John Wray’s fifth novel Godsend is both a culmination of his magpie approach to fiction writing and a complete departure from his work thus far. The premise—a young American woman joins the Taliban in the summer of 2001—is so straightforwardly narrated, with such unerring control, that Wray’s ambition and achievement only dawned on this reader in the days after finishing it. This is partly due to novelty. Godsend is the kind of go-for-broke political novel that’s rarely attempted and almost never succeeds. A writer would have a better chance of turning a eulogy into a wedding proposal than maintaining Wray’s high-wire act. Godsend supplants traditional elements of the political novel—a large cast of characters, thesis-driven monologuing, signposted symbolism—for an intimate approach: We’re positioned just over the shoulder of 18-year-old Aden Sawyer on her journey of inexorable destruction.
The novel opens in suburban California, where Sawyer is saying goodbye to her alcoholic mother and philandering father (who happens to teach Islamic Studies). She’s off to a madrasa near Karachi—toting her Pashtun boyfriend Decker, who oscillates between ambivalence and sarcasm—to study the Koran. In Pakistan she passes as a teenage boy by shaving her head and binding her breasts; she calls herself Suleyman. Soon she is recruited into the Taliban by the charismatic, reluctant Ziar (the madrasa elders repeatedly advise against this). As James Wood pointed out in The New Yorker, Aden’s coming-of-age narrative is intertwined with greater radicalization, a cruel hyperbole of the old “loss of innocence” trope: We know Sawyer will commit greater and more terrible acts of violence. We also know we can’t stop reading.
Wray has previously received a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007. I expect Godsend will bring a few more accolades to his CV. We conducted this interview over email as he traveled for his book tour.
The Millions: First things first: I understand the novel came out of a chance aside during interview research for a nonfiction piece on John Walker Lindh?
John Wray: That’s right. I was in Afghanistan on a journalist’s visa, looking for people who’d known Lindh during his time as a soldier in the Taliban’s infantry. At one point, in a small, half-destroyed village north of Kabul, we were delighted to find an old man who claimed to have known the boy soldier, Suleyman, which was Lindh called himself. Then, to my amazement, the old man mentioned, in passing, that he’d also known the girl. That’s how he put it: “the girl.” He couldn’t tell us her name, or much about her at all. That’s when this novel began.
TM: How did you come to Aden Sawyer’s voice? The novel places a heavy burden on her, which she wears lightly: She must be credible as an 18-year-old American, with knowledge of Islam, who is deeply rebellious but must operate within an order and religion which prizes submission (no pun intended).
JW: That’s always a slow and mysterious process, arriving at the voice of a book’s central character. In this case, it could be argued that Aden’s voice is the book’s voice—we’re always with her, always seeing the strange world she moves through with her eyes. I think I found the voice of the story—how it would sound, how it would feel, the somewhat stark, ominous mood it should have—and Aden’s voice came out of that.
TM: I would say it’s a departure from your previous work, but every one of your novels is quite different from the others. The Lost Time Accidents was a 500-page, century-spanning novel on metaphysics written in a kind of comic high-European register. Godsend reminded me of a line from Philip Roth: After he wrote a long book, the next one was inevitably an act of rebellion. Was that true for you? I gather there may be more an element of chance to how you begin each project.
JW: I couldn’t agree more with that quotation from Roth. In my case, every new book is an act of rebellion against the last. It takes so damn long to write a novel—for me, anywhere from two to seven years—and I couldn’t imagine sitting down afterward and beginning something similar, either in tone or subject matter. I’d jump off the nearest bridge.
TM: That’s a risky way to write though, isn’t it? No temptation to pen a Lowboy sequel? (Kidding. Kind of.)
JW: It is a risky way to write. But not as risky as jumping off a bridge!
TM: There’s also risk in tackling the subject. A cursory glance at the acclaimed books of the past few years shows an interest in autofictional inwardness (Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard), historical settings (Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan), or multigenerational portraits (Jesmyn Ward, Min Jin Lee)—though in truth that last group is a perennial for writers. Terrorism and Muslim extremists are such third-rail subjects; did you approach the writing differently because of this? Related, are you nervous about being misread along these lines?
JW: You can’t court acclaim. The third rail has always been the one with juice in it, at least for me, at least so far. The best writing is the most urgent writing, I think. By which I mean the writing that matters most to the writer. I suppose that’s common knowledge, but it’s important to remind myself of it from time to time. Because of course the pressures to write acclaimed (not to mention marketable) books is considerable. And it only gets heavier with every book you publish.
As far as being misread—well, that’s another thing altogether. I did have that fear, and to some degree I still do. But it’s that fear that keeps me honest. It makes me work harder.
TM: The book’s surety and evenness of tone is a great strength here: It’s apparent on close inspection how much work went into its seeming effortlessness.
Sawyer’s early line, “Not a girl, not a boy. Just a ghost in a body” signals her growing desire for self-effacement, which called to mind Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Were there texts in the Godsend constellation you read as research or saw as touchstones?
JW: I read Hunger in my early 20s—luckily, or unluckily, before I’d found out what a Nazi its author was—and it impressed me, though I can’t remember why. It wasn’t a touchstone for Godsend, though of course many other books were. A Farewell to Arms comes to mind, and Shirley Hazzard’s novels, and All the Pretty Horses, and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke. I’m not exactly sure why those are the books that I’m mentioning—others were maybe more important. But there you go. My memory is terrible.
TM: I’ve heard you enthuse for Shirley Hazzard before, and lament she’s not better known or read widely. I haven’t read her work yet—tell me what I’ve been missing.
JW: Finally an easy question to answer! Shirley Hazzard is one of the masters. No one writing now has her eloquence, it often seems to me, or her intelligence, or her judgment. In an era in which the writer’s identity and persona are the industry’s main marketing tools, it’s no wonder that she isn’t better known—she had no interest in inserting herself between her readers and her books. The idea of letting one’s work stand for itself seems almost quaint these days, and Shirley’s “profile” no doubt suffered as a result; the fact she often took a decade, or more, to write her deceptively slender novels most likely didn’t help, either. But The Transit of Venus is one of the great novels in English of the 20th century.
TM: This is your fifth novel. Taking a step back: Are there ideas or concerns you see across your work?
JW: It’s so hard to take stock of one’s own work in this way—it’s like trying to study the back of your head without a mirror. A perceptive reader told me recently that my books tend to feature protagonists who carry belief to extremes—political radicals, religious fanatics, the mentally ill, lovers in way, way over their heads. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but I do like the sound of it.
TM: It sounds accurate to me. There are often protagonists of great conviction, and of course a strong narrative voice.
In terms of structure, Godsend has an accumulating momentum, a kind of awful, inexorable feeling of doom (in a good way). It’s so rare to read something for 230 pages without a moment of friction. How does that come about for you? Are you drafting with an outline in mind? Or rearranging and cutting in the revision stages? Or—and I would believe this—is the muse just dictating into your ear while you exclaim, “Yes, yes! Bingo!”
JW: I never use an outline, strange to say. Outlines feel too much like school. I’ve always operated under the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that if I’m excited by what I’m working on, the reader will be too. An advance plan would certainly speed things up a bit. But whoever claimed that the easiest books to write are the most gratifying books to read? Not this cowboy.
TM: The New York article about your place in Park Slope looks like a midwestern undergraduate’s fantasy of life as a Brooklyn writer. Do you debate autofiction while playing ping pong? Read Proust to each other over corn flakes? And more seriously, how’s NYC for novelists these days? Gary Shteyngart said in an interview all his friends have left for Berlin or the Hudson Valley.
JW: Life for novelists—or for any kind of artist—in New York these days is bitter. I had the great good luck to have been tipped off to something affordable almost 18 years ago, an apartment with low maintenance the down payment of which I could afford with my very first advance, and to have been pushed into taking that terrifying leap by someone who had a clearer sense of what the future held. It was dumb luck, basically. So it’s given me real pleasure, possibly the greatest satisfaction of my adult life, to be able to open up the place I now live in to people doing good work. What the fuck is this city going to be without its artists? The prospect makes me sick.
TM: Your books operate within sets of constraints, as if each was a challenge you’d set yourself (apart from the natural challenges of writing novels). What does your cutting room floor look like? Are there half-completed projects? Abandoned epics set in the German countryside?
JW: I actually cut very little from my manuscripts. That fact surprises me as much as anybody. I’m a firm believer in the dangers of regarding one’s own writing, especially at the early stages, as some kind of precious and finite commodity; so I’m very willing, and even excited, to trim the fat whenever I can—but writing is also like pulling teeth to me, so I tend not to over-write. I’m not as loose as some—I’d like to be, but I’m not. I guess you might say I value economy. I don’t like to waste stuff.
TM: Reviews have noted Godsend’s straightforward, nuanced treatment of religious belief (another third rail in contemporary fiction). I wonder if you could speak to how you approached it, and your thoughts on religious belief in novels in general.
JW: I’d say that some kind of passionate belief is crucial to the central character of any novel—without a degree of fanaticism, or at the very least fiercely held and defended points of view, it’s hard to generate enough conflict for a book, or even a conversation, to be genuinely suspenseful. I’m not a religious person myself, in any conventional sense, so diving head-first into the intricacies of fundamentalist Islam was pretty daunting. But Aden, my protagonist, arrives in Afghanistan knowing next to nothing about the life she’s chosen. Her ignorance helped me to feel more at peace with mine.
TM: Last question! Forgive me for beating a dead horse, but it should be noted how unique this novel is in the current landscape, at least with respect to a gigantic leap of empathy and artistic imagination across gender, faith, geography, etc. What’s your impression of books being published these days? Do you wish more writers would take leaps like this? I swear I’m not trying to set you up for a clickbait response—I’m curious about your read of the scene and if you had advice for emerging writers…
JW: There are always worthwhile novels being published, if you search hard enough. I’m looking forward to Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive at the moment, and to Marlon James’s experiment in speculative fiction, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The appeal of fiction—both for the writer and for the reader, it seems to me—lies in escaping one’s socially-dictated point of view. Fiction is about looking out at the world through someone else’s eyeballs. It’s about getting strange, in every available sense of that word. That’s how a novel should feel: It should make you, however fleetingly, a stranger to yourself. Everything else is just memoir with fictional frosting. I’ve had quite enough of that.
On a Saturday night in April, Sam Lipsyte is at KGB Bar in Manhattan, reading from his new novel The Ask, which everyone from book critics to blogosphere lit nerds have heaped with praise in the eight short weeks since its publication. Each time Lipsyte mentions the character named Vargina, the crowd erupts with cackles and guffaws.
Fast forward to the present. Exactly six months after the release of The Ask, sales are strong, it sits proudly on featured tables in bookstores, and every lit nerd that you know is raving about it. They—and everyone else gaga over The Ask—fall for the novel’s voice in a matter of sentences.
That voice comes from the narrator and protagonist of The Ask, Milo Burke, and many have confused this entertaining font of rage for Lipsyte himself. Lipsyte is a far cry from his antihero, but that’s why they call it fiction. And this time, Lipsyte’s fiction has catapulted him to a height of fame and success that he had never reached before, though his longtime readers insist the talent was always there, waiting to get noticed.
Milo is an angry fuckup who is disillusioned with the arts fundraising department of the New York college (he calls it “Mediocre University”) at which he works and, by the end of the first chapter, has already proven it by giving one spoiled arts brat a verbal beating that Milo tells us “there is no point in repeating.” The onslaught gets him fired, though he is soon given a second chance dependent on his success with the “ask,” which is business lingo for a rich donor.
The big ask turns out to be an old college friend, now turned wealthy sleaze, named Purdy Stuart. Milo must wring Purdy dry for a huge donation to the Mediocre U. arts program. Poor Milo—and the reader, along for the calamitous ride—spends the rest of the book leaping through hoops for the potential donor.
Milo speaks in a furious invective that is somehow as endearing as it is caustic and vulgar. His lexicon is the resentful vocabulary of a failure—one with a hilariously dirty mouth. On the page, it reads like a personal screed, angrily dictated into a recorder. When read aloud, it’s even more effective. People at his readings listen with devilish grins, like they’re being naughty, indulging in a bit of shared misbehavior.
Lipsyte reads from The Ask in a different voice from his own, loud and declarative, imitating the different voices perfectly. With each raucous sentence, tangled in swear words and name-calling, Lipsyte brings his character to life, and readers form a real relationship with Milo.
Milo’s creator is different. He’s calm, collected, and friendly. He converses in a soft, earnest tone. He makes direct eye contact and holds it. He’s an easy, fuzzy presence. But in congratulating his newest work—caught up in their love for its protagonist—reviewers seem to have taken Milo as a direct surrogate for Lipsyte himself. “Yeah, some people seem to think I’m Milo,” says Lipsyte with gentle reproach but no sign of frustration. “A lot of people thought I was the guy in the last book, too. And they thought I was the guy in some of the short stories.”
A review of The Ask by Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Review of Books garnered particular frustration from Lipsyte’s literary peers. Schuessler calls Lipsyte the “poet laureate of overeducated American loserdom.” Similarly, a New York Magazine profile begins by encouraging “you schmoes of America” and “sad sacks in sweaters” (those with “rampant neck beard[s]”) to, “rally ‘round your bard!” The tone of pieces like this suggests a presumption that Lipsyte is one of the very men about whom he writes—that his characters are all slightly altered stand-ins for Sam Lipsyte.
“As far as some reviewers are concerned,” says Alex Abramovich, one of Lipsyte’s best friends, “Sam is modeling each character after his life. And that’s a stupid conclusion.” Abramovich and his friends welcomed Lipsyte into their circle with open arms, and are, in a sense, the reason he moved to Astoria.
Lipsyte is a large man, a bit soft around the edges, but he doesn’t seem out of shape. As it turns out, he was a star shot-putter in high school. “Look,” Abramovich sums up, “the main difference between Sam and all of his characters is that Sam has never been a loser at anything he’s ever done in his life. Have you read his sentences? He’s clearly one of God’s winners on this earth. He’s just too fucking charming to be a loser.”
To be fair, there are surface similarities between Lipsyte and his character. Both men are Jewish. And the “Jewish question,” as it turns out, hits a nerve for Lipsyte in curious ways.
“I’m not observant at all, but I think about being a Jew all the time,” says Lipsyte. “And I write characters that have a similar condition.” Indeed, The Ask isn’t really a Jewish novel, but there are, throughout its pages, tinges of the Jewish experience. For one thing, Milo routinely kvetches over his decision to not have his son circumcised.
Meanwhile, his son, Bernie, has his own obsession—more age-appropriate—with the extra tubing. “Do superheroes have foreskins?” he asks his dad. “Does Goliath have a foreskin?” Lipsyte, as is his talent, turns a meaningful family moment into comedy just in time: “Not for long,” Milo answers. “Not when David’s done with him.” When Bernie asks who David is, Milo tells him, “A foreskin collector.”
But apart from these brief mentions—allusions to Milo’s inner Jew—the character does not outwardly act like one of the tribe, and Lipsyte isn’t interested in writing a Jewish novel. “It was done,” he declares. “There was a whole generation that dealt with that. I’m not going to say, Oh, I’m Jewish and people really like books about Jewish stuff, so I should write something that has to do with Jewish stuff. That’s not really going to get you anywhere.”
Nevertheless, there are those who see deeply entrenched Jewish themes in Lipsyte’s work. Once, a decade ago, a friend of his ended up on a panel for some sort of Jewish literary prize. Lipsyte’s book of short stories, Venus Drive, was nominated, and according to his friend, one of the panelists said during a discussion, “Why are we even considering this one? There’s barely any Judaism in it.” Lipsyte’s friend responded: “Are you kidding me? It’s like the most Jewish thing I’ve ever read.”
Another link between Lipsyte and Milo: they both have five-year-old sons. In The Ask, Milo says of his kid: “Bernie was a beautiful boy. Good thing, too, as he’d become an expensive hobby. Preschool, preclothing for the preschool. Then there were the hidden costs, like food.” When this line is read aloud to Lipsyte, even he can’t help but laugh. Yeah, he wrote it, but it’s damn funny. Yet suddenly, he gets very serious and says, “I think Milo also deeply loves his son.”
When the progressive, hippie-taught “school” that Bernie attends shuts down and Milo must spend entire days with Bernie, his fatherly love does shine through. Lipsyte has fond memories of walking through Astoria with his own son, early inspiration for scenes in which Milo strolls through Queens with Bernie, chiding him to stop playing with trash from the street.
Lipsyte says that someone once asked him if having kids would change his writing. “Well, I hope so,” he told the guy. “It would be kind of weird if it didn’t.” He chuckles, remembering this.
Abramovich feels that Lipsyte’s affability is a main cause of his friend’s newfound mega success. “Sam had a huge log built up of people who adore him,” he says. “He’s just the warmest, most generous and likeable person. And this isn’t boilerplate bullshit; this is true. One thing is that he never says ‘no’ to anyone. But another is that he’s really doing the work.”
Commitment is what the young writer Tao Lin, who has done readings with Lipsyte, also points to. “Everyone I know feels that he really ‘went for it’ with this book,” Lin wrote over Google chat in May. “Which explains the ‘mad coverage’ it’s getting.”
Lipsyte has earned a stellar reputation among other writers, even if it took reviewers longer to hop on board. On the evening he read at KGB, the author John Wray, who has been lauded for Lowboy, read before him. Wray announced, “I was going to read from Lowboy until I realized I’d be reading with Sam Lipsyte, and well, he’s very funny. So I’m going to read something a little goofier, with aspirations toward comedy.” His offering wasn’t nearly as funny as what Lipsyte read, but it was a valiant attempt.
Lipsyte acknowledges the connections he has to Milo. “I think we have many selves and there may be a version of me inside that sort of has the same thoughts as him,” he says about his crude hero. “I don’t necessarily wallow in the bitterness, but his way of looking at the world isn’t alien to me. I think he’s often pretty clear-sighted.”
Then, inevitably, he teases himself: “Maybe I’m just making up friends for me to have.” But the happy truth is that he doesn’t need to make up friends anymore. For most of his career, he struggled to get noticed. Although The New York Times reviewed all of his books, the consensus is that he was still under the radar, though Lipsyte responds playfully, “I always wonder where the radar is located, ya know?”
Finally, with The Ask, Lipsyte has struck a chord. And people aren’t just praising the book, they’re interested in him as well; twelve major magazines interviewed Lipsyte in March and April. Ever humble, he tries to deny an increase in press. “I’ve always had great response from the people whose opinions I’ve cared about,” he insists. “So in my mind, my work was getting noticed.” Soon enough, though, he folds: “Okay, I’ve gotten more mainstream recognition for this book than my others combined. It’s been a leap in coverage and conversation.”
What excited Lipsyte the most in post-Ask coverage of him has been the fact that in a People magazine feature on which books celebrities are reading, Michael J. Fox mentioned The Ask. Fox said he was enjoying it. “I grew up watching Family Ties, so to see 20-something years later that Michael J. Fox is reading the book, well, I think I can retire now.” Lipsyte is positively giddy when he says this.
Why did The Ask finally earn him such success? Why not his novels Home Land or The Subject Steve, or his collection of short stories, Venus Drive? “The Ask might be different [from his past work] in that there’s a family at the core of it, a family that’s come apart,” speculates Ben Marcus, a colleague and friend of Lipsyte’s in Columbia’s Creative Writing department. “Perhaps that draws more people in, feels more universal.”
Lipsyte himself is more hard-pressed to wonder about the winning combination. “I think that what happened with this book is that I’ve been working for 15 years, and building something of a readership, and good will among some critics, and I benefited from that,” he guesses. “And the rest is sort of timing.”
In a period of economic stress, political strife, and general apathy, The Ask nails the current malaise, and not in a preachy, tiresome way. It handles the issues that are bugging everyone by acknowledging just that—they’re bugging us. In the case of Milo Burke, they’re pissing him off.
Yet if Milo were just pissed off, he’d be a more grating, whiny character. Instead, his anger is conveyed with humor. “Sam’s humor isn’t sitcom humor,” says Abramovich. “You don’t come up with some wacky situation. His humor is gnarly syntax and juxtapositions, and that’s a hard sell. I think it’s a happy miracle that he’s gotten as far as he has.”
Whether it’s the family focus, his many years’ worth of strong relationships, or the humor that is to thank, Lipsyte’s number has been called at last. What has emerged is a writer who cares about fiction, in a literary climate that continually seems to cast it aside.
Lipsyte read Reality Hunger—perhaps the year’s most discussed nonfiction release, in which David Shields suggests shattering labels like “memoir” or “novel” and simply calling everything a “book”—but Lipsyte is not concerned about the future of the novel. “There’s this constant debate about the novel. Is it dead, has technology rendered it dead, but the novel is a technology,” says Lipsyte. “What the novel can still do that other outlets can’t do is operate on a certain level of language and consciousness and association. There’s so much to do there, and there are still so many possibilities.”
Sam Lipsyte, then, is less ordinary than he seems at first glance. He takes language and twists it, tortures it. He makes you laugh until it hurts and makes you nearly cry, often in the same paragraph that a few sentences earlier had offended you, outraged you. He isn’t sure which other contemporary writers are writing the same kind of books.
“I’m in a tradition,” he says with a furrowed brow, “but I don’t know who else I belong with right now. Maybe I’m the beginning of a new trend.” Whether or not it’s a new trend, Lipsyte is doing something new, bringing something fresh and valuable to the literary table—something seriously funny. And his next work, a book of short stories for FSG, will almost certainly be welcomed with rave reviews.
Correction: Originally, this piece incorrectly stated that Lipsyte had once worked at the New Yorker, and that he was half-Jewish. Those statements have been corrected. We apologize for the error.
[Image credit: Ceridwen Morris]