1.In Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s restless ghost lingers more palpably than in any of the other places in the world that can legitimately claim him: Paris, Madrid, Sun Valley, Key West. Havana was his principal home for more than three decades, and its physical aspect has changed very little since he left it, for the last time, in the spring of 1960.
I’ve been traveling to the city with some regularity since 1999, when I directed one of the first officially sanctioned programs for U.S. students in Cuba since the triumph of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. As an aspiring novelist, I’ve long been interested in Hemingway’s work, but I had no idea how prominently Havana figured in the author’s life — nor how prominently the author figured in the city’s defining iconography — until I began spending time there.
Well-preserved Hemingway locations abound in Havana. They include the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where the author lived throughout the ’30s in a room that is now a small museum; the Floridita, which serves overpriced “Hemingway daiquiris,” and contains a life-size bronze likeness of the writer with its elbow on the bar; the Bodeguita del Medio, which has Hemingway’s signature on the wall and claims to have been his favorite place for a mojito; and La Terraza, the restaurant overlooking the small harbor that was the point of departure and return for Santiago’s epic voyage in The Old Man and the Sea. These sites are not just tourist spots, though they certainly are that. They also serve as shrines and landmarks in the city’s defining mythology. The essence of this mythology is captured in the black-and-white photos taken in the months following the 1959 Revolution, later made into postcards. These feature images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos — and Ernest Hemingway.
To get a feel for the author’s Cuba years, let us begin with a single one: 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. By the third week in July of that year, according to Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker’s comprehensive 1969 biography of the author, Hemingway had notched his 100th day of fishing in the waters north of Havana. He’d caught more than 50 marlin, including a 750-pounder he’d brought to hand within casting distance of the Morro, the white stone fortress presiding over the entrance to Havana Bay. The yacht he’d rented had been rammed so many times by swordfish that it was starting to leak, so he decided to buy himself a new one, a diesel-powered, 38-foot cruiser from Wheeler Shipyards in Brooklyn. He named it the Pilar, which was also his secret nickname for his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer — whose family money, as it happened, was financing the couple’s highly mobile lifestyle: a revolving calendar of stays in Havana, Madrid, Paris, New York, Key West, and the Serengeti.
Already a literary star on the strength of his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway chose Havana as his base that summer because of its proximity to one of the planet’s best places to pursue big game fish. As he later wrote in Holiday magazine, he was drawn to the Gulfstream, that “great, deep blue river, three quarters of a mile to a mile deep and sixty to eighty miles across.” He was especially captivated by the marlin, which, from the flying bridge of the Pilar, looked “more like a huge submarine bird than a fish.”
The author had first visited Havana in April of 1928, for a brief stop on his steamer journey back from Europe at the end of those romantic Paris-based years he later portrayed so vividly in The Moveable Feast (1964). It proved to be a significant layover for Hemingway — and for Havana — because he discovered something about the place that made him want to return. The central ambition of Hemingway’s life was, as he wrote in Esquire in 1934, to create novels and stories “truer than if they had really happened,” and he was continually in search of gritty, colorful, and intense experience that would serve as fodder for this quest. Cuba, like Spain, was an ideal setting for this sort of experience, not only because of the excellent fishing, but also because it was a flashpoint for political upheaval. In April 1931, a general uprising in Spain had resulted in the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, marking the beginning of a new Republic, and in August 1933, a popular uprising in Havana overthrew the dictatorship of President Gerardo Machado. Hemingway, who had a lifelong distaste for authoritarian rule, joined in the celebration of both events, but the turmoil that followed in their wake would have enduring impacts on his creative life.
In the ’30s, according to Carlos Baker, Hemingway was feeling increasing career pressure as an author. The New York critics had savaged his most recent books, Death in the Afternoon (1932) and Winner Take Nothing (1933). He’d written enough stories about sport and animal dismemberment, they complained. Why didn’t he move on to something new? He wrote another novel, To Have and Have Not (1937), and it was a decent story — but decent wasn’t enough. A young novelist from California, John Steinbeck, was garnering critical attention and threatening to usurp Hemingway’s rightful place atop the pantheon of American writers. Hemingway needed a book as great as The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms — as great, more pressingly, as Of Mice and Men (1937) or The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He needed a masterpiece, and he was worried that he’d lost his ability to write one.
All these factors contributed to his decision, in 1936, to go cover the Spanish Civil War as a filmmaker and newspaper journalist. He joined a score of other international correspondents based in the Hotel Florida, in Madrid. He fell in love with a tall blonde writer and war correspondent named Martha Gellhorn, and naively allowed himself to become implicated in some unsavory intrigue with a ring of Soviet advisors to the Republican high command. It was an exhilarating time for Hemingway. He took every opportunity to observe the fighting, both at a distance and up close. The ground shook with daily barrages of Fascist artillery, reducing the Gran Vía to rubble, and he felt more alive than he had in years.
Eventually, the tragic war lurched toward its close. By the winter of 1939, with the triumph of Fascism looking inevitable, Hemingway decided it was time to get back to writing. He packed up his copious notes and booked his passage home to Havana, intending to work on a collection of three long stories or novellas. Instead, he was struck by a sudden inspiration for the story that would become his majestic novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). As the words began to pile up in his old fifth floor room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, his excitement grew. He could feel it. This was the masterpiece he’d been hoping for.
In April of that year, he was joined by Martha Gellhorn, who was to become his third wife. Unwilling to live permanently in a hotel room, she located a down-at-the-mouth estate 15 miles from Old Havana called the Finca Vigía. Though the house was in need of work, it was favorably positioned on a hill washed by cool sea breezes, with distant views of the bone-white city and the glittering blue Straits of Florida beyond. In 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls was published to critical and popular acclaim. His authorial confidence restored, Hemingway resumed the life of a migratory sportsman, with Martha as his companion and the newly renovated Finca Vigía as his long-term base.
Once the accolades died down, however, he sank into another valley of malaise. As he’d long been predicting, hostilities broke out in Europe. The fighting spread rapidly, and as of December 7, 1941, America too became involved. He’d written his masterpiece, sure, but now the entire world was consumed by war. He’d been a first-hand witness in two of the century’s defining military clashes. The idea of sitting this one out was unimaginable. Still, he wasn’t quite ready to abandon Cuba, or the good fishing, or his comfortable life at the Finca Vigía.
He was on good terms with top officials at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. With their approval, he put together a counterintelligence operation to address the infiltration of Cuba by Nazi spies. It was believed that the spies had found accessories among the many Cubans who supported the new Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. The situation was seen as particularly dangerous because of the “wolf-pack” of German U-boats preying on Allied shipping throughout the Caribbean. Operations began in the summer of 1942, with the Finca as headquarters and a collection of fishermen, bartenders, prostitutes, gunrunners, exiled noblemen, Basque jai-alai players, and long-time drinking buddies forming the personnel of Hemingway’s counterspy ring.
But intelligence proved an unsatisfying pursuit. Yearning once again to experience the dangers of combat, he showed up at the embassy with an audacious proposal. He would staff the Pilar with a well-armed crew and patrol the island’s north coast, posing as a team of scientists gathering data for the American Museum of Natural History. Inevitably, his reasoning went, they would be stopped by a U-Boat, at which point they would wait for the Nazi boarding party to emerge. His machine-gunners would mow down the boarding party, and his retired Basque jai-alai players would lob short-fuse bombs down the sub’s conning tower. All he needed to make it work, he told the ambassador, was good radio equipment, arms and ammunition, and official permission.
Amazingly, the ambassador approved this far-fetched scheme. The Pilar was outfitted with a powerful radio, a set of .50-caliber Browning machine guns, grenades, bombs, and a variety of small arms. Martha suspected that it was all just a ruse to fill the Pilar’s tank with strictly rationed wartime gasoline so Hemingway could resume his fishing trips, and in reality the detachment of faux scientists never did encounter a U-boat. But the author’s experiences during that period gave him some terrific material for fiction. The novel that resulted, Islands in the Stream (1970) — unfinished in his lifetime and only published posthumously — contains portrayals of tropical seascapes that rank among the best passages of nature writing in fiction.
When Martha left to become a war correspondent in London, Hemingway remained in Havana, his drinking on the rise, and the Finca Vigía in a state of increasing disarray. The truth was, he was torn. A part of him felt strongly that he should be following Martha off to the war, but another part was deeply reluctant to leave the place that he’d come to consider home, his beloved cats, his friends, his record player, the long days out on the Pilar, and the mojitos and daiquiris at his Havana haunts. Still, when Collier’s offered him a job covering the Allied invasion of Europe, he managed to pull himself together. He placed the cats in good homes and shuttered the Finca Vigía for a long absence.
Like many other episodes in his colorful life, Hemingway’s experiences in World War II make for an interesting story, though that story is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that participating in yet another war seemed to give his spirit a fresh infusion, and he returned from Europe in May of 1945 with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh. Together they resumed the wandering life, alternating seasons in Havana and Sun Valley with frequent trips to Africa, Italy, and Spain. The Finca Vigía now had a staff of seven full-time servants and a well-stocked bar and kitchen. Houseguests included Hollywood luminaries such as Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner, whom he’d gotten to know in Sun Valley and from working on the movie versions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and To Have and Have Not (1944).
In December of 1950, he finally got around to writing a story he’d long had in mind, about an old fisherman from the Cuban town of Cojímar. He knew the town well; it was where he kept the Pilar, and he was a frequent patron of an eating and drinking establishment called La Terraza, which overlooked the small harbor featured in The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the last major work of fiction published in Hemingway’s lifetime. It won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, providing a fitting capstone to a great career.
Throughout the 1950’s, the author’s health was declining. Worse, he was losing confidence in himself as a writer. In 1953, on safari in Africa, he and Mary were involved in a disastrous double plane crash, and he received a head injury from which he never fully recovered. It’s also fair to assume that his health and mental acuity were adversely affected by long-term alcohol abuse. People who saw him in the latter part of the decade were shocked by how old and frail he looked compared to the image of the vigorous sportsman and war reporter that had taken root the popular imagination. Still, he was managing to live an intermittently happy life, taking special pleasure in the company of the latest generation of the 57 cats that lived at the Finca Vigía during his decades there. “A cat has absolute emotional honesty,” he famously wrote. “Human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
The emotions behind Hemingway’s enduring legacy in Cuba click more clearly into focus when you talk to those who knew him when they were young. I spoke to an octogenarian fisherman in Cojímar who’d once been invited up to the Finca Vigía, along with several other young locals, to talk about his daily life and fishing practices, undoubtedly as background research for The Old Man and the Sea or Islands in the Stream. On the way back from his outings in the Pilar, Hemingway would throw towropes to local fishermen, saving them half a week’s wages in valuable gas. Indeed, the author went out of his way to maintain good relations with many working men — taxi drivers, bartenders, fishermen — with whom he was more at ease than the awestruck international visitors who were constantly knocking on his door.
The Cuban government has honored the author’s memory by preserving the Finca Vigía exactly as it was when he left it in the spring of 1960. It’s a profoundly evocative place. Hemingway’s well-stocked bookshelves are exactly as he kept them; the magazines strewn about the tables are all from 1959 and early 1960. His spectacles lie open on a side table; the typewriter where he worked rests on a shelf; several enormous pairs of shoes hang toe-down in a closet rack. The walls of the pleasantly airy and light-filled house display several of his big game trophies, including the actual physical remains of the animals that played starring roles in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (water buffalo), and The Green Hills of Africa (kudu). You can see the author’s handwriting on the bathroom wall, where he periodically inked his fluctuating weight during those difficult waning years.
The onset of the Cuban Revolution worried Hemingway — the explosion of a nearby munitions depot broke windows in the Finca Vigía — but according to Carlos Baker’s biography he was pleased in January of 1959, when Fulgencio Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro’s bearded revolutionaries rolled in to Havana. Hemingway was disgusted by Batista’s corrupt dictatorship, and he saw the Revolution as a positive change: “I wish Castro all the luck,” he said. “The Cuban people now have a decent chance for the first time ever.”
He did meet Fidel Castro, in November of 1959, at a fishing tournament west of Havana. The young Revolutionary leader won the tournament, and Hemingway presented the trophy. Castro said that he’d kept a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls in his backpack during the years of guerilla insurgency in the Sierra Maestra, which must have been thrilling for Hemingway to hear. “I always regretted the fact that I didn’t…talk to him about everything under the sun,” Castro later remarked. “We only talked about the fish.”
At the Finca Vigía, downhill from the main house through shaded gardens, a walkway leads to the author’s voluminous pool. Drained now, it’s a dangerous-looking abyss, the slanting cement bottom painted blue, blown leaf litter piled in the deep end. Just below the pool, where the tennis court used to be, the Pilar rests in dry dock beneath a high tin roof. Bolted to the top of the boat is Hemingway’s custom-designed flying bridge, where he could steer the yacht and stand lookout for marlin, or U-boats. This few square feet of decking, upon which the author spent so many avid hours, is perhaps the place in Cuba where Hemingway’s troubled ghost bleeds through the thin tissue separating the living from the dead most unmistakably. It’s impossible not to visualize him standing there, gazing out over the prow as he steered the Pilar among the azure channels and white-sand keys of the island’s northern coast, as reflected in this passage from Islands in the Stream:
The water was clear and green over the sand and Thomas Hudson came in close to the center of the beach and anchored with his bow almost up against the shore. The sun was up and the Cuban flag was flying over the radio shack and the outbuildings. The signaling mast was bare in the wind. There was no one in sight and the Cuban flag, new and brightly clean, was snapping in the wind.
One of the chief traits of Havana that makes it irresistible to visitors is the city’s elegant decay: the fact that its long isolation from the architecture-purging mainstream of the world economy has preserved a striking carapace of multi-layered history. Havana is a kind of massive time capsule in which, depending on the neighborhood, one barely has to squint to be transported back to the 17th century, the Art Deco 1930s, the 1950s gambling era dominated by the American mafia, and of course the forbidden Soviet Cuba of the Cold War.
It’s ironic, and perhaps fitting, that Hemingway’s single-minded pursuit of vivid real-life experience that he could immortalize in fiction is what led to him to Havana. Because despite his best efforts, the life could never quite match the intensity of the fiction, and that truth may have contributed to killing him. In Havana, the spirit of Hemingway endures, much like the architecture of the city itself, a fading reminder of what was and what might have been.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I met Lindsay Hatton at a party. There’s a lesson there: even a misanthrope should go to a party once in a while — you might meet someone remarkable. Hatton’s first novel, Monterey Bay, is just so beautiful that if we hadn’t met and hit it off, I would hate her. Her book is full of sentences I wish I had written, and it’s such a bold act of imagination, unfolding across decades, mixing history and fiction with a confidence that’s awe-inspiring.
All novels suffer from pithy summary. Monterey Bay is about a young woman and some old men who end up creating an aquarium on the titular body of water. But really, it’s a book about ambition, art, sex, obsession, and the devastation wrought on this planet by people — and the unsettling fact that no matter what we do to it, the planet will outlast us. Hatton kindly let me subject her to a few silly questions about her novel, John Steinbeck, and the weird exercise that is historical fiction. Here we go.
Rumaan Alam: Any summary of your book must, it seems, mention John Steinbeck. He’s a character in the novel, though I would take exception to the suggestion that Monterey Bay is “about” Steinbeck. Is Steinbeck important to you as a writer generally and in this novel specifically?
Lindsay Hatton: To be honest, I knew basically nothing about Steinbeck’s work before writing this novel. I mean, I had been assigned the requisite titles in grade school (The Red Pony, The Pearl, etc.) but for some reason they didn’t make a huge impression. As a kid growing up in Monterey, I didn’t experience him as a writer so much as a tourist attraction. I think there was a part of me that resented the implication that because I lived in “Steinbeck Country” I had to be a superfan. So maybe my avoidance of his work was my first — but certainly not my last — act of pointless literary contrarianism.
It was only once I realized that he’d be a character in my book that I really dug in. And I’m so glad I did. Some of his work I adore (The Log from the Sea of Cortez, The Grapes of Wrath) and some of it I don’t (I know I might be alone here, but I find Of Mice and Men borderline unreadable). Either way, I have great respect for him. He wasn’t afraid of sentiment, which I think is very brave. He had strong ethical convictions that he always stuck to, often at great personal expense. His geographical descriptions are breathtaking. As a writer, I definitely hope to emulate these things.
As a character in my novel, Steinbeck is important but minor. He is my protagonist’s nemesis/role model and the catalyst for one of the book’s odder moments and the source of some occasional comic relief, but other than that he remains pretty much in the background.
RA: Steinbeck isn’t the focus; that honor belongs to Margot Fiske, a wise (but refreshingly adolescent) teenager who arrives in California with her dad, and takes up with Ed Ricketts, who was also a real person. Steinbeck himself fictionalized Ricketts in Cannery Row and I finished the book unsure whether Fiske and her dad were real people too. It minimizes the book to say it’s about the creation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, though it is that. But is this creation story or creation myth? Until reading your book, it had never occurred to me that “historical fiction” is in fact a very postmodern exercise.
LH: My relationship to historical fiction is probably as complicated as my relationship to Steinbeck. As a reader, I really admire straight-up historical fiction but, as a writer, it plagues me. If I stay too faithful to the facts, my prose goes kind of stale. Like when you leave a glass of water out for a couple days and accidentally take a sip and taste the dust. I hate tasting that dust! I prefer it when I can see, or at least intuit, the act of fabrication and the freshness it brings. I love David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America for precisely these reasons. They’ve done their research, but they take immense pleasure in wild speculation. I think that’s exciting.
I also think history itself is exciting. I like how stories and themes and symbols arise naturally by sheer virtue of time and distance and the cognitive pressure they exert. And then I like messing around with those things for my own devious purposes. So from the very first drafts of the novel, this interweaving of fact and fiction was crucial to me. The question was how to manage it, and the answer I arrived at was to stay almost completely true to certain realms of fact (the wheres/whats/whens/whos of Steinbeck and Ricketts, the marine biological detail, certain technicalities and logistics surrounding the aquarium’s creation) and to go almost completely off the rails as far as Margot was concerned. It is, as you put it, definitely a creation myth as opposed to a creation story. I mean, there’s also the question of whether or not there’s a material difference between those two things. But that’s a debate for another time.
One thing in particular that might seem invented but was actually supported by my research was the possibility of Ricketts being attracted to someone Margot’s age. As Steinbeck said in his eulogy of Ricketts: “When I first met [Ricketts] he was engaged in a scholarly and persistent way in the process of deflowering a young girl.” ‘Nuff said, I think.
RA: Because of the connection to Steinbeck, I expected Monterey Bay to be in the vein of Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel about Henry James, The Master. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t love James enjoying Toibin’s book, but I have no particular feeling about Steinbeck and was swept into your book. That’s testament to your storytelling, but I think it’s also about the way you evoke Northern California. Does writing about geography entail a different set of responsibilities than writing about real people?
LH: When writing, I was hugely aware of place. Northern California is not only gorgeous; it’s also emotionally provocative. Whether they’re occasional visitors or lifelong residents, people feel very strongly about that landscape, often in quite proprietary ways.
So while the well-known, real-life location of the book is a selling point, it’s also kind of a minefield. I knew I’d be in for some criticism if my experience of the place didn’t match the readers’. My representation of the aquarium, in particular, was risky in this way. But that’s not really something I can worry about, you know? I can only be true to what I’ve seen and how I feel. I love my hometown and I acknowledge its spectacular beauty. But I also acknowledge its darkness. My adolescence was, like so many people’s, full of pain and drama and desire and a sense of not belonging. Monterey is where that all took place, so it stands to figure that my filter might be a little…gothic.
As for my responsibility in representing the town, I’m of two minds on that. The chapters that take place in 1998 depict the town as I knew it, so it was a question of accessing memories that are still very vivid and close to the surface. I trusted my own recollections and didn’t do much supporting research. As for showing what it was like in the 1940s, this is where I did my homework. I took this as seriously research-wise as I took my representation of Steinbeck and Ricketts. With very few exceptions, names and dates and locations are accurate. This was difficult. As any writer of historical fiction will tell you, there are times when the facts refuse to fit with your invented narrative; the book becomes a puzzle and not the fun kind. For a while, when things got really rough in that regard, I considered doing what Lauren Groff did so beautifully with Cooperstown in The Monsters of Templeton: presenting a bizarro, renamed version of the real thing. But at the end of the day, Monterey is just too famous and specific a place, and fictionalizing it in that way would have added a layer of metatext that probably would have distracted from the novel’s main goals.
RA: Sex is a not-insignificant aspect of your book. The action begins in the 1940s, but you have the liberty of writing about sex as someone who lives in the 21st century. As the book concludes, Margot is an elderly woman, there’s still something, well, sexual about her. I’m curious to hear what it meant to write about this character as a young girl and an old woman, and how consciously you wanted to explore the question of sex in the book.
LH: Oh yeah! Now we’re getting down to business! It was absolutely vital for me not to present Margot as a victim of anything. Sure, she’s the recipient of some nasty circumstances (a dead mom, a rigid and neglectful father, a nomadic lifestyle, an age-inappropriate romantic relationship that is, no matter how you slice it, very uncool), but I didn’t want to give the reader the easy out of pitying her. When you pity someone, you weaken them. You declaw them and rob them of agency. This is especially true in terms of sex stuff. Why is a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit such a huge success? Because sexual victimhood, especially as it relates to young women, is less threatening to us as a society than sexual empowerment. Young women with sex drives worry us: in our entertainment, we’d rather see them raped and killed than complicit in the fulfillment of their own desires. I wanted to Margot to break this mold. I wanted her to transcend the living hell of simultaneous fetishization and underestimation that most female teenagers experience. She is as bold, sexually and otherwise, as the men in her life and remains so despite the consequences.
The trick was making this believable in the 1940s, when sexual mores were different (theoretically, at least) than they are today. Margot had to be largely ignorant of these mores, thus the very unusual parameters of her upbringing.
As for older Margot, her vitality was also very much a conscious choice. Our culture doesn’t like thinking about adolescent sexuality, but we REALLY don’t like thinking about geriatric sexuality. When old people have sex in movies or books or TV shows, it’s usually in service of a punch line. And making something into a joke is often very much like pity: it neuters (ha!) its subject. Margot didn’t deserve that, so I didn’t inflict it on her.
RA: The natural world also figures via the animals, mostly sea creatures, that Ricketts collects, that the aquarium is dedicated to. In these pages, sometimes animals are just animals, but sometimes they feel nearer characters. I wouldn’t say you anthropomorphize, necessarily, but you use animals in a way I found unexpected.
LH: For the most part I like animals a lot. But I see them as animals. This was a lesson I learned during my time working at the aquarium, actually. With the exception of the otters and the occasional sevengill shark, none of the animals on display had official names. Avoiding anthropomorphism was taken very seriously. I wanted that to be true of my book as well.
BUT. You just can’t help yourself sometimes, you know? Sometimes there’s an emotional connection or a symbolism that’s impossible to ignore and you kind of have to run with it. I’m okay with that. I remember that being the case at the aquarium, too. There was this one psychologically deranged, obese sea turtle. The turtle, of course, was given a secret name and extra treats because we had projected human characteristics onto it and had fallen in love with it. And that’s not a bad thing.
RA: I wrestle with the inherent sexism of this question but here we go: you have two young children, but found the time and bandwidth to write this beautiful novel. On the one hand, it’s fucked up that novelists who happen to be women and happen to be parents are asked “How did you do it?” On the flip side, I see some value in coming clean about this; like it may well inspire their compatriots, whether mothers or fathers.
LH: Yeah, I don’t get as rankled by this question as some people do. I see it as an inquiry — however tactless and sexist it can sometimes come off — into the changing role of the artist in society. And this is a thing I’m really glad we’re thinking about. There’s that myth of the solitary (usually male, usually white) creator devoting his life solely to his work. Writing all day in his Parisian garret or lakeside cottage, and then drinking all night: that kind of thing. Art doesn’t get made this way anymore, at least not by anyone I know. But the myth still persists for some reason, and I enjoy the opportunity to help debunk it whenever possible.
You mentioned Colm Toibin’s The Master. I loved that book, too, but one of my predominant reactions to it was: “Man! Henry James had so much time and so few responsibilities!” I feel the opposite way about my life. No time! Too many responsibilities! But then again, I’ve also had the extraordinary benefit of a spouse who supported me financially when I was in the deep, unpaid murk of drafting the novel. I also find endless creative fuel in the act of parenting, however distracting and time consuming it can often be. Do my lifestyle choices stymie my writing in certain ways? Has my journey toward publication probably been longer as a result? Yes and yes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
LH: I really enjoyed Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon. Her description of breastfeeding is perhaps the best I’ve ever read. Also, she is a total virtuoso when it comes to changing POV. And I’ve been obsessed with Joan Didion’s Where I Was From for a while now. Highly recommended for my fellow Californians in self-imposed exile.
My wife carries the distinction of being, among many other things, the world’s most ardent fan of the southern California folk-rock band Dawes. If they’re playing a show within 100 miles of our home, she will unquestionably be there; when they announce the release of a new recording, she pre-orders it as soon as she can. And if they offer a book club — in which, every other month, a member of Dawes sends out a paperback, along with an explanation of why he chose that book — she will become a member, excessive cost be damned. Since she joined in August, we’ve received three Dawes-approved titles: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, and, most recently, Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. “[Miller] leans heavily on some of the pre-existing tenets of eastern religion,” drummer Griffin Goldsmith writes in his “Dawes Book Report,” “particularly the idea that an individual’s happiness is not only contingent upon where they are in the world, but also upon a confluence of internal emotions.”
To put it mildly, such knottiness is not what my wife expected from her fluffy-haired purveyors of golden-hued singalongs. (And I can’t really blame her; in college, I abandoned Sometimes a Great Notion after 15 flummoxing, headache-inducing pages.) All I can do is clear out shelf space for her new and difficult books — and suggest, politely, that she join one of the following competing rock ‘n’ roll reading clubs, which, of course, include their own book reports.
Ozzy Osbourne: Of Mice and Men
So, Of Mice and Men, it’s got this big dumb wanker, Christ, I can’t remember his name — wait, wait, it’s Denny, no, Lenny, that’s it — and his mate, this teensy little shitter, George. This George fellow is like the Oates to Lenny’s Hall, if that makes any sense. I don’t think it does. Fucking “Maneater,” innit. Anyway, they’re all kinda walking around and what, like, camping? And the big one, he’s always killing the animals ‘cos he’s so fucking big. Like, you ever see that guy, whatsit, Joey Ramone? I met him once in Boston, or like Tokyo? He was fuckin’ huge, and that’s who I kept thinking of when I was reading this book. At the end of the book, the guy from the Ramones kills this kind of hooker-type bird in a barn, and that was pretty much that. Christ, I don’t know what this book was on about.
Bob Dylan: Twilight
Twilight is a book about a girl who falls in love with a boy who, I’ll tell you right now, just happens to be a vampire. Life is funny like that sometimes. But this girl, her name is Bella. And she can’t do anything about this love of hers; she just can’t put it through. Some hoodoo about magic powers, is what I’m gathering. Young love is like that, I’ve found — untrustworthy at its heart and cold where it shouldn’t be. The book asks a certain kind of question, one that the wise men have been wrestling since the days of Plato, since the days of Little Richard, banging out his mystic sounds: is true love possible? And if not, how about vampire love? Now, I don’t know if it is or not, since I never was able to finish the book. I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it, to be honest on all fronts. It’s really long — longer than the mighty Mississippi, where you can hear that steam whistle blow, far off into the night. Out beyond them sycamore trees standing out in the dark. A sound to scare the vampires, if there are any vampires around to scare.
Jimmy Buffett: American Psycho
Maybe you weren’t expecting Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho to be the first selection of my book club. Jimmy, I hear you plead, you’re the bard of the beachfront, the Wordsworth of the waves. You once released an album called License to Chill; you write songs about delicious cheeseburgers. Why kick things off with a harrowing, full-bore descent into the savage, blood-spattered heart of our long-dead modern dream? Why confront us with this jagged, debauched journey into a pornographic, torturous vision? Why not give us something easy, something by Carl Hiaasen or, you know, Dave Barry — or better yet, one of your own books, like the lounge-chair-ready A Salty Piece of Land or Where is Joe Merchant?
My response is this, my faithful Parrotheads: beneath every placid exterior lies a festering, maggot-ridden core, a hellish pit of snakes and raw-boned, scalding pain. Stare into those waves lapping gently against the shore long enough, and soon enough you’ll see the nihilism in their relentless pounding; that water at your sunburned feet should remind us all of the steady encroachment of death.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes — I hope you dig the book! Up next after this one: The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly!
Adam Levine: Ulysses
Hey, Maroon 5 Book Clubbers! This month’s super-cool novel is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is hugely important to me, and not just because it’s the most prominent landmark in modernist literature — or that in 1998 the Modern Library named it the best English-language novel of the 20th Century! I chose Ulysses because it’s a work in which life’s complexities are depicted with unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity. (Seriously, guys, it is!) But that’s not all: in its characters we see, according to some lex eterna, an ineluctable condition of their very existence! Isn’t that rad? All right now, Fivers, get to it — I hope you love it as much as I did! ‘Cause I totally read it — and other books, too! I didn’t just have my assistant cut and paste lines from Wikipedia to make it seem like I had read Joyce’s sublime masterpiece, which, I have to say, depicts life’s complexities with unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity!
Image Credit: Wikipedia/jon rubin.
I’m sure there is a point after which it is universally felt to be tedious to read about someone’s baby. I had, in fact, no intention of mentioning mine when I sat down to write this essay, which has nothing to do with babies and which a more serious person would have managed to produce without thinking about themselves at all, progeny or no progeny. But the fact remains that all the reading I did this spring I did with a small baby occupying much of my time and psychic energy in ways I have yet to fully understand. I didn’t have postpartum depression; I had postpartum elation, which then settled into a sort of dismal feeling — perhaps my normal condition — after I resumed work and my hair fell out and my boobs departed and my period returned and it was just time to go about my business as though something very altering had not recently taken place.
I mention this because I am sensitive to bummers right now — am possibly a bummer myself — to the extent that for several months I was unable to reader Harper’s magazine, where every article was about melting ice caps and war and hideous injustice. And yet somehow during this time, when reports of reality were too painful to allow into my own comfortable nest, I read two unbearably sad books, books I heard about again and again until it seemed necessary to read them myself. From the reverence with which people spoke about them, I understood them to be tremendous bummers, but beautiful, transcendent ones, offering up almost baptismal benefits to their readers.
The first of these was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 700-pager following the lives of a group of close friends in New York City. I read Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which I found very, very good, and I expected to be similarly impressed by A Little Life, if not overwhelmed and made over in its image.
It’s always unsettling to find yourself totally at odds with an opinion that seems to be shared by many people with whom you might be expected to agree. A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. I am not being facetious; I was so impressed by Yanagihara’s other novel that it was conceivable to me that she might be up to some kind of perverse occult experiment with this one. I admired how dark The People in the Trees was, how gross, how resolute.
There is darkness, and grossness, and resoluteness in A Little Life, but its resoluteness is to a very particular, self-important sort of melodrama. The level of authorial commitment necessary for keeping this up over 700 pages is, paradoxically, what kept me interested in the novel even though I found it maddening and sometimes silly.
A Little Life has been lauded as a subversive masterpiece depicting the irreparable spiritual and physical damage of sexual abuse, of which the novel is unflinching in its portrayal, if irritatingly coy in the pace with which it unveils its horrors. Its protagonist and the victim of its suffering is Jude St. Francis, abandoned as a baby, taken in by pedophilic monks; rescued by the Feds, taken in by a pedophilic social worker; escaped; taken in by a pedophilic sociopath; rescued by a saintly social worker; sent to college; taken in by a saintly law professor; taken in by the delightful, suspiciously accomplished bunch of bright young men who become his star-studded adoptive family.
Jude is ravaged by his godawful past, and outstanding in spite of it (also very physically beautiful, it is suggested again and again). Both his misery and his excellence are exaggerated to occasionally cartoonish proportions; a new wound opening up on his legs every few pages; a new superhuman feat of professional prowess; a new demonstration of endless warmth and love for his friends; a new horror from his past suggested with a kind of lurid reticence: “He had heard stories from Brother Luke — he had seen videos — about things people did to one another: objects they used, props and weapons. A few times he had experienced these things himself.” Jude is a Mary Sue of suffering; the blood that flows from his unceasing bouts of self-harm is a stigmata.
I was not moved by the style which Yanagihara chose to put this story forth. The creepy, formal voice she sustained throughout the The People in the Trees revealed that she is a writer with a great deal of technical control. This makes the high melodrama in A Little Life all the more baffling. Here is Jude’s friend JB, following a conflagration with Jude and his best friend Willem:
Oh god, he thought. Oh god. What have I done?
I’m sorry, Jude, he said in his head, and this time he was able to cry properly, the tears running into his mouth, the mucus that he was unable to clean away bubbling over as well. But he was silent; he didn’t make any noise. I’m sorry, Jude, I’m so sorry, he repeated to himself, and then he whispered the words aloud, but quietly, so quietly that he could hear only his lips opening and closing, nothing more. Forgive me, Jude. Forgive me.
Or here’s Jude, describing one of the acts of sadism that defined the first half of his life:
Back at the house, the beating continued, and over the next days, the next weeks, he was beat more. Not regularly — he never knew when it might happen next — but often enough so that coupled with his lack of food, he was always dizzy, he was always weak: he felt he would never have the strength to run again.
There are other odd narrative choices, like the rare first-person accounts of the man who eventually adopts Jude dotted throughout an otherwise third-person omniscient voice. There is the seemingly random hopping back and forth between the third-person present tense — “One weekend at the end of September, he drives out to Caleb’s friend’s house in Bridgehampton, which Caleb is now occupying until early October. Rothko’s presentation went well, and Caleb has been more relaxed, affectionate, even. He has only hit him once more, a punch to the sternum that sent him skidding across the floor…” — and the third-person past: “The days slipped by and he let them. In the morning he swam, and he and Willem ate breakfast.”
Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.
There are the odd names, made odder by their frequent appearance in list form, in a number of permutations, at art galleries, at restaurants, at house parties, in Willem’s affirmations for Jude:
You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
(There are two people in the novel named Henry Young; there is only one person named Citizen van Straaten.) The novel’s extended cast reminded me of a less waspy but no less elite version of Donna Tartt’s fancy people, who have the names of animals and are sometimes two-dimensional. That said, one of A Little Life’s virtues is that it is comfortably populated with multiple people of color, achieving effortlessly that thing over which, for example, the show Girls struggled so mightily.
If there is a subversive brilliance to Yanagihara’s novel, I found it in the way that she makes the reader, or this reader, embody the qualities of the main villain of Jude’s adult life, his cinematically evil boyfriend Caleb, who is repulsed by weakness and made savage by Jude’s use of a wheelchair. I called Jude a Mary Sue up there; why didn’t I use the male equivalent, a Marty Stu or a Gary? This brings me to the only defense of this novel to which I am somewhat receptive — Garth Greenwell’s claim that A Little Life is “the great gay novel.” Greenwell argues that “to understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera,” a point that is well-taken. What I saw as a sort of unlikely friendship of a too-good-to-be-true crew of loving overachievers, all of them rich and famous in their own right, all of them helplessly devoted to Jude, Greenwell sees “the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis.”
I see the way in which this novel may be speaking to a mode of friendship and male experience to which I don’t have access, and I see that, from certain angles, my sense that this novel was long and overwrought was the result of some latent instinct to belittle “modes long coded as queer,” the same one that is finally exasperated rather than moved by Jude’s fatal insecurity and damage. But Greenwell loses me with his closing comparison to the “great gay art” of Marcel Proust and Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar’s genius, apart from the great beauty of his aesthetic (think of Penélope Cruz lip-syncing Volver), lies in his use of high camp to beatify a rag-tag assortments of losers and rebels. A Little Life lacks any measure of humor — fundamental to Almodóvar’s work — and its prose, which is simultaneously breathless and strangely bloodless, can’t compare to Almodóvar’s mastery of his medium. And let’s leave Proust — his miniaturist’s perfection — out of this altogether.
A Little Life eventually becomes a hostage situation; things happen that are so sad that, even if you are me and skeptical of the whole enterprise, you shed tears when they happen. But despite all of its open wounds and razor cuts and burned skin and exposed muscle and grotesque sexual violence, and even my tendency this spring to be left sobbing by a sad commercial, I found it a curiously sterile, curiously anodyne experience.
When I finished A Little Life, I read the second book I had seen similarly venerated, and which I also found to have a relentless quality. About Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, one Amazon reviewer cautioned: “Have prozac at hand or at least a city park and dont do what the author does which is only look at the shards of glass, the rotten garbage, the yellow crabgrass. Look at least at one thriving graceful tree.” It’s true that the squalor starts right away, as Lish opens on the daily life of his protagonist Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese illegal immigrant to the United States, who is employed in a China Buffet-type joint.
They gave her a shirt with an insignia and visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric. Everyone told her you have to be fast because the bossie watching you. They didn’t speak each other’s dialects, so they spoke English instead. Her first day, her worn-out sneakers slipped on the grease. She dropped an order, noodles popping out like worms, and that night she lay with her face to the wall, her jaw set, blinking…Squatting, she washed her clothes in the bathtub, wringing them out with her chapped, rural, purple-skinned hands, and hanging them up on the shower curtain rod with the others’ dripping laundry, the wet sequined denim and faded cartoon characters.
Lish makes the stakes of this unpleasant little existence evident immediately by having Zou Lei picked up by the police, and thrown into a carceral limbo where bodily harm, perpetual imprisonment, and spiritual annihilation are only a piece of paperwork or some guard’s malicious whim away. These dismal stakes are evident right away, and so is Lish’s commitment to an immersive immediacy of place and experience; I soon found the novel so moving and threatening and lovely that I would look up in the train to see if other people’s eyes were shining too.
There’s an abrupt macho fever to Lish’s writing that is the reverse of the style of A Little Life and which, had you described it to me, I would have predicted disliking intensely. But I found it hypnotic:
She started moving with the crowd, looking above their heads and seeing that she was going into a Chinatown, a thicket of vertical signs, the sails of sampans and junks, too many to read, a singsong clamor rising. No English. There were loudspeakers and dedications and banners for Year of the Dog. Voices all around her, calling and calling. Here, here, here, come and see! Someone spitting in the street. Crying out and running along next to her, pushing and pleading, grabbing the sleeve of her jacket. They put flyers in her hands and she dropped them. Missing teeth, younger than they looked. Illegals from the widow villages. Body wash, foot rub, Thai-style shower, bus to Atlantic City. A neon sign for KTV turned on in the dusk. The saw the endless heads of strangers, the crewcut workmen, running crates of rapeseed out the back of a van.
I don’t read very much poetry, but a few poems imprinted on me at a young age. I thought often of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” while reading this novel, imagining Lish as a remote god who had “such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands,” who writes “the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world.” And I was “moved by fancies that are curled/ Around these images, and cling:/ The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing.”
It would be so easy for a book like this to be only brutal, or racist and othering in its brutality. And it is very brutal: Zou Lei falls in love with Skinner, a traumatized Iraq veteran whose head is filled with horrors: “What had been done to the bodies was not possible to reconstruct. They had been wrenched by giant hands, smashed, severed, filled with gas, perforated, burned, flung across space. A limb lay on a seat…A pile of organs, a liver in the red clothes…Everything had been blasted free of its identity…” But there remains something gentle and expansive in Lish’s characterizations. Here is Zou Lei, making a home of sorts with Skinner:
She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good. Spring was coming, the big wheel of the city starting to turn.
I sort of hate to make so much out of an out-of-left-field novel about immigrants by a white man who is both a literary outsider and a pedigreed scion — a bald, muscular Marty Stu, if you will. It feels like a cliché. But I am powerless to deny that I found Preparation for the Next Life a beautiful, vital book. When I began reading, the continual squalor, the sense of doom, the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me close a Mother Jones tab made the book seem meaningful to me in a way that that A Little Life, although sad and similarly relentless, couldn’t do. I thought about them as a pair. What makes a book moving, and what makes a book mawkish?
In A Little Life, the dirt is on the inside, hiding in a shadowy group of monks and suburban pedophiles, and in the psyche if their victim; in Preparation for the Next Life, it’s on the outside — it’s on our streets and our food and our national conscience. Preparation is dealing in a physical squalor, the literal residue and dregs of crowded urban life, in a way that sometimes brought to mind, oddly, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
But where Miller upholds a sort of exuberant filth, a gleeful comic nihilism that leaves you feeling itchy from bedbugs but energized and ravenous, Preparation is as humorless, in its way, as A Little Life. More than that, Lish’s novel is implicating: Have you eaten at a grimy Chinese joint? Have you unthinkingly tossed out the Styrofoam clamshell box and the plastic bag stapled with a scribbled receipt, without wondering who put it there? Did your tax dollars fund the Iraq war — the war that both brings Zou Lei’s love to her and destroys him? In Yanagihara’s novel, squalor and degradation are the ruinous individual exception in a world of summer houses and talent and hard work that gets you somewhere; in Lish’s, they are the baseline condition of the life we have made on our planet.
I considered the depressing books I know and conducted a small Twitter survey. There’s An American Tragedy. There’s Native Son and The Bell Jar and The Kindly Ones and Of Mice and Men. There’s McTeague and Sophie’s Choice and Rabbit Run and House of Mirth. And there’s the destroying queen of sad books, Beloved, which I re-read in the course of my survey, my baby asleep in her pack n’ play, and felt things happen inside of my heart and brain. That novel is as huge as mother-child love; its horror has texture — the “pulsating…baby’s blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”
And talk about implicating. As with A Little Life, people in Beloved do things that must be the absolute limit of human awfulness; unlike Yanagihara’s novel, though, Beloved’s awfulness has an exponential, an infinite quality — right from its very dedication, “Sixty Million and more.” And even though A Little Life describes horror that in some ways is a systemic horror, and even though its protagonist is caught up in an underground network of monsters that must also exist in real life, it never manages to feel like more than one person’s exceptional, uncanny bad luck. There is no context in which to put Jude’s suffering but the frantic love of his friends and family.
Obviously, a novel that documents the individual’s response to American slavery, or American poverty, or the fallout of the Iraq War, is a different beast than a novel that documents the individual’s response to his own very particular and comparatively finite set of circumstances. A Little Life is the latter kind of novel. And perhaps it is logical that, at a time when even people who are staggeringly well off in the scheme of things can’t buy a home or feel assured of college for their children, a novel about a group of friends comprising a famous artist, a movie star, a “starchitect,” a corporate lawyer, and all of their well-to-do friends — a story that is intentionally stripped of historicity and chronological markers — would have to really bring it in order to seem tragic.
But if there’s any kind of suffering to arouse sympathy and pity in human hearts across class lines, it’s the kind endured by Jude. And yet I still came up against some barrier, beyond the absurd names, beyond the tense-jumping, that kept me from feeling Yanagihara’s novel the way it was meant to be felt. Perhaps I have some kind of liberal hypocrites’ need for a political angle, some guilt around which to marshal all of my ineffectual sorrow.
But let’s return for a moment to my recent quavering heart — my avoidance of the news, my pile of unread magazines. How did I cope with these devastating novels, when a 1,500-word article often proved too much for me this spring? Here is the cowardice of the novel-reader. While Preparation for the Next Life indeed made its way to a terrible crackup, it still ended on a redemptive note — a new life built around that time-honored American impulse to go West. Beloved, too, makes a little room for life to creep in: Paul D holds Sethe’s hand and says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Any redemption available in A Little Life is far more abstract — a purring cat, a blooming flower.
I accuse A Little Life of melodrama, but maybe, in my newly maternal state, I’m the sentimental fool needing succor — something that gives the lie to Henry Miller’s tossed-off prophesy: “We are all alone here, and we are dead.”
My first image of California was the Salinas River valley, just south of Soledad, lush and green in the full peak of summer. This little grove is a rite of passage for millions of the county’s eighth graders, standing on the river bank and listening to the gentle rustle of fauna in relative seclusion, as painted with John Steinbeck’s brush in the opening scene of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s strokes spread over all of California as an iconic vision, especially in the opening scene of the parabolic epic East of Eden: “From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer.” But that is not California anymore, and in the 60 years since East of Eden’s publication, the dense farmland has become something else.
When writing about California, the land and Steinbeck hang as an overture, as family patriarch Bill Blair discovers in the opening of Ann Packer’s new California epic, The Children’s Crusade. He heads south, driving out of San Francisco, noting: “This king’s highway boasted car lots and supermarkets, nothing to fill Bill’s heart, but every so often a vista opened and included the sudden rise of yet more hills, some thickly forested, others the color of hay bales in autumn.” Bill, in his exhaustion as a young doctor, is searching for the last vestiges of Steinbeckian farmland, finally settling on a broad stretch in the Portola Valley with a large, lovely oak tree:
He lay on the ground under the oak tree and looked up between its snaking branches at the bits of startling blue. He wanted to figure out a way to live under that sky without forgetting the other sky, halfway around the world, that for two years had seemed always gray and always to bear down on the land and sea, no matter the season and no matter the weather.
From here, Packer launches her broad and pensive family epic of the Blairs: Bill and his wife, Penny, followed by their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James. As adults, the four Blair children are brought together again when they must decide whether or not to sell their childhood home and land, the one that their father had founded for them. By settling the Blairs in the Portola Valley, a mere 100 miles away from Soledad, the legacy of East of Eden is inescapable.
East of Eden, lacking the social consciousness of Grapes of Wrath or the accessibility of Of Mice and Men, is possibly Steinbeck’s most difficult work and relatively neglected — despite the scope of its ambition and the author’s own declaration of it as his magnum opus. The story follows the thinly veiled biblical tale of Adam Trask and his brother Charles, as well as Adam’s sons, Caleb and Aron, as they rise and fall on their paradisiacal slice of the Salinas Valley and contend with Adam’s wicked wife, Cathy. Steinbeck’s work is rife with the toil of Genesis: men versus the hardscrabble, scarcely arable land, then men and women versus their temptation as women face the trials of Eve, and brothers’ hands twitch over the jealousy of Cain.
The inheritance of Steinbeck in Packer’s multigenerational novel is strong and diffuse. The Blairs take their creation myth as seriously tied to their land, their house, and their oak tree, well before the advent of strip malls, subdivisions, and the rise of Silicon Valley mansions that narrow in their once green-and-brown landscape. In 1950, two years before East of Eden was published, farmers accounted for 12 percent of the labor force; in 2015, they only amount to one percent. With the evolution of farmland into Silicon Valley and the change from farming to an industrialized and urbanized workforce, the nature of conflict changes, too. Men no longer struggle against the land, toiling as Adam once did because of the bounty of Whole Foods down the road. For Packer’s generations, the conflict has become a much more internal and introspective view of self.
Packer’s Blairs might find themselves much more at ease with Celeste Ng’s Lees in Everything I Never Told You or Jonathan Franzen’s Lamperts in The Corrections, where the percolated failings of the parents — and the stress fractures of their marriage — have reverberating effects throughout the lives of their children. If East of Eden represents an essential parable of American Genesis, then The Children’s Crusade is the complication of that parable and its strict morality. As the land has grown, so has its people, their lives replete with a dinner table trauma of harsh words and youthful brawls and spoiled clothes that hang about their days like the scent of ozone before a storm. Bill is the kind, conflict-avoidant, and well-meaning patriarch whose axioms of “carry on” and “children deserve care” are interpreted by each of his children differently. Penny is the manic mother fraught with unassailable dreams of her own artistry. Robert is the duty-bound and approval-driven eldest son, Rebecca the thoughtful and calculating daughter, Ryan the overly loving and close-minded middle child, and James the damaged and tossed aside youngest of the family. Initially, the “crusade” of The Children’s Crusade is a foolish list, made by the children, of activities that might please their mother and engender her doting love. These are certainly pithy descriptions compared to the deep, sprawling mental landscapes that each of the children explores in their joint desperation to understand the loss of their childhood home, land, and the weighty portent of their father’s oak tree. The land means so much to the four of them because it’s where they have rooted their love and history, and in this singular love and necessity for the California earth, the Trasks and the Blairs are not so different.
Each of the four siblings narrates a section of the novel as adults looking back, with interluding scenes from their communal upbringing. The psychological weight is heavy and palpable for each child, such as Robert, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. Although Robert is well-established in his mid-40s, all of his decisions are weighed against his father’s imagined approval of him and his work. Often, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, or James try to puzzle over their distant childhood memories in an attempt to piece together how they came to where they are in their lives. For the most troubled child, James, the turmoil of growing up focuses on his dire opposition to his mother, keying on one supremely traumatic moment surrounding his favorite stuffed animal that forms his “rocklike” opposition to her and results in them not speaking for more than a decade. For the Blairs, the land has been long conquered, leaving only the rolling hills of their own hearts and minds to plow through and build upon.
Throughout The Children’s Crusade, Packer lets emotion do the heavy lifting, leaving the writing itself to snake a methodical trail about the characters, such as when Bill is talking to Robert. “As he spoke, his face changed around his eyes and mouth, as if love lived in particular regions of the skin, and Robert felt his own face grow warm.” Packer’s terse words ride high on this ripe emotion to the point of exhaustion, feeling each moment so deeply and fully on behalf of each child to the depth of minutiae. The story itself swings like a pendulum, with wandering interstitial and omniscient scenes of a summertime party, a family dinner, or a teenage birthday, filling in the thoughts of whichever family member is closest, even latching onto significant others, with such sudden leapfrogging that at times the cacophony of thoughts becomes oppressive. Between these are the children themselves, grown and worried adults now. In these passages, Packer shows the reach of her creation in the awful nuance of the fraught and doubtful adults in the fullness of their lives: Robert with his self-imposed mantel of pater familias, Rebecca with her thoughtful and oppressive problem-solving, Ryan with his burden of endless and unconditional love, and James with his rootless wanderlust — all of it so painfully real and confessional.
In East of Eden, Cathy is an evil and selfishly depraved soul set against her righteous and caring husband, and as a parable, it’s simply a moralizing black-and-white tale baked into the beauty of the Soledad River valley. Yet in The Children’s Crusade, the shift between the children’s monologue and the collective memory pushes the reader into the role of investigative psychoanalyst. Packer is most certainly aware of this, having one of the children, Rebecca, become an introspective psychiatrist whose memory and its distortion is a constant tease in her life, probing what might be real and whether it matters or not. Treading through the mottled family life of the Blairs, Packer pushes you to ask these questions: What is the motivation behind each memory or action? How have these scenes built Robert or Rebecca or Ryan or James into who he or she now is? Why might they be so broken?
The Children’s Crusade, at times, dips into heavy-handed moments, such as having a group of children sit around and discuss their “crusade” to bring their mother back into the fold, but if anything, the emotion and intent is genuine. For all the biblical Cain and Abel navel-gazing of East of Eden, the same hunger runs through Caleb’s urgent desire for his father’s love and approval. For both families, the crux of it is the dire attempt to fit together, with love as both the solvent and connective glue.
John Steinbeck found Of Mice and Men in a poem by Robert Burns; Joan Didion came across Slouching Towards Bethlehem in one by William Butler Yeats. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was scrawled in the bathroom stall of a Greenwich Village saloon, which Edward Albee entered in 1954. Many of Raymond Carver’s titles were changed by his longtime editor, Gordon Lish — for better (“Beginners” became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) or worse (“Are These Actual Miles?” was replaced by the vague and perplexing “What Is It?”). F. Scott Fitzgerald first titled his most famous work Trimalchio in West Egg. Though eventually persuaded that The Great Gatsby was less obscure, easier to pronounce, and much preferred by his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald maintained that the final choice was “only fair, rather bad than good.”
In lieu of a fateful bathroom visit or an assertive editor, how do authors find their titles? Many plumb the work of Shakespeare (Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, as well as a number of titles by Agatha Christie, were all inspired by the Bard); others, religious or not, turn to the old poetry of the Bible. Still more scour their own manuscripts in search of a string of words that might capture the novel’s spirit. And some, like Alice Munro — whose latest title, Dear Life, was taken from a phrase she heard as a child — find that the perfect moniker was in them all along. Still, the process of titling remains individualized and mysterious: methods range from intuition to reason, from revelation to painful labor. Here, five contemporary authors tell us about theirs.
Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas:
I knew my debut novel’s title would finish with the clause The Cat’s Pajamas, however I heard the beginning of the phrase only as a rhythm. It sounded like: Something something something The Cat’s Pajamas. When I realized the missing phrase included “2 a.m.” (the time bars close in Philadelphia, where the novel is set), it prompted me to clarify the 24-hour nature of the novel and use hours of the day instead of chapter headings. Then, all I had to do was figure out what happened at that fateful hour. For weeks, this question rotated in my subconscious as I conducted the errands of my life: what happens at 2 a.m.? WHAT HAPPENS AT 2 A.M.? Whatever it was had to synthesize what up until then are disparate story lines while staying true to my desire to keep the stakes realistic. I ticked through all the possible tricks: murder, mass suicide, alien invasion, but knew the answer would be somewhere in subtle middle distance, harder to write, but closer to the way I’ve found life actually works. One of the unexplainable mysteries of writing fiction is that I normally begin already knowing the title and last line. I can’t explain why. It’s a mystery. The stories for which I don’t already know these elements take longer. Perhaps because something hasn’t quite distilled, and my conception is still a piece of sand, battling a shell to turn itself into a pearl.
Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits:
When it was finally time to submit my novel to publishers, I had no title. I sat for a full day in utter paralysis, staring at the title page, my cursor blinking in 24-point font. I would type whatever came to mind, most of it nonsense, just to see how it looked, and it all looked ridiculous. I had spent the previous week taking long walks and speaking aloud every term that came into my mind when I thought of the manuscript, an embarrassing voice recording of my attempts to seem smart. I went to Shakespeare — King Lear! I thought, there are some similarities, aren’t there? Old guys, unraveling families. Never mind the fact that I had never really understood that play, not really, and didn’t then when I skimmed it looking for my answer. Finally, I wrote my friend Stuart, who was one of the only writers I knew who didn’t overthink things. He wrote back a few minutes later with a list of trivia about Connecticut. Facts and data, all surface details. Stuff that seemed hopelessly superficial. But there, at the bottom, under a list of nicknames was “the land of steady habits.” And that was that.
Some titles come at me, wham, even before the story. I wrote the story “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” after that sentence somehow appeared in my brain, having no idea what the story would be about. Other titles are fought for. For a good while, my first novel was titled The Constellation Makers, which is not a good title at all (I knew that, fortunately). I had a long list of titles but I can’t remember the others because once I thought of No One is Here Except All of Us (which I took from a sentence in the book), I knew it was right and it never changed. However, I assumed that if I was ever lucky enough to get the thing published, surely the publisher would nix my long, complicated title. I assumed they would want something snappy (and that I’d hate it). This is not at all what happened and I was so glad that I had gone for the thing I wanted instead of guessing at the desires of the industry—turns out uniqueness, at least in this case, was an asset. Whatever the journey to a title, whether based on list-making and brainstorming and bouts with Thesaurus.com or one of those beautiful revelatory moments, I know the right title by instinct more than reason.
I titled my short story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy after one of the stories, A Brief Encounter With the Enemy. I know this may appear like an uninspired choice—indeed, it took me about one minute to come up with it—but I intended some subtlety behind it. For one thing, pluralizing the title helped to thematically link the eight stories, but more important is that it raised the question: who exactly is this enemy we keep encountering, and why? I’ll leave that up to each reader to decide.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves:
I had been working with another title, The Real Estate of Edmund Leary, which I liked for the double-duty “real” was doing, but I didn’t prefer to include the name of a character in the title, particularly when the book was more explicitly Eileen’s than it was Ed’s. While re-reading Lear in preparation to teach it, I came to the line in Act 2, Scene 4, where Lear is wondering why Cornwall won’t appear, even though he’s been ordered to. To explain away the offense to his ego, Lear says, “Infirmity doth still neglect all office/Whereto our health is bound”—i.e., sickness prevents us from doing the duties we’re required to do when healthy. The next line elaborates on this theme: “We are not ourselves/when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind/to suffer with the body.” Lear justifies Cornwall’s flouting of his authority by appealing to the universal experience of being beholden to our bodies: when the body isn’t working, the mind doesn’t work perfectly either. I found rich resonance in the idea of locating both the mind and the body in Lear’s formulation in the brain, so that the body that isn’t working is the mind, in fact — and then positing the mind in Lear’s formulation as what we think of as the spirit, the soul, the personality. When the brain isn’t working at its optimal best — when there’s an obstruction of function through illness, or a fixation or obsession that springs from traumatic early childhood experiences — the animating spirit of the person, what we think of as personality, is impaired as well.
The phrase struck me immediately as being at the heart of my concerns in the book. We Are Not Ourselves suggests characters who are not at their best, who by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves. It also suggests that we’re always learning and evolving, that we’re works-in-progress. We are not ourselves yet, in a sense; there’s hope in that. In a different vein, we are not reducible to whom we appear to be in our biographies. We contain multitudes in our rich internal lives that our lived lives don’t reveal. Another resonance for me is that we need each other to experience the full flowering of our humanity and our greatest happiness. We are not only ourselves; we are not islands unto ourselves. I liked that the phrase opened up fields of interpretation that would extend beyond the more circumscribed concerns of my original title, so I grabbed it and didn’t look back. As soon as I knew it was the title, it was as if it had been the title all along.