On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure:
It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
When someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered.
But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books.
After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time — after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today — consumerism, consumption — and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example.
In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley’s own interest in “reform eugenics” at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book — one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers). Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel — and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint — they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power.
I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves — these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor.
There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study.
We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term.
Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline — the “savage meeting civilization” — that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre — what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification — Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.”
Satire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins:
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.
Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children…he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.”
I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort — it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel.
So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance — that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed — and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy — that which brought Donald Trump to the White House — at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it.
People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.
There’s a moment in Shawna Yang Ryan’s soaring new novel, Green Island, where the narrator is about to break away from the life she’s always known; she will shortly be leaving Taiwan behind — emigrating across the Pacific Ocean to California. Her father comes into her bedroom as she’s packing. He has a gift, of sorts, for her. He’s brought a jar of soil from the family garden.
“I want you to remember.” He set the jar atop my heaped clothing. “Don’t forget.”
Don’t forget. His words were both an order and a plea.
It is February 1972. Richard Nixon is on his trip to China. Visiting Hangzhou, he’s completing the diplomatic mission that will open formal relations with the PRC. Taiwan, of course, watches with concern; China is a hostile power; with the recognition of the People’s Republic by the United States, Taiwan’s sovereignty might soon be at risk.
These, then, are the twin concerns of Green Island: the political and the personal. Indeed, just a few pages earlier, Nixon’s visit has been relayed by the novel’s narrative voice:
Nixon stands against a metal rail and tosses food into the water with concentration and joy. He drops into a grinning reverie as if he has forgotten the entire world is watching.
“Dr. Kissinger,” the translator says, “you can have a package if you want to feed the fish.”
“Denmark, Denmark,” says the Secret Service. “President feeding fish.”
They stand here at this moment, three of them the most important people to the fate of Taiwan — Richard Nixon, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger — on an overcast day in Hangchow, feeding fish.
Walter Benjamin wrote that it is, “more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.” And there are a number of novels, right now, that are balancing these antipodes — that take significant, well-known historical moments, and show them through the lens of nearly powerless, “nameless” protagonists. Through individuals buffeted by the afflictions of their age.
Of course, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See — with over two million copies sold, in hardback — is an example of this. Doerr’s novel follows two deeply-menaced protagonists — Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig — as they move within the world of German-occupied France. Though Werner has enlisted in the Nazi army, he has done it from necessity, and his efforts to retain his decency in the face of war, in a way, end up causing his death. Marie-Laure is blind; the conflict threatens her in a bodily way; she feels wholly apart from the big geopolitical forces that are — with generalized malice — trying to kill her. She is a suffering witness to history.
Many of the successful literary novels of the past 30 years have negotiated a similar territory, pairing small characters and big circumstances. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Griet, the fictional household servant, and Johannes Vermeer), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (fictional Saleem Sinai, balanced against the political and social figures of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (W.P. Inman, the wounded Confederate deserter, and the army he’s just left), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (the fictional doctor Simon Jordan, and the 19th-century murderer Grace Marks) even Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Sethe and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850), have all paired erstwhile anonymous, imaginary characters with unquestionably “real” circumstances. These books do not ignore history; they don’t neglect the geopolitical events that shape the societies in which their characters have “lived.” Rather they thread their characters through these times, using the novel as an opportunity to show the impact of world-historical events on individual lives.
In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke says that, “the pictures drawn in our mind are laid in fading colors.” The project of the historical novel, then, is fashioned as an assault on this very fade. We, as human beings, struggle to remember, to retain a sense of the past. It has — surprise! surprise! — passed. But by inserting ordinary people into its great events, novelists can once again vivify and free the emotions of departed times. In a way, this is a gesture of resurrection. The text as Lazarus, stumbling — bandaged by covers — out of its dark cave. If the struggle of man against power is, indeed, the struggle of memory against forgetting, then the historical novel is — imaginatively, at least — a part of that struggle.
As for the marketplace — its appetite for this type of book is not surprising. Since the early 1990s, when publishers started calling it “upmarket historical fiction,” many successful literary novels have been set in a time — or place — other than our contemporary world. But the willingness of literary tastemakers to accept a work of historical fiction as “important” does feel like something new. Whether it’s Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings — or two of the most anticipated novels of 2016: Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest and Mark Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story — it feels like there is a vast new space opening up in the fiction world, one that has the potential for both critical acclaim and strong sales.
Writing last month in The New Republic, the novelist Alexander Chee touched on some of these issues. Chee, of course, has just published the historical novel, The Queen of the Night — a book that has, as its central axis, a fictional 19th-century coloratura soprano, Lillet Berne. The book has been well-received, with positive reviews in nearly every major periodical, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s Weekend Edition, Time, Vogue, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle. It also went through multiple printings before its publication.
Still, Chee was worried about the reaction his fellow writers had whenever he told them he was working on a novel set in the past. Writing last month in The New Republic, Chee said that it was, “as if I’d announced that I was giving up years of hard work writing literary fiction to sell out and become a hack. I had inadvertently hit on a literary taboo.”
Yet both Alexander Chee and Shawna Yang Ryan took nearly 15 years to complete their novels. Labor on this scale is almost unthinkable. It is perhaps the exact antithesis of the genre model of fiction writing — with the rapacious, regular demands of the marketplace. The bruising deadlines, the concept-driven, pre-packaged product. Clearly, these two historical novels — with their robust intellectual projects, their deeply imagined settings — are of a different order. The hours-per-page, per-sentence, per-word — for both The Queen of the Night and Green Island — would discourage any beginning novelist.
In an interview with Slate, Chee said, “The longer the novel was unfinished, the more it endangered my ability to keep teaching, which was a large part of my income. It endangered my ability to get further grants. It endangered my relationship, because I had been working on the novel so obsessively for so long that my partner felt widowed by the project.”
Ryan’s experience was similar. “It kind of took over my life for the last decade and a half,” she said. Building her book’s foundation was an arduous process. In a conversation with The New York Times, she described the work of structuring the novel. Her dedication to craft — and her ceaseless evaluation and reevaluation of the project’s success — was built on a twinning of imagination and historical exploration. “I often thought of my research as similar to unraveling a sweater,” she said. “I’d tug at one thread, and a whole sleeve would come undone.”
The Booker McConnell Prize was a belated arrival on the world lit scene. It was founded in 1969, sixty-six years after the first Prix Goncourt and fifty-two after the first Pulitzer. Booker McConnell, a U.K. food conglomerate, had a sideline interest in books. In the hopes that a prize might boost consumer interest, they ponied up the cash for the largest prize at the time. When The Guardian made the announcement, W.L. Webb (both The Guardian literary editor and the selection committee’s chairman) sent a telegram from Czechoslovakia in the throes of the Prague Spring: “Booker Prize is notable sign that Britain too is learning to value the writer and his work more hugely. With you soon Brezhnev willing.”
Since then, the Booker shortlist and the eventual winners have been decried for being too populist, too elitist, too imperialist, too predictable. The prize is announced on television each year, and each year, the closed-door politicking, arm-twisting, and neck-wringing leading up to the ceremony have been more indelible than most of the novels under consideration. Next year, the prize is expanding to consider any book published in English, dragging us all into the fracas.
Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel, Lost for Words, is a briskly readable satire on the annual circus. St. Aubyn has incorporated thinly veiled representations of past scandals, like Anthony Burgess demanding to know if his novel had won before he would commit to attending the event. The novel features a gallery of bumbling publishers, egomaniacal critics, emotionally-stunted authors. They are all angling for the Elysian Prize — the British literary world’s laurus nobilis, the evergreen plant associated with public validation — even if they don’t have much hope for literary immortality. In picking out the gossip from the freely invented, I found myself drawn further into the Booker’s long, ignoble history.
The first winner was P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, a Greene-influenced metafictional novel set during the Suez Crisis. The novel’s protagonist, Townrow, is hit on the head early in the novel. After being drawn into a web of international espionage, he has a difficult time grasping reality. “The old girl kept writing and complaining about the police,” the novel opens. “It was enough to start Townrow on a sequence of dreams.”
When Newby won, there was no televised ceremony. Newby received notification by mail. The book has fallen out of print, though Sam Jordison and other readers have suggested it’s an unjustly overlooked gem.
St. Aubyn is renowned for the Patrick Melrose books, a five-volume exploration of privilege and menace. In his new novel, we get a St. Aubyn avatar in Sam Black, a writer who has shelved his ambitious first novel to write a harrowing autobiographical novel, The Frozen Torrent, that is shortlisted for the prize. He hopes that success will vault him beyond mining his own personal trauma again and “win his freedom from the tyranny of pain-based art.”
The other hapless candidates on the Elysian Prize shortlist are wot u starin at, a work of slumsploitation set in squalid public estates; The Greasy Pole, a political novel promoted by the chairman for his personal advantage; All The World’s A Stage, a historical novel set on the Elizabethan stage; and The Palace Cookbook. The last book is written by an unassuming Indian aristocrat who is baffled when her modest collection of traditional Indian recipes is mistaken for a post-modern novel. That plot point is one of the weakest in Lost for Words. It’s a move that belongs more to 1996 — the year Alan Sokal “punked” the post-modern academic journal Social Text with a nonsense article — than 2013.
St. Aubyn relishes writing pastiches of faux-literary trash. There are parodies of sub-Fleming thrillers, “risque” urban-dialect writing, and Continental philosophy. Possibly the funniest writing in the novel are the excerpts of All the World’s A Stage:
Before William [Shakespeare] could respond to this amazing tale of murder most foul, strange, and unnatural, John [Webster] rose up in his chair, in a state of great excitation, and pointed through the window.
“All eyes! All eyes! My lord of Essex comes hard upon us with a great retinue of men. How finely caparisoned they are, and point device in their accoutrement.”
The Booker McConnell Prize of 1972 was awarded to John Berger’s G., a novel of ideas about an Italian-American living on an English farm and lusting after a governess. “All generalizations are opposed to sex,” the narrator says. “Every feature that makes her desirable asserts its contingency — here, here, here, here, here, here. That is the only poem to be written about sex — here, here, here, here — now.”
When given the floor at the Booker ceremony, Berger critiqued the crass publicity stunts surrounding the prize, and then predictably praised the selection committee’s taste and good judgment, before finally excoriating its corporate sponsor.
“Yet one does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came,” Berger said. “Booker-McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.”
Literary prizes ought to offer the kind of validation that alleviates a writer’s anxiety. There’s evidence laurus nobilis only gives those fears and insecurities a wider ambit. Even after winning the Booker Prize, and having a long career of brisk sales, Newby confessed that he worried that only old women read his books.
St. Aubyn’s insight into the writer’s psyche are well-deployed in Lost for Words. The novelist-character Sam Black wonders if writing is only an “ingenious decoy, drawing attention away from his own decaying body towards a potentially immaculate body of work. He named this deflection the ‘Hephaestus complex,’ as if it had always been part of the annals of psychoanalysis.”
Another character, Sonny, is in London to pitch his tastelessly nostalgic novel about his family of Indian aristocrats. The novel is described as something like Downton Abbey in India — as a publisher-character suggests, it has “a wearisome emphasis on the insults dealt by modernity to the glory of the princely states, and without any hint of relief from his cloying self-regard.” He also is nephew to The Palace Cookbook author and has the second indignity of watching her absurd success from close proximity. Sonny’s grasping and unknowing talentlessness is a genuine fear stalking the writer’s psyche.
In 1981, John Banville published a public letter to the Booker foundation after being announced as a runner-up to the shortlist. “The five hard-pressed judges should forget about shortlists and secret conclaves and so on,” he wrote, “and instead forthwith award the prize to me.” Then, he claimed that he would spend the money on buying copies of all the novels on the longlist and donating them to libraries, ensuring wryly that they might be read, “surely a unique occurrence,” in his wording.
Salman Rushdie won that year for Midnight’s Children, which would go on to win the oddly-named Booker of Bookers in 1993, on the 25th anniversary of the prize, and the Best of the Booker, on the 40th anniversary of the prize.
When Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, he said in his acceptance speech, “It is nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize.”
In Lost for Words, the Elysian Prize committee is chaired by Malcolm Craig, a recently-disgraced MP, who takes a swipe at the “Imperial ash heap of the Commonwealth” while accepting the position. The rest of the committee includes Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend, a popular writer named Penny Feathers, and a blogger, Jo Cross, who is “fiercely loyal” to her blog subscribers. The panel is filled out by the requisite Oxbridge academic, Vanessa Shaw, and Tobias Benedict, a vacuous actor featured in a hip-hop version of Waiting for Godot.
Malcolm opens the first meeting by talking about the social responsibility involved in awarding the prize. “It’s of paramount importance that the money goes to someone who really needs it,” he says. To which, the blogger adds, “no pseuds and no aristos.”
The Oxbridge professor provokes him by name-dropping Nabokov and Proust, as talented aristocrats, but she sabotages herself by sinking into pedantic diatribes on “the true nature of literature.”
St. Aubyn gives the members conventional flaws: they are easily flattered and easily wounded, and animated by an unfocused belligerence. The blogger says, “The vested interests are certainly not going to thank us. And all I can say is that if they want a fight, we’re ready for them.”
The satire in these passages goes broad and lifeless, and the execution is predictable. St. Aubyn, it goes without saying, is said to have nursed a grudge about not winning for any of the Melrose novels, and his rancor is unfulfilled and directionless when he takes aim at the committee.
These passages also have the air of wish-fulfillment, as if the author were indulging is his most self-serving judgments of panelists. They are incapable of searching critique and indifferent to books generally. By setting up such easy targets, St. Aubyn is dragging his net in the shallows.
In 2002, the website of the Man Booker Prize (renamed that year) announced Yann Martel’s Life of Pi as the winner. The chair of the Booker committee, Lisa Jardine, claimed that the book “would make you believe in God.”
“My suffering left me sad and gloomy,” the novel begins, prompting me to ask: what kind of suffering leaves one happy and exuberant? The question goes unanswered.
Unfortunately, the prize announcement was posted a full week before the televised ceremony, while William Hill plc and other bookmakers were still taking bets on the winner.
St. Aubyn points out in Lost for Words something worth remembering: even in the middle of the frenzy, while the judges are weighing “relevance” and “readability” of the nominees, the serious authors are finding refuge in the writing of sentences.
After being shortlisted, Sam Black is working out whether he should be excited, or how excited he should be, or what his responsibility to the non-shortlisted are. He thinks:
Hubris was bad, but insincere anti-hubris was no better. In the middle of the day, a word like “humility” would present itself, like a sunlit colonnade in all its elegance and simplicity, but by the middle of the night it was transformed into a sinister ruin, with a murderer concealed behind every column.
He compulsively writes down the line for use in a future book. It is enough, we hope, to start him on a sequence of dreams.
I can still remember exactly where I learned certain words. I can recall Salman Rushdie’s repeated use of assiduous in Midnight’s Children. Or looking up pulchritude when I came across it in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The first time I read the word fantod was not in Mark Twain, who popularized its usage, but in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where it was invariably preceded by the word howling. Tennessee Williams taught me mendacity, and Thomas Pynchon taught me…well, he taught me a lot of words (among them: phalanx, faradic, tessellate, and hysteresis, as well as numerous words in numerous languages). Of course, I had undoubtedly read those words before reading each of the above works, but I had never absorbed them. The usage of the words in these novels and plays didn’t just use the words –– they exploited the words for all they’re worth. Saleem repeatedly attributes assiduity to his mother Amina in Midnight’s Children. Mendacity is discussed at great length in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Zadie Smith makes the lovely observation that the ugliness of the word pulchritude doesn’t match its meaning (Wallace, in his posthumous essay collection, Both Flesh and Not, notes that pulchritude is “part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adj.), classy, colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others.”). I now associate these words with their respective authors. Every time I use one of them, it is as if I can feel the presence of my teacher over my shoulder. I am, in those moments, part of a tradition, albeit a small one.
But what really excites me are authors who teach me new meanings to banal words. New words can be a joy, inasmuch as they remind me of the sheer vastness of language (not to mention my limited grasp of it), but the reconsideration of a word I already know –– now that is something. Defamiliarizing language reminds me that everything in language, even definition, is fluid, malleable, and open to inventive use. Shakespeare, obviously, is the easy example here. As Stephen Fry says, Shakespeare “made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got.” He invented words (eyeballs, amazement, bedazzled) and reclassified others (the verb “to gloom” became “gloomy”). But for me personally, the writer who most tickles my linguistic fancy is Ali Smith, one of the most underappreciated writers working today.
Ali Smith, appropriately enough, is one of the few writers (along with Nabokov, Stoppard, Woolf, Wallace, and Hitchens) who qualify as a “wordsmith.” Her prose, however, isn’t as rich or ornate as some of the other wordsmiths, but no one else can mine ordinary words for such rich, emotional meaning. Let’s just start with some examples. Her latest novel, There But for the, exemplifies her remarkable acumen with quotidian language. Each of the four sections of the novel is named after the words of the title, and they also serve as the first word of the first sentence of each chapter. She mines “there” for everything it’s got, beginning with the form of a knock-knock joke. Who’s there? takes on new meaning once Anna, one of the protagonists, considers what it means to really be there, as in present. Her friend Denny tells her that he can “sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words…I was there. There I was.” Suddenly the idea of thereness persists in her mind as Anna receives word that an old acquaintance has shut himself into a room at a dinner party, and refuses to come out:
It was as if the whole outside world was TV soundtrack. Maybe there was a new psychosis, Tennis Players’ Psychosis (TPP), where you went through life believing that an audience was always watching you, profoundly moved by your every move, reacting round your every reaction, your every momentous moment, with joy/excitement/dis-appointment/Schadenfreude. Presumably all professional tennis players had something like it, and maybe so to some extent did everybody who still believed in God. But would this mean that people who didn’t have it were somehow less there in the world, or at least differently there, because they felt themselves less observed?
Then, when Genevieve, the distraught homeowner, describes to Anna the situation with Miles and the dinner party, Anna suggests that Miles isn’t “all there,” to which Genevieve’s precocious daughter replies: “He is all there…Where else could he be?” When Anna knocks on the door to Miles’s newly adopted home, she asks, “Are you there?” In her memories of Miles, he tells her about a book he’s writing, which begins, “There was once, and there was only once…Once was all there was,” echoing the beginning of this novel, which begins, “There once was a man…” and goes on to set-up the dinner party fiasco. There is used, still in this section, in all of its varieties: “It’s over there,” “There,” (as in, locating something and as in, There you go), or in the exchange, “What exactly is a pun therefore?” which yields the response, “What exactly is a pun there for?” The section ends with Anna saying, “I’m here,” dropping one letter from the sections theme, creating a new word with a more intimate meaning.
In lesser hands, all this verbal play would strike one as preening and obnoxious. In Ali Smith’s delicate grip, words become emblems of the character’s life. There introduces Anna’s ponderous relationship with the world she’s in, it questions Miles’s sanity, it hints at the fable-like nature of the narrative, and it works as an introduction to the predicament that sets all of this into motion. This kind of gymnastic use of a single word is Smith’s specialty, but instead of simply engaging in verbal pyrotechnics for their own sake (as, say, Barthelme arguably did), Smith wants to understand the dynamic between language and our inner lives. Can you really tell me, for instance, that you’ve never considered a word until its myriad meanings seem to encompass every aspect of your life?
Well, even if you haven’t, Smith has, and her constant quest for elastic language remains a singular pleasure in her work. In The First Person and Other Stories, she writes three tales named after fictional points of view: the title story and “The Second Person” and “The Third Person.” Each one surprises you with what Smith means by the title. In “The First Person,” a couple’s almost cynical dynamic actually displays their burgeoning love for one another:
You’re not the first person I ever had really good talks like this with, I say.
I know, you say. Been there, done that. You feel very practised.
Thank you, I say. And you won’t be the first person to leave me for someone else or something else.
Well but we’ve a good while before that, with any luck, you say.
And you’re not the first person to, to, uh, to––, I say.
To stump you? you say. Well. You’re not the first person who was ever wounded by love. You’re not the first person who ever knocked on my door. You’re not the first person I ever chanced my arm with. You’re not the first person I ever tried to impress with my brilliant performance of not really being impressed with anything. You’re not the first person to make me laugh. You’re not the first person I ever made laugh. You’re not the first person full stop. But you’re the one right now. I’m the one right now. We’re the one right now. That’s enough, yes?
You’re not the first person to make a speech like that at me, I say.
Then we’re both laughing hard again in each other’s new arms.
What a wonderful passage, how honest in so many ways. Smith shows here how, like language, we can embody multiple meanings, in this case the honest cynicism of relationships, that we’ve been through the dance before and that, in many ways, many of our emotional rituals are recycled and should thus lose power, but how despite all those logical thoughts, we feel love anyway. We feel new with a new love, even though we’ve felt new before, even though we’ve laughed in another’s arms. Those thoughts don’t matter, even though we’re completely aware of them. We fall in love nonetheless. As if we never had before.
I’d like to ask a question here that Ann Patchett asked of Edith Pearlman: why isn’t Ali Smith famous? Sure, her books have won numerous awards, but so have Pearlman’s, and though her books are almost unanimously well acclaimed, she seems to only be known by writers. This kind of reputation usually draws the phrase writer’s writer, but Smith, as I have argued, moves beyond mere linguistic innovation. Her books are soulful explorations of what it means to live inside our minds, with all the bouncy, circuitous thoughts that live in there with us. More than that, she is so immensely readable, her prose moves like the conversation of a witty friend. Accessible, playful and rich with insight, Smith has few peers. So: why isn’t she famous?
One answer might be Smith’s tendency to beguile, not just in her books, but also in her career. She rarely sits down for an interview, does zero press for her books and consistently creates narratives with strange premises: a man refuses to leave a dinner party, a stranger upends a family when she appears at their home one night, a woman finds a child at a grocery store and can’t rid herself of him. These are not the sorts of tales that ordinarily top the bestseller charts. Yet, would anyone expect George Saunders’s books to sell well? Or, for that matter, Stephen King’s? Most recently, Smith produced a book that defies categorization. Artful is, to me, one of the best and most unique works of literary criticism published in the last decade, yet it received minimal coverage, as if the reading world (in America, at least) responded to a new book from Smith with nonchalance: “Oh, that woman made another strange book.”
Sidestepping any conventional approach to analysis, Smith instead tells the fictional story of a woman who has lost her partner of many years. Her dead lover wrote a series of lectures on art and literature, thus the criticism done here is filtered through the point of view of a non-literary person who remembers her partner’s work. A sense of mourning enters into the book, also of longing, of heartbreak, of love. Here’s an example of the interplay between the emotional and the academic modes of Artful:
There, I thought. I’m okay. I’ve moved a really heavy chair. I’ve changed things. And I’ve read sixteen lines in a novel and I’ve thought several things about them and none of this with you, or to do with you; I even read the phrase ‘item of mortality’ and thought of something other than you. Time heals all wounds. Or, as you used to say, time achilles-heels all wounds. Then you would tell the story of Achille’s mother dipping him in the protective river, holding him by the heel between her finger and thumb; that’s why the heel got missed out, didn’t get protected. Which, you said, when it came to story, was what suspense meant. And from then on all time’s arrows pointed at that unprotected heel.
In this single passage, the narrator moves from personal reflection to broad insight and recollected literary analysis. What makes the choice of form here so wonderful is the way it reflects, to me, one’s relationship with literature. Our brains (and, to be sure, our hearts) don’t usually work like academic papers do –– we can’t cite the exact quotation or prove our thesis at the drop of a hat. Instead, we recall the novels and stories and poems we’ve read and conjure a feeling or sensation we got when we first read them. Literature is a part of our unconscious life, just like past lovers, long-ago travels, and instances of pain and suffering and joy and hope. It is all mashed up into a messy medley of personal selfhood. Artful’s narrator, then, becomes not just a tool for Smith’s criticism but also a stand-in for the bridge between art and our selves. Art becomes a part of us yet exists independent from us, just like the people we love.
Artful, though, engages in the academic approach as well, with Smith once again extracting as much as she can from single words. As the narrator rereads Oliver Twist, she remarks on the repeated use of the word ‘green,’ which is one of the first things the Artful Dodger (from whose name the book takes its title) says to Oliver when he meets him. In this same scene, Dodger asks Oliver about ‘beaks,’ which Oliver takes to mean “a bird’s mouth.” Dodger tells him that a beak is a magistrate, about which our narrator writes:
It’s like literality meeting a metaphor, I thought. Or –– no –– it’s like a real apple meeting a Cezanne apple. It’s as if Dodger speaks another language altogether; and it’s as if Oliver has to understand that a beak can be more than one thing, and a mill, and all the words that come in the paragraph after too, a stone jug, a magpie. Everything can be more than itself. Everything IS more than itself.
Underneath Smith’s wordplay lies philosophical positivism –– like words, we all contain multitudes; we can be one thing and its opposite, or, like Smith writes of the Artful Dodger, whom Dickens refers to by various names, we are all “a work of shifting possibility.”
In a rare interview for a newspaper in Cambridge, where she lives, Smith had this to say about the instinctual connections you must make in order to allow a story to move where it wants to go:
If you write something, you look at it, and maybe the word ‘green’ will turn up in four places in one paragraph, so then you think ‘what does green mean?’ It means immaturity, it means spring, it means newness, it means naivety. Then you look in those directions to see what the words wanted you to do.
And there is a connection, just like she says. The word green appears again. Appears in Oliver Twist and in an interview with Smith. What, taking from Smith, are we to do with this? It would be easy to guess that Smith was probably working on Artful at the time of the interview (the piece focused on There But for the, Smith’s book directly before Artful), but I’d like to think that it’s more than that. I’m going to settle on newness, because whenever I think of Smith, new is a word that pops into my head. I wonder what she’d do with it.
See what the words wanted you to do, she says. Smith follows words around like a detective, noting every street they walk down and every activity they engage in. She waits patiently for the telling moment, the odd behavior, and there (ahem) she finds its purpose, and the story seems to come along with it.
Image Credit: Flickr/darwinbell
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
I bought my copy of Midnight’s Children in a book shop in Pondicherry in 2006 during an earnest personal campaign to read things about India while in India — a gesture of a piece with a ladies’ auxiliary “around the world” evenings or literary dos where participants discuss To the Lighthouse and eat boeuf en daube. Before Midnight’s Children, I read A Suitable Boy, and read it while sleeping on trains with my pants tucked into my socks against forward bugs. (This made for evenings of psychic dissonance roughly analogous with reading Edith Wharton on a cross-country Greyhound bus. The difference is that no Greyhound bus depot is as nice as any Indian train station of my limited experience.)
Talking about traveling, particularly the rugged variety of traveling favored by the youth, can so quickly become an exercise in witting and unwitting and halfwitting braggartry about the distance from indoor plumbing, the extreme isolation of one’s guesthouse, and the rustic nobility of one’s hosts, that it usually seems better to avoid the subject altogether. And now that I look back at my charmed early 20s and realize the immensity of the gift bestowed upon me — the gift of going places and seeing things — to even speak of those days seems gauche. Better I should husband my accounts as ready capital for some social moment when my footing is unsure. If I meet you and mention Uzbekistan, what am I wearing? Is it a turtleneck? Is there an odor?
Re-reading Midnight’s Children this summer was such a transporting experience, however, that I am compelled to mention those days on the road, when Saleem Sinai revealed a world beyond the dingy windows of unremitting buses and trains. Dunya dekho, “see the world,” as the dugdugee man Lifafa Das cries, with his postcard peepshow of Indian wonders.
I traveled with two friends, and we dutifully cultivated our up-for-anythingness. In Mumbai, picked up off the street in a routine roundup of foreign faces, we had our hair combed and — with Hungarians, with Kenyans, with Finns — played the Nascar fans of Bollywood’s imagining. We trudged across Chowpatty beach and up the Malabar hill and looked solemnly in the direction of the Tower of Silence, entrance barred the non-Parsi. There in the valley of the shadow of death, we spent our filmi proceeds on Pizza Hut and felt bad about ourselves. We saw Don in the cool movie theater. We sweated and itched through the night in gender-segregated wings of the Salvation Army.
Our strategy was speed and distance, and we were up for anything in New Delhi and Pushkar; Agra and Varanasi; Kerala and Munnar and Madurai. By Bangalore, we were no longer up for very much — that’s when we saw The Departed. In Chennai, we were like limp rags. Throughout our peregrinations, the feeling was not all we had seen, but all we hadn’t. The map was big enough for years of days of train rides and new towns, different holidays and seasons. When you go somewhere new, without the funds to elevate you to the echelon of luxury that is its own country, inevitably there comes a moment when you look around and realize that you have no idea what the fuck is going on. In these moments my Indian book club of one succored me, gave context to the long days of new sights and sounds.
My companions protested when I disappeared into my book at train platforms, abandoning them to the stultifying boredom and endless mini-backgammon of extended travel. I suppose it was bunkum, methodologically speaking, but Midnight’s Children was Lonely Planet and spiritual Baedeker. Pondicherry was all bicycles and sea breeze, but from the pages of Rushdie’s novel I gazed back-to-Bom and imagined what it might have felt like to understand the secret dimensions of those afternoons, “hot as towels,” when we felt tired and bewildered and alone.
We had come to India, in a route that makes us sound much more cosmopolitan then we are, via Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Central Asia I had been astonished and soothed by the discovery of an immense and flexible web of cognate Turkic languages. With middling Turkish, it seemed a miracle to be able to pay a taxi driver, to find Exits and Entrances, to identify the Interrogative Mood, if not the nature of the interrogation. Reading Midnight’s Children, another web asserted itself. From Salman Rushdie I learned about what I now think of as the Janum trail, a Persianate path circling a third of the earth, demarcated by the term of endearment meaning “my life, my soul,” which made its way into every language the Iranic tongue touched. Midnight’s Children was peppered with other words I knew, carried across around the continent in their original Persian or Arabic: words like dunya (world) and hamal (porter), the booze-prescribing Doctor Sharabi (from wine).
Just a few little words, but they packed a wallop. Reading this novel I realized for the first time that language is a map of history, and wondered how it had been drawn. And better than any guide book, Midnight’s Children suggested the extreme variety, the multitudinous tongues and what the anthropologists call “lifeways” of India. Saleem Sinai, he of the classy Lucknow Urdu and the topographical face, who wanders into the language riots, whose mind is a cacophony of children’s polyglot voices–if language is a map, he is the compass rose.
More methodological bunkum, but I’m on the record as getting 70 percent of my history learning from novels. And talk of history! Some greater percentage of Rushdie’s allegories remain obscure to me, but some things are clear: India was chaos, Saleem tells us, and yet its artificial rivening was a profound human tragedy. Across a new line on the map, Saleem’s interior radio can no longer broadcast the voices of his compatriots. In an abandoned battlefield in contested territory, he runs across a talking pyramid, the mutilated remains of his old playmates from the Methwold estate. The tragedies pile up; the people in charge make criminal, monstrous errors.
There’s history on history. The great polymath Sir William “Oriental” Jones went to India and to him was revealed the Indo-European language family, a discovery which would later pave the way for the racialist theories of the blood, the traits and so-called purity thereof. What’s in Saleem Sinai’s blood, besides snake venom and chutney? He’s the the natural child of a be-toupeed Englishman (ba-toupee and be-toupee, if I may venture a modest Urdu pun) and a cuckolding Indian wife; unnatural grandson of German-educated Kashmiri-turned-Indian; faux Mughal (which is really a kind of Turk); soldier in the Land of the Pure. In the words Mary Pereira, a Bombay Goan (“those Anglos,” tuts Saleem’s mother): “Anything you want to be you can be: You can be just what-all you want.” Until Indira Gandhi steals your balls, that is.
Saleem Sinai looks back on his narrative finds his dates don’t add up. I looked through my emails — with ticket stubs and postcards, my only record of the period — and there is one mention of this novel, an unfavorable comparison to The Tin Drum. How can this be? How could I have been so ungrateful after all Midnight’s Children did for me? What else have I gotten wrong in my own recollections, inconsequential as they may be? (Did I even know the word hamal back then? It seems unlikely.)
No matter; I see it all clearly now. Another thing I learned from this transforming novel: To write the past, you “have to set it down with the absolute certainty of a prophet.”
In the fifth episode of the hit sitcom New Girl, a self-styled stud tries to impress an Indian-American woman by declaring that he loves India. When pressed for details, he stumbles his way through the following catalogue:
I love Slumdog. I love naan. I love pepper. I love Ben Kingsley, the stories of Rudyard Kipling. I have respect for cows, of course. I love the Taj Mahal, Deepak Chopra, anyone named Patel. I love monsoons. I love cobras in baskets…I love mango chutney, really, any type of chutney.
The point is clear: the average American’s knowledge of Indian culture is superficial, stereotypical, and offensive. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the joke — and an Indian-American woman in a leading role on primetime TV — confirms how much Indian culture has permeated American pop culture. This should not be surprising: With a population that increased to 2.8 million from 1.7 million between 2000 and 2010, Indians are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America. They may also be one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in literary fiction — in America and the larger Anglophone world.
Fiction written in English by authors of Indian descent has been critically acclaimed and commercially successful for decades. Now a new wave of talent has arrived: In 2012, the Indian-American writers Rajesh Parameswaran and Tania James published their debut short story collections — I Am An Executioner: Love Stories and Aerogrammes, respectively — while British-Indian author Hari Kunzru published his fourth novel, Gods Without Men: While it may be too soon for these authors to have achieved the heavyweight status of a Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, their imaginative, provocative, and well-crafted books suggest the continuation of a literary legacy and a move into “post-post-colonial,” “post-ethnic” territory.
Parameswaran, James, and Kunzru inherit three decades of Anglo-Indian literary success. Rushdie’s magical realist novel Midnight’s Children, about a boy born on the precise moment of Indian Independence, won the Man Booker Prize, the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. His most notorious novel The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death threat from Ayatollah Khomeini that sparked international controversy and massive sales, an experience upon which he reflects in his memoir Joseph Anton, recently excerpted in The New Yorker. In recent years, the Booker has gone to Arundati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, a hybrid of Invisible Man and Native Son set on the subcontinent. And as recently announced, the six authors shortlisted for the 2012 Booker includes Jeet Thayil, born in India, raised in Hong Kong, India and the U.S., and the author of the novel Narcopolis, about a 1970s opium den.
The new wave is also indebted to Lahiri, who rocked the American lit establishment — and book clubs nationwide — with Interpreter of Maladies, an understated, pitch-perfect short story collection that captured the domestic dramas and existential malaise of upper class Indian Americans, mostly in bourgeois Boston. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was followed by the novel, The Namesake, later a Mira Nair-directed movie, and Unaccustomed Earth, another stunning and more ambitious story collection that cemented Lahiri’s reputation as the marquee Indian-American fiction writer and a master of short fiction.
Beyond heritage, Parameswaran, Kunzru, and James have similar pedigrees. Parameswaran went to Yale for college and law school, Kunzru went to Oxford, and James went to college at Harvard and grad school at Columbia. (Rushdie went to Cambridge). Too old to be wunderkind, all are still young by literary standards: James is 31, Parameswaran is 40, and Kunzru is 43. And while they hail from Michigan and Texas, Kentucky, and London, all three now live in the New York area. Perhaps a brunch is in order?
True to their heritage, all three address issues of Indian identity. In the central storyline of Gods, an Indian-American man marries a Jewish-American woman and the incipient tensions in their marriage combust after their son disappears. In “Ethnic Ken,” a story in Aerogrammes, an Indian-American girl plays with a brown-skinned version of Barbie’s boyfriend; the doll apparently cost half the price of the “regular” Ken. In one of the many tragicomic stories in Executioner, an unemployed Indian computer salesman pretends to be a doctor — the paradigmatic profession for high-status Indian Americans — with ghastly consequences. In their treatment of ethnicity, all three books join Lahiri in a subgenre that one of James’s characters, an aspiring screenwriter, calls “not quite Bollywood, not quite Hollywood: Indians in America or England Torn Between Identities.”
Nevertheless, all three authors transcend the stereotypical expectations of “ethnic” fiction, including the notion that characters must share their author’s ethnicity.
Several stories in Executioner and Aerogrammes feature non-Indian characters. And the Indian-American protagonist in Gods shares a stage with non-Indians including an 18th-century Spaniard, a 19th-century Mormon, and a contemporary (Caucasian) British rock star. Even among the Indian characters, there is diversity: James’s Indian characters speak Malayalam, the language of the state of Kerala, Kunzru’s Indian characters speak Punjabi, spoken in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan, and Parameswaran’s titular executioner speaks in a parody of Indian-accented English: “Normally in the life, people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanors.” Such simple differences may remind Western readers that India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot and internationally engaged country, not a monolithic, homogenous, insular place.
As if to distance themselves from ethnicity and nationality, all three authors experiment with non-human characters. The narrator of one story in Executioner is an elephant; another is a murderous, guilt-stricken tiger, a literal version of Adiga’s titular “white tiger.” A story in Aerogrammes concerns a chimpanzee that nearly convinces a woman he is human. Strangest of all, Gods opens with a cryptic fable with characters named Cottontail Rabbit, Gila Monster, Southern Fox, and the protagonist Coyote, who sets up a meth lab in the desert. Take that, Kipling.
Regardless of species, all three books grapple with physical, emotional, and existential despair, albeit in different tones and moods. Gods is cerebral, somber, and grim. As he did in the reverse outsourcing fable Transmission, Kunzru assaults his characters until they break, and relents only after they have lost nearly everything. (For the film, perhaps Werner Herzog or P.T. Anderson could direct?) By contrast, Aerogrammes is sweet, sad, and painfully earnest. Characters are naïve, blind, or delusional, whether it’s the Indian wrestlers who don’t realize the sport is supposed to be fake, or the boy who refuses accept his mother’s new husband. There’s pain suffering in Executioner, too but it’s often undercut by humor or an authorial wink, either implied or in meta-fictional parentheses or footnotes.
While Aerogrammes essentially falls into the category of realist fiction, Parameswaran and Kunzru flirt with other genres. Besides the two talking animal stories, Executioner includes a spy thriller, “Narrative of Agent 974702,” and a science fiction tale, “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319).” Perhaps most fantastical — yet paradoxically most credible — is the cult at the center of Gods, a desert commune that fuses Christianity, Buddhism, New Age, and Alien Worship into an explosive whole. Then again, as Kunzru semi-subtly implies, such a group is not so different than the Europeans who Christianized Native Americans or Mormons who found Zion in the American West.
While fundamentally contemporary, all three books derive depth from history. In Executioner, the meta-fictional tale “Four Rajeshes” concerns a railway clerk in colonial India at the turn of the 20th century and his version of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. The opening story in Aerogrammes features a pair of Indian wrestlers who arrive in England in 1910 to engage in literal and figurative battles with their colonial overlords. Perhaps because it is a novel, Gods is even more historically ambitious, with a storyline that spans more than 200 years. Ultimately, all three authors use history to transcend personal experience, shattering the expectation that “ethnic” fiction must be autobiographical. In a way, they all respond to the question that Rushdie poses in Joseph Anton when recalling his inspiration for writing The Satanic Verses:
The great question of how the world joins up — not only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live.
In terms of style and structure, Aerogrammes is the most conventional of the three. The plainspoken prose obeys the aesthetic in which the writer’s voice is secondary to the story. The nine stories are more or less uniform length, each about 20 pages. Ultimately, James seems to value cohesion and consistency over shock and surprise. Parameswaran takes the opposite tack. His voice is always strong and varies widely from story to story; some seem like the work of different authors. If the books were Beatles albums, Aerogrammes would be Rubber Soul, the harmonious whole with songs of essentially equal weight, and Executioner would be The White Album, a hectic hodgepodge of competing voices. (Speaking of The Beatles, didn’t they help bring Indian music and spirituality into Western popular culture?)
Gods splits the difference between these two extremes. Like Executioner, it’s grandiose, sprawling, and dense. With its multiple points of view, multiple settings, and non-linear structure, it often reads like a collection of loosely linked stories. Some plots literally converge; others merely inform each other. Yet over 369 pages, Kunzru maintains cohesion. Part of this may stem from his use of the close third person point of view (which James does in most of her stories). It may also be a matter of experience; perhaps on their fourth books, James and Parameswaran may find a similar balance of ambition and unity.
For all the merits of these books, the question remains: is this literary boomlet an anomaly, a coincidence, or a harbinger? Will these books be a curiosity or a gateway to wider American interest in Indian culture? Will more Indian Americans join Govs. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley as high-profile politicians? Will we see more Indians Americans in popular entertainment: TV, movies, sports?
In a poignant scene in Interpreter of Maladies that sums up the cultural barriers at the heart of the book, an American woman tries to buy Hot Mix, an Indian snack. The Indian clerk dismisses her with four words: “Too spicy for you.” Perhaps one day, that scene will seem outmoded, if not unfathomable.
When I graduated with my MFA earlier this year, I routinely fielded the various versions of What are you doing next? Of course, what people really wanted to know was what I was going to do for a job. Frankly, I’d never considered doing anything other than what I had been doing — planning and creating communication packages at the creative agency where I’ve worked for the last decade. The guys in Mad Men did it. So could I.
High school teacher and poet Nick Ripatrazone recently wrote an article encouraging MFA graduates to consider careers outside the traditional adjunct faculty route — for better pay, better benefits, and better peace of mind. He made a great case for teaching high school. “You have,” he writes, “other options.”
You absolutely do. Teaching high school is just one of them. Working at a creative agency is another.
Agency employees have long been known to write stories and novels on the side. In fact, it used to be a kind of trend — at least in the middle of the 2oth century. Familiars like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) worked at agencies and then wrote in their spare hours. Heller continued to work after Catch-22 was published. Even more recently, writers like Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End) and Rosecrans Baldwin (Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down) have used the agency experience as the basis for books. Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors) wrote his first book while still in the ad agency world. Suzanne Finnamore did the same (Split).
Today’s creative agencies do a lot of different things: advertising (the Mad Men kind), publications, websites, branding, or communication strategies. Usually, an agency has a niche, but some choose to combine it all. Mine happens to do a little bit of everything so I’ve been able to interview illustrators at Disney, write copy for major fundraising campaigns, and research Africa’s best new authors.
Though agency outputs are different from literary outputs, there’s quite a bit that can be gleaned from the industry. And not just how to drink multiple Old Fashioneds. You don’t even have to be like me, who was somewhat established before I took some time off for my MFA. You can be freshly diploma’ed and still a strong candidate:
You know how to write a sentence. A really good sentence. You’d be surprised at how many people can’t do that. Clients are constantly telling us they’ll handle the writing for a specific project. More often than not, it’s wordy and dry and confusing and they’ll come back and ask us for help.
You can articulate why certain ideas work and others don’t. Writing workshops have provided great training with this. You can’t get away with saying: Oh, I just don’t like that. You have to figure out why and then communicate it to your fellow writer. That’s hard work and an extremely valuable resource for employers.
You can think outside of a box. You may take this skill for granted, but how often do you have a character stuck in a corner that you must reconcile? Or you’ve got a line in a poem that you really love, you’re just not sure where to go next? It’s uncomfortable but somewhat familiar terrain for writers — figuring out solutions to complicated situations.
With those skills in-hand and a few others, here’s what could be in it for you should you decide to look into agency work — for more than just paid vacations and health insurance.
Jobs: Depending on what you are willing to do, a look at job listings sites shows there are lots of opportunities. Salaries will vary depending on locations, but the median for entry-level jobs is $30,000-$40,000.
Editing skills: Salman Rushdie learned to say a lot in a little from writing ad copy: “You have to try to make a very big statement in very few words or very few images and you haven’t much time. All of that is, I feel, very, very useful.”
Nerve: Stephanie Bane has an MFA and is working on a memoir of her time in the Peace Corps. She also works at an ad agency in Pittsburgh. “I’m impervious to insult,” she says. “Advertising is a team sport. Somebody — or several somebodies — weigh in on every word I write. My ideas are edited, altered or outright rejected on a daily basis. When it comes to seeking publication, rejection letters still sting, but my day job makes it easy for me to treat them as a routine part of the business.
Imagination: Joseph Heller felt he’d been trained by the limitations he learned in his copywriting work. “They [ideas] come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie. It may have something to do with the disciplines of writing advertising copy (which I did for a number of years), where the limitations involved provide a considerable spur to the imagination. There’s an essay of T. S. Eliot’s in which he praises the disciplines of writing, claiming that if one is forced to write within a certain framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, however, the chances are good that the work will sprawl.”
Publishing: Most likely, you’ll get something published in the agency world far sooner than you will in book publishing. Even if it’s just the Dental Association of America reading it, it’s still out there. (And when you come home to yet another rejection from The New Yorker, that’ll matter. A little.)
Discipline: Balancing a 40-hour work week and a writing life takes dedication. Another thing Rushdie tucked under his belt from the advertising world: “…it taught me to write like a job…. You can’t afford temperament, you can’t afford days of creative anguish; you have to sit there and do your job and you have to do it like a job, get it done on time and well. I now write exactly like that. I write like a job. I sit down in the morning and I do it. And I don’t miss deadlines.” Anastasia Edel is a producer at Frog Design in San Francisco. She’s also finishing up her MFA in fiction, which makes for a very busy life. “When you really want something you find the time,” she says. She writes between the hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.
Exposure: You’ll likely interact with a lot of different artists — other kinds of writers; designers who will show you a whole new way of looking at the world and will likely give you expensive taste in almost everything; photographers who can argue that a picture may very well be worth 1,000 words (and you might be compelled, at times, to agree). There’s an energy that can come from this kind of community. Edel recently collaborated with a colleague to lead a creative meeting that explored the heart of the creative process. “If there is a way you can leverage what you’re studying with your lifestyle,” she says, “you’ll get energy from that.”
The agency atmosphere isn’t for everyone. There are bad days and good days, as with any job. You have to set boundaries. You have to work hard. You have to play well with others. And in order to write you have to say no to some things (like going out with your new colleagues for drinks after work) and yes to others (like getting up several hours before work to write). But you just might find that the skills you honed while pursuing your MFA have a much wider range than you ever imagined.
Image Credit: Flickr/photologue_np
Writers often make cameo appearances in films based on their stories. Occasionally, they play themselves in movies. Some playwrights, by nature of their proximity to actors and the theater, are almost better known for acting than for their writing (Wallace Shawn and Sam Shepard, for example).
There are writers, however, who act in films that have nothing to do with their own writing. Who are some of these authors, and how do they fare on the big screen?
1. Calvin Trillin – Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
In his debut performance as Uncle Milton in Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy, Calvin Trillin can be called subtle. The author of Tepper Isn’t Going Out and About Alice is doing one of the things he does best: eating dinner. He is also relatively avuncular, if your uncles are, like mine, the sort who basically ignore you. (You can catch most of his performance here starting at 1:05.)
Trillin followed up his Sleepless in Seattle performance with a role in another Nora Ephron film, Michael (1996). As the sheriff who throws the eponymous archangel and his entourage in jail, Trillin has a few lines, but he appears acutely conscious of the camera — and determined to turn away from it. How like a writer.
2. George Plimpton – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The late editor of the Paris Review auditioned for the role of himself in Paper Lion (1968), based on his book of the same name, but the part went to Alan Alda. However, Plimpton brought his transatlantic honk to many movies. He made his film debut as a Bedouin running across the desert in David Lean’s epic and went on to make 18 more big-screen appearances. He donned a cowboy hat in Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo (1970) and partied with club kids in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998). He logged bit roles in The Detective (1968), L.A. Story (1991), and Good Will Hunting (1997), among others.
3. Jerzy Kosinski – Reds (1981)
George Plimpton appeared as an editor in Reds (1981), which also featured writer Jerzy Kosinski as Grigory Zinoviev, the Russian revolutionary-turned-bureaucrat. Kosinski’s portrayal of Zinoviev is cold, furious, and authentic. Before filming began, Kosinski also convinced director Warren Beatty that the latter was having a panic attack. Beatty says, “I found that for some reason my feet were sweating profusely…Kosinski was hiding under the table pouring hot tea into my shoes very gradually.”
Plimpton and Kosinski also had cameos in A Fool and His Money (1986). Plimpton played God. Kosinski was a beggar. Literary Brat-Packer Tama Janowitz made a brief appearance as a talk-show host. By all reports, the film is terrible. Pre-Speed Sandra Bullock had a small role. She is featured prominently in the re-cut trailer.
4. Maya Angelou – Poetic Justice (1993)
Poetic Justice was directed and written by John Singleton but Maya Angelou supplied the poetry recited by Justice, played by Janet Jackson. Angelou also had a small role as June, one of three sisters whom Justice encounters at a family reunion. Angelou also played a woman named May and read her poem “In and Out of Time” in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006). The writer is comfortable on camera, impressive and sonorous. Really, though, Maya Angelou plays Maya Angelou, even when she’s ostensibly a character named after a month.
5. Martin Amis – A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)
A very blond, 13-year-old Amis appeared in the film based on Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel. The story has been described as The Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan. British children who are being sent to England for schooling find their ship commandeered by pirates. The pirates prove juvenile, while the children find their blood lust awakened by the plundering and pillaging. Amis describes the making of the movie in his memoir, Experience. Puberty hit the future writer during filming, forcing filmmakers to overdub Amis’ voice with that of a young girl’s.
6. Salman Rushdie – Then She Found Me (2007)
In the film based on Elinor Lipman’s book of the same name, the author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children plays physician to a pregnant Helen Hunt. The film is filled with off-puttingly familiar mugs: Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Colin Firth. Most distracting of all may be Rushdie’s. He tries his best, but let’s face it: SALMAN RUSHDIE, fatwa survivor, ex-husband of Padma Lakshmi, plays an obstetrician who is not using enough gel while operating an ultrasound machine. Disbelief has not been suspended if the audience* starts yelling, “Use more gel, Rushdie! Use more gel!”
*Okay, I was watching it alone in my living room. Still.
8. Norman Mailer – Cremaster 2 (1999)
Mailer acted, directed, and wrote many films (including Maidstone , in which Mailer’s character’s fight with his brother, played by Rip Torn, turns into a real-life brawl). But Mailer also received good notices for his role in Ragtime (1981), based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, in which he portrayed architect Stanford White, and as Harry Houdini in artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 (1999). Barney’s avant-garde film was loosely based on the story of Gary Gilmore, who claimed to be the illegitimate grandson of Houdini, and was convicted of killing two Utah gas station attendants. Gilmore was also the subject of Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Executioner’s Song.
9. Gore Vidal – Gattaca (1997)
In 1971, Norman Mailer headbutted Gore Vidal in the greenroom of the Dick Cavett show (the on-camera portion of the spat can be found here). Clearly, the two writers shared a sense of theatricality which might explain their attraction to the cinema. Vidal enjoyed turns in Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts (1992) and the comedy Igby Goes Down (2002), among others. Vidal also had a supporting role as the sinister head of a space agency in the dystopian thriller, Gattaca, which also starred novelist Ethan Hawke.
10. Anita Loos – Camille (1926)
This 33-minute silent film loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, probably shouldn’t qualify for this list — it’s essentially a home movie of a drunken party — but the cast is completely insane. Paul Robeson! Clarence Darrow! Charlie Chaplin! Loos, writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fame, played the title role. Essayist H.L. Mencken, and novelists Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and W. Somerset Maugham made appearances. Publisher Alfred Knopf also had a cameo.
N+1 editor Keith Gessen had a minor role in Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore Mutual Appreciation (2005). Beat writer William S. Burroughs appeared in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Essayist and This American Life contributor David Rakoff acted in Capote (2005) and Strangers With Candy (2005). And finally, novelist and professional egoist Ayn Rand, an uncredited extra in Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings (1927), probably spent her life wondering why she wasn’t the star.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Earlier in the week, the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize was announced, and the Anglophone news media dutifully sat up straight and took notice. In September the shortlist will be announced, and the news media will sit up even straighter and take even more notice and, for a month or so, fiction — six works of fiction published in the last year, to be exact — will be a more prevalent topic of discussion in the press and online. Already, the customary kvetching about unjustly overlooked books is well underway. In Ireland, where I’m from, the number of our long- and shortlisted compatriots is usually seen as a reliable indicator of the award’s continued relevance. If William Trevor or Anne Enright or Colm Tóibín makes the grade, there is hope yet for the Booker; if not, it is doomed to subside more or less irrevocably into irrelevance. As I write this, The Irish Times already seems to be cracking its knuckles and asking its readership to hold its jacket as it prepares to duke it out over the coming outrage of the shortlist. A report on the longlist points out that Sebastian Barry is “the lone Irishman alongside eight British subjects and three Canadians” (note the subtly politicizing insistence on stressing the British authors’ relationship to their head of state). The article then moves on to discuss the matter of neglected books, drawing the battle lines in historically explicit (and absurd) terms, informing us that “surprise omissions this year amount to a literary Somme.”
You’ll find similar stuff in most of the major newspapers, at least in Britain and Ireland, where the Booker has the highest level of what I think is referred to, by people who use words like “traction,” as “traction.” This is all pretty harmless stuff, of course — most of us would like the writers we think important to be recognized — and it gets people talking about books, buying them, and maybe even reading them, all of which are good things. But every time there is an announcement about a major literary award, there is always this low tumult of grumbling about all the great writers the judges have “snubbed” (this is usually the verb of choice when it comes to describing the failures of those charged with awarding prizes to books). And I have to admit to being as guilty of this as the next guy, and probably more so. When Tom McCarthy’s C was shortlisted for the Booker last year, I fooled myself into thinking that a) it had a chance of winning the thing and that b) if it did win, it would, more importantly, mark the beginning of a trend toward greater mainstream interest in novels of a non-middlebrow persuasion. When Howard Jacobson’s almost aggressively unremarkable The Finkler Question eventually won, I briefly allowed myself to get irritated about it, as though it were some kind of personal affront that Sir Andrew Motion and his panel of judges had chosen to give a prestigious award to a writer I didn’t much care for over one I did.
But here’s the question: why do we even care about this stuff? So Tom McCarthy — or whoever it was you might have wanted to win — didn’t get a prize. Does it really matter? By and large, awards like the Booker are intended to promote solid, well-written, more or less middlebrow fiction — the kind of books that broadsheet newspapers tend to give coverage to. And that’s surely a good thing for the publishing industry, for the literary editors of papers that still have books pages, for the small number of writers who get the nod, for booksellers and (I would guess) for the manufacturers of those stickers that get slapped with startling speed onto the dust jackets of shortlisted titles. But does it really matter at any other level — at the level, for instance, of literary culture as opposed to the publishing industry? I’m not convinced it does.
I recently taught a night course focusing on novels which have won the Booker over the course of its short history. It was a hugely fun class to teach. The students were predominantly in their fifties, sixties, and seventies — retirees, middle-aged professionals and empty-nesters, mainly, who wanted to be better informed on contemporary fiction. The individual novels mostly went over well (albeit with a couple of pretty grim exceptions), but two questions kept coming up again and again in the classes: 1) why are literary awards important? and 2) why do we give so much attention to the Booker Prize specifically? Given that I was teaching the class, it wasn’t unreasonable of them to expect me to be able to answer these questions, but I could never manage anything less lame than “well, literary awards highlight exceptional books — or they’re supposed to, at least — and the Booker Prize is often very controversial, so it gets people talking about fiction, which is positive…” I don’t think the students were especially convinced. I know I wasn’t.
Reading and discussing certain novels, there was an unavoidable sense of arbitrariness, a sense that these books probably would not be much read had they not won the Booker, and that that might not necessarily have been an unsustainable loss to the literary world. By what reasonable criterion (I found myself obliged to address) could Ian McEwan’s harmlessly diverting Amsterdam, for instance, be considered the best work of fiction published in Britain, Ireland, and the countries of the Commonwealth in 1998? Why had Kingsley Amis won the prize for a pretty dull book called The Old Devils, while his son Martin had never got a look-in for those brilliant ones he wrote in the eighties and early nineties? Could I please explain why anyone could consider Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (a novel I happen to like quite a lot) even worth talking about? And, most pressingly of all, what the hell was so great about Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children that they had to give it not just the Booker itself in 1981, but also something called The Booker of Bookers in 1993, and then something else called The Best of the Booker in 2008? (I was, and still am, at a complete loss to answer this last question, apart from hazarding that they were perhaps so insecure about their initial choice that they felt a powerful need to overcompensate by reinforcing it in more and more ostentatious ways).
A lot of great novelists have won the thing for really excellent novels — Ishiguro, Atwood, Banville, Coetzee (twice) — but spending months reading through so many of the winning books in order to set the reading for the course really impressed upon me how unreliable an indicator of literary importance or comparative quality the prize is per se. And the same is true, to some degree, of all book awards. So why do so many of us get so bent out of shape when they fail to represent what we think of as the best of contemporary fiction? Was it really an outrage that Howard Jacobson had been awarded the Booker over Tom McCarthy, as I fleetingly managed to convince myself last year? No, it wasn’t: it was an anomaly that a wildcard like C had even been shortlisted in the first place. Getting worked up about the fact that really interesting, innovative fiction so often gets ignored by awards judges is, when you think about it, a little bit absurd. I don’t think it’s an injustice that, say, The Minutemen never won a Grammy — it would be frankly odd of me to even bring that up. Why would they have? The idea that that might even matter is somehow quietly insane — they weren’t the kind of band the Grammys were set up to be awarded to, and who cares about the Grammys anyway? And I think a more tempered version of the same stance should probably be taken toward literary awards. They’re great for the publishing industry, they’re great for the handful of writers who win them, and they’re great for the readers who would not otherwise have discovered those writers. But I don’t think anyone in their right mind should be looking for them to accurately reflect what’s really happening — what is truly vital and new and exciting — in contemporary fiction.
The whole idea of awards is not really compatible with serious consideration of literature in the first place. When you read stuff in the press about there being “a strong field” this year, about certain writers not having “made the cut,” and about bookmakers offering punters (i.e., readers) odds on novels, you kind of have to recognize how essentially daft the whole thing is. Writers are not jockeys, books are not horses, and readers are not punters.
That being said, if you’re looking to make a quick buck you could do a lot worse than putting a little something on Alan Hollinghurst to take the Booker this year. I for one think he’s showing some serious form.
Image credit: ThisisHoop/Flickr
In what seems peripherally related to our recent exercise in award aggregation, The Prizewinners, the Booker Prize recently announced their Best of the Booker, a prize to commeorate the 40th anniversary of the Prize and also to name the “best overall novel to have won the prize.” It went, somewhat predictably, to Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children – the book also won when the Booker gave out a similar award 15 years ago. Scott, however, makes a very compelling argument that J.G. Farrell’s “novel of imperial decay,” The Siege of Krishnapur, deserved to be honored instead.Meanwhile, in what seems peripherally related to our recent exercise in books-in-translation aggregation, The Prizewinners International, the Lit Saloon points us to The Times’ (UK) list of “the 50 outstanding literary translations from the last 50 years,” presented alphabetically. Some Millions favorites like The Master and Margarita, 100 Years of Solitude, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler appear. Interestingly, Edith Grossman, one of the most celebrated translators in recent years, does not make the list.