We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments, and get excited for the GREAT SECOND-HALF PREVIEW, which we will roll out in the second week of July. (Also, as Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.) Kudos by Rachel Cusk: When I first encountered Cusk’s writing in the mid-aughts I wrote her off as an author of potentially tedious domestic drama. I was woefully wrong. It’s true Cusk is a chronicler of the domestic: she is as known for her memoirs of motherhood and divorce as she is for her novels, but her writing is innovative, observant, and bold. The New Yorker declared that with the trilogy that her latest novel Kudos completes, Cusk has “renovated” the novel, merging fiction with oral history, retooling its structure. Cusk has said: “I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live.” (Anne) There There by Tommy Orange: Set mostly in Oakland, Orange’s polyphonic novel describes the disparate but connected lives of group of Native Americans, many of them self-identified "urban Indians," who come together for the Great Oakland Powwow. There, personal and communal and national histories propel events--and his cast of characters--toward a shocking denouement. Orange's novel has been called a "new kind of American epic" by the New York Times; read more here. (Lydia) Florida by Lauren Groff: After collecting fans like Barack Obama with her bestselling novel Fates and Furies, Groff’s next book is a collection of short stories that center around Florida, “the landscape, climate, history, and state of mind.” Included is ”Dogs Go Wolf,” the haunting story that appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the year. In a recent interview, Groff gave us the lay of the land: “The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I’ve lived for twelve years...I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you.” (Claire) Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A family chronicle, workplace drama, and love story rolled into one, Li’s debut chronicles the universe of the Beijing Duck House restaurant of Rockville, Md., run by a family and long-time employees who intertwine in various ways when disaster strikes. Lorrie Moore raves, “her narratives are complex, mysterious, moving, and surprising.” Read an excerpt from the novel here at Buzzfeed. (Lydia) The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward: A poet's memoir in prose and verse about a tempestuous adolescence in England, where the author was born to immigrant parents and raised by Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents. The memoir describes her experiences with drugs and alcohol, her relationships with men and with sex work, the struggles of her brother, and her development as an artist. A starred Kirkus review says "Daley-Ward has quite a ferociously moving story to tell." (Lydia) Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg: A work of speculative historical fiction exploring queer and trans histories through the story of notorious 19th-century London thieves Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess. This is a publishing event, the first work of fiction to be released by esteemed editor Chris Jackson's One World imprint, and it has received accolades from every trade publication and a host of writers including Victor LaValle, China Miéville, and Maggie Nelson. (Lydia) Ayiti by Roxane Gay: This is a reissue of Roxane Gay's first book, a collection of short stories about Haiti and the diaspora, with two new stories. Ayiti was first published by the small press Artistically Declined Press in 2011, before the author was routinely at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Kirkus says "Gay has addressed these subjects with more complexity since, but this debut amply contains the righteous energy that drives all her work." (Lydia) The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: This third novel from the acclaimed author of The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House interlaces the story of an art gallery director whose friends are succumbing to the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago with a mother struggling to find her estranged daughter 30 years later in contemporary Paris. “The Great Believers is by turns funny, harrowing, tender, devastating, and always hugely suspenseful,” says Margot Livesey, author of Mercury. (Michael) Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill: Frequent New Yorker and Harper’s readers will know that O’Neill has been writing a lot of short fiction lately. With the new Good Trouble, the Netherland author now has a full collection, comprised of 11 off-kilter, unsettling stories. Their characters range from a would-be renter in New York who can’t get anyone to give him a reference to a poet who can’t decide whether or not to sign a petition. (Thom) Days of Awe by A.M. Homes: A new collection of stories from the prolific author of May We Be Forgiven featuring humorous, melancholy reflections on American life. The title story involves friends becoming lovers at a conference about genocides. The great Zadie Smith calls it "a razor-sharp story collection from a writer who is always 'furiously good.'" (Lydia) The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong (translated by Chi-Young Kim): South Korea's best-selling crime novelist is a woman, although she is nonetheless marketed as "the Stephen King of Korea." This novel, a sensation in South Korea and her first to be translated into English, is a psychological thriller involving a possible matricide, for "fans of Jo Nesbo and Patricia Highsmith." (Lydia) Upstate by James Wood: It’s been 15 years since Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published. What was Wood doing in the meantime? Oh, just influencing a generation of novelists from his perch at The New Yorker, where his dissecting reviews also functioned as miniature writing seminars. He also penned a writing manual, How Fiction Works. His sophomore effort concerns the Querry family, who reunite in upstate New York to help a family member cope with depression and to pose the kinds of questions fiction answers best: How do people get through difficulty? What does it mean to be happy? How should we live our lives? (Hannah) Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori): A 36-year-old woman in modern-day Tokyo has worked a convenience store for 18 years of her life, watching family and friends pairing off, having children, or climbing professional ladders. She eventually enters into a sham marriage with a coworker to embody an idealized notion of adulthood, but the plan backfires, and the book is a meditation on work, life, and "normalcy." Kirkus says "Murata skillfully navigates the line between the book’s wry and weighty concerns and ensures readers will never conceive of the 'pristine aquarium' of a convenience store in quite the same way." (Lydia) Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy: A collection of linked stories about a family devastated by the Sri Lankan civil war, which claims the lives of a mother and two sons. The father and remaining daughter flee to New Jersey, and the collection moves across time and place and between points of view to describe the dislocation of its characters and the enduring consequences of trauma. Publisher's Weekly calls it "a wonderful, auspicious debut." (Lydia) History of Violence by Édouard Louis (translated by Lorin Stein): A fictionalized account of a true story. The author survived a violent sexual assault and this novelization exploring the aftermath, including his return to his family's village, became a bestseller in France for its frank reckoning with the effects of sexual violence, as well a broader look at French society. (Lydia) Sweet and Low by Nick White: A new entry in the field of southern gothic (complete with Faulkner homage), a collection of stories exploring masculinity, sexuality, and place in the deep south that has garnered praise from Jesmyn Ward and Alissa Nutting. Publisher's Weekly called it "an atmospheric and expertly crafted collection." (Lydia) We Begin Our Ascent by Joe Mungo Reed: A debut novel that follows the travails of a team of professional cyclists--who happen to be doping--in the Tour de France, exploring ideas of competition, ambition, and team dynamics. The novel has drawn several comparisons to Don DeLillo, and George Saunders raved: “A dazzling debut by an exciting and essential new talent: fast, harrowing, compelling, masterfully structured, genuinely moving. Reed is a true stylist.” (Lydia) Dead Girls by Alice Bolin: A collection of essays exploring the ubiquitous "dead girl" in popular culture, using shows like Twin Peaks and Pretty Little Liars to point to the misogyny that thrums through so many of the cultural products we consume. These are interwoven with personal essays about her arrival in Los Angeles. Kirkus calls it "an illuminating study on the role women play in the media and in their own lives." (Lydia) Sick by Porochista Khakpour: In her much anticipated memoir, Khakpour chronicles her arduous experience with illness, specifically late-stage Lyme disease. She examines her efforts to receive a diagnosis and the psychological and physiological impact of being so sick for so long, including struggles with mental health and addiction. Khakpour’s memoir demonstrates the power of survival in the midst of pain and uncertainty. (Read an excellent piece in The New Yorker here.) (Zoë) The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut: Immergut published a collection of short stories in 1992, shortly after graduating from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but her debut novel comes over 25 years later, a literary thriller that takes place in a prison where a woman is serving a sentence for second-degree murder. Her appointed psychologist once pined for her in high schhol. Publishers' Weekly says "Immergut’s book begins as in incisive psychological portrait of two mismatched individuals and morphs into a nail-biting thriller." (Lydia) Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson: Examining the intersection of social media and intimacy, the commercial and the corporeal, the theme of Hodson’s essay collection is how we are pushed and pulled by our desire. The Catapult teacher’s debut has been called “racingly good…refreshing and welcome” by Maggie Nelson. (Tess) Fight No More by Lydia Millet: Millet’s 2010 collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Eight years later she’s released another collection of stories arranged around a real estate broker and their family as they struggle to reconnect. Millet’s satire is well-known for it’s sharp brutality—and its compassionate humanity. Both sides are on full display here. (Kaulie) Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt: On the heels of her critically praised debut, The Daughters, Celt gives us a love-triangle story that, according to the publisher, is “inspired by the infamous Nabokov marriage, with a spellbinding psychological thriller at its core.” The protagonist is a young Russian refugee named Zoya who becomes entangled with her boarding school’s visiting writer, Leo Orlov, and his imperious wife, Vera. Our own Edan Lepucki praised the novel as “a sexy, brilliant, and gripping novel about the fine line between passion and obsession. I am in awe of Celt’s mastery as a prose stylist and storyteller; I can’t stop thinking about this amazing book.” (Sonya) [millions_ad]
Settle in, folks, because this is one the longest first-half previews we've run in a long while. Putting this together is a labor of love, and while a huge crop of great spring books increases the labor, it also means there is more here for readers to love. We'd never claim to be comprehensive—we know there are far more excellent books on the horizon than one list can hold, which is why we've started doing monthly previews in addition to the semi-annual lists (and look out for the January Poetry Preview, which drops tomorrow). But we feel confident we've put together a fantastic selection of (almost 100!) works of fiction, memoir, and essay to enliven your January through June 2018. What's in here? New fiction by giants like Michael Ondaatje, Helen DeWitt, Lynne Tillman, and John Edgar Wideman. Essays from Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, and Leslie Jamison. Exciting debuts from Nafkote Tamirat, Tommy Orange, and Lillian Li. Thrilling translated work from Leïla Slimani and Clarice Lispector. A new Rachel Kushner. A new Rachel Cusk. The last Denis Johnson. The last William Trevor. The long-awaited Vikram Seth. As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we're incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do. So don your specs, clear off your TBR surfaces, and prepare for a year that, if nothing else, will be full of good books. JANUARY The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): In her Goncourt Prize-winning novel, Slimani gets the bad news out of the way early—on the first page to be exact: “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a gray bag, which they zipped up.” Translated from the French by Sam Taylor as The Perfect Nanny—the original title was Chanson Douce, or Lullaby—this taut story about an upper-class couple and the woman they hire to watch their child tells of good help gone bad. (Matt) Halsey Street by Naima Coster: Coster’s debut novel is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a rapidly gentrifying corner of Brooklyn. When Penelope Grand leaves a failed art career in Pittsburgh and comes home to Brooklyn to look after her father, she finds her old neighborhood changed beyond recognition. The narrative shifts between Penelope and her mother, Mirella, who abandoned the family to move to the Dominican Republic and longs for reconciliation. A meditation on family, love, gentrification, and home. (Emily) Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro: Five years after her story collection, I Want to Show You More, drew raves from The New Yorker’s James Wood and Dwight Garner at The New York Times, Quatro delivers her debut novel, which follows a married woman’s struggle to reconcile a passionate affair with her fierce attachment to her husband and two children. “It’s among the most beautiful books I’ve ever read about longing—for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life,” says Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You. (Michael) The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson: Johnson’s writing has always had an antiphonal quality to it—the call and response of a man and his conscience, perhaps. In these stories, a dependably motley crew of Johnson protagonists find themselves forced to take stock as mortality comes calling. The writing has a more plangent tone than Angels and Jesus’ Son, yet is every bit as edgy. Never afraid to look into the abyss, and never cute about it, Johnson will be missed. Gratefully, sentences like the following, his sentences, will never go away: “How often will you witness a woman kissing an amputation?” R.I.P. (Il’ja) A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson): Kadare structures the novel like a psychological detective yarn, but one with some serious existential heft. The story is set physically in Communist Albania in the darkest hours of totalitarian rule, but the action takes place entirely in the head and life of a typically awful Kadare protagonist—Rudian Stefa, a writer. When a young woman from a remote province ends up dead with a provocatively signed copy of Stefa’s latest book in her possession, it’s time for State Security to get involved. A strong study of the ease and banality of human duplicity. (Il’ja) Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated by Jonathan Wright): The long-awaited English translation of the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 gives American readers the opportunity to read Saadawi’s haunting, bleak, and darkly comic take on Iraqi life in 2008. Or, as Saadawi himself put it in interview for Arab Lit, he set out to write “the fictional representation of the process of everyone killing everyone.” (Check out Saadawi's Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.) This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: Wünderkind Jerkins has a background in 19th-century Russian lit and postwar Japanese lit, speaks six languages, works/has worked as editor and assistant literary agent; she writes across many genres—reportage, personal essays, fiction, profiles, interviews, literary criticism, and sports and pop culture pieces; and now we’ll be seeing her first book, an essay collection. From the publisher: “This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.” The collected essays will cover topics ranging from “Rachel Dolezal; the stigma of therapy; her complex relationship with her own physical body; the pain of dating when men say they don’t ‘see color’; being a black visitor in Russia; the specter of ‘the fast-tailed girl’ and the paradox of black female sexuality; or disabled black women in the context of the ‘Black Girl Magic’ movement.” (Sonya) Mouths Don’t Speak by Katia D. Ulysse: In Drifting, Ulysse’s 2014 story collection, Haitian immigrants struggle through New York City after the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of their county. In her debut novel, Ulysse revisits that disaster with a clearer and sharper focus. Jacqueline Florestant is mourning her parents, presumed dead after the earthquake, while her ex-Marine husband cares for their young daughter. But the expected losses aren’t the most serious, and a trip to freshly-wounded Haiti exposes the way tragedy follows class lines as well as family ones. (Kaulie) The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith: Smith’s The Sky Is Yours, is a blockbuster of major label debuts. The dystopic inventiveness of this genre hybrid sci-fi thriller/coming of age tale/adventure novel has garnered comparisons to Gary Shteyngart, David Mitchell and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And did I mention? It has dragons, too, circling the crumbling Empire Island, and with them a fire problem (of course), and features a reality TV star from a show called Late Capitalism's Royalty. Victor LaValle calls The Sky Is Yours "a raucous, inventive gem of a debut." Don't just take our word for it, listen to an audio excerpt. (Anne) Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee: Spanning cultures and continents, Lee’s assured debut novel tells the story of two sisters who are bound together and driven apart by the inescapable bonds of family. Miranda is the sensible one, thrust into the role of protector of Lucia, seven years younger, head-strong, and headed for trouble. Their mother emigrated from China to the U.S. after the death of their father, and as the novel unfurls in clear, accessible prose, we follow the sisters on journeys that cover thousands of miles and take us into the deepest recesses of the human heart. Despite its sunny title, this novel never flinches from big and dark issues, including interracial love, mental illness and its treatment, and the dislocations of immigrant life. (Bill) The Infinite Future by Tim Wirkus: I read this brilliant puzzle-of-a-book last March and I still think about it regularly! The Infinite Future follows a struggling writer, a librarian, and a Mormon historian excommunicated from the church on their search for a reclusive Brazilian science fiction writer. In a starred review, Book Page compares Wirkus to Jonathan Lethem and Ron Currie Jr., and says the book “announces Wirkus as one of the most exciting novelists of his generation.” I agree. (Edan) The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette: With Winnette’s fourth novel he proves he’s adept at re-appropriating genre conventions in intriguing ways. His previous book, Haint’s Stay, is a Western tale jimmyrigged for its own purposes and is at turns both surreal and humorous. Winnette's latest, The Job of the Wasp, takes on the Gothic ghost novel and is set in the potentially creepiest of places—an isolated boarding school for orphaned boys, in the vein of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Old Child, or even Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. “Witty and grisly” according to Kelly Link, strange and creepy, Job of the Wasp reveals Winnette's "natural talent" says Patrick deWitt. (Anne) Brass by Xhenet Aliu: In what Publishers Weekly calls a "striking first novel," a daughter searches for answers about the relationship between her parents, a diner waitress from Waterbury, Conn. and a line cook who emigrated from Albania. Aliu writes a story of love, family, and the search for an origin story, set against the decaying backdrop of a post-industrial town. In a starred review, Kirkus writes "Aliu’s riveting, sensitive work shines with warmth, clarity, and a generosity of spirit." (Lydia) The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Four adolescent sibling in 1960s New York City sneak out to see a psychic, who tells each of them the exact date they will die. They take this information with a grain of salt, and keep it from each other, but Benjamin’s novel follows them through the succeeding decades, as their lives alternately intertwine and drift apart, examining how the possible knowledge of their impending death affects how they live. I’m going to break my no-novels-about-New-Yorkers rule for this one. (Janet) King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich: This historical thriller features an ax-wielding psychopath wreaking havoc in the city of Sazeracs. It’s been eight years since Rich moved to New Orleans, and in that time, he’s been a keen observer, filing pieces on the city’s storied history and changing identity for various publications, not least of all The New York Review of Books. He’s certainly paid his dues, which is vitally important since the Big Easy is an historically difficult city for outsiders to nail without resorting to distracting tokenism (a pelican ate my beignet in the Ninth Ward). Fortunately, Rich is better than that. (Nick M.) The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers: Eggers returns to his person-centered reportage with an account of a Yemeni-American man named Mokhtar Alkhanshali's efforts to revive the Yemeni tradition of coffee production just when war is brewing. A starred Kirkus review calls Eggers's latest "a most improbable and uplifting success story." (Lydia) In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist (translated by Henning Koch): A hit novel by a Swedish poet brought to English-reading audiences by Melville House. This autobiographical novel tells the story of a poet whose girlfriend leaves the world just as their daughter is coming into it--succumbing suddenly to undiagnosed leukemia at 33 weeks. A work of autofiction about grief and survival that Publisher's Weekly calls a "beautiful, raw meditation on earth-shattering personal loss." (Lydia) Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett: The award-winning British historian (The Pike: Gabriele D'Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War) makes her fiction debut. Narrated by multiple characters, the historical novel spans three centuries and explores the very timely theme of immigration. Walls are erected and cause unforeseen consequences for both the present and futurey. In its starred review, Kirkus said the novel was "stunning for both its historical sweep and its elegant prose." (Carolyn) Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby: A novel about art, loneliness, sex, and restless city life set against the backdrop of Hurricane Sandy-era New York, Neon in Daylight follows a young, adrift English catsitter as she explores the galleries of New York and develops an infatuation with a successful writer and his daughter, a barista and sex-worker. The great Ann Patchett called Hoby "a writer of extreme intelligence, insight, style and beauty." (Lydia) This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff: Medoff works a double shift: when she isn’t writing novels, she’s working as a management consultant, which means, as her official bio explains, “that she uses phrases like ‘driving behavior’ and ‘increasing ROI’ without irony.” In her fourth novel, she turns her attention to a milieu she knows very well, the strange and singular world of corporate America: five colleagues in a corporate HR department struggle to find their footing amidst the upheaval and uncertainty of the 2008-2009 economic collapse. (Emily) The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s first novel is a fascinating and beautifully rendered meditation on ghosts, technology, marriage, and the afterlife. In a near-future world where holograms are beginning to proliferate in every aspect of daily life, a man dies—for a few minutes, from a heart attack, before he’s revived—returns with no memory of his time away, and becomes obsessed with mortality and the afterlife. In a world increasingly populated by holograms, what does it mean to “see a ghost?” What if there’s no afterlife? On the other hand, what if there is an afterlife, and what if the afterlife has an afterlife? (Emily) Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates: The follow-up novel by the author of Black Chalk, an NPR Best of the Year selection. Yates's latest "Rashomon-style" literary thriller follows a group of friends up the Hudson, where they are involved in a terrible crime. "I Know What You Did Last Summer"-style, they reconvene years later, with dire consequences. The novel receives the coveted Tana French endorsement: she calls it "darkly, intricately layered, full of pitfalls and switchbacks, smart and funny and moving and merciless." (Lydia) FEBRUARY The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: In her latest novel, Nunez (a Year in Reading alum) ruminates on loss, art, and the unlikely—but necessary—bonds between man and dog. After the suicide of her best friend and mentor, an unnamed, middle-aged writing professor is left Apollo, his beloved, aging Great Dane. Publishers Weekly says the “elegant novel” reflects “the way that, especially in grief, the past is often more vibrant than the present.” (Carolyn) Feel Free by Zadie Smith: In her forthcoming essay collection, Smith provides a critical look at contemporary topics, including art, film, politics, and pop-culture. Feel Free includes many essays previously published in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and it is divided into five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free. Andrew Solomon described the collection as “a tonic that will help the reader reengage with life.” (Zoë) What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson: One of my favorite literary discoveries of 2017 was that there are two camps of Robinson fans. Are you more Housekeeping or Gilead? To be clear, all of us Housekeeping people claim to have loved her work before the Pulitzer committee agreed. But this new book is a collection of essays where Robinson explores the modern political climate and the mysteries of faith, including, "theological, political, and contemporary themes." Given that the essays come from Robinson's incisive mind, I think there will be more than enough to keep both camps happy. (Claire) An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: In our greatest tragedies, there is the feeling of no escape—and when the storytelling is just right, we feel consumed by the heartbreak. In Jones’s powerful new novel, Celestial and Roy are a married couple with optimism for their future. Early in the book, Jones offers a revelation about Roy’s family, but that secret is nothing compared to what happens next: Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and sentenced to over a decade in prison. An American Marriage arrives in the pained, authentic voices of Celestial, Roy, and Andre—Celestial’s longtime friend who moves into the space left by Roy’s absence. Life, and love, must go on. When the couple writes “I am innocent” to each other in consecutive letters, we weep for their world—but Jones makes sure that we can’t look away. (Nick R.) The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer: Nothing is what it seems in VanderMeer’s fiction: bears fly, lab-generated protoplasm shapeshifts, and magic undoes science. In this expansion of his acclaimed novel Borne, which largely focused on terrestrial creatures scavenging a post-collapse wasteland, VanderMeer turns his attention upward. Up in the sky, things look a bit different. (Check out his prodigious Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.) House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: First made famous in the documentary Paris Is Burning, New York City’s House of Xtravaganza is now getting a literary treatment in Cassara’s debut novel—one that’s already drawing comparisons to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The story follows teenage Angel, a young drag queen just coming into her own, as she falls in love, founds her own house and becomes the center of a vibrant—and troubled—community. Critics call it “fierce, tender, and heartbreaking.” (Kaulie) Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi: A surreal, metaphysical debut novel dealing with myth, mental health, and fractured selves centering around Ada, a woman from southern Nigeria "born with one foot on the other side." She attends college in the U.S., where several internal voices emerge to pull her this way and that. Library Journal calls this "a gorgeous, unsettling look into the human psyche." (Lydia) Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: The latest novel from the author of The Listeners follows five women of different station in a small town in Oregon in a U.S. where abortion and IVF have been banned and embryos have been endowed with all the rights of people. A glimpse at the world some of our current lawmakers would like to usher in, one that Maggie Nelson calls "mordant, political, poetic, alarming, and inspiring--not to mention a way forward for fiction now." (Lydia) Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot: In her debut memoir, Mailhot—raised on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in southwestern Canada, presently a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue—grapples with a dual diagnosis of PTSD and Bipolar II disorder, and with the complicated legacy of a dysfunctional family. Sherman Alexie has hailed this book as “an epic take—an Iliad for the indigenous.” (Emily) Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: 2017 Whiting Award winner Halliday has written a novel interweaving the lives of a young American editor and a Kurdistan-bound Iraqi-American man stuck in an immigration holding room in Heathrow airport. Louise Erdrich calls this "a novel of deceptive lightness and a sort of melancholy joy." (Lydia) Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin: long live the short story, as long as writers like Lazarin are here to keep the form fresh. The collection begins with “Appetite,” narrated by nearly 16-year-old Claudia, whose mother died of lung cancer. She might seem all grown up, but “I am still afraid of pain—for myself, for all of us.” Lazarin brings us back to a time when story collections were adventures in radical empathy: discrete panels of pained lives, of which we are offered chiseled glimpses. Even in swift tales like “Window Guards,” Lazarin has a finely-tuned sense of pacing and presence: “The first time Owen shows me the photograph of the ghost dog, I don’t believe it.” Short stories are like sideways glances or overheard whispers that become more, and Lazarin makes us believe there’s worth in stories that we can steal moments to experience. (Nick R.) The Château by Paul Goldberg: In Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, the irrepressible members of a Yiddish acting troupe stage manages a plot to assassinate Joseph Stalin in hopes of averting a deadly Jewish pogrom. In his second novel, the stakes are somewhat lower: a heated election for control of a Florida condo board. Kirkus writes that Goldberg’s latest “confirms his status as one of Jewish fiction's liveliest new voices, walking in the shoes of such deadpan provocateurs as Mordecai Richler and Stanley Elkin.” (Matt) The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: A memoir by a Whiting Award-winner who served as a U.S. border patrol agent. Descended from Mexican immigrants, Cantú spends four years in the border patrol before leaving for civilian life. His book documents his work at the border, and his subsequent quest to discover what happened to a vanished immigrant friend. (Lydia) Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: If the driving force of Van der Vliet Oloomi's first novel, Fra Keeler, was "pushing narrative to its limits" through unbuilding and decomposition, her second novel, Call Me Zebra, promises to do the same through a madcap and darkly humorous journey of retracing the past to build anew. Bibi Abbas Abbas Hossein is last in a line of autodidacts, anarchists, and atheists, whose family left Iran by way of Spain when she was a child. The book follows Bibi in present day as she returns to Barcelona from the U.S., renames herself Zebra and falls in love. Van der Vliet Oloomi pays homage to a quixotic mix of influences—including Miguel de Cervantes, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kathy Acker—in Call Me Zebra, which Kirkus calls "a brilliant, demented, and bizarro book that demands and rewards all the attention a reader might dare to give it." (Anne) Some Hell by Patrick Nathan: A man commits suicide, leaving his wife, daughter, and two sons reckoning with their loss. Focused on the twinned narratives of Colin, a middle schooler coming to terms with his sexuality, as well as Diane, his mother who’s trying to mend her fractured family, Nathan’s debut novel explores the various ways we cope with maturity, parenting, and heartbreak. (Read Nathan's Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.) The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: If 2017 was any indication, events in 2018 will try the soul. Some readers like to find escape from uncertain times with dour dystopian prognostications or strained family stories (and there are plenty). But what about something fun? Something with sex (and maybe, eventually, love). Something Roxane Gay called a "charming, warm, sexy gem of a novel....One of the best books I've read in a while." Something so fun and sexy it earned its author a two-book deal (look out for the next book, The Proposal, this fall). Wouldn't it feel good to feel good again? (Lydia) MARCH The Census by Jesse Ball: Novelist Ball's nimble writing embodies the lightness and quickness that Calvino prized (quite literally, too: he pens his novels in a mad dash of days to weeks). And he is prolific, too. Since his previous novel, How to Start a Fire and Why, he has has written about the practice of lucid dreaming and his unique form of pedagogy, as well as a delightfully morbid compendium of Henry King’s deaths, with Brian Evenson. Ball's seventh novel, The Census, tells the story of a dying doctor and his concern regarding who will care for his son with Down Syndrome, as they set off together on a cross-country journey. (Anne) Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman: News of a new Tillman novel is worthy of raising a glass. Men and Apparitions is the follow-up novel to Tillman's brilliant, ambitious American Genius: A Comedy. Men and Apparitions looks closely at our obsession with the image through the perspective of cultural anthropologist Ezekiel "Zeke" Hooper Stark. Norman Rush says, "this book is compelling and bracing and you read many sentences twice to get all the juice there is in them.” Sarah Manguso has said she is "grateful" for Tillman's "authentically weird and often indescribable books." I second that. (Anne) Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith: Police officer Eamon Michael Royce is killed in the line of duty. His pregnant wife, Evi, narrates Eamon’s passing with elegiac words: “I think of him making the drive, the gentle peachy July morning light illuminating his last moments, his last heartbeat, his last breath.” Months later and wracked with grief, Evi falls for her brother-in-law Dalton: “Backyard-wandering, full-moon pregnant in my turquoise maternity dress and tobacco-colored cowboy boots. I’d lose my way. Dalton would find me. He was always finding me.” The sentences in Cross-Smith’s moving debut are lifted by a sense of awe and mystery—a style attuned to the graces of this world. Whiskey & Ribbons turns backward and forward in time: we hear Eamon’s anxieties about fatherhood, and Dalton’s continuous search for meaning in his life. “I am always hot, like I’m on fire,” Evi dreams later in the novel, still reliving her husband’s death, “burning and gasping for air.” In Cross-Smith’s novel, the past is never forgotten. (Nick R.) The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani): In a New Yorker essay on Tawada, author of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Riva Galchen wrote that “often in [her] work, one has the feeling of having wandered into a mythology that is not one’s own.” Tawada’s latest disorienting mythology is set in a Japan ravaged by a catastrophe. If children are the future, what does it presage that, post-disaster, they are emerging from the womb as frail, aged creatures blessed with an uncanny wisdom? (Read her Year in Reading here.) (Matt) The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst: Hollinghurst’s sixth novel has already received glowing reviews in the U.K. As the title suggests, the plot hinges on a love affair, and follows two generations of the Sparsholt family, opening in 1940 at Oxford, just before WWII. The Guardian called it “an unashamedly readable novel...indeed it feels occasionally like Hollinghurst is trying to house all the successful elements of his previous books under the roof of one novel.” To those of us who adore his books, this sounds heavenly. (Hannah) The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector (translated by Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser): Since Katrina Dodson published a translation of Lispector’s complete stories in 2015, the Brazilian master's popularity has enjoyed a resurgence. Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser’s new translation of Lispector’s second novel promises to extend interest in the deceased writer’s work. It tells the story of Virginia, a sculptor who crafts intricate pieces in marked isolation. This translation marks the first time The Chandelier has ever appeared in English (Ismail). The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat: It's very easy to love this novel but difficult to describe it. A disarming narrator begins her account from a community with strange rules and obscure ideology located on an unnamed island. While she and her father uneasily bide their time in this not-quite-utopia, she reflects on her upbringing in Boston, and a friendship--with the self-styled leader of the city's community of Ethiopian immigrants--that begins to feel sinister. As the story unfolds, what initially looked like a growing-up story in a semi-comic key becomes a troubling allegory of self-determination and sacrifice. (Lydia) Let's No One Get Hurt by Jon Pineda: A fifteen-year-old girl named Pearl lives in squalor in a southern swamp with her father and two other men, scavenging for food and getting by any way they can. She meets a rich neighbor boy and starts a relationship, eventually learning that his family holds Pearl's fate in their hands. Publisher's Weekly called it "an evocative novel about the cruelty of children and the costs of poverty in the contemporary South." (Lydia) The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg: Fairy tales get a feminist spin in this short story collection inspired by Ortberg's most popular Toast column, "Children's Stories Made Horrific." This is not your childhood Cinderella, but one with psychological horror and Ortberg's signature snark. Carmen Maria Machado calls it a cross between, "Terry Pratchett’s satirical jocularity and Angela Carter’s sinister, shrewd storytelling, and the result is gorgeous, unsettling, splenic, cruel, and wickedly smart." Can't wait to ruin our favorite fables! (Tess) The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea: Urrea is one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen with my 35-year-old eyes, so it’s incredible that it’s not even the thing he’s best at. He’s the recipient of an American Book Award and a Pulitzer nominee for The Devil’s Highway. His new novel is about the daily life of a multi-generational Mexican-American family in California. Or as he puts it, “an American family—one that happens to speak Spanish and admire the Virgin of Guadalupe.” (Janet) Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala: Nearly 15 years after his critically-acclaimed debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, was published, Iweala is back with a story as deeply troubling. Teenagers Niru and Meredith are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When Niru’s secret is accidentally revealed (he’s queer), there is unimaginable and unspeakable consequences for both teens. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says the “staggering sophomore novel” is “notable both for the raw force of Iweala’s prose and the moving, powerful story.” (Carolyn) American Histories: Stories by John Edgar Wideman: Wideman’s new book is a nearly fantastical stretching and blurring of conventional literary forms—including history, fiction, philosophy, biography, and deeply felt personal vignettes. We get reimagined conversations between the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the doomed white crusader for racial equality John Brown. We get to crawl inside the mind of a man sitting on the Williamsburg Bridge, ready to jump. We get Wideman pondering deaths in his own family. We meet Jean Michel Basquiat and Nat Turner. What we get, in the end, is a book unlike any other, the work of an American master working at peak form late in a long and magnificent career. (Bill) Happiness by Aminatta Forna: A novel about what happens when an expert on the habits of foxes and an expert on the trauma of refugees meet in London, one that Paul Yoon raved about it in his Year in Reading: "It is a novel that carries a tremendous sense of the world, where I looked up upon finishing and sensed a shift in what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. What a gift." In a starred review, Publisher's Weekly says "Forna's latest explores instinct, resilience, and the complexity of human coexistence, reaffirming her reputation for exceptional ability and perspective." (Lydia) The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Edith Grossman): The Nobel Prize winner's latest arrives in translation from the extraordinary Edith Grossman. The Neighborhood is symphonic, a “thriller,” if you can call it that, about a detective whose wife gets roped into a debilitating situation. It is set in Llosa’s 1990s Peru, and you see this place with its paradox of grayness and color, juxtaposed with spots of blood. Two women married to very affluent men are having a lesbian affair, and one of their husbands, Enrique, is being blackmailed. When he fails to meet a photo magazine editor’s demands, he is slandered with photos of an erotic encounter on the front pages of the magazine. These two threads will converge at a point of explosion as is wont with Llosa’s novels. While this may not be his best work, it will keep readers reading all the way. (Chigozie) My Dead Parents by Anya Yurchyshyn: Sometimes truth is more fascinating than fiction. Such is the case with Yurchyshyn's My Dead Parents, which started as an anonymous Tumblr blog where the author posted photos and slivers of her parents' correspondences in an attempt to piece together the mystery of their lives. Yurchyshyn's father was a banker who died in Ukraine in a car "accident" that was possibly a hit when she was 16, and years later, though not many, her mother succumbed to alcoholism. Her parents made an enviously handsome couple, but they lived out Leo Tolstoy’s adage of each family being unhappy in its own way. Yurchyshyn's tale is one of curiosity and discovery; it's also an inquiry into grief and numbness. Her Buzzfeed essay, "How I Met My Dead Parents," provides an apt introduction. (Anne) The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas: Year in Reading alum and author of The Oracle of Stamboul explores the history of Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue (site of the famous Cairo Geniza document trove discovered in the nineteenth century) through the story of its generations of Muslim watchmen as gleaned by their modern-day, Berkeley-dwelling scion. Rabih Alameddine calls it "a beautiful, richly textured novel, ambitious and delicately crafted...a joy." (Lydia) Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen: This is an atmospheric novel of betrayal and ardent allegiance to ideology and political choices. When young Ah Liam decides it’s virtuous to report the resistance of his grandmother to Maoist rule to the authorities, he unravels his family with his own hands. His decision leads to the family having to flee the country and for them to have to make a decision: leave a fraction of the family behind or face greater harm. With its striking title about the sacrifice (the “burying”) of those who are left behind, the novel succeeds in drawing a very striking portrait of this turbulent period of Chinese history. (Chigozie) Memento Park by Mark Sarvas: Many of us who have been with The Millions for some years surely remember Sarvas’s pioneer lit blog, The Elegant Variation—and look forward to his second novel, Memento Park, 10 years after his critically acclaimed Harry, Revised. Memento Park is about art, history, Jewishness, fathers and sons: Joseph O’Neill writes pithily, “A thrilling, ceaselessly intelligent investigation into the crime known as history.” So far, Kirkus praises Sarvas for “skillful prose and well-drawn characters.” (Sonya) Wrestling with the Devil by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Famously, Kenyan author Ngugi wrote his Gikuyu novel Devil on the Cross while serving out a prison sentence. (And he did it on toilet paper, no less.) Now, the writer whom Chimamanda Adichie calls “one of the greatest of our time” is releasing a memoir of his prison stay, begun a half-hour before he was finally released. Taking the form of an extended flashback, the memoir begins at the moment of the author’s arrest and ends, a year later, when he left prison with a novel draft. (Thom) Stray City by Chelsey Johnson: Twenty-something artist Andrea ran away from the Midwest to Portland to escape the expectation to be a mother and create a life for herself as a queer artist. Then, confused and hurt by a break-up, she hooked up with a man—and ended up having his child. Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, which comes after a successful run of short stories like the Ploughshares Solo “Escape and Reverse,” is a humorous and heartfelt exploration of sexual identity and unconventional families. (Ismail) APRIL The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer is one of those rare novelists who is able to capture the zeitgeist. Her follow up to The Interestings, The Female Persuasion centers around Greer Kadetsky, who is a freshman in college when she meets Faith Frank, an inspiring feminist icon who ignites Greer's passions. After graduation, Greer lands a job at Frank's foundation and things get real. Wolitzer is a master weaver of story lines and in this novel she brings four together as the characters search for purpose in life and love. As the starred review in Publisher's Weekly says, this novel explores, "what it is to both embrace womanhood and suffer because of it." Amen sister. (Claire) The Recovering by Leslie Jamison: The bestselling author of The Empathy Exams brings us The Recovering, which explores addiction and recovery in America, in particular the stories we tell ourselves about addiction. Jamison also examines the relationship many well-known writers and artists had with addiction, including Amy Winehouse, Billie Holiday, Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, and more. The Recovering has received advance praise from Stephen King, Vivian Gornick, and Anne Fadiman. Chris Kraus described the The Recovering as “a courageous and brilliant example of what nonfiction writing can do.” (Zoë) Circe by Madeline Miller: It took Miller 10 years to write her Orange Prize-winning debut novel, The Song of Achilles. Happily, we only had to wait another five for Circe, even more impressive when one considers that the novel’s story covers millennia. Here Miller again invokes the classical world and a massive cast of gods, nymphs, and mortals, but it’s all seen through the knowing eyes of Circe, the sea-witch who captures Odysseus and turns men into monsters. (Kaulie) America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: As we enter year two of the Donald Trump presidency, Castillo’s first novel challenges readers to look beyond the headlines to grasp the human dimension of America’s lure to immigrants in this big-hearted family saga about three generations of Filipina women who struggle to reconcile the lives they left behind in the Philippines with the ones they are making for themselves in the American suburbs. (Michael) You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Is Sittenfeld a serious literary novelist who dabbles in chick lit? Is she a writer of frothy beach reads who happens to have an MFA from Iowa? Do such distinctions still have any meaning in today’s fiction market? Readers can decide for themselves when Sittenfeld publishes her first story collection, after five novels that have ranged from her smash debut Prep to American Wife, her critically acclaimed “fictional biography” of former First Lady Laura Bush. (Michael) Varina by Charles Frazier: Returning to the setting of his NBA winning Cold Mountain, Frazier taps into the American Civil War, specifically the life of Varina Howell Davis, the teenage bride of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. In this personal tragedy set in an epic period of American history, Frazier examines how “being on the wrong side of history carries consequences” regardless of one’s personal degree of involvement in the offense. Something to think about. (Il’ja) Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean: You’ve been reading Dean’s reviews and journalism for some time at The Nation, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, Slate, Salon The New Republic, et alia. Winner of the 2016 NBCC's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, Dean is debuting her first book with apt timing: Sharp features intertwining depictions of our most important 20th-century female essayists and cultural critics—Susan Sontag, Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Pauline Kael, Rebecca West, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, and others. A hybrid of biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp has been praised and starred by PW as “stunning and highly accessible introduction to a group of important writers.” (Sonya) How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee: In addition to receiving a starred review—and being named a Top 10 Essay Collection of Spring 2018—by Publishers Weekly, Chee’s essay collection explores a myriad of topics that include identity, the AIDS crisis, Trump, tarot, bookselling, art, activism, and more. Ocean Vuong described the book as “life's wisdom—its hurts, joys and redemptions—salvaged from a great fire.” (Zoë) Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (translated by Tina Kover): From the waiting room of a French fertility clinic, a young woman revisits the stories of generations of her Iranian ancestors culminating in her parents, who brought her to France when she was 10. This French hit, published in English by Europa Editions, is called "a rich, irreverent, kaleidoscopic novel of real originality and power" by Alexander Maksik. (Lydia) Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires: A debut collection of stories exploring black identity and middle-class life in so-called "post-racial" America, with storylines ranging from gun violence and depression to lighter matters like a passive-aggressive fight between the mothers of school kids. George Saunders called these stories "vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive." (Lydia) Black Swans by Eve Babitz: Until last year, Babitz was an obscure writer who chronicled hedonistic Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. And then Counterpoint and NYRB Classics began reissuing her memoirs and autofiction, and word of Babitz’s unique voice began to spread. In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote, “On the page, Babitz is pure pleasure—a perpetual-motion machine of no-stakes elation and champagne fizz.” Novelist Catie Disabato asserts that Babitz “isn’t the famous men she fucked or the photographs she posed in. She is the five books of memoir and fiction she left behind for young women, freshly moved to Los Angeles, to find.” Black Swans is the latest in these recent reissues. Published in 1993, these stories/essays cover everything from the AIDS crisis to learning to tango. And, of course, the Chateau Marmont. (Edan) Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley: Crosley, author of the New York Times bestselling essay collection I Was Told There’d Be Cake, returns with a new collection of essays. Ten years removed from her debut, Crosley takes on issues ranging from the pressures of fertility, to swingers, to confronting her own fame. Look Alive promises to be a worthwhile follow-up to Crosley’s 2011 collection How Did You Get This Number?. (Ismail) The Only Story by Julian Barnes: Give this to Barnes: the Man Booker laureate’s not afraid of difficult premises. In his 13th novel, a college student named Paul spends a lazy summer at a tennis club, where he meets a middle-aged woman with two daughters around his age. Soon enough, the two are having an affair, and a flash-forward to a much-older Paul makes clear it upended their lives. (Thom) Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis): In this torrential inner monologue out from Oakland publisher Transit Books, a woman reflects on music, politics and her affair with a musician, a pianist obsessed with the 1910 self-portrait painted by Arnold Schoenberg, a haunting, blue-tinted work in which the composer’s“expression promised nothing positive for the art of the future, conveyed an anxiety for the future, looked far beyond any definition of the work of art or of the future.” (Matt) How to Be Safe by Tom McCallister: This novel, by the author of The Young Widower’s Handbook, is billed as We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Dept. of Speculation—those are two of my favorite books! Also? Tom McCallister…is a man! Although high school English teacher Anna Crawford is quickly exonerated after being named a suspect in a campus shooting, she nevertheless suffers intense scrutiny in the wake of the tragedy. As the jacket copy says, “Anna decides to wholeheartedly reject the culpability she’s somehow been assigned, and the rampant sexism that comes with it, both in person and online.” Of the book, novelist Amber Sparks writes, “It’s so wonderful—so furious and so funny and urgent and needed in this mad ugly space we're sharing with each other.” Author Wiley Cash calls McCallister “an exceptionally talented novelist.” (Edan) MAY Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient and Divisidero among his other works, this new novel from Ondaatje is set in the decade after World War II. When their parents move to Singapore, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when their mother returns months later without their father, but gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover the story through a journey of facts, recollection, and imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire) The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan) Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia) Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti's previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious" and “narcissistic" quite the unintentional compliment. Heti's new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all. (Anne) That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.) Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk: Four years since publishing his last novel, Palahniuk returns in the era of fake news, obvious government corruption, and widespread despair. (It’s as though the protagonists in his most famous novels were right from the start.) In Adjustment Day, these themes weave together in the form of a mysterious day of reckoning orchestrated by an out of touch, aging group of elected officials. (Nick M.) Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories. That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph. RIP. (Il’ja) MEM by Bethany Morrow In this debut novel set in a speculative past, a Montreal-based scientist discovers a way to extract memories from people, resulting in physical beings, Mems, who are forced to experience the same memory over and over. Complications ensue when one of the Mems, Dolores Extract #1, begins to make and form her own memories. (Hannah) And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: O’Connell’s memoir—her first book—is here to remedy the “nobody tells you what it’s really like” refrain of new mothers. Giving birth to her son in her 20s, after an unplanned pregnancy, O’Connell chronicles the seismic changes that happened to her body, routine, social life, and existential purpose before she knew what was coming. All the cool moms of literary twitter (including Edan!) are raving. (Janet) The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel's novel "deserves a standing ovation." For a taste of Gabel's prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia) The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah) A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail) Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter's breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne) The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom) JUNE Kudos by Rachel Cusk: When I first encountered Cusk's writing in the mid-aughts I wrote her off as an author of potentially tedious domestic drama. I was woefully wrong. It's true Cusk is a chronicler of the domestic: she is as known for her memoirs of motherhood and divorce as she is for her novels, but her writing is innovative, observant, and bold. The New Yorker declared that with the trilogy that her latest novel Kudos completes, Cusk has "renovated" the novel, merging fiction with oral history, retooling its structure. Cusk has said: "I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live." (Anne) A Suitable Girl by Vikram Seth: Reportedly delayed by writer’s block brought on by a breakup, Seth has finally produced the much-anticipated sequel to his international smash of 1993, A Suitable Boy. That novel, a gargantuan epic set in post-independence India in the 1950s, was a multi-family saga built around the pursuit of a suitable husband in a world of arranged marriages. In the “jump sequel,” the original protagonist is now in her 80s and on the prowl for a worthy bride for her favorite grandson. Though best-known for A Suitable Boy, the versatile Seth has produced novels, poetry, opera, a verse novel, a travel book, and a memoir. (Bill) Florida by Lauren Groff: After collecting fans like Barack Obama with her bestselling novel Fates and Furies, Groff's next book is a collection of short stories that center around Florida, "the landscape, climate, history, and state of mind." Included is "Dogs Go Wolf," the haunting story that appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the year. In a recent interview, Groff gave us the lay of the land: "The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I've lived for twelve years...I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you." (Claire) There There by Tommy Orange: Set in Oakland, Orange's novel describes the disparate lives that come together for the Oakland Powwow and what happens to them when they get there. In an extraordinary endorsement, Sherman Alexie writes that Orange's novel "is truly the first book to capture what it means to be an urban Indian—perhaps the first novel ever to celebrate and honor and elevate the joys and losses of urban Indians. You might think I'm exaggerating but this book is so revolutionary—evolutionary—that Native American literature will never be the same." (Lydia) Upstate by James Wood: It’s been 15 years since Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published. What was Wood doing in the meantime? Oh, just influencing a generation of novelists from his perch at The New Yorker, where his dissecting reviews also functioned as miniature writing seminars. He also penned a writing manual, How Fiction Works. His sophomore effort concerns the Querry family, who reunite in upstate New York to help a family member cope with depression and to pose the kinds of questions fiction answers best: How do people get through difficulty? What does it mean to be happy? How should we live our lives? (Hannah) The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: This third novel from the acclaimed author of The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House interlaces the story of an art gallery director whose friends are succumbing to the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago with a mother struggling to find her estranged daughter 30 years later in contemporary Paris. “The Great Believers is by turns funny, harrowing, tender, devastating, and always hugely suspenseful,” says Margot Livesey, author of Mercury. (Michael) Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill: Frequent New Yorker and Harper’s readers will know that O’Neill has been writing a lot of short fiction lately. With the new Good Trouble, the Netherland author now has a full collection, comprised of 11 off-kilter, unsettling stories. Their characters range from a would-be renter in New York who can’t get anyone to give him a reference to a poet who can’t decide whether or not to sign a petition. (Thom) Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A family chronicle, workplace drama, and love story rolled into one, Li's debut chronicles the universe of the Beijing Duck House restaurant of Rockville, Md., run by a family and long-time employees who intertwine in various ways when disaster strikes. Lorrie Moore raves, "her narratives are complex, mysterious, moving, and surprising." (Lydia) SICK by Porochista Khakpour: In her much anticipated memoir SICK, Khakpour chronicles her arduous experience with illness, specifically late-stage Lyme disease. She examines her efforts to receive a diagnosis and the psychological and physiological impact of being so sick for so long, including struggles with mental health and addiction. Khakpour’s memoir demonstrates the power of survival in the midst of pain and uncertainty. (Zoë) Fight No More by Lydia Millet: Millet’s 2010 collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Eight years later she’s released another collection of stories arranged around a real estate broker and their family as they struggle to reconnect. Millet’s satire is well-known for it’s sharp brutality—and its compassionate humanity. Both sides are on full display here. (Kaulie) Tonight I'm Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson: Examining the intersection of social media and intimacy, the commercial and the corporeal, the theme of Hodson's essay collection is how we are pushed and pulled by our desire. The Catapult teacher's debut has been called "racingly good…refreshing and welcome" by Maggie Nelson. (Tess) Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt: On the heels of her critically praised debut, The Daughters, Celt gives us a love-triangle story that, according to the publisher, is “inspired by the infamous Nabokov marriage, with a spellbinding psychological thriller at its core.” The protagonist is a young Russian refugee named Zoya who becomes entangled with her boarding school’s visiting writer, Leo Orlov, and his imperious wife, Vera. Our own Edan Lepucki praised the novel as “a sexy, brilliant, and gripping novel about the fine line between passion and obsession. I am in awe of Celt's mastery as a prose stylist and storyteller; I can't stop thinking about this amazing book.” (Sonya) [millions_ad]
1. Two Sides of the Same Street If you’ve read a review of any novel by Tom McCarthy anytime in the last 10 years, you know that you don’t have to look very far to find the term avant-garde, and equally as often, the consensus that McCarthy is the new standard bearer of the avant-garde in contemporary fiction. While the claim is no less true despite the ease with which it is repeatedly made, the framing of what this mantle means is less frequently explored, and has somewhat problematic origins. The stone in the pond here belongs to Zadie Smith, who in 2009 contrived a binary between Joseph O’Neill’s bestselling novel Netherland and McCarthy’s debut work, Remainder, announcing the latter as an “assassination” of an exalted brand of realism, and an “alternate road down which the novel, might, with difficulty, travel forward.” The philosophical templates behind this antagonism were well sketched, if muddled somewhat is Smith’s distillation; on the one hand -- epiphany, redemption, coherency of language and memory, and the ontological superiority of subjective experience over the world; on the other -- method, process, simulacra, hard materialism, and false transcendence. Simple enough, yes? If there was a charm to the proposal it was in its sincere, if not somewhat mannered frustration about a long-standing though largely non-threatening conflict with traditional literary realism (in Smith’s words: “lyrical realism,” an equally slippery designation.) And though the blemishes of Smith’s argument lie precisely in wind-up prescriptions like the kind mentioned above, it is also a part of her success and influence as a critic –– and lo, in the years since the publication of “Two Paths For the Novel” in The New York Review of Books, the contention that McCarthy is the inheritor of a much needed literary iconoclasm has been almost universally adopted and disputed only by a few. The underlying assumption that both its affirmers and detractors leave largely unexplored however, is the question of what exactly the avant-garde means to contemporary literature, where it is to be found, what defines it, and whether or not it is even possible. Smith herself can hardly be blamed; her essay –– another addition to an ever-expanding catalogue of literary manifestos –– is merely one person’s testimony in a waiting room full of patients claiming the same malady. The real, albeit incidental insight that emerged in the aftermath of the essay, was that its proposed solutions betrayed a genuine need born out of something endemic, something we are all actually desperate for –– a coherent framing of contemporary literary conflict and an authentic mode of resistance to a increasingly corporate literary monoculture. Today, manifestos are a cheap commodity, as easy to pen as they are to rally behind, and must, it seems, in order to maintain their integrity, announce this fact; (Lars Iyer’s “Nude In Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto After The End of Literature and Manifestos”) comes to mind.) But while its authors aren’t able to escape this debilitating self-awareness, it is precisely in this irony that the manifesto reveals its necessary value. As co-founder and chairman of the International Necronautical Society –– an organization with an foundational manifesto of inauthenticity and a self-proclaimed penchant for death, failure, and false-redemption –– McCarthy seems playfully complicit in the genre’s comic real estate, as well as in the idea that the avant-garde does not inherently represent an obliteration of artistic or intellectual tradition, but is rather a renewable resource. Consequently, McCarthy has found himself enlisted in an argument that he not only didn’t start, but seems to have been working actively to deflate for two decades now. It would be myopic to view Remainder as an assassination of a lyrical trend the likes of which Joseph O’Neill’s novel represented, since both novels are mutually loyal progeny to their literary ancestors, with Remainder owing as much to Alain Robbe-Grillet and J.G. Ballard as Netherland does to Gustave Flaubert and Vladimir Nabokov. Even though this posture feels affected and outmoded only six years later –– with several critics pointing out how the argument dissolves when taken to its logical terminus –– the attitude of the “Two Paths” model still has currency, though less in its clarion calls than in the subtle and insidious brand of market logic it represents; its inheritors seeking to establish their camps based on the successes and failures of recent novels instead of challenging what the avant-garde means in an increasingly monolithic industry where favored aesthetics are bred based on what brings in the highest profits. McCarthy’s new novel tackles this question head on and in a way that frees itself from the kind of pigeonholing his first novel was susceptible to. If Remainder represented the abandonment of the pure and sacred self against the apparatus of a long held tradition of realism, then Satin Island seeks to reveal how such distinctions are ultimately meaningless. 2. Explain Everything! Satin Island takes on a lot within the space of its covers. Indeed, for a novel that is fewer than 200 pages, it is remarkably dense and polysemous –– at times it seems to accomplish more in this space than many much larger novels achieve in triple the length. This time McCarthy concerns himself directly with manifestos, and the manifesto here is on perhaps the greatest subject of all: The Contemporary –– which is to say, the Postmodern (whatever that means.) Indeed, this is precisely the joke that surrounds our protagonist –– a “Corporate Anthropologist” (a sort of liberal arts student-cum-corporate cog) –– throughout the novel. Like Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon before him, McCarthy maintains an interest in hidden networks and bottomless bureaucracies that baffle common sense and intuition. As usual, McCarthy remains comically oblique about the presumed details of plot and character, though our protagonist, known only as U. (there’s Kafka again) is certainly not without psychology or ambition. Of “The Company” that employs him in Present Tense Anthropology™ he says only: “…[it] advised other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies; governments how to narrate their policy agendas –– to the press, the public and, not least, themselves. We dealt, as Peyman liked to say, in narratives.” This can be read as the mission statement of modern brand marketing: the total dissemination of an idea, not a product –– less concerned with things than with the narrative between things. The “Great Report” for the “Koob-Sassen Project,” for which our protagonist inherits the role of “architect,” is never clearly explained, though it is suggested that it’s a kind of master narrative that explains everything and is everywhere all the time: “It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed...” U. discusses the Project in circumambulatory fashion, (assuming some non-disclosure clause) and only ever describes it in relation to his visions of a titanic, desert-bound work site: I saw towers rising in the desert -- splendid, ornate constructions, part modern skyscraper, part sultan’s palace lifted from Arabian Nights: steel and glass columns segueing into vaulted cupolas and stilted arches, tiled muqarnas, dwindling minarets that seemed, at their cloud-laced peaks, to shed their own materiality, turn into vapor. Below them, hordes of people -- thousands, tens of thousands -- labored, moving around like ants, their circuits forming patterns on the sand; patterns that, in their amalgam, coalesced into one larger, more coherent pattern, just as the meandering, bowing, divagating stretches of a river delta do when seen from high enough above. In addition to many others, this vision belongs to U.’s private bank of revisited images –– including footage of oil spills, hydraulic machines stretching taffy, and a possible murder mystery surrounding the death of a sky diver. When collected, they reveal how the corporate superstructure (or supra-structure) can become a lattice through which one can view all human activity, and diagram that activity into a single coherent narrative. After all, anthropology, in its most ambitious form, is essentially totalitarian, seeking to explain all human behavior –– not simply to diagnose what prompts that behavior, but to find a grid through which it can be connected and codified. In short, everything that appears distinct and separate is actually a different version of the same thing. In The Gift, Marcel Mauss was convinced that however foreign and irrational the trade practices of primitive societies appeared to westerners, the most sophisticated and advanced industrial economies rested on the same integral logic of exchange. That everything can be explained with a narrative that allows all features to co-exist in apparent disharmony is the dream of the structural anthropologist, the father of which, Claude Lévi-Strauss, U. tells us, is his hero. This is also the dream of the modern corporation, is it not?: to assimilate all culture into a single, interchangeable narrative, which continues to succeed despite internal variance and transition. If this is the dream, than the Koob-Sassen Project is its manifesto. Historically the novel and the manifesto have been the two delivery systems for the avant-garde. While the latter hopes to goad the former into existence by commanding a switch in consciousness, the novel creates consciousness on its own terms and for its own sake. Manifestos are inherently arrogant and utopian by nature, seeking to explain the whole of their time and replace the miserable, vulgar past with an exalted vision of the future. Often bound to hard ideologies, like fascism and communism, it is no surprise that the early 20th century was the heyday of the form (F.T. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism and the 1918 Manifesto I of the De Stijl group are perhaps the best examples of this.) To regard the manifesto as something that serves an art form is to slightly misunderstand its usefulness. As a genre it is essentially self-satisfying, always benefitting its loyal disciples more than the form as a whole. McCarthy, of course, is all too aware of this, having described the manifesto in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist as “macho” and “inherently ridiculous,” and indeed he seems to have laid this attitude into the marrow of Satin Island's satirical bones. So, if the ambition of the avant-garde is essentially constructive, seeking to establish a kind of new world order, than McCarthy’s novelistic treatment of this idea seems to be one of negation and dismantlement. A high ideal of the avant-garde would be a Heideggerian one –– to erupt a new form of consciousness out of a kind of nothingness, and to hurl ourselves through that consciousness which we are scarcely prepared for and desperate to understand, ahead of which only oblivion lies. This certainly appears in the pious avant-gardism of the modernists, vis-à-vis Marinetti’s sleek futuristic visions and Ezra Pound’s refrain “make it new.” In this sense, the challenge that faces new novelists is always epistemic –– an attempt at “new knowledge,” which is ultimately what lies at the heart of U.’s work with the Great Report. McCarthy himself has spoken about the reusable, or recreational avant-garde –– the kind of experimentalism that beats ahead by reaching back into tradition and appropriating old forms to the standard of our time, sometimes subverting that tradition, sometimes disrupting it violently, sometimes remaining faithful to its origins. This is the avant-garde of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, whom U. seems to hint at when he imagines, “...cells of clandestine new-ethnographic operators doing strange things in deliberate, strategic ways, like those conceptual artists from the sixties who made careers out of following strangers.” In a sense, all appropriations of existing narratives are a form of the avant-garde, from Don Quixote’s demented and bathetic recreations of chivalric romance to the plays of William Shakespeare. This seems to be the avant-garde that McCarthy is most interested in both disrupting and verifying, and providing a fictional framework in which both its braggadocio and its necessity can co-exist. In Satin Island, the battleground of this vision of the avant-garde is the modern bureaucracy, that node of systemic knowledge, that endless vista of departments, branches, and research. Through this, the novel immerses itself in the vertiginous and ever-expanding matrix of networked human experience. In other words, McCarthy doesn’t seem to subscribe to the redemptive power of the avant-garde novel within a monolithic industry, but sees the form rather as an endless discursive palliative to a circuitous conflict that only ends with failure and stunted-epiphany. Some authors chose to abandon the novel’s most immediate and natural resources in order to achieve a similar dismantling effect, mainly character and coherency of language as a means of apprehending the World. Jorge Luis Borges sought it through metaphysical abstraction and speculation; writers like Thomas Bernhard and Lázló Krasznahorkai through exhaustive language; theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Robbe-Grillet –– who seemed to regard the novel’s natural resources as ultimately inadequate –– were more willing to saddle their fiction with a philosophical treatment at the expense of things like character and plot. Blanchot and Robbe-Grillet are obvious influences on McCarthy, but McCarthy himself seems to work more out of the left brain, or perhaps more appropriately, the gut. More often than not, Satin Island operates in the open and imaginative spaces that one would sooner associate with Kafka. Indeed, for all his continental headiness, McCarthy thinks like a novelist better than pretty much anyone, with an acute sense of irony and negative capability thoroughly worked into his characters and not just his theoretical schemas. But where his post-war ancestors believed that form, language, and other aesthetic techniques could be used as tools to overthrow existing orders, McCarthy has seen (if only by virtue of hindsight) that the mainstream coopted this hope of the avant-garde long ago. 3. The Long Last Stop Nostalgic for eras that have yet to begin, the other side of the avant-garde is equally concerned with the end of institutions. Postmodernism, as Frederick Jameson reminds us, is concerned with the end of things: “the end of art,” “the end of philosophy,” etc. –– an old Hegelian an idea that regained traction in the 1960s when the prospect of a cultural-wide revolution seemed imminent, and continued on through Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history,” after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the end of Weekend (1967) Jean-Luc Godard announced that the film was “the end of cinema,” intuiting some kind of upheaval that would destroy the cultural patrimony and make art as it had previously been thought of no longer possible. As both McCarthy and Iyer seem to understand, this is the reality in which the manifesto, and its literary counterpart, the avant-garde novel, has to exist, if it is to exist at all. Jameson most notably described the Postmodern “not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features.” (This is the best definition of Postmodernism I know of, and the only one that has ever made any sense to me.) It could also be the thesis statement for the Koob-Sassen Project. For today, this “cultural dominant” is the modern corporation. Think about it. It explains how The Beatles’ “Revolution” (actually a counterrevolutionary song) can be the soundtrack for a Nike commercial, or how Walt Whitman’s “O Pioneers!” can be used as a narrative to hawk Levi’s jeans. The corporation is at the forefront of the avant-garde, the central engine of appropriation, which is to say, that if the modern avant-garde exists in any form, it is in appropriation, only in what can be hijacked and redeployed. This is precisely what I believe is at the heart of McCarthy’s novel. At one point U., in describing his intellectual style within the company, relates how he stole Gilles Deleuze’s idea of “folds” (or le pli) as a way of explaining various levels of meaning found in the stitching patterns and creases of Levi’s jeans. Here, the engine appropriation appears in disquietingly familiar terms: “This pretty much set up the protocol or MO I’d deploy in my work for the Company: feeding in vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that reweaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero [Lévi-Strauss] would have called a master-pattern -- or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master.” (“...always from the left side of the spectrum.” This is one of many iconoclastic sentiments woven into the protagonist’s noble vision of his profession. On another occasion, in one of U.’s scripted fantasies, he describes the cleanup processes of a massive oil spill as “a putsch, a coup d’état.”) But, if the Postmodern can only be defined by negation, as a kind of everything and nothing, then its very definition as an aesthetic under which artists might choose to band together or writhe in discontent is essentially meaningless. If we are living in an age beyond epochs, beyond movements or era –– one of perpetual transition and integration in which disparate and often mutually contradictory ideas are swallowed into a larger pattern that ironizes them into co-existence –– can one make a rallying call like Zadie Smith’s with any kind of honesty, without seeming like a mere reactionary? Consider the grim concession of Iyer’s essay –– we can only entertain the illusion that true resistance is possible anymore. Can one eschew popular trends in favor of niche cultures, like the American hipster, without also being a slave to that niche? Isn’t all resistance to the market via consumption itself ultimately an illusion of pluralism and independence? The overriding fear here, is what Theodor W. Adorno warned us about long ago: that to challenge something is to inherently confer power upon it. Adorno believed that the machine of institutionalized culture made any alteration to that institution, however disruptive, a mere continuation of that system, and that which appeared different was only a stylistic variance; in this system, the avant-garde becomes a set of “additional rules” to the standard vocabulary, in which it “merely increases the power of the tradition which the individual effect seeks to escape.” McCarthy, respectfully aware of this, offers “the individual effect” as a potential escape hatch for his protagonist, who later in the novel begins to fantasize about destroying The Great Report and the entire Koob-Sassen Project by way of technocratic guerilla-type sabotage: “And then my cohorts, that semi-occluded network of covert anthropologists I’d dreamed into being already...Together, we could turn Present Tense Anthropology™ into an armed resistance movement.” This is the necessary deviation from the system, as Adorno foresaw, which the system itself breeds into existence, reintegrates, and then stabilizes. And fearing the prospect genuine redemption, U. informs us later, rather laconically, rather dispassionately, that the Project, despite his efforts to destroy it, succeeded all the same. It was perhaps Lévi-Strauss’s greatest and most prophetic premonition that humanity was doomed to monoculture in the absence of space –– in other words, a disposable culture, a non-culture, one that could be created one day and discarded the next, in which the avant-garde is less a genuine adversary of the mainstream than a ventriloquist for dissent. This is the monocultural dead end, the existential equivalent of Coke or Pepsi? Apple or Samsung? And think again about Smith’s essay: Realist or Anti-Realist? It’s no different than a T-Mobile ad that boasts switching providers as a form of liberation and self-definition. And still further into the literary conversation: the hip, enervated insouciance of Tao Lin or the new sentimentalism of David Foster Wallace? To think of the avant-garde this way is to treat it as a mere genre in the cafeteria of literary identity; both are the same kind of unfreedom, different forms of the same essential meaninglessness. The irony inherent in this misplaced sense of independence is exactly what lies underneath U.’s ultimate refusal to visit Staten (Satin) Island at the close of the novel –– that materialist wasteland, the dumping ground for all culture past and present, success or failure: To visit Staten Island –– actually go there –– would have been profoundly meaningless. What would it, in reality have solved or resolved? Nothing. What space would I have discovered there, and for what concrete purpose? None...And so I found myself, as I waded back through the relentless stream of people, struggling just to stay in the same place, suspended between two types of meaninglessness. So what are we to take away from this? While the ending of the novel is depressingly bleak, suggesting a perennial void, there is a muted resilience that underscores its very effort, something beyond what the manifesto with all its dogmatic prescriptions could ever hope to achieve. At the risk of sounding formulaic, taking on the idea of what the avant-garde means seems to be the truest path forward for the avant-garde. Satin Island is a successful work of the contemporary avant-garde, I submit, because it does exactly this. However you wish to group the terms, McCarthy remains one of the few novelists we have who consistently challenges our conceptions of what the novel is for and what it can achieve, even if it never quite succeeds, as the end of Satin Island would suggest. But maybe it does succeed. It succeeds, like the Koob-Sassen Project, even when it attempts to fail, and is always failing even when it appears to have succeeded, with one always elegantly contained in the other. Maybe this ambiguity is the not-so-sexy virtue to abide by. Freedom (however we choose to define it in art) will always go, as Rosa Luxemberg once said, to the one who thinks differently. (But wait, there’s one more caveat: can we uphold this as a single-entendre ideal when one of the most successful marketing campaigns of arguably the most successful company in the history of western capitalism is “Think Different?”) The avant-garde, in whatever form it takes, ought to be heralded as the last territory of free intellectual and creative identity in spite of this, even within the obvious indefinability of “The Contemporary.” One thing’s for sure, the literary climate we should avoid at all costs is the one in which the avant-garde continues to be a commodity, a standard that is handed off from one writer to the next. Literature has always been a project of the self, a project out of which new forms of consciousness can be forged, and the self is not a supermarket, even when the rest of the world feels like one. As the corporation has coopted the tenets of the avant-garde, so too should the avant-garde (wherever it is to be found) take back the language of corporations and use its own grammar against it. I still like to believe (if only because I have to) what Walter Benjamin said; that a writer can either dissolve an order or found a new one. Today however, the dictum seems slightly different: in an era beyond eras, writers can either choose to found an order or steal one back, even if, like U., we continue to find ourselves forever in between. Oh well. Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.
I did something in 2014 that would throw a wrench into anyone's reading: I bought a bookstore. Selling books, as I wasn't surprised to find, doesn't leave much time for reading them. Also, it meant I became -- not for the first time, but never so publicly, on such a daily basis -- a professional reader, as many of us are lucky to end up being in one way or another, as teachers or editors or researchers or some other line of work that corrals your attention from the luxury of polymorphous curiosity into something more traditionally productive, in my case trying to keep up with some of the new releases I might be able to share with my customers. So, early in the year, my reading shifted back from personal to pro, but there were good books on both sides of the divide. And aside from a few favorites (see below), what I find myself remembering as vivid reading experiences are not consistently excellent books like Marilynne Robinson's Lila, Ben Lerner's 10:04, David Markson's Reader's Block, Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, Lawrence Wright's Thirteen Days in September, Tove Jansson's The Summer Book, Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, Edward Hirsch's Gabriel, Brendan Koerner's The Skies Belong to Us, and William Gibson's The Peripheral -- all very good books I'd happily put in your hands if you walked into my store -- but the more jagged-edged books I might hand you with a caveat. I remember, with delight, the first half of Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds -- "Finally reading Trollope," I told everyone, or, rather, tweeted. "What took me so long to sample this deliciousness?" -- before his stamina started to outlast mine. I was delighted too with the first half of Joseph O'Neill's The Dog and the voice he captured, as companionable as Netherland's but more chilling (like P.G. Wodehouse telling a J.G. Ballard story), even if for me that voice never grew into a full book. I admired and enjoyed Farther and Wilder, Blake Bailey's biography of Charles Jackson, but I wondered if his subject was worth his talents until the final third -- usually the least interesting in any biography -- when Jackson's accumulated troubles, and his belated reckoning with them, made his life profoundly moving. And though Joel Selvin's Here Comes the Night had for me a hole at its center == the interior life of its ostensible subject, unsung record man Bert Berns, remained a cipher -- I loved Selvin's hepcat riffs on Berns and his fellow "centurions of pop." And then there were the books I loved best, all novels, it turns out. The best book I read this year was Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I hope I don't need to say much about. In Manny Farber terms, it plays a white elephant game rather than a termite one: tackling a major national and personal subject head on and relying on the traditional methods of the novel to do it. It's the kind of book that wins awards, and in this case deservedly so. I also loved Michael Winter's Minister Without Portfolio, a much more termite-ish book after it gets beyond an early Big Event and settles into working out the everyday morality of rural life in a reticent romance I was startled to realize reminded me of Kitty and Levin's in Anna Karenina. Merritt Tierce's debut, Love Me Back, more or less tore my scalp off. She tells the story of a single mom waitressing her way up the service-industry ladder to a high-end Dallas steakhouse, with disarming amounts of sex and drugs along the way, and strips it of any success -- or redemption -- story arcs. Desire and discipline and self-destruction are constant forces that ebb and flow and are by no means sated by the story's end. Peter Mountford's The Dismal Science is also about the always underserved topic of work: a high official at the World Bank decides to speak a few truths (which he's not entirely certain are true) and thereby blow up his life. In part I loved it because it captured the culture of Red-Line-to-Shady-Grove D.C. and Maryland I grew up in like no other fiction I've read, and in part because it's the kind of novel where a character walks into a room and you get the feeling that neither he, nor his creator, knows what he is going to do there until he does it. (Right afterwards I read Mountford's previous novel, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, a companion to this one, and liked it nearly as much.) And lastly, the first book I read all year (if the January 2 train ticket still inside is to be believed) is the only one close to Flanagan's in my mind: J.M. Ledgard's Submergence. It's both an excellent book and a jagged one. Its jaggedness -- the resistance I felt when reading it, and the thing I feel obligated to warn about when I'm recommending it -- is its almost perverse formality. To someone schooled in the hi-lo tendencies of our time, Ledgard's elevated style is a provocation; I'm not sure there's a contraction in the entire book, for instance, aside from a few in dialogue. And the characters in his dual storyline, who connect for a few days at a quietly luxurious hotel on the French coast, have an equal sense of exceptional cultivation. They think of life in terms of centuries: one a mathematician and ocean researcher who, as she prepares to descend to the floor of the Atlantic in a tiny submersible, is confident her name and her discoveries will live for hundreds of years, the other a British spy in Africa whose thoughts, as he is held hostage by Somali jihadists, keep returning to his English forebears and the utopias they imagined half a millennium before. I find myself wanting to make fun of Submergence, to goof on its gravity (and on Ledgard himself, whose author bio describes him as "a thinker on risk and technology in emerging economies"), but the thing is, I can't. He pulls it off, and earns every bit of profundity he claims. And it's the thinking in centuries that does it: the awareness of the massive scales of biology and history, alongside the poignancy of individual existence. I often don't care about the ends of novels, and I can't tell you what finally happened in many of the ones I love most, but there are some endings that, in the process of tying things up, open up an abyss of meaning that's almost unbearable. This is one of them. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
2014 has already offered a literary bounty for readers, including new books by E.L. Doctorow, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, and Lydia Davis. The second-half of 2014 is looking even more plentiful, with new books from superstars like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and quite a few more. Here at The Millions, we're especially excited that three of our long-time staff writers -- Edan Lepucki, Bill Morris, and Emily St. John Mandel -- will soon have new books on shelves. All three books are winning impressive advance praise. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at over 8,000 words strong and encompassing 84 titles, this is the only second-half 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. July: California by Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer Edan Lepucki’s first full-length novel has been praised by Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, and Sherman Alexie, and championed by Stephen Colbert, who’s using it as a case study in sticking it to Amazon. A post-apocalyptic novel set in a California of the not-too-distant future, California follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness — dealing with everyday struggles like marriage and privacy as much as dystopian ones likes food and water — until a change in circumstance sends them on a journey to find what’s left of civilization, and what’s left of their past lives. (Janet) Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Bill Morris made his literary debut 20 years ago with Motor City, a novel set amid the rich history of 1950s Detroit. Since then, he's pursued various other interests, writing a novel set in Bangkok and contributing frequently to The Millions as a staff writer. But as anyone who follows Bill's essays can tell you, his hometown is rarely far from his mind. Now, with the Motor City much in the news, he returns to explore class, race, bloodshed and baseball in the 1960s. (Garth) The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: Tiphanie Yanique follows her much lauded story collection, How to Escape From a Leper Colony, with “an epic multigenerational tale set in the U.S. Virgin Islands that traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century.” That’s according to Publishers Weekly, who gave The Land of Love and Drowning a starred review. Yanique’s debut novel has been receiving raves all over the place; in its starred review, Kirkus called it, “Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.” (Edan) Friendship by Emily Gould: Gould, who put the gawk in Gawker in the middle part of the last decade, turns to fiction with a debut novel that at times reads like a series of blog entries written in the third person. In the novel, two friends, Bev and Amy, are trying to make it as writers in New York when Bev gets pregnant. The question of whether Bev should keep the baby, and what Amy should think about the fact that Bev is even considering it, turns the novel into a meditation on growing up in a world built for the young. (Michael) Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann has over 30 years and damn near as many books earned a reputation as a wildly prolific novelist. Still, almost a decade has passed since his last full-length work of fiction, the National Book Award-winning Europe Central. Here, he offers what may have started as a suite of ghost stories… but is now another sprawling atlas of Vollmann's obsessions. Stories of violence, romance, and cultural collision are held together by supernatural elements and by Vollmann's psychedelically sui generis prose. (Garth) High as the Horses' Bridles by Scott Cheshire: To the distinguished roster of fictional evangelicals — Faulkner's Whitfield, Ellison's Bliss — this first novel adds Josiah Laudermilk, a child-prodigy preacher in 1980s Queens. Cheshire makes huge leaps in time and space to bring us the story of Laudermilk's transformation into an adult estranged from his father and his faith. (Garth) The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: The second novel from Rebecca Makkai (after 2011’s The Borrower) moves back and forth in the 20th century to tell a story of love, ghosts, and intrigue. The house for which The Hundred-Year House is named is Laurelfield, a rambling estate and former artists’ colony in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Owned by the Devohr family for generations, it now finds Zee (née Devohr) and her husband returning to live in the carriage house while she teaches at a local college and he supposedly writes a poet’s biography. What he does instead is ghostwrite teen novels and uncover family secrets. (Janet) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: Having written about ninjas, spies in their eighties and mechanical bees in his last two novels, Nick Harkaway is in a tough spot if he wants to top himself this time around. All the indications are that he may have done it, though — Tigerman sees a powerful United Nations carry out a cockamie plan to wipe out a former British colony. The protagonist, a former British soldier, takes it upon himself to fight for his patch of the old empire. (Thom) Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York's best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest. Born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, she's been publishing essays and fiction in smart-set venues for a few years. Now she delivers her first novel, about two decades in the life of a Ukrainian family resettled in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. An excerpt is available at n+1. (Garth) The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: "And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out towards Nizhi." In an alternate Russia, twin brothers Yarik and Dima work together at Oranzheria, the novel’s titular “sea of glass” greenhouse, until their lives veer into conflict. Weil’s exquisite pen and ink illustrations “frame the titles of all 29 chapters and decorate the novel’s endpapers,” making the book, literally, a work of art. If The New Valley, Weil’s lyric first book of linked novellas, is any indication, this new book will be memorable. (Nick R.) August: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: Murakami's previous novel, 1Q84, was a sprawling, fantastical work. His latest is just the opposite: a concise, focused story about a 37-year-old man still trying to come terms with a personal trauma that took place seventeen years earlier — when he was unceremoniously cut out of a tight knit group of friends. The novel has less magical strangeness than most Murakami books, and may be his most straightforward tale since Norwegian Wood. (Kevin) We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: Thomas spreads his canvas wide in this 640-page doorstop of a novel, which follows three generations of an Irish American family from Queens, but at heart the book is an intimate tale of a family’s struggle to make its peace with a catastrophic illness that strikes one of its members at precisely the wrong moment. Simon & Schuster spent more than a million dollars on this first novel whose author was then teaching high school in New York, thus assuring that the book will either be the fall’s Cinderella story or a poster child for outsized advances given to untested authors. (Michael) Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Is it “the year of Roxane Gay?” Time suggested it in a review of Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State; when asked (in a self-interview) how that made her feel, she said, “First, I tinkled on myself. Then my ego exploded and I am still cleaning up the mess.” It’s as good a glimpse as any into the wonder that is Roxane Gay — her Twitterstorms alone are brilliant bits of cultural criticism, and her powerful essays, on her blog, Tumblr, and at various magazines, leave you with the sense that this is a woman who can write dazzlingly on just about any topic. In her first essay collection, we’re promised a wide-ranging list of subjects: Sweet Valley High, Django Unchained, abortion, Girls, Chris Brown, and the meaning of feminism. (Elizabeth) The Kills by Richard House: House's vast tetralogy, at once a border-hopping thriller and a doorstopping experiment, was longlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize in the U.K. Taking as its backdrop the machinery of the global war on terror, it should be of equal interest on these shores. (Garth) Before, During, After by Richard Bausch: Since 1980, Richard Bausch has been pouring out novels and story collections that have brilliantly twinned the personal with the epic. His twelfth novel, Before, During, After, spins a love story between two ordinary people – Natasha, a lonely congressional aide, and Michael Faulk, an Episcopalian priest – whose affair and marriage are undone by epic events, one global, one personal. While Michael nearly dies during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Natasha’s error on a Caribbean shore leads to a private, unspeakable trauma. As the novel unspools, Before and During prove to be no match for After. (Bill) Your Face In Mine by Jess Row: Possibly inspired by the ageless Black Like Me, Jess Row tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a native Baltimorean who moves back to his hometown and discovers that an old friend has gotten surgery to change his race. At one time a skinny, white, Jewish man, Martin is now African-American, and he's kept his new identity secret from his friends and family. Martin tells Kelly he wants to come clean, and the two become mired in a fractious, thought-provoking controversy. (Thom) Flings by Justin Taylor: "Our faith makes us crazy in the world"; so reads a line in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor’s novel about a Florida commune of anarchist hippies. The original sentence comes from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, an appropriate literary mentor — Taylor is equal parts hilarious and prescient, capable of finding the sublime in the most prosaic, diverse material. On the first page of the collection’s title story alone: labor history, love, and "an inspired treatise on the American government's illegal 1921 deployment of the Air Force to bomb striking mine workers at Blair Mountain, West Virginia." (Nick R.) Augustus by John Williams: There are things that are famous for being famous, such as the Kardashians, and then there are things that are famous for being not famous, such as John Williams’s Stoner. Since its publication in 1965, the “forgotten” work has enjoyed quite a history – metamorphosing from under-appreciated gem into international bestseller and over-praised classic. Indeed, it’s forgivable at this point to forget that Williams’s most appreciated work was actually his final novel, Augustus, which split the National Book Award and earned more praise during its author's lifetime than his other books put together. Interestingly, readers of both Stoner and Butcher's Crossing will here encounter an altogether new version of the John Williams they've come to know: Augustus is an epistolary novel set in classical Rome. It's a rare genius who can reinvent himself in his final work and earn high praise for doing so. (Nick M.) Alfred Ollivant's Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis: In the early 1900s, Bob, Son of Battle became a popular children's tale in England and the United States. Focused on a young boy caught up in a rivalry between two sheepdogs on the moors between Scotland and England, the story eventually found its way into Lydia Davis's childhood bedroom. Alas, the years have not been kind to the thick Cumbrian dialect in which it was written ("hoodoo" = "how do you do" and "gammy" = "illness," e.g.) and the work fell out of popularity as a result. Now, however, Davis has updated the work into clear, modern vernacular in order to bring the story to an entirely new generation of readers, and perhaps the next generation of Lydia Davises (if one could ever possibly exist). (Nick M.) September: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven is Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel, and if pre-publication buzz is any indication, it's her best, most ambitious work yet. Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage this season, but Mandel's intricate plotting and deftness with drawing character makes this novel of interlinked tales stand out as a beguiling read. Beginning with the onslaught of the deadly Georgian flu and the death of a famous actor onstage, and advancing twenty years into the future to a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors who perform for the few remaining survivors, the novel sits with darkness while searching for the beauty in art and human connection. (Anne) The Secret Place by Tana French: People have been bragging about snagging this galley all summer, and for good reason: Tana French’s beautifully written, character-driven mysteries about the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad are always a literary event. Her latest concerns a murder at an all girls’ school, and detective Frank Mackey’s daughter Holly might just be a suspect. My fellow staff writer Janet Potter said The Secret Place is damn good, and if you're smart you will trust Janet Potter. (Edan) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has evidently returned to his genre-, time-, and location-bending best with a novel that weaves the Iraq War with punk rock with immortal beings with the End Times. This is a novel that had Publisher’s Weekly asking, “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” A tall order, either way. A thrill, either way. (Lydia) Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: The creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls — and also, it must be stated, an Oberlin College graduate — has penned a comic essay collection à la David Sedaris or Tina Fey… though something tells me Dunham’s will be more candid and ribald. As Lena herself writes: “No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the front lines of that struggle.” Amen, Lena, amen! (Edan) The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: After her masterful handling of the haunted house story in The Little Stranger, Waters again taps into the narrative potential of domestic intrusion. This time, it’s lodgers rather than ghosts who are the nuisance. In 1922, a cash-strapped widow and her spinster daughter living by themselves in a large London house let out rooms to a young couple. Annoyances and class tensions soon ignite in these combustible confines, and from the looks of it, the security deposit won’t even begin to cover the damages. The novel promises to be a well-crafted, claustrophobic thriller. (Matt) The Children Act by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s thirteenth novel treads some familiar ground — a tense moral question sits at the heart of the narrative: whether it is right for parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Discussing the novel at the Oxford Literary Festival this past spring, McEwan said that the practice was “utterly perverse and inhumane.” It’s not the first time McEwan has expressed displeasure with religion: in 2005 he told the Believer he had “no patience whatsoever” for it; three years later, he made international news discussing Islam and Christianity, saying he didn’t “like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” (Elizabeth) 10:04 by Ben Lerner: Ben Lerner follows the unexpected success of his superb first novel Leaving the Atocha Station with a book about a writer whose first novel is an unexpected success. Which is actually something like what you’d expect if you’d read that superb and unexpectedly successful first novel, with its artful manipulations of the boundaries between fiction and memoir. The suddenly successful narrator of 10:04 also gets diagnosed with a serious heart condition and is asked by a friend to help her conceive a child. Two extracts from the novel, “Specimen Days” and “False Spring,” have run in recent issues of the Paris Review. (Mark) Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Some fans will remember well the titular story in Atwood’s forthcoming collection, which was published in the New Yorker in December of 2011, and which begins, in Atwood's typical-wonderful droll fashion: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” With this collection, according to the jacket copy, “Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle…” If you aren’t planning to read this book, it means you like boring stuff. (Edan) The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel: Just this month, Mantel was made a dame; the reigning queen of British fiction, she’s won two of the last five Man Booker Prizes. But Mantel’s ascension to superstardom was long in the making: she is at work on her twelfth novel in a career that’s spanned four decades. This fall sees the publication of her second collection of short stories, set several centuries on from the novels that earned her those Bookers. Her British publisher, Nicholas Pearson, said, “Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become. These stories are Mantel at her observant best.” (Elizabeth) The Dog by Joseph O'Neill: In his first novel since his 2008 PEN/Faulkner-winning Netherland, about a Dutch immigrant in post 9/11 New York, O’Neill tells another fish-out-of-water tale, this time about a New Yorker who takes a job as a “family officer” for a wealthy family in Dubai. Surrounded by corruption and overwhelmed by daily life in the desert metropolis, the narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance of another American in what Publishers Weekly calls “a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” (Michael) Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: William Finnegan is both a journalist's journalist and one of the New Yorker's most consistently engaging voices. Over the years, he's written about everything from apartheid in South Africa to the broken economy at home (Cold New World now looks prophetic). My favorite of his New Yorker pieces, though, is an insanely long memoir about surfing (Part 1; Part 2) that, legend has it, was crashed into the magazine just before the arrival of Tina Brown as editor. Two decades on, Finnegan returns to this lifelong passion, at book length. Wittgenstein, Jr. by Lars Iyer: With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer's trilogy, Spurious, Dogma and Exodus, earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer's concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work. (Garth) The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim: No one makes chaos as appealing a spectacle as Antrim, whether it’s unloosed on the dilapidated red library from The Hundred Brothers, its priceless rugs, heraldic arms and rare books threatened by drunken siblings and a bounding Doberman; the pancake house from The Verificationist; or the moated suburban neighborhood from Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. His latest is a collection of stories written over the past fifteen years, each of which was published in the New Yorker. The Emerald Light in the Air demonstrates that Antrim’s controlled anarchy translates beautifully to the shorter form. (Matt) Hold the Dark by William Giraldi: Having built a reputation for critical savagery following the hatchet he sank into a pair of Alix Ohlin books in the Times in 2012, Giraldi puts his own neck on the line with this literary thriller set in a remote Alaskan village where wolves are eating children. Billed as an “Alaskan Oresteia,” the novel follows a pair of men, one an aging nature writer, the other a returning soldier, who come to learn secrets “about the unkillable bonds of family, and the untamed animal in the soul of every human being.” That sound you hear is the whine of blades touching grindstones across literary America. (Michael) Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas: The title of Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel — his first since the international bestseller, The Slap — is a nickname for Daniel Kelly, an Australian swimming prodigy so ruthless in the water that he gets likened to the sharp-toothed, predatory fish. But Daniel’s Olympic ambitions are thwarted by a crime whose nature Tsiolkas hints at but shrewdly withholds. This novel, like all of Tsiolkas’s work, is a vigorous, sometimes vicious argument about what it means to be Australian. As one character concludes, “We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and…” It gets worse, gorgeously worse. (Bill) Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: You’re showing your age and (lack of) internet bona fides if you admit that you’re unfamiliar with Jones’s work. For years now the Buzzfeed LGBT editor has been lighting it up at his day job, and also on Twitter, with a ferocity befitting his name. Now, after earning praise from D.A. Powell and after winning a NYC-based Literary Death Match bout, Jones will use his debut collection to prominently display his poetry chops. (Ed. note: check out an excerpt over here.) (Nick M.) Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück: The UK publisher (Carcanet) of Louise Glück’s newest collection — her twelfth — describes the poems as “a sequence of journeys and explorations through time and memory.” Macmillan describes it as “a story of adventure, an encounter with the unknown, a knight’s undaunted journey into the kingdom of death; this is a story of the world you’ve always known... every familiar facet has been made to shimmer like the contours of a dream…” In other words, Glück’s newest work is interested in a kind of reiterative, collage-like experience of narrative — “tells a single story but the parts are mutable.” (Sonya) Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: In Goldberg’s latest novel, infamous Chicago mafia hit man Sal Cupertine must flee to Las Vegas to escape the FBI, where he assumes the identity of… Rabbi David Cohen. The Mafia plus the Torah makes for a darkly funny and suspenseful morality tale. Goldberg, who runs UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program, is also the author of Living Dead Girl, which was an LA Times Fiction Prize finalist, and the popular Burn Notice series, among others. The man can spin a good yarn. (Edan) Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 by Editors of n+1: Happiness is a collection of the best pieces from n+1’s first decade, selected by the magazine’s editors. Ten years is a pretty long time for any literary journal to continue existing, but when you consider the number of prominent younger American writers who have had a long association with the magazine, it’s actually sort of surprising that it hasn’t been around longer. Chad Harbach, Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel and Elif Batuman all launched their careers through its pages. Pieces by these writers, and several more, are included here. (Mark) Neverhome by Laird Hunt: According to letters and accounts from the time, around 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Years ago, Laird Hunt read a collection of one of those women’s letters, and the idea for this novel has been germinating ever since. It tells the story of Constance Thompson, a farm wife who leaves her husband behind, calls herself Ash and fights for the Union. Neverhome is both a story about the harrowing life of a cross-dressing soldier, and an investigation into the mysterious circumstances that led her there. (Janet) My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner: Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army, spending time in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Since then, he has published two collections of poetry — Here, Bullet and the T.S. Elliot Prize-shortlisted Phantom Noise — both of which draw heavily on his experiences in those wars. His new book is a memoir about his year in Iraq, and about the aftermath of that experience. Turner also makes a leap of conceptual identification, attempting to imagine the conflict through the experience of the Iraqi other. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, has praised it as “brilliant and beautiful”, and as ranking “with the best war memoirs I’ve ever encountered”. (Mark) Wallflowers: Stories by Eliza Robertson: Robertson's stories — often told from the perspectives of outsiders, often concerned with the mysteries of love and family, set in places ranging from the Canadian suburbs to Marseilles — have earned her a considerable following in her native Canada. Her debut collection includes "We Walked on Water," winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and "L'Etranger," shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. (Emily) On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg: On Bittersweet Place is the second publication from Relegation Books, a small press founded by author Dallas Hudgens. The novel — Wineberg's first, following her acclaimed story collection Second Language — concerns Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jewish immigrant trying to find her place in the glamour and darkness of 1920s Chicago. (Emily) The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Following on the heels of the acclaimed The Free World, Bezmozgis's second novel is about 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician who meets the Soviet-era spy who denounced him decades earlier. (Kevin) How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: The feminist journalist and author of How to Be a Woman, once called “the UK’s answer to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham all rolled into one” by Marie Claire, is publishing her first novel. It follows Johanna Morrigan, who at 14 decides to start life over as Dolly Wilde. Two years later she’s a goth chick and “Lady Sex Adventurer” with a gig writing reviews for a music paper, when she starts to wonder about what she lost when she reinvented herself. (Janet) On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss: When Biss became a mother, she began looking into the topic of vaccination. What she had assumed would be a few hours of personal research turned into a fascination, and the result is a sweeping work that considers the concept of immunity, the history of vaccination — a practice that sometimes seems to function as a lightning rod for our most paranoid fears about the chemical-laden modern world in which we find ourselves, but that has its roots in centuries-old folk medicine — and the ways in which we're interconnected, with meditations on writers ranging from Voltaire to Bram Stoker. (Emily) October: Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: The Leslie Knopes among us cannot wait for Poehler’s first book of personal stories and advice, in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? In Poehler’s delightful New Yorker essay about her job at an ice cream parlor, she wrote, “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.” Wise words from one of America's most beloved comics and actresses. (Anne) The Peripheral by William Gibson: William Gibson fans rejoice, for his first novel in four years is upon us. The novel follows an army veteran with futuristic nerve damage wrought during his time in a futuristic kill squad. (Technically, according to Gibson, it’s a novel taking place in multiple futures, so it’s probably more complicated than that). You can watch him read the first two pages here. If William Gibson were a tense, he’d be future-noir. (Lydia) Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson published her brilliant debut novel Housekeeping in 1980 and then basically went dark for a decade and a half, but has been relatively prolific in the last ten years. After re-emerging with 2004’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Gilead, she followed up four years later with Home, a retelling of the prodigal son parable that revisited a story and characters from Gilead. James Wood’s description of the relationship between the two books is exact and lovely: “Home is not a sequel [to Gilead],” he wrote, “but more like that novel’s brother.” With her new novel, Robinson has given those books a sister. The novel tells the story of Lila – the young bride of Gilead’s narrator, Rev. John Ames – who was abandoned as a toddler and raised by a drifter. (Mark) (Ed. Note: You can read an excerpt over here.) Dan by Joanna Ruocco: Joanna Ruocco's kaleidoscopic fictions have been likened to Donald Barthelme's for their dark humor and uncanny occurrences that revel in wordplay. Her stories "map the unmappable wrinkles of the mind," says Laird Hunt, and by bridging disparate ideas creates a synesthesia. In Dan, Ruocco's latest novel, the character Melba Zuzzo finds herself in a rut while living in a male-dominated town in the foothills of a mountain. What ensues is a "slapstick parable" that according to her publisher, Dorothy Project, evokes both the "unabashed campiness of Thomas Pynchon" and the capacious imagination of Raymond Roussel. (Anne) A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: Marlon James follows his stunning and brutal The Book of Night Women with A Brief History of Seven Killings, which depicts the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, “spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters — assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts.” Irvine Welsh calls it “an amazing novel of power, corruption and lies. I can't think of a better one I've read this century." (Edan) Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “Often a division is made between politics and poetry, and I like to think this is a moment when the intersection is recognized,” remarked poet Claudia Rankine, about recently winning the Jackson Poetry Prize. In her lyric hybrid work, Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine investigated media’s role in our private lives, taking on television, pharmaceutical marketing, depression, race, and identity in the post–9/11 era. Citizen, her follow-up book, deals pointedly with race and racial aggression in the media and the everyday — from the classroom to the playing field and the public stage — as it traces the effects of racism in our so-called “post-race” age. (Anne) Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, Smiley returns to Iowa farm country in this ambitious family saga set in the first half of the 20th century. Some Luck is the first installment in a trilogy spanning 100 years in the lives of the Langdon family, starting from its rural Iowa roots in 1920 and following the clan as its five children spread out across America in a time of epochal change. The second volume, Early Warning, is due in spring 2015, with the final volume, which brings the story up to December 31, 2019, set to appear next fall. (Michael) Reunion by Hannah Pittard: In Pittard's second novel — her first was 2011's The Fates Will Find Their Way, lauded here and just about everywhere else — a failed screenwriter on the verge of divorce agrees to join her family for a reunion in Atlanta after her estranged father commits suicide. It's a nuanced and intriguing study of family and love, money and debt, failure and success, starring one of the most likable flawed narrators to come along in some time. (Emily) A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc: Six years ago Chicago-based author Jac Jemc started a blog to track the rejection letters she received. But recently the blog’s been rather quiet — due to a slew of acceptances, it seems. Jemc's first novel, My Only Wife, was published in 2012 and nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award; it depicts a husband's obsession with recalling memories of his wife who disappeared five years earlier. When Jemc’s follow-up collection, A Different Bed Every Time, hits shelves, expect to encounter stories showcasing Jemc’s playful and poetic sensibility, in a book that Laura van den Berg deems "mythic and essential." (Anne) 300,000,000 by Blake Butler: Blake Butler deploys words like chemicals that merge into phrases, coalescing in alternate existences, with familiar worlds distorted. In Butler’s third novel, There is No Year, a family survives a disease but is still subject to a scourge of infestations and other horrors and mysteries, including a house with secret passageways and the existence of a duplicate “copy family.” Butler began his latest novel, 300,000,000, as a retaliation against the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño's 2666. The result? A portrait of American violence, told through the minds of a Manson-like cult figure and the policeman responsible for figuring him out, while tracking a trail of violence and descent into psychosis. (Anne) Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke: In Steinke's new novel, a coming-of-age story set in early-70's Virginia, twelve-year-old Jesse's family is on the brink of collapse: her father has recently been defrocked, and her mother is coming undone. When her father was a pastor, Jesse felt that they were a part of something — "We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning" — but they've drifted into a life of vertiginous weightlessness. (Emily) Quick Kills by Lynn Lurie: Lurie’s first novel, Corner of the Dead, featured a photojournalist traumatized by the atrocities committed by the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru during the 1980s. In Quick Kills, the narrator is a young girl who finds herself on the other side of the camera, the exploited subject of a predatory photographer: “There is fear in my eyes. I see the fear clearly even in the blurred snapshot.” This slim work looks to be an unsettling rumination on art, pornography and sexual violence. (Matt) Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: This biography of Éduard Limonov, published in France in 2011, won the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot, which is typically awarded to a novel. Limonov’s life makes for good novelistic material: he is founder of the National Bolshevik Party, which “believes in the creation of a grand empire that will include the whole of Europe and Russia, as well as Northern/Central Asia, to be governed under Russian dominance” (Wikipedia), and FSG’s English translation (by John Lambert) will be released under the in-case-you-didn’t-know title Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Typical of Carrère, he approaches his subject essayistically, wrestling with his own attractions/repulsions vis-à-vis the epic Limonov. (Sonya) The Heart Is Strange by John Berryman: To mark the centenary of John Berryman's birth, FSG is reissuing much of his poetry, including his book The Dream Songs. They're also publishing a new collection, featuring three uncollected pieces along with older examples of his work, that spans the length of his career. From his juvenalia, to the landmark “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to his later poems, The Heart is Strange puts Berryman's talents on display, which means a new generation will start using the phrase “heavy bored.” (For a primer on Dream Songs, check out Stephen Akey's Millions essay.) (Thom) The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: Faber’s latest novel – which David Mitchell called his “second masterpiece” after The Crimson Petal and the White – touches on interstellar space travel, cataclysmic events, romantic love, and religious faith. Such broad territory seems befitting for an author claimed simultaneously by the nations of Scotland, Australia, and the Netherlands. (Nick M.) Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah: Farah is back with another trilogy after his acclaimed Blood in the Sun series. Once again, he explores identity, obligation, family ties, and how politics can interrupt it all. After Bella's brother is killed by Somali extremists, she has to give up her life as a famous fashion photographer and raise his children as if they were her own. Yet when the children's mother returns, Bella must decide what matters more — her family or herself. (Tess) November: The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson: In an interview last fall, Johnson described his new novel as "kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene." Johnson, whose 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, has written a post-9/11 spy thriller concerning a trio of travelers in west Africa; one is a self-styled soldier of fortune, another is being trailed by two spy agencies and Interpol, and all three are hiding secrets from one another. (Emily) Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford: I was gleeful to learn that Frank Bascombe will return to us after eight years and the threat of oblivion. At a reading in April, Ford reintroduced Bascombe as a 67-year-old Jersey-dweller ruminating on his former home, tipped on its side by Hurricane Sandy. Let Me Be Frank With You will comprise four novellas, each narrated with, undoubtedly, that unmistakable Bascombe verve. (Lydia) Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: After the high hilarity of her satirical early work, Lydia Millet reached new emotional depths in her last three novels. This new novel, concerning the discovery of mermaids and the ensuing scramble to cash in, looks to achieve a new kind of synthesis. (Garth) Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter: Lindsay Hunter’s first story collection Daddy’s is described by its publisher Featherproof Books as a “collection of toxic southern gothics, packaged as a bait box of temptation.” Her second collection Don’t Kiss Me, published by FSG (who says big houses don’t publish story collections?) is, according to the Tin House blog, “a heterogeneous story collection that holds together... peculiar voices that tend to overlap in areas of loss, self-pity, and hilarity.” Hunter is a practitioner of the short-short form and founding host of a flash fiction reading series; no surprise that her debut novel Ugly Girls would be “voice-driven with [a] breakneck pace.” Roxane Gay (on Twitter) called it “gorgeously hopeless.” (Sonya) Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: Originally published in 1978 and appearing in English for the first time this year, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is the fictional account of the prolific Albanian novelist’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, to which Kadare was recruited in 1958. A kind of factory meant to produce top Socialist writers, the Gorky Institute’s prescribed style and disagreeable faculty instead caused Kadare to rethink his calling. Like his other novels, Twilight promises to be a wormhole into strange times. (Lydia) A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin: Beneath the quiet poetry of Ha Jin's sentences is a searing novelistic ambition; in A Map of Betrayal, the story of a double-agent in the CIA, he explores a half-century of entanglements between China and the U.S., and the divided loyalties that result. (Garth) All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The premise of Toews's sixth novel, released to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year, is simple and devastating: there are two adult sisters, and one of them wants to die. She's a wildly successful and in-demand concert pianist, but she longs for self-annihilation. It's a premise that could easily be grindingly unbearable, but Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales. (Emily) Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro: If our guide to Alice Munro wasn't enough, Family Furnishings will feature 25 of her best stories from the past 19 years. It's the first anthology of her work since Selected Stories (1968-1994) and should fill the Munro oeuvre for both lifelong fans and those who found her after her Nobel Prize win last year. Despite her larger-than-life reputation now, these stories remind us what makes Munro one of the best short story writers in the first place — her ability to illuminate quotidian problems and intimacies in small-town Canada. (Tess) Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles d'Ambrosio: In 2005 Charles D'Ambrosio published an essay collection, Orphans, with a small press, and the book won a devoted following. The entire print run consisted of 3,500 copies, but all of them, D'Ambrosio writes in his introduction to Loitering, managed to find their way into the hands of readers, "a solace to me like the thought of home." In Loitering, which consists of the eleven original essays from Orphans and a number of new pieces, D'Ambrosio considers subjects ranging from the work of J.D. Salinger to the idea of home. (Emily) Why Religion is Immoral: And Other Interventions by Christopher Hitchens: Since his death from cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens has refused to leave the party. His voice — erudite, witty, proudly biased — can be heard again in this new collection of his unpublished speeches, a follow-up to his late-life bestseller, God Is Not Great. The word “interventions” in the new book’s title is critical because Hitchens’s great theme — his opposition to all forms of tyranny, including religious, political and social — led him to support the misinformed and disastrous military invention against the Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Hitchens wasn’t always right, but as this new collection ably demonstrates, he was never dull. (Bill) The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: One of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation, Erpenbeck follows up the celebrated novel Visitation with a heady conceit located somewhere between Cloud Atlas and Groundhog Day. The End of Days follows a single character, born early in the 20th Century, to five different deaths: the first as an infant, the second as a teenager, and so on. In each case, her life illuminates the broader history of Europe, which remains ever in the background, dying its own deaths. (Garth) Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: In Rash’s poem, "Preserves," a family discovers a beautiful springhouse after a funeral, where "woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable." Rash’s work is suffused with this sense: a pastoral world is dying, and his sentences are its best chance at resurrection. Longtime fans of Rash’s elegiac prose are happy this craftsman is finally getting his deserved recognition. His novel, Serena, will reach theaters later this year, and star Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. In Above the Waterfall, set in North Carolina, a terrible crime brings together a sheriff and a park ranger. The territory might be familiar, but this poet-novelist always delivers. (Nick R.) The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Mehgan Daum: Thirteen years after it was published, My Misspent Youth holds up as a perennially interesting book of essays, not to mention the final word on being young and broke in New York. In her new collection, Meghan Daum looks at a host of modern anxieties, including the modern wedding industry, Joni Mitchell and the habits of digital natives. Though a lot of her material is funny in the vein of Nora Ephron, there's gravity here, too — as there is in “Matricide”, which tackles the death of her mother. Our own Matt Seidel recently featured Daum's editor in a piece on editors' first buys. (Thom) December: The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: Ludmila Ulitskaya only began writing novels after her scientific credentials were revoked for translating a banned novel. The Russian author's commitments to art, activism, and speaking her mind have led her to become one of Russia's most popular living authors. These same concerns guide her fiction, too — called smart, prickly, and with harsh wit — and in this, her latest novel, The Big Green Tent, is no exception. When a poet, a pianist, and a photographer try to transcend oppression in post-Stalinist Russia, their ultimate destinies are far darker than their author's. (Anne) Skylight by José Saramago: This is Saramago's so-called "lost work," which was written in the 1950s, but rediscovered after the Nobel laureate's death in 2010. The novel features the interconnected stories of the residents of an apartment building in Lisbon in the 1940s. (Kevin) January: The First Bad Man by Miranda July: If you’re like me, and think about the various Miranda July short stories like favorite tracks on a beloved album, you might be surprised that The First Bad Man is her debut novel. Her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was published six years ago and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; since then, she has, amongst other varied projects, released an acclaimed feature film and a book project inspired by the people behind various PennySaver ads. The novel, which centers around a woman “with a perpetual lump in her throat,” chronicles what happens when, after taking her boss’s selfish, cruel daughter, her “eccentrically ordered world explodes.” (Elizabeth) Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: Sara Gerard's star is rising. The NYC-based bookseller slash art-mag-employee slash writer drew attention last fall with "Things I Told My Mother," an essayistic inquiry into women’s representation in society, spawned by a topless walk the author took through Times Square. This kind of intensity and boldness guide all of Gerard's work — whether concerning other writers, or her own bout with anorexia, addiction, and a stint jumping freight trains, and now in her first novel Binary Star. Binary Star interweaves astronomical research with a story about an unnamed anorexic who burns through her intensely dysfunctional life like a star burns fuel, never to be replenished. (Anne) Outline by Rachel Cusk: Some travelers collect stories as much as souvenirs. In Cusk's latest novel, a woman writer travels to Greece to teach a creative writing workshop but learns just as much from the tales her fellow travelers tell her. As she listens, she weaves their stories into a narrative of loss, creativity, family life, and intimacy. To keep with the storytelling tradition, the Paris Review serialized the novel, but FSG will publish it for a full narrative experience. (Tess) Glow by Ned Beauman: Beauman’s previous novels, The Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident — the one a fanciful look at eugenics and fascism, the other a genre-bending wonder about an avant-garde set designer in 1930s Berlin — each displayed a learned, diabolical imagination at work. His latest appears just as unhinged. Enrolled in a “continuous amateur neurochemistry seminar” and suffering from a sleep disorder, its hero experiments with the designer drug, “glow,” which opens up a gateway into a Pynchonian universe: a disappeared friend, pirate radio stations, and a nefarious Burmese mining company. (Matt) February: There's Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: In his first story collection in 15 years, Charles Baxter, a son of the Midwest and venerated writer of fiction, poetry and essays, gives us inter-related tales that are tidily bifurcated into two sections, one devoted to virtues (“Chastity,” “Charity,” “Forbearance”), the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice”). Characters re-appear, performing acts both virtuous and loathsome, in stories that are set mostly around Minneapolis but also roam to New York, Tuscany and Ethiopia. The collection’s title is a typical “request moment” that animates the stories, resulting in a murder, a rescue, a love affair, an assault, even a surprising gesture of kindness. (Bill) Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris: I was such a big fan of Amelia Morris’s hilarious, entertaining, and useful food blog, Bon Appétempt, that I tracked her down and asked her to teach for my writing school, Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Now Amelia has penned a compelling and funny memoir about becoming an adult and an artist — both in and out of the kitchen — that is sure to bring her even more devoted readers. If you like Laurie Colwin and MFK Fischer and, I don’t know, total goofballs baking cakes while making weird faces, you’ll love Amelia Morris and Bon Appétempt. (Edan) Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: “What I want is to create stories that shift around when you reread them.” Few can shake readers awake as well as Link, which makes short fiction her ideal form. She has been called the “George Saunders of the fairy tale,” but simply being Kelly Link is enough. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, gets its title from the sense that in fiction, “there’s a kind of cathartic, discomforting joy — a pain/pleasure — in people behaving badly.” Her previous fantastical tales have been populated by librarians, cellists, aliens, and fainting goats. Link aims to surprise, which makes her work absolutely pleasing. (Nick R.) Find Me by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg's fictions often unfurl just beyond the real, with their madcap mix of zany and dreamlike set-ups. Case in point, van den Berg's recent story collection, The Isle of Youth, was peopled by yacht thieves, a mother-daughter magician team, and newlyweds who survive a plane crash. Her first novel, Find Me, continues this surreal, at times catastrophic streak, as it follows Joy, a grocery clerk, cough-syrup addict who’s immune to an ongoing plague of memory illness. Joy's resulting hospital stay and cross-country journey plotline sounds like a surreal mash-up of Stephen King's The Stand and Grace Krilanovich's The Orange Eats Creeps. (Anne) March: The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The 2010 Nobel Prize winner trains his eye on corruption and urbanization in modern day Lima in his latest novel. According to CityLab, "The story follows two parallel tales: an elite Lima businessman who decides to punish his undeserving heirs, and a self-made man in Vargas Llosa’s adopted hometown, Piura, who resists an extortionist demand." (Kevin) More from The Millions: The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Five years ago, Joseph O’Neill, the author of Netherland, wrote an essay for The Atlantic entitled “The Relevance of Cosmopolitanism.” Reading it, I experienced the swelling relief of encountering another writer giving voice to shadowy certainties I had long harbored, but never managed to articulate. The essay’s final paragraph, in particular, hit me like a wonderful train (I quote it in full because it’s just too good not to): “The relevance of cosmopolitanism is fast becoming more than theoretical. As a matter of daily reality and to a degree previously unknown, we are faced with the experiences of others everywhere. This imposes new demands on consciences and nationalistic categories. Literature is not immune from such demands; one might even suggest, since we writers are concerned with reality and conscientiousness, that literature should be unusually interested in these demands. This does not mean that a new artistic regime is upon us. Writers, in order to produce something truly worthwhile, must be ruled only by their deepest impulses, which can come from anywhere and lead in a million valuable directions. But it does seem that those who internalize the new world have every chance of writing something newly interesting.” We are faced with the experiences of others everywhere. For O’Neill – who was born in Ireland and grew up in Mozambique, Turkey, Iran, and the Netherlands, with a Turkish mother and an Irish father, who spoke to him in French and English, respectively – this wide-eyed perspective was forced upon him at a young age. His life is an extreme embodiment of globalization’s steady sprawl, but his use of “we” in the paragraph above is not accidental: in the last fifty years, a dramatic shift has occurred for most writers. Rather than nailing the “manners and morals” (as Lionel Trilling would have it) of a largely homogenous, well-known local surrounding, authors in a globalized era are increasingly tasked with depicting diverse surroundings, or diverse cultures in a single setting. And to do justice to “the experiences of others everywhere” is no small task. These are precisely the “demands on consciences and nationalistic categories” that O’Neill is referring to: finding the empathy and curiosity to write outside of “your own” culture. But what happens when you lack a nationalistic category to call your own? Although my parents are both American, and I grew up going to English-speaking schools, I share, to some extent, O’Neill’s international upbringing. I was born in Hamburg, and, as a result of my father’s career, grew up in Philadelphia, London, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Shanghai, and Singapore. Like O’Neill, who now lives in New York, I have also settled “abroad”: I have lived in Berlin for the past six years, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere. This six-year mark has been an interesting one for me: on the one hand, it feels like a major accomplishment, in my ability, like any good golden retriever, to “stay.” On the other hand, it’s made me think hard about why, exactly, I’ve chosen to settle in a country whose language I learned when I showed up here, whose culture, while not as foreign to me as Chinese culture, for example, is more foreign than any number of other locales I could have chosen, like England, or Canada, or, I don’t know: my passport country? Growing up all over the place makes you skilled at adapting, but it also makes you hungry to belong, something that in part motivates my writing: carving out a space I know, trying to understand what I’m witnessing around me. The experiences of others everywhere. But sometimes the ache of un-belonging feels like a stitch I’ve had in my side for as long as I can remember, and it would be nice to walk around without it. When faced with such existential quandaries, I’ve found an excellent method of gaining insight (and procrastinating) is to ask other writers the same questions. I sent an email to several of my writer friends who have settled, to varying degrees, away from their “home” countries. Three of them generously responded: Preeta Samarasan, a Malaysian Indian novelist and author of Evening is the Whole Day, who now lives in a village in central France; Jeremy Tiang, a Singaporean playwright, translator, and fiction writer, of Chinese and Tamil descent, who now lives in New York, where his adaptation of A Dream of Red Pavillions is being developed by Pan Asian Rep; and Madeleine Thien, a Canadian fiction writer (whose works include Simple Recipes, The Chinese Violin, Certainty, and Dogs at the Perimeter) with parents from Malaysia and Hong Kong, who largely divides her time between Canada and Germany. My questions and their responses are below. Like O’Neill’s final paragraph, I found their responses much too compelling to cut short. Brittani: Is foreignness an inherently fertile imaginative/observational state for you? Did any part of your decision to live overseas have to do with your writing? Preeta: Foreignness is my natural state. I've never lived in any place where I was part of the ethnic majority. As a Malaysian Indian, I always, on some level, felt like an outsider. Part of this was the rhetoric of my parents' generation, which was a direct product of Malaysia's postcolonial trajectory/social policies/economic policies. We were always told that the country didn't really want us; that we didn't really belong; that "there's nothing for us here;" that we, the younger generation, should try to leave and never move back. So my decision to live overseas didn't directly have to do with my writing -- it was, in a sense, almost preordained that I would leave, no matter what I decided to do with my life I knew from the age of 3 that my goal was to get out of Malaysia. I didn't leave because I thought it would be good for my writing, but I do think that in the end leaving *was* good for my writing, incidentally. It's kept my eyes wide open. As for whether foreignness is a fertile state: if we define foreignness broadly, meaning not just being an expatriate or an ethnic minority, but having the state of mind of an outsider, then I think, in fact, that foreignness is *the only* fertile imaginative/observational state, for any creative person. Creativity comes from seeing things with an "outsider's" eyes. Sometimes we talk about this as seeing things through a child's eyes -- I think they are related. So much of creativity is making familiar things strange and strange things familiar. You can really only do this if you keep thinking like an outsider. You don't necessarily have to leave, but if you don't, you have to find other ways to think like an outsider. Jeremy: [I find foreignness to be a fertile state], but I feel like a foreigner even when I'm in Singapore. Maybe "outsider" would be more apt. [My decision to live overseas] had little to do with my writing, although I find it very hard to write when I'm in Singapore. But that's because being in Singapore longer than a couple of weeks or so makes me profoundly depressed. Madeleine: [Foreignness] has been [a fertile state] for me, but that’s been a slow realization. I think, being outside one’s familiar surroundings, I become more aware of what is at the core of myself and what is simply habitual. I think the habitual takes up an enormous part of our consciousness. Maybe the most important thing about being away, and for me that’s mostly been China, Cambodia, and Germany, is how humbling it is. I feel my smallness in the face of extraordinarily deep histories. How often do you return “Home”? Do those trips feed your writing? Or does your foreign locale now feel like “Home” to you? (Note: I capitalize “Home” here as a reference to a recent James Wood article, “On Not Going Home,” in which Wood writes: “It is possible, I suppose, to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore, and refuse to go home, all at once...I have made a home in the United States, but it is not quite Home.”) Preeta: I go back to Malaysia once or twice a year. Since I only write about Malaysia (this may change one day, but until now, I have no desire to write about any other place), feeding my writing is a very large part of the reason I go home often. I don't go around explicitly looking for material or researching things, but everything in Malaysia feeds my writing. Every conversation, every car journey, every form I fill out, every queue I wait in, every newspaper article I read. I've lived in France for nearly seven years, but no, it doesn't feel like "Home," and I don't expect it ever to feel like home -- not the outside world, anyway, beyond our front door. On another level, the inside of our house feels like my emotional/psychological home right now: this is where all my stuff is, all my books, the human beings I am closest to; this is where I become a mother, which has been such a large part of the person I am today. This is where I am comfortable expressing my emotions, making a mess (literal and figurative), doing whatever I need to do. The inside of my house. Jeremy: [I return to] Singapore a couple of times a year. London, more often. I tend to have very localized homes now. Our apartment in Williamsburg feels like home, but New York doesn't yet. And in some ways London has begun to feel foreign. All trips feed my writing, whether to “Home” or elsewhere. I thrive on dislocation. Madeleine: I return to Canada for half the year usually; but home for me is the city where I was born, Vancouver, and which I left in 2002. I don’t return to Vancouver often. Actually, for 10 years, I rarely went back at all. I’m in Vancouver now, and the sense of well-being and familiarity has been incredibly powerful for me. On the other hand, I felt extraordinarily at home in the many months I spent in Cambodia, and this is one of the reasons I kept returning there, and still do. Similarly with Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Berlin. Because my father is Malaysian and my mother from Hong Kong, I can often be taken for a foreigner in Canada (even though I’m a citizen, was born there, and have only ever held a Canadian passport), and taken for a local in Phnom Penh. The psychological feeling of “passing,” that is, being taken as someone who belongs, is profound. And it is strange when one cannot “pass” in the place one where was born. Did you grow up moving around quite a bit? Preeta: No. From babyhood until I left in Malaysia in my mid-teens, I lived in Ipoh. Jeremy: No. My parents have lived in the same apartment for 38 years. I was fifteen years old when I had my first plane journey. Madeleine: We moved every couple years, but within Vancouver and its suburbs, and for financial reasons. My parents started out with a house of their own, but the mortgage was beyond their means. We kept moving into smaller and smaller apartments. It was difficult but, at the same time, the city has so many pockets and neighborhoods in which I feel utterly at ease. Are any of your favorite writers similarly displaced? Preeta: These days I feel like I don't have favorite writers, only favorite books. I would say that the writers by whom I was most influenced when I was first finding my feet (Dickens, Rushdie in his earlier years, Peter Carey) had a very strong sense of place; the way their understanding of geography and language and history and culture came through in their writing was much more important to me than whether they were expatriates or not. I didn't think much about their biography. Now, I'm very interested in writing in dialect, and I'm reading a lot of Caribbean and African writers who've worked in literary "dialect" – and I find that many of these writers were the opposite of displaced – they seem to have such a strong sense of their roots. I am drawn to that, too, to people who make the decision never to move, to know a hundred square feet of earth like the back of their hand rather than wandering all over the planet. I haven't thought about this much until you asked this question, but it occurs to me now that the South Asian books/short stories I love best are not the ones that deal with physical displacement. I am generally bored by immigration-to-the-West stories. I tend to favor stories about identities that are fractured for reasons other than physical displacement. I can't really say why this is the case! Jeremy: Oh yes. Yiyun Li, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ma Jian. There is something about being in-between, and the lack of certainty that comes with that, which appeals to me. Madeleine: Cees Nooteboom is a writer whose work has sustained me, intellectually, artistically, and emotionally. He writes overtly about his travels in Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space, and indirectly about displacement in his great works of fiction, All Souls Day, The Foxes Come at Night, The Following Story, and others. I also feel this way about Shirley Hazzard. She’s written memoir and non-fiction about Capri and Naples, but like Nooteboom, the multiple selves that come into being in different places is very evident in her novels, The Transit of Venus, The Great Fire, and others. Aside from these thematic connections between us, I admire them most of all because I think they are both incredibly perceptive novelists who have an astonishing facility with language and story. Where is your creative work set? Preeta: In Malaysia. Jeremy: In the short story collection I am working on now, stories are set in: Singapore, Beijing, the Baltic Coast of Germany, Zurich, a Norwegian train, New York, Connecticut, Bangkok. I've written plays set in: Fukuoka, Scotland, Los Angeles, Middlesbrough, London, and Singapore. (A shorter answer: it's set anywhere I've been, and some places I haven't.) Madeleine: Always, so far, between Canada and elsewhere. Cambodia, China, Malaysia. I do a lot of my work in Berlin, but processing is slow for me, and I imagine Berlin will show up in my fiction in about a decade. Is “Home” a cloying term for you? An irrelevant/outdated notion? Or is there something throbbing and unsolved about it for you? Do you write from this place of irritation/cosmopolitanism/discomfort? Preeta: It is a sentimental term for me, but not cloying. I am a big fan of genuine sentimentality, nostalgia, emotion -- sometimes I find that contemporary writers, especially in the West, approach everything with irony, question all of these elemental states that sometimes need to be felt more and questioned less, if you know what I mean. That longing for "Home" is one of those states. I don't think it's something to be mocked or scorned. I don't thinking belonging in and of itself, or the desire to belong in some way, is irrelevant or outdated, and why should it be irrelevant or outdated to feel like you belong to a place? If you can belong in a subculture, a community, a relationship, then I think you can also belong in a place. Though I said we always felt we didn't belong in Malaysia, I also have a sharp, painful longing for the Ipoh of the 1980s. I think of it as my home, but it doesn't exist anymore. I long for the house of my childhood and for specific material objects that were the landmarks of my small world: a pink plastic drawer pull in my brother's closet, for example; a faux leather ottoman; a tiny Santa Claus candle. I think I write from a place of longing for home, not from a place of discomfort with the notion. But I don't mean by this that it's okay to romanticize home. I think you can long for something while still acknowledging its dark side, while still facing up to all that was painful or ugly or disappointing about it. Jeremy: It's difficult to define for me, but I think not in a problematic way. Or it means different things in different contexts. See also "family." Madeleine: No, [I don’t think of “home” as] cloying. I like to think of home as a verb, something we keep re-creating. A person who has lived on the same streets for 80 years can also come to moment when the streets don’t feel like home; and a person who has suddenly arrived in another place might feel suddenly, inexplicably at home. This open-endedness is in keeping with the human condition. Human beings have always migrated, have always followed resources and food, have always kept pushing into unfamiliar territory. My discomfort comes from witnessing politically motivated and divisive policies that seek to elevate certain citizens above others, based on race, religion, class, or chauvinism of any kind. I think this is when home becomes a political weapon, and the consequences are never good. Image via slgckgc/Flickr
The first half of 2013 delighted us with new books by the likes of George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Colum McCann, among many others. And if the last six months had many delights on offer for book lovers, the second half of the year can only be described as an invitation to gluttony. In the next six months, you'll see new books by Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl, Norman Rush, Jonathan Lethem, and none other than Thomas Pynchon. And beyond those headliners there are many other tantalizing titles in the wings, including some from overseas and others from intriguing newcomers. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 86 titles, this is the only second-half 2013 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. July: Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda: Crime writer Dennis Lehane chose Pochoda’s lyrical and atmospheric second novel for his eponymous imprint at Ecco/Harper, calling it “gritty and magical.” Pitched as a literary thriller about the diverse inhabitants of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Visitation Street has already received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. Lionel Shriver says, “I loved it,” and Deborah Harkness calls it “marvelous.” (Edan) Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff was the author of three books of essays, the winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and a beloved regular on This American Life who died last year shortly after finishing this book. A novel written entirely in verse (a form in which he was masterful, as evidenced here), its characters range across the 20th century, each connected to the next by an act of generosity or cruelty. (Janet) The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman: Waldman recently weighed in for us on the centuries-old Richardson vs. Fielding debate. Now, in her first novel, she expertly plays the former's psychological penetration off the latter's civic vision. The titular Nathaniel, one of Brooklyn's sad young literary men, seeks to navigate between his public ambitions and his private compulsions in a series of romantic encounters. Those without 718 area codes shouldn't let the milieu scare them off; questions of whether Nate can heed the difficult imperatives of the conscience—and of how Waldman will pull off a whole book from the man's point of view—keep the pages turning, while generating volumes of quotable insight, in the manner of The Marriage Plot. (Garth) Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine: A country mouse moves to the city in Cathleen Schine’s ninth novel. The mouse is Fin, an orphaned eleven-year old boy, and the city is Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Under the guardianship of his glamorous half-sister, Lady, Fin gets to know both the city and his wild sister, and encounters situations that are a far cry from his Connecticut dairy farm upbringing. As with many of Schine’s previous novels, Fin & Lady explores changing definitions of family. (Hannah) My Education by Susan Choi: Reflect upon your sordid graduate school days with a novel of the perverse master-student relationship and adulterous sex triangle. Professor Brodeur is evidently the kind of man whose name is scrawled on restroom walls by vengeful English majors—rather than end up in the sack with him, Choi’s protagonist Regina instead starts up an affair with his wife. Later in the novel and in time, Regina reflects on this period in her life and the changes wrought by the intervening 15 years. Choi was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her second novel, American Woman. (Lydia) Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: The third novel from the winner of the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award follows the lives and business ventures of five characters in Shanghai, each representing various—and at times dichotomous—social strata. There’s Phoebe, the poor and unsophisticated migrant worker from Malaysia; and there’s Yinghui, the rich and ambitious businesswoman. There’s Gary, the waylaid pop star; and there’s Justin, the scion of a wealthy real estate family. Lastly there’s Walter, the eponymous billionaire, who meddles behind the scenes with the lives of almost everybody. Altogether, their multi-layered, intersecting lives contribute to make “Shanghai itself [into] the book’s real main character,” writes Jill Baker in the Asian Review of Books. It’s a city “luring in people hoping for a second chance or … any chance at all.” (Nick) Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano: It’s a rare first novel that can appeal to partisans of both S.E. Hinton and Julio Cortázar, but Lotería does just that. The story 11-year-old Luz Maria Castillo begins telling us from her room in a state institution is deceptively plainspoken: Here’s how I got here. But as the story proceeds in fragments, keyed not to chronology but to a deck of cards from Lotería (a kind of Mexican bingo), things get shiftier. Color reproductions of the cards introduce each chapter, making the book, if not exactly Kindle-proof, then at least uncommonly handsome. (Garth) The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth: Gabriel Roth’s debut novel follows Eric Muller from his lonely high school days as a computer geek to his millionaire success in Silicon Valley as a computer geek. Slightly disoriented by his newfound abilities to make money and bed women, Muller wryly observes his life as if he is that same awkward teenager trapped in a dream life. When he falls in love with Maya, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past, he must choose between the desire to emotionally (and literally) hack into it, or to trust his good fortune. (Janet) The Hare by César Aira: A recent bit of contrarianism in The New Republic blamed the exhaustive posthumous marketing of Roberto Bolaño for crowding other Latin American writers out of the U.S. marketplace. If anything, it seems to me, it’s the opposite: the success of The Savage Detectives helped publishers realize there was a market for Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and the fascinating Argentine César Aira. The past few years have seen seven of Aira’s many novels translated into English. Some of them, like Ghosts, are transcendently good, but none has been a breakout hit. Maybe the reissue of The Hare, which appeared in the U.K. in 1998, will be it. At the very least, it’s the longest Aira to appear in English: a picaresque about a naturalist’s voyage into the Argentinean pampas. (Garth) August: Night Film by Marisha Pessl: Pessl’s first novel since Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her celebrated 2006 debut, concerns a David Lynchish filmmaker whose daughter has died in Lower Manhattan under suspicious circumstances. Soon, reporter Scott McGrath has launched an investigation that will take him to the heart of the auteur’s secretive empire: his cult following, his whacked-out body of work, and his near impenetrable upstate compound. With interpolated web pages and documents and Vanity Fair articles, the novel’s a hot pop mess, but in the special way of a latter-day Kanye West album or a movie co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and Michael Bay, and the climax alone—a 65-page haunted-house tour-de-force—is worth the price of admission. (Garth) Cannonball by Joseph McElroy: McElroy was writing the lights out in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and in the last few years has been rediscovered by a younger generation of readers, who justly class him with Thomas Pynchon—a writer of a wildly different sensibility, but a similar, world-devouring ambition. Hell, he even did a Year in Reading. If 2011’s Night Soul is any indication, McElroy’s can still intrigue, baffle, and stop the heart, often all at once. This, his first novel in many a moon, concerns the Iraq War, among other things, and it’s hard to think of an author more suited to reimagining the subject. (Garth) Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat: The author of a string of heartbreaking novels about the strife-torn Caribbean nation of Haiti, including The Farming of Bones and The Dew Breaker, Danticat here tells the story of a young motherless girl whose poverty-stricken father considers giving her away a wealthier family. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as “magical as a folk tale and as effective and devastating as a newsreel,” the novel paints a stark portrait of village life in Haiti. (Michael) Remember How I Told You I Loved You? by Gillian Linden: Gillian Linden’s debut collection of linked stories follows a young woman through college, careers, love affairs and marriages— “from delayed adolescence to (delayed) adulthood.” The publisher, Little A (Amazon’s new literary fiction imprint), describes the collection as “a sharp and intimate take on romance and infidelity, trust and betrayal,” written in a “deadpan narrative, cool and precise.” Linden’s story “Pests” was recently published in The Paris Review. Linden will join the ranks of several talented literary writers that Little A has published since its launch in March — including A.L. Kennedy, Shawn Vestal, and Jenny Davidson. (Sonya) The Infatuations by Javier Marias: Marias’s only competitor for the title of Spain’s Most Important Living Writer may be Enrique Vila-Matas. Each of his last few books with New Directions, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, set a new high-water mark—most recently, the mammoth trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. Now he’s made the jump to Knopf, which means you’re about to hear a lot about him. And deservedly so, it would seem: The Infatuations has already been called "great literature" in Spain and "perhaps his best novel" in the U.K. Is there any reason on earth you wouldn’t want to read the greatest novel of Spain’s greatest living writer? Of course there isn’t. Now get thee to a bookshop! (Garth) The Color Master by Aimee Bender: Ogres, tiger-mending and playing at prostitution—yep, it’s time for Aimee Bender to once again enchant us with her whimsical and magical fiction. Her next story collection comes out just three years after the publication of her bestselling novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and it looks like the book is a return to form for Bender. Publishers Weekly says that even the tales that resemble children’s storybooks “are haunted by a taut, sardonic melancholy,” noting that her “mood pieces” about female friendship are the strongest of the bunch. (Edan) Elect H. Mouse State Judge by Nelly Reifler: To Kafka’s “Josephine, the Mouse-Singer” and Bolaño’s “Police Rat” and Mrs. Frisby and that one A.M. Homes story where the kid gets it on with a Barbie doll, we must now add Nelly Reifler’s first novel. It’s a fast-paced caper—politician’s kids get abducted, private eyes go searching—but with a major twist: H. Mouse is a mouse, and both perps and dicks are dolls. Shrewdly, Reifler serves this concoction neat; what could have been cheap thrills give way to weirder and more surprising effects. (Garth) The Rathbones by Janice Clark: The Rathbones is the most sui generis debut you’re likely to encounter this year. Think Moby-Dick directed by David Lynch from a screenplay by Gabriel Garcia Marquez...with Charles Addams doing the set design and The Decembrists supplying the chanteys. Initially the story of the last surviving member of an eccentric 19th-Century whaling dynasty, it becomes the story of that dynasty itself. I should also say that this was the single most exciting thing I read in manuscript in graduate school, where the author and I studied together. Clark writes a beautiful prose line, and the story, like the ocean, get deeper, richer, and stranger the farther out you go. (Garth) A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser: For a long time, Walser addicts—which is to say, pretty much anyone who has come into contact with this intoxicating writer—had to make do with the novel Jakob van Gunten (but what a novel!) and a slim edition of selected stories. But, half a century after his death, the Swiss master of smallness and obscurity is finally getting the treatment he deserves. Microscripts was one of the best books I read in 2012. The tireless Susan Bernofsky has also given us versions of The Tanners, The Assistant, and a collection of Berlin Stories. In this volume, Damion Searls translates a group of stories about school life—also the engine of much of Jakob van Gunten’s exquisite comedy. (Garth) Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Lately, it's seemed that the “literary” first novel had become a genre unto itself: a certain page-limit, a certain definition of scope, a certain set of problems, modestly conceived and modestly transcended. If so, Crain’s stately, wry, and generous first novel breaks the mold. Certainly, there’s a classic coming-of-age narrative here. But as the back-cover blurbs attest, the adventures of American Jacob Putnam in Czechoslovakia right after the Iron Curtain’s fall recall Henry James as much as they do Ben Lerner. Crain’s broad social canvas and his deep interest in the lives of other people are marks of distinction. (Garth) The Novel: An Alternative History (1600-1800) by Steven Moore: The first volume of Moore’s magisterial survey advanced a theory of the novel as inherently experimental and multicultural, and much older than is generally acknowledged. It’s not that Jane Austen moves to the margins and Gertrude Stein to the center, but that Austen and Stein become recognizably part of the same story. And though Moore hews closer, necessarily, to synopsis than to close-reading, his project is an invaluable desk reference for the catholic reader. In volume 2, he turns his sights to the era that inspired the argument in the first place, a period that begins with Don Quixote. (Garth) The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: At The Age, Cameron Woodhead writes: “With The Sound of Things Falling, Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has created a story that can be appreciated purely for the dramatic way it dives into the black hole of his country's past—the drug cartels and paramilitaries that scarred a generation—although the supple thought-weave of the prose won't be lost on anyone with a taste for more reflective fiction.” Woodhead also compares Vasquez to Graham Greene, W.G. Sebald, and Robert Bolaño—all writers who give us an expansive sense of a country’s history and legacy through the lives of compelling individuals. The protagonist is a Colombian lawyer named Antonio whose memory takes him back to a long-ago acquaintance with the ex-pilot Ricardo LaVerde and a series of mysterious (and yes, violent) occurrences. Vásquez, who is 40, has published four previous novels, but prefers to not count the first two, which he wrote in his early 20s; so “officially,” Sound is his third novel. (Sonya) The Virgins by Pamela Erens: This smart, unsettling novel is narrated by a middle-aged man obsessed by the star-crossed love affair of two classmates at his boarding school thirty years ago. Erens, author of one previous novel, The Understory, displays an uncanny gift for writing honestly about pot-toking, hormone-addled adolescents while granting them the full range of human emotion one expects from a novel for adults. The novel is from indie press Tin House Books, a spinoff of the well-known literary magazine that has quietly built a reputation as a home for first-rate literary fiction. (Michael) The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood: Alex Marwood is the pseudonym of British journalist Serena Mackesy, and The Wicked Girls is her dark and beautifully executed first novel. In the mid-eighties, two eleven-year-old girls meet for the first time and become friends. By the end of the day, a younger child has died at their hands. Twenty-five years later, with new lives and changed identities, the two women encounter one another in a seaside town where a serial killer is active. A haunting meditation on crime and punishment. (Emily) The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd: Loyd, formerly the fiction editor at Playboy, moves to the other side of the desk with a first novel of elegant intensity. A young widow in Brooklyn has bought her apartment building, and so become an accidental landlord. Or do people still say landlady? At any rate, her straitened existence is challenged by the arrival of a fascinating new tenant, with emotional transformation the ultimate issue. Loyd’s burnished, spare sentences conceal hidden volumes of emotion, and in its different moods, the book may put readers in mind of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or of a more hopeful version of Claire Messud’s recent The Woman Upstairs. (Garth) Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: Sayrafiezadeh’s acclaimed memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, chronicled a childhood being raised by an Iranian father and American Jewish mother united by an extreme devotion to the Socialist Workers Party. Three years later, Sayrafiezadeh, whose fiction has appeared in Granta, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, among other places, publishes his first short story collection. The everyday trials of his characters, some of them grappling with the rippling effects of a nameless war (“this could be any war, or perhaps the next war,” Sayrafiezadeh told The New Yorker) “are transformed into storytelling that is both universally resonant and wonderfully strange.” (Elizabeth) The Hypothetic Girl by Elizabeth Cohen: From Other Press, a collection of stories that “captures all the mystery, misery, and magic of the eternal search for human connection” via tales about the bizarre and inarguably ubiquitous world of online dating. Says Amazon: “With levity and high style, Cohen takes her readers into a world where screen and keyboard meet the heart, with consequences that range from wonderful to weird.” For anyone who’s been submerged in this wonderful weird search, these stories are likely to ring a therapeutic bell. Or, in some cases perhaps, a gong. Look out for an essay from Cohen in July, and an excerpt in early August, at Bloom. (Sonya) September: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: MaddAddam concludes the dystopian trilogy that Atwood began ten years ago with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. Booklist calls MaddAddam a “coruscating finale in an ingenious, cautionary trilogy of hubris, fortitude, wisdom, love, and life’s grand obstinacy.” (Emily) Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Since his 1997 comeback, Pynchon’s been uncommonly productive...and, more characteristically, all over the map. I thought Mason & Dixon his best book; Against the Day vastly underrated; and Inherent Vice fun but disposable. Proximity to the present moment can be a telling index of the quality of a Pynchon project, so the setting here—New York’s Silicon Alley on the eve of the dot-com crash—gives one pause. But Pynchon’s ability to “think the present historically” in his last two books was the best thing about them, so maybe he still has much to tell us about the way we live now. (Garth) Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: Thirty-six years later, it’s here: a sequel to The Shining. Dan Torrance, the tricycle peddling protagonist of the original horror classic, is now middle-age and working in a nursing home in New Hampshire where he uses his ebbing mental powers to comfort the dying. The story picks up when Dan tries to save Abra Stone, a twelve-year-old girl with gifts like the ones he used to have, who is in danger from a group called The True Knot, which travels the country consuming children with the gift of The Shining. (Kevin) The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri’s second novel (and fourth book) comes heaped with expectations and describes the relationship between two formerly inseparable brothers born in mid-century Calcutta. The first, Udayan, is drawn into revolutionary politics; the second, Subash, leaves his native country to make a better life for himself as a scientist in the United States. But tragedy strikes Udayan and Subash returns home where he gets to know Udayan’s former wife and reconnects with childhood memories. (Kevin) Someone by Alice McDermott: An excerpt of Alice McDermott’s new novel, Someone, appeared in the New Yorker as a story of the same name. The story is about Marie, who is seventeen years old in 1937, when a boy from her Brooklyn neighborhood turns her head, fondles her breast, promises marriage, and then spurns her for a better-looking girl. In the story, the titular Someone is the person who, Marie's brother promises, will one day love her. McDermott told The New Yorker's Deborah Treisman that the novel is the story of “one unremarkable woman,” because “novels about unremarkable women, especially those written by unremarkable women, seem a thing of the past.” Who you calling “unremarkable,” Alice McDermott? (Lydia) Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: In the last few years, American readers have rapidly awakened to Krasznahorkai’s important place in the republic of world letters. He is one of few working novelists who still aspires to mastery, in the Modernist sense, and each of the three previous novels translated into English has been a masterpiece. Those books were set in Europe and New York. Seiobo, published in Hungarian in 2009, reveals a different side of the Krasznahorkai oeuvre: his decades-long engagement with East Asia. It’s a major feat of editing and translating, and the publication date been pushed back. Those who can’t wait should check out the excerpt in Music & Literature. (Garth) Enon by Paul Harding: Harding’s 2009 debut, Tinkers, won him the Pulitzer Prize and instant acclaim as one of the most profound writers of our time. Enon follows Charlie Crosby, the grandson of Tinkers protagonist George Washington Crosby, through a year of his life after a devastating loss. Inhabiting the same New England landscape so intricately rendered in Tinkers (Enon is the town where George Crosby died), Enon is a story about small moment and big questions. (Janet) John Updike: The Collected Stories by John Updike: This two-volume collection spans the arc of a life’s work. One hundred and eighty-six stories are presented in their final versions and in definitive order of composition, established for the first time by archival research: from “Ace in the Hole” (1953), written when Updike was still a student at Harvard, to “The Full Glass” from 2008, the final year of his life. In his poem “Spirit of ’76,” written during his final illness and published in The New Yorker three months after his death, Updike wrote: I see clear through to the ultimate page, the silence I dared break for my small time. No piece was easy, but each fell finished, in its shroud of print, into a book-shaped hole. (Emily) Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta: American fiction’s favorite lighthearted chronicler of suburban angst delivers his first collection of short stories since Bad Haircut, his first book, nineteen years ago. In Nine Inches, Perrotta, the author of the Hollywood-friendly novels Little Children and The Leftovers (currently under development as a HBO series), returns to familiar themes of fractured families and the undercurrent of disappointment that lurks just below the placid surface of suburban life. Perrotta knows his way around a punch line, so expect some chuckles to go along with your quiet desperation. (Michael) The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: When it came out in the UK and Ireland this Spring, Coetzee’s new novel was received with an even more potent combination of admiration and confusion than his work is normally met with. Reviewing the book in the Telegraph, Michael Preston asked whether it was “possible to be deeply affected by a book without really knowing what it’s about?” (The fairly obvious answer: yes.) A man and a five year old boy arrive in a sort of refugee camp, where they are assigned new names and ages. The boy speaks in riddles and claims to be able to perform miracles. Together, they search for the boy’s mother, and endure a series of odd bureaucratic encounters. The inscrutable spirit of Kafka has often flickered across Coetzee’s pages, and that spirit seems to loom large here. (Mark) The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell: Daniel Woodrell, a master of “country noir” fiction, makes rare use of autobiography in his new novel, The Maid’s Version. While growing up in West Plains, Missouri, Woodrell listened to stories his grandmother told about a mysterious dance hall explosion in town in 1928 that killed 39 people. In the novel, a grandmother tells her grandson about working as a maid for the family that was implicated in the blast but never held responsible. The novel is “very lyrical and not completely chronological,” Woodrell told an interviewer, “because it’s the story of a family and the after-effects on the family and the grandmother trying to get justice or revenge.” (Bill) Levels of Life by Julian Barnes: Julian Barnes’s new book is not a novel, and not a memoir, and not a collection of essays, although it appears to contain elements of all three. The collection begins with a brief history of hot air ballooning and the characters involved in its development and lured by its attractions. Part two is an imagined romance between Sarah Bernhardt, who was in life one of the people from the latter category, and Colonel Frederick Burnaby, intrepid ballooner (who is, incidentally, documented on the delightful website “Great British Nutters”). In the third part of his new book, Barnes ties these curious introductory portions into a memoir of his profound grief following the loss of Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years. (Lydia) Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker: Last year, Nicholson Baker treated the Internet to a cluster of peculiar, melancholy protest songs about Bradley Manning and the Obama administration’s drone assassination program. The venture was out of character in a way that was, weirdly, entirely characteristic of Baker. The songs appear to have been, at least in part, an aspect of a method writing exercise for his new novel, Traveling Sprinkler—a sort of sequel to 2009’s The Anthologist, in which Paul Chowder sat around having a lot of thoughts about poetry while failing to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. In the new novel, Chowder sits around trying to write protest songs. Very few writers are as interesting as Baker on the theme of men sitting (or standing) around, so this looks promising. (Mark) Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: Of the greats of his generation, Lethem is one of the few who’s gotten steadily better, novel by novel. Fortress of Solitude is a better book than Motherless Brooklyn, and in my read, Chronic City is even better than that—the highs less high, but the consistency more consistent. It’s also worth noting that Lethem’s always been a political writer (science-fiction being among other things a way of thinking about the possible) and has been more so lately. Expectations for Dissident Gardens, then—a generation-spanning saga centered around Leftists from Sunnyside Queens—should be very, very high. (Garth) Mood Indigo by Boris Vian: Few of Vian’s novels have been translated, but L’Ecume des Jours is appearing in English for the third time, with a third title (Mood Indigo, Froth on the Daydream, Foam of the Daze, take your pick). Still, we should be grateful for what we are given—Le Monde named L’Ecume number 10 on the 100 best books of the century. Vian (d. 1959), published under his own name and the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. He was a trumpeter in the Hot Club de France, devotee of Duke Ellington, ingester of peyote, consort of Sartre (until Sartre consorted with his wife). Written in 1947, L’Ecume is a sad, fanciful love story (which, the Harvard Crimson wrote in 1969, read like “perceptions at a stoned-soul picnic,” in a good way). Mood Indigo received the Michel Gondry film treatment last spring. (Lydia) Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: The decade-in-the-making follow-up to Mortals (one of our Best Novels of the Millennium) is also a departure. The first of Rush’s books not set in Botswana, it’s shorter by half than either of his previous novels, and when I got a galley in the mail, the jacket copy—comfortable fortysomethings at a Big Chill-style reunion near the start of the Iraq War—made me even more nervous. Was the Rush magic still there? Then my wife started reading it, then started putting it down to laugh, and finally began forcing me to listen to her read whole passages aloud for the sheer pleasure of the phrases. Note to Mr. Rush: You had me at “berserk industry.” (Garth) His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: A 600-page depiction of a jilted lover’s interior thoughts might not be your idea of an enjoyable book, but in the hands of a writer as talented as Stephen Dixon, it’s certainly one worth reading. In his own description of the novel, he’s noted that it’s about “a bunch of nouns” such as “love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, writing, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscences, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.” Indeed these words convey the complexity of a life rendered whole, of a relationship’s threads and effects laid bare, and of honest memories enlivened by an acute and unrelenting ache. When a relationship dies, all that remains are remembered details, and in the words of Jim Harrison, “death steals everything except our stories.” (Nick) Local Souls by Allan Gurganus: For his first book in a decade, Allan Gurganus returns to the imagined town of Falls, N.C., where he set his first and best-known novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. His new book, Local Souls, which owes more to Flannery O’Connor than to Nikolai Gogol, is three linked novellas set in the contemporary New South, with its air-conditioning and improved telecommunications, its freer sexuality and looser family ties. However, some old habits prove hard to break—including adultery, incest and obsession—in these tales that unfold in a Dixiefied version of Winesburg, Ohio. (Bill) Between Friends by Amos Oz: Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Amos Oz spent three decades living on a kibbutz because city life was not “radical” enough for him and, as he puts it in his new book of stories, Between Friends, he wanted to live among “people with patience and doubts and compassion.” These eight stories, set in the imaginary Kibbutz Yikhat during the 1950s of Oz’s youth, spin around the shortcomings of idealism and the fragility of all utopias. In the end, the stories affirm Oz’s long-held belief that both on the kibbutz and throughout the larger Middle East, the only hope lies not in conflict, but in compromise. (Bill) The Brunist Day by Robert Coover: Aside from being a terrific year for first novels, 2013 may be remembered for its efflorescence of major work from the eminences grises of postmodernism. So far, we’ve gotten Gass’s Middle C, Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and McElroy’s Cannonball. Now Coover, author of a couple of the great postwar novels (e.g., The Public Burning), returns with a thousand-page sequel to his very first book, The Origin of the Brunists. I haven’t been this excited to read new Coover...well, since I started reading Coover. The folks at Dzanc Books should be commended. (Garth) Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway: This isn’t the story of a family business, à la Dombey & Son, but rather a buddy-cop detective vehicle—except the cops aren’t exactly buddies, and most of what gets detected is random violence and existential unease. Ridgway is a brilliant stylist from Ireland, and the early word from the U.K. is that he’s hit his stride here, in a kind of deadpan avant-pop tour of contemporary London. (Garth) Duplex by Kathryn Davis: Davis’s earlier novel, The Thin Place, is set in a place where the membrane between the real world and the spirit world is extremely thin. Most of her work, which includes six previous novels, sits at this same juncture, combining real and imagined worlds. Duplex is the story of Mary and Eddie, two children growing up in a duplex outside time, while “adulthood”—a world of sorcerers, robots, and slaves—looms ahead. (Janet) Goat Mountain by David Vann: In his writing across a variety of forms—short stories, novels, memoir, and reportage—David Vann has returned repeatedly to the same deep well of themes: nature, thwarted masculinity, family, and violence. In his third novel Goat Mountain, an eleven-year-old boy goes on a deer-hunt with his father and grandfather, and things, as they tend to do this writer’s work, take a devastating turn. There’s a rawness and obsessional urgency to Vann’s writing that makes this ongoing project of recasting and development among the most compelling in contemporary literature. (Mark) At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick: Dolnick’s third novel is about a dark secret that tears apart a boyhood friendship and how the two are brought back together as adults to reckon with what happened long ago. The jacket copy calls it “a tale of spiritual reckoning, of search and escape, of longing and reaching for redemption—a tale of near hallucinatory power.” Dolnick, who writes for NPR and the New York Times, has also written a Kindle single called Shelf-Love, about his fanaticism for Alice Munro. (Edan) The Traymore Rooms by Norm Sibum: Poet Norm Sibum’s 700-pager should be on the radar of all the maximalism-starved readers who landed A Naked Singularity on our Top 10 list in 2012—though the book might more rightly be likened to something by William Gass or Alexander Theroux. Plot isn’t Sibum’s thing, exactly, but his erudition (considerable), sense of character (eccentric), and mood (quietly splenetic) more than compensate. The novel concerns a group of aging friends who share haunts in downtown Montreal. They talk, fight, love, and try to make sense of a historical moment that has disappointed their youthful hopes. And apart from an overreliance on that contemporary workhorse, the absolute phrase, the prose is a consistent pleasure. (Garth) October: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Tartt said she couldn’t “think of anything worse than having to turn out a book every year. It would be hell.” She seems to have settled into a pattern of turning out a book every ten or eleven years instead. In her third novel, The Goldfinch, a young boy named Theo Decker survives an accident that kills his mother. In the years that follow, he finds himself drawn to things that remind him of her, including a painting that draws him eventually into the art underworld. (Emily) Identical by Scott Turow: Every three years, with metronome-like regularity, bestselling lawyer-author Scott Turow comes out with another well-turned legal thriller set in corruption-rife Kindle County. Three years after 2010’s Innocent, Turow is right on schedule with a new thriller focusing on a pair of identical twins, one a candidate for mayor in Kindle County, the other a convicted murderer just released from prison after serving 25 years for killing his girlfriend. This is Turow country, so nothing is as it seems and the plot turns on a re-investigation of the decades-old murder that sent one of the brothers to prison. (Michael) The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s return to fiction (she wrote that little-known memoir called Eat Pray Love) is a sprawling historical novel about Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical explorer, and talented scientist in her own right, and her relationship with Utopian artist Ambrose Pike. As the jacket copy says, “Alma Whittaker is a witness to history, as well as maker of history herself.” The book spans the globe and two centuries, and it sounds like a big and exciting artistic departure for Gilbert. (Edan) Solo (James Bond) by William Boyd: At this year’s London Book Fair, venerated author William Boyd announced the one-word title of his forthcoming James Bond novel, which reflects the spy’s solitary and unauthorized mission. The book is an authorized sequel to Jeffery Deaver’s novel, Carte Blanche, published in 2011. At the Book Fair, Boyd said that key action takes place in Africa, the US and Europe, and remarked that Bond “goes on a real mission to real countries and the world he’s in is absolutely 1969. There are no gimmicks, it’s a real spy story.” (Edan) Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III: The four interlocking stories within Andre Dubus III’s sixth book explore the “bottomless needs and stubborn weaknesses of people seeking gratification in food and sex, work and love.” These highs and lows are depicted by Mark, a Massachusetts man who’s recently discovered his wife’s infidelity; by Marla, an overweight young woman who’s just found a lover; by Robert, who’s just betrayed his pregnant wife; and by Devon, a teenager terrorized by a dirty picture she’s posted online, and whose story comprises the collection’s titular novella. (Nick) Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois: Jennifer DuBois follows her decorated first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, with Cartwheel, a novel with loud echoes of the recent murder trial, conviction and eventual acquittal of Amanda Knox. Cartwheel’s protagonist, Lily Hayes, is an American arriving in Buenos Aires for a semester abroad. Five weeks later she’s the prime suspect in her roommate's brutal murder. Questions arise. Is Lily guilty? More importantly, exactly who is Lily Hayes? “Cartwheel will keep you guessing until the final page,” the publisher promises, “and its questions about how much we really know about ourselves will linger well beyond.” (Bill) The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna: Aminatta Forna made her name with The Devil That Danced on the Water, her memoir about her father’s execution for treason in Sierra Leone. In her new novel, The Hired Man, a naive middle-class Englishwoman named Laura arrives with her two teenage children in the Croatian town of Gost, planning to renovate an old house. She enlists the help of an introspective handyman named Duro, and before long the haunted memories of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s come bubbling up from the past. Ill-equipped to understand the dark local history, Laura will come to see that there is great power in overcoming the thirst for revenge. (Bill) Heart of Darkness (Illustrated) by Matt Kish: In October 2011, Tin House books published Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures, with artwork for each page of text taken from the Signet Classic Paperback. Now, Heart of Darkness will get similar treatment, although this project has 100 illustrations to Moby Dick’s 552. The New York Post showcased some wonderful images from the upcoming publication. Matt Kish, a librarian by day, prefers “illustrator” to “artist,” he says, “There's a lot of artists out there, they’re real assholes, and if you haven’t gone to art school, if you haven’t had an MFA, if you haven’t had a gallery show, if you cant put together some rambling artist statement, you’re not worthy of that term.” Looks like art to me. (Lydia) Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips: The creepy-sounding plot of Jayne Anne Phillips’s fifth novel is based on a true-life 1930s story of a con man who insinuated himself into the life of a young, impoverished widow only to murder her and her three children. Like Phillips’s previous novel, Lark & Termite (a 2009 National Book Award Finalist), parts of the story are set in rural West Virginia, where Phillips herself is from. With a reporter protagonist who sets out to investigate the crime after the fact, there are shades of In Cold Blood. (Hannah) At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón: Peruvian native Daniel Alarcón’s stories thrive on equal parts revolution and spectacle, as evidenced in his first collection, War by Candlelight, as well as in his first novel, Lost City Radio, where the emcee of a popular radio show reunites loved ones separated during a recent civil war. In At Night We Walk in Circles, the Whiting Award-winning Best Young American Novelist draws inspiration from stories told to him by prisoners jailed in Lima’s largest prison. Alarcón again situates his novel in a South American state, where the protagonist flounders until he’s cast in a revival of touring play penned the leader of a guerilla theatre troupe. (Anne) The Last Animal by Abby Geni: This debut collection of short stories is thematically linked by characters who “use the interface between the human and the natural world to contend with their modern challenges in love, loss and family life.” Geni, who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a winner of the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, has received early praise from Dan Chaon, who says, “These are sharp, incisive, thoughtful, and utterly original stories” and from Jim Gavin, who calls these stories “Haunting and beautiful.” (Edan) Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont: Is it strange that an author many wouldn’t hesitate to call the greatest living American writer has yet to be the subject of a major critical work? Pierpont remedies this with a book described as “not a biography…but something more rewarding: an attempt to understand a great writer through his art.” The New Yorker staff writer should prove a fascinating non-biographer: her previous book was Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, and while her current subject has been accused of sexism many times throughout his long career, David Remnick reported that at a celebration of Roth’s eightieth birthday in March, Pierpont “took it upon herself to survey the variety, depth, and complexity of Roth’s female characters — a strong, and convincing, rebuke to years of criticism that the books are misogynistic.” (Elizabeth) How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman: Former Granta editor John Freeman’s first book, The Tyranny of Email, considered the ways that email collapsed great distances between us. In it he argues for a more nuanced and discerning form of communication through conversation—an art form that he showcases in his latest book, How to Read a Novelist. In more than fifty interviews and author profiles of literary titans such as Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, and Doris Lessing, Freeman’s conversations and observations uncover these authors’ obsessions, quirks, and nuances of character as if they’re characters themselves. According to Freeman, a novelist requires observational distance, something to be considered in light of the subject of his first book: “it’s the miraculous distance that I think makes the writers who they are.” (Anne) The Karl Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen: Karl Kraus, as immortalized in Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name, was an incendiary aphorist and, in his one-man journal Die Fackel (The Torch), a critic who rivaled Nietzche for implacability. His influence on the culture of pre- and interwar Austria and Germany can’t be overstated; writers from Broch to Canetti are in his debt. Yet aphorisms are notoriously hard to translate, and to date, no really good volume of Kraus has been available to lay readers in English. Jonathan Franzen’s decision to attempt one is as likely to provoke grousing as most everything he does, but I, for one, salute his berserk industry. (Garth) The Most of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron: Ephron died a year ago and this fall Random House is bringing out a wide-ranging collection of her writing edited by Robert Gottlieb. The screenplay to When Harry Met Sally will be in there, as will her famous piece on being flat-chested, blog posts on politics and dying, and the screenplay to her last work, Lucky Guy. (Kevin) The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble: Drabble’s eighteenth novel—her first since 2006—is set in 1960s London. It centers on Jessica, an anthropology student who, after becoming pregnant during an affair with a married professor, is forced to raise a daughter alone, her own life’s trajectory fracturing as a result. “One thing I have never been very good at is creating ‘good’ mothers,” Drabble said in a 1978 The Paris Review interview. “I’d written books and books before someone pointed out that I was perpetually producing these ‘bad’ mothers.” The “prismatic” novel is told from the perspectives of “the mothers who surround Jess,” examining “unexpected transformations at the heart of motherhood.” (Elizabeth) Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal: Lore Segal is a treasure-house of wit and a power-house of style. Lucinella, reissued as part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella Series, was one of the best books I read in 2009. Now Melville House returns to the well for her first novel since the Pulitzer finalist Shakespeare’s Kitchen. The plot involves a suspicious surge in the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease among patients (characters from previous Segal novels among them) at a Manhattan emergency room in the period after September 11. Even the catalog copy brims with insight: “terrorist paranoia and end-of-the-world hysteria masks deeper fears about mortality.” You’re welcome, America. (Garth) The Night Guest by Fiona MacFarlane: Penguin Australia is calling Macfarlane “a new voice” and “a writer who comes to us fully formed.” It’s true that The Night Guest, which will be published in October, is Macfarlane’s debut novel; but she’s been publishing stories for some time now, and here you can read a Q&A about her story “Art Appreciation,” published in The New Yorker this past May. The Night Guest centers around the mysterious arrival of Frida at the isolated beach house of Ruth, a widow, but “soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be.” (Sonya) Every Short Story: 1951-2012 by Alasdair Gray: Exactly what it says on the tin: the comprehensive volume (nearly 1,000 pages!) offers up more than half a century of the Scottish fantasist’s short fiction, including sixteen stories published here for the first time. Known for his dark humor and wild imagination, the stories span the broad range of his fascinating career. Whimsical drawings are interspersed throughout, the stories as much visual works as literary ones. “Illustration and typography play a major part in his work,” says The Guardian. “He doesn’t just write books, he creates them.” It’s probably worth noting, too, that The Guardian has also described Gray as a “a glorious one-man band, the dirty old man of Scottish letters.” (Elizabeth) Personae by Sergio de la Pava: In the wake of A Naked Singularity’s success, the University of Chicago Press is likewise reissuing de la Pava’s self-published second novel, Personae. In most ways, it’s as different from its predecessor as grits from greens—a Cloud Atlas-y series of nested genre pieces covering the whodunit, the interior monologue, and the theater of the absurd. But fans of the earlier book will recognize de la Pava’s fearlessness and wild ambition, along with the ventriloquistic range that made the Jalen Kingg letters so moving. An excerpt is available at The Quarterly Conversation. (Garth) The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson: Winterson’s new novella, published to critical acclaim in the UK last year, takes on the trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, when a group of destitute outcasts, mostly women, were put on trial for witchcraft. “What is clear amid the poverty and brutality here,” the critic Arifa Akbar wrote in The Independent, “is that other-worldy evil is far outweighed by the harm that human beings inflict.” (Emily) The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: The author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Rehearsal returns with a literary mystery set in 19th century New Zealand. When Walter Moody arrives on the coast of New Zealand, hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields, he stumbles upon a gathering of men who have met in secret to discuss a number of apparently coincidental recent events: on the day when a prostitute was arrested, a rich man disappeared, a down-on-his-luck alcoholic died, and a ship’s captain canceled all of his appointments and fled. The prostitute is connected to all three men, and Moody finds himself drawn into their interlinked lives and fates. (Emily) November: A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor: When Flannery O’Connor was in her early 20s and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she kept a journal which focused on her relationship with her faith. Recently discovered, this journal should be a fascinating prospect for anyone with an interest in O’Connor’s writing, inseparable as it is from her Catholic belief in sin and redemption. It dates from 1946-47, around the time she was writing the stories that would converge into her debut novel Wise Blood. It looks to have been an exercise in bringing herself closer to her God through the act of writing: “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant.” (Mark) Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone: Steven Brookman is a brilliant professor at an elite college in New England. Maud Stack is his promising and alluring young student. You know where this is going. Unfortunately, however, Professor Brookman is a married man, and Maud Stack’s passions are “not easily contained or curtailed.” In this tale of infidelity and its affects on human relationships—as well as on the institutions in which they reside—Robert Stone makes clear that almost nothing is black and white, and that when it comes to “the allure of youth” and “the promise of absolution,” all roads may lead to madness. (Nick) A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks: Russell Banks—the author of The Sweet Hereafter and The Darling (among many others) and an acknowledged master chronicler of the tragedies of American life—will publish his first collection of short stories in fifteen years. The book is composed of twelve stories, six of which appear for the first time. The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist’s last novel, Lost Memory of Skin, documented the straitened lives of a group of sex offenders living under a Florida causeway. (Lydia) Report from the Interior by Paul Auster: Last year Auster released Winter Journal, a personal history of the author’s own body. This fall he will publish a companion piece of sorts that depicts the world as he saw it as a child growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s. (Kevin) The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg brings her mystical touch to her second collection of short stories, following her highly praised first collection, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us, which was shortlisted for The Frank O’Connor International Award. From a writer who professes to “freaking love coming up with zany plots,” The Isle of Youth delivers with stories of magicians, private detectives, and identity-trading twins. (Hannah) Hild by Nicola Griffith: Nicola Griffith, British novelist and former poster child for the woes of American immigration policy (in 1998, The Wall Street Journal called her “a lesbian science-fiction writer,” like it's a bad thing). Her newest novel Hild takes place in seventh-century Britain in the Synod of Whitby, where the people were deciding what kind of Christians to be. The name “Hild” refers to the person we now know as St. Hilda, who presided over the conference during which the Synod debated the relative merits of Celtic and Roman Christianity. In an interview with her editor, Griffith reported that the source material on St. Hilda is basically limited to five pages in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, so she was compelled to do a ferocious amount of research to recreate the world and customs, if not the life, of this early English figure. (Lydia) Collected Stories by Stefan Zweig: Pushkin Press anointed 2013 as “The Year of Stefan Zweig,” in order to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the famed Austrian author’s death by a wartime suicide pact. Zweig’s fictions are oft fueled by seduction, desire, and affairs of the heart, mettle which helped make him an author of international renown during his tumultuous lifetime. Pushkin is singlehandedly attempting to reinvigorate Zweig’s reputation by issuing a series of rereleases and a handful of new translations of his works. An ideal introduction for the unacquainted comes in the form of Zweig’s Collected Stories, featuring twenty-three stories translated by Anthea Bell. (Anne) Beyond: Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Speaking of eminences grises... From The March to Homer & Langley to that cover version of Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” that ran in The New Yorker a few years back, Doctorow just keeps swinging. The product description on Amazon is sketchy, but the talk of a main character “speaking from an unknown place and to an unknown interlocutor [about] the circumstances that have led him to commit a mysterious act” sound downright Beckett-y, while the title makes me secretly hope Doctorow’s returning to science fiction (after suppressing his previous effort, Big as Life). (Garth) A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: W.G. Sebald’s collection of six essays was originally published in German in 1998, three years before his untimely death. The collection is an homage to six writers and artists (“colleagues,” he calls them, and “Alemmanic”), all of whom meant something to Sebald: Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, and Jan Peter Tripp. Already out in the United Kingdom, the essays are apparently solidly in the Sebald tradition—which, as I understand it, defies attribution of stolid nouns like “criticism,” “fiction,” or “biography,” rejoicing instead in the patterns and echoes of what one critic called “half-reality.” (Lydia) Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: Chronically saddled with the designation of “experimental author,” Jesse Ball has written three novels, including The Way Through Doors, a book of poems and flash fiction, and a co-written prose poem, each work demonstrating a gift for quiet, powerful prose and a loose relationship with realism. His first hardcover release, Silence Once Begun, tells the story of a man who confesses to a string of crimes in writing, then never speaks during his arrest or interrogation, and the journalist who becomes obsessed with his case. (Janet) On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Best known for his haunting stories of Korean history and American immigrant life, Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee tries his hand at speculative fiction, setting his new novel in a dystopian future in which America is in steep decline and urban neighborhoods have been turned into walled labor colonies that provide fresh produce and fish for the surrounding villages where the elite live. In the novel, Fan, a woman laborer, sets out in search of a vanished lover and finds herself crossing the lawless Open Counties, where the government exerts little control and crime is rampant. (Michael) Perfect by Rachel Joyce: Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was a national bestseller and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her highly anticipated second novel has two narratives, one about two boys in the early 1970s and their obsession with the two seconds added to clock time to balance with the movement of the earth, and one about a present-day man who is debilitated by his obsessive-compulsive routines. Blogger Kate Neilan loved it, saying, “Rachel Joyce should be praised from the rooftops for Perfect; there’s not a thing I’d change about it.” Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: “With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits,” says David Winters in his Millions review of Marcus’s recent novel The Flame Alphabet. Marcus has long been a champion of experimental writing and innovative uses of language, as demonstrated by the stories he selected for the unmatched Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. His forthcoming Leaving the Sea is the first collection of Marcus’s short stories. Expect nothing except more boundary pushing and an exquisite sense of the unexpected. (Anne)
My year in reading has been a lesson in letting go. It began with the physical: when my apartment building was sold in January, I began a series of culls of my unwieldy book collection, of a set of shelves I’d so carefully organized when I moved in, now obscured by random stacks of cheap paperbacks, uncorrected proofs, impulse purchases, unwanted offerings from friends -- so many books I’d never read, would never read, and simply couldn’t bring myself to pack up and unpack again somewhere else. I’ve always tended towards nesting and collecting -- this is the kindest possible way to describe my perpetual state of clutter -- but for once, I did it, discarding without mercy, hauling big bags of books into the office and depositing them on our communal bench for the next unsuspecting hoarder. I found a new apartment, and I swore I’d do the same for all the other unwieldy piles of things in my life before moving day arrived, but in the end, I never did. They were unceremoniously dumped into boxes and trucked a few exits down the BQE, then shoved into closets and corners; I have yet to fully finish unpacking them all. But there was more to the great book giveaway than simple space: I have been slowly learning to let go of books on another level -- something less tangible, I guess, maybe intellectual, or emotional, or spiritual. I am learning (just now!) to shed the guilt that keeps me turning the pages of books I honestly cannot stand; I am working to tell the difference between a book that is worth the struggle and a book that simply isn’t for me. This is, I suppose, all part of growing older: establishing and developing taste, learning to define and hone it, and being careful not to let your mind narrow -- or to snap shut -- in the process. And even as I joined this site as a staff writer a few months back, I was busy practicing reading books not for work, brushing off a whole different subsection of guilt, where I read classics, or books that came out three years ago, or something trashy, or novels I’ve come back to more times than seems healthy, and that was all OK, because, after all, there was a reason I’d become an English major in the first place. But here, at the end of all this, I’m left with an incredibly scattered year in reading -- I’m scratching my head and looking back at the last 11 months and wondering what the hell I was thinking through all of this. In the spring, I took a course in literary theory, filling in a gap in my undergraduate education, I thought, which meant rereading Frankenstein and The Tempest and then sighing a lot through Jacques Derrida & Co. before picking my own book -- A Passage to India -- for the final paper. It was my third time around, and I found it so different to when I read it last -- five years ago -- that it was kind of astounding. Who knew there was so much nuance! (Most people.) When I later revisited Netherland, for an essay on cricket, my memory of it held up better. I read Cloud Atlas sitting at a sidewalk café, and marveled at the number of people who stopped in their tracks to talk to me about it. There was some great new stuff -- Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, for one, around which I built an argument about modern-day slacker literature for my first Millions piece of the year. There was some not-so-great new stuff -- much of that gave me the chance to practice the whole “putting down and not feeling guilty” thing. It mostly felt like I was reading a bunch of the not-particularly-new-but-largely-wonderful, like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, followed by his earlier Blood Horses, part history, part mythology, part memoir, meandering and powerfully direct all at once. There was something slowly intoxicating about English, August, by Upamanyu Chatterjee, which I picked up for the aforementioned slacker lit piece and with which I easily fell in love. And then there was my favorite book this year, hands-down -- Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, published elsewhere as Chinaman, a reference to the left-armed bowl for which Mathew, the elusive cricketer at the heart of the story, is known. It’s the sort of book that turns you into an evangelist, in an almost embarrassing way, like, reaching into your purse to wave a copy in peoples’ faces when someone casually mentions, “I hear you’re writing about cricket?” But even as books come and go, loosened and removed from the physical and metaphorical shelves, the ones that stay get stickier, and I’ve got a very sticky shelf full of the collected works of Stephen Fry. I started the year with Fry’s new memoir, The Fry Chronicles, which I enjoyed, though not nearly as much as the first installment, Moab Is My Washpot. When he came to America to promote it, I waited for hours to ask him to sign a copy of his first book, The Liar, which I have read approximately one million times. As I handed him the world’s crappiest, most yellowed paperback, dog-eared and spine heavily creased, already shamefully beat-up probably a decade before I paid £3 for it at that permanent used book sale under the Waterloo Bridge, I blurted out how many times I’d read it and how much I loved it. He looked utterly exhausted, but he smiled brightly as he signed the title page, exclaiming, “Oh, well, thank you!” More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? 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1. What makes a sport a good subject for a novel? On American shelves, baseball is king: it often feels disproportionately represented in literature, especially with football and basketball taking up so much space in the cultural landscape. (Not to mention car racing, the most-watched sport in the country—though I’m not clamoring for that Great American NASCAR Novel just yet.) But books and baseball feel like an easy fit: after all, the sport has essentially fictionalized its own history, creating a big, century-long narrative that often serves to whip up equal parts nostalgia and excitement for the modern game. It seems that the most successful sports novels are those that can exist within these big narratives, regardless of the relative popularity of the sport: horse racing—a dying industry propped up by its own history—sits at one end of the spectrum, while soccer—living, breathing, and still rapidly growing—sits at the other, but great novels have been written about both. It’s not particularly surprising, then, that great novels have been written about cricket. Cricket fans hate lazy comparisons to baseball, but the literary analogy is an apt one here: if baseball is America, then cricket is—or rather, was—England. From Dickens (the All-Muggleton versus Dingely Dell match, in The Pickwick Papers) to P. G. Wodehouse (who played amongst remarkably impressive literary company on an XI that sometimes included Arthur Conan Doyle, J. M. Barrie, A. A. Milne, G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells, and just about every other late Victorian writer who went by his first two initials), cricket served as a means to celebrate—or criticize—something intrinsically English: a game fashioned in the image of a nation. British culture has moved on in the intervening years; these days, soccer is clearly the ruling game. Cricket now belongs to the nations of the Commonwealth: the sport has huge international appeal and is dominated by the former colonies of the British Empire, from the Indian subcontinent to the West Indies to southern Africa to Oceania. The literary history of cricket, in turn, is a lesson in colonialism and post-colonialism. Cricket enthusiasts began building the sport’s narrative in the Victorian era—they wanted it to represent the idea of a near-fictional England, with an emphasis on the rural and the ancient, a construction that they exported to the farthest reaches of the British Empire. The sport was—and still is—imbued with a deep sense of morality. In 1909, Ford Madox Ford wrote, “‘playing cricket’ is synonymous with pursuing honourable courses.” "Not cricket" was code for unsportsmanlike and ungracious conduct; abroad, the same phrase evoked a sense of disorder that the colonizing British felt the need to conquer and set right, however misguided (and extraordinarily harmful) those impulses may have been. As cricket circumnavigated the globe, its narrative began to splinter and grow in different ways, but the idea of cricket as a gentlemen’s game remained. By the mid-twentieth century, cricket was being used as a metaphor and an argument for self-rule in the colonies. Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James’s Beyond a Boundary, equal parts memoir and treatise, is politics by cricket—and considered one of the greatest sports books of all time. In the twenty-first century, these legacies remain. We’re left with two wonderful post-colonial novels in which cricket plays a central role: Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 critical darling, Netherland, and Shehan Karunatilaka’s extraordinary Chinaman, published that same year in Sri Lanka and the winner of this year’s Commonwealth Book Prize. It was released this spring in the U.S., re-titled The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. Reading these books side by side, you see more differences than similarities: old world versus new, and old styles versus new, as well, the occasionally stifling “lyrical Realism,” to borrow Zadie Smith’s critique of Netherland, versus the beautifully erratic—Michael Ondaatje rightly said that Pradeep Mathew was “a crazy ambidextrous delight.” Stylistically, structurally, and thematically, Netherland and Pradeep Mathew are wildly divergent. But the story of cricket is embedded deeply in both narratives, along with the code of ethics that rules the sport, however constructed those ideas might be. To read these novels as “cricket books” is to attempt to understand the story of cricket; without that shared narrative, we’d be left with a pair of books about lonely guys who can barely handle the reins of their own lives. 2. Cricket’s exact origins are somewhat contentious, but the first recorded matches of the game as we recognize it today took place in England in the mid-1500s. Two centuries later, it was the national sport. The game was considered a “rough” one then, known for its violence and played for large sums of money, which invariably attracted the sort of spectator looking to turn a quick profit. By the nineteenth century, cricket had evolved into a deeply classist affair: “gentlemen,” amateurs mostly from the upper classes who learned to play in public schools, were pitted against “players,” professionals mostly from the lower classes. Gentlemen were widely known for batting, and the best among them were celebrated for their elegance and their economy of movement; players, meanwhile, were the workhorses, saddled with the less-glamorous and more physical task of bowling. (A woman was rumored to have invented the overarm bowl—her hoopskirt got in the way of overhand tosses—because in mixed-gender games, men would always bat, while women would always bowl. In reality, the overarm bowl was invented by a man, but the stratified imagery remains.) In the colonies, as the British taught the game to their new subjects, colonists would inevitably be cast in the role of players, bowling to their batting colonizers. For a comprehensive history of cricket and literature, it seems best to start with Anthony Bateman’s Cricket, Literature and Culture, published in 2009. It’s probably one of the most readable and lively academic books I’ve ever come across. Bateman is concerned with the “literaturization” of cricket, the process by which written material fed into and influenced changing perceptions—and eventually, the institutionalization—of cricket over the past two centuries. To introduce links between the sport and literature, there’s Benny Green, a cricket historian: “Not only does cricket, more than any other game, inspire the urge to literary expression; it is almost as though the game itself would not exist at all until written about.” Bateman begins with the Reverend James Pycroft and his wildly popular 1851 book The Cricket Field, which celebrated what would later be known as “Muscular Christianity”—“a doctrine that saw physical weakness as evidence of spiritual shortcomings against which Christian faith, clean living, self-discipline and exercise in the form of team sports was the only cure.” Bateman later describes the book as “overtly xenophobic”: Pycroft wrote, “Hence it has come to pass that, wherever her Majesty’s servants have ‘carried their victorious arms’ and legs, wind and weather permitting, cricket has been played. Still the game is essentially Anglo-Saxon. Foreigners have rarely, very rarely, imitated us.” As cricket evolved from a rough folk game to the sport of public schoolboys and gentlemen batsmen, it began to take on the pastoral and nostalgic overtones that it carries to this day (though it was celebrated in the Victorian era, in the twenty-first century, this sort of stuff isn’t usually seen as positive—with its white sweater vests and seemingly sleepy pace, cricket often feels anachronistic and stuffy to outsiders). But more importantly than all of that, it was an English game—the same celebration of the pastoral as something deeply English was happening across the country, in music, art, and popular literature. Cricket was well suited for the task. Neville Cardus, one of the most celebrated cricket writers of the twentieth century, wrote that “cricket more than any other game is inclined toward sentimentalism and cant.” Cricketing idealism carried the British upper classes blithely into the First World War—“When the sons of old England are all driven from their native land by foreign foes, then—and not till then—will the bat, the ball, and the wicket be laid aside and forgotten,” wrote Nicholas Wanostrocht half a century prior—and nostalgia for the pre-war days in the twenties and thirties featured a great deal of wistful cricket talk: the long, slow afternoons on the pitches of some fantasy Edwardian England stood in for the relative innocence that was decimated by the war. Far from these mythical fields, cricket was an integral part of the expansion of the British Empire. Bateman writes that the spread of the sport was “often informal, uneven and geographically specific…not part of a straightforward, centrally controlled and consciously executed ‘civilising mission’.” Cecil Headlam (whose racism Bateman later describes as “quite staggering but casually-expressed”) summed up the general trajectory of the invading Britons: “First the hunter, the missionary, and the merchant, next the soldier and the politician, and then the cricketer—that is the history of British colonisation. And of these civilising influences the last may, perhaps, be said to do least harm.” On the surface, there was some truth to that—colonists were being taught a sport, not converted or taxed or conscripted—but these test matches arrived with a rigid ideas about race and class: colonists were relegated to perpetual bowling slots, and when rules were misunderstood or their play was unorthodox or "not cricket", colonizers would chalk it up to racial inferiority, the idea that no non- (white) Englishman could ever master the game. But modernity arrived, and before long, white and non-white colonists alike were sending their best players for tours of England—and the English began to lose. (The 1932 Bodyline affair, in which the English, tired of losing to Australia, resorted to some largely "not cricket" tactics to take down Australian great Donald Bradman, is still known as one of the most infamous and important events in the sport’s history.) It was under the changing landscape of international cricket that C.L.R. James emerged. “Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it,” he wrote in Beyond a Boundary, published in 1963. “When I did turn to politics, I did not have too much to learn.” Bateman writes that James works within the tradition of English cricket writing—“part of a broader discourse of Englishness that functioned…[by] rendering culture no longer a construct to be fought over”—and turns that tradition on its head, arguing for Caribbean sovereignty within England’s own prescribed set of terms. This echoed throughout all cricket-loving nations in the decades that followed: the former colonists took cricket and expropriated it for themselves, though in the process, they overlaid their own cultural concerns and political conflicts on the game. In Netherland, we find a mix of cricket refugees, Commonwealth immigrants exiled in cricket-averse New York City, navigating the politics of America while trying to uphold the ideals of the sport. And in Pradeep Mathew, all of Sri Lankan politics are wrapped up in all of Sri Lankan cricket, played under the thumb of a decades-long civil war—one in which the eponymous cricketer has inevitably gotten tangled. 3. To most Americans, there is something inexplicably foreign about cricket. On the surface, it is pretty similar to baseball, at least compared to just about any other sport: bats and balls and runs and innings—like baseball, cricket is heaven for statisticians. But perhaps the similarities throw us off: we watch a few minutes, expecting it to be perfectly analogous and comprehensible, and are irreparably jarred by the differences. (The funniest example of our perceptions of cricket might be a sketch that, despite coming from the Dutch comedy show “Jiskefet”, is entitled “What playing cricket looks like to Americans” on YouTube, and involves a giant chessboard, a freestanding set of swinging doors, and commentary full of gibberish.) Halfway through the nineteenth century, baseball and cricket were on equal footing here—if anything, cricket was the more popular of the two—but during and after the Civil War, baseball’s “national pastime” narrative was constructed and spread. Baseball was supposedly more egalitarian—it could be played in any open space, rather than cricket’s proscribed pitches—and its promoters sold the game on a national level as a uniquely American sport. Cricket stayed local, largely in the big cities of the Northeast, and faded from the American consciousness. But when immigration laws were loosened in the sixties, members of the Commonwealth nations began to arrive, and cricket quietly came back to America. Today, an estimated 200,000 people play the sport in some organized way in the U.S., mostly in amateur leagues and casual games on weekends. It is within this slow cultural turn that we can locate Netherland, Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel which, according to the sticker affixed to my paperback copy, President Obama has described as both “fascinating” and “wonderful” (he turned to it when he was “sick enough of briefing books” in the spring of 2009). Netherland was a big hit: broad critical praise, prestigious awards, and a firm place in the pantheon of very-recent post-9/11 fiction—the subject is dealt with quietly but pervasively, a heavy undercurrent running through the entire anxiety-laden narrative. Irish-born O’Neill’s protagonist, Hans van den Broek, is a Dutch financial analyst living in New York City before and after September 11, trying to mend a disintegrating marriage and searching for a metaphorical and metaphysical place in both the city and the country. He finds the Staten Island Cricket Club, the oldest in America and an organization that is today largely frequented by these Commonwealth immigrants—Hans is the only white man on a team that is made up of Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and West Indians, “nominally, three Hindus, three Christians, a Sikh, and four Muslims.” On a foreigner’s map of New York City, these are growing but often largely invisible groups, relegated to enclaves at the far ends of subway lines: in the early pages of Netherland, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian who is Hans’s closest friend through most of the book, makes an impassioned speech to this effect, which starts with the "not cricket" expression—he is discussing some poor behavior on the field prior to that evening’s game. He then draws some fairly unsubtle but potent metaphors about cricket and those who play it in America: "In this country, we’re nowhere. We’re a joke. Cricket? How funny. So we play as a matter of indulgence. And if we step out of line, believe me, this indulgence disappears. … What this means is, we have an extra responsibility to play this game right. We have to prove ourselves. We have to let our hosts see that these strange-looking guys are up to something worthwhile. I say ‘see.’ I don’t know why I use that word. Every summer the parks of this city are taken over by hundreds of cricketers but somehow nobody notices. Now that’s nothing new, for those of us who are black or brown. As for those who are not”—Chuck acknowledged my presence with a smile—“you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I say that I sometimes tell people, You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketer. Put on white to feel black." Chuck often speaks in big, sweeping metaphors. (Later, he tells Hans: “‘The noble bald eagle represents the spirit of freedom, living as it does in the boundless void of the sky.’ I turned to see whether he was joking. He wasn’t. From time to time, Chuck actually spoke like this.”) Playing cricket, living by cricket’s values, becomes a metaphor for quiet assimilation. In the first cricket scene, Hans describes the pitch on which they play, where the grass is never cut properly. On a traditionally kept pitch, with its trimmed grass, a skilled batsman will try to bank bouncing shots along the ground. In tall grasses, this is rendered impossible: “Consequently, in breach of the first rule of batting, the batsman is forced to smash the ball into the air…and batting is turned into a gamble.” Hans later realizes that he is going to have to change his batting style if he wants to play cricket in America, so to speak. But as the only person of privilege on the team—white, wealthy, Western—Hans consciously separates himself from his teammates. “But it was, I felt, different for them. They had grown up playing the game in floodlit Lahore car parks or in rough clearings in some West Indian countryside. They could, and did, modify their batting without spiritual upheaval. I could not.” Hans’s friendship with Chuck reorients that map of New York both physically and spiritually—traveling the long stretch of Coney Island Avenue, in South Brooklyn, or across Hillside Avenue, in the far reaches of Queens. Chuck pushes him forward, however slightly, towards action; Hans is the sort of passive and permissive character whose lack of movement becomes a plot point. But cricket remains an undercurrent, as the plot meanders: Chuck wants to start a cricket club in New York, to plow out an old Brooklyn airfield and open a cricket stadium, to reignite an American passion for the sport that died more than a century ago. He has other schemes, lots of schemes, and these are the least life threatening (we learn within the first pages of the book that he has turned up dead in the Gowanus Canal). But for Hans, cricket in America is a moral dilemma: “on the one hand, my sense of an innings as a chanceless progression of orthodox shots—impossible under local conditions—and, on the other hand, the indigenous notion of batting as a gamble of hitting out.” When he finally makes the leap, and smashes one out of the park, so to speak (only to be called out soon after): “And everything is suddenly clear, and I am at last naturalized.” 4. If Netherland is a book of cricketing outsiders, what does the sport look like from the inside, from the heart of the cricket-loving world? We can turn, then, to Sri Lanka: the narrator and hero of Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is a washed-up, alcoholic sports writer named W.G. Karunasera—Wiji to his Sri Lankan friends, “WeeGee” to the English ones, and Gamini to his long-suffering wife. He himself longs to be known by his initials only—“W.G. May not roll of the tongue, but I like how it sounds. Come W.G., let’s put a drink. W.G. at your service madam. I’m sorry, Mr. W.G., but we cannot refund your bet. Sadly, the only place my initials appear is where I place them myself.” Wiji is an extraordinarily charming narrator—and a suitably unreliable one. Cricket isn’t merely a metaphor here, as it is in Netherland, though it often serves as one: Wiji treats cricket as he does alcohol—his passion for both is painful and debilitating, and he cannot live without either. He doesn’t waste any time getting into the details of it, to both his amusement and the bewilderment of the uninitiated reader. From page 6, “Clean Bowled”: The simplest dismissal is when the bowler knocks over the batsman’s wickets. Mathew did this with most of his victims. He sent left-arm chinamen, googlies, armballs and darters through pads and feet. Here is a not-so-random sample of batsmen whose balls he dislodged. Border. Chappell. Crowe. Gatting. Gavaskar. Gower. Greenidge. Hadlee. Imran. Kapil. Lloyd. Miandad. You are shaking your head. You are closing the book and frowning at the cover. Rereading the blurb at the back. Wondering if a refund is out of the question. On the surface, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is about the search for Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew, a Sri Lankan cricketer who seems to have slipped from the record books, even though peoples’ vague memories and sketchy stories paint a portrait of one of the greatest and most mercurial players in Sri Lanka’s history. (The original title, Chinaman, refers to a common type of bowling style.) In the opening lines of the novel, another list: “Why, you ask, has no one heard of our nation’s greatest cricketer? Here, in no particular order. Politics, racism, power cuts, and plain bad luck. If you are unwilling to follow me on the next God-knows-how-many pages, re-read the last two sentences. They are as good a summary as I can give from this side of the bottle.” Politics, racism, power cuts—in a few words, the story of Sri Lankan cricket, and, in turn, Sri Lanka, unfurl: Mathew is Tamil, and, unrelated or not, seems to have made some shady deals. But the entirety of the novel takes place within the long, bloody stretch of the Sri Lankan Civil war, which began in 1983 and ended just three years ago. This book couldn’t exist without that context. Like C.L.R. James, this is politics by sport, though Karunatilaka often muddies these waters; the analogies aren’t nearly as cut and dry. Wiji is a poor detective, though what he lacks in focus and skill he makes up for in enthusiasm. To reduce this novel—either of these novels—to books “about cricket” is to take away from all the amazing things that Karunatilaka does here: the entire book, with its brief episodes, lists, and anecdotes, is sleight-of-hand, but the sort that leaves you feeling gratified in the end, rather than cheated. But to say that Pradeep Mathew isn’t “about cricket” is also a gross misrepresentation: there are diagrams, photographs, statistics, random asides, and all the rules of the sport in what seems like the completely wrong order, so that a cricket novice might close the back cover and say, “I still don’t really understand how this game is basically played.” It’s as though your drunk uncle set out to explain something to you, giving you all the wrong information at the wrong time and getting far too excited about minor details or non-sequiturs—which, I suppose, is exactly what’s happening here. In Pradeep Mathew we come at the sport from the most unusual angles, but luckily, our understanding of the game deepens in turn. Running beneath all of this is politics. Wiji sees it, acknowledges it—in some ways, he’s internalized it long ago—but he stops every so often to lay it out, and to explain some basic things to a non-Sri Lankan, which is helpful to a Western reader trying to sort out cultural differences from cricket talk. Like when Karunatilaka revisits the rebel South African tours: in the eighties, South Africa was banned from international cricket as a result of Apartheid, but test matches were still organized and staged by South Africa, luring players desperate for money and able to overlook any political or moral misgivings. Or when he’s talking with his English friend, Jonny, about the British ability to set aside conflicts of nationality and culture on the sporting field, something, he says, Sri Lankans didn’t manage to inherit: Sri Lanka is filled with many shades of brown…It is not so much the colours as the ideas that these colours spawn that I find objectionable. The united super-race of Britons may have started it when they, among other things, segregated our cricket clubs. Though it is perhaps unfair and inaccurate to lay the blame for our racial problems on the streets of Downing or the palaces of Buckingham. Despite the existence of a Sinhalese Sports Club, a Tamil Union, a Moors SC, a Burgher Recreation Club and a perversely christened Nondescripts Cricket Club, cricket as a sport refuses to be segregated. Clubs grab talent regardless of vowels or consonants or moustaches or chalk. So much for divide and conquer. In the end, at the heart of The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is a deep, unwavering love for cricket—and just as we inevitably fall for the story’s narrator, we come to love the sport itself, despite its history or its faults. In a world where facts and statistics are painstakingly recorded and often celebrated, we find just as much joy—maybe more—in something less tangible: the idea of the game, and the people devoted to it. Early on, Karunatilaka snags us easily, seducing even the most skeptical reader. From “Sales Pitch,” we’re hooked: If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you. Image via Wikimedia Commons
It's not surprising that it took more than 50 years after his death, for the works of the Dutch writer Nescio to be translated and published in America. It wasn't until after WWII that he gained any notoriety in the Netherlands and he only became a beloved member of the Dutch canon posthumously. As Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland, writes in his introduction to Amsterdam Stories, the first collection of Nescio's work to appear in America, “[Nescio] wrote very little, and he wrote small.” His longest work is 42 pages long. His entire published oeuvre, including editor's notes and some unpublished fragments, fits in this 161 page volume. Nescio wrote in a handful of years between 1909 and 1942 and almost nothing in the 1920s and 1930s. Nescio (Latin for “I don't know”) was the pen name of Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh. After briefly falling in with a circle of ambitious artistic youths and applying to join a colony in the Dutch countryside founded by psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, Grönloh committed himself to a business career in 1904. He married in 1906 and immediately began fathering children, eventually having four daughters. After a series of minor office jobs, he ended up working for the Holland-Bombay Trading company, becoming its director in 1926 and, O'Neill points out, “a notably demanding and severe boss.” Grönloh was as bourgeoisie as could be. What little he published, he published under a pen name to protect his career as a proper Dutch businessman. Conventional Dutch life wasn't the only drain on Nescio's writing time. His first love was not writing, but walking. O'Neill writes, “At a very early age he fell in love with taking walks and as a nine-year old began to go on solitary outings, making written records of his impressions.” In 1899 alone, he walked 522 kilometers. He maintained this relationship with the Dutch landscape for the rest of his life and it became a center of gravity in his work. Remove the time at the office, on a walk, attending one of the social engagements directors of major trading firms were expected to attend, and fulfilling familial obligations, and there just wasn't much time to write. That J.H.F. Grönloh, the successful businessman, had a writing hobby is not surprising; that Nescio is a brilliant writer is shocking. As O'Neill asks, “How many important artists have been such slight practitioners?” Given how few works in translation are read in America, in general, it is a miracle Nescio got here at all. Nescio should have gotten here long ago. His work converged with many aspects of American literature and culture. The ragtag circle of artists at the center of his stories could have hung out with Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. His eco-spirituality could have inspired the hippies and early environmentalists. Fans of our great walker Thoreau would have found a kindred spirit. Whenever Rimbaud showed up in coffee shops, clubs, and cocktail parties, Nescio could have been his shadow. But Nescio's absence from our literature is most surprising because of the crushing beauty of his work. Many of you have been waiting for Amsterdam Stories; those of you who reread “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” who had (or have) world changing dreams and no longer know what to do or believe or feel about them, who aren't sure what to think when sitting in coffee shops watching people walk by, who don't know what to say when you see an old friend for the first time in years and realize how much you have changed by how much your friend has changed. Who love long walks. Who love sitting by lakes, ponds, and rivers. Who want brave and beautiful stories. Who want fiction to remind us why this is important. Nescio examines painters, writers, poets, and thinkers at various stages of their lives. We see them full of the irrational passion of youth, crippled by the frustration of middle age in a world that refused to change, conflicted about the success of their bitterest work, and settling into the spiritual acceptance only available to those who can reflect on an entire life. Though there is a sense of longing when he looks back on youth, Nescio celebrates the exuberance and naïveté without being nostalgic. He is Romantic without romanticizing. And even as daily life slowly squeezes the revolution from these characters, even as they give up painting and writing, even as some fall away to madness or complacency, Nescio argues for the artist's perspective, for the idea that even if you are unable to create, you can still see the world as an endless source of potential. For me, reading Amsterdam Stories was like watching Casablanca. Much of Casablanca has become cliché. The famous lines are quoted so often, and the famous scenes are such a part of our culture, we've seen the movie before we've actually seen it. And yet, even though we've heard them a hundred times, even though we know they're coming, the famous lines are still powerful. They are surrounded by such inherent and integral beauty, that what should make us roll our eyes, takes our breath away. In Casablanca we hear “a hill of beans” and “here's looking at you, kid.” In Amsterdam Stories we read “And I puff on my pipe in all humility, and feel like God himself, who is infinity itself. I sit there aimlessly. God's aim is aimlessness. But to keep this awareness always is granted to no man.” -- from the story “Young Titans.” “Then she stretched out her arms but there was no one to answer her. Then she didn't know if she wanted to live or die and she slowly rode her bike home, where Mother sat yawning over her Daily News under the gas lamp with her glasses on the tip of her nose,” from “The Little Poet.” “But the Lord is in the great silence and emptiness and in this wondrous end to a monumental day. The day has become mine once more and mine the enchanted world. The sun stands still, there will be no night. Time stands still; pitiless eternity takes pity,” from “Insula Dei.” In other contexts, these passages with their “God” and “live or die” and “eternity” might be overwrought bombast, but, as in Casablanca, the beauty in the fabric of the stories makes the passages transcendent. Amsterdam Stories is a book of landscape. It is about what words the mind hears when the eyes are truly open, seeing the world as a reason to create. “And the sky got bluer and bluer and the sun shone until it seemed like flowers would have to start sprouting out of the country bumpkins. And the red roofs in the villages and the black trees and the fields...And the road lay there, white and smarting, it couldn't bear the sunlight, and the glass panes of the village streetlamps flashed, they had trouble withstanding the glare too,” from “Young Titans.” “A stately row of Canadian poplars, a copse here and there. A striking emptiness and silence...And then there's a fantastic golden cloud above the grain fields, climbing up out of the grain fields, shining and spreading up and to the right...And then something looms up out of the golden matter...And a moment later it's a wagon piled high with hay,” from “Insula Dei.” It makes me feel the time has come to set out on my “journey westward.” Finally, Nescio is not afraid to be vague. He lets moments for which language is an ineffective communicator hang on the thinnest scaffolding of words. In “Out Along the Ij,” “[h]is world came in through our eyes and lived in our heads, and our thoughts went wordlessly out across the world, far beyond the horizon they went.” In “Insula Dei,” we see Flip smile “not pathetically anymore but the way you smile at someone who has done you a real favor.” As readers and writers we are taught to seek and strive for precision; an exactness from which individual interpretations can flow. But much of life is vague, inexact, and diffuse. Like the indistinct details in a Van Gogh landscape, Nescio can be meaningful and beautiful without being specific. Amsterdam Stories easily merged with my own canon, like a flood born stream joining the river. I've mentioned “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” but Nescio also reminded me of “The Hunger Artist,” “White Nights,” and the last few pages of The Great Gatsby. Stories like epic landscape paintings. Stories like a quiet chat on a river bank with a confidant. Stories like the foggy joyous hangover after a long night of tobacco-infused, coffee-fueled poetry. Beautiful stories. Love poems to life. Grönloh did not live the life of an artist, but Nescio has written one of the great apologies for art. We all struggle through the challenges of life; all the good mothers and fathers, all the diligent businessmen, all the fastidious bureaucrats, all the revolutionaries, all the mainstream politicians, all the over-read students, all the exhausted laborers, all of us. We rely on artists to remind us why that struggle is worth it.
1. “These aren’t particularly healthy times,” wrote Zadie Smith in her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel.” Casting Tom McCarthy’s Remainder as a violent, avant-garde rejection of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, she dramatized an “ailing” literary culture where “a breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.” Now that we’re a couple years into the new decade, it’s revealing to glance over our shoulders at the 2000s and see so much hand wringing about the health of literature. Sure, the State of Writing is an evergreen topic, and with all the political, cultural, and technological disruption at the turn of the millennium, folks had good reason to be nervous. Yet in retrospect, it’s disturbing to read so many famous writers in famous venues anxiously gerrymandering the literary map, roughly along the lines of Traditional Literature versus so-called Experimental Writing. A quick trip in the Wayback Machine takes us to September 2002. A year after his spat with Oprah made him a household name in well-shod neighborhoods, Jonathan Franzen appraises William Gaddis in The New Yorker, lamenting that novelists have lost their grip on the public consciousness. Are books just too hard-to-read these days? Do writers even care about audience anymore? Franzen sketches two types of novelists: Contract writers who “sustain a sense of connectedness,” and Status writers for whom “difficulty tends to signal excellence.” He wastes no time letting us know which card he carries. “The Status position is undeniably flattering to a writer’s sense of importance. In my bones, though, I’m a Contract kind of person.” Flash forward to 2005 and witness Ben Marcus slamming Franzen to the asphalt in Harper’s, defending all the “alien artisans, those poorly named experimental writers with no sales, little review coverage, a small readership, and the collective cultural pull of an ant.” Bullies like Franzen reinforce the status-quo when young writers ought to be pushing linguistic barriers and forging new neural pathways. Marcus is especially miffed that Franzen once used a New Yorker column to crap on the tiny avant-garde press Fiction Collective 2. “In Franzen's world a small press that publishes experimental fiction is a convenient villain as audience-safe as a Muslim terrorist in a movie.” Jump ahead to 2007, and Cynthia Ozick materializes in Harper’s to chide both Franzen and Marcus for their petty, ahistorical pissing match. “Why must one literary form lust to disposes another?” she asks, likening their argument to a gang fight. “The Bloods and Crips would be right at home in this alley.” Ozick is also keen to diagnose a sickly literary culture, but to her mind, the primary ailment is the dearth of rigorous literary criticism. For writers to discuss literature in such binary terms is ridiculous. “The novels that crop up in any given period are like the individual nerves that make up a distinct but variegated sensation, or act in chorus to catch a face or a tone...the white noise of the era that claims us all.” Which brings us back to Smith’s “Two Paths” in The New York Review of Books, a thoughtful answer Ozick’s call for more insightful, sensitive criticism. Despite framing the Realist and Avant-Garde traditions as violent opponents, Smith at least gestures toward their points of connection. “At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov...” Yet after lingering a moment to admire these bountiful crossroads, Smith resumes her polarizing discourse: Fictional possibilities have narrowed, and the literary culture has fallen ill. 2. Meanwhile, as the luminaries raced to diagnose Literature as if they were doctors on the season finale of House, 21st-century Literature was going viral on the Internet and in the little magazines. You lived through it, so I’ll spare you the details, but please tolerate 10 quick bullet points (in no special order) illustrating how vigorously literature and publishing were shaken during the 10 years since Franzen’s essay appeared: Oprah's Book Club went supernova. Entire forests breathed sighs of relief as dozens of print book review sections went the way of the Dodo. Online venues like this one have replaced or at least supplemented the literary supplements. Millions of devoted bibliophiles reluctantly began e-reading. Instead of disappearing, print became more democratized, insofar as anyone with access to word processing software and a few hundred dollars can publish their own book in seven to 10 business days. Tiny presses and lit mags are sprouting like tulips or dandelions, depending on your worldview. Those tiny presses are now winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards and National Book Critics Circle Awards, and those tiny lit mags are landing more stories and essays in the Best anthologies. “Literary” genre novels are A-OK! The mainstream pop entertainment complex regularly taps literary novelists like Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Richard Price, David Benioff, Jennifer Egan, and others to provide rich source material for big-budget dramas. A writer like Ben Marcus, whose sublimely weird The Age of Wire and String originally appeared with Dalkey Archive, is now published by Knopf, complete with prominent coverage in major outlets, a swell tour, and a trippy trailer. Now I’m neither a doctor nor an esteemed literary critic, but it seems that either the literary culture has made a miraculous recovery, or it wasn’t that sick in the first place. Which is to say that when those famous writers were so certain the patient was ailing, perhaps they were looking at the wrong patient. Lately it seems like whether you write unconventional novels or straight-laced novels or novels replete with vampires and weremonkeys, there are more ways than ever before to get your work out to readers. And not just on Lulu, iUniverse or Blogger. Consider Marcus’ “alien artisans.” Even a quick glance suggests that life ain’t half bad for writers of unconventional prose. The innovative fiction being published today is too multifarious for neatly defined schools, but at least a handful of writers can be unified, if not aesthetically, then by the amount of attention they’ve received. Ryan Call, Blake Butler, and Tao Lin come to mind as three who’ve won fancy awards or scored national reviews or climbed from tiny presses to New York houses. These writers might not be stage diving from MFA programs into a sea of adoring literary agents, but they’re findings readers in their own way on their own time, building audiences that may prove to be more loyal and sustainable than those erected overnight by conglomerate publishers. Perhaps no young writer is more emblematic of this sea change than Amelia Gray. Her 120-story collection AM/PM was published by Featherproof Books in 2009, and was more likely to be reviewed in The Eugene Weekly than Entertainment Weekly. Powered by a Kickstarter funded book tour, Gray and others traveled to indie stores and bars along the West Coast, earning readers book by book, beer by beer. A year later, her second collection Museum of the Weird won the Innovative Fiction Prize from Fiction Collective 2 -- that very same rogue press that Franzen mocked in The New Yorker. The Sickly Literary Culture narrative imagines Gray “toiling” in obscurity for decades if not her entire career. Yet now with her debut novel Threats, Gray has made the leap to Farrar, Straus and Giroux -- the House of Franzen! That’s not to suggest that any publisher is an empirical benchmark for literary merit -- and in most cases I couldn’t give a flying fig where or how a book came to be published -- but given the pervasive strangeness of Gray’s work, I wonder if her grassroots ascension to a big-time press might be evidence that our literary culture is far more robust than the doctors would have us believe. 3. Narrated in a precisely controlled 3rd person, Threats is the story of a childless husband and wife in Ohio: David, a disgraced dentist, and Franny, an aesthetician who specializes in chemical peels. On a cold winter morning, Franny stumbles in from the backyard, barefoot and bleeding. She says to forget about calling the fire department. No telling what may have killed her. “David sat next to his wife for three days. They leaned against each other and created a powerful odor. In that way, it was like growing old together.” With Franny gone, David scarcely leaves his ghostly abode, which is also his former childhood home. Soon Franny’s former boss at the salon sends a group of five girls over to give him a haircut in the kitchen, yet they go about the job without speaking to him. “One of the girls said nothing the entire time, but instead hummed a tune that was familiar to David. He thought of his mother cutting his hair while he sat on a wooden chair wedged into the bathtub.” Unsettling, one-off encounters like this pace the entire book, usually in settings as domestic as the post office, the laundromat, or the bus stop. In a grief-struck stupor, David bumbles about for days, pissing his pants, growing paranoid, spraying Franny’s perfume in his mouth until it makes him retch. He is convinced that the front doorknob is electrified, which is why soft-boiled Detective Chico and his partner have to climb through the window to ask questions about Franny. As the story proceeds, a series of strange written threats begin appearing in David’s coffee maker, in his bathroom, and other increasingly bizarre places in his home and across town: YOUR FATE IS SEALED WITH GLUE I HAVE BOILED IN A VAT. I SLOPPED IT ON AN ENVELOPE AND MAILED IT TO YOUR MOTHER’S WOMB. Over 77 short chapters, this slim book gets weirder and weirder, answering questions with more questions. A few central mysteries propel the skeletal plot forward. What exactly happened to Franny? Who is responsible for these threats? Why is David so haunted by his past? Years ago, Detective Chico responded to a distress call from an old hotel that may hold the key (or a key) to the entire mystery: The call came in concurrently with an ambulance call for a drowning. No residents came out to greet the siren. The noise set off wails from the two or three children who were heard but not seen in the recesses of the motel. Their noise made it seem as if the building itself was crying, the sound released from multiple points. In “Two Paths,” Zadie Smith observed that the primary mode of postmodern metafiction was to play with the notion of the first person and the question of where there narrator is coming from. Yet it’s the measured fluctuations of Gray’s third-person narration that make Threats such an interesting read. Crystalline descriptions of domestic life belie passages of uncanny imagery and existential dread, and the result is a generally unreliable atmosphere where emotion and metaphor are askew, and even the laws of time and space are vulnerable to subtle shifts in mood. Example: A doctor visits David’s kitchen to inquire about his mental health. She’s spoken to a few of Franny’s former co-workers who claimed never to have met him, joking that maybe he didn’t even exist. When David mentions the girls who came to cut his hair, the doctor points out that his hair is down to his ears. Later on, when David visits the salon in search of answers, the reader has to rely on confirmation from another character to be certain that the haircut indeed happened. “Did you send some women from the salon to my home?” “Some girls?” “Some women, some girls. A group of them arrived a few days ago and said they had been sent to cut my hair. They were very kind and helpful. One of them cut my toenails.” “Some girls,” Aileen said. She took a deep breath in and looked at the door. She was silent for long enough that he thought she hadn’t heard part of the question. “A group of girls. Yes, I sent over a group of girls from the salon. I thought it might make you feel better.” “Thank you, it did.” In moments like these throughout the book, Gray calls to mind her literary forebears Kate Bernheimer and Donald Barthelme, but also filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman and David Lynch. As Chris Rodley, editor of the book Lynch on Lynch wrote, this is a borderland between dream and reality, “a badly guarded checkpoint where no one seems to be stamping passports.” At one point David discovers that, unbeknownst to him, a trance regression therapist has been operating from his own wasp-infested garage, researching volumes of books to determine whether “you” or “love” is linked with more devastating sentences in the English language. Later, visiting his elderly mother at her home for women, David finds their heart-to-heart conversation dissolve into a discussion of quasi-Carmichael integers. Yet just when you think the story might be veering too far to one side of the dream/reality border, Gray shifts modes. It’s as if she’s internalized FC2 Board Member Brian Evenson’s response to Ben Marcus’s Harper’s essay: Realism and experimentalism are not alternatives in a binary opposition; instead, each exists on a continuum that runs between abstraction and representation. Great writers, instead of standing at one point on the continuum, chose to lie down along it. All writers can potentially reposition themselves not only from book to book but from sentence to sentence. The only thing predictable about Threats is that the story will constantly reposition itself. We find lyrically realistic discussions of David’s dental practice: “The patient might wince through the Xylocaine but would hold still as a sleeping dog while the dentin was breached and burred, Dycal installed to obliterate the possibility of a return, a white resin filler approximating the shape and texture of a tooth so closely it made David wish for his patients’ sake that the entire procedure could be performed without their knowledge, that they could come in unknowing and leave unknowingly improved.” Elsewhere, repeated chapters painstakingly transcribe David’s voicemail: “Message erased. Next message. From, phone number three three zero, eight four five, free four three three. Received, October fifteenth at eleven-eleven a.m.” Elsewhere, sudden ruminations on loneliness while sorting socks at the laundromat: “Think about just a pair of people, how they can sit in a room and stare. These are not strangers to each other. They have spent nights sharing their secrets. They see each other and think of those complexities, yet there is nothing that can truly draw them together. It’s a primary flaw of human distance. And what causes it?...Could it be what we eat for breakfast in the morning? Could it be the mechanism of the human eye? Could it be what we eat for breakfast in the morning?” Throughout, David yearns for Franny: “His wife’s scent that night was of a wet stone, as if she had been created from the stream that ran behind his childhood home.” Wherever the narrative stands on the continuum, it simmers with tragicomic dread. Smith argued that that “the American metafiction that stood in opposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history...dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart.” Threats is too slippery for a safe corner, too haunted to lack heart. Following Gray’s aesthetic leaps, we forego a varnished emotional banister for disquieting cracks of perception and pain. On any given page you might laugh, cringe, or scratch your head. This is a book that operates on numerous planes of reality, that allows you to peer into the many windows of one artist’s imagination. 4. None of this is to say that Threats is a watershed moment in avant-gardism, nor that it’s even all that avant-garde. As Ozick wrote, “The avant-garde’s overused envelope was pushed long ago...” In many ways, this latest garde of innovative novelists is rekindling the embers of a more surreal period in American fiction, or else smuggling ashore aesthetics that have been prevalent in poetry and international fiction for decades. You’ll know within 20 pages if this book is right for you. Either way, it’s all good. This book is too daring for universal acclaim. But let’s set aside this notion that our literary culture is too sickly to tolerate innovative prose. Whether you like Threats or not, let’s not define this kind of novel as oppositional to the realist mode. Books like this deserve to be main courses, not side dishes. As Garth Risk Hallberg wrote in response to “Two Paths” here last year, “What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular 'team,' and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning.” Of course, famous writers aren’t going to stop probing the literary culture for illnesses, so let’s challenge them to diagnose other chronic conditions, starting with the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in our magazines. Insofar as aesthetic diversity is concerned, unconventional prose has a place at the table, or at least the avant-garde has been absorbed into the garde, and the next avant-garde is out there somewhere, reading from a chapbook to three people in a bar. Threats proves that there are many paths for the novel, for the chapter, for the sentence. It’s an act of what Zadie Smith calls constructive deconstruction -- a novel that like Remainder “clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.” Writers like Amelia Gray see not one thorny alternative road, but rather a whole open territory where artists use old roadblocks to fuel bonfires. Image Credit: Flickr/rosmary
1. “Two Paths for the Novel” It was late October, 2008, and Robert Silvers had earned a victory lap. The New York Review of Books, which he’d co-founded with the late Barbara Epstein during the New York printers’ strike of 1963, was about to observe its 45th anniversary. And equally improbably, after the tumultuous reign of Bush fils, the country seemed poised to elect a president aligned with the social-democratic politics for which the New York Review had provided life support. Interviewed by a reporter at a San Francisco restaurant, though, Silvers, 78, sounded less like an eminence grise dining out on past accomplishments than a hungry young editor on the make…or maybe the cat who ate the canary. The end of the conversation found him talking up “‘an ambitious essay’” slated to appear in the Review’s anniversary edition, “‘a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind’”—a “dismantl[ing]” (in the reporter’s paraphrase) of the literary “status quo.” “‘Some people will be slightly shaken,’ Silvers said with delight,” before “grabbing a handful of smoked almonds and making a dash for the door.” The mind in question was the English novelist Zadie Smith's, and the dismantling turned out to be a 9,000-word essay on two well-received recent novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Or perhaps “essay” isn’t the right word; as the title “Two Paths for the Novel” suggested, it was closer in spirit to a polemic. The rhetorical embroidery was dazzlingly multiform, but the gravamen ultimately rested on that old workhorse, compare/contrast. As Smith saw it, Netherland—at that point well on its way to bestsellerdom and President Obama’s nightstand—represented the excesses, the exhaustion, of “a breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had freedom of the highway for some time now.” McCarthy’s Remainder, meanwhile, was “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” “an avant-garde challenge” meant to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. In the event, I’m not sure anyone apart from Joseph O’Neill was actually “shaken." Manifestos are a dime a dozen these days—to borrow a line from Dale Peck’s manifesto-infected Hatchet Jobs, “that and $2.50 . . . will buy you a skinny mochaccino” (with adjustment for inflation)—and even before David Shields’ Reality Hunger, obsequies for “lyrical Realism” had been performed at length by Ben Marcus, the editors of N+1, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann…not to mention a whole host of Continental theoreticians. Then again, to measure the success of a literary manifesto by whether or not the status quo stays mantled is fundamentally to misapprehend the genre. Its prime object and beneficiary is not “the novel” but the critic herself, and in this sense “Two Paths for the Novel” was a triumph. To other polemically minded reviewers (particularly the vicar of capital-R Realism whose name Smith had worked into an uncharacteristically juvenile pun (see above)), the essay served notice: Your boy’s club’s been breached. “Two Paths for the Novel” (with a slight adjustment of title) would constitute the longest piece but one in Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, published in 2009. Now ascended (or condemned) to the post of New Books columnist at Harper’s, Zadie Smith will no doubt have discovered the limited and erratic scope of the authority to which she’s laid claim. On one hand, her elegant dressing-down of Netherland seems to have had approximately zero effect on the novel’s reception, aside from giving people who didn’t like it something to point to. On the other, “Two Paths for the Novel” does appear, several years out, to have shifted the literary landscape in one very particular way: it’s positioned Tom McCarthy, who as late as 2005 couldn’t find a publisher for Remainder, as the English language’s leading avant-gardist. Indeed, so subtle were its powers of persuasion that no one seems to remember he was ever anything but. This was most visible last summer, when Knopf published with great fanfare McCarthy’s third novel, C. Jonathan Dee, writing in Harper’s, adjudged it “an avant-garde epic” (adding, somewhat bewilderingly: “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”) “An avant-garde masterpiece,” proclaimed Meehan Crist, in The Los Angeles Times. The redoubtable Adam Kirsch went so far as to borrow Smith’s technique, putting C. in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” he decided, “of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the keeper of the avant-garde flame. The “Two Paths” effect even persists, albeit subtly, in the long McCarthy retrospect Amanda Claybaugh, an English professor at Harvard, published last month in N+1. Claybaugh seeks explicitly to engage with “the claims made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.” As that last phrase suggests, though, Claybaugh leaves mostly intact the claim that underpins the others: that McCarthy himself is to be found among the avant-garde. This hints at both the brilliance and the weakness of “Two Paths for the Novel”: several of its conclusions are actually smuggled in as premises, which become ours as well. Accepting “the violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland” is the price of admission. This is probably the place to declare for the record that I’m half in love with Zadie Smith’s critical voice. Also that I think Remainder is a terrific novel. But, thanks in no small part to Smith's advocacy, what’s at stake in assessing McCarthy’s burgeoning reputation is something much more than that: "the future of the avant-garde novel." The artistic avant-garde is, Adorno would remind us, one of the few free spaces we’ve got left. (That's assuming there is one.) And because its future is so important—and because, if we’re lucky, we’re going to be reading Smith’s criticism for a long time to come—I think it’s worth revisiting her premises and treating them as open questions. How, specifically, is Remainder avant-garde? And also: how avant is it? 2. Language + Matter = Death…Or Something. To the first question—how is it avant?—Smith offers one clear answer. Remainder challenges “the essential fullness and continuity of the self” that is the soul of Realism. McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist is literally discontinuous; he awakens at midlife from an unspecified accident unsure of who he’s been. This might, in run-of-the-mill amnesia fiction, inaugurate a quest: Hero Seeks to Recover Past. Remainder’s “hero,” though, mostly shrugs off concerns about identity, to subversive comic effect. Here, the comparison with Netherland is illuminating. Joseph O’Neill, too, knows better than to present his hero as a unitary psyche; one of his chief effects is the subtle altering and re-altering of perception that attend the passage of time, and the narrator, Hans van den Broek, seems troubled by a nagging lack of “fullness” in his character. Still, the debt is more to Fitzgerald and Hemingway than to Deleuze & Guattari, and so the difference between the two novels’ approach to the "self” is one more of kind than of degree. Hans van den Broek seeks communion; Remainder’s “Enactor” (as Smith calls him) seeks to secure for himself, through industry and cash on the barrelhead, those depthless sensations Frederic Jameson calls “intensities.” Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs.... In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of "self"-sabotage to a superhighway? Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things. At which point it becomes apparent that the schizoid depthlessness of postmodernism ain’t it. Think of Bret Easton Ellis. Play it as it Lays. Tao Lin. As with the Realist plenitude Netherland draws on, “our receptive pathways” for the discontinuous self “are solidly established.” There’s another way in which Smith believes Remainder to be avant-garde. It’s apparent in the word “trace,” which is to “Two Paths for the Novel” what descriptions of clouds are to Netherland: almost a nervous tic. In short, Smith feels McCarthy to have assimilated the destabilizing linguistic insights of Jacques Derrida in a way O’Neill hasn’t. (Isn't "remainder" just a synonym for "trace?") But whenever she turns to theory as such, Smith’s native lucidity gives way to an undergraduate overeagerness. Critiques of Realism, we are told, blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. Then again: The novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real. But: Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel. And: [Remainder] tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters. Smith seems to be following the pronouncements McCarthy has promulgated as General Secretary of a “semi-fictitious” avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society (INS). She offers an excerpt: "If form…is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism." The syntax of these sentences is easy enough to follow, but, in their mingling of metaphysics, materialism, and aesthetics, these are, I think, far murkier waters than Smith realizes. I confess to being on shaky ground with Derrida; the failure to find rigor in Smith’s use of the “trace” may well be my own. But the materialism here is “dialectical” in only the loosest sense, and Smith’s gloss on being-towards-death seems reductive, even hedged. At any rate, we’d do well to read more than a word of Heidegger, for whom the kind of being “the things” have - especially in the broken, obtrusive, or useless state Remainder finds them in (e.g., the "gnarled, dirty and irregular" carrot) is most important in adumbrating the kind of Being we have...which is precisely where the Necronauts are at their glibbest. Moreover, it’s difficult, reading Remainder’s handling of things qua things, to find anything more disruptive than what Viktor Shklovsky was doing in 1925, or William Carlos Williams in 1935, or Georges Perec, quite differently, in 1975. In fact, the hospitality of Remainder to allegorical readings might just as easily be read as a failure of its ability to resist metaphor, or to foreground language's inability to do so—to capture materiality in the sense of “thingness.” And again, notwithstanding the artful stammerings, elisions, and self-corrections of the first-person narrator, the linguistic subject these objects encounter is still a consistent, confessional, Cartesian (if unusually estranged) “I.” In general, then, Remainder’s formal choices seem less troubled by its theoretical convictions than Smith makes them out to be. The novel’s ideas may be novel enough, but McCarthy dramatizes them the way Cervantes did it: embody them in a character, launch him into a plot (albeit one that ends in a Borgesian loop). We might, if so inclined, read this as a conscious rejection of another of Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form.” More likely, though, Remainder, like Netherland, is simply drawing on the formal vocabulary of Realism to “enact” the philosophical agenda Smith can’t quite pin down. (C. may well be another matter. I haven’t yet read it, but in Claybaugh’s account, it seems to go a step further toward assimilating theory into language and, especially, structure, with mixed results.) That philosophical agenda may itself be somewhat incoherent; even Claybaugh doesn't entirely clarify it. I’m struck by the possibility, which Smith only glances at, that the garbled quality of the INS’ transmissions is intentional—that the avant-garde to which McCarthy is authentically the heir is not Existentio-Deconstructo-Dialectico-Materialism, but the Situationism of Guy DeBord. As I've got it from Lipstick Traces, the Situationists (who their mark on the near-revolution in France in 1968) sought to expose the gaps in the seemingly solid bourgeois political and aesthetic order through acts of play and imposture—of “détournement.” You can see their legacy in attenuated form in flash mobs and Improv Everywhere and Exit Through the Gift Shop. I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy isn’t thinking in earnest about "the melancholy impasse out of which the...novel has yet to work its way"; this weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover story on The Pale King was lucid and engaged, and, notably, offered no answers. But the iron-fisted theorizing of the General Secretary may be less a way forward for the novel than a way of having us on for the baggage we bring to it—and for the ease with which even the messiest “remainder” gets assimilated into the cultural order (Remainder the novel having been picked up for a movie deal by the U.K.'s Film4.) McCarthy alluded to these slippery possibilities in a recent essay on the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint: “Will he turn out, ultimately, to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” It's likewise possible to see Remainder's avant-gardism as purposefully "semi-fictitious." By positioning his novel as a work of violent rejection, rather than of pop accomplishment, McCarthy may have insinuated into the bookshop a kind of Trojan-cum-Morse horse—a container that encodes something quite different from what it is. 3. I’ll Be Your Mirror Internally, though, Remainder is less the “antipode” of Netherland than its photo-negative. That is, each stands in exactly the same relation to its respective tradition as does the other. This is not to accuse either of mannerism, exactly, but in each case, “the obvious imperfection of the world” is brought under the government of a familiar aesthetic reflex. In Netherland’s case, the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing, in the mode of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In Remainder, the potentially meaningful gets reduced to the narcotic flatness we enjoyed in the nouveau roman. Each is exactly as “aestheticized” as the other; it’s just that Smith likes one aesthetic better. Borrowing her own key terms, “identity,” “authenticity,” and “anxiety,” it’s possible to reconstruct why this might be so. The “identity” reading points to the evident seduction Continental Philosophy holds for a Cambridge alum. In the heady world of literary theorizing, Derrida opens doors. But Smith thinks like a novelist, not like a philosopher. (Indeed, she may think more purely like a novelist than any other writer we have.) Consequently, her keen attunement to the nuances of Forster and Woolf, the playfulness with which she approaches Kafka and Hurston, go rigid whenever her thoughts tend toward academe. The false notes in Changing My Mind—I’m thinking here of the essay on Nabokov and Barthes, and parts of the essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are almost always a product of her desire to force the play of her intelligence into some theoretical scheme. The “anxiety” reading points elsewhere. Smith’s shadowboxing with a certain unnamed “lapsed high Anglican,” and the NYRB’s positioning of her essay hard on the heels of a review of How Fiction Works, would seem to suggest that “Two Paths” grows out of what one blogger has called “the James Wood neurosis.” Certainly, Smith is entitled to feel that she acceded too quickly and too publicly to Wood’s criticisms from the pulpit of Realism of her own first book, the multiethnic social novel White Teeth. And it was Wood whose rapt review launched Netherland, unbothered by the considerably more conventional uses to which it put its multiethnic milieu. But the "authenticity" reading is the most revealing. In her mid-30s, Smith is still "changing her mind," working through what kind of novelist she wants to—and can authentically—be. As she herself has suggested, here and elsewhere, her considerable gifts for characterization, irony, description, and dialogue fall squarely within the Realist tradition. But perhaps she feels, rightly or wrongly, that even her most accomplished novel, On Beauty, sits too tidily on the bourgeois bookshelf. She channels E.M. Forster, but wants to be David Foster Wallace. "Anything, anything at all, that doesn't sound like me," she wrote in her response to Wood's "Hysterical Realism." "Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important." It’s as though the “existential crisis” or “nervous breakdown” she sees O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel inflicting on “what we have been taught to value in fiction” is her own. Fortunately for her and for us, Smith labors under a misapprehension about what it means to be avant-garde. To borrow a metaphor, she can’t quite see the forest for the “dead wood.” Here are the rhetorical questions she throws at the feet of Netherland: Is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? These are, of course, the very mimetic questions that animate canonical Realism, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Proust. Smith’s avant-garde is a gradual convergence on what she insists doesn’t exist: the one true and transcendent Real. But look at the “disturb and disrupt” mandate I sketched above—hell, look at Smith’s essay—and you’ll instantly see that avant-gardism, like its dark twin kitsch, is always situational. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Wagner’s innovations are disruptive; by the mid-Twentieth, they're the soundtrack for Triumph of the Will. The enemy to be rebelled against today is hardly “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Rather, it is a world order that reduces form, language, and selfhood to mere options in the supermarket of aesthetic choices. And insofar as it presents an aesthetic binary—write like this tradition, rather than this other tradition, and you’re on the right path—Smith’s conception of the avant-garde is woefully insufficient. Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? It amounts to a game of Distinction, whose logical end is to deny that the kind of avant-garde Adorno champions is even possible. Then again, in a less theoretical mood, Smith once wrote these sentences: "We can only be who we are.... Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can." What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular “team,” and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla that mark books as mainstream as Netherland and Remainder as "violent rejections" of each other, and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. A true path forward for the novel—Zadie Smith's or Tom McCarthy's or anyone else's—will run through those trackless spaces, and we must follow it there. Otherwise, we give the status quo the victory, no matter how ardently we might wish to dismantle it. Vive la différance. From Our Archives: "Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder." "The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland." "Bulletin: Interview with Tom McCarthy, General Secretary, INS."
The IMPAC Award shortlist was announced last night. The IMPAC sets itself apart with its unique approach. Its massive longlist is compiled by libraries all over the world before being whittled down by judges. This makes for a more egalitarian selection. It's also got a long lead time. Books up for the current prize (to be named June 17th) were all published in 2008, putting the IMPAC more than a year behind other big literary awards. There's a distinct upside in this. By now, all the shortlisted books are available in paperback. We've also always found the IMPAC interesting for the breadth of books it considers.This year's shortlist is typically eclectic, representing six countries and ranging from bestsellers, to relative unknowns.The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (excerpt (pdf), Best Translated Book Award shortlist)The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (excerpt (pdf))In Zodiac Light by Robert Edric(Guardian review)Settlement by Christoph Hein (at The Complete Review)The Believers by Zoë Heller (The Millions Interview)Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (O’Neill in our Year in Reading, Garth's review, Kevin's review)God's Own Country by Ross Raisin (excerpt)Home by Marilynne Robinson (excerpt)
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2010 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 156 novels on the list, nominated by 163 libraries in 43 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2008 (including translations). Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers. Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least six libraries. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (9 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, and the United States) A Mercy by Toni Morrison (8 libraries representing Barbados, Lebanon, Portugal, Switzerland, and the United States) The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (8 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, and Finland) The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (8 libraries representing Brazil, Canada, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, and the United States) The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (8 libraries representing the Czech Republic, England, Ireland, South Africa, and the United States) Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (7 libraries representing Austria, Ireland, South Africa, and the United States) Breath by Tim Winton (6 libraries representing Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and the United States) Indignation by Philip Roth (6 libraries representing Belgium, Germany, Spain, and the United States) The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon (6 libraries representing Croatia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and the United States) The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher (6 libraries representing Australia, England, Greece, New Zealand, and the United States) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (6 libraries representing the United States) You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few: In the Netherlands, The Jewish Messiah by Arnon Grunberg and The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker In Canada, Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden and The Great Karoo by Fred Stenson In New Zealand, Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those: From Jamaica, The Same Earth by Kei Miller From Romania, The Outcast by Sadie Jones From Columbia, The Armies by Evelio Rosero From Denmark, Machine by Peter Adolphsen From Iceland, Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason
Jonathan Evison talks with independent publicist Lauren Cerand about promoting books.Kindle shenanigans: "This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers."Marking the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, Kottke puts together a huge post of photos, videos, and links in commemoration.Our recent item rounded up all the "big" books coming out in the latter half of the year. PW alerts readers to "10 promising fiction debuts" coming this fall.Jacket Copy concludes its Pomo Month with an annotated list of "61 essential postmodern reads."New uses for card catalogs. (via)The second issue of online literary journal The Critical Flame has arrived.Mark Sarvas offers a four-part interview with Joseph O'Neill. "I think I start with one idea. In Netherland, it was cricket in New York. Then there is an accumulation of sentences, and often just single words. Words that interest me. And I sort of build it up like a poem."Amazon names the "Best Books of the Year... So Far."