In early July, I was able to sit down and interview Sergio De La Pava, the explosive, encyclopedic author who heralds a new era of the novel. A public defender in New York City, Sergio wrote his first novel on the commute to and from court cases, self-publishing the nearly 700-page A Naked Singularity in 2008. When it was republished by the University of Chicago Press, it received the PEN/Robert Bingham prize for Debut Novel. Since then, his second and third novel, Personae and Lost Empress, received similar acclaim from readers and critics alike. A writer on the periphery of the American literary scene, Sergio De La Pava’s response to art is electric, charged and ready to jolt complacency with the art form.
The Millions: What did literature mean to you before you began writing? In a public conversation with other authors, you explained that your interest in writing began at around seven or eight. In your latest novel, a young boy loses his father and, during that morbid transition from winter to spring, he discovers Emily Dickinson, titling a personal essay “Emily Dickinson is Saving My Life and I Can’t Even Thank Her,” and while I know that’s the intimate relation each reader has to literature, each of your novels contends with the moment an individual receives such profound experience with literature that they in turn become an artist. In A Naked Singularity, you’ve got the protagonist Casi working on an immense project; in Personae, we as readers discover the fragments of a man’s oeuvre after his death; in Lost Empress, it’s Nelson De Cervantes with Emily Dickinson and Dia Nouveau with Joni Mitchell. What was it for you?
Sergio De La Pava: I think initially, my relationship with literature was something similar to what Nelson De Cervantes experiences in the terms of, I don’t want to say initial experiences with literature, but ones the ones that persist and remain memorable, it feels like a life-raft, it feels in some sense like saving your life and allowing you to continue to navigate what has been to me a very confusing and ultimately frightening experience, meaning life. I think what I depicted, with respect to Nelson, is that means by which you find nothing so blatant as guidance, but almost consolation, such that x, y, and z may be true, but it’s also true that these poems or this novel or work of art was created.
When I refer to the seven or eight-year-old thing, I was referring to that age when I spent a summer in Colombia, and I remember kind of missing the English language above all things. I remember coming across Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea in English in my grandmother’s house. I devoured that, I distinctly remember that being the first time I made this leap between the fact that something like that exists and the realization that someone had to have created it, an individual behind this experience. It seems obvious now, but when you’re seven or eight it’s not, something like clouds, something you don’t question how it exists. But with this book, it was the first time I realized a guy like Hemingway is the reason this book exists, and it was probably the first time I remember thinking I wouldn’t terribly mind if I was the reason one of these books existed. That’s something that’s always stuck in my mind. It wasn’t so much about the artistic experience of the book, though for a 7-year-old it was intense, it was more about the realization there’s these people that identify as writers and they’re the ones responsible for books that exist or don’t exist. A lot of my novel Personae deals with that earliest question, of who gets to be called writer, who decides to dive into an activity in this more intense way than readers could experience.
TM: In the end of that public conversation I mentioned, you were asked to give a book that summarily defines the experience of being in New York, and you give Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, you described the novel as being able to “marry aesthetic concerns while still having a more revolutionary message to it… all [your] novels are trying to ferment nonviolent revolution.” Each artist, I believe, must engage in what that marriage means to produce. Whether they end up producing such as work as Invisible Man is not as important for that artist as their asking how they will use literature to advance aesthetic and cultural concerns. What works or authors became for you that marriage of aesthetic and political concerns you would place your work alongside?
SDLP: Do you think every novelist has political concerns? It would seem that—well, what book is popular right now?—it would seem that the author of The Marriage Plot did not have political concerns. But you are right that I pretty clearly do, right? I will say that all the aesthetic concerns that I have when I sit down to write a novel absolutely trump any political concerns. They are by far more paramount, more important. Because I am engaging in an activity where there is no reality, and nothing can exceed the aesthetic achievement. If my political concerns were paramount, then I would write an op-ed or a nonfiction book as many have done and very skillfully. In those situations, my concern would be those political realities I’m resisting in, what I’m agitating for, those options are open to everybody. When I’m functioning as a novelist, the demands of the novel have to be paramount. The reason I brought up Invisible Man is that it clearly has to me a political purpose but at no point do I feel that that political purpose overrides the aesthetic achievement of the novel. As somebody who has this whole other career that is almost all political purpose, I have to be more careful, maybe, than most, in writing the novel. I have to be more careful, that it doesn’t become a didactic piece of journalism because that’s a preexisting category I can feel free to engage in whenever I want to.
TM: And you have!
SDLP: The kind of concerns that build up and overflow in my mind, that cause me to write a novel, are rarely political. They feel more philosophical or poetic. Those feel to me the driving force of the novel. The politics of it, the radical agenda or whatever you want to call it, is quite often a function of the setting where the philosophy and poetry is happening.
TM: I think that act of achieving a political statement as a result of the aesthetic work connects well to what Ellison was about. I’m interested to know which American authors, like Ellison, might’ve provided a framework to search for truth, and who you eventually had to move past to develop your own work.
SDLP: Well I don’t necessarily identify with someone because they’re American. I go by language, I go by writing in English. To me a country is essentially an invented, if not meaningless, then low-meaning thing. I don’t take particular meaning from the fact I was born in the United States. English, now that’s a different story. English colors everything that happens in the work. The language colors everything. Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, to name writers who wrote in English. Certainly a lot of translated works have been important to me, but those were the seminal figures, always tempered by the thought that “great, they did what they did, but it’s time for an updating.” Those are all writers who stopped writing at least 80 years ago. In a lot of ways, I think the distance of time makes those influences more useful than looking to contemporaries or colleagues or doing the same thing you are and looking for inspiration there. It’s never worked that way for me.
TM: So it’s not necessarily the questions proposed in say, To the Lighthouse may not provoke today; it’s that enough time has passed that you feel them worth revisiting? Do they serve greater inspiration because of their distance?
SDLP: I suppose I don’t have a good grasp by what we mean when we say “inspiration.” Everything has “inspired” me to write but that’s not the same as saying I’ve found joy in or found profitable every single thing I’ve read. Often times, I receive negative inspiration, where I say “I don’t like that, I don’t think that’s what the novel is for, that that’s how you execute a novel.” And that can be more useful than sitting there and going “well, that novel’s as close to perfection.” When you think about it, in many ways, we as humans act out with dissatisfaction a lot more often than we do with satisfaction. A lot of the times when I’m reading, I receive this dissatisfaction, a wanting, and a highly critical response, and those serve as more useful than something that is masterful. When something’s masterful, to me, it’s done. There’s nothing left to say. There’s nothing left to do in response. I often wonder: If I were insanely impressed by the majority of novels I’ve read, would I even write? I probably wouldn’t. I think it’s the opposite. Part of the reason I write is because I find modern novels so lacking.
TM: It seems your latest novel, Lost Empress, was the attempt to bridge two very distinct styles of novel together. In a previous conversation, you used Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice as examples of these two styles. I’m wondering, using this term of translation, how did you translate the experiences of previous novels into this work?
SDLP: The novel is limitless, there’s more than Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice. I think what I meant was that I was inspired to take two conceptions of the novel that seemed like they will not mix and so Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice are two seemingly different novels in a way no other two novels could seem as different. The challenge was this: If the novel has the ability to subsume any category into its form, can you prove that by marrying these two wildly different concepts, without the infrastructure showing? That challenge can excite you, make you go “yeah, I can do that,” and that excitement can carry you for the next four years. I have a lot more freedom with that challenge than, say, translation, because there’s a hardcap to how much I decide Anna Karenina is before it no longer fits into the idea of translation. When I do this, I’m doing it with my terms and nobody’s going to tell me it doesn’t fit.
TM: I would say that while each of your work contends with reality, Lost Empress questions what is real and how we define that. Not just translating experience but transcribing it. We have this character, Sharon, a CO for paramedics, who breaks down after decades of listening to calls in which children are maimed and assaulted. But her coworker doesn’t console her, she says “that’s as real as realism gets.” I’m wondering how you can talk about the act of writing as a series of freedoms but also have your characters confront and rebel against the tragic fictions you pit them against. Is this perhaps where you attempt to bridge the two conceptions of the novel, the fantastical reproduction of reality and reality’s strenuous subjugation?
SDLP: I’ve always had this weird sensation that the world depicted in the novel is as real as ours; it’s just a matter of perspective. I feel that the conclusions I draw from immersion in a fictious, well-done novel can easily be applied in this world, with a reality that hits us every day. I don’t make distinction, I get upset about things that happen in novels and I don’t find any consolation in being told they’re a fictitious character. When I would write Sharon’s narrative, it would upset me as much as if she were like any other person I knew in life. That’s probably not the healthiest attitude, but that’s part of the reason why I inject things that are uncontroversially true of our world, such as a Rikers Island inmate guidebook or Joni Mitchell or Salvador Dali, because the facts about them are verifiably true. Part of the reason I don’t draw distinction is because convention would have us place the fiction below reality. whereas I think that fiction should be placed alongside reality.
TM: When you say you have a visceral reaction, it’s well understood. In that public conversation, someone brought up the fate of the character Nuno in Lost Empress and you looked like you were sucker-punched, you said “well, I care a lot about him, and I’m sad that it ended.” It’s this character you spent a lot of time with, but even though you say you’re with this freedom to write the novel, your characters actively protest their existence within the novel, shouting “truth in everything!” On this idea that characters are aware of what’s happening, could you say something on where you think the novel heads in the 21st century? Throughout your work, you’re referencing pop culture and pop media such as TV, the novel Lost Empress begins with the decree “let us enter into peals of laughter,” and the opening scene is in the form of a sitcom script. Though the structure of the script disappears, the kinetic quips remain in stark contrast to the looming darkness that bridges the novel’s first and second act. I’m wondering if you did this in respect to new media that competes with the novel, or if this was an aesthetic concern.
SDLP: I don’t care about the new media, I really don’t. I don’t accept that television is the new novel, that’s silly. It’s just as dumb as it ever was. I’m not competing with that stuff because I will lose, I will lose in a first-round knockout. My novels are asking that you enter into a completely different space than the one you’re in when you binge-watch Breaking Bad. I mean I watched all of Breaking Bad and The Wire and I enjoyed that but it’s not the same as when I read Mrs. Dalloway or Moby Dick or The Confidence Man.
TM: And yet your novels interject that media constantly.
SDLP: My novels, I hope, attempt in some way that just because you’re in the world where you read The Confidence Man or Bartleby The Scrivener doesn’t mean you have to forsake all the pleasures of a quick one-liner like you said. The narrator at the beginning of Lost Empress says “we’re gonna keep this pretty light,” and then, clearly, he fails to keep it light. Sharon’s abused, people are kept in isolation by the Grand Jury. But the attempt was there in the beginning, like a screenplay for a screwball comedy, and then reality keeps interjecting to the point where it can’t sustain. And you see there’s this thing where privileged people can keep it light, but ultimately none of us can keep it light, because this commonality of experience of that desolating experience will win out, or simply time’s up. There’s a character in Lost Empress, the Theorist, who describes two timelines: that of the reader and that of the novel. You know he’s experienced our reality because he describes the David Tyree catch, and he’s the only one who’s been in our timeline that’s also in Nuno’s timeline, so he says “this timeline that we’re in is ending,” and that’s verifiably true by the fact the novel’s ending, but that’s also true for the reader’s timeline, regardless of the world you’re in. And that’s not necessarily the most salient fact of your life, I hope not, that’s not that productive. But it’s there and it colors the events of life, in Personae especially, the fact that life is so fragmentary and fast.
TM: As a reader of these narratives, we can pick and choose where and when we pick up and drop off, but then what does that do for the truths of your characters? Sharon decides to remain in an abusive relationship with her husband to ensure her son’s success, a quarterback decides to suffer terminal brain damage to win a football game, Nuno escapes prison only to realize his world is ending; what makes them matter? Not in the moralistic sense you object to, but what is the saving grace for theirs and our lives by the novel’s end?
SDLP: Nuno lays this out for us at the end of the novel rather explicitly. Despite the fact there is an ending, he finds merit in all things by the fact they happened. He lays it out for us, when people say “oh, humanity’s but a speck of dust in the history of the universe,” well that’s a dumb thing to say! It’s never been about how long we’ve been around or the value of an uninhabited planet. He tackles this sense of insignificance head on because that desire to be heard is the value. Not because what we’re going to say results in x, y, and z, but because we could manage to do something. And there are people who will disagree, who say that because life has an end renders everything meaningless. That’s a view. I don’t think that’s a logically impossible view, but I don’t share that view and I don’t think anyone in that novel shares that view. Sharon decides to create meaning from her life by ensuring her son’s survival, and she could be wrong of course, but that’s for everybody to decide for themselves. That’s what we do as human beings. Why did I put a suit on today and come into my office? Because I decided that helping someone within the machine of the criminal justice system has meaning. I could be wrong, I guess, because that seems unlikely. When you experience that meaning, such as when I’m raising my two-year-old, that doesn’t feel meaningless, it just doesn’t. It feels like meaning irrespective of the entire fate of humankind.
TM: It makes me wonder about the kind of person who is satisfied by meaninglessness, or whose fear of meaninglessness is correlated to a lack of morality. These people seem to lack the experience of meaning made by living a full life.
SDLP: Right. It’s like pessimistic authors who take these works where everyone is evil and wrong and the world is mean. That’s a weird proposition, that I think is done by infantilized writers who take on this worldview and get praised for their “honesty.” But those type of people ignore the other half of humanity, like that guy who volunteers on Sundays to bathe the elderly. You’re going to tell me that that person’s evil, that their actions are meaningless? Those writers who suffuse their work with meaninglessness have to categorize and ignore the others. I feel like it is just as intellectually dishonest to find everybody good as it is to find everybody bad. Neither one feels fair.
TM: So your fiction is an attempt at something more honest to life.
SDLP: I don’t think these are optimistic works, but I don’t think they’re pessimistic works either. I’m attempting to grapple with the fact that humanity is capable of terror and greatness.
I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”
Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.
I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.
When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”
He’s wrong, though. I do.
My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.
As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”
Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.
Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?
In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”
But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”
Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”
For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”
It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.
Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I’ve been following Pamela Erens’s work since her debut in 2007. With each novel, her reputation has grown; I admit that I expected her new book to land on my doorstep with a resounding thud — the sound of a weighty third novel announcing its author has arrived. The actual tone was higher, more like a plonk.
Erens’s third novel, Eleven Hours, is 165 pages long. It is a heart-in-your-mouth, hold-your-breath read that uses one of the most familiar, and possibly underused, time constraints to hold tension: labor. A woman named Lore, in the early stages of labor, checks into the hospital alone. She brings with her a detailed birth plan, which her assigned nurse, Franckline, eyes skeptically. The nurse knows all too well that the only certain thing about birth is that it won’t go to plan. As the novel charts the course of the contractions, the relationship between the two women becomes more intense. Their lives and past experiences become briefly intertwined through the deeply intimate process of birth.
Why hasn’t a novel like Eleven Hours been written thousands of times before? Like storming the castle, slaying a serial killer, or saving the world, the story of a labor has all the elements of a classic plot. An inciting incident, conflicting needs, rising action, suspense, a built-in climax, and a kind of resolution that often feels both surprising and true.
Like the structure of Eleven Hours, the outcome of a birth, though often happy, isn’t assured. For with every birth, comes the possibility of death. And it’s this natural tension — as Karen Russell puts it, “the tides of memory, sensation, and emotion” — that Pamela Erens has caught so precisely. On the eve of publication, I wanted to know how Erens came to this point in her writing career. In an email exchange, I asked her about working at Glamour magazine, the hard slog of doing publicity yourself, getting the rights back and the reissue of her first novel, glowing reviews by John Irving, “big” books, and “small” topics.
The Millions: Since your first novel was published in 2007, you have been listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, you were named a contemporary writer to read by Reader’s Digest, your criticism has appeared in many prestigious publications, and your work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. Have you made it?
Pamela Erens: Hmm, what is “making it?” On the one hand, so much more has come my way than I could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. I remember when my second novel, The Virgins, came out, realizing that people I didn’t actually know were reading my novel. That was thrilling! Honestly, I think almost everyone who read my first novel, The Understory, either knew me or knew someone who knew me. Getting to write essays for a place like Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal I’d held in awe for years: that knocks me out.
But one keeps moving the goal posts, right? It’s just human nature. You (I) want more readers, more sales, a prize…Sometimes I hate that the mind works like this.
TM: You were an editor at Glamour magazine. How did you make the transition from magazines to novels?
PE: Actually, the fiction came before any magazine work (I also had stints at Ms., Connecticut Magazine, and a New York City weekly called 7 Days). The magazine work was what I gravitated to after college because I was a huge reader of magazines (still am) and needed to make a living. But I wrote fiction as far back as I can remember. If Glamour shaped my work, it was by training me to be succinct and draw the reader in quickly. In school, you learn to generate a lot of blah-blah in your writing, a lot of what my boss at Glamour called “throat-clearing.” Magazine work cures you of that.
TM: Did the success of The Understory surprise you?
PE: Very much. For one thing, during the editing process I gradually gleaned that my editor and publisher (it was the same man) was no longer really running the press that was supposed to bring out my book. He was traveling a lot, hard to reach, involved in other business ventures. He was shutting down operations, and there were many months where I didn’t think the book was going to come out. In the end he did honor the commitment to publish, thank goodness, but there were long delays, and the press lost its distributor. The book was not in bookstores, period. People rightly criticize some of Amazon’s practices, but if it hadn’t been for Amazon no one would ever have been able to get ahold of the book without coming over to my house to ask for a copy.
There was no publicity for The Understory other than what I did myself. The publisher did print advance reading copies, but I had to figure out where to send them. I ran myself ragged writing notes to newspapers and possible reviewers — but at the time I knew hardly anybody. A couple of things worked out, including a Publishers Weekly review, which was hugely important in legitimizing the novel. Jim Ruland, a wonderful writer I’d gotten to know via the online writers’ site Zoetrope, did an interview with me for the literary blog The Elegant Variation. It was an L.A.-based blog, so perhaps that was how the Los Angeles Times folks, who nominated it for the book prize, got wind of the novel. I sent the book to several prize competitions, cursing at the steep entry fees, but it led to the short list for the William Saroyan Award. So: a combination of stubbornness and a few contacts and some lucky breaks.
TM: Picking up on things working out, Tin House republished The Understory in 2014. How did this come about?
PE: By the time The Understory came out in 2007, Ironweed was basically no longer operating except to send copies to Amazon once in a while and bring out one other book they had under contract. I figured that if I could get the rights back, maybe eventually another press would be willing to do a reissue. I was afraid of losing track of my publisher (he was often in Asia) and not being able to contact him if an offer came up. So in 2010 I made a request for the reversion of rights. The publisher was very accommodating about it.
Later, when I got an agent for The Virgins I mentioned to her that I owned the rights to The Understory. After Tin House took The Virgins, she sent The Understory to my new editor, who said that he was interested it in, too, but wanted to see what happened with The Virgins first. And luckily that went well, so Tin House brought out a reissue of The Understory about eight months after The Virgins. It was great to see it with a new cover and in bookstores.
TM: The Virgins got a rave review from John Irving in The New York Times. How did you swing that?
PE: I don’t think authors ever get to swing anything when it comes to The Times!
The review was exciting for reasons beyond the obvious. I’d been a John Irving fan since the age of 15, when I read The World According to Garp. My early- to mid-teens was the one time in my life I stopped writing. I’d been a massively scribbling kid. I’d written a novel at the age of 10 — that was published — I really should refer to it as my first novel. It was called Fight for Freedom and it was about a slave girl who escapes to the North before the Civil War with the help of Harriet Tubman. My mom, always an optimist and a booster, sent it out to a few places and it got taken by a small feminist press in California called The Shameless Hussy Press (this was the 1970s, okay?). But once adolescence hit I guess I just got too busy with trying to be popular and attract the interest of boys. Anyway, The World According to Garp blew me away. I couldn’t believe fiction could be written that way. It was so irreverent and joyful and antic and dark and political. Afterwards, I went out and read all of Irving’s earlier books.
They jolted me into writing again (at first very Irving-imitatively), and I haven’t stopped since, other than for a brief period when I couldn’t sell The Understory and thought, crap, I really don’t have what it takes, maybe I would like to be a librarian. Not a joke; I was looking into it. So there was a big kick in being reviewed by one of my first literary heroes.
TM: Big books are having a moment. Of the many virtues of novels like The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, A Little Life, and City on Fire, they have also received attention for their high page count. Eleven Hours is 165 pages long, is this a contrarian stance?
PE: You’ve hit a sore spot for me. Some of the novels most dear to me are big and multi-charactered, with wide panoramas. Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Howard’s End, Angle of Repose. Then I have this other passion for slender, intense, highly concentrated novels and collections, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, Desperate Characters, They Came Like Swallows, Jesus’ Son. But it’s the longer, more sprawling books that epitomize “The Novel” to me. Why?
I’ve been pressing myself on this one lately. It has nothing to do with artistry, I’m beginning to realize. It has to do with certain longings for status and, believe it or not, with how I want to see myself as a person. Do I not have enough empathy to write more than two or three or four characters a book? Am I lacking in imagination? I just have to get over those probably false equivalences. Jane Austen famously referred to “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Well, we’re still reading Jane Austen today, while Walter Scott, the “big book” writer of her day, not so much.
TM: What is a “big book?”
PE: Usually, for me, it’s a novel that takes on a lot of the “outside” world, that’s sociological and/or historical as well as psychological. Sometimes a book like that truly does offer a “big” experience, and sometimes it’s just kind of, well, journalistic: doing the work of nonfiction rather than fiction.
I think about Kafka, another writer I love. Can you imagine if Kafka sat around saying, “God, why can’t I write a multi-generational novel with lots of sociological color and several gripping subplots?”? You could argue that Kafka is one of the narrowest writers around. He barely does description or character. There’s only sometimes a bit of plot. But in plumbing what he plumbs he brings us some of the most potent experiences in literature. He brings us the unconscious erupting into our lives and the dread at the heart of being human. He goes places no one else goes.
We authors just have to write what we write and not get caught up in these ideas of “big” or “small.”
TM: I agree, but know from experience that it’s not a comfortable feeling to be told your novel is “small.” While there is no set definition of “small,” it can feel diminishing?
PE: Yes, it can. My other hangup about “writing short” is that long books do often generate more excitement and attention. Though it’s not always the case. The wonderful Dept. of Speculation, a novel you can read in an hour and a half, was one of the most lauded books of 2014. There’s Garth Greenwell’s book What Belongs to You. There are Ben Lerner’s two short novels. These have been among the most justly praised books of recent years.
I’ll also say this: When advance reader’s copies of Eleven Hours were mailed out, I realized one big advantage of a short book: people are much more likely to get around to reading it. It’s not such a huge investment of time.
That’s a long way around to your question of whether writing short is a contrarian stance. No! Both The Understory and The Virgins started out as longer books. Making them into the best books I could resulted in major amputations. I knew from the start that Eleven Hours would be short, because of the time frame and because there were only so many uterine contractions I could describe without losing my shit, but I kept hoping it would magically pass the 200-page mark. It just didn’t want to.
Some authors seem to achieve their best effects through expansion. For me, at least so far, it’s compression that brings out what I want.
TM: What did your editor at Tin House say about the length of the manuscript?
PE: I worried about what both my agent and my editor would say about the length of Eleven Hours.
I was afraid someone was going to use the dread word “novella.” (For the record, as a reader, I love the novella form. I just thought that if Eleven Hours was labelled as a novella it might be tougher to sell or get reviews for.)
Neither said anything. When I expressed my own anxieties, my editor mentioned another novel that Tin House had done, even shorter, and commented that the right layout and presentation can make a short book very appealing. That was nice. Tin House does in fact have a track record of beautifully publishing shorter novels.
TM: Eleven Hours tells the incredibly tense story of a woman’s 11-hour labor. How did it feel to write?
PE: I had a lot of false starts with Eleven Hours. I wrote my first two novels in almost complete isolation. With The Virgins, I submitted the first 15 pages to a workshop once; that was it until it was finished. By Eleven Hours, I had a writers’ group, and I was also having trouble getting it launched. Trying to capture the physical and psychological experience of childbirth was so difficult. Not because I didn’t remember it well or was spooked by the material, but simply because it was hard to find the language to say much about it. What I was able to get down on paper was fragmentary and rather dreamlike. I would bring in these fragments and my group would be encouraging but also kind of lost. I really felt that this book needed to be in third person, unlike my first two novels, and I just couldn’t hear the right voice.
Eventually I had a setup and a reasonably workable narrator and I proceeded. Then I didn’t show anything more to anybody and completed a draft in about a year. Wow, I’m getting really fast! I thought. This is progress!
I sent the manuscript to my agent. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear her trying carefully not to make me feel terrible. She pointed out what she liked and didn’t. She didn’t like that much, but what she did I gained the confidence to build on. I got some good feedback from her then assistant also. I spent two more years on the book and got regular critiques from my group. They were essential in helping me see where there was a live vibe and where things were going dead.
The breakthrough was when some intuition sent me back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of my favorite novels. That was the voice I wanted, that mobile, poetic, exalted, wry, empathic voice that is distinct from any of the characters. So then I spent the rest of my time figuring out what of Woolf’s method I could adapt or steal. In short, the novel didn’t get written all in one breath, by any means!
TM: Eleven Hours is published by Tin House tomorrow. How do you feel right now?
PE: A bit strung out, as always before a publication. But pleased. It’s always sort of a miracle when something that started years ago as an idea, a little thread of words in your head, becomes this independent object in the world. And something that is particularly satisfying to me this time is that the content of the novel brings me full circle to some of my earliest concerns and interests.
In college I discovered I was a feminist — that is, someone who is very interested in how gender shapes inner and outer experience. I studied gender via philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, literature. Glamour magazine was a continuation of that. Women’s magazines are where you can routinely find some of the most inquiring and informative journalism about women’s physical and mental health, reproductive rights, sexuality, and so on. The Virgins drew somewhat on that vein of interest, in its attempt to be straightforward about teenage female sexuality, but Eleven Hours does even more so. Why are there so few accurate or in-depth depictions of labor and delivery in literature? It’s just staggering.
TM: That’s a great question. Where is the experience of labor and delivery in our literature?
PE: You and I were just talking about “small” books, and it seems as if childbirth, this absolutely enormous event in the life of billions of people past and present, is seen as a “small” topic. It’s absurd. With Eleven Hours I wanted to write this thing that I wasn’t seeing out there. I wanted to do it as both an artist and a feminist. And now it’s out there, and I feel very satisfied.
Was Anita Brookner a vampire? She died last month at age 87, the author of two dozen novels, from A Start in Life (published in the United States as The Debut) to Strangers. Her author photo remained unchanged over the three decades she was publishing her novels, like a vampire’s might. In it she looks pale, ladylike, alert, carefully coiffed — hard to pin down in terms of age or date. Her teeth aren’t showing, the better to nip the unsuspecting reader.
Brookner’s novels are inhabited by middle-class types, solitary and stoic. As some readers have noted, nothing much happens in these books; people go to the shop, they return to their quiet flats, they eat a little, they make tea, they think. Sometimes they visit the hairdresser or a museum. Sometimes someone dies, and there’s a quiet funeral. Conversations are economical and frequently unemotional. Sadness puffs around like a gas. But these are men and women holding white-knuckled to the ledge above “the abyss that waits for all of us,” as a character puts it in Latecomers. Below the placid surfaces lie exile, adultery, unrequited love, loss, amorphous fear, and dread. Nobody does depression quite so elegantly. Buffeted and baffled by life, her characters’ strength is in their stasis.
Like one of her white-knuckled heroes, at first look Brookner may seem static as well. Her novels were produced at regular intervals — slim and attractive, with nary a word out of place. In them all excess is gross, whether verbal or sentimental or gastronomic. In Dolly, the title character inspires repulsion in the narrator, Jane, with her flesh and her open sexual need. Jane watches in half-horrified fascination as Dolly, like several other Brookner creations, runs away with the story, the freak who doesn’t fit easily into Jane’s tiny, tidy world.
Brookner harbored some fondness for her freaks; it’s not easy to find what publishers call “comparables” for Brookner, either. When her masterpiece Hotel du Lac, a novel about an Englishwoman recovering in Switzerland from an affair, won the 1984 Booker Prize against 10-1 odds, some puzzlement ensued. Who was this writer, and how should she be categorized? In Look at Me, Frances, a solitary researcher half-hoping for friendship, tells us, “problems of human behaviour still continue to baffle us, but at least in the Library we have them properly filed.”
The sometimes cursory Frances might file Brookner with early-20th-century novelists. Like the Edwardians, Brookner’s characters are privately concerned with class and sex and money, whether or not they admit it. Their childhoods revolve in their heads. Like E.M. Forster’s people, hers are trying to work out how to connect. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, they tell life to “stand still here,” even as it rushes past them. Like T.S. Eliot, they look hard at time: how to fill it, how to get more of it, how to find their way back to a lost, foggy, genteel era. Like Samuel Beckett’s men, they wait.
But it’s a mistake to see Brookner as a throwback from an earlier age. Look again, and you’ll see the way Brookner quietly muscles Modernist themes beyond their limits. Her characters aren’t sure they want to “only connect,” or to wait for life to turn up. Like any good vampire, Brookner feeds on her literary antecedents, picking their bones; she uses them to build her own structures, subtly questioning the tropes of the psychological novel of yesteryear. She one-ups Woolf’s and James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness, showing us minds at war with their owners: In Look at Me, lonely Frances — feeling her life paling before that of a powerfully attractive couple — observes “somewhere, intruding helplessly and to no avail into my consciousness, the anger of the underdog, plotting bloody revolution, plotting revenge.” Rather than submerging us inside consciousness à la Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses, Brookner is always outside her people, just at their backs — an intruder tuning us into their thoughts at a slight remove, whether in first- or third-person narration. She can see them, but they can’t see her. Uneasy but unaware they’re being observed, they reveal themselves fully.
As the intruder draws near, Brookner’s wit reveals itself. She appears to observe her troubled characters from neutral territory, all the while inviting us to see the claustrophobic patterns they’ve woven of their own lives. Like petit-point embroidery, the details are hypnotic, the product of intensely focused skill. (The physical details shine, too; Brookner was a professor of art history as well as a novelist, and it shows. Her interiors and clothing and features are always finely described.) Brookner’s characters are aesthetes who often turn to museums and galleries for help, though she reminds us in Making Things Better that “art [is] indifferent to whatever requirements [we] might bring to the matter.” But Brookner’s own highly-wrought art isn’t quite indifferent to us. Read closely enough, and you’ll feel it watching you, too.
If you’re not alert, you can miss these elements of Brookner’s work. And if you’re not alert, she doesn’t want you as a reader. There’s a velvet ruthlessness to Brookner: Keep up, she seems to say, while she slips into French for a page, or discusses paintings you feel you ought to know. But the flip side of ruthlessness is trust. She trusts her readers to know what she means. Occasionally we can feel her eyes flick towards us, the same way she looks at her characters: You see, don’t you? We end up wanting to please her, a very neat trick on a novelist’s part.
We on Team Brookner also end up trusting her entirely. You mainline her books one after the other, infected by her intense sensibility before you realize it. You can fall drowsily into her closed worlds and curl up in them. Remain vigilant and you’ll recognize her power, though it will still wind up seducing you. Bram Stoker described his Dracula as having “a mighty brain, a leaning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse.” Brookner’s friend Julian Barnes wrote that she was not at all one of her lonely heroines, despite what male critics have decided: “She was witty, glitteringly intelligent, reserved, and unknowable beyond the point she herself had already decided upon.” In her deft hands, Brookner’s characters face oblivion as bravely as they can; our task is face their author just as bravely, baring our necks.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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.
In 1997, the four-year-old independent publisher Steerforth Press published New York Mosaic by Isabel Bolton, in hardback and paperback. A trilogy of Bolton novels that were originally published in the ’40s and ’50s— Do I Wake or Sleep, The Christmas Tree, and Many Mansions —Mosaic is now long out of print. An introduction by Doris Grumbach began with a provocative observation:
It is one of the accepted truths of the publishing world that many good books appear, are critically praised but attract few readers, falling between the cracks of their time, and are never heard of again.
Grumbach had previously suggested to her own editor that he republish The Christmas Tree, but he declined, calling it “old-fashioned.” Now, she wrote, readers of the reissued trilogy would “have the pleasure of encountering, most probably for the first time, a unique (if somewhat ‘old-fashioned’) writer of originality and great power.”
That I came to Bolton’s work via a 1997 rereleased edition of three out-of-print mid-century novels that had itself gone out of print seems to confirm Grumbach’s dire statement. Isabel Bolton has fallen into obscurity a second time. How and why does this happen? What accounts for the failure of a work to catch hold, in spite of outstanding reviews? What makes a critical mass of readers respond favorably, or not? Is there a viable explanation for the truth of Grumbach’s claim?
In his 1946 New Yorker review of Do I Wake or Sleep, Edmund Wilson, one of the most prominent critics of his day, called Isabel Bolton’s voice “exquisitely perfect in accent.” He compared her stream-of-consciousness prose to Virginia Woolf’s, her technique to Henry James’s — “the single consciousness that observes all”– and the novel’s mood and sensibility to that of Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart. Diana Trilling at The Nation heaped on more accolades, regretting only that she hadn’t discovered Bolton first. Do I Wake or Sleep was “quite the best novel that has come my way in the four years I have been reviewing new fiction for this magazine,” and Bolton was “the most important new novelist in the English language to appear in years.” Trilling too compares Bolton to Bowen, noting “the same scalpel-like precision of observation and expression.”
Three years later The Christmas Tree was published. Two early excerpts had appeared in The New Yorker, priming fans of Bolton’s first novel for her encore. Trilling wasn’t disappointed. With The Christmas Tree, she wrote, Bolton “establishes herself as the best woman writer of fiction in this country today.” Other reviews were enthusiastic, but with qualifications. The Saturday Review found “her talent, her exquisite sensitivity unmistakable,” her lyric prose “almost perfect” at times, but the second novel not equal to the first.
Bolton’s third novel, Many Mansions, was published in 1952 and was a finalist for that year’s National Book Award; yet reviews were mixed. Kirkus Reviews dismissed its “drawing room elegance and withered gentility.” The American Scholar thought Bolton “conveyed most effectively the peculiar flavor of recollection. One feels very directly the spirited and courageous old woman’s emotional response to life…” — but went on to say that neither the protagonist’s story nor its setting materialized vividly for the reader.
In addition to Woolf, James, and Bowen, Bolton was compared during her brief span of renown to Edith Wharton, Jean Rhys, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, and Marcel Proust. Even so, she soon disappeared from the public eye, and the novels went out of print. We don’t have posted sales figures or Amazon ratings from the mid-20th century, but if the reputation of the publisher is any indication, we can’t find fault there: Scribner was of course the venerated publisher of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and countless others.
Finding a fascinating out-of-print author is like stumbling across a hidden garden behind a rundown building or delicious rhubarb pie at a forgotten off-road diner — and just as serendipitous. I first learned of Isabel Bolton from Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City. Gornick’s memoir is a series of sketches about her life in New York and New York in her life. In the midst of mostly personal recollections, one vignette begins: “She was born Mary Britton Miller in New London, Connecticut, in 1883…” I read with curiosity about this Mary Miller, who wrote conventional, unremarkable stories and poetry that were published but overlooked. Then at the age of 63, she published Do I Wake or Sleep under the name of Isabel Bolton and became an overnight success.
Gornick was struck by Bolton’s engagement with New York — the three novels’ interplay between the self and the city, loneliness, and solitude. These are Gornick’s own themes. She observes that Bolton “had lived long enough to see that modern life, with its unspeakable freedoms mirrored in the gorgeous disconnect of the crowded city, has revealed us to ourselves as has the culture of no other age.”
Neither Gornick’s discovery, nor mine, would have been possible without Bolton’s brief but fortuitous revival by Steerforth. Gornick herself reviewed New York Mosaic for the Los Angeles Times in 1997. Of the continuity among the three novels and their protagonists, Gornick wrote that each “is presented as a woman able to make her deal with life because she has the city to love, urbanity to merge with.” She referred to well-known women writers of the first half of the 20th century who produced “a kind of poetic, interior, reverie-bound prose clearly influenced by modernism and Freud,” naming Jean Rhys, Anna Kavan, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf; and expressed her belief that Isabel Bolton “belongs in the ranks of these writers.”
The three novels of New York Mosaic reflect and refract one another, forming a strong, almost continuous narrative. Reading them consecutively in a single tome, I found an enhanced synergy and impact beyond that of three individual books published years apart. Each has a female protagonist — progressively middle-aged to elderly — through whose eyes and musings we see New York at distinct points over a decade. Do I Wake or Sleep (the closing words of John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”) depicts a day in 1939 in the life of 40ish Millicent. The action is removed, and what there is of a storyline — Millicent wants Percy who wants Bridget who goes off with the millionaire — is the path we follow through Millicent’s interior narration, her observations and recollections, her affinity with the city:
There was, she thought, a magic, an enchantment — these myriad rainbow lights, now soft and low, now deeper, stronger — all the stops and chords and colors played like organ voluntaries, over the moon, the clouds, the grass.
Bolton’s narrative voice is absorbing and evocative, her sentences dynamic, fluctuating from crisp — “But here you walked in a vacuum.” — to molten. The following long and florid Jamesian passage, for example, continues for another 200 words:
And seeing suddenly, as though in a magnified and inconceivable vision of the Apocalypse, all the choirs of windows, all the tiers of little lights, the towers and terraces and tenements — the bevies, the hives, the sections and intersections and cross sections of human habitations collapsing, toppling, falling, one upon another, and all together in their downfall proclaiming the final judgment and annihilation…
Like Mrs. Dalloway, the novel takes place in a 24-hour period. Millicent’s inner voice as she extols New York — “What a strange, what a fantastic city — there was something here that one experienced nowhere else on earth” — projects a vivid image of Clarissa Dalloway in London: “Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh…”
I could readily understand the linking of Bolton to Woolf in their reflective voices and rhythmic language, their weaving of past and present.
The protagonist of The Christmas Tree, Hilly Danforth, a widow in her 50s, engages in a precarious juggling act when her gay son, trailed by his recently cast-off lover and her former daughter-in-law with new husband in tow, descend on her for Christmas in post-war 1945. I was struck again by Bolton’s innate sense of narrative flow and structure. With limited action and dialogue, we’re privy to Hilly’s interior voice, her reflections on her own youth as she seeks to understand her son. Bolton broadens the novel’s perspective by contrasting Hilly’s voice with her son’s. On the train from Washington to New York, Larry thinks about the joys of travel:
[I]t eased the body and liberated the mind just to sit and look out of the window, to feel at one with the earth, with sky, part of the physical world, part of the mystery; the train established rhythms; your thoughts moved freely; you wished to go on and on, to have no responsibilities save to this flow, this mysterious sense of time, of space, of memory.
The straightforward handling of Larry’s homosexuality — this was 1949 — led The Christian Science Monitor to call it “a morality play for moderns.” More recently it was listed in Lost Gay Novels, a 2003 compendium of works from the first half of the 20th century.
The third novel Many Mansions, opens thus, in 1950:
Miss Sylvester stood at the window. She had finished her manuscript and she sighed heavily. Her novel had left her with a feeling of incredulity occasioned not so much by the fact that her story savored of the unusual, if not to say the melodramatic, as by the positively imponderable strangeness of the human condition, one’s existing in this world at all.
Miss Sylvester’s novel is her own thinly disguised story. Now in her 80s, she reimagines it as she rereads it, and her foray into the past is juxtaposed with present developments. Contrary to the consensus of the original reviews, Babette Deutsch wrote in The American Scholar in 1970 that she found Many Mansions “the most effective of the three” and undeservedly allowed to drop out of sight. She praised Bolton’s style and the story itself, its background of social history and “what the novel has to say and to suggest about the ‘generation gap,’ a phrase that the old lady recognized without naming.” Many Mansions is in fact my favorite of the three novels: by the time I read the last of the trilogy, Bolton’s distinctive voice and mood had securely rooted in my consciousness.
The indictment of gentility notwithstanding, Bolton doesn’t shrink from addressing issues of her day and ours — women’s sexuality, gay oppression, thwarted love, aging, loneliness, failure, change. New York Mosaic left me satisfied like a three-course meal at a fine — classic but not nouveau-chic — Manhattan restaurant. I couldn’t understand Bolton’s absence from the canon of women writers. Surely I would find her in my 1,200-page Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature, but Amely Bolte was followed by María Bombal. Who were they, I wondered; why them and so many obscure others, but not Isabel Bolton?
Bolton published another novel in 1971, The Whirligig of Time. Kirkus Reviews acknowledged that Bolton had made “a small reputation” in the past thanks to her influential supporters, Edmund Wilson and Diana Trilling. But the reviewer doubted that contemporary readers would respond to a “prose style given to budding trees (three times in forty lines) and birds ‘singing, ascending, pausing on the brink of some imperishable bliss,’” and summed up with the opinion that “the perfumed sensibility is just about unbearable.” Twenty years after her ascendancy, Bolton had been dismissed as a flash in the pan or a fluke. The republication of her novels couldn’t resuscitate her in spite of garnering more accolades.
What about the author herself? Little was known about her private life, and it seemed she had chosen to remain an enigma. The only information she provided for her book jackets was that “I have lived some time in Europe…was brought up in America…New York has been my home for many years.” Might her reticence have contributed to her descent?
I was intrigued by Bolton’s mystique and was thus elated when I discovered her memoir, Under Gemini. Bolton tells about Mary Britten Miller and her identical twin, Grace — from age five when they’re orphaned until Grace’s drowning death at 14. For Mary it was “a blotting out of life.” She tells how the two girls, raised by wealthy, distracted relatives and a beleaguered governess, had a joyful existence that revolved around each other. “It was never I but always we,” she wrote. Being an identical twin was, for Bolton, “the source of whatever insight into human nature or response to the beauties and mysteries of the natural world I may possess.” Under Gemini was published in 1966, reissued in 1999. It too fell by the wayside twice; now it’s listed at NeglectedBooks.com.
The trail of Mary Miller aka Isabel Bolton is sparse from then on. She spent a few years in Italy, but there’s no record of them. She lived alone in New York from the age of 28 and never married. There’s speculation that she was a lesbian, rumors of an illegitimate child born in Italy.
We don’t have the life, but we have the work, and the mystery of Isabel Bolton must perhaps be gleaned from her novels. Is Many Mansions partly autobiographical? The novel within the novel, Miss Sylvester’s roman á clef, tells of a young woman who falls in love with a married man and gets pregnant. Her family ships her off to Italy to have the baby, which they have taken from her at birth and given up for adoption.
My favorite Bolton legend is from Gore Vidal’s appreciative 1997 review of New York Mosaic. In the wake of his own first novel being ignored by Edmund Wilson, he recalled Wilson gushing over the 1946 inaugural effort of the unknown Isabel Bolton. Vidal asserted that Wilson was known to have a penchant for nubile flesh combined with writing talent. Thus, with Wilson’s praise of Bolton, Vidal wrote, “a star was born…[and] a comic legend was also born:” as he told it, Wilson projected the loveliness of Bolton’s lyrical prose onto the author herself before learning that his targeted conquest was an imposing 60-something matron. Vidal didn’t know if the two ever met, but he offered a fictional imagining in which Wilson goes to meet Bolton. He’s greeted at her door by a beautiful young woman, his vision personified, and a majestic white-haired woman. Assuming the latter to be Isabel’s mother, she corrects him, explains that she is Isabel Bolton and the girl is her ward. He hears Ms. Bolton calling for smelling salts as he drops to the floor in a faint.
Another scenario appeared in The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag: And Other Intimate Literary Portraits of the Bohemian Era by Edward Field, a gossipy account of Yaddo in the ’50s when Bolton was a writer in residence: Wilson had asked to meet her, but she was wary and arranged their encounter at a street-side bench in Central Park. She saw him walk past her, then back and forth several times — no doubt in denial — until she identified herself and squelched his fantasy.
A friend of Doris Grumbach who knew Bolton at Yaddo described her as “imperious, sharp-tongued, demanding, witty, often a delightful conversationalist, and always difficult.” I see those qualities in a 1966 photograph. The overall impression is severe and self-contained, but there’s a glimmer in her eyes and the slightest curve to her mouth — as if someone had asked her about Edmund Wilson.
Grumbach believes Bolton adopted her pen name to remain anonymous, but I question if that’s what she really wanted. It seems more likely that she disassociated herself from earlier failed efforts in order to forge a new identity for her new modernist voice. Either way, her anonymity may have contributed to her fall from grace.
Her reputation was never sufficiently grounded to enable her to compete with contemporary tastes, themes, authors. “Jamesian” is alright for Henry James, but it isn’t what many readers seek in contemporary writers. Doris Grumbach told me she had no idea why Bolton’s work never gained the recognition it deserved beyond these explanations, common to so many authors who fade from view. “Perhaps,” she added, “her rather standard method of narration fell out of favor.” She expressed hope that Bolton’s time will come around again and offered Herman Melville as an example. Melville fell into obscurity not many years after Moby Dick and the notable short stories “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.” His centennial in 1911, 20 years after his death, started his revival.
New York Mosaic failed to stimulate a similar resurgence on behalf of Isabel Bolton. But Vivian Gornick raised another flicker out of the ashes, and I’m trying to fan the flames.
Isabel Bolton died in 1975 at the age of 92 in her Greenwich Village apartment. Shortly after her death, a man by the name of Harry Smith delivered a shopping bag to the New York Public Library that contained the papers of Mary Britten Miller from 1947 to 1974. Her correspondence, legal papers, typescripts, galley proofs, and reviews now occupy two boxes in the library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, an opportunity awaiting the architect of Bolton’s next revival.
If you like to read, we’ve got some news for you. The second-half of 2015 is straight-up, stunningly chock-full of amazing books. If someone told you, “Hey, there are new books coming out by Margaret Atwood, Lauren Groff, Elena Ferrante, John Banville, and Jonathan Franzen this year,” you might say, “Wow, it’s going to be a great year for books.” Well, those five authors all have books coming out in September this year (alongside 22 other books we’re highlighting that month). This year, you’ll also see new books from David Mitchell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Aleksandar Hemon, Patti Smith, Colum McCann, Paul Murray, and what we think is now safe to call a hugely anticipated debut novel from our own Garth Risk Hallberg.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive — no book preview could be — but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 82 titles, this is the only second-half 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee: Fifty-five years after the publication of Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, this “newly discovered” sequel picks up 20 years after the events of the first novel when Jean Louise Finch — better known to generations of readers as Scout — returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her lawyer father, Atticus. Controversy has dogged this new book as many have questioned whether the famously silent Lee, now pushing 90 and in poor health, truly wanted publication for this long-abandoned early effort to grapple with the characters and subject matter that would evolve into her beloved coming-of-age novel. (Michael)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A journalist who learned the ropes from David Carr, Coates is one of our most incisive thinkers and writers on matters of race. Coates is unflinching when writing of the continued racial injustice in the United States: from growing up in Baltimore and its culture of violence that preceded the Freddie Gray riots, to making the case for reparations while revealing the systematic racism embedded in Chicago real estate, to demanding that South Carolina stop flying the Confederate flag. In Between the World and Me, Coates grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading. Originally slated for September, the book was moved up to July. Spiegel & Grau Executive Editor Chris Jackson said, “We started getting massive requests from people [for advance copies.] It spoke to this moment. We started to feel pregnant with this book. We had this book that so many people wanted.” Publishers Weekly’s review dispensed with any coyness, saying, “This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time.” (Anne)
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Elegant and spooky, dystopian and poetic, Jesse Ball’s follow-up to the well-reviewed Silence Once Begun follows a man known only as “the claimant” as he relearns everything under the guidance of an “examiner,” a woman who defines everything from the objects in their house to how he understands his existence. Then he meets another woman at a party and begins to question everything anew. A puzzle, a love story, and a tale of illness, memory, and manipulation, A Cure for Suicide promises to be a unique novel from a writer already known for his originality. (Kaulie)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: Volume number five of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series expands on the author’s epic portrayal of the settlement of North America. In his latest, Vollmann depicts the Nez Perce War, a months-long conflict in 1877 that saw the eponymous Native American tribe defend their mountain territories from encroachment by the U.S. Army. According to Vollmann, who spoke with Tom Bissell about the series for a New Republic piece, the text consists of mostly dialogue. (Thom)
Armada by Ernest Cline: Billy Mitchell, the “greatest arcade-video-game player of all time,” devoted 40 hours a week to the perfection of his craft, but he says he never skipped school or missed work. That was 35 years ago, before video games exploded not only in size and complexity, but also in absorptive allure. Recently, things have changed. It was only a year ago that a California couple was imprisoned for locking their children in a dingy trailer so the two of them could play ‘World of Warcraft” uninterrupted. (By comparison, Mitchell’s devotion seems pedestrian.) This year, programmers are working on “No Man’s Sky,” a “galaxy-sized video game” that’ll allow players to zip around a full-scale universe in the name of interplanetary exploration. It sounds impossibly gigantic. And with escalation surely comes a reckoning: Why are people spending more time with games than without? Across the world, a new class of professional gamers are earning lucrative sponsorships and appearing on slickly produced televised tournaments with tuition-sized purses. But surely more than money is at stake. (Full disclosure: I made more real money selling virtual items in “Diablo III’s” online marketplace than I did from writing in ’12.) As increasingly rich worlds draw us in, what are we hoping to gain? It can’t just be distraction, can it? Are there practical benefits, or are we just hoping there are? This, to me, sounds like the heart of Ernest Cline’s latest novel, Armada, which focuses on a real life alien invasion that can only be stopped by gamers who’ve been obediently (albeit unknowingly) training for this very task. (Nick M.)
The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch: The visionary editor of Chiasmus Press and first to publish books by Kate Zambreno and Lily Hoang is herself a fierce and passionate writer. Yuknavitch is the author of a gutsy memoir, The Chronology of Water, and Dora: A Headcase, a fictional re-spinning of the Freudian narrative. Her new novel, Small Backs of Children, deals with art, violence, and the very real effects of witnessing violence and conflict through the media. According to Porochista Khakpour, the novel achieves “moments of séance with writers like Jean Rhys and Clarice Lispector,” a recommendation destined to make many a reader slaver. (Anne)
Lovers on All Saints’ Day by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño. Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Award for his novel The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez is bringing out a collection of seven short stories never before published in English (nimbly translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean). The twinned themes of this collection are love and memory, which Vásquez unspools through stories about love affairs, revenge, troubled histories — whole lives and worlds sketched with a few deft strokes. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has called Vásquez “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.” (Bill)
Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams: The recent passing of B.B. King makes Williams’s previous book, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ — a comic road novel about a pair of traveling blues musicians — a timely read. His new story collection also skewers superficial discussions of race; admirers of James Alan McPherson will enjoy Williams’s tragicomic sense. The book ranges from the hilarious “The Story of My Novel,” about an aspiring writer’s book deal with Cousin Luther’s Friend Chicken, to the surreal “Movie Star Entrances,” how one man’s quest to remake himself with the help of an identity consulting company turns nefarious. Williams can easily, and forcefully, switch tragic, as in “The Lessons of Effacement.” When the main character is followed, he thinks “When your only offenses in life were drinking out of the juice carton and being born black in these United States, what could warrant such certain persecution?” Williams offers questions that are their own answers, as in the final story, when a biracial anthropologist discovers that a hidden mulatto community is more than simply legend. (Nick R.)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson: Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, but he’s also the author of a terrific and off-kilter story collection called Emporium, a literary cousin to the sad-comic work of George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and Dan Chaon. This new collection of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer “finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,” echoes his early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome. Kirkus gave the collection a starred review, calling it, “Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom.” (Edan)
Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami: A reissue of Murakami’s first novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, which form the first half of the so-called (four-book) Trilogy of the Rat. Written in 1978 and 1980, these books were never published outside of Japan, evidently at Murakami’s behest. He seems to have relented. (Lydia)
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: Fifteen stories — connected by their depictions of a number of shared female characters – make up this new collection by short story master Beattie. In “Major Maybe,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, two young roommates navigate Chelsea in the ’80s. In “The Repurposed Barn,” readers glimpse an auction of Elvis Presley lamps, and in “Missed Calls,” a writer meets a photographer’s widow. Though most of the stories take place in Beattie’s home state of Maine, the author says they required her to call on the work of memory, as they took place in a “recalled” Maine rather than the Maine “outside her window.” (Thom)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: Describing Rachel, the protagonist of Alice Hoffman’s 34th novel, as the mother of Camille Pissarro, the Father of Impressionism, feels like exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t be doing right now. That’s because The Marriage of Opposites isn’t about an artist. It’s about the very real woman who led a full and interesting life of her own, albeit one that was profoundly shaped by decisions she didn’t make. Growing up in 19th-century St. Thomas, among a small community of Jewish refugees who’d fled the Inquisition, Rachel dreams of worlds she’s never known, like Paris. No doubt she yearns for a freedom she’s never known, too, after her father arranges her marriage to one of his business associates. What happens next involves a sudden death, a passionate affair, and an act of defiance signaling that perhaps Rachel is free, and that certainly she’s got her own story to tell. (Nick M.)
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector: For readers who worship at the altar of Lispector, the appearance of new work in translation is an event. Her writing has long been celebrated across her homeland, Brazil, and Latin America, but it wasn’t until recently that her name became common currency among English readers thanks to New Directions’s reissue of her novels and Benjamin Moser’s notable biography. To add to the allure of “Brazil’s great mystic writer,” Moser offers, she was “that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Calling the release of Lispector’s Complete Stories in English an “epiphany” in its promotional copy may sound like hyperbole. It’s not. (Anne)
Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson: Shirley Jackson has been a powerhouse in American fiction ever since her haunting 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which showcased her talent for turning the quotidian into something eerie and unnerving. Although she died 50 years ago, her family is still mining her archives for undiscovered gems, resulting in this new collection of 56 pieces, more than 40 of which have never been published before. From short stories to comic essays to drawings, Jackson’s full range is on display, yet her wit and sharp examination of social norms is present throughout. (Tess)
Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville: Miéville, the author of more than a dozen novels, is the sort of writer that deftly leaps across (often artificially-imposed) genre divides. He describes his corner of speculative fiction as “weird fiction,” in the footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft. (Tor.com mocked the desire to endlessly subcategorise genre by also placing his work in “New Weird!” “Fantastika!” “Literary Speculation!” “Hauntological Slipstream!” “Tentacular Metafusion!”) His first short story collection was published a decade ago; his second, with 10 previously-published stories and 18 new ones, is out in the U.S. in August. (Elizabeth)
The Daughters by Adrienne Celt: Celt, who is also a comics artist, writes in her bio that she grew up in Seattle, and has both worked for Google and visited a Russian prison. Her debut novel covers a lot of ground, emotionally and culturally: opera, Polish mythology, and motherhood/daughterhood. Kirkus has given The Daughters a starred review — “haunting” and “psychologically nuanced” — and she was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, among others. Celt’s web comics appear weekly here, and she sells t-shirts! One to watch.(Sonya)
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: If anyone’s a Paris Review regular it’s Ottessa Moshfegh, with a coveted Plimpton Prize and four stories to her name (in only three year’s time). Her narrators have a knack for all kind of bad behavior: like the algebra teacher who imbibes 40s from the corner bodega on school nights, who smokes in bed and drunk dials her ex-husband, or the woman who offers to shoot a flock of birds for her apartment-manager boyfriend. Moshfegh’s novels track the lives of characters who are equally and indulgently inappropriate. Moshfegh’s first full-length novel Eileen follows a secretary at a boys prison (whose vices include a shoplifting habit) who becomes lured by friendship into committing a far larger crime. (Anne)
Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer: Schaer worked as a deckhand on the HMS Bounty, which sank during Hurricane Sandy, so I entered Shipbreaking feeling that I would be in credible hands. I often read poetry to find phrases and lines to hold with me beyond the final page, and Schaer, who once wrote that “to leave the shore required surrender,” delivers. “I am / forgiven by water, but savaged by sky” says one narrator. Another: “Even swooning / is a kind of fainting, overwhelmed / by bliss, instead of pain.” Shipbreaking is a book about being saved while recognizing loss. Schaer’s words apply equally to marine and shore moments, as so often life is “a charade that only deepens / the absence it bends to hide.” Schaer’s long poems are especially notable; “Middle Flight” and “Natural History” remake pregnancy and motherhood: “Before now, he floated in dark water…Someday he too will chase his lost lightness / half-remembered toward the sky.” If we trust our poets enough, we allow them cause wounds and then apply the salves: “The world without us / is nameless.” (Nick R.)
Last Mass by Jamie Iredell: “I am a Catholic.” So begins Iredell’s book, part memoir about growing up Catholic in Monterey County, Calif., part historical reconsideration of Blessed Father Fray Juníperro Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who will be canonized by Pope Francis later this year. Structured around the Stations of the Cross, Iredell’s unique book reveals the multitudinous complexities of Catholic identity, and how the tensions between those strands are endemic to Catholic culture. Think of Last Mass as William Gass’s On Being Blue recast as On Being Catholic: Iredell’s range is encyclopedic without feeling stretched. Delivered in tight vignettes that capture the Catholic tendency to be simultaneously specific and universal, the book’s heart is twofold. First, how faith is ultimately a concern of the flesh, as seen in the faithful’s reverence for the body of Christ and struggles over experiencing sexuality (Catholics pivot between the obscene and the divine without missing a step). Second, in documenting Catholic devotion to saintly apocrypha, Iredell carries the reader to his most heartfelt note: his devotion and love for his father and family. (Nick R.)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: Known for his mastery of the modern domestic drama and his disdain for Internet things, Franzen, with his latest enormous novel, broadens his scope from the tree-lined homes of the Midwest and the Mainline to variously grim and paradisiacal domiciles in Oakland, East Germany, and Bolivia; alters his tableaux from the suburban nuclear family to fractured, lonely little twosomes; and progresses from cat murder to human murder. The result is something odd and unexpected — a political novel that is somehow less political than his family novels at their coziest, and shot through with new strains of bitterness. Expect thinkpieces. (Lydia)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: Groff’s highly anticipated third novel follows married couple Lotto and Matthilde for over two decades, starting with an opening scene (published on The Millions), of the young, just-hitched duo getting frisky on the beach. The book was one of the galleys-to-grab at BookExpo America this spring, and it’s already received glowing reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Meg Wolitzer writes of Groff: “Because she’s so vitally talented line for line and passage for passage, and because her ideas about the ways in which two people can live together and live inside each other, or fall away from each other, or betray each other, feel foundationally sound and true, Fates and Furies becomes a book to submit to, and be knocked out by, as I certainly was.” (Edan)
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: A hotly anticipated story about “a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free,” this is Atwood’s first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 (The Penelopiad was part of the Canongate Myth Series). Charmaine and Stan are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of social and economic turmoil. They strike a deal to join a “social experiment” that requires them to swap suburban paradise for their freedom. Given Atwood’s reputation for wicked social satire, I doubt it goes well. Publishers Weekly notes, “The novel is set in the same near-future universe as Atwood’s Positron series of four short stories, released exclusively as e-books. The most recent Positron installment, which was published under the same name as the upcoming novel, came out in 2013.” (Claire)
The Blue Guitar by John Banville: Banville’s 16th novel takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem about artistic imagination and perception: “Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar.” Banville’s protagonist, Oliver Otway Orme, is a talented but blocked painter, an adulterer, and something of a kleptomaniac who returns to his childhood home to ruminate on his misdeeds and vocation. With such an intriguing, morally suspect central character as his instrument, Banville should be able to play one of his typically beguiling tunes. (Matt)
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante: Ferrante writes what James Wood called “case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success.” In the fourth and final of the reclusive global publishing sensation’s Neapolitan novels, we return to Naples and to the tumultuous friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. (Lydia)
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt: DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was short-listed for the Man Booker and just about every Canadian prize going, and for good reason. It took the grit, melancholy, and wit of the Western genre and bent it just enough toward the absurd. This new work, billed as “a fable without a moral,” is about a young man named Lucien (Lucy) Minor who becomes an undermajordomo at a castle full of mystery, dark secrets, polite theft, and bitter heartbreak. Our own Emily St. John Mandel calls it, “unexpectedly moving story about love, home, and the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world.” (Claire)
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie: A new Rushdie novel is an event — as is a new Rushdie tweet for that matter, especially after his vigorous defense of PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo. His latest follows the magically gifted descendants of a philosopher and a jinn, one of those seductive spirits who “emerge periodically to trouble and bless mankind.” These offspring are marshaled into service when a war breaks out between the forces of light and dark that lasts, you got it, two years, eight months, and 28 nights. You can read an excerpt at The New Yorker. (Matt)
Sweet Caress by William Boyd: Boyd is one of those Englishmen who changes hats as effortlessly as most people change socks. A novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and movie director, Boyd has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for 1982’s An Ice-Cream War), and he recently wrote the James Bond novel Solo. His new novel, Sweet Caress, is the story of Amory Clay, whose passion for photography takes her from London to Berlin in the decadent 1920s, New York in the turbulent ’30s, and France during World War II, where she becomes one of the first female war photographers. This panoramic novel is illustrated with “found” period photographs. (Bill)
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams: The “definitive” collection from an acknowledged mastress of the short story — Rea Award Winner alongside Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Robert Coover, Deborah Eisenberg, James Salter, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, et alia — The Visiting Privilege collects 33 stories from three previous collections, and 13 stories previously unpublished in book form. Joy Williams has been a writer’s writer for decades, yet never goes out of fashion. Her stories are sometimes difficult, bizarre, upsetting even; and always funny, truthful, and affecting. Williams once exhorted student writers to write something “worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.” Would-be writers perplexed by what is meant by an original “voice” should read Williams, absolutely. Read her in doses, perhaps, but read her, for godssakes. (Sonya)
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: By day, Clegg is a glamorous New York literary agent known for snagging fat book deals for literary authors like Matthew Thomas and Daniyal Mueenuddin. At night, he peels off the power suit and becomes a literary author himself, first with two memoirs about his descent into — and back out of — crack addiction, and now a debut novel. In Did You Ever Have a Family, tragedy strikes a middle-aged woman on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, setting her off on a journey across the country from Connecticut to the Pacific Northwest, where she hides out in a small beachside hotel. (Michael)
The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates: Volcanically prolific Oates has produced another memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which focuses on her formative years growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York. We learn of young Oates’s close friendship with a red hen, her first encounters with death, and the revelation, on discovering Alice in Wonderland, that life offers endless adventures to those who know how to look for them. Witnessing the birth of this natural storyteller, we also witness her learning harsh lessons about work, sacrifice and loss — what Oates has called “the difficulties, doubts and occasional despair of my experience.” (Bill)
The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck: The only child of a German movie producer living in Italy and an artistic mother living in New York, Liliane also has ancestors as varied as Mary Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn, and a Mexican adventurer. In this sixth, semi-autobiographical novel from Lily Tuck, winner of the National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, the imaginative Liliane uncovers her many ancestors, tracing and combining their histories as she goes. The result is a writerly coming-of-age that spans both World Wars, multiple continents, and all of one very diverse family. (Kaulie)
This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison: A writer with a reputation for having a big heart takes on Harriet Chance who, at 79 years old and after the death of her husband, goes on a Alaskan cruise. Soon she discovers that she’s been living under false pretenses for the past 60 years. In other hands, this story might turn out as schmaltzy as the cruise ship singer, but Evison’s previous novels, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, West of Here, and All About Lulu have established him as a master of the wistfully wise and humanely humorous. As Evison said in a recent interview, fiction is “an exercise in empathy.” (Claire)
Gold, Fame, Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Set in an increasingly plausible-seeming future in which drought has transformed Southern California into a howling wasteland, this debut novel by the author of the prize-winning story collection Battleborn finds two refugees of the water wars holed up in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Seeking lusher landscape, the pair head east, risking attack by patrolling authorities, roving desperadoes, and the unrelenting sun. (Michael)
Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell: Back when the working title for his new story collection was Cries for Help: Forty-Five Failed Novels, Padgett Powell proclaimed the book “unsalable.” He was wrong. It’s coming out as Cries for Help, Various, and it’s a reminder that with Padgett Powell, anything is possible. In “Joplin and Dickens,” for instance, the titular singer and writer meet as emotionally needy students in an American middle school. Surreal wackiness can’t disguise the fact that these 44 stories are grounded in such very real preoccupations as longing, loneliness, and cultural nostalgia. The authorial voice ranges from high to low, from cranky to tender. It’s the music of a virtuoso. (Bill)
The Marvels by Brian Selznick: You know a book is eagerly awaited when you witness an actual mob scene full of shoving and elbows for advance copies at BookExpo America. (In case there’s any doubt, I did witness this.) Selznick, the Caldecott-winning author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, is best known for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, published in 2008. His newest work weaves together “two seemingly unrelated stories” told in two seemingly unrelated forms: a largely visual tale that begins with an 18th-century shipwreck, and a largely prose one that begins in London in 1990. (Elizabeth)
Scrapper by Matt Bell: Set in a re-imagined Detroit, Bell’s second novel follows Kelly, a “scrapper,” who searches for valuable materials in the city’s abandoned buildings. One day Kelly finds an orphaned boy, a discovery that forces Kelly to reexamine his own past and buried traumas. Advance reviews describe Scrapper as “harrowing” and “grim,” two adjectives that could also be used to describe Bell’s hypnotic debut, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. (Hannah)
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: For his sixth novel, Ron Rash returns to the beautiful but unforgiving Appalachian hills that have nourished most of his fiction and poetry. In Above the Waterfall, a sheriff nearing retirement and a young park ranger seeking to escape her past come together in a small Appalachian town bedeviled by poverty and crystal meth. A vicious crime will plunge the unlikely pair into deep, treacherous waters. Rash, a 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, is one of our undisputed Appalachian laureates, in company with Robert Morgan, Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, and Mark Powell. He has called this “a book about wonder, about how nature might sustain us.” (Bill)
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli: This young Mexican writer and translator was honored last year with a National Book Foundation “Five Under 35” Award for her 2013 debut, Faces in the Crowd. Her essay collection Sidewalks, published the same year, was also a critical favorite. Her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, is a story of stories, narrated by Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, a traveling auctioneer whose prize possession is a set of Marilyn Monroe’s dentures. Set in Mexico City, it was written in collaboration with Jumex Factory Staff — which is a story in and of itself. (Hannah)
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno: The author of Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails has taken an ambitious turn with Marvel and a Wonder. The book follows a Korean War vet living with his 16-year-old grandson on a farm in southern Indiana. They are given a beautiful quarterhorse, an unexpected gift that transforms their lives, but when the horse is stolen they embark on a quest to find the thieves and put their lives back together. (Janet)
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta: Okparanta was born in Nigeria and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She emigrated to the United States at age 10, but her fiction often returns to Nigeria, painting a striking portrait of the contemporary nation. Her first book, the 2013 short story collection Happiness, Like Water, was shortlisted for many prizes and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. Her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, tells the story of two young girls who fall in love against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War. (Elizabeth)
After the Parade by Lori Ostlund: This assured debut tells the story of Aaron, an ESL teacher who decides, at age 40, to leave his lifelong partner, the older man who “saved him” from his Midwestern hometown. But in order to move on, Aaron has to take a closer look at his Midwestern past and find out if there’s anything worth salvaging. Readers may know Ostlund from her award-winning 2010 short story collection, The Bigness of the World. (Hannah)
The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses: Like the titular flood that churns through the second half of the novel, The Hundred Year Flood is a story of displacement. Salesses, whose non-fiction examines adoption and identity, tells the story of Tee, a Korean-American living in Prague in late 2001. The attacks of 9/11 are not mere subtext in this novel; Tee’s uncle commits suicide by plane, and the entire novel dramatizes how the past binds our present. “Anywhere he went he was the only Asian in Prague,” but Tee soon finds friendship in Pavel, a painter made famous during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and Katka, his wife. Tee becomes Pavel’s subject, and soon, Katka’s lover. “In the paintings, [Tee] was more real than life. His original self had been replaced:” Salesses novel dramatically documents how longing can turn, painfully, into love. (Nick R.)
Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek: An explosion has destroyed San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Dorian and his parents have survived it, but where is his older sister, Skyler? She never existed, according to Dorian’s parents. Post-incident America is a sinister place, where Muslims have been herded onto former Native American reservations and parents deny the existence of a boy’s sister. According to the publisher, Hrbek’s sophomore novel is “unlike anything you’ve read before — not exactly a thriller, not exactly sci-fi, not exactly speculative fiction, but rather a brilliant and absorbing adventure into the dark heart of…America.” Joining the Melville House family for his third book, Hrbek, whose story “Paternity” is in the current issue of Tin House, may be poised to be the next indie breakout. (Sonya)
Dryland by Sara Jaffe: Jaffe has lived many lives it seems, one as a guitarist for punk band Erase Errata, another as a founding editor of New Herring Press (which just reissued a bang-up edition of Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks with paintings by Amy Sillman). Proof of Jaffe’s life as a fiction-writer can be found online, too, including gems like “Stormchasers.” This fall marks the publication of Jaffe’s first novel, Dryland, a coming-of-age tale set in the ’90s that depicts a girl whose life is defined by absences, including and especially that of her not-talked about older brother, until she has a chance to find him and herself. (Anne)
Hotel and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh: British critic, journalist, and fiction writer Walsh kickstarted 2014 with the #readwomen hashtag phenomenon, declaring it the year to read only women. It seems that 2015 is the year to publish them, and specifically Walsh, who has two books coming out this fall. Hotel is “part memoir part meditation” that draws from Walsh’s experience as a hotel reviewer — and that explores “modern sites of gathering and alienation.” The inimitable Dorothy Project will publish Vertigo, a book of loosely linked stories that channels George Perec and Christine Brooke-Rose, and which Amina Cain claims, “quietly subvert(s) the hell out of form.” (Anne)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: Garth is a contributing editor to the site, where he has written masterful essays over nearly a decade, while teaching and putting out his novella Field Guide to the North American Family. He is a keen and perfect reader of novels, and of critics — he told us about Roberto Bolaño. We trust him to steer us through difficult books. (He is, additionally, a champion punner.) When his debut novel, a 900-pager written over six years, was purchased by Knopf, we felt not only that it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, but that it couldn’t happen to a more serious, a more bona fide person of letters. City on Fire is the result of his wish to write a novel that took in “9/11, the 1977 blackout, punk rock, the fiscal crisis,” which explains the 900 pages. Read the opening lines, evoking a modern Inferno, here. I think we’re in for something special. (Lydia)
Slade House by David Mitchell: Slade House started out with “The Right Sort,” a short story Mitchell published via 280 tweets last summer as publicity for The Bone Clocks. That story, which was published in full, exclusively here at The Millions, is about a boy and his mother attending a party to which they’d received a mysterious invitation. The story “ambushed” him, said Mitchell, and, before he knew it, it was the seed of a full-fledged novel, seemingly about years of mysterious parties at the same residence that we can assume are connected to each other and to characters we’ve already met. The book is said to occupy the same universe as The Bone Clocks and, by extension, Mitchell’s increasingly interconnected body of work. (Janet)
M Train by Patti Smith: The follow-up to Just Kids, Smith’s much-beloved (and National Book Award-winning) 2010 memoir about her youthful friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe as they made their way in 1960s New York City. In a recent interview, Smith said M Train is “not a book about the past so much. It’s who I am, what I do, what I’m thinking about, what I read and the coffee I drink. The floors I pace. So we’ll see. I hope people like it.” Oh Patti, we know we’re gonna like it. (Hannah)
Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: Hemon has lived in the U.S. since the war in his native Bosnia made it impossible for him to return from what should have been a temporary visit. So he came to his role as the U.N.’s first writer-in-residence in its 70-year history with a lot of baggage. Given unprecedented access to the organization’s inner working — from the general assembly to the security council — his book portrays a deeply flawed but vitally necessary institution. (Janet)
A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk: Nobel laureate Pamuk’s ninth novel follows Mevlut, an Istanbul street vendor. Beginning in the 1970s, the book covers four decades of urban life, mapping the city’s fortunes and failures alongside Mevlut’s, and painting a nostalgic picture of Pamuk’s beloved home. (Hannah)
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell: In Once Upon a River, Campbell introduced us to the wily and wise-beyond-her-years Margo Crane, a modern-day female Huck Finn taking to the river in search of her lost mother. The strong and stubborn protagonists that the Michigan author excels at writing are back in her third short story collection. The working-class women in these stories are grief-addled brides, phlebotomists discovering their sensuality, and vengeful abused wives, all drawn with Campbell’s signature dark humor and empathy. (Tess)
100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore: For 100 years, the Best American series has collected the strongest short stories, from Ernest Hemingway to Sherman Alexie. As editor, Lorrie Moore, a virtuoso of the genre herself, combed through more than 2,000 stories to select the 41 featured in this anthology. But this is not just a compilation, it’s also an examination of how the genre has evolved. Series editor Heidi Pitlor recounts the literary trends of the 20th century, including the rise of Depression-era Southern fiction to the heyday of the medium in the 1980s. The result is collection featuring everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lauren Groff. (Tess)
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: The author of March and Caleb’s Crossing, known for her abilities to bring history to life, has turned her attention to David King of Israel. Taking the famous stories of his shephardic childhood, defeat of Goliath, and troubled rule as king, Brooks fills in the gaps and humanizes the legend in a saga of family, faith, and power. (Janet)
Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann: With a title borrowed from the iconic Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann explores disparate points of view in this collection of short stories. The title story follows a retired judge going about his day, not realizing it’s his last. Other stories peek into the life of a nun, a marine, and a mother and son whose Christmas is marked by an unexpected disappearance. (Hannah)
The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray: Murray’s 2010 novel Skippy Dies earned the Irishman worldwide acclaim as a writer enviably adept at both raucous humor and bittersweet truth. His new novel, perhaps the funniest thing to come out of the Irish economic collapse, follows Claude, a low-level bank employee who, while his employers drive the country steadily towards ruin, falls in with a struggling novelist intent on making Claude’s life worthy of telling. (Janet)
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra’s first novel about war-torn Chechnya during the Second Chechen War, was not only a New York Times bestseller, it was also a longlist selection for the National Book Award and on a bevy of best-of lists for 2013. His second book is a collection of short stories that, like his novel, span a number of years, and take place in the same part of the world. There’s a 1930s Soviet censor laboring beneath Leningrad, for example, as well as a chorus of women who, according to the jacket copy, “recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town.” The characters in these stories are interconnected, proving that Marra is as ambitious with the short form as he is with the novel. (Edan)
Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe: Six years after Sui Shi came out in his native Japan, the 1994 Nobel Prize laureate’s latest is arriving in an English translation. In the book, which features Oe’s recurring protagonist Kogito Choko, a novelist attempts to fictionalize his father’s death by drowning at sea. Because the memory was traumatic, and because Choko’s family refuses to talk about his father, the writer begins to confuse his facts, eventually growing so frustrated he shelves his novel altogether. His quest is hopeless, or so it appears, until he meets an avant-garde theater troupe, which provides him with the impetus to keep going. (Thom)
Submission by Michel Houellebecq: This much-discussed satirical novel by the provocative French author is, as Adam Shatz wrote for the LRB, a “melancholy tribute to the pleasure of surrender.” In this case, the surrender is that of the French intelligentsia to a gently authoritarian Islamic government. The novel has been renounced as Islamophobic, defended against these charges in language that itself runs the gamut from deeply Islamophobic to, er, Islam-positive, and resulted in all kinds of moral-intellectual acrobatics and some very cute titles (“Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées” or “Slouching towards Mecca”). (Lydia)
Golden Age by Jane Smiley: The third volume in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy follows the descendants of a hard-striving Iowa farming family through the waning years of the last century to the present day. The first two installments covered the years 1920-52 (in Some Luck) and 1953-86 (in Early Warning), mixing lively characters and sometimes improbable plot twists with gently left-of-center political analysis of the American century. With characters who are serving in Iraq and working in New York finance, expect more of the same as Smiley wraps up her ambitious three-book project. (Michael)
Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories by Audrey Niffenegger: From a contemporary master of spooky stories comes an anthology of the best ghost stories. Niffenegger’s curation shows how the genre has developed from the 19th century to now, with a focus on hauntings. Each story comes with an introduction from her, whether it’s a story by a horror staple like Edgar Allan Poe or the unexpected like Edith Wharton. Also look for a Niffenegger original, “A Secret Life with Cats.” (Tess)
The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor: In Cantor’s previous novel, Margot, Anne Frank’s sister has survived World War II, and is living under an assumed identity in America. Cantor’s new book once again blends fact and fiction, this time delving into the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans executed for spying during the Cold War. The day Ethel was arrested, her two young children were left with a neighbor, and in The Hours Count Cantor fictionalizes this neighbor, and we understand the Rosenbergs and their story through the eyes of this young, naïve woman. Christina Baker Kline calls the novel “Taut, atmospheric and absorbing…” (Edan)
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: As a teenager, the Marquis de Lafayette was an officer in the Continental Army at the right hand of George Washington. Returning home to his native France after the war, he continued to socialize with his friends Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, and never lost his place in America’s affections. The author of Assassination Vacation tells the true story of the young French aristocrat who inserted himself into the American Revolution, his long and eventful life on both sides of the Atlantic, and his triumphant return to America at the end of his life. (Janet)
The Early Stories of Truman Capote: As any teacher can tell you, fiction written by 14-year-olds is not something you’d typically pay money to read. (It’s hard enough to find people you can pay to read the stuff, at that.) But what about fiction written by a 14-year-old who started writing seriously at age 11? And one who’d go on to write some of the most memorable stories of the modern age? That certainly changes things, and that’s the case at hand with The Early Stories of Truman Capote, which is said to contain 17 pieces written during the author’s teenage years. “When [Capote] was 23, he used to joke that he looked like he was 12,” journalist Anuschka Roshani told Die Zeit after she had discovered the forgotten stories in the New York Public Library. “But when he was 12 he wrote like others did aged 40.” (Nick M.)
Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel: There’s a good chance you’ve encountered Michel’s stories, scattered far and wide across the Internet, and featured in the most reputable and disreputable journals alike. And if not his stories, then perhaps one of his many editorial or side projects, as co-founder of Gigantic, online editor of Electric Literature and, (delightfully) as creator of the Monsters of Literature trading cards. Michel’s stories are often an uncanny combination of sinister and funny, tender and sad. Laura van den Berg calls them “mighty surrealist wonders, mordantly funny and fiercely intelligent,” and many of them will soon be released together in Michel’s first story collection Upright Beasts. (Anne)
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill: In 2012, Gaitskill read for a student audience from the novel-in-progress The Mare, which was then described as “an adult fairy-tale unsuitable for children’s ears.” The clichéd publicity blurb gives one pause — “the story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her” — but also, for this Gaitskill fan, induces eagerness to see what will surely be Gaitskill’s intimate and layered take on this familiar story trope. The young girl, Velveteen, is a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn who spends time with a married couple upstate and the horses down the road. Drug addiction, race, and social-class collisions make up at least some of the layers here. (Sonya)
The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson is one of the most beloved contemporary American writers, and she’s also one of our most cogent voices writing about religion and faith today. “Robinson’s genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction,” Michelle Orange wrote of Robinson’s last novel, Lila, and this talent is on display across her new essay collection, 14 essays that meditate on the complexities of Christianity in America today. (Elizabeth)
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry: IMPAC-winner Barry — who we’ve interviewed here at The Millions — follows John Lennon on a fictional trip to Ireland. In the story, which takes place in 1978, Lennon sets out to find an island he purchased nine years earlier, in a bid to get the solitude he needs to break out of a creative rut. His odyssey appears to be going according to plan — until, that is, he meets a charming, shape-shifting taxi driver. (Thom)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: The Big Green Tent — at 592 pages and dramatizing a panorama of life in the USSR in the 1950s through the story of three friends — is a Russian novel, at the same time that it is a “Russian novel.” An orphaned poet, a pianist, and a photographer each in his own way fights the post-Joseph Stalin regime; you might guess that the results are less than feel-good. This may be the Big Book of the year, and Library Journal is calling it “A great introduction to readers new to Ulitskaya,” who, along with being the most popular novelist in Russia, is an activist and rising voice of moral authority there. For more on Ulitsakya, read Masha Gessen’s 2014 profile. (Sonya)
Hotels of North America by Rick Moody: For writers both motivated and irked by online reviews, the comment-lurking hero of Moody’s sixth novel should hit close to home. Reginald Edward Morse writes reviews on RateYourLodging.com, yet they aren’t just about the quality of hotel beds and room service — but his life. Through his comments, he discusses his failings, from his motivational speaking career to his marriage to his relationship with his daughter. When Morse disappears, these comments become the trail of breadcrumbs Moody follows to find him in this clever metafictional take on identity construction. (Tess)
Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving: Although Irving feels a little out of vogue these days, his novels have inflected the tenor of modern American literature — open a novel and see a glimpse of T.S. Garp, a flash of Owen Meany, a dollop of Bogus Trumper. His 14th novel is based, confusingly, on an original screenplay for a movie called Escaping Maharashtra, and takes us to Mexico and the Philippines. (Lydia)
Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos: When Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, passed away in 2013, he left behind Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, a novel he’d been working on for more than 12 years. In it, the author imagined a fictitious manuscript containing correspondence between Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the artist Dorothy Tennant, and Mark Twain. In a virtuoso performance, Hijuelos displays his ability to use a high 19th-century writing style while preserving the individual voices that made each of his subjects so unique. (Nick M.)
A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham: Pulitzer Prize-winning Cunningham, best known for The Hours, a creative take on Mrs. Dalloway that was itself adapted into a prize-winning movie starring Nicole Kidman and a prosthetic nose, has chosen a new adaptation project: fairy tales. In A Wild Swan, all the familiar fairy tale characters are present, but clearly modernized — Jack of beanstalk fame lives in his mother’s basement, while the Beast stands in line at the convenience store. Their stories receive similar updates and include all the questions and moments our childhood tales politely skimmed over. (Kaulie)
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco: The Italian writer, best known in the U.S. for The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, takes on modern Italy’s bete noire — Benito Mussolini — in Numero Zero. Moving deftly from 1945 to 1992 and back again, the book shows both the death of the dictator and the odyssey of a hack writer in Colonna, who learns of a bizarre conspiracy theory that says Il Duce survived his own murder. Though its plot is very different, the book pairs naturally with Look Who’s Back, the recent German novel about a time-traveling Adolf Hitler. (Thom)
The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley’s fifth novel, the well-received Clever Girl, was released just over a year ago, but she’s already back with another delicately crafted novel of generational change in an English family. In The Past, four grown siblings — three sisters and their brother — return to their grandparents’ house for three sticky summer weeks. While there, they face collected childhood memories, the possibility of having to sell the house, and each other. Their families cause considerable chaos as well — the sisters dislike their brother’s wife, while one sister’s boyfriend’s son attempts to seduce her niece. (Kaulie)
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Cantor’s first novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, garnered a devoted following for its madcap, time-traveling chutzpah. Her second novel, Good on Paper, also published by Melville House, sounds a bit different — but just as enticing. According to the jacket copy, it’s about “a perpetual freelancer who gets an assignment that just might change her life,” and there are echoes of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Edan)
Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens: Reportage by László Krasznahorkai: Nine out of 10 doctors agree: Hungarian fiction is the cure for positivity, and few doses are as potent as the ones written by Krasznahorkai, recent winner of the Man Booker International Prize. “If gloom, menace and entropy are your thing,” Larry Rohter wrote in his profile of the author for The New York Times, “then Laszlo is your man.” And our interview with Krasznahorkai garnered the headline “Anticipate Doom.” Ominous for Chinese officials, then, that Krasznahorkai’s latest effort can be described not as a work of fiction, but instead as a travel memoir, or a series of reports filed while journeying through the Asian country. Because if there’s one guy you want to write about your country, it’s someone Susan Sontag described as the “master of the apocalypse.” (Nick M.)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: In Hunt’s fictions, imagination anchors the real and sometimes calls mutiny. Her tales earned her a spot in Tin House’s coterie of “Fantastic Women,” and The Believer has called her “a master of beautiful delusions.” Whether the delusion involves believing oneself to be a mermaid or a wife who becomes a deer at night or the eccentric life and ideas of the oft-overlooked inventor Nikola Tesla (who among other things, harbored pigeons in New York City hotel rooms), Hunt delivers them with what an essence akin to magic. Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s third novel, promises more in this vein. It’s a gothic ghost story, involving two orphaned sisters, channeling spirits, and an enigmatic journey across New York State. (Anne)
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster — nine million copies and still selling strong — Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire)
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story — “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi — and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya)
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: In his fourth novel, Lowboy author Wray moves out of the confines of New York City, tracing the history of an Eastern European family not unlike his own. Moving all the way from fin-de-siècle Moravia up to the present day, the book tracks the exploits of the Toula family, who count among their home cities Vienna, Berlin, and finally New York City. As the story progresses, the family struggles to preserve their greatest treasure, an impenetrable theory with the potential to upend science as we know it. For a sense of Wray’s eye, take note that Znojmo, the Moldovan town from which the family hails, is the gherkin capital of Austria-Hungary. (Thom)
Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Sue Kaufman prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, Alice & Oliver, which takes place in New York City in the year 1994, is about a young mother named Alice Culvert, who falls ill with leukemia, and her husband Oliver, who is “doing his best to support Alice, keep their childcare situation stabilized, handle insurance companies, hold off worst case scenario nightmares, and just basically not lose his shit.” Joshua Ferris writes, “I was amazed that such a heartbreaking narrative could also affirm, on every page, why we love this frustrating world and why we hold on to it for as long as we can.” Richard Price calls it “a wrenchingly powerful novel.” (Edan)
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It’s a testament to the meticulous brilliance of Jorge Luis Borges that a summary of his story “The Garden of Forking Paths” might run longer than the story itself, and only fitting, given the narrative’s central question: How do you build an infinite labyrinth? It’s an even greater testament to Borges’s brilliance that the story, with deadpan audacity, provides an answer. One of the story’s characters writes a vast novel the irreconcilable narrative contradictions of which lead another character to conclude that “unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, [the novel’s author] did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite forking series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.” Any attempts to navigate this web will set the reader wandering an endless maze of temporal possibilities.
This endless maze could also describe the novels of Tana French, whose Dublin Murder Squad series charts labyrinthine paths as it navigates, not forking timelines, but interconnected webs of people. Her books find tension, terror, joy, and beauty in the conflicts and resonances that arise from the disparate voices and worldviews embodied by the novels’ police detective protagonists.
Each novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series follows a different detective, each of whom has been featured as a secondary character in a previous novel in the series (with the exception of the protagonist of the first novel). Fully capitalizing on the possibilities contained in this premise, French endows the protagonist with their own distinct voices, their own unique personal philosophies. Over the course of the series, these perspectives come into dynamic conversation with one another, building to an intriguing and ever-increasing clamor.
The series begins with In the Woods, which finds detective Rob Ryan investigating a gory murder at a controversial archaeological site. What Ryan conceals from his boss and the majority of his squad is that the murder may be linked to an unsolved crime from his own childhood. In on the secret is Ryan’s partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox, and as the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that the novel is as interested in the relationships between its characters as it is in the sensational crime under investigation. Much of the story’s tension arises from the toll the case takes on the once-seemingly unbreakable friendship between Ryan and Maddox, the consequences of which reverberate into French’s next novel, The Likeness.
The second entry in the series features an entirely new mystery. (Although major payoffs exist for reading the series sequentially, each book also succeeds as a stand-alone novel.) The protagonist this time is Cassie Maddox, still reeling from the events of In the Woods, which are alluded to only vaguely. This time, in a premise that’s both improbable and delightful, Maddox investigates the murder of a woman who not only resembles her exactly, but has been living under a false identity that Maddox herself created when she was a detective in the undercover police unit. Maddox takes on the dead woman’s identity, embedding herself in the mini-commune of eccentric English grad students with whom the victim had been living. The uncanny doubling of the premise models a hallmark of the series: even though characters recur from one novel to the next, each new depiction presents minor variations as the first-person narrators present us with their distinctive take on both themselves and their colleagues. The first-person Cassie Maddox of The Likeness, then, reads as a slightly different character than the Cassie Maddox of In the Woods — more clever, more vulnerable, more complex.
Supervising Maddox on her investigation in The Likeness is her former boss from the undercover unit, Frank Mackey, a manipulative risk-taker who’s featured as the protagonist in the next entry in the series, Faithful Place. One advantage of the series’s premise is the way it allows French to (mostly) sidestep the implausibility endemic to other mystery series, where a single protagonist, in volume after volume, faces sensational mystery after sensational mystery, devastating personal crisis after devastating personal crisis. Although the characters of the Dublin Murder Squad series may be tangentially involved in many large crises, they only directly handle a once-in-a-lifetime case once in their fictional lifetime, when they are featured as a protagonist.
Frank Mackey’s great crisis comes when a badly decaying corpse discovered in the neighborhood where he grew up turns out to be the body of Rosie Daly, a young woman he had dated decades earlier. The two had planned to elope to England, but when Rosie didn’t show up for their rendezvous, Mackey assumed she had stood him up, an assumption that, in the ensuing years, shapes his fundamental philosophies. As the investigation of her murder unfolds, Mackey must also interrogate his deeply held views about his family and ultimately himself.
By this point in the series, a pattern emerges. Although the material circumstances of each mystery differ quite a bit, each novel features at its core a profound epistemological crisis. As detectives, the novels’ protagonists constantly face questions about what knowledge is and how to find it, and in response they’ve each developed a specific epistemological priority, whether it’s confidence in the power of memory, or in embodied experience, or in a knee-jerk distrust of the motives of others. And without fail, by the end of each book, the inadequacies of those beliefs have been laid bare by the troubling mysteries that they fail to fully resolve.
For the reader, that instability is multiplied over the course of the novels. The series, rather than supplying a unifying theory of knowledge to replace the discredited individual epistemologies, focuses instead on replicating for the reader the experience of uncertainty that arises when varied experiences and philosophies come into conversation and conflict with each other. As the characters and their accompanying worldviews interact throughout the series, they create a complex labyrinth of infinite possibilities.
Of course, such dizzying explorations of varied human experience are not unique to the Dublin Murder Squad novels. In his early 20th-century treatise Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin identified polyphony — the unresolved juxtaposition of diverse voices and perspectives — as a defining characteristic in the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, and others. It’s a compelling aesthetic model, one that encompasses a wide range of novels, from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. These novels, and others in the same mold, generate vertiginous thrills as they dramatize the difficulties of understanding ourselves, other people, and the world at large.
Over the past few years, several authors have riffed on that effect by incorporating elements of popular genre fiction into their works. Novels like Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird alternately embrace and subvert a whole host of popular genres, from family saga to airport thriller to ghost story to fairy tale to bildungsroman. As the novels veer from one type of narrative to the next, they create a polyphony of genre that constantly challenges the reader’s expectations and interpretive strategies.
Peter Rabinowitz, a narrative theorist, has an anecdote that nicely illustrates the relationship between genre and interpretation. In his Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation, Rabinowitz writes about an experience he had teaching Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train in one of his classes. The solution to the book’s mystery pleasantly surprised the majority of the class. Two students, though, said they had figured out the ending fairly early on. When Rabinowitz asked them how they had solved the mystery so quickly, they explained that in romance novels, two rivals usually compete for the protagonist’s affections, and most of the time, one rival turns out to be a scoundrel. Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train features a romantic plot at the center in which two different men woo the protagonist. The two students said that, based on the interpretive expectations they had developed reading romance novels, they were quickly able to figure out which romantic rival was the scoundrel and in this case the perpetrator of the crime. The other students, lacking the same reading experience, were unable to make the connection. Rabinowitz goes on to argue that a reader’s understanding of any given narrative grows out of a combination of previous reading experiences and signals from the text itself. Genre, then, provides a bundle of interpretive strategies, created between the author, the text, and the reader.
French utilizes this dynamic to great effect throughout her series. While the novels’ detective protagonists pick their way with varying success through a maze of vexing people and circumstances, readers navigates their own tangled maze of contradictory conventions as the narratives hop from genre to genre, toying with readers’ expectations.
Broken Harbor, the fourth entry in the series, is an ideal case in point. As with the other entries in the Dublin Murder Squad series, Broken Harbor initially presents itself as a mystery novel, more specifically, a police procedural. In this instance, Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy (previously encountered in Faithful Place in which he butts heads with Frank Mackey) investigates the murder of a young family in a nearly abandoned housing development.
At first, readers may feel secure reading the book as a straightforward police procedural, but soon elements of a haunted house novel emerge, as Kennedy finds the murdered husband’s account of a mysterious beast tormenting the family in the months leading up to their death. The evidence baffles Kennedy, who began the novel believing that good detection happens when “suspects and witnesses…believe you’re omniscient,” in other words, that even feigned possession of knowledge ultimately leads to valid knowledge. By the novel’s end, though, Kennedy has been rattled to the point that he warns his rookie partner that the human “mind is garbage…that will let you down at every worst moment there is.”
As Kennedy tries to make sense of the case, the reader tries to make sense of the novel itself — what kind of book will it turn out to be, and which interpretive genre strategies should be used? And of course, even when the mystery is solved, it feels like none of the genres at play quite explain what happened. This reader/detective parallel calls attention to the ways genre works as an epistemological model: it offers up specific strategies (both valid and not) for finding and processing the knowledge contained within a narrative.
The genre (and epistemological) play continues in The Secret Place, the fifth and latest entry in the series, which combines a boarding school drama with a cold-case mystery with a telekinetic coming-of-age story with a novel of manners. And the novel complicates things further by relying more heavily than previous entries on the series’s growing network of interconnected characters and their accompanying narrative baggage.
In that way, The Secret Place functions as a model of the whole series: read together on a macro level, all five books place the first-person protagonists and their accompanying worldviews into a polyphonic conversation with each other. The Secret Place recreates that dynamic on a micro level when, in a climactic interrogation scene, it places in the same room multiple characters whose wildly diverse minds the reader has been granted intimate access to: Frank Mackey (of Faithful Place), Holly Mackey (who features as secondary character in Faithful Place, and a main character in an alternating third-person omniscient narrative in The Secret Place), and Stephen Moran (also a minor character in Faithful Place, and the protagonist of The Secret Place), as well as Detective Antoinette Conway, the unknown quantity in the room. The drama arises less from what is revealed over the course of the interrogation, and more from the dynamic interplay of four savvy characters attempting to out-read and outsmart each other. Their epistemological models are put into urgent conversation with each other in a more frantic microcosm of the series as a whole.
For these purposes, Stephen Moran is the ideal protagonist. He places great stock in his ability to read other characters, describing his methods in great detail, which creates a narrative in which the reader spends a significant amount of time reading Moran reading the other characters. The climactic interrogation scene only enhances the effect: when an antagonistic Frank Mackey arrives, we have moments, for instance, in which the reader reads Moran reading Mackey reading Moran, with Moran then silently critiquing Mackey’s readings (as Moran imagines them). Here, for example, Moran resists the idea that Mackey understands him, noticing “him [Mackey] watching me, amused, the way he used to seven years back, big dog watching feisty puppy. Seven years is a long time.” In pointing out the time that’s passed since his first interactions with Mackey, Moran underscores yet another confounding factor in the epistemological maze that runs through French’s novels — that other people are moving targets, and in the time we take to try and comprehend them, they’ve already changed.
As Borges reminds us, not only in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” but, fittingly, again and again throughout his work, an endless pursuit is not necessarily a futile one; there’s beauty be found in the infinite. Tana French taps into such wonders in her perpetually challenging, perpetually engaging Dublin Murder Squad series.
If demographic information matters, allow me to share mine. I am 22. I am a recent college graduate, and I have a degree in English literature. I am what the internet, sociologists, and The New York Times call a “Millennial.” I am occasionally tempted to believe that this is all unique, that I am truly individual. But the truth is that all this identifying information applies equally well to thousands and thousands of other 22-year-old girls who want to be writers and editors, and it was equally true of Marina Keegan, the Yale student who died in a car accident five days after her graduation in 2012 and whose last essay went viral in the following months. She was 22. She studied literature and creative writing. She wanted to be a writer. She didn’t seem to like the term “Millennial” very much. We were and are very similar. Except that, of course, we aren’t. Not really.
It’s maybe too easy to boil down Keegan’s posthumous collection of essays and stories, The Opposite of Loneliness, to these kinds of biographical snapshots and broad generalizations. Many reviews of the book place an incredible emphasis on the youth of the writing, the way Keegan’s voice sounds 22 (which it is), and the way that her stories and essays capture the anxieties and ambiguities and joys of being young and alive and in college (which she was). Her characters text, they email, they go through each others’ Facebook albums. “This,” the critics seem to be saying, “is the future of literature. When the Millennials come of age, this is what they will all be writing.”
But the other focus, and the one that’s harder to shake, is on Keegan herself, on her promise and her tragedy. How terrible, the book seems to be saying, that such a girl should die so young. The blurbs on the back cover of the book are all elegies. “I will never stop mourning,” begins the first, from Harold Bloom. Another refers to the collection as “the writing Marina Keegan left behind.” The last begins “In her brief life…” and ends with “Though every sentence throbs with what might have been, this remarkable collection is ultimately joyful and inspiring, because it represents the wonder that she was.” All of which seem to undermine and contradict Anne Fadiman’s warning in her (elegiac, mournful) foreword: “Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”
And she is. She’s very good. The collection, though uneven, is strong and varied. For the most part it isn’t student writing, and the first story is enough to disprove any concerns that Keegan is only being remembered for her death. In “Cold Pastoral” the young, female narrator’s boyfriend suddenly dies, and she is thrown together with both the ex he was still in love with and the full story of their long romance in the form of the dead boyfriend’s diary. The characters are complicated and believable, and it is here that all the strongest elements of Keegan’s writing are present. The students go to a house party; they talk about hooking up. They are young and in college and uncertain about how to process grief, the disappearance of one of their own, and also about how to define their relationships, how to structure and understand their own lives. The end is both surprising and satisfying. Every character acts both naturally and originally; I wouldn’t have made the same choices, were I in their places (largely due to my deep reverence for diaries), but I can see why they make the choices they do. The story was easily my favorite of the collection, and I thought about it long after I finished the book.
This particular story also exemplifies a somewhat eerie trend in Keegan’s writing – a lot of characters die, and many of the nonfiction pieces examine death and dying while making reference to Keegan’s own fears and losses. These are both thoughtful and extremely difficult to read. It’s as if Keegan herself won’t let you forget that she’s gone, that she’ll never get to eat the cheese pizza she requested for her death bed, that all her worries about premature cancer were for naught, that she won’t get to keep driving her grandmother’s 1990 Camry. The essays in the collection are, as a whole, not as strong as the fiction – they are shorter, slighter, and move almost too quickly from point to point, giving them a kind of frantic energy – but they are personal, and in this context that seems to count more than anything. Though rough, the nonfiction’s unpolished forms introduce the reader to Keegan more directly. We learn about her experience watching beached whales unhinge their jaws and breathe dying breaths; we have to admire her youthful honesty and bravado when she wishes she had thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway before Michael Cunningham. In “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology” Keegan worries about the death of the sun and the end of human culture. She doesn’t “want to let the universe down,” and though this is a melodramatic sentiment, it’s nevertheless charming in its sincerity. These writings are raw, and they make the reader ache as they get to know Keegan in greater and greater detail, as more and more of her personality is revealed and we realize how much has been lost.
This gradual recognition, though sobering, is addictive, and while the essays offer the sad pleasure of learning to mourn a someone, the fiction tempts readers to look for even more hints of Keegan in young characters, in situations and in settings. This is the constant danger of posthumous reading, or of any biographically motivated reading – that we look too hard, imagine hints of memoir where there is only fiction, and in so doing trample everything that makes fiction unique and powerful. This is doubly dangerous when reading The Opposite of Loneliness, where the drama of the collection stems in no small part from biographical tragedy.
Reading the collection’s stories as nonfiction is particularly tempting when the narrating characters resemble Keegan in age and situation. “Cold Pastoral” presents this possibility, as does the next story, “Winter Break.” Both feature narrators who resemble the persona Keegan assumes in her essays – all three are young women in college who are working out relationships with friends, family, and themselves. But then there are stories where one would really have to strain to see Keegan’s shadow – a series of emails from an engineer in Baghdad; a scientist trapped in a powerless deep-sea submarine – and these seem slightly clumsier, more like student writing and less grounded in experience and believable voice. They are flat, and lack the sparkle that sets her other writing apart from that of most other 22-year-old English majors. Part of this may be the inherent difficulty in imaging and representing full adult lives when one is 22, still straddling adolescence and adulthood. Part of this may be the reader grumbling that there is no great drama here, no personal details that can make us hurt for the loss of Keegan. To that reader (and to myself) I repeat Anne Fadiman: remember her because she’s good, not because she’s dead.
But how good is she, really? It’s difficult to say because it’s difficult to know who to compare her to. Outside of small literary magazines there aren’t many voices as young and modern as Keegan’s who are finding publications and readers, and even in those magazines there are few stories about being 19, 20, 21, about trying to grow up in an uncertain moment, in an uncertain generation. “Every generation thinks it’s special,” writes Keegan, but it’s difficult to say right now just how special ours is, much less how special we will be.
What I can say is that I have met and read many young writers who, like Keegan, are fascinated by social media and the new ways we communicate with each other. In my creative writing workshops I have read stories about searching for friends on Facebook, about discovering quinoa, about being a waitress in terrible restaurants during school breaks. I have read essays about the stress of marrying young and of staying single, about being uncertain about our jobs, about being uncertain about everything, about being afraid of dying, about wanting to be talented and original and a writer but feeling like we don’t really know how. YouTube videos are mentioned casually and relevant HBO shows are referenced. We go to house parties; we worry about our relationships; we keep detailed journals but we also write blogs. And this Millennial generation of writers can learn from Keegan in that she allowed herself to sound and to be fully 22, exactly who and what she was, to explore what that meant and to celebrate the value of a young perspective, no matter how uncertain, but never sounded like she was writing a generic think-piece on “What It’s Like to Be Young Today.” Her writing is marked by all the traits of modern youth but also tackles themes that have been present in great writing for centuries – love, fear, loss. That’s a balance I want us to achieve, what I think we should be working for, and if every young Millennial writer can strike it with the same authenticity of voice that she achieves then our literary generation will be one to watch. As Marina Keegan said, “Let’s make something happen to this world.”
Here’s a common literary conundrum: who much should you assume your readers know going into your novel? Explain too much, you risk condescending; explain too little, you risk being esoteric and possibly confusing. With small aspects of a book, it’s all about deciding what’s necessary information. If a certain piece of information is absolutely vital, then err on the side of explicitness. If not — if, say, the information is merely for thematic or subtextual reasons — then depending on a reader’s knowledge (or their inquisitiveness to go and look it up) is probably best.
But what if your entire book is based on another one? What if a certain piece of information (in the cases of these books, a writer or a specific novel) is foundational to your text? How, then, should you proceed? Should you explain the referenced work so that those unfamiliar with it can enjoy your book? Or should you simply accept that some readers will fall behind and end up befuddled? It’s a tricky enterprise, and since there are as many ways to pay homage to earlier literature as there are ways to create new literature, I thought it would be useful to see how some contemporary writers approach this finicky issue.
Let’s get right into some examples. The most straightforward way to pay homage to another writer is to simply write them into the narrative. Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection Wild Nights! uses the voices of famous authors on their final days. In “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House,” Poe keeps a diary tracking his new post as “Keeper of the Light” for a lighthouse in Viña de Mar. His first entry is dated October 7, 1849, which was the date of Poe’s death (hence the title). Oates has a lot of fun playing with both Poe’s style and his Gothic genre. On his second day, Poe wakes from “fitful” sleep that seems to “cast off totally the morbid hallucination, or delusion that, on a rain-lashed street in a city not familiar to me, I slipped, fell, cracked my head upon sharp paving stones, and died.” Oates captures the language of Poe, as well as his ceaseless morbidity. Would readers unfamiliar with Poe’s biography recognize this description of Poe’s actual death in Baltimore? Or will they miss the hint? Will it matter if a reader does not know that “The Light-House” was the last piece of fiction the real Poe was writing before his death? And that Oates here even quotes from it? Does any of this really matter? Oates, consummate (and unbelievably prolific) storyteller that she is, makes the narrative compelling even for the uninitiated, but it’s interesting to consider how knowing certain things will change the experience of reading the story. Those who know something about Poe will instantly spot the date of his death and know that this is the tale of some sort of afterlife, while those who don’t know Poe will figure it out as the story unfolds. Which is the better experience? Who is reading the story in the right way?
Of course, there are plenty of historical novels that feature authors as characters, but those aren’t the kind I’m interested in here. I’m more interested in those works that aim to riff or play with past fiction, the kinds that are unafraid to run with the ideas of other writers, too, not merely their biographies.
Michael Cunningham wrote two books that take as their inspiration other writers’ works. His Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours examines Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway via three women engaged with Woolf’s novel in different ways: composing it, reading it, living it. But it’s Cunningham’s lesser-known Specimen Days that I’m interested in here, because it explores its foundational text in such unusual ways. Though its title is taken specifically from Walt Whitman’s book of autobiographical essays and sketches, Cunningham’s novel could be said to take Whitman himself as its foundational text––Specimen Days celebrates Whitman’s spirit as much as any individual work, though obviously Leaves of Grass is the primary model. The novel is really three thematically linked novellas, each focusing on a man, a woman, and a young man. Whitman’s presence pervades the stories, yet he remains elusive. In the first section, “In the Machine,” Lucas, the boy, refers to the great poet as “Walt,” like a close friend. Set in the late 19th century, “In the Machine” recounts a fire at the Mannahatta Company (named, of course, after a poem of Whitman’s), a factory near Washington Square. As the blaze ravages the building and innocent workers leap from windows to escape the flame, Lucas thinks he sees something: “Was that Walt, far off, among the others, Walt with his expression of astonished hunger for everything that could occur?”
“The Children’s Crusade,” the second piece, features a detective in 21st-century New York investigating a series of terrorist bombs instigated by an old woman who quotes Whitman. “What are you saying, exactly?” the detective asks the woman, who replies, “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world.” To which the detective says: “You know your Whitman.” Her minion of boys, who call her Walt, since she believes so much in the beauty of the world as Whitman wrote it:
To someone a hundred years ago, as recently as that, this world would seem like heaven itself. We can fly. Our teeth don’t rot. Our children aren’t a little feverish one moment and dead the next. There’s no dung in the milk. There’s milk, as much as we want. The church can’t roast us alive over minor differences of opinion. The elders can’t stone us to death because we might have committed adultery. Our crops never fail. We can eat raw fish in the middle of the desert, if we want to. And look at us. We’re so obese we need bigger cemetery plots. Our ten-year-olds are doing heroin, or they’re murdering eight-year-olds, or both. We’re getting divorced faster than we’re getting married. Everything we eat has to be sealed because if it wasn’t, somebody would put poison in it, and if they couldn’t get poison, they’d put pins in it. A tenth of us are in jail, and we can’t build new ones fast enough. We’re bombing other countries simply because they make us nervous, and most of us not only couldn’t find those countries on a map, we couldn’t tell you which continent they’re on. Traces of the fire retardant we put in upholstery and carpeting are starting to turn up in women’s breast milk. So tell me. Would you say this is working out? Does this seem to you like a story that wants to continue?
A far cry from the America Whitman described, isn’t it? (Though the world of the first story, Whitman’s world, serves to considerably undermine this nostalgic, revisionist view.) That Whitman would be used as motivation for terrorism seems plausible here. Cunningham engages with Whitman’s texts (and Whitman-as-text) in as many ways as he can: what did Whitman’s poetry mean to those who were alive when he wrote it, who could witness the same New York depicted in the pages of Leaves of Grass? What does Whitman’s America say about our America now? What does all that suggest about the future (which is dealt with in the final story, “Like Beauty,” set in New York 150 years from now)?
I read Specimen Days concurrently with Leaves of Grass, which at the time I was reading for a class. It was a wonderful pairing: I grappled with Whitman’s absorbing poetry at the same time I got to read a novelist do the same thing. Cunningham doesn’t expect you to have read Whitman, as he provides quotes and even some analysis along the way, but I would wager that my experience was greatly enhanced by my immediate knowledge of Whitman’s writing. For no matter how much shorthand Cunningham provides, Whitman defies summary. Leaves of Grass enfolds you with its endless lists and keen observations and joyous optimism. One can read Specimen Days and “get” Whitman’s place in it without having read a word of his poetry, but to feel it, to attach more philosophical and emotional resonance to the book’s themes, to understand its “multitudes,” you need Whitman himself.
Memories of those books ran through my mind as I read Maya Lang’s debut novel The Sixteenth of June, which has the rare claim of being a book based on a book that’s based on another book. The title date is, of course, Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set. It is also the date fans of Joyce’s modernist epic come together for an annual celebration. The Sixteenth of June features such a party, but not just any Bloomsday, but the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. The party is thrown by the Portmans, a wealthy couple in Philadelphia. Their two sons, Stephen and Leopold, are name after Ulysses’s protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Leo, the younger son, is engaged to a woman name Nora, like Joyce’s wife. Long’s novel has the same number of chapters as Ulysses and employs many of the same techniques. It is, in other words, wholly dependent on Joyce’s novel.
Ulysses, famously, is based on Homer’s The Odyssey. The idea was to take one of literature’s greatest epics and pare it down to a single day of a human life. The grand in the ordinary. But Joyce goes so much further: he meticulously crafted Ulysses to mirror Homer’s tale of Odysseus and his journey home. He famously said of the book, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” An egotistical claim, to be sure, but one that has yet to be disproved––here I am today, still writing about this goddamn book. In a letter to his Aunt Josephine, Joyce suggested that she read The Odyssey first. “Then buy at once,” he continues, “the Adventures of Ulysses (which is Homer’s story told in simple English and much abbreviated) by Charles Lamb…Then have a try at Ulysses again.” Joyce, then, expected his readers to not only enter his book having already read The Odyssey, but he also wanted them to pore over the text to decipher its innumerable mysteries.
Maya Lang, in The Sixteenth of June, expects no such thing. Her novel is a lovely, light-on-its-feet production, a flowing narrative of young people trying to find their way. Twenty-somethings Leo and Nora have reached an impasse in their relationship: engaged with no wedding date, in love but static, together but growing apart. Leo’s brother Stephen, also Nora’s best friend, plods along at grad school, seven years into his dissertation. Their day begins with the funeral of their grandmother, a woman the family had mostly forgotten about, relegated as she was to a nursing home (“And nursing home is a misnomer,” their father says, “It’s a social living community for seniors”). But before she died, Stephen had begun to pay visits to her, unbeknownst to the rest of the Portman clan. When Stephen’s secret is exposed, questions abound about his intentions. Michael and June Portman, the parents, decide to hold their Bloomsday centennial despite the funeral happening on the same day, a decision that irks Stephen considerably.
One needn’t have read James Joyce to understand this kind of family dynamic. In fact, for the first 50 pages or so I wondered if maybe intimate knowledge of Ulysses might hinder my enjoyment of Lang’s book. I couldn’t help but trace Joyce’s influence on every page, even occasionally spotting some passages lifted directly from Ulysses, as in the introduction of Stephen: “Stephen fills the white bowl with hot water. He cups the bowl in his hands and carries it to his desk, where a mirror and razor lay crossed.” This echoes the famous opening of Ulysses, which goes: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” A bit later, Leo recalls his time in London, where “[there] was no freak-out about cholesterol, fat. They ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” which Leopold Bloom also did in the beginning of his day. Other references aren’t direct quotes: as Stephen contemplates his life, he considers:
How much easier to just go along and agree. To watch the trajectory of the ball long ago set in motion and see where it will land, as though you are not the product of its outcome. To watch as though you have no hand in your own life. As though the only words we have available to us were written long ago in a blue book. As though we cannot make our own stories, decide our own fates.
Ulysses, when it was first published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922, featured a blue cover with white lettering, so people eventually referred to it surreptitiously as “the blue book.” Lang is having a bit of funny in this pensive moment: Stephen, as a character, can’t make his own story; he’s stuck in someone else’s.
Strange that my knowledge of Ulysses actually distracted me from a story predicated on it. Typically, I would imagine the opposite being the case. But luckily Lang’s wonderfully engaging prose and her believable characters overtook me, and soon I forgot to look for allusions and just enjoyed the novel.
One of the most enjoyable things here is the way in which Lang traces her characters’ thoughts. Leo, Stephen and Nora alternate the point of view, and Lang settles herself comfortably in their skin, a fitting technique for a predecessor of Joyce, who mastered free indirect discourse better than maybe any other modernist except for Virginia Woolf. But the spark that makes Lang’s methodology unique in its own right is the way her characters think about the things they might have said to someone. Repeatedly, Leo and company imagine conversations that did not happened, almost as much as we’re given conversations that actually did happen. This is not unlike the “double stream of consciousness” that Morris Ernst emphasized when he defended Ulysses in court in 1933, (“Your honor,” Ernst said in court, “while arguing this case I thought I was intent only on the book, but frankly, while pleading before you, I’ve also been thinking about that ring around your tie, how your gown does not fit too well on your shoulders and the picture of John Marshall behind your bench.”) except here it is as if Lang’s characters, like all of us, are trying to live out a hypothetical other life for themselves, to experiment privately with a life that could have lead but ultimately did not. And sometimes these unspoken words contain within them the thing most necessary to say: Leo wishes he could ask Nora “what it feels like when she pulls” her hair, a condition known as trichotillomania that has afflicted Nora since her mother’s death; Nora wishes to confront Leo’s mother June for her haughty and cruel condescension; and Stephen dwells on the things he would have said to Nora about her relationship with Leo, which Stephen thinks has hindered her development as a person and artist.
This kind of thinking takes up much of our lives. We regret the things we said as well as the things we didn’t say, and moreover, we think about those things all the time, a constant process of rewinding and rewatching and dreaming of rewriting. But, as Joyce points out, “It’s always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream.” We can only move forward, but that doesn’t mean our minds are not stuck in the past.
Most of the characters in The Sixteen of June either don’t like Ulysses or haven’t read it (or, often, they attempted it and stopped). Stephen is even skeptical that his parents, the ones throwing the party, don’t even really like Ulysses: “I sometimes think,” he says, “they’re more interested in what Ulysses says about them than what it actually says. Our truest relationship with books is private. I love Gatsby. I love Mrs. Dalloway. But I would never throw a party for them. A party ends up celebrating not the book but its title.” Nora never got through and it seems that Leo never even tried. This accurately reflects contemporary attitudes of young people toward Ulysses. To them, it is not “the great repository of everything,” as one character puts it, but a pretentious, irritatingly confounding book, with few rewards and annoying champions (“His work is Everest,” the same character says, “No one climbs Everest and says nothing of it!”). Yet here they are, these young people, caught in a story, a world inescapably shaped by Joyce, for no matter what you think of his most notorious novel, it has influenced you, it has defined and refined your ideas of literature, art, obscenity, human thought––even if you disagree, even if you are indifferent.
Homage is a way of acknowledging our forbearers, to celebrate where we came from by updating the past, calling back to it, poking fun at it, challenging it, embracing it, adoring it. Oates goes at it directly, Cunningham a little more abstractly, and Lang indirectly and directly. There is no right way to pay homage any more than there is a right way to love something. And asking yourself how much information you should expect your readers to know is ultimately fruitless. They’ll come into your book with so much more baggage than a knowledge of or respect for a given writer or novel. They bring their pasts into it, too, with all its force and unaware influence. What they know doesn’t matter, because the division between a reader who isn’t familiar vs. a reader who is amounts to a false dichotomy. There is actually an infinite number of ways to experience a story, and no writer can predict them all. Oates and Cunningham couldn’t foresee how much their readers know, just as they couldn’t foresee anything about them. Lang doesn’t know if you’ve read Ulysses; probably she doesn’t care. She wants you to feel her characters think and live (and think about living); the Ulysses stuff reinforces many of the themes, functions as a big blueprint, and serves as the occasion of the novel’s central set piece, but its nuances are not crucial the work as a whole. So if you’re paying homage to someone, to something, to anything, just write it the way you love it––passion is more important than knowledge, anyway.
Ferris Jabr writes for The New Yorker on the “profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing,” and cites books such as Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway as evidence this “curious link between mind and feet” is a serious literary force. After you’ve finished reading Jabr’s piece, be sure to check out Michelle Huneven’s essay “On Walking and Reading at the Same Time,” and then perhaps go for a little stroll with a good book.
Recently, Lynn Stuart Parramore tried to explain “Why a Death-Obsessed Pop Siren Is Perfect for Late-Stage Capitalist America.” She was referring, of course, to Lana Del Rey. Parramore explains that the Ultraviolence chanteuse is only the latest heir to a long lineage of decadent femmes fatales that rise to cultural prominence at moments of perilous social transition or imminent collapse:
This potent combination of women, sex and death is going to be one of the calling cards of late-stage capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our life-affirming instincts. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, these Eves of the Apocalypse — suicidal brides, young women fixated on pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong.
Parramore’s thesis may not seem to have much to do with Ira Glass’s controversial assertion, tweeted after seeing a performance of King Lear, that, “Shakespeare sucks.” But when you consider that one of the late 19th century’s favorite sources of death-and-the-maiden imagery was the drowning Ophelia, weltering picturesquely among the strewn flowers of her fatal madness, the Shakespeare/Del Rey connection becomes more plausible. Just as Parramore (and others) criticize Lana Del Rey for social irresponsibility, for promoting an anti-feminist celebration of sadomasochistic sexuality and for embracing capitalist spectacle unto death, so the most persuasive and compelling attacks on Shakespeare have charged him with amoral aestheticism and a sensationalized skepticism about human potential.
Ira Glass’s infamous tweet complained of King Lear that it had “no stakes” and was “not relatable.” Rebecca Mead and Adam Kirsch have explained at eloquent length why Glass’s expectation that Shakespeare be “relatable” is a naïve and even pernicious application of the narcissistic standards of advertising to serious art. But is Glass’s assertion that King Lear lacks “stakes” really so off the mark? This is a play in which traditional authority and the religious foundation on which it rests have collapsed into nothingness. Its villain, Edmund, worships no god but amoral nature, and its forlorn metaphysical conclusion is, in the words of the brutally blinded Gloucester, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport.” It’s not wrong to say that there are no stakes in the tragedy’s meaningless cosmos. At the play’s conclusion, a set of numb and chastened survivors mutter small consolations in a blasted landscape.
Turning the final page of ultraviolent King Lear in a literary anthology, you would expect it to be succeeded not by Milton’s Puritan justification of God’s ways to men or Pope’s Enlightenment assertion that, “Whatever is, is right,” but rather by the God-haunted and God-abandoned worlds of Kafka and Beckett. Shakespeare’s despairing modernity— — if by “modernity” we mean the collapse of all tradition and a resulting ontological insecurity — is uncanny, so uncanny that we can see elements of Lana Del Rey’s persona prefigured in Lear’s daughters: in the desperate and fatal sexual longings of Goneril and Regan, in the mysterious born-to-die intransigence of Cordelia.
This sense of an after-the-deluge world gone wrong, a world where faith, hope, and love are powerless to improve the human condition, has long disturbed Shakespeare’s critics, most notoriously the poet Nahum Tate, whose happy-ending re-write of Lear held the English stage throughout the 18th century.
But there are less moralistic ways to critique Shakespeare than Tate’s bowdlerization. In 1986, the brilliant polymath critic George Steiner gave a remarkable lecture called “A Reading against Shakespeare,” later collected in his No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995. In this densely learned paper, Steiner attempts to synthesize into a coherent and persuasive argument the complaints against Shakespeare made throughout modern history; he focuses particularly on the criticism of Leo Tolstoy and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein, Steiner explains, implicitly relied on a concept of the poet as spiritual authority and moral prophet. For European thinkers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, it was not enough to be a prodigious coiner of words and creator of spectacle, as Shakespeare undoubtedly was:
Shakespeare is the incomparable Sprachchöpfer, the prodigal wordsmith, the limits of whose language are, in the idiom of the Tractatus, the limits of our world. There is scarcely a domain, constituent of men’s works and days, which Shakespeare has not harvested in language, over which he has not cast the encompassing net of his matchless lexical and grammatical wealth. Disposer of a vocabulary of almost thirty thousand words (Racine’s world is built of one tenth that number), Shakespeare, more than any other human being of whom we have certain record, has made the world at home in the word. This does not, however, make of him a Dichter, a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperilled, bewildered mankind. An authentic Dichter, urges Wittgenstein, ‘cannot really say of himself, “I sing as the birds sing”—but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself’ (Milton’s ‘warbling notes of wood-notes wild’ is fairly obviously present to Wittgenstein when he makes this suggestion). ‘I do not think that Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on the Dichterlos’ — a term again resistant to translation into English and into the entire register of Anglo-Saxon sensibility, but signifying something like the ‘calling’, ‘the destined ordnance’ of the poet.
Because his plays express no sense of a nearly divine vocation, of a mission to save humanity by transmitting ethical truths, Shakespeare cannot be the equal of Dante or Milton or Goethe, of the Greek dramatists or the Russian novelists, all of whom wrote to commune with the divine and to bring light to the world. What had in the Romantic tradition long been seen as Shakespeare’s unique strength — what Keats famously called his “Negative Capability,” his capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” — on this view becomes a liability, a social irresponsibility, a feckless acceptance of humanity’s doomed and ignorant lot without any attempt to improve it. Shakespeare can be seen as the paradigm of the apolitical artist, the dissolute aesthete reviled not only by the religious conservatives of all faiths but also by those who nurse radical political hopes, such as the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy, the Soviet sympathizer Wittgenstein, and even the socialist-feminist Lynn Stuart Parramore. From this perspective, we find Shakespeare at the origin of that dangerously aloof aestheticism for which Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile has given us the most memorable picture in contemporary letters: the literary soirée above the torture chamber.
Accusing Shakespeare of reactionary politics is a longer tradition that one might expect; it certainly predates those deconstructionists, Marxists, postcolonialists, and feminists that the Bardolotarous Harold Bloom notoriously castigated as the “School of Resentment” in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, Shakespeare’s plays lure Septimus Warren Smith into the Great War to fight for an England he associates with the Bard’s poetic achievement. But after the war, the shell-shocked Smith discovers a different moral in Shakespeare:
Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language — Antony and Cleopatra — had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity — the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same.
While other classic authors are implicated in Septimus’s very 20th-century sense that, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (to quote Walter Benjamin), Shakespeare bears the brunt because he is the British icon whose poetic splendor tricked Septimus and his generation into fighting a nationalist and imperialist war that has destroyed their lives.
In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus makes a similar case in his lecture on Hamlet in the National Library of Dublin. The young colonial intellectual sees Shakespeare as the poet of empire, anticipating the postcolonialist critics of P.C. academe by more than half a century. “Khaki Hamlets don’t hesitate to shoot,” Stephen bitterly observes of the British empire. Joyce’s autobiographical hero imagines the Elizabethan playwright as a litigious capitalist (Shakespeare was part-owner of his own theatrical company and of the Globe theater) who projected his avarice onto Shylock in a classic instance of anti-Semitism. Stephen even pictures Shakespeare as a money-minded hoarder of necessities during famine, an image of horrifying relevance to Ireland:
— And the sense of property, Stephen said. He drew Shylock out of his own long pocket. The son of a maltjobber and moneylender he was himself a cornjobber and moneylender with ten tods of corn hoarded in the famine riots.
Stephen further speculates that Shakespeare’s nihilism was caused by wounded male pride, stemming from a betrayal by his wife, construed by the playwright/investor as yet another piece of his property:
But a man who holds so tightly to what he calls his rights over what he calls his debts will hold tightly also to what he calls his rights over her whom he calls his wife.
To sum up the political case against Shakespeare: his nihilism and skepticism translate directly into a political agnosticism all too willing to collaborate with oppression and injustice, especially when it is in the interests of shareholders. On this reading, what is at stake in Shakespeare is profit. Therefore, comparing him to Lana Del Rey, the putative commodity-image studio creation of the erstwhile Lizzy Grant and her industry collaborators, doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
“And yet,” as George Steiner likes to say.
G. Wilson Knight wrote an essay in the 1930s reviewing Tolstoy’s polemic against Shakespeare. Knight concludes that, while Tolstoy’s utopianism is admirable, the kind of a purely ethical art he desires will never satisfy us, because audiences require a metaphysical drama that speaks to all of experience, one in which “[p]ersons both satanic and divine will inter-thread its story.” This conclusion, disturbing to moralists of all stripes, recalls another great analysis of Shakespeare by Knight, his classic “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet.” (Both essays can be found in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy.)
Knight spends much of “The Embassy of Death” building what looks like another Bardoclastic case, by patiently demonstrating the virtues of every character in the drama besides Hamlet. Claudius is a thoughtful king, committed to resolving international conflict through diplomacy rather than war; Polonius and Laertes are sensible to warn Ophelia away from the unstable Prince; Ophelia and Gertrude are innocent victims of Hamlet’s cruelty. These secondary characters are “creatures of earth,” Knight says, who love life and seek to make it as pleasant as possible, whereas Hamlet is a soul-sick death-bringer among them, a diseased intellect who trails destruction in his wake. Knight seems to make an irreproachable judgment against Hamlet — and, by extension, against the writer who expects us to take this monster for a hero:
He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.
What can Knight say to mitigate this conclusion? Nothing — so Knight surprises us instead: unlike Tolstoy or Wittgenstein, Knight devastatingly concludes, “It is Hamlet who is right.” In other words, the dark Prince’s evil vision has truth, if not morality or good politics, to recommend it.
Without mentioning G. Wilson Knight, Simon Critchley, and Jamieson Webster have come to a near-identical conclusion in their recent book, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, a doctrine they define as “the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and insights into the truth induces a disgust with existence.” They go on to ask, “What is so heroic about Hamlet’s disgust? Do we even like him?” But that, as Critchley and Jamieson well know, is like asking if Hamlet is relatable. Of course we shouldn’t like him — but on the evidence of the play’s tenacious prestige, we do anyway. The authors of Stay, Illusion earlier relate, “We kept noticing occurrences of the word ‘nothing’ in Hamlet…and discovered that nothing, as it were, structures the action of the play and the interplay between its central characters.”
Hamlet’s — and Shakespeare’s — charismatically demonic knowledge of the void at the heart of reality, the death that is the essence of life, catches something very real in our experience (or mine, anyway), a basic metaphysical uncertainty that should disturb all of us, a faithlessness and despair that no doubt has the poisonous potential to ruin the plans of our reformers and revolutionaries, of our dispensers of Christian charity and our disseminators of socialist-feminist politics, but a grim knowledge that nevertheless murmurs constantly beneath the busy clamor of everyday life and that seeks passionate expression in the face of all protest. Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks. It doesn’t and shouldn’t please us if we want to believe in a better world, and it may not cheer the fans of NPR, but Shakespeare’s visionary perception that precisely nothing is at stake in each of our lives will probably continue to worry us as long as there are playgoers and readers to experience it.
Image Credit: LPW
Jonathan Russell Clark sits at his desk, writing an essay about free indirect discourse. Surrounding him are books by authors who employ the technique with considerable skill: Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Dixon, and Joshua Ferris. He recalls a time when he did not even know what free indirect discourse was, and a time, later, when he knew the term but viewed it more as a descriptor than a crucial component. He remembers how his relationship to the term evolved over the years: his initial distrust of it, as many of his favorite writers cavalierly disregarded the tactic; his frustration with its limitations: how would he communicate the thoughts of other characters if he couldn’t leave the brain of the protagonist?; his eventual understanding of its importance while reading James Wood’s illuminating (though much debated) book How Fiction Works, in which he refers to it as “close writing”; and then, finally, his acceptance and full embrace of the method. Though he still admired novelists who could successfully avoid using free indirect discourse, he knew he would never break from it himself. It was just too liberating, the way close writing allowed his sentences to spill out of him, effortlessly, like thoughts, rapid and rabid and rampant, just spit out onto the page––it was so easy, or, well, easier, because it’s not as if he’s without problems, creatively speaking, oh he has problems, like how is he supposed to know which thoughts are important and which simply aren’t? and why is he unable to write economically, why are his pieces always longer than they need to be?––but yeah anyway, he now loved close writing because it made writing fun.
To be clear: close writing is not vital to all fiction. In fact, it doesn’t even speak to most fiction. For instance, first-person narrations cannot use free indirect discourse. When a character is speaking directly to a reader, the aim of close writing is already happening; no technique required. Also, novels and stories that feature an omniscient narrator are similarly excluded––all-knowing narrators simply tell us information. The skill required to pull off such a voice is its own subject. No, close writing only relates to third-person limited narrations, and, even more specifically, ones with an active interest in the inner lives of the characters. Not all fiction cares about that.
Here’s how James Wood explains close writing:
So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing.
Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words.
Without being able to articulate it, free indirect discourse appealed to Clark greatly. Novels that used the style effectively gave him a giddy sensation, the prose seeming to not have been written but transcribed from a person’s mind but filtered through the ostensibly distancing third-person point-of-view, and though he didn’t know it, he came to depend on such techniques to let him “settle” into a character. Even more striking, when he read a piece of fiction (especially in a workshop environment) that failed to use close writing and didn’t effectively employ another style, something irked him as his eyes moved over the words. He was made uncomfortable by these stories, but he didn’t know why. What the hell was it?
When he finally learned the term––in a college course, he thinks––he started to understand what it was that had been bothering him. Once he read How Fiction Works, he knew with satisfying finality. Free indirect discourse. Close writing. Thankfully the grey cloud hovering over his frustration had a name. Nameless things give aimless dreams.
How important is free indirect discourse? In the history of the novel, it’s extremely important. Clark at first didn’t even realize that the technique had to be developed at all, but in fact it was an astonishing feat. According to Michael Schmidt’s monumental and astounding work of scholarship and criticism, The Novel: A Biography (a book so big and important it merits its own essay, which is forthcoming), early iterations of the novel concerned themselves less with verisimilitude than outright deceit. When Daniel Defoe composed Robinson Crusoe (or, to use its full title––no joke––The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. with an Account of How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pirates), “he believed he had to honor readers’ expectations of a true and edifying story. An untrue story had to seem true.” The nuanced psychology of the characters was irrelevant to the task of moral tutelage. But the method of mimicking eventually morphed into the representation of human thought.
Generally, the development of close writing into its modern form is attributed to Gustave Flaubert in novels like A Sentimental Education, but the early traces of “inner monologue” are as subtle and elusive as the technique itself. Gabriel García Márquez “detects the original use of ‘interior monologue'” as far back as Lazarillo de Tormes, a picaresque work from 1554. James Wood points out an example in Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock from 1712. Jane Austen, who died four years before Flaubert was born, occasionally abandoned her lofty point-of-view in order to take the reader into the character’s mind, if only briefly, as in this passage from Pride and Prejudice:
Elizabeth felt herself completely taken in. She had fully proposed being engaged by Wickham for those very dances:––and to have Mr. Collins instead!––her liveliness had been never worse timed. There was no help for it however. Mr. Wickham’s happiness and her own was per force delayed a little longer, and Mr. Collins’s proposal accepted with as good a grace as she could. She was not the better pleased with his gallantry, from the idea it suggested of something more.––It now struck her, that she was selected from among her sisters as worthy of being the mistress of Hunsford Parsonage, and of assisting to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors.
Austen’s tactics are very subtle––the exclamation point punctuating the shock over Mr. Collins, the italicized she, and the sound of contemplative flow in “There was no help for it however”––but those little moments of language all belong to Elizabeth, not Austen. It is Elizabeth who can’t believe she has Mr. Collins instead; it is Elizabeth who can’t believe that she was selected from among her sisters, and it is Elizabeth who doesn’t think there was any help for it however. A reader may not be able to articulate with precision the, as Wood describes it, “marvelous alchemical transfer” that just took place, but they’ll feel it. They’ll understand Elizabeth a little bit more.
Flaubert took it a bit further. He organized his entire style around close writing. In A Sentimental Education, the prose moves into the protagonist Frédéric’s mind without any explicit hint at the shift. Here is Frédéric’s first seeing Mme Arnoux, the older woman with whom he falls in love with:
Never before had he seen more lustrous dark skin, a more seductive figure, or more delicately shaped fingers than those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past?
Those last questions are Frédéric’s, as if transcribed verbatim from his thoughts. But where did that shift happen? There was no, “He thought…” Instead, the language slips first into the character’s vernacular––the words “lustrous,” “seductive,” and “delicately” are all Frédéric’s––and then into his mind. It’s quite a nifty trick. “Thanks to free indirect style,” James Wood writes, “we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”
If this all seems very basic to you, consider that there was a time when close writing simply didn’t exist. Additionally, though readers and writers often implicitly understand these ideas, sometimes the act of naming something and recognizing its traits leads to understanding. Like David Foster Wallace’s fish parable, sometimes you have to say: This is water.
Moreover, once the modernists enter the picture, close writing is taken to new depths: the inner thoughts of characters become just as important––or more important––than the plot. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce went so far as to construct novels that took place in a single day, Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, meaning the reader spends most of the narrative inside a mind as it thinks. Joyce loved to catalogue very ordinary thoughts, and through Leopold Bloom he mastered close writing like nobody before him. Here is Bloom just after he is first introduced, as he prepares breakfast for Molly:
Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry.
Listen to the fragmentary nature of Bloom’s thoughts as they mingle with action. Taking Flaubert’s technique even further, Joyce gives us full access to Bloom’s mind with almost no indication he’s doing so. His thoughts aren’t profound––they’re quotidian, mundane, banal. Clark’s favorite moment comes when Bloom is unable to recall someone’s name:
Stream of life. What was the name of that priestylooking chap was always squinting in when he passed? Weak eyes, woman. Stopped in Citron’s saint Kevin’s parade. Pen something. Pendennis?
Who hasn’t had a similar moment, a name stuck on the tip of the tongue? Then, a full 25 pages later (in the 1922 text, that is), as Bloom assists a blind man across the street, and whose face strikes him “like a fellow going in to be a priest,” it suddenly hits him: “Penrose! That was the chap’s name.” The image of a priest brings to mind the “priestylooking chap” whose name he couldn’t recall earlier and he’s able to conjure the name, except Joyce doesn’t clue the reader into the association. The line is simply plopped down in the middle of another scene.
Virginia Woolf wastes no time delving into her titular character’s inner life. After her famous opening––”Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”––the prose immediately becomes one with Mrs. Dalloway’s ruminations:
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning––fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”––was that it?––”I prefer men to cauliflowers”––was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace––Peter Walsh.
Who’s Lucy? Why does she have her work cut out for her? Why is Mrs. Dalloway buying flowers? And who is Peter Walsh? Why does he suddenly appear in her mind? Remember: this is the first page of the novel. In 1925, when Mrs. Dalloway was published, people still expected some exposition, some introductory orientation, but Woolf provides none. She doesn’t have to. That’s the power of close writing.
>Since then, free indirect discourse has become an integral part of third-person novels. Grab any one at random and you’ll probably find that it employs close writing. And there are still writers who experiment with this voice in their fiction. Stephen Dixon’s I. plays around with the separation of author and subject. The protagonist’s is named I., which means Dixon gets to write sentences like: “I. met Fels more than twenty years ago.” Yes, it’s third person, but it’s also first. Dixon, then, further erases the gap by having the character, I., also be the writer of the prose, so that he can stop in the middle of a paragraph (which, in Dixon’s fiction, are always long) and say, “Oh, he’s not explaining himself well,” or “What’s he going on about?” Then, those murmurs of uncertainty become full-blown self-doubt:
Oh, stop with the crypt of memories swinging open and all that. Fine, then what? Simply this: he finished something yesterday––okay, a short story––wanted to start something new today––story, novel, two-page short-short: what did he care? A fiction of any length––even a play if it was possible––because he gets agitated with himself and grumpy with his family if at the end of the day after the one he finished a fiction he still doesn’t have something to work on the next day. In other words––but he thinks he explained that okay.
He continues to edit himself as he goes, noting, at one point, “that last parenthetical sentence could be clearer, and he knows it’s going to take work.” After a lengthy explanation of I.’s morning, he writes, “He could have done that so much more simply: he finished writing something yesterday, wanted to start writing something today, saw the obituary and started to write.”
The transfer of voice from the author to the character, here, is thrown right back to the author. Dixon’s I. is also the writer, so close writing here traces not simply the character’s thoughts, but the very words he’s typing. Thinking and writing meld into one organism. Dixon’s metafictional approach could be thought of as elaborate autobiography, but whatever it is it shows how close writing can still be stretched and expanded for new purposes. Dixon’s work is often neglected, or deemed too difficult for casual enjoyment. Too bad; he’s wonderful.
The last writer Clark wants to focus on is Joshua Ferris, a writer noted for his experiments with voice. His Then We Came to the End is written in first-person plural, an entire office represented with the narrative we. Recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (in the first year Americans were considered), Ferris is one of contemporary fiction’s most assured practitioners. His abilities with close writing are prodigious, as unequivocally demonstrated by his New Yorker story “The Pilot.” It basically focuses on the neuroses of Lawrence, a wannabe television writer who gets an email invitation to a producer’s “yearly blowout.” “He’d R.S.V.P’d,” we’re told, “but not immediately. Two days after the message came in. Two days plus maybe an hour.” When he receives no reply from her, he starts to worry:
He would have liked a reply. After a few days went by, he’d have liked a reply a lot. Was his e-mail too effusive? Was it a mistake to use the word “sick” to describe her show? Or maybe she was just busy shooting the season finale. She was just busy shooting the season finale. He should have just written back quick-like, something like “Thanks for the invitation, Kate. See you then.” Then she might have quick-like hit Reply, with a confirmation, and he’d have known that she knew he was coming. Did she even know she’d invited him? Sometimes, with e-mail, some programs, you hit All Contacts or something and invite people you didn’t even mean to invite. Of course she’d meant to invite him. He just didn’t have any confirmation that she’d received his R.S.V.P. That was kind of unnerving. But, think about it, would he then have to confirm her confirmation? That wasn’t really feasible. It was just…Everything was fine. She was just wrapping. He was too effusive. “Sick little fuck-you”: that might have been––no, it was fine––just a little insulting? No, no, it was fine, who knows, not him.
That is a virtuoso stretch of comic writing, and a better representation of human thought as it occurs than almost anything Clark’s read in his life. The thoughts interrupt each other, the narrator oscillates between two poles of neurotic uncertainty, even repeating himself to emphasize a statement’s validity (yet inadvertently showing how questionable Lawrence finds that validity), and yet the reader never loses the train, the writing is crystal clear, the rhythm natural. Even though Lawrence isn’t technically narrating, he owns every single word on the page. The reader is in his mind.
Close writing really is an amazing thing. Consider that this essay right now has been narrated in the third person, and yet there is no question as to what Clark’s opinions are. There was never any confusion over “who” was asserting the statements made above. The “marvelous alchemical transfer” made it so the separation between Jonathan Russell Clark and some ostensible narrator disappeared––after a while, you probably stopped noticing, except for the occasional use of Clark’s name. Here, of course, Clark and the author are the same, but the same technique used in fiction functions the same way. The writer disappears and only the character is left––the voice, the thoughts, the little details that make us human.
Image via John Lester/Flickr
Joshua Rothman writes for The New Yorker about Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, privacy and “a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open.”
When I write fiction, at least a first draft of something, I try not to think too much. Or maybe it’s that I try to keep my thoughts small: words, images, rhythms, a character’s particular way of holding a key. I try not to think about the symbolic meaning of said key—if keys keep showing up, I try not to think about why. In revision, sure. The keys will have to go. But for the first draft I willfully maintain a half-state of ignorance. This is how I was able to write basically the same short story twice. (I like to think the second “version,” published years later, is better.) It’s how I build parallels and thematic arcs into my work before I recognize them as such and risk overdoing them. It’s how I got many drafts into my first novel, The Little Bride, before I realized—when my editor brought it up, as a simple matter of fact—that the two central mother figures in the book leave their husbands and children. They don’t say goodbye, or leave notes, or send word of where they’ve gone. They just disappear, and don’t come back.
Initially, I was drawn to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, by its premise: the book tells the story of the Lees, a multiracial family in 1970s Ohio reeling from the mysterious death of their middle child, Lydia. I found myself reading late into the night, fascinated by Ng’s imperfect characters working their way—imperfectly—through grief, moved by her restrained yet startlingly emotive prose, in awe of her masterful use of an omniscient narrator who switches points-of-view mid-scene as soundlessly as Marilyn Lee opens the door to her daughter’s empty bedroom. Then, mid-book, I found myself holding my breath as the narrative flashed back to one summer, years ago, when Marilyn cooked her family’s favorite meals, dug out her textbooks from her long-abandoned college career, and without a word moved an hour away to Toledo, where she rented an efficiency apartment and attempted to start again as a student.
Eventually, Marilyn returned. The family moved on, not speaking of her disappearance—when we meet them at the beginning of the book, we hear nothing of it. Marilyn’s great defection has been silenced. But of course it hangs over them, as it hung over me. Ng’s portrait of ambivalence is heart-breaking: “often, when she opened her books, Marilyn’s mind whirled. Equations jumbled and rejumbled, hidden messages jumping out at her. NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful…” Marilyn begins calling the house to listen silently to her family’s voices, to get just enough of them to shore herself up—not to face a lover or a boss, but herself.
Literature is full of disappearing mothers. Many of them die—think of all the orphans. A significant number commit suicide, including Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, and Helen in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Others are forced away by war (Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Amy Bloom’s Away), or oppressive governments (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Other mothers only imagine killing themselves, or leave for a couple hours (Laura Brown in The Hours does both) only to pretend neither happened. Less common are the women who are neither psychically wrecked nor physically threatened but simply and unbearably torn between motherhood and selfhood, tormented by their feeling that the two can’t coexist. These are characters like Marilyn Lee, or the narrator in Alice Munro’s story “Nettles,” whose separation from her husband costs her her daughters, or Leda in Elana Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, whose explanation for her three-year abandonment of her young daughters speaks to the central, wrenching paradox all these authors explore: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.”
Why so much motherly abandonment? It makes for good conflict, of course. It can help define characters and set plots in motion. Most importantly, it’s an act that even in 2014 remains, in many ways, the ultimate taboo.
Granted, plenty of literary fathers leave, too. But when Rabbit goes running, when Francis Phelan tragically drops—and kills—his newborn son and leaves town in William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a reader (at least this reader) feels sorrow, disappointment, grief, a certain amount of anger, but not shock. Their leaving, it seems, in these and countless other stories, is part of their condition. Whereas when a mother leaves, we assume she must defy her very nature.
Celeste Ng –– who was kind enough to correspond with me, via email –– wonders if this assumption lies partly in our—limited—notions of what’s “natural.” She points out: “Plenty of animal mothers leave their offspring as a matter of routine. Harp seals abandon their pups early on. Cuckoos notoriously lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and abandon them—tricking other birds into raising a chick that isn’t theirs. Even cute, cuddly, pandas often have twins and then abandon the one that seems weaker. And many animals, when stressed or starved, abandon their young—or eat them.”
Our tendency to forget this, Ng says, shows up in the first stories we’re told. “Look at the classic children’s book Are You My Mother? The baby bird goes looking for his mother, and because he’s never seen her, he thinks a cat, a dog, a cow, a hen, a plane, a car, and even a boat might be his mother. So from a very early age, we get the idea that without a mother, you have no real sense of self—you have zero idea who you are or what you’re supposed to do in your life. I’m being a bit facetious here—and I’m not saying that we’re wrong about how important mothers are, either—just that mothers hold a very revered place in our culture and our psyche. Maybe that’s why this plotline appears so often in literature. Losing the one person who’s supposed to nurture and protect you in your most vulnerable years—what a fundamental fear.”
This fear belongs primarily—and primally—to children. Which may be why telling the story of a mother’s leaving not from a child’s point-of-view (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but from the mother’s can feel risky. Writers are all too aware—however hard we may try to ignore it—of the reading public’s impatience with “unsympathetic” characters, and it can be tempting to put sympathy before truth. Ng says that in an earlier, “melodramatic” draft of Everything I Never Told You, Marilyn’s frustrations with her life led to a breakdown and visit to a mental hospital, until Ng took the leap and rewrote her as “a stronger character, with particular desires, who made the choice to leave her family.”
It’s striking, too, that Marilyn bolsters her resolve to leave by thinking of her mother’s old, spine-cracked Betty Crocker cookbook, while in The Hours, Laura Brown urges herself on—and ultimately comforts herself—with Mrs. Dalloway. Emma Bovary, of course, chain-reads romance novels. It’s as if the authors of these books, knowing the challenges they face in portraying mothers who call it quits, brought in iconic texts as units of cultural precedent, backsplashes for the mothers to fling themselves against, asking what they want, and facing what they are.
A mother abandoning her children is an inversion of the orphan tale. It may even feel to some readers like a perversion. It’s a story that’s easy to read and say, without thinking, “I can’t imagine.”
And yet, most of us can. What parent hasn’t at some point longed to flee, even for a day? Parents who are passionate about their work perhaps experience this more acutely. I know I’m guilty of frequent mental abandonment, whether I’m wrestling with a plot problem as my daughter performs “Let it Go” or jotting notes in magic marker for the novel I’m now revising though I’ve promised to draw a tree. I’ve come to accept this as part of the deal, part of my commitment to being both a mother and a writer: I go away in my mind so that I can stay.
I should mention. That novel I’m revising? It begins with a teenage mother leaving her baby in a pear orchard. Don’t ask if I was thinking, when I first wrote this opening scene, about its resonance with my first novel, or all the other novels in which mothers disappear. I wasn’t. But I am now. And I’m thinking about how maybe my cultivated first-draft obliviousness is a little like the trips I take in my mind as a mother: a benign and necessary neglect. If you read the latest woo-woo about parenting, you know that “they” are now recommending we leave our kids alone more, not alone alone, but with enough space that they can figure things out, take risks, make mistakes. Maybe I’ve just known, all along, that my work needs space, too. In any case, I intend to keep up my willed inattention, and let all of us—the kids, and the books, and me (me!)—grow strong, and a little wild.
Image Credit: Irina.
In an 1883 article from Popular Science, Dr. Felix Oswald expounds on the remedies of nature. Mingled with imperatives about taking cold baths before dinner and opening bedroom windows at night is this pearl: “At the first symptoms of indigestion, book-keepers, entry-clerks, authors, and editors should get a telescope-desk. Literary occupations need not necessarily involve sedentary habits, though, as the alternative of a standing-desk, I should prefer a Turkish writing-tablet and a square yard of carpet-cloth to squat upon.”
The Turkish writing tablet never quite took off, but the standing desk, over a century later, has entered its heyday. It’s changing the cubicle skyline of corporate America, the open-plan shared workspaces of the startup world, and the studios and work nooks of thousands of writers across the country.
Facebook reportedly has about 350 standing desks, with another 10-15 requests coming in each week from employees. The desk manufacturer Steelcase began selling height-adjustable desks in 2004. Since then, sales have increased fivefold. Its clients include Apple, Google, Intel, Boeing, and Allstate.
As a novelist with a day job in the high-tech world, I see standing desks popping up all around me. They range from jerrybuilt towers of books with balanced flat-screen monitors to ergonomic masterpieces with whisper-quiet hydraulic systems. A friend of mine who writes for Rolling Stone stacks several reams of paper on his conventional desk and perches his laptop there. My boss, a digital marketing director who’s a little under five feet tall and comes to work in heels, has a sleek model from Varidesk and an inch of cushioning foam at her feet. She spends most of her days sitting in meetings, so she relishes the forays back to her desk to check emails. She claims that standing helps her concentrate and sleep better at night.
According to recent studies, the health risks of sitting for prolonged periods of time are significant. After an hour of sitting, the production of enzymes that burn fat in the body decline by as much as 90 percent, thereby slowing overall metabolism. Interestingly, while the scientific data around the perils of sitting is better today than it was in 1883, the year of the Popular Science article, the reason people stand to work are largely the same — they feel more energized and compelled by the task in front of them, whether it’s editing a novel or a spreadsheet.Winston Churchill at his standing desk.
For writers, the standing desk has a long and prestigious lineage. It’s often seen as a workhorse of productivity and inspiration. Great novels and speeches, treaties and philosophical tracts, have all been written at the height of the sternum. Kierkegard, Dickens, Hemingway, Woolf, Nabokov, Churchill, and Thomas Jefferson all used them. Though, to be fair, they weren’t always faithful to their tall desks. Churchill sometimes liked to lie in bed, propped up on pillows, when he was working on a speech or manuscript. And Jefferson liked to use a lap desk on occasion. But it’s hard to imagine either politician producing their most muscular prose while reclining. Surely “We shall fight on the beaches” and the original draft of the Declaration of Independence were written from behind slanting, adjustable desktops. Jefferson’s standing desk even had two extra legs to keep him anchored during his mental heights.
Mrs. Dalloway was written at a standing desk. So was David Copperfield. The 19th-century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell noted the layout of Dickens’s study: “…books all round, up to the ceiling and down to the ground; a standing-desk at which he writes; and all manner of comfortable easy chairs.” In the 20th century, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s nephew and biographer, wrote that she “had a desk standing about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand at her work.” It’s often said that Woolf treated an emerging manuscript like a painter’s canvas, that she liked to step away from the work to consider it from new angles.Hemingway at his improvised standing desk in Cuba.
Hemingway’s standing desk was perhaps the crudest of them all — a set of bookshelves with a typewriter perched on top.
In a 1954 Paris Review interview with Hemingway, George Plimpton begins by describing the writer’s workspace in Cuba:
“He has a special workroom prepared for him in a square tower at the southwest corner of the house, but prefers to work in his bedroom, climbing to the tower room only when “characters” drive him up there…The room is divided into two alcoves by a pair of chest-high bookcases that stand out into the room at right angles from opposite walls…It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases — the one against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his bed — that Hemingway has his “work desk”—a square foot of cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and pamphlets.”
Nabokov, like Churchill and Jefferson, knew the value of standing to write, but he also knew when to sit down. In Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years the famous writer’s afternoon routine is delineated:
“Nabokov would be back at his desk by one-thirty and work steadily until six-thirty. Normally he would have started the day in ‘the vertical position of vertebrate thought,’ standing ‘at a lovely old-fashioned lectern I have in my study. Later on, when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves, I settle down in a comfortable armchair alongside an ordinary writing desk; and finally, when gravity begins climbing up my spin, I lie down on a couch in a corner of my small study.”
Philip Roth also uses a lectern, at least he did until he publically announced that he was retiring from writing. In the documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked, we see the writer at his standing desk — one at his Connecticut hideaway in the woods and another in his Upper West Side work studio. The lectern is kept at right angles to the view, presumably to avoid distraction. Roth has said that he paces about half a mile for every page he writes.Philip Roth at his lectern. Credit: Nancy Crampton
Despite the undeniable health benefits and the pedigree of the standing desk, there’s something about the seated desk that’s hard to give up. For one thing, it has deeper drawers and recesses for hoarding stationery and curios. The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, has collected a number of famous desks over the years, including ones that belonged to Edgar Allan Poe, Compton MacKenzie, and John Fowles. In 2008, when John Fowles’s widow shipped her husband’s archive and desk to the Ransom Center, she left the entire contents of the desk intact. For sheer variety, it’s hard to beat what’s tucked inside the Fowles’s much-loved desk, its left drawer marked with scrawled addresses and phone numbers in the author’s hand.
A set of blue labels with white string ties
A box of staples
A Richards Sheffield pocketknife
Four pairs of eyeglasses
An envelope of dried seeds
Two canisters containing typewriter ribbons
A tin of pastels
A paper fan
Swedish and Greek coins
A leather dice shaker
A pair of medical scissors
A set of brass knuckles
The list goes on. For every five practical items, like a box of staples, there is something enigmatic, like the set of brass knuckles. Given that fiction involves the careful selection of details that are concrete, sensory, and significant, Fowles’s desk is a microcosm of the writing enterprise itself. It contains worlds.
The standing desk, on the other hand, is less capacious and sentimental. There’s very little room to store abandoned manuscripts, rejection letters, or knickknacks. Distractions are kept to a minimum. It’s taller, sleeker, and less hospitable than its slouchier cousin. In the way that it mimics a lectern, a podium, or a drafting table, it reminds the writer that this activity requires blood, enzymes, and exertion. Here is your novel, spread out like a map or a campaign speech. Here are your poems, arranged like blueprints. Pace, stamp your feet, fold your arms, but stay upright. Stand there like it’s the prow of a ship.
It was a year of piles of books. Piles and piles stacked around my office floor, resting on my nightstand, even perched precariously on the top of the stairway banister. These piles competed and collided in my mind every day. Do I begin the morning reading for work? Reading for pleasure? Sometimes these were the same.
In the category of re-reading, I discovered Mrs. Dalloway anew, and –– if you’ll forgive the analogy –– it was like being prescribed exactly the right SSRI. Interior life! Laid out in all of its intricacy, and yet the product of a turbulent mind. As a writer, it gave me hope for my own turbulent mind. And as I wrote to the Buddhist teacher and writer Jack Kornfield (whose book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, wins my vote for most awesome title) it made me think of Woolf as an accidental Buddhist. Next up on the re-read list was Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. I’ve been pressing this book into students’ hands for years, and finally it is most deservedly back in print. A hybrid of novel and memoir, an extraordinary evocation of pure consciousness, I fear I’ll turn off readers by saying that Sleepless Nights is entirely without plot, but bear with me when I tell you that this doesn’t prevent it from being its own kind of page-turner.
Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being was one of the only books published this year that I was able to rescue from the endless stacks and read purely and simply for pleasure. It’s a daring, exciting novel that defies categorization. Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat was a favorite story collection, and I now want to read everything she writes. Chris Belden’s novel Shriver –– an example of a terrific book brought out by a tiny press (Rain Mountain) –– is a send-up of academia and literary pretension, as well as a poignant exploration of writerly insecurity. As a side note, Belden has written a hilarious song all about writerly insecurity, an ode to the author photographer Marion Ettlinger. (“Marion Ettlinger/Won’t you take my picture…”)
This being a year that I was finishing my own book about writing, I also read or re-read a fair number of writing books, and discovered that some of the classics hold up beautifully: Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, of course. As well as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. A new discovery was Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth, a must for memoirists.
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As NASA readies its next Mars launch for today, we’re getting used to the idea of entertainment in space. Recently, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, shot a music video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” onboard the International Space Station and it quickly went viral. It’s had about 19 million views on YouTube — about half the population of Canada. And then Lady Gaga announced that she’ll be shuttling into space to perform a single track in 2015 as part of Zero G Colony music festival. But where’s all the literature in space? Actually, it turns out poetry is fairly well represented and there’s more on the way come Monday. But it’s pretty much a fiction desert up there.
There are two poetry recordings making their way through interstellar space. In 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, and the former has officially left the embrace of the solar system. It’s traveled roughly 12 billion miles since it was launched, becoming the first man-made object to reach the cusp of interstellar space known as the heliopause. For 36 years the probe has been carrying the Golden Record, Earth’s mix tape for future humanity or curious aliens who know how to spin vinyl, whoever finds it first. Etched into the grooves of the Golden Record (it’s actually gold-plated copper) are 116 photographs of earthly life, 90 minutes of music — from Bach to Blind Willie Johnson to a Navajo night chant — greetings in 54 languages, and a sonic essay that features wind, rain, birdsong, and the yowl of a wild dog. Because there is also a written Presidential address from Jimmy Carter, NASA felt that it should acknowledge the role of Congress by including a list of its members, many of whom advocated for the space agency in Washington during the 1970s. There are also two recorded poetry excerpts. The French delegate to the UN, Benadette Lefort, quotes the first two stanzas from Baudelaire’s poem “Elevation” in Fleurs de Mals:
Above the lakes, above the vales,
The mountains and the woods, the clouds, the seas,
Beyond the sun, beyond the ether,
Beyond the confines of the starry spheres,
My soul, you move with ease,
And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave
You wing your way blithely through boundless space
With virile joy unspeakable
Anders Thunboig, Sweden’s UN delegate, follows suit by reading from Harry Martinson’s poem “Visit to the Observatory.” Compared to the Austrian delegate’s utterance — “As the chairman of the Outer Space Committee of the UN and the representative of Austria, I am pleased to extend you our greetings in this way” — the Swedish and French sentiments feel like outpourings of pure, terrestrial emotion.
So there’s a smattering of poetry wending its way through space and apparently there’s more on the way. Over the summer, NASA announced that it would be hauling more than 1,000 haiku on this month’s launch of its Mars-bound spacecraft, Maven, courtesy of a University of Colorado Going To Mars competition (the winning entry: It’s funny, they named/ Mars after the God of War/ Have a look at Earth). But where’s the fiction drifting through the dark sea of ionized gas? Outside of whatever the crew of the International Space Station happens to have on their Kindles and iPads, it’s a fictional wasteland up there. If we could make the Golden Record all over again, wouldn’t we send at least one Chekhov story? And I’m pretty sure aliens or our distant future cousins would gladly swap out the list of congressional members for passages from Lolita or Madame Bovary.
What follows is a completely biased, unrepresentative sample of what I consider to be fictional cornerstones worthy of sending into the galactic void. In the spirit of compression — there’s only so much a copper-plated LP can hold — I limited myself to scenes or moments from fiction of the 20th century. My apologies to the three preceding literary centuries. And the current one.
The prologue from DeLillo’s Underworld
The road trip from Nabokov’s Lolita
The first encounter with Septimus Warren Smith in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
The scene in which Viri gets measured for custom shirts in James Salter’s Light Years
The first fevered dream in Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider
The harrowing moment when the Professor realizes his fate in Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode”
The scene on the beach between Seymour and Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”
The final dialogue between The Misfit and the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
The scene where Otto and Sophie seek respite at their country house in Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.
The opening pages of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, leading up to the line “This is the great invention of our time.”
Like all lists and mix tapes, this is a wildly imperfect one. It fails to take account of world literature and it’s probably got a heavy male bias. Asking for a top ten from any writer forces them to dispense with things they should include to things they must include. It’s reasonable to ask: what would anyone make of these fictional slivers without the full context of the story or novel in question? On the other hand, they’d probably glean more about our planet from these vivid and fraught moments, from the crafting of human language, than they would from the Voyager photos of a supermarket and the Sydney Opera House.
As it turns out, these selections have something in common with the Golden Record’s most intimate recording—the sound of a woman’s body as she experiences the first throes of romantic love. As Ann Druyan has described elsewhere, when she was first falling in love with Carl Sagan — to whom she was married until his death in 1996 — she went to Bellevue Hospital so they could record the sounds of her body. If the aliens can follow the scientific notation we’ve posted for them and fathom how to place the stylus into the gold-plated grooves, they’ll hear Ann’s smitten metabolism and the thrumming of her love-addled heartbeat. In other words, they’ll have direct access to human interiority. If we’d sent along some of our best and most haunting fiction, the effect might have been the same.
“Eye of Mars” image via NASA/Wikimedia Commons
The complicated upstairs-downstairs dynamic on PBS’s Downton Abbey is arguably the reason viewers keep coming back for more — even after the Grantham-Crawley melodrama has become almost too much to bear. They long for that moment of recognition to arrive, when the unobtrusive servant, usually so well-hidden in the basement or attic, is caught in the act of, well, service. They are hurriedly straightening up the library while the family takes luncheon elsewhere, but plans have changed and now the silent majority, the laboring poor trained in the art of self-effacement, must engage in a highly charged, awkward, and reverent dance called “conversation with your master.”
If Downton is to be taken at its word, this is not a purely financial arrangement. British servants regard their masters as major celebrities; a few garner mockery and disdain, but they are unlikely to ever learn of this reputation. Most are held in great esteem, their smallest gesture of kindness dissected and debated for weeks on end. Despite the occasional seemingly altruistic gesture — access to a marriage-bed for the night or use of a fashionable lawyer for a wrongly accused murderer — the Granthams and Crawleys, however desperate to cast their gaze on anything out of the ordinary, do not seem to fret about their help in the same way. In the end, any violation of social distance proves to be a minor annoyance forgotten as soon as the erring servant’s back rights the situation, either up against the wall or seen from the back, scurrying down the hall.
At least, that is the case for the inhabitants of Downton, a grand house that is within itself a dying breed, but the 18 years Nellie Boxall served as cook to Virginia Woolf, however, were a far more fraught affair than the coupling of Lady Mary Grantham and Matthew Crawley ever was, full of emotional blackmail and power struggles. Boxall and Woolf had staged battle royals that left both parties smarting.
The Grantham ladies live under the same roof as a cast of female relations, including mother and sisters and nearby Grandmama, who is either present, on her way, or just leaving, but Woolf was motherless by age 13. Her sister was off living her own life elsewhere, and while they corresponded and visited, Boxall was the closest person she had to a female family member to take care of her. Woolf is perhaps as well-known for her contributions to the literary canon as her proclivity towards mental instability, all of which made the delicate circumstances a writer requires all the more difficult to obtain. As she famously wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Leonard slept in his own room, and Boxall was paid to ensure Woolf’s was in fine form.
In other words, Woolf’s needs were great, and though her comparatively smaller flats could have been neatly tucked away in a forgotten wing of Downton, most middle-class British households had one or more servants. Boxall was hired as the Woolf’s live-in servant at 52 Tavistock Square, where the writer would draft Mrs Dalloway. All the while, Nellie was hard at work in the background, pumping the water, lighting the lamps, making the beds, and emptying the chamber pots — more than her title of “cook” suggests, though she did that as well, serving multiple courses three times a day.
Few scholars have parsed Woolf’s diaries without commenting on her frequent, detailed, and often vitriolic accounts of Boxall. Their brand of melee was firmly mired in a cycle, each arguing her points with the tools available to them. Boxall howled and cried, and then threatened to leave, which she would not, but the threat greatly destabilized and embarrassed Woolf. For her part, Woolf recognized, if not predicted, the attraction, writing, “If I were reading this diary…I should seize with greed upon the portrait of Nelly & make a story — perhaps make the whole story revolve around that.” No character on Downton would ever suggest such a thing, for to know that much about a servant or to speak intimately with strangers about one’s master would be, respectively, terribly boring and treasonous.
Much like the relationship between master and servant, Woolf was in charge of everything that went into those diaries, which were then posthumously dissected over and over again on the pages of countless biographies — including the misspelling of Boxall’s name. As Alison Light wrote in her exceptional book, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, “Woolf and her subsequent biographers and critics refer to ‘Nelly’ Boxall, but, as I discovered, she is ‘Nellie’ on her birth and death certificates, she always signed herself as ‘Nellie’, and that is how her relatives spelt her name.”
Light figured out a bit more about Boxall than just the proper spelling of her name. The majority of Woolf scholars have too easily forgiven the master-servant dynamic in her household, too distracted by the significance of her artistic contributions and unquestioning of her sometimes contradictory political ideals. Herbert Marder is such a case, having focused on the works of Woolf since his dissertation at Columbia in the 1960s. In The Measure of Life, he wrote “Nellie was a natural manipulator who knew how to disarm her mistress, first getting under her skin and then exploiting her guilt.”
Woolf would certainly approve of such an assessment, but Marder does not appear particularly concerned with the absent, competing narrative, which could temper some of the seemingly harsh observations. Boxall was orphaned by the age of 12 and working by 14, so perhaps “manipulation” was mistaken for “will to survive.” After Boxall did something nice, like pick seven pounds of blackberries for Woolf’s favorite jam, bike for miles in order to procure cream for a favorite dish, or care for a woman who was at once fiercely independent and greatly in need of serious attention, Woolf noted that these gestures were borne out of genuine affection, and maybe, just maybe, the giver deserved compassion: “after all she has no other. And one tends to forget it.”
If Boxall was anything, it was dependent. Woolf boasted, “nothing I can do will prevent their loving me!” to the composer Ethel Smyth, and surely such a long, passionate relationship involved some grade of love, but Boxall had readily apparent, pragmatic motivations as well. She lived with the Woolfs, and had no family home waiting for her. In this way, she is much like Downton’s Daisy, the young kitchenmaid who, when offered an extraordinary opportunity to inherent her late husband’s family farm, admits she has never even contemplated a life outside of service. But this vestige of Victorianism had been on the decline since the 1890s, and women had options outside the home — their own or someone else’s. They could work in shops or factories, or apply some of those ‘domestic’ skills and become florists or beauticians. Those jobs would at least allow them a modicum of free time, with nights and weekends off, used for socializing or pursing other interests. As Light explained, “the regular callers, the hawkers and peddlers, who had been so much a part of the Victorian street, began to diminish,” and with them, the excitement of meeting someone new and the back door. It is also worth noting that the Woolfs’ fortunes greatly improved during the 18 years Boxall worked for them, but they paid her about six pounds less than the national average. Meanwhile, they readily updated the house with new domestic technology that made Boxall’s life easier, but also diminished her importance in the home.
Boxall certainly facilitated optimal writing conditions at times, and greatly hindered them at others. Her complaints were not unfathomable, given her substantial work load. Swollen ankles and a bad back might have been tolerated in relative silence if, she seemed to tell Woolf, her efforts were appreciated. “Nellie Boxall was one of the majority throughout history who had made their presence felt through surliness or tears, downright disobedience, petty acts of revenge (like spitting up on soup) or vicious talk,” wrote Light. Nellie communicated her grievances through dramatic scenes, which Woolf found distracting and “degrading,” but nonetheless chose to obsess over them for nearly two decades.
Woolf recounted and appraised “the famous scene” at Tavistock Square in London over and over again in her diary. After a particularly bad argument, Boxall ordered Woolf out of her room, one she inhabited but technically belonged to her masters. “In her closest relationships — with Vanessa, Leonard, Nellie, Vita, and Ethel — Virginia knew she wanted mothering and protection but she also distrusted ‘the maternal passion,’” explained Light. This was not a weak moment for Woolf, and she did not need to be reminded of instances in which Boxall had played the stern but kind parental figure. She could not decide if Boxall, by ordering her out of the room, had treated her like a child or a servant; in the end, it did not matter, for Woolf was resolute. This time, Boxall would go. She spent the following weeks rapt with expectation, engrossed in preparation for any possible scenario. She copied out and practiced reading aloud various replies to what she expected Boxall to say. “I am sick of the timid spiteful servant mind,” wrote Woolf, the very same woman who had railed against men’s use of ‘the female mind.’
To be fair, a world free of Boxall was just part of this fantasy. Woolf had grown up in large family cared for by a staff of seven, but she was a progressive woman of independent means. Her needs were different than her parents’, and most certainly her father’s, who she felt, like Boxall, was a fervid extortionist who dealt in histrionics. She would never again tolerate any outsider in her home, nor would she allow employees or friends to establish such intimacies. “I shall make no attachments ever again,” she wrote to Smyth in a celebration of her triumph, a scenario she no doubt presented as a thinly veiled warning. Her village cook, the young mother Annie Thompsett, was gone by 3:00 in the afternoon, and the Woolfs quickly adapted to, if not relished in, having an empty house to themselves for the first time in their marriage.
“After eighteen years I at last got rid of an affectionate domestic tyrant,” Woolf wrote to her sister in July of 1934, still reliving the dissolution in her correspondence. The termination had predictably devolved into quite a scene, with Boxall refusing to take a severance and Woolf upset she made off with the cookery books and a chair cover. Readers know Woolf’s eventual fate, but Boxall’s life took a favorable turn. She was soon hired by the famous British couple of the stage and screen, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, and quickly adjusted to her glamorous new life in a well-staffed, lavish but bohemian household, where her cooking was appreciated by the likes of Marlene Dietrich. Boxall enjoyed her own brush with fame, featured in an ad for a gas cooker. The tagline read, “Mr. & Mrs. Charles Laughton’s cook tells you how to roast beef to perfection.”
In the immediate aftermath of their breakup, Woolf got her peace, and Boxall her recognition, but they could not avoid each other forever. Bloomsbury society was small, and sure enough, the Woolfs showed up for dinner cooked by Boxall. Happy Powley, Elsa Lanchester’s maid, took note of the relationship between the famous author and her now friend and coworker in her diary, which stands in stark contrast to Woolf’s entries on the subject. It was Boxall who “had to leave because she was a bit high strung…of course you know Virginia Woolf was.”
If Boxall had residual anger towards her late employer, she did not seize an appearance on the national stage to vent her grievances. By the time Boxall appeared on the BBC radio in 1956, Woolf had drowned herself 15 years earlier. In what Light describes as a “quiet, meditative voice with a slight country burr,” Boxall spoke about her late ex-employer lovingly, emphasizing mutual acts of kindness, not recrimination, towards each other. She was not well when I met her, Boxall explained before launching into a lengthy description of all the special dishes she made to tempt Woolf into wellness. She even praised her former employer, calling upon a questionable event years earlier. When Boxall was sick in the hospital, Woolf financed her recovery in order to interview replacements, informing her she was not needed upon return, a threat she perhaps meant to execute, but eventually relented. Instead, Boxall remembered that “She came to see me in the ward carrying a huge pineapple and came straight up to the bed and cuddled me up.”
Whether it is the highly sanitized, anachronistic Downton or the long and tumultuous saga of the incompatible Boxall and Woolf, one thing is abundantly clear: The bond of servant and master is peculiar and problematic, then and now, as any relationship based on gross inequality is bound to be. What on earth do we make of all of this? Go ahead and count down the days until Julian Fellowes bestows another season of Downton on us, because it offers what fiction does: good fun at a benign distance.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I can no longer remember the precise distinction between the uncertainty principle and the observer principle, but one way or another, I’ve started to detect a feedback loop involving the Year in Reading series and the reading life it purports to document. When I dashed off my first entry, in 2005 (can that be right?), it was purely in the spirit of a report. But by 2012, even in January, February, and March, I found myself picking up a given book and asking: Is this a contender for the series? Is there any chance this is going to be the best thing I read this year? And if not, back onto the shelves it went.
As a consequence, of the 50-odd books I finished this year, at least half ended up being terrific. And the arbitrary cap I set for myself annually (Okay, I’m going to stick to writing about eight books. Fine, a dozen. Fifteen.) has proven harder than ever to enforce. I haven’t bothered to count the number of titles below, because, frankly, I just don’t want to know how far over my own limit I am. Let me just say, by way of apology, that this was a really, really good year in reading.
Probably my favorite thing I read was part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle — which bodes well, because five more volumes are on their way into English. Knausgaard’s been described as a Nordic Proust, and that more or less captures the book’s scope and its candid thefts from the author’s own life. It’s not a perfect comparison, of course; the suburban Norway where Knausgaard came of age in the ’80s can’t touch the Faubourg St.-Germain for social complexity, nor is Knausgaard’s prose — even in Don Bartlett’s lucid translation — as refined as Proust’s. But both authors, in vivisecting their own consciousness, alter the reader’s. A key word in My Struggle is “presence,” and after reading a few pages of Knausgaard’s descriptions of snow and soap, corpses and copses, you look up and find your own world pressing its presence urgently upon you, a messenger with an envelope you’ll never quite manage to unseal.
But then, it’s hard to give the laurels to Knausgaard, because this was also the year I read László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. I’d started the former several times over the years, only to put it down again. (I blame the absence of paragraph breaks.) But I finished it this summer over four long nights, preparing to interview the author, and found it to be one of the great novels of the last quarter-century — like a MittelEuropean Moby-Dick. Near to the Wild Heart, meanwhile, is a Portuguese Mrs. Dalloway, as written by Peter Handke. I’m still not exactly sure what all happens to Lispector’s semi-feral heroine, but the writing is just exquisite. It kills me that Lispector was in her early 20s when she wrote this…and that it took me so long to discover her. She’s one of those writers who changes dramatically from book to book, but I look forward to reading everything of hers I can get my hands on. If you want to give her a try, start with this Modernist masterpiece.
Speaking of Modernist masterpieces…the Microscripts of Robert Walser are now out in paperback. I’m crazy about Walser’s early novel Jakob von Gunten, but have struggled with his short stories (many of which would today be called “short shorts”). All those quicksilver shifts of tone and intellect, compressed into the small space of a paragraph or two; all those discrete paragraphs, jam-packed together in a 4 x 8 inch book like roommates in a railroad apartment. The gorgeous new edition of the Microscripts, by contrast, surrounds each text with white space, and pairs it with a facsimile of its original, which somehow gives Walser’s sentences room to breathe…and to beguile. I was similarly entranced by Andrey Bely’s 1916 opus Petersburg back in the winter. I always read something Russian when it’s snowing, and I picked this up thinking to polish it off in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took me a couple of months. Bely’s symbolist prose, in many respects, is probably untranslatable, and his atmospherics are so relentless that the plot keeps disappearing behind them. But somehow, that comes to seem like the book’s whole point: to distill and bottle the phantasmagoric atmosphere of its titular city.
Another classic I loved this year was William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Critics tend to treat this one as a disreputable entry in the Yoknapatawpha oeuvre…a liquored-up uncle trying to crash a party already full of liquored-up uncles. But one of the book’s supreme pleasures is seeing Faulkner turn his mature method (and he never wrote better than he did in 1929, ’30, ’31) to the kind of luridly pulpy material that would later surround him in Hollywood. Temple Drake, the kidnapped and forcibly debauched coed at the heart of the novel, is no one’s idea of a feminist icon. But she’s a flesh-and-blood character, and when she quakes in terror, we do, too.
…And is it too early to start filing Roberto Bolaño under “classics?” The well of posthumous Bolaño fiction has finally, I gather, run dry, and I expected to resent late trickles like The Secret of Evil. Instead, I found myself totally delighted, as ever, by this writer’s sui generis sensibility. A 15-page synopsis of a zombie movie, or of a dream about a zombie movie? Yes, please — provided Bolaño’s doing the dreaming.
This was a good year for new fiction, too. I was really taken with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, not least because it’s about damn time somebody wrote a novel about the Iraq War. Kevin Powers and David Abrams would soon join Fountain on the G.W.O.T. bookshelf. Unlike them, though, Fountain has never served in the armed forces and so it’s an act of ethical daring for him to imagine himself into the head of Specialist Billy Lynn, the book’s hero. Equally ballsy, I think, is the book’s formal dare: with one exception, it’s written in a relentlessly forward-moving present tense. I usually find this sort of thing to be a cop-out, as if the writer couldn’t be bothered to find a form other than Transcribed Screenplay, but Fountain treats realtime as a challenge, rather than an excuse. And he pulls it off. In short, he’s one of our best and bravest writers.
So is Zadie Smith. Critics seemed to chafe at the avant-garde ambitions of her new novel, NW. But I’m not sure those ambitions would have registered as such, had her essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” much ballyhooed in 2008, not seemed to presage an avant-garde turn. It’s equally easy to make the case for NW as a novel of psychological realism. Its formal experimentation is light, easy to follow, and really pretty old-school (see: Mallarmé, Joyce). More unsettling, and more sneakily experimental, is the book’s approach to character. Smith’s protagonists, Leah, Natalie, and Felix, are incomplete, metamorphic, works in progress (as is their author). And it freaks them out. The book’s temperament, then, is anxious, pained, repressed – an obverse to the ebullience of White Teeth. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a step forward.
I also got around to some older contemporary lit this year. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead had been on my list since our Best of the Millennium project, and I now understand why so many people voted for it. The explicitly religious subject matter — the novel comprises the letters of an elderly priest — may put some readers off, but Robinson’s eloquent embrace of faith doesn’t banish doubt and mystery; it foregrounds them. Or as her narrator puts it:
I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life.
Salvation is nowhere to be found in Slow Fade, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s early-80s novel of the movie business. Neither, come to think of it, is pleasure…unless it’s the pleasure of Wurlitzer’s bone-clean prose. But Slow Fade struck me nonetheless as a great introduction to this neglected writer. And speaking of neglected: what ever happened to Mark Costello? Okay, fine, there are at least two Mark Costellos; I mean the one who was David Foster Wallace’s college roommate. His secret service sendup, Big If, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, and though it isn’t exactly a complete novel — it’s missing an ending, and rarely even descends into scene– Costello’s one of the funniest and brightest turners of phrase this side of…well, this side of Wallace. His long riff on the novel’s eponymous video game is like an existentialist parable rewritten by George Saunders, and is on its own worth the price of admission. I want a new Costello novel, and I want it now.
But real art takes as long as it takes, and half the time we’re not ready to recognize it when it comes. That’s one of the lessons of the best work of nonfiction I read this year, Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. I’ve read a lot of Weschler, but this book, his first, may be his best. And whether your particular field of endeavor is painting or writing or delivering the mail, Irwin’s story will teach you to see it in a new way. On the journalism side, I was also vastly impressed by Dave Cullen’s Columbine, notwithstanding his misinformed blurb for the Anthony Shadid book (“If Marquez [sic] had explored nonfiction…” Um…). Here, the attraction’s not so much the writing but the reporting, the way Cullen extends journalistic objectivity to both victims and killers. The back half of the book feels like a long, vivid nightmare, but one returns to sanity with the same feeling Weschler and Irwin keep urging on us: the wonder that there is anything at all.
I’d also recommend Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, about Henry James. Like Janet Malcolm’s little books on Chekhov and Gertrude Stein, it’s an approachable blend of biography, criticism, and travelogue. Its charms will be less considerable, and its insights less penetrating, to anyone who hasn’t read Portrait of a Lady, to which Gorra’s book is keyed. But for readers looking to spend more time with the Master, or just to see what the fuss is about, Gorra’s book is the equivalent of a good undergraduate seminar. And you know who else is a good critic? Jonathan Lethem. While his novels get much of the attention, Lethem’s been steadily carving out a niche for himself as a polymorphous culture freak. His 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence doesn’t spare us his squibs and blog posts (and commentary on those squibs and blog posts), and for that reason I was prepared to hate it. Weirdly, though, it works, adding up to a warts-and-all portrait of the artist. And if you like your essays more polished, check out the long James Brown profile two-thirds of the way through.
Finally, a confession: I did something crazy this year. I blew half of a freelancing check on the complete, seven-volume edition of William T. Vollmann’s 3,000 page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. (What can I say? It was either that or diapers for my children.) I remain deeply conflicted about my fascination with Vollmann. I know there’s an obvious case to be made that he’s not a good writer. I also think he might be a great one. To my surprise, given its length, RURD is one of his more carefully crafted books. In its learned monomania, it reminds me of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. To a contemporary audience, its style of argumentation may feel bizarre; I keep thinking of an archaeologist sitting at a table, sweeping a pile of sand from one hand to the other, waiting for artifacts to emerge in the middle. But when Vollmann arrives, after many divagations, at a point, you don’t feel like you understand; you feel like you’ve lived it. (For this reason, I cannot imagine the 700-page abridged version making any sense at all.) And if Violence seems like too broad a subject, consider this: it’s a head-fake. The essay’s really about Everything.
Or so it seems to me at present; I’m only two volumes in. RURD is destined, probably, to join The Book of Disquiet and The Arcades Project and The Making of Americans as one of those books I read and read and never finish. But I’m grateful to the weird pressure of A Year in Reading for giving me the impetus to start.
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From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions — sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event — at least as De La Pava saw it — was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics.
I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no!
If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with…well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too — one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing — to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) — that way lies madness.
Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It’s very good — one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared.
These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate.
So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here’s what I found:
Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test.
My getting out or what?!
Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes:
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, “It was 11:33?”). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went — edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut — but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand.
It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011.
And it’s a funny thing about those extraliterary signals — superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they’re unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava’s prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James’ preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.”) And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio — unless she was Sergio? — and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses.
This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life — age, occupation, place of residence, education — remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?
When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important.
As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art — that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava’s dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. “My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with,” he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise “someone might put a bullet in someone’s head.”
This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero — on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility — as matters not just of style, but also of psyche.
Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing — home-cooked empanadas and “school clothes warmed on the radiator” — suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages — his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems — theology, physics, classical music, math. “My earliest memories are of philosophical problems,” he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like “being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals.” Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. “Boxing, that’s my fucking religion,” he says.
His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses — the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”
Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. “I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head,” he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. “Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?”
Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. “I’m not that well-read,” was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions — the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition — seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He’s not that well-read in contemporary fiction. “I have old-fashioned taste.”
Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace — but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read “all the nonfiction.” Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow “turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.”
In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was “pretty terrible” at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls “Bodega Heights,” and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. “I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow — a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring — vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles — into something “nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel.
“When I write, I almost begin with the end product,” De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. “It’s similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first.” And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he’d been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?”
This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels’ (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava’s indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel’s close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this — singular, urgent, commanding — are supposed to be what good editors live for.
As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there’s an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It’s this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he’d drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down.
“I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that “This wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea.” A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011).
Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist…and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation’s poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week.
This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There’s also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use.
And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi’s desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it’s a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he’s preparing to file, “I’m determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least,” we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder.
“Achingly beautiful and effective and important:” I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he’d achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame.
Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one’s own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. “That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things,” he said. “The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey.
Bonus link: “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List” by Edan Lepucki
Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: “A Day’s Sail”
Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
When I was engaged to be married, I lost my mind. I’m aware that sounds hyperbolic, but that’s really how it felt: as if my mind had abandoned me, slipped through my ears when I wasn’t looking, to be replaced with something that I didn’t recognize or trust. I was so nervous all the time, my mind skipping from one terrible and scary thought to the next, that reading became almost impossible. Do you know how many stories there are about bad marriages?
During this fraught time, I tried to read an Alice Munro story in the bath. What story, I have no idea (clearly, I blocked it out), but it was about a woman who kills her husband. I couldn’t finish it because I began to fear–to believe, actually–that I was in danger of killing my own future husband. Oh, how my Intended laughed when I voiced these fears! He wasn’t afraid of me and my murderous capabilities! He eventually talked me down from my nonsense ledge, and got me laughing along with him. But I was still too afraid to finish the story.
That was five years ago. I’ve since retrieved my mind, gotten and stayed married, and returned to reading. Thank goodness. Sometimes, I imagine all the great and beautiful books I must have missed during my engagement, and the loss sends a shiver of regret through me.
Last fall, when I found out I was pregnant, I waited for the mind-losing anxiety to descend on me once more. It didn’t. (Or, I should say, it hasn’t yet. I do have five more weeks to lose my mind for old time’s sake!) Because I feel as normal as can be expected when you’re growing a human being inside of you, I’ve noticed that other people experience anxiety for me. They don’t want me to carry anything, not even a carton of orange juice. They want me to sit down already! They want to give me more water, a glass of milk, a pint of ice cream. And they don’t want me to read just anything. More than once I’ve had a person recommend a book to me, and then say, “Oh, but don’t read it now. Not while you’re pregnant!” Apparently, people’s protective urges extend beyond the body of the mother-to-be, and into her reading life. If literature is clogged with unhappy marriages, it’s certainly also darkened with dead babies and the complex melancholy of mothers.
So, as either a warning to other mothers-to-be, or as great “Fuck you!” to all the people who keep telling me to keep things light as I carry my child to term, here’s a list of non-friendly pregnancy books. Read at your own risk…
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin: I admit, I haven’t read the novel, but I love the movie, starring the bewitching Mia Farrow. I have purposely kept my blonde hair very short these last 8 and a half months because I appreciate the cinematic allusion, though I have one friend in particular who urged me, early on, to grow out my locks. “It’s not funny!” she said. “What kind of message are you sending?” How about this: Every pregnant woman wonders, at least once, if she’s got the devil’s spawn growing inside of her.
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell: This is the next novel I’m going to read, despite my sister Heidi’s warnings that I should wait until after my baby’s born. O’Farrell’s novel, which my sister could not put down, and which made her sob at its ending, follows two stories–one about a woman in post-war London, and one about contemporary parents in that same city. There’s apparently some childbirth trauma. Lots of blood, my sister said. She also told me to avoid Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks. The deaths–deaths, plural–in this novel still haunt her.
An Exact Replica of a Figure of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken: Every morning I awake to the spine of this powerful and painful memoir, which I chose as one of my favorite books of 2008. It sits on the shelf by my bed, right next to Nox by Anne Carson and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. (That’s a lot of death to wake up to, I realize). McCracken’s story of raising a child after the stillbirth of her first is all the more terrifying and moving because it’s true, and because she speaks of trauma and grief in a distinct, unflinching, and sometimes even funny way. I keep wondering if this book might mean more to me on a second read, now that I am pregnant, now that I know firsthand what I could lose, what and whom I would mourn. Such a book reminds me not to take this time in my life lightly; it reminds me that I’m already a mother.
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk: This novel is about one day (a la Mrs. Dalloway) in the posh lives of British mothers. The unhappiness of its characters is so delicately and expertly rendered that it, at times, grows oppressive. These are women who feel unconnected to their husbands, their kids, their lives. Such a book makes me fear the very phrase Sippy Cup.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Shriver’s brilliant and dark novel is narrated by Eva, whose son Kevin is guilty of carrying out a Columbine-style high school killing. It’s a grim but often very funny narrative of maternal ambivalence, and it’s certainly a mind-fuck for any mom-to-be. Eva articulates every single dark thought a pregnant woman would be wise to avoid (For instance: “What if my child grows up to be a murderer?” And, “What if I don’t love him?”). Here’s a taste of the sharp prose, most likely to be left out of the highly-anticipated film adaptation with Tilda Swinton, due out this fall:
Meanwhile, I came to regard my body in a new light. For the first time I apprehended the little mounds on my chest as teats for the suckling of young, and their physical resemblance to udders on cows or the swinging distentions on lactating hounds was suddenly unavoidable. Funny how even women forget what breasts are for.
The cleft between my legs transformed as well. It lost a certain outrageousness, an obscenity, or achieved an obscenity of a different sort. The flaps seemed to open not to a narrow, snug dead end, but to something yawning. The passageway itself became a route to somewhere else, a real place, and not merely to a darkness of my mind. The twist of flesh in front took on a devious aspect, its inclusion overtly ulterior, a tempter, a sweetener for doing the species’ heavy lifting, like the lollipops I once got at the dentist.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is so far my favorite book of the year. I read it when I was about four months pregnant, and as I did so, I prayed I was having a girl (She might be anorexic, I thought, but she probably won’t be a serial killer.) Turns out, I’m having a boy. Ha! Shriver’s novel is the most memorable book I’ve read in a while. And also, um, the most frightening.
What novels do you recommend a pregnant woman avoid? Tempt me…
With the publication in 1968 of The Literary Life: A Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene from 1900 to 1950, Robert Phelps and Peter Deane seem to have presaged the Facebook era in recognizing how much we – literary folk in particular – love tidbits and gossip. The Literary Life takes us through the first half of the 20th Century in literature, yearbook style, “Comprising pictures, gossip, homage, warnings and clues – together with laurels, letters, lists and whispered asides.” In a given year, we see several lists – “a rich cross-section of the creating matrix” – including:
major books published in English
a selection of books published in other languages
notable works in other artistic disciplines
So we see, for example, that 1925 was the year of The Painted Veil, Mrs. Dalloway, No More Parades, and Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji, among others; and that it was a productive year for Robert Graves, DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Yeats, and Edith Sitwell, all of whom published in multiple genres. Following these is a section called, “In the Margin” – world events, literary events, gossip, anecdotes, moves/real estate news, marriages, divorces, financial windfalls and failures, travels, journal entries and excerpts from private correspondence, awards and prizes, job changes, health reports… Again, in 1925, for example:
En route to Europe for the first time, Willliam Faulkner stops over in New Orleans, meets Sherwood Anderson, and lingers for six months, during which he completes his first novel, Soldier’s Pay. A little later, reportedly in gratitude for not having been asked to read the manuscript, Anderson recommends it to his own publisher.
(It’s the “reportedly” that I love here.) And
Working as a busboy […] and unable to get into the […] “White Only” theater to hear Vachel Lindsay recite, Langston Hughes pays homage by leaving three of his own poems beside Lindsay’s plate […] That evening, Lindsay began his recital by reading Hughes’s poems, and the next morning Hughes arrived at work to find himself surrounded by reporters and his career launched.
The Literary Life is also full of photographs, quotations, and the publication histories of many writers who’ve fallen out of currency – Ivy Compton-Burnett, Glenway Wescott, Edith Sitwell, Stefan Zweig, Marcel Jouandeau, Walter de la Mare, William Saroyan, Andrew Lytle, T.E. Lawrence, Sarah Orne Jewett – perhaps deservedly, perhaps not. You decide.
The Literary Life makes no claims of completeness. In the creators’ words, “This Almanac had better be owned, not borrowed; and its owner must use it possessively, aggressively, with fountain pen in hand. He must cover its margins with further details, other titles, with events from political history, sports, movies, whatever obsesses him personally.” (emphasis mine) Phelps and Deane were interested in the individualized, romantic convergence of reader and writer; in the deeply-felt notion that literature matters in life, that indeed it is life. They assure the reader that they do not wish to impose A Canon, but rather to launch an experience by presenting a format, along with their highly subjective content: Here is our beloved canon; what is yours?
Now that we have arrived in the age of Facebook, blogs, and Twitter, the physical scrapbook presentation of literary cross-sections may be obsolete; still there is something wonderful about 1925 “at a glance,” the levels and ripples of hyperlinks evoked rather than actual, allowing the reader to stay put, to dwell in that literary moment, no clicking or scrolling, perhaps following her own associative thought, fountain pen in hand, ready to make her mark.
I may as well confess, by way of prolepsis, that Mathias Énard’s second novel, Zone, is the kind of book that can tie a critic in absolute knots, not only because, due to its most striking formal feature – it is a single, 517-page sentence – the damn thing more or less confounds quotation, but also because the duty to move beyond a mere inventory of its contents toward some evocation of the reading experience feels unusually…well, critical, the difference between contents and experience being in this case sort of like the difference between staring at the pitted black grooves of side two of Dark Side of the Moon and actually traveling to the dark side of the moon, as in a sense Zone’s narrator and antihero is, or anyway the dark side of something, call it the Twentieth Century, call it human nature, or call it, as he does, “the Zone” (i.e., the wartorn region around the Mediterranean where “wrathful savage gods have been clashing with each other . . . since the Bronze age at least”), and that’s where I had thought to start, adumbrating the particular historical darkness of the Zone and the conflicts swirling in and around it like the eddies of Énard’s prose, except that the attempt to comprehend all this, which as the novel opens is consuming self-identified civil servant Francis Servain Mirković, age thirtysomething, felt in my retelling as flat as the pull-down map in a high-school classroom, and, as I could practically hear readers clicking over to Gawker (and I hadn’t even reached the end of the first sentence!), perhaps something more lively was in order—say, a dramatic recreation of a 2006 editorial meeting at the book’s French publisher, Actes Sud, where a junior editor barely out of puberty is attempting to justify his ardor for the manuscript to a panel of jaded superiors who, not having read it, sigh at intervals and drag wearily on their Gauloises as they hear that F. S. Mirković is actually both a brutish Croatian war criminal and a hyper-literate French spy; that he has boarded a train to Rome under false passport to sell a briefcase full of secrets to the Vatican before getting out of “the game” for good; and that he will still be stuck on the Milano-Roma overnight diretto when the novel ends, so that, despite its noirish Maguffin and feats of syntax worthy of The Guinness Book of World Records, or at least a Guinness, Zone is a novel in which, broadly speaking, nothing happens, unless you count Francis thinking at great length about history in its personal and global aspects, and though the overlords of the publishing house may have perked up a little at this last bit, cerebration being pretty much France’s national pastime, it must still have sounded incroyable, this bouillabaisse of Descartes and Dachau, Sebald and Seinfeld, Mrs. Dalloway and Mission: Impossible, and not in the good sense, and this again (to make a very Mirkovićian recursion) is how I had thought to begin, cool giving way to heat, first pass tragedy, second pass farce, but still like the junior editor I seemed to be failing to do this remarkable book justice, and in fact I began to wonder if Énard himself had felt a similar sense of obligation to his material, only scaled radically up, an obligation to the Zone’s war-dead (“young, old, male, female, burnt black, cut into pieces, machine gunned, naked”) to make it new, per his epigraph-furnisher, cameo fascist, and tutelary shade Ezra Pound, though of course if I were truly to take a page from Énard taking a page from Pound, I would have to plunge into, as opposed to merely gesticulating near, questions about Zone’s seemingly mismatched ethical and aesthetic ambitions (for as Francis finds, in the course of his train ride, bedrock has a way of asserting itself through even the mind’s most turbulent involutions), and also questions about how Énard gets these ambitions to work in harness, how as the clauses mount and cascade and carry the reader forward, Francis’ un-excellent non-adventure manages to generate its improbable urgency, as if in that briefcase were not some soon-to-be papal papers but a bomb that threatens to take our hero with it when it blows, questions whose answers were at first hard to see, as from a train it’s hard to see the trees for the forest, the forest in this case being that enormous formal dare – the novel as single sentence – which should (again, in theory) have killed both Zone’s chill and its heat, yet the more I thought about the novel’s form, the more it, too, started to seem like a kind of Maguffin, every bit as conventional in its own way as that briefcase (paging Ving Rhames!) or, say, as your average act of stunt-reviewing—and here I’m referring not just to Énard’s particular high-Modernist, comma-spliced rendition of stream-of-consciousness, which in less adroit hands than the translator Charlotte Mandell’s might feel at this stage in the history of the European Art Novel positively fustian, but also to the novel’s two least successful gambits, viz., a pattern of Hellenic allusion likewise cribbed from Ulysses (chapters keyed to Homer, recurring epithets, invocations of those Bronze-Age gods), and the irruption of a short story that Francis is reading into the text—herrings whose conspicuous incarnadine distracts us from Énard’s deeper debt, which is not to 1930 but to 1830, which is to say that Zone really makes its bones where the hoariest Balzac novel does, in the steady concretion of detail, from Francis’ recollections of his mother, a fiercely patriotic Croat who “would have made an excellent soldier” (she applies her iron fist instead to teaching piano and browbeating her son, until it seems to him that “with her no, no, no, not so fast, not so fast, from the neighboring room,” she is “directing [his] masturbation”) to his time as an enlistee in the Balkans (where he sneaks across Serbian lines with a comrade to drag back a stolen pig and later must drag that same comrade’s body to a funeral pyre); to alcoholism and depression in a Venice so cold Francis sleeps rolled up in an old rug, with “shoes on because the rigid carpet was like a tube and didn’t cover [his] feet”; to wrecked relationships with two women vividly undeserving of Francis’ psychodrama; and ultimately to the French intelligence services, where a shellfish-loving alopeciac named Lebihan sees in the haunted veteran a potential “asset”—not to mention the brilliant incidentals, erections in tour buses, the zinc tops of bars, “Turkish MCs chanting bingo results in five languages,” a vision of Donald Sutherland as Christ, details knitting train to trench, past to present, the real to the imagined, and as Zone’s locomotive sentence wends through them all out of order, we come to feel that the “impossible gulf hollowed out by war” is not, as Francis suggests, the one separating soldiers from bystanders but the one that, as in the Springsteen song, runs through the middle of his skull, in light of which the stories of other lives that periodically seize the text—stories of battle and exile and murder—might indeed look like Francis’ attempt to forget himself, “to disappear wholly into paper,” were they not also a way of understanding himself, the history of the Zone being, like the history of Francis himself (and, Énard probably wants to suggest, like the history of any of us) one of perpetual strife between the higher faculties and the lower, the civilized and the barbaric, Eros and Thanatos, Apollo and Dionysus, so that in resurrecting Janus-faced Francis, Zone also breathes new life what that had come to seem the lifeless stuff of AP exams, the “nation of the dead” (as the Scottish historian Gil Elliot puts it) that along with the aesthetic disruption of Modernism, that other crisis of representation, had seemed to lay a younger generation of European writers under a heavy curse—on the one hand, your characters can’t just sit around eating French fries (or, as in 2666, Fürst Pücklers) as if the Twentieth Century hadn’t happened; on the other, to write directly about all those deaths is to risk the worst kind of kitsch, the second-worst being perhaps the too-slavish aping of Joyce—but then again, one man’s curse is another man’s blessing, for by seizing these two crises, one ethical and one aesthetic, and smashing them together like two dumb stones, as hard and as wildly as he can, Mathias Énard has found a way to restore death to life and life to death, and so joins the first rank of novelists, the bringers of fire, who even as they can’t go on, do.
Bonus Link: An excerpt from Zone.
In a recently published interview, Mary Gaitskill described Kim Gordon’s voice as having “a poignant, vulnerable quality, but there’s also something feisty that’s going to keep pushing.” The same could be said of Kate Zambreno’s authorial voice on her blog Frances Farmer Is My Sister, which she began the last day of 2009, heralding in the new year with a literary cri de coeur. The third quality I’d add to the mix is a fierce intelligence with which she dishes regularly and knowingly on literature, art, theater, and the avant-garde, ranging from Cixous, Artaud, Joan of Arc, and Jane Bowles to True Blood. Zambreno’s first novel O Fallen Angel was published earlier this year and reads like the bastard offspring of an orgy between John Waters’s Polyester, Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Lily Hoang said of the book, “O Fallen Angel examines the suburban family with ruthless elegance. Here is a novel, done and undone, a brazen mirror reflecting the 21st century.” Zambreno is also an editor at Nightboat books, and the author of a forthcoming book of essays from Semiotext(e), borne of her posts on Frances Farmer Is My Sister.
The Millions: Your first post on Frances Farmer Is My Sister, entitled “My Vomitous Blog Manifesto,” aligns your blog with Eileen Myles’s “Everyday Barf” and Dodie Bellamy’s “Barf Manifesto“–two essays that inspired you to step away from objective criticism to write a more intimate form of narrative. You describe Bellamy’s “Barf Mainfesto” as a call “for writing that is vomitous, that is chaotic,” where Bellamy “is decrying the ‘oppressiveness’ of the essay form,” a form that you find ill-suited to your writing inclinations. More than six months have passed since. Has your writing been liberated, how has it changed?
Kate Zambreno: Yes, definitely. So, yeah, in Dodie Bellamy’s “Barf Manifesto,” she performs this personal ecstatic reading of Eileen Myles’s essay “Everyday Barf,” in the context of her self in the world and her friendship with Myles, which upon reading it liberated for me what an essay could perform, what criticism could be. I was feeling at the time a weird sense of stuckness… I had just moved to Akron, Ohio from Chicago because my partner got a job and I had recently torpedoed an essay I was supposed to write for the Poetry Foundation on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Dictee. It was the first time I had ever totally bombed a deadline, almost like I was performing hara-kiri on my dutiful deadline-oriented journalist girl-self. I couldn’t bear to write an essay without including what I felt reading Dictee, this quite pivotal work for me, a work about mothers and Cha to me was a literary mother in a way, and I was experiencing both anxiety of authorship and influence to be all Gilbert/Gubar about it… and I was worried that I would sound unscholarly and illiterate, basically, that the Poetry Foundation and its poetics-versed readership wouldn’t be interested in my weird wanderings.
I was writing all sorts of these block-like reviews 500 words for various places, and I loved the opportunity to engage with contemporary literature and to get these shiny pretty books in the mail! but always felt like I had to bury my self and my complex associations with the text in order to write these objective capsule reviews. I wanted to write about how a text made me feel, and to write about myself as a reader experiencing the text, how I spilled some hot sauce on a certain page, that I was on the rag when I was reading it, that my hands were down my pants when I was reading it, all the libidinal and emotional experiences of reading, the ecstasy of experiencing literature, the way a book fucked with my head or changed my life, and then also tying reading into my process as a writer. So, I think there was this period of liberation, I came unbound in the blog, and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read and vomited it all up.
TM: Despite your definitively pro-vomit stance, you apologized for your “vomit” twice during the first month of the blog’s existence. Your self-consciousness made me think of advice Diane Williams gave in a writing workshop about how, as writers, we had to learn to smear ourselves on the page. Have you grown more accustomed to writing pieces that are less contained and more revealing, ie, smearing yourself, ie embracing the vomit?
KZ: Oh I love that! Smearing ourselves on the page. Perhaps as young girls we are taught to be polite, to not make a mess (we cannot have ungroomed or undisciplined bodies or texts), to not talk about ourselves too much, so there is some residual ambivalence and anxiety there. I think I was so self-conscious originally (and still am on the blog, in such a public forum) because of a sense of guilt that writing is supposed to be perfectly manicured and neat and clean, and often I have typos galore and sometimes I will refuse capitalization and will generally commit hostile crimes against the English language. Also this fear of madness always, that some will think that my meanderings are the work of a manic girl of a madwoman of a depressed person and not of a writer, being a novelty not a novelist. Why Virginia Woolf channeled her insane rhythms into Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, so readers wouldn’t think it was too close to the self, how she was often so close to the fire. So I apologize for fear of seeming like Artaud’s glossolalia, although often I channel that. Very ambivalent. But I am glad I think that I am so self-conscious in the blog, I think to wipe away that uncertainty and anxiety is in a way whitewashing the unsure self from the process of criticism, for I think we all worry, especially those of us so outside of the institutions, those of us who don’t use the institutionalized language of criticism.
Your last question—am I more accustomed to writing pieces that are more revealing?—is quite interesting. When I began the blog, I included less of the self, of the body, or at least of my quotidian, and then that began to seep in, the memoir, and now the essay collection is about half memoir. It’s taken a while to really make my criticism include an embodied self—that was a process, is still a process. Now I’m in a period where I fear I am writing too much of the self, not enough criticism.
TM: You classify texts as either inherently anorexic or bulimic, an idea that takes the barf essays into account as well as Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia, which proposes anorexia as a form of empowerment through rejection of the body and the cultural imperative to eat. The anorexic text is concerned with the paucity of language, about silences and “the impossibility of speech” whereas the bulimic text purges, “screams, insists on being heard, on externalizing this internal violence.” Is there room for middle ground, for a robust text that’s confident and hearty? Or is the writer’s impulse (or specifically the female writer’s impulse) inherently diseased–either purging what’s within or grasping at, gasping for words?
KZ: I really try to unwrap this in the essay collection, my ideas about this anorexic versus bulimic aesthetic, and I know that in a way I’m playing with fire, reclaiming types of feminine self-destruction as radical aesthetic strategies. I don’t think all texts are inherently anorexic or bulimic, but locate both of these as potential radical modes, both potential forms of resistance, while also wondering why in contemporary poetics and the world of small-press experimental literature the most dominant form appears to me to be anorexic. And wondering why bulimic texts by women are rarely published in the margins or in the marketplace, wondering why they are less written, and why, when so many of the so-called “genius” contemporary male writers are given permission to write what could be classified as bulimic (from Henry Miller to the system novelists, Pynchon, Gass, Gaddis, DFW, etc. etc. to all of the current crop of prodigies named Jonathan with their doorstop tomes). Actually Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia doesn’t really have much to do with my notion of an anorexic aesthetic. I do write about the work in the same online essay however, I think, as I place Chris Kraus’s work in this sort of fictocriticism or New Narrative movement.
New Narrative is decidedly bulimic, which I also classify as having the aesthetic not only of purging but privileging the verbal, and having something in common not only with l’ecriture feminine, this idea of writing the body and voice and taboo, but also the Surrealist mode of automatic writing. Even though Chris’s work does look at anorexia and Simone Weil’s philosophy of decreation as a possibly radical and reactionary act of expression, her writing is so much about writing the abject body and the relentless self, as opposed to writing that enacts the disappearance of the self, such as, say, Danielle Collobert’s notebooks. I love your last comment – the female writer’s impulse as being inherently diseased, Anne Sexton’s infected sentence that Gilbert and Gubar write to in their essay on Victorian women writers in Madwomen in the Attic (they also write about the anorexia of the Victorian women writer but don’t tie that into an aesthetic strategy). I really celebrate and welcome writing that is about externalizing and vomiting out violence as opposed to internalizing it, although am fascinated and compelled by both forms of expression.
TM: In Hillel Schwartz’s Never Satisfied, a cultural history of dieting, weight, and fantasies, Schwartz aligns a culture’s perception of fat with its attitude towards dieting: “Why people choose to diet, when they diet, how they go about dieting–these are determined by prevailing fantasies about the body, its weight and its fat.” He goes on to say that in societies (like ours) where fatness is “active, itinerant, and individual,” dieters persevere in battles against fat. Keeping this in mind, would you care to divine what the prevalent attitudes towards both bulimic and anorexic texts mirror in our contemporary culture?
KZ: Well, to look at this from a feminist perspective, I think that a fear of fat in our culture is a buried disgust and fear of the female body. So perhaps a female writer’s impulse to carve away one’s language as much as possible reflects this social construct that women are supposed to take up as little space as possible. However, I do think a sort of extreme abbreviation, like Danielle Dutton’s Attempts at a Life or the works of Jenny Boully, is a radical act as well, and a possible means of resistance to the marketplace-mandated forms of narrative, character, story, plot, etc. I will say that my 70-page novel, O Fallen Angel, was published after I sent it out to one place, Chiasmus Press, while I have 200-page-plus manuscripts that I have had an unbearable time getting published. There’s an urge for manuscripts to be more economical, an economy of expression, but I think this is linked to economics, to the costs required for small presses to publish larger books, but also perhaps tied into something insidious in our culture relating to the female body and our disgust of women who are too mouthy, too brash, too unwieldy, too angry, too confrontational, too, yes, fat.
TM: You recently finished a book-length manuscript based on the blog that will be published by Semiotext(e) next year. Has the experience of turning your blog into a book affected your vision of the blog? And where would you place your blog in the continuum of your written work, which includes literary criticism, a novel, this forthcoming book, and other unpublished manuscripts?
KZ: You’re asking me these questions at this time when I’m having a total identity crisis with the blog, with this very public and intimate form of expression, and wondering how much it’s affecting the necessary private and internal space I have to access and allow myself to be in in order to write book projects. I’m not the first blogger of this sort who muses over whether or not to take a hiatus or suicide the blog, but it’s very omnipresent right now, this concern. Also, yes, when I began the blog I had no plan for any of the essays to be a book, and now that they have formed the basis for the book, part of me wonders whether I should continue or in what way I should continue the blog.
I think that the blog and the essay collection–which go hand in hand, as the blog is in a way a notebook or a draft of the essay collection–will function as an explanation and defense of my other writing, and the writing that I revere, and my particular aesthetic. So it all feeds into each other. I often write in the blog about my creative works, the ones that are unpublished and this one slim lonely one that has been published, and a lot of my obsessions that I write about critically and passionately in the blog I also write to in my, what do I call them…creative projects? Well that’s not correct because I think my criticism is creative and I think my creative projects are critical. It’s all in the same messy, disordered, frantic body, the body of work. Although really I feel this is all a major preparation, a preparing of the body, a cleaning and waxing of the body to become someday a lyric essayist. I am really a lyric essayist I feel, very deeply, trapped in the body of a messy, disordered, bulimic writer. To me that is the writing I cannot perform, I cannot manage to clean myself or my texts, and perhaps this is all draft and baggage for the one singular work that will be like a page of the most magical important potent language.
TM: I’d like to hear more about the inspiration for your novel, O Fallen Angel, and specifically the inspiration you derived from Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which he based on a scene from The Oresteia. Of his painting, Bacon said, “I tried to create an image of the effect it [The Oresteia] produced inside me.” One connection that came to mind is that it seems you attempt to recreate the effect that mainstream suburban, Midwestern culture produces within you. Reading the novel with Bacon in mind made me think of his screaming popes via the religious oppression, the psychiatric disturbances, and the authorial vitriol and scorn doled throughout. Were they somewhere in the back of your mind while writing too?
KZ: With Bacon, yes, I was trying to channel the effect that his paintings produced within me… I am really interested in what Deleuze has to say about Bacon’s figures, how Bacon is painting these chaotic nervous systems, and in a way with a book like OFA I thought of myself as a portraitist I guess, but with language, exorcising both Bacon’s triptych as well as the portraits of Marlene Dumas, and trying in a way to paint not characters but nervous systems, flayed and flawed and committing desperate acts of self-immolation. I lived for a bit in London and I became obsessed with the Bacon room at the Tate Britain, his orange paintings especially filled me with such a delirious violence, and I think I am always trying to write to them, write to his diseased mouths and paralyzed figures. The scream in general fascinates me, those who have had their language stolen from them, how to reproduce that on the page—Munch’s Scream and Helene Weigel’s grotesque mouth wide open in Mother Courage—and especially with this project I was interested in writing these figures—I keep on calling them figures! but that’s what they are to me, or grotesques, grotesques I care for, not characters—that are completely inarticulate or stricken with a sort of wordless riot, as my Maggie character is, my modern hysterical Dora-daughter, or my Malachi prophet, my homeless Septimus Smith from Mrs. Dalloway, and yes Mommy too. Mommy is deeply, deeply unhappy but she lacks any way to articulate this, to express any individual expression, she is a member of Kant’s minority, who just wants to be a cutesy cow grazing on Snax Mix.
Through all this I am channeling my own feelings of impotence, of alienation, of desperation the feeling sometimes that most are mute and deaf and dumb to all of the horrors of existence, preferring to exist in their banal languages and worlds, in many ways in terms of an exercise in language I was trying to write to the banality of cliches, how they mold our minds, and of the banality of the exclamation point, the emoticon. Everyone who reads it gets that this is a novel set in Midwestia, in suburbia, and it is, sure, that’s where the impulse began, my environment, but it’s just as much to me a novel about liberals in cities who easily accept the status quo and would rather discuss American Idol or some shit than gay rights or rights for women or the environment and really really about a country at war and pretending not to be at war. It’s an extremely political novel, a novel screeching against the war and the banality of evil. A friend said to me: Mommy is the Bush Administration. And yes! Yes that’s true. I really loved that. But it’s not just the Bush Administration. It’s not just the convenient enemies I was trying to write to in this book, and failing, and I will always try to write to, again and again. Not just the Red States and Midwestia but the society at large.
And it’s great you bring up The Oresteia because besides Mrs. Dalloway it’s the other text I’m trying to rewrite in O Fallen Angel, not just Bacon purging the Furies and the scream of Clytaemestra and Cassandra in many of his triptychs, but also that, in many ways I frame the book like a Greek tragedy, with choruses, and I will always try to rewrite The Oresteia in any work of this type, in all of my political work. And I love Bacon’s screaming popes, all of his patriarch paintings, his blue businessmen. I think Mommy is the real patriarch in this novel, so she’s not a screaming pope, she uses manipulation and sweet expressions and not brute force, along with the furniture and her statues she will try to rearrange her children’s minds.
TM: To a review in The Rumpus that criticized your lack of empathy for your characters, you responded: “If anything it’s a novel about ALIENATION, and I am in many ways alienating my readers, drawing from theater–Brecht’s A-effect, Artaud’s notion of the plague, Karen Finley. But I think it’s a disappointing conventional read to expect all novels to be about characters, a novel in which character and relationships are privileged, and I think of that as a sort of MFA-itis.” I understand this to mean that you believe MFA programs are overly influential and at their worst, a homogenizing force in the way they shape their students’ narrative expectations. Javier Marías once said that if he were ever to start a writing school, translation would be its touchstone. What would a writing program designed by Kate Zambreno look like?
KZ: Yes, I think MFA programs can be homogenizing forces and churn out literature that is hygenic and functional. But of course not all MFA programs are like this. I think my main problem is how many MFA programs for fiction are structured, and who is hired in most of these programs, who does the hiring, and how hybridity or dancing along genres is really discouraged in many programs, in my totally limited observation because I neither have an MFA nor did I study creative writing as an undergraduate. But it seems the focus of most creative writing fiction programs is still realism, still a traditional focus on character and plot, and a focus on the story that is about the human heart (an idea I’m stealing from the writer Steve Tomasula). So I think at least in fiction programs works that are engaging with philosophy or with theory or are queer or feminist or radical or about the body and trauma and abjectness or are totally weirdo-schizo-whatever, you know, fucking with form, trying to invent new forms, any textual transgressions, any beautiful little monsters, are probably shredded in workshop.
A review of O Fallen Angel said that if the novel had been workshopped, that the teacher would freak out, basically. And I think it would have been savaged in most MFA fiction programs and any rawness or rough edges or anything instinctual about it would be sort of smoothed away to attempt to reach approval by committee, both in the workshop and then in some sort of thesis situation. So I think in my writing program I would really try to steer away from the notion of a piece “working” or “functioning” because a text is not supposed to work, lawnmowers are supposed to work and cut grass, a text is supposed to make you explode, agitated, or at least feel something, feel and then think, think and then feel, act, not just pat the pretty language or sigh and feel a little wistful or a little good about yourself or whatever. So I would want my writing program to be a radical laboratory, it would be about changing society through the text.
As Camus has said, if you want to be a philosopher, write novels. Some of the most exciting urgent public intellectuals and philosophers are creative writers. In my totally hypothetical writing program I would encourage students to be completely promiscuous in their reading, to read philosophy and theory and become obsessed with art and film, to become obsessed with something outside of their craft, like I don’t know, a different religion or anything outside of themselves, but then to burrow deep inside of themselves too, to learn new languages and read anything but the obvious books, then maybe read the obvious ones again, read in translation, engage with the world and have experiences. Fuck up a lot. Write about it. Go on weird travels. Always bring books with you. Write about the travels and the books that you’re carrying with you. And as opposed to the workshop process there will be readings and mentor relationships set up and others will rigorously engage with your work but never offer prescriptions, only guidance. A program that is what Woolf has called a writing apprenticeship, to learn how to inhabit the necessary private space of a writer, to be a writer, not just how to get a story published in X, Y, or Z publication. But I would also want activism to be a prominent feature. Not that I consider myself any authority to head such a writing program. I would want to be in such a program. There will be no teachers! Everyone will be students! No degrees! No diplomas! Just writing books and learning how to be a citizen of the world.
TM: You reviewed your novel, O Fallen Angel, for the blog We Who Are About to Die. It’s an insightful and entertaining introduction to the book. In it you claim: “My characters don’t touch each other, but they want to connect and they’re all suffocating in their cells. It is a stupid, terrible book, about the stupid and the terrible.” While this statement is simultaneously ironic and earnest, self-conscious and comic (if all four qualities can coexist at once), it demands the question, why write a stupid and terrible book about the stupid and the terrible?
KZ: Well, for the first statement, the book being stupid and terrible, I think in many ways for this project I was interested in really bad writing, I guess this is how I’m influenced by Acker, in cliches, in the smiley face Maggie uses to sign her suicide note, there’s a line ending a Maggie section “The first cut is the deepest,” which I’m totally quoting from that Cat Stevens song, tunneling inside Maggie’s head, and at this moment of total self-annihilation over an ex-lover Maggie is really trying to be deep and poetic but she’s just a photocopy, a profound but then ultimately banal photocopy of a pop song, and I’m interested in all that, how our brains are colonized with well-tread language, yet we’re convinced we’re terribly profound and individual. When I read that line at readings people always are kind of silent, but I find it so funny—like look! look how bad and awful this is! this is really bad writing! but people are silent because I think they’re a bit embarrassed for me, which I love. And look how mean I’m being, how cruel! It’s a terrible, terrible book!
My view of humanity at least in this novel is cruel and caricatured, I am playing with these grotesques, and when you think of Bakhtin on Rabelais and the grotesque, the grotesque is cruel and mean and just completely destructive humor. I am more interested in this book and my political writing in general at this moment in the destruction, the total annihilation, as opposed to finding a sort of corrective or moment of optimism. So it’s a terrible book, it’s about terrible things, and it says terrible things.
But besides this authorial act of spraying acid, the family I write about in the book are grotesques, they are caricatures, and they seem innocent and normal and average, but I am saying that amidst all of this banality there’s something really dangerous in terms of how we swallow horrible things happening because they make us uncomfortable and ignore all the fucked-up-ness and like let’s talk about The Bachelor as opposed to Haiti and as a society we’re still totally totally repressed, as represented in this book by the Mommy character. Everything’s airbrushed but underneath everything’s shit. It’s one view of the world, it’s not the only one, it’s certainly a pretty dystopic and scathing one.
I’m circling back to that Rumpus reviewer’s critiquing me for not being empathetic—I think being political is being empathetic, by calling attention to who is actually silenced and oppressed, and how the family functions as the oppressor as well as other oedipal structures, other mommies and daddies—government, religion, etc. But it’s funny the idea that I’m not empathetic to the people doing the normalizing and oppressing and silencing. Fuck it. I’m not. When the British modernist Anna Kavan started writing her tripped-out dystopic works after, you know, being institutionalized and then living through the bombings in England and seeing the effects of war, she said to her publisher, Peter Owen, “That’s just how I see the world now.” And I always think about that.
Reading Virginia Woolf—whether you can, whether the reading is excruciating or transporting—is about finding your sea legs. Woolf’s prose sets you adrift in other minds, their unfamiliar eddies of fear, desire, and despair, their private emotional rhythms and associations. You have to surrender yourself to Woolf, let yourself be swept along—sometimes bemused, sometimes moved, sometimes uncomprehending—in the tides of other consciousnesses. All this is true in Mrs. Dalloway as well, but To the Lighthouse intensifies these effects: it spans a decade instead of a day; it permeates so many minds and moves between them so fluidly, so swiftly. It’s easy to lose track of whose mind you’re listening to, whose words you’re hearing, who’s being spoken about. But in this is also something ghostly and god-like: you drift, as if disembodied, into the minds of others, through the rooms of the Ramsay family’s summer house on the Isle of Skye; you hear snatches of conversation from the drawing room, wisps of another conversation on the lawn. The plot of the novel, such as it is, is diffuse and amorphous; By the standards of most 18th and 19th century novels, it’s not really a plot at all. In the novel’s famous second section, “Time Passes,” you are quite literally watching weeds and rabbits overtake the garden.
Woolf’s writing can feel disconcerting, confusing, and frustrating; It can also seem numinous, exquisite, utterly absorbing. For myself, I have found that Woolf is not an author I can will my way though. There are times when I find her stream-of-consciousness techniques coy, contrived, pointlessly difficult and comprehension-thwarting—when I find the lack of a substantial plot unbearable. Then, I find myself of Cyril Connolly’s opinion that Woolf, “seemed to have the worst defect of the Mandarin style, the ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing.”
At other times, the drifting, liquid rhythms of Woolf’s prose, her approximation of the currents of the psychic seascape, feel intuitively right, more natural and true than anything else I’ve read, and I find myself of Connolly’s mind again: “The Waves,” he wrote in The Enemies of Promise, “is one of the books which comes nearest to stating the mystery of life, and so, in a sense, nearest to solving it.”
More Difficult Books
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
Again, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features one splendid fiction writer’s meditations on another brilliant fiction writer Last his time, it was Eisenberg on Nádas; this time it’s Zadie Smith considering the critical legacy of E.M. Forster, who provided the inspiration for On Beauty.As a novelist, Forster has suffered by comparison to his more conspicuously innovative contemporaries (for my money, Howards End is as much a technical achievement as that other Bloomsbury monument, Mrs. Dalloway); Smith suggests that Forster is underrated as a critic, as well.Perhaps his critical medium – BBC radio – made it easy to overlook Forster’s seriousness; perhaps his characteristic modesty did as well. Still, we can learn much from Forster, and from Smith’s appreciation of him:He could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other. Stubbornly he defends Joyce, though he doesn’t much like him, and Woolf, though she bemuses him, and Eliot, though he fears him […] Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry’s right to be Valéry. He understood the beauty of complexity and saluted it where he saw it.
Reese wrote in with this question:I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles’ Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in DublinersWilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov’s Pale FireAlice Munro’s “Comfort”Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)”A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]
In a genre dominated by by-the-numbers sagas of suffering and redemption, Gregoire Bouillier’s is a refreshingly odd voice. The bulk of his memoir, The Mystery Guest takes place in the space of a single day – a day in which not much happens. And yet, with its restless intelligence, The Mystery Guest manages to encompass all the thematic preoccupations of its touchstone, Mrs. Dalloway: time, fate, and the meaning of life. And unlike Ms. Woolf, Bouillier keeps us laughing.When we meet our protagonist, a failed writer and ex-boyfriend pushing middle age, the filmmaker Michel Leiris has just died. A wry depressive, Bouillier (it’s unclear how much of the book is fictionalized) is interrupted mid-eulogy by a call from his ex-girlfriend, whom he still loves.”How appropriate flashed through my mind. And on the same day Michel Leiris died […] Of course that’s what had happened: she’d heard about Michel Leiris and somehow the fact of his disappearance had made her reappear.”She invites the narrator to a birthday party for the conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who each year has a friend choose a “mystery guest.” This year, the mystery guest is to be…guess who? In the ensuing hundred pages, the narrator will fulfill his role as mystery guest, hoping for some closure with his ex-girlfriend. And of course, once at the party, he will behave like a complete ass – albeit an enlightening one.Until near the end of the book, The Mystery Guest seems content to be a sort of Gallic Woody Allen routine. Bouillier’s prose, in a supple translation by Lorin Stein, turns every interaction between the narrator and his fellow guests into a comic meditation on the impossibility of communication… And then suddenly, in a stunning reversal, Bouillier sets off the depth charges he’s quietly been planting throughout the book. In the end, we discover that The Mystery Guest isn’t a symphony of missed connections after all, but a kind of hymn to possibility. And though we’ve paid nearly 10 cents a page for the privilege of reading this slim paperback, it leaves us moved, even as we shake our heads in disbelief.”The significance of a dream,” Bouillier writes early on, “has less to do with its overt drama than with the details; a long time ago it struck me that the same was true of real life, of what passes among us for real life.” The Mystery Guest pursues this intuition until the boundaries between the imagined and the fizzle away, leaving the reader in a state of grateful intoxication.
Let’s say you’re slightly to the left of the Bell Curve: you read, on average, a book a week. And let’s say you’re also slightly leftward-listing in your survival prospects: that, due to the marvels of future medicine (and no thanks to the blunders of contemporary foreign policy) you’ll live to the fine old age of 90. Let’s furthermore presuppose that you’re one of those people, the precocious ones who were reading Kesey and King and Kingsolver and Kipling at 15. How many great books will you get to read in a lifetime? Assuming you’ve already answered the adjunct question (why?) for yourself, the prospect of having to choose only three thousand books from among the many Millions may sound daunting. My Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Literature contains some entries on authors alone, and is hardly comprehensive. Balzac alone could eat up almost one percent of your lifetime reading. On the other hand, as usual, limitation shades into wonder… because in an infinite reading universe, we would be deprived of one of the supreme literary pleasures: discovery. Half of my favorite works of fiction of the year were by authors (women, natch) I’d never read, had barely heard of: Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy, and Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.And if I had gone my whole life without discovering Deborah Eisenberg, I would have missed something like a literary soulmate. The beguiling, bewildered quality of Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes – the sentences whose endings seem to surprise even their writer – is so close to the texture of life as I experience it as to be almost hallucinatory. On the other hand, Eisenberg’s world is much, much funnier and more profound than mine. She’s single-handedly rejuvenated my relationship with the short story… and just in time for the remarkable new Edward P. Jones collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. I’ve already expressed my suspicion that Jones has been a positive influence on Dave Eggers, as evidenced by What is the What. So I’ll just round out my survey of new fiction by mentioning Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s overlooked first novel, The Cottagers – a dazzlingly written thriller.In between forays into the contemporary landscape, I’ve been trying to bone up on the classics. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice until this year; it’s about the most romantic damn thing I’ve ever encountered, and I’m a sucker for romance. Pricklier and more ironic, which is to say more Teutonic, was Mann’s The Magic Mountain – a great book for when you’ve got nothing to do for two months. Saul Bellow’s Herzog completely blew my doors off, suggesting that stream-of-consciousness (and the perfect evocation of a summer day) did not end with Mrs. Dalloway. Herzog is such a wonderful book, so sad, so funny, so New York. So real. I can’t say the same thing about Kafka’s The Castle, but it is to my mind the most appealing of his novels. As in The Magic Mountain, futility comes to seem almost charming. E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate was another wonderful discovery – a rip-roaring read that’s written under some kind of divine inspiration: Let there be Comma Splices! Similarly, I was surprised by how well page-turning pacing and peel-slowly sentences worked in Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Ultimately, it’s sort of a ridiculous story, but it’s hard to begrudge something this rich and addictive. Think of it as a dessert. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rip-roar of that most sweeping of summer beach books, Lonesome Dove. And if the last three titles make you feel self-indulgent, because you’re having too much fun, cleanse the palate the way I did, with the grim and depressing and still somehow beautiful. Namely, Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing or W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. (What is it with those Germans?)Nonfiction-wise, I managed to slip away from journalism a bit, but did read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men while I was in Honduras… sort of like reading Melville at sea. I made it most of the way through Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (God knows why, half of me adds. The other half insists, You know why.) Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment lightened things up… Not! But I will never read Cosmo Girl the same way again. Come to think of it, pretty much all the nonfiction I loved this year was a downer, about the impure things we can’t get away from: Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, and especially the late George W.S. Trow’s astonishing, devastating Within the Context of No Context. Lit-crit offered a little bit of a silver lining, as William H. Gass’ A Temple of Text and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self. Wood’s essays on Tolstoy and Bellow remind me that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”… which is, I guess, why I’ll keep reading in 2007.
Comcast’s Internet service was been down for about 36 hours which has made blogging difficult. Now that my day job is officially a work from home gig, I rely on steady Internet access like never before, and considering the amount of time I spend blogging and using the Internet for pretty much all of the information consumption in my life, going without is next to impossible for me. I’d say that’s a little scary, but it’s been like this for several years now so I’m pretty used to it. At any rate, hopefully I’m back up and running for good, no thanks to Comcast – it took three phone calls to them and 12 hours before they could even confirm that an outage was causing my problem. Luckily, Mrs. Millions was kind enough to let me use her office for work, otherwise I would have been really screwed.In the meantime, the Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. To me, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is the most predictable of all literary prizes as it usually goes to the most well-known American literary work of the previous year, especially if the book deals with American themes, namely the American immigrant/Melting Pot idea. American history is usually an important theme as well. This year I figured E.L. Doctorow’s The March was a lock, both because it sold well and because it’s about an iconic episode in American history, General Sherman’s great march during the Civil War. Instead, Doctorow’s book was named a finalist, but the much less well-known, but similarly named and themed book March by Geraldine Brooks won the prize. March is about the Civil War as well, but the book is not simply a fictional account of a historical event, rather March tells the story of Mr. March, the father who in Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women is away fighting in the Civil War. This isn’t the first time that what Booksquare calls a remix has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1999 Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a “remix” of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway won the prize.Listed below are this years winners and finalists in all the “Letters” categories. I’ve included links to excerpts and other interesting material where available.FictionWinner: March by Geraldine Brooks – excerptThe March by E.L. Doctorow – excerptThe Bright Forever by Lee Martin – excerptDrama:No Winner: (I rather like that the Pulitzer unlike most other prizes is unafraid to not pick a winner if they don’t feel there’s a worthy book in a category – though, admittedly, I’d be surprised to see them not pick a fiction winner any time soon.)Miss Witherspoon by Christopher Durang – New York Times reviewThe Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow by Rolin Jones – New York Times reviewRed Light Winter by Adam Rapp – New York Times reviewHistory:Winner: Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky – Bookslut reviewNew York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan by Jill Lepore – excerptThe Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln by Sean Wilentz – interviewBiography:Winner: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin – excerptThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – excerptThe Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall – Megan Marshall at SlatePoetry:Winner: Late Wife by Claudia Emerson – a poemAmerican Sublime by Elizabeth Alexander – excerptElegy on Toy Piano by Dean Young – excerpt (pdf)General Non-fiction:Winner: Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins – (very short) excerptPostwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt – Judt in The NYRBThe Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer – excerpt