Summer arrived suddenly the day I met Amanda Goldblatt on Northerly Island in Chicago to discuss her bold and impressive first novel, Hard Mouth. I arrived to find Amanda standing on a concrete embankment in Lake Michigan, with waves rolling over her feet. We chose this spot because of its intentional remoteness—it’s a caesura to downtown Chicago’s bustle. The peninsula that once housed the private airstrip, Meigs Field, has been re-envisioned, with fields of wild grasses and hills sculpted to hide the city’s skyline behind us.
We are unprepared for the sun and oppressive heat in a way that befits a discussion of a novel whose narrator, Denny, drops the trappings of her isolated suburban life to live in the wilderness, wildly unprepared and accompanied by what I imagine must have been a suitcase of snack bars, a handgun, and not much else.
We found refuge under a tree, outside a yacht club, with Canada geese and their goslings feeding noisily nearby, coming up to inspect us every so often. As you read, imagine a conversation interspersed by bird calls and caterpillars.
The Millions: Hard Mouth is not a nice book, but it’s a humane book.
Amanda Goldblatt: I think I agree with that.
TM: And its main character, Denny, is not nice but ultimately she’s humane. I’m wondering what you were drawn to in writing about her not-niceness and alienation. I mean, it’s a cancer story but it’s not a cancer story, it’s a story about family, and yet it’s completely unsentimental. I really love that about the book.
AG: I was interested in thinking about a character who cared but wasn’t nice. In some ways it’s a book about empathy as a fact of existence as opposed to a positive character trait. I was interested in how empathy and closeness could be written about without kindness. Although Denny does have a certain amount of kindness, like she does with The Thing, the cat. I think there’s a begrudging kindness for her there, but it’s easier because the cat is not a person.
TM: It seems like Denny’s kindness comes out of her accidentally having injured the cat. But that is a sense of responsibility for the cat.
AG: Whereas she is taking no responsibility for her father, anymore. She’s meaningfully shirking it. I think you could make an argument that she’s projecting the care that she might’ve given to her father to the cat. But actually, I don’t think it’s a one-to-one thing. It’s more about being humane. It’s more about, you break it, you buy it. It’s a logical thing. It’s not about guilt and it’s not about kindness.
TM: Denny is a good citizen, and she’s not a bad daughter. She’s not a good daughter either, but she has cared for her father in the past, and now he’s giving up. I saw her escape as an inability to process that.
AG: On the surface that’s absolutely what it is.
TM: She speaks at the beginning of “the compounding of bad behavior.” In some way I could read the whole book as kind of compounding of Denny’s bad behavior, and yet, she’s not so bad.
AG: You mean in the sense that she’s leaving?
TM: She’s labeled herself as “bad.” She generally isn’t harming people. She’s just neglecting to demonstrate care. It seems she doesn’t know how to and isn’t equipped to care.
AG: She’s not equipped to grieve. That’s a key thing. If anything, the bad behavior that she is compounding is her inability to behave appropriately in response to the oncoming death of a loved one. Even by telling the story, and telling the story within the story when she talks about ruining an heirloom as a kid—she’s not unproud. She’s not unproud of doing that, and she’s not unproud of leaving town, going to the mountain, and not wanting to stay and watch her father die. If anything could be compounding of her bad acting, that is. In some ways she is luxuriating in these stories as part of her identity and enjoying the exhibition of that.
TM: Does Denny need to transgress in order to feel?
AG: It seems like it, right? There’s a scene later in the book, where for no reason she pours a full bag of candy on the floor. I think that’s an example of her inability to not only process but behave in the way that she might be expected to behave, socioculturally. She just has to disrupt it. The book is a series of transgressions for her whether or not they’re larger societal transgressions.
She’s an extraordinarily passive person. Most of the scenes of the book are her transgressing that passivity. I’m really interested in the idea of passivity. I think we all live lives with a lot of passivity. Many of us, most of us do. Just by the trick of what contemporary life entails. You spend time in transit, you spend time waiting, you spend time waiting for information. And so I think we all have a degree of passivity or, not to globalize it, I feel that I have a certain amount of passivity that gets knit into my life no matter how much I am doing in a given day. And part of that is being beholden to larger institutional systems. And part of that is for me just needing small breaks from processing the world.
Denny has taken an almost lifelong break from processing the world. She’s made her life small enough that she doesn’t have to figure these things out. And so transgression is almost equal to action, is equal to emotion for her.
TM: I was wondering how much the suburban setting contributes to her sense of aimlessness or formlessness. There’s an isolation inherent to her character, in her nuclear family unit. But there’s also something so suburban about her alienation. I identified with the depiction of her coming of age in the suburbs and her sense of wanting to take agency but not knowing necessarily how to. Denny’s decision to go out to the mountain—is that an attempt to give herself agency, or is it an attempt to kill herself?
AG: I think it’s both. She’s not sophisticated enough, or self aware enough, to know which is true. She thinks about the move to the mountain as, if not an annihilation of the self, then an annihilation of the self that she knows. It’s hard for her to conceive of herself outside of the structure of the family and outside of the structure of her passive life.
In writing the book, I thought a lot about how the suburbs are constantly built. I’m talking about a really specific inner-ring suburb outside of D.C. that is racially diverse, that is middle class to working class. That’s where Denny exists and that’s the kind of place where I grew up. But obviously the suburbs have a very large spectrum of possibility.
TM: It’s specifically suburban Maryland, between Prince George’s County, where I grew up, and Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
AG: But like, not Bethesda.
TM: And not Potomac.
AG: And not Potomac. It is a hyper-specific place, but also it happens to, for whatever reason, in some ways mimic a lot of representations of white suburban life that we’ve had in the media and in culture. Although, have you ever watched the film SubUrbia?
TM: I haven’t, no.
AG: It’s with Steve Zahn and a lot of other people. It’s directed by Richard Linklater. The thing I remember most about it is that it had a really good soundtrack. It had Sonic Youth on it, which was maybe not the first time I heard Sonic Youth in high school, but like one of the first times I remember really getting into them. It’s about a bunch of suburban kids waiting for an old friend, who’s a rock star now, to come back to town. There’s something very classic about it in that way—it has a Godot quality to it. That I can recall. There’s a lot of driving and strip malls, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t take place on the East Coast at all, maybe Texas, yet the quality of it felt familiar to me.
The constantly self-revising suburbs manage to always feel stagnant because the components are changing shape, but they’re not changing themselves. You still have the strip malls and the churches and the temples and the schools and of course the single family houses and the townhomes and usually low-rise apartment buildings. And maybe there’s a mall nearby and then maybe there’s a fancier mall if you go further.
I’ve really gone down a rabbit hole here.
TM: The suburbs are important to the book.
AG: Yeah, they are. Denny in some way has always used the suburbs and how she feels about them to be one of her self-defining characteristics. And the fact that she tolerates her environment as a fact of her life says a lot about the way that she tolerates herself as a fact of her life. And so, when she’s ready to go to the mountain, even if she is not interested in a direct kind of suicide, she is interested in partial self-annihilation.
TM: One thing that struck me is how compartmentalized she is. Which isn’t just a way of life limited to the suburbs. In some ways it’s inherent to our everyday lives, our ability to remain isolated while in touch, using technology.
AG: Can you talk a little bit more about the compartmentalization?
TM: I was very surprised when Denny got rid of all of her belongings. She got fired from her job and gave up the lease on her apartment. It’s empty for a few weeks at least. And nobody knows. Nobody is coming over. She goes to her parents’ house, she goes over to her friend Ken’s place, but there’s no intersection. I mean, other than what she allows others to know, and she allows them very little.
AG: On the mountain she’s in search of complete solitude and she was in search of that in the suburbs. But when emotion encroached on that she had to remove herself from the situation.
TM: The irony is that she runs away to not complete solitude.
AG: In an early review, someone mentioned that things sure happen to her a lot. It was being said critically, which is fine, I’m open to criticism, but also that’s kind of the point. Things can only happen to her because her transgressions are discrete and designed to make her further hermetic. And so in order for anything to happen, things have to happen to her. Otherwise it’s just a story about someone with complete control over their life, which seems entirely incredible to me.
TM: When she wants to put herself in the position of making something happen, she does this.
AG: That’s true.
TM: She’s active in a passive way. Like when she decides she wants to live life and she puts herself in the position to meet Hill.
AG: She’s a very good backseat driver.
She frees the flies, she gets fired, she sells all of her shit. She buys the things that she’ll need for the cabin and so on. She goes to the mountain. That’s pretty much all the gas in her tank. That’s her agency. The action is her agency.
TM: I do wonder where she’s telling the story from. She does bring some sense of wisdom, or or at least a sense of distance—”this is who I was then.”
AG: At some point there was a specific vantage—she was telling the story to a particular particular person. But ultimately—this was in early edits with my agent—it became clear that that apparatus wasn’t necessary, that it could be disassembled. I actually like that a lot better. Any future Denny would have perspective.
And the ending is so specific. It’s so specific and much more final than I ever thought I’d write in a novel or a story. I prefer stories with abrupt endings and no resolution. I think that having the mystery of where she is telling this story from allows for some give from the relentless resolution of the actual ending of the book. Which alleviates me a bit, as a writer.
TM: It’s a very precise end, but there’s ambiguity that allows you to read into what has happened since.
AG: Often, I talk to my students about killing off characters. My students are always killing off their characters. I have a lot of ideas why. Main characters, sometimes narrators—they just die and that’s the end of the story. I don’t always disagree with the impulse but I tell them, in an overly fatigued and jaded voice, Sometimes if you want the story to be sad, the sadder thing is that the character has to keep living.
With Denny, there’s an element of that. She has this narrative of her life, but she remains unreckoned with as a person. And she’s perhaps trying to tell this story to understand who she wants to be or who she thinks she is. But there’s not any resolution of that. And so she has to continue, like all of us, to grasp in search of some kind of self fundament.
TM: There is a lack of catharsis.
AG: How often do we get catharsis in everyday life?
TM: Even when you think you get it, you realize later…
AG: It doesn’t last. You can have something that you experience as catharsis and then it can reverse itself a week later, and then you’re not where you were but somewhere even further away because you no longer have the hope of catharsis.
I’m much more interested in stories that don’t offer catharsis, as pleasurable as reading catharsis can be because it gives us some kind of hope. I’m interested in stories that are merely accounts of people and their understanding of their lives and their understanding of themselves in relation to narrative. So even though a retrospective narrator classically offers catharsis: “And that’s when I learned…” Denny can’t offer that. It doesn’t happen.
I was flabbergasted that this book had as long a duration as it does. I mean, it’s short relative to what happens in it but I fantasize about writing a novel that happens in a day or a week or even a month and the kind of temporal urgency you get just from that.
I’m interested in talking about the language.
TM: It’s something I thought about frequently while reading Hard Mouth.
AG: I’m really interested in using language to make concrete or materialize a narrator. I spent a lot of time on Denny’s diction and her word bank, how she used sounds, and what words would she not use? I had to delete a lot of grad-school words that were my words but not her words. I really spent time with the fine grain, like word choice, diction, and references. That’s what I’ve been most obsessed with as a writer—the idea of creating the performance of the narrator and understanding that language materializes the narrator.
I’m interested in first person and I’m most often only interested in first person. Because I think of stories just like essays as a discourse of a single mind, it becomes necessary to configure the narrator, a character, as someone who is offering the story that is happening or has happened to them. And so having Denny’s retrospective narration became really important. I was thinking about where she might be and what kind of perspective she might have at the point of telling the story, and what perspective she would still not have. That all started with language and order of information and sentences and thinking about the tone, and tone as created by things like the length of sentences.
TM: I love that you build a character from language up.
AG: Always. It starts with this, a sentence. Or multiple sentences. I mean, with Hard Mouth, I started writing because I was scared that my father was going to die. He was diagnosed with cancer. And my running away to the mountain was starting a novel for the first time. It became important for me, in order for the trick to work, to understand a vocalized character separate from me and to really set about understanding her presence.
TM: There are so many sentences that I am in awe of In this book. I came away with a sense that you are a stylist at the sentence level and care deeply about words. And so all of that makes sense.
AG: I’m interested in potent, not nice characters, characters that are specific or angular, in some way, emotionally—because I can imagine more extreme language in accordance with a character like that. There is a certain relief in writing the voice of a character who is not so nice. I have, I feel, a whole capability of communication that I don’t generally use because of the kind of person I am socially. It’s fun to use that language in a character.
TM: I was also thinking about Hard Mouth in relation to wilderness narratives. It’s even said by Monica, when she talks of traveling to Cyprus, and Denny is like, I would never, that isn’t my style. And Monica urges her to travel because she has time because it’s what people do these days. And ever since Cheryl Strayed’s Wild…
AG: And Eat, Pray, Love.
TM: Yes, and Eat, Pray, Love —
AG: Monica is more Eat, Pray, Love. And Denny, if she has to be part of the binary, is definitely more Wild, even though it’s a very different narrative.
TM: Does Denny offer a counter narrative to Wild? I have not read Wild. And I don’t know if you have either…
AG: I haven’t.
TM: I do know that the narrator follows a similar trajectory, like, I’m going out into the woods, I’m totally ill equipped, but I can’t deal with the loss in my life. But with Wild, at least, she found herself, she wrote the book, and connected with an entire community of people. Denny does not have that experience. I was wondering if you consider Denny’s escape as a counternarrative to the that of a young woman going out into the wild and finding herself. Or a resistance to that.
AG: Ultimately, yes. In the seven or eight years I was writing this book, there were a lot of books coming out, and not just Wild, that had a woman’s escape transfigured in completely different ways. I’m thinking about Catherine Lacey’s novel Nobody Is Ever Missing. And Laura Van den Berg’s novel Find Me. You have all of these female characters putting themselves in new contexts.
I’m interested in art that reflects flaws as opposed to resolving flaws, or seeking to resolve flaws. Whatever deepens flaws is generally more what I’m into. I was much more informed by survival novels like Hatchet, by Gary Paulson. It’s a young adult novel about a young man whose plane goes down and he has a hatchet and basically just has to survive.
Or, a movie I had watched, called Mara of the Wilderness, which is about a young girl whose parents are killed during a wilderness excursion, and, left there, she becomes this feral human.
TM: If Denny were part of the Donner party, she would have been totally fine. It would have met her expectations of life, of excitement.
AG: And of desperation. That’s the thing. She’s not someone who has had desperation. And yet there is a certain amount of desperation that helps to drive her to the mountain.
I was talking with some writers recently about why mean or antisocial or misanthropic female narrators or main characters have been so popular lately. Of course, no one would ever say that about a male narrator, main character. There’s been a lot of discourse about that. But we were talking about why it felt so empowering to write characters like that. I think it’s a real shucking of social expectation, female social expectation. Having a character who is humane but not nice, and having a story that is humane but not nice, is a way of claiming a less gendered-weighted representation of humanity in art, with a narrator who happens to be female.
TM: She doesn’t conform. She doesn’t make herself digestible.
AG: No. Pathologically so.
TM: I’m curious about the end where Denny puts out the flame of the candle with her palm.
AG: It’s a lot.
TM: The action sums up her character, of being able to take action, but only when she’s able to extinguish something. She comes down from the mountain and there is no epiphany. Her realization is that life just keeps going on whether or not she cares. It’s just going to keep moving forward. But something has changed in her—she recognizes new capacities within herself.
AG: Perhaps it’s not a story of a self evolution, but perhaps it is one of self recognition. She’s not necessarily changing. She’s just expanding. It’s variations on a theme.
TM: Which does seem empowering in this context.
AG: Absolutely. It’s funny because the idea of extinguishing a candle that’s been lit in your parent’s memory—if her mother had really truly cared about it, that could be a very hurtful gesture. But in this household it’s just a matter of fact. The candle would go out anyway. And in many ways I think that this is an existential novel that’s predicated on the idea that everyone dies and there’s no afterlife. Therefore, there will always only be death at the end.
Art credit: Amanda Goldblatt.
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. Stay tuned for next month’s huge Second-Half Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments.
Hunger by Roxane Gay: A few years ago, Gay wrote Tumblr posts on cooking and her complex relationship with food that were honest yet meditative. It was on the cusp of her breakthrough essay collection Bad Feminist. Now she may be a household name, but her second nonfiction book delves into the long-running topic of the role food plays in her family, societal, and personal outlook with the same candor and empathy. (Tess M.)
The Changeling by Victor LaValle: A book that somehow manages to be a fairy tale, an agonizing parenting story, a wrenching metaphor for America’s foundational racist ills, and a gripping page-turner to usher in the summer. It’s got internet trolls, forest trolls, intergenerational evil, a magical island commune of traumatized warrior women, and antiquarian book dealers. Read it. (Lydia)
The Accomplished Guest by Ann Beattie: 1976 was a good year for Beattie: she published her first story collection, Distortions, as well as her debut novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Forty years and roughly 20 books later, Beattie has a new collection of stories, closely following last year’s The State We’re In, linked stories set in Maine. One defining trait of Beattie’s short fiction is her fondness for quirks: “However well you write, you can become your own worst enemy by shaping it so highly that the reader can relate to it only on its own terms. Whereas if you have some little oddities of everyday life that aren’t there to be cracked, it seems to me that people can identify with it.” (Nick R.)
So Much Blue by Percival Everett: In Everett’s 30th book, an artist toils away in solitude, painting what may be his masterpiece. Alone in his workspace, secluded from his children, best friend, and wife, the artist recalls memories of past affairs, past adventures, and all he’s sacrificed for his craft. (Nick M.)
The Last Kid Left by Rosecrans Baldwin: The Morning News cofounder and author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down returns with a murder mystery/romance/coming-of-age story set in New Hampshire. (Lydia)
The Answers by Catherine Lacey: Granta Young American and author of Nobody is Ever Missing delivers her second novel to just about the best review one could hope for, from Dwight Garner, who says Lacey is “the real thing” and now “takes full command of her powers.” A somewhat dystopian social novel about “the neurobiology of love,” The Answers follows a woman who signs up to be part of a sinister scientific “income-generating experience.” (Lydia)
The Windfall by Diksha Basu: A class commentary cum comedy of manners about a middle-aged, middle-class Indian family’s dizzying rise to nouveau riche status following the sale of a website. Karan Mahajan says Basu’s debut “has a gentleness that belies its furious subject: money.” (Lydia)
Blind Spot by Teju Cole: A strange, sumptuous collection of text and images by the virtuoso essayist, novelist, and photo critic. Kirkus calls it a “cerebral and very beautiful journey.” (Lydia)
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim: Lim has long been publisher of the small, avant-garde Ellipsis Press, whose authors, including Joanna Ruocco, Evelyn Hampton, Jeremy M. Davies, and Lim himself, are remarkable for their unique voices, their attention to language and experimentation. Together they make a significant if lesser-known body of work. Dear Cyborg, Lim’s third novel, will be his first with a major press (FSG). Tobias Carroll has said, “Lim’s novels tread the line between the hypnotically familiar and the surreptitiously terrifying.” With comparisons to Tom McCarthy and Valeria Luiselli and praise from Gary Lutz and Renee Gladman, Lim’s work is worth seeking out. (Anne)
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal: A ne’er-do-well law school dropout and bartender signs up to teach a writing course for her west London Sikh Community Association. While a local morality police lurks, she leads a workshop on erotic storytelling for a group of the titular Punjabi widows, discovering the many currents that shape women’s lives. (Lydia)
The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro: In this follow-up to Cutting Teeth, about a zeitgeisty group portrait of Brooklyn hipster moms, Fierro turns back the clock to the summer of 1992 when a plague of gypsy moths infests Avalon, an islet off the coast of Long Island, setting in motion a complex tale of interracial love, class conflict, and possible industrial poisoning at the local aircraft factory. Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year, says Fierro, director of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, has written “a novel to slowly savor, settling in with her characters as you would old friends.” (Michael B.)
The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton: A debut novel about the Egyptian revolution from filmmaker and activist Hamilton, who has written about the events of Tahrir square for The Guardian and elsewhere. (Lydia)
This year’s Whiting Award winners have been announced. The award recognizes “ten emerging writers of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry, and are based on the criteria of early-career achievement and the promise of superior work to come.” The winners include Catherine Lacey (of Nobody Is Ever Missing); Alice Sola Kim (of Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying); and Ocean Vuong (of Night Sky with Exit Wounds, among other books).
I divide this year’s shortlist into three categories: Tales Well Told, Fun Stuff, and Miracles of Voice.
Tales Well Told includes books with stories that captivated. In some cases I wasn’t sure why I liked the book, but I just wanted to keep reading. More, more! These were the books I left parties early to go home to read (or for which, more likely, I skipped the party), the ones that might have caused me to miss my subway stop had I read them on the subway, but I usually didn’t because I had already read them through the night before. Gripping stories, unexpected turns of plot, I have to know what happens next! More, more, more! Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which I picked up having been entranced by her reading at last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival; Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, every bit as wonderful as Wolf Hall; two impressive and chilling debut novels: The Kept by James Scott and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You; Robin Black’s Life Drawing, which I read in one sitting; Elizabeth Kadetsky’s transporting The Poison that Purifies You; Jay Cantor’s Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka, hand-sold to me by a very smart bookseller; and Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade, recommended to me by some wise person on Facebook when I said I was looking for something sad — what that man does with dialogue!
I tend to read a lot of Fun Stuff — by which I mean lively work that makes me laugh, enjoyable books, playful books, entertaining and absurd books. Among the best I read this year were Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi; Jeremy Bushnell’s The Weirdness; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; and the brilliant, moving, and otherwise-perfect-in-every-way How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Charles Yu.
The largest group of loved books this year and probably every year are Miracles of Voice, almost all of which, perhaps because of their eccentricities, are small press books: Alissa Nutting’s riveting collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls; Lore Segal’s witty and sad Half the Kingdom; Jeff Jackson’s startling Mira Corpora; Submergence, J.M. Ledgard’s gorgeous tour de force; Catherine Lacey’s stunning Nobody Is Ever Missing; Kevin Barry’s captivating City of Bohane; and, perhaps above all, Patrick McCabe’s heartbreaking The Butcher Boy, the voice of which stayed in my head for many inconvenient days when I was trying to write my own original pages.
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It’s no surprise that I’m drawn to books about loneliness and solitude. I did write an essay for The Rumpus, after all, about being a melancholic person. This year was no exception. There are certain novels, essays, or poems that have made me realize this utmost truth: I am not alone in my loneliness. So many people are just trying to be heard and seen, and so much of great literature is centered around this strange and vast world we live in where we often need help finding ourselves. I look for books in which I can relate to the longings of others; a fictional or nonfictional universe that the writer creates where the beauty of existence is in our ability to articulate it in all of its complexities.
Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing offered a particularly powerful reading experience. Lacey writes about a woman named Elyria who leaves her New York City life behind (including her husband) in order to go to New Zealand. She has no concrete plans, really, and the uncertainty that follows her from her home country to a foreign one becomes a way in which to explore the anxiety of the human condition. Who are we, really, if not foreigners in our own bodies — trying to become some version of our selves that we can understand?
We’re all twins and clones and remakes of each other; we’re all pairs unpaired; we’re all speaking the same repeated syllable at each other and why is it that I have to go running off into a twinless solitude? What is inside this solitude but me, saying the same syllable to myself over and over and over, trying to make sense of it, trying to rearrange it.
I read this book in July, right after moving in with my boyfriend. Something held me back from leaving my windowless bedroom I had lived in for 2.5 years (we called it “the book cave”) — and yes, it was mostly the vast quantity of books. For the longest time, literature has been my identity. Who am I without other peoples words? I was existing in my “twinless solitude,” telling myself again and again that I was nothing without my personal library. I was building a fortress of books; shielding myself from the outside world. It wasn’t until my boyfriend gently reminded me (for the seventh or eighth time) that I couldn’t fit all of my books into our shared apartment that I decided it was time to winnow down the collection from 3,000 to a more reasonable number: 1,000. It wasn’t easy, at first, to select which ones would go in the giveaway pile. How could I possibly part with books I hadn’t even read yet? Maybe those would hold the answer to questions I didn’t even know I had. But as I pulled a couple of books off of the overflowing shelves, it became easier. I was freeing myself up, “rearranging” myself, making room for the books I really wanted to read.
I thought, foolishly enough, that my stubbornness and my willingness to self-identify over and over again as the kind of person who would hoard as many books as possible meant that I was special and even charming in some semi-romantic way. I questioned who I was without 1,500 unread books in my home. Who would I be without being myself?
But I am still myself, uncertainties and all. I’ve accumulated more books, and given away others. I read and I write notes in the margins and I know I’ll always be the type of person to interact with text like I’m having a conversation with it. But I don’t know where those conversations will always lead me.
Elyria is a patron saint of uncertainty; a woman who rips herself out of the straight form of her life and analyzes the zigzag shapes of identity around her and inside her. Reading this book right after reassessing my life and the things I had accumulated reminded me of why I spend most of my waking life reading or thinking about words. I like sentences that attempt to “make sense of it;” prose that exposes our deceptively solitary hearts as something more universal.
Another book worth checking out: Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey — a dark and atmospheric examination of female friendship, betrayal, and love. There are even Proustian moments in the book:
There is freedom there; there is always freedom in the past. The self you left behind lives in endless possibility. The older you get, the bigger and wilder the past becomes, a place that can never again be tended and which is therefore prone to that loveliness that happens on wastelands and wildernesses, where grass has grown over scrap metal and wheat has sprung up in cracks between concrete and there is no regular shape for the light to fall flat on, so it vaults and multiplies and you want to go there. You want to go there like you want to go to a lover.
More from A Year in Reading 2014
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