I recently attended a talk in Boston given by Adm. James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School — Tufts University’s graduate school of Law and Diplomacy — his alma mater (and mine). The subject was global security, and during the course of his very sobering talk, he gave a fascinating sidebar on the importance of reading novels — of stories. Among the books he mentioned were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Circle, Matterhorn, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Station Eleven.
Stavridis has had an illustrious, globe-spanning career in the U.S. Military including three years leading U.S. Southern Command and four years (2009-2013) as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. When we met before dinner, we quickly launched into a rapid-fire chat about books we had recently read. It seemed to me, he had read everything. Through military ventures in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Libya (among other operations Stavridis commanded was the 2011 NATO intervention that led to the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime) on aircraft carriers and battleships, while serving at the Pentagon and on Navy destroyers, one thing has been consistent: his love of reading, and his need for books to help make sense of this increasingly complicated world. His exuberance for the written word inspired me to return to Boston and finish our conversation.
Marcia DeSanctis: When I met you last month, you told me you had just put down My Life in France and it had you in tears. That surprised me.
James Stavridis: Why?
MD: I suppose because you’re a four-star admiral.
JS: Well, even four-star admirals read quirky books and this is an incredibly quirky, wonderful book about discovering yourself and discovering your life. Julia Child comes to France, kind of searched around for what to do with her life, essentially. Newly married and falls in love not only with her husband but with France and with its cuisine and with its culture. The voice in the book is so authentic and so beautiful, so wonderfully rendered. And the part that really had me in tears — because everything I said to you is actually quite joyous and upbeat — is the end of the book where she recognizes that, as she hits her 80s, she cannot continue to go independently to the small home in the south of France where she had centered so much of her life. And you can feel her untethering from something that has meant everything to her.
MD: You also mentioned you like books about chefs.
JS: Oh, I love books about chefs. Who doesn’t? I love, particularly, chef memoirs. Anthony Bourdain is just fantastic, Kitchen Confidential. Or The Devil in the Kitchen (Marco Pierre White) is just fabulous.
MD: So the reason I asked to interview you was because I recently attended a lecture you gave in Boston, which was a frank assessment of the crises that are facing our planet now and the people on it. You covered it all — climate change, ISIS, epidemics, poverty, inequality, cyber risks. And then you posted a slide about novels. Can you tell me why you inserted a slide about novels and why you chose the ones that you did?
JS: Well, first of all, because reading is integral to my life. And I think, in the end, we solve global problems not by launching missiles, it’s by launching ideas. So as a tool for understanding the world and for understanding how you can change the world, I find fiction incredibly important. One that I put up pretty frequently is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a superb book about North Korea. And North Korea’s an almost impenetrable country. But through a decade of meticulous research and endless interviews and then, an understanding of the human sensibility in an extraordinarily dystopian world, Adam Johnson gives us a portrait of life in North Korea. It’s not a burlesque, it’s not satire. It is, in every sense, life in a world where everything is a half a beat off the music. It’s a gorgeous novel.
I think a second book I had there was The Circle by David Eggers, which is a world in which all of the social networks kind of merge into one. So picture Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, everything merged in one huge social network where the motto is “Privacy is Theft.” And the idea is that by complete transparency, we can transform the world. Overlaid on it is a coming of age story of a young woman who has her first job at the Circle. In the largest sense, by one of our most creative contemporary writers, David Eggers, it is a story about what we hold to ourselves, what is privacy, and what transparency can provide but take away from each of us. I think that is an enormous debate that spans the distance from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning. It’s a profoundly important novel that helps us deal with this collision between privacy and transparency.
MD: And you think a novel has the power to help deal with it?
JS: I do, I do absolutely. In the most prosaic way, novels are stories. So recognizing there are differences in how people learn and what people want to read, for me — and I think for the vast majority of people — stories are the best way to learn.
MD: You also discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
JS: Dystopian literature is very interesting. Most of it is unspeakably bleak. But some dystopian literature really is about how you come back; it’s about resilience, so I love that novel.
Station Eleven is about the world after a brutal pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population. And it’s a novel about choices that people make in crisis. And so the protagonist chooses — and I love this part — to become part of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors with a kind of ragtag orchestra attached to it, that wanders around this devastated countryside putting on plays and concerts. And think about that for a minute and what that implies about the resilience of the human spirit, about the importance of art, the importance of music, the importance of drama — all those things are powerful in this. It’s such a wonderful construct. And, at the end of the novel, they got to an airport where another band of outcasts have managed to find a way. And in the distance, they see a light on a hilltop — not a bonfire but an electric light. It’s a symbol that we can recover, we can come back. It’s a very hopeful novel.
I was just testifying with Bill Gates on the Hill yesterday, not to namedrop, but we were talking about global health and pandemics and the importance of speed and alacrity in response. Part of what can help us prepare for a pandemic is imagining how horrible the outcome would be. Thus, a book like Station Eleven helps us do that.
MD: Interesting. So in your talk, you confirmed what most of us know, that in a world gone mad or potentially gone mad, novels are these kinds of islands of sanity and escape, even ones that are difficult to read like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
JS: Yeah, oh, that’s an absolutely wonderful book.
MD: I agree. So explain to me, why reading matters and the importance of books, particularly fiction, in your life.
JS: Well, first of all, I developed a reading habit very early. My parents moved to Greece when I was eight years old. In those days, in the 1960s, Greece effectively didn’t have television. Certainly no English language television. So my mom would take me down to the embassy library on the weekends and I’d pick out books. And then, it became a lifelong habit and I’ve always had a book in my hand. I read constantly. I read probably 80 percent fiction, 20 percent nonfiction. And I have found through reading fiction, I understand the human condition better.
You said a moment ago that a novel is a sanctuary in the middle of this violent world. Let’s remember that occasionally, novels are also moments of violence in an otherwise very peaceful life. It can be the opposite. And so if you can think of a novel as a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation, it becomes, I think, a very helpful learning tool about ourselves.
And, helpful to understand other places and cultures. I’ve recommended on occasion a novel about Afghanistan called The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, which is not about the current NATO campaign, it’s not about the Russian campaign, it’s not about the British campaign. It’s about the first campaign, which is that of Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ attempt to conquer Afghanistan, which turned out roughly the same as all the other ones. And the reason is because you can drop a line — a plumb line — from 2,500 years ago to the present day in terms of the toughness of Pashtuns and their culture. And so to read a novel like that, even set in an ancient time, could help you understand Afghanistan and its place in history.
Lastly, I think novels are a way that we can explore the unimaginable. So here, I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy even, which I think are not only entertaining but powerful in terms of how they open our minds. I’ll give you an example. Ender’s Game, which is a classic science fiction novel about a cyber force defending its world. It makes me think, “Should we have a cyber force today?” Today we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps. We don’t have a cyber force. But when I read a science fiction novel about the future, I think, “Boy, we’re going to need one pretty quick.” I have a lot of pragmatic, real world reasons for that, as well. But fiction can reinforce that and open up what’s often unimaginable to us.
MD: Do you believe that there is a single most important novel about conflict — or let’s say two, an old one and a new one, a classic and a contemporary — that really encapsulates the bad and the ugly about war?
JS: Yeah, I’ll give you a modern one, Matterhorn, which is by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam and combat at the micro level. It’s about a young Princeton graduate who becomes a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and his first 60 days in combat. It won the National Book Award. It’s magnificent.
I’ll give you one from the middle period. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, about the psychology of war, is quite terrific. All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is incredible.
For contemporary historical fiction written about a battle 2,500 years ago, I’d recommend Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae. And there’s a powerful line in that book, which I think is very true, which is that the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear on a battlefield is love. Because warriors in combat fight for the love of those with whom they are in combat. That’s a powerful idea. Actually, I have to give you one other.
JS: Because I’m an Admiral, I get to give you a nautical book.
MD: That was one of my questions, actually.
JS: So the best seagoing books about combat, in my opinion, are by a writer called Patrick O’Brian. He wrote a series of believe it or not, 20 novels and they’re all set from about 1800 through 1815. They follow the life and times of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey. They are terrific. Picture Jane Austen going to sea and writing about maritime combat. They are that good. I think they may be the best writing of the late-20th century. The reason they’re not more widely celebrated is because they’re perceived as maritime warfare genre. But these are big, chewy, fascinating books about life, relationships. About a third of them are set ashore in early 1800s Great Britain, two-thirds set at sea. The combat scenes are incredibly realistic.
MD: Do you have a favorite book about the sea?
JS: I think it’s hard to argue with Moby-Dick. It’s the greatest sea novel of all.
JS: I like Don DeLillo, I liked Falling Man. I don’t lean to 9/11 books as a general proposition. I had a near death experience at 9/11. I was in the Pentagon and my office was right on the side of the building that was hit by the airplane.
MD: You spent your career up until now with the military. Do you read books that are critical of U.S. policy and the wars themselves?
JS: Of course.
MD: There are many.
JS: Oh, sure.
MD: Shattering depictions of the war, soldiers’ reality, and the aftermath.
JS: Oh, gosh, yes. Both fiction and nonfiction. I’ll give you a couple that I loved. I like Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, just came out. I like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I like Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), I like The Book of Jonas (Stephen Dau).
In terms of nonfiction, critical, I think is Fiasco by Tom Ricks — it’s harsh, but, in many ways, accurate. It’s about Iraq. Most of the really harsh books are more about Iraq, less about Afghanistan, I think because Afghanistan’s probably going to come out okay.
MD: Yes. What about Dexter Filkins?
JS: I love Dexter Filkins. The Forever War I think is a masterpiece. And you know, I signed 2,700 letters of condolence to young men and women who died under my command. And when I’m in Washington, I often go to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and visit with them and that will be with me forever. So I read those books partly to honor them, partly because it’s a big part of my life, partly because I feel it’s my responsibility.
MD: How do you have time to do all this reading?
JS: I stay up late at night, do it on airplanes, use technology to make it easy.
MD: I was going to ask — Kindle or hard copy?
MD: Books on tape? Do you do Audible?
JS: No, I don’t. What I do now, as opposed to going out and buying a stack of books, is I’ll read on the Kindle and then say okay, that’s a terrific book, and buy it. Like I just read Into the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which is a book about a polar expedition and it’s fantastic. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It’s kind of in Eric Larson style if you know his work.
MD: I do.
JS: I’m reading currently his new book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s just fantastic. Oh, gosh. Fabulous, fabulous writer. So if I think a book will stand up to it, I’ll own a copy of it. I own about 5,000 books and I’m trying to not own 10,000 books.
JS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful novel.
MD: I wrote my senior thesis on him, by the way.
JS: Stop it.
MD: Yes, about Aksyonov.
JS: Is he still alive, by the way?
MD: No, he died a few years ago. He’s not one of the better known Soviet-era writers. Why do you think this is an important book?
JS: Because it raises issues of ethics in command. It’s also, I think, a portrait of a really interesting period in Russian society that transitioned from the World War II generation and how they were effectively betrayed. And I think it’s also a novel about civilian control of the military. I just think it’s a very clever, haunting novel and the characters are beautifully developed.
Is it as good as [Fyodor] Dostoevsky or [Leo] Tolstoy or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, [Nikolai] Gogol? No. But…
MD: You have a lot of Russians on that list.
JS: Oh, yeah. I love Russian literature.
MD: If you met Vladimir Putin, what would you suggest he read?
JS: I’d start — and I’m sure he’s read a lot of the — well, actually, no, he was a KGB Colonel, so maybe not. He’s certainly not from the intelligentsia, he’s from the thugocracy.
JS: Thugocracy, absolutely. I think I’d start him on Dead Souls by Gogol because it’s such an absurdist novel and it’s about trying to grasp power and watching it slip through your fingers. I’d probably force him to read The Brothers Karamazov and focus on the Grand Inquisitor scene. But you know what he’d say back to me? He’d say, “Okay, I’ll read those, but, Stavridis, if you want to understand how tough Russians are and why your sanctions aren’t going to work, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. And so I think we could have a lively conversation about the motifs of Russian literature.
MD: Fair enough. You also included one of my favorites, The Good Soldier Svejk. What does that book teach you about command? Not much, right?
JS: No, not much at all. Another terrific novel — I forget if it was on my list, I think it was, is called One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. You should stop everything you’re doing and read this book.
MD: Really? Why?
JS: If you like Russia and you’re interested in this topic, it’s about a Russian conscript fighting in Chechnya in the 1980s. It’s an inside look at the Russian military and its extraordinary dysfunctionality and the cruelty of its counter-insurgency technique, which led, obviously, to the complete disasters there. I mean, it makes the U.S. performance in Vietnam look like an Olympic gold medal by comparison. It’s a powerful, powerful book.
MD: I noticed you had Anne Applebaum’s book on the list, which I thought was really a masterpiece. I mean…
MD: Gulag: A History, yes.
JS: Yeah, it’s a brilliant book.
MD: Of all the global concerns now — and there are many — what do you think is the most fertile ground for future literature?
JS: Of what’s happening now, I think it’s the Arab Spring, which the term itself has become this sort of grand irony. But I think what’s happening in the Arab world today is a lot like the Reformation, which ripped apart the Christian faith, created the wars between Protestants and Catholics, destroyed a third of the population of Europe. It led to, among other things, William Shakespeare’s plays, Martin Luther’s writing. So I think the big muscle movement is in the Arab world and I think those novels are being written. They’ll have to be translated. They’ll start to come out, though. But the searing quality of what’s happening in that part of the world, I think, will unfortunately lend itself to a dark vein of fiction going forward. I think another place is India, and I love contemporary Indian fiction.
MD: Name a few that you love.
JS: The Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, and even better is White Tiger. I like Salman Rushdie. He’s a little dense and somewhat impenetrable. I like — I forget his name. Sea of Poppies is his best book. It’s fantastic. It’s historical fiction set, oh, probably 200 years ago. Hang on, let’s see. [Looks it up on iPad] Yeah, Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. So there’s a few. But I think Indian literature will lend itself to big, big novels coming out.
The United States will continue to produce, I think, terrific novels from young novelists and from old novelists. Can there be a better writer alive today than Cormac McCarthy, who’s 80-plus years old and keeps writing these masterpieces one after the other? It’s unbelievable.
MD: It is.
JS: And we have brilliant, brilliant young writers, certainly in the English speaking world — this novel, The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) She’s a New Zealander, youngest person to ever win the Man-Booker Prize. And the book is just — oh, my God, it’s magnificent. It’s just unstoppable.
MD: Tell me what you like about it.
JS: I love it because it’s so complicated and the fit and finish of it are just extraordinary as a technical accomplishment. Secondly, it is about a fascinating period in the Gold Rush in New Zealand in the 1850s. And thirdly, the characters in it are so both crisply drawn but feel like they’re just from contemporary life. They feel like they have walked in from people you know. It’s really good. I’ll tell you, it’s like Cold Mountain, which I know you’ve read, by Charles Frazier. It’s that good.
MD: That’s a good war book.
JS: It is a good war book a book that shows both sides of it, with the coming home piece, too.
MD: I wanted to get some final thoughts about some of the books you highlighted in your talk in Boston (Matterhorn, The Orphan Master’s Son, Station Eleven, The Circle). Is this the literature of hope or is it the literature of despair about the world we live in now?
JS: What we hope from our writers is that they give us both. Despair’s part of the human condition as is joy and hope and love. And there are wonderful novels on both sides. And as I look back at literature over the ages, I think that’s largely been the case. I think you go back to Voltaire writing in the midst of the French Revolution, the world’s collapsing. I mean, the world is on fire. It’s really falling apart. We like to act like the world’s falling apart. It’s actually not. It’s actually going to hold together and it’s getting better. And that’s hard to see in the thicket of the day-to-day anguish over — justifiably — over Syria and the Ukraine and people flying airplanes into the side of mountains. But if you really rise your head above it and you look at violence in the world, levels of war, we’re better than we’ve ever been. Fewer people are killed in war, fewer people die of pestilence. We’re getting better by really any conceivable metric.
So back to Voltaire. He’s writing in a world that really is on fire. What’s the novel he writes? Candide. You know? “I must tend my garden.” It’s pretty terrific. And that’s a book I read once every year or two. And you know, there are those who say, “Oh, it was all a big satire and you know, he’s actually debunking the theory of optimism.” I don’t think so. I think Candide is a book of optimism and a book of hope from a guy who was very cynical. But I think in his heart, he felt like the outcome of this revolution and everything that was falling apart would eventually be a better world, and I think we’re getting there.
MD: Anything you’re looking forward to?
JS: Well, I wake up every morning hoping that this will be the day that Hilary Mantel’s third volume comes out after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I love Hilary Mantel because she’s a brilliant writer. But what I love about the trilogy is the reversal of character in which Thomas Cromwell, always portrayed as the villain, is suddenly the hero. And Sir Thomas More, the saintly Thomas More, is the insufferable prig. And I find it a to be a powerful piece of fiction because it reimagines the world. Because no one knows. No one knows. I mean, that was 400 years ago and no one knows.
MD: Last question. Do you have a favorite movie about the Navy?
JS: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by a country mile.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The IMPAC Award shortlist was announced today. The IMPAC sets itself apart with its unique approach. Its massive longlist is compiled by libraries all over the world before being whittled down by judges. This makes for a more egalitarian selection. It’s also got a long lead time. Books up for the current prize (to be named June 13th) were all published in 2010, putting the IMPAC more than a year behind other big literary awards. There’s a distinct upside in this. By now, nearly all the shortlisted books are available in paperback in the U.S. The IMPAC also tends to be interesting for the breadth of books it considers.This year’s shortlist is typically eclectic, representing several countries and ranging from bestsellers to relative unknowns.Rocks in the Belly by Jon BauerThe Matter With Morris by David BergenA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – (excerpt, Egan’s Year in Reading, The Millions profile of Egan, A Millions Hall of Famer)The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (excerpt)Even the Dogs by Jon McGregorMatterhorn by Karl Marlantes (our review, excerpt)Landed by Tim PearsLimassol by Yishai SaridThe Eternal Son by Cristovão TezzaLean on Pete by Willy Vlautin (excerpt)
2012 is shaping up to be another exciting year for readers. While last year boasted long-awaited novels from David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Jeffrey Eugenides, readers this year can look forward to new Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, Peter Carey, Lionel Shriver, and, of course, newly translated Roberto Bolaño, as well as, in the hazy distance of this coming fall and beyond, new Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel, and John Banville. We also have a number of favorites stepping outside of fiction. Marilynn Robinson and Jonathan Franzen have new essay collections on the way. A pair of plays are on tap from Denis Johnson. A new W.G. Sebald poetry collection has been translated. And Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer have teamed to update a classic Jewish text. But that just offers the merest suggestion of the literary riches that 2012 has on offer. Riches that we have tried to capture in another of our big book previews.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 8,400 words strong and encompassing 81 titles, this is the only 2012 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: No venom seems more befitting an author than words, words, words. In Ben Marcus’s Flame Alphabet, language is the poison that youth inflict on adult ears. Utterances ushered from children’s mouths have toxic effects on adults, while the underage remain immune to the assault. The effects are so harmful that The Flame Alphabet’s narrator, Sam, and his wife must separate themselves from their daughter to preserve their health. Sam sets off to the lab to examine language and its properties in an attempt to discover an antidote and reunite his family. Marcus’s uncharacteristically conventional narrative makes way for him to explore the uncanny eccentricities of language and life. (Anne)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the dyspeptic bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence but compensates by introducing a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson: One of our most prescient and tuned-in writers of science fiction is coming out with his first collection of non-fiction. Distrust That Particular Flavor gathers together articles and essays William Gibson wrote, beginning in the 1980s, for Rolling Stone, Wired, Time, The Whole Earth Catalog, The New York Times and other publications and websites. There are also forewords, introductions and speeches, even an autobiographical sketch. While these pieces offer fascinating glimpses inside the machinery of Gibson’s fiction writing, their central concern is technology and how it is shaping our future, and us. “What we used to call ‘future shock,'” Gibson writes, “is now simply the one constant in all our lives.” (Bill)
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery: With starred reviews from both Booklist and Library Journal, Ellis Avery’s second novel The Last Nude imagines the brief love affair between the glamorous Art-Deco Painter Tamara de Lempicka and the young muse for her most iconic painting The Beautiful Rafaela. Set in 1920s Paris, among the likes of Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and a fictional American journalist named Anson Hall (a sort of Ernest Hemingway type), Avery explores the costs of ambition, the erotics of sexual awakening, and the devastation that ensues when these two converge. Critics have praised The Last Nude as riveting, elegant, seductive, and breathtaking. (Sonya)
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander: Auslander has made a name for himself with side-splitting appearances on This American Life and his equally funny memoir Foreskin’s Lament that have marking out a fruitful career as a Jewish humorist. Auslander’s new book is his first novel, which New York says is “kind of about the lighter side of collective Holocaust guilt” Kirkus, meanwhile, has called the book, which explores the Holocaust as “an unshakable, guilt-inducing fixture in the life of any self-aware Jew,” “Brutal, irreverent and very funny. An honest-to-goodness heir to Portnoy’s Complaint.” (Max)
Smut by Alan Bennett: Given the existence of Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, a new book entitled Smut would seem to have a lot to live up to—at minimum, it should descend into dimensions so filthy and moist that they would cause Baker’s own thunderstick to droop in disgusted admiration. Instead, the absurdly prolific, versatile, and esteemed writer of The History Boys and The Madness of King George provides a pair of very English stories about the sexual adventures of two middle-aged, middle-class British women. So, rather than a lightspeed journey smack into a rigid “Malcolm Gladwell,” Smut is, in the words of the Guardian, a “comedy of false appearances.” And that’s probably not such a bad thing. (Jacob)
Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts by William H. Gass: Random House will publish Gass’s latest collection of non-fiction this January. In Life Sentences, his tenth non-fiction book, Gass explores the work of a number of his own favorite writers, with essays on Kafka, Proust, Stein, Nietzsche, Henry James and Knut Hamsen. Gass, the author of Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel, is a central figure in postmodern literature, and his critical essays have been hugely influential (he coined the term “metafiction” in his 1970 essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”). (Mark)
At Last and The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn is probably neck-and-neck with Alan Hollinghurst for the title of “purest living English prose stylist.” However, where Hollinghurst traces a line of descent from the prodigious Henry James, St. Aubyn’s leaner style harkens back to the shorter comic novels of Waugh and Henry Green. For 20 years, he’s been producing a semiautobiographical series whose chief interest – one of them anyway – is seeing all that fineness applied to the coarsest of behaviors: abuse, addiction, abandonment. Booker nominations notwithstanding, readers on these shores have paid little attention. Then again, Hollinghurst took a while to find his audience, too, and with the publication of the final “Patrick Melrose novel,” At Last, St. Aubyn should finally get his due. Latecomers can prepare by immersing themselves in the new omnibus edition of the previous titles: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. (Garth)
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan: In addition to being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Edugyan’s sophomore novel was and nominated for all three of the major Canadian literary prizes, and won the Scotiabank Giller award for best Canadian novel published this year, whose jury said “any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.” Praised by The Independent for its “shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang,” Half-Blood Blues follows the dangerous exploits of an interracial jazz band in Berlin, Baltimore, and Nazi-occupied Paris. (Emily K.)
The Recognitions by William Gaddis: Fifty-seven years after its first publication, Dalkey Archive Press reissues William Gaddis’s classic with a new introduction by William H. Gass. Gaddis’s mammoth work of early postmodernism (or very late modernism, depending on who you ask) is one of the key entries in the canon of American postwar fiction, and a major influence on the likes of David Foster Wallace. Set in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the novel is a thoroughly ruthless (and ruthlessly thorough) examination of fraudulence and authenticity in the arts. Given its influence on postmodern American fiction, Dalkey Archive Press seems a natural home for the novel.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander: Nathan Englander, 41, burst onto the literary scene in 1999 with his widely praised collection of short stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. This February he releases his second collection of stories, eight in all, that draw on themes from Jewish history and culture. The title story, about two married couples playing out the Holocaust as a parlor game, appeared in the December 12 edition of The New Yorker. The collection as a whole is suffused with violence and sexual desire. In a starred review Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “[Englander] brings a tremendous range and energy to his chosen topic. (Kevin)
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes: What is it with Hungary? It may not have produced the highest number of Nobel Peace Prize candidates, but it almost certainly boasts the highest population-density of contenders for the Nobel in Literature. There are the two Péters, Nádas and Esterhazy. There’s Imre Kertesz, who deservedly took home the laurels in 2002. More recently, English-language monoglots have been discovering the work of László Krasznahorkai. Susan Sontag called The Melancholy of Resistance, “inexorable, visionary”…(of course, Susan Sontag once called a Salade Nicoise “the greatest light lunch of the postwar period.”) More recently, James Wood hailed War and War and Animalinside as “extraordinary.” Satantango, Krasznahorkai’s first novel, from 1985, now reaches these shores, courtesy of the great translator George Szirtes. Concerning the dissolution of a collective farm, it was the basis for Bela Tarr’s 7-hour movie of the same name. (Garth)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo: Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker and an astute chronicler of America’s poor, turns to India for her first book, a work of narrative nonfiction exploring Annawadi, a shantytown settlement near the Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Flowers follows the lives of a trash sorter, a scrap metal thief, and other citizens of Annawadi, and delves into the daily life and culture of a slum in one of the world’s most complex and fascinating cities. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “Boo’s commanding ability to convey an interior world comes balanced by concern for the structural realities of India’s economic liberalization…and her account excels at integrating the party politics and policy strategies behind eruptions of deep-seated religious, caste, and gender divides.” (Patrick)
Varamo by Cesar Aira: With a new book out in translation seemingly every time you turn around, the Argentine genius Cesar Aira is fast achieving a Bolaño-like ubiquity. And with more than 80 books published in his native land, there’s more where that came from. Aira’s fascinating writing process, which involves never revisiting the previous day’s writing, means that his novels lack the consistency of Bolaño’s. Instead, you get an improvisatory wildness that, at its best – as in Ghosts – opens up possibilities where there had seemed to be brick walls. Varamo, recently reviewed in The Quarterly Conversation, features “a Panamanian civil servant [who] conceives and writes what will become a canonical poem of the Latin American avant-garde.” The great Chris Andrews translates.
Flatscreen by Adam Wilson: “But maybe Mom’s not the place to start…” So begins the fast, funny debut of Adam Wilson, who’s recently published fiction and criticism in The Paris Review and Bookforum. The story concerns the unlikely…er, friendship between ADHD adolescent Eli Schwartz and one Seymour J. Kahn, a horndog paraplegic and ex-TV star. In the channel-surfing argot that gives the prose much of its flavor: Think The Big Lebowski meets Catcher in the Rye meets that old cable series Dream On. (Garth)
No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel: A graduate of the MFA program at UC Irvine, Ramona Ausubel brings us a debut novel about a remote Jewish village in Romania. The year is 1939, and in an attempt to protect themselves from the encroaching war, its residents—at the prompting of an eleven-year-old girl—decide to tell a different story, to will reality out of existence, and imagine a new and safer world. Last April, Ausubel published a strange and beautiful story called “Atria” in The New Yorker, and I’ve been anticipating her novel ever since. (Edan)
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon: Once called “a remarkable chronicler of a very American kind of sadness” (SF Chronicle), the author of Await Your Reply has slowly built a reputation as one of the most incisive writers of our time, specializing in characters who are dark, damaged, and perplexing, but making the reader feel protective of and connected to them. Populated with night terrors, impossible memories, ghosts, mysterious messages, and paranoia, Stay Awake heralds Chaon’s return to the short story with delicate unease. (Janet)
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer shows no signs of slowing down after seeing two stunning books of essays published in the U.S. in 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition and The Missing of the Somme. This English writer, blessed with limitless range and a ravishing ability to bend and blend genres, is coming out with a peculiar little book about a 30-year obsession. It’s a close analysis of the Russian director Andre Tarkovsky’s 1979 movie Stalker, and Dyer calls it “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.” Even so, Dyer brings some sharp instruments to the job, and the result is an entertaining and enlightening joy. (Bill)
The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal: A book in the form of a duel. In 2003, John D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay about a young man who jumped to his death from a Las Vegas hotel. The magazine that commissioned the story ultimately rejected it due to factual inaccuracies. Is there a difference between accuracy and truth? Is it ever appropriate to substitute one for the other in a work of non-fiction? The Lifespan of a Fact examines these questions in the form of a seven-year correspondence between D’Agata and his increasingly exasperated fact-checker, Jim Fingal; the book is composed of the essay itself, Fingal’s notes on the essay, D’Agata’s responses to the notes, Fingal’s responses to the responses. (Emily M.)
Dogma by Lars Iyer: Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious was published last year to considerable acclaim, and was short-listed for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. Spurious concerned a narrator named Lars Iyer, also a writer, his friend W., their certainty that we’re living in the End of Times, their longing to think a truly original thought, the mold that’s taking over Lars’ apartment, their parallel searches for a) meaning and b) a leader and c) quality gin. Dogma—an altogether darker work, the second in a planned trilogy—picks up where Spurious left off. (Emily M.)
The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso: In this brief book, Manguso, who already has a memoir – the acclaimed Two Kinds of Decay – two poetry collections and two short story collections under her belt, offers a rumination on a friend named Harris who had spent time in a mental institution before killing himself by stepping onto the tracks in front of a commuter train. Kirkus says the book asks the question: “How does the suicide of a friend affect someone who has come perilously close to suicide herself?” (Max)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson: The exalted author of Gilead and Home claims that the hardest work of her life has been convincing New Englanders that growing up in Idaho was not “intellectually crippling.” There, during her childhood, she read about Cromwell, Constantinople, and Carthage, and her new collection of essays celebrates the enduring value of reading, as well as the role of faith in modern life, the problem with pragmatism, and her confident, now familiar, view of human nature. (Janet)
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton: In his new book, Alain de Botton argues for a middle ground in the debate between religious people and non-believers: rather than dismiss religion outright, he suggests, a better approach would be to steal from it. de Botton, himself a non-believer, suggests that “while the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false,” religious doctrines nonetheless contain helpful ideas that an atheist or agnostic might reasonably consider borrowing. (Emily M.)
Arcadia by Lauren Groff: Previewed in our July 2011 round-up of most anticipated books, Arcadia follows Bit Stone, a man who grows up in an agrarian utopian commune in central New York that falls apart, as they generally do. The second half of the novel charts Bit’s life as an adult, showing how his upbringing influenced and shaped his identity. A starred review in Publishers Weekly says, “The effective juxtaposition of past and future and Groff’s (Delicate Edible Birds) beautiful prose make this an unforgettable read.” Hannah Tinti calls it “an extraordinary novel.” (Edan)
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru: Hari Kunzru’s always had an interest in counterculture. His last novel, My Revolutions, concerned ’60s-era unrest and its consequences. That countercultural energy not only pervades the plot of his new novel; it explodes its form. Structured in short chapters ranging over three hundred years of history and several dozen different styles, Gods Without Men has already been likened to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – but with “more heart and more interest in characterization” (The Guardian.) And the centrifugal structure gives Kunzru license to tackle the Iraq War, Eighteenth Century explorers, hippie communes, and UFOs. (Garth)
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret: Etgar Keret’s choice of position while writing–facing a bathroom, his back to a window–reveals much about his fiction. He stories are absurd, funny, and unearth the unexpected in seemingly everyday situations. Many stories from his forthcoming collection are set on planes, “a reality show that nobody bothers to shoot,” and deal in wishes and desires. In “Guava,” a plane crashes, a passenger is granted a last wish and is then reincarnated as a guava. Another story involves a wish-granting goldfish, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and a Russian expatriate who seeks to avoid having strangers knock on his door. Keret’s stories are brief inundations of imagination, an experience that holds true for Keret as much as it does for his reader. Keret says he becomes so immersed while writing that he’s unaware of his surroundings, regardless of his view. (Anne)
Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison: As a young writer, Harrison gained fame for her tales of incestuous love, which turned out to be based in part on her own liaison with her father, which she described in her controversial memoir, The Kiss. Now, Harrison tackles a different kind of troubled family in this tale of doomed love between Masha, the daughter of Rasputin, and sickly Aloysha, son of the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, while the Romanovs are imprisoned in St. Petersburg’s Alexander Palace in the months following the Bolshevik Revolution. (Michael)
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway: Nick Harkaway’s second novel—his first was the sprawling and wildly inventive The Gone-Away World—concerns a clockwork repairman by the name of Joe Spork, a quiet single man in his thirties who leads an uneventful life in an unfashionable corner of London, and a nearly-ninety-year-old former spy by the name of Edie Banister. Their worlds collide when Spork repairs an especially unusual clockwork mechanism that effectively blows his quiet life to pieces and immerses him in a world, Harkaway reports, of “mad monks, psychopaths, villainous potentates, scientific geniuses, giant submarines, determined and extremely dangerous receptionists, and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe.” (Emily M.)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: After a run of bestsellers, including the Columbine-inspired We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was recently made into a movie with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, Shriver is digging into her bottom drawer to publish an old novel rejected by publishers when she wrote it in 1998. The New Republic, written when Shriver still lived in strife-torn Northern Ireland, is set on a non-existent peninsula of Portugal and focuses on terrorism and cults of personality. (Michael)
The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner: It’s been 14 years since Leyner’s last literary release, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, though he’s been busy co-authoring the series of ponderously quirky human anatomy readers that started with Why do Men Have Nipples: Hundreds of Questions you’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini. With The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner returns to fiction, takes on the geographical and cultural contradictions of Dubai, and writes down the mythology of what he’s calling our “Modern Gods.” Also included: a cameo from the Mister Softee jingle, and a host of “drug addled bards.” (Emily K.)
The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits: The fourth novel from Believer editor Julavits tells the story of an academy for psychics and the battle between two powerful women, the masterful Madame Ackermann and her most promising — and hence threatening — student Julia Severn. After Ackermann forces Julia to relive her mother’s suicide, Julia flees to Manhattan where she works a humdrum job in exile. Soon, her talents are needed to track down a missing artist who may have a connection to her mother. Powell’s Bookstore included a galley of the book as a pairing with Erin Morgenstern’s enormously popular The Night Circus, noting that The Vanishers “has magic, darkness, whimsy, and flat-out great writing.” (Patrick)
New American Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander: This new translation, brought to us by Foer and Englander (with design work by the Israeli “typographic experimentalist” Oded Ezer), represents an unusual confluence of youthful, modern American Jewish thought. Featuring essays and commentary by an intriguingly diverse group (Tony Kushner, Michael Pollan, Lemony Snicket), the New American Haggadah should deliver an infusion of fresh intellectual energy into the traditional Seder narrative. (Jacob)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Adam Levin works on his short game with this follow-up to his 1,030-page debut novel The Instructions. Hot Pink is a collection of short stories, many of which have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Tin House. From his own descriptions of the stories, Levin seems to be mining the same non-realist seam he excavated with his debut. There are stories about legless lesbians in love, puking dolls, violent mime artists, and comedians suffering from dementia. Fans of The Instructions’ wilder flights of invention (and devotees of the legless lesbian romance genre) will find much to anticipate here. (Mark)
Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 by John Leonard: For anyone who aspires to write book reviews – that orphaned form stranded halfway between Parnassus and Fleet Street – the late John Leonard was an inspiration. Tough-minded, passionate, at once erudite and street, he was something like the literary equivalent of Pauline Kael. I’m assuming here we’ll get a nice selection of his best work. (Garth)
The Cove by Ron Rash: For the poet, novelist and short story writer Ron Rash, this could be the break-out novel that gives him the name recognition of such better-known Appalachian conjurers as Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell and Charles Frazier. The Cove, set in the North Carolina mountains during the First World War, is the story of Laurel Shelton and her war-damaged brother Hank, who live on land that the locals believe is cursed. Everything changes when Laurel comes upon a mysterious stranger in the woods, who she saves from a near-fatal accident. “Rash throws a big shadow now,” says Daniel Woodrell, “and it’s only going to get bigger and soon.” (Bill)
Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen: From Franzen, a collection of essays and speeches written primarily in the last five years. The title essay generated considerable attention when it appeared in The New Yorker in April. In it, Franzen told of his escape to a remote, uninhabited island in the South Pacific following the suicide of his friend David Foster Wallace. Two pieces in the collection—“On Autobiographic Fiction” and “Comma-Then”—have never been published before. Others focus on environmental devastation in China, bird poachers in Cyprus, and the way technology has changed the way people express intimate feelings to each other. (Kevin)
Immobility by Brian Evenson: Genre-bender Evenson (Fugue State, Contagion) returns with an inventive mystery centering around a brilliant detective wasting away from an incurable disease and, consequently, frozen in suspended animation for years. Thawed out by a mysterious man, he must solve an important case with enormous stakes, and he must do it all in time to be frozen again before his disease kills him. There’s little information out there on this book, but he has described it as “another weird noir.” (Patrick)
The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño: Published in 2007 as El Secreto del Mal, The Secret of Evil is a collection of short stories and essays culled posthumously from Roberto Bolaño’s archives. Due this April, the collection joins the steady torrent of Bolaño material that has been translated and published since his death. The stories revisit characters from The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas, and feature other members of Bolaño’s now familiar cast. Some have argued that the embarrassment of posthumous Bolaño riches has occasionally bordered on, well, the embarrassing, but Bolaño’s English-language readers hope for the best. (Lydia)
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag: Susan Sontag said that her books “are not a means of discovering who I am … I’ve never fancied the ideology of writing as therapy or self-expression.” Despite her dismissal of the personal in her own writing, Sontag’s life has become a subject of cultural obsession. The first volume of her journals captivated readers with tales of youthful cultivation, spiced with reading lists, trysts, and European adventures. In the interim since, we’ve fed on reflections like Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan and Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, Sontag’s second volume of journals, picks up in 1964, the year of “Notes on Camp” (which also marked her debut in the Partisan Review) and follows as she establishes herself as an intellect to reckon with. (Anne)
HHhH by Laurent Binet: Winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, Laurent Binet’s first novel was recommended to me by a Frenchwoman as an alternative to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel. In fact, it sounds like a blend of the two. It concerns the assassination of Hitler’s henchman Reinhard Heydrich – and a writer’s attempt to navigate the straits of writing about the Holocaust. (Garth)
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald. This collection was published last November in the UK to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death. Translated and edited by Iain Galbraith, it brings together much of his previously uncollected and unpublished poetry. Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Motion cautioned against seeing these poems as having been “written in the margins” of the novels. The collection, he wrote, “turns out to be a significant addition to Sebald’s main achievement–full of things that are beautiful and fascinating in themselves, and which cast a revealing light on the evolution and content of his prose.” (Mark)
Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift: With promising reviews from The UK — “… an exemplary tour guide of unknown English lives, a penetrating thinker, a wonderful writer of dialogue and description, a nimble craftsman” (The Telegraph), “ quietly commanding… burns with a sombre, steady rather than a pyrotechnic flame” (The Independent) — Swift’s ninth novel signals a return to the themes of his 1996 Man Booker prize winning Last Orders: Wish You Were Here chronicles a man’s journey to Iraq, in 2006, to collect his estranged soldier brother’s body, and examines the resurfacing of a both personal and international history. (Emily K.)
Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin: In the grand expatriate tradition, Baldwin went to Paris looking for la vie en rose and found himself in a McDonald’s. The editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There moved his family to Paris for a copywriting job and soon learned that it’s not all croissants and cathedrals. Learning to live with constant construction, the oddities of a French office, the omnipresence of American culture, and his own inability to speak French, Baldwin loses his dream of Paris but finds a whole new reality to fall in love with. (Janet)
The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller: Nobel winner Herta Müller has written a novel about a young man in a Soviet labor camp in 1945. Müller’s own mother, a Romanian-born member of a German minority in the region, spent five years in a Soviet camp, although Müller’s novel is based upon the accounts of other subjects, particularly the poet Oskar Pastior. Despite its provenance and heavy subject matter, the novel, which is already out in German, has received middling reviews from German critics. (Lydia)
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd: Out in April, Waiting for Sunrise, the newest novel from British author William Boyd will take readers to pre-WWI Vienna and on to the battlefields of Europe. The novel follows the fortunes of a British actor cum spy, as he visits the analyst’s couch, meets intriguing beauties, has coffee with Freud, and battles ze Germans. Exciting stuff from the author of Any Human Heart, a Whitbread winner and Booker shortlister. (Lydia)
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens: Perhaps because Christopher Hitchens was writing so honestly and movingly of his illness right up until his death, we were surprised when it came, even though it seemed clear all along that his cancer would be fatal. Hitchens’ essays, in his final year, helped humanize and soften a writer who welcomed conflict and whose prose so often took a combative stance. This memoir, planned before his death, is based on those last Vanity Fair essays. The UK edition is said to be coming out “early this year” and Amazon has it listed for April, while the timing of the US edition is unclear. (Max)
Home by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s latest is about a Korean War veteran named Frank Money who returns from war to confront racism in America, a family emergency (Money’s sister, in crisis, needs to be rescued and returned to their hometown in Georgia), and the after effects of his time on the front lines. Morrison, 80, has been reading excerpts from the novel at events since early 2011. At an event in Newark in April, she read a few pages and remarked, “Some of it is soooo good — and some of it needs editing.” (Kevin)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: Those of us who gobbled up Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall eagerly await the release of its sequel, the ominously-titled Bring Up the Bodies. In Wolf Hall, we saw the operatic parallel rise of both Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn in the court of Henry VIII. In Bring Up the Bodies, Anne’s failure to produce a male heir, and Henry’s eternally wandering attentions, present Cromwell with the challenge of his career: protecting the King, eliminating Anne, and preserving his own power base. How we loved to hate Anne in Wolf Hall; will her destruction at the hands of the king and his chief minister win our sympathies? If anyone can effect such a complication of emotional investment, Mantel can. (Sonya)
The Passage of Power by Robert Caro: The much-anticipated fourth volume of Caro’s landmark five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson appears just in time for Father’s Day. This volume, covering LBJ’s life from late 1958 when he began campaigning for the presidency, to early 1964, after he was thrust into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, comes ten years after The Master of the Senate, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The new volume, which focuses on the gossip-rich Kennedy White House years, will no doubt be another runaway bestseller. (Michael)
Canada by Richard Ford: Richard Ford fans rejoice! A new novel set in Saskatchewan is pending from the author of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. The first of Ford’s novels to be set north of the border, Canada will be published in the U.S. by Ecco, with whom Ford signed a three-book deal after his much-publicized 2008 split from Knopf. The novel involves American fugitives living on the Saskatchewan plains, and according to Ford it is inspired structurally by The Sheltering Sky. Ford, who calls himself “a Canadian at heart” talked about the novel and read an excerpt on the Canadian Broadcasting Company program Writers and Company. (Lydia)
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger: Freudenberger is famous for taking a knockout author photo and for catching all the breaks (remember the term “Schadenfreudenberger”?), but she has turned out to be an interesting writer. The Newlyweds, which was excerpted in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 series, is loosely based on the story of a Bangladeshi woman whom Freudenberger met on a plane. The woman, a middle-class Muslim, married an American man she’d met through the Internet, and the novel follows their early years of marriage in fictional form, marking Freudenberger step away from stories about young women and girls and toward those about grown women living with the choices they’ve made. (Michael)
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey: Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey returns in May with The Chemistry of Tears, his first novel since 2010’s much-loved Parrot and Olivier in America. As in Parrot, Carey again stokes a conversation between past and present, albeit more explicitly: in the wake of her lover’s passing, a present-day museum conservator throws herself into the construction of a Victorian-era automaton. If the parallel between the sadness of death and the joy of rebirth might seem a tad “on the nose,” expect Carey, as always, to swath the proceedings with sharp observation, expert stylistics, and a sense of genuine sorrow. (Jacob)
Railsea by China Mieville: The British fantasy writer China Mieville, as we noted in a recent career retrospective, is an equal-opportunity plunderer of the high and the low, everything from fellow fantasy writers to mythology, folklore, children’s literature, epics, comics, westerns, horror, Kafka and Melville. Never has his kinship with Melville been more apparent than in his new young adult novel, Railsea, in which a character named Sham Yes ap Soorap rides a diesel locomotive under the command of a captain obsessed with hunting down the giant ivory-colored mole, Mocker-Jack, that snatched off her arm years ago. Fans of Mieville’s previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, should brace themselves for another whiplash ride. (Bill)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava: Is self-publishing the new publishing? Not yet. Still, De La Pava’s audacious debut, called “one of the best and most original novels” of the last decade by Open Letters Monthly and subsequently heralded by the blogosphere, may upend some assumptions. This one began life as a self-publication, and though many self-published authors seem to feel they’ve written masterpieces, this might be the real thing. It’s simultaneously a Melvillean tour of the criminal justice system, a caper novel, and a postmodern tour de force. Now that University of Chicago press is reissuing it, heavy-hitting critics like Steven Moore are starting to take notice. (Garth)
The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel: This spring brings a third, dazzling novel from our very own Emily St. John Mandel. It’s 2009, and disgraced journalist Gavin Sasaki, “former jazz musician, a reluctant broker of foreclosed properties, obsessed with film noir and private detectives and otherwise at loose ends,” returns to his native Florida where he gets embroiled in the mystery of an ex-girlfriend and her missing daughter—who looks a lot like Gavin. The Lola Quartet has garnered high praise from booksellers like Joe Eichman of Tattered Cover, who says, “This sad, yet sublime, novel should bring Emily St. John Mandel a widespread readership.” (Edan)
The Lower River by Paul Theroux: Theroux’s latest is about sixty-year-old Ellis Hock who retreats to Malawi, where he spent four Edenic years in the Peace Corps, after his wife leaves him and his life unravels back home in Medford, Massachusetts. The book appeared first as a short story in The New Yorker in 2009. In it Theroux returns to a theme he’s mined so successfully throughout his prolific career—the allure of ex-pat life, and the perils of living as an outsider in a foreign country. (Kevin)
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain: In this follow-up to his PEN/Hemingway award-winning short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, Fountain delivers a satirical novel about a 19-year-old soldier from Texas, home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game. Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, calls it “A Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” Here’s a more in-depth description of the novel. (Edan)
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif: Booker longlister Mohammed Hanif wrote Our Lady of Alice Bhatti on the heels of his celebrated debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. His second novel, also set in Pakistan, tells the story of Alice Bhatti, a spirited crypto-Christian nurse of lowly origins who works at the Karachi Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments and endures all manner of indignities at the hands of her colleagues and compatriots. Part absurd and unfortunate love story (between the titular Alice and a body-builder ruffian), part searing social commentary from a promising writer. (Lydia)
In One Person by John Irving: Irving returns to first-person voice for the first time since A Prayer for Owen Meany to tell the story of a lonely bisexual man working hard to make his life “worthwhile.” The story is told retrospectively as the man, approaching 70, reflects on his life and his early years growing up in a small Vermont town in the 1950s. The novel is being described as Irving’s “most political novel” since The Cider House Rules. (Kevin)
The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: This historical novel by the Nobel Laureate “sits in the tradition of Vargas Llosa’s major novels […] in its preoccupation with political issues and its international scope,” according to Faber, who released it in Spanish this past fall. The Dream of the Celt explores the life of Irish revolutionary Sir Roger Casement, who was knighted by the British Crown in 1911, hanged five years later for treason, and disgraced as a sexual deviant during his trial. His crime: mobilizing public opinion against colonialism by exposing slavery and abuses in the Congo and Peru to the world. At a lecture, Vargas Llosa said that Casement made for a “fantastic character for a novel” — if for no other reason than the influence he had on the eponymous dark view that filled his friend Joseph Conrad’s own best-known novel. (Sonya)
The Red House by Mark Haddon: Early reviews tell us that Mark Haddon’s The Red House renders modern family life as a puzzling tragicomedy. Enough said for this reader, but here’s a little more to entice the rest of you: a brother invites his estranged sister and her family to spend a week with him, his new wife and stepdaughter, at a vacation home in the English countryside. Told through shifting points of view, The Red House is “a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires” with the stage set “for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.” Just what we all need (a little catharsis, anyone?) after the holidays. (Sonya)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: In spite of its name, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is neither etiquette book, self-help manual, nor philosophical tract. It’s a novel and yet it’s a novel in the way that reality TV shows are fictions, with Heti as the narrator and her friends as the cast of supporting characters (even some of their conversations have been transcribed). With the Toronto art scene as the backdrop, Heti ponders big questions by way of contemporary obsessions–genius, celebrity, blow jobs, what is the difference between brand and identity, how is a story told? Read an excerpt (via n+1) to whet your appetite. (Anne)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Jess Walter’ 2009 novel The Financial Lives of the Poets is one of the funniest books ever written about the assisted suicide of the newspaper business. His sixth novel, Beautiful Ruins, unfolds in 1962 when a young Italian innkeeper, gazing at the Ligurian Sea, has a vision: a gorgeous blonde woman is approaching in a boat. She’s an American movie starlet. And she’s dying. Fast forward to today, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a Hollywood studio’s back lot searching for the mystery woman he last saw at his seaside inn half a century ago. The publisher promises a “rollercoaster” of a novel, which is the only kind Jess Walter knows how to write. (Bill)
New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín: Family has always been a presiding theme in Colm Tóibín’s fiction. With this forthcoming essay collection, he explores discusses its centrality in the lives and work of other writers. There are pieces on the relationship between W.B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, J.M. Synge and his mother, and Roddy Doyle and his parents. The collection also contains discussions of the importance of aunts in the nineteenth century English novel and the father-son relationship in the writing of James Baldwin and Barack Obama. (Mark)
Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays by Denis Johnson: Johnson is, of course, best known for beloved and award-winning fiction like Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke, but he also spent a decade (2000-2010) as the playwright in residence for the Campo Santo Theatre Company in San Francisco, a relationship that began when the theater staged two stories from Jesus’ Son. While there, he wrote six plays that premiered at the theater, two of which are collected here. Soul of a Whore is about the Cassandras, a classicly Johnson-esque family of misfits and outcasts, while Purvis is about the real FBI agent Melvin Purvis who went after John Dillinger and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. (Max)
Broken Harbor by Tana French: According to this goodreads interview with the author, Broken Harbor will be the fourth book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series; this time it’s Scorcher Kennedy–a minor character from Faithful Place–whose story takes center stage. On Irish writer Declan Burke’s blog, French summarizes the premise this way: “A family has been attacked and the father and two children are dead, the mother’s in intensive care and Scorcher, who is still not one hundred per cent back in everyone’s good books after making a mess of the case in Faithful Place, has been assigned this case with his rookie partner.” (Edan)
A Million Heavens by John Brandon: Brandon’s first two novels — Arkansas and Citrus County — both focused on criminals, but with his third he turns his attention to a comatose piano prodigy. Lying in a hospital bed in New Mexico, he is visited by his father while a band of strangers assemble outside, vigilants for whom he is an inspiration, an obsession, or merely something to do. Watched from afar by a roaming wolf and a song-writing angel, Brandon’s collection of the downtrodden and the hopeful become a community. (Janet)
Office Girl by Joe Meno: At a glance, Joe Meno’s Office Girl might seem like something you’d want to skip: there’s the title, which calls to mind the picked-over genre of office dramedy, with its feeble gestures of protest beneath fluorescent lights. The doe-eyed specter of Zooey Deschanel somehow also looms. But you’d be wrong to dismiss anything by Meno, author of The Great Perhaps, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails. His latest promises to return us to a postcollegiate moment when a simple sideways glance can reveal the fallacy of our dreams—and how we stubbornly choose to focus instead on the narrowing path ahead. (Jacob)
Mother and Child by Carole Maso: Carole Maso houses beautiful American sentences in unusual, experimental structures – her masterwork, AVA, is an underground staple. The forthcoming Mother & Child is apparently a collection of linked short-shorts, whose two protagonists are, one has to figure, mother and child. (Garth)
You & Me by Padgett Powell: Padgett Powell’s eighth work of fiction is a novel called You & Me that consists of a conversation between two middle-aged men sitting on a porch chewing on such gamey topics as love and sex, how to live and die well, and the merits of Miles Davis, Cadillacs and assorted Hollywood starlets. Since his 1984 debut, Edisto, Powell has won comparisons to Faulkner and Twain for his ability to bottle the molasses-and-battery-acid speech of his native South. One early reader has described You & Me as “a Southern send-up of Waiting for Godot.” Which is high praise indeed for Samuel Beckett. (Bill)
Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu: A short story collection from the author of the highly praised debut novel How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, involving a computer-generated landscape, a zombie that appears—inconveniently—during a big-box store employee’s graveyard shift, a company that outsources grief for profit (“Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you”), and the difficulty of asking one’s coworker out on a date. (Emily M.)
Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis: Martin Amis is dedicating his new novel to his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died in December at 62 after a much-publicized battle with cancer. Amis’s title character is a skinhead lout who wins the lottery while in prison, and a publishing source tells the Independent on Sunday that the novel is “a return to form” that is by turns “cynical, witty, flippant, cruel and acutely observed.” Among the plump targets of this dark satirist are the British press and a society in thrall to sex and money. Sounds like we’re in for a straight shot of 100-proof Amis. (Bill)
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle: Victor LaValle, the award-winning author of Slapboxing with Jesus and The Ecstatic, as well as the ambitious and monster-fun Big Machine, returns this August with a new novel, The Devil In Silver. In 2009, LaValle told Hobart Literary Journal: “It’s the story of a haunted house, in a sense, but I guarantee no one’s ever written a haunted house story quite like this.” Sounds like another genre-bending delight to me. (Edan)
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk: In 2001, the acclaimed English novelist Rachel Cusk published a memoir called A Life’s Work, a highly praised – and vilified – examination of the pitfalls of becoming a mother. At the time she said, “I often think that people wouldn’t have children if they knew what it was like.” Now comes Cusk’s third work of non-fiction, which flows from A Life’s Work and examines marriage, separation, motherhood, work, money, domesticity and love. The British publisher says, “Aftermath is a kind of deferred sequel, a personal/political book that looks at a woman’s life after the defining experiences of femininity have passed, when one has to define oneself all over again.” (Bill)
Fall 2012 or Unknown:
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: East Bay resident Michael Chabon has spent the past several years working on his novel of Berkeley and Oakland, titled Telegraph Avenue for the street that runs between the two communities. Chabon titillated readers with an essay on his adopted hometown for the Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at The Atlantic, which reveals nothing about the plotline but assures us that the new work will be, if nothing else, a carefully conceived novel of place. Chabon had previously been at work on an abortive miniseries of the same name, which was said to detail the lives of families of different races living in Oakland and Berkeley. (Lydia)
Ancient Light by John Banville: Having published a string of popular crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black over the last five years, John Banville returns again to serious literary fiction with Ancient Light. In the novel, the aging actor Alexander Cleave remembers his first sexual experiences as a teenager in a small Irish town in the 1950s, and tries to come to terms with the suicide of his daughter Cass ten years previously. With 2000’s Eclipse and 2002’s Shroud, Ancient Light will form the third volume in a loose trilogy featuring Alexander and Cass. (Mark)
The Book of My Life by Aleksandar Hemon: The brilliant Aleksandar Hemon (MacArthur Genius, PEN/Sebald winner) is reported to be working on his fifth book and first collection of non-fiction pieces. The title, The Book of My Life, alludes to, and will presumably include, his 2000 New Yorker essay of the same name–a short, powerful description of his mentoring literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. This will be Hemon’s first book since the familial tragedy documented in his heartrending 2011 essay “The Aquarium,” also for The New Yorker. (Lydia)
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub: If you spent any time on the literary part of the internet in the past year, the name Emma Straub will ring out to you. She’s a regular contributor to Rookie Mag, among other places, and Flavorwire called her “The Nicest Person on Twitter” (Sorry, Bieber). Her debut novel is about a Midwestern girl who moves to Los Angeles and, at great cost, becomes a movie star in 1940s Hollywood. Straub’s story collection Other People We Married, originally published in 2011 by 5 Chapters Press, will also be rereleased by Riverhead Books early in 2012. (Patrick)
Alt-Country by Tom Drury: There isn’t much information on Drury’s fifth novel, but rumor has it that Alt-Country will be the third installment of tales about the residents of fictional Grouse County, Iowa, where The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams are set. The book is tentatively slated to come out in the fall of 2012. Let’s hope Drury revisits not only Tiny and Joan, but also Dan and Louise, as well as the many odd and memorable minor characters that people his fictional Iowan landscape. (Edan)
Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt with Ilya Gridneff: This long, compendious, delirious “novel” – co-authored with a rakish Australian journalist – should by all rights have been DeWitt’s follow-up to The Last Samurai, but publishers apparently balked at the novel’s enormous formal dare. So the enterprising Miss DeWitt simply began selling .pdfs on her website – a kind of late-capitalist samizdat. Jenny Turner of the London Review of Books wrote a long review of the novel a couple years back that makes it sound like absolutely essential reading. And N+1 ran an excerpt. Now Noemi Press has shouldered the considerable challenges of publishing the whole thing. And if you’re one of the lucky few who has the .pdf already, the money you PayPaled to Helen will be deducted from the cost of the printed book. There’s no telling how many complications are involved in getting there, but in the end, everybody wins! (Garth)
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2012 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 147 novels on the list, nominated by 122 libraries in 45 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2010 (including translations).
Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.
Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least seven libraries.
Room by Emma Donoghue (20 libraries representing Australia, England, France, Ireland, the Maldives, New Zealand, and the United States)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (13 libraries representing Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (12 libraries representing Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, and the United States)
To the End of the Land by David Grossman (10 libraries representing Brazil, Canada, Germany, and the United States)
Purge by Sofi Oksanen (8 libraries representing Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland)
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (7 libraries representing the Czech Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States)
You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:
In Canada, Annabel by Kathleen Winter
In Germany, Fame by Daniel Kehlmann
In Ireland, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:
From Bermuda, Gorée: Point of Departure by Angela Barry
From Cyprus, A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible by Christy Lefteri
From Hungary, One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni
From India, Serious Men by Manu Joseph
From Japan, The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe
In the 35 year period in which he has made 17 films (among which are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus 7, Men With Guns) MacArthur grant-winning director John Sayles has also published seven books, including the National Book Award-nominated Union Dues and two full-bodied novels, Los Gusanos and, most recently, A Moment in the Sun. And yet, as he mentions in the conversation that follows, he has never received one note or letter from anyone who has read any of his books — a correction the cross-country reading tour (in a rented Prius) Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi embarked on, will no doubt make.
A Moment in the Sun, in nearly 1,000 pages, delves into a sketchily acknowledged period of American history — the rise of Jim Crow, effectively thwarting Reconstruction in the South, the road to the Cuban Spanish-American War, American imperialism running rampant in the Philippines, and the greed-fed Yukon gold rush. As it happens, the American involvement in the misnamed Philippine insurrection also serves as the setting for Sayles latest film, Amigo.
This, my second chat with John Sayles (we last met in 1995 for his Cuban exile novel, Los Gusanos), turned out to be a lengthy conversation touching on his new opus, his new film, the perils of independent film making, and any number of asides and anecdotes from a full and storied creative life.
Robert Birnbaum: Its International Free Press Day — in case things like that matter to you. I haven’t seen any reviews of your new opus. Maybe because it is too long for reviewers?
John Sayles: There have only been the publishing trade magazines, Kirkus and those. One of them called it a cat-squasher of a book.
RB: How imaginative. I saw an article on the fact that you are visiting every state including Alaska.
JS: Just about, yeah.
RB: Is that fun?
JS: Yeah, I like reading. The book is long enough so I am reading a different chapter every night so I don’t get bored with it. One thing that is nice is that it is almost all independent bookstores.
RB: The chains seem to be going out of business (laughs). Who would have thought it?
JS: Also the chain stores don’t do readings in the mall that often. I have written three novels before this and a couple of short story collections and to this day I have never gotten a letter from someone who has read one of my books. I run into people who have seen my movies all the time. Most people don’t know I write books.
RB: Didn’t you win a National Book Award or something?
JS: That didn’t change anything. I was nominated.
JS: A short story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood. But that was about five years ago or so. Nation Books published it — they hadn’t done fiction before so it was pretty new to them. Doing readings is kind of like theater, where you are looking at your audience. Which is nice for a book, to actually see somebody who is going to read the book or at least buy it.
RB: Unlike most book tours, which is one sealed tube after another — you are out among the people.
JS: We like driving across the country.
RB: Are you rejiggering your budget now that gas prices are soaring?
JS: No, but we are renting a Prius. I am almost too big for a Prius but it’s OK. Mexico is just about out of oil — which will be good for the pollution in Mexico City.
RB: The week I was there it must have been really unusual because it was not bad at all.
JS: They have a few good days, but the rest of the time it’s like breathing bus exhaust.
RB: I’ve lost track of Mexican politics — did they just have an election?
JS: They are about to have a big one. What’s happening is that the narcos have a bigger army than the government.
RB: That stuff is ripe for fiction — lots of books are coming out of the borderland. My favorite is
These are troubled times. The news cycles have seemed particularly dark lately. Knowing that times have always been troubled — was there ever a generation that didn’t suffer from the creeping suspicion that everything’s kind of going to hell? — provides limited solace.
There are always distractions, of course, but sheer escapism is too easy. I’d like to propose something more along the lines of semi-escapism. All of the following books are works of fiction, but there are moments, I’ve found, when fiction conveys nearly as much about the world we find ourselves in as the news does. With that in mind, a reading list:
1. The illegal arms trade
The Night Manager, by John le Carré
Jonathan Pine is an Englishman, a night manager at an expensive Zurich hotel, a man of supreme competence who has worked his way up to the highest strata of his profession. He formerly held the same position at a grand hotel in Cairo, until an indiscretion on his part cost a woman her life; a hotel guest entrusted him with documents detailing transactions between her wealthy Egyptian boyfriend and an arms dealer, Richard Roper, whom she described to Pine as “the worst man in the world.” Pine passed these documents on to a British spy, one of the arms dealers received a call from an interested party in London, and a short time later the woman was murdered. Pine had loved her.
Less than a year later, the worst man in the world arrives with his entourage at the hotel in Zurich, and Pine is presented with an opportunity for revenge. Is this a spy novel? It is, but also it’s a literary exploration of identity, love, and desperation, because this is after all le Carré we’re talking about, and Pine is one of the most fully rendered and fascinating characters I’ve ever come across in fiction.
Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes
A Vietnam War novel that deserved even more attention than it received. Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas arrives in Vietnam as an Ivy League-educated reservist, an aspiring politician hoping to collect a medal or two, in charge of a company composed mostly of teenagers. The novel is part portrait of a company working under impossible conditions, part chronicle of Mellas’s transformation in a world of meaningless butchery, terror, and terrible mismanagement. I think Matterhorn is a masterpiece, and I don’t throw that word around very often.
The Attack, by Yasmina Khadra
Dr. Amin Jaafari is an Israeli citizen of Arab descent, a distinguished surgeon at a hospital in Tel Aviv. His wife, Sihem, is also an Israeli Arab. They are educated, cultured, and sophisticated people, who count the crème-de-la-crème of Israeli society among their close friends and entertain them in their beautiful home.
Jaafari’s at the hospital one day when an explosion rattles the walls. A suicide bomber has detonated in a nearby neighborhood. The bomber struck in the middle of a crowded restaurant where a child was celebrating a birthday party, and of the 19 killed, 11 are children. After a terrible day and half a night of operating on the desperately wounded, Jaafari makes his way home and falls into bed, only to be awoken a couple of hours later by a ringing phone: he needs to come back to the hospital. When he returns to the hospital, he’s given unspeakable news: his wife, whom he’d believed to be out of town, is dead in the morgue, and his colleagues need him to identify her. Not only is she dead, but her injuries strongly suggest that she was the suicide bomber.
The Attack is a refreshingly balanced novel, a work that never slips into the territory of political screed. Khadra is unflinching in his depiction of the agonies suffered by both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
4. Unbelievably creepy corporations with way too much power/food shortages
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Set in a post-oil near-future where sea levels have risen so high that Bangkok would be deep underwater if not for a system of pumps and retaining walls holding the ocean at bay, where travel to the other side of the world is accomplished in days or weeks, not hours, and where the world’s food supplies are largely controlled by a handful of multinational corporations — calorie companies — who will stop at nothing to maintain and expand their monopolies. Bioterrorism is a favorite weapon.
Anderson Lake is a calorie company man, AgriGen’s agent in Bangkok, keeping up a plausible cover as a factory owner while he searches the markets for new fruits, new vegetables, new genehacked variations on foods believed to be extinct. Emiko is a Windup Girl, not quite human, a creature genetically engineered to satiate the whims of a Japanese businessman and then abandoned to a miserable life in a Bangkok sex club. Their lives intersect at a moment when the survival of Bangkok and of the Thai kingdom itself is threatened.
5. Psychotic family members/completely uncalled-for power grabs
King Lear, by William Shakespeare
If you haven’t read this yet, perhaps you should. Not just to stave off the vague sense of inadequacy that can come over a person when that person hasn’t read quite enough Shakespeare, but because it’s a harrowing and beautifully written piece of work.
Edgar: “Oh gods! Who is ‘t can say, “I am at the worst?”
I am worse than e’er I was. …
And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say, “This is the worst.”
Image credit: Steve Punter/Flickr.
“The life story of every American soldier who died in Vietnam.”
The idea came out of nowhere, just appeared in my mind and stayed, occupying my thoughts with visions of the enshadowed, marching dead. Every single man. The events of his life. The circumstances of his death. Page after page after page. A library for a lost generation.
The stories would be humble, detailed, and clear. “Clarence Rowantree was born in Boston in the winter of 1949. He was educated in Catholic schools, and he played halfback for his high school football team. He had a girlfriend, Cathleen Trencher. He got her pregnant their junior year. Plans were made for the couple to wed, but Cathleen miscarried, and was afterwards sent to live with a spinster aunt. Clarence never saw her again. He was drafted the summer after he finished high school, when he was working in his grandfather’s barbershop, sweeping hair into piles, washing combs, and refilling the bottles of tonic. He trained at Fort Sill and was stationed at Mutter’s Ridge, near the Laotian border. His friends in the service called him Rowboat. He was very popular. He could stand upright on his hands for an impressive amount of time, and would perform this trick whenever the guys needed a boost in morale. He was also the company’s unofficial barber, performing trims and shape-ups for when the brass came around on inspection tours. He died after stepping on a landmine while out on routine patrol in his eighth month of service. He was 20.”
The idea moved me greatly, and even though I knew the project would take a long time, I felt rallied by it, and full of energy, so I sat down and did some calculations, to see exactly what kind of commitment I was getting into. I thought that each man’s story needed a full day’s work, and probably more — but I used eight hours as a base figure for estimation purposes. I multiplied eight by 58,175 (the number of names on the Vietnam War Memorial). The answer came out at 465,400 hours. I divided that by twenty-four to get the number of days, and that number by 365 to get the number of years.
I hit the equals sign on my calculator.
The screen read fifty-three.
My mouth dropped open.
I leaned back from my desk and put a hand to my forehead, considering the implications. If I worked nonstop on this project — meaning nonstop, without stopping, at all, for anything, even sleep — I’d be finished in 53 years.
Take that into your heart and tremble at the meaning. If you spent just eight hours composing the life story of every American man killed in the Vietnam war, the job would take you over half a century to complete.
I ran these results by a friend of mine, and even though I was still goggled, he was far less impressed.
“It’s a nice image,” he allowed, “but it’s just a numbers game. You could do that with anything.”
“Anything?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “Anything where lots of people died.”
He was right, of course, and as soon as I started considering various death tolls (625,000 killed in the Civil War, six million in the Holocaust, fifty million in all of World War II together), it occurred to me just how truly impossible a complete account of those killed in war can be, depending on the war, depending on the number of the dead. In this way, war is categorically different from other kinds of tragedies. When one person dies a tragic death, we seek consolation in the story of who that person was. The details of his life — his flaws and heroics, the people he loved and cared for, the work he did — all that meaningful information has the power to outweigh the fearful or horrifying circumstances of his death.
But when a thousand people die, or a hundred thousand, or a million, or fifty million, the magnitude of loss tilts the scales away from understanding, and toward despair, nihilism, and madness; because we can’t find solace or redemption in a million life stories: it’s absurd even to try.
What we can do, though, is to seek analogs, avatars — ways of distilling the raw, titanic information churned up by war into something relatable and human.
I’ll put it another way: If there were no such thing as fiction, we’d have had to invent it, if we ever wanted to make sense out of a thing like the Vietnam War.
Dispatches, a “New Journalism” account of the war, was the first to be released. It came out in 1977, just two years after the fall of Saigon. It’s an odd, free-wheeling set of stories, at times reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and William Faulkner, with the same pawky humor, fractured lensing, dreamlike narrative, and deliberately subjective attitude toward the underlying reportage. The haziness of the book’s structure grows organically from the material itself, as does the spookiness of it all, the eerie setting and unpredictable action. Herr pays a lot of attention to the superstitions of the grunts, because through them, the men seem to face and even endure their own unrelenting mortal fear, like the man who carries around a sock containing a months-old, uneaten oatmeal cookie mailed to him by his wife. Then there’s the fanatical Lurp, who makes this one chilling war story into a kind of Zen koan: “Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.” Herr speaks to another young man, a marine from Miles City, Montana, who checks Stars and Stripes every day, hoping to learn that someone from his hometown has been killed. “I mean, can you just see two guys from a raggedy-ass town like Miles City getting killed in Vietnam?”
The funky superstitions of the marines run parallel to their own black senses of humor and, because of this, Dispatches is at times spectacularly hilarious. Nothing sums up the book’s comic-terrifying take on the war — Herr at one point calls Vietnam a “dripping, laughing death-face” — better than this story from Ed Fouhy, another reporter, about a helicopter ride he took with a torpid, weary young soldier. Fouhy, trying to make conversation, asked the kid how long he’d been in-country.
The kid half lifted his head; that question could not be serious. The weight was really on him, and the words came slowly.
“All fuckin’ day,” he said.
If Dispatches is Fear and Loathing in Vietnam, then The Things They Carried is Vietnam as MFA: a meditation on the craft of writing as well as a semi-autobiographical account of the war and the things it did to the author and his friends. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” for example, is explicitly instructive. A story within a story, it presents a character in the frame-narrative who provides a running critique of the interior tale, arguing (Chekovianly) that each element of a story has to play some role in the central action, and that “clarification or bits of analysis and personal opinion” have no place in the tale: “It just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic.” Now, O’Brien knows this isn’t strictly true — after all, this same character makes his point by interrupting the underlying story O’Brien’s trying to tell. But that’s how people tell stories to each other in real life, and O’Brien is interested, perhaps more than anything else, in just that kind of storytelling — and with good reason. He thinks it’s how you survive a thing like Vietnam.
Take “Speaking of Courage,” for instance, a disturbing account of cowardice and grisly death, and its immediate follow-up, “Notes,” in which the author breaks through to comment on the construction of the previous story: its emotional core (a returning veteran’s simple need to confess about his failure to save a friend’s life), its dramatic frame (the story takes place as the vet drives around and around a lake in his hometown), and the symbolic counterpoint between the lake and the muddy field in Vietnam where the vet lost his friend. The vet’s need to confess is stifled by the warm, protective, polite cocoon of peacetime society, in which it’s not seemly to talk about the realities of war. Without an outlet, though, the poor man suffers, and ultimately takes his own life. In “Notes,” O’Brien tells us about the man’s suicide, but he also tells us that the prior story — at least, the part about the man’s failure to save his friend — was entirely made up. To get at the hard truth — that these guys needed to talk about what had happened to them — O’Brien had to tell a pretty big lie. That’s how you raise the stakes, he says. That’s how you make the drama that makes the people pay attention so you can show them what you know. That’s writing.
A final note: the direct incorporation of these technical aspects of fiction into the final product is something we might today categorize as “meta.” But there’s something natural, even inevitable, in their use in stories about Vietnam. They suggest a gruntlike impatience with the sleek packaging of professional fiction. In that way, they have an almost jury-rigged quality, as though they were thrown together under fire, and with all the guts still in full view.
Matterhorn (which I’ve described to friends as The Wire in Vietnam) follows a young Marine lieutenant named Waino Mellas as he survives his first three months in the bush. Waino is a Princeton graduate who abandoned a life of certain professional success to serve as a combat marine, a decision he hopes will come in handy later on (Mellas wants a political career). Although at first the other grunts are suspicious of him, Mellas quickly settles into life at firebase Matterhorn, a hill on the western side of Vietnam, close to the DMZ. Matterhorn is home to Bravo Company, a group of about 200 marines, and they have one big problem. The Company’s commander, Lt. Fitch, has gotten on the wrong side of his immediate superior, Lt. Colonel Simpson, a drunk who doesn’t like that a handsome young marine like Fitch has received praise and commendation from the higher-ups without having the good sense to share his glory with Simpson (who doesn’t actually deserve any, but still).
Partly out of spite, partly out of simple dereliction, Simpson orders Bravo Company to abandon Matterhorn and march for eight days without food or rest in order to build another firebase on a cliff further to the south. This is part of a larger project — driven by political motivations coming all the way down from the Oval Office — that will involve the marines in a useless joint operation with the South Vietnamese army. The North Vietnamese easily exploit this retreat, capturing Matterhorn while the marines are busy elsewhere. Simpson then commands Bravo Company to retake the hill — not because it serves any useful strategic purpose (Simpson orders the company to abandon Matterhorn almost as soon as it’s recaptured), but because “the kill-ratios” are all off. And if killing more Vietnamese means that more Americans will have to die, they’ll just reclassify the whole thing as a battalion action, rather than a company action, and the numbers will even out.
In spite of such mindlessness, the manly human spirit of Bravo Company endures, even finding a way to turn such evils into acts of spiritual rejuvenation. In the novel’s closing pages, a group of marines sit around a fire and sing a rondo about death: “If it’s good enough for Parker, then it’s good enough for me. If it’s good enough for Parker, then it’s good enough for me.” As they sing, they replace the name of each dead man with the name of another dead man, until they’ve sung out all the number of their fallen friends. The interchangeability of one grunt with another is a belief that damns the souls of men like Simpson; but in the hands of men like the marines of Bravo Company, that same belief becomes a bond, a testament. A pledge of relentless true faith.
In each of these books and in all the several stories they tell, one thing keeps popping back up.
“There it is.”
“There it is” was a common catchphrase among the guys in Vietnam, a sort of verbal asterisk that put the whole affair in proper light. Radios down just when the shit’s getting heavy? “There it is.” Colonel breathing down your neck about making checkpoints? “There it is.”
All the many little ironies of bad luck, incompetent commanders, and pass-the-buck-to-the-bush politicians are summed up in those three little words. Like Vonnegut’s “So it goes,” there’s not much more to the phrase than a simple expression of futility, a throwing up of hands in the air, a sigh at the deadly indifference of the universe. But there’s power in these words, and it’s the same with these stories: They are each a human reaction to the inhumanities of massive, nonsensical death. Whether it’s the cluttered, dreamy information of Dispatches, the transparencies of Tim O’Brien, or Matterhorn’s tale of redemption in friendship, the Vietnam War is transformed through each of these books into something we can understand, distilled into something edifying, and saved from the overpowering magnitudes of death. These books close the gap between the untellable story of the dead in Vietnam, and the rest of us, the ones who want to know what happened over there. In this way, they are a powerful act of generosity, both to we, as readers, and to the men who died on the hills and in the jungle, the ones who didn’t make it out.
Image credit: hookbrother/Flickr
Our own Emily St. John Mandel won one of the inaugural Indie Booksellers’ Choice Awards yesterday for her novel The Singer’s Gun. The other honorees for this award, which was voted on by indie booksellers around the country, were Paolo Bacigalupi for The Windup Girl, Adam Levin for The Instructions, Karl Marlantes for Matterhorn, and Nina Revoyr for Wingshooters.
Purveyor of popular nonfiction Erik Larson has a new book out this week, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. The Snowman by Jo Nesbø is a new entry in the increasingly popular Scandinavian thriller genre. Inward-looking graphic novelist Chester Brown’s latest, Paying for It is out, and musician and actor Steve Earle can now add “novelist” to his resume with the release of I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. And new in paperback are a pair of big books, Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist and Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn.