The house vomits everything a family has accumulated over three decades. Appliances, utensils, tchotchkes, forgotten photographs, important documents—everything has to be packed away. Everything impinges on them, whining to be replaced, put back out of sight, left alone.
As we make piles to help my partner’s parents sort through their effects the day before their kitchen will be demoed, his father stumbles across a basket full of books—Native Son catches my eye. Uncle, can I have it? He glances at the book, wondering why he’s still holding onto it. My partner’s parents have reached the end of their patience. It would be simpler to throw everything away, rather than figure out what’s worth saving. As more books resurface, uncle says, Rajat, you want this; I’m not sure whether it’s a question.
The next day, my partner bristles at the books I cart home from the Performing Arts library, a few blocks from our apartment. I hold them the way my school librarian showed my third-grade class—palm cupping the spine, spine facing down. I set them in a cubby near my desk, next to books they may never have met or brushed up against before. My goal is to reorganize them, remove them from the system of classification inflicted upon them by the library. The essay I may write using some or none of these books feels like a dinner party I’m hosting—which books will play nice with one another? Which books will start up an argument?
More books? my partner asks. So dusty! He’s resigned to the fact that I’ve never taken to using the iPad he gave me years ago. I once saw a booger fall out of a library book when I was a kid. Now I’m traumatized, he says.
I roll my eyes—our little joke. I apologize for the lean of our shelves, which the previous tenants had affixed to the walls, a lean that seems to get more precarious each week. Without any shelf space these days, I try maintain tidy piles of magazines, printouts, and books, on the floor, piles that grow taller by the day. I know when I’m ready for each book I acquire. I touch it and feel it. But until then, the stacks become shakier. All the while, I pretend they’re not on the floor.
The Old English word “dustsceawung” means, literally, “a contemplation of dust.” It’s an understanding not of what’s been lost, or the transience of things, but of how the past persists in the present. To consider dust, however, is also to consider the work left to do with things that impinge on us. Dust collects because I haven’t circulated in a book’s ideas, or had a chance to let their words inhabit me.
What is it about books left on the sidewalk that makes me weep? As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight.” I take it upon myself to pluck used books off a stranger’s stoop or from a trash can lid. This is how they sneak into my life, crawling with traces of the people who held them in the past, who touched them, who were touched by them. Strangers, like germs, cling to the pages of the books I steal for myself.
Books don’t belong on the floor, my mother always said to me. For South Asians, the logic is twofold: books are considered sacred objects, as vessels of knowledge; and two, our feet are considered unclean. We keep books off the ground, above where our feet travel. This responsibility toward books confers on them a quiet dignity. Accidently grazing a book with my foot today makes me shudder—I instinctively reach for it, touching it to my forehead as if to offer an apology, a little idiosyncrasy I’ve even performed in public. I promise myself I’ll treat books well, for they’ve done the same for me.
Books left on the street are contaminated on account of their not belonging there. For the anthropologist Mary Douglas, writing in 1966, “dirt” is that which a society considers out of place. What we deem dirty demonstrates how we draw the boundary between what we think of as sacred and profane. Accordingly, things became polluted because they find themselves existing outside of a neat category. We avoid pollution for its potentially threatening effects on us. Douglas’s idea maps neatly onto the South Asian construct of dirt that I grew up adhering to.
Most Saturday mornings, I’m woken up by the sounds of the garbage truck as it churns outside my building. Glass bottles shatter as they’re crushed, and the truck lets out a low grumble, its belly full on the things that have exhausted their value, that no longer give us pleasure. As I climb out of bed and see the stack of books on my nightstand, I wonder whether any books have been left downstairs, and what future awaits them. No one would leave a book to be thrown away and compacted, would they? The sanitation workers are attentive and considerate. They wouldn’t let such a fate befall a book.
In the afternoon, my partner and I pass long tables on Broadway piled high with bargain books. I wonder where they all came from, and why I don’t spend more time sifting through them. They’ve been spared the violence of dumpsters and compactors. Kind Haitian men sit next to them, never interested in helping you finding what you’re looking for, but always available for a friendly chat. I’m not even sure I’m looking for anything in particular. I twist around myself that I cannot approach these tables and locate anything for myself. The books lack order, or at least the curated appearance of a bookstore. The burden falls to me to scan everything, or walk away empty-handed without trying.
September 1 feels like the most popular moving day in New York. Thousands of people either bid farewell to this city with a sigh of relief; arrive with trucks and boxes and high hopes to be welcomed here; or are simply—not so simply—moving from one part of New York to another. This new neighborhood will be more bearable than their old one as long as it feels fresh. For days before and after September 1, the traces of our neighbors’ lives get tossed out and left behind. Near trash cans sit anxious heaps of books. I feel lucky that they aren’t discarded so much as displaced.
A friend who was visiting my partner and me asked me, one night, Who in New York is your person? Who can you count on for anything, even just for being lazy with on the couch? Her question pricked me. I realized I’ve spent almost a decade in New York with only one or two or three relationships like this. Some friends have moved away, others are near and we’ve let time fill the gaps between us. That night, my friend stirred something within me I didn’t know I yearned for.
Discarded, possibly contaminated books seem precious—even if I’ve never heard of the titles. They are the “unconsoled,” Arundhati Roy’s word—ever whining. But the possibility that books might rescue me is why I pluck them off the street. I protect them so that one day, they may save me.
Somewhere on the Upper West Side, I walked away from what must have been a decade of National Geographic magazines, with their canary-yellow spines neatly fanned out, catching the sunlight. The shade of yellow varied subtly from issue to issue, as if time in the sun had faded some issues left out on coffee tables and not others, the ones toted around in New Yorker canvas bags. I left them all behind, however, and walked away. If I couldn’t cart away all the issues, how could I choose just a few? I realized, a block later, that my logic was flawed: this treasure didn’t represent the full material output of the magazine since its founding. I should’ve just rescued what I could and let the rest go. I couldn’t save all of them.
A year later, on my way to the hair salon, I passed a handsome leather armchair in good condition that wouldn’t take much effort to bring home, with help. By the time I stepped out of my appointment, freshly shorn, a white boy was sitting smugly in my armchair. I presumed, with indignation, that he was waiting for a friend to give him a hand to get it off the street. Half an hour ago, it was trash. Then it was mine. Now, it disgusted me that I saw a stranger with his butt in something I’d wordlessly laid claim to.
Books were never mine to buy. Still, I grew up in a house of books—a double-volume of Grimm’s’Fairy Tales in pistachio green and gold-flecked pages stands out in my mind. Even if I never saw my parents open their copy of The English Patient or Sons and Lovers, I came to respect books, never mishandling them, or casting them aside. I spent a summer with Vikram Seth’s 1,500-word tome A Suitable Boy, humbled to have borrowed something I didn’t own—both book and time; humbled to immerse myself in 1950s Delhi, the world my parents were born into, a world I’d never experience. Even the Yellow Pages had a place in our home, with its supple shape, its soft, onionskin pages bearing thousands of inches of digits. Parents who leave the South Asian subcontinent teach their children, a world away, an epoch later, how to save everything for an era to come. Kitchen countertops and coffee tables spill over with reading material. They teach us who we’ll become.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes of the mnemonic power of smell to conjure up childhood. With just a sniff, our past selves come flooding back to us. And the French noun sillage, from the verb meaning “to trail behind,” literally means the drift of perfume lingering in the air after a person departs. More poetically, perhaps, sillage is the subtle impression a person leaves behind. If a body can leave this trace, cannot the smell of an old book do so, too? Can selves pass from one body to another?
Hinduism may have taught me to treat books with respect, keep them off the floor, never throw them away. But according to Hindu philosophy, the soul lives many lives during its journey toward self-realization. During these rebirths, a soul passes from body to body until it’s eventually released, freed from the material world. How stirring, then, to consider books as liberated from their dusty covers, their words sent into the ethers. What could this mean other than the disembodied, sanitized iClouds that my partner urges me to pull my books down from?
Books represent our fundamental unwillingness to dispose of knowledge, as well as our desire to connect with one another. Do books ever wonder whether they’re going to better homes from the ones they came from? Do they delight in being chosen from a random heap? Do they smile when we crack open their pages, gazing on sentences we’ve never read, or sentences we’ve loved for years and they get to show us again, as if it were the first time?
 Since the days of colonial New York, May 1 used to be considered “Moving Day.” On this day, all leases in the city expired at 9 a.m., causing thousands of tenants to change their residence at the same time.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure:
It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
When someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered.
But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books.
After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time — after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today — consumerism, consumption — and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example.
In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley’s own interest in “reform eugenics” at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book — one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers). Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel — and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint — they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power.
I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves — these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor.
There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study.
We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term.
Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline — the “savage meeting civilization” — that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre — what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification — Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.”
Satire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins:
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.
Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children…he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.”
I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort — it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel.
So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance — that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed — and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy — that which brought Donald Trump to the White House — at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it.
People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.
It makes little sense to come up with another list of “best” Chicago books. To select a “top” 10 (or 20 or 1,000) has always seemed arbitrary and destined for accusations of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole, even in a city built on a foundation of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole.
Fairly or unfairly, Chicago often serves as a general proxy for American cities. Love or hate this idea of ostensible representativeness (most Chicagoans kind of just roll their eyes), to embrace it can prove helpful in one respect: looking at ambition, failed policies, immigration, founding myths, and contemporary life in Chicago, you find resonance elsewhere in America. When thinking through issues confronted by American cities today (and maybe always) — unequal distribution of resources, violent policing, persistent de facto segregation, administrative corruption, privatization of public services, neoliberal coddling of gentrification, fallout from decades of environmental degradation, and others — Chicago serves as a vital case study.
The local commentariat here works itself into spitting rages whenever any outsider — especially if that outsider bears a New York Times business card — parachutes into the Loop for 36 hours to explain Chi-Town (seriously, stop it: no one here calls it that) to the rest of the world. So, designed as a “Chicago 101” syllabus, these books serve as starting points rather than final judgments. They place Chicago at the center of ideas about city life, in some case pressing back on prevailing narratives about American urbanism. Instead of best Chicago books, this selection focuses on books that use a Chicago-centric perspective to address challenges that other places similarly confront.
And given that I’m leaving town this fall and casting my lot with the outsiders when I transplant to — I cringe, really, it feels like betrayal — Brooklyn, I wanted to get this thing together before the movers arrive. Much is missing: I chose not to focus on novels because so many others have done so, and poetry is almost entirely absent. Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg were not on this list because they are prerequisites for the list. But with the excuses that I don’t intend on completeness and the movers at the gates, I hope it’s acceptable to leave gaps that conversation might fill.
1. “It Really Wasn’t Much of a Place at All.”
Dominic A. Pacyga opens Chicago: A Biography, his sweeping history of the Midwest’s largest city, with Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. The priest and explorer first came upon a portage between the Chicago and Illinois Rivers in 1673. To build a canal here would be to connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, creating the largest inland waterway in the world and facilitating transportation from New York Harbor to the Mississippi along the entire midsection of the continent.
There’s a lot in between and after, and the last page of Pacyga’s book makes it to Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. That Pacyga covers so much — from the fire that destroyed one third of Chicago in 1871, to the city’s subsequent explosive growth (Chicago had a 1.7 million residents by 1900), to the Haymarket riot, to the 1968 DNC — should give a sense of the book’s scope. With so much terrain to cover, it comes as little surprise that even major events get relatively little space. Pacyga does, however, provide an especially detailed account of labor upheavals that characterized Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, providing context for understanding the city’s pushback against the rampant capitalism for which it earned its reputation.
Chicago: A Biography represents an essential starting point, primarily because it tracks the evolution of the city from a mucky swamp to a “global city.”
2. “Natural Advantages”
William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Donald Miller’s City of the Century both present meticulously detailed and conceptually riveting pictures of Chicago in the 1800’s — a century of incredible expansion. Chicago’s founding hustlers (to borrow Nelson Algren’s term for his fellow Chicagoans) proclaimed as early as the 1830’s that a marsh named for stinking onions by indigenous people, seated aside gloriously fertile grasslands on the shores of an inland ocean, would one day represent “the most important point in the great west.” By the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the climax of Chicago’s ascendant century, that destiny had been realized.
Cronon and Miller interrogate the stakes of this transformation, asking about the lives it altered and about the enduring epistemic shifts that Chicago’s rise implied for the United States. Chicago transformed America’s relationship with the West and with capital itself, producing not only a vast urban expanse but also structuring what we would come to understand as “rural,” “suburban,” and “hinterland.” Cronon helps us understand how the city transformed goods into abstract commodities, reshaping our relationship to the food we buy and the environment we consume. He shows how rail transit didn’t just connect distant places, but rather restructured our very understanding of space and time. In notable contrast, Miller’s history dives into the enormous cast of characters that built Chicago and chronicled its rise. City of the Century’s meticulous characterization of the “hustlers” that poured concrete into Chicago’s foundations provides singular descriptions of this cast’s influence on the city’s trajectory.
3.“High Strung, Contagious Enthusiasm”
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City has become standard literary fare for newcomers to Chicago, and one will often find multiple copies in a transplant’s household. Larson dramatizes the planning of the aforementioned World’s Columbian Exposition, which marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. Planning required construction of an enormous classical-inspired city in Jackson Park on the South Side, involving many of the city’s (and nation’s) architectural and economic leaders, and marking Chicago’s global coming-out party.
Lurking in the crowds, H.H. Holmes — the book’s eponymous devil — became one of America’s first serial killers. He committed scores of murders silently throughout the fair, the urban anonymity afforded him by the crowds facilitating his crimes. Larson’s book has become important, not just as a document that depicts this contradiction between glorious spectacle and urban underbelly, but also because his romanticized vision of Chicago squares with how the city still views the fair. Its spectacle (and specter) looms large in Chicago’s self-conception.
Where Larson spends time examining the drama among fair planners, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth presents an imaginative — and sparely, gorgeously rendered — view of the event’s history through a child’s eyes. An emotionally paralyzed man living in present-day Chicago, Jimmy attempts to reconnect with his father. In scenes from the 1800s, the monumental fair casts similar shadows over an inter-generational Corrigan family history. Ware depicts how the tendrils of Chicago’s past reach to its present in a city with a complicated history.
Jane Addams founded Hull-House in 1889, well before the Columbian Exposition’s electric lights flickered on. Her settlement house ultimately comprised an enormous complex of buildings in one of Chicago’s poorest immigrant neighborhoods. In Twenty Years at Hull House, one gets the sense of Addams’s determination to reformulate the way that cities treated the poor and immigrant classes — with dignity and a focus on individuals. She charted a course for services and advocacy for the poor that formed the foundation of social work and emphasized that communities matter in urban development.
Concurrently, Daniel Burnham — architect of the Columbian Exposition — moved on from the fair to create an urban plan that would transform Chicago and cement the city’s status as a global metropolis. Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago makes it clear that Burnham’s monumental visions leave a complicated legacy. Despite “sincere” hopes that “City Beautiful” concepts would ennoble the poor, the Plan of Chicago deserves criticism for overlooking conditions of daily life for those to whom Addams ministered. As much as it marks a culmination of optimism in city planning, it lays some of the foundation for abysmal policies that would haunt public housing in Chicago and in many other cities. Moreover, it marks a kind of opening chapter in “public-private partnerships” that govern contemporary efforts to encourage markets to solve urban problems.
5. Bigger Ambitions for Chicago-Born Novels
Native Son and The Adventures of Augie March belong at the heart of any serious conversation about Chicago novels (though I find Augie difficult to get through). The ambitions of Richard Wright and Saul Bellow in these two midcentury novels rise to the level of Chicago’s ambitions for itself. Their alternatingly devastating and ennobling investigations of individual agency and social determination in two unforgettable protagonists — Augie and Bigger Thomas — make them essential to an understanding of American ideas about selfhood, race, and ambition.
It can be easy to forget that these novels take place in Chicago; they belong to us all and not to any one city. “I am an American,” Augie declares right at his beginning. “Chicago born” comes only second, though it acts as validation of his Americanness. Upon reflection, one cannot imagine either novel taking place in any other American city — one of huge immigrant classes fragmented into neighborhoods bitterly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.
Reading these novels together with a spatial understanding of Chicago deepens one’s appreciation for how wide a gulf exists between the lives of their protagonists and the populations they represent. Augie and Bigger find themselves in Hyde Park, for example (which still boasts of its veneer of racial diversity relative to other neighborhoods), but their experiences there are utterly separate. From this smallest of details — the incongruity of lives despite physical proximity — emerges persistent truths about the structure of racial dynamics in American cities.
6. Making the Most of Migration
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s mammoth history of the Great Migration, won the 2015 Chicago Reader’s poll of “Greatest Chicago Book.” Chicago shares billing with LA and NYC as important destinations for those whose lives Wilkerson traces from the rural south to the urban north and west, but there can be no doubt that the Great Migration wrought indelible changes in the social fabric of every region in the United States from World War I through the 1970s; and in this story, Chicago plays a central role. Unwavering in her depictions of the political and physical violence of Jim Crow and nuanced in both her telling of personal stories and descriptions of broader effects of the migration on cities and people, Wilkerson’s book is the seminal text on the largest internal migration in American history.
Meanwhile, Adam Green’s Selling the Race provides an incisive contribution to conversations about how black Chicagoans carved a place for culture in modern America. Against prevailing narratives that cast black Americans (including many new migrants to Chicago) as victims of modernity, swept up by forces that looked to capitalize on anxieties of belonging, Green argues that they became powerful agents of cultural production. Examples from Mahalia Jackson to Ebony and Jet magazine (product of the Chicago-based Johnson Publications) present a rich picture of how much of black culture was generated and packaged for sale to wide audiences in Chicago.
7. Obsessions with the Ordinary
No city values the “ordinary” so dearly as Chicago. And if Studs Terkel stands as the everyman’s greatest champion, his Division Street America best ties the city’s affection for ordinariness to American identity. It would be a mistake to suggest that Terkel shilled the myth of a “city that works” (a term coined by Richard J. Daley). Rather, his no-nonsense portrayals of everyday Chicagoans — rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, racist, gay, jag-baggy, and others — coalesce to create this affecting hodgepodge. As Alex Kotlowitz (no slouch himself in the department of spotlighting and writing movingly about injustice in Chicago) has observed, there’s always Studs in the background — curious, probing, insisting, and asking questions that prompt often-ignored individuals to tell their stories.
Vivian Maier, whose recently discovered work also transacts in Chicago’s obsession with the ordinary, may outshine Terkel decades from now. She embodies the perfect female flâneur (or, as historian Lauren Elkin has rightly insisted, flâneuse). Maier spent most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, secretly capturing some 100,000 images on the city’s streets. The domestic nature of her work all but guaranteed invisibility, given chauvinistic structures of artistic production and labor valuation. But when John Maloof was researching the Northwest Side neighborhood of Portage Park in 2007, he came upon Maier’s forgotten images. He bought and disseminated them. Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found is a great introduction and Maier now belongs in discussions about great American street photographers. Hers is an utterly Chicago story.
8. Daley’s Siege
Richard J. Daley reigned over much of 20th-century Chicago. He ruled the city from 1955 until 1971, dominated Democratic Machine politics, and earned all of his enemies. Several books on this list describe Daley, and his complicated legacy plays out differently in their assessments. For this reason, I have left out of this list any Daley biographies.
Perhaps no account of Daley proves as brutal as Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In his run-up to descriptions of protests and Chicago police reprisals, Mailer writes, “Daley was no national politician, but a clansman.” The 1968 DNC, convened by Daley, proved a flashpoint in American political history. The chaos fragmented the Democratic Party nationally, and set the stage for Richard Nixon’s victory in November. In Mailer’s description of Chicago, his clear affection for the city makes it all the more heartbreaking (despite his intimations of inevitability) that the fractures of American society should appear on live television broadcasts from Michigan Avenue.
Algren-esque musings notwithstanding, Mailer remains a Chicago outsider. So it feels appropriate to add Chicagoan Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool to this list of books. Combining documentary footage of the convention protests with a fictional film, Wexler enlivens and deepens Mailer’s account. He depicts the tumult of 1968 like perhaps no other text from that stormy year. As a bonus, Medium Cool echoes experiments happening in documentary at places like Kartemquin films, which would go on to produce the now-canonical Chicago films Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters.
9. Out in Chicago
The most recently published addition to this list is Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout. In it, Stewart-Winter troubles the dominant narrative of 20th-century gay rights activism in the United States, which typically treats New York and San Francisco as the two central cities, often to the exclusion of the Midwest. He fills this narrative with a cacophonous history of LGBTQ culture and activism in Chicago, where firings, shakedowns, police bribes, and bar raids were just as much a part of life throughout the city as anywhere else.
Effective action depended ultimately on collaborations between gay rights and black civil rights groups, and the pursuit of delicate coalitions. Queer Clout traces the fits and starts of these collaborations and coalitions. Post-Orlando, Stewart-Winter’s discussion of the importance of gay bars for LGBTQ individuals — historically and presently — seems especially valuable. Bars served ground zero for exploitation by law enforcement, but also as meeting places and (most of the time) safe havens.
Stewart-Winter cautions against readily equating the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement; the layering of race, sexual orientation, and gender identification necessitates a more complicated picture. And his affecting description of unequal access to healthcare among Chicagoans affected by AIDS creates a devastating picture of failed policies. In a city divided between a black south and white north, lack of access to educational resources, preventive care, and treatment becomes a reminder of how segregation produces injustice that communities and policymakers must continue to fight to address.
10. Humboldt Park
To understand gentrification in Chicago, head to the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where protests against rising rents, tax hikes, and teardowns took place recently on the 606. This park, built on a former rail line, echoes efforts in other cities to erase industrial infrastructure from urban landscapes. Having whetted the appetite of developers, The 606 has accelerated the pace at which Humboldt Park is becoming unaffordable for longtime residents.
Sandra Cisneros grew up in Humboldt Park. Her beloved The House on Mango Street takes place in a similar fictional neighborhood. Traditional readings peg the novella as the coming-of-age story of Esperanza, a daughter of Mexican immigrants. Cisneros experiments with form — the book is a series of short vignettes — to explore Esperanza’s struggles with sexuality, national identity, class, and the Spanish language. The poetic language of these depictions alone makes an argument for the work’s importance.
To read Mango Street alongside Chris Ware’s Building Stories widens the lens through which readers can examine the relationship between individual and community identity. Ware’s unnamed protagonist, who loses a leg in a childhood accident, lives in Humboldt Park. Her story unfolds across 14 pamphlets, broadsheets, books, and other objects. Like Cisneros, Ware’s formal cartwheels advance conversations about identity. As with Cisneros, the book’s themes center on self-description — again, a disjointed and chronologically jumbled task (there’s no “right” way to read the book). He’s also interested in the evolving neighborhood, as the heroine moves away and revisits the three-flat in which so much life happens.
11. Whose City?
What does Chicago look like today? Natalie Moore’s The South Side, published last year, combines history and memoir to describe neighborhoods in the city that are too often represented in national news media in one-dimensional stories of gun violence. Her book draws productively from her own biography of a childhood in middle-class and largely black Chatham, and feels less concerned with comprehensiveness than with augmenting and correcting the record. As the current South Side reporter for the local NPR affiliate, Moore brings a great deal of connections and numerous voices to this project.
By contrast, Larry Bennett’s The Third City offers a picture of contemporary Chicago that seems at times too rosy in its assessment of the younger Richard M. Daley’s infrastructure investments (the book was published before the first term of Mayor Rahm “One Percent” Emanuel). Visions of Chicago as a global city — one that attracts entrepreneurs to ride the next wave of innovators was for a time called “Silicon Prairie” — ring with the optimism of the 19th century. It presents a picture of Chicago that has become popular among elected officials looking to attract private money and foreign tourists. This vision of Chicago’s third incarnation (a vision of privatization premised on the notion that a city’s chief ambition should be to attract capital to its core) looks like a new version of Burnham’s century-old Plan. It has fans elsewhere.
How to square this vision with the neighborhoods that sustain Chicago, and other cities, remains an unanswered question.
12. There Are No Two Finer Words…
Among garrulous Chicagoans, most will grudgingly agree: we miss Hot Doug’s. Chicago treasure Doug Sohn’s sausage emporium was not only a celebration of encased meats, but equally a democratizing force on a desolate block on California Avenue in the Avondale neighborhood. One waited in line (often for more than an hour) whether one was Anthony Bourdain, Aziz Ansari, or even Doug’s dad. In Hot Doug’s, the coffee table book that cashed in on Doug’s decision to close the shop not long ago, local voices weigh in on The Line: when they waited, how long they waited for, who got engaged to whom while waiting, who had to rush to the hospital to deliver a baby, etc.
Doug reminded us all (always calling us “my friend”) that in Chicago, one waits in line like civilized people. The snow, cold, heat, wind, and rain be damned.
13. Coda: Next Steps
There’s so much more to read and through-lines to trace from Carl Sandburg to Gwendolyn Brooks to Aleksandar Hemon to Chance the Rapper. Those interested in extensive lists of Chicago novels should consult, all kidding aside, several best-of lists already out there. My favorite was published by the dearly departed local site Gapers Block, and it organizes novels by neighborhood. Chicago magazine published a fun list of new Chicago-centric reads for the summer. I’m excited to read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland. And Curbside Splendor Publishing (a local house) recently put out The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing, a history of one of the Northwest Side’s most-loved venues.
But now, it’s time to get to packing.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers:
What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade?
We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds.
The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened — beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” — that rape was
the price one has to pay for staying on…they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.
Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid…about what human beings do to other human beings” — such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” — yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote:
Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it…A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel…I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion…The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life.
For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility.
Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre:
For the South African novelist…how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing?
Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: “[C]ontemporary political novels — the ones that sell, at least — are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through…is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.”
Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist — David Lurie is — her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal — are as relevant as they’ve ever been.
In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence.
That’s a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men — which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop — and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much.
Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described — the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck — all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.”
But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn’t be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life’s Work, although again it’s not fiction. But I don’t suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant — finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now.
I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn’t participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again…on and on, and I haven’t even gotten into international issues!
I don’t want politics to be a source of entertainment — there is too much at stake for that — and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don’t misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let’s keep them separate.
But maybe that isn’t possible.
Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel’s novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it’s whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn’t feel overtly political; it’s concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn’t shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth — with black slaves, for starters.
The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family’s history: for instance, one mother’s goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can’t have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming.
Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the “finest form of free entertainment ever invented.” It’s a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.”)
Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like “They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain’t makin’ carpenters who know what nails are for.” And this year, crazy has gone national, though it’s New York, not Texas, to blame.
That’s why I’ve been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer’s wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There’s a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it’s the perfect Austin novel.
The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something’s gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there’s not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it’s happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump).
The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it’s a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y’all. Or at least we meant to.
One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics — with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall.
Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head.
I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about.
At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk.
Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable.
As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.”
As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world — to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman — feels like a slow death.
Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice — the most important political weapon there is.
Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
I’m sure there is a point after which it is universally felt to be tedious to read about someone’s baby. I had, in fact, no intention of mentioning mine when I sat down to write this essay, which has nothing to do with babies and which a more serious person would have managed to produce without thinking about themselves at all, progeny or no progeny. But the fact remains that all the reading I did this spring I did with a small baby occupying much of my time and psychic energy in ways I have yet to fully understand. I didn’t have postpartum depression; I had postpartum elation, which then settled into a sort of dismal feeling — perhaps my normal condition — after I resumed work and my hair fell out and my boobs departed and my period returned and it was just time to go about my business as though something very altering had not recently taken place.
I mention this because I am sensitive to bummers right now — am possibly a bummer myself — to the extent that for several months I was unable to reader Harper’s magazine, where every article was about melting ice caps and war and hideous injustice. And yet somehow during this time, when reports of reality were too painful to allow into my own comfortable nest, I read two unbearably sad books, books I heard about again and again until it seemed necessary to read them myself. From the reverence with which people spoke about them, I understood them to be tremendous bummers, but beautiful, transcendent ones, offering up almost baptismal benefits to their readers.
The first of these was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 700-pager following the lives of a group of close friends in New York City. I read Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which I found very, very good, and I expected to be similarly impressed by A Little Life, if not overwhelmed and made over in its image.
It’s always unsettling to find yourself totally at odds with an opinion that seems to be shared by many people with whom you might be expected to agree. A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. I am not being facetious; I was so impressed by Yanagihara’s other novel that it was conceivable to me that she might be up to some kind of perverse occult experiment with this one. I admired how dark The People in the Trees was, how gross, how resolute.
There is darkness, and grossness, and resoluteness in A Little Life, but its resoluteness is to a very particular, self-important sort of melodrama. The level of authorial commitment necessary for keeping this up over 700 pages is, paradoxically, what kept me interested in the novel even though I found it maddening and sometimes silly.
A Little Life has been lauded as a subversive masterpiece depicting the irreparable spiritual and physical damage of sexual abuse, of which the novel is unflinching in its portrayal, if irritatingly coy in the pace with which it unveils its horrors. Its protagonist and the victim of its suffering is Jude St. Francis, abandoned as a baby, taken in by pedophilic monks; rescued by the Feds, taken in by a pedophilic social worker; escaped; taken in by a pedophilic sociopath; rescued by a saintly social worker; sent to college; taken in by a saintly law professor; taken in by the delightful, suspiciously accomplished bunch of bright young men who become his star-studded adoptive family.
Jude is ravaged by his godawful past, and outstanding in spite of it (also very physically beautiful, it is suggested again and again). Both his misery and his excellence are exaggerated to occasionally cartoonish proportions; a new wound opening up on his legs every few pages; a new superhuman feat of professional prowess; a new demonstration of endless warmth and love for his friends; a new horror from his past suggested with a kind of lurid reticence: “He had heard stories from Brother Luke — he had seen videos — about things people did to one another: objects they used, props and weapons. A few times he had experienced these things himself.” Jude is a Mary Sue of suffering; the blood that flows from his unceasing bouts of self-harm is a stigmata.
I was not moved by the style which Yanagihara chose to put this story forth. The creepy, formal voice she sustained throughout the The People in the Trees revealed that she is a writer with a great deal of technical control. This makes the high melodrama in A Little Life all the more baffling. Here is Jude’s friend JB, following a conflagration with Jude and his best friend Willem:
Oh god, he thought. Oh god. What have I done?
I’m sorry, Jude, he said in his head, and this time he was able to cry properly, the tears running into his mouth, the mucus that he was unable to clean away bubbling over as well. But he was silent; he didn’t make any noise. I’m sorry, Jude, I’m so sorry, he repeated to himself, and then he whispered the words aloud, but quietly, so quietly that he could hear only his lips opening and closing, nothing more. Forgive me, Jude. Forgive me.
Or here’s Jude, describing one of the acts of sadism that defined the first half of his life:
Back at the house, the beating continued, and over the next days, the next weeks, he was beat more. Not regularly — he never knew when it might happen next — but often enough so that coupled with his lack of food, he was always dizzy, he was always weak: he felt he would never have the strength to run again.
There are other odd narrative choices, like the rare first-person accounts of the man who eventually adopts Jude dotted throughout an otherwise third-person omniscient voice. There is the seemingly random hopping back and forth between the third-person present tense — “One weekend at the end of September, he drives out to Caleb’s friend’s house in Bridgehampton, which Caleb is now occupying until early October. Rothko’s presentation went well, and Caleb has been more relaxed, affectionate, even. He has only hit him once more, a punch to the sternum that sent him skidding across the floor…” — and the third-person past: “The days slipped by and he let them. In the morning he swam, and he and Willem ate breakfast.”
Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.
There are the odd names, made odder by their frequent appearance in list form, in a number of permutations, at art galleries, at restaurants, at house parties, in Willem’s affirmations for Jude:
You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
(There are two people in the novel named Henry Young; there is only one person named Citizen van Straaten.) The novel’s extended cast reminded me of a less waspy but no less elite version of Donna Tartt’s fancy people, who have the names of animals and are sometimes two-dimensional. That said, one of A Little Life’s virtues is that it is comfortably populated with multiple people of color, achieving effortlessly that thing over which, for example, the show Girls struggled so mightily.
If there is a subversive brilliance to Yanagihara’s novel, I found it in the way that she makes the reader, or this reader, embody the qualities of the main villain of Jude’s adult life, his cinematically evil boyfriend Caleb, who is repulsed by weakness and made savage by Jude’s use of a wheelchair. I called Jude a Mary Sue up there; why didn’t I use the male equivalent, a Marty Stu or a Gary? This brings me to the only defense of this novel to which I am somewhat receptive — Garth Greenwell’s claim that A Little Life is “the great gay novel.” Greenwell argues that “to understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera,” a point that is well-taken. What I saw as a sort of unlikely friendship of a too-good-to-be-true crew of loving overachievers, all of them rich and famous in their own right, all of them helplessly devoted to Jude, Greenwell sees “the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis.”
I see the way in which this novel may be speaking to a mode of friendship and male experience to which I don’t have access, and I see that, from certain angles, my sense that this novel was long and overwrought was the result of some latent instinct to belittle “modes long coded as queer,” the same one that is finally exasperated rather than moved by Jude’s fatal insecurity and damage. But Greenwell loses me with his closing comparison to the “great gay art” of Marcel Proust and Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar’s genius, apart from the great beauty of his aesthetic (think of Penélope Cruz lip-syncing Volver), lies in his use of high camp to beatify a rag-tag assortments of losers and rebels. A Little Life lacks any measure of humor — fundamental to Almodóvar’s work — and its prose, which is simultaneously breathless and strangely bloodless, can’t compare to Almodóvar’s mastery of his medium. And let’s leave Proust — his miniaturist’s perfection — out of this altogether.
A Little Life eventually becomes a hostage situation; things happen that are so sad that, even if you are me and skeptical of the whole enterprise, you shed tears when they happen. But despite all of its open wounds and razor cuts and burned skin and exposed muscle and grotesque sexual violence, and even my tendency this spring to be left sobbing by a sad commercial, I found it a curiously sterile, curiously anodyne experience.
When I finished A Little Life, I read the second book I had seen similarly venerated, and which I also found to have a relentless quality. About Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, one Amazon reviewer cautioned: “Have prozac at hand or at least a city park and dont do what the author does which is only look at the shards of glass, the rotten garbage, the yellow crabgrass. Look at least at one thriving graceful tree.” It’s true that the squalor starts right away, as Lish opens on the daily life of his protagonist Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese illegal immigrant to the United States, who is employed in a China Buffet-type joint.
They gave her a shirt with an insignia and visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric. Everyone told her you have to be fast because the bossie watching you. They didn’t speak each other’s dialects, so they spoke English instead. Her first day, her worn-out sneakers slipped on the grease. She dropped an order, noodles popping out like worms, and that night she lay with her face to the wall, her jaw set, blinking…Squatting, she washed her clothes in the bathtub, wringing them out with her chapped, rural, purple-skinned hands, and hanging them up on the shower curtain rod with the others’ dripping laundry, the wet sequined denim and faded cartoon characters.
Lish makes the stakes of this unpleasant little existence evident immediately by having Zou Lei picked up by the police, and thrown into a carceral limbo where bodily harm, perpetual imprisonment, and spiritual annihilation are only a piece of paperwork or some guard’s malicious whim away. These dismal stakes are evident right away, and so is Lish’s commitment to an immersive immediacy of place and experience; I soon found the novel so moving and threatening and lovely that I would look up in the train to see if other people’s eyes were shining too.
There’s an abrupt macho fever to Lish’s writing that is the reverse of the style of A Little Life and which, had you described it to me, I would have predicted disliking intensely. But I found it hypnotic:
She started moving with the crowd, looking above their heads and seeing that she was going into a Chinatown, a thicket of vertical signs, the sails of sampans and junks, too many to read, a singsong clamor rising. No English. There were loudspeakers and dedications and banners for Year of the Dog. Voices all around her, calling and calling. Here, here, here, come and see! Someone spitting in the street. Crying out and running along next to her, pushing and pleading, grabbing the sleeve of her jacket. They put flyers in her hands and she dropped them. Missing teeth, younger than they looked. Illegals from the widow villages. Body wash, foot rub, Thai-style shower, bus to Atlantic City. A neon sign for KTV turned on in the dusk. The saw the endless heads of strangers, the crewcut workmen, running crates of rapeseed out the back of a van.
I don’t read very much poetry, but a few poems imprinted on me at a young age. I thought often of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” while reading this novel, imagining Lish as a remote god who had “such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands,” who writes “the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world.” And I was “moved by fancies that are curled/ Around these images, and cling:/ The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing.”
It would be so easy for a book like this to be only brutal, or racist and othering in its brutality. And it is very brutal: Zou Lei falls in love with Skinner, a traumatized Iraq veteran whose head is filled with horrors: “What had been done to the bodies was not possible to reconstruct. They had been wrenched by giant hands, smashed, severed, filled with gas, perforated, burned, flung across space. A limb lay on a seat…A pile of organs, a liver in the red clothes…Everything had been blasted free of its identity…” But there remains something gentle and expansive in Lish’s characterizations. Here is Zou Lei, making a home of sorts with Skinner:
She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good. Spring was coming, the big wheel of the city starting to turn.
I sort of hate to make so much out of an out-of-left-field novel about immigrants by a white man who is both a literary outsider and a pedigreed scion — a bald, muscular Marty Stu, if you will. It feels like a cliché. But I am powerless to deny that I found Preparation for the Next Life a beautiful, vital book. When I began reading, the continual squalor, the sense of doom, the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me close a Mother Jones tab made the book seem meaningful to me in a way that that A Little Life, although sad and similarly relentless, couldn’t do. I thought about them as a pair. What makes a book moving, and what makes a book mawkish?
In A Little Life, the dirt is on the inside, hiding in a shadowy group of monks and suburban pedophiles, and in the psyche if their victim; in Preparation for the Next Life, it’s on the outside — it’s on our streets and our food and our national conscience. Preparation is dealing in a physical squalor, the literal residue and dregs of crowded urban life, in a way that sometimes brought to mind, oddly, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
But where Miller upholds a sort of exuberant filth, a gleeful comic nihilism that leaves you feeling itchy from bedbugs but energized and ravenous, Preparation is as humorless, in its way, as A Little Life. More than that, Lish’s novel is implicating: Have you eaten at a grimy Chinese joint? Have you unthinkingly tossed out the Styrofoam clamshell box and the plastic bag stapled with a scribbled receipt, without wondering who put it there? Did your tax dollars fund the Iraq war — the war that both brings Zou Lei’s love to her and destroys him? In Yanagihara’s novel, squalor and degradation are the ruinous individual exception in a world of summer houses and talent and hard work that gets you somewhere; in Lish’s, they are the baseline condition of the life we have made on our planet.
I considered the depressing books I know and conducted a small Twitter survey. There’s An American Tragedy. There’s Native Son and The Bell Jar and The Kindly Ones and Of Mice and Men. There’s McTeague and Sophie’s Choice and Rabbit Run and House of Mirth. And there’s the destroying queen of sad books, Beloved, which I re-read in the course of my survey, my baby asleep in her pack n’ play, and felt things happen inside of my heart and brain. That novel is as huge as mother-child love; its horror has texture — the “pulsating…baby’s blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”
And talk about implicating. As with A Little Life, people in Beloved do things that must be the absolute limit of human awfulness; unlike Yanagihara’s novel, though, Beloved’s awfulness has an exponential, an infinite quality — right from its very dedication, “Sixty Million and more.” And even though A Little Life describes horror that in some ways is a systemic horror, and even though its protagonist is caught up in an underground network of monsters that must also exist in real life, it never manages to feel like more than one person’s exceptional, uncanny bad luck. There is no context in which to put Jude’s suffering but the frantic love of his friends and family.
Obviously, a novel that documents the individual’s response to American slavery, or American poverty, or the fallout of the Iraq War, is a different beast than a novel that documents the individual’s response to his own very particular and comparatively finite set of circumstances. A Little Life is the latter kind of novel. And perhaps it is logical that, at a time when even people who are staggeringly well off in the scheme of things can’t buy a home or feel assured of college for their children, a novel about a group of friends comprising a famous artist, a movie star, a “starchitect,” a corporate lawyer, and all of their well-to-do friends — a story that is intentionally stripped of historicity and chronological markers — would have to really bring it in order to seem tragic.
But if there’s any kind of suffering to arouse sympathy and pity in human hearts across class lines, it’s the kind endured by Jude. And yet I still came up against some barrier, beyond the absurd names, beyond the tense-jumping, that kept me from feeling Yanagihara’s novel the way it was meant to be felt. Perhaps I have some kind of liberal hypocrites’ need for a political angle, some guilt around which to marshal all of my ineffectual sorrow.
But let’s return for a moment to my recent quavering heart — my avoidance of the news, my pile of unread magazines. How did I cope with these devastating novels, when a 1,500-word article often proved too much for me this spring? Here is the cowardice of the novel-reader. While Preparation for the Next Life indeed made its way to a terrible crackup, it still ended on a redemptive note — a new life built around that time-honored American impulse to go West. Beloved, too, makes a little room for life to creep in: Paul D holds Sethe’s hand and says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Any redemption available in A Little Life is far more abstract — a purring cat, a blooming flower.
I accuse A Little Life of melodrama, but maybe, in my newly maternal state, I’m the sentimental fool needing succor — something that gives the lie to Henry Miller’s tossed-off prophesy: “We are all alone here, and we are dead.”
Fiction is the next Detroit. Have you been there? I haven’t, but I’ve read plenty about it, which surely counts for something. Most of it is pretty grim stuff. For that matter, so is most of what you read about the state of contemporary American fiction, what with the demise of publishing and our whole world pixelated and digitized, not to mention Thursday night football and Sunday morning brunch, and just who the hell has the time to read a whole book anyway?
Eulogies for high literature have become a sort of genre of their own. These have sometimes been unrelentingly dour, like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and sometimes amusingly hectoring, like “Where Have All The Mailers Gone?”, a New York Observer essay in which Lee Siegel calls fiction “a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers.” The most famous entry in this genre, though, probably remains Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 essay in Harper’s, “Perchance to Dream,” in which he presciently (and without any of the usual histrionics) predicted what would happen to fiction in the ensuing years: “The institution of writing and reading serious novels is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways,” a hulking beast that has outlived its utility. The great city was abandoned, Franzen writes, because “the average man or woman’s entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction…has always thrived.”
The technologies introduced in the 17 years since Franzen (a native of that most “Middle American” of cities, St. Louis) wrote those words have only exacerbated the situation, letting the soul select and “like” her own society to a previously unimaginable degree. The Internet and all its attendant gewgaws have only further atomized communities, essentially reducing vast swaths of human discourse to the swipes and clicks of a finger. Having abandoned what Franzen called “the depressed literary inner city,” we have pushed out from the suburbs into even more discrete exurbs, our literature as ersatz as the McMansion subdivisions that riddle the landscape, our homes decorated with the inoffensive West Elm trappings of workshop fiction. This is obviously a very tricky place from which to write the sort of sweeping, universal literature that generally gets called art — in fact, given all the forces aligned against you, both cultural and economic, you’d almost have to be a fool to try. Might as well just scroll through your Netflix queue.
In one of those happy accidents of fate, I reread the Franzen essay almost right after having finished Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. Binelli is a native of that much-mourned city, and while he enumerates the many signs of its postwar decline, his is a strangely optimistic narrative of those have stayed or actually moved to Detroit, messianically convinced that emptiness, rubble and neglect are the ingredients of a visionary new city upon the lake. Hipster farmers, European architects, African-American community activists — they have all taken Detroit’s thoroughly confirmed irrelevance as an asset that will let them rebuild as they want, free of both corporate and popular dictates.
That’s what I meant with the fiction-as-Detroit conceit. It is well known that the fortunes of the Motor City declined when, in the postwar era, Japan and Germany started making much better cars than we did. What happened to the American automotive industry some half-century ago is happening today, more or less, to American publishing: declining interest in the product, high legacy costs, cheaper competitors (i.e., ebooks), a workforce slow to adapt. By that logic, literature is dead or dying, doomed to the sort of irrelevance that left Detroit looking like firebombed Dresden.
This, however, does not have me worried. I, for one, am happy to occupy that gutted and forgotten city, much as Franzen was back in 1996, much as some college graduate right now is dreaming of escaping his parents’ basement for a coldwater loft. Literature could not find itself in a better place from which to escape the confining and picayune interiority of the last half-century.
I am going to push this urban metaphor a little further, not for the sake of trying to be clever but because it gets at the very problem facing fiction. The audience for literature today is generally well-off and suburban — these are the people, after all, who have time to think about their profoundly personal problems and read books that purport to solve or at least mirror them. So, then, if the ruined metropolis is the sort of serious fiction that Franzen championed, then the suburbs are the predictable comforts of memoir like Eat, Pray, Love, or its fictional equivalent.
There is something freeing in neglect, in the knowledge that literature has lost its centrality in the American experience, that we neither have new Mailers, nor yearn for them, that we have been abandoned for more the more passive pastures of the digital age. With that knowledge already beneath our skin, why bother trying to attract Starbucks to Gratiot Ave? Let us brew our own, stronger coffee: Joshua Cohen’s Witz; A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. Elizabeth Gilbert can keep her millions.
I guess what I am calling for is the literary equivalent of “rightsizing,” in the lingo of urban planners. The concept suggests that we reclaim cities by returning them to their core functions, by shedding the sprawl that doomed them in the second half of the 20th century — the same cultural sprawl that has diluted American fiction. Writing of Detroit’s plan to rightsize back in 2010, The Economist was glad that “harsh realities have produced radical thinking,” praising Mayor Dave Bing for recognizing the “painful necessity” that the Detroit of bustling factories could never be again.
In fact, Detroit’s automotive industry has become back: not enough to return the city to its halcyon days, not enough to heal the scars of its decline, but certainly more than doomsayers would have expected a decade ago. It has done so by becoming leaner, smarter, no longer peddling Hummers, thinking of green energy and efficiency as more than just the fads of coastal elites. Publishing will have to do the same thing if it wants to save the literary city. It will likely have to look at smaller presses that are publishing less, but editing more, that are repacking classics in unexpected ways, that are finding ways to be beat Amazon at the ebook game.
And the city will be saved. Because while the city may shrink, it cannot be allowed to die, either — cities, like books, will always attract those who reject more anodyne pastures. The city is where real problems reside, along with the people who suffer from them — and those who, to borrow from Auden, cannot help but act as “an affirming flame.” Today’s suburbanized literature — a dim light bulb — has largely cast aside the sweeping social concerns that animated, say, The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son. A big social novel is like a great old train station; a nice thought, but impractical in this day and age. Who will go there, anyway? A bus shelter will do.
Both of the above novels are Detroit fiction: unruly, uncouth, imperfect, tragic, frequently beautiful, sometimes ugly. Which isn’t to say that Detroit fiction always has to be 600 pages long and cover the entire arc of American history. Henry Miller’s furiously personal Tropic novels are squarely Detroit in their ambition to catalog “the hot lava which was bubbling inside me.” So are the cerebral short stories of Lydia Davis, who gets at the human condition in seven stabbing words: “Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart.” That’s about as far from the suburbs as you can get.
Suburban novels are, in the end, a double illusion: the basic one of fiction, followed by the more poisonous promise that reading, say, Paulo Coelho is really going to improve your life. Their counterpart is the McMansion with its ersatz Tudor accents and assurances that within is everything you could ever needed. This is obviously not true. The world is out there. Detroit awaits.
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