By the end of my first semester of a PhD in history, I was sure I was going to drop out. I felt out of place, as if I were a student who, for weeks, sat in on the wrong class and decided to play along, the inertia of a decision keeping me from finding the right place. I was—and am—a fiction writer with a deep and abiding interest in history, but I wasn’t sure if that was enough to keep me in a PhD program.
I began graduate school as a writer. It was 2011 and I had published my first essay in The Awl and had written 50 pages of a novel. When I think about my decision to start a PhD in history, I’m reminded of the essays in MFA vs NYC. It turns out that PhD in NYC was a third option. It’s not a common path, but not unheard of either. Prior to publishing Open City, Teju Cole was in the art history program at my university.
Why did I choose to enter graduate school in history? I’m still not sure. It was a fully-funded program, which meant that I was paid to spend my time in beautiful libraries and to travel for research. I suppose those reasons were as good as any.
Truthfully, a PhD can be a wonderful place for writing a novel. Marilynne Robinson found pieces of what would become Housekeeping while in graduate school at the University of Washington. She later wrote that lonesomeness is at the heart of creation: it focuses the mind and provides needed silence. I can now see that my training as a historian gave me the space to write what history could never mention. My lonesome moments spent in libraries and archives gave me a chance to find the quiet lives of the everyday.
Nevertheless, it felt daunting to balance graduate school with a novel. Rather than balance both, I thought it might be easier to flee one for the other. In such a state, I sent cold emails to a few writers who had entered PhD programs and asked them whether I should stay or go. The best advice was given to me by Siddhartha Deb. He told me that a PhD offered the chance to “read things no one else is reading, writing that will be far more interesting than what you could read on your own.”
He was right. My graduate work took me from Fiji to Trinidad, where I read about the lives and stories of indentured Indians, those whose restless toil took them across dark waters to new lives of promise and unimaginable despair. It was in this experience of traveling alone, of spending long hours in silence, where my writing began to gain focus. I threw out the first hundred pages of the novel that I started before I entered my PhD program. I read and traveled some more and I threw out another 225 pages of a second novel. Beyond access to manuscripts and archives, graduate school had given me a gift: the time to write (and revise).
Some find this baffling. How could a PhD in history provide time to write a novel? I, like most graduate students, learned how to develop a Cistercian sensibility. Life was defined by work only I could schedule—reading, researching, and writing—and the prayers to get it all done. I took a little bit of that self-discipline and found that I usually had two or three hours to write in the morning (right after waking, when my thoughts, uninterrupted by distractions, were still protected by the hazy cocoon of sleep). It also helped that if I did not write, my mood was soured for the rest of the day.
Graduate school gave me the time to write, but it never told me how to write. Flannery O’Connor reminded me that fiction begins with what is experienced. As she put it, “The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.” It’s advice that should always be well-taken.
This exhortation to remain faithful to a visible world could have lead me to a worn conclusion: write what I knew. What one knows is filled with the kind of sensate memories that can, at times, make for good fiction. But for someone with a background in academic research, this idea was horrifying. If I were to write a history from what I knew, my works would be incredibly short and unimaginably boring.
For someone who had an abiding interest in the world, writing from what I knew was not an option. I needed a bit of faith; I needed to take a flying leap into the unknown world just beyond my vision.
What I needed was more research.
Thankfully, graduate school had taught me the ins and outs of that.
The resulting novel trilogy is an arc of grief and solitude. These books quietly observe lives as they’re overturned by global calamity and strife in the mid-1980s. My characters were people who lived lives radically different than my own: a would-be botanist in a fictional South Pacific nation crumbling around her; an immigrant doing graduate work in mathematics in the American Midwest, his daily life brought to a halt by the tragedy of terrorism. Writing their stories meant building up their moral and physical worlds, piece by piece.
Part of this process was deeply entrenched in the act of writing. I had to sit, day in and day out, finding the characters on the page. These were (and are) lonesome moments of focus, where my only company was the soft sleeping breath of a house cat curled up in an adjacent room. I once sat alone at my kitchen table talking under my breath as I interviewed one of my characters and learning all she could tell, as if she held a cup of tea in a realm just beyond the dimness of my sight.
Characters like hers must always inhabit a place in the world. To build that required me to do what my academic training had primed me to do. I trawled JSTOR, wandered through library stacks counting on Library of Congress cataloging to introduce me to new and related books, and I wrote it all down in pages upon pages of notes: paper tucked into manila folders, Word documents, and scribbles in the margins.
These tasks now come easy to me. It’s because of my research background that I no longer fear going zero to 60, 80, 100 on any topic. It has erased all trepidation and belief that I cannot, replaced simply with a drive to do.
What was Delhi like in the 1980s? Find and annotate a travelogue. How does a botanist think? Find a memoir and take notes at every turn. What baseball game would have been broadcast in a no-name bar in San Francisco in mid-August 1985 at 5:00 in the evening? Check the newspaper archives for a recap.
But my training as a historian was not that of a forager. My primary task has never been to find and collect facts from the forest floor.
I first encountered Joan Scott’s masterful “The Evidence of Experience” as an undergraduate, but came to read it again and again in graduate school. It was in that essay where she deftly made the case for historians to historicize experience itself and to make clear that reality is not an “unmediated relationship between words and things.” Experience and reality are subject to context and specificity. The visible is not an absolute.
E.M. Forster thought of the historian and the novelist as two separate creatures. It was a given that “every British schoolboy knew” that “the historian records whereas the novelist must create.” This distinction doesn’t quite hold up under scrutiny—the historian’s and writer’s craft can be one and the same. The experiences I collected in the notes and margins of research were far from a neatly-packaged bit of history. If taken as a transparent recollection of time and space, my research for fiction would have been a pastiche: unfiltered experiences taken from one place and shoved haphazardly into the minds of my characters.
I had to disaggregate every strand of research; make sense of their barest essentials; recreate them into sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches of specific characters on specific pages; get it fast; and get it right. Only then could the visible be rendered the highest kind of justice in fiction. Only then could a world be created.
In the end, the threads of research can only be knit into fiction by a hand made deft by habits of mind. This task can take days, weeks, and even years. I miss that about graduate school. The endless days. Looking back on my six years, I see an extended exercise in finding my characters in the world. They were always there: in archives, upon street corners in Suva and Port of Spain, tucked into articles in obscure journals that no one else read. I’m not sure if I can recommend the process to anyone—I believe that there are faster ways to gather a story—but I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
I left academia after I finished my PhD. The hours I have in the morning to write are fewer.
It doesn’t matter.
As any researcher knows, there is always another book, always another article, always another piece of information yet to be considered. But there comes a moment when the gears of research must cease to turn and the machine must come to a grinding halt. In the silence that follows, all that’s left is to write, not only with competence, but with vision as clear as water and as bright as day. This, as far as I know, is something rarely, if ever, found in research.
Image Credit: Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood.
The introduction Junot Díaz wrote for Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop has been adapted as a contribution to the ongoing conversation (of which The Millions has been a part) about writing programs at large and about MFA vs. NYC specifically. At issue is Díaz’s (rightful) assertion that an important topic – diversity – hasn’t been adequately addressed in evaluations of the supposed program and publishing dichotomy thus far. (Related: Sandra Cisneros’s “I Hate the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.”)
We here at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been surprised to find ourselves – for lack of a better word – trending. From Eric Bennett’s allegations in “How Iowa Flattened Literature” to n+1’s book MFA vs NYC, we really didn’t think there was more to say about our institution…and then Hannah Horvath, in an odd twist of fictional life becoming reality, was accepted on Girls.
Of course we were excited by the buzz. But in this larger discussion, we found that something was lacking: namely, the view from Iowa City. Right here, right now.
So: here it is.
On a dismal midwinter Thursday, we – eighteen current students of the Writers’ Workshop, poets and fiction writers alike – set out to chronicle one ordinary 24-hour period in our lives. That February 13th, we took copious notes. We worked, whether on our novels or on our Twitter accounts. Some of us taught classes. Some of us went to a poetry reading and after-party. And some of us just ran around tossing Valentines into each other’s houses.
My colleagues’ responses may vary widely in form, ranging from poems to stories to lyric essays, but all of them are, like my colleagues, entertaining. And furthermore: excerpts from their responses, when laid out to roughly span those 24 hours, give a decent picture of what it’s actually like to be a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right now – that is, to be one of many people all striving to do the same difficult thing, in the same moderately-sized city, at the same talked-about school.
Hannah Horvath: take note.
(Van Choojitarom, second-year fiction)
Van is having trouble leaving his apartment. The problem today is getting dressed. It’s not that Van is particularly vain or fastidious. It’s that as he’s putting on his suit and necktie he invariably begins delivering a bad guy monologue to the bathroom mirror. Welcome to my island, Mr. Bond, the solid grey suit seems to say. Sometimes he can cut it down, but other times, some inner Hans Gruberian impulse cannot be checked and he ends up trying on all his different coats in front of the mirror, regardless of the actual weather, lapels folded over his throat, inveigling the ceiling, delivering solid broadly humanitarian, ultimately Marxist reasons for Bruce Willis to surrender.
This morning he’s fixated on a grey plaid double breasted jacket that puts in him in mind of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. It seems to be driving him to wider, patterned ties: “I don’t really think your story has POV problems, Will. I just wanted to see how you’d react…”
(Jessie Hennen, second-year fiction)
Every morning I wake up and Colin is still asleep. Usually I lie there for twenty minutes and try to ease myself out of the bed without him noticing, but inevitably he does. “Stay,” he says, not quite awake. Then I have to sound like an absolute bitch and say that I am done sleeping, that I have things to accomplish. Really it is that I am sick of looking at the light fixture, at the sky coming in bright against my peach-colored curtain, the ceiling shimmering like the northern lights. While I look at the ceiling I think too much about the future.
“I can’t sleep in any more. I have to finish (x),” I always say. Today (x) is a novel chapter about giant deep-sea fish who grow weary of being imprisoned in a tank and incite their angry brethren to make the oceans swim with rage.
“Oh, okay,” he says, but he doesn’t let go. Frida the cat sits in the middle of the bed, meowing. I suppose she is cozy. I tell him I had a very episodic dream. “I was surviving the Rapture with my family. Our house was under siege, people kept throwing rocks at our windows, everyone wanted in. Finally the call came from heaven, and our whole house floated up into the sky above the angry mobs. I almost got Left Behind because I was drinking a beer, but I tossed it out and we made it to heaven.
“Heaven, it turned out, looked a lot like Milwaukee. Very small houses, a very bright sky. The powers that be were keeping us in a strip mall until they could find proper heavenly places for us. It was packed – kind of a shantytown, really. It had a barter economy going. Some guy had a computer with Facebook, and I convinced him to check mine. Jen Percy had been posting these really great photos of Hell. As it turns out, Hell is a dusty Victorian with vintage drapes and canopy beds. I wasn’t sure whether she was there on assignment, or permanently.”
“Well, you have to include that,” he says, and we get up.
(David Kruger, second-year poet)
I walk through a parking lot, down a flight of outside stairs and into an old brick building where I teach what is essentially Basket Weaving 101, but instead of palm fronds and twigs, I talk as vaguely as possible about metaphors.
Today I say things like: student A, you need more flesh and muscle for that prostitute in your car, and Student B, the statue of David you encounter during your trip to Florence might be thought of as symbolic of the patriarchy and therefore of the trials you and your gal-pals endure. Student C’s story is about the big game, and so I simply point to Plot Mountain on the board and suggest that stakes, when raised, are like little plateaus for the reader to climb and consider.
Toward the end of all of this, I really have to pee.
(Mallory Hellman, second-year fiction)
4:07 pm – I’m late to pick everyone up, and I’m the one leading our lesson today. When I pull up to Dey House, all four of my fellow Youth Writing Project volunteers are assembled on a snowbank waiting for me. One holds a bag full of construction paper. Another shivers under a hat with long ear flaps. Troopers. They get in, and I gently disrespect the speed limit until we’ve reached Cedar Rapids.
4:45 pm – Our gang of ten is happy to see us, even though we didn’t come bearing snacks. We cluster three tables together in the classroom and hang up our laminated Writing Club sign.
5:15 pm – Teonie, who is eight, has written an ode to tacos and nachos. Most of it is a meditation on her two favorite foods’ similarities, concluding with a tenderly inflected, “Are you sisters?” This leads, naturally, to a heated debate about which foods are sisters, which are brothers, which might be cousins, and which aren’t related at all.
5:45 pm – Lasagna and calzones are parents to spaghetti. Pizza is a cousin, on the calzone side of course. Macaroni wants to be in the family but isn’t – it rolls with the hot dish instead. Peaches and plums go hand in hand, but mangoes and green peppers have never met. Avocados and pears hate it when they’re mistaken for sisters.
(Matthew Weiss, first-year fiction)
Taught Interpretation of Literature. Big old room. Clonking around in my shoes.
Talked about the etymology of the word symbol.
It originally meant two shards of a ceramic pot broken at the moment two parties made a deal. Later, you’d know things were legit if the two pot shards fit back together.
Hence Plato’s: man is a symbol of himself, looking for his other half.
Also, a symbol could mean: a chance meeting, a receipt, a watchword, or a Pythagorean cult password.
For example, the Pythagoreans would recognize a brother by muttering things like, “What is the sea?” and getting back, “The tear of Kronos!”
Lost track of time. Possibly I showed the kids a clip from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I claimed was “symbolic.”
They’d never heard of 2001: A Space Odyssey before.
(Patrick Connelly, first-year fiction)
There is a girl in the hall where I teach rhetoric. She looks like she is about eighteen, nineteen years old. I always see her. She is hunched in an electric wheelchair with her wrists and her neck bent and her chin down. She isn’t quadriplegic; I have seen her hands and fingers move. I think she has a neuromuscular disease. Her body is small. She is sitting against the wall, alongside the other kids, waiting for the classrooms to empty. To be honest, I try not to think about her beyond the end of the hall (outside, at Prairie Lights Café, at the gym, at home, and then at a party after a poetry reading), but I can’t help it. Today is different. When I pass her, she is playing Bejeweled on her iPad Mini, swapping the colors around the screen with her finger; she is bored.
In class, I ask for a show of hands. Who’s read To Kill a Mockingbird? I get up and talk about empathy. You can never really understand a person until you climb into her skin and walk around in it. You can’t understand a controversy or advocate for a proper solution until you’re able to consider things from other people’s point of view.
Is simply being aware of something or someone any good? Because I probably won’t ever talk to this girl in the hall. I will only write about her.
I should ask my students what they think.
(Misty Woodford, third-year poet)
On the way home from teaching, I’m thinking about trochees, and this happens: “GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum” – by now I’m stomping out the rhythm as I walk – and I don’t realize I’m also saying this out loud until I near my apartment building, and see a figure freeze up on the lawn. It’s the guy who lives in the basement and I’ve scared him this time. I start to walk normally, more pyrrhic, I guess, and say, “Hello!”
He says “Hi” and attends to his cigarette. Dinner is multiple cups of tea and the hope that chamomile and valerian work tonight.
(Thomas Corcoran, second-year fiction)
After rereading the last day’s work, I begin the current day’s session, writing on a 1971 Olympia SM-9 typewriter with a 12-point font similar to Garamond. Typewriters are useful when the desire is more to make daily advances on a draft than to polish the prose. Before being written, sentences are usually imagined but not too precisely; and except for the occasional “xxxx” (over which I always feel a pang), corrections are simply too hard to make in great number. As with writing generally the challenge is to convert insights that might have limitless depth but no duration into sentences that are stretched out in length but constrained by their gathered energy, like ocean waves striking the shore. After a lot of practice the prose is reasonably good in this format anyway. The rhythm of the typing helps. What may still be needed are selection, precision, and courage.
(Dini Parayitam, second-year fiction)
…This place is about vulnerability. Every second of it is a lie you tell yourself. “I belong here. I am happy here. I am happiest here among people like me.” Really you are very hyper-conscious of the fact that you aren’t actually happy here. Being with so many people who do these things that you love better than you makes you question why you are worthy of doing it at all in the first place.
This is what Iowa Writers’ Workshop teaches you:
1. The wish to write a good story is fake.
2. The will to write a good story cannot be trusted.
3. The insecurity you feel when you are done is normal.
4. The insanity of the writer is a very real thing.
(Andy Axel, first-year poet)
“Observatory Log: 13 February 2014 Iowa City”
1 discreet tree relief
10 a whole class chanting what sounds like “TOGA” with increasing speed
11 dough-faced boy in american flag vest with cup not actually from starbucks
12 prime view of the capitol from the waiting room
1 the word “widowed” on a dropdown menu
2 when I see more than three robins in the same place I start to get suspicious
3 I check to see whether I’m wearing a sweater
5 child ode to cat:
“Feliz: you are not like a garbage can.
You are like a light when you surprise me.
Do you speak Spanish?”
6 when I enter the Dey House it smells like ink and xmas
7 my view field’s all baldspot
11 dogs express interest in the terrible smell of my boots
12 enough of weather
(Jake Andrews, first-year fiction)
After lunch, I sat down to write. The main character’s girlfriend had just walked into his room and told him some good news. He recollects: “Had I ever thought about sex as a way to celebrate academic achievement?” (I, the author, certainly have; Daniel was a bit more surprised.) The story had taken a turn I wasn’t expecting, and I was stuck. So I started cleaning up my desktop (the one on my computer, not the one on which the computer usually sits, though it wasn’t there on this day in any case; I was sitting in a chair in the living room because – to re-emphasize the solitude that prompts reflection – my wife was out).
I stumbled on a collection of photos that my step-mom had put together for my dad’s funeral back in December. I had downloaded them and forgotten about the folder.
Two photos in particular jumped out at me. In the first one, my dad has me on his shoulders. I can’t be two months old. (My mother remembers taking this picture and being horrified.) My head peeks out above his hair, and his hands hold me in place. My pudgy feet are almost to his chin. In spite of the 1970s glasses, he looks remarkably like my middle brother, mainly because he is skinnier than he was in later life. He’s smiling like a kid – he would’ve been 20 – and looking at the camera. I’m gazing off to the left, my hands gripping his hair, my face – wide cheeks and a small chin – looking remarkably like my own son’s the day we removed him from life support.
In the second photo, my dad isn’t looking at the camera, but he’s still smiling. He’s on all fours, and I’m crawling between his arms, probably just over six months old. My left hand is raised, reaching for a balloon. If you look close enough, you can see that he’s holding it for me. My straight blond hair has lost the red hue from the earlier photo; like my nephew, I’ve got pudgy cheeks and pudgy fingers. I’m in motion. There’s a blur to my hand.
I don’t really know how long I looked at the photos in the folder. I didn’t write for a while after finding them. I made myself a cup of tea.
On readings and parties:
(Sean Zhuraw, second-year poet)
A friend, SE S, sees the stich of my saccades trailing the runaway cambus down Clinton Street, sees I’ve missed the bus.
She gives me a ride to the doctor.
My eyes are fine.
Try this when looking at something, she says, after looking at it, look away.
Take sanitary breaks, she says.
Take mind off.
There are layers among the distances, magnifications.
Her assistant returns to dilate my pupils.
When the doctor leans into my eye, she says, don’t look at the light; keep focus past it.
I buy a few Valentines.
I live in a small town, so on the way home I stop by JM’s house, open her door, sneak into her kitchen, stuff a rabbit down the back of her shirt.
It says, Ears Hopping you’ll be mine.
I also make one Valentine from two.
They’re angels unless you mess with their halos – the TV’s ad.
Later, I catch myself eating a sandwich in a mirror. It is the only way I can see what my hands are on.
Ditto the poetry reading that night.
Language is an organ, he says, not just sensate but reciprocal too.
Q: Do the eyes rhyme with their host?
A: I don’t know. I keep checking to see if it’s changed.
(Laura Ferris, first-year poet)
Now that my schedule for the day has played out, I feel less certain of how I spent my time. Tomorrow I know I am going to the library to do more research for my historical-ish surrealist-adjacent poem, spending hours at a microfilm scanner. I consider going out because I’m supposed to be writing about my day, but ultimately decide I don’t care enough about making the day seem like anything.
I watch more episodes of Sailor Moon with Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, think about to what extent I care about Valentine’s Day. I want to say that I usually do more, write more, than this. Today, though, I’m spent, uninspired, and a little lonely – and unable to go out.
(Will Jameson, first-year poet)
Anthony and Elyse and Jordan and I are drinking gin and tonics. Elyse doesn’t have a lime but she has a lemon. We finished the pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Falbo’s we’d ordered which was a circle cut into squares. Jordan is playing Drake on his computer and Anthony is drawing a grid in his notebook that plots where our poetics stand in relation to each other. It looks like a sketch of Orion without the helpful lines drawn in between to illuminate the figure. Elyse reads aloud some Norman Dubie. Anthony reads aloud some James Tate. Then we keep talking about ourselves.
(D.R. Simonds, second-year poet)
“The Willow Tree on the West Bank, Iowa River”
For Emma Woodhouse
Near the “Train Only” bridge we footbridge, you burn
willow branches two at a time, saying
you know I know
how to respond
in a heartbreaking situation, (having broken
hearts before), spine-burn
running thru your hands, but the other
white-hot willows nearby
I am never showing you, my first impulse for our survival
I can’t never show you.
(Jerika Marchan, second-year poet)
I want to be original and smart. I want to not feel guilty about eating half a chocolate bar for breakfast. I don’t eat microwave dinners. I want to delude myself into health. I listen to this interview on Iowa Public Radio because I feel like I can participate and because the conversation is smart. People feel strongly about things and I can, too. I Can Too.
I go downstairs and make a bean burrito. The door to the house is usually left unlocked, and as I’m guiltily overstuffing my burrito, someone busts in to tuck in the tag hanging out of my dress and leave me a Valentine. I scream for a long time.
Jessie gets home and asks if I wanna go to Meredith’s for pad thai and sake. Yes get me out of this house, I’m full of burrito. (I will eat only bunny-amounts of pad thai is what I tell myself.) Pad thai happens in a sake-induced fog. (Meredith googles “what’s in sake bombs?”) Meredith and I successfully open a very-difficult-to-open jar of organic coconut oil. I bust my ass trying to sit on what I thought was a chair but really was a cookie sheet resting on a chair, and I fall to the ground. It’s kinda nice. (Is that weird?) I haven’t fallen on my ass in a while. It’s nice to know what it feels like from time to time.
Jessie and I tell Mere about my ongoing boob-angst, and she looks at me for a quick second before deciding that I’m at least a D-cup.
(Rachel Milligan, second-year poet)
I wake up at noon, spend the day reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets on the couch, lighting three candles, blowing them out, and then lighting them again. I have a glass of wine before the Richard Kenney and Carol Light reading. My night concludes with one of my best friends scream-singing at me, perched on top of the refrigerator.
(Cassidy McFadzean, first-year poet)
After dinner, we walk to Dey House for Richard Kenney’s reading. Nathan slips on the ice outside our apartment, but he doesn’t see the blood on his hand until he leaves a mark on the door of the workshop. He wipes it off. We sit with Will, with Connor in front of us. The three of us were in Rick’s workshop last semester, and I see the other seven students scattered around the room. Rick refuses the microphone and reads a mix of riddles, charms, and pun-filled haikus, occasionally stepping out from behind the podium to address us, bringing his words closer to our ears.
The after party’s at Will’s and I make him show me the group pictures he took of our class last semester. I feel nostalgic. I eat pita chips and hummus and talk with Connor and Nikki about the classes we’re teaching. I talk with Winter about the buttons on the sleeves of her dress. I talk with Clare about how amazing Hy-Vee is, though she does not share my sentiments. I talk with Chad about Canadian poets, and Petro about Trailer Park Boys.
Every party proceeds the same: the bass gets turned up, the lights get dimmed down. Someone plays Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” We talk about how every party ends this way. It’s around midnight, and some of us leave, and some of us stay.
Image Credit: J.Y. “Warmer is not warm.”
There are two kinds of novelists, the peckish and the ravenous: those who fastidiously nibble on the pie of human experience (Jane Austen), and those who gorge themselves on its hearty filling (Emily Bronte). (There are also two kinds of pies, but no matter.) I first started making such judgments after a sharp hunger pang interrupted my reading of Chad Harbach’s MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. Reaching for a half-eaten pastry in the refrigerator, I had stumbled upon the elusive truth: at some point, every writer lands on one side of an aesthetic divide, or as Zadie Smith puts it, travels down one of two paths for the novel.
Once possessed of this key classificatory insight and another slice of pie, my literary splicing continued apace. Alice Munro, it struck me, is a hypoallergenic writer, while Joyce Carol Oates is a shedding one; J.K. Rowling a perennial novelist, Robert Galbraith a seasonal one; Cormac McCarthy a novelist who neglects to contact one-night stands after a passionate night of lovemaking, Tom Wolfe one who sends each conquest a handwritten note on monogrammed paper; Salman Rushdie Team Jacob, and Cynthia Ozick Team Edward.
John Banville is our most eminent bituminous novelist, whereas his fellow Irishman Roddy Doyle is one who has no idea what that classification means; Martin Amis is a novelist who pees standing up, Karen Russell one who pees in some other manner; and Jonathan Lethem is a novelist colloquially known in locker rooms as a grower, while Jonathan Franzen, the originator of the contract/status writer dichotomy, is by all accounts a shower.
Surveying the gluttonous mess I had made, I revised my theory to distinguish between prim novelists (Woolf, Forster), never far removed from a napkin and a DustBuster, and Rabelaisian novelists, who chew with their mouths open, get crumbs stuck in their beard and leave various and sundry colorful stains on their manuscripts (Balzac, Nicholson Baker, if their copyeditors are to be believed).
Shutting off the kitchen light, I next reflected that novelists, like bulbs, come in two categories: the incandescent (Pynchon, Barth, Ellison) and the efficient (Marilynne Robinson, John Cheever, Teju Cole), those Energy Star LED certified wonders who are just as illuminating as their more brilliant versions. Should these categories prove too restrictive, a sui generis novelist like W.G. Sebald can in a crisis be compared to a lava lamp.
Having gone to bed still a little hungry but satisfied with my theorization, I heard a bump in the night, at which point I continued my conceptual cleaving. There are indeed two kinds of novelists, but appetite, manners or household appliances have nothing to do with it.
Rather, there are robust novelists (D.H. Lawrence), who announce their presence by busting down the front door of your literary consciousness to steal your electronics, and insinuating novelists (Willa Cather), who sneak in through a window after you’ve dozed off and raid your refrigerator.
Kept awake both by the threat of an intruder and a stiff neck — the result of my aggressive pie-eating — I made a useful distinction between the arthritic novelist, whose plot machinations creak like old bones (Dan Brown), and the lithe novelist, whose manipulations cannot but leave the reader in awe of their balletic grace (Kate Atkinson). When especially hungry, lithe novelists will teach insinuating novelists yogic postures in exchange for food raided from your fridge.
The body — its motions and its wants — is very important to novelists. There are those writers who prefer to dwell on the shapely rump of human carnality, and those who find inspiration in the fertile hillocks of the womanly breast; that is, there are ass-men and tit-men. And then there is Philip Roth, who is both an ass-man and a tit-man, the first writer since Shakespeare to so straddle the two categories.
And while it is common knowledge that characters can be flat or round, the distinction holds also holds true for novelists, particularly when said novelists become pregnant. (We need not revisit Randall Jarrell’s seminal analysis of innies and outies here, as that great critic’s conclusions primarily concerned the poetic temperament.)
Having dragged my own body to a coffee shop after a sleep-deprived night, I continued my bifurcations, this time in a frothier vein. Owing to the vagaries of evolution and animal husbandry, there are lactose intolerant novelists (Dostoyevsky) and those blessed few for whom a latte does not ruin an afternoon (Marguerite Duras).
Furthermore, there are those novelists often praised as daring or fearless (Claire Messud), less for their portrayal of searing emotional content than for their willingness to drink eggnog at holiday parties in spite of their digestive problems. Lily-livered novelists, by contrast, studiously avoid life’s hard truths in their fiction and heavy cream in their kitchen.
Strolling back with my (black) coffee, I noticed my overgrown yard. It struck me that as novelists spend much of their day watching the grass grow, it is only logical that they can be defined according to their landscaping technique. Thus Donald Antrim is a push-mower novelist, while Rachel Kushner is a ride-mower novelist; and Jonathan Safran Foer cuts grass with an artisanal scythe, as opposed to a writer like Tao Lin, who eats each blade like a ruminant. (NB: There is only one type of cow, but each has four stomachs, making them unlike novelists.)
As for the Brits, Evelyn Waugh was the kind of novelist to hire someone to cut his grass, and Kingsley Amis the kind who made his son do it. (Amis fils, if you recall, is one of those novelists who pees standing up, a direct result of his mowing-filled childhood.) V.S. Naipul used pesticides, while Muriel Spark could weed a lawn with one withering look.
The connection between proper lawn care and prose style naturally led me to consider larger cosmological issues. Shifting my gaze from my cultivated garden to the stars, I concluded that there are so-called multiverse novelists (James Joyce, David Mitchell), whose many-stranded plots seem to intuit the mysteries of hidden realms, and then a horde of reactionary scribes who cling to the comforting universe model (George Eliot, John Updike). God is of course a writer unto himself and the most famous creationist novelist in history.
But alas, one cannot contemplate life’s great mysteries forever. It was time for my annual, disheartening reckoning with the IRS. Playing my usual coy games with TurboTax, I deduced that Saul Bellow was a novelist owing back taxes, while his good friend Richard Stern was one with nothing to declare but his genius; and that Faulkner was a novelist haunted by the past, while John Grisham is one who is well-invested in futures.
I write this now from the hospital after my appendix burst from excessive theorizing and audit anxiety, an unfortunate medical emergency which nonetheless led me to reflect on the difference between the vestigial novelist, who revels in the antiquarian (Sir Walter Scott), and the vital novelist, who writes because he has a pathological hatred of the tailbone (Ben Marcus).
After nearly 24-hours of intense thinking, I ruefully considered how hard it is for a novelist facing so many clear-cut choices. Laid up though I was in this antiseptic room, I took solace that at least I was only a critic, that endlessly classifying specimen whose depth, complexity, and fine gradations resist all neat distinctions.
Image via TheCulinaryGeek/Flickr
Reading Chad Harbach’s 2010 essay “MFA vs. NYC” today one feels keenly the four years that have elapsed since it first appeared in the magazine he co-founded, n+1. At the start of 2010, the iPad did not exist and Borders did. By that year, degree-granting creative writing programs had proliferated from just 79 in 1976 to 1,269, while New York publishing, struck by the double-blow of e-books and the 2008 financial crisis, was bleeding jobs at a frightening pace. In 2010, both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award went to books published by tiny independent presses, and neither Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer after being published by the nonprofit Bellevue Literary Press, nor Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, which took the NBA after being published by the one-man operation McPherson & Company, had been reviewed by the New York Times before they won their awards.
So even back then it was a bit of an understatement to suggest, as Harbach did in his n+1 essay, that “the university now rivals, if it hasn’t already surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” Today, though, when Harbach’s piece has resurfaced as the title essay of a new collection, MFA vs. NYC, it would be hard to find many writers who still believe, as Harbach maintains, that New York publishing and university creative writing programs remain “two complementary systems of roughly matched strength.” Put it this way: if you have kids and want to keep writing, would you aim for a teaching job in an MFA program or try your luck as a freelance writer in NYC? Thought so.
Perhaps this fundamental disconnect between the balance implied by its title and the economic realities of literary life circa 2014 explains the underthrob of panic that courses through a number of the essays in the new collection by writers outside the orbit of Planet MFA. Harbach, who edited this new volume, has tapped his stable of n+1 writers, a fair number of whom, like him, went to Harvard and earned six-figure advances for their first books. Whatever is ailing these folks, it isn’t lack of chutzpah or unwillingness to do what it takes to succeed, and yet what was clearly intended as a series of artsy-smartsy essays examining the state of play in literary America too often comes off as an extended moan of self-pity from a once-cosseted corner of Brownstone Brooklyn.
Harbach himself, whose 2011 novel Art of Fielding has done very well, is not among the moaners. Aside from the reprinted title essay and a perfunctory editor’s introduction, he mostly keeps his head down here. Not so his n+1 co-editor Keith Gessen, and Gessen’s longtime girlfriend Emily Gould, whose essays together form the emotional heart of the collection.
Gessen contributes a pair of linked essays, “Money (2006)” and “Money (2014),” which as their titles suggest, offer a before-and-after portrait of Gessen’s struggle to make a living as a NYC writer. The first, originally published in n+1 two years before the release of Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, reads as a snarling, embittered defense of intellectual defensiveness. “Bad magazines,” he writes, “vulgarize your ideas and literally spray your pages with perfume.” Prestigious magazines are even worse, working writers so hard with “style editing, copyediting, query editing, [and] bulletproofing” that a freelancer soon realized he has “landed a $6-an-hour job, featuring heavy lifting.”
But this journalistic wage slavery is bliss compared to university teaching, which, Gessen reports, “buys the writer off with patronage, even as it destroys the fundamental preconditions for his being.” And don’t get him started on the tortures associated with publishing a book. Authors, he relates, must “spend every day prostituting themselves: with photographs, interviews, readings with accordions, live blogs on Amazon.com.” And get this: publishing companies are in business and want writers’ books to sell! To the public! For money!
Gessen redeems himself somewhat in his second essay, an account of his decision to risk destruction of “the fundamental preconditions of his being” and spend a semester teaching creative writing after the money from his book and his journalism runs out. He is blunt in his disdain for the teaching of creative writing, but as he describes his reasoning, it becomes clear that what he fears most is getting stuck in a room full of younger, grasping versions of himself:
In fact what I most wanted was to be told, by a writer, that I was myself a writer, that I had it. And so by teaching such a class, weren’t you also taking part in that deception, in the deception that all these students might become writers? And weren’t you also forced, all the time, to lie to them, in effect, whether mildly or baldly, about their work?
After driving away a quarter of his students after the first class, Gessen finds that it’s more complicated than that. Yes, his students’ egos can be fragile, and not all of them are great writers, but if he listens, if he responds to what they’ve actually written, they improve. “I even began to feel, in a way I’d never felt as a student, that the old saw about how you can’t teaching writing was possibly untrue,” he writes.
The narrative arc from “Money (2006)” to “Money (2014)” is essentially a happy one, but in the bigger picture of the economics of literary culture, the lesson is hardly uplifting. Gessen did everything a young NYC author could possibly do to succeed. He went to Harvard. He helped start a small but influential literary magazine. He served a year as staff book reviewer for New York magazine. He published a first novel that earned him a six-figure advance. Yet despite continuing to write for New York’s glossiest magazines, only a few years after his novel came out, Gessen couldn’t afford repairs on his car and had a rent check bounce. And what did he do? He did what all American writers do these days when they need money: he got with the program.
If the moral of this story is not sufficiently plain, Gessen need only glance across the breakfast table at Emily Gould, whose essay “Into the Woods” offers a poignant cautionary tale for those who fail to see the writing on the wall. Gould first came to public attention as a blogger at Gawker.com where she famously posted a picture of herself in a bathing suit on a Brooklyn rooftop giving the camera the finger. New York publishing appears to have mistaken interest in the bathing suit for interest in her prose style, and in 2008 she sold a memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever, to Simon and Schuster for $200,000.
Gould says it began to dawn on her that all wasn’t well when a young marketing assistant suggested that Gould, who had sold the book in part because of her compulsive online oversharing, start a blog. Sensing her handlers had no idea how to frame her public persona, she suggested they position her as the next voice of her generation. “They looked at me like I’d emitted a long, loud, smelly fart,” she reports. “And so – swear to god – I amended what I’d said: ‘Okay, say I’m a voice of my generation.’”
When the book tanked, Gould found herself emotionally and creatively paralyzed. “[B]y summer 2012 I was broke, and in debt, and it was no one’s fault but mine,” she writes. “Besides a couple of freelance writing assignments, my only source of income for more than a year had come from teaching yoga, for which I got paid $40 a class. In 2011 I made $7,000.”
It is, I grant you, a touch grating to be asked to feel sorry for a college-educated woman from the leafy Maryland suburbs whose pain at not being anointed the voice of her generation was so debilitating that she was forced to teach yoga classes for forty bucks an hour. Indeed, though the tale ends on an upbeat note with the sale of Gould’s debut novel, Friendship, due out in July, there is more than enough Schadenfreude piled up in Gould’s essay to satisfy even the most bitter of Brooklyn wannabe authors. But in the great scheme of things, Gould’s story should give pause to Brooklyn wannabes and anyone else who cares about American literature in the post-print age.
For one brief shining moment, roughly from the end of World War II to the late 1960s, print truly was king. King Print, whose Art Deco palaces once dotted Midtown Manhattan, owed its reign to a fleeting, historically anomalous period between the creation of print technologies that made newspapers, magazines, and paperback books cheap and easy to distribute and the innovations in television production that rendered those print advances obsolete. King Print limped along, a wounded but still powerful despot until the late 1990s when the Great Dragon Internet slew it once and for all.
The reign of King Print gave us not only great magazines like the New Yorker and newspapers like the New York Times, both of which soared in the postwar years, but also the work of writers as varied as Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson, all of whom made a good living nearly exclusively from writing. But as we look back at this period we need to keep two very important things in mind. First, outside that one period, no one but hacks and geniuses really made money writing books, and most of the time even the hacks and the geniuses ended up poor. Second, were it not for the advent of the MFA system as a jobs program for midlist authors, we could be back in the 1850s, when serious writers either lived off their families like Henry Thoreau and Emily Dickinson or retreated into government sinecures like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.
It is odd, especially for a group of writers like the n+1 set, who pride themselves on their intellectualism and historical insight, that their book on the subject mostly elides this essential historical explanation for the personal predicaments besetting members of their own tribe. MFA vs. NYC is prodigious in its effort to drill down into the sedimentary layers of Planet MFA. In one essay, Eric Bennett tells a fascinating, if somewhat conspiracy-minded tale of how Paul Engle, an early director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, took money and intellectual succor from the CIA to help build the program into the academic juggernaut it is today. In another, an excerpt from a 1988 essay, the late David Foster Wallace, in his early High Peevish period, catalogs the reasons why writing programs are creatively deadening. Even Gordon Lish, now best known for having hacked Raymond Carver’s early stories to bits nearly forty years ago, is trotted out in an essay by n+1 editor Carla Blumenkranz, despite the fact that Lish never lasted in the academy and taught instead in private, cult-like evening sessions held in people’s homes.
Meanwhile, aside from one or two backward glances, the book’s discussion of Planet NYC is relentlessly first-person present tense. In addition to pieces from writers like Gessen and Gould, Harbach includes essays by literary agents, publicists, and editors all chirpily describing their work and career paths. The industry pieces are smart and informative – agent Jim Rutman’s “The Disappointment Business” is especially good – but they feel shoehorned in from a very different book designed to give fledgling writers a behind-the-scenes tour of New York publishing.
All this adds up to a curious meta-narrative that weaves unspoken through this otherwise disjointed collection of essays: that half a century ago the university-industrial complex, perhaps aided by the CIA, tunneled underneath New York publishing and blew the thing sky high, sapping its ability to pay its writers and sending the likes of Gessen and Gould out into the wastelands of Brooklyn in search of freelance gigs and rent money. But this ignores the obvious, actual reason why MFA programs are winning the hearts and minds of today’s authors. Universities remain profit centers because, for now at least, they are analog. Students will pay thousands of dollars a year for a seat in a MFA program because it is a real seat in a real room taught by a real professor, who can be paid decently for his or her work. Harness that to a generation increasingly delaying committing to marriage and a career and you have a fairly powerful economic engine.
Books, on the other hand, like everything else that can be reproduced digitally are rapidly declining in per-unit value. It has been fascinating to me over the past few weeks to see the essays I was reading in MFA vs. NYC appear one by one on my Facebook feed, published around the Web. Gould’s piece, retitled “How much my novel cost me,” is available for free on Medium. Bennett’s piece, now titled “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” recently went viral on the website for the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can find Blumenkranz’s piece on Gordon Lish on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog and even Harbach’s title essay has been unearthed from the n+1 archives and put on their website. I imagine that a moderately industrious person could assemble a Tumblr site in a matter of hours that would reproduce for free much of what n+1 Books would like to sell you for $16 in a bookstore.
Want to know what’s ailing New York publishing? That’s it, in a nutshell. Why would anyone pay full price for this book when its authors, many of them complaining about how hard it is to make money from writing, are giving away their work for free online? The answer is obvious. By and large, people won’t. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said.
But can serious writing survive in such an atmosphere? I would argue that the authors of MFA vs. NYC, perhaps inadvertently, are showing the way. After all, my caveats notwithstanding, these are serious essays and people will read them, probably more so now that they are online than if they had appeared exclusively in print. The problem is, obviously, that if you give something away, it’s devilishly hard to get paid good money for it, which means that authors will have to look for alternative sources of revenue. Which, as Keith Gessen seems to have already discovered, means getting with the program.
Last year offered many treats for readers: long-awaited new books by Donna Tartt and Norman Rush; the emergence of Rachel Kushner as a literary superstar; the breakout success of George Saunders. 2014 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by E.L. Doctorow, Richard Powers, Sue Monk Kidd, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, Mona Simpson, Lydia Davis, and Peter Matthiessen. Our own Edan Lepucki and Bill Morris will have new books on shelves in a few months. Look ahead to the hazy end of summer 2014 and a new novel by Haruki Murakami will be hitting American shores. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 89 titles, this is the only 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
January or Already Out:
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Say what you will, but Shteyngart is putting the fun back in literary life. If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for his fourth book and first memoir, Little Failure, well, start your new year with a giggle or two and be prepared to be delightfully convinced by the romantic (if not quite “erotic”) affection between Shteyngart and James Franco in pink bathrobes. But seriously, folks—I’m guessing Adam Gopnik’s blurb is just what the Chekhov-Roth-Apatow of Queens (now upstate) was hoping for: “I fully expected Gary Shteyngart’s memoir of his search for love and sex in a Russian-Jewish-Queens-Oberlin upbringing to be as hilarious and indecorous and exact as it turns out to be; what I wasn’t entirely prepared for was for a book so soulful and pained in its recounting of the feints and false starts and, well, little failures of family love. Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart! What could be better?” (Sonya)
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Don’t expect to find Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel at the library anytime soon because Oprah has already selected it as her newest Book Club read. She praised the book as a “conversation changer” regarding how we think about womanhood and history. The novel follows two headstrong women trying to make a change in the Antebellum South. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation owner, trades slavery for abolitionism and the suffragist movement. Her slave Handful has equally progressive desires, and the two form an unlikely friendship. (Tess)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow’s latest novel, his twelfth, is “structured as an extended series of conversations between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and an unnamed man who initially appears to be his psychotherapist,” according to Publishers Weekly. Their conversations focus on Andrew’s guilt over giving up his daughter after her mother died. Given Doctorow’s reputation as king of the American historical novel, it’s worrying that early reviews complain of a lack of clarity about exactly when the story takes place, but no one dramatizes complex ideas better than Doctorow. (Michael)
The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar: Lena is on the brink of an early midlife crisis: her career is stalled, she feels disconnected to her adopted country, and her marriage is faltering. She finds romance with a similarly lost academic, Ben, and the two embark on an affair in a cabin in Maine. Yet Lara Vapnyar’s sophomore novel is more than just a sexy romp in the woods. Up north, Lena reflects on a romantic and mysterious summer she spent at a Soviet children’s camp 20 years before. Early reviewers have called Vapnyar’s latest a “Russian Scheherazade.” (Tess)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Many of Chang-rae Lee’s novels are firmly grounded in reality, examining the worlds of displaced outsiders from the Korean War to the lives of immigrants in the present-day United States. His latest book leaps further afield, into the realm of speculative fiction, in a dystopian American future where declining urban neighborhoods have been transformed into “highwalled, self-contained labor colonies,” whose Chinese immigrant residents work catching fish for the surrounding elites. As with any good dystopian work, it promises to highlight and draw parallels with growing inequalities in our own society, which might “change the way readers think about the world they live in.” (Elizabeth)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: When two seconds get added to clock time because “time was out of kilter with the natural movement of the Earth” in the 1970s, two young boys worry if the world will ever be the same. In the present day, a man is so crippled by his OCD that he struggles to maintain a normal life outside the psychiatric hospital. Rachel Joyce weaves these parallel narratives together in her highly anticipated followup to bestseller and Booker longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Perfect has garnered great reviews in the U.K. with Susanna Rustin at The Guardian lauding it as, “ambitious, darker and more honest.” (Tess)
Orfeo by Richard Powers: Richard Powers’ novels are often laced with serious science, with narratives that delve into the complexities of genetic engineering, computer coding, and cognitive disorders. In Orfeo Powers returns to the pairing of DNA coding and musicality from his Gold Bug Variations, with a tech-age take on the Orpheus myth. Orfeo follows a retired music professor who’s built a DIY genetics lab where he finds musical patterns in DNA sequences. When his dog dies unexpectedly, the FBI seizes the lab, and he goes on the lam. It seems that DNA and music are inextricably paired for Powers, who noted in an essay on having his genome sequenced, “If the genome were a tune played at a nice bright allegro tempo of 120 beats per minute, it would take just short of a century to play.” (Anne)
The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah: Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, detailed his experiences of the conflict and its aftermath in his 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone. His debut novel, which Edwidge Danticat has called “formidable and memorable,” tells the story of two friends who return to their village after the war and their struggle to restore a sense of order and normalcy in the space between an unspeakable past and an uncertain future. (Emily)
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: At Columbia’s M.F.A. Program, Ben Marcus teaches a course called “Technologies of Heartbreak”—a nifty coinage that also points to the two poles of Marcus’s own aesthetic. In his mind-blowing story collection, The Age of Wire and String, and in the first novel that followed, Marcus gravitated toward the technological: meat masks, air bodies, soft machines… Seldom did one encounter a normal human being. But his most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet, placed wild invention at the service of more straightforward emotion. It’ll be worth watching to see where Leaving the Sea comes down; it’s likely to be good either way. (Garth)
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor: Anybody else miss Kurt Vonnegut? Rachel Cantor is here to fill the void with her debut novel, which mixes the comic with the speculative in a voice that one early reviewer described as “Terry Pratchett crossed with Douglas Adams.” It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for? (Hannah)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: In a small Japanese town, eight people disappear from their homes with only a playing card marking their doors and absences; one man, a thread salesman, confesses to the crimes and is put in jail, but refuses to speak. These disappearances form the mystery around which Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, is constructed, and which obsess a journalist who shares Ball’s name. Interview transcripts make up the central text of a story ultimately concerned with speech, silence, and the control of information. (Anne)
The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Abani is both a novelist and a poet, and he brings a poet’s instinct for sublime language to his latest work, a crime novel set in Las Vegas. Salazar, a detective, is determined to solve a string of recent murders before he retires. He enlists the help of an expert in psychopathy, Dr. Sunil Singh, who is haunted by a betrayal of his loved ones in apartheid South Africa. “Here in Vegas,” Abani writes, “the glamor beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.” (Emily)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: In his seminal novels, the late W.G. Sebald more or less obliterated the line between essay and fiction, if one even existed in the first place. Here, Sebald explores the lives and work of Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, and other artists. The book is labeled nonfiction, but one imagines that this capstone to the English translation of Sebald’s work will offer many of the satisfactions of his novels. (Garth)
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor: Along with his colleague Matt Bell, Kyle Minor was the subject of a flame war in a recent comment thread here at The Millions. But the imputation of log-rolling struck me as unfair. As someone who’s never met, spoken with, or seen Kyle Minor, I can say that the Guernica excerpt of his as-yet-unpublished novel, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, was one of the more memorable pieces of fiction by a young writer I read in 2012. I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to see the rest, but in the meantime, Minor’s latest story collection, Praying Drunk, promises to explore some of the same territory. (Garth)
Bark by Lorrie Moore: New Lorrie Moore! Let us rejoice! Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection since the miraculous and magnificent Birds of America came out fifteen years ago. Some of these eight stories might be familiar; The New Yorker published “Debarking” back in 2003, and “The Juniper Tree” in 2005. All of these stories, new to you or not, should be about as pun-filled, clever, and devastating as we’ve come to expect from Moore, who is arguably the best American short story writer alive today. (Edan)
MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach: Although its title and implied dichotomy will pain any person who writes things and is neither an MFA-holder nor connected with the NYC publishing scene, Chad Harbach’s collection of commentaries on the two major drivers of the literary economy promises to deliver valuable collective insight on the current state of writing in America. Harbach first conceived this dichotomy in 2010 in an essay for n+1 (available online at Slate), wherein he made intriguing and provocative statements on, among other things, the rise of the MFA program (“an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market”) and argued that the “university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” The book will feature contributions from writers, editors, and teachers at various stages of their careers, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, Keith Gessen, Maria Adelmann, Emily Gould, and Alexander Chee. (Lydia)
Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li: Two things intrigue me right off the bat about Yiyun Li’s new novel—its title, and this, from the publisher: “Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed.” A murder mystery! And from a writer as patient, observant, and precise as Li. Given Li’s gifts of insight into human nature, the story will surely evolve less around whodunit? and more around what really happened? and does it matter? The eponymous kindness seems to have been bestowed upon one of the three friends, Moran, by a man who was once her husband, at a time when she fled into—and presumably believed in the kindness of—solitude; all of which is yet more intriguing. (Sonya)
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol: Molly Antopol’s debut is a collection about characters lost in the labyrinth of recent history. Stories are set against various geographical and historical backdrops—the McCarthy witch hunt, Communist-era Prague, Israeli settlements. The book has been accumulating some promising advance praise. Adam Johnson, for instance, has written that “Not since Robert Stone has a writer so examined the nature of disillusionment and the ways in which newfound hope can crack the cement of failed dreams.” Antopol was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year. (Mark)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel is reclusive seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Sobi, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut who spends her time translating books into Arabic and then stowing them away, never to be read. The book is an exploration of Aaliya’s inner life—of her memories of Lebanon’s troubled recent history and her own turbulent past, and of her thoughts on literature and art. Colm Tóibín has compared it to Calvino and Borges, describing it as a “fiercely original act of creation”. (Mark)
Thirty Girls by Susan Minot: In 1996, The Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped a group of 139 young teenage girls from a convent school in Uganda, holding them captive. The deputy headmistress of their school, Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the kidnappers and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls; the remaining thirty were kept and subjected to a long ordeal of captivity and brutality. Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls, is a fictionalized account of this mass abduction and its aftermath. Minot tells the stories of these abductees, interweaving them with that of an American journalist named Jane Wood who is interviewing them about their experiences. In 2012, Minot published an extract of the same name in Granta’s “Exit Strategies” issue. (Mark)
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux: The British broadcaster and novelist Marcel Theroux, a son of Paul Theroux, wants to have it all in his fifth novel. Strange Bodies is a high-concept literary thriller that flirts with science fiction while making inquiries into language, identity and what it means to be human. The concept is this: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months, yet one day he turns up to visit an old girlfriend. He leaves behind a flash drive containing something as unbelievable as he is—a cache of letters supposedly written by Samuel Johnson. This smart novel’s central conceit is that we are all, like books, made of words. (Bill)
The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton: Known for his wide-ranging curiosity and penchant for philosophical musing, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, Religion for Atheists, and The Art of Travel has turned his attention to the news. This branch of the media that incorporates everything from war to celebrities getting pizza is almost omnipresent in our lives, and de Botton here examines how that affects us and how much longer the news can get bigger. (Janet)
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert: Schaffert’s fifth novel, which he describes on his website as “a love story (with ghosts),” is set in the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. The fair marks a point of possible transformation, both for Omaha—still in some ways a Wild West town, but yearning for the glamor of Chicago—and for the actors, aerialists, ventriloquists, and assorted hustlers who descend on the city for the fair. Schaffert brings his trademark lyricism, precision, and exquisite character development to a love story between a ventriloquist and a secretive traveling actress. (Emily)
A Life in Men by Gina Frangello: Gina Frangello is a true champion of indie literature—she’s an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown and has appeared repeatedly on the annual “Who Really Books Chicago” list—and yet she somehow finds time to write her own books, too. Frangello’s fiction is often sexual, seductive, forward, and frank. Her latest novel, A Life of Men, promises more in the same vein, with a story about two young friends, one recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, who travel the world seeking to fill their lives, however brief, with a wealth of experience. (Anne)
Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic: Ugresic has published several distinguished works of fiction, but her wide-ranging, boundary-blurring essays on politics and culture may be the ideal entry point for English-language readers. Here, in pieces originally published in The Baffler and elsewhere, she ranges from Occupy Wall Street to Ireland’s Aran Islands. For a preview, check out Arnon Grunberg’s tribute to Ugresic, published here last year. (Garth)
What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson: Adam Wilson follows up his debut novel Flatscreen, a dark comedy of suburban listlessness, with a collection of stories taking place across the modern American landscape (the title story, which appeared in the Paris Review and was later included in the Best American Short Stories of 2012, describes a movie set in Texas and opens with the immortal question, “‘What is this cockshit?'”) Like Flatscreen, What’s Important is Feeling promises youthful- to middle-aged angst, ennui, relationship troubles, and weed. (Lydia)
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Teju Cole’s peripatetic, meditative Open City drew comparisons to Sebald and Coetzee and firmly placed Cole on the map of young authors endowed with serious smarts and talent, who engage in cultural critique—and this holds true whether he’s writing about race, class, and post-colonialism, or Tweeting about drones. Cole’s novel Every Day Is for the Thief is an “amalgamation of fiction, memory, art, and travel writing” originally culled from his blog (now removed) about a young Nigerian revisiting Lagos and a version of the book was published in 2007 by Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press. (Anne)
What Would Lynne Tillman Do by Lynne Tillman: I ask myself this question all the time – WWLTD? – and here, in a thick abecedarium of essays introduced by Colm Tóibín, Tillman offers a variety of answers. A crib sheet: sometimes Lynne Tillman would crack wise; sometimes Lynne Tillman would offer an insight so startling I had to go back and read it twice; always Lynne Tillman would do something smarter and finer and better than I would. And that’s why you, too, should be reading Lynne Tillman. (Garth)
The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant: Early reviews have compared Poissant’s stories, which ply the literary territory between realism and allegory, to the work of Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. In one story from this debut collection, a man throws his teenage son out a window when he learns the boy is gay, seeking reconciliation only after helping free an alligator from a golf club pond. In another, two parents confront the unusual complications of having a newborn baby that literally glows. Poissant, whose stories have appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and The Atlantic, also has a novel in the works. (Michael)
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi’s newest novel will be her fifth, not bad for a writer who will celebrate her 30th birthday later this year. Oyeyemi’s 2009 novel, White is for Witching, won a Somerset Maugham Award (the prize is given to British writers under 35) and she was named to the Granta Best Of Young British Novelists list last year, following the 2011 publication of Mr. Fox, the novel that introduced Oyeyemi to many U.S. readers. Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi told the Times last year, is “about a woman named Boy who tries to avoid becoming a wicked stepmother and really doesn’t know if she’s going to manage it.” (Max)
The Brunist Day of Wrath by Robert Coover: Coover’s enormous follow-up to his first novel, Origin of the Brunists, has been delayed several times, but this spring, it should finally see the light of day. Coover’s recent short stories in The New Yorker suggest he’s still near the top of his game. (Garth)
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov: A new translation of a Dovlatov novel is like Christmas morning for the English-speaking world; and this one from his daughter, no less. Pushkin Hills, published 30 years ago, is one of his most popular novels in Russia (posthumously, along with all his work). Said The Guardian of the translation that first hit the UK last fall: “Alma Classics have been searching for a suitable translator for years. Now the writer’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, has captured her father’s style. . . [she] only took on the task of translating it after the publishers rejected a previous translation and numerous samples.” The story is, of course, autobiographical, featuring “[a]n unsuccessful writer and an inveterate alcoholic, Boris Alikhanov. . . running out of money and . . . recently divorced from his wife Tatyana, who intends to emigrate to the West with their daughter Masha.” From The Independent: “Vodka-fuelled mishaps, grotesque comic cameos and—above all—quick-fire dialogue that swings and stings propel this furious twilight romp from the final days of Soviet power.” Counterpoint is publishing the book in the U.S. (Sonya)
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat, because it’s one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu. The author of the The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air—both concerned with Africans fleeing their countries—returns this year with All Our Names, an elegiac love story about pair of African men separated by a political revolution: one in exile, and another in their war-torn homeland. Split across two narratives—one in the past, one in the present—All Our Names dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change. (Nick M.)
Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn: Billed as an In Cold Blood for the 21st century, Walter Kirn’s non-fiction book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade tells the story of how this celebrated critic, essayist and novelist (Up In the Air, Thumbsucker) got duped by a man who claimed to be a Rockefeller but turned out to be an impostor, a child kidnapper and a brutal murderer. Part memoir, part true-crime story and part social commentary, Blood Will Out probes the dark psychological links between the artist and the con man. (Bill)
Mount Terminus by David Grand: The titular hilltop in David Grand’s third novel roosts high above sunny, sleepy pre-Hollywood Los Angeles. Mount Terminus is a refuge for grieving Jacob Rosenbloom, whose wife died back East. Jacob’s invention, the Rosenbloom Loop, has revolutionized the budding art of filmmaking, and he’s determined to use his invention’s earnings to protect his son, Bloom, from the family’s past. But Bloom, a dark, brooding genius, is prodded by his very different half-brother to come down from Mount Terminus and meet the world. This novel, 11 years in the making, becomes that rarest of things: a plausible myth, an intimate epic. (Bill)
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An acclaimed Israeli novelist, Grossman found an American audience with 2010’s To the End of the Land, an epic novel of love and war hailed as a masterpiece. He returns with a allegorical novel one third its length that tells the story of Walking Man, who walks in circles around his town in an attempt to come to peace with his son’s death. Having lost his own son in 2006, Grossman here probes the meaning of loss, memory, and grief. (Janet)
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell: The newly minted MacArthur grantee mines the fertile territory between short story and novel. In Russell’s lightly science-fictionalized world (which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like my house) a deadly insomnia epidemic is spreading. The well-rested can help out the afflicted by donating their excess sleep—but scarce supplies force everyone to reevaluate the line between gift and commodity. This is the first title from Atavist Books, so expect some bells and whistles in the digital edition. (Garth)
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley: Like Alice Munro and Evan Connell, Hadley’s devotees exclaim that her sophisticated prose and skill with character transcend their subject—the unfortunately named “domestic fiction.” Her fifth novel, Clever Girl follows the life of Stella from her adolescence in the 1960s to the present day. Stella’s life, in every description, is ordinary, but illuminates both the woman living it and the times around her. (Janet)
Updike by Adam Begley: What’s left to say about John Updike that Updike didn’t already say exhaustively, and say better than anyone else could have? Yet Adam Begley has apparently found enough fresh material, or a fresh enough angle on the well-trod, to fill 576 pages. For a primer on Updike, there’s no way this book can surpass Nicholson Baker’s U&I, but it’s always a good sign when a literary biographer is a novelist himself. (Garth)
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis: “Can’t and Won’t,” the title story from Lydia Davis’s new collection of short and short-short stories playfully pokes fun at the brevity of her fictions. In this two-sentence story the author is refused a literary prize, because of the laziness evident in his/her frequent use of linguistic contractions. Quite the contrary is true with Davis’s work, where much of the flare is tongue in cheek. Concision and precision invigorate her fictions, and apparently the prize committee agrees, as Davis was just awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. (Anne)
And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: In her fifth novel, Julia Glass revisits two beloved characters—Malachy Burns and Fenno McLeod—from her first novel, the National Book Award-winning Three Junes. The publisher’s description assures us, however, that the novel will range and weave and shift perspectives—as all Glass’s novels do—among new characters as well. In an interview with Bloom earlier this year, Glass, who debuted with Three Junes at age 46, said: “I suspect that I simply can’t help exploring a story from many angles. . . I have to look through as many windows as I can reach; now and then I resort to a ladder.” When interviewer Evelyn Somers described Glass as “fearless” in the way she weaves together complex stories, Glass replied: “I like the idea of being ‘fearless,’ but sometimes I think the complexity of my novels is more related to another trait I have: I’m an overpacker. . . Call me a maximalist. I won’t be insulted.” (Sonya)
Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: The plot of this novel revolves around the true history of the Hungarian gold train, a trove of stolen valuables that was seized by American soldiers during World War II but which was never returned to its rightful owners. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of the treasure-seizing soldiers must look into the turbulent past—and into her own turbulent life—when her grandfather gives her a jeweled pendant with a murky history. (Hannah)
Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932 by Francine Prose: Francine Prose’s 20th novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, is framed as a biography by a French feminist high school teacher. The subject of this fictional biography is Lou Villars, based on an historical figure, a professional athlete, lesbian, cross-dresser and German spy who became a torturer and was executed by the Resistance. One early reader claimed she could smell the nicotine on the fingers of Prose’s fictional French biographer. Woven into the text are sections of a fake Peggy Guggenheim memoir and a fake Henry Miller novel. The latter, Prose reports, “was super fun to write.” (Bill)
Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken: The novelist, short story writer, and memoirist Elizabeth McCracken, whose novel The Giant’s House was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, has earned a reputation as a writer of rare empathy and descriptive powers. Thunderstruck, her first short story collection in twenty years, charts the territory of family, love, and loss. In their review of the collection, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions.” (Emily)
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue: Best known for the 2010 bestseller Room, Donoghue latest novel sees her returning to historical fiction (four of her eight novels are historical), this one based on a still-unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco. After her friend is killed by a gunshot through a boardinghouse window, Blanche—a burlesque dancer, prostitute, and the only witness—is forced to seek justice on her own. (Janet)
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: This second novel from British thirty-something sensation Evie Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, 2009) is about a woman named Jake who, along with a flock of sheep, is the only inhabitant on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain. The novel came out abroad last year and revolves around a mysterious predator stalking Jake’s flock, picking off her sheep one at a time in gory fashion. As The Guardian put it in a review last June, the novel is “not a ruminant whodunnit exactly; it is a thoughtful and intense account of a young woman seemingly determined to disappear from the world’s radar.” (Kevin)
In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen: 86-year-old lion of American letters Peter Matthiessen has written his first novel since Shadow Country and what he told the NY Times may be his “last word.” A novel based upon his own experience attending three “Bearing Witness” Zen retreats at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, In Paradise will describe one attendee’s experience of meditation in a former concentration camp as a non-Jew of Polish descent. (Lydia)
Family Life by Akhil Sharma: Sharma’s first novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway and the Whiting in 2001. More than a decade later, the Indian-born writer publishes his second novel, which begins in Delhi in 1978 and tracks a family’s migration to the United States. “Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes,” the publisher writes, “leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land.” For a introduction to Sharma’s writing, his first short story in twelve years, about cousins living in Delhi, was published in The New Yorker this past spring: “I wrote this story as soon as I had e-mailed the novel to my editor,” he told New Yorker fiction editor Deboarah Treisman. “Get thee behind me, devil is what I thought about finishing the novel.” (Elizabeth)
With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst: If 2012 was the year of Clarice Lispector, when New Directions issued four new translations of her seminal works, then 2014 may very well be the year of Lispector’s friend and fellow Brazilian author, Hilda Hilst. Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first work translated into English, and it made appearances on my best of 2013 reading list as well as Blake Butler’s. Two more Hilst translations debut this year, with another from Nightboat (Letters from a Seducer) and Melville House’s publication of With My Dog Eyes. This title seems apt, as Hilst produced much of her work after retreating to an estate where a pack of more than one hundred dogs roamed. For a taste, check out the excerpt Bomb published last summer. (Anne)
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman: Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English, Traveler of the Century, was an enormous feat of fabulism, and was critically acclaimed when it appeared here in 2012. Talking to Ourselves demonstrates Neuman’s range by running in completely the opposite direction. This comparatively short work is set in the present day, and alternates among the voices of three family members. For those who missed Traveler of the Century, it may be an equally potent introduction to Neuman’s work. (Garth)
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval: Saval, an n+1 editor, has produced what may be an essential volume on a subject that bedevils so many of the over-educated and under-employed among us: the office. It is likely the rare desk jockey who hasn’t, in a fugue of 3pm boredom and amid a din of inane small talk, wondered “why does it have to be like this?” Cubed looks for an answer, exploring how the office as we know it came to be, “starting with the smoke one-room offices of the 19th century and culminating in the radical spaces of the dot-com era and beyond.” (Max)
Casebook by Mona Simpson: The consistently excellent Simpson returns with what sounds like a riff on Harriet the Spy: the story of a boy investigating his parents’ disintegrating marriage. The coming-of-age narrative is complicated here, though, by the disintegration of the possibility of privacy in the age of Facebook, or Snapchat, or whatever we’re all on now. Am I the only one hoping that the “stranger from Washington D.C. who weaves in and out of their lives” is Anthony Weiner? (Garth)
Off Course by Michelle Huneven: Michelle Huneven, author of Blame and Jamesland, returns with an engrossing and intimate new novel set in the early 1980s. Cressida Hartley is a young PhD candidate in Economics who moves to her parents’ shabby vacation cabin in the Sierras; she ends up getting drawn into the small mountain community there—in particular, its men. According to the jacket copy, Huneven introduces us to “an intelligent young woman who discovers that love is the great distraction, and impossible love the greatest distraction of all.” Publishers Weekly says that “Cress makes for an eerily relatable and heartbreaking protagonist.” If you haven’t yet read a book by Huneven, whom Richard Russo calls “a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent,” then you’re in for a treat. (Bonus: Michelle Huneven’s beautiful essay, “On Walking and Reading At the Same Time.”)
Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon: There’s no such thing as a predictable birth—a fact that maddens parents-to-be but eventually makes for a whopper of an anecdote. If your Aunt Mildred can tell a good story about her scheduled c-section, imagine the tales that writers like Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and The Millions’ own Edan Lepucki can spin. (Hannah)
All the Rage by A. L. Kennedy: The Independent once described A. L. Kennedy as “one of nature’s Eeyores”: “She knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.” So the Scottish writer’s sixth collection of short stories—billed as “a dozen ways of looking at love, or the lack of love”—should likely be avoided by the overly sentimental. But it promises to be marked by the dark humor that pervades her work—the “Department 5” (“a shadowy organisation about which it’s best you know nothing”) page on her website gives you a good taste. (Elizabeth)
Vernon Downs by Jaime Clarke: Clarke, the co-owner of Newtonville Books in Boston, offers a slippery roman-a-clef, or simulacrum thereof. A sad sack writer becomes obsessed with a more famous colleague, the titular Vernon Downs, who despite his lack of a middle name, bears more than a passing resemblance to Bret Easton Ellis. This is the intriguing debut title for a new indie called Roundabout Press. (Garth)
The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry: The Irish poet, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry’s new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, tells the story of Jack McNulty, an Irishman who served in the British army in the Second World and has washed up in Accra, Ghana, in 1957, determined to write down the story of his life. Jack is an ordinary man who has seen extraordinary things—as a world traveler, soldier, engineer, UN observer and ill-starred lover. Once again Barry, a repeat contender for the Man Booker Prize, deftly twines his own family history with the rumbustious history of the Irish in the 20th century. (Bill)
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: Michael Cunningham’s sixth novel is set in New York City in 2004 and tells the story of two brothers facing loss. One brother, newly bereft, experiences a religious awakening; the other, whose wife is gravely ill, falls into drug use. It sounds like a tearjerker of a story, one likely to be made even more heartrending by Cunningham’s graceful prose. (Hannah)
My Struggle, Book III by Karl Ove Knausgaard: It’s not really news anymore that Knausgaard’s unfolding project (unfolding into English, anyway; in Norwegian, it’s already complete) is phenomenal. But now that FSG is handling the paperback editions (replete with Williamsburg-ready jacket design) you’ll be hearing even more about My Struggle. And it’s true: you should read it! Start Book I now, and you will have caught up by the time Book III comes out. (Garth)
Lost for Words: A Novel by Edward St Aubyn: St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet of novels, based on his own upbringing, center around the nasty dealings of a family in the English aristocracy. (James Wood diminishes regular comparisons to Waugh and Wilde, saying that despite surface similarities, St Aubyn is “he is a colder, more savage writer than either.”) His newest novel is somewhat of a departure then, a “a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.” Readers hesitant to leave the Melrose family behind can rest assured that the new novel promises to be just as cutting as those before it. (Elizabeth)
Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer’s latest sees the prolific journalist, essayist, and novelist chronicle a two-week stay aboard a US aircraft carrier. As the tallest (well, second-tallest), oldest, and easily most self-conscious person on the boat, Dyer occupied an odd position on the crew, one which forced him to reconcile his own bookish life with a lifelong interest in the military. (Those readers with Army experience may not be surprised to learn that the text is heavy on acronyms.) (Thom)
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: If Roxane Gay wrote it, I’ll read it. Perhaps best known for her thoughtful and engaging essays about all kinds of topics, from Orange is the New Black to Twitter to Paula Deen’s racism, Gay will publish not only a book of essays in 2014, called Bad Feminist, but also this first novel. In An Untamed State, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of one of Haiti’s richest men, is kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days by a man who calls himself the Commander. Mat Johnson says, “An Untamed State is the kind of book you have to keep putting down because you can’t believe how good it is. Awesome, powerful, impossible to ignore, Roxane Gay is a literary force of nature. An Untamed State arrives like a hurricane.” (Edan)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blind French girl and a young German boy navigate the perils of occupied France in the latest by the author of Memory Wall. The French girl, Marie Laure, flees Paris with her father, eventually holing up with her agoraphobic uncle in his house on the coast of Brittany. The German boy, Werner, a mechanical whiz, parlays his aptitude into a spot in the Nazi army. The Nazis ship him off to Russia and then from there to northern France. If we can trust Abraham Verghese’s endorsement, the story is “put together like a vintage timepiece.” (Thom)
The Vacationers by Emma Straub: The highlight of Emma Straub’s short story collection, Other People We Married, was the romantically lost but sympathetic Franny. We left the collection wanting to read an entire novel on her, and fortunately, Straub has done just that with her second novel after Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Surprisingly, Franny is still married to Jim, and the Post family and friends are off to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th anniversary. Yet not everything is tranquil as the Mediterranean Sea, and the vacation dredges up embarrassments, rivalries, and secrets. (Tess)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: To read a Joshua Ferris novel is to stare at the gaping emptiness just below the surface of modern life—and, quite often, laugh. In this third novel from the author of the much-beloved Then We Came to the End, dentist Paul O’Rourke discovers that someone is impersonating him online, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account all mysteriously created in Paul’s name. As he looks into who has stolen his identity and why, Paul begins to fear that his digital doppelgänger may be better than the real thing. (Michael)
The Painter by Peter Heller: An expressionist painter with a penchant for violence tries to outrun his own crimes in this novel by the author of The Dog Stars. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, thought he’d settled into a peaceful life in his home in rural Colorado. One day, Stegner witnesses a local man beating a horse, and the act so enrages him that he hunts down the man and kills him. He then sets off on a Dostoevskyan quest, one which sees him make sense of his actions while hiding his crime from the cops. All the while, in spite of his turmoil, he keeps painting. (Thom)
Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro: When a group of thirty-something parents gather at a ramshackle beach house called Eden, no serpent is required for the sins, carnal and otherwise, to pile up. Fierro, founder of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, argued in The Millions last year that writers need to put the steam—and the human sentiment—back into sex scenes in literary novels. You may want to keep Fierro’s debut novel on a high shelf, away from children and prudish literary snobs. (Michael)
The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour: Porochista Khakpour is the author of the blazingly original (pun intended!) novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects. In her new novel, its hero, Zal, is born in a rural Iranian village to a mother who believes he is evil because of his pale skin and hair. For the first ten years of his life he’s raised in a cage with the rest of his mother’s birds—eating insects, shitting on newspaper—until he is rescued by a behavioral analyst who brings him to New York. The Last Illusion recounts Zal’s struggles and adventures in this foreign land, where he befriends a magician, and falls for a supposed clairvoyant. Claire Messud writes, “This ambitious, exciting literary adventure is at once grotesque, amusing, deeply sad—and wonderful, too.” (Edan)
The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner: A generational drama set on fictional Loosewood Island, about the King family vying to maintain control of a centuries old lobstering dynasty. Early reports speak of meth dealers, sibling rivalry, and intra-lobster boat love as the main threats to Cordelia King’s attempt to preserve the family business. In an interview last April, Zentner (Touch, 2011) also allowed that one of the characters has “a Johnny Cash tape stuck in the cassette player in his truck.” (Kevin)
Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo: I’m particularly excited about Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel Wonderland—not only because its protagonist is a female indie musician, the likes of whom have not made it into novels often, if ever (think about it); but because said musician, Anna Brundage, is on a comeback tour at age 44. Bloomer! From the publisher: “Wonderland is a moving inquiry into the life of a woman on an unconventional path, wondering what happens next and what her passions might have cost her, seeking a version of herself she might recognize.” D’Erasmo herself, who spent a decade as a books editor, first for the Village Voice and then Bookforum, did her own later-blooming comeback as a debut novelist at age 39, and now a professor at Columbia. (Sonya)
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Rachman follows The Imperfectionists, a pitch perfect novel-in-stories set at a dying English-language newspaper in Rome, with a novel about a bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg, who was kidnapped as a child and then adopted by her kidnappers. In a narrative that hopscotches the globe from Bangkok to Brooklyn to the border towns of Wales, Zylberberg is lured into setting off on a journey that will unravel the mysteries of her past. Never one to worry overmuch about plot credibility, Rachman is a master of wringing pathos from essentially comic tales. (Michael)
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings: Seven years after the publication of The Descendents—which you might remember because of a certain movie adaptation starring George Clooney—Kaui Hart Hemmings returns to the themes of familial loss, grief, and unexpected turns of fate all cast against gorgeous scenery. In The Possibilities, a Colorado mother loses her son in an avalanche near their Breckinridge home. Coping with her loss, and trying to piece her life back together, she’s suddenly confronted with something she couldn’t have seen coming. (Nick M.)
American Innovations by Rivka Galchen: It’s been six years since readers were introduced to Galchen via her ambitious debut Atmospheric Disturbances (James Wood called it “a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability.”) Since then she has been chosen as one of the New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 and produced an impressive body of unusually lyrical science journalism (on topics like quantum computers and weather control). Galchen’s new collection American Innovations reflects an experiment of another sort. Per publisher FSG, “The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Gogol’s “The Nose” are among the stories mined. (Max)
Funny Once by Antonya Nelson: Antonya Nelson’s new story collection brings together short pieces from the last few years as well as a previously unpublished novella. In the title story, a couple, united by a shared propensity for bad behavior, reckons with the consequences of a lie they tell to their friends. In “The Village,” a woman comes to grips with her feelings about her father’s mistress. In “Three Wishes,” the novella, a group of siblings deals with the fallout of their brother’s death. Like much of the native Kansan’s work, the collection takes place largely in Heartland and Western settings. (Thom)
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez: The Book of Unknown Americans, the second novel by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Cristina Henríquez, begins as a love story between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl. After the girl suffers a major injury, the story moves from Mexico to a cinderblock apartment building in Delaware populated with immigrants from Latin America. From there the novel expands outward to become a symphonic love story between these immigrants and an impossible America. Told in a multiplicity of voices, the novel manages that rare balance of being both unflinching and unsentimental. In doing so, it rewrites the definition of what it means to be American. (Bill)
Summer House With Swimming Pool by Hermann Koch: Last year, in a “Books of the Times” review, Janet Maslin took Hermann Koch’s novel, The Dinner, out into the town square for a public flogging. A funny thing happened though: the book ended up a bestseller. A bestseller translated from the Dutch, no less! Koch’s misanthropic view of contemporary life seemed to resonate with American audiences, and his latest appears to offer more of the same. Here, a murder disturbs the idyll of a group of friends on vacation together, bringing far darker currents to the surface. (Garth)
Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek: Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago was, like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, practically required reading in writing programs in the late ’90s and early Aughts. Dybek’s voice was lusher than Johnson’s, and more openly romantic, but equally poetic. His follow-up, I Sailed With Magellan, sometimes let that lushness grow too wild; the gritty Chicago settings of the earlier book gave way in places to nostalgia. But a new Dybek volume is always welcome, and this year offers a treat: the simultaneous publication of two. Paper Lantern is a group of love stories, while Ecstatic Cahoots gathers together the kinds of short shorts that so memorably punctuated The Coast of Chicago. (Garth)
I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-sook Shin is one of Korea’s most popular novelists. In I’ll Be Right There, set during a period of political turmoil in 1980s South Korea, she uses European literature to bridge experiential differences between East and West. The novel concerns a highly literate woman who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend after nearly a decade of separation. The call triggers a flood of memories, and she finds herself reliving her intense and tumultuous youth: memories of tragedy and upheaval and of profound friendships forged in a time of uncertainty. (Emily)
In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds: The third novel from British writer Foulds takes place at the end of World War II and follows two Allied soldiers during the final push to sweep the Germans out of Italy. In an interview last July with the Hindustan Times, Foulds previewed the book, saying, it “would like to give the reader a sense of history as being very complicated and rapid in these high-conflict situations. It is one thing after another. The events are too massive to care for particular individual stories, so there are a number of stories. For a while, one is unsure if they are going to converge but they do.” (Kevin)
California by Edan Lepucki: In July, Millions staffer and preferred writing teacher Edan Lepucki will follow up her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with her first full-length novel, California, a post-apocalyptic number set in, er, California. Lepucki’s debut follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness and straddles the (complementary) domestic and dystopian spheres, addressing horrors like marital strife, pregnancy, and the end of society as we know it. Dan Chaon called it “a wholly original take on the post-apocalypse genre.” (Full disclosure: I have eaten meals with Edan, squeezed her baby, and admired her tiny dog. My feeling of anticipation regarding this novel is thus not impartial.) (Lydia)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Our own Bill Morris, a Motor City native, tells the story of Willie Bledsoe—once an idealistic black activist, now burnt-out and trying to write a memoir about the ’60s—who joins his brother to drive a load of illegal guns up to Detroit in 1968. While in Detroit, Bledsoe becomes the top suspect in an unsolved murder from the previous year’s bloody race riots. The book will dive deep into some of Morris’s great fascinations: cars, Detroit, and the The Indigenous American Berserk that lurks below the surface. (Kevin)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: A couple of years back, Charlie Jane Anders—writing on i09—declared that Harkaway had invented a new genre: existential pulp. That might be as good a way as any to describe his wildly inventive ouevre, which involves ninjas, mimes, doomsday machines, schoolgirl spies, shadowy secret societies, and mechanical soldiers. His third novel, Tigerman, concerns a burnt-out sergeant of the British Army, Lester Ferris, who is sent to serve out his time on Mancreu, a shady former British colony slated for destruction, where he encounters a street kid in need of a hero. (Emily)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Emily Gould’s debut novel charts the friendship of two women who, at thirty, have been closely entwined in one another’s lives for years. Bev lives the kind of aimless life that’s easier to put up with at 23 than at 30. Amy has been coasting for some time on charisma, luck, and early success, but unfortunate decisions are catching up with her. A meditation on friendship and maturity in an era of delayed adulthood. (Emily)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann writes so much that you forget it’s been a blue moon since he’s published a work of fiction. And that book won the National Book Award! This collection is said to comprise a bunch of ghost stories—perhaps less inherently promising than, say, a Vollmann essay on how the FBI mistook him for the Unabomber, but still liable to fascinate. One of the remarkable things about Vollmann’s story collections is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts; I’m eager to see how these stories connect. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: If orbital “space mirrors” reflecting constant sunlight upon Oranzheria, a massive greenhouse in Petroplavilsk, Russia, doesn’t pique your interest, then I can’t do anything for you. These are the mysterious devices at the heart of Josh Weil’s second novel, which follows two twins, Yarik and Dima, who were inseparable as children, but who have grown apart in adulthood. Today, the two work in the collective farms of Oranzheria, the “great glass sea,” to harvest crops for the benefit of the place’s billionaire owner. What follows is a story of two brothers on oppositional paths, each hoping to reconvene, all set against the backdrop of an “alternative present-day Russia.” (Nick M.)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: Doug is an academic interested in the poetry of Edwin Parfitt. As it happens, Doug’s mother-in-law owns a former artists’ colony where the poet had long ago been an artist in residence. Fancy that. But for whatever reason, she prohibits Doug from entering the estate’s attic, where file cabinets of Edwin Parfitt’s papers are said to be located. After asking around, however, Doug ultimately gains access to some of the files—only to find that they are much more disturbing than he could have imagined. What ensues is a fragmented narrative, split between 1999, 1955, and 1929, in which readers see glimpses of the present day, the near past, and the final days of the artist colony, all the while affected by the enduring legacy of the estate’s original owners. (Nick M.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: When Murakami’s new novel—his first since the in-all-ways-gigantic 1Q84—came out in Japan last year, there were apparently 150-deep midnight queues outside Tokyo bookstores. It sold 1 million copies in its first week alone. This is a novel, let’s remember, not a new Call of Duty game. And such were its unit-shifting powers in its author’s country that it caused a significant spike in sales of a particular recording of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” piano pieces described in the novel, leading to a swift decision by Universal Music to reprint CDs of the recording to meet Murakami-based demand. The novel tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man mysteriously ostracized by his friends. It stands a good chance of selling a few copies in English translation too. (Mark)
The Kills by Richard House: The second section of this four-part novel is called “The Massive”; it’s a title that could have stood for the whole. House’s sprawling quadruple-decker, longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a literary thriller set against the background of the Iraq War. Intriguingly, House created extensive digital video and audio supplements that unfold alongside the narrative. Not sure how that works, though, if you’re going to be reading on boring old paper, as I am. (Garth)
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