1.A week before the Camp Fire raged through Butte County and decimated a little town called Paradise, I sat on the edge of Lake Tahoe, reading, until the sun went down. That evening the sun grew round and pink in the sky, and as it swelled, it turned the clouds pastel, too, and made a rosy blanket out of the lake’s surface. Usually the wind picks up at sunset and the water heaves against the shore’s pebbled incline. But as I sat there, looking east to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the air was eerily still, even ominous. I thought it miraculous that our state had made it out of one of the most vicious legs of fall unscathed.
That evening was too miraculous to last. The long week of the fires, masks were donned as defense against toxic air. Texts and calls accumulated, from family and friends, either inquiring about the blazes or noting the destruction they had caused in their lives, or the lives of those who were special to them. Coworkers and passersby buzzed with nervous inquiries about what’s to become of this state. I’ve noticed a decline in the amount of hope people are willing to wrangle out of the maxim that the uncertainty of California’s future is the only certain thing about it.
Autumn in California has always felt existential, the grave threat of wildfires aside. The light shifts and my mood shifts with it, toward melancholy. I lean on books about the state or the American West or the “frontier” — that confused, cruel place! — and often resort to rereading a select few. This year was no different. (If anything, the impulse seemed more exaggerated since I resumed probing my family’s pioneer past.) And on the shore of Lake Tahoe that evening, I had beside me Joan Didion’s mournful but resolute Where I Was From. “The redemptive power of the crossing,” Didion writes of pioneers’ journey westward, “was the fixed idea of the California settlement, and one that raised a further question: for what exactly, and at what cost, had one been redeemed?”
Didion does not pose such questions with the hope that they’ll be answered. Instead, they’re a useful means of illuminating a consequence of turning places into ideas: fraught histories, and to some degree catastrophic natural disasters, get flattened out in spells of obsession. But even Didion, who demonstrates a grating awareness to the ways in which overdetermined relationships to geographies are formed, is not fully immune to the urge. In this way, Where I Was From fits comfortably into the long tradition of texts that seek to touch the weight of the West, California included — only to come up with dead ends and futile object lessons. Perhaps this might always be a symptom of writing sacrament into the land, or the less successful project of seeking to untangle one from the other.
Still, this shared and unrelenting ambition to confront the ineffable seems unity enough. My consideration of Didion’s insoluble questions about settler redemption cast new light on Willa Cather’s brimming masterpiece of a novel, My Antonia (1918), and Mary Austin’s stunning collection of lyric essays, The Land of Little Rain (1903), both of which were autumn rereads. It is equally easy to be seduced by the prose styles of Cather and Austin — each singularly beautiful, but similarly tender and sure — and thus to read these works solely for the aesthetic rush. But behind the bewitching descriptions of billowing prairie grasses and deep, desolate valleys is the pang of something more sorrowful, if not entirely sinister. These texts don’t have the relative advantage of historical distance, yet monumental atrocity haunts both, its effects delivered through key absences — mostly of Native Americans, unless they appear as quiet relics or in the form of landmark names — and the glaring implications of the rhetoric of forged possibility.
Eula Biss articulates the compounded factors of the American West better than I can, though, in her astonishing book Notes from No Man’s Land. Over 13 essays she examines the potent and enabling mixture of racism, selective memory, and downright delusion that continues to make the frontier idea feasible. I reread the title essay at least once a week this fall, each time in awe of Biss’s ability, through vignettes and telling details, to identify modern offshoots of the pioneers’ “hostile fantasy” — that grave “mistake of considering an inhabited place uninhabited.”
In the wake of California’s apocalyptic blazes, I suspect there’s some contemporary form of this fantasy at play, too. A form that, despite the new and intransigent reality of a prolonged Fire Season, still indulges an idea of misplaced resilience as a justification for business as usual. I’m curious to see how the next generation of California writers will toggle between depicting our new reality (perversely beautiful descriptions of flames aplenty) and tending the mythologies of our state that keep us all marching onward, toward infinity.
2.When I graduated from university earlier this year it felt like I was foreclosing on some other kind of infinity. Aside from the idea that I was to be endowed with a few practical skills along the way, my undergraduate education largely revolved around the selfish cultivation of my intellectual curiosity. I spent four years reading various works of literature before discussing them with any number of encouraging professors, whom I idolized. Everything about this loop of artificial circumstances felt limitless, and giving it up was sobering. But it was not until doing so that I realized how transactional college had made my relationship to reading. There was always the underlying pressure to read better, smarter, and more rigorously—not to mention the relative impossibility of applying such a careful practice to the handful of novels that had to be read each week. Because I am naive, few aspects of leaving college felt as revelatory as coming to terms with my altered relationship to books.
I thus spent the months just after graduation freshly falling under reading’s spell. I would go to work, then go for a swim, then cancel plans so that I could curl up with a book on some grassy knoll with a view of the Bay, in the light’s remaining hours. And, as if an immediate prompting from the gods, Between Friends: The Collected Letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy — a book over which I’d been in a semester-long Library-Hold War — became mine for more than a week. (In one letter, Arendt deems a scarf gifted from McCarthy too beautiful to be a “use-object,” and I suggest you read the collection just for moments like that.) Because it was the letters’ perfect complement, I finally finished Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough, which is a dazzlingly smart and persuasive examination of several female intellectuals who, at least rhetorically, took no prisoners. Naturally this called for a rereading of Renata Adler’s perfect and hilarious novel Speedboat and a first galavant with n+1’s pamphlet, No Regrets, which features several discussions between women writers about reading in their 20s. Wisdom abounds in this delightful little book on topics like unusual author pairings and navigating first encounters with theory. But the conversations that both challenge collegiate obligations to the “boy canon,” and also the “oughts” of disciplined reading, were of particular comfort to me during my postgraduate limbo.
Regardless, there was still the plan, during those lulling summer months, to finally conquer George Eliot’s Middlemarch because the novel is Important. The conquering was to be done with a friend, also a recent graduate, who lived in Rhode Island. Through June and July he sent clever messages about his progress with the book until he finished it entirely. I disappointingly did neither. But what I did do — that is, fully immerse myself in the world of newly published fiction for the first time — was mostly a joyous and worthwhile experience.
I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s pithy and conniving My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Then there was Andrew Martin’s enviably precise debut Early Work, which seems the blueprint for a certain kind of LRB-reading, late-millennial milieu. Ling Ma’s Severance is a dynamic and intriguing courting of the old “goodbye to all that” adage, though here it gets an update, you might say, with the onset of apocalypse, epidemic, and the ills of late capitalism. And I enjoyed Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, not least for the author’s near-philosophical treatment of an affair between a young, intellectually ambitious editorial assistant and a decaying, Roth-like writer. These books, with the exception of Moshfegh’s, join a host of recently published works whose plots are driven, in part, by the demands of literary production and the apprehensions they generate. More interesting still is the overarching trend in characterization: fictional attributes seem to emerge almost exclusively through the real-world connotations of cultural objects and of industries, rather than through descriptive language. This year novels and memes appear to have functions in common.
I found the fiction-as-snapshot tendency compelling, but R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries was a refreshing departure from the above works. It’s a stunning novel. The author’s ability to maintain such a streamlined style while fostering her characters’ unique perspectives is nothing short of alchemy. I feel similarly enthusiastic about Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which I regret reading in a sitting because I didn’t want it to end. This debut is a welcome modernization of the California novel because it seamlessly challenges all the genre’s mentioned absences, and also makes room for literary documentation of parenting’s tediousness. And while the contemporary and its objects loom large in Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country—Russian politics, Facebook, and the grim academic job market all make cameos—I ardently devoured this book and reveled in the presence of its narrative arc, a construction that feels rarer and rarer.
Sheila Heti’s Motherhood yielded the most obliterating reading experience of the summer. I picked up a copy the weekend my family was in town for my department commencement, and in between the hours we’d spend together, I’d sneak away to read bits of it. The book’s central question is outwardly simple: Should or shouldn’t the writer-protagonist have a baby? But what transpires from this question is a profound and expansive engagement with all the ways one can be a mother, or a child. In a later chapter titled “PMS,” our narrator wrestles with her mother’s own parenting orientation. That is, how the narrator’s mother “lived her life turned towards her mother,” and not towards her offspring.
I clung tightly to this articulation of a life turned backwards, of a life lived for one’s mother, either out of honor or indebtedness or both. Though I read Jacqueline Rose’s comprehensive Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty back in April, it wasn’t until encountering Motherhood that I felt as if a book had captured all that is indescribable, and oftentimes inexplicably tragic, about matrilineal bonds. What’s more, Heti confronts earnestly what can sometimes feel mystical about maternal lines, not least for their internal logics and passed-down lore. And as much as these bonds can be sources of love and pride, they can also be wells of great sadness, regret and loss. The afternoon I finished that chapter titled “PMS” I sobbed and sobbed, and then met my mother for a walk. As we ambled through the eucalyptus groves on my college campus, she retold the story of her medical school aspirations and how my birth had superseded but not ruined them. I told her I did not take it for granted that she was turned towards my brothers and me.
3.In these final moments of 2018, the mystical has hurtled into my life once again. If you walk into a bar or coffee shop in many parts of the Bay Area, you’re bound to hear people discussing astrology. Asking one’s star sign seems as much a habitual platitude as it does a search for cosmic compatibility. I remain skeptical, but I get the craze: like the mythologizing of California or the psychic weight one attributes to matrilineal bonds, astrology affords us an organizing principle for all that seems destined and chaotic in life. Now I reluctantly read The Cut’s Madame Clairvoyant column for my sign’s entry (Taurus) and also the entries for the signs of people I love or loathe. Then I check them all against tweets from the Astro Poets.
My doubt of and preoccupation with astrology has met its match in Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School darling and iconic grump. I recently finished his tome-like 1957 essay “The Stars Down to Earth: The Los Angeles Times Astrology Column,” which takes Carroll Righter’s new age-y, quintessentially Los Angeles horoscopes column as its case study. From there, Adorno harangues his readers about astrology’s “pseudo-rationality” and its horrible incentive to “provide gratifications to aggressive urges on the level of the imaginary.” Naturally this means that people who “choose” astrology possess a lack of what is vaguely called “intellectual integration,” which I guess is depleted most profoundly by the unravelling of the social world.
There is something sustaining, or at least entertaining, about Adorno’s application of a critical seriousness to an enterprise he found so critically unserious. But the idea of closing out the year with such a dense and misanthropic essay is virtually unbearable to me. To remedy this I’m returning to Kiese Laymon’s Long Division, which is the first novel I read in 2018. As I revisit its pages, I am struck by how impossible it feels to capture all that Long Division does and is, in a matter of sentences. The book has time travel and romance and confrontations with race, sexuality, and gender, all of which are often cleverly introduced through the guise of satire, or wordplay. Moments of humor masterfully become moments of critique. For 2019 we should take note of how Laymon treats the realms of history and language with a cautionary capaciousness. Within the vastness of both there is always the threat that the reprehensible and catastrophic will multiply or mutate — and yet there remains room and potential enough to create something better.
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Before John Milton could be a visionary writer, first he had to be a visionary reader. All poetry is supported by the accumulated scaffolding of tradition and defines itself in part by subverting that tradition. Milton was simultaneously partisan for and a rebel against tradition. And if it’s true that every writer is first and foremost a reader, then Milton arguably had a greater command of that corpus than anyone in the 17th century. Fluent in 12 languages ranging from Latin and Hebrew to Syriac, Milton was among the last of the true polymaths. His mind was a veritable wonder cabinet, and Paradise Lost was an expression of that—capable as it was of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” From Tasso and Aristo he took a certain baroque stateliness, from Spenser a sense of mythic proportion, and from Shakespeare an appreciation of history and of lines well wrought. And, of course, he took his story from The Bible. Paradise Lost, across 10,000 lines of poetic blank verse ultimately assembled into 12 books, was famously a project “unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” and the result was a consummate reimagining of scripture—an act not just of revolutionary writing but of radical reading.
Milton took the few chapters in Genesis devoted to Eden and the fall and spun a maximalist, erudite, learned, fully realized drama. Narratively exciting, religiously wise, metaphysically deep, and just ambiguous enough to keep the critics writing about him for more than four centuries. In Milton’s hands, Lucifer was configured as a new type of anti-hero, and scholars have long argued as to whether Milton’s sympathies lie with that attractive and beguiling character or with God. But as Milton was influenced by past greats, so he in turn became spectacularly influential. Paradise Lost is often more respected than read, obscuring the fact that for generations Milton was regarded as the ultimate of English poets. Writers have continued to explore those ever-regenerative concerns about the most profound things: creation, fallenness, redemption, sin, and salvation. If Milton was a reader first, then through his example we are all readers in his stead. I present my own idiosyncratic and subjective reading list of some of those readers.
The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan
Bunyan’s tongue may have been rougher than Milton’s, yet his Victorian biographer, James Anthony Froude, observed, “Bunyan was a true artist, though he knew nothing of the rules, and was not aware that he was an artist at all.” Nobody would accuse Milton of that. Both men suffered for their religion and politics; prison stints are in their biographies, and both ultimately went blind. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a very different text than Milton’s poem, but the task of explaining the divine lay at the center of both their missions. An unapologetically didactic and evangelical work, Bunyan’s book reduces all of the nuance of character that we celebrate in Paradise Lost in favor of the broadest possible allegory. Milton’s poem is rightly celebrated for his use of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, but Bunyan also departs from conventional expectations in presenting his religious dream vision in a similar aesthetically radical way by using a new narrative form whose very name signaled its novelty–the novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, once profoundly popular in the English-speaking Protestant world and holding pride of place next to The Bible itself, has never reached the critical acclaim that Paradise Lost has. And yet even if Bunyan’s name is less famous today, arguably more people have read his proto-novel than ever read Milton’s work (even if most of Bunyan’s readers are in the past). He certainly would have known of Milton, and his reputation as the Reformation’s answer to Dante would have provided a crucial model to the creation of Protestant art.
Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1805-08) by William Blake
As Vergil was to Dante, so Milton is to Blake, with both poets considering questions about inspiration and creation. Blake erroneously saw Milton as a steadfast Calvinist, but in that biographical error (made by many) Blake was able to generate a consummate drama by having his imagined version of Milton repudiate Calvinism in favor of what Blake viewed as the hidden, subversive sympathies implicit within Paradise Lost. As a result, that visionary heretic’s confident declaration that Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it” has in many ways remained the most popular understanding. For Blake, Paradise Lost was a revolutionary work by a revolutionary poet who advocated regicide and rebellion against injustice. Milton is a strange mystical vision every bit worthy of its biographical subject written in Blake’s unique prophetic voice and illustrated with the water colors that made him one of the great artists of the 19th century in addition to being one of its most sublime poets. In Blake’s retelling of biblical history from creation to apocalypse, he argues against Calvinism’s division of humanity into the elect and condemned, rather positing that the truly chosen are the latter. As his strange theology is explicated, he gives an “unfallen” Milton in heaven the opportunity to redeem himself of the life-denying Puritanism that Blake associates with Milton, thus finally making the author of Paradise Lost worthy of that revolutionary spirit that Blake associates with him, so that both can fully take up the injunction to “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!”
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
Victor Frankenstein is placed in that lineage of fire-stealers who dangerously animate the world with forbidden knowledge. Dangerous creation has a long history; before Frankenstein could stitch together decomposing flesh into his industrial age monster, before Rabbi Judah ben Lowe could bake clay from the banks of the Danube into his golem, before Prometheus could mold man from soil, there was God himself breathing dust into life. Adam is the original created monster, a point made clear by Shelley herself in what is arguably the first and still the greatest science fiction novel ever written.. Shelley’s original creature’s sutured tongue could have been from Milton’s corpse itself, for the creature acquired language from a copy of Paradise Lost. As he recounts to Dr. Frankenstein, he “read it, as I had the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe … Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existences… but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” Shelley’s erudite monster intuits that Adam is “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” but the subversive brilliance of Frankenstein is the suggestion that perhaps we’re not so different from the monster. Consider the novel’s epigraph, a selection from Paradise Lost in which Adam asks God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” The implications are unavoidable: for Adam’s lament to the Lord, a cry as to why creation should be chosen for us the unwilling, is also the monster’s plea.
The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) by Charles Darwin
In a century with George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen, perhaps the greatest novel was that non-fiction account of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands. I am not claiming that the biologist’s account is fiction; rather that in the evocative, nascent stirrings of his theory of evolution through natural selection Darwin was also telling a literary story of the greatest drama. While noting his observations, Darwin often had a particular literary story chief in mind. He writes, “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite…and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton.” Darwin approached natural grandeur through a type of biological poetry, explaining that his biological observations instilled in him “feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” As a young man aboard the Beagle, he was simply another pilgrim observing, categorizing, classifying, and naming the creatures in his tropical paradise as surely as Adam did in Eden. Although Darwin was a dutiful and careful interpreter of fact, he couldn’t help but think in the idiom of myth.
Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s father, Rev. Patrick Brontë, made Paradise Lost a mainstay of family reading. Milton’s influence runs through the women’s work, but never more obviously than in Shirley, Charlotte’s novel after Jane Eyre. Written a year after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848, Shirley took place in that similarly revolutionary year of 1812 when Luddites smashed the machinery of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” which had begun to crowd and pollute the Yorkshire countryside where the novel takes place. With the backdrop of both Romantic revolution and the postlapsarian machinations of industry, Shirley calls to mind Hell’s capital of Pandemonium, where the demon Mulciber tends the “fiery Deluge, fed/With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d.” The master of Brontë’s Pandemonium is Robert Moore, a northern English textile factory owner, whose livelihood has been threatened by the ban on exportation of cloth to America due to the War of 1812. Moore courts the wealthy and headstrong Shirley as a potential solution to his economic woe, and in their conversations Brontë provides a defense of Eve, while recognizing the emancipatory kernel at the core of Paradise Lost. Brontë was a keen reader of Dr. Johnson’s literary criticism, in particular his contention that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” With Milton’s chauvinism in mind, Shirley inquires, “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley revises Milton’s myopic portrayal of Eve, preferring to see her as a “woman-Titan,” claiming, “Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not.” But despite that myopia, Brontë discerns a subversive thread underneath the surface of Paradise Lost. When Eve is deciding to partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she reflects that it shall “render me more equal, and perhaps, /A thing not undesirable, sometime/Superior; for inferior who is free?” For the royalist Dr. Johnson, the republican Milton’s chauvinism may seem irreconcilable to any true conception of liberty, but as Brontë discerned within the poem itself, Eve has a keen awareness that freedom without equality is a fallacy. And thus in one of the great poems of liberty, by one of its most ferocious advocates, the accuracy of Eve’s reasoning becomes clearer.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville
If Paradise Lost was a poetic consideration of the darker things in the psyche, of a megalomaniacal single-mindedness that pushed its antagonist into the very bowels of Hell, then Herman Melville’s obsessed Captain Ahab is our American Lucifer. As Lucifer stalks Paradise Lost, so Melville’s novel is haunted by Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Melville claimed, “We want no American Miltons,” but it was an unconvincing declaration, considering that he basically became one himself. Just as Lucifer would struggle with God and be cast into Hell, and Ahab would wrestle with Moby-Dick and be thrown into the Pacific, so would Melville grapple with Milton, though the results were perhaps not quite damnation. Yet he did write a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb,” and that his novel had been “broiled” in “hell-fire.” Melville, it would seem, was of the Devil’s party, and he very much knew it.
Moby-Dick, of course, drew from seemingly as many sources as Paradise Lost, from literature, myth, and scripture, not to speak of the tawdry sea accounts that provided the raw materials of his narrative. Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, claims that he has “swam through libraries,” and so too did Melville, but it was Paradise Lost that floated upon those waves as his white whale. Scholar William Giraldi describes his discovery of Melville’s 1836 edition of the Poetical Works of John Milton in the Princeton University library, with the volume lined by “checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs.” Giraldi concludes that it was in rereading Milton late in 1849 that made his Great American Novel possible. The whale, of course, has always been configured as more than just a mere symbol, variously and ambiguously having his strange, great, empty white hide as a cipher potentially standing in for God, or the Devil, or America, or the very ground of Being. But where Lucifer is so comprehensible in his desires as to almost strike the reader as human, Melville’s whale is inscrutable, enigmatic, sublime—far more terrifying than the shockingly pedestrian God as depicted by Milton. These two texts in conversation with one another across the centuries provide an almost symphonic point and counter point; for what Melville gives us is an atheistic Paradise Lost and is all the more terrifying for it.
Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot
George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece has affinities to Milton’s epic in presenting a tableau of characters in her fictional provincial English town on the verge of the Reform Act, as Eden was once on the verge of the fall. Reverend Edward Casaubon, an eccentric and absurd pseudo-intellectual who is continually searching for his Key to all Mythologies, is believably Eliot’s satirical corollary to Milton. Casaubon is a parody of the Renaissance men who existed from London to Paris to Edinburgh to Geneva and of which Milton was certainly a prime example. But more than any narrative affinity with the poem, what Eliot provides is conjecture on the circumstances of Paradise Lost’s composition. Milton was middle-aged by the time he began composition of Paradise Lost, as was Casaubon who was a prematurely grayed 45 in Middlemarch. And as Casaubon relied on the support of the much younger wife, Dorothea, so too did Milton rely on the assistance of his daughters: Mary and Deborah. As Dorothea says to Casaubon in a pose of feminine supplication, “Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful? … Could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton’s daughters did to their father?” In his late 50s, Milton was completely blind (most likely from glaucoma), and he was only able to complete Paradise Lost by enlisting (or forcing) his daughters to act as his amanuensis. The labor of writing the epic was very much only made possible through the humdrum domestic labor of his daughters, forced to work as his scribes in between cleaning, cooking, and all the rest of Eve’s duties.
Perelandra; or, Voyage to Venus (1943) by C.S. Lewis
Both were adept apologists for Christianity and masters of the mythic idiom that moderns elect to call “fantasy.” But there are profound differences as well. Politics for one: Milton was a fire-breathing republican; Lewis was a staid, traditional conservative. Religion for another: Milton, as revealed in the anonymously penned iconoclastic and heretical treatise De Doctrina Christiana, denied the Trinity, embraced materialist metaphysics, and considered the ethics of polygamy; Lewis’s faith ran to High Church affectations that embraced kneelers, stain-glass, and hymns, his theology one of sober minded Anglican via media. But Lewis couldn’t help but be moved by the poetry of Paradise Lost, even if in its particulars it strayed from orthodoxy. One of the greatest Milton scholars of the 20th century, though he remains far more famous for his justly celebrated children’s novels like The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-6), Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941) counts as arguably the most important work of criticism about the poem until Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Facing the specter of Adolf Hitler just across the channel, Lewis was perhaps not in the mood to consider Lucifer’s impassioned monologues in Paradise Lost as being that of a romantic rebel, rather arguing that his single-minded, narcissistic, sociopathic ranting is precisely that of an evil madman. A Preface to Paradise Lost stands as the great rejoinder to Blake’s arguments; Lewis claims that Milton is no crypto-partisan of Lucifer, but rather one who warns us precisely about how dangerous the attractions of such a rebel can be.
Thoughts of paradise and the fall were clearly in his mind when two years later he published the second book of his science fiction “space trilogy,” Perelandra. Lewis’s hero is Elwin Ransom, who like his creator is a Cambridge don (Milton’s alma matter incidentally), a philologist who undertakes an aeronautic mission to tropical Venus, a prelapsarian land of innocent nudity and sinlessness—a planet without the fall. While there, Ransom fights and defeats a demonically possessed scientist who threatens to once again infect paradise with sin. As Milton’s Lucifer had to travel through “ever-threatening storms/Of Chaos blustering around” so as to get from Hell to Eden, Lewis’s Professor Weston must travel by space ship to Venus to tempt their queen in much the same manner that Eve had once been seduced. It’s a Paradise Lost for the age of telescopes, V1 rockets, and soon nuclear weapons.
Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
What could the beat “angelheaded hipster” possibly have in common with one of God’s Englishmen? Milton with his Puritan Hebraism and that Jewish boy from Newark spoke in the same scriptural idiom. In both poets that prophetic voice thunders, whether in blank verse or free, condemning the demons who represent what enslaves the minds of humans. From Canaan to Carthage the descendants of the Phoenicians constructed massive, hollow, bronze statues of a bull-headed human; outrigged them with mechanical, spring loaded arms; tended a fire within their bellies; and then projected their children into the creatures’ gapping mouths so that they could be immolated within, as a sacrifice to the god which this sculpture represented: Moloch. In Milton’s day, theologians concurred with both the authors of The Talmud and the Church Fathers that these ancient pagan gods were not fictions, but rather represented actual demonic beings who had once tricked people into worshiping them. The first book of Paradise Lost presents a huge pantheon of the fallen, diabolical creatures, including such once-luminaries as Beelzebub and Belial. Moloch, whose smoky furnaces puffed out the cries of infants and the smell of burning flesh all across the southern Mediterranean, has an important role in Lucifer’s Pandemonium. He is the “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears.” For Ginsberg, the anti-deity is associated with “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!” For in the entire second section of the Beat masterpiece Howl, Ginsberg condemns “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” From Canaan to England to America, Moloch was a signifier for the consumptive, cannibalistic, vampiric, rapacious appetites of those systems that devour and dispose of human beings. Milton associated it with the absolutist dictates of illegitimate kings; Ginsberg saw Moloch as an embodiment of the military-industrial complex, but what both poet-prophets decried was exploitation and injustice.
The New York Trilogy (1985-6) by Paul Auster
Self-referential, digressive, and metafictional—in many ways, “post-modernism” is a term that is less about periodization and more about aesthetics. Thus Paradise Lost, with its breaking of the fourth wall and its massive body of references, is arguably a post-modern poem, which is perhaps what drew the experimental novelist Paul Auster to it. As a student he was “completely immersed in the reflections on language that come out of Milton,” which directly led to the writing of his most famous novel. City of Glass, the first volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy, examines the intersecting reality and fictionality of identity, with the author himself a character (as indeed Milton as narrator is a character within his own poem). A rewriting of the generic conventions of noir, City of Glass follows Auster-the-detective reporting to Auster-the-writer about his investigations of a writer named Quinn, who is trailing a man named Stillman trying to murder his father. Stillman was abused by his father, a linguist who hoped that by raising his son without language he might in turn naturally become fluent in the tongue once spoken in Eden. Milton was interested in the relationship between language and reality. When it came to the inhabitants of Eden, Adam named them “as they passed, and understood/Their nature, with such knowledge God endued.” Renaissance scholars were obsessed with what the primordial tongue may have been, arguing that it was everything from the predictable Hebrew to the long-shot Swedish, and they sometimes purposefully deprived a child of language in the hopes that they would reveal what was spoken before the fall. What is revealed instead is the ever shifting nature of all language, for even if Eden’s tongue remains unspoken, the significance of speech and writing is reaffirmed. In “the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so – which amounts to the same thing.” Mystery was of course a theological term before it was the provenance of detectives, and as partisans of the inexplicable Milton and Auster both bend language to imperfectly describe ineffable things.
Milton in America (1986) by Peter Ackroyd
Some have argued that Paradise Lost is a potent anti-imperial epic about European colonialism, for what is the literal story save for that of natives under attack by a powerful adversary who threatens their world? Perhaps following this observation, Peter Ackroyd audaciously imagines an alternate literary history, in which a Milton escaping Restoration chooses not to write his famous epic, but rather establishes a colony based on godly principles somewhere in Virginia. Ackroyd’s novel explores this American aspect of Milton’s thinking, remembering that Milton’s nephew John Philips was the translator of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas’s classic account of Spanish atrocities in Mexico, The Tears of the Indians. For Milton, before the Luciferian arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, these continents were of “that first naked glory! Such of late/Columbus found the American, so girt/With feathered cincture; naked else, and while/Among the trees on isles and woody shores.” While Milton was writing, his fellow countrymen and coreligionists were beginning their own belated colonial expeditions on New England’s rocky shoals; Paradise Lost published almost a half-century after the Mayflower set sail. The Pilgrims and Puritans who defined that “city on a hill” held Milton in high esteem, and throughout her history, Americans have hewed to a strongly Miltonic ethos. As Ackroyd’s imagined version of the bard tells his apprentice aboard their evocatively and appropriately named ship the Gabriel, “We are going far to the west…We are travelling to a land of refuge and a mansion house of liberty.” Not one to simply genuflect before literary idols, Ackroyd presents a zealous, authoritarian, tyrannical Milton, who wandering blind among the woods of America and hearing visions from his God decides to wage war on both a group of peaceful Catholic colonists who’ve settled nearby, as well as the Native Americans. Ackroyd presents an audacious reimagining of the very themes of Paradise Lost, the original tragedy of America’s genocidal beginnings told with Milton himself as a surrogate of Lucifer.
The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie
Somewhere above the English Channel an Indian jetliner explodes from a terrorist’s bomb, and from the flaming wreckage, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha “plummeted like bundles.” The Bollywood actors are both miraculously condemned to an “endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall,” which signaled the “process of their transmutation.” What follows in Salman Rushdie’s fabulist novel of magical realism are a series of dream visions, where along the way Farishta, true to his given name, begins to resemble the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha finds himself transformed into a devil. The fall of these angels conjures the losing war against God before creation, when “headlong themselves they threw/Down from the verge of Heav’n,” and as Chamcha becomes a devil, the formerly beautiful Lucifer transformed into Satan. Milton’s theology could be strident, as indeed so is that of the post-colonial, secular Islamic atheist Rushdie. The latter famously found himself on the receiving end of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini concerning perceived blasphemy regarding depictions of the prophet Muhammad, precipitating a decade of self-imposed hiding. An anxiety that Milton knew well, as he could have easily ended up on the executioner’s scaffold.
Any author with their own visionary theology risks being a heretic to somebody, illustrating the charged danger of religion. Scripture, after all, is simply the literature that people are willing to kill each other over. Many partisans for the parliamentary cause certainly found themselves victims of political retribution upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The anti-republicans had long memories; in his 1646 tract Eikonoklastes Milton described royalists as an “inconstant, irrational, and Image-doting rabble,” a veritable “credulous and hapless herd.” Restoration would not bode well for the poet who had once mocked the circumstances of the death of the new king’s father. Charles II returned to his throne from exile in France, and Milton’s name was included on a list of those to be arrested. Ultimately he was spared the hangman’s noose because of the intercession of the fellow poet and political chameleon Andrew Marvell, who unlike his friend was an adept at altering his positions with the changing eddies of power. Milton’s threat of persecution was largely political, while Rushdie’s was explicitly religious, but that’s just to quibble. Religion and politics are two categories which are inseparable, both in Milton’s era and our own. Both men illustrate how writers can be the weather vanes of society, sensitive towards the changing fortunes of potential tyranny, and often victim to it as well. Rushdie once said in an interview, “Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law,” a hard-won bit of wisdom and a sentiment that is a worthy descendent of Milton’s argument for free-speech in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, where he wrote that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
His Dark Materials (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials is sometimes characterized as atheistic fantasy. Pullman has claimed that the books were written in direct response to the Christian fantasy of Lewis, who he disdains as bigoted and misogynist. Pullman aptly explains that he just doesn’t “like the conclusions Lewis comes to,” and he is similarly dismissive of that other titan of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien. But rather than reject fantasy completely he asks why the genre shouldn’t be as “truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being?” He continues by claiming, “There are a few fantasies that are. One of them is Paradise Lost.” And so Pullman ironically repurposes Milton to write a specifically anti-Christian apologetics. His Dark Materials takes place in a counter-factual history where the contemporary day seems vaguely Victorian steam-punkish, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church exerts absolute control over knowledge (even if in this world John Calvin became a pope and moved the papacy to Geneva), and a type of magic exists. Pullman depicts movements between parallel realities of the “multiverse,” the existence of “daemons” (a type of animal familiar used by the characters), and the actual death of God—not to speak of the talking polar bears. Who the villains are in the trilogy is not ambiguous. One character explains, “What is happening, and who it is that we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all of its history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse.”
But perhaps “Gnostic” might be a more accurate description of the theology of His Dark Materials than simply either anti-Christian or atheist. Pullman’s religious imagination is profound, if heterodox, but it certainly has the concern with ultimate things that are the hallmark of all great, visionary religious writing. Rather, Pullman has followed that injunction of Blake’s that claims that one “must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Arguably that was exactly what Milton had done as well, taking the narrative of scripture and fashioning his own new story. And so, in that fashion, all great authors must work from the raw, dark materials of the traditions that have come before us, using that substance as the ever malleable base for our own systems. The story is not just long—it never ends.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Last December, Min Jin Lee introduced her new novel in a YouTube video. In the video, Lee recalls a university lecture she heard when she was 19 about the Korean population in Japan. The lecturer discussed Japan’s colonization of Korea, and told of a Korean-Japanese family he knew whose son had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of their apartment building. After his death, his parents found his middle school yearbook. In the video, Lee, fighting back tears, lists the things his classmates had written in it: “Go back to where you belong;” “You smell like garlic;” “Die, die, die.” It’s a story that has stayed with Lee for almost three decades. It was the beginning of her desire to write a historical novel about Koreans in Japan.
Fans of Lee’s debut, Free Food for Millionaires, will recall a novel centered on Korean-Americans in working class Queens. But the author’s shift into historical fiction does not mean that Pachinko is a departure for Lee. Free Food fans will recognize in Pachinko Lee’s nimble 19th-century style omniscient narration, as adept at illuminating the lives of our central characters as it is those of their acquaintances and lovers (and even the occasional shop girl or bartender). Here, too, is a story of class aspiration, of living and sacrificing for the next generation. Finally, like Free Food, Pachinko is a novel about a community, a Middlemarch-inspired web of characters.
We begin in Busan, Korea at the turn of the century with the birth of Hoonie, who, a few years after Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, marries Yangjin, with whom he fathers Sunja. As a teen, Sunja is seduced and impregnated by charismatic yakuza Koh Hansu, or as he’s known to most: Boss Koh. Hansu, Sunja learns, is married, and though he promises to always support Sunja and their child, he tells her her cannot leave his wife for reasons related to business. Enter Baek Isak, a profoundly kind minister who’s stopped at the family’s boarding house on his way to an appointment in Japan. Isak offers to marry her, bring her with him, and raise the child as his own. Sunja, not wanting to bring shame to herself and her family, accepts, and we’re off to Osaka.
But life in Japan is brutal for Koreans. Sunja and Isak move in with Isak’s brother Yoseb, and his wife, Kyunghee. Yoseb orders Isak — who he knows to be generous to a fault — not to give food or money to his new neighbors; to let it be known that you have the least bit extra is to invite robbery. Yoseb warns Isak: “We’re all hungry…Be extra careful around other Koreans. The bad ones know that the police won’t listen to our complaints.” The police are all Japanese. Judges, too. In Japan, Koreans face discrimination at every turn. How, Lee’s epic asks, does one survive in a society that considers you subhuman?
Well, there are few approaches. As the novel progress, Sunja gives birth to two sons: Noa, her child by Hansu — though, of course, that’s a secret — and Mozasu, her child with Isak. Noa excels in school, puts up with the other children calling him names, and is proud when teachers tell him that he is “a good Korean.” Mozasu on the other hand becomes a ferocious fighter, whooping anybody who disrespects him or his family. Noa dreams of becoming an educated man. But it’s Mozasu, ironically, who’s more like Hansu (who, by the way, we have not seen the last of), harboring no faith in the fairness of the system and choosing instead to work whatever angles he can: while still a child, Mozasu tells Noa: “I want to make a lot of money, then umma and Aunt Kyunghee wouldn’t have to work anymore.”
It’s these aspirations that lead Mozasu into pachinko, a game comparable to pinball (but played for money), and a business looked down upon by most. In pachinko, Mozasu sees a metaphor for life:
His Presbyterian minister father had believed in divine design, and Mozasu believed that life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control. He understood why his customers wanted to play something that looked fixed, which also made room for randomness and hope.
Mozasu is a success in the pachinko business, coming to manage, then own, several parlors. Decades pass. The family grows.
But are they at home in Japan? Is there such thing as home for the Korean-Japanese? As Mozasu puts it: “In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastard, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make, or how nice I am.” In this novel, the question of home dovetails nicely with the theme of fatherhood. To what extent can Japan, a society that despises Koreans, ever be these characters’ home? To what extent is Noa, who wants only to be educated and virtuous like Isak, the man who raised him, still Hansu’s son? What does it mean to be connected to another person? To a nation? Lee offers us no simple answers.
But we don’t read novels for simple answers, do we? We read novels to get a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes. Lee does that for us here, and she does it while maintaining a light touch. Lee is not an author interested in dazzling you with her prose or reinventing the novel form (Pachinko’s structure is most like that of 19th-century British novels), preferring instead to keep her story and characters front and center. But somehow, she’s there on every page, present but invisible. That YouTube video I mentioned? I didn’t see it until after I’d finished the book. But I didn’t need that video to tell me that this story is deeply important to Lee. I felt it in every line. And when I reached the end, I knew that, like Lee when she heard the lecture that would inspire this novel, I’d just heard a story that would stay with me for a long time.
Stefan Zweig — the renowned Viennese writer who, in the 1930s, chose exile over Adolf Hitler — adored his books. As he moved globally among temporary residences, the collection followed, providing an anchor of stability in a world gone adrift. “They are there,” he wrote of his volumes, “waiting and silent.” It was left to him, the avid reader, to grab them, feel them, and make them speak some measure of sense to his unhinged experience.
Books offered Zweig, in part, a predictable form of comfort. “They neither urge, nor press their claims,” he observed. “Mutely they are ranged along the wall…If you direct your glances their way or move your hands over them, they do not call out to you in supplication.” In his thoughtful and often riveting book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, George Prochnik quotes the author describing how it felt to approach a full bookcase: “A hundred names meet your searching glance silently and patiently…humbly awaiting the call and yet blissful to be chosen, to be enjoyed.” No matter where he lived — New York, London, Rio — Zweig maintained access to this form of bibliophilic bliss to the end.
Anyone who relates to such an attraction will understand it as an intellectually unique, often aesthetically sublime, experience. And now, according to two Italian economists, it might also be financially beneficial. As reported by one of the weirder studies undertaken last year (focused only on men between 60 and 96), growing up around books — simply existing in their physical presence — corresponded to higher income over time. “Those [kids 10 or older] with many books,” the authors write, “enjoyed substantially higher returns to their additional education.” The media, as you might imagine, feasted on the news. Headlines went from “Books You Should Read to Get Rich” to “Boys Who Grow Up Around Books Earn Significantly More Money.” Who cares if Bill Bill Gates reads 50 books a year? Now all you needed to do — according to the new research — was to put on display at least 10 of them. Ka-ching.
Zweig grew up around books — more than 10 — and, incidentally, he became rich. His novels — Amok, Confusion, The Royal Game, to name a few — and biographies — on Marie Antoinette and Erasmus most notably — flew from the shelves. He was the most translated German-language writer before World War II. His 1941 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was recently translated into English and continues to sell at a brisk pace (not everyone is happy is about that). That’s good for Zweig, his legacy, and his fans.
But there’s a distinction to draw here. The economists who conducted the “books make you wealthier” study were merely confirming the point that cultural capital corresponds to book ownership. It’s a point so obvious it’s almost meaningless. Any family who owns books, and considers books to be even symbolically significant enough to display them, is a family that nurtures the educational ethos required to make money. But none of that concerned Zweig. Zweig courted (and carted) his books not for the cultural capital they represented; he did so for their imaginative fertility, their ready source of escapism, the touchstone they offered to an inner reality. Speaking about a room full of books, he once said, “How good it is there to create and be alone.” Their decorative presence took a back seat to their seminal emotional power. It’s what they did for him — his imagination, his sense of self, his rampant curiosity — that mattered most to Stefan Zweig. The wealth was incidental.
Zweig’s love of books, considered against their supposed wealth-generating capability, presents a compelling dichotomy that’s quite relevant today: Books as remunerative symbols of educational attainment versus books as objects that allow us to drop out and delve inwards. This dichotomy is relevant because, for one, it fundamentally alters the big question everyone keeps asking about the book as a physical object. No longer is it “will the book endure?” Instead, it’s “why will the book endure?”
Yes the book will endure. Of course the book will endure. You’ve likely heard a million people rhapsodize about the alluring physicality of books. They’re correct to do so. You’ve also likely heard the news that independent bookstores are making a comeback. This is also as it should be. As an empirical matter, reading on a tablet cannot remotely approach the sensual literary experience offered by an old-fashioned book. The latter is, I’d venture, intrinsically more pleasurable than the former, not unlike the intrinsic difference between high quality toilet paper and the sandpaper stuff used in bus stations. And while it’s true that Socrates expressed grave concern that the written word would erode memory and storytelling, his distinguished descendant, Cicero, had it exactly right when he said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
Of course, a room stuffed to the rafters with books can also be as soulless as a tin can. These days, if our Italian economists are right, books are often nothing more than decoration for social strivers. The fact that cultural capital can evidently be correlated with actual capital is another way of saying that a wall of books has nothing necessarily to do with the literary ambitions of the resident reader. Consider the “books by the foot” trend — that is, the option of purchasing random books in bulk for the singular purpose of showing them off rather than reading them. This commercial genre is exceedingly popular with interior decorators, so much so that, as if to stay a step ahead of the skepticism, bulk book suppliers have specialized by tailoring books for the client’s purported general interests (to make it really seem like this is a library reflecting the owner’s personal literary tastes), while still color-coordinating book covers to match the pillow slips. In this respect, the purchase and display of books becomes a conspicuous example of what the late French literary critic René Girard, in Mimesis and Theory, calls “external mediation” — the process whereby a person’s displayed tastes and desires influence those of others — resulting in the cheapest and least meaningful form of imitation.
If this is how we’re going to save the book — decorative mimicry — well then, forget it. True believers know that a room with books should accomplish something altogether more subversive and selfishly edifying — that it should foster radical internal mediation rather than decorative inspiration. Books should conspicuously confirm the persistence, in the face of so many competing (and lesser) forms of distraction, of a fierce dedication to promiscuous reading, the kind that requires — a la Zweig — that walls of literature be constantly approached, scanned, and chosen from. And then — the part that we rarely talk about when we talk about books — a roomful of books must be allowed to exact a cost. The thing about a room full of books is that conquering it, living within it as a real reader, treating it as it should be treated, means making sacrifices that deeply effect other human beings — and not always in a good way. The refraction of personal experience, when pursued through a physical book, is ours alone. As Emma in Madame Bovary knew very well, reading was a venue for the most satisfying selfishness. The “reality of experience,” as it’s noted at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is forged in the smithy of a single soul. When we read we become our own wistful Emma, our own self-absorbed Dedalus. You are with you. That’s it. And people might get annoyed by that.
I had to laugh when I read that being around books makes you more money. At the beginning of 2015, I started a well-paying freelance research gig. On paper, it was ideal: I worked from home, I made my own hours, I kept my day job teaching undergraduates, and the topic was interesting enough. The problem was that my home office, where I was to do my research, contains nearly 2,000 books. Many of them I have yet to read. Just as many I want to read again. After a day and half of working in my office, sitting amid these book-lined walls, I was broken by environment. Their visual allure and the promise of what they contained was too much to ignore as I did my official job. My letter of resignation followed. I remember that when my (dumbfounded) employer responded (he said I was “impetuous” and “foolish”) I was reading Middlemarch. A lot of people around me have paid a price for my choice. But Zweig, I am sure, would have approved.
For well over a year people have been trying to make me read A Little Life. I will not. I believe them when they say that it’s good, and that they loved it, and what an epically harrowing experience the whole thing is. Still. Can’t do it. Don’t want to. Don’t even know why I don’t want to. Just don’t. This would not be any kind of an issue, were it not for the fact that people keep trying to set me up with it. They want me to read it so badly! They are adamant in their belief that it is the book for me. My resolve is only hardening. I have about me the look of a person who will never read A Little Life. The look of a person at peace with herself.
I know what will happen though. At some unspecified point in the future, I will walk past A Little Life on my bookshelf and I will stop, because it will suddenly be the right time. I have come to recognize the feeling. It will be a terrible and perfect marriage of my weird mood and this undoubtedly weird book. I’ll start to read and I will be immediately gripped, instantly crazy about it. I will try force people to read it and when they say they don’t want to, I will say that they are wrong. It always happens like this, with the right book at the right time.
The only thing I can compare it to is falling abruptly in love with someone you have been distantly aware of for years. You have seen the point of them in general, but nothing more. They were just there, going about their lives, greeting you politely at parties. They seemed nice, in a remote sort of way. Then something happens, there is an audible click, and there they suddenly are, in front of you, ready to be adored in all their weirdness. Their personality seems to have been engineered in a lab to please you. It’s awful, because you think at once about what a close thing it was, and how hideously perilous love is in general. They had been under your nose this whole while. What if you had missed them? What were you thinking, overlooking them? It’s no good berating yourself about time wasted, though. It’s not that you had overlooked this person, it’s that you weren’t ready for them. You needed a few bitter experiences under your belt first — one or two awful break-ups, a few incidents where you see your own flaws with searing clarity, some moments of pure, high boredom. It’s only now that you are prepared, that you can see them properly.
It happened to me first like this with Middlemarch. If you spend any length of time in an English department, you will be obliged to have an opinion on Middlemarch, whether or not you have read it. My opinion, for many years, was that I hated the very idea of it. Everything I read about it got right on my nerves, beginning with Dorothea. I couldn’t understand why people seemed to love her so much, so Spartan and always reading a boring book. I took her very personally. Why always Dorothea? I did not like the sound of Lydgate either, or think that I could mind very much about a vaguely thwarted country doctor. The historical backdrop did not strike me as very interesting (I still don’t really know or care what a rotten borough is), and it didn’t have any good wars. It also seemed too long, and by all accounts there weren’t a lot of parties. My whole soul shied away. People kept telling me to read it. My mother, especially, who knows me better than anyone. Read it, she kept saying, and you’ll understand.
I couldn’t and I couldn’t, for about six years, and then one day I could. Some things had happened. I had broken some people’s hearts, and I had had mine broken in return. I had gone through a period of severe underemployment, related directly to my inability to pull myself together. I had realized that existing in the world with other people meant understanding that we were not the same as each other, and that we were all just trying our deeply inadequate best. I had realized, further, that knowing this is not the same thing as being able to do anything about it. What I am saying is that I was finally ready to listen to what Middlemarch had to tell me. I just picked it up, like it was no big deal, like I hadn’t spent years and years resisting it, and I was done for. That first time reading it, I kept looking around like Jesus, will you please get a load of this? Does everyone know that Middlemarch exists and that you can go ahead and read it just whenever you please? I couldn’t believe how good it was, how much I felt that it was speaking directly to me.
This is of course a definitive feature of the novel — the narrator’s inclusive, confiding address to the reader. I felt that it had been written for me, that it was mine. Again, this is the same thing as falling in love very hard, with all the egotism behind the outlandish notion that a) the person was put on this earth for you, and b) they are objectively the best person to ever exist in the sorry history of the human race. Love! What would we do without it? I couldn’t talk about anything else for weeks. I found a way to bring it up in all kinds of situations, to tilt the angle of my conversation so that it flowed straight back to Middlemarch. It is amazing how many reasons one can find to bring up the pier glass bit, for instance, or to talk about what a nice man Caleb Garth is. He really is very nice, and we should all strive to be more like him. I developed my own understanding of the novel’s co-ordinates, my own greatest hits collection. I still, for example, don’t really care about Dorothea. She is not my scene, in the same way that Jane Eyre is not my scene. Too severe. I still also don’t care about Lydgate, although I can feel that changing. Better to say that I don’t care about Lydgate yet. Fred Vincy, though, my God. I cared about him a lot from day one. It is not an exaggeration to say that Fred Vincy changed my life.
Middlemarch’s narrator has been accused of being overly partial to Fred, the implication being that he is not all that wonderful or deserving of the narrator’s time and attention. This accusation is false and I resent it. He is selfish and frivolous, yes, and almost unmatchedly entitled, but he is also a person capable of being redeemed by love. He is good not because of anything intrinsically fine in his character, but because of who he chooses to care about most. I mean, he is okay, but the reason he is good is because he wants to be good enough for Mary Garth. We do not speak of him enough. Fred Vincy: good humoured, a tiny bit silly, a tiny bit too interested in fun. Fred Vincy: the man responsible for me finally getting a grip.
I was enduring, as I said, a period of underemployment that was only and entirely my fault. I was trying to be good but I just couldn’t. Is it enough to say that I was 25? Everyone around me was working, and getting on with things, taking their lunch breaks and being responsible for their little sisters, and I was just…not. Fred Vincy and I, messing everything up, with our self-absorption and our quiet belief that other people would sort things out for us. It was at about age 25 that I realized, to my horror and distress, that no one was going to come riding in and fix my life for me. The injustice of this only enervated me further. It was bad, and then I read Middlemarch.
Chapter 25, and the bit where Fred comes over to tell Mary Garth that he has landed her father in debt, a debt which he knows Caleb Garth will find nearly impossible to pay. Mary looks at him with first alarm, and then, worse, dismissal. He asks him to forgive her and she asks him what difference her forgiveness would make, given that it would not alleviate a single one of his fuck-ups. He says, infuriatingly, that he is “so miserable, Mary — if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me.” A great man for missing the point. He says, panicked, that he is “going now”, and that “I shall never speak to you about anything again.” I read all this with the particular kind of mounting alarm that comes with being recognized. Not even recognized: accused. I knew this particular movie so well, and had starred in it too many times.
And then, Mary says, “How can you bear to be so contemptible, when others are working and striving, and there are so many things to be done — how can you bear to be fit for nothing in the world that is useful?” That’s all she says, and that’s all it took. It was as if George Eliot had reached into my brain and jiggled it around a bit. It seems like a small thing, but it really wasn’t, because how could we bear it? We were better than that, surely? It was the thing I was finally ready to hear, after years of Vincy-ing around.
The change did not come overnight, not for Fred Vincy or for me. He goes away from that meeting with Mary still needing to spend many pages getting over himself. I needed a few more months before I was ready, too. But I swear to God it was the seed for us both. Fred Vincy was made better by Mary Garth; I was made better by Middlemarch. He spends most of the novel getting to a point where he is good enough for her, and good enough even to love her properly. I spent half my twenties getting to the point where I was grown up enough to receive the medicine Middlemarch was determined to administer.
I’ve had this with other books since. Blood Meridian was a good one. It sat on my shelf for years, giving me no good reason to read it. Friends had loved it, but it sounded ridiculous, mostly, and over the top, all that stuff about “he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself.” Come on. It seemed rude, also, to entirely disregard humor as a mechanism. And then, I went through a period where I don’t remember smiling for about two months. Some bad stuff happened, some massively over-the-top stuff, and the funny or ironic side of things remained obscured. I felt extremely dramatic, as ancient as the hills, and do you know what is a good book for a mood like that? Why, Blood Meridian. I devoured it, reading long sections about scalping out loud. I have the last lines of the novel pinned above my desk, now, the bit about the judge dancing and saying that he will never die, and I look at them every day. He is a great favorite, the judge. That ending: so scary, so serious and devoid of irony, and so fine with that approach. It knocked me out then, and it knocks me out today. I needed a book that confirmed my sense that things were bad, and getting worse, and while this may sound counter-intuitive, it did make me feel better. I wish I was reading it right now. I think about Toadvine’s ear necklace all the time.
Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters got me for the opposite reasons. It is often dismissed as quaint, and it is, a bit. It is small, and focused on small things. Not grand in any sense except that it is in love with the world. I had read it once before, and liked it fine, and then I fell in love in that way which does not confine itself to the person but spills out onto everything and everyone. I chose a strange moment to feel this way, because the world at that time was presenting itself as an objectively unlovable place. Almost everyone I knew was focusing on the bigger picture, and was being made desperately unhappy by this. I was happy, though, because I was in love, and I badly needed a book which would tell me that it was fine to focus on small things, to see the whole universe in one car journey, one disastrous wedding, one drink. The world can only be kept at bay for so long, but inside the car, with Buddy Glass narrating, it felt briefly okay.
Some books you know you will love straight away, and other books you need to sit on for a while. You need to coexist with the book for some time, resenting it, maybe, assuring yourself that it is not for you. Rolling your eyes when it comes up in conversation etc. Saying oh PLEASE when it’s mentioned. Talking about it at dinner parties in a way that is actually a bit strange. Are you sure you’re not in love with the book? You are certainly talking about it a lot, for someone who says that they hate it and they wished no one had ever read it. Are you sure you don’t, at least, have a bit of a crush on the book? Hmm? You and the book, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Admit it. You secretly love the book and you know it.
For me, 2016 began — as most years do — in coldest Canada. “Edmonton,” as Wikipedia tells me, “is the most northern North American city with a metropolitan population over one million.” Last week, the temperature dropped so much that they made public transport free.
Edmonton sprawls, and because it’s always so damn cold, the transit system becomes a necessary part of staying alive. If anything, the city is as much connecting infrastructure — tunnels, ravines, subways, indoor walkways, sprawling malls — as it is actual living space. Here, we are constantly in motion, and we are also constantly stuck. During warmer weather, I take long walks along suburban highways with a book and often run into nobody. I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch five summers ago that way, and Edmonton’s flattening landscape has since merged for me with scenes of, for instance, Dorothea crying alone in Rome.
In 2016, I read for my English PhD qualifying exams — which meant revisiting Middlemarch, though in vastly different climes. (Edmonton is obviously the more felicitous place to read about Eliot’s provincial town.) I have actual lists of what I read this year. Turns out, I love making lists. (Less loved: Following them.)
The only books I read in 2016 that were published in the same year were Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Claire Jarvis’s Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, and D.A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock.
More often, I was reading the greatest hits of British literature from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) onward. All I know about Scott is that he grows on you. During these last few months, I’ve begun describing how it feels like we’re living in historical novel time, which maybe only confirms that Waverley will never stop being relevant. I read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) — another historical novel — and for a week, fell asleep to documentaries about Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. There are a lot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860), and Middlemarch (1863) are also about very recent history. The Victorians loved historical novels. I wonder what kinds of novels these next few years will produce.
I’m not a good reader of poetry, but Arthur Hugh Clough’s historical long poem Amours de Voyage (1849) has something for everybody. It’s about the Roman Revolution, and is framed as a series of juicy letters. Speaking of, I started rereading Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa (1748) after reading Frances Ferguson’s shatteringly good essay “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” (1987). I didn’t finish Clarissa, but there’s always next year.
I read a lot of Victorian sages in 2016, and for what it’s worth, a lot of their work feels relevant too. Walter Pater might be my favorite — especially his essay “Style” (1888). William Morris is a close second. Say what you will about Thomas Carlyle, but Sartor Resartus (1833) is incredible.
Due to its focus on canonicity, exam prep often involves rereading. There will always be some things, however, that one will not reread: I never revisited James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), I watched the BBC Bleak House (2005) starring Gillian Andersonand crossed Charles Dickens’s novel off my list.
Alternately, there are also some things that one finally reads for the first time. In my case, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989), and Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite poems. At some point I think I described Heart of Darkness to someone as “an oldie, but a goodie.” The most rigorous of critical reflection.
There was literary criticism too. I learned this year that tracking and reproducing other people’s arguments is often more difficult than we know. I combed through Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013), and am maybe just starting to “get” it. It’s enormously productive, I believe, but there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome in reading it too. By the end of November, I had drunk the cool-aid on two particular texts: Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) and the final chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953). Things I never thought I’d want to do: read more Lukács over Christmas break.
Two more recent novels that mean a lot to me (and which I shoe-horned onto my lists) are Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013). They’re by no means deep cuts, but if you haven’t read them, I couldn’t recommend them enough! The night of my exams, I was celebrating with friends and two of them remarked how they despised Life After Life. This came as a surprise, but it’s also a response that I want to think more about—because I ~~love~~*~*~* it. I keep selling When We Were Orphans as the Ishiguro novel that is better than both the one about clones and the one about the English butler. If Ishiguro’s historical novel (about WWII, the opium wars, and the golden age of detective fiction) could speak, it would ask, “Girl, why you so obsessed with me?”
I’m not sure if the Year in Reading tends toward synthesis or sprawl, but I know I personally incline toward the latter. Happily, some of the novels I read this year seemed to welcome this. Emily Brontë’s messy and muddling Wuthering Heights (1847) is still, like, The Best Novel. It’s just the best! It’s so bonkers!! I want someone to make a Wuthering Heights game, in which one (of course) never gets to leave Wuthering Heights. I finally finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904) and, did you know, this dizzying, late James novel can be broken down into less than 30 clearly defined scenes? This was somehow a revelation to me. So much stuff in The Golden Bowl! Metaphors upon metaphors involving — among bowls — other stuff! Stuff stuff stuff. Yuge, yuge objects. And yet — static scenes, a 30-scene-roadmap for a Hollywood 90-minuter, carefully set out, as though there were some logic to all this madness.
Immediately after my exams, I picked up Ed Park’s Personal Days, which both merits rereading and, really, everyone’s reading.
And finally, a year in reading is incomplete without Eve Sedgwick’s crucial essay “Paranoid Reading or Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (2003). I’ve read this essay more times than I can count and it always teaches me something new.
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I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
There is a long-standing debate about a critical aspect of the novel-writing process. Currently and colloquially in some annexes of the writing community it’s been playfully termed the “pantsing vs. plotting/outlining/planning” debate. Pantsers fly by the seats of their pants: they write and see where it takes them. Planners, well, plan before they write.
Precedent and vehement feeling may be marshaled in favor of both approaches.
Virginia Woolf took copious notes before she wrote her novels, as did Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov (his notes on index cards). William Faulkner scribbled his outline for A Fable on a wall which his wife tried to paint over. Joseph Heller created an extensive spreadsheet for the correspondences between various plots in Catch-22.
James Joyce, though, thought “a book should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.” Mark Twain too, insisted that a book “write itself” and that “the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations…I put it away…The reason was very simple — my tank had run dry; it was empty…the story could not go on without materials; it could not be wrought out of nothing.” Ernest Hemingway said much the same, and believed in simply pouring out what was within, stopping each day before he was completely empty, and resuming the next.
And of course there are many other points along the continuum. Italo Calvino started from an image and then expanded it. “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it,” says Katherine Anne Porter. And writers’ processes may be regarded differently by themselves than by others. George Eliot may have been prompted by the serial format of Middlemarch to unify her novel more than it otherwise would have been, but she nevertheless considered her work more as “experiments in life” than “moralized fables, the last word of a philosophy endeavoring to teach by example,” as Henry James remarked of her work.
The divide exists with equal prominence in more mass market or “genre” schools. There the archetypal planner might be someone like J.K. Rowling, who extensively outlined the Harry Potter series, or John Grisham, who reportedly outlines each of his books prior to writing them. Stephen King, on the other hand, thinks it’s “dishonest” to pre-determine a plot, and William Gibson dislikes planned writing, which he considers to smack of “homework.” Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem likened his writing process to “dipping a thread in a liquid solution of sugar; after a while crystals of sugar begin to settle on the thread, and it grows thicker and thicker, it puts on flesh, so to speak,” and this is reminiscent of what fantasy author Neil Gaiman says of his novels: that they “accrete.” Lem’s description is reminiscent of what Stendhal says in his deliciously acute Love of the idealization involved in passionate love. When a twig is left in the salt mines, Stendhal writes, it eventually emerges utterly sheathed in delicate, interlacing crystals. In the same way, a person in love encloses their beloved in a seamless vestment of imagined perfections (never, however, with less ground in reality than the shape of the crystals have in the topography of the underlying twig). Perhaps writers like Lem need to idealize their work before writing it.
Authors like Raymond Chandler and George R.R. Martin claim that if they planned, they would lose all motivation to write. The latter makes a distinction between “architects” and “gardeners.” Architects plan rigorously and then construct; gardeners plant seeds and water them, and that creates the novel over time.
These divisions are not to deny the facts that writing itself constitutes a kind of planning, if only in retrospect, and that the lines between glimmering visions, developed thoughts, preparatory notes, preliminary sketches, and first drafts blur. Planners certainly do not and cannot plan everything, and even the incorrigibly spontaneous no doubt fall into certain involuntary spasms of planning.
One distinction by which the controversy might be clarified is the mental state involved in the writing process. Many pantsers view the ideal state of writing as akin to a waking dream. Stephen King claims to pass into reverie when he writes, and Ray Bradbury said much the same, cautioning writers to be driven by emotion and not intellect if they wish to experience that state (“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”), which he associates with intense joy.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, love, lunacy and poetry are all related, and so of course Delphic prophecy of old is practically the picture of divine inspiration. The idea of divine madness possessing poets and prophets (and I include novelists under these grand rubrics) is an old one. Kalidasa, the Indian poet, is said to have had the sigil of inspiration painted on his tongue by the goddess, after which the waters of creativity simply poured forth. Madness and divine inspiration here are opposed to calm, clear, intellectual rationality and planning.
There seems to be a separation, then, between the novel whose genesis arises from its creator’s excitement, which, channeled into a dream-like state, throws off what comes to mind in an almost automatic process, and the novel which has its development in a more intentional, cerebral decision, one in which feeling and thought are more nearly equal partners, and which conceives what it wants before it deliberately strives to fulfill that conception.
Planning in a sense takes place in both models. In the case of the planners, it’s a more explicit, thinking kind of planning, whereas in the case of the pantsers it’s an unthinking planning that takes place by way of that first draft.
And that distinction may well mean different parts of the brain or mind function to conceptualize the basic structure of the novel. In everyday social interaction, we understand what another person means by their actions and words by putting ourselves in their place and simulating what we would do in their place. This is not usually a conscious process. There is evidence that when readers read stories, they identify with the characters and do much the same thing.
It may be the case that pantsers engage in this kind of imaginative and empathic recreation when they tell stories, which is precisely why they cannot plan. They have to tell the story in order to know its contours and structure. They have to place themselves in the minds of the characters and then simulate what the characters do. This may be why Hilary Mantel calls writing her fiction an activity akin to acting.
These writers work by faith that their emotions channel into words a latent object which will later prove to possess a structure. The act by which one constructs characters, subjects them to some shock or hinders their desire by some obstacle, and then simply follows them in one’s imagination as they respond, is the empathic creative process.
This empathic process relates, too, to the possibility of characters which somehow take control and even surprise their creator.
That this could even happen is a matter of controversy. Jorge Luis Borges, admittedly not a novelist, is skeptical that such a thing is not merely authorial self-deception. He found preposterous the idea that characters could truly buck their author.
Yet Leo Tolstoy claimed surprise at what his characters did, in particular expressing shock at one of Anna Karenina’s most infamous acts.
Indeed, a reverie-writer like Stephen King considers it dishonest when a writer pre-determines a plot instead of simply giving the characters the situation and following what they do. J.R.R. Tolkien claimed that he had long ago learned not to determine by fiat what characters would do, and to let them determine their own actions instead, and Bradbury says that the plot is simply the footprints of the characters sprinting toward their desires.
And yet here too there are strong crossovers.
The planner William Faulkner said, after all, that this is precisely what he did with As I Lay Dying: “I simply imagined a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes, which are flood and fire, with a simple natural motive to give direction to their progress.” And it was a book for which he claimed to know practically every word prior to writing anything down. More broadly he claimed of each of his books that “there is always a point…where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job — say somewhere about page 275.”
And Henry James thought through a situation and then expanded in his mind the ramifications of that situation. It started for him with a little “seed” or “virus” which then he then expanded into its inevitable implications, structured into a novel, and then wrote. He took distinct pleasure in rendering visible the intricate organism into which the situational seed blossomed — an empathic approach, yet filtered through a powerful planning intellect.
Planning is often connected to a desire to use fiction to explicate an idea. That makes sense, since such a desire requires intellectual foresight and control.
Dostoevsky wrote his extensive notes no doubt because his works had to illustrate complex philosophical ideas like the “positive idea of beauty” in The Idiot, or the possibility of acting beyond morality in Crime and Punishment.
Marcel Proust famously wrote that he was overjoyed when one of his readers realized that his work was in fact a “dogmatic work and a construction,” that is — that it had been fashioned according to a plan to demonstrate certain principles. Proust was not, contrary to popular opinion, merely trying to recreate old memories. He was trying to demonstrate certain philosophical, psychological, and literary ideas, and these manifested in his work. He admired the idea of Gothic cathedrals and thought of his work architecturally, or with the unity of painting or a great symphony, and drew his characters and situations from memory accordingly. He claims, indeed, to have possessed no imagination at all, though this remark likely ought to be taken about as seriously as Montaigne’s claims to a poor memory and and dull storytelling ability.
And yet even here there are complications. Ray Bradbury mentions that when he writes, a second self arises and does all the writing; his muse does all the work. In strange analogy with that view is Proust’s strongly-held position that the real life of the writer cannot tell us anything important about the authorial self, which be known only in the artistic creation. Yet this in itself does not tell us much about the planning debate, because that second self, that other self, may be precisely the self of reflection rather than the automatic, unconscious self which manifests when the intellect suspends itself in a reverie. On the other hand, Proust himself firmly holds that for an artist, “instinct” is king, and that intellect, by its own lights, bows in acknowledgement of this fact. Unfortunately, he never defines just what instinct is or how it is to be accessed in the writing process, excusing himself with an idea that Faulkner independently and no less staunchly adumbrates: that finally, there are no rules to writing.
Perhaps, as Henry James put it, “the general considerations fail or mislead, and…even the fondest of artists need ask no wider range than the logic of the particular case.”
This essay is taken from the preface of Exquisite Masochism, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
How do novelists describe sex and still maintain a respectable distance from pornography? As a formal plotting technique, marriage offers respectable cover for the secretive impulses of sex. As readers, we no longer have to worry about what will happen to a character once she marries; we know what she’s in for on her wedding night. Likewise, waves, oceans, blooms, and illuminations mark the sexual act within the respectable novel and allow a writer to refer to sexual action without realistically describing the act itself. Descriptive haze lets a reader experience sex’s capacity to dislocate personal experience. It alerts us to the fact of sex’s occurrence, and it absolves the writer of a particular kind of obscenity, one that comes of naming things as they are. More than this, though, fuzzy metaphor locates the description of sex as internal to a character. By describing a sexual act as a bloom or a wave, an author is not describing something in the external world. Instead, she is focusing on the internal register of sexual act — on orgasm and its felt experience, on seduction and its bodily effects. Metaphor, in other words, provides protection for writing about the internal experience of sex.
In the 19th and early-20th centuries, writers began to challenge metaphor’s reign in the novelistic depiction of sex. English novelists took to new strategies — drawn in part from the threats posed to embedded, domestic Englishness by cosmopolitan, financial power — to hint at sexual impropriety, perversion, and danger. Novels by authors like Emily Brontë , Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and modernist outlier D.H. Lawrence reimagined the marriage plot as sex found clearer and clearer representation in its pages, in states that, paradoxically, fell on the periphery of marriage: engagement, adultery, and widowhood. These novelists forged a representational shift in the ways books described sex, from descriptive hermeneutics to descriptive clarity — from the description of Tess Durbeyfield’s “mobile, peony mouth” to Connie Chatterley’s blossom-covered pudendum.
A specific kind of erotic scene is repeated, in different ways, across some of the central works of Victorian fiction: these are scenes of “exquisite masochism.” Such scenes feature powerful women and submissive men, often take place in highly aestheticized environments, and work as vehicles for the respectable novel’s sexual content. They stop or dislocate progress in romantic developments by taking genital sex off the representational table in favor of masochistic embraces: they are squeaky wheels in the marriage plot. These are highly charged scenes — scenes of sustained stasis, where plot and character drop out, description thickens, and a glance, gesture, or object takes on heightened relational significance. And recognizing these moments as scenes — in novels across the long 19th century — helps us see how the novel understands sex. These scenes take place across a wide variety of novels: consider the volatile tableaux inaugurated by characters as varied in their powers as the imperious Edith Dombey in Dombey and Son, the attractive, but mercenary, Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch, and the voracious Lucy Westerna in Dracula. Despite their differences, these characters have one thing in common: they persistently disturb the de-sexualizing, companionable impulses traditionally thought to be central to the conventional marriage plot, and they do so by orchestrating scenes that depend upon their heightened sexual allure.
A long history of Foucauldian criticism has found sex where it didn’t appear to be represented; I am interested in reading nongenital sex as central to Victorian erotic life. Withholding sex, in the Victorian novel, is a perverse way of having it. In a novelistic milieu where illegitimacy or adultery can be the motives for serious tragedy, a fully developed sexual life presents a frightening threat. By describing erotic life in ways that avoid depicting sexual intercourse in favor of nongenital tension or intensity, novelists can render the frisson of sexual desire without the attendant plot risks. Novelists harness potentially disruptive elements — like sexual desire, sexual power reversals, and illegitimate pleasure — and put them to work in the service of, not just as a challenge to, marriage ideology. These novels often demonstrate an investment in the sexual power of characters, but they also keep these characters from any explicitly sexual connections that would muck up their novels’ respectably plotted, core marriages. Instead of presenting characters with a single frightening consequence to illicit sex — a baby or a disease — exquisite masochism disperses physicality throughout the scene, minimizing sex’s risk while accentuating its thrill.
There are a number of ways to recognize these scenes: primarily, they lie at the intersection of novel form and aesthetics. Often, they are filled with “exquisite” things, objects carefully chosen, painstakingly refined and delicate. These objects, and their relationships to the bodies and other objects around them, are precisely drawn — there’s a sensory scaffold that holds the whole thing together. Such scenes feel like vignettes, staged and managed for the consumption of a viewer (for the reader? the characters? a little of both?). The “staged” feeling comes, in part, from the sense that plot and action cease in these moments, freezing characters in statuesque attitudes, giving the reader an impression of a tableau vivant rendered in prose. Additionally, characters may be described as seeming like living statues, frozen in an attitude — static but humming with pulsing life beneath their inviolate exteriors. In a single novel, a scene like this might stand out and might trouble or resist interpretation: What is this passage doing here? But, by noticing the ways such moments appear in multiple novels across a wide historical period, one begins to see how they work as a type of scene, as a group of like scenes. And these scenes, taken together, demonstrate how, even before its clear representation on the page, the description of masochistic sex — that is, a description of an action that might not seem like sex at all — is essential to 19th-century plots about love and marriage.
A character’s feelings, too, can be “exquisite,” with a narrator, or the character herself, describing pleasure and pain mingling into a new, unsettling sensation. This experience often tips the character into an experience of fulsomeness — exquisite feelings are also intense, keen, potent, overpowering. These descriptions suggest that a character’s available sensorium is shut down, obliterated by the force of the experience she is having. In other words, “exquisite” scenes are a way of presenting passion’s power in novel form. But “exquisite” things and feelings aren’t necessarily salutary or good. Instead, they are finely wrought, and the intensity smuggled into the minute attention to detail in such scenes reflects the asymptotic relationship to pain that they depict.
To understand the elements of the masochistic scene, consider one of the strangest moments in a very strange novel, when Wuthering Heights’s observant servant, Nelly Dean, comes upon Heathcliff, staring, it seems, at Catherine the Elder’s ghost:
Now, I perceived he was not looking at the wall; for when I regarded him alone, it seemed exactly that he gazed at something within two yards’ distance. And whatever it was, it communicated, apparently, both pleasure and pain in exquisite extremes: at least the anguished, yet raptured, expression of his countenance suggested that idea. The fancied object was not fixed, either: his eyes pursued it with unwearied diligence, and, even in speaking to me, were never weaned away. I vainly reminded him of his protracted abstinence from food: if he stirred to touch anything in compliance with my entreaties, if he stretched his hand out to get a piece of bread, his fingers clenched before they reached it, and remained on the table, forgetful of their aim.
Jettison for a moment the question at the heart of this brief passage (does Heathcliff see the dead woman’s ghost?) and focus instead on the physical scene it describes. Nelly perceives (or thinks she perceives) Heathcliff’s horror written on his face. But Nelly sees something other than horror there: rapture. Rapture and anguish, in equal portions, freeze Heathcliff in his attitude, staring at someone who may or may not be there, chilling his body so intensely that even a grasp for food fails. “Pleasure and pain in exquisite extremes” — here, the author describes a man moving — his hands “clench,” rigid, before they reach food — toward a starving death. Brontë’s inclusion of “exquisite” imagines there might be some kind of aesthetic satisfaction — or consummation — in Heathcliff’s experience. In all of its meanings, “exquisite” develops precision and cultivation so extremely that they can tip from pleasure into pain, from beauty into fastidiousness into horror.
Pain and pleasure: they are two feelings that, in mundane experience, seem thoroughly opposed. But when Brontë modifies them with this crucial word — “exquisite” — they mean something a bit different, something that confuses the senses because pleasure and pain blend into something new, something a little closer to erotic sensation.
“Exquisiteness” forges a connection between the realms of aesthetics and the realms of sensation, connecting the keenness of precise description to a different kind of keenness, the needling, sharp remnant of a discomfiting sensory experience. It implicitly connects taste and display to erotic desire. The confluence of these intense feelings — in precisely these words and in words quite similar to these — is one of ways the Victorian novel manifests sex and desire in its pages. In a number of key British novels, in a number of central scenes, these two opposed feelings occur at once, and, when they do, they create tension, excitement, and confusion in the characters that experience them. These twinned feelings appear in scenes across a wide variety of novels.
The novel used these scenes to work through ideas about the relationship between aesthetics and romance, and the relationship between romance and social life, and, further, to formally navigate the sex scene before modernism made it explicit. By alloying “exquisite pleasure” with “exquisite pain,” novelists found a new way to symbolize sex on the page. Joined together into an “exquisite masochism” — a pleasure that comes from pain, a pain that comes from pleasure — such scenes show how the novel demonstrated sex’s dislocating and thrilling effects, even without clearly representing sex itself.
The masochistic scenes at the center of this discussion rely on tightly ordered, almost scripted, interactions. Thus, they stand out from their surrounding texts with remarkable clarity. We can read them and not mistake them for descriptions of an ocean or a flower. These are scenes about people, and about their bodily interactions. Further, the zone of sexual experience these scenes describe is quite different from that described merely metaphorically. Once we notice the way masochism makes the sex scene obvious and once we see these scenes as reproduced over many novels, the contours of sex’s relation to the novel’s wider project becomes sharper. Exquisite masochism gives us access to the social effects of sex on novel form. I’m not suggesting that all intense scenes are masochistic, nor am I claiming that masochistic scenes alone can be described in scenic terms. Instead, exquisite masochism gives us a clear way to see spatial or aesthetic descriptions as signs of erotic connection. There’s often something inchoate in these scenes — an atmosphere, a feeling — scenes that don’t seem to contribute directly to plot or character development, scenes that appear to block or evade interpretation — what happens, for instance, when we read Heathcliff’s embraces with Catherine the Elder as sex scenes rather than just as signs of sex that happens off stage? But this approach develops one way of thinking about a much broader question in novel criticism: How do novelists represent vital worlds, and what things — what places, bodies, and plots — give those worlds their life?
There exists within criticism a genre of rereading, of essays about books revisited years after first encounter and the richer appreciation that time and experience lend to their reconsideration. In this vein, George Eliot’s Middlemarch is perhaps one of the most written about, in part because it is a book that itself looks closely at change — how its characters deal with it and how they themselves are altered — and thus invites readers to do the same. Virginia Woolf famously called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” who seem to relate to it more, not less, as they get older.
But if rereading can prompt new insights, more often it reveals one’s fixations. Indeed, when I read Middlemarch this spring, I was at least nominally more adult than when I first picked it up three years earlier: I had a boyfriend, dental insurance, and enough professional frustration to make the young doctor Tertius Lydgates’s wasted ambitions feel a bit more poignant. Still, I found myself preoccupied with the same couple, Dorothea Brookes and Will Ladislaw, that had drawn my attention before — or, rather, I became preoccupied with defending them. We are told in the book’s final chapter that they live out their lives “bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulses which could have marred it.” Yet critics and scholars have long voiced dissatisfaction with this ending.
I first became aware of this in college, when Rebecca Mead published the New Yorker essay that would land her a book deal for My Life in Middlemarch. In an accompanying Q&A with readers on the magazine’s website, a certain AJ remarked that Dorothea’s marriage to Ladislaw was “bizarre.” I came to learn this was not a new complaint. “It strikes us as an oddity in the author’s scheme that she should have chosen just this figure of Ladislaw as the creature in whom Dorothea was to find her spiritual compensations,” wrote Henry James upon the book’s publication in 1873. That same year, an unnamed reviewer asserted that Ladislaw “seems to be a favorite with the writer to an extent which hardly justifies itself to the mind of the reader.”
If I don’t share such frustration, I do understand it. It arises from readers’ assessment that Dorothea’s perfect mate is not Ladislaw but Lydgate, and Eliot clearly encourages this view. Lydgate, a progressive young doctor who seeks the greater good in medical discovery, is the clear counterpart to Dorothea’s Saint Theresa. When each marries another early in the novel — Dorothea the stodgy Casaubon and Lydgate the shallow and intractable Rosamond Vincy — the very symmetry of what James called their “matrimonial infelicity” suggests they are on similar paths that will eventually cross at the altar. After all, if David Copperfield could marry twice in a book of the same length, then surely Dorothea can, too — marry Lydgate, that is. When she doesn’t, it is the narrator, channeling Rosamond, who voices our disappointment, reflecting of her husband in the book’s final chapter, “It was a pity he had not had Mrs. Ladislaw, whom he was always praising and placing above her.”
However, it is precisely Eliot’s transparency in promoting such expectations that suggests her intention to disappoint them. By highlighting Dorothea and Lydgate’s similarities, Eliot invites readers to apply the same delusive logic that Rosamond employs in courting Lydgate, occasioning Eliot’s famous extended metaphor of a candle shone upon a scratched surface that stands at the heart of the book:
Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent — of Miss Vincy, for example.
If the narrator’s parable applies itself most immediately to events — Rosamond believes that her brother Fred’s typhoid fever is the work of Providence, as it requires Lydgate to frequent their home during his treatment — the egoism it describes also causes characters to misestimate prospective partners more generally, projecting some qualities on them while ignoring others. Wishing to escape her humdrum life, Rosamond sees Lydgate’s pedigree and station — a physically attractive outsider with elevated relatives — and is blinded to the finer points of both their characters. A similar desperation leads Dorothea into her tragically loveless marriage with Casaubon, mistaking his pedantry for intelligence. That both marriages are unhappy comes as no surprise. Each woman has pinned her hopes on a man because he appears her perfect match on paper.
Anyone who has spent time in the trenches of online dating knows that this is a bad idea. It’s an approach to human affairs that neglects the individual and ineffable and applies intellect where one should use intuition, and which Eliot everywhere attempts to correct. Yet it is this same impulse that leads us to make similar calculations on Dorothea’s behalf, arranging the most articulated qualities she shares with Lydgate into romantic compatibility. It’s also what readers find so frustrating about Ladislaw: If Lydgate is great on the page, Ladislaw, an orphan of mysterious provenance with “rebellious blood on both sides,” is hardly there at all. He lacks, according to James, “sharpness of outline and depth of color,” making him the novel’s “only eminent failure.” The scholar Rosemary Ashton has called him “the least successfully imagined character in the novel.” But what they and others identify as a shortcoming seems likely to be by design. By repelling our efforts to analyze Ladislaw, Eliot wrests control of Dorothea’s romantic narrative from readers who have unwittingly become Rosamonds in their own right.
This theory differs from the more popular explanation for Dorothea and Ladislaw’s marriage, which draws on the theme of chance and circumstance, and the extent to which they make folly of our lives. Eliot is careful not to exempt even her heroes, particularly Lydgate, from this unfortunate reality. Thus, we often read Dorothea and Lydgate’s never-was relationship as star-crossed, the result of poor timing: By the time a widowed Dorothea begins patronizing Lydgate’s hospital, he has already married Rosamond, who refuses to conveniently fade away in the manner of Charles Dickens’s Dora Spenlow (sturdily surviving a miscarriage and bucking the Victorian trend that allowed so many female characters to die of nothing more, apparently, than their own vacuity). In contrast, time favors Dorothea’s courtship with Will, whom she meets a second time during her honeymoon in Rome, just as her expectations of marriage to Casaubon are being leached of their fantasy. The very proximity of Lydgate combined with the unlikelihood of Dorothea’s run-in with Will while abroad would seem to underscore the determining role that happenstance plays in thwarting one love match and making another.
But in light of all the evidence that enables a reading that takes the happy ending at its word, why does the consensus so strongly incline to this sadder one? The answer, I think, lies in our own fears. The pro-Lydgate camp emphasizes that we are victims of the world, our best interests defeated by outside forces. It may be tragic, but it affirms our own capacity for understanding. If we take Ladislaw and Dorothea’s storyline on good faith, we must confront an even more terrifying truth — that it is often the heart that defies our best plotting. No doubt for people who elect to read (and reread) an 800-page novel about early-19th-century provincial life seeded with moral admonitions, the allowance this makes for unaccounted pleasure may be the hardest to accept, even when it’s imperative: Stop thinking. Enjoy the romance.
I’ve been following Pamela Erens’s work since her debut in 2007. With each novel, her reputation has grown; I admit that I expected her new book to land on my doorstep with a resounding thud — the sound of a weighty third novel announcing its author has arrived. The actual tone was higher, more like a plonk.
Erens’s third novel, Eleven Hours, is 165 pages long. It is a heart-in-your-mouth, hold-your-breath read that uses one of the most familiar, and possibly underused, time constraints to hold tension: labor. A woman named Lore, in the early stages of labor, checks into the hospital alone. She brings with her a detailed birth plan, which her assigned nurse, Franckline, eyes skeptically. The nurse knows all too well that the only certain thing about birth is that it won’t go to plan. As the novel charts the course of the contractions, the relationship between the two women becomes more intense. Their lives and past experiences become briefly intertwined through the deeply intimate process of birth.
Why hasn’t a novel like Eleven Hours been written thousands of times before? Like storming the castle, slaying a serial killer, or saving the world, the story of a labor has all the elements of a classic plot. An inciting incident, conflicting needs, rising action, suspense, a built-in climax, and a kind of resolution that often feels both surprising and true.
Like the structure of Eleven Hours, the outcome of a birth, though often happy, isn’t assured. For with every birth, comes the possibility of death. And it’s this natural tension — as Karen Russell puts it, “the tides of memory, sensation, and emotion” — that Pamela Erens has caught so precisely. On the eve of publication, I wanted to know how Erens came to this point in her writing career. In an email exchange, I asked her about working at Glamour magazine, the hard slog of doing publicity yourself, getting the rights back and the reissue of her first novel, glowing reviews by John Irving, “big” books, and “small” topics.
The Millions: Since your first novel was published in 2007, you have been listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, you were named a contemporary writer to read by Reader’s Digest, your criticism has appeared in many prestigious publications, and your work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. Have you made it?
Pamela Erens: Hmm, what is “making it?” On the one hand, so much more has come my way than I could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. I remember when my second novel, The Virgins, came out, realizing that people I didn’t actually know were reading my novel. That was thrilling! Honestly, I think almost everyone who read my first novel, The Understory, either knew me or knew someone who knew me. Getting to write essays for a place like Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal I’d held in awe for years: that knocks me out.
But one keeps moving the goal posts, right? It’s just human nature. You (I) want more readers, more sales, a prize…Sometimes I hate that the mind works like this.
TM: You were an editor at Glamour magazine. How did you make the transition from magazines to novels?
PE: Actually, the fiction came before any magazine work (I also had stints at Ms., Connecticut Magazine, and a New York City weekly called 7 Days). The magazine work was what I gravitated to after college because I was a huge reader of magazines (still am) and needed to make a living. But I wrote fiction as far back as I can remember. If Glamour shaped my work, it was by training me to be succinct and draw the reader in quickly. In school, you learn to generate a lot of blah-blah in your writing, a lot of what my boss at Glamour called “throat-clearing.” Magazine work cures you of that.
TM: Did the success of The Understory surprise you?
PE: Very much. For one thing, during the editing process I gradually gleaned that my editor and publisher (it was the same man) was no longer really running the press that was supposed to bring out my book. He was traveling a lot, hard to reach, involved in other business ventures. He was shutting down operations, and there were many months where I didn’t think the book was going to come out. In the end he did honor the commitment to publish, thank goodness, but there were long delays, and the press lost its distributor. The book was not in bookstores, period. People rightly criticize some of Amazon’s practices, but if it hadn’t been for Amazon no one would ever have been able to get ahold of the book without coming over to my house to ask for a copy.
There was no publicity for The Understory other than what I did myself. The publisher did print advance reading copies, but I had to figure out where to send them. I ran myself ragged writing notes to newspapers and possible reviewers — but at the time I knew hardly anybody. A couple of things worked out, including a Publishers Weekly review, which was hugely important in legitimizing the novel. Jim Ruland, a wonderful writer I’d gotten to know via the online writers’ site Zoetrope, did an interview with me for the literary blog The Elegant Variation. It was an L.A.-based blog, so perhaps that was how the Los Angeles Times folks, who nominated it for the book prize, got wind of the novel. I sent the book to several prize competitions, cursing at the steep entry fees, but it led to the short list for the William Saroyan Award. So: a combination of stubbornness and a few contacts and some lucky breaks.
TM: Picking up on things working out, Tin House republished The Understory in 2014. How did this come about?
PE: By the time The Understory came out in 2007, Ironweed was basically no longer operating except to send copies to Amazon once in a while and bring out one other book they had under contract. I figured that if I could get the rights back, maybe eventually another press would be willing to do a reissue. I was afraid of losing track of my publisher (he was often in Asia) and not being able to contact him if an offer came up. So in 2010 I made a request for the reversion of rights. The publisher was very accommodating about it.
Later, when I got an agent for The Virgins I mentioned to her that I owned the rights to The Understory. After Tin House took The Virgins, she sent The Understory to my new editor, who said that he was interested it in, too, but wanted to see what happened with The Virgins first. And luckily that went well, so Tin House brought out a reissue of The Understory about eight months after The Virgins. It was great to see it with a new cover and in bookstores.
TM: The Virgins got a rave review from John Irving in The New York Times. How did you swing that?
PE: I don’t think authors ever get to swing anything when it comes to The Times!
The review was exciting for reasons beyond the obvious. I’d been a John Irving fan since the age of 15, when I read The World According to Garp. My early- to mid-teens was the one time in my life I stopped writing. I’d been a massively scribbling kid. I’d written a novel at the age of 10 — that was published — I really should refer to it as my first novel. It was called Fight for Freedom and it was about a slave girl who escapes to the North before the Civil War with the help of Harriet Tubman. My mom, always an optimist and a booster, sent it out to a few places and it got taken by a small feminist press in California called The Shameless Hussy Press (this was the 1970s, okay?). But once adolescence hit I guess I just got too busy with trying to be popular and attract the interest of boys. Anyway, The World According to Garp blew me away. I couldn’t believe fiction could be written that way. It was so irreverent and joyful and antic and dark and political. Afterwards, I went out and read all of Irving’s earlier books.
They jolted me into writing again (at first very Irving-imitatively), and I haven’t stopped since, other than for a brief period when I couldn’t sell The Understory and thought, crap, I really don’t have what it takes, maybe I would like to be a librarian. Not a joke; I was looking into it. So there was a big kick in being reviewed by one of my first literary heroes.
TM: Big books are having a moment. Of the many virtues of novels like The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, A Little Life, and City on Fire, they have also received attention for their high page count. Eleven Hours is 165 pages long, is this a contrarian stance?
PE: You’ve hit a sore spot for me. Some of the novels most dear to me are big and multi-charactered, with wide panoramas. Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Howard’s End, Angle of Repose. Then I have this other passion for slender, intense, highly concentrated novels and collections, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, Desperate Characters, They Came Like Swallows, Jesus’ Son. But it’s the longer, more sprawling books that epitomize “The Novel” to me. Why?
I’ve been pressing myself on this one lately. It has nothing to do with artistry, I’m beginning to realize. It has to do with certain longings for status and, believe it or not, with how I want to see myself as a person. Do I not have enough empathy to write more than two or three or four characters a book? Am I lacking in imagination? I just have to get over those probably false equivalences. Jane Austen famously referred to “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Well, we’re still reading Jane Austen today, while Walter Scott, the “big book” writer of her day, not so much.
TM: What is a “big book?”
PE: Usually, for me, it’s a novel that takes on a lot of the “outside” world, that’s sociological and/or historical as well as psychological. Sometimes a book like that truly does offer a “big” experience, and sometimes it’s just kind of, well, journalistic: doing the work of nonfiction rather than fiction.
I think about Kafka, another writer I love. Can you imagine if Kafka sat around saying, “God, why can’t I write a multi-generational novel with lots of sociological color and several gripping subplots?”? You could argue that Kafka is one of the narrowest writers around. He barely does description or character. There’s only sometimes a bit of plot. But in plumbing what he plumbs he brings us some of the most potent experiences in literature. He brings us the unconscious erupting into our lives and the dread at the heart of being human. He goes places no one else goes.
We authors just have to write what we write and not get caught up in these ideas of “big” or “small.”
TM: I agree, but know from experience that it’s not a comfortable feeling to be told your novel is “small.” While there is no set definition of “small,” it can feel diminishing?
PE: Yes, it can. My other hangup about “writing short” is that long books do often generate more excitement and attention. Though it’s not always the case. The wonderful Dept. of Speculation, a novel you can read in an hour and a half, was one of the most lauded books of 2014. There’s Garth Greenwell’s book What Belongs to You. There are Ben Lerner’s two short novels. These have been among the most justly praised books of recent years.
I’ll also say this: When advance reader’s copies of Eleven Hours were mailed out, I realized one big advantage of a short book: people are much more likely to get around to reading it. It’s not such a huge investment of time.
That’s a long way around to your question of whether writing short is a contrarian stance. No! Both The Understory and The Virgins started out as longer books. Making them into the best books I could resulted in major amputations. I knew from the start that Eleven Hours would be short, because of the time frame and because there were only so many uterine contractions I could describe without losing my shit, but I kept hoping it would magically pass the 200-page mark. It just didn’t want to.
Some authors seem to achieve their best effects through expansion. For me, at least so far, it’s compression that brings out what I want.
TM: What did your editor at Tin House say about the length of the manuscript?
PE: I worried about what both my agent and my editor would say about the length of Eleven Hours.
I was afraid someone was going to use the dread word “novella.” (For the record, as a reader, I love the novella form. I just thought that if Eleven Hours was labelled as a novella it might be tougher to sell or get reviews for.)
Neither said anything. When I expressed my own anxieties, my editor mentioned another novel that Tin House had done, even shorter, and commented that the right layout and presentation can make a short book very appealing. That was nice. Tin House does in fact have a track record of beautifully publishing shorter novels.
TM: Eleven Hours tells the incredibly tense story of a woman’s 11-hour labor. How did it feel to write?
PE: I had a lot of false starts with Eleven Hours. I wrote my first two novels in almost complete isolation. With The Virgins, I submitted the first 15 pages to a workshop once; that was it until it was finished. By Eleven Hours, I had a writers’ group, and I was also having trouble getting it launched. Trying to capture the physical and psychological experience of childbirth was so difficult. Not because I didn’t remember it well or was spooked by the material, but simply because it was hard to find the language to say much about it. What I was able to get down on paper was fragmentary and rather dreamlike. I would bring in these fragments and my group would be encouraging but also kind of lost. I really felt that this book needed to be in third person, unlike my first two novels, and I just couldn’t hear the right voice.
Eventually I had a setup and a reasonably workable narrator and I proceeded. Then I didn’t show anything more to anybody and completed a draft in about a year. Wow, I’m getting really fast! I thought. This is progress!
I sent the manuscript to my agent. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear her trying carefully not to make me feel terrible. She pointed out what she liked and didn’t. She didn’t like that much, but what she did I gained the confidence to build on. I got some good feedback from her then assistant also. I spent two more years on the book and got regular critiques from my group. They were essential in helping me see where there was a live vibe and where things were going dead.
The breakthrough was when some intuition sent me back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of my favorite novels. That was the voice I wanted, that mobile, poetic, exalted, wry, empathic voice that is distinct from any of the characters. So then I spent the rest of my time figuring out what of Woolf’s method I could adapt or steal. In short, the novel didn’t get written all in one breath, by any means!
TM: Eleven Hours is published by Tin House tomorrow. How do you feel right now?
PE: A bit strung out, as always before a publication. But pleased. It’s always sort of a miracle when something that started years ago as an idea, a little thread of words in your head, becomes this independent object in the world. And something that is particularly satisfying to me this time is that the content of the novel brings me full circle to some of my earliest concerns and interests.
In college I discovered I was a feminist — that is, someone who is very interested in how gender shapes inner and outer experience. I studied gender via philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, literature. Glamour magazine was a continuation of that. Women’s magazines are where you can routinely find some of the most inquiring and informative journalism about women’s physical and mental health, reproductive rights, sexuality, and so on. The Virgins drew somewhat on that vein of interest, in its attempt to be straightforward about teenage female sexuality, but Eleven Hours does even more so. Why are there so few accurate or in-depth depictions of labor and delivery in literature? It’s just staggering.
TM: That’s a great question. Where is the experience of labor and delivery in our literature?
PE: You and I were just talking about “small” books, and it seems as if childbirth, this absolutely enormous event in the life of billions of people past and present, is seen as a “small” topic. It’s absurd. With Eleven Hours I wanted to write this thing that I wasn’t seeing out there. I wanted to do it as both an artist and a feminist. And now it’s out there, and I feel very satisfied.
In part one of this two-part series, Meaghan O’Connell and I discussed our experience reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. At that point, we were a couple of hundred pages into the novel. Now we are back to continue that conversation, and to illuminate for our audience just what it means to read (or not read) a classic in 2016…and to no doubt embarrass ourselves further in the name of honesty, entertainment, and, of course, literature.
Edan Lepucki: I’m 80 pages from finishing David Copperfield…and I’ve given up. I just can’t do it anymore. The endless scenes with characters’ verbal tics on full display; the moralizing about the beauty of a woman’s purity; Mr. Micawber’s debts and heart; Uriah Heep’s writhing. I just can’t. I am so bored! I found that I was barely reading and when I stop reading my life takes on a sad, lifeless tone, like my hair before I get my blonde highlights. My former English professor, the brilliant David Walker, wondered on Twitter why we didn’t try Our Mutual Friend or Bleak House. Why didn’t we? I guess I wanted a comic novel, a famous crowd pleaser. But I am far from pleased.
Where are you in the novel? Are you compelled to continue?
I am left with a few thoughts from this project. The first one being, what does “Dickensian” mean? Want to take a stab at defining that, based on what you’ve read of Davy C.?
Meaghan O’Connell: Oh, Edan. When I got this email from you I cheered out loud. I still have 200 pages to go and I can barely remember what it’s like to truly love a book. I am so behind and the book is starting to feel endless. Every night I tell myself, “Okay, go to bed early. Read for an hour or more.” Then I get in bed, read two pages, and fall asleep at 9 pm or whatever it is.
I am still a little invested, mostly in D.C.’s romantic prospects, but I, too, would prefer to never read the name Uriah Heep again. I think I want to finish it, but I need to bring a few more books into the rotation, save it for when I am in a certain mood, I guess the mood to be somewhat tediously entertained?
IT’S SO LONG.
I wanted to read David Copperfield because supposedly it is the author’s favorite, and based largely/vaguely on his own life. And the book does make me curious about Dickens himself, or at least the narrator. Like, hi, D.C., please, step forward, talk to me in like 200 pages instead of 860. Maybe tell a different story altogether? Great Expectations perhaps? I probably should have just re-read that. I love reading things I read when I was younger and understanding things that passed by me then.
Dickensian. I think in casual conversation people mean it to be “about poor people”? Things that are bleak. I picture a small boy with soot on his cheeks, begging for bread, maybe a starving cat in the background. It’s all very grey. There are waistcoats, which it turns out are simply VESTS, and they are threadbare. I think this is based almost entirely on Oliver Twist?
Having read 70 percent of the book I would say that I guess that isn’t totally off, but if you said a book was Dickensian, well, for one, I would not want to read it, at least not for a long time. I would imagine it to be bloated but funny, obsessed with class, tragicomic? An orphan? A lot of failed romance but probably some sort of happy ending (I may never know the end of this, but he does reference his future children at some point — which was weird!)
It’s been strange to read a book I just like okay, to be missing that big propulsive drive in my life. This book is not really making me think about anything? It’s not inspiring, or not in any way that is conscious. I guess I am inspired that Dickens took up so much damned space. Mostly it’s felt, much as it did the last time I read his work, like homework. I need a breath of fresh air! I have no urge to write lately and I never thought I’d say this/provoke lovers of Victorian literature in this way, but I blame Charles Dickens.
Have you really abandoned poor Davey? (Edan, you know he probably has abandonment issues!!) Are you on to other books? What’s it like on the other side?! I’m really left feeling like, God, maybe I should just watch a BBC version of this book and see if he ends up marrying Agnes after all. I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not a scholar of some kind, which seems like a pretty brazen pronouncement, but, you know what, I stand by it. Do not read this book!! Life is short.
Edan: What’s amazing to me is how many people, when I told them I was reading David Copperfield, said that they had read and loved the book when they were younger. This is startling to me because, while Dickens isn’t difficult on the sentence level, there are still quite a few cultural and era-specific references that were unclear to me, as a worldly adult. (For instance, all the stuff around Copperfield’s career, before he starts writing for money, confused me.) And the intense moralizing about young women made me worried about all the women who read this as kids. Don’t run off with the hot asshole, little girls, or you will never recover! (Well, hey, that’s maybe kind of a good lesson to live by…) It did make me consider David C. as a (very) long young adult novel, or even middle grade novel. The reader, for a time, is Davy’s age, and can grow along with him. There were a lot of plot turns that I saw coming for hundreds of pages, which might be less obvious to a younger audience.
When I think about “Dickensian” I, like you, first imagine waistcoats and soot, a bad cough. Certainly orphans. But also long narratives that rely very much on coincidence. Now that I’ve read most of David Copperfield, I’d say, too, that the Dickensian style has colorful and immediately memorable characters with distinct names and ways of speaking: Peggoty, Mr. Dick, Miss Murdstone. As much as I began to dislike this novel, I’m in awe of how efficiently he brought these figures to life, and with such joy, it seems.
In his terrific introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel, David Gates does a bang-up job of citing the book’s flaws, from Mr. Micawber’s anti-semitic one-liner to Dickens’s flawed and flat depiction of women, such as Agnes, whom Gates calls “the celestially backlit hall monitor.” He goes on to argue that Dickens “writes best about damaged, dark, and dangerous women.” Gates cites the scarred Rosa Dartle in the novel, whom I was also very much mesmerized by. Aside from the needless length of the book, I do think the depictions of women were what made me finally put it down. I started skimming right around when Dora asked Davy to call her Child Wife. Just no.
Since you asked, I’ve given up D.C. for good and I’m enjoying reading again. I ate up Charles Yu’s metafictional How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is like Italo Calvino crossed with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure crossed with George Saunders. Then I read the forthcoming debut novel Home Field by The Millions staff writer Hannah Gersen, which was so beautiful and compelling that she and I joked my blurb should be: “Better than Dickens!”
Speaking of Hannah, she told me that she appreciates Dickens’s influence more than Dickens’s work. What do you think this means?
Meaghan: It’s funny you wrote today because I picked the book back up last night! I’d read enough of Charlotte Shane and then Rebecca Curtis to be ready to reenter the fore. It was very pleasant. If I can keep reading intense lyric memoirs and bizarro short stories between chapters of this doorstopper, I might just finish it.
The “my great love is so delicate!” shit is pretty tedious, though I did laugh when he described her to Agnes, making excuses for how fragile she was, how she couldn’t be troubled with this or that. Getting relationship advice from the unassuming girl everyone else knows you SHOULD be with felt so modern — a satisfying set up! If he isn’t headed for one in a series of falls and if he doesn’t end up with backlit Agnes, I will be bitter indeed.
And you’re right — efficient! Who would have thought we’d use that word to describe Dickens? The very name Miss Murdstone makes me so angry. Mr. Micawber evokes dread, awkwardness. They flit in and out of the story so any lasting impression seems like an achievement. There’s a sort of necessary hamfistedness? Or if it’s deliberate maybe it’s just over-the-top, but good over-the-top. He’s having fun with it, there seems to be this continual raised eyebrow throughout, and yet he maintains such sincerity with David Copperfield! Maybe that’s what feels sort of YA about it? He’s so pure of heart and unflagging and “honorable” and so on. He’s good-humored but never totally self-aware? It’s SO sincere even as it’s funny.
Poor kids being assigned this book in school. At least with Great Expectations there is the spider cake to cling to.
I totally get the influence versus the work thing, what a smart, gentle thing to say, like maybe he might read this. A friend, when I told her I wanted to read some Dickens, was like, “Or maybe read some Nancy Mitford? Or Jane Austen even?”
To me “Dickensian” evokes what I was trying to get at earlier, a sense of playfulness (I hate when adults say “play” but there it is), a very kind evisceration, wit, and a noble heart. It is fun, though I think it’s more fun to have that foundation and then undercut it. It’s thrilling in a way, how tired so much of it feels, while still being full of life. To have him be brilliant but also to feel like we (“we” lol) have made progress, literature-wise! Is that crazy to say? We’re better than you now, Dickens, but thank you for your service.
Edan: I love your phrase, “a very kind evisceration” — this is such an accurate description of what Dickens is up to in David Copperfield. I definitely appreciate this gift of his. But gift-appreciation is different from pure enjoyment.
Again, though, I circle back to this idea that perhaps we chose the wrong book; certainly we wouldn’t say that the contemporary novels we adore are better than, say, Bleak House, which everyone seems to agree is a masterpiece. I would bet that most Dickens scholars and lovers would choose another book of his for us to judge. Maybe David Copperfield is too of its time to truly work for contemporary readers such as ourselves. I get the sense that it was written to be an immersive, rousing text for the readers of its day; perhaps his more “serious” novels were striving for something other than immersion: complication, profundity.
All the 18th-century literature I read in college, like Pamela, or Humphry Clinker, were fun to talk about but a chore to read — their storytelling techniques were just so obvious and clunky. While David Copperfield was a far better read than those novels, I’m still having a better time discussing the book with you than I did reading said book. Back when I was in that 18th-century literature class, I remember feeling that The Novel, as a machine to entertain and move the reader, had become much sleeker and more powerful over the years. But by the 19th century, the machinery had improved considerably. We have Austen, as you mentioned. (Emma was published in 1815.) And George Eliot — my god, what brilliance! Middlemarch came later in the century, in 1874. David Copperfield, published in 1850, came between those two books. Perhaps some learned person can step forward to tell us why and how novels got so much more refined in the 1800s — only a century (or less) later. And is Copperfield’s episodic/picaresque quality (is it a picaresque?) a throwback to these older books? I wonder, I wonder.
I asked Hannah Gersen what she meant by Dickensian influence and she echoed what we’ve been saying, and she also remarked that Christmas movies owe a huge debt to Charles D. She’s right!
Will you read more Dickens in 2016? Ever? What do you take away from this experiment in ye olden classics?
Meaghan: God. It’s just TOO LONG. My edition is 866 pages. Life is too short to read something so plodding. And yet, I’m still reading it. I have a hard time giving up on books. I keep thinking maybe there will be some revelation near the end that will have made it all worthwhile. Like something big will unlock for me, literature-wise.
I am still a good 200 pages from the end and I just read the chapter about him marrying Dora (spoiler alert) and he totally elided the sex, while still referring to it in a sentence that manages to be both not quite comprehensible and totally revolting:
It was a strange condition of things, the honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home, when I found myself sitting down in my own small house with Dora; quite thrown out of employment, as I may say, in respect of the delicious old occupation of making love.
A run-on, but a lot of nice language I think. “My own small house” is good. “The honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home,” also really good, I’d say! BUT THEN, he ruins it all with “the delicious old occupation of making love.”
Coming from him, it reminds me of that SNL skit where they eat meat in a hot tub and call each other lover. Also I’ll admit I don’t quite know what he means by “quite thrown out of employment, as I may say” — NO YOU MAY NOT SAY, because it makes no sense. Is he fucking too much to go to work or did she fire him from fucking her? Is he just done doing it around the clock and settling into married life? (Probably.)
Anyway, not a word about the sex except that it was delicious, which, good for you, but gross. Very Jonathan Franzen.
There is a part of me that wants to try a different book because I am so stubborn and I don’t want to have given over like six weeks of my reading life to this book that is not as good as Austen! To think they were written around the same time! I am no expert in “what the novel does or is or wants to be” but, wow, the ladies were doing it better (If I may say! And I may!).
Maybe if I read Bleak House and it’s a masterpiece that opens up my brain, this will all have been worth it? These are the thoughts I’m left with, Edan.
I just read Rachel Cusk’s Outline and it was the perfect antidote, which is what other books are to me now: antidotes to David Copperfield.
Kelly Link and I go back a long way. We met in the MFA program at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro when I arrived there in 1994, and soon found out that we were kindred spirits in terms of fiction — we were both working somewhat outside the bounds of realism at a time when realism held sway, and we sometimes shared material outside of workshop to get one another’s opinion. We continued our friendship after leaving the program. Kelly has twice been a visiting writer at Clemson University, where I now teach, and we’ve done readings together and a panel at last year’s AWP conference (along with the fabulous Danielle Evans). With my novel Travelers Rest just out from Little, Brown, and Kelly working on her first novel and looking forward to the paperback publication of her latest story collection, Get In Trouble, we thought it might be a fun time to sit down and chat (via e-mail) about the writing process, the novel vs. short story dilemma, dreams, haunted houses, and whether it’s a good idea to have a beer while working.
Kelly Link: I guess first I’ll start off by saying how much I love Travelers Rest. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by you, let’s be clear, but the ending of Travelers Rest just about killed me. Did you know the end when you sat down and wrote the first page? I ask because I almost always know the ending of a short story when I start it.
Keith Lee Morris: First, thank you. I’m happy especially that you liked the ending. And I’m surprised to hear you say that you almost always know the ending to your stories, which I’ll get back to in a minute. I usually know the endings, too — in fact I’ve blamed myself in the past for being too rigid about maintaining my initial story structures. I started writing stories based on dreams as a result — I would take a piece of an actual dream and then start weaving a story around it without thinking about where it might be going — and that’s the method I used when I started writing Travelers Rest. So, no, I didn’t know the ending until more than halfway through. What’s funny, though, is that once I knew the ending, I was right. With my previous two novels, I thought I knew the ending the whole time and then I turned out to be wrong. Characters sometimes do things and say things that you don’t expect and then the story can’t go back to being what it was before, the way you’d conceived it. But I would never have suspected that you’re the type of writer who plans out stories ahead of time. Or maybe that’s not true — in some of your stories, like “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” or “Vanishing Act” (which you know I’ve always loved), there’s a kind of architecture in place that, if you took it apart carefully, you could probably see as something that was intricately planned. But other stories — “The Summer People” and “Stone Animals” and “Travels With the Snow Queen,” for instance — seem kind of enviably “free” to me, loose and comfortable in a way that shows the author is confident enough not to have to know where she’s headed. Or I guess maybe they just give that impression.
KL: Well, if I know what the ending of a story should be, then the beginning is often the most difficult piece to write — and I’d describe writing the middle, actually, as pretty loose and comfortable. Or at least flexible in terms of play. There’s a lot of play in the middle and I mean that in both senses of the word play. Because I often know what the ending is going to be, I spend a great deal of time trying to lay false trails that feel plausible and engrossing to the reader so that they won’t see where we’re headed. It’s funny: I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a novel — a series of novels, maybe, and within a couple of days of thinking about the premise, I knew how I would want to end one book, and then a second book, and then the ending of the last book. It seems like a big project, but I’d really like to get to all of those endings.
Oh, and I remember your dream stories! I didn’t know that’s how you started Travelers Rest. What was the dream? And which character was the biggest surprise to you?
KLM: The dream that it started from was completely different from the novel it turned out to be. The dream was actually about a beach house we go to each summer in St. Simons Island, Ga., and all it involved was a window seen from outside the house that I knew wasn’t anywhere inside the house, and two people, a man and a woman, talking in this nonexistent window. The whole thing morphed weirdly from there. I don’t know which character in the novel was the biggest surprise, but I know what moment regarding the characters was the most surprising. It was [spoiler alert] when I found out that Stephanie was Hugh’s sister. I didn’t know until Hugh literally opened his mouth and said it. That’s the second time I’ve mentioned that — characters doing things I didn’t expect them to or want them to, completely without warning, and ruining all my plans. Sometimes writing is almost like raising teenagers. What about you? Does that ever happen to you? Can you remember a character who suddenly got unruly and started acting out without your permission?
KL: I love Stephanie so much! Let’s see. Unruly characters. I think the most surprising thing a character ever did was in a story called “Some Zombie Contingency Plans.” The central character, called Soap most of the time, ends up in a bed with a girl at a party. She falls asleep and it turns out that her little brother is hiding under the bed — I didn’t know until I got to that point that there was a little brother and that he’d be under the bed. Soap leaves the house and the party and he takes the little brother with him. As soon as I thought of it, I knew that was how the story ended. I was on a plane on the way to a workshop when I finished that story — a friend of mine was heading out to the same workshop and he was also finishing up his story. We’d walk by each other in the aisle of the plane and say: Have you finished your story yet? No. You?
KLM: I’ve gotta throw in here that my favorite all-time character(s) of yours are the Loolies in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”–lumpy, soft, hairless, babyish undead creatures who subsist entirely on a diet of marshmallows, if I’m remembering correctly. Love those Loolies.
KL: Thank you! I still remember meeting you in the MFA program at UNC-G — specifically a conversation we had with our friend Margaret Muirhead. We were talking about writing and you mentioned that you did a lot of writing in bars. I was really thrown by that — I couldn’t imagine working in a room with other people. And now, of course, I work in cafes and restaurants and in other people’s houses, preferably with as many other writers as possible. It turns out I get more done when there’s a lot of stuff going on around me. Anyway: do you still work that way now?
KLM: Apparently we switched places in that regard — I now write almost exclusively at home in my little windowless office, although I will occasionally still have a beer while I’m in the process. But I’ve always loved writing in bars — all the noises just drown one another out and I don’t hear a thing after a while. Of course that could also be the beer.
In the interest of informing our readers, we should probably say that we both attended the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro, Kelly one year ahead of me (although I’m infinitely older, let me make it clear). Looking back on that time now, what are your favorite memories of being an MFA student? And what do you regret, if anything?
KL: I don’t do it often, but I love to have one or two beers while I’m writing. I don’t even have an office at home. I work on the dining room table, which we only use for eating on a couple times a year. Mostly it’s just a stack of books and manuscripts. As for UNC-G, my favorite thing was working on The Greensboro Review. Margaret Muirhead was the fiction editor and I was the assistant fiction editor. I loved reading the slush, and I loved proofing the stories that we published. One person would read the story out loud, including the punctuation marks, and the other would sight read the proofs to make sure everything was clean. Oh, and reading Tristram Shandy. I guess my biggest regret was that I lived about a mile off campus — everyone else seemed to live all on one street near campus. I missed a lot of spontaneous parties and a lot of conversations. You?
KLM: Bartlebying! That’s what Jim Clark [Greensboro Review editor] called the kind of proofreading you’re talking about. I wonder if that’s an actual term or if Jim just made it up: it makes sense — that’s what Bartleby did (or was supposed to do), after all, make exact copies of things, and the goal was to make sure that the manuscript and the page proof were exactly the same — but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term used after that. Speaking of Jim Clark, he was one of my favorite things about the program — he made it fun to come in to work every day. I loved the people in the program — we were a really tight-knit group. Like you, I lived kind of away from the action (close to you, actually), but I had a wife and a two-year-old. I think being in an MFA program was absolutely crucial for my development at the time — I needed both that kind of structure and the opportunity it afforded. Do you think you would be the same writer you are now if you hadn’t attended an MFA program? And I’m interested in hearing whether your recollection is the same as mine — to me, at the time, you and I were both writing weird, absurd stuff that left everyone else kind of scratching their heads. Almost everyone was writing more or less straight realism at the time. I sometimes went that route, but I was playing around with a lot of different modes of storytelling. You seemed to have already had your mind pretty firmly made up in terms of the direction you were headed.
KL: Jim Clark is a marvel; UNC-G always felt like a family because of him. I was waitlisted when I applied. He called and said that he liked my stories, but that I was young and unformed and ought to get married and divorced a couple of times and maybe do a stint in jail before I went to an MFA program. So I sent him a picture of me dangling from a rope over a bridge — bungee jumping — like a literal depiction, I guess, of The Fool on the Tarot card — and Jim was so tickled by this that he let me into the program.
I hadn’t written a lot before UNC-G. Maybe four stories in all. Every story that I wrote for workshop at UNC-G, I would think: Am I allowed to do this? Will this work? I think the first of those stories was “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back.” I’d applied to UNC-G because I hoped it would be okay to write weird stuff there (Fred Chappell taught there and I knew his fantastic Lovecraftian story “The Adder” and Orson Scott Card had gone for a little while, so there was at least a tinge of genre.) But yes, everyone else wrote realism and then you would turn in these weird gem-like pieces and stories, and I did whatever I was doing. I only wanted to write stories that were, more or less fantasy, science fiction, ghost stories. I couldn’t think of a story that I wanted to tell that didn’t tend in that direction. What UNC-G taught me as a writer was that I loved workshop. I loved hearing people argue about, and take apart, and defend stories — hearing writers talk about language and the architecture of narrative, and what they anticipated in stories, and what surprised them.
When I teach, I always ask my students: What do you read that you love and admire? And what do you read that you love but you don’t know why? What do you read that you love that embarrasses you, just a little? Because all of that is useful to you, especially the things that you love where maybe you don’t understand why you love it — that you love in spite of feeling that other people might not understand or approve.
You’ve been at Clemson for a long time now. I have a couple of questions about that — what do you read and love that is farthest from the kind of fiction that you write? What kind of stories or narratives? (For example: one of my students a while back ago, when I asked, said he read D&D manuals. He’s a poet. Greg Purcell.) And what do you like about teaching? What don’t you like? And do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
KLM: Hmm…what do I love to read that’s furthest from what I write? I guess the easy answer to that would be the sports page. I spend a lot of time every day perusing basketball statistics and the outcome of tennis matches on ESPN.com. My father was a football and baseball coach and sports are pretty deeply ingrained in my system, even though I was never that great an athlete. That probably explains in part why I gave 10-year-old Dewey in Travelers Rest outstanding athletic ability along with his curious existential angst — it was something I always wished I had. You know how people always ask what superpower you would choose if you could? I would choose to be able to drain 30-foot three-pointers at will. Another answer would be that I love big, sprawling, ambitious 19th-century novels — I wish there were a way to write Middlemarch or War and Peace or Germinal today. Some writers try to match the scope, the structure, even the laconic pacing — Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt come to mind as authors who’ve done so successfully — but even The Goldfinch is still a very different novel from Great Expectations or Sentimental Education. I’m reading Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country right now. It’s probably not one of her better books, but the feeling I get when I start reading is something that I really miss in most contemporary literature — the feeling that neither of us, the author or myself, is in any kind of hurry. There’s so much emphasis on getting in an early “hook” now, something dramatic and captivating at the beginning of the story. That’s nice, of course, to be able to draw the reader in from the outset, but it also gives you less room to expand, less opportunity to create something that keeps building and building momentum until the tension becomes almost unbearable — the adrenaline rush is already there from the start a lot of times now. With Travelers Rest, I probably pushed my affinity for the slow burn about as far as I felt I was able to. And yes, I love teaching but I don’t like grading. And despite all the years I’ve spent in the South (including being born in Mississippi), I still don’t feel I know the South well enough to call myself a Southern writer. I mostly stick with the Pacific Northwest.
KL: What a useful conversation this is for me, here in the early throes of novel-writing. I take your point about pacing and scope. One of my favorite novels is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which signals right from the first sentence — “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — that it’s going to be about domestic concerns, but also about the strange accommodations and bargains that everyday life and relationships require. I Capture the Castle isn’t necessarily long, but it feels expansive. In the same way that you feel big, ambitious, contemporary novels don’t quite have the same enveloping appeal as Middlemarch, I will always feel a vague sense of disappointment in how much of contemporary realistic fiction works and instead yearn for strangeness, whether it’s the lurid flourishes of Gothic novels, the worldbuilding of science fiction or fantasy, the irresolution of ghost stories, or the peculiar and elliptical language and structure that you get in Kathryn Davis’s novels.
In other words, there are so many novelistic modes that I do like that I’m finding it very hard to make the most basic decisions about the way to tackle a novel. There are so many appealing options! I’m drawn to all of them! I’ve spent over 10 years now working with novelists as an editor and it’s become increasingly easier for me to see the questions that I can usefully ask a novelist during the revision process. But I can’t do that for myself. What’s revision like for you? Did Travelers Rest go through multiple drafts? Are there alternate ghostly versions (which seems appropriate for this particular book — the writer Howard Waldrop says that every book or story works as a metaphor for the way in which that writer wrote their book, by the way)? Do you save the versions as you go? And finally, I’ve heard any number of novelists say that figuring out how to write one novel doesn’t necessarily help you figure out how to write the next one. That each book is its own set of problems. Has this been true for you?
KLM: I agree that the sense of freedom you experience when starting out on a novel can be daunting. The field seems so wide open, and yet you realize that if you make poor decisions you could be wasting months, even years of your time (and I’ve got a “drawer novel” to prove it). At the same time, the process can feel more restrictive. I found that I had to do some things I normally wouldn’t do in writing short stories — make an outline, for instance, write character sketches in order to try to maintain consistency, especially with characters’ backstories. And yes, each novel feels like a completely different excursion, so that the lessons you learn one time don’t necessarily offer you any assistance the next. But even though Travelers Rest was a much different kind of novel in some ways than the ones I’d written before, I did find that there was a substantial amount of carryover. My previous novel, The Dart League King, employed a rotating third-person POV, and I used the same technique in Travelers, which made things seem more familiar even though the story itself was very strange and difficult to navigate. And regarding your question about multiple drafts, I wouldn’t say that there were a whole lot of drafts but a single draft that kept constantly shifting and flowing and resettling itself into new shapes and formations. Chapters moved around, scenes expanded and contracted, narrative sequences popped up out of nowhere while others disappeared. It was kind of like a pot set at a rolling boil. My editor, Ben George, really put me through my paces on every level, and the novel is much better because of his efforts. Here’s something I’m interested in asking you. First, Get in Trouble is your fourth short story collection — do you see any clear differences between your early stories and the stories in this book? And, now that you’re working on a novel, do you see it as an entirely new endeavor or a simple extension of the ideas you’ve already been working with in your short fiction?
KL: I’m not the best judge of my own stories. There are a couple in Get in Trouble that I like as much as anything that I’ve ever written, and I truly hope that they don’t feel like I’ve been treading water. My Israeli translator, Debbie Eylon, who is much smarter than I am, said that these were harder stories to translate because in the earlier collections, the metaphorical language was more loosely attached to the characters and ideas and descriptions. This time around, she said that it was more of a pain to figure out replacements when there was no exact match in Hebrew for a particular word or phrase, because the relationship of the metaphorical language to the matter of the story was more enchained. She seemed pleased by this, although it meant a lot more work for her. As for the novel, I’m of two minds. With a story, I usually come up with a piece of structure or misdirection that seems difficult to pull off successfully, and most of the fun in writing comes from achieving something that I wasn’t sure how to do before I sat down to do it. For example, I wrote “The Lesson” from the ending backwards for about three or four pages because I was curious about whether or not I did know the ends of my stories before I began — and because it seemed to me that it would change the way I wrote the beginning. With a novel, though, the thing that I would most like to achieve is a long-form narrative that has a conventional and pleasurable shape in which the reader gets to spend a couple of days with interesting people. I have no idea whether or not I can pull that off.
KLM: What do you mean by “writing from the ending backwards for about three or four pages”? I’m fascinated. Please explain.
KL: I wrote the last sentence of the story first, and then the next to last sentence, and so on for as long as I could — maybe I could have done it all the way back, but at a certain point I got really interested in figuring out how it started.
KLM: [Deep, deep sigh.] I can’t even bend my mind around that. I’m not even going to try. It sounds like an impressive thing to be able to do on a level at which I would be completely incapacitated.
KL: Let me ask you a couple more related questions before we wrap this up — you can do both things. Short stories and novels. Are you more drawn to one than the other? When you get an idea, do you know if it’s a short story or a novel idea? And what are you working on at the moment?
KLM: As I get older, I’m increasingly drawn to novels. I like waking up every day and knowing that I’m working on the same thing I was the day before, and it almost makes me sad when I get to the end of a draft. For that reason, I think, my ideas these days tend to take the shape of novels. I almost have to force myself to think in terms of short stories, and I write short stories now, mostly, as a way to fill up the time in between book projects. That said, I still find short stories really satisfying — I just finished one called “Sleigh Bells for the Hayride” that I feel very good about. And I’m not working on anything new as far as novels go — I like to let one thing completely play out before I start on another. One last question for you — do you want to tell us anything about the novel you’re working on, give us readers a sneak peek?
KL: Well, I had been thinking about that particular story for a couple of years and hadn’t figured out any other way to write it. Furthermore, this ending wasn’t a plot driven ending, more of an emotional capstone. And what a persuasive argument to make for the novel. I’ve been married for 15 years now. I’ve lived in the same house for almost a decade. I like the same thing for breakfast every morning, so maybe it will be comfortable to settle into a novel and stay for a while. I’d been wistfully thinking about how science fiction writers in the pulp era used to knock out a novel in a couple of weeks, and wouldn’t that be fun to try? But already I think I’ve spent too much time wrestling with this book. So far it has a bunch of ghosts in it and a high school music room. I badly want to put some haunted houses in it too — not the real kind, but the fake kind that you pay a lot of money to be chased through.
KLM: Haunted houses are fun, real or fake. I guess part of the fascination is with that time in our lives when we can’t tell the difference. I remember going into the haunted house at Disneyland with my sister when we were kids. I saw my dad buy the tickets, but that didn’t convince me I wasn’t about to die. I suppose that was the impulse behind Travelers Rest, too — I wanted to put an average, everyday family in an old, abandoned hotel and see what happened to them. So I hope you find a place to include the haunted houses, and I’ll look forward to reading the book.
Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.
A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”
This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.
I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.
In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:
But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:
My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more. It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.
The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.
The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.
Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.
(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.
Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:
Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:
This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.
Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.
I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.
What’s your reading resolution for 2016?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
It’s been a good year in reading for me.
I finally finished Parade’s End and started reading Middlemarch. The last three novels of Parade’s End I read in a sustained burst of reading, but I’ve been taking Middlemarch very slow, pausing from time to time amidst an increasingly hectic year to read a chapter here or a chapter there as a treat to myself.
I also started reading more Jonathan Edwards. I’d only known his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which I’d read in high school, and I was delighted to discover how much more there was to him. Of particular note, for me, is his essay, “Concerning the Nature of True Virtue.”
Scott Cheshire’s High as the Horses’ Bridles astounded me for several reasons. There are pieces in the book that are just dazzling displays of skill: a child sermonizing before a crowd of thousands in the 1980’s, a tent revival in the 19th century, a richly layered description of a taxi-ride through Queens. There’s a profound and searching look at religion and the loss of religious belief. And there’s just an incredibly beautiful generosity to the book, a warmth to it even in its darker passages.
Probably the most sheer delight I experienced reading a book this year was with Jason Porter’s Why Are You So Sad? It’s a short little book that, despite being an absolutely zany satire, packs a serious emotional punch. And it’s hilarious. I found myself reciting lines to my wife and friends as I read it. And it has one of the best descriptions of a groggy work morning that I’ve read, beginning: “Waking up was like reversing a burial……..”
Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves is just a stunning, stunning book. A huge, ambitious story that spans three generations, unflinchingly explores the deterioration of one character’s mind, and has a main character who goes to my high school (Regis, to which Thomas also went, though we did not overlap). Possibly the most emotionally engaged I’ve been with any book this year.
Vanessa Manko’s The Invention of Exile is a book that powerfully evokes the effects of political paranoia on individuals and families. Though it’s 1930’s anti-Soviet paranoia that strikes Austin Voronkov’s family, Manko’s main characters’ struggles are no less pertinent today.
I read a lot of great military-related books this year. The standouts are Rick Atkinson’s The Long Gray Line and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, both truly remarkable works of non-fiction about Vietnam. Elizabeth Samet’s No Man’s Land is a thoughtful, idiosyncratic, and moving look at the modern American military, how it prepares for war, and its relationship to the rest of America.
I read plenty of great poetry this year (Ted Kooser, Cynthia Huntington, Louise Gluck), but my favorite was Tom Sleigh’s Station Zed, a profound, sometimes uncomfortably incisive book. Sleigh’s essay for Poetry Magazine on the WWI writers Wilfred Owen and David Jones is brilliant, and this book is the proof that he lives up to theoretical challenges he poses in that essay for anybody daring to write about conflict zones. Just as good are the non-war poems. I just finished it, but have been carrying it around with me because I keep needing to go back to reread poems.
Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation is, like all her fiction, weird, hilarious, and brilliant. The consumption of the spectacle of emotional suffering, paranoia over dream contagion, the commodification of charity, a wood-paneled car with termites — what’s not to love?
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This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.
This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.
The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.
Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.
But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”
“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.
Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.
The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.
All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.
White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.
Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.
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It’s been a tough month for New York Times executive editors. Just as Jill Abramson is let go, a harsh, thinly-veiled portrait of Howell Raines pops up in The Transcriptionist, Amy Rowland’s debut novel about a Times-like paper called the Record. Raines, fired in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, makes his fictional character debut as Ralph, an unpopular, Yeats-quoting, panama-hat wearing southerner marked by his self-absorption: “Everything the man writes is a ten-thousand word ode to himself.”
Perhaps a Times writer is already gathering material for a roman à clef about the Abramson drama and preparing to similarly skewer its villains. In the meantime, let us reacquaint ourselves with some past and present examples of the “press novel,” that curious subgenre whose motto could be “All the news unfit to print.”
In Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, William Boot, the guileless author of the “Lush Places” country column, is mistakenly sent to report on a “very promising little war” for Lord Copper’s Beast. When his mission ends in unexpected success, a young man asks him for professional advice. The aspiring reporter has been using his spare time to imagine lurid stories and how he would handle them. “But do you think it’s a good way of training oneself — inventing imaginary news?” he asks William. “None better,” William distractedly replies, more interested in owls hunting “maternal rodents and their furry broods” than in the tenets of good journalism.
A classic bit of Waugh humor, but one that speaks to an affinity between the two very different storytelling modes, the novel and the newspaper, “that daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species,” as Tom Rachman puts it in his press novel, The Imperfectionists.
The press novel spoofs the occasional fictional quality of journalism; its tendency to narrate chaos using certain pat phrases (“embattled” leaders ruling over “restive” regions with “roiling” protests), its fanciful headlines, and comical errors. And yet the inevitable comedy of press novels often masks a certain weariness stemming from the fusty, hard-drinking culture, from declining readership, from men and women burnt out by a long career of telling too many stories in the same way.
The Imperfectionists, about “the joys of trying to put out a non-embarrassing daily with roughly five percent of the [needed] resources,” has fun with its journalists, who are “as touchy as cabaret performers,” and its lax copyeditors (“Sadism Hussein” slips through). However, like the poor basset hound named Schopenhauer who meets his end on the same day the struggling paper does, its dominant mood is melancholic.
In Jim Knipfel’s The Buzzing, the “Kook Beat” reporter Roscoe Baragon’s dogged investigation into an outlandish conspiracy indicates that he may need a break from “doing virtually nothing but phone interviews with insane people.” While the cantankerous veteran’s unhinged quest is awfully amusing, it is also a bit wistful: the last gasp of a certain kind of romanticized reporter, one who learned his craft sifting through financial records in a dumpster rather than in Columbia’s Journalism School.
Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning most clearly exploits the press novel’s comic potential while conveying a sense of enervation. When he is not stockpiling crossword puzzles or wracking his brain to “think of a headline with no more than ten characters for a piece about the dangers of the exaggeratedly indifferentist liturgical tendencies inherent in ecumenicalism,” an editor named John Dyson is trying to cultivate a television career as a cultural commentator: “He would keep the liberal thoughts in his left-hand pocket, he decided, and the provocative ones in his right-hand pocket.”
There are delightfully disastrous television appearances, absurdist press junkets and witty flourishes, but the darkening morning sky under which the novel begins never really lightens. When “poor old Eddy Moulton,” who puts together the nostalgic “In Years Go By” column, dies in the office, his personal effects end up in the trash and he is quickly forgotten by his colleagues who endured his shtick yet never really knew him.
They were like a self-sealing petrol tank; when sections were shot away they closed up automatically and filled the gap, spilling not a drop of the precious communal spirit.
Frayn’s newspaper community is built on interchangeability. Even editing copy is mechanical: “It’s just a matter of checking the facts and the spelling, crossing out the first sentence, and removing any attempts at jokes.”
Which brings us to Rowland’s The Transcriptionist, the latest addition to the press novel genre and whose protagonist Lena is actually mistaken for a machine by some of the reporters who phone in their stories to her. Indeed, the years of copying have made Lena into something of a machine, “a human conduit as the words of others enter through her ears, course through her veins, and drip out unseen through fast-moving fingertips.” Lena presides over the seldom-visited Recording Room of a New York paper called the Record, its color “old opossum or new pumice, the color of newspaper without ink.” The windows haven’t been opened in three years, and in a telling detail, the connection on her transcriber’s phone is clearer when she mutes herself.
As Rowland delves into the alienating effect of being besieged by other people’s words, it is perhaps fitting that her own novel is haunted by literary forbears: Jose Saramago’s questing functionary in All The Names (“The errors of copyists are the least excusable”); George Eliot’s famous passage from Middlemarch about the merciful limits of human sympathy, our deafness to “the roar which lies on the other side of silence”; Italo Calvino’s dictum that the ear, rather than the voice, commands the story; and the spiritual yearning of Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. The feud between Chaucer and his scrivener even comes up during Lena’s adventures.
Amidst this literary parade, the ghost of Bartleby, that “pale young scrivener clerk” with a penchant for maddeningly polite refusals, also lingers. Bartleby the Scrivener is especially relevant not only because of its alienated copyist but also because it concerns precisely those stories which stubbornly resist being told. Melville’s narrator is compelled to attempt to account for his thoroughly “unaccountable” clerk — that is, one who refuses to fulfill his responsibilities and one for whom “no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography.” Even the final explanation for Bartleby’s behavior, which leads to him wasting away in the aptly named Hall of Justice, “The Tombs,” is only a “rumor”; he had apparently been laid off from a traumatizing job at the Dead Letters Office sorting through missive which, “on errands of life…speed to death.” (The Transcriptionist is similarly infused with Thanatos — a walk across Bryant Park, briefly used as a graveyard, occasions a musing over whether “a few shards of anonymous bones still lie beneath the grassy lawn.”)
Lena’s own opaque biographical subject is a woman she reads about in the paper who swam across the moat of the lion enclosure at the Bronx Zoo and let herself be mauled. As the article succinctly, if chillingly, puts it: “The Associated Press reported that the woman had been partly devoured.” Lena recognizes the picture as that of the blind court reporter with whom she had a brief encounter outside the New York Public Library, in full view of its majestic though perfectly harmless lions. Seeking to prevent the woman from being buried anonymously in a potter’s field, find out what drove her to embrace so ghastly a fate, and write her story so that she is not simply “perished, printed, recycled,” Lena investigates the woman, whose job, like her own, involves “listening to other people’s tragedies all day.”
As should be evident from the description, The Transcriptionist hews closer to the insistent lugubriousness of Miss Lonelyhearts than the farce of Scoop, though even Rowland’s saturnine tale pauses every now and then to lampoon longwinded editors and mock a vain, slippery reporter bearing a striking resemblance to Judith Miller.
If there is one flaw it is that the novel, so concerned with hearing, is itself a kind of echo chamber. Motifs are struck and then struck again, until whatever resonance they might have built up gets muted. (To take the pride of leonine references: lions maul a woman whom Lena met outside of a library guarded by lions, which spurs Lena to meditate on her childhood fear of roving mountain lions.) One almost wishes that Rowland let some of the background noise, false starts, and stammers inherent in transcription creep into her novel, which too often states its theme clearly and unequivocally: “Listening doesn’t make us disappear. It just helps us recognize our absurdity, our humanity. It’s what binds us together, as the newspaper binds us and before that Chaucer’s tales and before that Scriptures.”
I prefer an earlier and more ambiguous statement that coyly plays on Prufock’s measuring out his life in coffee spoons. Lena calculates that “thirty thousand newspapers equal a life,” a reckoning that for me at least has transformed a pleasant morning ritual into a daily Memento mori.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
“Oh, March, come right upstairs with me,” beckoned Emily Dickinson. “I have so much to tell.” She liked March: it brings, she wrote, a light like no other time of the year, a color “that science cannot overtake / But human nature feels.” But she also knew the dangers of the life that March’s thaw awakens: when the “snows come hurrying in from the hills” they can flood the banks of that “Brook in your heart” that “nobody knows.”
We don’t know quite what to do with March. We’re excited and frightened by its power and variability. Do we really think that the lion it comes in as can lie down with the lamb it becomes? It seems appropriate that halfway between the month’s two ends, where the lion and lamb meet, are the ides of March, full of Shakespeare’s storms and portents. Julius Caesar, set in middle March, even contains one of each of the month’s mascots: a “surly” lion, strolling unnaturally through Rome, and Brutus, who describes himself as a “lamb / That carries anger as the flint bears fire.”
Oddly, the best-known novels with “March” in their titles have nothing to do with the month: Middlemarch, though it sounds like a synonym for the day of Caesar’s death, refers to a town, not a time. (It’s really a fall book more than anything.) And in 2006, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Geraldine Brooks’s March, about the March girls’ absent father in Little Women, while one of the finalists it beat out, E. L. Doctorow’s The March, already the winner of the NBCC and PEN/Faulkner prizes, is the story of Sherman’s sweep through the South, which took place in the fall, not the spring of 1864.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for a moody month:
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599)
There may be no literary character more famously forewarned than this would-be emperor, who, in his own play, is spoken of far more than he speaks himself and dies halfway through the action, on March 15.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
In the early morning of March 20, a “puny, seven months’ child” named Catherine is born; later that morning her sickly mother, Catherine, dies, and her true love, Heathcliff, dashes his savage brow against a tree in fury and sorrow. Sixteen years later, young Cathy celebrates her birthday with a ramble on the moors, where she meets that same Heathcliff and Brontë’s tightly wound drama turns inward once again.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
On a Friday in March at the stroke of midnight, the widow Copperfield bears a son into “a world not at all excited about his arrival,” thereby beginning — with “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” — Dickens’s favorite of his novels, and his most personal.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
Celebrate the Southern Hemisphere’s autumnal equinox with Captain Nemo, who unfurls a black flag bearing a golden N and claims the Antarctic continent in his name before resuming the undersea peregrinations that are his fate: “Disappear, O radiant orb! Retire beneath this open sea, and let six months of night spread their shadows over my new domains!”
“A Scandal in Bohemia” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
The first Sherlock Holmes story published in The Strand contains perhaps the most memorable day in Holmes’s career, a certain March 21 in which the detective finds himself outwitted by a diminutive opera singer and would-be blackmailer named Irene Adler, or, rather, as she becomes during the day, Mrs. Irene Norton, or, as Holmes begins to refer to her, “the woman.”
The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (1941-45)
With the first stirrings of spring, set sail from Scandia in search of plunder with Red Orm and his restless Vikings on their yearly raids in Bengtsson’s epic, based on the Icelandic sagas but fully modern in its detached good humor.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels grew, a book at a time, into an unplanned epic with each book tied to a season. The first one begins, appropriately, in spring, with Rabbit still young enough to feel the aches of age for the first time.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961)
Binx Bolling’s story is set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which comes late that year, in March, but Binx does his best to avoid the hoo-ha, distracting himself instead by driving along the Gulf Coast with his secretaries and going to the movies, whose “peculiar reality” contrasts with the potent sense of unreality he’s burdened with.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (1970)
Margaret Ann Simon’s twelfth birthday, on March 8, starts out perfect but ends up rotten. Sixth grade (or at least books about sixth grade) would never be the same.
Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed (1976)
The novel’s final page claims it was finished a minute after midnight on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, and it is certainly a book made for Carnival, upending history while never forgetting it in a gleefully anachronistic plot that puts Lincoln and Stowe alongside fugitive slave and poet Raven Quickskill and grant-funded “ethnic dancer” Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara.
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)
To the classic March fictional birthdays above add that of six-year-old Ludo Newman, the precocious hero of DeWitt’s brilliant debut, an intellectual and emotional adventure worthy of comparison with Ludo and his mom’s favorite Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai.
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman (2007)
“The Bethany girls. Easter weekend. 1975.” Two sisters, one fifteen and one nearly twelve, took the bus to Security Square Mall in suburban Baltimore and never came back. Until thirty years later, when one returns in a twisty and character-rich mystery that holds a solution few of its survivors thought they’d live to see.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (2007)
The Kingsolver family chose to begin their “food sabbatical” — a year of living only on what they grew, or close to it — in late March, with the arrival of the first Virginia asparagus. By the following March they were looking forward to reclaiming a few imported luxuries in their diet but were otherwise well fed and gratifyingly educated by the acre that had sustained them.
Image via iowa_spirit_walker/Flickr
This year I read Middlemarch for what I think is the fourth time. (Okay, this time I mostly listened to it on audiobook while at the gym.) Even so, it was still one of the most memorable and influential books I read this year, as it is every time I read it.
I was twenty when I read Middlemarch for the first time, and it changed everything for me. I had never had a single observation about myself or any of my fellow human beings that was as deep and precise as the ones George Eliot delivered with thrilling regularity. The book changed my sense of what was possible, not only in terms of writing — that didn’t really enter into my thinking yet — but in terms of something more important: in terms of life, the trying and difficult business of trying to understand myself and get along with other people.
Middlemarch is famously full of beautiful thoughts about empathy and the quiet kinds of goodness that often go unrecognized in the world — thoughts that are lovely and sharp and not nearly as saccharine as they might sound out of context — but that’s not the aspect of the book I am most impressed by, at least not now (although I do find the novel to be morally inspiring and did especially on my first reading, when I was introduced to a type of ethical thinking that was completely new to my callow young ears).
Perhaps I’ve grown cynical in my thirties. At least, today, I seem to like Eliot best not when she is being good and wise in a general, benevolent way but when she is being shrewd and a little cutting — about an individual character or ironic about some particular absurd and yet all-too-common social tendency. The story of passionate young Dorothea Brooke’s bad marriage to an older clergyman is well and good, but what I keep coming back for aren’t the epic overtones or windswept vistas (not that there are many of those), but the many moments in which Middlemarch reads a lot like a comedy of manners, one that just happens to be both very expansive and very humane.
Take the character of Mr. Brooke, Dorothea’s fatuous, ineffectual and all-too-believable bachelor uncle: Mr. Brooke fancies himself a man of the world and an intellectual; he wishes no ill to anyone but is so lacking in self-awareness that he is mostly ridiculous. Eliot paints this minor character masterfully. We overhear him, at dinner, sententiously informing a companion “that the Reformation either meant something or it did not, that he himself was a Protestant to the core, but that Catholicism was a fact,” and we know just what he is like as a dinner companion. At such moments, we also recognize Eliot’s ear and novelistic skill, something wholly separate from those famously stirring sermonettes about obscure Saint Theresas and squirrels’ hearts beating. Eliot peppers Mr. Brooke’s speeches with “you knows” and tic-like repetitions (“He will be here to dinner,” he tells his niece in characteristic fashion. “He didn’t wait to write more — didn’t wait you know”). Such quirks of speech are so true to life and yet comparatively rare in novels. But it is by such close observation that Eliot manages never reduce Mr. Brooke to a caricature — on the contrary, he is too familiar in his (mostly) harmless ineffectuality.
In any case, those are the types of thing I was most struck by on this particular reading. Below are some bits that I liked so much that I paused the treadmill to make note of them on my phone.
“The great safeguard of society and domestic life is that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”
Of young Will Ladislaw, a dilettante-ish young man confident in his own abilities and taking for granted that things will work out for him: “He held that reliance [on the universe] to be a marker of genius; and certainly it is no mark to the contrary; genius consisting neither in self-conceit nor in humility, but in a power to make or do, not anything in general, but something particular.”
“It is one thing to like defiance, and another to like its consequences.”
Of Fred Vincy, another blithely optimistic young man: “The difficult business of knowing the soul of another is not for a young gentleman, whose consciousness is made up primarily of his own wants.”
Of Lydgate, an intellectually ambitious young doctor: “He gave orders to his tailor for every requisite of perfect dress, without any notion of being extravagant. On the contrary, he would have despised any ostentation of expense; his profession had familiarized him with all the grades of poverty, and he cared much for those who suffered hardships. He would have behaved perfectly at a table where the sauce was served in a jug with the handle off, and he would have remembered nothing about a grand dinner except that a man was there who talked well. But it had never occurred to him that he should live in any other way than what he would have called an ordinary way, with green glasses for hock, and excellent waiting at table. In warming himself on French social theories he had brought away no smell of scorching.”
Will Ladislaw again, who has begun to fall in love with Dorothea, and is unable to spend as much time with her as he would like (due to her husband, Mr. Casaubon): “Will wanted to talk to Dorothea alone, and was impatient of slow circumstance. However slight the terrestrial intercourse between Dante and Beatrice or Petrarch and Laura, time changes the proportion of things, and in later days it is preferable to have fewer sonnets and more conversation.”
Of beautiful Rosamund Vincy: “Certainly small feet and perfectly turned shoulders aid the impression of refined manners, and the right thing said seems quite astonishingly right when it is accompanied with exquisite curves of the lip and eyelid. And Rosamond could say the right thing; for she was clever with that sort of cleverness which catches every tone except the humorous. Happily she never attempted to joke, and this perhaps the was the most decisive mark of her cleverness.”
More on Rosamond: “What she liked to do was to her the right thing, and all her cleverness was directed to getting the means of doing it.”
Now Rosamond and Lydgate, whom she has married and who has just learned that she has gone behind his back to hinder him in a plan to economize (he has bought too many of those well-tailored clothes and green hock glasses, and they are on the verge of bankruptcy). He is angry that she will not help cut back expenses; she is unrepentant: “Lydgate flung himself into a chair, feeling checkmated. What place was there in her mind for a remonstrance to lodge in? He laid down his hat, flung an arm over the back of his chair, and looked down for some moments without speaking. Rosamond had the double purchase over him of insensibility to the point of justice in his reproach, and of sensibility to the undeniable hardships now present in her married life. Although her duplicity in the affair of the house had exceeded what he knew… she had had no consciousness that her action could be called false. We are not obligated to identify our own acts according to a strict classification, any more than the materials of our grocery and clothes. Rosamond felt she was aggrieved, and this is what Lydgate had to recognize.”
Advice to the now-widowed Dorothea from the salty wife of the rector: “You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same name as other people call them by. To be sure, for younger sons and women who have no money, it is a sort of provision to go mad: they are taken care of then. But you must not run into that.”
Of Rosamond, Ladislaw, with whom she is carrying on a flirtation, and Dorothea, whom he still loves: “she [Rosamond] secretly cherished the belief that he had, or would necessarily come to have, much more admiration for herself; Rosamond being one of those women who lives much in the idea that each man they meet would have preferred them if the preference had not been hopeless.”
Rosamond’s thinking about Ladislaw: “He would have made, she thought, a much more suitable husband for her than she found in Lydgate. No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due the conditions of marriage, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband; but the easy conception of an unreal Better had a sentimental charm which diverted her ennui.”
“There is a pale shade of bribery which is sometimes called prosperity.”
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Having made four British friends, this year I decided to devote myself to the fiction of the sceptered isle. I read Middlemarch (totally awesome), David Copperfield (pretty dang awesome), and Pride as well as Prejudice (plain awesome). I was reared in 19th Century Russian literature and then the literature of American Jews (Roth, Bellow, etc.) and I always had difficulty with the relative lack of emotion in English lit. I developed several strategies to make my reading easier. First, I would insert some hot Russian emotion into the chilly scenes by hand. So if a character is carrying on some abstruse conversation about standing for parliament or whatever, I would interrupt it in my mind with: “And then Casaubon Casaubonovich threw himself around her neck and cried violently.” Problem solved. Then I decided to Yiddishize some of the writing to make it more haimish. Take for example the first line of David Copperstein: “Whether I shall turn out to be the mensch of my own life, or whether that station will be held by some other putz, this spiel must show.” Or: “Miss Brooke had the kind of punim which seems to be thrown into relief by her shmatas.” Once you mentally add a dollop of sour cream and a tablespoon of schmaltz to 19th Century British literature, you will find it tastes as good as anything in the Western canon. Mr. Darcyvich never had it so good.
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Samuel Richardson’s 1747 novel Clarissa is a famously long book. At 1,499 pages, My Penguin Classics edition resembles the phone book of a medium-sized city. Next to it, War and Peace looks positively spry. Moreover, War and Peace has Napoleon and the siege of Moscow, to say nothing of Prince Andrei and Pierre and Natasha. Clarissa’s plot covers exactly four points: “How Clarissa, in resisting parental pressure to marry a loathsome man for his money, falls prey to Lovelace, is raped and dies…” reads the text on the back jacket.
I was in my early twenties when I read the book for the first time. It was the late 1990s, and I had moved to New York after college. I worked as a reporter for a financial newsletter and lived in a tiny, purple-painted studio in the East Village. I don’t remember how many evenings and weekends I spent devouring the book, but my memory is that I was in a state of absorption the whole time, going through the motions of my job, but alive mostly when I was at home or on the subway with the book in my hands. While reading, I turned again and again to that paltry, unpromising jacket synopsis, certain that the person who wrote it must be not only something of a killjoy but also an exceedingly poor reader, confused about the very events of the book. Lovelace, with all his good qualities, with all his charisma, wouldn’t really rape Clarissa, would he? And Clarissa couldn’t actually die at the end. No way.
I was seduced not only by the novel’s plot (which could easily have devolved into melodrama) but by the intelligence of Richardson’s voice — the relentless, dialectical thoroughness with which it plumbs the characters’ shifting psychological states. Watching Clarissa and Lovelace come together and pull apart, misread, disappoint, under- and overestimate each other is fascinating. Clarissa is perhaps the first great psychological novel, in any language. It is also deeply moral. Clarissa, like various Austen and Eliot heroines, embodies Kant’s dictum that to be truly good, one must be not warm-hearted but rational. She assiduously evaluates her actions by the light of the imperative to do only what is justifiable from the perspective of an impartial third party. Her virtue, much heralded within the novel, is not of the narrow-minded or sanctimonious sort. It’s far more impressive, even to a skeptical modern reader.
I was so impressed that for years after I read the book, I identified as a Richardsonian. This was no small thing for me. I was at a point in my life where my job seemed completely separate from who I really was or wanted to be. I had aspirations of writing a novel, but my attempts to do so had all inspired the opposite of confidence (a trend that would persist for many more years). For me, reading novels was not only a central preoccupation but the primary way I exercised my intelligence. Matters of taste meant a lot; to a large degree, I defined myself by them.
In practice, becoming a Richardsonian boiled down to a couple of things: searching for a copy of his then out-of-print Sir Charles Grandison and looking slightingly on those who preferred the picaresque comedies of Henry Fielding. Fielding was Richardson’s contemporary and his rival. In 1741, Fielding wrote a parody of Richardson’s Pamela. In Richardson’s novel, Pamela is a paragon of virtue, a young maid lustily pursued by her employer who heroically resists his immoral advances. In Fielding’s book — called Shamela — she’s a scheming social climber who declines to become her employer’s mistress because she hopes holding out will win her the brass ring (as it were): marriage to a wealthy man.
There was little love between Richardson and Fielding in their day, and there remains today a divide between their fans. Nor is this debate quite as arcane as it may at first sound to those who aren’t actively interested in 18th-Century British male novelists. The Richardson vs. Fielding question is commonly used as a shorthand to talk about two distinct and ostensibly competing types of novels. Richardson represents the traditional realist novel with its emphasis on characters’ inner lives; Fielding’s exuberant, wide-ranging yarns are often seen as a precursor of the more formally inventive Modernist and post-Modernist novels. Richardsonians tend to see novels in the Fielding tradition as juvenile — full of showy gamesmanship but lacking in deeper meaning or seriousness, especially about character. Fielding’s devotees meanwhile see Richardson as long-winded and humorless, a moralizing, didactic prig; the novels in his line are complacent and limited, implicitly (or explicitly) bourgeois.
For years, this schema sounded pretty much right to me. I’d read Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones. I’d even enjoyed it. The book tells the story of Jones, an infant foundling taken in and lovingly raised by a rich man, named (in the allegorical manner of the age) Mr. Allworthy. A jealous rival contrives to ruin Jones in Mr. Allworthy’s eyes and separate him from his one true love, the beautiful Sophia Western. Cast out, Jones goes traipsing across England, precipitating a series of baldly comic misadventures among robbers, recluses, revolutionaries, and — yes — gypsies. Along the way, Jones consoles himself for the loss of Sophia by engaging an assortment of ladies in various farcical sexcapades. Finally, the villain’s treachery is revealed, Jones and Mr. Allworthy are reconciled, and he and Sophia are married. And lest you hate me for the spoiler, I can assure you that from the first few pages of Tom Jones, you just know — from Fielding’s tone — that this is a book in which all will end well, the way you knew when watching Three’s Company that the misunderstanding would be cleared up by the end of the episode. In other words, Tom Jones is a comedy.
I appreciated comedy — in theory. Just as I appreciated the novel’s vitality and color and its aphoristic observations (e.g., “fellows who excel in some little low contemptible art are always certain to despise those who are unacquainted with that art”). I was in principle willing to overlook its contrivance-laden plot and mechanistic love story, in which the libidinous but big-hearted Tom and the angelic Sophia are kept from living perfectly happily together only because of the viciousness, greed, and lust of others.
But on another level I relished Tom Jones’s weaknesses of plot and character development: they were ammunition. And as a Richardsonian, I felt defensive. To be a Richardson person is to be on the side of the squares: the cool kids seem to be off reading Delillo or Pynchon. And whatever one might say about Tom Jones’s flaws, it’s nothing compared to what an ill-intentioned Fielding acolyte can do with Clarissa’s page count, its squeamishness about sex, its didacticism and painstaking, sometimes plodding earnestness. Even Clarissa’s strengths — attention to psychology and to individual consciousnesses, highmindedness, and moral sensitivity — seem not especially literary, at least not to a certain type of reader. The book’s selling points aren’t purely aesthetic. Clarissa is full of observations whose power depends less on their linguistic virtuosity than on their truth — that is, their accuracy in capturing something about the human condition. (This does not exactly impress the kind of readers for whom the word “truth” must only ever be flagged by scare quotes.) Nor is Clarissa in any way political; it touches neither on systems nor on economics. Which means: there goes one way a novel can assert its importance.
There is, of course, a gendered component to this. It’s not that Delillo or Pynchon and other writers said to be in the Fielding vein are exclusively male tastes — I was introduced to Delillo in college by a female friend — but back then it felt to me that the readers who had the most assurance, who took for granted that they were the most sophisticated, the best arbiters, were almost all stringy-haired guys with French cigarettes dangling from their mouths and dog-eared copies of Gravity’s Rainbow on their bedside tables. They were the Angry Young Men that Jonathan Franzen described in his New Yorker essay “Mr. Difficult,” and they had not worried themselves for weeks about Clarissa and Lovelace’s romantic troubles. If they had read Clarissa at all, they were more likely to discourse pompously about its old-fashioned technique — Clarissa is an epistolary novel — or its historical significance (Clarissa was one of the first mega-bestsellers, a huge hit, particularly with women). About the actual content, they seemed dismissive.
In retrospect, I can see that these young men had their own reasons to feel insecure: If the realist psychological novel is the less avant-garde taste, it is also the culturally and commercially dominant mode. But because at the time I felt vulnerable, like the besieged party, I took a keen and in retrospect unseemly pleasure in blows struck against Fielding and his ilk. There was Samuel Johnson, who famously despised Fielding’s work, arguing (the critic Allen Michie tells us) that he created “characters of manners” while Richardson wrote “characters of nature.” (Lest there be any doubt as to which Johnson preferred, this statement clears it up: “Characters of manners are very entertaining; but they are to be understood by a more superficial observer, than characters of nature must divine the rescesses of the human heart.”) I could also feel smug in pointing to contemporary allies, like Franzen, who in “Mr. Difficult” also recounts his move away from post-Modernist indifference, or even hostility, to the pleasures of the traditional realist novel. ([P]ostmodern fiction wasn’t supposed to be about sympathetic characters,” he wrote. “Characters, properly speaking, weren’t even supposed to exist. “[C]haracters were feeble, suspect constructs, like the author himself, like the human soul. Nevertheless, to my shame, I seemed to need them.”) Even the critic James Wood appeared to be on my side, criticizing various post-Modern novels and favorably contrasting Richardson’s “seriousness about human activity” with Fielding’s “rapid, farce-like, overlit simplicity.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Several months ago, I re-read Tom Jones. That is to say, several months ago, I walked around for a couple weeks in a state of rapture, pushing the book on anyone who’d listen.
The merits I’d once granted so patronizingly this time hit me with astounding force. That color! That vitality! Here, for example, is Tom eating dinner: “Three pounds at least of that flesh which formerly had contributed to the composition of an ox was now honoured with becoming part of the individual Mr. Jones.”
One of the characteristics of a great novel is that it is dense with the kind of fresh thought and observation that give the reader pleasure. Whether the pleasure is of the “haha” sort or the “aha” sort is less significant than the sense that the book is packed, that it seems to brim with ideas. (If you doubt this, just take a look at the first several pages of The Great Gatsby and notice how many fresh, smart and varied ideas are contained in those elegant sentences.) In lesser novels, the writer seems almost arrogant, as if he had a few ideas he was so impressed with that he thought they could carry an entire book.
Fielding delivers delightfully pointed observations in abundance. Here he is gleefully pointing up a bit of pompousness. The virtuous Sophia is being lectured by a self-satisfied aunt. Sophia declines to argue. Fielding writes,
“Argue with me, child!” replied the [aunt]. “I do not indeed expect it. I should have seen the world to very little purpose truly if I am to argue with one of your years. I have taken this trouble in order to instruct you. The ancient philosophers, such as Socrates, Alcibiades, and others did not use to argue with their scholars. You are to consider me, child, as Socrates, not asking your opinion, but only informing you mine.” From which last words the reader may possibly imagine that this lady had read no more of the philosophy of Socrates than she had of that of Alcibiades.
When Sophia decides to run away from her father’s house because he and her aunt threaten to make her marry a man who is not Jones, she enlists the help of her maid, a woman named Honour. Sophia and Honour plan to sneak out in the middle of the night with only what they can carry. But as the moment of their elopement nears, “a very stubborn difficulty occurred”–namely, Honour has second thoughts:
When a lady hath once taken a resolution to run to a lover, or to run from him, all obstacles are considered as trifles. But Honour was inspired by no such motives; she had no raptures to expect, nor any terrors to shun; and besides the real value of her clothes, in which consisted a great part of her fortune, she had a capricious fondness for several gowns, and other things; either because they became her, or because they were given to her by such a particular person; because she had bought them lately, or because she had had them long.
This is the kind of detail we expect in a novel that pays close attention to character. It is also smarter than it may seem at first, less of a throwaway. It tells the reader something about Honour, about the tack of her mind, something we won’t forget, and it does so not by sneering at her but simply by listening in on her.
What it tells us is central to Fielding’s project. Where the beautiful and noble Clarissa inspires selfless devotion from all but the most hard-hearted of her servants, the beautiful and noble Sophia has to make do with more ordinary levels of commitment. Not that Honour doesn’t appreciate Sophia’s gentle disposition and generosity. She does—inasmuch as those qualities make Sophia an easier and more pleasant boss. Honour is not hard-hearted, but she is busily going about her own life; in her mind, she isn’t playing a supporting role in Sophia’s story but starring in her own.
Honour isn’t exactly complex — none of the characters in Tom Jones is. Yet the book as a whole feels richly and abundantly peopled in large part because Fielding is so very clear-eyed. For all the gags (girl fights, damsels tied to trees and rescued in the nick of time, intercepted letters, pocketbooks accidentally dropped and luckily found by just the right person), Fielding has a keen eye for social life, for the social organism. Consider an innkeeper, whom everyone in the village believes to be a “very sagacious fellow… [who is] thought to see farther and deeper into things than man in the parish.” Is this because the man’s neighbors are uniquely capable of ferreting out true merit? Probably not, according to the bemused narrator:
[The innkeeper’s] look had contributed not a little to procure him this reputation; for there was in this something wonderfully wise and significant, especially when he had a pipe in his mouth — which, indeed, he seldom was without. His behavior likewise greatly assisted in promoting the opinion of his wisdom. In his deportment, he was solemn, if not sullen and when he spoke, which was seldom, he always delivered himself in a slow voice.
This lack of sentimentality toward the common people makes for humor, yes — but it is no more farcical than George Eliot’s salty observation, in the first chapter of Middlemarch, that “the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”
Fielding gets a lot of mileage from the human tendency to misread — to, say, mistake external trappings for intelligence or principled decisions to act against self-interest for weakness or stupidity. Time and again, Tom and Sophia are misunderstood by people less noble-minded than they are. Sophia, in particular, is accused of liking Tom only for his handsomeness — she is told that there are other, better men out there, that she has a shot of attracting even a titled suitor. Tom is likewise told that there are equally beautiful, equally wealthy women who might not give him so much trouble in the catching as Sophia does. The people who advise Tom and Sophia, who see themselves as wise (and who are often older than the young lovers) generally lack the moral capacity to understand them. These counselors imagine that Tom and Sophia’s claims of great and disinterested love are as hollow as such claims would be if they themselves made them. Watching Tom and Sophia get lectured at by a parade of self-satisfied boobs makes for good comedy — but it’s not slapstick. It is a way of acknowledging absurdity, laughter as a sardonic response to life’s inevitable humiliations and iniquities.
Nor is this passage slapstick. It comes fairly early on, when Tom, not yet sent away, is wandering drunkenly around Mr. Allworthy’s grounds. He runs into an old flame, a woman he recently found in bed with his tutor. But on this particular evening, she and Jones banter for a few minutes and then, as Fielding daintily puts it, “retire to the thickest part of the grove.” At which this point, Fielding launches into cheerful commentary:
Some of my readers may be inclined to think this event unnatural. However, the fact is true and perhaps may be sufficiently accounted for by suggesting, that Jones probably thought one woman better than none, and Molly as probably imagined two men to be better than one. Besides the before-mentioned motive assigned to the present behavior of Jones, the reader will be likewise pleased to recollect in his favor, that he was not at this time perfect master of that wonderful power of reason, which so well enables grave and wise men to subdue their unruly passions, and to decline any of those prohibited amusements. Wine now had totally subdued that power in Jones…To say the truth, in a court of justice drunkenness must not be an excuse, yet in a court of conscience it is greatly so; and therefore Aristotle who commends the laws of Pittacus, by which drunken men receive double punishment for their crimes, allows there is more of policy than justice in that law. Now, if there are any transgressions pardonable from drunkenness, they are certainly such as Mr. Jones was at present guilty of; on which head I could pour forth a vast profusion of learning, if I imagined it would either entertain my reader or teach him anything more than he knows already.
It’s hard to resist Fielding’s affable urbanity, his drollery and air of bemusement, not to mention his light touch with the classical reference. Yet Fielding is also admonishing us not to condemn reflexively, to be more truly just — more commonsensical.
For all his levity and playfulness, his love of “amours” (the more ribald the better), Fielding is, like Richardson, a writer whose moral consciousness is almost always in evidence. Apart from the exhortations to be better judges — more discriminating, less likely to be deceived by appearances—the book is packed with old-fashioned life lessons, delivered in the form of sermonettes, like this one:
The wise man gratifies every pleasure and every passion [in moderation], while the fool sacrifices all the rest to pall and satiate one. It may be objected that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, not wise in that instance. It may likewise be said, That the wisest men have been in their youth immoderately fond of pleasure. I answer, They were not wise then.
Of course, there are things that Richardson does well that Fielding doesn’t come near. When we read Clarissa, we come to believe in Clarissa and Lovelace far more than we ever believe in Tom or Sophia; we don’t merely root for them the way we root for Cary Elwes and Robin Wright to beat the bad guys and reunite in The Princess Bride. That’s in spite of the fact that Clarissa is excessively — almost impossibly — scrupulous, and Lovelace is, ultimately, a villain. Clarissa and Lovelace come to feel real in large part because the inner workings of their minds are so ingeniously, so convincingly delineated: Clarissa’s complicated machinations, for example, as she balances her attraction to good-looking, intelligent and gallant Lovelace against her aversion for what she correctly suspects is also part of his character (untempered vanity, a capacity for deception that is, in fact, revolting). Or Lovelace’s vacillation between his spontaneous admiration for Clarissa and his twisted, doomed desire to win her love without actually treating her very well. (He wants her to love him so much that she will relax her standards — even though the reader can’t help but suspect that if she did he would immediately lose respect for her.) We watch, riveted, as the two of them parry. There are so many moments when it seems that, with all their intelligence and charm and self-possession, they may yet prevent things from going completely awry, but alas…they’re fucked. Fits of pique and pride cause each to do that which brings out the worst in the other. And then there’s the end. The end! I won’t say much beyond what’s on the back jacket. All I’ll say is that it’s haunting.
I don’t think anyone has ever been haunted by Tom Jones. Delighted, for sure, but not haunted. Does that mean that Clarissa is a better book? I’m surprised to find that I’m not sure anymore.
What doesn’t surprise me is that I much preferred Richardson when I was in my early 20s. If guys like Franzen, with their early love of difficult texts, were angry young men, I was what might be called a melancholic young woman. As much time as I spent reading and thinking about novels, I also spent a lot of time brooding about my personal life, specifically about boyfriends and ex-boyfriends and would-be boyfriends. I devoted as much ingenuity as I had at my disposal to the project of figuring out these slippery characters, trying to get a handle on who they were and make sense of their behavior. How could this one be so sensitive about art and politics and such a dick to women? How could that one have fallen for someone so vacuous? I also scrutinized myself — wondering where my overriding concern with relationships came from, what it meant, if it was something I should try to overcome in the name of becoming a better, more fully realized human being. If I turned to novels in part to distract me from these questions, I also turned to them for insight. I hoped they would shed light on what I grappled with. And because certain types of questions, about relationships and psychology and personal ethics, dominated my mental life, they seemed to me like the essential questions, the deepest ones.
These days, when I re-read books I read back and notice the notes I made in the margins, I am often struck by how humorless a reader I was. Rarely did I put a check by a joke — but if an author ever let drop an observation about the nature of love or the effect of solitude on the soul, rest assured that I double underlined it. An alarmingly high number of sentences I singled out for special approbation were proclamations that included the phrase “the human heart.” The truth was that I was so focused on amassing a certain kind of insight that I had very little time or energy to spare for anything else. A book like Tom Jones would naturally have seemed to me to be merely “fun” — by which I meant it was for shallow people who didn’t care so much about what was Really Important.
The reading I did in those years was incredibly meaningful. I don’t know that I will ever read so intensely, so hungrily again, and I did indeed learn a few things from those pronouncements about the human heart. But over the years, something has shifted in the way I read and respond to fiction. Humor has become a higher priority. I’ve become more sensitive to pleasures that are “merely” aesthetic — a well-turned phrase or an apt observation that sheds light into a particular character, even it isn’t of profound or generalizable import, even if it only gets something right about how a young servant would feel about leaving behind her gowns. And apparently I’ve become someone who can’t stop talking about how great Tom Jones is.
But I’m not the only one who has changed, moved toward a more catholic middle ground. Those lovers of Pynchon and Delillo, the angry young men whose sense of their own sophistication so aggravated (and intimidated) me? It turns out that a fair number of them have also moved away from their earlier positions. I don’t just mean Franzen and the re-assessment he described in “Mr. Difficult.” I can think of several men I know who have come to embrace some of the more psychological novels they once eschewed as “domestic” and “trivial” — and “feminine.” The critic William Deresiewicz describes just such a shift in A Jane Austen Education.
I’m in no position to say I told you so. How could I be, when I too have come to see my former position as smug and narrow in its dismissiveness toward books that weren’t exactly the type of books I liked best? My old approach, I see now, meant I undervalued not only Tom Jones, but also a wide range of books that don’t happen to foreground romantic relationships, from Billy Budd to The Trial.
I can no longer call myself a Richardsonian, except in the most promiscuous, non-exclusive sense. But maybe it’s time to stop reveling in this particular distinction. Tom Jones and Clarissa are both excellent books. For this particular reader at least, it’s going to be Richardson and Fielding instead of Richardson or Fielding. And who knows? Maybe one of these days, I’ll even give Gravity’s Rainbow another shot.
In a normal year, I usually find only one or two books that I truly love, that I know I’ll continue to cherish, reread and constantly press on others. But this year the list of those books was happily quite long. Here’s a sample:
I greatly admired Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s court, and I’m delighted to say that her follow-up, Bring up the Bodies is even better. It’s hard to find new praise to heap on these books after the amazing reviews and the second Booker prize, so I will merely say: it’s all true. Thomas Cromwell is a hypnotic figure, and Mantel is as magnificent at conjuring the twists of his psyche as she as at bringing his world to life. You know an author is talented when they can make five-hundred-year-old currency reform feel like life or death.
I’ve received many wonderful book recommendations this year, but I think my favorite might be the one from the booksellers at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath — because they were the ones who told me about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The novel follows Billy Lynn, an American soldier in Iraq, caught on film by an embedded reporter in some wartime heroics. He and his unit are shipped back to America for a PR-filled victory tour. Ben Fountain depicts this disorienting experience with eloquence, empathy, humor, and a piercing understanding of America’s conflicted ideals.
At the time of this writing, I am technically only three quarters through Junot Díaz’s new book of short stories, This is How You Lose Her, but I already know it’s one of my favorites. Díaz’s writing is vivid, surprising, and viscerally engaging — just like his characters. Several of the stories are centered around Yunior, the narrator of Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I am glad for the chance to return to his — both Yunior’s and Díaz’s — elegiac and compelling company.
Though this book can hardly be called new, I couldn’t close without mentioning George Eliot’s Middlemarch. After years of having this book recommended to me, I finally decided to read it and found it as brilliant as everyone says. Eliot’s understanding of human quirks and follies is pitch-perfect: she lays us bare with humor and scalpel-insight, but not without empathy.
Here’s hoping for a 2013 filled with great books!
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
The title of Joseph Epstein’s Essays in Biography is a bit misleading. Most of these pieces are not really essays, at least not in the rarefied Montaignean or Emersonian sense, but rather book reviews, usually of biographies or collections of letters. Being an occasional reviewer of books myself, I mean not to cast aspersions upon what is frequently thankless, almost always ill-paid work. I do not begrudge anyone the chance to slap old verdicts between hard or softcovers and run a kind of Fleet Street victory lap.
In my experience, collections like these make for great reading. Few books have given me more enjoyment than, say, Evelyn Waugh’s Essays, Articles and Reviews or the six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s Essays. Besides, 15 minutes with Middlemarch takes the reader from the Brookes’ table to the Brookes’ library; 15 minutes with Donat Gallagher’s Waugh omnibus takes one from a Santa Claus outside the flagship New York City Macy’s to P.G. Wodehouse’s villa in Le Touquet. Not, as attention spans continue to atrophy, an unworthy consideration.
Essays in Biography, Joseph Epstein’s 23rd book, is no exception to this rule. Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar and a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and The Hudson Review, is an old reviewing hand. This king-sized volume is his fourth (and largest) collection of reviews. An abridged table of contents restricted to subjects whose last names begin with S should give an idea of the present collection’s scope: George Santayana, Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Susan Sontag, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Epstein almost always manages to offer both a witty capsule biography and a judicious estimate of his subject’s merits qua novelist, historian, memoirist, or center-fielder. He tends, however, to be less insightful about the actual books he is reviewing than about their subjects en tout, which might explain (without actually justifying) the Axios Press’s decisions to call these 38 pieces “essays.”
Bound to elicit peals of outrage is the dust jacket’s assertion that Epstein is “the greatest living essayist.” Whether he has earned this accolade is open to question; he certainly does not deserve it on the basis of this collection alone. But Epstein strikes me as being worthier than most. Throughout the five or so decades during which he has been a professional writer, the quality of his output has not decreased, as an hour or two spent with Middle of My Tether (1983) and In a Cardboard Belt! (2007) should make clear. Still: better, I think, to ignore these marketing fudges and just read the book.
Essays in Biography is divided into four not very well thought out sections: “Americans,” “Englishmen,” “Popular Culture,” “And Others.” Here we have a textbook example of faulty parallelism: two nationalities, one cultural demarcation, and one catch-all. There are other problems, too. “Americans,” at nearly 300 pages, is three times as long as any of the other sections. Surely Bohemia-born Erich Heller, who sits beside Solzhenitsyn and Xenophon in “And Others,” was at least as British as his fellow naturalized citizens T.S. Eliot and Isaiah Berlin, who appear here as “Englishmen.” An Englishman, by the way, is “A man who is English by descent, birth, or naturalization; (typically) a man born in England or of English parents;” while George Eliot, filed under “Englishmen,” was simply not a man. These pieces ought to have been arranged along more interesting (and logical) thematic lines or else simply appeared in the order in which Epstein wrote them.
Any attempt to sum up a book like Essays in Biography is bound to read like a balance sheet: approvals on the right-hand column, disapprovals on the left. Of the figures considered here, I would say that Epstein “approves” of some 26. Epstein’s affinities are elective and occasionally eclectic, but rarely eyebrow-raising. He admires George Washington, George Santayana, T.S. Eliot, and Max Beerbohm; was friends with Irving Kristol, John Gross, and Erich Heller; and does not think highly of Henry Luce, Susan Sontag, or Gore Vidal. Readers who remember that Epstein was voted off the island at The American Scholar for being (in his words) “insufficiently correct politically” will not be surprised to learn that my right-left dichotomy above works politically as well. The “heavy bag” of Irving Howe’s “largely false ideas. . . marred much of his criticism and guaranteed the irrelevance of his politics;” Arthur Schlesinger “turns out to be a man on whom everything was lost;” Sontag “had no notion that not literature but self-promotion was her true métier.” The exception to this is his 34-page retrospective on Adlai Stevenson, which originally appeared in Commentary in 1968. Epstein calls the liberal Illinois senator “a fundamentally decent man in a political climate where decency was a rare commodity,” a judgment that this reactionary critic wishes more of his fellows had offered of the late, yeomanly George McGovern.
If Senator Stevenson sees him at his most indulgent, then Saul Bellow, his old racquetball partner, shows Epstein at his most caustic. According to Epstein, Bellow was dishonest, gullible, manipulative, lecherous, and resentful; a betrayer of friends, a holder of grudges, and a chronic changer of his own mind. Moreover:
Despite all the prizes and critical praise, one comes up against the possibility that Saul Bellow wasn’t truly a novelist. He could do extraordinary, even marvelous, things: draw a wondrous cityscape; describe a face at the MRI level of detail; capture the comedy in self-presentations; soar in great lyrical, and even more in intellectual and metaphysical, flights. The problem was that he couldn’t quite seem to land the plane. His endings never quite fit, which is to say, work. He couldn’t do the first, essential thing that novelists with vastly less talent than he know in their bones how to do, which is to construct convincing plots.
Even to a Bellow passionné much of this will ring true. Still, when this piece appeared in the December 2010 issue of The New Criterion, I remember asking myself why Epstein had bothered. After all, in “My Brother Eli,” a short story that had appeared four years earlier in The Hudson Review, he made more or less the same charges against a thinly-disguised Bellow. (He even directed at “Eli” Sandra Hochman’s claim that the author of The Adventures of Augie March “didn’t know a clitoris from a kneecap.”) James Atlas’s reasonably sympathetic biography does not leave one with the impression that Bellow was an especially decent human being. But I do not think that Bellow, in whose life Epstein admits he “was never a central figure,” really deserves the animus Epstein directs at him both here and in such far-flung places as his essays on, respectively, the life of Isaac Rosenfield and the correspondence of V.S. Naipul and Paul Theroux, both of which also appear in the present collection.
Enjoyable as they are, some of Epstein’s shorter pieces do not seem like they belong with others in this collection: the scope of the pieces on John Frederick Nims, Susan Sontag, and George Gershwin is simply too restricted for them to appear alongside, say, his near pamphlet on Henry Luce. The titular conceit at the heart of Essays in Biography also prevents the inclusion of some of Epstein’s best recent work, including “Heavy Sentences,” a hilarious and incisive review-essay from the June 2011 New Criterion that helped set in motion a reissue of Style, F.L. Lucas’s long out-of-print guide to prose composition.
Kingsley Amis, in one of those feats of hilarious contrarianism he was always performing, famously savaged Lolita in The Spectator. The most memorable part of his review is a catalogue of Nabokov’s stylistic tics that appears after a longish quote from the novel: “No extract…could do justice to the sustained din of pun, allusion, neologism, alliteration, cynghanedd, apostrophe, parenthesis, rhetorical question. French, Latin, anent, perchance, would fain, for the nonce — here is style and no mistake.” For Amis, all self-conscious attempts at “style” amount ultimately to nothing more than “a high idiosyncratic noise-level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax and diction.” Amis’s point is, or should be, well-taken. A style that is not the literary expression of an appealing personality — archness alone does not qualify — is simply annoying.
The most common criticism of Epstein I know is made more or less along these lines. He is, some would argue, a great prose stylist but not a very deep thinker, a septuagenarian poseur who has admittedly mastered euphony but whose prose leaves one feeling a bit cold. I have never found this to be the case. Like his mentor A.J. Liebling, Epstein dispenses real wisdom with what looks like insouciance but is really just old-fashioned agility. The most marked characteristic of his prose is a maddening subtlety that allows him to be breezy without sounding flippant, to appear learned without being pedantic, and, most strikingly, to be moral but never moralistic. His personality escapes the page with such force that, having read at least two horizontal feet of his books, one is almost tempted to think of him as a witty, fair-minded, loquacious uncle.
Thank God for Uncle Joe.
At a reading in Cambridge this past fall, Ann Patchett said in passing that she doesn’t believe in acknowledgements. During the question and answer period, I asked her why. She explained that she feels it’s better to thank the important people in your life by giving them a copy of your novel in which you’ve written a personalized inscription. If nothing else, she added, a private inscription saves the author from the possible future embarrassment of having her book forever tagged with the reminder of a friendship that has faded away. But Patchett’s deeper concern seemed to be that the handwritten acknowledgement was more sincere, free of the performative element of a thank you that will be publicly reproduced every time the book is printed.
Inscribing my own copy of Run that evening, Patchett wished me luck in deciding what to do with “this acknowledgement thing” when it comes time for my own novel’s back page in a little over a year. Indeed, what might have once seemed to me like a purely joyous opportunity now seems like a potential minefield, a hazard of etiquette and emotions. It’s so easy to put a foot wrong. What if you omit a key player in a workshop? What if you go on too long and risk looking like someone who couldn’t have managed without an enormous entourage? What if you feature someone prominently in your list and later have a falling out? Perhaps that last one is among the worst, beaten only by the dedication to an eventual ex-spouse.
There was a time when acknowledgements were brief and rare. There was even a time when dedications sufficed. Charlotte Brontë signed Jane Eyre off to Thackeray, plain and simple, while Anne was even sparer, offering no dedication at all to Agnes Gray. One could argue that the sisters’ need to conceal their identity led them to be circumspect in their gratitude. Maybe that’s why someone as confident in his place among men of letters as Wilkie Collins could dedicate The Woman in White to “Bryan Walter Procter from one of his younger brethren in literature who sincerely values his friendship and who gratefully remembers many happy hours spent in his house.” Or why Collins’s friend Dickens could say that Bleak House is “Dedicated, as a remembrance of our friendly union, to my companions in the guild of literature and art.”
Of course, there’s nothing plain and simple about even the most seemingly simple dedication. Collins’s to Procter can be seen as a strategic move to ally himself with someone whose name hardly made it to posterity but who, at the time, held some reputation in Collins’s world. And Brontë’s nod to Thackeray may have been purely reverential but looked to contemporary readers like proof of a romantic connection. Then there’s George Eliot’s lack of any dedication to Middlemarch. Looking at that unaccompanied title page now, it’s tempting to see her direct stride into the novel as a move of extreme confidence in the masterpiece that follows.
Though novels went along for more than a century without them, acknowledgements have now become an expected part of a novel’s presentation—along with the reader’s guide and the about the author page. Which is why I was astonished to turn to the end of Rosamund Lupton’s Sister this summer and find this: “I’m not sure if anyone reads the acknowledgements, but I hope so because without the following people, this novel would never have been written or published.” She’s a first-time author, but still: doesn’t she know? Everyone reads the acknowledgements. In fact, for many of us, the first thing we do when we pull a book off the store shelf is to flip to the back. The writers among us might be searching for the agent or the editor we can query, or we might be seeking our own name in the list. But we certainly read the acknowledgements for the drama and the human story revealed therein. Some acknowledgements are works of art, expressing with finesse and sincerity the gratitude for a supportive surrogate family, a patient and understanding spouse and kids, a best friend who saw the writer through difficulties hinted at sufficiently so that we can glimpse a bit of the author’s life. At their best, acknowledgements can be finely-wrought short stories with the author as protagonist.
At least one acknowledgements has made me cry. What makes Robin Black’s acknowledgements for If I Loved You I Would Tell You This so moving is the simple fact that she hasn’t let up on the rigor of her prose in writing them. The language is just as careful and precise here as it is in the collection. Black’s thanks run to three full pages and have the narrative arc of a story—fitting for the story collection they conclude. She begins typically enough, thanking her agent, her editor, and her publishers, moving on to the various institutions that supported her, and then to individual readers, friends, and colleagues. Finally, she gets serious, taking in turn her mother, her children, and her husband. Some might say this is a bit over the top, but when you reach this point, you realize that the pleasant bath of thanks you’ve been lolling in contains quite serious emotions. It’s almost like eavesdropping, reading these last paragraphs, and I won’t quote them here out of a sense that to do so would be somehow nosy—despite the fact that every single copy of this strong-selling book ends with these words.
When Ann Patchett speaks about acknowledgements, it’s clear that she’s not opposed to expressing gratitude, but is instead against its public expression. If the gratitude is sincere, convey it directly to the person who deserves it; why does the rest of the world need to know? I can see her point. There is nothing so transparent as the message that hitches the writer’s wagon to a more illustrious star. But I hope this doesn’t mean that writers who choose to express their thanks in public, as I am likely to do, are inherently insincere. Because I imagine that by the time I’m in a position to write up my thanks, I will feel a strong need to shout them from the rooftops.
Every book comes with a second narrative, that of its creation. I keep going to those framing pages to see what that other story is. Sometimes, the discovery is unsettling, as with this eerie dedication to Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs: “To Jon Cook, who saw them too.” And sometimes the discovery is sweet. In the step from White Teeth to On Beauty, Zadie Smith reveals a lovely transition in her own life. In 2000, for White Teeth, Smith says she is “also indebted to the bright ideas and sharp eyes of the following people” and includes “Nicholas Laird, fellow idiot savant” among them. By 2005, she dedicates On Beauty to “my dear Laird.” There are no acknowledgements.
Image credit: Editor B/Flickr
“It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that is it fine — something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.”
— George Eliot, Middlemarch
With barely a week left in England after having studied there for nine months, I knew I needed to read something significant to last me through the difficulties of packing and the harsh reality of leaving. I went to the university library and browsed its stacks for the last time. I wanted a long book that was remarkably English, rural, certainly, and preferably a classic. As a reader, I get this type of urge sometimes, at once vague and specific.
I picked up Middlemarch, by George Eliot, which so often gets mentioned as an important book in English Letters. I knew very little about it, except that it was big and written by a woman who wrote under a man’s name. I’d also read somewhere that it was a Victorian pastoral novel in the tradition of realism. Julian Barnes once called it “the greatest English novel”, and if it’s good enough for Julian Barnes…
So, as I began to unmake my life in Bristol — decide which books to bring back with me and which to leave behind, pack my clothes, roll up my posters, throw away the food I hadn’t eaten — I simultaneously delved into my first Eliot and met her protagonist (or one them), Miss Dorothea Brooke. I was rapidly enthralled by the simple marriage plot with which the novel begins, and I hoped that the young, beautiful Miss Brooke would do as she wished and marry the old intellectual Mr. Casaubon. When she did, I realized with her that the match she had fiercely desired was not so great, after all. You often find yourself rooting for the characters to get what they want in these novels, and you are as bitterly disappointed as they are when you find out things did not turn out as you would have wanted them to — or maybe I just empathize too much.
In reading Middlemarch, what I was looking for — beyond the comfort of escapism — was a breath of English air. The England I wanted to see and feel one last time was the one you can glimpse from the window of a passing train, say between London and Bristol: rolling green hills and meandering rivers, pastures speckled with grazing cattle and sheep, and neat fields with ancient trees casting long shadows in the middle of them.
I soon discovered that Middlemarch does not have the descriptive beauty I was expecting. The setting is certainly rural, however: the most wealthy characters are landowners who have to deal with their tenants, the others do business in cattle and horse-trading, and the appeal of London as an urban center is almost non-existent. For instance, when two of the three principal couples go live in London at the end of the novel, it is because the prejudices of the Middlemarchers have become too much to bear. London appears not as a goal or even an escape, but as a kind of punishment. Yet, despite this apparent attraction toward the countryside, the rolling green hills and quiet pastures are merely mentioned in passing, or glimpsed at in the turn of a paragraph, without ever becoming the focus of the narrative. Eliot is more concerned with exploring the intellectual landscape of her characters, rather than the beauty of the changing, English landscape around them.
In Middlemarch, the characters she dwells on with the most interest are Dorothea and Dr Lydgate, who stand out from the other characters as researchers and thinkers. More importantly, they are also the characters in the novel who try to act on their convictions and be useful to society; Dorothea employs her husband’s money to ameliorate the difficult lives of her tenants, while Lydgate hopes to revolutionize the practice of medicine and works in a hospital for the poor. Ironically, it is these two who are forced to live in London, at the end, perhaps because they are too forward thinking for the quiet community of Middlemarch.
By the time I reached chapter 27 (of 86), I realized that my copy of Middlemarch was due back at the library, only two days after I had taken it out. I went back and tried to renew the book, only to learn that my status as a full-time student at the University of Bristol ended that day.
“You can always read it in here,” the librarian offered meekly.
I glanced at the 700-page hardcover on the counter. The prospect of spending my last three days in England reading Middlemarch in the dark, concrete block of the library was not enticing. I walked back down to the main street (Bristol, like Rome, is built on seven hills), and found a perfectly suitable Wordsworth Classics edition of Middlemarch, with an awful cover in The Last Bookshop (where everything is two pounds). I had just given a dozen books away to Oxfam that morning because I didn’t have enough room for them in my luggage. Despite the library having put an end to any real incentive to finish the book before I left, I was still resolved to the turn the last page before my feet were off British soil.
The next day, I packed a light lunch and brought Middlemarch with me to walk from Bristol to Bath (about 14 miles). They’ve paved the old railway that connected the two cities to make a walking and cycling path. Railway tracks get recycled into public pathways, now; in Middlemarch, they aren’t built yet, and exist only in the form of industrial agents who come to plan their route through the fields, to the dismay of the farmers who don’t understand what they want.
Bristol has sprawling suburbs, but eventually the path traverses open fields and even crosses the river Avon (of Shakespeare fame, although this is miles from Stratford), which has a track that runs along it for a few miles. I decided to leave the railway path and follow the river’s slow bends for a bit. It is here that I finally found the bucolic beauty I had been seeking: boat houses on the water, waves of wheat rippling in the wind with dozens of swallows skimming the field’s surface for insects, and crumbling country cottages peeping out from behind the hills. Eventually I spotted an old factory on the other side of the river, built in 1881 (the date was written on the building) — only a decade after Middlemarch was first published. This, all around me, was the England that Eliot had known (although she came from further north, in the Midlands).
It is important to remember that Middlemarch is a historical novel. Written around 1870, the story is set in the time leading up to the Reform Act of 1832, which reconfigured the fabric of English society by significantly enlarging the number of voters, and was also a precursor to other important social and economic changes. So the England I was seeing on my hike that day was also the one Eliot was writing against by focusing on a “simpler” time in her novel — a time when the railroad hadn’t yet come to Middlemarch, or connected Bath to Bristol (in fact, this was done in 1869, the very year Eliot started writing Middlemarch). Eliot was thus bending backward and peering with the powerful lens of her realism into a period of change, which would result in the making of Victorian society, in which she was now living herself.
The origin of the word text and textile is the same, from the Latin verb for “weaving”. I often find myself thinking about this commonality when I read books as long as Middlemarch, which in French are called romans fleuve — literally, “river novels” — because they are so long. Reading Middlemarch is like reading three or four novels, with their plots intricately interlocked in ways that are often unexpected. Its scope is so vast and it encompasses so much action and detail that it actually illustrates how narrative texts work on a mechanical level, how novels can be stripped down to strands of stories, like different colored threads woven together to make a larger pattern. It’s the only way to construct a world that is believable, as Eliot does by building her Middlemarch house by house, character by character, interweaving events to create a pattern that resembles life.
Eliot is also remarkable as a Victorian novelist because her characters are as round as they come. There are no slapstick comics or stock villains here; Eliot provides her characters with complex motives, and challenges them at every corner of their crooked paths, taking and giving freely in order to test their resilience. Even those characters that come closer to villainy only tread on the happiness of others because of their inability to empathize. Thus, Dorothea’s first husband Mr. Casaubon, Dr. Lydgate’s beautiful wife Rosamond, and the rich banker Mr. Bullstrode are all given attention and consideration in order for the reader to understand their motives and even sympathize with them. This attention demonstrates generosity and an acute psychological understanding on Eliot’s part, because it proves that she is able to place herself in the point of view of all her characters.
In my opinion, Eliot combines the best of all of the other major writers that I know of her century. She writes with the emotional acuity and depth of Jane Austen, the social scope and monetary awareness of Dickens, and even something of Thomas Hardy’s careful plot construction and moral ambiguity. While her novel remains a fine example of what Henry James described as the “loose, baggy monsters” of the 19th century, with a large cast of characters and lots of filler between the juicy bits, it is surprisingly even throughout and, at times, gripping. Besides, James probably owes something to Eliot’s seamless psychological descriptions for his own novels, as well as a prototype for the strong and virtuous Isabel Archer in Dorothea Brookes. Well-rooted in the literary ethos of the Victorian era, Eliot’s writing, at least in Middlemarch, stands well above the rest and provides the reader with the best of what that literature has to offer.
Despite my good intentions, and the fact that I was enjoying reading Middlemarch, I simply didn’t have the time to finish it before I left England. I read the last hundred pages back home, in Quebec, on a warm, sunny afternoon at my family cottage. The setting was altogether different from when I had started the novel in grey, drizzly Bristol, but I was happy to have a little piece of Englishness with me to help ease the transition back into my life on this side of the pond.
(Image courtesy the author.)
Is there anything Umberto Eco cannot do? It has been said before and certainly will be said again—Umberto Eco is a true Renaissance man. His contributions to the literary world are as varied as the knotty and layered Theory of Semiotics, and as delightful and nostalgic as The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. His novels are no easy reading, with long raptures on, say, Dulcinian heresy as considered among the Bendictines of the fourteenth century, but his erudition is never for the sake of mere difficulty. Now, with the publication of Confessions of a Young Novelist, he offers readers an effective primer on both his oeuvre and the contemporary field of semiotics.
Confessions of a Young Novelist is a compact but meandering little book—in fact, it was first conceived in 2008 as a lecture series at Emory University, which explains its chatty, unpretentious tone. Akin to a Paris Review interview turned essay, Confessions is both polemic and intensely personal, infused with Eco’s trademark fastidiousness and also bursting with bombasticity. No matter the subject, Eco appears both grandiose and also dedicated to the minutiae. For a public figure and academic, he is delightfully unguarded and frank.
But a man of such wit and linguistic ability does not trap himself so easily as to offer a full confession of literary sins. The term confession, religiously charged as it is, seems particularly apt for a writer so entranced by the constraints of spirituality and religiosity. However, readers hoping to discover the dark underbelly of Italian academia have come to the wrong person and place. Eco’s confessions remain of the amusing variety, far more venial than mortal. Their triviality, however, does not detract from their edification. The fruits of Eco’s semiotic detective work (though perhaps a bit shopworn) are presented so clearly as to become Confessions’s most fascinating revelations.
Confessions is divided into four parts, each of the first three dedicated to a question of literary theory: “Writing from Left to Right,” “Author, Text, and Interpreters,” and “Some Remarks on Fictional Characters”. Although at times erudite, the essays are gloriously uncomplicated—rather uncustomarily, they seek to solve puzzles, not create them. More importantly, Eco appears less like he is presenting a particular theory of reading than presenting a set of common truths. His style is so common-sensical and well-tuned that one cannot help but be swayed by his logic.
“Writing from Left to Right” is a brisk read presented mostly as a rejoinder to the commonly asked question, “How do you write your novels?” In this first essay Eco delves into his personal routines and writing preferences, liberally sprinkling the text with his modus operandi (“In order to enable the story to proceed, the writer must impose some constraints.”) It is entertaining, but light reading. It is in “Author, Text, and Interpreters” that Eco first gives his readers something more meaty to gnaw on. Through a series of anecdotes, all relating to interpretation and misinterpretation of his novels, Eco relays some fundamental truths about how, and why, one interprets a text. The basis of his theory, (which he has outlined many times before and which I also feel verboten to give away) is thought-provoking, but it is his style of relay that most transfixes his reader.
Through “Author, Text, and Interpreters” into “Some Remarks on Fictional Characters” Eco’s observations are astute (“A text is a lazy machine that wants it readers to do part of its job.”) judicious (“It seems that fictional worlds are parasitic on the real world.”) and at times downright funny (“It is always possible to tell when a given interpretation is blatantly wrong, crazy, farfetched.”) It is also in this third essay that Eco’s theories most resonate with a core group of his readers—true bibliophiles. He remarks, “It can happen that, when we enter a very absorbing and captivating narrative world, a textual strategy can provoke something similar to a mystical raptus or a hallucination, and we simply forget we have entered a world that is merely possible.” For a bibliophile the idea of a fictional world being real, and in many senses truer than any community in the physical world, is a cornerstone of their dedication to the craft, but also a source of tension between those “true bibliophiles” and more middlebrow, book club-subscribing common readers. The battle over what we should (and if we should) feel while reading is not one that is likely to be quelled by such a dainty book of essays. But Eco answers the question: why do readers look to fiction for solace? And he does so without resorting to the cheap tricks of self-improvement or positive psychology literature.
The last essay of Confessions, a seeming list of lists called, uninspiringly “My Lists”, seems out of place and unnecessary, as Eco recently published a magnificently rendered text with Rizzoli entitled The Infinity of Lists. In fact, whole sections of his list chapter were lifted straight from The Infinity of Lists (or vice versa). He seems to have included it purely for the delightful, complex language it displays—noble in theory, but unwieldy in practicality. Although “My Lists” encompasses about a third of Confessions, it can be skipped or left for a separate reading.
Infusing all of Confessions of a Young Novelist is an unwarranted but appreciated sense of modesty about his own career. To read Eco’s thoughts is a refreshing break from the often ego-motivated world of the literati. He admits to reading critical analyses of his own works, and unabashedly describes instances in which those analyses prove him errant. He also divulges lapses of his literary memory—Eco just plain forgot about Middlemarch’s Casaubon when creating his own same-named character. And Eco never pretends to rise above the grasping tentacles of jealousy—”Since I became a novelist I have discovered that I am biased. Either I think a new novel is worse than mine and I don’t like it, or I suspect it is better than my novels and I don’t like it.” Also abundant is Eco’s obvious desire for hope and growth in his own writing and the minds of those who critically read it. To that end, he posits in his very first paragraph that he is indeed a young novelist. We know this to be untrue, Eco is currently nearing eighty. But this, his first confession, that despite all his fame and honorifics he feels like an amateur, is what imbues all the pages beyond with such vibrancy and hunger—Eco is just another reader, trying to understand.
Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid…at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question.
If the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time’s Lev Grossman postulated that “the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell’s “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it,” but “a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original.” Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), “One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages…. One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels.”
But if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time’s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin’s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture.
Not so long ago, the phrase “long novel” was no less redundant than “short novel.” The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages – the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda… Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count.
In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There’s nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one’s mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn’t want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I’ve read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn’t Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.
Publishers’ willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney’s may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher’s bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it’s been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency.
To be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it’s roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn’t actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann’s megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let’s not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer… On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They’re expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1191 pp), “It’s so good I had to read it twice.”
For a deeper explanation of the long novel’s enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles” (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, “Look at me!” But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions’ editions of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson’s Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser’s Microscripts.
At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader. In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer’s habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) “dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range.” And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time!
One doesn’t want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that’s a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.
There once was a little girl named Jenny, who lived in Chicago and went to nursery school with a little girl named Sally. Sally’s family moved into the apartment below Jenny’s family, and Jenny’s mother and Sally’s mother were pregnant with the girls’ little brothers at the same time. Sally’s little brother was named Paul, but Jenny always thought of him as “Sally’s little brother,” even after she moved to San Francisco, and grew up, and moved to New York, and became a writer. One evening in the not-so-distant past, Jenny, now the author of many well-regarded books of fiction, turned on the television, and who did she see on the screen but Sally’s little brother! He was an actor, and he was on a television show, and this television show had brought him to Jenny’s living room. Just like that.
Meanwhile, a girl grew up in Los Angeles, reading a lot of books, wanting to be a writer. Okay, okay, it’s me. After graduate school, I moved back to Los Angeles and kept writing. I went to Ohio for a semester to teach, and as the snow fell (and kept falling), I discovered and fell in love with the work of Jennifer Egan. I even wrote Ms. Egan a fan email, something I’d never done before. She actually wrote back. She signed her name “Jenny” and I felt a geeky thrill. Jenny!
On a recent Saturday, back in Los Angeles, I held a writing class, and one of the students looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him–had I seen him at Skylight? On my coffee table was an advance copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad. “Is this out yet?” the student asked, and I explained it wasn’t yet, not until June. “But I’m interviewing her,” I said–bragged, probably. “I am so excited!” I said. “Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers.” The student smiled and just then I realized, Hey, he’s on that TV show. “Jenny’s my sister’s oldest friend,” he said. This was Paul, of course, Sally’s little brother. Just like that, Paul, Jenny and I were connected, and it felt like a tiny miracle.
It also felt like a page from A Visit from the Goon Squad, where characters move in and out of one another’s lives, and where a minor character in one chapter becomes the protagonist in the next. When I met Egan for our aforementioned interview, she told me the story of how she knew Paul, saying that seeing him on TV was “the kind of odd surprise that I was trying to capture here,”–she pointed to her book–“the completely unexpected ways that people encounter and see each other over many years.” We were sitting at a round picnic table outside Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood, where she would be reading that afternoon. I was born and raised in L.A., but I’d never been here before.
A Visit from the Goon Squad has been called a novel-in-stories by many critics, including our very own Sonya Chung, whose perspicacious review describes the book as being “populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them.” It’s the best description of the book’s content one might come by, but I’m not sure about the novel-in-stories label. Although each chapter can stand on its own, and though each differs in tone and form, the book still coalesced whole in my mind, its world burrowing into my imagination, as only novels can do. It was also readable like a novel, even with all of its formal shifts. It’s a novel-of-the-future, maybe, and not just because one chapter is written in PowerPoint.
When I asked Egan about the book’s genre, she said, “It’s so decentralized that it doesn’t quite fit what I think we think of as novels being right now. And I don’t really care about the term. It doesn’t fit into a category comfortably…I didn’t really worry about an arc, because again, that feels more like traditional fiction.” She wanted to put together a book whose principal was diversity, as opposed to unity. “I wanted to see how many tones and moods and technical choices I could get away with.” (For instance: though ultimately unsuccessful, she tried to write a chapter in epic poetry.) Egan’s goal, she said, was to make the book “a big cornucopia of craziness, and yet, have it all fit together into one story. I asked myself: Since the principal was one of surprise and revelation, and intimacy versus distance, my basic question was, Who is the person we see from a distance that we want to have revealed to us?”
This decision to follow various characters at different points was inspired in part by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and, also, The Sopranos. Of the HBO show, she said, “I loved the way there were all these different narratives that intertwined over a long period, and different characters were the main characters at different times. I wanted to play with that, and I felt like I hadn’t seen that very much in novels. I didn’t want the centrality of a conventional novel.” She continued:
Also, one thing that is particular to The Sopranos, is that it’s so much about the chasm between public and private life…there’s a cliché about mob shows, and Tony Soprano is totally a clichéd character in certain ways. And yet, the fun of the show is being thrust into his private life and feeling the weird contrast between those two. That was a lot of what I wanted to do with this book: take people who seem to be clichéd from a distance and break them open, and show all of their nuances and secrets.
Bennie Salazar is definitely one such character: a teenage punk rocker in San Francisco who becomes a successful–and thus jaded–music executive, nursing past humiliations as he sprinkles flakes of pure gold into his coffee. As a consumer of culture, I’ve seen his type before, and yet, drawn by Egan, his history, pain and desires become specific and complex.
I asked her how the Sopranos-approach to storytelling echoed or contrasted with Proust’s, and she told me they were more alike than I might realize, partially because both are such long narratives. There’s a similar “braiding of lives,” she said.
Everyone called The Sopranos novelistic and I really do understand why, because with Proust, similarly, there are people you see at a distance and then suddenly know closely, but then you just see in passing years later, and there’s something very surprising about them that you weren’t expecting. Proust plays with the way in which time itself creates and reveals surprise. That change is surprising, even though it’s so steady, so constant.
If narrative itself is a depiction of time passing (“and then this happened; and then this happened”), one would assume that a narrative about the passage of time would consider the subject through the very mechanism its existence depends upon. Egan does just that. For instance, in “Safari” (and in the final passages of “Goodbye, My Love”), she employs an omniscient third-person point of view that pulls out of the present story to compress time and speed forward. This narrator can tell us about a character’s future–an entire marriage, for instance, or the long term effects of someone’s death on a family–in just a few sentences. The compression of time is heartbreaking in its efficiency, and it’s a formal reflection of the thematic motif of the book. Wow, one thinks, life does pass in a blink of an eye. Egan said she’d always felt “tremendous excitement” when other authors used this point of view. She was also inspired to try it after one afternoon at the library, where she was doing research for another book, about the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1940s. She was reading letters by a woman who had worked there, written to her new husband. “Reading someone’s letters you’re just deeply inside someone’s mind,” she told me.
I thought, “Gosh, I wonder if she’s still alive?” So I went over to the computer…and I sat down and Googled her, and within a second I was reading her obituary. It was so eerie to be sitting there, reading these letters by a woman who didn’t even have children yet, didn’t know what her life would be, full of hopes and plans, and then to read the end, in this kind of cool, news-writing voice. And then I went on, reading her letters, but I had this terrible sense of knowing the end when she didn’t know it. And I think that also interested me. I was interested in how the present feels when you keep pulling someone out of it.
This notion of being pulled out of the present reminded me immediately of internet culture, and the ways in which we require constant connection with the world, even as it yanks from us direct, unmediated experience. (Nowadays, for instance, you can’t go to a concert without someone in front of you taking photos of the band, probably to post on Facebook later that night–maybe you are that someone?) Like Don DeLillo before her, Egan explores the role and power of technology in our lives, but from a more humanistic, character-driven perspective. In Look At Me, fashion model Charlotte, whose face and career are ruined after a car accident, becomes a character-of-herself on a website called Ordinary People, a fictional progenitor of Facebook and Twitter. In The Keep, Danny drags a satellite dish to a Eastern European castle because he must be able to call everyone he knows back in New York City; otherwise, he might be forgotten. In her latest book, Egan imagines a future world where the young tell stories in a narrative genre more befitting their era (“Great Rock and Roll Pauses”–the aforementioned PowerPoint chapter), and where toddlers use hand-held devices with such dexterity that they become the most important and sought-after consumers.
In his review of A Visit from the Goon Squad in the Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote that the this world was “corroded by technology.” I asked Egan if that was the description she would use. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I have concerns about technology—I think we all do—but I’m mostly just interested in it. As a user, I’m less interested in it as I am as a writer. The fetishization of connection itself is something that really fascinates me. Connection in itself essentially means you’re opening yourself up to whatever people want from you. All the time.”
She doesn’t see her vision of the future as a dystopian one, and despite the warnings and concerns in the book, the humanity of her characters persists. It’s telling that these chapters set in the future are so poignant. People can still feel, even if those feelings must be texted: if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?
This is where Egan’s genius lies. She engages with philosophical questions and is formally daring, and yet, and yet!, her work is emotionally moving, the stories and characters always compelling. In his review of The Keep, Madison Smartt Bell said that Egan, “deploys most of the arsenal developed by the metafiction writers of the 1960’s and refined by more recent authors like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace — but she can’t exactly be counted as one of them.” His reason? Her “…unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction.” Perhaps this is what makes Egan a darling among critics and a bestseller.
I asked Egan about her approach to storytelling. How important, I wondered, was emotional engagement?
Without the emotional resonance and some sense of an interesting story, you got nothin’. Really. All the formal experimentation in the world will get you nowhere without that…Ideally, the formal experimentation should not be something you’re imposing on the material but it should grow out of the story you’re telling. And if it doesn’t, the question is, why are you doing it?
The people and what they do and how it feels to the reader are the beginning and the end. I really feel that. Unfortunately, there seems to be an idea that you have to choose one or the other [experimentation or readability]. I don’t quite understand where that came from. If you look at the history of literature, it doesn’t bear out that dichotomy at all.
As time has gone on, I have become interested in telling stories that are more complicated and less streamlined, and so I’m looking for more ways to do that as efficiently and powerfully as I can.
Egan is currently reading 19th-century novels like David Copperfield. She recently read Middlemarch and was “electrified” by the narrative voice. She’s excited by how unconventional these older novels are. “I feel like everyone has amnesia,” she said. “Or maybe we read these books too young and all we remember are the stories and not how they’re told.” She grinned. “But I just love these intervening, busy body, first person-third person 19th century narrators. I feel like I need to think about that for my next book.”
Did she just say, next book? omg. woot.
I can’t wait to read it, Jenny.
Joanna Smith Rakoff hasn’t had a Lillet in at least a year. Or so she says, after I point out that the drink enjoys a small but noteworthy role in her debut novel, A Fortunate Age, about six young Oberlin College graduates in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We’re at Cafe Figaro, a French restaurant with red booths and cloudy mirrors down the block from Skylight Books. In a couple of hours, Rakoff will read there as part of her west coast paperback tour. Until then, she has agreed to share the pâté with me; we’ve already discussed an English professor we’re both still close to.
Let me get this out of the way: I’m proud to be part of the Oberlin Mafia (class of ’02 in the house!) I’m always updating my list of famous alumni–Liz Phair, Ed Helms, and Gary Shteyngart, to name a few–and if I see a car with an Oberlin bumper sticker, I will do a French Connection-style chase to get the driver’s attention. I enjoy telling my husband that my alma mater is way better than his; at the University of Chicago they built the atomic bomb; at Oberlin they built an Environmental Studies Center that runs on human waste. My four years at Oberlin made me the thinker I am today. It was only a matter of time before I read A Fortunate Age.
And yet, I didn’t expect to love the book as much as I did, and its connection to Oberlin was only nominally what I loved about it. For starters, it feels simultaneously contemporary, with its references to Cat Power, and its spot-on descriptions of Brooklyn at the turn of the twenty-first century, and also deliciously old-fashioned, as sprawling as Middlemarch and as readable as The Age of Innocence. Rakoff told me she was highly influenced by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, “the ultimate skewering of the middle class,” and A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell, which takes place on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. It’s one of Rakoff’s favorite novels. “What I love about it is that it’s very much about the cultural mood at the time, but the political goings-on, the historical backdrop, is woven in,” she says. “You see the way the forces of society and culture affect and influence these characters in a way that’s so subtle and wonderful.” Rakoff could very well be talking about her own novel, for it captures perfectly a particular time and place: New York from the late nineties tech boom, to the post-9/11 world of the new century. The characters are shaped by the city and this era, and as readers we pay witness to their evolutions. There’s a keen sense that this isn’t merely a personal drama about marriage, work, and making art, but also a book about what it means to exist in the world today. For instance, one character, Sadie Peregrine, isn’t just a mother of two, she is a mother of two in an increasingly frightening world:
Each day, some fresh horror arose: The train bombings in Madrid. The endless car bombings and suicide bombings in Iraq and Pakistan and Israel and Afghanistan, with their roster of civilian victims (children; always the children). The Vietnam-style rapes and massacres of Iraqi families–and the accompanying photos of the sweet-faced Virginia boys who’d perpetrated them. The kidnappings, all over the Middle East and North Africa, of journalists and contractors and translators. The beheadings–videotaped, aired on television–in Iraq. Everywhere, everything was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Typing this passage, I’m struck by how much darker it is than the opening of the novel, which begins with Lil’s wedding, four years after college graduation, its tone comic, almost jaunty. By the end of the novel, these characters have, without a doubt, reached adulthood, and it isn’t always a smooth transition.
Rakoff’s novel poses a central question: what do you hold onto from your idealistic youth, and what do you shed? In my mind, A Fortunate Age is a Post-Campus Novel: the campus, and what it signifies, has stayed with these characters, long after they’ve left it. For them, college was a time when they could easily devote themselves to art, and remain socially conscious; their passions did not yet have to be negotiated with the sobering realities of the working world. And the characters are cognizant, even occasionally pained by, this shift. In writing A Fortunate Age, Joanna says, “I was thinking a lot about the ways that going to a liberal arts college—specifically Oberlin, but you could say the same for other colleges of its kind, shapes you.” She says:
These colleges are utopian environments, in a way that a lot of these larger universities are not. You are instilled with these wonderful values and a wonderful sense of yourself, particularly if you are in the arts. And then you go out into the world, and it can be crushing. Perhaps more so in New York than everywhere else, but to see how commerce is what drives everything.
Joanna is a fan of the campus novel, particularly David Lodge’s work. She says she wanted to write a contemporary comedy of manners, which is difficult to do nowadays, because, at least in the US, “social mores are all over the place.” She points out that campus novels are so appealing because they’re about a closed society with certain rules. And maybe that’s why, in the world of her book, there’s “a Whartonian element to keeping up socially.” Lil, Sadie, and the others, they’ve got to compromise, and make sacrifices, in order to stay afloat in their world. “It’s indicative of the time period I’m chronicling,” she says.
Because the novel shifts perspective between five of the six characters, we get to see these characters both from the outside, and the in. We also see them through each other’s eyes, which can be both illuminating and alienating–sometimes friends get you, and sometimes, they don’t even come close. As the reader, we get to know these characters quite deeply, but never all at once. After spending a chapter with one, the narrative alights its glance on another, and we don’t return to the original character’s point of view for some time, if at all. This technique requires us to supply the rest of their story. Is Beth happy with Will? Is Dave going to stay in the band? How do they really feel? One can imagine both a negative, and a positive outcome, usually a mingling of both. Joanna tells me this was part of her plan, based in on the structure of The Group by Mary McCarthy, which A Fortunate Age was inspired by:
What I’m trying to do is give you a glimpse of a character—it’s kind of a Modernist project: to give you a glimpse of a character and then allow you to bore into that character’s head. I wanted each character to start off in an almost superficial way—see that character dealing with almost trite, gossipy things…their friends, their dress. As the chapter went on, I wanted to go deeper and deeper into their heads and see what their lives are like.
She is quick to point out, too, that the characters in her novel are affected by Oberlin in a totally different way than McCarthy’s characters are by Vassar. I asked Rakoff about one particular character in the novel, Caitlin, who also graduated from Oberlin with the others, but isn’t a friend of theirs–in fact, you might even describe her as a villain. We are never given access to her point of view. Caitlin wields a holier-than-thou attitude, and is blind to her own hypocritical behavior. “My initial draft of the book was more harsh and satirical with regard to all the characters, not just Caitlin,” Rakoff says. “Later drafts softened them, but not with Caitlin—and it’s not satirical license…I know people just like her. There’s always going to be that person who drinks the Kool-Aid, and it stays in her system. Part of Caitlin’s problem is that she’s so insecure and over confident, and she is trying so hard to be counter-cultural that she’s become dictatorial.”
I smile because I’ve too met people similar to Caitlin, though fewer and fewer with each year away from college. I ask Joanna about the choice to write about people in their twenties. Joanna laughs, and tells me about a friend who tried to convince her not to write the book. Her friend said she didn’t want to read about young people in New York. “I am that person!” she said. For a time, Joanna heeded her advice, until she couldn’t any longer. She wanted to tell this story.
[As a reviewer] I was doing this really heavy volume of reading, and I would get these novels about young women, usually in NY. They were just ridiculous. They were all about buying…Prada shoes, Gucci bags. I don’t know anyone whose life is like that. I don’t know anyone who really lives like this. I kept waiting for that novel to come my way, that was going to be about people I knew, and it never came.
A Fortunate Age isn’t about people I know–not exactly–but the lives explored therein are nevertheless rich and complicated, sometimes absurd, sometimes appalling, sometimes beautiful. It felt true to me. I’m glad Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote this book into existence. I can now add her to my illustrious list of alumni.
“Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row.” When I was sixteen, I think I would have been completely and sublimely happy if that were what a boy loved about me. After J.D. Salinger died a few months ago, I thought about this line from Catcher in the Rye, and began to feel the spectre of Holden Caulfield wandering through my life here in Windhoek, Namibia.
At the risk of sounding like a clueless college sophomore trying to piece together a pathetic seminar thesis, I saw an unlikely connection between Catcher in the Rye and a book I recently finished: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Complete with phonies, small things that men love about women, and the mid-1800s equivalent of bathroom graffiti, Middlemarch is a book that I think Holden would have grudgingly found acceptable. The book is about people who get it and people who don’t; about the tiny, grey decisions that become vast, dark parts of a person; and about people who do and do not fill out the image they have of themselves.
I loved the Brooke sisters: the naïve and lovely Dorothea, who dreams of building affordable housing for serfs and marrying a dour clergyman, along with the practical and pretty Celia, who doesn’t mind asking for her mother’s jewels and marrying her sister’s rejected suitor, Sir James Chettam. I am a sucker for sisters in classics: the Schlegels in Howard’s End, the Brangwens in Women in Love, Delphine and Anastasie in Le Père Goriot, and of course the Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice. But I digress.
Middlemarch bled in to my next book: A Trip to the Stars by Nicholas Christopher. These two books got me through an expat funk that was inevitable as the glow of being abroad has begun to fade. A crop of NGO workers have come and gone, I no longer marvel at the baboons playing with my house alarm, my clients don’t always tell me the truth, and I think I’m getting a beer gut. It’s times like this when books can twist me, turn me, hit me– even more than usual. I feel them deep inside and when I finish the last words on the last page, it feels tragic. I can’t get away from that terrible sadness of finishing a book.
“…sadness of domesticated birds; sadness of finishing a book; sadness of remembering…” — list of sadnesses (Jonathan Safran Foer)
In A Trip to the Stars, all the characters are striking. They are knowledgeable in grand subjects like Latin, spiders, horticulture, constellations, and Atlantis. Mala Revell, the heroine, is lost for years to her lover, Geza Cassiel, while she travels on quiet islands, performs as a telepath, and searches for her lost boy-nephew. Her journey begins when she is working for a New Orleans arachnologist who collects rare spiders. Mala entices one of the spiders to bite her finger after the arachnologist tells her its venom has the effect of “reducing the human soul to its rarest elements, stripping away all that is false, illusory, or fearful.” It is a sometimes corny, mostly lovely book that inspires a desire to be tall, honorable, and fearless.
Especially in Africa, I often long for just such a spider bite, to prompt those of us who don’t belong to engage in an occasional Holden-esque inquiry. To ask why we are here, to strip away all that is false, illusory, or fearful. What am I doing? Why did I come? What happens when I leave?
I left New York for Windhoek in early October, exchanging the end of an Indian summer for the beginning of an African summer. Around January, I began to despair of my lost winter, and I experienced that peculiar disorder in which the current season obliterates the memory – indeed, the existence – of all other seasons. Maybe John Crowley felt the same way when he wrote: “Love is a myth, like summer. In winter, summer is a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.”
I bought Crowley’s Little, Big shortly before I came to Windhoek. After special-ordering it from my local bookstore, I waited patiently for it to arrive, sustained by Harold Bloom’s assurance that it was a book he “regularly reread[s].” The family tree in the introductory pages, the flowery miniature work throughout, and the headings (“Sylvie and Destiny,” “Some Notes About Them,” “Lady with the Alligator Purse,” and “Still Unstolen,” among others) within chapters within books immediately won my heart. But Little, Big was not such an easy conquest, especially for a reader like me who loves devouring books whole and quick. For the first hundred pages or so, I felt the way I feel when I eat a hardboiled egg too fast and I have to stand still, sipping water until the thickness passes through my gullet. I foundered, starting and stopping the book numerous times over the course of three months. Its extended, reproachful presence on the windowsill next to my bed began to undermine my vision of myself as a diligent and avid reader.
Finally, I cut the nonsense and undertook one of my approximately bi-monthly, epic reading nights, in which I stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning finishing a book, then stay awake another hour thinking about the book. (George Eliot’s Middlemarch inspired the last such night.) Little, Big squeezed the sides of my brain and fought me for each page. In one story line, Sophie Drinkwater, a probable descendant of fairies, unknowingly goes for years without sleeping, only to have her sleep finally returned by the child who was once stolen from her and replaced with an ancient baby-like creature who eats coals. That’s a fair interpretation of what it felt like to read and finish the book.
The book truly is little and big at the same time: relationships fated for a hundred years last for one month; the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is resurrected as a New York-based political leader who fights for a kingdom the size of a thumb; Smoky Barnable is instructed to travel by foot, not by bus or train, from New York City to Edgewood – a house that swallows people up in its architectural mishmash – in order to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, another fairy descendant; their son, Auberon, meets a girl with a Destiny in New York, while he writes the story of his fairy-sprinkled family into the plotline of a soap opera. They are all part of a tale that is foretold in a stack of cards. I was often lost in the book’s epic relationships and murky details, in the same way that visitors to Edgewood become lost within its endless corridors and transient doorways. I don’t think I could say what the Tale exactly was, what fairies are, or who won the final battle. This thin veil between knowing and not knowing seemed natural, deliberate, and inevitable with a book whose subtle magic lies in leaving patterns half-obscured and cataclysms unrealized.
Harold Bloom is right. It is a tale that requires multiple readings, whose story lines will alternately disappear, expand, and fluctuate with each return. But I think I will wait to come home from dusty Windhoek, where I first met this book, until I can sit down in the enclosure of a deep American winter to return, by foot, to Little, Big. By then, my endless summer will be a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.
Bonus Link: Celebrating the anniversary of Little, Big
I had a good reading year, mostly because of my favorite book. Seek by Denis Johnson wasn’t my favorite, but it was powerful, and it made me want to get a motorcycle. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis made me want to be smarter. Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch was stimulating in almost every line.
I found an old copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter and couldn’t put it down (except twice when I fell asleep—some bits are dull). It tells the story of a young woman awakening to her father’s and her own radicalism in contemporary South Africa. I thought about Gordimer later when I was reading Amis; Gordimer’s just as stylish as Amis, I think, but she doesn’t play the show-off, at least not here.
For short stories, Floodmarkers by Nic Brown was wonderful: naughty and covert. Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was better than the hype—when does that happen?—riveting and powerfully anti-horseshit.
But my favorite of the year was Middlemarch. I loved it. The story doesn’t stop opening, there’s limitless room for consciousness. Eliot sustains her inquisition, loves gossip, and rewards patience—the perfect novel. Same pleasures as the best of Jane Austen, but with a much bigger payoff. I still think about it all the time.
I took Stendhal’s The Red and the Black along on a recent trip to Paris. It’s only now though that I’m back in Philadelphia that young Julien Sorel has finally arrived in La Ville-Lumiere.It took me awhile to get into the book. I began it hoping for the same pleasures I recently found in Middlemarch, but it quickly became apparently that it’s for different reasons that Stendhal’s classic is still read today. It lacks, or does not even attempt, Eliot’s perspicaciously drawn characters and lyrical insights. Sorel, though by turns beguiling and irritating, is drawn more as a cipher than a real person. Instead, The Red and the Black is a determinedly political novel, engaged in direct and often obscure conversation with the 19th-century French society to which it was submitted.Nevertheless, halfway through, The Red and the Black has me gripped. It is exhilarating to read a novel so urgently engaged with the culture and society of which it’s a part. The Red and the Black feels like an act of revolution, and it is not hard to imagine the discomfiture it must have caused among the King’s court and clergy. At the same time, it is just this potency that gives The Red and the Black the quality of an artifact. It is nearly impossible to imagine a novel having anything approaching Stendhal’s intended effect on contemporary society, French or American. All polemical notes have already been sounded and absorbed and we’re too inured to blush much anymore.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
It sells Middlemarch short to call it a novel of manners, although if viewed from just one angle it is. The novel describes the precisely ordered life of the eponymous village in feudal England, where every resident can be placed on a grid according to his annual income and the quality of his lineage. There are characters with small parts in Middlemarch, but no minor ones, so fully drawn are all of George Eliot’s creations. Principally the story concerns the life of Dorothea Brooke, a young and beautiful women of the upper class whose spiritual discontent leads her astray in marriage. There is also Tertius Lydgate, a cocky and ambitious doctor come lately to town, and Mr. Bulstrode, a new money banker with a mysterious past. Each chases love, money, and respectability in proportion to his needs and finds that the strictures of society, even more than the dictates of his conscience, shape the person he will become.In the middle of all this stands Eliot, whose presence is unmistakable as the energy that makes this fictional world go round. Writing of one character who has just lost his temper, the narrator says, “Will was not without his intentions to be always generous, but our tongues are little triggers which have usually been pulled before general intentions can be brought to bear.” This is typical of the way Eliot annotates, observing wisely on the fraught behavior of men, like the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life who tells George Bailey all about his life. James Wood, in How Fiction Works, called this perspective “authorial omniscience,” and it has the tendency to feel antiquated to us, a relic of a simpler time when the whole world might be understood according to such strict and unvarying codes.There are, in any story, always two competing forces, an individual’s will and social prerogative. When the two are held to be fixed and immovable, you get the best melodramas, like Romeo and Juliet. It’s a simpler class of story, one we respond to but no longer really believe to accurately describe things as they are. On the other end of the spectrum you have today’s conditions of storytelling, where neither individual identity nor the social order have any fixed anchors, resulting in all manner of existential confusion when the two mix together. Middlemarch, however, exists somewhere in between and the result is as pure and exacting as ballet.About halfway through the book, as a husband and wife contemplate the suitability of a young man for their daughter, Eliot writes, “A human being in this aged nation of ours is a very wonderful whole, the slow creation of long interchanging influences.” It is just that interchange of influences that Eliot sketches in Middlemarch and she does so with a fluency for human behavior that is quite often breathtaking. Take for example this small scene, describing the Vicar Farebrother after a brief interview with the eligible Mary Garth:As the Vicar walked to Lowick, any one watching him closely might have seen him twice shrug his shoulders… The Vicar was holding an inward dialogue in which he told himself that there was probably something more between Fred and Mary Garth than the regard of old playfellows, and replied with a question whether that bit of womanhood were not a great deal too choice for that crude young gentleman. The rejoinder to this was the first shrug. Then he laughed at himself for being likely to have felt jealous, as if he had been a man able to marry which, added he, it is as clear as any balance-sheet that I am not. Whereupon followed the second shrug.Here, Eliot is able to slow the world down enough to capture not only that the Vicar would shrug twice, but exactly why he would do it. The resolution with which she is able to observe her characters reminds me of great baseball hitters who see in slow motion what appears to the rest of us to be impossibly fast. Such is Eliot’s ability to dip into the torrent of human experience and master it.As commanding as Eliot’s view is, it is not static. Her central characters – Dorothea, Lydgate and Bulstrode – live contingently, always on the edge of transformation. Throughout the story they come to have a keener understanding of their own desires, a process of self-understanding that occurs through dialogue with other characters and the unerring rebound of the social order. Society itself is fixed (although Eliot does critique feudal landholdings and insincere religiosity) and in this, Middlemarch describes a world that is no longer ours. But the dialectic of her characters is timeless. Dorothea tests her spiritual longing against an unexpected passion. Lydgate wrestles with his professional ambitions matched against a wife who would seem to spoil him at every turn. Bulstrode struggles to reconcile his religiosity with more base urges, a desire for money and a fear of shame. As the characters try and evolve they arrive at inexact and unintended places. But that they do is not an indictment of the rigid social order. It is instead an exposition of human frailty, of our inability to know our own desires let alone to conquer them. Far from just a novel of manners, Middlemarch is a monument to the fraught lives of women and men. It is, quite undeniably, great.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What was the book that started it all for you?Edan: According to my mother, I could read novels before I was potty trained. I’m not contesting that mythology, but the first time I remember being totally enamored with a book was later than that, at about age 8, when my mother bought me Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I’d read and liked other books – The Babysitters Club series, of course, and nearly everything by Judy Blume – but Anne of Green Gables felt more magical, and more mature. It took me to a faraway world, specifically, to Prince Edward Island in the early 20th century, and used big, unfamiliar words (I remember asking my mom what the word “abundance” meant on the ride home from the bookstore – I had a small tingling of fear – or was it excitement? – that this book would be difficult). I loved that the story’s protagonist had carrot red hair, and, even better, freckles like mine! I took to calling people “kindred spirits” and wondering if I could pull of puffed sleeves. I spent the next couple of years reading Montgomery’s entire oeuvre, and I started taping the following warning into my inside book covers:This book is one thingMy fist is anotherYou take thisAnd you’ll get the otherAndrew: During my senior high school year, on an otherwise unremarkable school night, my English teacher – an inspiring educator named Robert Majer – took the entire class out to Zappi’s Pizza, where, on a large screen, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange leapt off of the wall, tossed aside plates of steaming pizza, and grabbed each one of us by the throat, commanding our attention. The next day, in a private moment following a discussion of the film, Mr. Majer brought out his own copy of the novel (we weren’t actually studying the novel in the class) and lent it to me.There had been novels that floored me before (Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye affected me as strongly as it did countless other youths) and in a matter of months I would immerse myself in American masters from Hemingway to Irving, by way of Vonnegut, not to mention all those nineteenth-century Russians. But the singular experience of reading Anthony Burgess, who contorted and then caressed the English language, made a huge impression on me and left me with a feeling that anything could be achieved with language. And that fiction is an expansive and limitless medium.Emily: The book that started it all for me was Little Black, A Pony, by Walter Farley. I, aged three, woke my parents up sobbing with the anguished announcement “I can’t read!” Thanks to my mom and trusty Little Black, I am now an accomplished reader (and a competent horsewoman). While this 1961 children’s book has recently been translated into Navajo and re-illustrated by Baje Whitethorne, Jr., the one I knew and loved had a little very blond and very crew-cutted Hardy Boys looking boy on the cover, and this original edition is still available for about five bucks (including shipping) through Amazon Marketplace. Not for the last time (ehem, cat dissertation), I found myself entranced by the animal’s eye-view.Emre: You pose a difficult question and at best I have 15 different answers. Agatha Christie and Jules Verne were my elementary school darlings, but I really turned the corner summer of junior year in high school with an unexpected choice that is brilliant in its simple collage of people, geography, life, death, love and suffering. I was high on Kemal Tahir’s Yorgun Savascı, which we had read during the school year. My father was quick to seize on my excitement about this novel, which told the story of the resistance against the occupying Allied Powers in post-World War I Istanbul and the budding independence movement in Anatolia. So, my dad casually suggested I leaf through Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country. At the time a copy of Hikmet’s epic rested in our bathroom, atop the laundry machine. (Yes, laundry machines are often found in bathrooms in Turkish homes, to me it was the most normal thing growing up. And, yes, newspapers and assorted literature were always abundant in our domestic restroom.)One evening I took my seat on the porcelain throne and picked up Human Landscapes from My Country – never to put it down. My legs went numb and I forgot where I was as I dug into Hikmet’s verses, which in plain yet moving terms paint a startling picture of Turkey and its people. Starting with a traveler drinking at Haydarpasa, Istanbul’s second primary train station on the Asian side, the 17,000-line epic chronicles landscapes and people, wars and the birth of a nation. Don’t get thrown off by that latter part. Hikmet was a communist who, to the shame of the republic he loved so much, spent 12 years behind bars because of his political beliefs, eventually fleeing to the USSR. Naturally, he inserted his struggles with the republic’s authoritarian tendencies and his time in prison into Human Landscapes from My Country. But the beauty of Hikmet is his humanism, his ultimate love and trust in the brotherhood of all men. The verses reflect his deep-seated belief in people, who appear from all walks of life to provide a perfect landscape of Turkey from the bourgeois to peasants, politicians, factory workers, war veterans, struggling mothers and hopeless romantics. I still pick up Human Landscapes from My Country to reaffirm my own faith in people – it never ceases to make me weep or laugh with sadness and joy.Garth: True story: when I was in second grade, and in my second year of reading “chapter books,” I found a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird in a ballfield dugout after pee-wee league practice one day. That cryptic title haunted me, and when my mother was teaching the book to her high school class a couple of years later, I asked if I could read it, too. She agreed, provided I would promise to read it again when I was in middle school, again in high school, and again in college. It would mean something different to me each time, she said. (Years later, when I attempted Middlemarch, she would extract a similar promise… the difference being that I was actually in college at that point.) I complied with my mom’s wishes, but nothing came close to that very first reading, which may have taken me two months. The possibilities of books (to be complex, to be layered, to communicate things the characters themselves don’t know) had grown by an order of magnitude or so. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, and with apologies to Beverly Cleary (whom I still love): “It was bye-bye, Ramona Quimby… we were airborne.”Max: As a young insomniac, I read myself to sleep each night, and it turned out to be habit forming. My shelves bulged with Beverly Cleary, The Hardy Boys, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I even discretely dipped into The Babysitters Club to see if I could get some intelligence on how the other half lived. (“They’re my sister’s!” I exclaimed to friends if I ever carelessly left a copy in plain sight.) Round about 7th grade I started raiding my parents’ large and haphazardly curated library. There were quite a few false starts, but one day I dipped into John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and never looked back. It made me immediately realize that all the books I had been reading were “kids” books, and opened my eyes, ultimately, to the mind-bending (especially to a 12-year-old) possibilities of fiction. From there I read all of Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and T.C. Boyle, acquired the hobby of haunting local bookshops, and was on my way.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What was the book that started it all for you?
Bookdwarf, who is neither a book nor a dwarf, is the Head Buyer for the independent Harvard Book Store and an inveterate hoarder of galleys and first editions. Her reading interests run across all genres and styles, but her favorites include Haruki Murakami, George Eliot, and Alexander Dumas.I feel like I’ve said “This is the best book I’ve read this year” a lot in 2007. What a great year for books. There are a few new ones as well as a few older ones on my list. First, I’ll get George Eliot’s Middlemarch out of the way. It’s simply one of the best books I’ve ever read. I expect to read this again in a few years and still feel the same, it’s that good. It’s the kind of book where you’re not certain you can make it past the first 100 pages, but what a treat if you do!I loved Danielle Trussoni’s Falling Through the Earth, listed as one of the Top Ten Books of 2006 by the New York Times. A spare memoir about her father’s experiences as a tunnel rat in Vietnam. She seemed to have gotten post traumatic stress syndrome from the war as well.Shalom Auslander wrote another brilliant memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. Dark, scathing, and funny, he writes about his Orthodox Jewish upbringing with a passion I usually reserve for politics.With regard to new fiction, I loved many books this year, but two standouts were Yannick Murphy’s Signed, Mata Hari and Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh. These might be two of the best books you haven’t read yet.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review ofBooks, among others.I’m a big advocate of the test of time – often I’m favorably impressed by a book right when I finish, but in the ensuing weeks and months, when I have a chance to look back through a book and see how it ages in my mind, many books that I once thought were good begin to lose their luster. So, in order that you can attach the proper grains of salt to each pick, I’m going to do my favorites for 2007 in the order in which I read them.Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, the third book I read, reads like a grand old mannered novel that got stuck with a 21st-century premise: there’s a new Biblical Flood, and all that survives is a children’s hospital. The story unfolds as the staff and the tiny patients figure out what God has in store for them. If this sounds overly religious and fantastic, it isn’t – Adrian builds amazingly realistic characters while telling a tale that, although it certainly includes elements of fantasy, should satisfy any devoted realist. Adrian’s an amazing talent, and for more info, read my review of this book.A couple books later I read what might be my very favorite novel of the past few years: Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. This novel simply describes the rooms in a Paris apartment building, but in these descriptions Perec ranges all over the world, telling all kinds of amazing, intricately crafted stories. The whole book is too complex and well-built to ever do justice to in a small paragraph like this – so, please, just read it.At number 15 is The Savage Detectives, another book composed of discreet, story-type units. This book is generally agreed to be Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece (either that or the never-completed 2666), and in it Bolano simply traces the lives of two poet-youths as they and their forgotten generation age. Though the book is innovative and stylistically challenging, it still delivers realistic characters and deep emotion.About ten down we come to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the first book of Proust, both of which I won’t bother to write about as readers probably know about them already, and then at 28 Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass, a wonderful, playful book that one might legitimately say is about “nothing.” Some have said that this is Queneau’s gloss, in novel form, of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but regardless of how you interpret it, this is a plain old joyful read, as Queneau’s prose is continually fresh and entertaining. In my blog, I wrote a little about it.At 36 is Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which made me wish I had read her earlier; Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence follows at 37. Then we get onto some works of criticism: Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, in which he lays out his famous theory of myths and tries to pin down the basic kinds of stories people tell. Though this book is sometimes dense, there’s a lot here, and it certainly changed the way I looked at narratives. A little after that I read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he looks at how works of fiction are built. As erudite as this book is, it’s highly readable; Booth meant this as the definitive book on rhetoric in fiction, and though he tried to bite off more than he (or probably anyone) could chew, this is about as good an attempt as you’re going to get.After that I dipped into a little Spanish, reading Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. The Aira is a subversively funny work about a little boy (or is it girl?) who has a completely crazy experience when his father takes him out for his first taste of ice cream; the Vila-Matas is an un-novel that is composed entirely of footnotes to a book never written about writers who stopped writing. It’s a very clever book that transcends mere cleverness, and for more about Vila-Matas, whom I think is an amazing writer, have a look at my essay on him.After that there was Iris Murdoch’s masterful The Sea, the Sea, which I blogged about. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, the unforgettable Tristram Shandy, Alex Ross’s fine overview of 20th-century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I can’t recommend highly enough), and, most recently, the Renaissance work of 100 stories, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.Though the last was written in the 14th century and may seem a little old and musty, I hope people give it a look. These stories are clinics in how to compose a short work of fiction, and reading them compared to something written by a more contemporary author is as refreshing as listing to a Bach sonata after taking in a symphony by Shostakovich. Moreover, these are just plain fun – Boccaccio’s swipes at the church make you realize that people always have, and always will, have axes to grind with politicians and those in power, and his stories are bawdy enough to make you laugh out loud at his boldness.More from A Year in Reading 2007
The “My First Literary Crush” piece that Slate posted on Tuesday, in which various notable folks discussed the books that they swooned over in their younger years, has generated some great blog posts. Ed, Jenny and Liam (guesting at Old Hag) all wrote about their literary crushes. Before I get to mine, I noticed some entertaining juxtapositions in the Slate piece. In particular, it was interesting to see that George Eliot was a favorite of both Neal Pollack (who loved Middlemarch) and Christopher Hitchens (a fan of The Mill on the Floss).My first literary crushes, in high school, were for Kurt Vonnegut, T.C. Boyle and John Irving. In college, I first read Ernest Hemingway and was quite taken. Feel free to share your literary crushes in the comments.