They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s a writer’s rite of passage and also her curse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez admitted to copping from Kafka when he began writing short stories. Zadie Smith borrowed the structure of On Beauty from Forster’s Howard’s End. Most writers try on the voices of writers they admire, at least until they carve out their own. William Faulkner famously said that a novelist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.” While it seems that Faulkner was speaking of a writer’s resources, this also applies to the work on the page — stealing material from other sources, be it books, writers, lives.
This year, as I embarked on a novel, I became a kind of kleptomaniac, with all of the ghosts and voices and ideas from the books I’d just read haunting my attempts to put words on the page. Adoring a book meant that some aspect of it either influenced or turned up in my own writing, often catabolized and not in flattering ways. And I learned that while I’m good at stealing, I’m not very good at covering my tracks.
That being said, what follows is a list of the books that occupied my mental space this year, a list that I borrowed from mindfully or unconsciously, and a few that I’d still like to steal from (but will try to withhold from), a list beginning with books by two Brazilian female authors who were also friends, Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst. Both Lispector’s Passion According to G.H. and Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D are intense, sprawling fictions whose action, paradoxically, is extremely limited. In Lispector’s book, G.H. crosses the room to kill a cockroach and in Hilst’s, a dead husband sits atop the stairs while speaking with his wife, hidden below. This physical stillness opens an intimacy and interiority that lets them transcend time, and leads to an interrogation of the nature of the big questions, identity, existence, language, death, and life.
I reread and recommend Kelly Link’s collection Magic For Beginners, and I specifically adore one story, “The Faery Handbag.” It’s an incredible mash-up of fairytale and conventional story of love and loss, with a speculative element and other disparate items jammed in, too, including and most importantly, a grandmother’s lost handbag that literally contains a village. Herta Müller’s The Passport sits on this list for its haunting imagery and simple beauty that builds an ominous village landscape, with flies buzzing and a tree that eats its own apples. Even cutting a melon is a menacing act. Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups is all sex and sharp edges. She borrowed from William Burroughs’s cut-up method, taking scissors to her erotic poetry and laying them out in lusty and violent (re)configurations Joanna Ruocco’s stories in Man’s Companions are concise gems, playful and linguistically surprising, evoking a synesthesia of ideas. Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s The Sad Passions is told in six distinct voices that reveal facets of a shared family history — a mother’s mental illness, a sister sent away, and another born very late. Blood connects the characters but the cities they inhabit are also organisms, spaces where each person becomes “a cell within its system.” Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers won me over with its intricate plotting, exquisite language, and fantastical premise (its protagonist Julia Severn is enrolled at an institute for parapsychology). I would likely be smitten with any book that connects elements of parapsychology, experimental French film, performance art, and characters who wear the guise of another. The stories in Amina Cain’s Creatures are intricate structures, with sentences like lattice work that create open spaces that breathe and become like living organisms themselves. Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie is a mélange of manifesto, memoir, novel, and social critique — a book that actively attacks divisions of genre and gender as the genderhacking author documents her experiments with testosterone gel. Matias Viegener reappropriates the status update in his 2500 Random Things About Me Too. Originally published piecemeal on Facebook, the collected lists tuck online voyeurism into a book that’s just as addictive and binge-worthy and beautiful. It’s also charming, gossipy, thoughtful, and intelligent — a memoir distilled to its essence. Agnes Denes’s Book of Dust is another book of lists that ends this list. Denes is a land artist with a poetic sensibility. In Book of Dust she uses dust as a metaphor for human life in order to explore the scope of the universe, including the powders that give life and the ones that kill (meteoric, radioactive, and happy dusts included); it begins with the birth of the universe and stretches to speculate on potential catastrophic futures that seem relevant today, despite having been written over 40 years ago. Denes said of an earlier artwork, a time capsule that she made and buried, “It was about communication with the earth and communicating with the future.” The same intent and preoccupation applies here.
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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.
“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane (from Open Boat and Other Stories)This 1898 story, about the last survivors of a shipwreck as they fight for the safety of land on a soaked and cold dinghy, contains one of my favorite sentences in all of short fiction: “It was probably splendid, it was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.” That repetition of “probably” gets me every time.”Merry-Go-Sorry” by Carry Holladay (from Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Award)It’s a shame that Holladay hasn’t yet published a collection, for This tale of a town affected by the killing of three young boys, told in a fluid omniscient narration, is strange, ambitious, and beautiful. We venture into the minds of the accused killer, of the girl who writes him letters, of the cops investigating the murders, and so on and on, until a complicated world has emerged on the page.”Do Not Disturb” by A.M. Homes (from Things You Should Know)This story concerns a wimp of a husband and a bitch of a wife. She gets cancer, and she gets meaner. What now?”Stone Animals” by Kelly Link (from Magic for Beginners)In this wild story, a family moves from a cramped Manhattan apartment to a big haunted house outside the city. Objects start to feel “wrong” and must be discarded; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rabbits on the front lawn; the wife cannot stop painting the rooms; the daughter sleepwalks; the husband won’t return home from work. Just as the story begins to create a coherent universe, the narrative embraces something new and strange, and the reader must remake meaning once again. It’s a big, messy, playful collision of a story.Stay tuned for more recommended stories from The Millions later this week.