For my first ever Year in Reading at The Millions, I will only be featuring books which I checked out from the local public library in my sleepy Massachusetts town a few miles north of the Red Line’s terminus. Constructed in 1892 and modeled after the Renaissance Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, I’ve made this sandstone building a regular part of the itinerary on my way back from Stop ‘n Shop. The library has a resplendent mahogany reading room, the edges lined with framed 17th century drawings, with the back walls decorated with an incongruous painting of Napoleon’s ill-fated Russia campaign and a North African souk scene, all oranges and lemons in the sun. This room contains all of the new novels that come through the library, and after moving to Massachusetts and getting my card I made it a point to come every other week, and to take out more books than I had time to read.
I will not be considering books that I bought at the Harvard Co-Op or Grolier Poetry Bookshop, which without the deadline of a due-date tend to pile up next to my chair where they get chewed on by my French bulldog puppy. Nor will I write about books which I’ve taught these past two semesters, or which I published appraisals of and benefited from the generosity of publisher’s review copies. I’m also excluding non-fiction, preferring for the duration of this essay to focus entirely on the novel as the most exquisite vehicle for immersing ourselves in empathetic interiority to yet be devised by humans. And while there were seemingly endless books which I dipped into, reread portions of, skimmed, and started without finishing, holding to Francis Bacon’s contention in my beloved 17th century that “Some books are to be tasted… some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously,” I’ve rather chosen only to highlight those which the philosopher would have categorized as books that are “to be swallowed… to be chewed and digested.” Looking over the detritus of that complete year in reading, and examining that which was digested as a sort of literary coprologist, I’ve noticed certain traces of things consumed – namely novels of politics and horror, of imagination and immortality, of education and identity.
Campus novels are my comfort fiction, taking an embarrassing enjoyment in reading about people superficially like myself and proving the adage that there is nothing as consoling as our own narcissism. By my estimation the twin triumphs of that genre are my fellow Pittsburgher Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and John Williams’s Stoner, the later of which remains alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as among the most perfect examples of 20th century American prose, where not even a comma is misplaced. While nothing quite reached those heights, the campus novels which I did read reminded me of why I love the genre so much – the excruciating personal politics, the combustible interactions between widely divergent personalities, and the barest intimations that the Ivory Tower is supposed to (and sometimes does) point to things transcendent and eternal.
Regarding that last, utopian quality of what we hope that higher education is supposed to do, I recently read Lan Samantha Chang’s All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost. The director of the esteemed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Chang’s slender novel follows the literary careers of the poets who all trained together in the graduate seminar of Miranda Sturgis at fictional Bonneville College. Chang uses the characters of Bernard Sauvet and Roman Morris to interrogate how careerism, aesthetics, and competition all factor into something as seemingly rarefied as poetry. Roman has far more professional success, but is always haunted by the aridness of his verse; his is an abstraction polished to an immaculate sheen, but lacking in human feeling. Bernard, however, is a variety of earnest, celibate, very-serious-young-man with an affection for High Church Catholicism that Chang presents with precise verisimilitude, and who toils monastically in the production of an epic poem about the North American Jesuit martyrs. It’s a strange, quick read that risks falling into allegory, but never does.
A very different campus novel was Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, which details over the course of one semester a brief affair between creative writing professor Ted Swenson and his talented, if troubled, student Angela Argo. Intergenerational infidelity is one of the most hackneyed themes of the campus novel, and Prose’s narrative threatens to spill into the territory of David Mamet’s Oleanna. A lesser writer could have turned The Blue Angel, which is loosely based on Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film classic, into a conservative, scolding denunciation of gender politics; the twist being that it’s a woman whose delivering invective against the movement towards great accountability concerning sexual harassment. No doubt the novel must read very different after #MeToo, but the text itself doesn’t evidence the sympathy for Ted which some critics might accuse Prose of. As a character, Ted is nearer to Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert from Lolita, albeit less charming. When read as the account of an unreliable narrator, The Blue Angel isn’t a satire of feminist piety, but to the contrary an exploration of Ted’s ability to rationalize and obfuscate, most crucially to himself.
Ryan McIlvain’s novel The Radicals is only superficially a campus novel; its main characters Eli and Sam are both graduate students at NYU, but the author’s actual subject is how political extremism can justify all manner of things which we’d never think ourselves capable of, even murder. Reflecting back on the first day they really connected (at that most David Foster Wallace of pastimes – a tennis game), Eli says of Sam “I couldn’t have known I was standing across the net from a murderer, and neither could he,” which I imagine would be the sort of thing you’d remember when reflecting on the halcyon days of an activist group that turned deadly. McIlvain’s prose is a minimalist in a manner that I’m traditionally not attracted towards, but which in The Radicals he imbues with a sense of elegant parsimony. The politics of The Radicals is weirdly hermetically sealed, lower Manhattan during the early Obama years more a set piece for McIlvain to perform a thought experiment on the psychology of insular, extreme groups. Sam, initially the less committed of the two, though whom we’re given indications of his character during a disturbing road rage incident in the opening pages of the book, ultimately becomes the leader of an anarchist cell that emerges out of a movement which seems similar to Occupy Wall Street. As the group stalks through the Westchester estate of an executive implicated in the ’08 financial crash, we’re presented with a riveting account of how ideology can quickly veer into the cultish.
There is an elegiac quality to McIlvain’s novel, a sort of eulogy for Occupy, though of course the actual movement never fizzled out in a spasm of violence as The Radicals depicts. A more all-encompassing portrait of American politics in our current moment is Nathan Hill’s The Nix (2017). Hill’s book is a door-stopper, and for that and other reasons it has accurately drawn comparisons to the heaviest of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. The Nix follows the story of another ill-fated creative writing instructor, the unfortunately named Samuel Andresen-Anderson, though unlike Prose’s protagonist his vice isn’t sleeping with his students, but an addiction to a World of Warcraft-type video game. Samuel is only one of dozens of characters in the book, including his ‘60s radical mother who is in legal trouble for throwing rocks in Chicago’s Grant Park at a right-wing presidential candidate who evokes Roy Moore, his entitled student who functions as a millennial stereotype that somehow avoids being overly cliché, the musical prodigy of his youth whom he still pines for, her Iraq War veteran brother, and even the interior monologues of Allen Ginsberg and Hubert Humphrey. Hill’s most immaculate creation is the trickster-god of a book agent Guy Periwinkle, a mercurial, amoral, nihilistic Svengali who reads as an incarnation of the era of Twitter and Facebook.
The narrative threads are so many, so complicated, and so interrelated that it’s difficult to succinctly explain what The Nix is about, but to give a sense of its asynchronous scope the novel ranges from Norway on the eve of World War II, the stultifying conformity of 60’s Iowa, the ’68 Democratic National Convention (and the subsequent protests), suburban Illinois in the ‘80s, New York during the anti-war protests of 2003, as well as the Iraq War, and the imagined alternative universe of 2016. Its concerns include political polarization, the trauma that family can inflict across generation, the neoliberal university, and video-game addiction. Few novels capture America as it is right now with as much emotional accuracy as The Nix, but it’s all there – the rage, the vertigo, the exhaustion. Of course, haunting the pages of The Nix is a certain Fifth Avenue resident, who is never mentioned, but is very much the embodiment of our garbage era. More than that, Hill performs an excavation of the long arc of our contemporary history, and the scenes with Samuel’s mother in ’68 draw a direct connection between those events of a half-century ago and today, so that the real ghost which permeates the novel is less the mythical Norwegian sprite that gives the book its title, than that other “Nix” whose presidency set the template for a corrupt, compromised, polarized, spiteful, and hateful age.
Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic covered similar political and economic ground as both The Radicals and The Nix do, though as channeled through the mini-drama between upwardly mobile, self-made banker Doug Fanning and his new neighbor, the retired school-teacher Charlotte Graves. Union Atlantic follows Charlotte’s war of attrition against both Doug and the McMansion that he’s building in their tony Boston suburb. There is something almost Victorian about Haslett’s concerns; Doug’s journey from being raised by an alcoholic single mother in Southie to becoming a millionaire banker living in a Belmont-like suburb has a bit of the Horatio Alger boot-strap story about it, save for the fact that his protagonist never rises to the same heights of sympathy. Haslett portrays the contradictions of Massachusetts with admirable accuracy – the liberalism and the wealth, the Catholic city and the Protestant suburbs, the working class and the Boston Brahmins. As a nice magical realist touch, Charlotte is in the process of losing her mind, hearing her dogs speak to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. I couldn’t help but be charmed by a dog who sputters invective in the tongue of the colonial Puritan theologian, saying things like “You dwell in Memory like some Perversity of the Flesh. A sin against the gift of Creation it is to harp on the dead while the living still suffer.”
A chilling evocation of those themes of sin and memory is supplied by Nick Laird in Modern Gods, though not without a bit of melancholic Irish wit. Laird provides a novel in two parts; the first concerns the wedding of Allison Donnelly to a man whom she later discovers was involved with the Ulster Unions in an act of spectacularly horrific violence during the Troubles, the second her anthropologist sister Liz’s trip to the appropriately named New Ulster in Papua New Guinea where she is involved in BBC documentary about the emergence of a cargo cult competing against the American evangelical missionaries who’re trying to convert the natives. Laird’s focus is on the horrors of sectarian violence, and the faith which justifies those acts. He could be writing of either the cargo cult, the evangelical missionaries, or the Ulster Protestants when he describes the “imagery of sacrifice and offering, memorials and altars … disguised as just the opposite, a sanctuary from materialism… a marketplace of cold transactions.” Laird’s most sympathetic (and disturbing) character is the cult leader herself, a native named Belef (just “belief” with the “I” taken out…) who appears as a character out of Joseph Conrad, and whose air of cold malice is as characteristic and as evocative of old Ulster as it is of new.
Cults from The Radicals to Modern Gods are very much on authors’ minds in our season of violent political rallies and epistemological anarchy, and so they’re a concern as well in Naomi Alderman’s science fiction parable The Power, where we see the emergence of a religion in opposition to the machinations of the patriarchy. Part of a tradition of feminist dystopian science fiction that finds its modern genesis in Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale (that author not for nothing prominently blurbing The Power). Alderman imagines an alternate world in which women are suddenly endowed with a physical strength that completely upends traditional gender roles, causing radical shifts in power from eastern Europe to Saudi Arabia, the Midwest to London. Alderman writes with narrative panache, moving rapidly between various intertwined plots and across wildly divergent voices, including that of the abused foster girl Allie who becomes the the leader of the new faith and christens herself Mother Eve; Roxie, the daughter of a Cockney-Jewish gangster; an American politician named Margot Cleary and her daughter Jocelyn; a Nigerian journalist named Tunde (who is the only major male character in the novel); and the Melania-like first-lady of Moldova, Tatiana Moskalev, who offs her piggish husband and establishes a female-sanctuary in her former country. The Power is a thought-provoking book, and one with some exquisite moments of emotional Schadenfreude, as when newly self-liberated women riot against repressive regimes in places like Riyadh, and yet it’s not a particularly hopeful book, as the new order begins to replicate the worst excesses of the old.
The Power is only one book in our current renaissance of feminist science fiction, written in large part as a response to the rank misogyny and anti-woman policies of our nation’s current regime. In The Guardian Vanessa Thorpe explains that this is a “matching literary revolution,” which sees a new “breed of women’s ‘speculative’ fiction, positing altered sexual and social hierarchies.” Louise Erdrich provides one such example in her Future Home of the Living God which reads as a sort of cracked, post-apocalyptic nativity tale. In a premise like that of P.D. James’s Children of Men, though without the implied reactionary politics, Erdrich presents the diary of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, college student and the adopted Ojibwe daughter of crunchy, upper middle-class Minnesota liberals. Cedar Hawk finds herself pregnant during an autumn when it seems as if evolution itself has started to reverse, as all manner of primeval beings hatch from eggs, one of which is the proverbial gestation of a theocratic government reacting to the ecological collapse. Erdrich remains one of our consummate prose stylists, and Cedar Hawk is an immaculate creation (in several different ways). A precocious and intelligent student, Cedar Hawk is a Catholic convert who grapples with women’s spirituality, and Erdrich presents a book that is both Catholic and vehemently pro-choice (while also understanding that to be pro-choice isn’t to be anti-pregnancy).
Genre fiction is perhaps the best way to explore our current moment, where the “Current Affairs” section and “Science Fiction” are increasingly indistinguishable. Erdrich and Alderman write in a tradition of literary speculative fiction which recalls recent work by Atwood, Chabon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Crace, but old fashioned hard science fiction with all of its intricate world-building never loses its charms. Sam Miller provides just that in his infectiously enjoyable Blackfish City, which follows the intertwined stories of several characters living in a floating, mechanical city above the Arctic Circle in an early 22nd century ravaged by climate change. Despite hard science fiction’s reputation for being all about asteroid mining colonies and silvery faster-than-light starships, the reality is that from Samuel Delaney to Octavia Butler, science fiction has always been more daring in how it approaches questions of race and gender than conservative literary fiction can be. Miller’s novel provides a detailed, fascinating account of how the geothermal powered city (which is operated by a consortium of Thai and Swedish companies) actually works, but his thematic concerns include economic stratification, deregulation, global warming, and gender fluidity. That, and he has depicted neuro-connected animal familiars that communicate with their human partners, including a polar bear and an orca whale. So, there’s that!
Science fiction isn’t the only genre attuned to our neoliberal, late capitalist, ascendant fascistic hell-scape – there’s also horror, of course. Paul Tremblay offers a visceral, thrilling, and disturbing account of a home invasion/hostage situation in his horror pastoral The Cabin at the End of the World, which makes fantastic use of narrative ambiguity in rewriting the often-over-played apocalyptic genre. One of the scariest novels I read in the past year was Hari Kunzru’s postmodern gothic White Tears. The strange ghost tale has been discussed as if it was a simple parody of white hipster culture’s appropriation of black music, and yet White Tears grapples with America’s racial history in a manner that evokes both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Kunzru’s story follows the fraught friendship of Seth and Carter, who share a love of lo-fi Mississippi Delta blues music, both listening to and producing songs as an act of musical obsessiveness worthy of R. Crumb. Carter crafts a faux Robert Johnson style number attributed to an invented musician he christens “Charles Shaw,” based off of a recording of random, diegetic patter between two men playing chess in Washington Square Park which Seth picks up on one of his forays through New York to preserve ambient sound. The two discover that the fictional bluesman might be more real than they suppose.
The complexities and contradictions of American culture are also explored in Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, which though perhaps not a horror novel itself is still a loving homage to the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. La Farge’s novel is an endlessly recursive frame-tale which follows a series of inter-nestled narratives ranging from the (fictional) homosexual relationship of Lovecraft with a young Floridian named Robert Barlow, to New York author Charlie Willett’s obsession with finding a lost pornographic work of the master himself, which is of course titled The Erotonomicon. Along the way the reader confronts questions of artifice and authenticity, as well as a consideration of the darker reaches of Lovecraft’s brilliant, if bigoted, soul. Le Farge moves across a century of history, and from the horror author’s native Providence to Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos, from northern Ontario to the Upper West Side, with a cameo appearance from Beat novelist William S. Burroughs. La Farge’s novel isn’t quite weird fiction itself, but he writes with an awareness that Lovecraft’s cold, chthonic, unfeeling, anarchic, nihilistic stories of meaninglessness are as apt an approach to our contemporary moment as any, where Cthulhu’s tentacles reach further than we’d care to admit and the Great Old Ones always threaten to devour us. Facing the uncertainties of terrifying push notification, reflect on the master himself, who wrote that the “oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
La Farge’s narrative progresses Zelig-like through 20th century literary history, its story encompassing fictionalized accounts of the intersection of both experimental and genre writing. I’ve always been drawn to picaresque, delighted by the appearance of historical figures as they arrive briefly in a story. Matt Haig’s masterful How to Stop Time has plenty of cameos in the life of its main character Tom Hazard, from William Shakespeare and Captain Cook to Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tom isn’t quite an immortal, but in all the ways that matter he nearly is. Haig describes an entire secret fraternity of incredibly old people called the “Albatross Society” who vampire-like scurry about the margins of history. A Huguenot refugee who comes of age in Elizabethan England, Tom’s narrative follows his yearning to discover the missing daughter of his dead wife, the former a near-immortal like himself. Haig’s is a risky gambit, jumping from the 16th century to the 21st, yet he performs the job admirably, and as somebody who cashes checks from writing about the Tudor era, I can attest to the accurate feel of the Renaissance scenes in the book. Word is that a film adaptation is on the way, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (predictably), but more than even its cinematic action about secret societies and historical personages, How to Stop Time offers an estimably human reflection on what it means to grow old, and to lose people along the way.
As the nights grow dimmer and the temperature drops, the distant beginning of the year seems paradoxically closer, the months folding back in on themselves as the Earth reaches the same location in its annual terminus around our sun. January’s reading seems more recent to me than those summer beach indulgences when I got sand from Manchester-by-the-Sea in the creases of my library books, and so I end like an Ouroboros biting its own tale with the first book of 2018 which I read: Paul Kingsnorth’s enigmatic fable Beast. Founder of the Dark Mountain Project, which encourages artists and writers to grapple with what they see as an approaching climate apocalypse, Kingsnorth has been writing increasingly avant-garde prose in reaction to our inevitable demise. His main (and only) character Edward Buckmaster seems to be the same protagonist from his earlier novel The Wake, albeit that earlier novel takes place in the Dark Ages and is written in an Anglo-Saxon patois that is equally beautiful as tedious, while Beast by all intents seems to be broadly contemporary in its setting.
I’m unsure as to whether they’re the same character, or if Edward is to be understood as the reincarnation of his namesake, but both novels share a minimalist, elemental sensibility where the very nature of prose and narrative are stripped to bare essentials. Beast follows the surreal ruminations of Edward as he phases in and out of consciousness in a cottage on the English moors, in a landscape uninhabited by people, while he both stalks and is stalked by some sort of fantastic creature. The nature of the animal is unclear – is it a big cat? A wolf? Something else? And the setting is bizarrely wild, if not post-apocalyptic feeling, when compared to the reality of the urbanized English countryside. Beast is as if Jack London’s Call of the Wild was rewritten by Albert Camus. It’s the sort of “Man vs. Nature” plot that I always want to like and which I rarely do – save for this time, where I very much did enjoy Kingsnorth’s strange allegory. At least it feels like an allegory, but the nature of its implications are hard to interpret. Proffering a hypothesis, I will say that reading Beast, where boredom threaded by a dull anxiety is occasionally punctuated by moments of horror, is as succinct an experiential encapsulation of 2018 as any.
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Out this week: The Windfall by Diksha Basu; Quiet Until the Thaw by Alexandra Fuller; The Destroyers by Christopher Bollen; River Under the Road by Scott Spencer; The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon; and Modern Gods by Nick Laird. For more on these and other new titles, go read our most recent book preview.