Lost in the City

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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.

A Year in Reading: Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris’ debut novel, Then We Came to the End – one of The Millions’ Most Anticipated Books of 2007 – was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. It’s due out in paperback this spring. Mr. Ferris’ shorter fiction has appeared in the Best New American Voices series and the New Stories from the South series, and in The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. He lives in Brooklyn.The Ambassadors by Henry James is every bit as melancholy and masterful as it is exasperating and windy. You need one determined machete to make it through and at times the style is so overwrought and unnecessarily filigreed that I nearly gave up. But James is fiction’s paradigm for the satisfaction of fighting the good fight, as by the end of The Ambassadors the entire world has been hauled into that thicket. I chose The Ambassadors as opposed to the other James I read this year because its subject is one of my favorites: life not lived to its fullest, squandered life, the search for how best to live. I also read Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays for the first time, a gift from my friend Ravi, for which I’ll always been thankful. And Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, the collection that includes “An Orange Line Train to Ballston,” a story as deeply affecting as any I’ve encountered.More from A Year in Reading 2007

Mostly, the Voice: A Review of Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children

What is the source of Edward P. Jones’ magic? If you had asked me a month ago, I might have mentioned: plot, social importance, sweep. These were the Tolstoyan qualities I admired so much in 2003’s The Known World, surely one of the finest first novels published by an American in the last half century. “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” the first story in Jones’ new collection, Aunt Hagar’s Children seemed to confirm my intuitions, with its finely-etched rotogravure of African-American urbanization in the late 19th century. But, having just reached the end of the book, I am forced to reconsider. Some of Jones’ finest stories are as contemporary, elliptical, and personal as anything Alice Munro or my beloved Deborah Eisenberg has done. And, like Munro and Eisenberg, the man has taken the venerable short-story form and somehow made it his own. I mean he is a master. The source of his magic? A mystery. Well, no, that’s not quite accurate. What this book does share with The Known World is the Voice. That Edward P. Jones Omniscient Voice, detached yet curiously intimate, plainspoken, quiet, given to sudden, lurching glimpses forward and backward in time. Less James Earl Jones than Jeffrey Wright. The Voice wraps itself around characters, good guys, bad guys, men, women, and children, and loves those characters, and makes them live.Wyatt Mason has pointed out, in Harper’s, the way the characters in All Aunt Hagar’s Children gesture back to Jones’ first collection, Lost in the City (though one need not have read one to enjoy the other). They are grandchildren, cousins, neighbors of those characters; sometimes they are even the same characters. In lesser hands, this pattern could easily decay into a schematic, but Jones uses these connections as keyholes into his characters’ souls. For him, history is destiny.Take “Old Boys, Old Girls,” for example. Here Caesar Matthews, of the earlier story “Young Lions,” has landed in prison (where he was headed when last we saw him). Jones’ depiction of the social dynamics of prisons is as wrenching as it is understated. But Caesar’s past – his love life, his family – more than his experiences “on the yard,” shape his future. We are given the details in quick strokes:He was not insane, but he was three doors from it, which was how an old girlfriend, Yvonne Miller, would now and again playfully refer to his behavior. Who the fuck is this Antwoine bitch? Caesar sometimes thought during the trial. And where is Percy? It was only after the judge sentenced him to seven years in Lorton, D.C.’s prison in Virginia, that matters became somewhat clear again, and in those last moments before they took him away, he saw Antwoine spread out on the ground outside the Prime Property nightclub, blood spurting out of his chest like oil from a bountiful well.Note the characteristic way Jones stitches a single, anchoring present – the trial – to the past (a girlfriend, a murder) and the future (“those last moments before they took him away”) Note the sublime contrast between the fuzzy “somewhat clear” and the precise image of the bloody well. Every element of this passage will take on an added resonance in the story’s haunting denouement. Like “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” “Old Boys, Old Girls” is one of the best stories in the book. Also noteworthy are “Bad Neighbors,” “A Rich Man,” “Tapestry,” and “Common Law.” As with Lost in the City, we come to know the streets of Washington D.C. as if they were the streets of our own city and their residents as if they were our own neighbors.One senses that some of Jones’ mid-90s efforts have found their way into this collection, too, and they seem to be lumped together in the book’s middle section. “Resurrecting Methuselah,” “A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of Downtown Peru,” “Root Worker,” and “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River” find the author struggling with problems of diction, syntax, and plot we know he solved in “The Known World.” The latter three handle the supernatural less assuredly and vividly than Jones usually does, and traces of sentimentalism have not been entirely expunged from this quartet. Whether or not these stories are indeed products of Jones’ literary apprenticeship, the collection might have been just as strong without them.Still, it is difficult to find fault with All Aunt Hagar’s Children; at 400 pages, it is a massive and mature accomplishment. Claudia, the heroine of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, once chastised her community for confusing aggression with strength, license with freedom, politeness with compassion, comportment with virtue. Edward P. Jones’ omniscient narrators rarely render such judgments, but throughout All Aunt Hagar’s Children, we can feel him leading by example. This is writing that is not only beautiful, but strong, compassionate, good, and free. Which is what we mean when we use the term “literature” – or anyway, should be.

Amazing Grace

A Review of Dave Eggers’ What is the WhatOn paper, Edward P. Jones and Dave Eggers seem to have little in common. The former grew up poor in predominantly African-American Northeast D.C., made his critical reputation with a collection of deceptively understated short stories, and even after a National Book Award nomination, continued to labor in relative penury and obscurity. The latter grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb and found commercial success early, with a memoir that placed the Dave Eggers voice – inventive, flashy, ironic – front and center. And yet this literary season has found the two stars aligning in the literary firmament. First, in August, Eggers penned an appreciative and thoughtful Sunday Times review of Jones’ new collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children – a book which, at least superficially, could not be more different than Eggers’ recent collection How We Are Hungry. Then, two weeks ago, Eggers published a novel embodying the very qualities he praised to in Jones’ work: “its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and [a] steady and unerring” narrative force. And though it may surprise critics of McSweeney’s to hear it, What is the What is the finest American novel I have read since The Known World.The novel is a gently fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a living casualty of the ongoing Sudanese civil war. Having fled from his ruined boyhood village on foot, Deng grew up in U.N.-run camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He settled in Atlanta in 2001, and after a series of setbacks began looking for a writer who might help him tell his story. As stories go, this one is dramatic and wrenching prima facie, and in a two-part article for The Believer, Eggers gave it respectful, even tentative journalistic treatment. But, sensing that this approach placed barriers of “objectivity” between the audience from the material, he decided, boldly and correctly (with apologies to La Kakutani) to recast Deng’s story as first-person fiction.The urgency and earnestness of Deng’s voice seem to have provided the necessary pressure to render Eggers’ prose crystalline:The moon was high when the movement in the grass began and the moon had begun to fall and dim when the shuffling finally stopped. The lion was a simple black silhouette, broad shoulders, its thick legs outstretched, its mouth open. It jumped from the grass, knocked a boy from his feet. I could not see this part, my vision obscured by the line of boys in front of me. I heard a brief wail. Then I saw the lion clearly again as it trotted to the other side of the path, the boy neatly in its jaws. The animal and its prey disappeared into the high grass and the wailing stopped in a moment. The first boy’s name was Ariath.This paragraph alone would be an extraordinary act of self-effacement for a writer given to flourishes, and an extraordinary act of trust on the part of Deng. That they sustain this voice for 475 pages is something like a miracle. The writer speaks from inside his narrator – from his heart, from his gut, from his intellect. And the distance between audience and subject narrows until we feel that we, too, are Valentino Achak Deng, in all of his complexity and contradiction.Because imperfect as a human being, he makes a perfect protagonist. He is whip-smart yet perpetually naive, generous and selfish, strong and weak, courageous and timid, full of both faith and doubt. In other words, he is a lot like the Dave Eggers of that other fictionalized autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… not because Eggers has played ventriloquist, but because he has tapped into something universal. In the course of the novel, Achak becomes as real to us as we are to ourselves, and we feel his every loss and triumph as though they were our own.The first half of the book concerns the destruction of the tranquil Dinka homeland in Southern Sudan by agents of the Islamic government in Khartoum and his harrowing walk across the country in the company of thousands of other “Lost Boys.” The novel grounds every historical exigency in the dramatic interactions of rounded characters. If the expectation of a simple story of good vs. evil (and some of the political nuances) gets confounded in the process, we can appreciate more fully the quiet heroism of children who talk each other out of suicide, of young teachers who lead groups of boys through minefields and crocodile-infested rivers, of villagers who risk the disapproval of their elders by sharing their food with these unwanted boys. And though it feels inappropriate to render an aesthetic judgment on Deng’s experience, his quest for safety generates a narrative force to rival anything in Lord of the Rings. The difference is that there are no invisibility cloaks or magic breads here.Things get quieter in the second half, as Deng finds some measure of safety in the refugee camps. But his earlier struggles resonate poignantly in his attempts to contact the father he hasn’t heard from in a decade, and especially in a visit to the relatively prosperous and stable capital city of Kenya. Without ever editorializing, What is the What reminds us of the brutality the world’s millions of impoverished children face daily; how decadent something as simple as a grocery store can look to those who are living on U.N. rice. And calamity continues to bedevil Deng as he waits to be relocated to the U.S. – which will prove to be no promised land.In a rare instance of overt artistic license, Eggers uses the invasion and robbery of Deng’s apartment in Atlanta as a frame for his novel. We return periodically to scenes of Deng being assaulted in his apartment, or filing a police report, or waiting to be treated for his injuries in the ER. His internal monologues – his memories of Africa – are directed at the various characters he meets along the way. For the most part, this device works just fine. We are deprived of the solace of seeing Deng as exotic, someone “over there”; rather, his struggles are ours… and the injustices he faces in America are the ones we perpetrate every day with our impatience, our pettiness, our indifference. And Deng himself is guilty of these human failings. Occasionally, though, Eggers seems to overreach in his transitions between the fictional present and the fictional past, and to milk the robbery too aggressively for suspense. In almost every other particular, however, What is the What’s formal features merge perfectly with its moral authority, until it is impossible to speak of artistic “choices.” It is equally difficult to analyze the rich relationship the reader develops with Mr. Deng. Like The Known World, and like Deng’s life, the book just is. And that’s about the highest praise I can think of.Eggers has been a fixture on the American literary scene for long enough that it’s easy to forget he’s in his mid-thirties. Like his near-contemporaries Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, he has occasionally suffered in his writing from a kind of IQ overload, an analysis-paralysis. His second book (and first novel), You Shall Know Our Velocity was not an unqualified success, and some readers have been rubbed the wrong way by the antic quality of his fiction. They may be tempted to write off What is the What, rather than read it. But its large-heartedness is an antidote to such small-mindedness. It takes us deep inside a person we will never forget and heralds the arrival of a writer who has found himself by looking beyond himself, and who has learned the difference between intelligence and wisdom.(All proceeds from What is the What go to aiding the Sudanese in Sudan and America.)

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