Lord of Misrule

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Older and Wiser

The July/August 2011 issue of Poets & Writers contains an interesting nugget from William Giraldi, author of the recently published novel Busy Monsters, his first. He says, “There’s obscene pressure on writers to be the next hot young thing…But let’s be honest: Most hot young things have nothing of value to say.” Pretty tough words for a 36-year-old. Not to imply any judgment of his novel one way or the other — I have not read it and do not know him — but by my lights, he’s still something of a hot young thing himself. His comment carries a special irony within this particular issue of Poets & Writers. Not only the cover story but also two other lengthy articles are about some aspect of debut fiction. In the grants and awards section, there are no fewer than six announcements for awards, fellowships, or professorships that are only available either to writers making their debut or writers under 35 or 40. Despite Giraldi’s comforting words, this issue of the magazine put me over the edge.  “Damn it,” I thought. “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?”

I’m picking on Poets & Writers here but, as Giraldi notes, it is simply going along with the crowd. From the National Book Association’s “5 Under 35” to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to the Bard Fiction Prize  (under 40) to the New York Public Library’s Young Lions award (under 35) and on and on, the publishing and awards-giving biz has decided, along with the apparatus that promotes authors and their work (magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.) that the kids are all right. But where does that leave us oldsters (by which I mean those of us on the far side of 40)?

Of course, there are non-age-restricted prizes such as the Guggenheim, the NEA, and others open to mid-career, middle-aged writers. These awards all serve an important purpose — and they are all ferociously competitive. Do you know how many Guggenheim fellows there were in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry last year? Twenty-six, out of literally thousands of applicants. And they weren’t all over 40. Yes, sometimes a Jaimy Gordon or Julia Glass will squeak through to the big time with an unexpected major prize (the National Book Award in both their cases). But once you pass 40, if you’re not part of a small, largely white, male, extremely-talented-but-still coterie (you know who you are, Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon), that’s rare.

I realize this sounds bitter. And I have no business being bitter. I am a 50-year-old African-American woman whose fourth novel arriving in stores now. My work has always been published by major houses. Given the current climate in the book business, I am well aware that this is close to a miracle, especially for someone whose novels, though well-regarded, have sold modestly. I’ve enjoyed a couple of prestigious fellowships and won some prizes; when I look at it objectively, I know I’ve got it good – far better than many.

But this isn’t just about me (well it is partly, but not entirely). It’s about the extraordinary and damaging degree to which youth gets exalted in the status game of publishing and publicity. Not to take anything away from the many talented folks under 40, but where are the non-Pulitzer/National Book Award-level prizes for those of us who’ve been in there pitching for a while? Where’s The New Yorker’s “20 Over 40?”

By the time you get to your third, fourth, fifth major piece of fiction or non-fiction, ideally, you’ve settled into an expansion and deepening of your skills and talents as a writer. Even if you start late (say, at the ripe old age of 36), with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first. Yes, there are those who write only one book, or whose first book is their best. (Ralph Ellison, anyone?) And there are those who don’t, in fact, progress.  But if you hang in there and read and push yourself, odds are that your later books will achieve a richness and nuance that your first one can’t. It is true that sometimes, past a certain point, it becomes a game of diminishing returns artistically (that’s another essay), but for many writers, mid-career is when they produce their best work. Off the top of my head: Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel. The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s third (fourth, if you count his disavowed first novel, Golden States). The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third. Even the above-named contemporary big three — Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon — hit their stride after writing one, two, even three novels. For my part, when I look back at my own fiction, I can see how my work has grown stronger and cleaner (for a small example, I used the word “weird” WAY too much in my first book.)

As Giraldi notes and as we all know, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. And really, is there any reason publishing should be different? I say yes, emphatically. Part of the reason we write is to consider as many facets of the human condition as possible. And the longer you live, the more of that darn thing you will find yourself confronted with.

So God bless the whippersnappers. I wish the best of them the best of luck. But the next time some wealthy patron of literature wants to endow a chair or offer a grant or a fellowship, or the next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle, here’s hoping the requirements will be: “Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.”

 

Image credit: Mickey van der Stap/Flickr

Under Water: Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists

The story that surrounds Johanna Skibsrud’s first novel is captivating. The Sentimentalists, published by Canada’s tiny Gaspereau Press in an initial print run of 800, was the surprise winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize. (The Giller, for anyone who doesn’t obsessively follow the Canadian literary scene, is one of the two or three most prestigious national literary prizes to be won in Canada.) It was a year of small-press triumphs on both sides of the border: Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co) took the National Book Award, while Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press) won the Pulitzer.

Skibsrud’s win made for a wonderful story—a book by a very small press, with a very small print run, beating out contenders from some of the largest publishers on earth. I was delighted, as I had been with the Gordon and Harding wins, to see a book from a small press getting such attention. And yet hype, of course, is a double-edged sword. Too much of it puts an unfair weight on any novel, particularly a quiet and poetically-written debut.

Napoleon Haskell—shaky father, inconstant husband, and Vietnam vet—has been living for some years in a frankenhouse of pieced-together trailers in Fargo. He never meant to settle here, but Fargo was where he was pulled over for a DUI after he abandoned his family. He’s sick and exhausted, slightly unbalanced from the lingering effects of the war, growing old alone in a town where he never meant to stay in the first place. His daughters, the narrator and her older sister, step in and transport him to the tiny Ontario town of Casablanca where his dear friend Henry lives.

Twelve houses in the town were flooded decades earlier when a dam was built. The drowned houses form a ghost village under the water, a few hundred yards from Henry’s kitchen door. Henry, at this point, is more family than friend; Napoleon was close friends with Henry’s son, Owen, who died in Vietnam, and he found Henry after an extended search in the years after the war. Napoleon and his daughters summered in Casablanca for years, starting when the narrator was a small child.

The narrator is oddly ghostlike. She’s an American and she’s Napoleon’s daughter, but aside from that we learn very little about her. We are given glimpses of her childhood memories and we are privy to her sadness—she arrives home one day to find the man she’d been planning on marrying having sex with another woman on the laundry pile; devastated by the infidelity, she uproots her life in New York and travels to Casablanca to stay with her father and Henry—but we never learn her occupation, or the passions and interests of her adult life, or how she manages to support herself while living illegally in Canada, or even her name. She exists to narrate. The story is Napoleon’s.

The daughter’s insubstantiality is a curious choice, because Skibsrud has formidable skills in character development. In Napoleon, Skibsrud convincingly portrays a complex and difficult man. He is monstrously selfish—the kind of person who can’t remember to crack the car window when he lights a cigarette, no matter how many times his daughters beg him over the course of the interminable car ride from Fargo to Ontario—but capable of tenderness; mean on occasion, but often kind. Much of the book is concerned with the narrator’s relationship with her father, but here Skibsrud has given herself a considerable challenge: it’s difficult to fully explore the nuances of a relationship when only one character is fully conveyed. Still, even if we can’t know the narrator very well, her longing to understand what made her father into the man he became is moving. She has known all her life that her father was forever altered by his experience in the Vietnam War, but he’s never spoken of it until now, in his last days in Henry’s house, when she begins to question him about the past.

The Sentimentalists is concerned with themes of submergence—a drowned town, a buried past—and the theme is echoed in the structure of the book. Most of the book is given over to a slow unfolding and explication of the narrator’s childhood and her current life in Casablanca, before the faster-paced sections dealing with Napoleon’s Vietnam experience and the ensuing inquiry begin. Skibsrud is a careful, unhurried writer, and her background in poetry shows. The Sentimentalists contains a great deal of text about the inner lives of characters, exquisitely written but so intricate that I found it necessary to go back and reread whole paragraphs on occasion, trying to follow the descriptions of the various shapes of the empty spaces within her characters’ respective souls, descriptions of that metaphorical room, this metaphorical windowsill, that metaphorical bird.

It’s a condition common among novels written by poets. Plot momentum inevitably suffers, but whether you count this as a flaw depends entirely on your tolerance for digressive poetics. Skibsrud’s dips into the inner lives of her characters are often lovely. The Sentimentalists contains moments of pure beauty. And yet it’s extraordinarily difficult to maintain tension in a novel that’s allowed to move so slowly, and with so many digressions, and it’s difficult not to wonder what this book might have been if Skibsrud’s obvious talent had been subjected to a stronger editorial hand.

2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Nominees Announced

The nominees for the 2011 PEN/Faulkner fiction award have been announced. The books in the running are Millions Hall of Famer A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Egan profiled at The Millions); The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg (Eisenberg profiled at The Millions); National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon; Model Home by Eric Puchner (one of our “20 More Under 40“); and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson (Brad Watson’s Year in Reading 2009).

2010 National Book Award Finalists Announced

Award season is hitting its stride, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have been announced. This year’s fiction list includes something of an invasion from overseas, with Peter Carey, surely the first Booker shortlister to also be a National Book Award finalist (but eligible for both because the Australian-born author is now a U.S. citizen), and Lionel Shriver, who, though a U.S. citizen is often more commonly associated with London, where she makes her home.

The nomination for Shriver validates a provactively titled piece that ran in these pages this year, Lionel Shriver: America’s Best Writer?, which suggested that she deserves far more critical attention. Rounding out the fiction list are Nicole Krauss, recently lauded as a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer, and a pair of relative unknowns Jaimy Gordon and Karen Tei Yamashita, each writing for small indie presses, McPherson and Coffee House, respectively. Also notable, the fiction finalist number four women versus one male author, and Jonathan Franzen and his blockbuster literary novel Freedom are nowhere to be found.

The other big name to note is rocker Patti Smith, who earned a nod for her memoir.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (excerpt)
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Great House by Nicole Krauss (excerpt)
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver (excerpt)
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita (excerpt)

Nonfiction:

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (excerpt)
Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq by John W. Dower (excerpt)
Just Kids by Patti Smith (excerpt)
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward by Justin Spring (excerpt)
Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War by Megan K. Stack (excerpt)

Poetry:

The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber (excerpt [pdf])
Lighthead by Terrance Hayes (poem)
By the Numbers by James Richardson (poem)
One with Others by C.D. Wright (poems)
Ignatz by Monica Youn (poem)

Young People’s Literature:

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Dark Water by Laura McNeal
Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

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