I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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This year I grabbed a lot of books almost totally at random and finished most of them, some in a few hours (hello, Jean Rhys’s gorgeously unnerving Wide Sargasso Sea, which I read in a hotel in Tijuana in the spring), some over many months (looking at you, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, an exquisitely boring novel I now meditate upon, helpless, for around two hours a day). I didn’t have a plan. For a while I read nothing but Joan Aiken novels. Nominally this was because I was writing about Joan Aiken for The New Yorker, but when you are reading books as delightful as Aiken’s, the whole question of motive begins to seem somewhat beside the point. For instance, you would never say, “I’m leaving this world for a plane of transcendent joy so I can write about it for the New Yorker.” Or maybe you would, but in that case I harbor grim suspicions about the integrity of your Instagram feed.
I read a lot of Chinese poetry from the Tang era, returning again and again to Du Fu whenever I felt hopeless or desolate. His work is a steady source of strength for me in hard times: compassionate, particular, seemingly able to encompass both the whole of existence and the precarious lives and moments held within it. Of course he also lived through one of the most terrifying periods of social upheaval in human history, and his thousand-year-old poems ring out clearly against the onslaught of our current news cycle. If you can read his accounts of life as a refugee and still feel indifferent to the refugee crisis, you must be molded from very cold clay.
I didn’t read many new books this year; who knows why. Among the books published in 2018 that I did pick up, Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, a lyrically thrilling account of the history of Oklahoma City, and Your Duck Is My Duck, Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection of short stories, were particular favorites. I read the Eisenberg collection while traveling on my own book tour. I found myself wanting to read her work, instead of mine, aloud at most of my stops.
Mostly, though, I read books I should have read years ago, books everyone else has already read. Imagine, with wonder and pity written starkly on your features, the poor sod who had not picked up Nabokov’s Pnin, or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, or Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, or LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, or Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues, until 2018! Reader, that sod was me. After scrolling, rapt, through Meg Wolitzer’s recommendation in The New York Times, I finally tracked down a copy of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, a novel so perfect, so funny and heartbreaking and funny-heartbreaking, that I expect to read it again in 2019, if not this weekend.
But I can’t this weekend—this weekend I’m reading Hamid Ismailov’s The Underground, another book I’m years behind on. I look forward to catching up with his new work from this year, along with that of so many other writers I admire, in approximately 2033.
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Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style.
“Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.”
That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters.
Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring?
It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense.
The disconnection between the couple doesn’t escalate into a separation or a divorce. Even though the wife admits she hates her husband, she still succumbs to his lust and even takes an active part occasionally. The husband eventually suffers a stroke and dies, not because he learns about his wife’s adultery, but because of his own long-time debaucheries. Therefore, the husband’s death functions more as a twist than a climax leading to a falling action. The story has no confrontation. For example, when the daughter moves out, she does so under the guise of wanting a quiet place to study. The mother suspects the real reason but the family never discusses it overtly. The family remains unbroken, at least in appearance.
A similar use of alternating narrations divulging the miscommunication in a relationship can be found in quite a few Anglo-American novels: Evan S. Connell’s Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, and, most recently, Margot Livesey’s Mercury. But, unlike Tanizaki’s work, these stories tend to create a dramatic build that invites a self-revelation. Take Mercury. Donald, the husband, gradually realizes that he and his wife, Viv, have grown so apart that she needs a gun to protect her real love, a horse. Their disconnection, the core conflict, is slowly revealed and climbs to an irrevocable moment, the climax—Viv fires the gun and shoots Donald’s friend. The relationship is thus damaged: Viv goes to the jail, leaving Donald unsure about his feelings. All those inner emotions breed the characters’ actions, which in turn transform the family dynamic. The narrative is thus an analytical search for the reason why their intimacy falls apart—since when did they stop listening to each other? Fates and Furies, set in a more traditional matrimony in which the wife assumes a domestic role while the husband works to support the family, also dedicates itself to uncovering the hidden face of a relationship. The wife’s side of the story wrenches apart the husband’s golden boy formula and indicates that she’s the real puppeteer of the “happy marriage.” Both novels are seeking the “truth.”
In The Key, by contrast, the disconnection between the couple is established as a premise rather than a conclusion:
Ikuko, my beloved wife! I don’t know whether or not you will read this. There is no use asking, since you would surely say that you don’t do such things. But if you should, please believe that this is no fabrication, that every word of it is sincere. I won’t insist any further—that would seem all the more suspicious. The diary itself will bear witness to its own truth.
This is from the husband’s first letter. It’s clear the couple lack mutual trust at the beginning of the story. In that regard, Tanizaki has no interest in discovering an underrepresented or repressed voice or exploring a mystery within the relationship. He cares more about the dark psychology of human beings: the pleasure we take from jealousy and infidelity, and our sadistic tendencies. Unlike his Western counterparts, Tanizaki isn’t using the case of a problematic marriage to teach a lesson. The dark side of humanity is what all of us are born with; a mishandled past trauma or a long-time subjugation are both oversimplifying the complications of relationship.
In Tiger Writing, Gish Jen uses the word “interdependent” to describe the East Asian mode of self-conception, as opposed to the “independent,” the West’s mode:
The first—the “independent,” individualistic self-stresses uniqueness, defines itself via inherent attributes such as its traits, abilities, values, and preferences, and tends to see things in isolation. The second—the “interdependent,” collectivist self-stresses commonality, defines itself via its place, roles, loyalties, and duties, and tends to see things in context.
As a Chinese woman, I am surprised to see Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife dare say to her in-law, “Next time you want to see your grandchildren, you give me a call.” Likewise, American audiences may consider those East Asian women who are obedient to their in-laws’ unreasonable commands weak and cowardly. At the danger of stereotyping, according to our conventions, those women are strong and mature because they embrace a holistic picture of family and understand that humility is the key to a harmonious life.
Gish Jen also talks about her father’s distinct memoir-writing mode. After describing the Chinese traditional morning-greeting rituals, she concludes:
This is not a modern, linear world of conflict and rising action, but rather one of harmony and eternal, cyclical action, in which order, ritual, and peace are beauty, and events spell, not excitement or progress, but disruption.
Stormy as the relationship in The Key is, the marriage remains stable—the couple copes with the commotions of life within an orderly framework. A peaceful, present story—like the rituals in East Asian everyday life—is thought beautiful.
The plot difference in these modes of writing also brews structure variance. Very often, the wandering quality of East Asian stories confuses and bothers readers from outside this context. Matteo Pericoli, viewing The Key through the lens of architecture, compares its structure to “two buildings made of huge fin walls whose cantilevering floor slabs slide into the other’s like the pages of two books.” According to him:
The floors of the “double” building therefore alternate, as though one of the buildings has even numbered floors and the other only odd. To go from one level to the next—say, from the fifth to the sixth floor—we’d have to go downstairs, exit one building, enter the other, and go back upstairs.
To Pericoli, this is a “huge” and also “meaningless” effort. I can see his point, but again I notice the structure difference roots from our distinct ways of thinking.
But what if Ikuko reads this, what will she be likely to do? Will she worry about me, and try to control her sexual instinct? I hardly think so. Even if her reason demanded it, her insatiable body would refuse to comply. Short of my collapse, she will never stop insisting on gratification.
Doubtless she will ask herself why I am writing this. “He seemed to be doing so well lately,” she will think; “but he’s been forced to give in, hasn’t he? I suppose he means to frighten me, so that I’ll be less demanding.”
The Key is full of similar fantasies where the narrator projects his thoughts onto his wife and even presumes her response in order to modify his imaginative behaviors. Paranoid though it may seem, this psychology is very typical in East Asian culture as I experience it—we tend to make conjectures about others’ reactions to the extent that we can be trapped in our endless imaginations, rarely taking action.
Last year when I came to the U.S. for the first time, I struggled to ask American friends for a ride, even though they expressed their willingness to help—“Just give me a call.” But I didn’t dare ask, afraid that my need would inconvenience them. In China, the car owner would ask me each time she goes out—“Jianan, I’ll go get groceries from Walmart this afternoon. Would you like to come along?” As you can see, it’s the car owner who foresees my reluctance to bother her and thus makes a further move to anticipate my need.
In the fabulous Japanese film director, Shunji Iwai’s 1995 movie, Love Letter: it is only after the main character passes away that his dream girl finally discovers he loved her, when she finds her name written on numerous library cards in their high school. Recently a story went viral in China and Japan; it tells of a Japanese programmer who coded the name of his love into a video game he’d invented. But he never confessed his love, remaining single in his entire life. “But why?” I remembered my American peers widening their eyes when I told such stories. It’s not the humiliation we may suffer if being turned down, but the concern that passions might upset the loved ones’ harmonious life—we don’t want our personal happiness or sadness to become their psychological burden. We prefer doing “small, good things” (Raymond Carver) to brighten up their days without asking for anything in return. This one-sided caring, or so-called “pure love,” is considered the highest form of romance in East Asian culture. Jun’ai, the Japanese word for “pure love,” means “genuine, dedicated love” according to the Japanese dictionary.
Turning to Tanizaki’s work, readers are urged to journey back and forth between the husband’s and wife’s respective projections and even paranoias; how many of them are true remains a mystery. Again, Tanizaki has no interest in diagnosing the marriage; he embraces a larger scope: because our ways of communication can never do justice to the chaotic, ambivalent, and ever-changing human mind, mutual understanding becomes a luxury we can ill afford.
Apart from the recursive quality of narrative that may read as repetition or lack of focus to Western readers, the profusion of objects and details in East Asian texts may also seem unnecessary and baffling.
One critique I often receive from my workshop is that I need to trim down certain details in my writing, particularly in the beginning. I didn’t understand why the slow pace bothered my American peers until, again, I stumbled upon a very similar narrative mode used by Gish Jen’s father. “Written over the period of a month and totaling thirty-two pages, it does not begin à la David Copperfield with ‘I was born’; in what we will come to recognize as true interdependent style, my father does not, in fact, mention his birth at all.” (Gish Jen, Tiger Writing.) Instead, Gish’s father opens with an elaborate family history and a comprehensive depiction of their household—another example of an interdependent mind. Different from Western stories that value the personal, concrete textures of life, a successful East Asian fiction must relate to a larger social-historical picture.
I enjoyed reading Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in The New Yorker recently, but it also struck me that if the same story was written by a Chinese writer, it probably wouldn’t receive the same amount of attention. Right from the beginning, it is clear that the story would focus on a woman’s personal dating experience:
Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester. She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and bought a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines.
In her 1943 story titled “Sealed off,” Eileen Chang, a then emerging Chinese writer, dealt with a very similar subject matter—romance as a game between narcissism and self-pity and women’s one-sided creation of the object of their love. By contrast, Chang’s story opens with almost a panorama of the people living in that moment, which may seem clunky next to the concise opening of “Cat Person:”
The tramcar driver drove his tram. The tramcar tracks, in the blazing sun, shimmered like two shiny worms oozing out from water: stretch, then shrink, stretch, then shrink. Soft and slippery, long old worms, slinking on and on and on…the driver stared at the wriggling rails, and did not go mad. The tramcar would have gone on forever, if the city hadn’t been shut down. It was. The streets were sealed off. “Ding-ding-ding-ding” rang the bell. Each “ding” was a small, cold dot: dot after dot, they formed a line that cut through space and time.
The tramcar stopped, but the people on the street started rushing around: those on the left rushed over to the right, those on the right rushed over to the left. The metal shop gates came rattling down, all in a single sweep. Matrons tugged madly at the bars. “Let us in!” they cried. “At least for a little while! There are children here, and old people too!” But the gates stayed tightly shut. The two sides glared at one another through the bars, feeding off each other’s fear. On the tram, people were fairly calm. They had somewhere to sit, and though the tram interior was shabby, it was still quite a bit better, for most passengers, than their rooms at home.
Chang goes on and on to portray almost every passenger in the tramcar; in fact, the main characters, Wu Cuiyuan and Lu Zongzhen don’t appear until seven paragraphs later. These seemingly redundant descriptions extend the themes. The story is set in Japanese Occupied Shanghai, when Japanese authorities often blocked the road to search and arrest underground resistance fighters—thereby “Sealed Off.” It is in this very short time and on this temporarily stopped tramcar, two strangers, out of pure boredom, begin to flirt and even think they are in love. Chang doesn’t only show women’s particular anxieties when embarking upon a romance, but also the general selfishness and indifference of people—even war fails to make them compassionate. Without this elaborate opening and an echoing ending, the story would be too narrow to hold standing in modern Chinese literature.
One famous anecdote of Sōseki Natsume, an outstanding Japanese novelist in the Meiji period, follows that he taught his students the appropriate Japanese translation for “I love you” should be “The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?” East Asian stories lay great emphasis on the richness of themes, which, too, may derive from our unique ways of communication, where “beating around the bush” is common, to avoid any possible conflict and embarrassment. Similar cultural implications are embedded in our stories to channel our emotions, but it is often the case that Western readers fail to decipher them and are thus bewildered and even bored.
A striking example is the translation of the 1968 Nobel Prize laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s early masterpiece, “The Izu Dancer.” Shockingly, the English translation appeared at first in an abridged form; Edward Seidensticker, the translator, streamlined the plot by cutting the parts which he thought irrelevant to the center theme.
“The Izu Dancer” mixes elegant reminiscences with lyrical fiction, telling a high school boy’s first romantic encounter with a young traveling performer. Again, it may hardly fit in the West’s category of “love story,” because nothing dramatic ever takes place. The two closest points towards intimacy are perhaps when the Izu dancer addresses the protagonist as “a very nice person” and when she comes to see him off at the port. No kiss, no hug, not even a vocal goodbye; they just keep gazing and waving at each other. After a close study of the curtailed version, I am very sad to find the most scintillating details of this story were all “pruned.”
In the opening chapter of the original, the narrator runs into an elderly man in a teahouse. A horrible scene: the man, suffering a stroke years ago, is bruised and swollen all over, as if he was drowned. Beside him stand piles of yellowish letters and moldy medicine bags—he asks every traveler for any potential prescription to cure his illness. The narrator, in a indifferent tone, describes the elderly man as “a monster in the mountain” and says he can’t believe the man is still alive.
In the ending chapter, there is an echoing scene cropped in the English. When the narrator boards the return ship, a stranger who looks like a miner asks him to escort an old woman to her destination. After the accidental death of her son and daughter-in-law, she is left with three little grandchildren; she holds a girl with either hand, a baby on her back, “her eyes look empty and miserable.” The narrator agrees to help.
In Chinese, we have a particular term to refer to those seemingly unrelated details, Casual Touches (闲笔). We believe the best writers are not those who show a refined mastery of a self-contained story, but who can add beautiful touches here and there effortlessly to stretch and strengthen a story’s meanings. In Kawabata’s case, the two vignettes are crucial to the narrator’s self-awareness. In the beginning, though born into a privileged family in Tokyo, the protagonist loses his parents at an early age. Taking the tragedy personally, he grows cynical and apathetic. (He calls himself a “misanthrope.”) We feel no empathy in his observation of the old sick man. But the love toward the Izu dancer gradually connects him to the lower-class people and to anyone who might previously have seemed unrelated to his life. From the dancer’s family, he realized that most people had suffered, were suffering, and would suffer much more hardship than he had. (Eikichi, the dancer’s elder brother, lost his second child on his performance trip; the Izu Dancer probably wouldn’t avoid entering into prostitution later on.) Therefore, he understands human woes are universal and inevitable. Also, the cheerfulness and kindness of Eikichi’s family moves him, affects him, and revives his capacity to give and love.
I did not know when evening came, but there were lights on when we passed Atami. I was hungry and a little chilly. The boy opened his lunch and I ate as though it were mine. Afterwards I covered myself with part of his cape. I floated in a beautiful emptiness, and it seemed natural that I should take advantage of his kindness. Everything sank into an enfolding harmony.
In the original, the old woman is mentioned again—she functions like a test for the narrator’s compassions, and thus confirms his maturity. This eventual self-reflection is also trimmed and modified in English.
[…] I was immersed in a beautiful emptiness. Now I felt free to accept people’s kindness. I imagined taking the elderly woman to get her ticket at Ueno Station. Of course I’d do that. Everything blended into a harmony.
In his book review “Orphans,” Mark Morris points out “The Izu Dancer” is about cleansing, purification: “A narrative vision that generates impulses of release, near jouissance, by means of an effacement of adult female sexuality and its replacement by an impossible white void of virginity.” But without those seemingly unessential details, Western readers may take it for granted that Japanese culture—or East Asian culture—worships female virginity in an obsessive, if not morbid, fashion. But Kawabata has carefully built the links between the dancer’s innocence and human kindness and empathy, the protagonist’s personal romantic feelings and his connections to life in a general sense. Sexuality, in this regard, is not the West’s notion to mark a teenager’s independence, to mark the time that he needs to leave his parents and start his own life—Kawabata means quite the opposite, sexuality lifts an individual out of his self-absorption and engages him in a larger social landscape, with his people and country. In East Asian context, the notion of pure love teaches us to give and care with no intention to win or take.
“The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?” The line conveys genuine feelings not only because the one who says it is shy, but also because they want to express gratitude to the loved one, as if to say, “you’ve opened my eyes/heart to the beauty of life.” The conventional love in East Asian context doesn’t necessarily culminate in the union of a small family, but in the contribution of harmony of society.
Sadly, it is often the case when Westerners find themselves unable to translate our subtleties and inferences, they may tag those as distracting and, if not having the liberty to cut them, would probably skip them altogether.
Image Credit: Pexels.
One thing you could always say for me: I was a finisher. I may not have been a great reader, but by God I was dogged, and if I made it through the opening 10th of a book, then I was going all the way to the end. Though this started as merely an inclination, it eventually became a rule, for reasons I can’t quite understand. There are, after all, so many books that deserve abandonment, and to this day I admire readers like my wife, who can jump ship after 80 pages. But I suppose my years as an altar boy left their mark, both in a too-easy conflation of negligence and sin and in a deeper, anthropomorphic sense that even a bad book might at the last minute change into something singular and not-to-be-missed. “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life,” as Grace Paley put it, in her own American idiom. And if I was to be the little god of the worlds I made when turning the pages, then who was I to let a little boredom or disappointment turn me away? I mean, isn’t the real God, if there is one, a finisher, too?
This isn’t to say there weren’t challenges. The Book of Disquiet took me over a year, and several running starts. Ditto Being & Time. Proust I read over four summers, and though there was never a moment when he sunk me in the swamps of saudade, or gave me whatever is German for brain-freeze, it took a certain monogamous willfulness to return to, say, The Fugitive when fresher titles beckoned from the shelf.
But then came baby #3. Let’s call her N. She was not, exactly, planned on, though for several consecutive springs when my manic phase rolled in I had this sense that my own open destiny would probably include throwing myself out of the fatherhood plane one more time. Capping the family at two kids would have felt like stopping Proust after book six, somehow. I hasten to say of baby N, as of Proust: totally worth it.
Except that all of a sudden I couldn’t finish anything. When N was born, back in February, The Great War raged in Robert Musil’s diary. Socialism, in G.D.H. Cole’s five-volume history, had entered its anarchist phase. Now, in December, poor Robert Musil still hasn’t reached an armistice, while socialism retains a markedly anarchist flavor.
Here was me in the first few months after the delivery: I would open a novel, read along perfectly happily for a day or two, and then let it drop. I was waiting for the thing that would sweep me up and carry me through. But perhaps my reading list was too ambitious for my circumstances. (Like, who outside of grad school reads Musil at the same time as G.D.H. Cole?) I told myself I would move, temporarily, to something more sensible. But to no avail. My study grew littered with dog-eared New Yorkers, foreshortened short stories, longreads I sputtered out halfway through. Many of which I enjoyed, and hope to finish in the near future. For now, though, my year in reading comes back to me as a mixtape, as hip-hop: a swirl of enticing samples. Bits and pieces of Laura Oldfield Ford’s ’zine cycle, Savage Messiah. Phosphorescent sentences from Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo. Andrew O’Hagan’s essay on Satoshi Nakamoto. Ian Frazier’s on New Jersey Route 3. The poem “Far Rockaway” by Delmore Schwartz. The part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything when Antinous Bellori spots some angels in the woods. The part of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil where Virgil arrives in Brundisium and the translation hasn’t yet gone bananas. The unimprovable first paragraph of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. And Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” whose allegorical valences were not lost on me. Here I was looking down from the deck of a ship, not quite where I ever thought I’d be, while down there in the water, untethered but unreachable, swam another, truer self.
Okay, so I guess I did finish the Conrad. And by summer there were other things, small things, I was managing to see to the end. Like several short stories by Mavis Gallant, including “Speck’s Idea,” probably the single most perfect piece of fiction I read this year. Gallant at her best is every bit the equal of Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, or Joy Williams. Whose story “Stuff” was another highlight. As was Claire Vaye Watkins’s “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” from the Granta “Best of Young American Novelists” issue.
Or like the essays in Zadie Smith’s forthcoming collection, Feel Free. Several years ago, I thought I noticed a turn in Smith’s nonfiction, a loosening of the burdens of her remarkable erudition, like an astronaut swapping out the gravity boots, or like a swimmer kicking off from land. The places she now consistently reaches in her essays—on Joni Mitchell and Get Out and Anomalisa and joy—are not only nearer to the distant philosophical goalposts of the true and the just and the beautiful…they get us there with truth and justice and beauty of their own, and with an extraordinary, dab-worthy grace. In short, I feel lucky to be alive at a time when these essays are being written.
People must have felt similarly fortunate reading A Room of One’s Own a century ago, or hearing it in its original form, as lectures. I somehow made it to 38 without having read it, and in a weird way, I’m glad I did. In a college classroom, I might not have understood it as I did this summer in Maine, as a book not only about feminism, or art (as if these were ever “only”), but about how to live, for everyone, everywhere. That was a good week for finishing things, come to think of it, because I also, finally, tackled Evan S. Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, those sterling examples of love as an act of ruthless attention. And I read much of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie, a monument of narrative nonfiction that belongs on the national required reading list.
There was, too, the compellingly terrible first couple hundred pages of Harlot’s Ghost, part of an ongoing personal Norman Mailer project I probably won’t complete short of a vasectomy. There are times these days when I find bad writing as exciting as good writing. Maybe more. And apparently it’s not just me, because Mailer seems to bring the best out of his critics. Witness Elizabeth Hardwick, in her long-overdue Collected Essays: “the demonic, original clutter of Mailer’s high style.” Or witness Jonathan Lethem: “If, as in the Isaiah Berlin formulation, ‘the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,’ then Mailer’s gift and curse was to have been a hedgehog trapped inside an exploding fox.”
Other, more recent titles I should mention: Ben Blum’s Ranger Games, a gripping and thoughtful blend of memoir and true-crime. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which I can’t make up my mind about—usually a good sign. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “My President Was Black,” with its arresting final cadences. I had read, and felt conflicted about, the epilogue to Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power when it appeared as a stand-alone in The Atlantic. (This is how I read now: epilogue first). If the evidence was hard to reproach, the rhetoric seemed to me flawed. But the book as a whole makes the argument far more persuasively, and—I know this is a little contrarian—I think it’s a more fully realized piece of analysis than Between the World and Me. Coates is that rare thing in our public life: a writer willing to let us see him becoming. We’ll need more of that in the year to come.
And finally, while on the subject of public life and presidents and the winter that is now upon us, I suppose it’s time—with apologies to any of his supporters left reading The Millions—to invoke He Who Must Not Be Named. For, as much as I’ve been pinning my distractibility on baby N (which would suggest I only have to persevere till she sleeps through the night), a novelist friend of mine recently proposed a counter-explanation. “Oh, yeah, man, that’s not you, it’s everyone,” he said. “All of our colleagues, everyone I talk to, my mom and stepdad, their neighbors…It’s been everyone’s worst year in reading.” His argument was that we’re so inundated just at present with narrative and fantasy—with one particular person’s narrative and fantasy—that the last thing we want in our reading lives is more imagination. If democracy dies in darkness, then dispense with the dreaming. Just give me the facts.
Now, if I were a Trumpist, I’d probably say “just give me a break.” There goes the liberal culture industry again, blaming him for their own failings, for every last thing they don’t like. To which I simply ask: aren’t you, too, tired of it? The insults, the feuds, the hysterical touchiness, the drag masculinity, the swamping of the drain, the bull in the nuclear china shop? Not to mention the buck stopping perpetually elsewhere. If politics has become a reality show, we’ve progressed in the last 18 months from the guilty pleasure of The Apprentice to the absurdity of The Celebrity Apprentice to, like, Season 7 of Real Housewives…and did anyone not stuck on an airplane even watch Season 7 of Real Housewives? Haven’t you, too, found far more of your brain given over to Donald Trump than you should have give over to even a good president? Or to put it another way: isn’t one definition of “a good president” “one you don’t have to constantly keep your eye on?” Speaking personally, I’m realizing that I read just as much this year as any year…it’s just that hundreds of my hours were given over to news, lest I fail to be aware of some developing crisis. And in the station wagon of representative government, the driver’s not supposed to be hunched over his twitter feed, leaving everyone else to watch out for hazards. We – I mean to include Trump voters here, too – deserve better. We deserve, at a minimum, adult hands on the wheel.
As to what duties an informed citizenry does have, in this or any other time, it’s worth asking: is newspaper prose plus a handful of cultural swatches anyone’s definition of an inner life? Will even the richest fragments be enough to shield us from ruin? Somehow, I don’t think so. In the short run, the con man who now has the car keys may have exposed our gullibility, sending all of us scrambling to find out things we never had to know before. But the long-term damage may be to a quantity so abused as to have fallen into shame and disrepute: the capacity for belief. We will need, if we are to stitch ourselves together again, to find stories that bridge the unbridgeable, stories that make sense of the senseless, or simply present it in all its mystery, stories that respect the difference between facts and truth – stories worth believing in. In some small way, then, seeing a novel or a poem or a work of imaginative nonfiction through to completion may turn out to be not an irrelevance but an act of subversion. Or better yet: preparation.
Here’s to being a better finisher in 2018.
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Allegheny Front is a severe book. It’s a book that doesn’t trouble itself to protect the reader. “An animal has just enough brains to cure its own hide,” muses a man who is pages away from having just enough brains to see his own hide opened by a shotgun blast. In this collection of stories, his second book after the novel Honey from the Lion, Matthew Neill Null gives us a near-journalistic depiction of the violence men have wrought on nature and on themselves. But Null is shifty, prone to sliding into a different kind of honesty, a shelter-in-the-storm tenderness made all the more seductive due to its relative scarcity in the collection. Null is from West Virginia, and most of the literary press surrounding Null’s work lays the West Virginia on pretty thick — this interview is no exception. The insistence on the West Virginia narrative is not without good reason, though; Null is in possession of a ranging, encyclopedic knowledge of the Mountain State that is every bit as deep as it is wide. Over the course of a few emails, I had the pleasure of speaking with Null about a variety of topics from the efficacy of spoken stories to the forgotten work of Wendy Brenner.
The Millions: West Virginia is all over your work. In Lydia Millet’s introduction to this collection, she admits to knowing “almost as little of hardscrabble country life in West Virginia as it’s possible to know.” I know about the Wild and Wonderful Whites and prescription pills. I’ve heard the lazy, ridiculous incest jokes since I was a kid. I suspect most of your readers will be bringing a similar patchwork of misinformation regarding West Virginia to the table — do you see Allegheny Front and Honey from the Lion as an attempt to complicate — or at least augment — this bizarrely pervasive cultural perception in any way?
Matthew Neill Null: There are so many different people in a place like West Virginia, but we bear down on the most lurid aspects. The pill-eaters certainly exist — some are my pals! — but this vision leaves out the county surveyor, the deacon, the forester, the nurse raising kids on her own. But the world has certain expectations, and you’ll never go broke on stereotype. Writers like Daniel Woodrell have parleyed this into good, long careers. I think of it as meth-lab trailer porn.
I give a fuller spectrum of life because that is my experience of the place; my family has lived there for generations, since a time before the United States existed. My mom, who came from a modest background to say the least (her toy was an empty guitar case, and the house had no indoor plumbing), went to nursing school and climbed the ladder. My dad was a lawyer, from a family that has risen and fallen and risen again. One grandfather was a union pipefitter, the other a mechanic for Columbia Gas — though his father had been a state senator. I was blessed because we had friends from the entire expanse. It was a small place. Everyone was necessary. This is rare, I now know. We are stratified on the level of class. You walk into a party and find out everyone went to Bard together.
TM: In an interview with American Short Fiction, you bring up Breece Pancake as being generally accepted as the best writer to have come out of West Virginia. You go on to say that with Allegheny Front you wanted to “do something different, because if you’re a writer from West Virginia, particularly a white male, you’ll be compared to [Pancake].” It’s strange to imagine writing in the shadow of a 26-year-old man who died some 30-plus years ago whose name still might not ring a bell with many readers. Is this indicative of a shortage of West Virginia literature in general? Or is it just not getting the attention it deserves? Are there West Virginia writers we are woefully unaware of?
MNN: Oh man, I’m not the best person to ask. I’ve consciously avoided writers from my territory, because I wanted to engage the place totally, with my own language, own vision. I’m sure there are woefully overlooked writers of skill, as there are everywhere. My favorite West Virginia books are Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips and Lord of Misrule by my pal Jaimy Gordon, as well as Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S. 1, with its long section on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster.
If people have encountered any writing from West Virginia, it’s likely The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, which has had a cult revival, thanks to many champions such as John Casey, Andre Dubus III, and Kurt Vonnegut. In my grad program, people were obsessed with it.
Pancake killed himself at 26 in a bizarre episode, so his slender oeuvre is frozen like a fly in amber. Certainly the book of a troubled young man, confused, hurt, haunted by the land and history and class, still coming to terms with women and rejection. I wanted a more expansive world. We prize the human perspective too much. I mean my book to be a corrective to a certain understandable chauvinism.
TM: In “The Slow Lean of Time,” one of the characters dies and another is reassured by the fact that the drowned man “would live on on their tongues, not forever, but for a while, the nearest thing to forever.” Your stories often flirt with this collision of past and future, of old ways which eventually must submit to new. In “The Second District,” one of the hunters (who, rather primitively, has just used a dog to cave a bear) is prideful of owning “the first phone I encountered that could take pictures.” My question is this: why are these “stories that live on the tongue” still so vital when we live in a world where everyone has a phone that takes a picture?
MNN: If you look at social media, you see this leveling of American culture. Everyone has the same photo of the same beach, the same blue water, same wedding party, same slang, same songs, same movies. We have one lingua franca. We curate ourselves for mass consumption. But real speech, in the moment, in groups of two or three, tears at the veil. What we say that is not recorded. Drunken confession. Botched jokes. The rejected advance. Campfire at a deer camp. The novel as village gossip. The writer must rescue the whispered and the regrettable. I’m from a place totally shaped by talk, by verbal facility. All that silence, space, and privation gave people that gift, like the Irish, like Southerners. It was our currency, in lieu of any other. If you went to buy cigarettes, you weren’t getting out of there without a 20-minute conversation with the cashier and a couple sheep jokes.
The uneasy relationship between a past and an uncertain future is the major pivot of my work. It is impossible to shear my family’s identity from the West Virginia landscape. But I came of age at a time that was hyper-conscious of the fact that the place was dying. Free land brought us; we were broken on the rock of global capitalism. My world is gone, but we lived rich, particular lives there.
The fiction I’m writing now has a new focus: how to live in a world where there is no future. I find myself going back to beloved writers from Eastern Europe under communist regimes: Tadeusz Konwicki, György Konrád, Danilo Kiš. In absence of hope, their gaze is forced backwards. This may be a dead road, but I’m looking for a hint.
TM: I have to ask about the dedication. Your first book, Honey from the Lion, was dedicated, “For the land and the people.” The dedication in this book, however, reads, “For the animals.” At one point during my reading, I joked with myself that I might reread the collection to tally up how many gruesome (or at least very fully realized) animal deaths I came across. Animals — human and otherwise — are not treated particularly well in this collection that dedicates itself to them. What gives?
MNN: Interactions between humans and animals fascinate me. People in West Virginia live close to the bone — I hunted and fished for the table, like most. But if you look at the greatest swath of contemporary America, people encounter animals bloodlessly shrink-wrapped in the grocery aisle, or they keep pets and fetishize them. (I say this as a dog-lover. You take a young thing from its natural mother, inflict Stockholm Syndrome on it, and convince yourself that this is true love.) So I wanted interactions that are not filtered through sentiment or the factory slaughter-house. Force the issue. As Joy Williams says, “Good writing never soothes or comforts.” Look hard at the brutality people inflict on the landscape, the animals, and one another.
I’m from a place with a thin population. Animals filled out my world. In bed at night, I would wonder what the deer were doing up on the ridge. How the trout lived under the ice. So it was important for me to have a story like “Natural Resources” that is partly told from the perspective of animals. For me, the land, humans, and other forms of life are equally balanced; my work explores what happens when the balance is nudged, be it by capriciousness, bureaucracy, or extractive industry.
The poet Rebecca Gayle Howell is from eastern Kentucky, from a farm family, so we became fast friends. In her collection Render / An Apocalypse, she has poems like, “How to Kill a Rooster,” “How to Kill a Hen.” We’ve both noticed that, at our readings, no one objects to the violence that people do to each other, or that people do to the landscape, but sometimes a person will flip over the death of an animal. I’m not sure what this means. I’m still thinking on it. Perhaps because we project an innocence upon animals — they cannot speak, like very young children. But then, I’ve seen a mink kill a hen and not bother to eat it. It killed for play or for spite.
When I was rattling around for my novel, sometimes I would read a passage set on this howling winter mountainside — a lion attacks a team of horses, a teamster is mortally hurt, a horse has its foot sheared off when a log pins it against a stump. I worried to Rebecca about that, and she said, “You must get comfortable with discomfort.” With inflicting discomfort. That’s the difference between art and wallpaper.
TM: “Unsentimental” is a word I’ve seen stamped all over reviews of your work, usually always intended as complimentary; for whatever reason, “sentiment” has become a pejorative. That said, one of the stories from this collection, “The Island in the Gorge of the Great River,” elicited more of an emotional response from me than anything I’ve read recently. I think perhaps my reaction had something to do with the relative lack of obviously emotional points of reference in your work — a sort of supply/demand relationship. Is this a balance you’re conscious of striking or is it something that happens on its own?
MNN: In “The Island in the Gorge of the Great River,” I wanted to summon that sharp, bone-deep desire most of us feel toward someone when we’re young — it’s so immediate and annihilating there’s no way to resist. Well, okay, we feel it when we’re older, too, but if fate has blessed us with wisdom, we manage it better. (I’ve not been blessed.)
My tendency is to withhold emotion for as long as possible, then release it at certain, charged moments. I noticed this early on as a symptom of my writing, then began to use it more consciously as a tactic. That said, now that I’ve written two books, I want to tear down my practice and find a new syntax. I’m a couple hundred pages into a novel, part of which follows the dissolution of a long and disastrous marriage, so the exploration of the characters’ interior emotional landscape must be more a part of it. But even then, I don’t think I’m capable of going too far in the other direction. Sentimentality (not sentiment) is the enemy and the destroyer. Evan S. Connell is impressive in Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge. A master of restraint. Even if the characters cannot articulate it to themselves, you always know what they feel. Connell is the forgotten American stylist of the 20th century. Such an elegant writer. His nonfiction works are just as startling, if not more so.
TM: You’re something of a compendium of “writers I should have heard of by now.” Who else should I be embarrassed not to know about?
MNN: Wendy Brenner is a fabulously talented short story and essay writer. She hits a sweet spot between Joy Williams and Padgett Powell, though she has a voice all her own, often more poignant. Begin with her essays for the Oxford American, specifically “Love and Death in the Cape Fear Serpentarium” and “Strange Beads,” then read her story collection Large Animals in Everyday Life.
Paula Nangle’s woefully-overlooked novel The Leper Compound follows a young girl into adulthood as Rhodesia is becoming Zimbabwe. A poet’s novel, in a way. I’ve met precisely one other human being who has read it.
Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy is a moving dream. I don’t even want to talk about it.
Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard is a prison novel, written while the author was incarcerated in San Quentin. But this isn’t the rough diamond you expect from prison lit. This novel is technically flawless. His memoir False Starts is out-of-print, once again proving the world is unjust.
TM: You’ve mentioned a world where there is no future, Eastern European communist regimes, and intentionally inflicting discomfort — this “dissolution of a marriage” novel is shaping up to be a real hoot! I’m having a difficult time imagining your work taking place under a roof. Are we still in West Virginia? Can you spill the beans?
MNN: In The Rumpus, the reviewer Micah Stack actually counted up what percentage of Allegheny Front takes place inside — he said it was less than two percent! I love it.
I don’t want to lift the lid off the pot, but the next novel takes place in the early-1960s, mostly in West Virginia but with interludes elsewhere. It traces political corruption, the rise and fall of the Great Society, and the tension between Marxists and anti-communist liberals in the American labor movement. The story of rural life is thought to be incoherent. It is not. Global political forces shape the private lives and social crises of characters who live in distant, even isolated areas, seemingly far from the main stage of history and the centers of power, commerce, and media. Susan Howe displays this to great effect in My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-Mark.
TM: I noticed a conspicuous lack of mining throughout this collection. It’s almost always there, but you keep it out of the foreground. Was this a deliberate move to avoid another of those tired West Virginia tropes, or is that just one more of the ways in which the state has been misrepresented?
MNN: My friend Phyllis says that the quintessential West Virginia story features a laid-off coal miner whose wife has just left him. He broodily gets whiskey-drunk (okay, meth-addled if the story was written in the last decade), goes deer-hunting (preferably with his dead father’s rifle), and accidentally shoots his beloved hound dog. The trailer door slams. He is now truly and forever alone.
But more seriously, yes, I wanted it to be in the background, always there, pervasive but rarely noticed, dark clouds on the horizon. In my novel, in their difficult moments the male characters always think of going into the mines. “If my life doesn’t pan out, I can always do this.” They think of it wistfully, as one thinks of suicide.
Dear Writing Teacher,
We met at the University of Tampa this past week and you gave me your email address in order to get book suggestions from you. I’m working on a young adult novel in close third person with a decent amount of world building involved in the narrative. I’ve found it difficult to find contemporary novels (and short stories) that aren’t written in first person so any suggestions you have, I would really appreciate.
Thanks in advance for your help.
I have to admit that your question, initially, made me giggle. My in-house statistician hasn’t crunched the numbers yet (Nate Silver wasn’t available so I hired my dog, Omar Little, and, quite frankly, he sucks at the job), but I’m pretty sure the proportion of contemporary novels narrated in the third person is equal to those narrated in the first. Or at least it feels that way. I have so many good third-person novels to recommend to you! Stoner by John Williams. The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. Off Course by Michelle Huneven. The Vacationers by Emma Straub. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.
(I’m basically walking through my house, calling out titles. I could do it all day. The Fever by Megan Abbott!)
Some of these books limit themselves to one character’s consciousness, like Stoner or Off Course. Others, like The Vacationers and The Fever, shift between multiple characters from chapter to chapter, or scene to scene. In these novels, the distance between the reader and the events of the narrator, or “the psychic distance” as John Gardner puts it, is fairly close. These narratives reflect what James Wood calls, in How Fiction Works, the free indirect style:
“As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking.”
(If you haven’t read Wood’s book, you can read the first chapter here. And you can read Jonathan Russell Clark’s clever and helpful essay on close third here.)
The Thin Place is told in a more elevated, all-knowing third-person point of view that skips from one small town resident to the next, including a dog, which is fitting since the book is about the thin scrim between the cosmic and the mundane, and the connection between all things. Everything I Never Told You also shifts its third person perspective, between family members, and its narrator has more knowledge than anyone; the book’s first sentence, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet…” makes that clear, and it emphasizes just how little this family understands about itself. In both these novels, perspective reflects theme especially well.
If you’re trying for this more elevated perspective, I also suggest you read Edward P. Jones along with 19th-century masters like George Eliot. These writers alight on one perspective and then another and another, deftly providing access to a character’s most intimate motives in one passage only to gracefully move away to comment on the scene in the next. They drop Wisdom-with-a-capital-W and it’s great fun to read. (And write, I hope!) An omniscient third person narrator feels like a bodiless character who shapes our understanding of the narrative’s events.
One of my writing teachers declared on multiple occasions that the third person point of view was easier than the first person. I disagree; each is easy and difficult in different ways. The first person has always come more naturally to me. Its performative qualities are revealing; I discover who my character is via language use and voice tics, confession and truth-dodging. Most importantly, there isn’t the elasticity of psychic distance that exists in the third person, which requires control and intention so that the reader doesn’t feel like she’s riding a narrative tilt-a-whirl. It’s disconcerting to be deep inside a character’s psyche and then, suddenly, to see him from afar. I bet many first drafts of third-person narrations struggle with finding the best distance from which to tell the story.
I recommend you decide what your novel’s psychic distance is, and stick to it. If you’re after a closer third person perspective, keep in mind Wood’s image of the narrative bending around the character’s mind so that the language and observations reflect and imply that particular consciousness. Also, avoid using “seeing” verbs; instead of, for instance, “She saw the cup on the table,” just say something like, “The cup was on the table.” Since it’s a close third person, you don’t need to tell the reader who is doing the seeing — that’s already implied. It’s also easy to forget the body when writing in third person (just as it’s easy to forget the external world when writing in first person). One way to lessen the psychic distance between reader and story is to include physical experience: not what others see of the narrator, but how it feels, internally, to be this self: how it feels to be tired, to be restless, to be nauseated, and so on. (One of my pet peeves as a reader is when we learn about the hair of a protagonist from a (supposedly) close third person narration; people have very specific relationships to their hair, and they don’t view it, can’t experience it, from afar. If you’re gonna talk about a character’s hair, make sure it expresses the experience of having said hair, rather than something like, “She ran a hand through her shoulder-length straight auburn hair…” which puts me outside the character and her experience. In that example, I’m looking at the character, rather than seeing the world with her.)
Since your novel requires world building, I also recommend you read the last story/chapter in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, “Pure Language,” which seamlessly depicts a future New York City and a music industry that caters to toddlers — or “pointers” as they’re known — from the third person perspective of a guy named Alex. As you read, mark the moments where Egan is providing the reader with expository information about the world. Where does Egan fit it in, and how? Perhaps more importantly, how do these passages reflect Alex’s psyche and and shape our understanding of him? For example, look at this passage, where he’s describing a woman he’s meeting for the first time:
Lulu was in her early twenties, a graduate student at Barnard and Bennie’s full-time assistant: a living embodiment of the new “handset employee”: paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically omnipresent, though Lulu appeared to be ignoring a constant chatter of handset beeps and burps. The photos on her page had not done justice to the arresting, wide-eyed symmetry of her face, the radiant shine of her hair. She was “clean”: no piercings, tattoos, or scarifications. All the kids were now. And who could blame them, Alex thought, after watching three generations of flaccid tattoos droop like moth-eaten upholstery over poorly stuffed biceps and saggy asses?
I’m interested in how “handset employees” and “clean” are in quotation marks, which allows Egan to not only straight-up define these terms for the reader, but to show that Alex is apart from these communities. The phrasing of “All the kids” shows that Alex isn’t as young as Lulu. Overall, the description of her reveals that Alex is attracted to her — and also intimidated, I think. Egan could have left out the “Alex thought” in the last line — the sentence would still work without it — but its inclusion adds a few inches to the psychic distance, which perhaps gives Egan some flexibility of tone when describing this particular future.
Part of your quandary, of course, is that you’re writing a young adult novel, and I’m no longer giggling because, you’re right, there are far fewer third person examples in that genre. Why is that? My friend Cecil Castellucci, who will publish her 12th (!) young adult novel, Stone in the Sky, in late February, has her own litmus test for categorizing a book as YA. Her definition sheds light on why so many are told in first person:
For me, a book is YA when it has a young protagonist and the action is happening right now or has just happened. If a book has a young protagonist, but it is nostalgic or self-aware, then it is an adult book.
Castellucci argues that a YA book feels like it’s happening “in the now,” and that this sense of urgency allows the reader to feel as if she’s “on the journey with the character as they clue in and grow.” The first person, and in particular the first person present, provides the kind of immediacy that the YA genre so excels at. In the third person, a sense of “nostalgia and awareness,” which Castellucci says is usually present in adult books with young protagonists, might creep in.
Castellucci says there are beautiful examples of third person YA books, so I asked my friend Katie Coyle, who recently published her first YA novel, Vivian Apple at the End of the World, for her suggestions. She recommended Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Malinda Lo’s Ash and Huntress. The first two are examples of realism, the third is historical fiction, and Lo’s are fantasies.
Now that you have these recommendations, I suggest you ban the first person for at least six months. Read only novels written in the third person. Furthermore, try to read third person novels that have the same psychic distance you’re aiming for, be it close third, or an elevated omniscience, or something in between.
When I’m struggling with a technical challenge in writing, I bang my head against the wall, write and rewrite and write again, and seek out books that have mastered said challenge. It’s useful if the book’s content is wildly different from mine — that way, I don’t feel like I will accidentally crib its ideas. For instance, if you’re writing an epigrammatic novel about, say, the workplace, it would be helpful to read Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell for its succinct and perfect short chapters. (See also: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.) You’ll be wise to avoid books that share your subject matter. It’s form you’re after, not content.
Aside from all that, I’d recommend writing, to yourself, your reasons for choosing the third person. Why does the story need to be told this way? It’s useful for me to articulate and defend my choices when I’m about halfway through a first draft. This lets me move partly (but never wholly!) out of intuition and into intention. Intention feels powerful.
“Good luck, Tiffany!” she typed as she tucked her silky blonde hair behind her ear.
The Writing Teacher
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
We are a storytelling species, we humans, circled around our archetypal fire, backs to the impenetrable dark and lurking beasts. Before there was fiction as we know it, there were metaphors and myths to help explain where we come from and where we go. Storytelling has always been an antidote to the fear of what we don’t know or understand.
Our litany of fears hasn’t changed much over the last 50,000 years or so. We fear death, illness, pain, infirmity. Now that we live into our 80s and 90s, we can add to that list the fear of losing our faculties.
On the upside, without this innate horror of death and decline there would be very little art, and surely not much literature. It’s human nature to want to defang the beast, but also to poke it — to see what our fears are made of. And people want stories — need them — more than ever, it seems. Popular storytelling programs like The Moth and This American Life, for example, reassure us that we’re in this together. We’re all going to die; let’s go from there.
There is a shadowy twin to that bit of reality: most of us will also find ourselves bearing witness to someone else’s final days — days that in fact often turn out to be weeks, months, years. Parents, partners, relatives, friends: someday you will watch a person you care about suffer. It’s not so much that last shovelful of dirt on the grave that should terrify us, but emptying all those bedpans.
Eileen Tumulty, the central character in Matthew Thomas’s debut novel We Are Not Ourselves (Simon and Schuster), has no time for worrying about what she does or doesn’t fear. Born in 1941, to Irish immigrant parents in Queens, Eileen is a clear-eyed striver. Wary of the ways drink and habitual sorrow encumbered her own parents, and confident that she alone is responsible for the life she wants to lead, she concentrates on moving out and up. She works and saves, goes to nursing school, and refuses to succumb to the charms of the local boys, until a friend fixes her up with Ed Leary, a serious young man with a promising career in neuroscience. Within the year they’re engaged. They move from drab Woodside to Forest Hills — in 1967, a diverse and thriving neighborhood — and have a son, whom Eileen impulsively names Connell after a visiting friend leaves a copy of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge on the hospital nightstand: “[I]t sounded more like a last name than a first name, like one of those patrician monikers the doctors she worked with often bore, and she wanted to give the boy a head start on the concerns of life.”
Eileen understands how the American Dream works: You leave as little as possible to chance. You save your money, educate your children, and take every opportunity that presents itself. Ed, on the other hand, turns down a tenure-track job at NYU because he’d rather teach low- and middle-income students at Bronx Community College, and prefers to keep teaching rather than move up as assistant dean. He’s content in their Queens neighborhood, even as it becomes rougher around the edges, while she wants a home in Bronxville, an upscale Westchester suburb.
Ed keeps doing the work he loves, but Eileen eventually gets her house, overspending on a rundown fixer-upper. Around the time of their move, however, Ed begins to act erratically, lashing out at Connell for imagined infractions, mixing up his students’ grades, abandoning home repairs in frustration. Eileen does her best to help him, but eventually decorum and denial can’t compensate for Ed’s inability to function. She takes him for a neurological workup — even at the doctor’s office swinging between protecting the man she loves and desperate disbelief:
“Tell me something. Do you know who the current president is?”
If he wanted to insult him, this was a perfect way to do it. She almost wanted Ed to answer sarcastically or deliberately incorrectly, but she didn’t want the doctor to have the satisfaction of writing it down on that little pad of his.
Ed sat with it; maybe he was coming up with a witty riposte.
“I know it’s a Republican,” he said, “I know that.”
The diagnosis is early-onset Alzheimer’s; Ed is 51. And so the game changes for the Learys. The American Dream will only take you so far, Thomas proposes, underscoring the novel’s unmistakable subtext: this could be your story. It could be mine.
A few days before Christmas 2006, my mother slipped on an icy step and hit her head. She had just finished giving an English lesson to a young Japanese couple; they saw her fall, called 911, and waited outside with her for the ambulance. She blacked out only briefly, and the damage was minimal: a small skull fracture with no cranial bleeding, some spinal trauma but nothing broken. She received immediate and excellent care, and her prognosis was good.
Mom was already what I thought of as ditzy — a little absentminded, sometimes silly, but nothing you wouldn’t expect from someone just short of her 79th birthday. Until a few of years before, she had been commuting into Manhattan daily, working as a bank president’s assistant, and, once she retired, she began teaching English at the local chapter of Berlitz. She read widely and critically, painted and drew, cooked adventurously, and loved going to galleries. But some bad convergence of side effects began to take its toll almost immediately after the accident. The head injury, the inactivity, and who knows what else, slowly shut her down.
Her deterioration was typical of all types of dementia: Periods of no change punctuated by small disasters that would reshuffle the deck, forcing us to scramble for solutions. There was no predictable pattern, except for my own near-miraculous capacity to be shocked and dismayed every single time. It wasn’t that I expected her to get better. I just didn’t imagine she’d get so much worse so quickly. It took me years before I could stop thinking, If she would just pay more attention…
Though there are countless books, websites, and support groups available, I’ve turned to friends and family — or rather, we’ve turned to each other. According to the 2014 Alzheimer’s Association Facts and Figures report, one in nine people age 65 or older has some form of dementia; for those over 85 it’s closer to one third. Those numbers translate into a lot of us trying to make sense out of something so senseless. And what we do, for the most part, is tell each other stories. We allow flares of black humor, we invent our own metaphors. This is, I say, like trying to fix a leaky boat in the middle of the ocean. This is, my friend says, like making pencil lines lower and lower on the doorframe. This is, another friend writes, a process of mourning by degrees. Canceling the Netflix account because my detailed DVD-player instructions are no longer enough; taking away the car keys; removing the knobs from the stove. A housekeeper, part-time help, a live-in aide. Each new development is like entries in the world’s worst baby book.
Thomas’s portrait of how the disease cuts through lives is on the mark and sensitive; he gets it all right, and anyone who has lived those cycles of denials and acceptance will recognize herself, or someone else. In the period before Ed’s diagnosis, when both he and Eileen are convinced that they just need to try a little harder (If she would just pay more attention), Eileen tells herself,
He would listen to her. He had always been good at listening to her. As he got older and more fixed in his fears and habits, she had to shout a little louder to be heard, but once he heard her, if he could stomach what she was asking for, he did what she asked…He needed to regroup, to see new possibilities, to think bigger than ever. If there was anything she could help him with, it was thinking big.
Ed’s own resolution, whether for her benefit or his own — Thomas never approaches the story from his viewpoint — is that “I’ve been meaning to spend more time attending to my needs…I’ve had a cloudy head for a while. I’m trying to get back to basics.”
Eileen keeps him at home as long as she can, though a life of careful planning can’t help her here:
She spent all morning [at work] worrying about him screwing it up. He needed perfect accuracy to pull it off. If he hit any button other than start, he ended up gnawing on frozen manicotti or choking down cold beef stew. She came home to the time unchanged on the microwave, half the meal on the floor, a broken plate under the table, the Times intact in its sleeve.
Even when he is eventually moved to a care facility, she keeps tight control of her own vision — all that’s left to her:
She wasn’t visiting. What she was doing was seeing her husband after work. It was simply a part of her day. She was showing them that Ed might be there with them instead of home where he belonged, but nothing else had changed…They had no clue what kind of man had fallen into their lap, but she wasn’t going to explain it to them, because they didn’t deserve to hear it.
It’s a shape-shifter of a disease; as soon as you understand what you’re dealing with, everything changes again. Who can begrudge Eileen her excuses and her bargaining? It’s hard to hit a moving target.
People tell me what a good daughter I am, how attentive and patient. I am not, I want to say. I lean too much on my older sister, whine about losing my weekends, dread changing my mother’s Depends in restaurant bathrooms. But I love her enormously, and I show up. Still, I’m not a natural caregiver. I was a good mother, but that was all animal instinct. Otherwise it’s not part of my makeup.
I was, frankly, spoiled rotten as a child, never really encouraged to look outward. This was partly because it was the ’70s — awful as the nickname is, the “Me Generation” isn’t too far off the mark — but also because of the way our family worked. My mother compensated for her own hardships — she grew up during the Depression with an ill and often absent mother, her first marriage failed, and her second, to my father, was difficult as well — by throwing herself into mothering me, the much-adored late-in-life baby. I wasn’t literally an only child, but I was raised like one. “Make sure you take care of yourself first,” she always advised me. And I did.
My father’s health began to fail when I was barely into my 20s, probably the result of a series of mini-strokes that, coupled with diabetes, progressively disabled him and killed him at age 69. I say probably because I don’t know and didn’t push for more information; I was just out of college, with a new husband, a new baby, and, soon, a new divorce; I had troubles of my own. My dad and I had butted heads when I was an adolescent, especially after my parents divorced, and a whiff of that still clung — which is to say I was mostly self-involved and selfish.
Fortunately my presence wasn’t needed. My father’s partner quit her job and cared for him cheerfully, tirelessly. She was — and is — unfailingly kind to me, effectively letting me off the hook for all my deficiencies. But years later, the work of caring for my mother would bring everything rushing in: how emotionally absent I was in my dad’s last years, how thoroughly I failed him. I carry that with me always.
And this is what I found deeply admirable about We Are Not Ourselves. Even more than the novel’s scrupulous depiction of Alzheimer’s, I appreciated the fact that neither Eileen nor Connell is a natural caretaker. They stumble through Ed’s first symptoms, his diagnosis, and the long-term management of his illness in very human, recognizable ways. They’re never saints; never martyrs. They have no choice but to play out the hand they’ve been dealt, and they’re not always graceful about it.
For all Eileen’s experience in caring for others, she has never quite mastered the art of compassion — the luxury, she would say. Having been scornful, as a teenager, of her mother’s late-in-life immersion in AA — “the down-and-outers…who’d wrecked their lives and slipped into a spiral of regret” — Eileen believes the issue “wasn’t negative thinking, it was too little positive thinking on the part of everyone around her.” Ed’s illness forces her into something resembling a Twelve-Step program of her own, with its requisite admissions of powerlessness. But she never quite loses her hard edges; they’re what’s kept her going all these years.
And poor Connell is a mess, his protracted middle-class adolescence in constant opposition to his father’s needs. He stays out late or doesn’t come home at all, leaves a barely functioning Ed home alone so he can go out with friends. He’s not callous, just conflicted and a bit spoiled. Eventually he rises to the task, but we wince — in my case, in sympathy — at how long it takes.
I didn’t know enough, when my dad became ill, to fear my own selfishness. These days, though, the worry follows me around. I’m a good daughter now, while my mother still recognizes me, while she’s still at home and we can sit on her couch and look at pictures of the great-grandbabies on my phone. But what about the next phase, and the ones after that? Will I do the right things? Will I still be able to resurrect my love for the person she’ll become, and will I honestly feel it?
It would be reductive to call We Are Not Ourselves an “Alzheimer’s novel.” Among other things, it’s an elegy for the middle class in urban America, and for the social mobility we insist on believing in. And it offers a lively portrait of a changing New York. Still, Matthew Thomas does his readers a great kindness in giving us Eileen and Connell’s complicated love for Ed, their good intentions and their mistakes: he offers up benevolence in the form of a story. Sometimes you just go through the motions. Sometimes you just show up.
We Are Not Ourselves isn’t literary group therapy. But it spotlights a dark place that most of us can count on visiting at some point — and shining that light on our collective fear is what a novelist, often, does better than anyone.
Click here to read Bloom’s Q&A with Matthew Thomas.
In 2013 we lost two Nobel laureates, a revered editor and teacher, plus writers of crime fiction, literary fiction, poetry, history, essays, biographies, screenplays, mega-bestsellers, movie criticism, and memoirs. Here is a highly selective compendium:
Evan S. Connell
While it may not be accurate to pin Evan S. Connell with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer,” it is probably fair to say that his restless intelligence and refusal to settle into a niche prevented him from attracting as large an audience as he deserved. Connell, who died on Jan. 10 at 88, produced novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and biographies. He wrote about repressed WASPS, a Navy pilot, a rapist, alchemists and Crusaders, cowboys and Indians, and he was equally at ease writing about art, religion, science, and history. He didn’t enjoy his first commercial success until he was 60, with 1984’s Son of the Morning Star, a non-fiction exploration of Custer’s Last Stand. Until then, due to his books’ modest sales, he had supported himself with some not-very-odd jobs, such as reading meters and delivering packages.
For many readers, Connell’s most indelible novels are Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969), about the airless world of the country club set in his native Kansas City, Mo. Wells Tower has noted that the short story that presaged the novels, “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” is a series of “mosaic tile vignettes” rather than a conventional narrative. The vignettes accumulate force until they quietly outdo all the screaming and plate-smashing, the drunkenness and infidelity and angst of so much suburban fiction. In the Bridges’ world, as Tower noted, “the wisdom of Emily Post seems to operate as Newtonian law.” Furthermore, “In the vacuum of Kansas City, no one can hear you scream.”
Mrs. Bridge tried to do everything the way it should be done. Mrs. Bridge did not like to hurt anyone’s feelings by making them feel inferior. Mrs. Bridge had always voted the way her husband told her to vote, but one day she starts reading books about political issues and since she believes in equality she decides she must persuade Mr. Bridge to vote liberal. Here’s what happens at the end of the story when she prepares to confront her husband:
She really intended to force a discussion on election eve. She was going to quote from the book of Zokoloff. But he came home so late, so tired, that she had not the heart to upset him. She concluded it would be best to let him vote the way he always had, and she would do as she herself wished; still upon getting to the polls, which were conveniently located in the country club shopping district, she became doubtful and a little uneasy. And when the moment finally came she pulled the lever recording her wish for the world to remain as it was.
Connell never married, never owned a computer, never sought notoriety. In the cheesy parlance of our age, he declined to become a brand. It’s downright un-American, and quite possibly heroic. “I hate to be recognized,” he once said. “I want to be anonymous.”
Chinua Achebe exploded on the world literary scene with the 1958 publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, which invoked Ibo voices from his native Nigeria, boldly challenged European concepts of Africans, and in a single stroke anointed Achebe the father of African fiction. Published during the twilight of British colonial rule, the novel set out to show, as Achebe put it, “that African peoples did not hear of civilization for the first time from Europeans.”
Achebe, who died on March 21 at 82, produced five novels and many short stories over the next three decades. He did not let his fellow Africans off lightly. His satirical fourth novel, A Man of the People, exposed the corruption and irresponsibility of many post-colonial politicians, and it ends with a coup much like the one in 1966 that plunged Nigeria into a devastating civil war. Despite a period of writer’s block brought on by the war, Achebe went on to produce essays, poems, and memoirs, and he oversaw the publication of more than 100 texts that made other African writers’ work available to a worldwide audience. A car accident in 1990 left him paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, yet he continued to write, travel, teach, and lecture. Perhaps his most appropriate epitaph came from Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5. “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe,” Mandela wrote, “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
I suspect I was not alone in assuming that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who had an Indian name and wrote so knowingly about India, was a native of India. She was not. She war a German Jew, born in Cologne and educated in England, who married an Indian architect in 1951 and moved with him to Delhi, where they raised three daughters and she began writing fiction about her adopted homeland.
Jhabvala, who died on April 3 at 85, started by writing fiction that trained a satirical, Jane Austen-ish eye on the modernizing Indian middle class, its struggles to balance old and new ways, what E.M. Forster called “the unlovely chaos that lies between obedience and freedom.” In time her gaze grew more acid, especially when she was describing sham gurus, Western seekers, and anyone who tried to deceive themselves and others. Her eighth novel, Heat and Dust, won the Booker Prize in 1975, and in all she published a dozen novels and eight collections of short stories.
But it was her screenwriting, particularly her collaborations with the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, that brought her widespread fame. Their first project was an adaptation of her own 1960 novel, The Householder, and many of her other two dozen screenplays sprang from literary sources, including the novels of Henry James, Peter Cameron, Diane Johnson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jean Rhys, and Evan S. Connell (she conflated Connell’s novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge into Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in 1990, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward). Jhabvala won two Oscars, for her adaptations of Forster’s Howards End and A Room With a View.
Though the headline on her obituary in The New York Times read “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Screenwriter, Dies at 85,” she made no secret that she regarded screenwriting as secondary to the writing of fiction. In her Who’s Who entry, the “recreation” category says “writing film scripts.” And as she once wrote to a friend, “I live so much more in and for the books.”
When I heard that Elmore Leonard had died on Aug. 20 at 87, I salved my sorrow by re-reading one of his Motor City masterpieces, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. It opens with a dry description of a juicily corrupt judge that resonates on several levels. Goes like this:
In the matter of Alvin B. Guy, Judge of Recorder’s Court, City of Detroit:
The investigation of the Judicial Tenure Commission found the respondent guilty of misconduct in office and conduct clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice. The allegations set forth in the formal complaint were that Judge Guy:
1.) Was discourteous and abusive to counsel, litigants, witnesses, court personnel, spectators and news reporters.
2.) Used threats of imprisonment or promises of probation to induce pleas of guilty.
3.) Abused the power of contempt.
4.) Used his office to benefit friends and acquaintances.
5.) Bragged of his sexual prowess openly.
6.) Was continually guilty of judicial misconduct that was not only prejudicial to the administration of justice but destroyed respect of the office he holds.
I read those opening lines, originally published in 1980, as a thinly veiled portrait of the man then serving as mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, who was every bit as profane, nasty, and corrupt as the fictional Judge Alvin B. Guy. But another Detroit writer, my pen pal Loren D. Estleman, set me straight on this, informing me that Leonard’s Judge Alvin Guy was actually inspired by a notorious Detroit judge named James Del Rio, who packed a pistol under his judicial robes and once presided over a shootout in his courtroom that left a defense attorney dead. No matter. The important thing is that those opening lines of City Primeval, like so much of Leonard’s fiction, were not only timely, they were timeless: they illuminated the eternal venality of the human soul, which was Leonard’s inexhaustible subject.
To wit: Two months after Leonard died, another corrupt former Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for an array of misdeeds that would have made Alvin Guy, James Del Rio, and Coleman Young proud, including racketeering, extortion, bribery, fraud, income tax evasion, and putting friends and family on the city payroll. Elmore Leonard always nailed it, whether he was writing about crooks in his primeval hometown of Detroit, or crooks in Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Djibouti. R.I.P., Dutch. You are missed.
In 1995 Seamus Heaney became the fourth Irish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, following in the outsized footsteps of his countrymen William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett. The fact that neither Flann O’Brien nor James Joyce made the cut speaks to the magnitude of Heaney’s achievement. (Oscar Wilde died a year before the first Nobel Prize was awarded to Sully Prudhomme.)
Seamus Heaney (pronounced HEE-nee) was born in rural County Derry in Northern Ireland to a Catholic family, and his poetry was forever veined with the physical world of his childhood — he could remember interiors without electric lights, farmers plowing with horses, women churning butter until their hands bloomed with blisters. But Heaney, who died on Aug. 30 at 74, was no pastoral nostalgist. Beneath his rural tableaux runs a river of sex and violence, even in poems written before the Troubles washed his homeland in blood. He carried contradictions with a velvety ease that echoed the sound of his velvety voice: he was a Romantic realist, a rural cosmopolitan, an archaic modernist, an atheist who welcomed miracles. He regarded words as “bearers of history and mystery.” What could be felt (and done) with the hands was every bit as important to him as what could be seen with the eyes. His poetry was pungent, physical, earthy.
In the poem “Seed Cutters,” he makes explicit that the people of his childhood linked him to worlds past:
They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.
In the poem “Digging,” from his debut 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist, Heaney revealed how his poetry sprang from the soil:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging, I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through drills
Where he was digging…
By God, the old man could handle a spade
Just like his old man…
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Heaney’s translation of Beowulf became a bestseller, and in 2002 he brought out Finders Keepers, a collection of previously published essays and lectures. He described the book’s entries this way: “They are testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for.”
The Beats were basically a boys’ club, their moveable frat party open to few females. One who made it past the bouncers was Carolyn Cassady, the second wife of Neal Cassady, that “western kinsman of the sun” who became Jack Kerouac’s muse and the kinetic character Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Carolyn Cassady, who died on Sept. 20 at 90, became the character Camille in the novel, by turns a thrill-killing shrew and a dedicated wife, the woman who dutifully stayed home to raise Neal/Dean’s children whenever he and Kerouac/Sal Paradise hit the road in pursuit of a fresh dose of enlightenment, girls and kicks. At her husband’s urging, Carolyn also became Kerouac’s lover.
Carolyn Cassady produced two memoirs, Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal (1976) and Off the Road: My Years with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg (1990). She said she wrote the books as correctives to the notion, so widespread among young people after the 1957 publication of On the Road, that the holy troika of the Beat generation led lives of unfettered bliss. “I kept thinking that the imitators never knew and don’t know how miserable these men were,” she once said. “They think they were having marvelous times — joy, joy, joy — and they weren’t at all.”
Neal and Carolyn were married in 1947, when she was several months pregnant with their first of three children. Being married to Neal Cassady — street kid, jailbird, car thief, serial philanderer, aspiring writer, and irresistible volcano of energy — cannot have been a day at the beach. Here’s how Kerouac describes a typical Neal Cassady eruption in On the Road:
I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947; he got a job on the railroad and made a lot of money. He became the father of a cute little girl, Amy Moriarty. Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ’49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll. He bought the car on the spot. Ed Dunkel was with him. Now they were broke. Dean calmed Camille’s fears and told her he’d be back in a month. “I’m going to New York and bring Sal back.” She wasn’t too pleased at this prospect.
“But what is the purpose of all this? Why are you doing this to me?”
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing, darling — ah — hem — Sal has pleaded and begged with me to come and get him, it is absolutely necessary for me to — but we won’t go into all these explanations — and I’ll tell you why…No, listen, I’ll tell you why.” And he told her why, and of course it made no sense.
Carolyn believed Neal had a split personality — a hard-working family man at war with “a wild nature driven by sexual desire.” She divorced him in 1963 and five years later he was dead at 41, his body sprawled beside a Mexican railroad track, full of alcohol and drugs, dehydrated, flat worn out. Kerouac, bloated and alcoholic, followed him a year later. But Carolyn, the product of a conventional upper-middle class family, lived on, designing theater costumes, painting portraits, writing her memoirs, and observing the indefatigable juggernaut of the Beat Industry with a jaundiced eye, even though her two books were inarguably a part of the juggernaut.
During the 1978 filming of Heart Beat, starring Sissy Spacek as Carolyn and Nick Nolte as Neal, Carolyn told The Washington Post, “Sissy’s got me all cleaned up, I’m the most wonderful heroine. I go through everything and come out unscathed. I saw the dailies the other day and I cracked up. Everything was so romantic, I was crying. It could have been like that, but it wasn’t at all.”
And she didn’t even try to hide her disdain when director Walter Salles brought On the Road to the screen in 2012. She dismissed the actors cast to play Jack and Neal, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, as “wimps.” To make matters worse, chirpy Kirsten Dunst played the role of Carolyn/Camille. Carolyn Cassady did herself one last favor and declined to see the movie.
Tom Clancy created his very own genre, the “techno-thriller,” and loaded it with high-tech military hardware, virtuous Americans, cardboard villains, and stories that never stopped galloping. Clancy’s was a chiaroscuro world of vivid blacks and whites: capitalism is good, communism is bad, the C.I.A. wears shining armor, and the world would be better off without politicians, liberals, terrorists, drug cartels, reporters, and Hollywood. While working unhappily as an insurance salesman, Clancy sold the manuscript of his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, for $5,000 in 1984. It became a bestseller after winning the endorsement of President Ronald Reagan, who called it “my kind of yarn.”
Clancy, who died on Oct. 1 at 66, was rarely accused of being a masterful prose stylist — one reviewer dismissed his writing as “the verbal equivalent of a high-tech video game” — but there’s no arguing that Clancy knew how to connect with an audience. More than 100 million copies of his books are in print, 17 reached #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and an A-list of Hollywood actors (Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford) have played Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, in assorted blockbuster movies. And perhaps as a retort to that sniffy critic of his prose, Clancy happily arranged for his thrillers to be turned into video games.
Clancy made a silo full of money off his writing and he knew how to enjoy it. He bought a piece of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and he lived in a 24-room mansion on the Chesapeake Bay with an indoor pool, a gun range in the basement, and a World War II-vintage M1A1 tank parked on the lawn. A reporter once asked Clancy if he ever drove the tank.
Too dangerous, Clancy replied. “It’s essentially a lawn ornament.”
Oscar Hijuelos’s greatest hit, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, unspools like an extended, ecstatic song, full of horn blasts, the patter of congas and bongos, the whirl of frenzied dancers. It is narrated by the broken-down Cuban bandleader Cesar Castillo, as he sits in a shabby Harlem hotel room drinking whisky and remembering “those glorious nights of love so long ago.” He also remembers life’s sensual pleasures — the food, the cars, the music, the streets, women’s hats, women’s underclothes, and, above all, the many women he loved. Much as he’d like to, he can’t forget his life’s many missed opportunities. The novel is a sad sexy dream.
Hijuelos, who was born in New York City to Cuban parents, suffered a heart attack while playing tennis on Oct. 12 and died at age 62. He grew up speaking Spanish at the family’s home in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan, and acquired English during a long hospital stay when he was three years old. He wrote in English, producing eight works of fiction and a memoir, all of it a way of wrestling with the immigrant experience and his feeling that he was an outsider in his own culture. He was more American-Cuban than Cuban-American, and the sensation of feeling stranded between cultures caused him no small amount of pain. “I eventually came to the point that, when I heard Spanish, I found my heart warming,” he wrote late in life. “And that was the moment when I began to look through another window, not out onto 118th Street, but into myself — through my writing, the process by which, for all my earlier alienation, I had finally returned home.”
Hijeulos was working at an advertising agency in 1983 when he sold his first novel, Our House in the Last World, but success, including a 1992 movie of Mambo Kings starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante, eventually allowed him to write full time. In 2008, after being “gainfully unemployed” for 20 years, he started teaching at Duke University and discovered, to is surprise, that he enjoyed the job. “I have to say, I love the kids,” he said. “It’s a joyful thing to see the future sitting before you.”
Before his death on Nov. 16 at 89, Louis Rubin may have done more than anyone to prove that New York City does not own a monopoly on quality book publishing in America. Rubin, a revered teacher and prolific author, co-founded Algonquin Press in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1983 as a springboard for writers, especially young writers of the Southern persuasion who’d gotten the cold shoulder from the insular New York publishing world. Rubin’s students included John Barth, Annie Dillard, and Kaye Gibbons, and Algonquin published a small army of celebrated Southerners, including Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, and Clyde Edgerton, as well as one native of Canada, Sara Gruen, whose third novel, Water for Elephants, was turned down by her New York publisher. After Algonquin published the novel in 2011, it sold millions of copies, became a #1 bestseller, and was made into a major motion picture. It was not the only time Louis Rubin had the last laugh at New York’s expense.
Doris Lessing, who died on Nov. 17 at 94, will be best remembered as the author of The Golden Notebook, a novel as free-wheeling and unconventional as the woman who wrote it. She produced a staggering body of work in her long life, including novels, science fiction, memoirs, essays, poems, even a libretto for an opera adapted from two of her books, with music by Philip Glass.
Born in Persia (now Iran) to British parents, she grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), married young, had two children, divorced, had another child, then left for England to pursue her literary dreams. She was an iconoclast who railed against racism and sexism, a Catholic who became a Communist, then an anti-Communist, and finally an atheist. Eventually she abandoned all -isms, never apologizing or looking back. It was a life both chilly and inspiring.
In this age of literary careerists panting for praise and prizes, the thing I’ll remember about the free-spirited Lessing was the way she greeted the news that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007. When she climbed out of a taxi in front of her London home and got the big news from a squadron of reporters camped on her front stoop, she said, “Oh, Christ! I couldn’t care less.” Then she added, “The whole thing is so graceless and stupid and bad mannered.”
Oh, Christ, how refreshing!
This list is, by design, selective, but I want to mention a few other noteworthy writers who died in 2013. In alphabetical order they are: the renegade preacher and novelist Will D. Campbell, the biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer, the art critic Arthur C. Danto, the film critics Roger Ebert and Stanley Kauffmann, the historian Stanley Karnow, and the author of young-adult novels Ned Vizzini.
Through your words you will all live on.
Images courtesy of Bill Morris.