty whenever used, we might continue to represent women as they are – likeable or not. Powerful characters who sometimes want love, sometimes want power, ache with ambition and passion, refuse to be called ingénues, or any other pile of stock stereotypes. They are merely women who need no other label.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Ask the Writing Teacher: Novelists on First Drafts

Dear Writing Teacher,

I am a published fiction writer who is about to start writing a new novel. You would think, since I’ve already done this before, that I knew what I was doing. But I don’t. I am lost. Where do I start? What do I need to know about my story and my characters before I begin? What should I just figure out as I go? Suddenly, the idea of writing that first draft seems impossible, and I am terrified.

I’d greatly appreciate any guidance you could offer me!

Sincerely,
Facing the Blank Page
Man oh man, I could’ve written this question to myself! I, too, am about to start a new novel, and I’m wondering how in the hell I did it before (two times, in fact), and how in the hell I’ll ever do it again. Take comfort in the fact that you aren’t alone in your despair; thousands of writers face their white screens every day, uncertain of how to proceed. I’ve heard from many authors that each novel offers its own unique demands, its own unique joys, and that you must re-learn the process with each go. Let that inspire rather than scare you — would you really want a redundant experience?

In this essay, excerpted from the book Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Jennifer Egan talks about the process of writing Look At Me:
It was a huge struggle. I’m not quite sure why I suffered to the degree I did while working on that book, but I do know that my work up to that point had been fairly conventional, and I didn’t know if anyone would accept this kind of book from me. It was almost as if I thought I’d be punished for it. I felt afraid as I worked on it. I thought it was terrible, that I was reaching too far.

At the same time, some of the most exciting moments I’ve had as a writer were during the writing of that book, even with all those worries and that feeling of doom. One day I read the first six chapters of the book in one sitting, and I tore out of the house and went running, and I had this sense that I’d never read anything quite like that before, that I’d done something really different. That was such a thrilling feeling — a rarity as I was working on it.
I keep returning to this passage as I begin to think about my own new book. Why should I be afraid to be challenged? If the writing will be painful, then it will be painful. Just as often, it won’t be. I simply must sit down and see.

As for how one goes about writing a first draft, I like to practice the art of acceptance.  In The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, Ann Patchett describes how she plans much of her novel in her head before she sets a word of it on paper. Her dear friend and reader, Elizabeth McCracken, is a very different kind of novelist. Patchett writes, “I get everything set in my head and then I go, whereas Elizabeth will write her way into her characters’ world, trying out scenes, writing backstories she’ll never use.  We marvel at each other’s process, and for me it’s a constant reminder that there isn’t one way to do this work.” Amen to that! Novel writing can be fun, but it can also be daunting and challenging, more frustrating than untangling the necklaces at the bottom of your jewelry box. The last thing you need is to question your own process.

Still, when I’m writing a first draft, I, like you, long for some direction. Does it make sense to figure out the retrospective voice now, or can I deal with that later? Should I do the research now, or is it a second draft problem? How about chapter length — does that matter now? (Does it matter ever?) There are so many questions zipping across a lonely writer’s head as she sits at her desk working.

I decided to ask some writers I admire what they try to figure out with their first drafts. What, I asked them, do you need to know before you begin? And what do you try to solve as you’re working on that first draft?

Their answers were as brilliant and as varied as I expected:
My opinion is that you want to figure out character and plot in the first draft. I think it’s also a good idea to have the setting nailed down in the first draft, if possible; moving the narrative to another location can entail some pretty tedious rewrites. It’s also a good idea to figure out whether the book’s going to be in the first person or the third person as early on as possible, because changing pages and pages of text from one to the other is an insanely labor-intensive process.

My feeling is that you don’t need to waste your time obsessing over pacing in the first draft, because that’s the kind of thing that can change completely in revisions. In your first round of revisions you’ll inevitably end up cutting a lot of material, and that will change the pace of the book, so I think pacing is something best refined toward the end of the process.
-Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet

I think my answer might be a little bit controversial — I think almost nothing is worth sweating in the first draft. Does a character need to change genders? Do you want to shift the structure? Just do it, and keep moving forward. Finishing a draft of a novel is so hard, and so enormous, that one needs all the momentum possible. If you stop and go back to the beginning every time you want to change something, you will never finish. Just go go go! You will have the time to go back and fix all your mistakes, right your wrongs, etc. Just get to the end of the first draft. The feeling of accomplishment is sweet enough to spur you on to make even the most major changes in revision.
-Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

In the first draft I’m just trying to figure out what the story is or might be. I’m trying to learn the story, and trying to stay open to the possibilities that the original idea might be capable of generating. The only way to learn the story is by writing it, but how do you write it when you have only the vaguest notion of what the story is, and who the characters might be? That’s a problem. The problem, eh? The only way I learn it is by writing it line by line, page by page.
My expectations for first drafts are pretty low. I don’t worry about polishing the language at all, or fine-tuning character or plot. I’m basically just trying to figure out what the story might be.
-Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

There’s a huge gap between what I need to know and what I do know when I begin a novel. If I waited until I knew at least thirty percent of what I should know before diving in, I think I’d be permanently stuck on the springboard. Normally (and I’m talking from the experience of a meager two books here) I know two things: a place and a person. The place is usually vivid. I could go on about it for pages. But the person is a cardboard cut out—two dimensional. Magician. Musician. Drunk. Shopkeeper. What I have to force myself to figure out is a single incident that sets the story in motion. It might be removed later on, but I need to pick one action which might cause this person to move about this place. Since I know so little about my character(s) when I first commit them to paper, I tend to overwrite them, cramming all sorts of overblown background detail into my first draft, which in turn drags down what little plot I initially have. My second draft is all about fixing that balance, pruning the obsessive background information and replacing it with more action in the novel’s present.
-Ivy Pochoda, author of the forthcoming Visitation Street

For me, the first draft is really just a big mud-rolling, dust-kicking, mess-making time in which my only job is to find the story’s heartbeat.  I allow myself to invent characters without warning, drop them if they prove to be uninteresting, change the setting in the middle, experiment with point of view, etc.  I figure that the body will grow up around the heart, that it’s always possible to bring all the various elements up and down, sculpt and polish, as long as I’ve got something that matters to me.  The second draft (and the 3rd through 20th, Lord help me) involves getting out the tool belt and thinking like a carpenter.  But the first draft is all dirt and water and seeds and, hopefully, a little magic.  Of course, this method means that my first draft is almost unreadable.  Maybe someday I’ll invent a way of making a slightly cleaner mess, but until then, I try to enjoy the muck.
–Ramona Ausubel, author of No One is Here is Except All of Us

The thing I try to resist in writing my first drafts is getting too caught up in the sentences. I am capable of revising “The cat sat on the mat,” a dozen times and then coming back to the original. At the same time I think that two of the most crucial decisions we make when writing a novel are about the music and the tone so I am always hoping to discover those as I work on my first draft.
I try in my first drafts to make as many decisions about character as I can stand. It’s tempting to leave things vague but I do think it’s very helpful to know a character’s name, age, class, occupation, manner of speech, and have some sense of physical appearance as early as possible. That said it will often take me much of a first draft to decide that Rosemary is thirty-two, a physiotherapist …. It is hard in revision to, for example, change a character’s name — it becomes part of the music of the prose — but I’ve often had to.

I try in my first draft to decide what kind of species my chapter or section will be, and how time will pass.

And I try in my first draft to make as many decisions about plot as I can. What journey are these characters on? What is their destination? Often I notice in revision that I have several scenes which all do the same thing in terms of characterization and plot and I will end up picking the best, or combining them.

I try to remind myself that the first person for whom I’m writing is myself; some of what I write in the first draft is scaffolding. It helps me to get the story under way but the reader doesn’t need to see it. And I can dismantle it later.
-Margot Livesey, author, most recently, of The Flight of Gemma Hardy

For the first draft I need to know only enough to keep going. No more, no less.
-Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City
I hope that’s a little helpful, my dear writer.  Now, on with it: get to work.

Sincerely,
The Writing Teacher

Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].

Recovery in Pieces: A Study of the Literature of 9/11

Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.

–Zadie Smith, “This is how it feels to me,” in The Guardian, October 13, 2001.
If you want to read the Greatest Work of 9/11 Literature, the consensus is: keep waiting. It will be a long time before someone writes it.

We don’t know what it will look like. It could be the Moby Dick of the Twenty-First Century, or maybe a new Gatsby, but more likely it will be neither. Maybe it won’t be a novel at all. It could be a sweeping history (maybe) of New York at the turn of the Millennium and of America on the precipice of total economic implosion (or not). We will read it on our iPad34 (or maybe by then Amazon will beam narratives directly into our brain for $1.99). One thing that seems certain is that no one has yet written that book. Not DeLillo (too sterile), Safran Foer (too cloying), Hamid (too severe), Messud (too prissy), O’Neill (too realist), Spiegelman (too panicked), Eisenberg (too cryptic) or the 9/11 Commission (too thorough).

The idea is that it will take time to determine what — if any — single piece of literature best captures the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. We can name any number of reasons why authors seem to have underwhelmed us during the past decade. Perhaps they suffered from an extended period of crippling fear of the kind Zadie Smith described just weeks after the attacks. Literary production can tend to feel superfluous in the aftermath of large loss of life. Or perhaps it’s our persistent closeness to the events. We’re still only a decade out, despite the sense that we’ve been waiting in airport security lines for an eternity. (By comparison, Heller wrote Catch-22 almost 20 years after Pearl Harbor; War and Peace wasn’t finished until 50 years after France’s invasion of Russia; and I think the jury may still be out on who wrote the definitive work on Vietnam). We can’t blame earnest authors for trying. It just wasn’t long enough ago yet.

None of this stops critics from trying to figure out the best 9/11 book so far.

We gather books about 9/11 (and some would go as far as to make the hyperbolic-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek claim “they’re all post-9/11 books now”) into a single pile and determine who has best distilled the essence of terrorism’s various traumatic effects on our national psyche and our ordinary life. On one hand, it seems plausible to blame this tic on our collective reduced attention spans and expectations for rapid literary responses to cultural and historical events. Or more simply: we want our book and we want it now. On the other hand, the imperative to produce a 9/11 book became a kind of authorly compulsion — a new way to justify the craft of writing to an audience whose numbers always seem to be inexorably marching toward zero. Amid conversations about “the death of the novel” (and we often fail to remember that these discussions were robust and ominous-sounding back in 2001 too), 9/11 provided a renewed opportunity for books to become culturally relevant. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction — the whole lot. Any literary rendering of the post-9/11 world would be preferable to the unmediated reality of it. Or more simply: writers could come to the rescue of a traumatized public. Or even more simply: why shouldn’t it have been writing that could have soothed us and given us some kind of answers?

Whether these considerations will eventually vindicate the authors who tried to translate 9/11 into literature just a few raw years after the fact, we can’t say. My contention is simply that, for now, they shouldn’t be so universally panned for trying. In the meantime, perhaps this decade anniversary isn’t an opportunity to determine who’s written the best book so far, but rather to reconsider accepted notions about what constitutes the Literature of 9/11 in the first place. The books we have written and read since 2001 tell us more about ourselves than about the capacity of literature to encompass the consequences of an event like these terrorist attacks. Rather than rank these books, we should fit them into categories that allow us to consider why we turn to literature in the aftermath of a traumatic event. We can more usefully ask ourselves “Why read?” and think about why this particular historical moment produced such a rapid and rapidly evolving body of literature.

Here are some ideas to help get this conversation started. I don’t intend these bullet point-style assertions to be a decisive argument. Rather, I guess I’m just trying to figure out a way to group and regroup the books that have been on our collective radar for the past ten years.

1. To understand the post-9/11 world, we should look to the literature of the last moments before September 11, 2001.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001. Concerned with biotech, the dot-com crash, and the erosion of middle class family life in millennial America, Franzen’s novel captures a vague sense of menace in the days immediately before 9/11. And, though she has become better known for A Visit from the Goon Squad (which mentions the World Trade Center, only briefly) Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me proves that fiction can often seem to predict the world just ahead of us. The events of the novel so uncannily represent the shadow presence of terrorism in the unseen spaces of American everyday life that Egan, who wrote the book entirely before 9/11, included an afterward to the novel in 2002. She writes: “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress last fall, I would have had to receive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.” This last line has always been problematic for me. Were we really that innocent before 9/11? Authors seemed totally capable of exposing the dread underlying the exuberance (rational or otherwise) at the close of the Millennium. I wonder to whether we’ll remember the pre-9/11 years as one of innocence or willful ignorance.

2. There is no single body of 9/11 Literature.

As I have mentioned, the tendency in the past decade has been to lump together all works of fiction about 9/11. As the number of works that deal directly and indirectly with the terrorist attacks has ballooned, the moniker “9/11 Literature” has become a dull catchall term used to describe too many types of books. Instead, we can try to make some distinctions to figure out more precisely what different kinds of books have done, and stop trying to judge them all by the same criteria. It can be helpful, for example, to distinguish between 9/11 Literature and Post-9/11 Literature. Whereas Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man pivot around the events of September 11, books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children suggest how the events and their effects can be pushed to the margins. Works of 9/11 Literature obsess about the intricate and far-reaching effects of 9/11 on the lives of characters, whereas Post-9/11 Literature emphasizes how individuals can move beyond the trauma of the attacks and allow ordinary life to resume its flow.

3. The literary response to 9/11 better helps us understand the longer-term psychological effects of terrorism on families, communities, and nations.

Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close help us understand how the effects of cultural trauma reach into future generations. They explore how we are all implicated into broader narratives of belonging to national and cultural heritages. Spiegelman had to publish the serial version of his comics in Germany because squeamish newspapers in America believed that his critiques of the Bush Administration would be poorly received at home. Likewise, Safran Foer’s novel was frequently criticized as playing on themes of grief and loss that seemed too fresh. As time passes, these criticisms fall away, and what we’re left with is a more subtle understanding of how — in the immediate aftermath of a cultural trauma — we must try to recover as individuals.

4. The relationship between The 9/11 Commission Report and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation stands as one of the most compelling pairs of books to emerge in the past ten years — and neither one of these is a novel.

While I’d argue that no single works stands out as the definitive representation of the terrorist attacks, a reader could do no better to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001 than to devour the 9/11 Commission’s official report. To 9/11 truthers, it probably makes sense that the government would produce an eloquent and sophisticated rendering of the attacks, and the complicated histories of terrorism and American intelligence failures that led to them. But to the rest of us, it comes as a fascinating surprise — one that reveals the government’s investment in the production of a literary artifact of some serious depth and skilled sentence-making. The 9/11 Commission Report defies the expectation that a government document should be stodgy and defensive. Instead, it reveals — often in a tone that breaks its own rigid impartiality and becomes downright moving — the grating human oversights of regulators and the humanity of the terrorists themselves as they bumblingly tried to find a hiding place in America.

When read alongside Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the report, the two works become a breathtaking and genre-bending account of 9/11. Together, they are proof that an event like 9/11 can actually produce new artistic forms. The effort to describe and understand — to probe and render aesthetically — gives rise to new ways of thinking about the world. These are not novels, but they certainly rise to the level of literature, no matter how one decides to define it.

5. It’s time to start re-thinking the place of 9/11 in the landscape of American literary production.

It has become more apparent that 9/11 is moving to the background of our cultural consciousness. Its influence remains, but its effects have faded when compared to what seem like more pressing economic and political concerns. Books like Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes help us understand what this process of fading looks like. But to return to Franzen and Egan, no two books seem better suited to the moment after the post-9/11 moment than Freedom and A Visit from the Goon Squad. To understand how authors have begun to fill their blank screens with something other than images of the World Trade Center on fire, it’s hard to do better. Franzen tackles the Bush Administration while Egan projects into a future New York, in which the 9/11 memorial has become an old landmark in Lower Manhattan. Literature looks forward at the next moment — toward a space and time during which we will no longer use the term Post-9/11 to describe ourselves, if only because newer and more troubling problems will take its place.
* * *
I have left out many works and many ideas. Where are Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan? Where are Colum McCann and John Updike? I have left out (in the very last minute) Lorraine Adams, whose book Harbor absolutely changed the way I thought about post-9/11 America when I read it, even though it had little if anything to do with 9/11. All of this is just to say: the conversation should continue, and I think it will only get more interesting throughout the next decade.

 

Image credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr

Lighting the Way: On Mentoring and Being Mentored

1.
Last weekend, I watched about six hours’ worth of The Voice, NBC’s latest singing competition/reality show.  (Dude, don’t judge me: I have a new full-time job called “waiting-for-my-cervix-to-dilate.”)  One of the main differences between The Voice and its progenitor American Idol is that on the former’s early episodes, contestants sing for four musical stars: Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo (Who?), Adam Levine (Who?) and Blake Shelton (Who?).  If one of these stars likes a contestant, the contestant has the option of joining the star’s “team.”  Once on a team, the contestants are promised guidance on things like pitch and stage presence, as well as wisdom about the industry.  It’s sort of like getting into grad school.

I found myself mesmerized by the enthusiasm of the four famous singers for certain contestants; there was something touching and true about their sincerity.  In these first episodes, there’s a real sense that the singers want to help the unknown contestants, light their way.  Although later episodes don’t exactly live up to the opening’s promise (the guidance offered–if there is any–is pretty generic), the warm and fuzzy image of Christina raising her blow-up doll arms in triumph at a contestant’s diva pipes has stayed with me.  I can identify.

You see, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of mentors.

2.
In high school, I had two English teachers who read my poetry, and urged me to keep writing.  Maybe they were blowing smoke up my ass, but I was only sixteen, and if not for their encouragement, I might have quit stringing words together.  In college, my creative writing professor not only gave me feedback on my short stories, he also introduced me to writers like Lynda Barry and Joy Williams.  He told me what an MFA program was, and a literary agent, and a university press; he described to me how painful it was to write a novel, and I remember those conversations vividly.  During these years, I also worked with two English professors who pushed my analytic capabilities and got me to read writers like Vladimir Nabokov and A.M. Homes; I’m currently waiting for one of those teachers to give me notes on my novel-in-progress–I can’t wait for his feedback.  Later, in graduate school, I became close with two female  teachers (my previous mentors had all been male), and our conversations sometimes went from being about craft, voice and structure to being about gender, and even, once, about motherhood.

Almost two years ago, I was lucky enough to find a new mentor; we were both writers at an artists’ retreat, and we hit it off.  Like any good mentor, he is older than I am, and more accomplished, and his writing is superb and ambitious.  Because his road to publication wasn’t easy, he is able to offer advice that wunderkinds like, say, Zadie Smith or Jonathan Safran Foer simply couldn’t.  Put another way: my mentor is used to rejection.  His war stories may be sobering, but his subsequent success puts such struggles in perspective.  When he writes in an email,  “I’m pulling for you, kid,” I know he means it.

There was and is no competition between me and these mentors.  I look up to them, and they urge me forward. I am thankful for each of them and what they’ve offered me at different points in my life as a writer.  I don’t want to imagine what I might not have attempted, creatively and professionally, were it not for their support and enthusiasm, their benevolent shadows.

3.
You might say it’s hard to have a mentor if you’re not in school or involved in a writing community, but that’s not true.  Over the years, I have cultivated meaningful relationships with various writers–or rather, with their work–and these relationships have guided me in the sometimes scary and frustrating post-graduate years.  Jennifer Egan became my mentor, whether she likes it or not, as soon as I’d finished Look at Me.  John Williams became my beyond-the-grave mentor with his novel Stoner.  Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood–well, let’s just say they’re my Canadian mothers.

By my desk, a shelf of my favorite writers’ books watches over me; I swear they radiate a magical power.  You can do it, these authors whisper.  Go, go, go! Their own writing is so good, it humbles me, and it also makes me work harder.

4.
A couple of days before I fell down the reality TV-hole, I read an article by journalist Steve Silberman, who’s writing a nonfiction book about autism.  Faced with the daunting task of working on a long project after years of writing articles, Silberman asked for advice from a bunch of authors he knows and respects.   The guidance he received ranges from the practical (Carl Zimmer says, “Be ready to organize vast amounts of data. Use a wall, or software like Scrivener.”); to the candid (David Gans says, “The most striking thing about my book processes was that no one at the publisher did any editing at all.  No fact checking, no line editing.”); to the inspiring (Mark Frauenfelder says, “Don’t forget to write the book you want to read.”)    There are many great tips to absorb and weigh, and they’re particularly helpful to those working on nonfiction, where interviews and research are part of the writing process.  My main impression after reading the article, however, is that these authors were happy to lend their expertise to a friend, to one of their kind.

This makes sense to me.  When a writer must state her opinion and articulate her struggles, her understanding of her own work and processes is sharpened.  I, for one, like when someone asks me about my writing schedule, or how long it took to get my first short story published, or why, when I first began writing fiction, I gravitated toward the first-person.  Answering these questions teaches me about myself and my work.  I am forced to believe in something, be it a process, an approach, a sentence rhythm, and I realize that everything I write–however small or unpublished–has weight, becomes part of my writerly DNA.  Were I were to withhold these experiences from others, I wouldn’t be able to learn from them.

But I don’t think all writers feel this way.  A few years ago, when I was in graduate school, Jonathan Franzen came to give a reading and a craft talk, the latter of which was only open to MFA students.  The first question posed during the craft talk was, unsurprisingly, “Can you talk a little bit about your writing process?”  Franzen, upon hearing the question, looked pained, his eyebrows furrowed, his forehead compressing into wrinkles.  Now, I agree that this isn’t the most original question–but it was, after all, a god damned craft talk.  I’m not sure what Mr. Franzen expected.  “My process…” he began.  “My process…”  After a theatrical pause, he sighed and shifted his limbs.  Then he said,  “I don’t have one.”   Later, however, through other questions, he revealed that he did in fact have a process, which, if I recall, was pretty neurotic, including a specific office chair, at a specific angle, etc., etc.   I was so pissed at J. Fran; why not just be forthcoming?

5.
Recently, I asked my student Catie Disabato if she considered me her mentor.  I was embarrassed to pose such a question, but I was thinking about writing this essay, and I wanted to explore both sides of this lovely relationship: the mentor and the mentee.  But I needed to be sure that I was actually qualified.

When Catie said I was indeed her writing mentor, I was very, very pleased.  Catie is a few years younger than I am, and her novel-in-progress, a fictional nonfiction book about the disappearance of Lady Gaga (among other things, including map-making and The Situationists), blows my head off it’s so good.  It might seem arrogant to consider myself the mentor of such a talented writer, but, then again, that’s the joy of the role: you’re putting your faith in someone you really believe in, and, in some ways, you get to share in their success.

Often, a mentee’s questions and crises require you to look at your own artistic and professional trajectory, and view it retrospectively.  I’ve found, in my few years of teaching, that helping students write fiction that is beautiful and bold and true reminds me of why I myself write.  It’s also kept my cynicism at bay.  Through my students I remember how hard it is to get a story rejected for the first time, and how rewarding it can feel when a group of peers loves your prose. Often when I am giving advice, I’m really just talking to myself–to a younger me, or just, well, me.

There’s also, of course, pleasure in getting to be a voice of experience and authority. I have no doubt that Rilke enjoyed writing his Letters to a Young Poet just as much as the young poet enjoyed receiving them; both were sustained by that relationship.

Catie–oh smart one–believes there are mentors and there are anti-mentors. The latter hoards information and advice, perhaps to keep others from achieving the same status.  I doubt Franzen was motivated in this way (after all, a group of anonymous graduate students isn’t the same as one talented writer whose writing you know well), but his little performance of withholding wisdom and practical advice felt stingy, not to mention isolating.  Hearing about someone’s writing process won’t change (or improve) your own, but at least it creates camaraderie, lets us all feel a little less alone.  Isn’t that what every writer needs?

6.
I hope, for my own mentors, that my struggles and successes have asked them to look inward and backward. In this seeking, answers to their own questions are revealed.  That’s what happens to me, at least, when I am faced with  helping a student.  I am always stunned and delighted to discover the ways that they end up helping me, how they enrich my own work and life.

So if you want to know about my writing process, ask away.  And if you’re secretly, or not-so-secretly, my mentor: thank you, thank you, thank you.

(Image: Light Painting from vfsdigitaldesign’s photostream)

A Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

I follow a lot of booksellers on Twitter, and there was a time a few months ago when it seemed impossible to log in without stumbling across effusive praise for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad. My bookselling friends were right: the book is incredible, and it was startling to me and many others that it wasn’t on the shortlist for the National Book Award. I’d never read Egan before, and I loved the book so much that I felt compelled to start reading her backlist.

Her 2001 novel Look at Me ranks easily among the best novels I’ve ever read. The book opens with a narrow focus: an aging model named Charlotte has been rendered unrecognizable by facial reconstruction surgery following a devastating car accident. She returns to Manhattan following her convalescence and finds herself unmoored, a ghost in her former life. The novel telescopes outward, weaving together the storylines of a wide cast of characters—an unstable scholar; Charlotte’s childhood friend Ellen, now a suburban mother in the town where they grew up; Ellen’s daughter, a geeky teenager searching for love and acceptance; Ellen’s son, a fragile young cancer survivor; a terrorist with dark dreams of wreaking havoc; an alcoholic private detective—into a brilliant and deeply moving meditation on identity, fame, and love.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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What We Teach When We Teach Writers: On the Quantifiable and the Uncertain

I.
Thirty-six. This is the number of books I will have read, or re-read, in 2010, by the end of October. I keep a “Reading List” page on my website, and the other day, I found myself counting up my 2010 reading. I also found myself dividing 36 by 43, which is the number of weeks between January 1 and Oct 31. It comes out to .84. This is my rate of reading. In 2010, I have read .84 books per week.

Once upon a time I was good at math. If memory serves me right, I think I may have even gotten the highest score possible on a Calculus Advanced Placement exam. I wonder how different my life would be if I had become, say, an engineer; or an economist; or a CFO.

II.
But I am none of those things. I am a writer. I also teach fiction writing. A few weeks ago, partially in response to Elif Batuman’s essay in the London Review of Books, “Get A Real Degree,” Bill Morris wrote a piece here called, “Does School Kill Writing?” Morris wrote: “School wasn’t my death as a writer, it was my birth… I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today.”

One of the comments on Morris’s post came from Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel:
I would be curious to read a piece on this subject someday from the POV of someone who actually teaches in one of these programs, someone who can talk about whether these programs are capable of transformation, or merely refinement […] whether they’re taking already-accomplished writers and just polishing them a little, or whether these programs can take merely capable writers and make them great. I think it would be an interesting perspective.
III.
“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer,”  I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing, “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.”

IV.
Last week, I attended a “lecture on craft” given by Jennifer Egan for Columbia MFA students. After her talk, in which she mentioned that she is an “unconscious writer”—meaning that her first drafts, written by hand on legal pads in nearly-illegible handwriting, are wholly unthinking in regards to craft (it’s in revision that she shapes and carves away and applies conscious craft-thinking)—a student raised her hand and asked what sorts of goals she sets, given said unconsciousness. “Five pages,” she said. “Every day I aim for five pages. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend. I’m after the pages.” I saw a number of students scribbling in their notebooks. I thought I heard a collective exhale of relief. Five pages. Something concrete, something quantifiable. Especially after Egan had also mentioned that she never thinks about point-of-view (the voice of a character or narrator always “just comes to me, fully formed”) and that she has no idea where her prescience re: technological anthropology  (evident in both A Visit From the Good Squad and Look at Me) came from, since she herself is “lame” and “behind the curve” as a technology user.

V.
When you teach writing, you have to have a sort of world-view about it, or else you’ll go a little nutty. Here’s mine: at a certain level, there is pretty-good writing (“capable,” in Emily’s words), there is really-good writing, and there is great writing. Most of us will move among these categories throughout our lives; we’ll aim for greatness and more often than not land somewhere along the way. If you are earnest in this endeavor, if you understand that your pretty-good writing can and must always be getting better, then I can’t see why I, as a teacher, shouldn’t encourage and help you along as best I can.

The truth is that your pretty-good writing may very well get published and make you famous; it’s happened before. Your great writing may never see the light of day. Your really-good writing may get published and be read by very few. You may write something great this time around and something pretty-good next time around and something not-very-good-at-all a few years down the road and never get published at all. It’s happened before. (Read this, and this, if you don’t believe me.) I don’t decide these things. I’m only here to help you write better, because I think it’s important and worthwhile.

As readers, each of us will necessarily put different books into each of these categories, and we may even change our minds about certain books over time.  So I never give my students the once-over and think that only those who comprise the top two categories can or should be encouraged. There are many paths to a writing life; those paths twist and turn and are haunted by the cruelties of subjectivity, along with the inevitably erratic application of our gifts. I can forgive anyone’s so-called mediocrity, mine included, as long as the writer herself is not satisfied with it.

VI.
A writer friend of mine used to always report to me his short story in-progress word counts. I found this funny and endearing. When I was about halfway through a novel draft, I started tracking my word counts and reporting them on my blog. It wasn’t funny to me, though, and probably not endearing to anyone else; I needed markers, a sense of how far I’d come and how far I thought I had to go. I was in the wilderness on this draft. Around the same time, another novelist friend started reporting his word counts on Facebook. I commented on one of his word-count posts: “Let’s make it en vogue to track and report word counts!” He replied, “Yes!”

VII.
Some anecdotes from the lives/careers of some authors I’ve read just this past month, which remind me of the uncertainty of the writing life:

From the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s stories: “Of the eleven stories in this collection, only four were published in Tolstoy’s lifetime.” Hadji Murad, Father Sergius, The Devil, and Alyosha the Pot are among the stories published only posthumously. (Hadji Murad!)

Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published to wide acclaim when she was 23. She received two Guggenheim awards. Throughout her 20’s she suffered many illnesses and was paralyzed on her entire left side at the age of 31, shortly before she attempted suicide. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was adapted into a play by Edward Albee (while she was alive), and later into a Merchant Ivory film (long after her death).

While writing his luminous novel Light Years, James Salter wrote to Robert Phelps:
I love this book. I’m writing it for myself and an audience composed of me’s […] It’s going to have many beautiful jumps, sauts, perhaps it will be a ballet […] Some things I love in it I love as one loves a woman.
The book received mixed reviews – two bad ones in the NY Times – and sold modestly.

Junot Diaz wrote, regarding the process of writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, five years into it:
I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write […] that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future… well, great. But I knew I couldn’t go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn’t […] My fiancée was so desperate to see me happy (and perhaps more than a little convinced by my fear that maybe the thread had run out on my talent) that she told me to make a list of what else I could do besides writing […] It took a month to pencil down three things. (I really don’t have many other skills.) I stared at that list for about another month. Waiting, hoping, praying for the book, for my writing, for my talent to catch fire. A last-second reprieve. But nada. So I put the manuscript away. All the hundreds of failed pages, boxed and hidden in a closet. I think I cried as I did it.
VIII.
The thing I feel that I cannot exactly teach, but can only hope to model and emphasize to student writers, is this tolerance for uncertainty; for a life that is indeed characterized by uncertainty. As when you learn to drive a stick shift, there is a kind of “friction zone,” where your inner imperative to write and your tolerance for uncertainty cross each other, and the energy balance of that intersection either sets you off into motion, or you stall. I have seen many talented would-be writers stall (especially on steep inclines). Some find their way to restarting (as, of course, Diaz did); others give up for good, they trade in for an automatic.

As a teacher, I try to exemplify and nurture a deep love of reading and of sentence-and-story-making—one’s only stay against doubt and the feeling of non-existence that will inevitably creep in. I try to give student writers enough “gas” to help them manage and master the friction zone, so that they come to know that feeling of ignition, of takeoff, both bumpy and smooth, and develop a liking for it, an abiding passion, even an addiction. When I sit down with a student and suggest that reading this book or that author may help him understand how to better execute a half-baked story idea, and that student eagerly seeks out those works, and keeps asking for more, I feel hopeful about that student’s future as a writer. On the other hand, when a student looks at me blankly and doesn’t even write down the suggestions—doesn’t seem to want to be nourished by literature and get better, but rather simply wants me to praise her originality as is—then I feel I can see the writing (trailing off) on the wall.

IX.
It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better. In the meantime, aim for five pages. Report your word counts. Track your rate of reading. Teach math on the side if you have to. Whatever you need to do.

Hang in there.

Image: Riforma della scuola via Funky64’s photostream

Novelist-of-the-Future: A Profile of Jennifer Egan

There once was a little girl named Jenny, who lived in Chicago and went to nursery school with a little girl named Sally.  Sally’s family moved into the apartment below Jenny’s family, and Jenny’s mother and Sally’s mother were pregnant with the girls’ little brothers at the same time.  Sally’s little brother was named Paul, but Jenny always thought of him as “Sally’s little brother,” even after she moved to San Francisco, and grew up, and moved to New York, and became a writer.  One evening in the not-so-distant past, Jenny, now the author of many well-regarded books of fiction, turned on the television, and who did she see on the screen but Sally’s little brother!   He was an actor, and he was on a television show, and this television show had brought him to Jenny’s living room.  Just like that.

Meanwhile, a girl grew up in Los Angeles, reading a lot of books, wanting to be a writer.  Okay, okay, it’s me.  After graduate school, I moved back to Los Angeles and kept writing.  I went to Ohio for a semester to teach, and as the snow fell (and kept falling), I discovered and fell in love with the work of Jennifer Egan.  I even wrote Ms. Egan a fan email, something I’d never done before.  She actually wrote back.  She signed her name “Jenny” and I felt a geeky thrill.  Jenny!

On a recent Saturday, back in Los Angeles, I held a writing class, and one of the students looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him–had I seen him at Skylight?  On my coffee table was an advance copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad.  “Is this out yet?” the student asked, and I explained it wasn’t yet, not until June.  “But I’m interviewing her,” I said–bragged, probably. “I am so excited!” I said.  “Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers.”  The student smiled and just then I realized, Hey, he’s on that TV show.  “Jenny’s my sister’s oldest friend,” he said.  This was Paul, of course, Sally’s little brother. Just like that, Paul, Jenny and I were connected, and it felt like a tiny miracle.

It also felt like a page from A Visit from the Goon Squad, where characters move in and out of one another’s lives, and where a minor character in one chapter becomes the protagonist in the next.  When I met Egan for our aforementioned interview, she told me the story of how she knew Paul, saying that seeing him on TV was “the kind of odd surprise that I was trying to capture here,”–she pointed to her book–“the completely unexpected ways that people encounter and see each other over many years.”  We were sitting at a round picnic table outside Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood, where she would be reading that afternoon.  I was born and raised in L.A., but I’d never been here before.

A Visit from the Goon Squad has been called a novel-in-stories by many critics, including our very own Sonya Chung, whose perspicacious review describes the book as being “populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them.”  It’s the best description of the book’s content one might come by, but I’m not sure about the novel-in-stories label.  Although each chapter can stand on its own, and though each differs in tone and form, the book still coalesced whole in my mind, its world burrowing into my imagination, as only novels can do.  It was also readable like a novel, even with all of its formal shifts.  It’s a novel-of-the-future, maybe, and not just because one chapter is written in PowerPoint.

When I asked Egan about the book’s genre, she said,  “It’s so decentralized that it doesn’t quite fit what I think we think of as novels being right now.  And I don’t really care about the term. It doesn’t fit into a category comfortably…I didn’t really worry about an arc, because again, that feels more like traditional fiction.”  She wanted to put together a book whose principal was diversity, as opposed to unity. “I wanted to see how many tones and moods and technical choices I could get away with.”  (For instance:  though ultimately unsuccessful, she tried to write a chapter in epic poetry.)  Egan’s goal, she said, was to make the book “a big cornucopia of craziness, and yet, have it all fit together into one story. I asked myself: Since the principal was one of surprise and revelation, and intimacy versus distance, my basic question was, Who is the person we see from a distance that we want to have revealed to us?”

This decision to follow various characters at different points was inspired in part by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and, also, The Sopranos. Of the HBO show, she said, “I loved the way there were all these different narratives that intertwined over a long period, and different characters were the main characters at different times.  I wanted to play with that, and I felt like I hadn’t seen that very much in novels.  I didn’t want the centrality of a conventional novel.”  She continued:
Also, one thing that is particular to The Sopranos, is that it’s so much about the chasm between public and private life…there’s a cliché about mob shows, and Tony Soprano is totally a clichéd character in certain ways. And yet, the fun of the show is being thrust into his private life and feeling the weird contrast between those two. That was a lot of what I wanted to do with this book: take people who seem to be clichéd from a distance and break them open, and show all of their nuances and secrets.
Bennie Salazar is definitely one such character: a teenage punk rocker in San Francisco who becomes a successful–and thus jaded–music executive, nursing past humiliations as he sprinkles flakes of pure gold into his coffee.  As a consumer of culture, I’ve seen his type before, and yet, drawn by Egan, his history, pain and desires become specific and complex.

I asked her how the Sopranos-approach to storytelling echoed or contrasted with Proust’s, and she told me they were more alike than I might realize, partially because both are such long narratives.  There’s a similar “braiding of lives,” she said.
Everyone called The Sopranos novelistic and I really do understand why, because with Proust, similarly, there are people you see at a distance and then suddenly know closely, but then you just see in passing years later, and there’s something very surprising about them that you weren’t expecting.  Proust plays with the way in which time itself creates and reveals surprise.  That change is surprising, even though it’s so steady, so constant.
If  narrative itself is a depiction of time passing (“and then this happened; and then this happened”), one would assume that a narrative about the passage of time would consider the subject through the very mechanism its existence depends upon.  Egan does just that.  For instance, in “Safari” (and in the final passages of “Goodbye, My Love”), she employs an omniscient third-person point of view that pulls out of the present story to compress time and speed forward.  This narrator can tell us about a character’s future–an entire marriage, for instance, or the long term effects of someone’s death on a family–in just a few sentences.  The compression of time is heartbreaking in its efficiency, and it’s a formal reflection of the thematic motif of the book.  Wow, one thinks, life does pass in a blink of an eye.  Egan said she’d always felt “tremendous excitement” when other authors used this point of view.  She was also inspired to try it after one afternoon at the library, where she was doing research for another book, about the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1940s. She was reading letters by a woman who had worked there, written to her new husband.  “Reading someone’s letters you’re just deeply inside someone’s mind,” she told me.
I thought, “Gosh, I wonder if she’s still alive?”  So I went over to the computer…and I sat down and Googled her, and within a second I was reading her obituary. It was so eerie to be sitting there, reading these letters by a woman who didn’t even have children yet, didn’t know what her life would be, full of hopes and plans, and then to read the end, in this kind of cool, news-writing voice.  And then I went on, reading her letters, but I had this terrible sense of knowing the end when she didn’t know it.  And I think that also interested me. I was interested in how the present feels when you keep pulling someone out of it.
This notion of being pulled out of the present reminded me immediately of internet culture, and the ways in which we require constant connection with the world, even as it yanks from us direct, unmediated experience.  (Nowadays, for instance, you can’t go to a concert without someone in front of you taking photos of the band, probably to post on Facebook later that night–maybe you are that someone?)  Like Don DeLillo before her, Egan explores the role and power of technology in our lives, but from a more humanistic, character-driven perspective.  In Look At Me, fashion model Charlotte, whose face and career are ruined after a car accident, becomes a character-of-herself on a website called Ordinary People, a fictional progenitor of Facebook and Twitter.  In The Keep, Danny drags a satellite dish to a Eastern European castle because he must be able to call everyone he knows back in New York City; otherwise, he might be forgotten.   In her latest book, Egan imagines a future world where the young tell stories in a narrative genre more befitting their era (“Great Rock and Roll Pauses”–the aforementioned PowerPoint chapter), and where toddlers use hand-held devices with such dexterity that they become the most  important and sought-after consumers.

In his review of A Visit from the Goon Squad in the Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote that the this world was “corroded by technology.”  I asked Egan if that was the description she would use.  “I don’t think so,” she said.  “I have concerns about technology—I think we all do—but I’m mostly just interested in it.  As a user, I’m less interested in it as I am as a writer.  The fetishization of connection itself is something that really fascinates me.  Connection in itself essentially means you’re opening yourself up to whatever people want from you.  All the time.”

She doesn’t see her vision of the future as a dystopian one, and despite the warnings and concerns in the book, the humanity of her characters persists.  It’s telling that these chapters set in the future are so poignant.  People can still feel, even if those feelings must be texted: if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?

This is where Egan’s genius lies.  She engages with philosophical questions and is formally daring, and yet, and yet!, her work is emotionally moving, the stories and characters always compelling.  In his review of The Keep, Madison Smartt Bell said that Egan, “deploys most of the arsenal developed by the metafiction writers of the 1960’s and refined by more recent authors like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace — but she can’t exactly be counted as one of them.”   His reason?  Her “…unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction.”   Perhaps this is what makes Egan a darling among critics and a bestseller.

I asked Egan about her approach to storytelling.  How important, I wondered, was emotional engagement?
Without the emotional resonance and some sense of an interesting story, you got nothin’. Really. All the formal experimentation in the world will get you nowhere without that…Ideally, the formal experimentation should not be something you’re imposing on the material but it should grow out of the story you’re telling. And if it doesn’t, the question is, why are you doing it?

The people and what they do and how it feels to the reader are the beginning and the end.   I really feel that.  Unfortunately, there seems to be an idea that you have to choose one or the other [experimentation or readability]. I don’t quite understand where that came from. If you look at the history of literature, it doesn’t bear out that dichotomy at all.

As time has gone on, I have become interested in telling stories that are more complicated and less streamlined, and so I’m looking for more ways to do that as efficiently and powerfully as I can.
Egan is currently reading 19th-century novels like David Copperfield.  She recently read Middlemarch and was “electrified” by the narrative voice. She’s excited by how unconventional these older novels are. “I feel like everyone has amnesia,” she said. “Or maybe we read these books too young and all we remember are the stories and not how they’re told.”   She grinned.  “But I just love these intervening, busy body, first person-third person 19th century narrators. I feel like I need to think about that for my next book.”

Did she just say, next book?  omg. woot.

I can’t wait to read it, Jenny.

Ah, The Children: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s latest novel-in-stories is populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them. And if A Visit From the Goon Squad was a traditional story collection, Egan may have titled it Out of Body, after the 10th story-chapter; for we see these characters in blips over time, often muddling through an unsavory, perplexing present and looking back on youth from a vantage point both above and below ghosts of their former selves. The book, for example, opens with a one-night stand between two characters and ends with a fantasy revisitation, some years later: “Alex imagines walking into her apartment and finding himself still there – his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.”

But Goon Squad is not a traditional story collection. Its form brings to mind Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, a story cycle in which a minor character from each story becomes the protagonist of the story following (or is it that the protagonist of each story is plucked from the cast of minor characters in the previous story? A question of both process and intention, I suppose; thus the term “cycle.”) The difference is that Goon Quad is not so much a neat cycle (despite the return described above), as it is a 3-D ven diagram; with chapters/characters darting about both laterally and vertically in time, point of view, and detail. It is very much a New York City novel – six degrees of separation everywhere, more often two or three degrees, and not virtually, but in-the-flesh – and it is perhaps Egan’s most decidedly contemporary work, with its headlong dive into the convergence of media, product promotion, hyper-celebrity, and the atomization and gadgetization of our lives.

Bennie and Scotty are high school friends in San Francisco who have a band called the Flaming Dildos. Rhea, Alice, and Jocelyn are their groupies. Scotty and Alice eventually marry, but then divorce. Jocelyn starts up an affair with an older man named Lou, who is a powerful music executive. Lou goes through two marriages, various girlfriends (and Jocelyn, too); his children are Charlene (“Charlie”) and Rolph, the latter of whom, emotionally troubled as he grows into adulthood, “doesn’t make it.” Later, Lou mentors Bennie, who himself discovers a band called the Conduits; the band hits it big, and Bennie founds a successful label in New York called Sow’s Ear Records. For 12 years, his assistant is Sasha (the woman in the opening chapter) – a kleptomaniac and multiple-suicide-attempt survivor whose college best friend Rob also attempts suicide (and also fails) and then drowns on Sasha’s then-boyfriend/eventual husband Drew’s watch. Bennie’s first wife Stephanie works for a PR grand dame named Dolly, and Stephanie’s brother Jules is a gossip journalist who’s just served five years in prison for attempting to sexually assault one of his subjects, a young starlet named Kitty Jackson. Later, as a jaded 28 year-old notorious in the tabloids for on-set tantrums, Kitty participates in a desperate, nearly fatal PR scheme to improve the image of a dictator – a scheme developed by Dolly, who is now persona non grata in the PR world because of a disastrous party she once threw in which an elaborate ceiling decoration went dangerously wrong (Dolly also does some prison time, six months for criminal negligence). Dolly’s daughter Lulu – 9 years old at the time of the Kitty Jackson scheme — eventually becomes Bennie’s new assistant, post Sow’s Ear (and post-Stephanie) after Bennie’s gone back to producing indie musicians (and remarried to a young woman named Lupa). In the novel’s finale, Lulu teams up with Alex – Bennie’s new potential protégé, and Sasha’s one-night-stand from Chapter 1– to promote Scotty’s return to the music scene as an indie soloist.

Phew. I drew a flow chart myself to sort it all out, which I found helpful. Take that, agents and editors who warn novelists against “too many characters.” And I haven’t even named here all the children.

Ah, the children.

The eponymous goon here may be time (“Time’s a goon,” the washed out, former lead singer of the Conduits says, as does Bennie later on) – time passes, time disorients, time wears and tears; and in no other universe does time trample on souls and bodies more ruthlessly than in that of entertainment – “This is the music business,” Sasha reminds Bennie. “Five years is five hundred years.” Egan’s eyes and ears for the world of appearances – glitz, glam, and all that is required to churn the celebrity machine – is acute (territory that Egan readers will recognize from her first story collection Emerald City and from her second novel Look At Me), and she does take particular interest in exploring the particular brand of ruin that befalls the formerly famous/pseudo-famous. But she’s also got her sights set on the future – on the children, on their particular experience of this same disorienting, media-fied and atomized world of experience-on-demand. How are they responding to all of it, and how are they being shaped? I’m not sure that Egan answers that question, as much as she asks it; but she does render child characters – and child flashbacks of adult characters — with a striking reverence for both their genius and sensitivity. Lulu —
“Overhearing her daughter on the phone with her friends, Dolly was awed by her authority: she was stern when she needed to be, but also soft. Kind. Lulu was nine” –
Rolph —
“At eleven years old, Rolph knows two clear things about himself: He belongs to his father. And his father belongs to him…Rolph closes his eyes and opens them again. He is in Africa with his father. He thinks, I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life. And he’s right” –
Sasha at age 5 —
“…the child was spinning them out as a way of filling the time, distracting them both from whatever was going on inside that house. And this made her seem much older than she really was, a tiny little woman, knowing, world-weary, too accepting of life’s burdens to even mention them” –
and Sasha’s daughter Allison and “slightly autistic” son Linc – these are the real stars of A Visit From the Goon Squad. And, to put a fine point on it, Egan gives us “Pure Language,” the final chapter: a futuristic glimpse into the inevitable creep of precociousness-meets-technology.

In addition to the children themselves, I found the brother-sister relationships – and the portrayal of platonic love between male and female in general (between, for example, Bennie and Sasha, and Sasha and Robert) – moving and poignant. Chapter 12 is told from young Allison’s perspective, in “slide journal” form (a kind of poetic-diagrammatic Powerpoint), and provides for us a child’s view of her parents’ estrangement; which is at root the estrangement of her father from her beloved brother Linc, a mathematical/musical idiot savant, who intuits the goonishness of time even at his young age via his obsession with musical pauses:
“[Linc’s] crying makes sounds like scraping / Hearing him cry makes me cry, too. / Dad tries to hug Lincoln but he flinches away and hunches his back into a ball. / Mom’s face is white and furious. / She leans close to Dad, and says very softly: / The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”
Fans of Egan’s previous novels will be intrigued and excited, I think, to delve into her work in this new (for her) collage, time-shifty, polyphonic form. What the form does have in common with a traditional story collection, however, is that each chapter on some level stands on its own and thus the reader experiences the same unevenness as when reading a series of stories. “Safari,” in my opinion, is far and away the novel’s strongest chapter (having read it in the New Yorker, I was primed and jonzing for Goon Squad); but its characters are not as narratively central as others, and so its strength tips the work in a slightly disorienting way. Without revisiting Charlie or Rolph or even Mindy, Lou’s girlfriend at the time, in any substantial way, we’re left a bit dissatisfied.

I was myself eager to see how the novel-in-stories form would serve and showcase Egan’s particular talents as a sharp observer of modern families and culture, along with her idea-driven approach to fiction. In the end, Goon Squad delivers on all the pleasures of Egan’s gifts as we’ve seen them displayed in the past – crisp and pulsing prose, extraordinary psychological insight, finely-specified characters seen from various points of view, a dark and yet vibrant wit, and off-the-charts observational intelligence. But the strain apparent in much of Egan’s work, i.e. the plotty feeling of her plots, is also still evident here, perhaps even more so given the myriad strands she pulls together in order to connect all of her dots (credible degrees of separation notwithstanding). Egan’s work often contains hard turns of the steering wheel (I am thinking here of Phoebe’s one-in-a-million run-in with Wolf in Munich in The Invisible Circus, and Egan’s puppeteer’s handling of the characters/meta-characters in The Keep), and readers will feel steered and handled in Goon Squad as well. But as a student of mine has put it, “It feels a little like she’s putting a fat kid in a tutu; but boy, that kid can dance.” And: “It feels like she’s moving furniture; but you’re sort of in awe of the fact that she has the balls to put the sofa in the kitchen.” In my own work, I find I am also less interested in story than idea or character, and have been known to make strategic (some might say liberal) use of the coincidence; so it’s inspiring to see Egan careen and maneuver with a sure hand.

A Visit From the Goon Squad ultimately secures Jennifer Egan’s place as a personal touchstone for me, and I would guess for many emerging novelists. Her work is (skillfully, decidedly) equal parts brainy and empathic, hyper-realist and fantastical, gritty and luminous; it is both so-damned-good and identifiably flawed. I teach her stories often and encourage my students (and myself) with her example: “Be brave; sometimes you just need to grab the reins and try stuff.”

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.

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki is a regular contributor to The Millions, and her short fiction will soon be appearing in Avery and the Los Angeles Review.An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. McCracken’s memoir is, as the New York Times puts it, “an unstinting account of the novelist’s emotions after the stillbirth of her first child.” It’s also about the happiness she experienced before the tragedy, when she was pregnant in an old farmhouse in the south of France, and the happiness she feels now as the mother of a second, healthy child, even as the death of her first child remains an indelible fact. It’s about grief: how it never fades, never heals, even as life continues. Like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, the book’s structure bears the confusion and enormity of this grief – it cannot, will not, follow chronologically. McCracken’s memoir was the most moving book I read this year.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan. I’ve written about this terrific novel before, calling it “equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical and sad,” and I’ll write about it again because I enjoyed it so much. Egan’s scenes are intricate and entertaining, her sentences enviable, surprising, and buttery smooth. She is one of my new favorite writers.The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. In the fantasy-version of my life, I grow a garden outside my one-bedroom apartment, I compost, I make my own bread, I can food and prepare my own jelly, and I’m not too cowardly to ride a bike on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Thankfully, I now have this handbook to show me how to become such a person. Coyne and Knutzen live and farm just two neighborhoods away from my own, and their accessible guide to “revolutionary home economics” and “livestock in the city,” is not only inspiring, it’s also practical and useful. This time next year, I might even own a goat or two…More from A Year in Reading 2008

Ask a Book Question: #68 (Building a 21st Century Contemporary Fiction Syllabus)

Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.

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