Last year, as we noted here, the source material in the Oscar category for Best Adapted Screenplay was immaculately fiction-free. All five screenwriters looked elsewhere for inspiration — to memoirs, investigative journalism, reportage, and, weirdly, to an earlier screenplay which, under the arcane rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, qualifies as “previously published or produced material.” I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: that last nomination was a little too inside-baseball for me. But don’t forget, we’re dealing with Hollywood here.
Before last year’s Oscar went to John Ridley for his adaptation of Solomon North’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave, I suggested that the writers of adapted screenplays needed to start mixing a little fiction into their reading diets. In 2014, I’m happy to report, they did. A very little. A grand total of one of this year’s five finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay drew on a work of fiction.
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 1998, all five Best Adapted Screenplay nominees were inspired by novels. (The statue that year went to Bill Condon for Gods and Monsters, based on Christopher Bram’s novel, Father of Frankenstein.) Through the years, the scripts of Oscar-winning movies have been based on novels by a gaudy galaxy of literary talents, including Jane Austen, Colette, Jules Verne, Henry Fielding, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sinclair Lewis, Harper Lee, E.M. Forster, Robert Penn Warren, Larry McMurtry, Mario Puzo, Ken Kesey, Michael Ondaatje, and Cormac McCarthy.
But the novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better, yet something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
So I say fiction lovers should rejoice that this year Hollywood is paying homage to something — to anything — produced by a novelist. It doesn’t happen every day (or, obviously, every year), and it’s becoming increasingly rare as Hollywood continues to play it safe while trying to connect with an audience that’s less and less likely to read serious fiction.
This year’s finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay are:
The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson based his script on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. Purists could argue that Anderson has settled for Pynchon Lite instead of the heavy goods (Gravity’s Rainbow, say, or V., or even Mason & Dixon). Let’s not quibble. Anderson has streamlined Pynchon’s novel while remaining true to its spirit, which is the essence of a successful adaptation. We get a fine facsimile of Pynchon’s wake-and-bake private eye, Doc Sportello, played with zest by Joaquin Phoenix in sandals and sizzling muttonchops. Doc’s search for a missing real-estate developer takes him through a post-Helter Skelter L.A. labyrinth of surfers, hustlers, dopers, and other less benign parties. It may be Pynchon Lite, but I’ll take it any day over Toy Story 13.
“I couldn’t give a fuck about the Iraqis,” Chris Kyle wrote in American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History (with ghostwriters Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwan). “I hate the damn savages.”
The screenwriter Jason Hall captured Kyle’s machismo and his Manichean worldview in his screenplay for American Sniper, which found the ideal director in Clint Eastwood, no stranger to the notion that evil is at large in the world and it’s the duty of good men to use any means, including deadly force, to crush it. Kyle claimed to have killed more than 250 people during four tours of duty as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq (160 are confirmed), and he was not inclined to apologize for his work — or even ponder its moral ambiguities. Neither was Eastwood. Kyle was shot dead at a Texas gun range by a fellow veteran in 2013. American Sniper has taken in $250 million so far at the box office, and it has further divided a country already deeply divided over our forever wars. Michael Moore hated the movie; Sarah Palin loved it.
The Imitation Game
The screenplay for The Imitation Game is the least faithful to its source material of this year’s nominees — and therefore probably a lock to take home the Oscar. Graham Moore’s script was adapted from Alan Turing: The Enigma, a biography of the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing, written by the brilliant British mathematician and gay rights activist Andrew Hodges. In telling the story of Turing’s heroic work breaking World War II German codes, Moore and director Morten Tyldum have gone the predictable Hollywood route, turning Turing into an ur-nerd, which he was not, and making him dapper, which he was not. (Turing, according to Hodges, was eccentric but likeable, and a bit of a slob.) But this is Hollywood, and so Turing, as played by the mesmerizing Benedict Cumberbatch (who is up for a Best Actor Oscar), is turned into a cartoon: he’s the heroic gay misfit struggling against an uptight homophobic society. The movie ends on this note: “After a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy, Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954.” There is, however, no conclusive evidence that Turing committed suicide, and much ongoing speculation that he died accidentally, or even was murdered. But this is Hollywood, where complexity must never get in the way of a good cartoon.
The Theory of Everything
Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, wrote a queasy memoir about the joys and trials of being married to an award-winning cosmologist who suffers from debilitating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, became the basis for Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for The Theory of Everything, which tells the story of the couple getting married, raising three children, separating, marrying other partners, and somehow remaining close through it all. Felicity Jones, who got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jane, told an interviewer, “That’s why I love Jane and Stephen, because they seem like very English, uptight, repressed people from afar. But as you get closer, they’re these extraordinary bohemians, these people who have adapted and changed and lived a very unusual life.”
Last year the controversy was over Before Midnight, writer-director Richard Linklater’s third installment in the ongoing romance of another pair of extraordinary bohemians. The screenplay, written by Linklater and his stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, qualified as adapted because it was based on the earlier screenplays.
This year the controversy belongs to Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, which tells the story of an aspiring drummer and his fanatical, abusive teacher. Back in 2013, in an effort to raise money for the project, Chazelle showed an 18-minute segment of the unfinished film at Sundance, where it won the prize for Best Short Film. The prize attracted money, and last year the completed, 107-minute feature won the Grand Prize at Sundance. The Writers Guild of America designated the script “original;” but based on its metamorphosis from short to feature, the Academy placed in the “adapted” category. Call the screenplay what you will, this shoestring movie, shot in just 19 days, has been nominated for a stunning five Oscars, including Best Picture. If you’re fond of Cinderella stories, this one’s for you.
Which brings us back to novels and screenplays. Four of this year’s eight nominees for Best Picture are based on adapted screenplays. The only adapted screenplay that didn’t also get the nod for Best Picture was the one based on — you guessed it — a novel by Thomas Pynchon.
Image Credit: Flickr/Prayitno
The first half of 2013 delighted us with new books by the likes of George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Colum McCann, among many others. And if the last six months had many delights on offer for book lovers, the second half of the year can only be described as an invitation to gluttony. In the next six months, you’ll see new books by Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl, Norman Rush, Jonathan Lethem, and none other than Thomas Pynchon. And beyond those headliners there are many other tantalizing titles in the wings, including some from overseas and others from intriguing newcomers.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 86 titles, this is the only second-half 2013 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda: Crime writer Dennis Lehane chose Pochoda’s lyrical and atmospheric second novel for his eponymous imprint at Ecco/Harper, calling it “gritty and magical.” Pitched as a literary thriller about the diverse inhabitants of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Visitation Street has already received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. Lionel Shriver says, “I loved it,” and Deborah Harkness calls it “marvelous.” (Edan)
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff was the author of three books of essays, the winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and a beloved regular on This American Life who died last year shortly after finishing this book. A novel written entirely in verse (a form in which he was masterful, as evidenced here), its characters range across the 20th century, each connected to the next by an act of generosity or cruelty. (Janet)
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman: Waldman recently weighed in for us on the centuries-old Richardson vs. Fielding debate. Now, in her first novel, she expertly plays the former’s psychological penetration off the latter’s civic vision. The titular Nathaniel, one of Brooklyn’s sad young literary men, seeks to navigate between his public ambitions and his private compulsions in a series of romantic encounters. Those without 718 area codes shouldn’t let the milieu scare them off; questions of whether Nate can heed the difficult imperatives of the conscience—and of how Waldman will pull off a whole book from the man’s point of view—keep the pages turning, while generating volumes of quotable insight, in the manner of The Marriage Plot. (Garth)
Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine: A country mouse moves to the city in Cathleen Schine’s ninth novel. The mouse is Fin, an orphaned eleven-year old boy, and the city is Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Under the guardianship of his glamorous half-sister, Lady, Fin gets to know both the city and his wild sister, and encounters situations that are a far cry from his Connecticut dairy farm upbringing. As with many of Schine’s previous novels, Fin & Lady explores changing definitions of family. (Hannah)
My Education by Susan Choi: Reflect upon your sordid graduate school days with a novel of the perverse master-student relationship and adulterous sex triangle. Professor Brodeur is evidently the kind of man whose name is scrawled on restroom walls by vengeful English majors—rather than end up in the sack with him, Choi’s protagonist Regina instead starts up an affair with his wife. Later in the novel and in time, Regina reflects on this period in her life and the changes wrought by the intervening 15 years. Choi was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her second novel, American Woman. (Lydia)
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: The third novel from the winner of the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award follows the lives and business ventures of five characters in Shanghai, each representing various—and at times dichotomous—social strata. There’s Phoebe, the poor and unsophisticated migrant worker from Malaysia; and there’s Yinghui, the rich and ambitious businesswoman. There’s Gary, the waylaid pop star; and there’s Justin, the scion of a wealthy real estate family. Lastly there’s Walter, the eponymous billionaire, who meddles behind the scenes with the lives of almost everybody. Altogether, their multi-layered, intersecting lives contribute to make “Shanghai itself [into] the book’s real main character,” writes Jill Baker in the Asian Review of Books. It’s a city “luring in people hoping for a second chance or … any chance at all.” (Nick)
Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano: It’s a rare first novel that can appeal to partisans of both S.E. Hinton and Julio Cortázar, but Lotería does just that. The story 11-year-old Luz Maria Castillo begins telling us from her room in a state institution is deceptively plainspoken: Here’s how I got here. But as the story proceeds in fragments, keyed not to chronology but to a deck of cards from Lotería (a kind of Mexican bingo), things get shiftier. Color reproductions of the cards introduce each chapter, making the book, if not exactly Kindle-proof, then at least uncommonly handsome. (Garth)
The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth: Gabriel Roth’s debut novel follows Eric Muller from his lonely high school days as a computer geek to his millionaire success in Silicon Valley as a computer geek. Slightly disoriented by his newfound abilities to make money and bed women, Muller wryly observes his life as if he is that same awkward teenager trapped in a dream life. When he falls in love with Maya, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past, he must choose between the desire to emotionally (and literally) hack into it, or to trust his good fortune. (Janet)
The Hare by César Aira: A recent bit of contrarianism in The New Republic blamed the exhaustive posthumous marketing of Roberto Bolaño for crowding other Latin American writers out of the U.S. marketplace. If anything, it seems to me, it’s the opposite: the success of The Savage Detectives helped publishers realize there was a market for Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and the fascinating Argentine César Aira. The past few years have seen seven of Aira’s many novels translated into English. Some of them, like Ghosts, are transcendently good, but none has been a breakout hit. Maybe the reissue of The Hare, which appeared in the U.K. in 1998, will be it. At the very least, it’s the longest Aira to appear in English: a picaresque about a naturalist’s voyage into the Argentinean pampas. (Garth)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: Pessl’s first novel since Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her celebrated 2006 debut, concerns a David Lynchish filmmaker whose daughter has died in Lower Manhattan under suspicious circumstances. Soon, reporter Scott McGrath has launched an investigation that will take him to the heart of the auteur’s secretive empire: his cult following, his whacked-out body of work, and his near impenetrable upstate compound. With interpolated web pages and documents and Vanity Fair articles, the novel’s a hot pop mess, but in the special way of a latter-day Kanye West album or a movie co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and Michael Bay, and the climax alone—a 65-page haunted-house tour-de-force—is worth the price of admission. (Garth)
Cannonball by Joseph McElroy: McElroy was writing the lights out in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and in the last few years has been rediscovered by a younger generation of readers, who justly class him with Thomas Pynchon—a writer of a wildly different sensibility, but a similar, world-devouring ambition. Hell, he even did a Year in Reading. If 2011’s Night Soul is any indication, McElroy’s can still intrigue, baffle, and stop the heart, often all at once. This, his first novel in many a moon, concerns the Iraq War, among other things, and it’s hard to think of an author more suited to reimagining the subject. (Garth)
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat: The author of a string of heartbreaking novels about the strife-torn Caribbean nation of Haiti, including The Farming of Bones and The Dew Breaker, Danticat here tells the story of a young motherless girl whose poverty-stricken father considers giving her away a wealthier family. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as “magical as a folk tale and as effective and devastating as a newsreel,” the novel paints a stark portrait of village life in Haiti. (Michael)
Remember How I Told You I Loved You? by Gillian Linden: Gillian Linden’s debut collection of linked stories follows a young woman through college, careers, love affairs and marriages— “from delayed adolescence to (delayed) adulthood.” The publisher, Little A (Amazon’s new literary fiction imprint), describes the collection as “a sharp and intimate take on romance and infidelity, trust and betrayal,” written in a “deadpan narrative, cool and precise.” Linden’s story “Pests” was recently published in The Paris Review. Linden will join the ranks of several talented literary writers that Little A has published since its launch in March — including A.L. Kennedy, Shawn Vestal, and Jenny Davidson. (Sonya)
The Infatuations by Javier Marias: Marias’s only competitor for the title of Spain’s Most Important Living Writer may be Enrique Vila-Matas. Each of his last few books with New Directions, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, set a new high-water mark—most recently, the mammoth trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. Now he’s made the jump to Knopf, which means you’re about to hear a lot about him. And deservedly so, it would seem: The Infatuations has already been called “great literature” in Spain and “perhaps his best novel” in the U.K. Is there any reason on earth you wouldn’t want to read the greatest novel of Spain’s greatest living writer? Of course there isn’t. Now get thee to a bookshop! (Garth)
The Color Master by Aimee Bender: Ogres, tiger-mending and playing at prostitution—yep, it’s time for Aimee Bender to once again enchant us with her whimsical and magical fiction. Her next story collection comes out just three years after the publication of her bestselling novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and it looks like the book is a return to form for Bender. Publishers Weekly says that even the tales that resemble children’s storybooks “are haunted by a taut, sardonic melancholy,” noting that her “mood pieces” about female friendship are the strongest of the bunch. (Edan)
Elect H. Mouse State Judge by Nelly Reifler: To Kafka’s “Josephine, the Mouse-Singer” and Bolaño’s “Police Rat” and Mrs. Frisby and that one A.M. Homes story where the kid gets it on with a Barbie doll, we must now add Nelly Reifler’s first novel. It’s a fast-paced caper—politician’s kids get abducted, private eyes go searching—but with a major twist: H. Mouse is a mouse, and both perps and dicks are dolls. Shrewdly, Reifler serves this concoction neat; what could have been cheap thrills give way to weirder and more surprising effects. (Garth)
The Rathbones by Janice Clark: The Rathbones is the most sui generis debut you’re likely to encounter this year. Think Moby-Dick directed by David Lynch from a screenplay by Gabriel Garcia Marquez…with Charles Addams doing the set design and The Decembrists supplying the chanteys. Initially the story of the last surviving member of an eccentric 19th-Century whaling dynasty, it becomes the story of that dynasty itself. I should also say that this was the single most exciting thing I read in manuscript in graduate school, where the author and I studied together. Clark writes a beautiful prose line, and the story, like the ocean, get deeper, richer, and stranger the farther out you go. (Garth)
A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser: For a long time, Walser addicts—which is to say, pretty much anyone who has come into contact with this intoxicating writer—had to make do with the novel Jakob van Gunten (but what a novel!) and a slim edition of selected stories. But, half a century after his death, the Swiss master of smallness and obscurity is finally getting the treatment he deserves. Microscripts was one of the best books I read in 2012. The tireless Susan Bernofsky has also given us versions of The Tanners, The Assistant, and a collection of Berlin Stories. In this volume, Damion Searls translates a group of stories about school life—also the engine of much of Jakob van Gunten’s exquisite comedy. (Garth)
Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Lately, it’s seemed that the “literary” first novel had become a genre unto itself: a certain page-limit, a certain definition of scope, a certain set of problems, modestly conceived and modestly transcended. If so, Crain’s stately, wry, and generous first novel breaks the mold. Certainly, there’s a classic coming-of-age narrative here. But as the back-cover blurbs attest, the adventures of American Jacob Putnam in Czechoslovakia right after the Iron Curtain’s fall recall Henry James as much as they do Ben Lerner. Crain’s broad social canvas and his deep interest in the lives of other people are marks of distinction. (Garth)
The Novel: An Alternative History (1600-1800) by Steven Moore: The first volume of Moore’s magisterial survey advanced a theory of the novel as inherently experimental and multicultural, and much older than is generally acknowledged. It’s not that Jane Austen moves to the margins and Gertrude Stein to the center, but that Austen and Stein become recognizably part of the same story. And though Moore hews closer, necessarily, to synopsis than to close-reading, his project is an invaluable desk reference for the catholic reader. In volume 2, he turns his sights to the era that inspired the argument in the first place, a period that begins with Don Quixote. (Garth)
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: At The Age, Cameron Woodhead writes: “With The Sound of Things Falling, Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has created a story that can be appreciated purely for the dramatic way it dives into the black hole of his country’s past—the drug cartels and paramilitaries that scarred a generation—although the supple thought-weave of the prose won’t be lost on anyone with a taste for more reflective fiction.” Woodhead also compares Vasquez to Graham Greene, W.G. Sebald, and Robert Bolaño—all writers who give us an expansive sense of a country’s history and legacy through the lives of compelling individuals. The protagonist is a Colombian lawyer named Antonio whose memory takes him back to a long-ago acquaintance with the ex-pilot Ricardo LaVerde and a series of mysterious (and yes, violent) occurrences. Vásquez, who is 40, has published four previous novels, but prefers to not count the first two, which he wrote in his early 20s; so “officially,” Sound is his third novel. (Sonya)
The Virgins by Pamela Erens: This smart, unsettling novel is narrated by a middle-aged man obsessed by the star-crossed love affair of two classmates at his boarding school thirty years ago. Erens, author of one previous novel, The Understory, displays an uncanny gift for writing honestly about pot-toking, hormone-addled adolescents while granting them the full range of human emotion one expects from a novel for adults. The novel is from indie press Tin House Books, a spinoff of the well-known literary magazine that has quietly built a reputation as a home for first-rate literary fiction. (Michael)
The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood: Alex Marwood is the pseudonym of British journalist Serena Mackesy, and The Wicked Girls is her dark and beautifully executed first novel. In the mid-eighties, two eleven-year-old girls meet for the first time and become friends. By the end of the day, a younger child has died at their hands. Twenty-five years later, with new lives and changed identities, the two women encounter one another in a seaside town where a serial killer is active. A haunting meditation on crime and punishment. (Emily)
The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd: Loyd, formerly the fiction editor at Playboy, moves to the other side of the desk with a first novel of elegant intensity. A young widow in Brooklyn has bought her apartment building, and so become an accidental landlord. Or do people still say landlady? At any rate, her straitened existence is challenged by the arrival of a fascinating new tenant, with emotional transformation the ultimate issue. Loyd’s burnished, spare sentences conceal hidden volumes of emotion, and in its different moods, the book may put readers in mind of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or of a more hopeful version of Claire Messud’s recent The Woman Upstairs. (Garth)
Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: Sayrafiezadeh’s acclaimed memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, chronicled a childhood being raised by an Iranian father and American Jewish mother united by an extreme devotion to the Socialist Workers Party. Three years later, Sayrafiezadeh, whose fiction has appeared in Granta, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, among other places, publishes his first short story collection. The everyday trials of his characters, some of them grappling with the rippling effects of a nameless war (“this could be any war, or perhaps the next war,” Sayrafiezadeh told The New Yorker) “are transformed into storytelling that is both universally resonant and wonderfully strange.” (Elizabeth)
The Hypothetic Girl by Elizabeth Cohen: From Other Press, a collection of stories that “captures all the mystery, misery, and magic of the eternal search for human connection” via tales about the bizarre and inarguably ubiquitous world of online dating. Says Amazon: “With levity and high style, Cohen takes her readers into a world where screen and keyboard meet the heart, with consequences that range from wonderful to weird.” For anyone who’s been submerged in this wonderful weird search, these stories are likely to ring a therapeutic bell. Or, in some cases perhaps, a gong. Look out for an essay from Cohen in July, and an excerpt in early August, at Bloom. (Sonya)
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: MaddAddam concludes the dystopian trilogy that Atwood began ten years ago with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. Booklist calls MaddAddam a “coruscating finale in an ingenious, cautionary trilogy of hubris, fortitude, wisdom, love, and life’s grand obstinacy.” (Emily)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Since his 1997 comeback, Pynchon’s been uncommonly productive…and, more characteristically, all over the map. I thought Mason & Dixon his best book; Against the Day vastly underrated; and Inherent Vice fun but disposable. Proximity to the present moment can be a telling index of the quality of a Pynchon project, so the setting here—New York’s Silicon Alley on the eve of the dot-com crash—gives one pause. But Pynchon’s ability to “think the present historically” in his last two books was the best thing about them, so maybe he still has much to tell us about the way we live now. (Garth)
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: Thirty-six years later, it’s here: a sequel to The Shining. Dan Torrance, the tricycle peddling protagonist of the original horror classic, is now middle-age and working in a nursing home in New Hampshire where he uses his ebbing mental powers to comfort the dying. The story picks up when Dan tries to save Abra Stone, a twelve-year-old girl with gifts like the ones he used to have, who is in danger from a group called The True Knot, which travels the country consuming children with the gift of The Shining. (Kevin)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri’s second novel (and fourth book) comes heaped with expectations and describes the relationship between two formerly inseparable brothers born in mid-century Calcutta. The first, Udayan, is drawn into revolutionary politics; the second, Subash, leaves his native country to make a better life for himself as a scientist in the United States. But tragedy strikes Udayan and Subash returns home where he gets to know Udayan’s former wife and reconnects with childhood memories. (Kevin)
Someone by Alice McDermott: An excerpt of Alice McDermott’s new novel, Someone, appeared in the New Yorker as a story of the same name. The story is about Marie, who is seventeen years old in 1937, when a boy from her Brooklyn neighborhood turns her head, fondles her breast, promises marriage, and then spurns her for a better-looking girl. In the story, the titular Someone is the person who, Marie’s brother promises, will one day love her. McDermott told The New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman that the novel is the story of “one unremarkable woman,” because “novels about unremarkable women, especially those written by unremarkable women, seem a thing of the past.” Who you calling “unremarkable,” Alice McDermott? (Lydia)
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: In the last few years, American readers have rapidly awakened to Krasznahorkai’s important place in the republic of world letters. He is one of few working novelists who still aspires to mastery, in the Modernist sense, and each of the three previous novels translated into English has been a masterpiece. Those books were set in Europe and New York. Seiobo, published in Hungarian in 2009, reveals a different side of the Krasznahorkai oeuvre: his decades-long engagement with East Asia. It’s a major feat of editing and translating, and the publication date been pushed back. Those who can’t wait should check out the excerpt in Music & Literature. (Garth)
Enon by Paul Harding: Harding’s 2009 debut, Tinkers, won him the Pulitzer Prize and instant acclaim as one of the most profound writers of our time. Enon follows Charlie Crosby, the grandson of Tinkers protagonist George Washington Crosby, through a year of his life after a devastating loss. Inhabiting the same New England landscape so intricately rendered in Tinkers (Enon is the town where George Crosby died), Enon is a story about small moment and big questions. (Janet)
John Updike: The Collected Stories by John Updike: This two-volume collection spans the arc of a life’s work. One hundred and eighty-six stories are presented in their final versions and in definitive order of composition, established for the first time by archival research: from “Ace in the Hole” (1953), written when Updike was still a student at Harvard, to “The Full Glass” from 2008, the final year of his life. In his poem “Spirit of ’76,” written during his final illness and published in The New Yorker three months after his death, Updike wrote:
I see clear through to the ultimate page,
the silence I dared break for my small time.
No piece was easy, but each fell finished,
in its shroud of print, into a book-shaped hole. (Emily)
Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta: American fiction’s favorite lighthearted chronicler of suburban angst delivers his first collection of short stories since Bad Haircut, his first book, nineteen years ago. In Nine Inches, Perrotta, the author of the Hollywood-friendly novels Little Children and The Leftovers (currently under development as a HBO series), returns to familiar themes of fractured families and the undercurrent of disappointment that lurks just below the placid surface of suburban life. Perrotta knows his way around a punch line, so expect some chuckles to go along with your quiet desperation. (Michael)
The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: When it came out in the UK and Ireland this Spring, Coetzee’s new novel was received with an even more potent combination of admiration and confusion than his work is normally met with. Reviewing the book in the Telegraph, Michael Preston asked whether it was “possible to be deeply affected by a book without really knowing what it’s about?” (The fairly obvious answer: yes.) A man and a five year old boy arrive in a sort of refugee camp, where they are assigned new names and ages. The boy speaks in riddles and claims to be able to perform miracles. Together, they search for the boy’s mother, and endure a series of odd bureaucratic encounters. The inscrutable spirit of Kafka has often flickered across Coetzee’s pages, and that spirit seems to loom large here. (Mark)
The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell: Daniel Woodrell, a master of “country noir” fiction, makes rare use of autobiography in his new novel, The Maid’s Version. While growing up in West Plains, Missouri, Woodrell listened to stories his grandmother told about a mysterious dance hall explosion in town in 1928 that killed 39 people. In the novel, a grandmother tells her grandson about working as a maid for the family that was implicated in the blast but never held responsible. The novel is “very lyrical and not completely chronological,” Woodrell told an interviewer, “because it’s the story of a family and the after-effects on the family and the grandmother trying to get justice or revenge.” (Bill)
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes: Julian Barnes’s new book is not a novel, and not a memoir, and not a collection of essays, although it appears to contain elements of all three. The collection begins with a brief history of hot air ballooning and the characters involved in its development and lured by its attractions. Part two is an imagined romance between Sarah Bernhardt, who was in life one of the people from the latter category, and Colonel Frederick Burnaby, intrepid ballooner (who is, incidentally, documented on the delightful website “Great British Nutters”). In the third part of his new book, Barnes ties these curious introductory portions into a memoir of his profound grief following the loss of Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years. (Lydia)
Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker: Last year, Nicholson Baker treated the Internet to a cluster of peculiar, melancholy protest songs about Bradley Manning and the Obama administration’s drone assassination program. The venture was out of character in a way that was, weirdly, entirely characteristic of Baker. The songs appear to have been, at least in part, an aspect of a method writing exercise for his new novel, Traveling Sprinkler—a sort of sequel to 2009’s The Anthologist, in which Paul Chowder sat around having a lot of thoughts about poetry while failing to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. In the new novel, Chowder sits around trying to write protest songs. Very few writers are as interesting as Baker on the theme of men sitting (or standing) around, so this looks promising. (Mark)
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: Of the greats of his generation, Lethem is one of the few who’s gotten steadily better, novel by novel. Fortress of Solitude is a better book than Motherless Brooklyn, and in my read, Chronic City is even better than that—the highs less high, but the consistency more consistent. It’s also worth noting that Lethem’s always been a political writer (science-fiction being among other things a way of thinking about the possible) and has been more so lately. Expectations for Dissident Gardens, then—a generation-spanning saga centered around Leftists from Sunnyside Queens—should be very, very high. (Garth)
Mood Indigo by Boris Vian: Few of Vian’s novels have been translated, but L’Ecume des Jours is appearing in English for the third time, with a third title (Mood Indigo, Froth on the Daydream, Foam of the Daze, take your pick). Still, we should be grateful for what we are given—Le Monde named L’Ecume number 10 on the 100 best books of the century. Vian (d. 1959), published under his own name and the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. He was a trumpeter in the Hot Club de France, devotee of Duke Ellington, ingester of peyote, consort of Sartre (until Sartre consorted with his wife). Written in 1947, L’Ecume is a sad, fanciful love story (which, the Harvard Crimson wrote in 1969, read like “perceptions at a stoned-soul picnic,” in a good way). Mood Indigo received the Michel Gondry film treatment last spring. (Lydia)
Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: The decade-in-the-making follow-up to Mortals (one of our Best Novels of the Millennium) is also a departure. The first of Rush’s books not set in Botswana, it’s shorter by half than either of his previous novels, and when I got a galley in the mail, the jacket copy—comfortable fortysomethings at a Big Chill-style reunion near the start of the Iraq War—made me even more nervous. Was the Rush magic still there? Then my wife started reading it, then started putting it down to laugh, and finally began forcing me to listen to her read whole passages aloud for the sheer pleasure of the phrases. Note to Mr. Rush: You had me at “berserk industry.” (Garth)
His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: A 600-page depiction of a jilted lover’s interior thoughts might not be your idea of an enjoyable book, but in the hands of a writer as talented as Stephen Dixon, it’s certainly one worth reading. In his own description of the novel, he’s noted that it’s about “a bunch of nouns” such as “love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, writing, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscences, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.” Indeed these words convey the complexity of a life rendered whole, of a relationship’s threads and effects laid bare, and of honest memories enlivened by an acute and unrelenting ache. When a relationship dies, all that remains are remembered details, and in the words of Jim Harrison, “death steals everything except our stories.” (Nick)
Local Souls by Allan Gurganus: For his first book in a decade, Allan Gurganus returns to the imagined town of Falls, N.C., where he set his first and best-known novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. His new book, Local Souls, which owes more to Flannery O’Connor than to Nikolai Gogol, is three linked novellas set in the contemporary New South, with its air-conditioning and improved telecommunications, its freer sexuality and looser family ties. However, some old habits prove hard to break—including adultery, incest and obsession—in these tales that unfold in a Dixiefied version of Winesburg, Ohio. (Bill)
Between Friends by Amos Oz: Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Amos Oz spent three decades living on a kibbutz because city life was not “radical” enough for him and, as he puts it in his new book of stories, Between Friends, he wanted to live among “people with patience and doubts and compassion.” These eight stories, set in the imaginary Kibbutz Yikhat during the 1950s of Oz’s youth, spin around the shortcomings of idealism and the fragility of all utopias. In the end, the stories affirm Oz’s long-held belief that both on the kibbutz and throughout the larger Middle East, the only hope lies not in conflict, but in compromise. (Bill)
The Brunist Day by Robert Coover: Aside from being a terrific year for first novels, 2013 may be remembered for its efflorescence of major work from the eminences grises of postmodernism. So far, we’ve gotten Gass’s Middle C, Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and McElroy’s Cannonball. Now Coover, author of a couple of the great postwar novels (e.g., The Public Burning), returns with a thousand-page sequel to his very first book, The Origin of the Brunists. I haven’t been this excited to read new Coover…well, since I started reading Coover. The folks at Dzanc Books should be commended. (Garth)
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway: This isn’t the story of a family business, à la Dombey & Son, but rather a buddy-cop detective vehicle—except the cops aren’t exactly buddies, and most of what gets detected is random violence and existential unease. Ridgway is a brilliant stylist from Ireland, and the early word from the U.K. is that he’s hit his stride here, in a kind of deadpan avant-pop tour of contemporary London. (Garth)
Duplex by Kathryn Davis: Davis’s earlier novel, The Thin Place, is set in a place where the membrane between the real world and the spirit world is extremely thin. Most of her work, which includes six previous novels, sits at this same juncture, combining real and imagined worlds. Duplex is the story of Mary and Eddie, two children growing up in a duplex outside time, while “adulthood”—a world of sorcerers, robots, and slaves—looms ahead. (Janet)
Goat Mountain by David Vann: In his writing across a variety of forms—short stories, novels, memoir, and reportage—David Vann has returned repeatedly to the same deep well of themes: nature, thwarted masculinity, family, and violence. In his third novel Goat Mountain, an eleven-year-old boy goes on a deer-hunt with his father and grandfather, and things, as they tend to do this writer’s work, take a devastating turn. There’s a rawness and obsessional urgency to Vann’s writing that makes this ongoing project of recasting and development among the most compelling in contemporary literature. (Mark)
At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick: Dolnick’s third novel is about a dark secret that tears apart a boyhood friendship and how the two are brought back together as adults to reckon with what happened long ago. The jacket copy calls it “a tale of spiritual reckoning, of search and escape, of longing and reaching for redemption—a tale of near hallucinatory power.” Dolnick, who writes for NPR and the New York Times, has also written a Kindle single called Shelf-Love, about his fanaticism for Alice Munro. (Edan)
The Traymore Rooms by Norm Sibum: Poet Norm Sibum’s 700-pager should be on the radar of all the maximalism-starved readers who landed A Naked Singularity on our Top 10 list in 2012—though the book might more rightly be likened to something by William Gass or Alexander Theroux. Plot isn’t Sibum’s thing, exactly, but his erudition (considerable), sense of character (eccentric), and mood (quietly splenetic) more than compensate. The novel concerns a group of aging friends who share haunts in downtown Montreal. They talk, fight, love, and try to make sense of a historical moment that has disappointed their youthful hopes. And apart from an overreliance on that contemporary workhorse, the absolute phrase, the prose is a consistent pleasure. (Garth)
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Tartt said she couldn’t “think of anything worse than having to turn out a book every year. It would be hell.” She seems to have settled into a pattern of turning out a book every ten or eleven years instead. In her third novel, The Goldfinch, a young boy named Theo Decker survives an accident that kills his mother. In the years that follow, he finds himself drawn to things that remind him of her, including a painting that draws him eventually into the art underworld. (Emily)
Identical by Scott Turow: Every three years, with metronome-like regularity, bestselling lawyer-author Scott Turow comes out with another well-turned legal thriller set in corruption-rife Kindle County. Three years after 2010’s Innocent, Turow is right on schedule with a new thriller focusing on a pair of identical twins, one a candidate for mayor in Kindle County, the other a convicted murderer just released from prison after serving 25 years for killing his girlfriend. This is Turow country, so nothing is as it seems and the plot turns on a re-investigation of the decades-old murder that sent one of the brothers to prison. (Michael)
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s return to fiction (she wrote that little-known memoir called Eat Pray Love) is a sprawling historical novel about Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical explorer, and talented scientist in her own right, and her relationship with Utopian artist Ambrose Pike. As the jacket copy says, “Alma Whittaker is a witness to history, as well as maker of history herself.” The book spans the globe and two centuries, and it sounds like a big and exciting artistic departure for Gilbert. (Edan)
Solo (James Bond) by William Boyd: At this year’s London Book Fair, venerated author William Boyd announced the one-word title of his forthcoming James Bond novel, which reflects the spy’s solitary and unauthorized mission. The book is an authorized sequel to Jeffery Deaver’s novel, Carte Blanche, published in 2011. At the Book Fair, Boyd said that key action takes place in Africa, the US and Europe, and remarked that Bond “goes on a real mission to real countries and the world he’s in is absolutely 1969. There are no gimmicks, it’s a real spy story.” (Edan)
Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III: The four interlocking stories within Andre Dubus III’s sixth book explore the “bottomless needs and stubborn weaknesses of people seeking gratification in food and sex, work and love.” These highs and lows are depicted by Mark, a Massachusetts man who’s recently discovered his wife’s infidelity; by Marla, an overweight young woman who’s just found a lover; by Robert, who’s just betrayed his pregnant wife; and by Devon, a teenager terrorized by a dirty picture she’s posted online, and whose story comprises the collection’s titular novella. (Nick)
Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois: Jennifer DuBois follows her decorated first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, with Cartwheel, a novel with loud echoes of the recent murder trial, conviction and eventual acquittal of Amanda Knox. Cartwheel’s protagonist, Lily Hayes, is an American arriving in Buenos Aires for a semester abroad. Five weeks later she’s the prime suspect in her roommate’s brutal murder. Questions arise. Is Lily guilty? More importantly, exactly who is Lily Hayes? “Cartwheel will keep you guessing until the final page,” the publisher promises, “and its questions about how much we really know about ourselves will linger well beyond.” (Bill)
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna: Aminatta Forna made her name with The Devil That Danced on the Water, her memoir about her father’s execution for treason in Sierra Leone. In her new novel, The Hired Man, a naive middle-class Englishwoman named Laura arrives with her two teenage children in the Croatian town of Gost, planning to renovate an old house. She enlists the help of an introspective handyman named Duro, and before long the haunted memories of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s come bubbling up from the past. Ill-equipped to understand the dark local history, Laura will come to see that there is great power in overcoming the thirst for revenge. (Bill)
Heart of Darkness (Illustrated) by Matt Kish: In October 2011, Tin House books published Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures, with artwork for each page of text taken from the Signet Classic Paperback. Now, Heart of Darkness will get similar treatment, although this project has 100 illustrations to Moby Dick’s 552. The New York Post showcased some wonderful images from the upcoming publication. Matt Kish, a librarian by day, prefers “illustrator” to “artist,” he says, “There’s a lot of artists out there, they’re real assholes, and if you haven’t gone to art school, if you haven’t had an MFA, if you haven’t had a gallery show, if you cant put together some rambling artist statement, you’re not worthy of that term.” Looks like art to me. (Lydia)
Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips: The creepy-sounding plot of Jayne Anne Phillips’s fifth novel is based on a true-life 1930s story of a con man who insinuated himself into the life of a young, impoverished widow only to murder her and her three children. Like Phillips’s previous novel, Lark & Termite (a 2009 National Book Award Finalist), parts of the story are set in rural West Virginia, where Phillips herself is from. With a reporter protagonist who sets out to investigate the crime after the fact, there are shades of In Cold Blood. (Hannah)
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón: Peruvian native Daniel Alarcón’s stories thrive on equal parts revolution and spectacle, as evidenced in his first collection, War by Candlelight, as well as in his first novel, Lost City Radio, where the emcee of a popular radio show reunites loved ones separated during a recent civil war. In At Night We Walk in Circles, the Whiting Award-winning Best Young American Novelist draws inspiration from stories told to him by prisoners jailed in Lima’s largest prison. Alarcón again situates his novel in a South American state, where the protagonist flounders until he’s cast in a revival of touring play penned the leader of a guerilla theatre troupe. (Anne)
The Last Animal by Abby Geni: This debut collection of short stories is thematically linked by characters who “use the interface between the human and the natural world to contend with their modern challenges in love, loss and family life.” Geni, who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a winner of the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, has received early praise from Dan Chaon, who says, “These are sharp, incisive, thoughtful, and utterly original stories” and from Jim Gavin, who calls these stories “Haunting and beautiful.” (Edan)
Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont: Is it strange that an author many wouldn’t hesitate to call the greatest living American writer has yet to be the subject of a major critical work? Pierpont remedies this with a book described as “not a biography…but something more rewarding: an attempt to understand a great writer through his art.” The New Yorker staff writer should prove a fascinating non-biographer: her previous book was Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, and while her current subject has been accused of sexism many times throughout his long career, David Remnick reported that at a celebration of Roth’s eightieth birthday in March, Pierpont “took it upon herself to survey the variety, depth, and complexity of Roth’s female characters — a strong, and convincing, rebuke to years of criticism that the books are misogynistic.” (Elizabeth)
How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman: Former Granta editor John Freeman’s first book, The Tyranny of Email, considered the ways that email collapsed great distances between us. In it he argues for a more nuanced and discerning form of communication through conversation—an art form that he showcases in his latest book, How to Read a Novelist. In more than fifty interviews and author profiles of literary titans such as Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, and Doris Lessing, Freeman’s conversations and observations uncover these authors’ obsessions, quirks, and nuances of character as if they’re characters themselves. According to Freeman, a novelist requires observational distance, something to be considered in light of the subject of his first book: “it’s the miraculous distance that I think makes the writers who they are.” (Anne)
The Karl Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen: Karl Kraus, as immortalized in Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name, was an incendiary aphorist and, in his one-man journal Die Fackel (The Torch), a critic who rivaled Nietzche for implacability. His influence on the culture of pre- and interwar Austria and Germany can’t be overstated; writers from Broch to Canetti are in his debt. Yet aphorisms are notoriously hard to translate, and to date, no really good volume of Kraus has been available to lay readers in English. Jonathan Franzen’s decision to attempt one is as likely to provoke grousing as most everything he does, but I, for one, salute his berserk industry. (Garth)
The Most of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron: Ephron died a year ago and this fall Random House is bringing out a wide-ranging collection of her writing edited by Robert Gottlieb. The screenplay to When Harry Met Sally will be in there, as will her famous piece on being flat-chested, blog posts on politics and dying, and the screenplay to her last work, Lucky Guy. (Kevin)
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble: Drabble’s eighteenth novel—her first since 2006—is set in 1960s London. It centers on Jessica, an anthropology student who, after becoming pregnant during an affair with a married professor, is forced to raise a daughter alone, her own life’s trajectory fracturing as a result. “One thing I have never been very good at is creating ‘good’ mothers,” Drabble said in a 1978 The Paris Review interview. “I’d written books and books before someone pointed out that I was perpetually producing these ‘bad’ mothers.” The “prismatic” novel is told from the perspectives of “the mothers who surround Jess,” examining “unexpected transformations at the heart of motherhood.” (Elizabeth)
Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal: Lore Segal is a treasure-house of wit and a power-house of style. Lucinella, reissued as part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella Series, was one of the best books I read in 2009. Now Melville House returns to the well for her first novel since the Pulitzer finalist Shakespeare’s Kitchen. The plot involves a suspicious surge in the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease among patients (characters from previous Segal novels among them) at a Manhattan emergency room in the period after September 11. Even the catalog copy brims with insight: “terrorist paranoia and end-of-the-world hysteria masks deeper fears about mortality.” You’re welcome, America. (Garth)
The Night Guest by Fiona MacFarlane: Penguin Australia is calling Macfarlane “a new voice” and “a writer who comes to us fully formed.” It’s true that The Night Guest, which will be published in October, is Macfarlane’s debut novel; but she’s been publishing stories for some time now, and here you can read a Q&A about her story “Art Appreciation,” published in The New Yorker this past May. The Night Guest centers around the mysterious arrival of Frida at the isolated beach house of Ruth, a widow, but “soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be.” (Sonya)
Every Short Story: 1951-2012 by Alasdair Gray: Exactly what it says on the tin: the comprehensive volume (nearly 1,000 pages!) offers up more than half a century of the Scottish fantasist’s short fiction, including sixteen stories published here for the first time. Known for his dark humor and wild imagination, the stories span the broad range of his fascinating career. Whimsical drawings are interspersed throughout, the stories as much visual works as literary ones. “Illustration and typography play a major part in his work,” says The Guardian. “He doesn’t just write books, he creates them.” It’s probably worth noting, too, that The Guardian has also described Gray as a “a glorious one-man band, the dirty old man of Scottish letters.” (Elizabeth)
Personae by Sergio de la Pava: In the wake of A Naked Singularity’s success, the University of Chicago Press is likewise reissuing de la Pava’s self-published second novel, Personae. In most ways, it’s as different from its predecessor as grits from greens—a Cloud Atlas-y series of nested genre pieces covering the whodunit, the interior monologue, and the theater of the absurd. But fans of the earlier book will recognize de la Pava’s fearlessness and wild ambition, along with the ventriloquistic range that made the Jalen Kingg letters so moving. An excerpt is available at The Quarterly Conversation. (Garth)
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson: Winterson’s new novella, published to critical acclaim in the UK last year, takes on the trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, when a group of destitute outcasts, mostly women, were put on trial for witchcraft. “What is clear amid the poverty and brutality here,” the critic Arifa Akbar wrote in The Independent, “is that other-worldy evil is far outweighed by the harm that human beings inflict.” (Emily)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: The author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Rehearsal returns with a literary mystery set in 19th century New Zealand. When Walter Moody arrives on the coast of New Zealand, hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields, he stumbles upon a gathering of men who have met in secret to discuss a number of apparently coincidental recent events: on the day when a prostitute was arrested, a rich man disappeared, a down-on-his-luck alcoholic died, and a ship’s captain canceled all of his appointments and fled. The prostitute is connected to all three men, and Moody finds himself drawn into their interlinked lives and fates. (Emily)
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor: When Flannery O’Connor was in her early 20s and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she kept a journal which focused on her relationship with her faith. Recently discovered, this journal should be a fascinating prospect for anyone with an interest in O’Connor’s writing, inseparable as it is from her Catholic belief in sin and redemption. It dates from 1946-47, around the time she was writing the stories that would converge into her debut novel Wise Blood. It looks to have been an exercise in bringing herself closer to her God through the act of writing: “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant.” (Mark)
Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone: Steven Brookman is a brilliant professor at an elite college in New England. Maud Stack is his promising and alluring young student. You know where this is going. Unfortunately, however, Professor Brookman is a married man, and Maud Stack’s passions are “not easily contained or curtailed.” In this tale of infidelity and its affects on human relationships—as well as on the institutions in which they reside—Robert Stone makes clear that almost nothing is black and white, and that when it comes to “the allure of youth” and “the promise of absolution,” all roads may lead to madness. (Nick)
A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks: Russell Banks—the author of The Sweet Hereafter and The Darling (among many others) and an acknowledged master chronicler of the tragedies of American life—will publish his first collection of short stories in fifteen years. The book is composed of twelve stories, six of which appear for the first time. The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist’s last novel, Lost Memory of Skin, documented the straitened lives of a group of sex offenders living under a Florida causeway. (Lydia)
Report from the Interior by Paul Auster: Last year Auster released Winter Journal, a personal history of the author’s own body. This fall he will publish a companion piece of sorts that depicts the world as he saw it as a child growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s. (Kevin)
The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg brings her mystical touch to her second collection of short stories, following her highly praised first collection, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us, which was shortlisted for The Frank O’Connor International Award. From a writer who professes to “freaking love coming up with zany plots,” The Isle of Youth delivers with stories of magicians, private detectives, and identity-trading twins. (Hannah)
Hild by Nicola Griffith: Nicola Griffith, British novelist and former poster child for the woes of American immigration policy (in 1998, The Wall Street Journal called her “a lesbian science-fiction writer,” like it’s a bad thing). Her newest novel Hild takes place in seventh-century Britain in the Synod of Whitby, where the people were deciding what kind of Christians to be. The name “Hild” refers to the person we now know as St. Hilda, who presided over the conference during which the Synod debated the relative merits of Celtic and Roman Christianity. In an interview with her editor, Griffith reported that the source material on St. Hilda is basically limited to five pages in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, so she was compelled to do a ferocious amount of research to recreate the world and customs, if not the life, of this early English figure. (Lydia)
Collected Stories by Stefan Zweig: Pushkin Press anointed 2013 as “The Year of Stefan Zweig,” in order to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the famed Austrian author’s death by a wartime suicide pact. Zweig’s fictions are oft fueled by seduction, desire, and affairs of the heart, mettle which helped make him an author of international renown during his tumultuous lifetime. Pushkin is singlehandedly attempting to reinvigorate Zweig’s reputation by issuing a series of rereleases and a handful of new translations of his works. An ideal introduction for the unacquainted comes in the form of Zweig’s Collected Stories, featuring twenty-three stories translated by Anthea Bell. (Anne)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Speaking of eminences grises… From The March to Homer & Langley to that cover version of Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” that ran in The New Yorker a few years back, Doctorow just keeps swinging. The product description on Amazon is sketchy, but the talk of a main character “speaking from an unknown place and to an unknown interlocutor [about] the circumstances that have led him to commit a mysterious act” sound downright Beckett-y, while the title makes me secretly hope Doctorow’s returning to science fiction (after suppressing his previous effort, Big as Life). (Garth)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: W.G. Sebald’s collection of six essays was originally published in German in 1998, three years before his untimely death. The collection is an homage to six writers and artists (“colleagues,” he calls them, and “Alemmanic”), all of whom meant something to Sebald: Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, and Jan Peter Tripp. Already out in the United Kingdom, the essays are apparently solidly in the Sebald tradition—which, as I understand it, defies attribution of stolid nouns like “criticism,” “fiction,” or “biography,” rejoicing instead in the patterns and echoes of what one critic called “half-reality.” (Lydia)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: Chronically saddled with the designation of “experimental author,” Jesse Ball has written three novels, including The Way Through Doors, a book of poems and flash fiction, and a co-written prose poem, each work demonstrating a gift for quiet, powerful prose and a loose relationship with realism. His first hardcover release, Silence Once Begun, tells the story of a man who confesses to a string of crimes in writing, then never speaks during his arrest or interrogation, and the journalist who becomes obsessed with his case. (Janet)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Best known for his haunting stories of Korean history and American immigrant life, Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee tries his hand at speculative fiction, setting his new novel in a dystopian future in which America is in steep decline and urban neighborhoods have been turned into walled labor colonies that provide fresh produce and fish for the surrounding villages where the elite live. In the novel, Fan, a woman laborer, sets out in search of a vanished lover and finds herself crossing the lawless Open Counties, where the government exerts little control and crime is rampant. (Michael)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was a national bestseller and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her highly anticipated second novel has two narratives, one about two boys in the early 1970s and their obsession with the two seconds added to clock time to balance with the movement of the earth, and one about a present-day man who is debilitated by his obsessive-compulsive routines. Blogger Kate Neilan loved it, saying, “Rachel Joyce should be praised from the rooftops for Perfect; there’s not a thing I’d change about it.”
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: “With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits,” says David Winters in his Millions review of Marcus’s recent novel The Flame Alphabet. Marcus has long been a champion of experimental writing and innovative uses of language, as demonstrated by the stories he selected for the unmatched Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. His forthcoming Leaving the Sea is the first collection of Marcus’s short stories. Expect nothing except more boundary pushing and an exquisite sense of the unexpected. (Anne)
From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions — sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event — at least as De La Pava saw it — was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics.
I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no!
If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with…well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too — one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing — to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) — that way lies madness.
Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It’s very good — one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared.
These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate.
So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here’s what I found:
Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test.
My getting out or what?!
Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes:
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, “It was 11:33?”). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went — edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut — but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand.
It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011.
And it’s a funny thing about those extraliterary signals — superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they’re unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava’s prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James’ preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.”) And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio — unless she was Sergio? — and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses.
This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life — age, occupation, place of residence, education — remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?
When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important.
As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art — that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava’s dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. “My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with,” he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise “someone might put a bullet in someone’s head.”
This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero — on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility — as matters not just of style, but also of psyche.
Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing — home-cooked empanadas and “school clothes warmed on the radiator” — suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages — his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems — theology, physics, classical music, math. “My earliest memories are of philosophical problems,” he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like “being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals.” Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. “Boxing, that’s my fucking religion,” he says.
His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses — the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”
Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. “I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head,” he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. “Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?”
Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. “I’m not that well-read,” was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions — the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition — seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He’s not that well-read in contemporary fiction. “I have old-fashioned taste.”
Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace — but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read “all the nonfiction.” Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow “turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.”
In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was “pretty terrible” at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls “Bodega Heights,” and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. “I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow — a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring — vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles — into something “nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel.
“When I write, I almost begin with the end product,” De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. “It’s similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first.” And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he’d been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?”
This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels’ (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava’s indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel’s close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this — singular, urgent, commanding — are supposed to be what good editors live for.
As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there’s an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It’s this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he’d drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down.
“I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that “This wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea.” A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011).
Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist…and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation’s poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week.
This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There’s also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use.
And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi’s desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it’s a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he’s preparing to file, “I’m determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least,” we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder.
“Achingly beautiful and effective and important:” I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he’d achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame.
Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one’s own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. “That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things,” he said. “The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey.
Bonus link: “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List” by Edan Lepucki
Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: “A Day’s Sail”
Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a young man finds himself in the presence of Evelyn Nesbitt, the famous “It Girl” of the 1920s, and falls into a room “clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.” In Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, the madams of New Orleans are categorized by their staffs of various racial mix. “Ann Jackson featured mulatto, Maud Wilson featured high browns, so forth and so on. And them different stables was different colors. Just like a bouquet.” In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier first meets Rosa Saks, whom he will later marry, as she sleeps naked on a bed, a scene he draws in Conte crayon on an overdue notice from the New York Public Library. “Fifty-three years later . . . the drawing of Rosa Saks naked and asleep was found . . . in a Barracini’s candy box, with a souvenir yarmulke . . . and a Norman Thomas button.” In Bruce Olds’ Bucking the Tiger, Doc Holiday describes sex as “crest after crest of the most coilsprung and soaring carnality, shanks asplay, thighs agape, cunt akimbo, slicker than a skyful of starglide.” All of the details in these references—the jism falling through the air like ticker tape, a Barracini’s candy box, a skyful of starglide, the dated but somehow lovely phrase “high browns”—lead to one conclusion. History is a whore.
Ron Hansen has made a career of pimping history for its details. Although his best novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, dealt explicitly with real historical figures, Hansen has scattershot most of his fiction with just-as-real historical settings. Each of them is made real, in the sense of authenticity, in the sense of perception, by the well-researched minutiae of everyday life, the ambrotype photographs, the cuspidors, the bootjacks, the coal-oil lanterns, all of them specific to each story’s particular time period. Mariette in Ecstasy takes place primarily at a monastery in upstate New York during the early part of the 20th century. “Wickedness,” an excellent short story from Hansen’s collection Nebraska, centers a series of vignettes around the infamous Midwestern blizzard of 1888. Desperadoes recounts the life and times of the Dalton gang in the Old West during the late part of the 19th century. Even Hansen’s novels with contemporary settings, Isn’t It Romantic? and Atticus, borrow either their storylines or their stylistic voice from works of yesteryear, the former modeled after Preston Sturges’s comedies and the latter a modern take on the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
In his most recent work, Exiles , Hansen sets his eye, with its historian’s acuity for the factual tempered by its novelist’s astigmatism to the fictional, on Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889), a Jesuit priest, Roman Catholic convert, and English poet who has posthumously become known as one of the best innovators of traditional verse. The first of the novel’s dual narratives depicts Hopkins throughout the different stages of his life. Initially, he is shown as a young seminarian, “a gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher,” who at first denies but later accepts his love of poetry. The few poems he writes over the years are consistently rejected by publishers. Finally, Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged man, dying of typhoid but keeping the faith, “steadied, poised, and paned as water in a well,” who would not live to see his poetry canonized decades later as one of the most significant forebears of modernism. The second of the dual narratives dramatizes the true story of a shipwreck. Five Franciscan nuns, exiled by Bismarck’s Falk Laws against Catholic religious orders, forced to seek sanctuary in the distant state of Missouri, die tragically when their steamship runs aground near England. Hansen includes Hopkins’ poetic ode to the event, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a literal and figurative union of the two narratives, in the appendix to Exiles.
The novel begins with the two narratives, that of Hopkins and that of the nuns, occurring at the same time but in different locations, Hopkins a theological student in Wales and the five nuns fellow members of a German convent. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the narratives diverge in time and place, one spanning the many years that encompass the failures and rejections of Hopkins’ life, the other focusing on the few nights leading up to and including the wreck of the Deutchsland. Hansen fully understands the advantages of coupling two storylines. The narrative involving the nuns serves as a sort of superheroic origin story for Hopkins, rekindling his love of poetry and inspiring some of his best work. The narrative involving the nuns also serves as a stereophonic counterpart to the tragedies suffered throughout Hopkins’ life, paralleling the “wreckage” of his being denied priesthood and publication for so many years. According to those conditions, generally and apparently and ideally, the combination of each narrative is meant to create a single story not only as enlightening and seamless as the flashbacks to Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s fateful laboratory accident in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, but also as harmonious, dulcet, quiet, and melodic as the duet of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”
Exiles’s dual narratives, unfortunately, don’t work that well. Despite his reputation as a masculine writer, given his two best-known books are westerns, given also his prose tends to venerate hardware and toolkits, Hansen is remarkably adept at creating believable, unique, impressive characters that are female, particularly Mariette in Ecstasy’s titular, monastic protagonist. The five nuns in Exiles are no different. Within just half of an already short novel, each of them, not unlike the pupils of Jean Brodie in her prime, becomes a distinct person, made particular through abstraction. One sister, for example, who is known most commonly as “the pretty one,” is vividly described as having been “ill so often at age ten that Mastholte’s doctor told her mother to have Lisette lie on a seaweed mattress, but Frau Dammhorst soon found underneath the seaweed Dutch elm branches that her strange, pretty daughter had put there to disturb her sleep so she could ‘ease the pain of the souls in Purgatory.’” Within the other half of the novel, Hopkins, the focus of the book in as much as Miss Brodie is of her own, remains an obscure entity, made abstract through particularization. One scene, for example, which showcases the complexities of his psyche, ends with the reductive line, “Hopkins accused himself of a snorting, sour, unspiritual tone to some of his conversations, prayed for those who’d died, were injured, or lost loved ones in the shipwreck, but thanked God for the beauties and contrarities of nature, the tonic of outdoor exercise, and the cheer and solace of his Jesuit brothers.”
Another problem concerns the novel’s layout. In the first, less successful half, the passages for each of the narratives are longer and slower, less scene-based, and include fewer shifts back and forth between them, while in the second, more successful half, the passages are shorter and quicker, more immediate, one cutting to the other in better illustration of their subtextual connections. It should be noted these issues are only minor. Hansen’s strengths as a writer have never been for the broader components of narrative structure—Desperadoes, his exquisite, violent, beautiful debut, underutilizes its framing device; Atticus, his tender portrait of a father’s love, awkwardly shifts its point of view—but rather, he excels at using phrases, words, and sentences, those details of language, to make his fiction into a kind of poetry. Exiles has a hell of a fitting subject.
Since the posthumous publication of his collected works in 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ stature has grown steadily within the literary establishment, so much so that today he is credited with several poetic neologisms, including “inscape,” the distinctive and essential quality unique to any given thing, “sprung rhythm,” a use of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry that mimics the natural rhythm of human speech, and “instress,” the force by which the essential quality of a thing creates an external impression. Hopkins’ poetry was intimately connected to his spirituality. Hopkins’ poetry was a way for him to speak with God. So, to do justice to the poet that British literary critic F.R. Leavis said “is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest,” an author would need a generous understanding of religious faith and a sizeable if not commensurate poetic sensibility.
Ron Hansen, the “Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.” Professor of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University as well as a Catholic Deacon in ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, California, is up to the task. His authorial voice, by inclination and by disposition, is an authoritative voice, as though spoken from behind a lectern, and his writing style, pious as it is poetic, shows a reverence for God equaled only by its reverence for language. “He had long had haunting his ear the echo of a new rhythm,” Hansen writes in Exiles, paraphrasing a letter written by Hopkins, “that would re-create the native and natural stresses of speech.” The most interesting aspect of such a sentence is that Hansen describes how Hopkins mimicked others’ use of language and, more importantly, that Hansen does so by mimicking Hopkins’ own use of language.
Elsewhere, the novel’s prose bears the stigmata of Hopkins’ poetry. Images such as, “The knuckling flames consumed the wicks of the votive candles,” “Gold, Teutonic calligraphy,” and, “Their eyes silvering with tears of bliss,” are beautiful examples of poetic inscape. A description like, “The swell’s comb morseling into fine string and tassel before bursting on the rocky spurs of the cove and breaking into white bushes of foam,” utilizes sprung rhythm. Phrases such as, “Language his bloody knife,” “Wakening gaslights,” and, “Boats sliding with satiny, Elysian motion,” are lovely examples of poetic instress. Throughout Exiles, Hansen uses Hopkins’ poetic techniques not only to recreate the historical setting but also to explore the workings of a poet’s mind. It is at that juncture between language and consciousness that the thick, industrial shellac of caricature dissolves into the fine, vivid oil paint of characterization. Consider this passage describing one of the rectors who taught Hopkins:
“Father Rector,” as he was called, was a manly, rattling, genial, ever-courteous man from County Slip, Ireland, a shrewd, scientific professor of moral theology who’d studied at the English College in Rome, served as a Superior in British Guiana and Jamaica, and published two scholarly books on the Athanasian creed, yet welcomed contradiction in class and the nickname of “the Governor,” delighted in jokes and singing, and so worried about the seminarians’ health that he stayed at their bedsides when they were ill, tipping into their mouths his mother’s cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg.
In such a simple description, the broad, dull, and usual tapers to the specific, the memorable, the unusual. Trivial characteristics like “manly” and “ever-courteous” and “shrewd” shift to more precise, albeit dryer biographical details like “served as a Superior in British Guiana” and “published two scholarly books on Athanasian creed,” all of which are concluded by the wonderful, telling, intimate, gorgeous bit about the rector tipping a “cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg” into the mouths of ill students. Such mobilization in the degree of details sets apart Hansen’s writing from the source material of Hopkins’ poetry and the framework of historical fiction. Exiles is not simply an imitation of poetry. Exiles is not simply a recreation of history. In reference to historical fact, George Santayana’s saying goes, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” but in reference to historical fiction, a better saying would be, “Those who don’t add something new to the past are simply repeating it.”
Among the many characteristics of historical fiction, one of the most noteworthy is the tendency to assimilate, digest, and transfigure the various tropes of other genres. What are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Charles Portis’s True Grit, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man if not westerns elevated by fine literary craftsmanship? Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Frazier’s Cold Mountain are romances as much as they are historical novels. Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, Steven Milhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle are fantasies. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Umbarto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are at once postmodern and historical works of fiction. What are Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 if not crime novels provided with scope and novelty by meticulous research?
These examples are a testament not only to historical fiction’s malleability but also its inherent advantages and disadvantages: Historical fiction can be adapted readily to other genres because its advantages can resolve other genres’ limitations and its disadvantages can be resolved by other genres’ attributes. Hansen’s Exiles, a religious romance as well as a historical novel, exemplifies those abilities.
One feature of historical fiction is the flash-forward, a technique used recently and amply in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, as well as in much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, particularly the famous first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The auxiliary verb “would” and its variations play a crucial part in the flash-forward. “Thirty-three years later,” Hansen writes of a minor character in Exiles, “Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water. But now the doctor said in his soothing voice, ‘Well, the sea can be very wild.’” The passage’s narrative leap into the future creates a thematic link, that of fate, that of irony, connecting two disparate episodes of a person’s life. “In a hundred years,” Hansen writes of one of the five nuns on the Deutschland, “no less than two of Catharina Fassbender’s relatives would become international opera stars, and the harbinger of that singing talent was heard in her lovely contralto.” Again, by mentioning the future continuance of the nun’s lineage and by mentioning it in a scene aboard a ship the reader knows will sink, the author allows the machinations of fate and irony to limn the inevitable tragedy of a character’s death. In Exiles as well as in other historical fiction, the use of flash-forwards lends the narrative a sense of omniscience and authority. It also helps the narrative avoid one of the genre’s most common mistakes, the trompe l’oeil effect, a tendency to make the reader aware of a book’s artificiality by way of its blatant immersion in a past time. Think vinyl-like scratches added to a cover of some 19th-century Irish ballad. Think portraits of upper-crust families painted in the style of a Dutch master. With flash-forwards the reader is shown the past but also told they are being shown the past, thereby, incongruously but effectively, making the past they are being shown seem less artificial.
Another characteristic of historical fiction is the use of different found documentation, including correspondence, radio transcripts, court records, newspaper articles, brochures, medical tests, receipts, interviews, grocery lists, and personal diary entries. The very diversity of such a list attests to the convention’s expediency in conveying breadth—of time and of place, of emotion and of experience, of people and of things—not only within a fictional world but also in terms of the larger context of reality. In Exiles, Hansen writes how one of the seaman on the sinking ship “looked up . . . in pining silence and with a ‘helpless expression that gave me a chill all through, for I knew it meant nothing else but that death was coming.’” Note how the shift to first-person creates greater immediacy. The addition of the seaman’s own words, with his antiquated syntax, with his resignation to death, reminds the reader, expeditiously, palpably, excitingly, that this really happened to someone. Despite the benefits of found documentation, however, it can often lead an author to the Merchant-Ivory recidivism of letting attention to historical accuracy obstruct, overwhelm, or obscure the goals of a fictional narrative. One of the reasons the five nuns seem more dynamic than Hopkins may be that, because so little is known of the five women and because so much is known of the one man, Hansen is less constrained in the former case by strict adherence to the facts. On the whole, though, Hansen avoids the pitfall of excessive accuracy by never making the entire book an assemblage of research, by exploring the interiority of his characters, by imagining what might have happened, by never letting his reportage commandeer his artistic intentions.
Still another feature of historical fiction is the technique of making common objects into dramatic artifacts. Specificity is the trick. The same way AMC’s Mad Men revels in gender inequality and skinny ties, the same way HBO’s Deadwood rejects Latinate words and the authority of law, Exiles is packed with common objects made into dramatic artifacts through specificity, such as a morning paper: “The front page, as always, was filled with three- and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall’s-End coal, Bailey’s elastic stockings, ladies’ abdominal belts, Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and ‘Want Places’ appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each wanting to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities.” The book contains “Staffordshire pitchers” and a “lucifer match” next to “Turkish towels” and “the pine and fir planks” commonly known as “deal.” Even the modest steamship Deutschland has “a grand saloon paneled with bird’s-eye maple and buttressed by oak pilasters inlaid with rosewood, and with leafy, gilt capitals. Hanging between brass gaslights were eight oil paintings by Franz Hunten, each a mediocre seascape of shipping and fishing vessels in full sail. Empire sofas and thirty armchairs were matched with Biedermeier tables and hand-painted cabinets.” Although such “fetishistic” details can at times become overwhelming, the previous passage being a good example, most of the time they don’t merely give the writer an opportunity to flaunt his research and bore the reader with inconsequential esoterica. They recreate the world of a historical period, and they create a whole world unto themselves. Such “fetishistic” details allow both writer and reader to suck each other’s pinkie toes, throw on a bit of leather, and, within the high-class brothel of fact and fiction, get their respective nut.
In the preface to Stay Against Confusion, a collection of essays that includes his first assessment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, Ron Hansen writes of religion presenting a narrative “helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now.” In the same preface, Hansen quotes Robert Frost on how a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Historical fiction could be said to be a stay against the confusion of time. How does it do so? Historical fiction, like history itself, like God, like any good story, is all in the details. Ron Hansen knows that real history is the jism flying through the air like ticker tape. It’s a Barracini’s candy box. It’s the phrase “high browns.” Even when his subject is a 19th-century celibate priest, Ron Hansen knows that real history is a skyful of starglide, beautiful for its language, damn sexy, and limitless with potential.
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.
This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.
Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.
Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.
Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.
When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.
Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.
And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035… by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.
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When I think of the books I really love, the ones I rant about and buy spare copies of so I can give them away, I do not associate many of them with the place where I first read them. I extol an author’s language and humor, a particularly memorable character, the ideas that make the book hum, the sense of place imparted on the pages between the covers. For the most part, what I’m reading is much more important than where I’m reading it.
One notable exception to this dates back to 1998, when as a college student I had the good fortune to participate in Semester as Sea (back before MTV sullied the program’s reputation). I had already gotten a taste for travel and the narratives it inspired by authors like Jan Morris and Paul Theroux. Before leaving for four months at sea, I knew I needed the right book. I found it in The Size of the World, Jeff Greenwald’s recounting of his journey around the world without ever leaving its surface. Utilizing any available mode of ground transport, Greenwald put together more than just a travel story, and I will never forget reading it during my time on that ship.
I’m writing this in Granada, Spain, the Alhambra’s foreboding exterior walls hulking above the hills visible from my window. I knew I would be here for close to a month and had this very much on my mind as I ferreted around for a book to bring along. I wanted something big, entertaining thoughts of War and Peace or Mason & Dixon, maybe JR. The end of the harried week prior to departure found me at Posman Books in Grand Central (my first New York City employer), not wanting to rush my decision but also feeling a self-imposed pressure to get home, finish packing, tidy up the apartment and leave town the next day.
I fondled all of the books I had considered but none of them felt right. With my list out the window, I started looking at books I haven’t read by authors I like. This didn’t work either. No stranger to such bookstore dilemmas, I defaulted to books published by houses I admire: FSG, NYRB, Vintage, New Directions, Dalkey Archive. I was getting warmer. Great Russian World War II novels didn’t seem right, neither did woeful contemporary tales of struggling writers. But then a spine that read Balcony of Europe caught my eye. I liked the cover: Roman arches holding up a great black edifice – housing the title and author’s name, Aidan Higgins – seemingly floating on the mountain-rimmed Mediterranean, two semblances of sail boats, triangles of red and yellow. The back cover copy declares the book a long-unavailable masterpiece, based in “a village on the coast of Spain,” which the table of contents pinpoints to Andalusia. I was sold.
Andalusia comprises the bottom chunk of Spain between Portugal and the Mediterranean. It contains several provinces, including Granada and Malaga at the region’s southern most reach. Nerja, where a great deal of Balcony of Europe takes place, is located in Malaga province. While the euro and technology have radically changed this part of Spain compared to the novel’s early 1960s setting, the craggy coastline and hilly interior dotted with remnants of Roman and Muslim conquests remain the same. At its core, this novel is about history, as the W.B. Yeats epigraph attests: “I begin seeing things double – doubled in history, world history, personal history.”
From early 1962 until the summer of 1963 Irish painter Dan Ruttle, the narrator, and his wife Olivia live in Nerja, a coastal village reluctantly awakening to the advent of tourism that helped spur Spain’s “economic miracle.” Attracting expatriated artists, writers and eccentrics eager to live cheap and focus on art and pastimes, the Ruttles work, read, swim and haunt local bars and cafes with other Europeans, Canadians and Americans. Chief among them are Bob and Charlotte Bayless, he a native Californian writing a scholarly book about Shelley and Byron and she a Lower East Side Jew, beauty her greatest craft.
Dan Ruttle and Charlotte Bayless have an affair. And in one sense, that’s the book. But though the affair is physically consummated, it exists mostly in Dan’s mind. He is obsessed by thoughts of their handful of assignations and how national, political and cultural histories cut their characters out of time’s fabric. The ghost of World War II is inescapable: Franco’s unfulfilled pledge of alliance to Hitler; drunken ex-Nazis; American “we saved your ass” bravado; Jewish identity; “American bombers” constantly flying exercises, contrails embroidering the clear skies. There are also Joycean weaves of history, bobbing in and out of myth and time as read from mountains and sea changes.
From what was and what is and what could be, all of the individuals in this book fill time and waste it. Both Olivia and Bob realize their spouses’ infidelities, but most of their reactions only ever exist in Dan’s head, his interpretation of glances and body language, how they echo the first time Bob slept with Charlotte years before in San Francisco. More than once, Olivia does raise the issue of Dan’s none too subtle preoccupation with Charlotte, but he never responds to her. Dan internalizes everything, and is aware of it, asking himself, “Would my sensations be forever intellectual?”
Interestingly, the characters solidify based on wonderfully descriptive and repeated details of physical traits and personalities. Charlotte doesn’t carry change because it is bad for the ovaries; Schiller kept rotting apples in his drawer because the smell inspired him. Such details are reported over and over again, sometimes more than once on the page, other times two hundred pages apart, providing a perspective like a fly’s: multi-faceted visions that form a whole.
Such repetition might suggest boredom or lack of anything better to say, but the opposite is true, as this book insists: “If a thing is boring, keep repeating it.” Nothing is boring or insignificant by virtue of its existence, and characters like Dan Ruttle tower over most fictional figures, able to create a worldview that synthesizes personal quirks with two thousand years of history. His attitude renders him a passive character, to be sure, but for Dan that’s the rub of history, all experiences are a return to a time that is and was, now and forever. Watching a tipsy old man search for a key to unlock a door, Dan thinks, “I sensed his discomfort; he did not want to go in, though by staying out he could not alter anything. He looked for neither truth nor the likelihood, stood there play-acting, making me feel uncomfortable. How well I understood how he felt, deforming himself, deforming habit and custom. But nothing would change.”
Of course, change is inevitable and constant. Today in this part of Spain there are more tourists, no language is uncommon to hear, no one bats an eye at topless sunbathing. But, dinner is still eaten very late, and breakfast is often accompanied by beer, the church bells still clang and the Sierra Nevada stand tall, dimpled with snow even in summer’s hottest months.
There is no doubt that reading this book at home in New York, riding the train and before bed, would be memorable, but reading it here, covering some of the same ground as these characters, makes it lasting. Watching patterns of swifts cross the sky, the movement of sand on the sea floor, flamenco guitar strings plucked as bright and crisp as the sun – these qualities of place have shaped my reading of Balcony of Europe.
The other day I pulled a stone out of the Mediterranean. It has probably not been dry for a very long time. I will return home with this soft, weathered stone, carrying its history, most likely older than human history and our constructs of space and time. In creating Dan Ruttle, Aidan Higgins has deftly distilled a great many ideas into one very important one: a place defines history, but history cannot be contained by a place.
What book has made an impression on you because of where you read it?
In the comment section of our most recent The Millions Top Ten post, I wrote that Olive Kitteridge, this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of linked short stories by Elizabeth Strout, was beautiful and moving, and that it caught me by surprise. What surprised me, I guess, was that I liked it at all. I’d only read it because because of a book club – this is a group that pays me to attend and facilitate the discussion (not a bad gig!) – and I assumed Olive Kitteridge wasn’t for me. After all, it’s a collection of quiet stories either directly about, or tangentially related to, its eponymous character: a gruff, retired math teacher in Maine. In other words, it sounded like a “mom” book – a book meant for women older than me, women different from me. I’ve written about this phenomenon before:I catch myself viewing such books (written by women, and read mostly by women) as somehow not important or challenging enough, even though when I’ve given in and read, say, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, I’m met with something both ambitious and moving, and I need to check my attitude.I have a complicated relationship to this question of the Mom Book. It’s sexist, for one, as it assumes that mothers have uniform reading tastes, and that books that are popular among women are suddenly embarrassing, or not worthy of serious discourse. All untrue, obviously. I understand that these are my own weird beliefs and assumptions, and that I must be careful, as someday, I might be a mom, wearing my Mom Jeans, reading (and writing!) my Mom Books. I should be so lucky. For the record, my own mother reads everything from John Irving to Lisa See to Phillippa Gregory. She read Mason and Dixon. In hardcover. (From now on, I’m going to refer to Thomas Pynchon’s books as women’s fiction, and see what happens to his reputation.)I understand, after having read Olive Kitteridge, that it is a Mom Book, if a Mom Book is one that’s interested in the lives of women, and if it’s emotionally affecting. There’s also little irony in Olive Kitteridge, which is probably absent from a lot of Mom Books. If Strout’s book errs on the side of sentimentality once or twice, well, I can forgive that, because nowadays it’s easy to be ironic, detached, cynical, and merely intellectual. It’s harder to be lyrical without slipping into overly purple prose. It’s harder to write about feelings. And I guess, in the end, Mom Books want you to feel something.But I’m getting away from the original purpose of this post, which is to recommend other books to those Millions readers who enjoyed Olive Kitteridge (all you mothers out there!). Since writing reviews takes the fun out of reading for me – I can only handle the bookstore clerk’s “hand sell” recommendation model – I’ll say only this to those of you who haven’t yet read it: Strout has created a thoroughly flawed, compassionate, vulnerable, frustrating character. In the world of this book, people commit suicide (or don’t), they grow old and die on you, and your children grow up and leave you. The moments of connection between characters, or those connections that are recalled after-the-fact (which “day after day are unconsciously squandered”), are at once fleeting and immense. It’s a lovely book.Stories like “Pharmacy,” about Olive’s husband’s infatuation with his much younger employee, were reminiscent of Joan Silber’s work, for it covers time in the same efficient, fluid way. I recommend Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, which, like Olive Kitteridge, is a collection of stories linked by character (though not always the same one, and the eras and locations change.) Still, you’ll get that same zing! when a character from a previous story appears in the next one.Olive Kitteridge also reminded me of Alice Munro’s work. Like Munro, Strout values backstory; for her characters, the past resonates in the present, and shapes it. And like Munro’s work, Strout’s stories aren’t predictably structured. I often wasn’t sure where her tales were taking me; I’m not referring to plot – I mean that I was uncertain of a story’s purpose, of what it wanted to tell me about its characters and their lives, and maybe my own, until I’d reached its end. Alice Munro is the master of this kind of storytelling; it echoes what Flannery O’Connor once said, (and I’m paraphrasing), about good fiction having not abstract meaning, but experienced meaning. You’ve got to move through the stories in Olive Kitteridge if you want to be changed by them.And… let’s see…I’m trying to think of other writers whose work is similar to Elizabeth Strout’s, and I’m drawing a blank. This is a good thing, certainly. I will try to think of more… but first, I have to read Loving Frank for the aforementioned book club. Oy vey.
This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the first volume of M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. This 2006 novel was a National Book Award winner and a New York Times Bestseller. However, the literary-industrial complex hasn’t given Anderson the attention accorded to similarly ambitious writers – perhaps because his putative audience consists of “young adults.” With Volume II (The Kingdom of the Waves) now out in hardcover, we decided to give Volume I (The Pox Party) the adult consideration we both thought it deserved. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, which we’ll share with you this week in three installments: Form and Style; Historical and Geographical Setting; and Audience, Character, and Conclusion. In the event that it engages you as it did us, perhaps we’ll follow up with conversations about Volume II, and about other titles. As always, we invite you to join the conversation via the Comments box.Part 1: Form and StyleEmily: I was worshipfully impressed with this book. The most striking aspect of M.T. Anderson’s novel, to me, was its formal evocation of the eighteenth century, the period in which it is set and is supposed to have been written. Octavian evokes for me the feeling of being in the archives – reading eighteenth-century English and early American newspapers and magazines, private journals, reports from the first generation of scientific societies like London’s Royal Society that rose and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The form that dominates is the diary or journal. It is propelled mainly by Octavian’s diary-like first-person recollections of his life in the fictional Boston scientific society, The Novanglian College of Lucidity.Garth: I’m going to jump in at this point like Smokey Robinson and second your emotion, Emily. Octavian Nothing is one of the best-written – and most challenging – young adult books I’ve ever read. The pastiche of 18th-Century style reminds me more of The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon than of, say, J.K. Rowling (Anderson’s direct competitor). I’m tempted to say that it goes beyond pastiche: that it becomes beautiful in its own right. Look at the opening sentences, for example:I was raised in a gaunt house, with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered-out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight.There are a number of things going on here: lyricism, archaism, and a sophisticated “defamiliarization”; after all, what are these “orbs?”Emily: Anderson is also extremely adept at manipulating shades of tone. He manages again and again to reproduce the cadences of period writing, but he does not (as one easily might) get bogged down in the (sometimes) tortuous syntax of the age. Look at this, for example:The two of them dancing could not have presented a more charming scene, turning as they did upon the greensward, with the blue gloaming seeping through the pines behind them and the empty sky above, lit by the frisking fireflies against the black trunks; they could not have performed their steps more elegantly, or spun more sweetly, even when the music sped off to a furious pace, skittering wildly, so that it could not have offered a reasonable beat to any but a raging Corybante dancing horde, drugged and frenzied before rending the flesh of fleeing men.Here Anderson mimics the complicated grammatical structures so common in the prose of the day, but it is also, as the first sentence was, beautiful. And I admire this not just for its linguistic athleticism and acrobatic capabilities, but because such sentences evoke the style and syntax of Latin and so give a sense of Octavian’s immersion in that lost world, as his own world is lost to us.Garth: It’s a lost world in which the study of Latin rhetoric, with its ritualized devices (in this case, hyperbole) would have been second nature. Especially to Octavian, who, in the conceit of the book, is the beneficiary of the world’s finest education. Perhaps I should also insert, by way of summary, that when the book opens, young Octavian and his mother are resident in the College. The early going is devoted to Octavian’s intuition that there’s some mysterious difference between himself and the College’s other residents. His gradual discovery of the nature of that difference, and of how he came to be where he is, will precipitate his further adventures. Much of this is done in a first-person voice, which is why the defamiliarization I mentioned earlier is so effective: we see as Octavian sees, and discover as he discovers.Emily: But the form of the book soon grows more complex.Garth: Spoiler alert?Emily: Spoiler alert. Into his diaristic narrative, Anderson begins to patch-work clippings from newspapers (adverts for slave sales and reward notices for run-away slaves) and letters from a variety of characters. While Octavian is called a novel, it is in the strictest sense of the word, a miscellany, one of the defining literary forms of the age in which it is set. Miscellany is the Renaissance and Eighteenth-Century’s period-specific version of pastiche.Garth: Like that book Schott’s Miscellany from a few years back?Emily: Right. A miscellany is a collection of literary productions of various kinds (poems, letters, essays, illustrations) gathered in a single volume, often united thematically rather than formally. Octavian’s mentor in this first volume, Bono, keeps a miscellany filled with newspaper pictures of shackles, razor collars, and iron masks used to silence and punish slaves. And Anderson is making his own sort of miscellany. The different voices and perspectives on Octavian give a richer sense of his character and demeanor, and the many shades of public opinion about slave-holding that jostled against each other in revolutionary America. There are also psalms, maps, diagrams and scientific reports written about Octavian and his mother by members of the Novanglian Society.Garth: Here again, Anderson is so committed to his invention – so immersed in it – that it seems to move beyond pastiche. When I got to the psalm (a beautiful lament that I didn’t remember from church), I actually had to look it up to make sure it wasn’t fabricated. In general, Octavian is so well-researched that its factual trappings often fade into the background. Throughout the book, in the diaristic sections and the scientific reports and so on, Anderson inhabits the multifarious 18th Century mind: positivist yet deistically religious; egalitarian yet slave-owning. The contradictions in the language become the animating tensions of the book.Emily: The scientific reports are particularly chilling and – though I did find myself wondering how many of the readers of Octavian are really young adults – serve as a sort of Dialectic of Enlightenment for those not quite ready for Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Enlightenment deification of rationality and empiricism. Though, is anyone, ever?Garth: I was, once upon a time. Like you, I thought of The Dialectic of Enlightenment while reading Octavian – surely a first for a young adult book. Though I should throw in here that a similar philosophical bent and ventriloquistic brilliance animates Anderson’s earlier book, the science fiction novel Feed. (Opening line from the young narrator: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”) Part of what’s amazing about Octavian is that the Adorno/Horkheimer argument, this gnarly Germanic thing that practically makes people bleed from the ears in graduate school, becomes pellucidly clear when dramatized like this. This is not to say that Anderson’s consciously rewriting Adorno. Perhaps the idea that the Enlightenment pushed rationality to the point of irrationality is inherent in the material?Emily: I think so. “The Advancement of Learning” that began in the seventeenth century in Europe had many victims. I have read horrific Royal Society proceedings that recount “experiments” such as pouring corrosive acids on dogs and lambs to see what happens. They are more horrific for their dryly objective prose. Octavian, more horrifically still, brings this dark side of the Age of Reason to life. If you’ll allow me a final note on Anderson’s interesting and evocative approach to literary form – Garth: – And I will – Emily: – I wanted to point out that Anderson’s approach is powerful even if you are not familiar with the forms and foibles of 18th-Century literature – if you’re more familiar with the fractured forms of high Modernism, like Eliot’s The Waste Land, or miscellany’s post-modern cousin (to repeat the term you’ve been using, Garth), pastiche. In the novel’s most jarring formal sequence, Octavian’s first-person voice disappears and is replaced by a succession of letters from a variety of individuals, some barely literate, some fluent in the formal niceties and flattering flourishes of the age. All of a sudden our vision of Octavian is fractured – we’re seeing him and his plight as a runaway slave from myriad, radically different perspectives at once. I was reminded of As I Lay Dying – of a cognitive dissonance, a deliberately broken, heteroglossic approach to narrative that is much more often associated with modern authors like Joyce and Dos Passos but works remarkably well here. I was also reminded of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), another work of historical fiction that uses the fractured effect of miscellany to give a more expansive account of a moment of upheaval. It’s as if some traumas are so profoundly collective that they require a narrator, or a form, that can get beyond the limited view of the first person singular.Garth: “Heteroglossic.” I am definitely stealing that for future use. And if I can add my own summary note on the form and style of Octavian Nothing: I was basically really taken with – and jealous of – Anderson’s writing. I think he might be some kind of genius. In our next installment, maybe we can talk a bit more about that trauma – about the novel’s historical and geographical setting.
In this week’s New Yorker, Jill Lepore offers a bemused consideration (not available online) of the Library of America’s new edition of John Smith’s works. Collected fact, or collected fiction? she asks. In True Travels alone,Smith [claims] to have defeated armies, outwitted heathens, escaped pirates, hunted treasure, and wooed princesses – and all this on four continents, no less, if you count a little island in North America that this year celebrates its four-hundredth anniversary as the birthplace of the United States.Putting aside, for the time being, questions of veracity (not to mention morality – “outwitted heathens?”), the quadricentennial seems like a good time to touch upon the wonderful (and growing) body of fiction inspired by Captain Smith’s exploits.John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is surely a leading exemplar of the subgenre – as well as being one of the finest novels of the 1960s. Into the hilarious and strangely affecting story of one Ebenezer Cooke, Gentleman, Barth drops passages from Smith’s “secret [read: invented] histories.” Smith emerges as a liar and braggart of the first rank. But Cooke’s intrepid tutor Henry Burlingame, undaunted, seems to model himself on the Captain. In the course of the novel, he “hunts treasure [and] wooes princesses,” while bewildered Ebenezer blunders along in his wake. If you want a black comedy of high adventure (or if you want to see where Pynchon got the language for Mason & Dixon) look no further.In the 1990s, William T. Vollmann revisited the Jamestown story with Argall. Here, we get Barth’s pastiche of colonial Queen’s English filtered through Vollmann’s distinctive authorial temperament. Like Barth, Vollmann is fascinated by the violence of the early English colonists and the slaughter endured by the American Indians (a fascination he indulges throughout his unfinished Seven Dreams series). Unlike his metafictionist predecessor, however, Vollmann blurs the lines between fiction and journalism, between fact and legend… Sound familiar?We’ll pass over Disney’s Pocahontas (IMDb) in silence, but Terence Malick’s astonishing movie The New World (IMDb) certainly merits inclusion in the Jamestown canon. Malick takes a characteristically earnest approach to his subject. Even as his colonists descend into evil, Malick unabashedly evokes the romantic pull of the virgin land. He portrays the Powhatan tribe as innocents, much as the settlers did – but without the condescension that enabled so much slaughter. This movie is resolutely un-PC, and for that reason its condemnation of European conquest breaks through the familiar litany of post-colonial pieties. It is devastating, as any account of the origins of the U.S.A. should be.Now Matthew Sharpe, author of The Sleeping Father, has come along to toss his buckler into the ring. His new novel, published by Soft Skull, is called, simply Jamestown. I have not read it, but I can say that I like Sharpe’s writing a lot. Here he reimagines the Jamestown colony as a postmodern battleground, pitting settlers who travel by bus against indigenous people unskilled in the use of sunscreen. This appears to be an “ahistorical fantasia,” along the lines of Mark Binelli’s Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! or Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! It’s notable that younger American writers are fleeing the good government of the historical novel in an era that has itself started to seem dystopic…that has, as Frederic Jameson puts it, forgotten how “to think the present historically.” But Sharpe’s choice of setting seems propitious. For as the Vollmann and Barth books show, there’s nothing novel about these wild new novels. They’re part of a grand tradition of American craziness that, Jill Lepore points out, stretches back to John Smith himself – “Who told his glorious deeds to many, / But never was believ’d of any.”
Let us for a moment, reader, move beyond the dreary cacophony of snap-judgments – the mindless hatchetwork of critics who abandoned the novel halfway through, the predictable enthusiasms of the Elect, the hedged bets of those who managed to finish just in time for deadline. Let us distance ourselves from the welter of conflicting reports, reviews, and rumors swirling in the cultural Aether. Let us imagine for ourselves a time-machine; let us step inside; let us hurtle 100 years into the future and look back on the unexplained event that was Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Let us, that is, undertake a project not unlike the project of the novel itself. Reader, let us try to make it mean something.1.The year is 2107. Thomas Pynchon is, not surprisingly, well-represented on bookshelves. Still in print, still read. Thanks in no small part to the late-period efflorescence of Mason & Dixon, (and of course the extraordinary seventh and eighth novels), the man is now recognized as one of the 20 or 30 Great American Voices: tough and tender, erudite and foolish, and oddly, it turns out, elegiac. Witness, for example, Against the Day’s aging matriarch Mayva Traverse, here in the employ of the Oust family:Too fast almost to register, the years had taken Mayva from a high-strung girl with foreign-looking eyes to this calm dumpling of a housekeeper in a prosperous home that might as well be halfway back east, set upwind from the sparks and soot of the trains, where she kept portraits and knickknacks dusted, knew how much everything cost, what time to the minute each of the Oust kids would wake (all but the one maybe, the one with the destiny), and where each of the family was likely to’ve gone when they weren’t in the house…her once spellbinding eyes brought back, as field-creatures are re-enfolded at the end of day, into orbits grown pillow-soft, on watch within, guarding a thousand secrets of these old Territories never set down, and of how inevitable, right from the minute the first easterners showed up, would be the betrayal of everyday life out here, so hard-won, into the suburban penance the newcomers had long acceded to. The children in her care never saw past the kind and forever bustling old gal, never imagined her back in Leadville raising all species of hell…Were B.R. Meyers still living, he would doubtless be able to pick this apart: there’s a mixed metaphor, the imprecision of “re-enfolded,” a dangling modifier or two… But what did B.R. Meyers make of Melville? Damn it, Pynchon’s is great American prose, its looseness and openness to error being what makes it American as well as great. And if Pynchon’s bardic breath remained as long as it was in Gravity’s Rainbow, his syntax, we now know, gradually grew clearer. Notice the ellipsis in the middle of that first sentence, giving the reader room to rest. Notice the way the eyes are then “brought back” syntactically as well as figuratively. Notice the range of the diction, from the sublime to the vernacular. Notice what Anthony Lane, way back in the year 1997, called “a resolute refusal to turn pretty.” In the late works, as in the early ones, Pynchon flirted with portentousness, but some inner gravity kept his language rooted.From 2107, it is likewise easy to see that Pynchon’s accomplishment did not end with his sentences and paragraphs and novels, but extended to the aesthetic, cultural, and political possibilities they disclosed for several generations of artists. Here, on our adamantium coffee table, lies a moldering copy of Bookforum’s 2006 festchrift for Gravity’s Rainbow… and a dusty Tin House Books edition of Zak Smith’s illustrations. And across the room, on a glow-in-the-dark desk, are stacks of novels by the writers Pynchon transformed. Without Gravity’s Rainbow, no Infinite Jest. No White Teeth. No Mao II. (Or fill the time capsule with your own favorite “hysterical realists” (to excavate an old James Wood formulation.)) Not since Yoknapatawpha paved the way for Macondo did an author, for better or worse, open up so much territory for his peers.In the context of these achievements, local and global – and in the context of Pynchon’s public invisibility (itself possibility-disclosing) – the appearance of each novel generated extraordinary expectations. Mason & Dixon, published exactly 110 years ago, raised the bar higher, proving that Pynchon was capable of equaling if not surpassing his own masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow. Then Against the Day arrived, a seeming aberration. No one could agree. It was either his best novel or his worst. It was neither. It was both, sometimes on the same page. In a career full of oddities, it was itself an oddity (which maybe made it, via the kind of Rube-Goldberg dialectic Pynchon always excelled in, his most representative novel.)2.The plot, such as it is, concerns three groups of characters entangled both by accidents of circumstance and by the common denominator of innocence lost. It is Hamlet by way of Jules Verne, B. Traven, and Graham Greene… a revenge delayed for no apparent reason, in this case for 900 pages.First, we have the Traverses, a rough-and-tumble family in the mining country of Colorado, circa 1890. The murder of the patriarch, terrorist-cum-freedom fighter Webb Traverse, presents his offspring – hedonistic Reef, dutiful Frank, brainy Kit, and rebellious daughter Lake – with the motive for revenge, if not the means. Later, in Europe, Kit becomes mixed-up with a set of Oxbridge youth playing spy-games for the Great Powers. Meanwhile, above or slightly to the side of it all hover the Chums of Chance, a semi-fictitious gang of boy aeronauts, and their pals from other dime-novel genres: the detective Lew Basnight, the mad scientist Merle Rideout, and assorted hangers-on.Having had 100 years to ruminate on it, this is about as concise as I can get. Like every Pynchon novel, this one is a chain of substitutions: a quest is undertaken, only to be abandoned when another, more interesting quest surfaces. (This series, receding toward a vanishing point, forms a V.). Their very insolubility is the great lesson enforced by these quests.What is new in Against the Day is the way the insolubility of the quests points to questions of character, rather than to the philosophical impossibility of pinning down answers at a time of increasing entropy. That is, the Traverses’ failure to avenge their father’s death is their own damn fault. They have plenty of chances to kill Webb’s killers (Lake ends up married to one, and Kit ends up the protege of another). But they are bruised, they are weak, they are stupid, they are easily tempted. They are, in a word, feckless, and much of the drift of the novel as a whole is their drift, across continents and years…The Chums of Chance, by contrast, are all duty. Bound by a naive but endearing code of honor, they zoom around in their airship seeking to set everything right. Somehow they, too, fail, but their failures seem more honorable than those of the earthbound characters they look down on. In the course of the book, both Chums and Traverses undergo an education that brings them closer to one another, philosophically.But maybe this is too concise to do the book justice. In the course of its generous length, Against the Day also encompasses a World’s Fair, a World War, mathematical conferences, time travel, trips to the mythical city of Shambala and the anti-Earth, proto-psychedelic trips, labor unrest, and a truly bizarre interlude at a Harmonica Marching Band Academy. The list could go on (and would, if I were Pynchon). And because this is Pynchon, there is both high-minded theorizing and low humor: slapstick, puns, talking dogs, and Pig Bodine.The jokes, in fact, are funnier than in Pynchon’s earlier novels… madcap Groucho-Marxist interludes often float gloriously free of their context:”How much do you know of La Mayonnaise?” she inquired.He shrugged. “Maybe up to the part that goes ‘Aux armes, citoyens…”And in dozens upon dozens of set-pieces totaling hundreds and hundreds of pages, the painful progress of the Traverse kids, the Chums, and even minor characters like Mayva (mentioned above) are rendered with bristling, autumnal clarity. Pynchon transports us to a time when the future seemed to promise dozens of possibilities for utopia – technological, political, mathematical – and then, just as we begin to forget that these promises are doomed, he makes us feel what it must have felt like when they failed, culminating in the killing fields of the First World War.The numb evasions of the Traverses, at their most compelling, are allegories for our own.3.Having gestured, then, toward some of the wonders that await between the covers of Against the Day, I’d like to address the question of why it ultimately falls short of Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon… why it still feels, 100 years later, more like an arithmetic extension of the Pynchon oeuvre (by a whopping 50%, in terms of page-count) than like a geometric enlargement of it.First, there are a couple of flaws in the writing. Pynchon does moments very well – his dialogue has never been better, his description rarely so. He likewise does the panoramic chronicle well, but for vast stretches of Against the Day, he seems to abandon everything in between. We get staccato bursts of scene with minimal set-up: two pages, page break, one page, page break, and then suddenly six months elapse in a single paragraph. What gets lost in the meantime? Well, character, for one thing. Though the Traverse kids and several of their lovers and friends gradually attain a fullness of personality, several key players, including a key dyad, never do. Both Webb Traverse and his plutocrat nemesis Scarsdale Vibe remain more abstractions than characters, and neither of their deaths affects the reader as it does the characters in the book. Thus the grief and helplessness of Webb’s children seem more artifacts of their status as Pynchon characters than outgrowths of the novel’s chain of events. We are never grounded in Webb, and we need to be. Or to put it another way, we find out too late that we should have been paying attention to him.The absence of a mid-range lens on the action also, in the long fourth movement of the book, makes the reader wonder if the author is as adrift as his characters… waiting for something interesting to turn up. Too often that something interesting is another character. People cross paths in this novel with astounding frequency, by authorial fiat, and though there is certainly a knowingness to the way these encounters are set up – e.g. “when who should turn out to be in Transylvania but Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin!” – the stylistic tic has diminishing returns. Because we can’t fit them into any pattern, the encounters cease to be meaningful, and thus believable.Finally, the thematic force of Against the Day is more dispersed than that of its predecessors. Though the title does in fact begin to resonate (at first I thought it sounded like a new James Bond movie), it never quite rises to the level of controlling metaphor. Instead, we are left to with a couple of large arcs that never quite intersect, and thus can’t bear the load of an entire novel.One of these arcs is really interesting, and involves the possibility of existing in more than one position in space and time. Characters in Against the Day are constantly troubled by the sense that they are living more than one life in alternate worlds, or in the future, or in the past. It turns out that in 1900 this seemed scientifically quite possible… it wasn’t space that seemed conquerable then, but time. Pynchon has terrific fun with the idea of “bilocation,” and stirs up a whole hornet’s nest of metaphysical questions in the process.Set against this is the idea that everything basically comes down to the same thing: the Manichean struggle of dark against light (against the day). Sometimes Pynchon codes darkness as a good thing (darkness as anarchy vs. light as order), and sometimes he codes it as bad (darkness as fear vs. light as love), but the dualism persists throughout the novel, and seems to undercut the rich sense of possibility “bilocation” introduces. Or maybe that’s the point. But it seems to me that Pynchon’s already said what there is to be said on the subject of good vs. evil, and that the creamy middles are what he does best these days.4.Ultimately, the inhabitants of the future will read Pynchon for the same reason people did back in 2007: because he does exactly what the hell it wants to. In this way, Against the Day is very much of a piece with his previous books. Though it may not be as structurally sound as Gravity’s Rainbow, it is certainly as imaginative. And if it lacks some of the depth of Mason & Dixon’s title characters, it builds on that book’s ethical maturity, laying out a vision of right and wrong for the post-utopian age it turns out we’re all living in. To tax Against the Day with plotlessness or bloat, as some reviewers apparently did once upon a time, is like berating an overstuffed couch for not being an Eames chair. To assess it as a failure is itself a failure. We may not reread Against the Day annually, or even read it twice, but no fan of Pynchon – and there are many of us, still – will regret a month spent in the company of this anarchic, capacious book.