“How many of you still play with dolls?”
Depending on our moods: We rolled our eyes; we buried our burning faces in our arms; we groaned; we shrieked; we wished to be elsewhere; we were present.
In the exact middle of eighth grade (the season in which cold, gray rain sweeps across Northern California) we heard a speech in euphemism. We (the Marymount plaid-plastered hoard of girls I had been enmeshed in since I was 9, the girls who hugged and cried and tried to cut off one another’s prettiest braids with safety scissors in moments of hideous envy) were eating our lunches at our desks as our principal stood before us. I must have been eating a liverwurst sandwich—I know this because I was crazy about liverwurst for most of that year. Eventually, I learned that this was a bad way to distinguish myself, so I stopped.
Around that time, I began to believe that a woman should tailor her existence so that each detail of herself is optimally alluring. If I saw a woman in a Wes Anderson movie place yellow binoculars on a red desk, I processed this aesthetic choice as a reflection of her worthiness and her ability to be permanently stylish. I thought that if I were able to arrange myself accordingly, some stray ephemeral beauty might drift toward me, too. Then, life would be sunny and warm.
Anyway, the detail of a liverwurst and cheese sandwich has never been used as a symbol of a woman’s alluring, monochromatic essence. This type of sandwich is the mark of a target, of a person whose state of being is not neatly tailored; it is a state of being that reeks of liver breath.
Mrs. Mollan, our principal, was monochromatic in a beige way: She had a sandy blond bob; she wore tan cardigans and straw-colored shoes. She told me once that she’d always wanted to be a librarian or a school teacher. At age 14, this sentiment reminded me of It’s a Wonderful Life and the alternate reality in which Mary Bailey becomes a librarian because she is an old maid. I had this idea that women from a certain time were forced to choose from a slim, creaky list of career paths. Even if they distinguished themselves, I thought, these women were disappointing because they had found success in a field that was dictated to them. I wasn’t sure who dictated what, but I was convinced that choosing between becoming a librarian or a teacher felt like a certain type of cage.
Years later, I thought I might like to either become a teacher or a librarian. When I was 14 I did not understand anything more subtle than a neon sign and I am not unique in that.
Mrs. Mollan said, “My youngest son has always had the same best friend. Last week, they both came over for dinner. I asked my son’s friend if he was dating anyone. He said, ‘I’m seeing this new girl.’ So I said, ‘Well, what is she like? Is she going to bring you home to her parents? Will you bring her home to your parents?’’’
We’d skipped the chapter in our religion book that mentioned sex. I read it anyway; it was really about pregnancy. It described the gift of life alongside a few scenarios featuring girls in trouble. Love applied to God, life applied to babies, and the mechanics belonged to a nothingness that was instinct.
“Do you know what my son’s friend said when I asked him about his girlfriend?” We shook our heads. “He laughed! He said, ‘I would never bring her home to my mother. She’s not that type of girl.’”
Mrs. Mollan said, “Keep playing with dolls. Act your age. You don’t want to be that type of girl. You have 15 minutes left for lunch outside.”
We were released. That was all the sex ed we got.
We stampeded from the classroom. The boys in our class asked us why we’d been kept inside. We said, “Something stupid.” We were children; we were used to being lectured.
Our school was called St. Lawrence and it was long and flat, the type of school that was spread out instead of built up. It was tucked behind a massive church that had a blank white face; a single round, stained glass cyclops eye; and pillars for teeth. The school lolled out behind the church like a stucco tongue.
There was occasional violence here. Strange kids came to St. Lawrence to hurl limes at us. Neighbors from the adjacent apartments threw rocks. We all laughed at whoever was hit. An elderly man nobody knew wandered around the monthly mass in a priest costume, asking children for hugs. When this made the local news, the school banned him. He began standing by an empty storefront three blocks away, dressed as Santa Claus. Though these inconveniences had always existed, always, we were fascinated by them; we thought they were very new.
If we looked long and hard at certain books, we could trace threads of the mechanics. There was a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever… that circulated among us, but Judy Blume was one of my mother’s favorite authors, so I was unimpressed. I reasoned that anything that had once taught my mother about sex was inherently useless. Plus, the protagonist in Forever… is a girl named Katherine who has long blond hair and symmetrical features; she casually travels to New York City alone to obtain birth control; she is wealthy and white. I felt a rabid jealousy. Answers were hard to find.
I found a different book, one that my mother first told me about in heavily curated snippets: Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. When my mother took a trip to Los Angeles, I snuck the book off her shelf and read it on her square, green bed.
At first, this made me feel as grown as I did when my parents let me have a quarter glass of wine at dinner. It didn’t last: The protagonist, a girl named Susie, is sexually assaulted and killed. Reading that book felt like someone in desperate pain was squeezing my hand.
For years, Susie watches her family from heaven. Eventually, she possesses a woman on earth. Susie uses the woman’s body to approach a man she had loved when they were both children. They have exquisitely healing sex that alleviates Susie’s grief. “While he rested, I kissed him across the line of his backbone and blessed each knot of muscle, each mole and blemish.” The violence ends. It was the first time I learned that sex could repair a broken person, like an epoxy.
Soon enough, my mother handed me her copy of Middlesex; this book held my favorite answers. My closest friends and I fell in love with the protagonist, a girl named Calliope. We learned that Calliope is obsessed with hair removal, she prays to be different (as in: the same as everyone else), and she adores a messy redhead whom she calls “the Obscure Object.”
The Obscure Object is as WASPy and privileged as Katherine in Forever… but she is lazier. She wears shoes with the ends stamped down and shuffles in them like slippers (for months, we copied this as if it were a magic formula for beauty, we compromised many sneakers). The Obscure Object sneaks cigarettes all damn day and later on I tried that, too.
Calliope’s parents and teachers are too prudish to teach her about sex, so she learns by guessing. She guesses that her body is out of her control. She prays for her entire self to morph into an avatar of standard girlishness.
Like Calliope, we prayed—at mass, in class each morning, before bed, alone. There were prayers for money, for God to administer cooler clothes; there was “I’ll be good forever if you change my entire face on the count of five.”
Eventually, Calliope realizes that she is intersex. Her body startles her. Her prayers are meaningless. She lies to her family. She learns to withhold. She has frenzied, loving sex with the Obscure Object. Their sex is also an act of guessing.
Even without instruction, we began to learn. We learned that lying and keeping grand secrets might be a sliver of God’s love and gander. Calliope lies her way out of everything until she gets the courage to run away. Lies held mercy. I also wanted to love redheaded girls who smoked too much. I wanted to run off into a dark, grimy otherness. There were a lot of lies to be told.
Nothing changed immediately. At St. Lawrence, we spent hours watching television shows starring ’80s kids with bowl cuts who praised God in order to resist hand-rolled cigarettes. We sat; we waited; we grew. We read semi-contraband books during Sustained Silent Reading. We were a pile of bodies drifting toward the unspoken (always appearing to act our age). We ruined our sneakers by stamping them into slippers and arranged ourselves precisely.
Last week, Greeks and people of Greek descent around the world commemorated the events of October 28, 1940, a day not remembered as a revolution or victory, but a day of saying no—literally. Called “Oxi Day,” the holiday memorializes the fateful moment when Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas curtly said “No” to Mussolini’s plans to invade Greece.
In saying no, Metaxas sent his country to war with Fascist Italy, whose army underestimated the tiny but furious Greek military. The Greeks, exhaustion and embittered by recent defeat, rallied and soon astounded the world and routed the Italians back to Albania—a blow that dealt the Axis its first defeat of World War II. Astonished and inspired, the Allied leaders poured forth encomiums on the Greeks, with Winston Churchill famously saying that henceforth, “We will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks!”
Fiercely proud of this day (and of Churchill’s quote in particular), Greeks around the world hold parades and other formal events. For the first time, this year in Athens an Afghan immigrant was supposed to carry the flag at the front of the Athenian parade—a symbol of the sea change to Greek demography after years of global instability and subsequent waves of migration. However, at the last minute, he was asked to carry the school’s sign, rather than the flag, and most recently, there have been reports that his home was attacked. What should have been a cause to celebrate the Greekest of Greek things—of voyaging out and coming back and going again—has now become an occasion to examine the way the borders of Greekness are violently policed.
Since antiquity, cultures upon cultures have passed through the sieve of Greece, which subsumed them all under a mantel of “Hellene” that’s come to mean so many different things in its three millennia of history. That sieving has never really stopped, certainly not in the last 40 years when Greece became firmly European and, thus, a destination for migrants from Africa, the other Balkan states, and now the Middle East (and Turkey and China, mostly on “golden visas”). At the same time, “ethnic” Greeks have left the country in droves, often unwillingly, to find work.
From this perspective, it seems appropriate that this young Afghan boy should be at the helm of the Oxi Day parade. Yet it was bound to be a flashpoint from the beginning: for decades, Greek nationalists like the fascist Golden Dawn party have fumed at “non-Greeks” carrying the blue-and-white, such as when an Albanian student was given the honor, on account of being top of the class. For these fascists, but also for other Greeks who cling to a unitary, essential Greekness, it is unconscionable that a non-Greek would carry the flag on this Greekest of days. After all, Oxi Day was a triumph of Greekness, as Churchill said.
In saying so, Churchill inadvertently apprehends a paranoia, a simultaneous pride and shame, a yearning placelessness, a paradox that haunts global Greekness, and that perhaps come into focus in the modern mythmaking of Oxi Day. In the literature of the Greek diaspora, particularly the Greek-American diaspora, these forces come into being clearly, and corroborate much of my own experience.
As a queer third-generation Greek-American, I’ve lately felt particularly under the assault of oxi. For one, Australia’s gay marriage plebiscite has dredged up the deeply held but discreet homophobia of some people in the diaspora, a significant portion of which has ties to Australia. That silt thickens the already sludgy waters I’ve waded through my whole life, and, most recently, when I turned to my ancestral Orthodox church for aid in the aftermath of abuse, despite its apathy (or in Russia, outright aggression) toward anyone who isn’t cisgendered and straight. Last month, this apathy became antipathy in Greece when the progressive government simplified the process for trans people to change their legal genders.
This double marginalization puts me beyond an Albanian front of identity politics, where I’m quartered with ever more people who are pushed out by the oxi of an essential Greekness. It adds to the experience of being extraneous that I had growing up. I didn’t have the stereotypical Greek-American childhood—the one that comes with supplemental Greek language school, Greek vacations each summer, and spit-roasted lamb spinning in my backyard on Easter Sundays. So when I went to college (one I picked deliberately because of its Modern Greek language program), I committed myself to making up for lost time, and I immediately joined the Greek American Student’s Association, intent on acquiring the Greekness I didn’t really grow up with
To mark my debut, I signed up to celebrate Oxi Day with all of the other Greek-Americans, most of whom were, unlike me, the full-blooded, fluent-speaking financiers- and physicians-in-the-making that comprise much of the third and fourth generation Greek diaspora. Together, we painted a mural of the Greek flag on the off-campus wall designated for things like that, embellishing it with quotes and taking selfies while the older students and “off-the-boat Greeks” chatted in fluent Greek I couldn’t understand. No matter to us that other eager student groups would paint over this mural by the next day, at the latest. What we were doing nevertheless had the weight of a sacrament, of summoning up and solemnly honoring Greekness itself.
This essentialism—a belief in something like a Platonic form of Greekness—inflects all the received wisdom about who and what is considered Greek. Oxi Day, in particular, operationalizes this idea by turning Metaxas’s rejection of Italy into an outstanding example of an essential Greek spirit—one fatally devoted to the fatherland and to the cultural heritage it generated.
A deeper look at the metaphor finds that the first cause of Greekness itself is the land – and not just the territory of the modern Greek state, but also the ancestral possessions across western Anatolia, the Black Sea, Alexandria, and even as far north as the Danube. Nostalgia for the artificially, aggressively erased Greek presence in these places—for example, the city of Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey)—and bitterness at the blunders that led to it ache through Greek Diaspora literature.
The best example of this tendency is Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, in which the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” is the pretext of the whole story. Calliope/Cal Stephanides’s grandparents (brother and sister) are refugees of the disastrous Greek-Turkish War of the early 1920s, which forced them from their ancestral Anatolian village and straight into the Aegean, where they board a ship as the city of Smyrna burns. Throughout the book, Calliope/Cal comes back to this tale and its implications, and at various points, mentions returning to Anatolia to come full circle, but never does.
More specifically, Cal refers to his intersex gene coming full circle, of wanting “to get it down for good: this rollercoaster ride of a single gene through time.” The synecdoche shows a fundamental split between being a Greek body and being a Greek subject—a symptom of a mythologized essentialism that makes the task of determining one’s Greekness into one of making maps (identities) fit onto territories (bodies).
This synecdoche also shows up in some of David Sedaris’s early work, specifically in the essay, “I Like Guys.” One summer, he travels with his older sister and a gaggle of other young Greek-Americans to a summer camp on a Greek island for “instruction in such topics as folk singing and something called ‘religious prayer and flag.’”
There, he planned to “re-invent” himself and perhaps find a girlfriend, putting paid to his emerging gay desire. In reality, he ended up with constipating anxiety, perhaps on account of the performative masculinity of his male roommates, writing he “never once had a bowel movement” during the month-long trip. He also encounters another emerging queer, Jason, who spites David after a too-close-for-comfort bit of tumbling. Joining forces with the other guys, Jason torments David, and then gets a girlfriend himself, “cured.”
At the surface, it’s just a funny story of a backfired first foray into gay adolescent sex, but to a Greek-American reader, its coded in a way that almost perfectly inverts Greek-American tropes. The summer camp young David attends with his sister in Greece is almost undeniably the “Ionian Village” summer program, which the Greek Orthodox archdiocese administers for Greek-American kids up through age 18. Here, then, is an instance of the Orthodox Church—a de facto steward of ethnic Greekness—processing the pubescent bodies of diaspora Greeks into idealized Hellenic youths, fed and watered with Greece’s own famous sea and summer light.
If that’s its aim, then Ionian Village tends to achieve it, based on what I understand from friends (I never attended). People I know praise it, gushing about how it pulls Greek-American youth together around their shared identity, and I don’t doubt it has influenced more than a handful of alumni to marry one another. In Sedaris’s subversive rewriting of the tale, a queer diaspora Greek body goes to this same place only to awaken an unambiguously homosexual eros that was, prior to the trip, still sealed in the proverbial wine cask like the Aeolian winds. Arriving home, he stares at himself: “I like guys. The words had settled themselves into my features.”
The question lingers: did the trip arouse what it was intended to suppress? So while the Greek Establishment effectively said oxi to young David’s queer-bodied Greekness—in the form of marginalization, unrequited love, and prolonged constipation—at the Ionian Village, in writing his story, he too, says oxi to the Establishment contours of Greekness, writing a new possibility for Greek diaspora identity into discourse.
The ongoing renegotiation of Greekness in these texts plays out in the lived politics of Greekness, too. For most of recorded history, Greek identity was conferred on Greek speakers who lived a Greek way of life, until it became a slur for pagans and pretenders to Roman glory during the 1,000-year era of the Byzantine Empire. After the Fall of Constantinople, it became a collective term for any Christian Ottoman subject. Even in 1923, when the League of Nations brokered the biggest mass population exchange in history between Greece and Turkey, ethnicity was by and large equated with one’s religion.
In the almost 100 years since, this reification along linguistic and religious axes left a legacy that still, today, limits the field of Greekness. Ask any diaspora Greek, and you’ll find that “Greekness” almost automatically implies an inherited knowledge of the Greek language and initiation into the (Greek) Orthodox Church. In light of this history, Greekness was already a complex category of identity whose interstices were aggressively policed with negations and denials—with oxi—well before the modern Greek state came into being in 1830 (for the first of several times up through 1974).
As the diaspora grows, thanks to the hopefully slowing but still severe brain drain from the neoliberal impact-crater of the Greek economy, its members increasingly come under attack as not Greek enough, even though they—and the support they send back to Greece—have been deemed essential to the economic recovery of the country.
Even within the diaspora itself, it’s easy to encounter one arbitrator of authentic Greekness or another, someone who’s eager to say oxi to your claim to a part of your identity you never asked for, but that’s there all the same—one that you might even love. Often these oxis come down to one’s mastery of the notoriously difficult and poorly standardized Greek language, to one’s number and intensity of immediate family or business connections to Greece, and even to one’s genealogical Greekness. Whatever the goalpost may be, it seems to be migrating more often than not.
All the instability and policed permeability of modern Greekness manifest distinctly in Oxi Day. The event that’s today celebrated as a shining moment in Greek history starts to break down with a sober look at the facts of what actually happened in 1940. It’s true that historians mark the event as the first Allied victory for the war, and credit it with averting the German army from an early attack on Russia. In retrospect, then, it’s tempting to read Oxi Day as the day a strategic Iphigenia was sacrificed on a Greek altar. However, at the time, Metaxas’s choice to say no made for a particularly brutal period in Greek history that’s still paying dividends.
While the German army was surprised by the Greek resistance (Adolf Hitler later commended the Greeks for putting up the best fight so far), the Germans eventually broke through the Greek front and ultimately established control over the rocky little country. Installing a puppet government in Athens, the Germans instituted a brutal regime of reprisal killings for extortion, and contributing to the loss of 10 percent of the population by the end of the war—the highest of any state in Europe.
In that sense, Metaxas’s defiant oxi was a Pyrrhic victory, a catastrophic election of principle over expediency whose consequences are still visible in Greek demands for German reparations, which still float to the surface from time to time. Furthermore, it was not the valiant attempt of a good-hearted philosopher-king to shield the embers of democracy from fascism. By most accounts, Metaxas himself was a fascist who admired Mussolini’s strong-man politics and who was also an aspirational führer who seized absolute power over Greece through maneuvers more commonly associated with Hitler himself.
Neither was the Greece he ruled at the time a haven of democracy. First of all it was a monarchy, and had been so (off and on) since its liberation a century earlier, when a Bavarian boy-king became the first head of the new Greek state. The monarchy had recently been restored, and in 1940 symbolically ruled through Metaxas over a crippled Greece still reeling from the loss of ancestral Hellenic territory in 1923.
By 1940, it had become a tiny synthetic nation swollen with Anatolian Greeks who spoke different dialects of Greek, and perhaps no Greek at all—far from the golden Hellenic homeland rhapsodized in the mythology of Oxi Day. What’s more is that he never even said oxi on that morning. Speaking in French, he tersely stated, “Well, we’ll have a war,” and it was only later that outraged citizens began chanting oxi in the streets.
Today, in other streets and other countries, under the essential Greekness that’s paraded on Oxi Day there is a complicated, contradictory identity constantly in a state of panic, an ongoing oxi volley between self and other. While these dynamics don’t do much in the way of distilling an original, essential Greekness, I do think there is something essential to Oxi Day.
It’s not so much an innate Hellenic spirit as it is the mutative mythmaking that’s made it possible for people of all kinds to be able to call themselves Greek across the millennia. The details of Oxi Day congeal into a myth that points to something more than memory or fact. By virtue of this power, myth might be the greatest legacy of the Greeks and the most productive of Greek ruses: it motivates the search for truths, essences, Platonic forms of things like Greekness.
Those searches bear material fruit in the form of art and cultural artifacts, like the complex literature of the Greek diaspora, some of whose writers wrestle in their stories with the myth of Greekness, working out an answer on the queer bodies of characters who identify as Greek differently from how they are supposed to. When confronted with the rubric of mythic Greekness, they respond firmly with oxi, opening up space in the sprawling field of Greekness for another new identity.
In doing so, they show how Greekness’s longevity never came from its essence, rather, from its porousness. This seems poignant, and perhaps emblematic: at the site of ancient Delphi, the omphalos, the “navel of the world,” a wall of oddly shaped polygons, interlocked without any mortar, had endured earthquakes and the erosion of centuries. Almost everything else has been crumbled or carted away to museums, where, for Greeks and non-Greeks alike, they signify the things we used to have, but don’t anymore.
Image Credit: Wikipeda
It’s the (second) most wonderful time of the year: Millions Most Anticipated Great Second-Half Preview time! Below you will find just shy of 80 wonderful books to get you from July to December 2017. We’ve got new titles from big names (Erdrich! Eugenides! Ward! Messud!); we’ve got stellar debuts (Zhang! Clemmons! Rooney! Khong!); we’ve got translated gems (Binet! Szabó! Krasznahorkai!); we’ve even got cross-genre celebrities (Weiner! Hanks! McKibben!).
The Millions Previews — both our semi-annual long lists and our newer monthly offerings — are some of the best things we do at this site. As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote yesterday, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The site has been running for 14 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.
Please enjoy the rich offerings below, come back August 1 for the monthly preview, and prepare yourselves for 2018 (which, according to our agents in the literary field, is going to be a doozie).
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: A retiree has sold his station wagon to buy a lifelike sex doll, his daughter’s come home after running out on her paranoid tech billionaire husband, and another man’s been sexually assaulted by a dolphin. Just so you know what you’re getting into: all of this happened in the first 60 pages of Nutting’s new novel, a darkly comic exploration of familial and romantic love, and how technology warps both. (Read our review.) (Nick M.)
Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam: Klam was one of The New Yorker’s original “20 Under 40” writers in 1999 and published a story collection, Sam the Cat, the next year. And then nothing. For 17 years. Now at last, Klam is publishing his debut novel, about a has-been cartoonist who leaves his family behind to teach at a weeklong arts conference where he rekindles an affair with one of his students, the unhappy wife of a Wall Street titan. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Klam is hilarious. (Michael)
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: The buzz around this debut is more like a roar. Thandi is caught between black and white, America and South Africa. When she loses her mother, she has to try to connect the dislocated pieces of her life. While Clemmons has recently burst to prominence, she has long been doing the work to get there. She teaches literature and creative writing, her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Transition, the Paris Review Daily, she is co-founder of Apogee Journal, and a contributing editor to LitHub.com. The best part? She’s got a two-book deal. (Claire)
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich: Nobel Prize—winner Alexievich is best known stateside for her Voices of Chernobyl, where she documented the stories of survivors of the nuclear disaster, but it’s her first book The Unwomanly Face of War that established her as an oral historian. Alexievich gave voice to the less documented women’s role in WWII by interviewing female gunners, pilots, medical workers, and others. She writes: “Their words and feelings? A whole world is hidden from us. Their war remains unknown…I want to write the history of that war.” First published in English in 1985, this new edition is translated by the renowned Russian duo Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. (Read our interview with her.) (Anne)
My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye: A novel “in the existentialist tradition” that both obscures and exposes xenophobia in contemporary French society, the story of provincial school teachers Nadia and her husband, Ange, is described by the publisher as “surreal, allegorical, and psychologically acute,” and by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “revelatory and devastating.” NDiaye, winner of both the Prix Goncourt and Prix Femina, is the author of 13 works of fiction, seven of which have been translated into English. She also co-wrote the powerful, artful film White Material with Claire Denis. Despite comparisons to Elena Ferrante and Doris Lessing, she is little known in the U.S.; hopefully this will change. (Sonya)
Refuge by Dina Nayeri: Nayeri’s first novel, A Teaspoon of Earth, follows a young girl as she grows up in post-revolutionary Iran and dreams about her sister’s life in America. Refuge, Nayeri’s second novel, also centers on a young Iranian girl, Niloo, but this time the story is flipped: Niloo flees Iran, leaving her father behind, and grows up in Europe. Twenty years later, she’s a sophisticated academic struggling to navigate her connections to her family, a growing community of Iranian refugees, and her adopted homeland. A nuanced look at what it means to seek refuge; novels don’t get more timely than this. (Kaulie)
The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt: Maybe you’ve heard of Hunt’s last novel, Mr. Splitfoot? It’s in our Millions Hall of Fame, and Hunt’s been interviewed for the site. She’s also published in The New Yorker and been reviewed (glowingly) by almost every major publication. Now she’s back with her first collection of short stories and, in true Hunt style, they’re bizarre, beautiful, and haunting. Dead dogs come back to life, women turn into deer, and there’s at least one killer robot; there’s also suburban loneliness and anxiety mixed with a healthy dose of witty humor. What more could you ask for? (Kaulie)
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: In Rooney’s debut novel, former lovers and current best friends Frances and Bobbi are Trinity College students turned spoken word artists who become entangled in the lives of Melissa and Nick, an older married couple with married-people problems. Much has been made of Rooney’s age (she was born in 1991), and her sharp, funny dialogue. Her editor calls her the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” and in its review, The Guardian notes, “Her hyperarticulate characters may fail to communicate their fragile selves, but Rooney does it for them in a voice distinctively her own.” (Edan)
Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco: In this 2013 debut, the Spanish novelist spins a dystopian yarn tracking a young boy’s flight into the wild. There he is confronted by an ancient goat herder bearing wisdom that trust is a hard-won commodity, and once violated, often too fragile to ever be redeemed. Described as “harrowing,” “stark,” “violent,” and “parabolic,” Out in the Open provides a timely and certainly intense meditation on the role trust plays in cultural progress and preservation. A reliably literate, fluid Margaret Jull Costa translation makes for a gripping read. (Il’ja)
A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen: A long essay exploring, of all things, a mime. Wen, a former radio producer, pens this tribute to Marcel Marceau, the “artist of silence,” who in addition to being the most well-known mime in history was also a Holocaust survivor and member of the French Resistance. Kirkus raves “Readers will marvel not only at Marceau, but at the book itself, which displays such command of the material and such perfect pitch.” (Lydia)
The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat: In this hybrid work of memoir-criticism, prolific writer (and Year in Reading alumna) Danticat reflects on the death of her mother, part of a longer meditation on the way that artists cope with death. Michiko Kakutani writes that Danticat “wants to learn how to use language to try to express the inexpressible, to use her art to mourn.” (Lydia)
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Khong, who was an editor at Lucky Peach, brings us a debut novel about a 30-year-old woman who’s moved back home with her parents to help with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Told in short vignettes that span a single year, Goodbye, Vitamin has, according to Justin Taylor, “breathed fresh life into the slacker comedy, the family drama, and the campus novel.” In its starred review, Booklist writes: “In her tender, well-paced debut novel…Khong writes heartbreaking family drama with charm, perfect prose, and deadpan humor.” (Edan)
South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby: Just when you think you’ve seen all the books, along comes a comedy of manners about climate change starring a ragtag team of cultural misfits at the edge of the world. Shelby’s novel grew out of a(n award-winning) short story, but its scope is capacious; in an advance review, Year in Reading alum Robin Sloan says “South Pole Station is a portrait painted with the whole palette―science and politics; art and history; love and frostbite―and all of it crackles with the can’t-make-this-up details of life at the bottom of the world.” (Kirstin)
Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz: 1960s and 70s L.A. party girl and writer extraordinaire Babitz is having a revival. Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company were recently published by NYRB Classics, and now her novel Sex and Rage is being re-issued by Counterpoint. Readers can’t seem to get enough of her writing and it’s hard to imagine literary L.A. without her voice. That’s because Los Angeles is not just a setting in her work, it’s not a character, it’s not a myth, or a lover. It’s love itself. (Zoë)
The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor: Fermor, who died in 2011, is perhaps best known for the books chronicling his youthful tramp across Interwar Europe—drinking and frolicking and picking up a half-dozen languages along the way. Here, in his only novel (originally published in 1953), the action is concentrated on the island of Saint Jacques, whose French aristocracy is in the midst of Mardi Gras revels. A volcano looms over the picturesque town in carnival, an outsized force of nature in this slender work as florid as it is fun. (Matt)
Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen: The latest by the man behind the labyrinthine Book of Numbers kicks off with a situation that’s nothing if not explosive. Two Israeli veterans, Yoav and Uri, decide to spend a year in New York with Yoav’s cousin, a right-wing American patriot who runs a tri-state moving company. In short order, the two get enlisted to work as ruthless eviction-movers, which leads inevitably to one homeowner seeking revenge. (Thom)
A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma: The title of Sharma’s new story collection is apparently ironic—“An apter phrase might be ‘bad luck and isolation,’” according to Kirkus Reviews. David Sedaris deems the stories “complex, funny enough to laugh out loud at but emotionally devastating,” and the Kirkus reviewer does ultimately concede that the stories exhibit “a psychological acuity that redeems their dark worldview.” Fans of Sharma’s Family Life may be interested in a story that seems to have been the seed of that novel. And if you’re interested in a sneak, the title story and “You are Happy?” (among others) were both published in The New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard: In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn about his first novel, Short Century, Gerrard succinctly described the plot of his second: “It’s about a machine that tattoos epiphanies on the forearms of its users. That is my attempt to question and honor one of the major ideas of fiction, which is that fiction should lead up to an epiphany.” This new work explores the effects of such epiphanies—the narrator’s tattoo reads “Dependent on the Opinion of Others”—on the inscribed-upon individuals and society as a whole. The result, according to Publishers Weekly, is a “wildly charming, morally serious bildungsroman.” (Matt)
I Hear Your Voice by Young-ha Kim: One of Korea’s most prolific and celebrated authors brings us a new novel, translated by Krys Lee, about two young men on the streets of Seoul: Jae, who is abandoned as a baby and becomes a leader of a powerful motorcycle gang, and Dongyu, who runs away from home as a teenager to follow Jae. Booklist remarks: “this is a wrenching examination of discarded youth, abuses of power, and the irreparable disintegration of societal structures,” and John Darnielle is a fan, saying, “Young-ha Kim is kin to those writers of more experimental times than ours: Daniel Defoe and Thomas Nashe, writers who followed their stories and themes into whatever haunted, humid dark corners they found, and who weren’t afraid to linger in those places to see what else might be there. (Edan)
Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina: Part memoir and part historical fiction, this unusual book uses recently declassified FBI files to trace the escape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray. With a fake passport, Ray managed to elude capture for 10 days in Lisbon, Portugal. Muñoz Molina’s fascination with this story has to do, in part, with his personal connection to Lisbon, a city that was the inspiration for his first novel, Winter in Lisbon. Muñoz Molina recounts Ray’s hideouts in Lisbon in 1968, while also looking back on his own memories of the place, when he lived there in the late 1980s, and was just getting started as a novelist. Throughout the narrative, Muñoz Molina reflects on the writing process itself, and how he came to construct Ray’s narrative. (Hannah)
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud: Following The Woman Upstairs, Messud’s new novel tells the story of lifelong friends Julia and Cassie. Their paths diverge and the result is a story about adolescence that contrasts a childhood’s imaginary world against adult reality. Messud, who will always have my heart for her response to a question about an unlikeable female character, tackles big questions with complex and nuanced novels. It looks like this will deliver. (Claire)
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Sour Heart is Lena Dunham’s first pick for her imprint at Random House, which is a delight since Zhang is a powerful fiction writer who offers an intimate look at girlhood. Karan Mahajan says that the book, which is narrated by daughters of Chinese immigrants, “blasts opens the so-called immigrant narrative.” And Miranda July reveals that Sour Heart will come to “shape the world—not just the literary world, but what we know about reality.” (Zoë)
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta: Here is how Mrs. Fletcher, the seventh novel by the author behind The Leftovers, begins: a woman named Eve Fletcher gets an anonymous text with a simple and unsubtle message: “U R a MILF!” The message, over the course of several months, drives Mrs. Fletcher to grow obsessed with a MILF-porn website, which leads to some unsavory consequences in her day-to-day life. It doesn’t bode well that she’s also the director of a senior center. (Thom)
The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: French intellectual history is unlikely whodunit territory, but leave it to Binet to mine comic and genre gold from the milieu of 1980s Paris. Set into motion by the sudden (and real-life) 1980 death of cultural critic Roland Barthes, Binet’s novel features all the literary and cultural heavyweights of the time—Butler, Derrida, Deleuze, Eco, Foucault, and Kristeva—while also, in a Calvino-like touch, including a hunt for a manuscript that purports to unlock hitherto unknown linguistic mysteries. Highbrow hijinks ensue, obviously. (Kirstin)
The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk: The 10th novel from Nobel Prize-winning Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman is a story of fathers, sons, and myths. Master Mahmut, a traditional Turkish well-digger, and his young apprentice work hard at their back-breaking trade, searching for water in a barren land, until an accident changes everything; the “demonic” voice of a red-haired woman haunts the survivor. Allusions to Oedipus Rex and Shanameh, stories of patricide and filicide, fill the novel, but there’s more than a little mystery here as well. And since this is Pamuk, you can be sure to find plenty of musings on the clash between modernism and tradition, new and old. (Kaulie)
New People by Danzy Senna: The fifth book from Senna, whose previous work includes the best-selling novel Caucasia and a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, about her parents’ marriage. Like her earlier work, New People explores complex issues of race and class, following two light-skinned black Americans who marry and attempt to have it all in Brooklyn in the 1990s. In her review for The New Republic, Morgan Jerkins writes “What this novel succeeds in is creating a dense psychological portrait of a black woman nearing the close of the 20th century: inquisitive, obsessive, imaginative, alive.” (Lydia)
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard: What’s newsworthy about Autumn is what it is not: it’s not an entry in the epic (and still going) My Struggle, which made Knausgaard famous. Instead, it’s book number one in a new, unrelated project, which the author refers to (naturally) as the Four Seasons Quartet. Conceived as a “lexicon for an unborn child,” the projects consists of hundreds of very short texts, each of which tackles a different everyday object. “Now, as I write this,” the first entry begins, “you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into. And I know nothing about you…” (Thom)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: Described as “a modern-day Antigone,” Home Fire follows Isma Pasha, a British woman who comes to America in pursuit of her Ph.D., her beautiful younger sister, and their brother, who’s haunted by the legacy of their jihadi father. Add in a rival London family, an increasingly tense political climate, an impossible romance, and remorse in Raqqa, and perhaps you can begin to see the Grecian similarities. The latest novel from Shamsie, whose Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Home Fire should prove moving and thought-provoking, even for those who never cared much for Antigone. (Kaulie)
The Mountain by Paul Yoon: In his second published story collection, Yoon presents six distinct stories set at various times—past, present, and future—and all across the world. Throughout, characters are linked not by personal connections to one another, but instead by a shared theme: how they reconcile violent, traumatic pasts with their present-day lives. (Nick M.)
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard: The Ribkins are quite the talented family. Johnny Ribkins, now 72, can make a precise map of any space, whether he’s been there or not. Johnny’s father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale walls. His cousin belches fire. This black American family once used their powers to advance the civil rights movement, but when disillusionment set in, Johnny and his brother turned their talents to a string of audacious burglaries. Now Johnny’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from a mobster—or he’ll swim with the fishes, as they say. Praised by Toni Morrison and Mary Gaitskill, Hubbard arrives on the scene with an auspicious bang. (Bill)
White Plains by Gordon Lish: Would we be highlighting this collection of literary odds and ends from a tiny indie press if its author were not the erstwhile Captain Fiction, editor of Raymond Carver’s early stories, and one of American fiction’s most infamous provocateurs? Probably not. Even the publisher’s own promotional materials expend more words on Lish than on the book he has written, enigmatically subtitled Pieces and Witherings. But whatever else can be said about the man, Lish is among the most influential literary figures of his generation. His own work, though wildly uneven, is worth a read. (Michael)
After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus: In her life and work, radical punk writer Kathy Acker assaulted the male hegemony of narrative fiction with her transgressive experimental books, including Blood & Guts in High School and her re-appropriation of Great Expectations. As true to these ideals in life, Acker begat a full mythology. “Acker understands that writing without myth is nothing,” writes Kraus, Semiotext(e) editor, author of I Love Dick, and now author of Acker’s first biography. After Kathy Acker, according to Sheila Heti, “feels like it’s being told in one long rush of a monologue over late-night drinks by someone who was there.” (Anne)
Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah: Gurnah’s Gravel Heart is a book that may remind some readers of the author’s Man Booker Prize finalist, Paradise. It circles around the falling of a society, herein Zanzibar, in the wake of colonial disruption. The protagonist, Salim, is caught in the midst of all this, and his slow spinning—internally and externally—revolves into a moving portraiture of a man caught in a web of things, hard and difficult. The structure of the book pays homage to William Shakespeare, and it may this that solidifies Gurnah’s ninth novel as an ambitious work worthy of attention. (Chigozie)
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: The book industry trades in superlatives, but the buzz for this debut novel stands out. To read it is to become an evangelist for it, apparently, and Stephen King says he’ll remember it forever. It’s about 14-year-old Turtle Alveston and her “tortured but charismatic father,” from whom she’s gradually realized she needs to escape, with the help of her one and only friend and an arsenal of survival skills. (Janet)
Eastman Was Here by Alex Gilvarry: Artistic ambition, intellectual misogyny, and Saigon provide the backdrop for Gilvarry’s second novel, whose Norman Mailer-like protagonist seeks to reclaim his former journalistic eminence by chronicling the end of the Vietnam War. It turns out, however, that no matter how far from home you go, you take your troubles with you; and the titular Eastman finds that his ghosts, like those of the nation that created his oversized public persona, can’t be outrun. Year in Reading alum Saïd Sayrafiezadeh says “Eastman Was Here is a wildly entertaining book, intoxicatingly written and deceptively profound in its insights into the nature of celebrity, country, marriage, war and the pitfalls of being a writer.” (Kirstin)
Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: This debut was described by The Guardian as a “clever and funny take on domestic life and Nigerian society.” Set in the 1980s, the story centers around the familial—and family planning—struggles of a young woman trying to conceive. She does everything she can, including ascending the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, goat in tow, only to have her in-laws foist a second, and presumably more fertile, wife, upon her feckless husband. Published earlier this year in Britain, the novel was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. (Matt)
The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek: Kobek had a surprise hit on his hands with 2016’s I Hate The Internet, his self-published satirical novel that lambasted the tech industry’s distortion of San Francisco. After that novel published to favorable reviews—including one from Dwight Garner in The New York Times—and strong sales, Kobek is returning with The Future Won’t Be Long.The forthcoming novel is a prequel to Internet that finds a younger version of Internet’s protagonist, Adeline, as a struggling young artist in New York. Written before Internet, Won’t Be Long tracks Adeline and her friend Baby as they navigate, in Kobek’s words, “the decaying remnants of Punk New York.” We can expect this novel to observe that decay with the same wit that characterized Internet. (Read our interview with him.) (Ismail)
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: New Orleans native Sexton’s debut novel tracks the sliding fortunes of three generations of a black family in her hometown, as they move from tenuous middle-class respectability during World War II through the ravages of the War on Drugs, the crack epidemic, and the psychic calamity of Hurricane Katrina, casualties of the American Dream that has unraveled from Jim Crow to Donald Trump. (Bill)
To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie: Ten stories whose settings range widely from WWII Kansas City to New York City to western Massachusetts to woodsy Wisconsin to rural Minnesota and the Twin Cities—from a writer who’s been working the biz side of indie publishing for decades. Foreword Reviews writes: “What is remembered; what is missed; what will never be again…all these are addressed with the tenderness of a wise observer whose heart is large enough, kind enough, to embrace them all without judgment…intense and finely crafted.” From Kirkus: “…Summie writes elegantly of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, with their disappearing farmland, aging population, and winters that are both brutal and engendering of intimacy.” Summie’s debut marks her later-life chapter, and you can read about that in our interview with her here. (Sonya)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Ward returns with her first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones. Ward’s two books between, a memoir (Men We Reaped) and a book of essays she edited (The Fire This Time), deal head-on with racism in America and the woeful ways it’s still deeply embedded in our society. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s southern-steeped voice is just as keen and continues to take on the South’s murky history, this time through the young Jojo as he travels with his drug-addicted mother and baby sister as they go to pick up his father just released from prison. (Anne)
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Krauss’s fourth novel follows the lives of two Americans in Israel in alternating chapters. The first character, Jules Epstein, is a recently-divorced, retired lawyer drawn to a rabbi; the second, a novelist named Nicole, is recruited by a mysterious literature professor working on a project about Franz Kafka. Krauss’s novel A History of Love has been rightly praised, but this new book might send people back to her equally intriguing debut, Man Walks into a Room, another investigation of what happens when our lives are radically transformed. (Nick R.)
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: With her 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, Ng proved she is a powerful storyteller of multifaceted families and the women within them forced to make difficult decisions. Her sophomore effort tangles multiple families in a drama of class and race in a Cleveland suburb. When single mother and artist Mia Warren moves to Shaker Heights, she rents from the well-off Richardson family. Of course, the initial fascination with the Warrens turns sour when they are pitted against the Richardsons in a town rift about a family adopting a Chinese-American child. (Tess)
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: National Book Award winner McDermott is simply one of the finest living Catholic writers, and her new novel looks to capture the spirit of her previous work: families and cultures strained by the optimism of faith tempered by the suffering of reality. A man’s suicide early in the novel leaves behind his pregnant wife. She is comforted by The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, a Brooklyn convent. A generational novel sure to appeal to longtime McDermott fans, and to bring-in new readers as well. (Nick R.)
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride: McBride returns to fiction for the first time since winning the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, his masterly novel about the exploits of the doomed abolitionist John Brown and his entourage. McBride’s new book, Five-Carat Soul, is a collection of stories told through the eyes of an antique toy dealer who makes the score of a lifetime; the poor kids in a neighborhood band called the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band; a mixed-race child who believes he’s the son of Abraham Lincoln; a boxer; a lion; a doctoral student who uncovers a beautifully complicated war story. Five-Carat Soul will thrill fans of McBride’s unmistakable fictional voice. (Bill)
The Golden House by Salman Rushdie: Rushdie’s 13th novel—heralded by his American publisher as a return to realism—is concerned with the lives of the extremely wealthy in Obama-era Manhattan. On Obama’s inauguration day, a mysterious billionaire named Nero Golden and his three adult sons move into a “cloistered community” in Greenwich Village. Their young neighbor René, drawn in by the family’s glamor, finds himself increasingly entangled in their lives, while elsewhere in Manhattan, another billionaire—or, well, perhaps we should go with “self-proclaimed billionaire,” because who knows—begins an improbable campaign for the presidency. (Emily)
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison: This volume collects the great novelist’s Norton lectures at Harvard University, giving those of us who didn’t get to attend a glimpse at Morrison’s thoughts on race and otherness, and how these things affect literature and lives around the world. The lectures also include revealing discussion of her own novels. With an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Lydia)
Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander: Though the latest by Englander takes place on three different continents, at heart it’s a novel about the conflicts of modern Israel. Z, or rather Prisoner Z, has been held at a black site in the desert for close to 12 years, where the only company he’s allowed is a single guard. The one official who knows about him is a comatose figure named The General. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn who Z really is: an American operative who compromised Israeli state secrets. (Thom)
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó: Why does writing this vivid take so long to find its way West? Equal parts lament, paean, and family saga, Szabó’s 1969 novel (and 2007 Prix Cévennes winner) in Len Rix’s legato English translation captures handily the “double tragedy of eastern Europe”—razed by Nazis and rebuilt by Communists. The unquiet spirits of post-war Budapest put meat on the bones of the Soviet joke that “only the past is unpredictable,” and one less-than-silent witness of the sins and slights of a shattered community harbors no illusions about permitting the living to exist peaceably in the soft-focus sentimentality of their survival. (Il’ja)
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke: I heard Locke—award-winning author of Pleasantville, a writer on Fox’s Empire, and a native of Texas—say that she wanted to write something about the black experience in the South that wasn’t only about prejudice, but showed that complexity and love and joy exist even in oppressive systems. I may be paraphrasing poorly, but I’m excited to read her book, which is about a black Texas Ranger trying to solve the murders of a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman. (Janet)
The Living Infinite by Chantel Acevedo: Acevedo’s third novel is a retelling of the life of the Spanish princess Eulalia, born four years before the revolution that removed her mother, Queen Isabella II, from the Spanish throne. After an upbringing in the Spanish court and in exile, Eulalia traveled first to Cuba and then to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, with secret hopes of finding a publisher for her scandalous memoir. (Emily)
The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson: It is 1930, in Cotton County, Ga., and Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter, gives birth to two babies, one light-skinned, the other dark. A field hand is accused of her rape, lynched, and dragged behind a truck down a road known as the Twelve-Mile Straight. So begins this second novel by the author of the radically different Ten Thousand Saints, set in New York’s gritty Lower East Side in the 1980s. “This is the kind of novel you sink into, live inside,” says Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling, about The Twelve-Mile Straight. (Michael)
Draft No. 4 by John McPhee: McPhee has been producing lithe nonfiction pieces like “Uncommon Carriers,” “The Ransom of Russian Art,” and “Coming Into the Country” for The New Yorker for 54 years. That alone should provide sufficient incentive to sit up and listen when the man offers a primer in the how, the why, the who, and the humor of getting at the story without sacrificing the art. And that’s what Draft No. 4 is: eight crunchily practical, previously published New Yorker essays/workshops on the craft of creative nonfiction. Written by the departmental dean, no less. (Il’ja)
A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe: Rowe’s two previous books—How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake—were collections that walked the line between short fiction and prose poetry. A Loving, Faithful Animal, her exquisite first novel, is concerned with the long shadow of war across generations. Rowe tells the story of a fractured family in 1990s Australia after the father, a Vietnam War veteran, leaves home. (Emily)
Border by Kapka Kassabova: When Kassabova was a child growing up in Iron Curtain-era Bulgaria, the country’s isolated southern borderland—where Bulgaria meets Turkey and Greece—was rumored to be a relatively easy crossing point into the West, and so the region swarmed with migrants, soldiers, and spies. In Border, a work of narrative reportage, Kassabova returns to a region whose natural beauty is matched only by the complexity of its political and cultural landscapes: the Communist-era spies have long since departed, but the borderland, Mark Mazower wrote recently in The Guardian, remains “an environment that does not spare the unlucky or the vulnerable.” (Emily)
The Doubles by Scott Esposito: Esposito wears many literary hats as founder of lit blog Conversational Reading and its companion journal Quarterly Conversation; as director at Two Lines Press; and as a columnist at Lit Hub writing on strategies for enduring the Trump Presidency. With The Doubles, he turns his focus to film and through film, back to his own life. Mathew Specktor writes that through this prism, Esposito “arrives at something magnificent: a work of sustained criticism that is itself a work of high art and a profound meditation on how the art we see becomes who we are.” (Anne)
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Six years after her quirkily brilliant novel-in-stories A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer, Egan is back with a noirish historical novel set in wartime Brooklyn. At the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Anna Kerrigan becomes the nation’s first female diver, repairing ships that will help America win World War II. Through a chance encounter, she meets nightclub owner Dexter Styles, who she hopes can help her solve the riddle of her father’s disappearance years before. (Michael)
Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides: Surprisingly, this is Eugenides’s first collection of short fiction—a debut of sorts from an author best known for his novels, especially his sprawling, Pulitzer Prize-winning saga, Middlesex. The stories in this collection span Eugenides’s 25-year career, and many were originally published in The New Yorker, including the story “Baster,” which was adapted into the 2010 romantic comedy The Switch. (Hannah)
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien: After the massive success of Man Booker Prize shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the world has realized that Thien is one of the most gifted and powerful novelists writing today. Her previous novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, set in Cambodia during the regime of the Khmer Rouge and in present day Montreal, explores the aftermath of war. It was published in Canada 2011 and will now be released in the U.S. for the first time. Welcome to the party. (Claire)
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A collection of new and previously published essays on the Obama years, from the writer whose access to and insights about the former president were beautifully documented in The Atlantic essay “My President Was Black.” The new collection includes an interview with Obama. (Lydia)
A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg: A decade after it first appeared, Hallberg’s debut illustrated novella is being reissued in a newly designed edition. It arrives two years after Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions, published his breathtaking first novel, City on Fire. Field Guide consists of 63 interlinked vignettes with accompanying photographs and annotations, which probe the inner workings of two families in the New York suburbs. The book’s subtitle would have delighted John James Audubon: “Concerning chiefly the Hungates and Harrisons, with accounts of their habits, nesting, dispersion, etc., and full descriptions of the plumage of both adult and young, with a taxonomic survey of several aspects of family life.” Taxonomic is the perfect word for this gorgeously executed little marvel. (Bill)
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: Machado is a talented essayist; particularly notable are her pieces for The New Yorker, including “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!,” one of the finest examinations of the adjunct crisis in America. Her fiction deals with more surreal fears, with sharply-drawn pieces like “Horror Story” in Granta: “It started so small: a mysteriously clogged drain; a crack in the bedroom window.” Stories like “The Husband Stitch” are marvels of language and experimentation. A fiction debut to watch. (Nick R.).
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks: Yes, it is that Tom Hanks. A collection of 17 short stories involving typewriters, which the author also collects in real life. This is the debut collection of the 60-year-old cinema lion. According to The Guardian, everything came together for Hanks as a fiction writer when he published this story in The New Yorker in 2014. (Lydia)
The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón: Award-winning writer Alarcón returns with a new short story collection that features a wide range of memorable characters. The King Is Always Above the People examines immigration, Latin American families, Los Angeles, and much more. Alarcón has received much critical acclaim for his previous books and his most recent novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, was a finalist for the 2014 Pen-Faulkner Award. (Zoë)
Here in Berlin by Cristina García: The Cuban-born American writer García—novelist, journalist, poet, anthologist, and National Book Award finalist—transports us to Berlin for her seventh novel. An unnamed Visitor, armed with a camera, goes spelunking in the German capital, seeking to reckon with the city’s tangled, living history. The result is a series of snapshots: a Cuban teenager taken as a POW on a German submarine; a female lawyer still haunted by her childhood in the bombed-out suburbs of Berlin; the son of a Berlin zookeeper who fought to protect the animals from both bombs and a starving human populace. These and other ghosts still walk the streets of García’s bewitching contemporary Berlin. (Bill)
A Natural by Ross Raisin: Named one of Granta’s “Best Young British Novelists” in 2013 and the author of books (God’s Own Country, Waterline) about intense loners, Raisin places his latest protagonist within a more communal setting: a soccer (or rather football) club. The novel follows a young, gay player navigating the sporting world. As Raisin explained in an interview, the subject threw some British publishers off, who explained their reasoning thusly: “We don’t know how to sell it to women because it’s about football, but at the same time we don’t know how we sell it to football supporters because it’s got gay in it.” Quite the dilemma, but thankfully not all were scared off the pitch. (Matt)
Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia: Ferocity is the latest from Europa Editions, which also publishes Elena Ferrante (as well as gems like Treasure Island!!! and The Elegance of Hedgehog). Pitched as Gillian Flynn meets Jonathan Franzen, Ferocity won the 2015 Strega Prize, Italy’s preeminent fiction prize, and concerns a dead woman, her brother who’s set on figuring out what happened to her, and Southern Italy in the 1980s. Sign me up. (Edan)
Vacationland by John Hodgman: Known variously for his work on The Daily Show, his podcast and New York Times Magazine column—both titled “Judge John Hodgman”—his role as “the PC” in those Mac commercials in the aughts, and three books of fake facts, Hodgman is a unique and hilarious public figure. Hodgman’s new book—a memoir about fatherhood, aging, travel, and his home state of Massachusetts—is the most (maybe the first) unironic thing in his career. (Janet)
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: A new offering from Erdrich on the heels of her National Book Critics Circle Award win for LaRose last year. The new book takes place during an environmental cataclysm—evolution has begun reversing itself, and pregnant women are being rounded up and confined. A pregnant woman who was adopted in infancy from her Ojibwe birth mother returns to her mother’s reservation to pursue her own origin story even while society crumbles around her. (Lydia)
Don’t Save Anything by James Salter: November 2017. I remember hearing Salter read his heartbreaking story “Last Night” to a captivated audience in Newark, N.J., at Rutgers University—it was a moment of shared intimacy that I’ve rarely experienced at a reading. Salter had a presence both on and off the page. Don’t Save Anything collects Salter’s previously uncollected non-fiction; essays that appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, People, and elsewhere. The book’s title comes from a line from one of Salter’s final interviews: “You try to put everything you have in a book. That is, don’t save anything for the next one.” (Nick R.)
Mean by Myriam Gurba: In her coming-of-age nonfiction novel about growing up queer and Chicana, Gurba takes on misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism with cutting humor. Mean will make you LOL and break your heart. Mean has already received advance praise from brilliant, badass feminist writers Jill Soloway, Michelle Tea, and Wendy C. Ortiz. Gurba’s previous book Dahlia Season won the Edmund White Award and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. (Zoë)
Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman: This fall Dorothy Project publishes Houses of Ravicka, the fourth book in Gladman’s series of novels set in the city-state of Ravicka and told in the author’s nimble prose. The books catalog the intricacies of language and architecture and their intersection—something Gladman’s recent Prose Architectures from Wave Press does quite literally. As The Renaissance Society notes, “Gladman approaches language as a space to enter and travel within, and her writing is attuned to the body as it moves through architectures of thought and experience.” In this latest volume, Ravicka’s comptroller tracks the ways the houses in the city-state shift with time. (Anne)
The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai: The Hungarian author has described his style as “fun in hell.” With this, the seventh! New Directions translation of his work, English language hell just got even more fun. A giant with an H2O fixation and a Portuguese child quarry slave on a quest for the surreal are just two of the characters met in this short story collection that examines the practicalities of cultural entropy, and stylistically sacrifices little of the author’s depth, range, and extraordinary stacking of subordinate clauses. These stories should provide the uninitiated with a workable introduction to Krasznahorkai and his formidable oeuvre. (Il’ja)
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner: The creator of Mad Men and former writer and producer for The Sopranos applies his screenwriting chops to literary fiction with this debut novel. Set in a privileged milieu in modern-day New York, it’s been described as “a dark fable,” “a collision course,” and, most intriguingly, by Philip Pullman, as a story characterized by an “ice-cold mercilessness reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh.” At 144 pages, this novel apparently cuts to the chase and doesn’t spare any of its characters. (Hannah)
Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben: Is it a surprise that the debut novel from one of our best-known environmental activists focuses on grassroots resistance? In backwoods Vermont, two radicals use an underground radio show to recruit people interested in seceding from the United States. What follows is a zany, witty, and altogether timely imagination of modern resistors. (Nick M.)
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: A collection of essays on music, culture, and personal history from the poet and Year in Reading alum (and MTV News writer, before MTV News made their woeful decision to “pivot to video”). Terrance Hayes writes, “Abdurraqib bridges the bravado and bling of praise with the blood and tears of elegy.” (Lydia)
The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski: British writer Diski won a wide following with a strikingly clear-eyed chronicle of her battle with the lung cancer that killed her last year at the age of 68. The Vanishing Princess, her only collection of short stories, is now available in the U.S. for the first time, and it will be welcomed by fans of Diski’s piercing nonfiction and dreamlike novels. In the story “Short Circuit,” Diski mines her own stays in mental institutions to pose an old but not unreasonable question: are the people we regard as mad the truly sane ones? (Bill)
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Şafak: Şafak is one of Turkey’s most popular novelists, and her fiction and nonfiction has been translated around the world. Three Daughters of Eve, her 10th novel, takes place in contemporary Istanbul, but looks back on an earlier era, as Peri, a wealthy housewife, recalls her friendship with two fellow students at Oxford University. Together, these three young women became close through their studies, debating the role of women in Islam, and falling under the influence of a charismatic but controversial professor. The scandal that broke them apart still haunts Peri. (Hannah)
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
I began 2015 with my then-girlfriend, now fiancée, and two other couples, at a rented house in the Catskills. The house belonged to a college art professor — Bard, I think — and on every available wall of the place hung some darkly priapic piece of art. There was a small, cold artist’s studio in the backyard where Renée and I were supposed to sleep, but after discovering a bundle of dreadlocked human hair, strung invisibly from the ceiling, and a series of circular collages that can only be described as psychosexually insane (or insanely psychosexual?), we opted for the narrow futon in the main house, near the dry heat of the hearth.
We cooked every night, drank a survey of Caribbean sugar cane — Appleton, Barbancourt, Brugal — went hiking through the crater lakes at Minnewaska, talked and sometimes argued about music, art, magazines. Renée made a playlist I still sometimes listen to when I’m pretending to write, and as we counted down the seconds to the new year, we formed a little crooked circle and danced and sang.
During quiet times, I read poems: Richard Wright’s Haiku, and the Robert Frost collection I always throw into my backpack when I leave the city. This was the beginning of a halting, yearlong attempt to read more poetry. I finally caught up with people like Morgan Parker and Phillip B. Williams, revisited Langston Hughes (and dug into his enigmatic, newly released Selected Letters) and Gwendolyn Brooks and Kevin Young, consulted with the back-pocket edition of Pablo Neruda I used to carry around as an annoying undergraduate, and — speaking of haiku — tried, again and again, all year, to figure out the effectiveness and easy grace of Matsuo Bashō’s frog, slipping into the water with a immortal plop. No luck there.
I have been trying to understand pastoralism — I hit 30 and everything suddenly seems so loud — and so have been working my way, slowly, through a slim Dover Thrift anthology of English Romantic Poetry. (Has anybody, by the way, published a big takedown of the Dover people? What they do — I’m sometimes very cheap, it seems right to mention — seems too good to be morally right.) They’ve all got their merits, but let’s be honest: the whole movement was John Keats and the Pips. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at some point (Dover again! Please tell me this is okay to do), and her prose, and imagination, blows all her husband’s friends’ verse out of the water.
Speaking of publishers, I — like everybody else, maybe — was wowed, and often tutored, by this year’s offerings from NYRB books. Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth helped me to understand the logic and language of Mao’s China; Linda Rosenkrantz’s unruly, addictive Talk drew me closer to Andy Warhol’s drug-and-Freud-fueled New York than I’d ever, at least consciously, wanted to venture.
I can’t remember the last time I laughed at a book the way I laughed at Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Or the last time I felt as trustful of the control and restraint and taste of a novelist as I did with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Or as happy to be crawling through the oeuvre of a favorite playwright as with Eugene O’Neill’s Seven Plays of the Sea.
I found a first-edition, hard-copy of the O’Neill on one of the uncountable book-lousy folding tables you’ll find, any Sunday of the year, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These tables, and their attendant “book guys,” are a good reason, if you need one, to live in New York. On another day — summer, sun-stunned — after, I’m just now remembering, a long weekend meal with those same couples from the Catskills, I stopped by a book table and picked up Michael Beckerman’s impressive New Worlds of Dvorak, a close reading — journalistic and musicological at turns — of the great composer’s years spent in America, trying to bequeath to us the “national music” we kind of already had.
I cherish Saul Bellow, so I started but am hesitant to finish his newly collected nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. I cherish Flannery O’Connor, so I read a few more of her beautiful, chastening letters and left her alone. I cherish Ralph Ellison — third big cliche in a row, I know — so I read Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial, appropriately tragicomic biography — very late to that particular party, I know — and went sprinting back to the essays in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act.
Speaking of cherished writers and unfashionable lateness, I finally picked up my copy of Mansfield Park (Dover!!!) and wished I’d read it 10 years earlier, for all sorts of real-life reasons. I finally read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, and felt the same way. I read Hilton Als’s White Girls and felt awkward about the looks I got on the subway. (The dynamics of reading on the subway are another essay entirely.)
And speaking of taking things slowly, for fear of ever catching up, I read the second of the Karl Ove Knausgaard novels and called it a year.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s haunting, world-beating Between the World and Me led me back — inevitably — to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Those aforementioned Hughes letters led me back to the Harlem Renaissance — and specifically, for some reason, back to the so-called “passers:” Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun; Nella Larsen’s odd, twitchy Quicksand; Jean Toomer’s Cane, an insane, beautiful blend of verse, prose, and drama. Cane’s is probably still my favorite book, and reading it again made me want to someday try to write a life of Toomer, who seems to have been America’s most interesting psychopath as well as its most tragically unrealized and overlooked modernist.
(The Fauset, the Larsen, and the Toomer are collected in the Library of America’s beautiful boxed set of Harlem Renaissance Novels.)
At some point Renée and I began reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex — which she’s already read, and I have not — aloud, in bed, at night, sort of inconsistently. It’s wonderful so far.
As always, I ended up feeling like I should’ve been able to read a lot more.
Maybe it makes sense to share, before leaving this exercise alone, that this has been one of the more emotionally intense years of my life. I’ve been introduced to entirely new, often overwhelming species of joy and anxiety and fulfillment and fear and hope. There were times of ridiculous, almost uncomfortable happiness; other days (weeks, months) I spent wishing for a side exit.
With these extremes came a change in my reading. For the first time since I was a kid, I found myself reading almost desperately, reading as a purposeful means of escape. I guess I’d forgotten (likely during the slow and misguided process of becoming a writer) how effective and merciful an analgesic it can be to leave your own imagination and pick up somebody else’s.
Reading has always been my favorite thing to do. This year it was sometimes the only thing I could do. I felt more grateful for books, and for writers — because I remembered that I need them — than I’d been in a very long time.
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Last week my husband and I were having breakfast with our seven-month-old baby, sticking bits of fruit into her mouth and prattling inane words of love. For a couple of months now the baby has been smiling big, open-mouthed smiles that show her two teeth and animate her entire body; her feet kick and her chubby hands wave and the recipient feels the smile like the warmth of a cheerful little sun on a minor planet. “Pretty baby,” my husband said to her that morning, when she beamed thus at him. “What a pretty little girl.”
There is a common evocation of beauty during the very new newborn period. Babies emerge as slightly mottled fruits that have been sitting in their syrup too long. But if you are very lucky and the things happen that are supposed to happen, they unfurl and dry off and fill out and within a few days or weeks they’ve become those velvet-skinned, bright-eyed beings in the first and most tender season of human beauty.
I never recoiled, in that first season, to hear the nice people on the bus say “beautiful baby,” to us in reverent tones. It’s a thanksgiving for safe passage, a prayer for all new defenseless things. In any case, the adjective is usually invoked without its invoker seeing much more than a scalloped ear or a tiny scrumpled face. And even if the baby alarms you with its rawness, “beautiful baby” is really the only thing to say. The new mother doesn’t need to hear “Nice prune,” or “You must have squeezed ‘er good coming out.”
But after a few months have passed, when the word “newborn” must be set aside with the tiny hats and receiving blankets and impossibly small onesies, faint suggestions of the adult visage emerge. Friendly strangers and the baby’s own parents and relatives eagerly fixate upon recognizable features. And if you have a girl, the specter of beauty, or the looking-for-it, begins to hover.
Girl babies grow and the observations about their looks are freely traded — comments about eyes and future heartbreaking. At a certain point a more furtive category of looking makes itself felt. When Cal Stephanides, the hero/ine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s wonderful novel Middlesex recalls his dark-eyed, aquiline-nosed loveliness as a young girl, it is not the beauty that is remembered so much as the world’s response to it:
I can only remember a time when the world seemed to have a million eyes, silently opening wherever I went. Most of the time they were camouflaged, like the closed eyes of green lizards in green trees. But then they snapped open — on the bus, in the pharmacy — and I felt the intensity of all that looking, the desire and the desperation.
When Callie enters adolescence — before her male secondary sexual characteristics manifest — she undergoes a subtle transformation that likewise transforms her way of being in the world:
To paraphrase Nietzsche, there are two types of Greek: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I’d been born Apollonian, a sun-kissed girl with a face ringed with curls. But as I approached thirteen a Dionysian element stole over my features. My nose, at first delicately, then not so delicately, began to arch. My eyebrows, growing shaggier, arched, too. Something sinister, wily, literally ‘satyrical’ entered my expression.
Like most brilliant novels, Middlesex manages to describe a very particular set of circumstances — the sex misidentification and eventual transformation of Callie to Cal Stephanides — in a way that highlights their universality. When Callie describes her turn to the Dionysian, she is contrasting her elfin looks with those of the “normal” girls growing breasts all around her. But the feeling she described is familiar to me from girlhood — that feeling of change from being a beautiful baby, petted and cooed over, into something crooked and frizzed and untoward, requiring braces and other, more secret interventions.
And before long, the eyes are back. If you are Callie, switched over to Cal, they come from a predatory subculture that looks for runaway waifs in highway truck stops. If you are a young woman, your new, marginally adult female body becomes public property, free for comment by men and other women alike. Lest you think I’m in the middle of an extended humblebrag about my own looks, recall The Blind Assassin, wherein Margaret Atwood’s wizened narrator identifies the appeal of very young women, whether they are celebrated as beauties or not: “The three of them were beautiful, in the way all girls of that age are beautiful. It can’t be helped, that sort of beauty, nor can it be conserved; it’s a freshness, a plumpness of the cells, that’s unearned and temporary, and that nothing can replicate.”
In this conception of beauty, we might see parallels to the reverence for the newborn — the instinctive and uncheckable response of humanity to its own most new and unsullied, and then its most fertile, members. You might say that there’s a purity to this response, the way that there’s a purity, at the most basic level, to youth. But as Atwood’s narrator goes on to point out, there is the essential beauty of youth, and then there is the ideal of beauty that interferes with a woman’s view of herself: “None of them was satisfied with it, however; already they were making attempts to alter themselves into some impossible, imaginary mould, plucking and pencilling away at their faces. I didn’t blame them, having done the same once myself.”
In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine’s Scarry’s short, poetic refutation of the “political critique of beauty” — and the title inspiration for Zadie Smith’s On Beauty— Scarry states that “the moment of perceiving something beautiful confers on the perceiver the gift of life.” Her “something,” in this formulation, can be a person, or not a person: “faces, flowers, bird-songs, men, horses, pots, and poems.” Human beauty is merely one “site” of beauty; it has, in Scarry’s reckoning, “site-specific” attributes that cause us to keep it separate from pots and bird-songs, and in doing so wander into ontological errors about beauty. These errors, Scarry argues, make people want to expel beauty — that is, the acknowledgment and discussion of beauty — from our classrooms and lecture halls.
It was this current against which On Beauty and Being Just was penned. A major beef of the anti-beauty brigade, says Scarry, is the “gaze” (as in “the male gaze”) — the idea that “when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object.” Scarry argues that it is a mistake to take this negative, “site-specific” byproduct of human beauty and apply it to the entirety of the humanities, or to “a mourning dove, or a trellis spilling over with sweet pea, or a book whose pages are being folded back of the first time.” According to Scarry, the rejoicing in the beauty of our little baby is motivated by the same benevolent and generative impulse that causes people to “get upset about the disappearance of kelp forests they have never even heard of” — a net positive.
Scarry’s book is a work of philosophy, a discipline in which I am not at home, and she writes in theorems, which are likewise alien. It is also not addressing itself to the problems of female subjugation, but to the role of aesthetics in scholarship. In one sense I found On Beauty and Being Just to be a sort of refreshing bath for the mind; it sluiced away the noise and arterial plaque of the day-to-day and affirmed, for example, my love of books or paintings. But I’m a woman, and not a pot or a bird-song, and as such I have a special relationship to those “site-specific” problems of human beauty, the pursuit of which makes Atwood’s cellularly plump sprites whittle away at themselves. Site-specific things are on my mind right now, more than university debates between desconstructivists and positivists. People who have grievances dislike for their grievances to be disappeared by thought-exercises, even highly successful and elegantly composed ones.
And in my site-specificity, I can rejoice in the beauty of the kelp, but fear the implications of human beauty. Beauty obligates, either in its presence — wherein it is the obligation of the beautiful one to be looked-upon, and to retain her beauty — or in its absence, in which case it must be perpetually sought. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s penniless mother reminds her daughter of this obligation:
Only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian; and she tried to instil into the latter a sense of the responsibility that such a charge involved.
In Scarry’s section on the effect of the “gaze,” she argues, rather speciously, that the gazer is as affected by the gazing as the gazee: “It is odd that contemporary accounts…place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at.” After all, she points out, Plato sees a beautiful boy and “shudders and shivers.” Dante Alighieri, laying eyes on Beatrice, feels his “senses go into a huddle.”
And those things do sound hard, but I doubt that two drunken 20-something men ever crabwalked over to 14-year-old Dante and his buddy on the metro and argued freely over which one was “the hot one.” I doubt one of Plato’s male friends told him when he was 15 that “some of the boys in school think you’re really ugly, but some of them think you’re really hot.” When Dante was in college and unhappy and padded with Keystone light and cheeseburgers, it’s unlikely that a male visitor to his room looked at his prom photo and marveled at how hot he “used to be.” Plato didn’t try Zumba and Body Jam and Cardio Kickboxing and Barre Method and Dailey Method and Cardiobarre, or give up beer for months before his wedding. Dante never sorrowed over the absence of his thigh gap, or purchased Groupons for laser hair removal and teeth whitening.
To conflate human beauty with rape is to make the same error as conflating rape with sex; rape is about power and ownership and rage. But all of these things are knotted together in a way that makes it difficult to disentangle the skeins. The artist Eric Gill wrote that “the beautiful thing is that which, being seen, pleases, and it is man that is pleased.” You know what else Eric Gill did? Molested two of his daughters. You know who else “shivered and shook” from the effects of his gazing? Humbert fucking Humbert.
But back to my baby. It’s currently my job, along with her father, to mediate the world for her until she’s old enough to do it herself. So I’m, obviously, her gravest liability, the one most likely to do damage by loading her up with a bunch of my own baggage. And she is a lovely little baby, with big blue eyes, eyes with no bearing on her father’s brown or my own brindled orbs. I exhort her father not to call her pretty, but I look at her and find myself knocking wood, saying mashallah to ward off the evil eye in a way that is in itself a recognition of beauty.
But I want her never to feel that she is with all of womanity on a ladder that equates beauty with worth. I want her never to join the oppressors by talking casually about her friends’ looks, or to instinctively perform a half-predatory, half-defensive assessment of every other woman within a 100-yard radius. And yet I want her to appreciate the many modes of human beauty — not only the boobs and butts and legs of Garry Winogrand’s deceptively titled Women are Beautiful, but the unexpected lines of an eyebrow or a hand. I want her to feel unencumbered by anyone’s opinion of her beauty or lack thereof. And yet I also want her to feel beautiful, to wear whatever she wants, to luxuriate in a sense that her chosen mate finds her irresistible, to never fear a dressing room or bathing suit or florescent light.
And I want somehow for all this to be accomplished without conferring those heavy, killing, Lily Bart obligations.
So that morning at breakfast, I panicked and chastised my husband for an innocent remark, one that people will make again and again about my baby, as they will do about any woman’s baby. And then I fumbled around in my psyche and pulled out something worn and démodé — highly problematic, in its way, but functional and attractive, like an ivory crochet hook or a whalebone stay. I looked at my seven-month-old and spoke into her uncomprehending face that almost-true thing that people have only ever said to women: “Pretty is as pretty does.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Middlesex author and Pulitzer Prize winner (and Year in Reading alum) Jeffrey Eugenides has a new story out in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. Titled “Find the Bad Guy,” it may well be the first New Yorker story to show a character playing Words with Friends. Sample quote: “She had her arms around me, and we were rocking, real soft-like, the way Meg did after we gave her that kitten, before it died, I mean, when it was just a warm and cuddly thing instead of like it had hoof and mouth, and went south on us.”
The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).
So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?
We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.
And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.
With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.
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I read Middlesex in 2002 as a college sophomore. I read it again in 2004, and probably two or three times after that. In early 2007, I went into a bookstore and, looking helplessly at the stacks of new releases, asked when there was going to be another one from Jeffrey Eugenides. It was the first time in my life I felt impatient for a book I wasn’t sure had been written or was going to be.
Unlike childhood and adolescence, which are a sustained exercise in waiting — you count the hours till your TV show, the days till your sleepover, the years till you turn eleven — the adult self has a different relationship with anticipation. If you are not The Marriage Plot’s Leonard, for whom there is no baseline of normalcy, if you are not in flux and falling in love or out of love or into some tragedy, the pangs of anticipation lose their childhood acuity and become muddled with complexities. So it is a rare pleasure to wait for something with that pure and uncomplicated eagerness. I carried this book around in my bag all day, waiting for the moment to open it. I went to a meeting and as I half-listened I moved my hands over the smooth pages with near-erotic pleasure. Perhaps I was just channeling a zeitgeisty fetishization of the endangered physical book. But I think it is more the relief born of nine years of waiting. “Waiting is an enchantment,” writes Roland Barthes in The Lover’s Discourse, to which Eugenides’s heroine Madeleine transfers all of her anxieties about her aloof lover Leonard; “The Festivity is what is waited for.”
I waited for this book, Madeleine waits for Leonard, Leonard waits for his side effects to dissipate, Mitchell waits for Madeleine, and also for a variety of religious experience. Madeleine is pretty, and smart, and rich, and “slightly anxious.” Leonard is maybe smarter, definitely poorer, and worse, sick. The hangover of Madeleine and Leonard’s great Festivity is the grim reality of Leonard’s mental illness. Madeleine is with Leonard through his illness, ostensibly because she loves him, also because she didn’t get into grad school and she’s not sure what to do. Eugenides describes with convincing and heartrending detail a Leonard in thrall to his lithium, a prisoner whose act of liberation is the heroic and misguided recalibration of his meds leading to a spectacular crack-up. Meanwhile, Mitchell travels through Europe and India pining for Madeleine and the Lord.
In some respects, Madeleine is a surface upon which people project their respective wills. Everyone knows that Madeleine is bookish, but we only hear her discussing her actual books of interest with other young women at a conference. We don’t know why Mitchell and Leonard love her exactly, except that she is beautiful, with clean sheets, full of (mostly unspoken) bookish thoughts. Mitchell spends years mesmerized by the memory of a glimpse of her “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast.”
Eugenides is kinder to Madeleine than I, out of envy, might be inclined. The year I read Middlesex was the year my boyfriend, a student at Brown University, broke up with me. During my weekend visits, Brown seemed to teem with beautiful women who exuded the possibility of “clean-sheet Wednesday,” and who didn’t bouy the spirit with intimations of their stupidity. This book could have been an act of vengeance on girls who are pretty and thin and rich and go to good schools and read novels and have sex, but not too much sex or too soon. But even I don’t hate Madeleine. Leonard is most blameless and deserving of sympathy in the novel — his illness is a real and perpetual problem, a horse on his chest. And yet I guiltily celebrated when Madeleine met her intellectual compatriots for a few short days at the conference, or when she kissed Mitchell on a French leave to New York.
The novel invites us to like Madeleine; the novel, like Mitchell, loves Madeleine in spite of her being, and probably because she is, a “Fortnum & Mason’s drinker, her favorite blend Earl Grey. She didn’t just dump a bag in a cup, either, but brewed loose leaves, using a strainer and a tea cozy.” Mitchell describes his problem of being subsumed in the Godhead thus: “it was hard to kill your self off when you liked so many things about it.” We might say the same thing about Madeleine. The liberally-distributed acidity and self-loathing of Jonathan Franzen — and I cannot fail to compare the two after reading Evan Hughes’s illuminating piece on the fraternity of contemporary heavy-hitters — is a contrast to the more benign treatment found here. (Of the primary characters, that is. The supporting cast — Larry, Claire, Thurston, Abby — are intensely unlikable).
The Marriage Plot is a nod to the humanity of sexy women who feel like lumpen embarrassments around the right kind of man. It’s a nod only, though; we hear about Madeleine’s bowel movements through their absence, revealed by the interrogation of Leonard. We do not see her sneak off to to take an anxious crap, the way we do Leonard. Madeleine’s WASP mystique largely endures.
That Madeleine is a WASP is put forth ad nauseam. When Madeleine takes Mitchell home for a fateful Thanksgiving, she brings volume 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time, which, like The Marriage Plot, is a both a witty society novel and a work whose great depth belies its light touch. Like a Powell character, Madeleine lives in rarefied air, with rarefied people like Pookie Ames surfacing here and there at Brown and in New York. Unlike in a Powell novel, the class markers occasionally jangle. Madeleine’s father, Alton, begins a graduation weekend hotel strategy session with “When your cousin graduated from Williams…” Alton’s “voice was surprisingly good; he’d been in an a capella singing group at Yale.” Madeleine comes to Mitchell’s guest room “dressed in a Lawrenceville T-shirt and nothing else.” Perhaps these last two are Mitchell’s Detroiter observations more than the novel’s, but they sometimes grate.
I can’t know anything about the author’s process, but The Marriage Plot must have been daunting to visualize and see through after Middlesex, which was built on the rock of historical adventure, unusual genitals, and the American dream. Eugenides has taken a risk with this novel, with his knowing tone and his aggressive syllabus. I found the first page repellent in its presentation of Madeleine’s shelf list — the “Colette novels she read on the sly” and “the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis…” I was happy when we got to the good stuff, like a hangover.
But Eugenides knows what he is doing. At first, the heavy reading list and ponderous references are pompous, like a student who has done her homework and is trying to drop some pithy stuff into the class discussion. On its face, The Marriage Plot appears to be a novel that mentions a lot of novels without talking about any of them. These facile, knowing references disguise the sly ways that this novel engages with its predecessors.
Eugenides layers his allusions in an exciting and well-concealed way so that viewed from one angle, the novel is a relatively old-fashioned love-triangle cum young adult drama. But the novel is full of parallels and inversions, using its sources on a number of levels. As the novel opens, we look at Madeleine’s shelves, upon which are arranged the novels of Wharton, Austen, Eliot, “and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.” But, it’s immediately clear, Madeleine is no Lily Bart, no Ellen Olenska. She’s May Welland, Emma Woodhouse. As The Marriage Plot continues, she becomes Dorothea Brooke or Jane Eyre.
At the end of her own novel, saintly Jane Eyre tells us that “my time and cares were now required by another — my husband needed them all,” a moment with clear echoes in Eugenides’s book. Jane looks after her maimed husband, but her narrative closes with St. John Rivers, gone to India where he
…clears their painful way to improvement: he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it…His is the ambition of the high master-spirit, which aims to fill a place in the first rank of those who are redeemed from the earth — who stand without fault before the throne of God; who share the last mighty victories of the Lamb; who are called, and chosen, and faithful.
Mitchell’s Calcutta gross-outs, his religious yearnings, his bhang enthusiasms, are a new take on the monastic St. John.
This novel is a surface upon which we might project the other novels we have read; Eugenides invites us so to do. In Calcutta, all Mitchell sees of Mother Teresa are the yellow soles of her feet, and I thought of T.S. Eliot: “You curled the papers from your hair,/ Or clasped the yellow soles of feet/ In the palms of both soiled hands.” Mitchell and Madeleine return from Thanksgiving, “walked together up College Hill, hugged, and parted,” which conjures a vague jumble of 19th century and earlier works in my brain. Every fictional hangover past 1954 owes something to the ur-hangover of Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim. Like Jim, Madeleine has to perform a duty with a blinding hangover after a night of bad sexual decisions. Like Jim, she enlists a person whom she has wronged to help her. The echoes are so subtle I heard them only after I had finished the book. Maybe I’m reaching, but I think the novel encourages us to reach. Eugenides’s characters appear to have read everything; we assume that he has read everything, and more.
I initially wondered if, with this book, Eugenides will alienate readers who are not readers like the readers in his novel. I doubt it, because I’m not a reader like the readers in his novel, not by a long shot, and even without having read Thomas Merton or Deleuze & Guattari I can follow and enjoy a story about a pretty girl, a crazy boy, and a pining best friend.
Madeleine’s Semiotics 211 classmates like the theorists who “wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.” Even though her classmates are silly, they have a point. Like Madeleine, I think of myself as a reading traditionalist, a person who wants “a book to take her places she couldn’t go herself” and who additionally wants “something to happen” to its characters “in a place resembling the world.” As a reader, I make tea with leaves and tea cozies, and as that kind of reader, this book satisfies me. I have to say that for adventure, pizzazz and magic carpet rides, The Marriage Plot doesn’t do it for me like Middlesex. As a book snob, The Marriage Plot does more. I can guess at the references and congratulate myself on recognizing the novel’s technical complexity.
But my opinion is like, problematized, as the Semiotics 211 kids might say. I waited for this book. I waited nine years and I wanted it bad. I rubbed my hands and its pages and fondled it and felt a physical stirring. Getting what you wait for makes the awaited thing both better and worse than it is. Was it good for me, this book? Yeah, it was good. It surprised me; it got me thinking about the things that Eugenides can do as a writer. The poor man doesn’t even get to bask a moment in his achievement before his fans are impatient for the next thing. I begin the long wait anew.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected].
Appropriately, The Marriage Plot arose from an act of literary adultery. In the late 90s, during an impasse in the writing of Middlesex, I put the manuscript aside. (I hadn’t fallen out of love, exactly, but I wasn’t sure where the relationship was headed.) Over the following weeks I began flirting with another novel, not a comic epic like Middlesex but a more traditional story about a wealthy family throwing a debutante party. At first, the new novel seemed to be everything I was looking for. It was less demanding, easy to be with, and rather nicely proportioned. Before I knew it I’d written a hundred pages – at which point the novelty wore off. It dawned on me that this new affair was going to be every bit as demanding as the book I was trying to escape. I missed Middlesex, too. I had an idea why we hadn’t been getting along. And so, with a renewed sense of commitment, almost giddy with joy, I went back to it.
After Middlesex was published, I returned to the debutante novel. Its hundred pages were just as I’d left them. They seemed O.K. However, as I resumed work on the book, something kept bothering me. The novel felt old-fashioned. The writing was perfectly acceptable, even good in spots, but in others it felt lifeless, second-hand. The story was told from multiple points of view, in short sections of a few pages apiece. One of the characters was named Madeleine. As I wrote her section, I began to wander once again. Instead of placing her in my debutante-party plot, I began imagining her boyfriend troubles and the books she was reading, and soon I was straying off into memories of my own college days, when the craze for semiotics was at its height in American universities. Something changed in the prose I was writing as well. I can pinpoint when this shift occurred. It came with the line: “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” The tone of this sentence differed from the tone of the rest of the book. It was more intimate, more colloquial, and more knowing. All at once, the fustiness of the book that had so displeased me dropped away. The debutante novel had felt like an actual 19th-century novel. It smelled like an old couch brought back from the flea market. In contrast, Madeleine’s section felt fresher, more energetic and alive. It sprung directly from concerns and details in my own life. When the narrative ceased to be a pallid replica of a 19th-century novel and became a novel about a young woman obsessed with the 19th-centry novel, and about what such an obsession does to her romantic expectations, the book jumped forward a century. It became contemporary and sounded contemporary and allowed me to write about all kinds of things I hadn’t been able to write about before, religion and Mother Teresa, manic depression, the class system as it operated at an Eastern university in the 1980s, Roland Barthes, J.D. Salinger, the Jesus Prayer, and Talking Heads. Pretty soon, I had over a hundred pages of this new section.
The irony was clear: here I was, cheating on a novel that had once been my mistress! Madeleine’s section just kept getting longer. The longer it got, the more I liked it. Over the course of a painful two weeks, I surgically separated the two manuscripts, taking out three of the characters – Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard – and giving them their own book.
I didn’t know, at that point, that the book would be called The Marriage Plot, or that it would have anything to do with marriage. But gradually, as I pushed forward with the book, other things I’d been thinking about began to make their way in. In 2004, for the online magazine Slate, I had discussed the legacy of Joyce with the novelist Jim Lewis. During that exchange, I lamented the fact that the marriage plot, which had given rise to the novel, was no longer available to the modern novelist. In my book The Marriage Plot, I put these slightly reactionary thoughts into the mouth of Madeleine’s elderly thesis director, Professor Saunders:
In Saunders’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter who Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean anything anymore, and neither did the novel.
It didn’t happen right away. But as I wrote about my three undergraduates, describing the end of their time at university and the beginning of their adult lives, such academic thoughts as these attached themselves to my story and provided me with a solid structure for the book. Instead of writing a marriage plot, I could deconstruct one and then put it back together, consistent with the religious, social, and sexual conventions prevailing today. I could write a novel that wasn’t a marriage plot but that, in a certain way, was; a novel that drew strongly from tradition without being at all averse to modernity.
That’s the intellectual background of The Marriage Plot. But you don’t write a novel from an idea, or at least I don’t. You write a novel out of the emotional and psychological stuff that you can’t shake off, or don’t want to. For me, this had to do with memories with being young, bookish, concupiscent, and confused. Safely in my 40s, married and a father, I could look back on the terrifying ecstasy of college love, and try to re-live it, at a safe distance. It was deep winter in Chicago when all this happened. Every day I looked out my office window at snow swirling over Lake Michigan. After separating the two books, I put one in a drawer and kept the other on my desk. I ran off with The Marriage Plot and didn’t look back. I changed completely, became a different person, a different writer; I started a new life with a new love, and all without ever leaving home.
Jeffrey Eugenides became a household name among many readers thanks to Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides. Eight years after Middlesex, Eugenides has quietly become one of the most admired American novelists working today, and it’s likely that many fans are looking ahead to October, when Eugenides’s next novel, The Marriage Plot, is set to be released.
FSG’s catalog copy describes a campus/coming-of-age/love-triangle novel (some may recall the protagonist Madeleine Hanna from an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker in 2010), but the The Marriage Plot’s first paragraph sets the stage for what may be a very bookish novel, with some serious literary name dropping and a mention of John Updike’s Couples.
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic,” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.”
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
Middlesex, like a girls’ locker room, is crowded and noisy, with smells. The novel combines the respective hysterias of two fraught traditions–the Greek and the mid-century American (one produced the professional lady mourner, the other produced Saul Bellow). At the center of this story, which, like many family histories, is at once tremendously unlikely and perfectly plausible, Jeffrey Eugenides has placed the two great standards of the human race: a pair of genitals, and a heart. And while the genitals of Middlesex’s intersex hero are of an unusual sort, with them Eugenides conveys not only the singular misery of gender and sexual confusion, but the universal lumpen misery of adolescence, and the pain of young love. These, and the goofy relatives, and the historical vignettes, are relayed as a kind of artful schmaltz, which doesn’t stray too far into parody. The novel seems carefully researched and written; and its numerous set pieces (Smyrna burning, Detroit burning, penis stirring) are controlled. It’s a wonderful novel. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I just discovered that HBO is going to turn Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex into a series. Immediately all was untrammeled rapture. I love Middlesex, and I am a big fan of HBO series generally. The Sopranos. The inimitable Wire. Curb Your Enthusiasm. Rome. Deadwood. And yes, Sex and the City. I know that Sex and the City oppresses women and is an embarrassment and there’s no way she can afford those outfits on that salary and all of that. I still like it. I have a, uh, friend who once bought a DVD boxed set of dubious authenticity in China because it cost a very low, but not actually as low as she thought, number of Chinese yuan. It soothes me to have it playing in the background on the rare occasions when I try to perpetrate a hairdo on myself. The fun thing is that the episodes are not in order, and Chinese characters can show up at any time! But that’s neither here nor there. Soon my untrammeled delight was tempered with anxiety. I have very low expectations of television, so when a show is even remotely entertaining, I am swiftly ensnared. It makes me nervous, though, when beloved books are threatened with The Screen Treatment. I didn’t love the Virgin Suicides (novel), so I was dazzled by an Air soundtrack and Josh Hartnett in a mullet-type thing. But I loved Middlesex. I read it when it came out, and immediately read it again. Then for a while afterward I was in a lather trying to find out whether J. Eugenides was working on a new book, and when I might be able to read that. One thing I loved about the novel was what I believe is called “the scope” (typically accompanied by adjectives like “breathtaking”), which is not easy to achieve on the screen (easier with a series than a movie, but still not easy). How will they pace it? How many seasons? I hope they don’t truncate the beginning, wherein Calliope’s grandparents make haste, and then incest, out of burning Smyrna. Or the long and sort of gross courtship of Calliope’s parents. What of Lina, and Jimmy Zizmo, and Marius Wyxzewizard Challouehliczilczese Grimes? Who will play the Obscure Object? Will she have freckles and heavy thighs? Who will play Apollonian Calliope? And then Dionysian Calliope? And who will play Cal? The show is going to be written (adapted?) by playwright Donald Margulies. It’s embarrassing how little I know about theatre, but I see that he won the, whaddaycallit, Pulitzer Prize. Presumably, then, he is good at writing things that are meant to be performed. So that’s a solace. Unfortunately, since my worldview has been warped, no doubt, by Sex and the City, the main thing I knew about Rita Wilson is that she is married to Tom Hanks and she looks great. However, I subsequently learned that she has produced a number of things. And that she, like Cal, is American-born to Greek parents. Not only is she Greek Orthodox, according to Wikipedia, but her father is a Greek-born Pomak convert to Orthodoxy, and her mother grew up on the Greece-Albania border. Not that ancestry need define a person, but Ms. Wilson would seem optimally placed to understand a thing or two about the complexities of identity on and around the Balkan peninsula. And since Middlesex is a lot about the complexities of identity (defined or not defined by ancestry), and not a little bit about the complexities of identity as they pertain to the Greek nation, I feel optimistic about her role as a shepherd for this project, even if Middlesex deals with significantly weightier issues than earlier (and also Hellenic-themed) projects like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mamma Mia!, and My Life in Ruins.As we collectively wrote about in a recent post, not all screen (big or small) adaptations are an exercise in futility. The fundamentals here seem strong. What do you think?
My wife, Edan Lepucki, is a newly-minted member of the Oprah Book Club. She also has an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a story forthcoming from CutBank. So basically, she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the books and the reading business. Plus, she’s totally hot. Here’s her writeup of the most recent Oprah literary extravaganza:I’d decided to read The Road after it emerged victorious from the Tournament of Books. The day I went to purchase it, the stack of paperbacks had already been blessed with a golden O, signifying that it had been inducted into Oprah’s Book Club. I’d never before read an Oprah pick along with millions of other book club members, but I decided to give it a try. What would it be like? I was both excited to see the episode with McCarthy, and ashamed to be excited – I’ll admit, I ripped the O sticker off my copy. I was superior to all those soccer moms, wasn’t I? I didn’t need Winfrey to tell me what to read.On this blog and others, I’ve been unsettled by the slight tinge of sexism that colors some comments about Oprah’s Book Club. So many people were surprised she’d chosen The Road, such a dark and literary novel. Some readers even threw around the phrase “chick lit” to describe her previous picks (except for Faulkner, of course!), and worried her viewers might not “get” McCarthy. But are the books of Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende and Edwidge Danticat, just three of the many former club picks, “chick lit” simply because they are written by women? Even though I’d never participated in Oprah’s club, I always thought it was a good thing – it sold books, lots and lots of them, and got people to read. So what if those people were mostly women? Does that make their enthusiasm and discussion of text less valid?Of course, I’m asking myself these questions. I mean, I sometimes don’t read a book my mom has recommended to me. The reason? It’s too much of “a mom book” – meaning what, I’m not sure. I catch myself viewing such books (written by women, and read mostly by women) as somehow not important or challenging enough, even though when I’ve given in and read, say, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, I’m met with something both ambitious and moving, and I need to check my attitude.Okay, I’m getting off track, because everyone knows Cormac McCarthy is all man. What would he do in Oprah’s Chicago studio, with all those women clutching their copies of The Road, wanting to know: What has happened to the world? Why didn’t you name your characters?Turns out, the real book club discussion is happening online – if you sign up as a club member, you can post on a message board, and get discussion questions, and so on. The episode of Oprah had none of that, only an interview with McCarthy at the Santa Fe Institute, couched between segments with Michael Moore and Bono’s Vanity Fair gig.I’m sure many of you have already heard about the interview, which was McCarthy’s first (and probably his last, Oprah told us). She asked him, “Did you always know you wanted to write?” to which he answered, “I think.” She asked, “Are you passionate about writing? Is it your passion?” to which he answered, “I don’t know… passion seems like a pretty fancy word.” She asked him about writing process; turns out, he types on a portable Olivetti typewriter, doesn’t plan the story out too much, and doesn’t tend to fraternize with other writers. They devoted much of the interview to McCarthy’s previous era as a pauper.To me, the most interesting question Oprah asked McCarthy was about the absence of women in his books. A good question, considering all the women who were now his biggest fans. He answered, “Women are tough,” meaning, I suppose, that he doesn’t know how to depict them on the page. Oprah didn’t push this, and I wish she would have – How is a female consciousness different from a man’s? Is McCarthy more interested in a world made and unmade by men? Is he simply afraid of getting it wrong with the ladies? Or is he just really into cowboys?Oprah looked pretty nervous throughout the interview, and not wanting to upset a man who never talks about his work, she played it safe. That’s fine, Oprah, that’s fine – but you better make Jeffrey Eugenides jump through some hoops, or I’m defecting from your army.Bonus Link: As you may have heard. Oprah’s next pick is Eugenides’ Middlesex.