Settle in, folks, because this is one the longest first-half previews we’ve run in a long while. Putting this together is a labor of love, and while a huge crop of great spring books increases the labor, it also means there is more here for readers to love. We’d never claim to be comprehensive—we know there are far more excellent books on the horizon than one list can hold, which is why we’ve started doing monthly previews in addition to the semi-annual lists (and look out for the January Poetry Preview, which drops tomorrow). But we feel confident we’ve put together a fantastic selection of (almost 100!) works of fiction, memoir, and essay to enliven your January through June 2018. What’s in here? New fiction by giants like Michael Ondaatje, Helen DeWitt, Lynne Tillman, and John Edgar Wideman. Essays from Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, and Leslie Jamison. Exciting debuts from Nafkote Tamirat, Tommy Orange, and Lillian Li. Thrilling translated work from Leïla Slimani and Clarice Lispector. A new Rachel Kushner. A new Rachel Cusk. The last Denis Johnson. The last William Trevor. The long-awaited Vikram Seth.
As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.
So don your specs, clear off your TBR surfaces, and prepare for a year that, if nothing else, will be full of good books.
The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): In her Goncourt Prize-winning novel, Slimani gets the bad news out of the way early—on the first page to be exact: “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a gray bag, which they zipped up.” Translated from the French by Sam Taylor as The Perfect Nanny—the original title was Chanson Douce, or Lullaby—this taut story about an upper-class couple and the woman they hire to watch their child tells of good help gone bad. (Matt)
Halsey Street by Naima Coster: Coster’s debut novel is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a rapidly gentrifying corner of Brooklyn. When Penelope Grand leaves a failed art career in Pittsburgh and comes home to Brooklyn to look after her father, she finds her old neighborhood changed beyond recognition. The narrative shifts between Penelope and her mother, Mirella, who abandoned the family to move to the Dominican Republic and longs for reconciliation. A meditation on family, love, gentrification, and home. (Emily)
Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro: Five years after her story collection, I Want to Show You More, drew raves from The New Yorker’s James Wood and Dwight Garner at The New York Times, Quatro delivers her debut novel, which follows a married woman’s struggle to reconcile a passionate affair with her fierce attachment to her husband and two children. “It’s among the most beautiful books I’ve ever read about longing—for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life,” says Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You. (Michael)
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson: Johnson’s writing has always had an antiphonal quality to it—the call and response of a man and his conscience, perhaps. In these stories, a dependably motley crew of Johnson protagonists find themselves forced to take stock as mortality comes calling. The writing has a more plangent tone than Angels and Jesus’ Son, yet is every bit as edgy. Never afraid to look into the abyss, and never cute about it, Johnson will be missed. Gratefully, sentences like the following, his sentences, will never go away: “How often will you witness a woman kissing an amputation?” R.I.P. (Il’ja)
A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson): Kadare structures the novel like a psychological detective yarn, but one with some serious existential heft. The story is set physically in Communist Albania in the darkest hours of totalitarian rule, but the action takes place entirely in the head and life of a typically awful Kadare protagonist—Rudian Stefa, a writer. When a young woman from a remote province ends up dead with a provocatively signed copy of Stefa’s latest book in her possession, it’s time for State Security to get involved. A strong study of the ease and banality of human duplicity. (Il’ja)
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated by Jonathan Wright): The long-awaited English translation of the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 gives American readers the opportunity to read Saadawi’s haunting, bleak, and darkly comic take on Iraqi life in 2008. Or, as Saadawi himself put it in interview for Arab Lit, he set out to write “the fictional representation of the process of everyone killing everyone.” (Check out Saadawi’s Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.)
This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: Wünderkind Jerkins has a background in 19th-century Russian lit and postwar Japanese lit, speaks six languages, works/has worked as editor and assistant literary agent; she writes across many genres—reportage, personal essays, fiction, profiles, interviews, literary criticism, and sports and pop culture pieces; and now we’ll be seeing her first book, an essay collection. From the publisher: “This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.” The collected essays will cover topics ranging from “Rachel Dolezal; the stigma of therapy; her complex relationship with her own physical body; the pain of dating when men say they don’t ‘see color’; being a black visitor in Russia; the specter of ‘the fast-tailed girl’ and the paradox of black female sexuality; or disabled black women in the context of the ‘Black Girl Magic’ movement.” (Sonya)
Mouths Don’t Speak by Katia D. Ulysse: In Drifting, Ulysse’s 2014 story collection, Haitian immigrants struggle through New York City after the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of their county. In her debut novel, Ulysse revisits that disaster with a clearer and sharper focus. Jacqueline Florestant is mourning her parents, presumed dead after the earthquake, while her ex-Marine husband cares for their young daughter. But the expected losses aren’t the most serious, and a trip to freshly-wounded Haiti exposes the way tragedy follows class lines as well as family ones. (Kaulie)
The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith: Smith’s The Sky Is Yours, is a blockbuster of major label debuts. The dystopic inventiveness of this genre hybrid sci-fi thriller/coming of age tale/adventure novel has garnered comparisons to Gary Shteyngart, David Mitchell and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And did I mention? It has dragons, too, circling the crumbling Empire Island, and with them a fire problem (of course), and features a reality TV star from a show called Late Capitalism’s Royalty. Victor LaValle calls The Sky Is Yours “a raucous, inventive gem of a debut.” Don’t just take our word for it, listen to an audio excerpt. (Anne)
Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee: Spanning cultures and continents, Lee’s assured debut novel tells the story of two sisters who are bound together and driven apart by the inescapable bonds of family. Miranda is the sensible one, thrust into the role of protector of Lucia, seven years younger, head-strong, and headed for trouble. Their mother emigrated from China to the U.S. after the death of their father, and as the novel unfurls in clear, accessible prose, we follow the sisters on journeys that cover thousands of miles and take us into the deepest recesses of the human heart. Despite its sunny title, this novel never flinches from big and dark issues, including interracial love, mental illness and its treatment, and the dislocations of immigrant life. (Bill)
The Infinite Future by Tim Wirkus: I read this brilliant puzzle-of-a-book last March and I still think about it regularly! The Infinite Future follows a struggling writer, a librarian, and a Mormon historian excommunicated from the church on their search for a reclusive Brazilian science fiction writer. In a starred review, Book Page compares Wirkus to Jonathan Lethem and Ron Currie Jr., and says the book “announces Wirkus as one of the most exciting novelists of his generation.” I agree. (Edan)
The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette: With Winnette’s fourth novel he proves he’s adept at re-appropriating genre conventions in intriguing ways. His previous book, Haint’s Stay, is a Western tale jimmyrigged for its own purposes and is at turns both surreal and humorous. Winnette’s latest, The Job of the Wasp, takes on the Gothic ghost novel and is set in the potentially creepiest of places—an isolated boarding school for orphaned boys, in the vein of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Old Child, or even Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. “Witty and grisly” according to Kelly Link, strange and creepy, Job of the Wasp reveals Winnette’s “natural talent” says Patrick deWitt. (Anne)
Brass by Xhenet Aliu: In what Publishers Weekly calls a “striking first novel,” a daughter searches for answers about the relationship between her parents, a diner waitress from Waterbury, Conn. and a line cook who emigrated from Albania. Aliu writes a story of love, family, and the search for an origin story, set against the decaying backdrop of a post-industrial town. In a starred review, Kirkus writes “Aliu’s riveting, sensitive work shines with warmth, clarity, and a generosity of spirit.” (Lydia)
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Four adolescent sibling in 1960s New York City sneak out to see a psychic, who tells each of them the exact date they will die. They take this information with a grain of salt, and keep it from each other, but Benjamin’s novel follows them through the succeeding decades, as their lives alternately intertwine and drift apart, examining how the possible knowledge of their impending death affects how they live. I’m going to break my no-novels-about-New-Yorkers rule for this one. (Janet)
King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich: This historical thriller features an ax-wielding psychopath wreaking havoc in the city of Sazeracs. It’s been eight years since Rich moved to New Orleans, and in that time, he’s been a keen observer, filing pieces on the city’s storied history and changing identity for various publications, not least of all The New York Review of Books. He’s certainly paid his dues, which is vitally important since the Big Easy is an historically difficult city for outsiders to nail without resorting to distracting tokenism (a pelican ate my beignet in the Ninth Ward). Fortunately, Rich is better than that. (Nick M.)
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers: Eggers returns to his person-centered reportage with an account of a Yemeni-American man named Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s efforts to revive the Yemeni tradition of coffee production just when war is brewing. A starred Kirkus review calls Eggers’s latest “a most improbable and uplifting success story.” (Lydia)
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist (translated by Henning Koch): A hit novel by a Swedish poet brought to English-reading audiences by Melville House. This autobiographical novel tells the story of a poet whose girlfriend leaves the world just as their daughter is coming into it–succumbing suddenly to undiagnosed leukemia at 33 weeks. A work of autofiction about grief and survival that Publisher’s Weekly calls a “beautiful, raw meditation on earth-shattering personal loss.” (Lydia)
Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett: The award-winning British historian (The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War) makes her fiction debut. Narrated by multiple characters, the historical novel spans three centuries and explores the very timely theme of immigration. Walls are erected and cause unforeseen consequences for both the present and futurey. In its starred review, Kirkus said the novel was “stunning for both its historical sweep and its elegant prose.” (Carolyn)
Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby: A novel about art, loneliness, sex, and restless city life set against the backdrop of Hurricane Sandy-era New York, Neon in Daylight follows a young, adrift English catsitter as she explores the galleries of New York and develops an infatuation with a successful writer and his daughter, a barista and sex-worker. The great Ann Patchett called Hoby “a writer of extreme intelligence, insight, style and beauty.” (Lydia)
This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff: Medoff works a double shift: when she isn’t writing novels, she’s working as a management consultant, which means, as her official bio explains, “that she uses phrases like ‘driving behavior’ and ‘increasing ROI’ without irony.” In her fourth novel, she turns her attention to a milieu she knows very well, the strange and singular world of corporate America: five colleagues in a corporate HR department struggle to find their footing amidst the upheaval and uncertainty of the 2008-2009 economic collapse. (Emily)
The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s first novel is a fascinating and beautifully rendered meditation on ghosts, technology, marriage, and the afterlife. In a near-future world where holograms are beginning to proliferate in every aspect of daily life, a man dies—for a few minutes, from a heart attack, before he’s revived—returns with no memory of his time away, and becomes obsessed with mortality and the afterlife. In a world increasingly populated by holograms, what does it mean to “see a ghost?” What if there’s no afterlife? On the other hand, what if there is an afterlife, and what if the afterlife has an afterlife? (Emily)
Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates: The follow-up novel by the author of Black Chalk, an NPR Best of the Year selection. Yates’s latest “Rashomon-style” literary thriller follows a group of friends up the Hudson, where they are involved in a terrible crime. “I Know What You Did Last Summer”-style, they reconvene years later, with dire consequences. The novel receives the coveted Tana French endorsement: she calls it “darkly, intricately layered, full of pitfalls and switchbacks, smart and funny and moving and merciless.” (Lydia)
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: In her latest novel, Nunez (a Year in Reading alum) ruminates on loss, art, and the unlikely—but necessary—bonds between man and dog. After the suicide of her best friend and mentor, an unnamed, middle-aged writing professor is left Apollo, his beloved, aging Great Dane. Publishers Weekly says the “elegant novel” reflects “the way that, especially in grief, the past is often more vibrant than the present.” (Carolyn)
Feel Free by Zadie Smith: In her forthcoming essay collection, Smith provides a critical look at contemporary topics, including art, film, politics, and pop-culture. Feel Free includes many essays previously published in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and it is divided into five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free. Andrew Solomon described the collection as “a tonic that will help the reader reengage with life.” (Zoë)
What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson: One of my favorite literary discoveries of 2017 was that there are two camps of Robinson fans. Are you more Housekeeping or Gilead? To be clear, all of us Housekeeping people claim to have loved her work before the Pulitzer committee agreed. But this new book is a collection of essays where Robinson explores the modern political climate and the mysteries of faith, including, “theological, political, and contemporary themes.” Given that the essays come from Robinson’s incisive mind, I think there will be more than enough to keep both camps happy. (Claire)
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: In our greatest tragedies, there is the feeling of no escape—and when the storytelling is just right, we feel consumed by the heartbreak. In Jones’s powerful new novel, Celestial and Roy are a married couple with optimism for their future. Early in the book, Jones offers a revelation about Roy’s family, but that secret is nothing compared to what happens next: Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and sentenced to over a decade in prison. An American Marriage arrives in the pained, authentic voices of Celestial, Roy, and Andre—Celestial’s longtime friend who moves into the space left by Roy’s absence. Life, and love, must go on. When the couple writes “I am innocent” to each other in consecutive letters, we weep for their world—but Jones makes sure that we can’t look away. (Nick R.)
The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer: Nothing is what it seems in VanderMeer’s fiction: bears fly, lab-generated protoplasm shapeshifts, and magic undoes science. In this expansion of his acclaimed novel Borne, which largely focused on terrestrial creatures scavenging a post-collapse wasteland, VanderMeer turns his attention upward. Up in the sky, things look a bit different. (Check out his prodigious Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.)
House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: First made famous in the documentary Paris Is Burning, New York City’s House of Xtravaganza is now getting a literary treatment in Cassara’s debut novel—one that’s already drawing comparisons to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The story follows teenage Angel, a young drag queen just coming into her own, as she falls in love, founds her own house and becomes the center of a vibrant—and troubled—community. Critics call it “fierce, tender, and heartbreaking.” (Kaulie)
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi: A surreal, metaphysical debut novel dealing with myth, mental health, and fractured selves centering around Ada, a woman from southern Nigeria “born with one foot on the other side.” She attends college in the U.S., where several internal voices emerge to pull her this way and that. Library Journal calls this “a gorgeous, unsettling look into the human psyche.” (Lydia)
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: The latest novel from the author of The Listeners follows five women of different station in a small town in Oregon in a U.S. where abortion and IVF have been banned and embryos have been endowed with all the rights of people. A glimpse at the world some of our current lawmakers would like to usher in, one that Maggie Nelson calls “mordant, political, poetic, alarming, and inspiring–not to mention a way forward for fiction now.” (Lydia)
Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot: In her debut memoir, Mailhot—raised on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in southwestern Canada, presently a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue—grapples with a dual diagnosis of PTSD and Bipolar II disorder, and with the complicated legacy of a dysfunctional family. Sherman Alexie has hailed this book as “an epic take—an Iliad for the indigenous.” (Emily)
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: 2017 Whiting Award winner Halliday has written a novel interweaving the lives of a young American editor and a Kurdistan-bound Iraqi-American man stuck in an immigration holding room in Heathrow airport. Louise Erdrich calls this “a novel of deceptive lightness and a sort of melancholy joy.” (Lydia)
Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin: long live the short story, as long as writers like Lazarin are here to keep the form fresh. The collection begins with “Appetite,” narrated by nearly 16-year-old Claudia, whose mother died of lung cancer. She might seem all grown up, but “I am still afraid of pain—for myself, for all of us.” Lazarin brings us back to a time when story collections were adventures in radical empathy: discrete panels of pained lives, of which we are offered chiseled glimpses. Even in swift tales like “Window Guards,” Lazarin has a finely-tuned sense of pacing and presence: “The first time Owen shows me the photograph of the ghost dog, I don’t believe it.” Short stories are like sideways glances or overheard whispers that become more, and Lazarin makes us believe there’s worth in stories that we can steal moments to experience. (Nick R.)
The Château by Paul Goldberg: In Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, the irrepressible members of a Yiddish acting troupe stage manages a plot to assassinate Joseph Stalin in hopes of averting a deadly Jewish pogrom. In his second novel, the stakes are somewhat lower: a heated election for control of a Florida condo board. Kirkus writes that Goldberg’s latest “confirms his status as one of Jewish fiction’s liveliest new voices, walking in the shoes of such deadpan provocateurs as Mordecai Richler and Stanley Elkin.” (Matt)
The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: A memoir by a Whiting Award-winner who served as a U.S. border patrol agent. Descended from Mexican immigrants, Cantú spends four years in the border patrol before leaving for civilian life. His book documents his work at the border, and his subsequent quest to discover what happened to a vanished immigrant friend. (Lydia)
Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: If the driving force of Van der Vliet Oloomi’s first novel, Fra Keeler, was “pushing narrative to its limits” through unbuilding and decomposition, her second novel, Call Me Zebra, promises to do the same through a madcap and darkly humorous journey of retracing the past to build anew. Bibi Abbas Abbas Hossein is last in a line of autodidacts, anarchists, and atheists, whose family left Iran by way of Spain when she was a child. The book follows Bibi in present day as she returns to Barcelona from the U.S., renames herself Zebra and falls in love. Van der Vliet Oloomi pays homage to a quixotic mix of influences—including Miguel de Cervantes, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kathy Acker—in Call Me Zebra, which Kirkus calls “a brilliant, demented, and bizarro book that demands and rewards all the attention a reader might dare to give it.” (Anne)
Some Hell by Patrick Nathan: A man commits suicide, leaving his wife, daughter, and two sons reckoning with their loss. Focused on the twinned narratives of Colin, a middle schooler coming to terms with his sexuality, as well as Diane, his mother who’s trying to mend her fractured family, Nathan’s debut novel explores the various ways we cope with maturity, parenting, and heartbreak. (Read Nathan’s Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.)
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: If 2017 was any indication, events in 2018 will try the soul. Some readers like to find escape from uncertain times with dour dystopian prognostications or strained family stories (and there are plenty). But what about something fun? Something with sex (and maybe, eventually, love). Something Roxane Gay called a “charming, warm, sexy gem of a novel….One of the best books I’ve read in a while.” Something so fun and sexy it earned its author a two-book deal (look out for the next book, The Proposal, this fall). Wouldn’t it feel good to feel good again? (Lydia)
The Census by Jesse Ball: Novelist Ball’s nimble writing embodies the lightness and quickness that Calvino prized (quite literally, too: he pens his novels in a mad dash of days to weeks). And he is prolific, too. Since his previous novel, How to Start a Fire and Why, he has has written about the practice of lucid dreaming and his unique form of pedagogy, as well as a delightfully morbid compendium of Henry King’s deaths, with Brian Evenson. Ball’s seventh novel, The Census, tells the story of a dying doctor and his concern regarding who will care for his son with Down Syndrome, as they set off together on a cross-country journey. (Anne)
Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman: News of a new Tillman novel is worthy of raising a glass. Men and Apparitions is the follow-up novel to Tillman’s brilliant, ambitious American Genius: A Comedy. Men and Apparitions looks closely at our obsession with the image through the perspective of cultural anthropologist Ezekiel “Zeke” Hooper Stark. Norman Rush says, “this book is compelling and bracing and you read many sentences twice to get all the juice there is in them.” Sarah Manguso has said she is “grateful” for Tillman’s “authentically weird and often indescribable books.” I second that. (Anne)
Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith: Police officer Eamon Michael Royce is killed in the line of duty. His pregnant wife, Evi, narrates Eamon’s passing with elegiac words: “I think of him making the drive, the gentle peachy July morning light illuminating his last moments, his last heartbeat, his last breath.” Months later and wracked with grief, Evi falls for her brother-in-law Dalton: “Backyard-wandering, full-moon pregnant in my turquoise maternity dress and tobacco-colored cowboy boots. I’d lose my way. Dalton would find me. He was always finding me.” The sentences in Cross-Smith’s moving debut are lifted by a sense of awe and mystery—a style attuned to the graces of this world. Whiskey & Ribbons turns backward and forward in time: we hear Eamon’s anxieties about fatherhood, and Dalton’s continuous search for meaning in his life. “I am always hot, like I’m on fire,” Evi dreams later in the novel, still reliving her husband’s death, “burning and gasping for air.” In Cross-Smith’s novel, the past is never forgotten. (Nick R.)
The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani): In a New Yorker essay on Tawada, author of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Riva Galchen wrote that “often in [her] work, one has the feeling of having wandered into a mythology that is not one’s own.” Tawada’s latest disorienting mythology is set in a Japan ravaged by a catastrophe. If children are the future, what does it presage that, post-disaster, they are emerging from the womb as frail, aged creatures blessed with an uncanny wisdom? (Read her Year in Reading here.) (Matt)
The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst: Hollinghurst’s sixth novel has already received glowing reviews in the U.K. As the title suggests, the plot hinges on a love affair, and follows two generations of the Sparsholt family, opening in 1940 at Oxford, just before WWII. The Guardian called it “an unashamedly readable novel…indeed it feels occasionally like Hollinghurst is trying to house all the successful elements of his previous books under the roof of one novel.” To those of us who adore his books, this sounds heavenly. (Hannah)
The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector (translated by Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser): Since Katrina Dodson published a translation of Lispector’s complete stories in 2015, the Brazilian master’s popularity has enjoyed a resurgence. Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser’s new translation of Lispector’s second novel promises to extend interest in the deceased writer’s work. It tells the story of Virginia, a sculptor who crafts intricate pieces in marked isolation. This translation marks the first time The Chandelier has ever appeared in English (Ismail).
The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat: It’s very easy to love this novel but difficult to describe it. A disarming narrator begins her account from a community with strange rules and obscure ideology located on an unnamed island. While she and her father uneasily bide their time in this not-quite-utopia, she reflects on her upbringing in Boston, and a friendship–with the self-styled leader of the city’s community of Ethiopian immigrants–that begins to feel sinister. As the story unfolds, what initially looked like a growing-up story in a semi-comic key becomes a troubling allegory of self-determination and sacrifice. (Lydia)
Let’s No One Get Hurt by Jon Pineda: A fifteen-year-old girl named Pearl lives in squalor in a southern swamp with her father and two other men, scavenging for food and getting by any way they can. She meets a rich neighbor boy and starts a relationship, eventually learning that his family holds Pearl’s fate in their hands. Publisher’s Weekly called it “an evocative novel about the cruelty of children and the costs of poverty in the contemporary South.” (Lydia)
The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg: Fairy tales get a feminist spin in this short story collection inspired by Ortberg’s most popular Toast column, “Children’s Stories Made Horrific.” This is not your childhood Cinderella, but one with psychological horror and Ortberg’s signature snark. Carmen Maria Machado calls it a cross between, “Terry Pratchett’s satirical jocularity and Angela Carter’s sinister, shrewd storytelling, and the result is gorgeous, unsettling, splenic, cruel, and wickedly smart.” Can’t wait to ruin our favorite fables! (Tess)
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea: Urrea is one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen with my 35-year-old eyes, so it’s incredible that it’s not even the thing he’s best at. He’s the recipient of an American Book Award and a Pulitzer nominee for The Devil’s Highway. His new novel is about the daily life of a multi-generational Mexican-American family in California. Or as he puts it, “an American family—one that happens to speak Spanish and admire the Virgin of Guadalupe.” (Janet)
Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala: Nearly 15 years after his critically-acclaimed debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, was published, Iweala is back with a story as deeply troubling. Teenagers Niru and Meredith are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When Niru’s secret is accidentally revealed (he’s queer), there is unimaginable and unspeakable consequences for both teens. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says the “staggering sophomore novel” is “notable both for the raw force of Iweala’s prose and the moving, powerful story.” (Carolyn)
American Histories: Stories by John Edgar Wideman: Wideman’s new book is a nearly fantastical stretching and blurring of conventional literary forms—including history, fiction, philosophy, biography, and deeply felt personal vignettes. We get reimagined conversations between the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the doomed white crusader for racial equality John Brown. We get to crawl inside the mind of a man sitting on the Williamsburg Bridge, ready to jump. We get Wideman pondering deaths in his own family. We meet Jean Michel Basquiat and Nat Turner. What we get, in the end, is a book unlike any other, the work of an American master working at peak form late in a long and magnificent career. (Bill)
Happiness by Aminatta Forna: A novel about what happens when an expert on the habits of foxes and an expert on the trauma of refugees meet in London, one that Paul Yoon raved about it in his Year in Reading: “It is a novel that carries a tremendous sense of the world, where I looked up upon finishing and sensed a shift in what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. What a gift.” In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “Forna’s latest explores instinct, resilience, and the complexity of human coexistence, reaffirming her reputation for exceptional ability and perspective.” (Lydia)
The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Edith Grossman): The Nobel Prize winner’s latest arrives in translation from the extraordinary Edith Grossman. The Neighborhood is symphonic, a “thriller,” if you can call it that, about a detective whose wife gets roped into a debilitating situation. It is set in Llosa’s 1990s Peru, and you see this place with its paradox of grayness and color, juxtaposed with spots of blood. Two women married to very affluent men are having a lesbian affair, and one of their husbands, Enrique, is being blackmailed. When he fails to meet a photo magazine editor’s demands, he is slandered with photos of an erotic encounter on the front pages of the magazine. These two threads will converge at a point of explosion as is wont with Llosa’s novels. While this may not be his best work, it will keep readers reading all the way. (Chigozie)
My Dead Parents by Anya Yurchyshyn: Sometimes truth is more fascinating than fiction. Such is the case with Yurchyshyn’s My Dead Parents, which started as an anonymous Tumblr blog where the author posted photos and slivers of her parents’ correspondences in an attempt to piece together the mystery of their lives. Yurchyshyn’s father was a banker who died in Ukraine in a car “accident” that was possibly a hit when she was 16, and years later, though not many, her mother succumbed to alcoholism. Her parents made an enviously handsome couple, but they lived out Leo Tolstoy’s adage of each family being unhappy in its own way. Yurchyshyn’s tale is one of curiosity and discovery; it’s also an inquiry into grief and numbness. Her Buzzfeed essay, “How I Met My Dead Parents,” provides an apt introduction. (Anne)
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas: Year in Reading alum and author of The Oracle of Stamboul explores the history of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue (site of the famous Cairo Geniza document trove discovered in the nineteenth century) through the story of its generations of Muslim watchmen as gleaned by their modern-day, Berkeley-dwelling scion. Rabih Alameddine calls it “a beautiful, richly textured novel, ambitious and delicately crafted…a joy.” (Lydia)
Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen: This is an atmospheric novel of betrayal and ardent allegiance to ideology and political choices. When young Ah Liam decides it’s virtuous to report the resistance of his grandmother to Maoist rule to the authorities, he unravels his family with his own hands. His decision leads to the family having to flee the country and for them to have to make a decision: leave a fraction of the family behind or face greater harm. With its striking title about the sacrifice (the “burying”) of those who are left behind, the novel succeeds in drawing a very striking portrait of this turbulent period of Chinese history. (Chigozie)
Memento Park by Mark Sarvas: Many of us who have been with The Millions for some years surely remember Sarvas’s pioneer lit blog, The Elegant Variation—and look forward to his second novel, Memento Park, 10 years after his critically acclaimed Harry, Revised. Memento Park is about art, history, Jewishness, fathers and sons: Joseph O’Neill writes pithily, “A thrilling, ceaselessly intelligent investigation into the crime known as history.” So far, Kirkus praises Sarvas for “skillful prose and well-drawn characters.” (Sonya)
Wrestling with the Devil by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Famously, Kenyan author Ngugi wrote his Gikuyu novel Devil on the Cross while serving out a prison sentence. (And he did it on toilet paper, no less.) Now, the writer whom Chimamanda Adichie calls “one of the greatest of our time” is releasing a memoir of his prison stay, begun a half-hour before he was finally released. Taking the form of an extended flashback, the memoir begins at the moment of the author’s arrest and ends, a year later, when he left prison with a novel draft. (Thom)
Stray City by Chelsey Johnson: Twenty-something artist Andrea ran away from the Midwest to Portland to escape the expectation to be a mother and create a life for herself as a queer artist. Then, confused and hurt by a break-up, she hooked up with a man—and ended up having his child. Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, which comes after a successful run of short stories like the Ploughshares Solo “Escape and Reverse,” is a humorous and heartfelt exploration of sexual identity and unconventional families. (Ismail)
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer is one of those rare novelists who is able to capture the zeitgeist. Her follow up to The Interestings, The Female Persuasion centers around Greer Kadetsky, who is a freshman in college when she meets Faith Frank, an inspiring feminist icon who ignites Greer’s passions. After graduation, Greer lands a job at Frank’s foundation and things get real. Wolitzer is a master weaver of story lines and in this novel she brings four together as the characters search for purpose in life and love. As the starred review in Publisher’s Weekly says, this novel explores, “what it is to both embrace womanhood and suffer because of it.” Amen sister. (Claire)
The Recovering by Leslie Jamison: The bestselling author of The Empathy Exams brings us The Recovering, which explores addiction and recovery in America, in particular the stories we tell ourselves about addiction. Jamison also examines the relationship many well-known writers and artists had with addiction, including Amy Winehouse, Billie Holiday, Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, and more. The Recovering has received advance praise from Stephen King, Vivian Gornick, and Anne Fadiman. Chris Kraus described the The Recovering as “a courageous and brilliant example of what nonfiction writing can do.” (Zoë)
Circe by Madeline Miller: It took Miller 10 years to write her Orange Prize-winning debut novel, The Song of Achilles. Happily, we only had to wait another five for Circe, even more impressive when one considers that the novel’s story covers millennia. Here Miller again invokes the classical world and a massive cast of gods, nymphs, and mortals, but it’s all seen through the knowing eyes of Circe, the sea-witch who captures Odysseus and turns men into monsters. (Kaulie)
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: As we enter year two of the Donald Trump presidency, Castillo’s first novel challenges readers to look beyond the headlines to grasp the human dimension of America’s lure to immigrants in this big-hearted family saga about three generations of Filipina women who struggle to reconcile the lives they left behind in the Philippines with the ones they are making for themselves in the American suburbs. (Michael)
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Is Sittenfeld a serious literary novelist who dabbles in chick lit? Is she a writer of frothy beach reads who happens to have an MFA from Iowa? Do such distinctions still have any meaning in today’s fiction market? Readers can decide for themselves when Sittenfeld publishes her first story collection, after five novels that have ranged from her smash debut Prep to American Wife, her critically acclaimed “fictional biography” of former First Lady Laura Bush. (Michael)
Varina by Charles Frazier: Returning to the setting of his NBA winning Cold Mountain, Frazier taps into the American Civil War, specifically the life of Varina Howell Davis, the teenage bride of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. In this personal tragedy set in an epic period of American history, Frazier examines how “being on the wrong side of history carries consequences” regardless of one’s personal degree of involvement in the offense. Something to think about. (Il’ja)
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean: You’ve been reading Dean’s reviews and journalism for some time at The Nation, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, Slate, Salon The New Republic, et alia. Winner of the 2016 NBCC’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, Dean is debuting her first book with apt timing: Sharp features intertwining depictions of our most important 20th-century female essayists and cultural critics—Susan Sontag, Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Pauline Kael, Rebecca West, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, and others. A hybrid of biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp has been praised and starred by PW as “stunning and highly accessible introduction to a group of important writers.” (Sonya)
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee: In addition to receiving a starred review—and being named a Top 10 Essay Collection of Spring 2018—by Publishers Weekly, Chee’s essay collection explores a myriad of topics that include identity, the AIDS crisis, Trump, tarot, bookselling, art, activism, and more. Ocean Vuong described the book as “life’s wisdom—its hurts, joys and redemptions—salvaged from a great fire.” (Zoë)
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (translated by Tina Kover): From the waiting room of a French fertility clinic, a young woman revisits the stories of generations of her Iranian ancestors culminating in her parents, who brought her to France when she was 10. This French hit, published in English by Europa Editions, is called “a rich, irreverent, kaleidoscopic novel of real originality and power” by Alexander Maksik. (Lydia)
Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires: A debut collection of stories exploring black identity and middle-class life in so-called “post-racial” America, with storylines ranging from gun violence and depression to lighter matters like a passive-aggressive fight between the mothers of school kids. George Saunders called these stories “vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive.” (Lydia)
Black Swans by Eve Babitz: Until last year, Babitz was an obscure writer who chronicled hedonistic Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. And then Counterpoint and NYRB Classics began reissuing her memoirs and autofiction, and word of Babitz’s unique voice began to spread. In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote, “On the page, Babitz is pure pleasure—a perpetual-motion machine of no-stakes elation and champagne fizz.” Novelist Catie Disabato asserts that Babitz “isn’t the famous men she fucked or the photographs she posed in. She is the five books of memoir and fiction she left behind for young women, freshly moved to Los Angeles, to find.” Black Swans is the latest in these recent reissues. Published in 1993, these stories/essays cover everything from the AIDS crisis to learning to tango. And, of course, the Chateau Marmont. (Edan)
Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley: Crosley, author of the New York Times bestselling essay collection I Was Told There’d Be Cake, returns with a new collection of essays. Ten years removed from her debut, Crosley takes on issues ranging from the pressures of fertility, to swingers, to confronting her own fame. Look Alive promises to be a worthwhile follow-up to Crosley’s 2011 collection How Did You Get This Number?. (Ismail)
The Only Story by Julian Barnes: Give this to Barnes: the Man Booker laureate’s not afraid of difficult premises. In his 13th novel, a college student named Paul spends a lazy summer at a tennis club, where he meets a middle-aged woman with two daughters around his age. Soon enough, the two are having an affair, and a flash-forward to a much-older Paul makes clear it upended their lives. (Thom)
Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis): In this torrential inner monologue out from Oakland publisher Transit Books, a woman reflects on music, politics and her affair with a musician, a pianist obsessed with the 1910 self-portrait painted by Arnold Schoenberg, a haunting, blue-tinted work in which the composer’s“expression promised nothing positive for the art of the future, conveyed an anxiety for the future, looked far beyond any definition of the work of art or of the future.” (Matt)
How to Be Safe by Tom McCallister: This novel, by the author of The Young Widower’s Handbook, is billed as We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Dept. of Speculation—those are two of my favorite books! Also? Tom McCallister…is a man! Although high school English teacher Anna Crawford is quickly exonerated after being named a suspect in a campus shooting, she nevertheless suffers intense scrutiny in the wake of the tragedy. As the jacket copy says, “Anna decides to wholeheartedly reject the culpability she’s somehow been assigned, and the rampant sexism that comes with it, both in person and online.” Of the book, novelist Amber Sparks writes, “It’s so wonderful—so furious and so funny and urgent and needed in this mad ugly space we’re sharing with each other.” Author Wiley Cash calls McCallister “an exceptionally talented novelist.” (Edan)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient and Divisidero among his other works, this new novel from Ondaatje is set in the decade after World War II. When their parents move to Singapore, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when their mother returns months later without their father, but gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover the story through a journey of facts, recollection, and imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire)
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan)
Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia)
Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti’s previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious” and “narcissistic” quite the unintentional compliment. Heti’s new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all. (Anne)
That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.)
Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk: Four years since publishing his last novel, Palahniuk returns in the era of fake news, obvious government corruption, and widespread despair. (It’s as though the protagonists in his most famous novels were right from the start.) In Adjustment Day, these themes weave together in the form of a mysterious day of reckoning orchestrated by an out of touch, aging group of elected officials. (Nick M.)
Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories. That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph. RIP. (Il’ja)
MEM by Bethany Morrow In this debut novel set in a speculative past, a Montreal-based scientist discovers a way to extract memories from people, resulting in physical beings, Mems, who are forced to experience the same memory over and over. Complications ensue when one of the Mems, Dolores Extract #1, begins to make and form her own memories. (Hannah)
And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: O’Connell’s memoir—her first book—is here to remedy the “nobody tells you what it’s really like” refrain of new mothers. Giving birth to her son in her 20s, after an unplanned pregnancy, O’Connell chronicles the seismic changes that happened to her body, routine, social life, and existential purpose before she knew what was coming. All the cool moms of literary twitter (including Edan!) are raving. (Janet)
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel’s novel “deserves a standing ovation.” For a taste of Gabel’s prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia)
The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah)
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail)
Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter’s breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne)
The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom)
Kudos by Rachel Cusk: When I first encountered Cusk’s writing in the mid-aughts I wrote her off as an author of potentially tedious domestic drama. I was woefully wrong. It’s true Cusk is a chronicler of the domestic: she is as known for her memoirs of motherhood and divorce as she is for her novels, but her writing is innovative, observant, and bold. The New Yorker declared that with the trilogy that her latest novel Kudos completes, Cusk has “renovated” the novel, merging fiction with oral history, retooling its structure. Cusk has said: “I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live.” (Anne)
A Suitable Girl by Vikram Seth: Reportedly delayed by writer’s block brought on by a breakup, Seth has finally produced the much-anticipated sequel to his international smash of 1993, A Suitable Boy. That novel, a gargantuan epic set in post-independence India in the 1950s, was a multi-family saga built around the pursuit of a suitable husband in a world of arranged marriages. In the “jump sequel,” the original protagonist is now in her 80s and on the prowl for a worthy bride for her favorite grandson. Though best-known for A Suitable Boy, the versatile Seth has produced novels, poetry, opera, a verse novel, a travel book, and a memoir. (Bill)
Florida by Lauren Groff: After collecting fans like Barack Obama with her bestselling novel Fates and Furies, Groff’s next book is a collection of short stories that center around Florida, “the landscape, climate, history, and state of mind.” Included is ”Dogs Go Wolf,” the haunting story that appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the year. In a recent interview, Groff gave us the lay of the land: “The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I’ve lived for twelve years...I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you.” (Claire)
There There by Tommy Orange: Set in Oakland, Orange’s novel describes the disparate lives that come together for the Oakland Powwow and what happens to them when they get there. In an extraordinary endorsement, Sherman Alexie writes that Orange’s novel “is truly the first book to capture what it means to be an urban Indian—perhaps the first novel ever to celebrate and honor and elevate the joys and losses of urban Indians. You might think I’m exaggerating but this book is so revolutionary—evolutionary—that Native American literature will never be the same.” (Lydia)
Upstate by James Wood: It’s been 15 years since Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published. What was Wood doing in the meantime? Oh, just influencing a generation of novelists from his perch at The New Yorker, where his dissecting reviews also functioned as miniature writing seminars. He also penned a writing manual, How Fiction Works. His sophomore effort concerns the Querry family, who reunite in upstate New York to help a family member cope with depression and to pose the kinds of questions fiction answers best: How do people get through difficulty? What does it mean to be happy? How should we live our lives? (Hannah)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: This third novel from the acclaimed author of The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House interlaces the story of an art gallery director whose friends are succumbing to the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago with a mother struggling to find her estranged daughter 30 years later in contemporary Paris. “The Great Believers is by turns funny, harrowing, tender, devastating, and always hugely suspenseful,” says Margot Livesey, author of Mercury. (Michael)
Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill: Frequent New Yorker and Harper’s readers will know that O’Neill has been writing a lot of short fiction lately. With the new Good Trouble, the Netherland author now has a full collection, comprised of 11 off-kilter, unsettling stories. Their characters range from a would-be renter in New York who can’t get anyone to give him a reference to a poet who can’t decide whether or not to sign a petition. (Thom)
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A family chronicle, workplace drama, and love story rolled into one, Li’s debut chronicles the universe of the Beijing Duck House restaurant of Rockville, Md., run by a family and long-time employees who intertwine in various ways when disaster strikes. Lorrie Moore raves, “her narratives are complex, mysterious, moving, and surprising.” (Lydia)
SICK by Porochista Khakpour: In her much anticipated memoir SICK, Khakpour chronicles her arduous experience with illness, specifically late-stage Lyme disease. She examines her efforts to receive a diagnosis and the psychological and physiological impact of being so sick for so long, including struggles with mental health and addiction. Khakpour’s memoir demonstrates the power of survival in the midst of pain and uncertainty. (Zoë)
Fight No More by Lydia Millet: Millet’s 2010 collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Eight years later she’s released another collection of stories arranged around a real estate broker and their family as they struggle to reconnect. Millet’s satire is well-known for it’s sharp brutality—and its compassionate humanity. Both sides are on full display here. (Kaulie)
Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson: Examining the intersection of social media and intimacy, the commercial and the corporeal, the theme of Hodson’s essay collection is how we are pushed and pulled by our desire. The Catapult teacher’s debut has been called “racingly good…refreshing and welcome” by Maggie Nelson. (Tess)
Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt: On the heels of her critically praised debut, The Daughters, Celt gives us a love-triangle story that, according to the publisher, is “inspired by the infamous Nabokov marriage, with a spellbinding psychological thriller at its core.” The protagonist is a young Russian refugee named Zoya who becomes entangled with her boarding school’s visiting writer, Leo Orlov, and his imperious wife, Vera. Our own Edan Lepucki praised the novel as “a sexy, brilliant, and gripping novel about the fine line between passion and obsession. I am in awe of Celt’s mastery as a prose stylist and storyteller; I can’t stop thinking about this amazing book.” (Sonya)
In part one of this two-part series, Meaghan O’Connell and I discussed our experience reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. At that point, we were a couple of hundred pages into the novel. Now we are back to continue that conversation, and to illuminate for our audience just what it means to read (or not read) a classic in 2016…and to no doubt embarrass ourselves further in the name of honesty, entertainment, and, of course, literature.
Edan Lepucki: I’m 80 pages from finishing David Copperfield…and I’ve given up. I just can’t do it anymore. The endless scenes with characters’ verbal tics on full display; the moralizing about the beauty of a woman’s purity; Mr. Micawber’s debts and heart; Uriah Heep’s writhing. I just can’t. I am so bored! I found that I was barely reading and when I stop reading my life takes on a sad, lifeless tone, like my hair before I get my blonde highlights. My former English professor, the brilliant David Walker, wondered on Twitter why we didn’t try Our Mutual Friend or Bleak House. Why didn’t we? I guess I wanted a comic novel, a famous crowd pleaser. But I am far from pleased.
Where are you in the novel? Are you compelled to continue?
I am left with a few thoughts from this project. The first one being, what does “Dickensian” mean? Want to take a stab at defining that, based on what you’ve read of Davy C.?
Meaghan O’Connell: Oh, Edan. When I got this email from you I cheered out loud. I still have 200 pages to go and I can barely remember what it’s like to truly love a book. I am so behind and the book is starting to feel endless. Every night I tell myself, “Okay, go to bed early. Read for an hour or more.” Then I get in bed, read two pages, and fall asleep at 9 pm or whatever it is.
I am still a little invested, mostly in D.C.’s romantic prospects, but I, too, would prefer to never read the name Uriah Heep again. I think I want to finish it, but I need to bring a few more books into the rotation, save it for when I am in a certain mood, I guess the mood to be somewhat tediously entertained?
IT’S SO LONG.
I wanted to read David Copperfield because supposedly it is the author’s favorite, and based largely/vaguely on his own life. And the book does make me curious about Dickens himself, or at least the narrator. Like, hi, D.C., please, step forward, talk to me in like 200 pages instead of 860. Maybe tell a different story altogether? Great Expectations perhaps? I probably should have just re-read that. I love reading things I read when I was younger and understanding things that passed by me then.
Dickensian. I think in casual conversation people mean it to be “about poor people”? Things that are bleak. I picture a small boy with soot on his cheeks, begging for bread, maybe a starving cat in the background. It’s all very grey. There are waistcoats, which it turns out are simply VESTS, and they are threadbare. I think this is based almost entirely on Oliver Twist?
Having read 70 percent of the book I would say that I guess that isn’t totally off, but if you said a book was Dickensian, well, for one, I would not want to read it, at least not for a long time. I would imagine it to be bloated but funny, obsessed with class, tragicomic? An orphan? A lot of failed romance but probably some sort of happy ending (I may never know the end of this, but he does reference his future children at some point — which was weird!)
It’s been strange to read a book I just like okay, to be missing that big propulsive drive in my life. This book is not really making me think about anything? It’s not inspiring, or not in any way that is conscious. I guess I am inspired that Dickens took up so much damned space. Mostly it’s felt, much as it did the last time I read his work, like homework. I need a breath of fresh air! I have no urge to write lately and I never thought I’d say this/provoke lovers of Victorian literature in this way, but I blame Charles Dickens.
Have you really abandoned poor Davey? (Edan, you know he probably has abandonment issues!!) Are you on to other books? What’s it like on the other side?! I’m really left feeling like, God, maybe I should just watch a BBC version of this book and see if he ends up marrying Agnes after all. I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not a scholar of some kind, which seems like a pretty brazen pronouncement, but, you know what, I stand by it. Do not read this book!! Life is short.
Edan: What’s amazing to me is how many people, when I told them I was reading David Copperfield, said that they had read and loved the book when they were younger. This is startling to me because, while Dickens isn’t difficult on the sentence level, there are still quite a few cultural and era-specific references that were unclear to me, as a worldly adult. (For instance, all the stuff around Copperfield’s career, before he starts writing for money, confused me.) And the intense moralizing about young women made me worried about all the women who read this as kids. Don’t run off with the hot asshole, little girls, or you will never recover! (Well, hey, that’s maybe kind of a good lesson to live by…) It did make me consider David C. as a (very) long young adult novel, or even middle grade novel. The reader, for a time, is Davy’s age, and can grow along with him. There were a lot of plot turns that I saw coming for hundreds of pages, which might be less obvious to a younger audience.
When I think about “Dickensian” I, like you, first imagine waistcoats and soot, a bad cough. Certainly orphans. But also long narratives that rely very much on coincidence. Now that I’ve read most of David Copperfield, I’d say, too, that the Dickensian style has colorful and immediately memorable characters with distinct names and ways of speaking: Peggoty, Mr. Dick, Miss Murdstone. As much as I began to dislike this novel, I’m in awe of how efficiently he brought these figures to life, and with such joy, it seems.
In his terrific introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel, David Gates does a bang-up job of citing the book’s flaws, from Mr. Micawber’s anti-semitic one-liner to Dickens’s flawed and flat depiction of women, such as Agnes, whom Gates calls “the celestially backlit hall monitor.” He goes on to argue that Dickens “writes best about damaged, dark, and dangerous women.” Gates cites the scarred Rosa Dartle in the novel, whom I was also very much mesmerized by. Aside from the needless length of the book, I do think the depictions of women were what made me finally put it down. I started skimming right around when Dora asked Davy to call her Child Wife. Just no.
Since you asked, I’ve given up D.C. for good and I’m enjoying reading again. I ate up Charles Yu’s metafictional How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is like Italo Calvino crossed with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure crossed with George Saunders. Then I read the forthcoming debut novel Home Field by The Millions staff writer Hannah Gersen, which was so beautiful and compelling that she and I joked my blurb should be: “Better than Dickens!”
Speaking of Hannah, she told me that she appreciates Dickens’s influence more than Dickens’s work. What do you think this means?
Meaghan: It’s funny you wrote today because I picked the book back up last night! I’d read enough of Charlotte Shane and then Rebecca Curtis to be ready to reenter the fore. It was very pleasant. If I can keep reading intense lyric memoirs and bizarro short stories between chapters of this doorstopper, I might just finish it.
The “my great love is so delicate!” shit is pretty tedious, though I did laugh when he described her to Agnes, making excuses for how fragile she was, how she couldn’t be troubled with this or that. Getting relationship advice from the unassuming girl everyone else knows you SHOULD be with felt so modern — a satisfying set up! If he isn’t headed for one in a series of falls and if he doesn’t end up with backlit Agnes, I will be bitter indeed.
And you’re right — efficient! Who would have thought we’d use that word to describe Dickens? The very name Miss Murdstone makes me so angry. Mr. Micawber evokes dread, awkwardness. They flit in and out of the story so any lasting impression seems like an achievement. There’s a sort of necessary hamfistedness? Or if it’s deliberate maybe it’s just over-the-top, but good over-the-top. He’s having fun with it, there seems to be this continual raised eyebrow throughout, and yet he maintains such sincerity with David Copperfield! Maybe that’s what feels sort of YA about it? He’s so pure of heart and unflagging and “honorable” and so on. He’s good-humored but never totally self-aware? It’s SO sincere even as it’s funny.
Poor kids being assigned this book in school. At least with Great Expectations there is the spider cake to cling to.
I totally get the influence versus the work thing, what a smart, gentle thing to say, like maybe he might read this. A friend, when I told her I wanted to read some Dickens, was like, “Or maybe read some Nancy Mitford? Or Jane Austen even?”
To me “Dickensian” evokes what I was trying to get at earlier, a sense of playfulness (I hate when adults say “play” but there it is), a very kind evisceration, wit, and a noble heart. It is fun, though I think it’s more fun to have that foundation and then undercut it. It’s thrilling in a way, how tired so much of it feels, while still being full of life. To have him be brilliant but also to feel like we (“we” lol) have made progress, literature-wise! Is that crazy to say? We’re better than you now, Dickens, but thank you for your service.
Edan: I love your phrase, “a very kind evisceration” — this is such an accurate description of what Dickens is up to in David Copperfield. I definitely appreciate this gift of his. But gift-appreciation is different from pure enjoyment.
Again, though, I circle back to this idea that perhaps we chose the wrong book; certainly we wouldn’t say that the contemporary novels we adore are better than, say, Bleak House, which everyone seems to agree is a masterpiece. I would bet that most Dickens scholars and lovers would choose another book of his for us to judge. Maybe David Copperfield is too of its time to truly work for contemporary readers such as ourselves. I get the sense that it was written to be an immersive, rousing text for the readers of its day; perhaps his more “serious” novels were striving for something other than immersion: complication, profundity.
All the 18th-century literature I read in college, like Pamela, or Humphry Clinker, were fun to talk about but a chore to read — their storytelling techniques were just so obvious and clunky. While David Copperfield was a far better read than those novels, I’m still having a better time discussing the book with you than I did reading said book. Back when I was in that 18th-century literature class, I remember feeling that The Novel, as a machine to entertain and move the reader, had become much sleeker and more powerful over the years. But by the 19th century, the machinery had improved considerably. We have Austen, as you mentioned. (Emma was published in 1815.) And George Eliot — my god, what brilliance! Middlemarch came later in the century, in 1874. David Copperfield, published in 1850, came between those two books. Perhaps some learned person can step forward to tell us why and how novels got so much more refined in the 1800s — only a century (or less) later. And is Copperfield’s episodic/picaresque quality (is it a picaresque?) a throwback to these older books? I wonder, I wonder.
I asked Hannah Gersen what she meant by Dickensian influence and she echoed what we’ve been saying, and she also remarked that Christmas movies owe a huge debt to Charles D. She’s right!
Will you read more Dickens in 2016? Ever? What do you take away from this experiment in ye olden classics?
Meaghan: God. It’s just TOO LONG. My edition is 866 pages. Life is too short to read something so plodding. And yet, I’m still reading it. I have a hard time giving up on books. I keep thinking maybe there will be some revelation near the end that will have made it all worthwhile. Like something big will unlock for me, literature-wise.
I am still a good 200 pages from the end and I just read the chapter about him marrying Dora (spoiler alert) and he totally elided the sex, while still referring to it in a sentence that manages to be both not quite comprehensible and totally revolting:
It was a strange condition of things, the honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home, when I found myself sitting down in my own small house with Dora; quite thrown out of employment, as I may say, in respect of the delicious old occupation of making love.
A run-on, but a lot of nice language I think. “My own small house” is good. “The honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home,” also really good, I’d say! BUT THEN, he ruins it all with “the delicious old occupation of making love.”
Coming from him, it reminds me of that SNL skit where they eat meat in a hot tub and call each other lover. Also I’ll admit I don’t quite know what he means by “quite thrown out of employment, as I may say” — NO YOU MAY NOT SAY, because it makes no sense. Is he fucking too much to go to work or did she fire him from fucking her? Is he just done doing it around the clock and settling into married life? (Probably.)
Anyway, not a word about the sex except that it was delicious, which, good for you, but gross. Very Jonathan Franzen.
There is a part of me that wants to try a different book because I am so stubborn and I don’t want to have given over like six weeks of my reading life to this book that is not as good as Austen! To think they were written around the same time! I am no expert in “what the novel does or is or wants to be” but, wow, the ladies were doing it better (If I may say! And I may!).
Maybe if I read Bleak House and it’s a masterpiece that opens up my brain, this will all have been worth it? These are the thoughts I’m left with, Edan.
I just read Rachel Cusk’s Outline and it was the perfect antidote, which is what other books are to me now: antidotes to David Copperfield.
“Many of the most powerful characters in our best-loved stories are orphaned, adopted, fostered, or found. At the same time, many of the most powerless citizens in our society are orphaned, adopted, or fostered children, and the marginalized adults that so many become. Why have so few of us even noticed this centuries-old disparity?” On literature’s most celebrated protagonists, from Oliver Twist to Anne of Green Gables.
Scribner’s has published an edition of The Sun Also Rises highlighted by a variant opening chapter-and-a-half, material that Hemingway eliminated from his final draft at the encouragement of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Readers are used to the 1926 novel starting off with a portrait of Robert Cohn; it turns out that, as many scholars have known, Hemingway planned to commence with the words “This is a novel about a lady,” and a snapshot of Lady Bret Ashley, only then to launch into his dissection of Cohn, in the middle of chapter two. This manuscript material is now available in “The Hemingway Library Edition,” volume, put out by Hemingway’s original publisher under the editorial aegis of Patrick Hemingway (his son) and Seán Hemingway (the grandson also rises). The release prompts us to consider how to receive this introduction and challenges us to wrap our heads around an alternate universe in which Fitzgerald’s advice goes unheeded. There will be skepticism about the endeavor; indeed, the previous “Hemingway Library Edition,” led to a bit of a takedown right here in The Millions.
The Sun Also Rises, its author’s first novel, crystallizes elements of the Hemingway canon: boozey expatriate Parisian lifestyle, delight in homosociality, bullfighting and bullrunning in Pamplona, how to fish correctly, how to write correctly, how to do anything correctly. I’ve included the book on countless course syllabi and read it almost as many times, and I still find it remarkable that this seminal work of Hemingway’s oeuvre, this text famous for defining the “lost generation,” starts out with a passage rich in thinly veiled anti-semitism. (The broken proboscis that Cohn suffers in a boxing match is said to “improve” his nose. We get it.) Therefore my first response to the new edition was to wonder whether it was an attempt to steer readers away from the unsavory aspects of the novel, a trigger warning-age sanding down of edges, meant to ease readers into the scornful Cohn section, rather than bludgeoning us with it at the start.
If so, I have some bad news, news that I will encapsulate in a word: Nordic. Or rather: non-nordic. The word “Nordic” does not appear at all in the standard The Sun Also Rises, but it arises in the new manuscript material, where the epithet “non-Nordic” is applied to Robert Cohn. This is 1920s terminology fraught with racializing overtones, and its presence here serves to highlight some of the nastiness in Hemingway’s book.
What to make of the fact that Fitzgerald had a hand in editing the term out? In The Great Gatsby, published a year before The Sun Also Rises, the villainous Tom Buchanan disquisitions about the “dominant race”: “We’re Nordics,” he says to his white, old-moneyed company, and it is their responsibility to defend civilization from them who are not. Buchanan is parroting ideas from Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, a book that will show up in Jay Gatsby’s personal library; Fitzgerald draws the rhetoric from a system of racial thinking popular in early 20th-century America, a jumble of white supremacism, eugenics, both imperialism and isolationism, and xenophobia. No less dangerous for being inconsistent and disunified, it was a powerful enough undercurrent to produce the restrictive 1924 Immigration Act. It is the relationship to this context that leads Walter Benn Michaels, in a controversial argument in his book Our America, to situate Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises within a subgenre of 1920s literature he calls “nativist modernism.”
The inclusion of the word “nordics” brings the new edition of The Sun Also Rises closer in line with this system of thought, highlighting how contempt for Cohn is never far removed from his supposedly inferior racial stock. Throughout the novel, this inferiority is often put as a matter of social behavior and aesthetic taste. Cohn is unglib, unstoic, uninebriated, and is a fan of W.H. Hudson, who generated the kind of prose that Hemingway steeled himself every day of his life not to write. Indeed, the introductory material clarifies some of the condescension; it offers a history of Lady Bret Ashley’s names that makes legible Cohn’s later gaffe as her addresses her as “Lady Bret” instead of the proper “Lady Ashley.” The newly published passages also establish language that will form the novel’s memes. Ashley’s fiancée is called “nice,” a code for social approval that Hemingway proceeds to use 967 times in the novel (may not be the exact number), and is also described as “one of us” — terms that are used to exclude Cohn.
Even the initial assertion that Ashley is the novel’s focus is undermined by the depiction that follows, which largely treats the same question driving the overall plot: which male will win the right to possess the female body in the end? (No, this is not a novel that would pass the Bechdel test.) Throughout The Sun Also Rises, that issue is made more urgent by the possibility that Cohn will succeed in the end, the anxiety that Nordic stock would become diminished.
Hemingway’s discarded opening section includes a passage in which his narrator Jake Barnes self-reflectively ruminates over his choice to use the “I” of the first-person voice. Not just fodder for narratology geeks, this moment can open the door to readings that will claim that the novel is portraying its derision based on class and ethnicity (and, at times, gender and sexual orientation) with self-awareness — that it’s all ironic! The text seems confused at times, sure, but the fact is that Cohn is never redeemed or relieved of his role as nemesis, and that the novel ends with Barnes rescuing Ashley from a disastrous affair with a Spanish bullfighter.
I’m less interested in how The Sun Also Rises dramatizes the racial anxieties of the 1920s than I am with our cultural memory of the book. We are made aware of the unhappy ethnic elements of Oliver Twist and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but the foundational 1920s U.S. novels get a pass, it seems to me. The Sun Also Rises is known as a novel of the lost generation, and Gatsby as one of the jazz age, while both are formed out of the dark stuff of our history. The new-old introduction of The Sun Also Rises can’t mitigate that; maybe it can help us reckon with it better.
“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Recently J.K. Rowling dropped a bombshell on the smoking remnants of one of the fiercest shipping wars of the last decade: “I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” It’s from an interview conducted by Hermione herself, Emma Watson, excerpted in the Sunday Times; the full article, in an issue of Wonderland Magazine guest-edited by Watson, came out on Friday. (The words “publicity stunt” may be floating around, but that kind of speculation is useless.) The ladies, bafflingly, “agree[d] that Harry and Hermione were a better match than Ron and Hermione,” Ron wouldn’t be able to satisfy Hermione’s needs, and the pair as she wrote them would need relationship counseling. And then the internet exploded.
OK, first of all, JKR, please just stop. Is the most aggravating thing about all of this the fact that Hermione doesn’t belong with either of these jokers? Was there literally anyone else for her to get with? (Rowling’s shoddy math suggests possibly not; despite the insistence in an early interview that “there are about a thousand students at Hogwarts,” there remain just eight Gryffindors in the matriculating class of ’98, suggesting no more than three dozen in the entire year, a whole house of which remain irredeemably, mustache-twirlingly evil despite seven books in which to write convincing moral ambivalence and complexity. But I digress.)
But also, JKR, please just stop — for reasons that have a lot to do with literature. Because the weirdest thing about the statement is the “wish fulfillment” bit, which I’ve seen interpreted many different ways, none of them satisfactory. My read of it is accompanied by this question: how is a writer setting down a plot from her head wish fulfillment? Forced, sure — this certainly wasn’t the only instance where it seemed that Rowling was stifled by the tyranny of the outline she mapped out more than a decade before penning The Deathly Hallows. (I spent years wondering how the hell the final word would, as promised, be “scar,” though by the time I got to the last page of the epilogue I was too infuriated to care.)
This isn’t the first time that Rowling has “revealed” further details about her characters, as if she is their publicist rather than their creator. The Dumbledore announcement was, admittedly, totally awesome, for the political ramifications at the very least. But Rowling seems insistent on undercutting her authorial intent, or her position as omniscient narrator, the sort of “I would have loved for this to happen” statement, it’s like, really? I was under the impression that you were making all the things happen. (The full article in Wonderland—or the full interview, excerpted at Mugglenet — is worth a read for its continued, almost amplified strangeness — Rowling speaks of being shocked to see the filmmakers depicting things she hadn’t written but was feeling about the characters, like the scene between Harry and Hermione in the tent in the first installment of The Deathly Hallows. “Yes, but David and Steve — they felt what I felt when writing it,” Rowling tells Watson, referring to the director and screenwriter. “That is so strange,” Watson responds. Yes — this whole thing is so strange. It feels like there’s a simultaneous disregard for the concept of subtext and the idea that the characters were driven by something other than Rowling’s own fingers. “JKR, I think, probably is still in mystical mode when talking about her characters and work,” Connor Joel said to me in a Twitter conversation. “Which can be OK…sometimes.”)
Is a writer allowed to have regrets? Certainly. Is she allowed to air them publicly? I mean, yeah, it’s a free internet, why not? Do I want to hear a single additional word about the world of Harry Potter from J. K. Rowling that is not in the form of another book? Unless she is going to travel via Time-Turner to the past and personally validate all of my ships, no, not particularly — though that’s just me. (On second thought, no, not even that: sometimes the joy of delving into subtext is that it remains, well, sub.) The night all this came out (my new BFF) Anne Jamison kicked off a round of hilarious authorial regrets on Twitter, collected here. (For example: “‘I realize I made generations believe instant antipathy is a valid basis for ideal marriage,’ sighed Ms Austen, ‘I just thought he was hot.’”)
All joking aside, these tweets got me thinking: how often has this sort of thing happened in the past? Is there something fundamental in the author/reader relationship that feels like it’s being abused in Rowling’s admissions — or is she just following a long tradition of regretful writers undermining their own authority via statements after publication? Initial research suggests that some of the most famous writers haven’t stayed as faithful to their own original texts as I might have guessed. I mean, these examples aren’t exactly the same (I can hear you saying this, even now!), and that might get at what feels so incredibly strange about the “wish fulfillment” idea that Rowling’s putting forth. But regrets are regrets, and once the pages are printed — and even with all the revisions and retractions in the world — there’s essentially no going back. Here are five authors who had a variety of regrets and later said they really wished they’d done things differently — and, in many cases, went on to try to actually do things differently, to varying degrees of success:
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Oliver Twist’s greedy, villainous employer, Fagin, is most famously marked by his Jewishness, via every derogatory stereotype in the history of man and by outright assertion: references as “the Jew” outnumber “the old man” in the original text nearly ten-to-one. There was no doubt in Dickens’s mind, nor that of many of his mid-Victorian counterparts, that this was totally fine, that Fagin’s crimes fell right in line with his background: he stated later, by way of (really poor and blatantly anti-Semitic) defense, that “that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.” But in 1860 Dickens sold his house to a Jewish couple and befriended the wife, Eliza, who wrote him later to say that the creation of Fagin was a “great wrong” to the Jewish people. Dickens saw the light, albeit in a sort of, “Well, some of my best friends are Jewish!” sort of way, and began stripping out references to Fagin’s religion from the text, as well as the caricature-like aspects: at a reading of a later version, it was observed that, “There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted.” But was it too little too late? After all, the original depiction of Fagin has endured through the centuries. Dickens tried, anyway. “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard,” he wrote. “And to whom I would not willfully have given an offence.”
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Typee, Melville’s first novel and the most popular during his lifetime, is described as “one of American culture’s more startling instances of a fluid text.” There appears to be no definitive version of Typee — the sort of book that makes you question just how definitive anything you read really is. “All texts are fluid,” writes John Bryant, a scholar who’s done extensive work on Typee, examining its states of flux. “They only appear to be stable because the accidents of human action, time and economy have conspired to freeze the energy they represent into fixed packets of language.” Some of the changes — which were made over the course of half a century, from the first drafts Melville penned fresh off the high seas to the final years of his life — came from pressures from critics and his publishers: disparagement of missionary culture, expanded upon in first drafts, was largely removed in subsequent editions. Some requests for changes, including a toning down of the ‘bawdiness’ of earlier editions, took place decades later, when Melville was an old man — “Certain passages were to be restored, a paragraph on seaman debauchery dropped, and ‘Buggery Island’ changed to ‘Desolation Island,’” writes Bryant, though not all of these changes were honored in the posthumous edition. Bryant has developed a digital edition to view the fluid text as a whole, though perhaps even that can’t — and shouldn’t — answer the question of whether one version or another can be called the definitive text.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
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F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man prone to last-minute editorial regrets: he sent a telegram to his publisher as The Great Gatsby was going to press, asking to change the title to Under the Red, White, and Blue. It arrived too late. He’d wavered so much on the title already — amongst a dozen other suggestions, he’d been set on Trimalchio in West Egg for a good while. But Tender is the Night suffered, in his opinion, from problems far larger than what was printed on the dust jacket. It was published in 1934 to poor critical and public response, and Fitzgerald set to work figuring out why it didn’t work. When it was reprinted two years later, he wanted to make minor changes and clarifications, and wrote that, “sometimes by a single word change one can throw a new emphasis or give a new value to the exact same scene or setting.” But he soon decided it wasn’t a “single word” — it was the entire structure: “If pages 151-212 were taken from their present place and put at the start,” he wrote to his editor at Scribner, “the improvement in appeal would be enormous.” He set to work slicing apart the novel — physically — and rearranging it in the order he felt it was now meant to be, the narrative now chronological rather than reliant on flashback. The copy is on display at Princeton, with Fitzgerald’s penciled note written inside the front cover: “This is the final version of the book as I would like it.” After Fitzgerald’s death, Malcolm Cowley decided to try to fulfill these editorial wishes, rearranging the book based on the notes and cut-up version. But people weren’t any more interested in this version than the first, and in the intervening half-century, the original has endured.
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If the biggest disappointment of 2015 will be the fact that almost nothing resembles the 2015 bits of “Back to the Future” (what’s sadder — no hoverboards or no magical pizzas?), it speaks to the risks of setting a sci-fi novel in the not-so-distant future. When Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, first published in 1947, were reissued fifty years later, the stories’ chronological start date was just two years away. Bradbury and his publisher made the call to bump up the timeline by three decades, 2030-2057, and made some additional editorial changes while they were at it. The timeline shift isn’t unique in science fiction: Wikipedia’s got a poetically-titled “List of stories set in a future now past,” which reveals that Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep also got a thirty-year bump. It’s an interesting question, and one that may crop up more and more as time goes on: does reading about some sort of alien “future” that’s now a few years in the past take a reader right out of the story? Isn’t there some joy in imagining Bradbury imagining 1999 in 1947, a vision of the future from that precise point in the past?
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And then what to do if an author wishes the entire book had never been written? One famous example: “J.D. Salinger spent 10 years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it,” Shane Salerno and David Shields assert in their recent biography. But Salinger’s dissatisfaction appeared to stem from the extraordinary amount of unwanted attention he received for it over the years. But what about Anthony Burgess, who wrote about A Clockwork Orange in his Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence, published in 1985:
We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Lawrence died decades before the obscenity trials placed his book at the center of the moral questions of literature and society. Burgess had decades to witness the unraveling of the “misunderstandings” of the novel he will always be most remembered for. As for its merits as a work of literature? He also described it as “too didactic to be artistic.” Ah, well. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of a book and its characters. Even, I suppose, the author himself.
I can still remember exactly where I learned certain words. I can recall Salman Rushdie’s repeated use of assiduous in Midnight’s Children. Or looking up pulchritude when I came across it in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The first time I read the word fantod was not in Mark Twain, who popularized its usage, but in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where it was invariably preceded by the word howling. Tennessee Williams taught me mendacity, and Thomas Pynchon taught me…well, he taught me a lot of words (among them: phalanx, faradic, tessellate, and hysteresis, as well as numerous words in numerous languages). Of course, I had undoubtedly read those words before reading each of the above works, but I had never absorbed them. The usage of the words in these novels and plays didn’t just use the words –– they exploited the words for all they’re worth. Saleem repeatedly attributes assiduity to his mother Amina in Midnight’s Children. Mendacity is discussed at great length in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Zadie Smith makes the lovely observation that the ugliness of the word pulchritude doesn’t match its meaning (Wallace, in his posthumous essay collection, Both Flesh and Not, notes that pulchritude is “part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adj.), classy, colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others.”). I now associate these words with their respective authors. Every time I use one of them, it is as if I can feel the presence of my teacher over my shoulder. I am, in those moments, part of a tradition, albeit a small one.
But what really excites me are authors who teach me new meanings to banal words. New words can be a joy, inasmuch as they remind me of the sheer vastness of language (not to mention my limited grasp of it), but the reconsideration of a word I already know –– now that is something. Defamiliarizing language reminds me that everything in language, even definition, is fluid, malleable, and open to inventive use. Shakespeare, obviously, is the easy example here. As Stephen Fry says, Shakespeare “made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got.” He invented words (eyeballs, amazement, bedazzled) and reclassified others (the verb “to gloom” became “gloomy”). But for me personally, the writer who most tickles my linguistic fancy is Ali Smith, one of the most underappreciated writers working today.
Ali Smith, appropriately enough, is one of the few writers (along with Nabokov, Stoppard, Woolf, Wallace, and Hitchens) who qualify as a “wordsmith.” Her prose, however, isn’t as rich or ornate as some of the other wordsmiths, but no one else can mine ordinary words for such rich, emotional meaning. Let’s just start with some examples. Her latest novel, There But for the, exemplifies her remarkable acumen with quotidian language. Each of the four sections of the novel is named after the words of the title, and they also serve as the first word of the first sentence of each chapter. She mines “there” for everything it’s got, beginning with the form of a knock-knock joke. Who’s there? takes on new meaning once Anna, one of the protagonists, considers what it means to really be there, as in present. Her friend Denny tells her that he can “sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words…I was there. There I was.” Suddenly the idea of thereness persists in her mind as Anna receives word that an old acquaintance has shut himself into a room at a dinner party, and refuses to come out:
It was as if the whole outside world was TV soundtrack. Maybe there was a new psychosis, Tennis Players’ Psychosis (TPP), where you went through life believing that an audience was always watching you, profoundly moved by your every move, reacting round your every reaction, your every momentous moment, with joy/excitement/dis-appointment/Schadenfreude. Presumably all professional tennis players had something like it, and maybe so to some extent did everybody who still believed in God. But would this mean that people who didn’t have it were somehow less there in the world, or at least differently there, because they felt themselves less observed?
Then, when Genevieve, the distraught homeowner, describes to Anna the situation with Miles and the dinner party, Anna suggests that Miles isn’t “all there,” to which Genevieve’s precocious daughter replies: “He is all there…Where else could he be?” When Anna knocks on the door to Miles’s newly adopted home, she asks, “Are you there?” In her memories of Miles, he tells her about a book he’s writing, which begins, “There was once, and there was only once…Once was all there was,” echoing the beginning of this novel, which begins, “There once was a man…” and goes on to set-up the dinner party fiasco. There is used, still in this section, in all of its varieties: “It’s over there,” “There,” (as in, locating something and as in, There you go), or in the exchange, “What exactly is a pun therefore?” which yields the response, “What exactly is a pun there for?” The section ends with Anna saying, “I’m here,” dropping one letter from the sections theme, creating a new word with a more intimate meaning.
In lesser hands, all this verbal play would strike one as preening and obnoxious. In Ali Smith’s delicate grip, words become emblems of the character’s life. There introduces Anna’s ponderous relationship with the world she’s in, it questions Miles’s sanity, it hints at the fable-like nature of the narrative, and it works as an introduction to the predicament that sets all of this into motion. This kind of gymnastic use of a single word is Smith’s specialty, but instead of simply engaging in verbal pyrotechnics for their own sake (as, say, Barthelme arguably did), Smith wants to understand the dynamic between language and our inner lives. Can you really tell me, for instance, that you’ve never considered a word until its myriad meanings seem to encompass every aspect of your life?
Well, even if you haven’t, Smith has, and her constant quest for elastic language remains a singular pleasure in her work. In The First Person and Other Stories, she writes three tales named after fictional points of view: the title story and “The Second Person” and “The Third Person.” Each one surprises you with what Smith means by the title. In “The First Person,” a couple’s almost cynical dynamic actually displays their burgeoning love for one another:
You’re not the first person I ever had really good talks like this with, I say.
I know, you say. Been there, done that. You feel very practised.
Thank you, I say. And you won’t be the first person to leave me for someone else or something else.
Well but we’ve a good while before that, with any luck, you say.
And you’re not the first person to, to, uh, to––, I say.
To stump you? you say. Well. You’re not the first person who was ever wounded by love. You’re not the first person who ever knocked on my door. You’re not the first person I ever chanced my arm with. You’re not the first person I ever tried to impress with my brilliant performance of not really being impressed with anything. You’re not the first person to make me laugh. You’re not the first person I ever made laugh. You’re not the first person full stop. But you’re the one right now. I’m the one right now. We’re the one right now. That’s enough, yes?
You’re not the first person to make a speech like that at me, I say.
Then we’re both laughing hard again in each other’s new arms.
What a wonderful passage, how honest in so many ways. Smith shows here how, like language, we can embody multiple meanings, in this case the honest cynicism of relationships, that we’ve been through the dance before and that, in many ways, many of our emotional rituals are recycled and should thus lose power, but how despite all those logical thoughts, we feel love anyway. We feel new with a new love, even though we’ve felt new before, even though we’ve laughed in another’s arms. Those thoughts don’t matter, even though we’re completely aware of them. We fall in love nonetheless. As if we never had before.
I’d like to ask a question here that Ann Patchett asked of Edith Pearlman: why isn’t Ali Smith famous? Sure, her books have won numerous awards, but so have Pearlman’s, and though her books are almost unanimously well acclaimed, she seems to only be known by writers. This kind of reputation usually draws the phrase writer’s writer, but Smith, as I have argued, moves beyond mere linguistic innovation. Her books are soulful explorations of what it means to live inside our minds, with all the bouncy, circuitous thoughts that live in there with us. More than that, she is so immensely readable, her prose moves like the conversation of a witty friend. Accessible, playful and rich with insight, Smith has few peers. So: why isn’t she famous?
One answer might be Smith’s tendency to beguile, not just in her books, but also in her career. She rarely sits down for an interview, does zero press for her books and consistently creates narratives with strange premises: a man refuses to leave a dinner party, a stranger upends a family when she appears at their home one night, a woman finds a child at a grocery store and can’t rid herself of him. These are not the sorts of tales that ordinarily top the bestseller charts. Yet, would anyone expect George Saunders’s books to sell well? Or, for that matter, Stephen King’s? Most recently, Smith produced a book that defies categorization. Artful is, to me, one of the best and most unique works of literary criticism published in the last decade, yet it received minimal coverage, as if the reading world (in America, at least) responded to a new book from Smith with nonchalance: “Oh, that woman made another strange book.”
Sidestepping any conventional approach to analysis, Smith instead tells the fictional story of a woman who has lost her partner of many years. Her dead lover wrote a series of lectures on art and literature, thus the criticism done here is filtered through the point of view of a non-literary person who remembers her partner’s work. A sense of mourning enters into the book, also of longing, of heartbreak, of love. Here’s an example of the interplay between the emotional and the academic modes of Artful:
There, I thought. I’m okay. I’ve moved a really heavy chair. I’ve changed things. And I’ve read sixteen lines in a novel and I’ve thought several things about them and none of this with you, or to do with you; I even read the phrase ‘item of mortality’ and thought of something other than you. Time heals all wounds. Or, as you used to say, time achilles-heels all wounds. Then you would tell the story of Achille’s mother dipping him in the protective river, holding him by the heel between her finger and thumb; that’s why the heel got missed out, didn’t get protected. Which, you said, when it came to story, was what suspense meant. And from then on all time’s arrows pointed at that unprotected heel.
In this single passage, the narrator moves from personal reflection to broad insight and recollected literary analysis. What makes the choice of form here so wonderful is the way it reflects, to me, one’s relationship with literature. Our brains (and, to be sure, our hearts) don’t usually work like academic papers do –– we can’t cite the exact quotation or prove our thesis at the drop of a hat. Instead, we recall the novels and stories and poems we’ve read and conjure a feeling or sensation we got when we first read them. Literature is a part of our unconscious life, just like past lovers, long-ago travels, and instances of pain and suffering and joy and hope. It is all mashed up into a messy medley of personal selfhood. Artful’s narrator, then, becomes not just a tool for Smith’s criticism but also a stand-in for the bridge between art and our selves. Art becomes a part of us yet exists independent from us, just like the people we love.
Artful, though, engages in the academic approach as well, with Smith once again extracting as much as she can from single words. As the narrator rereads Oliver Twist, she remarks on the repeated use of the word ‘green,’ which is one of the first things the Artful Dodger (from whose name the book takes its title) says to Oliver when he meets him. In this same scene, Dodger asks Oliver about ‘beaks,’ which Oliver takes to mean “a bird’s mouth.” Dodger tells him that a beak is a magistrate, about which our narrator writes:
It’s like literality meeting a metaphor, I thought. Or –– no –– it’s like a real apple meeting a Cezanne apple. It’s as if Dodger speaks another language altogether; and it’s as if Oliver has to understand that a beak can be more than one thing, and a mill, and all the words that come in the paragraph after too, a stone jug, a magpie. Everything can be more than itself. Everything IS more than itself.
Underneath Smith’s wordplay lies philosophical positivism –– like words, we all contain multitudes; we can be one thing and its opposite, or, like Smith writes of the Artful Dodger, whom Dickens refers to by various names, we are all “a work of shifting possibility.”
In a rare interview for a newspaper in Cambridge, where she lives, Smith had this to say about the instinctual connections you must make in order to allow a story to move where it wants to go:
If you write something, you look at it, and maybe the word ‘green’ will turn up in four places in one paragraph, so then you think ‘what does green mean?’ It means immaturity, it means spring, it means newness, it means naivety. Then you look in those directions to see what the words wanted you to do.
And there is a connection, just like she says. The word green appears again. Appears in Oliver Twist and in an interview with Smith. What, taking from Smith, are we to do with this? It would be easy to guess that Smith was probably working on Artful at the time of the interview (the piece focused on There But for the, Smith’s book directly before Artful), but I’d like to think that it’s more than that. I’m going to settle on newness, because whenever I think of Smith, new is a word that pops into my head. I wonder what she’d do with it.
See what the words wanted you to do, she says. Smith follows words around like a detective, noting every street they walk down and every activity they engage in. She waits patiently for the telling moment, the odd behavior, and there (ahem) she finds its purpose, and the story seems to come along with it.
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As Upworthy-style headlines sweep the internet, aiming to snag as many clicks as possible by pandering to as many whims and obsessions as possible, the dignified mystery of the great book title stands in stark contrast. The Upworthy headline had been widely satirized on other websites and social media, including some folks applying them to book titles, so my Millions colleague Nick Moran and I were inspired to muse as well — what if books were whorishly titled, optimizing our search engines rather than our imaginations, rather than leaving us to discover who Oliver Twist was or who was proud and who was prejudiced?
Leave your own optimized book titles in the comments or on twitter with the hashtag #litworthy.
Leave it to the astrologers to forecast unusual cosmological events for the coming months. What’s certain is that under the sign of Libra, the reading public will be gifted that rarest literary treasure, a book of such dazzling breadth and scope that it defies any label short of masterpiece.
Eleanor Catton’s skill was evident in her deft debut, The Rehearsal. The Rehearsal opened a disturbing window onto manipulative adults and adolescents snaking around each other in a music school. In addition to an uncomfortable set of relationships, the disturbance was fueled by lack of names, major characters, and place.
Now comes Catton’s The Luminaries, firmly rooted in both the history of Catton’s native New Zealand and in the literature of the Victorian era. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Catton lives in Auckland. If The Rehearsal was an edgy and inventive debut, The Luminaries is a virtuoso performance. Published at the tender age of twenty-eight, Catton’s second novel tips its hat to Moby Dick’s singular language and Leviathan obsession; Charles Dickens’s sprawling, baggy investigations of ordinary, flawed humanity; George Eliott’s timeless moral inquiries; and the twentieth century romances of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. The Luminaries is resplendent: a twenty first century Victorian novel that couldn’t be more original.
The novel drops us into the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island, where a nineteenth century gold rush succeeded California’s by about twenty years. In 1866, twelve men congregate in the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, giving “the impression of a party accidentally met.” The party includes a collection of Chinese, Maori, Jewish, French, and local characters, from a banker to a chaplain to an opium dealer to a whoremonger. “Everyone’s from somewhere else,” the shipping agent comments. It transpires that they all share a common interest in Anna Wetherell, “the whore,” and in recapturing a fortune in gold discovered and then lost in the cabin of a recently deceased (murdered?) man.
Enter the thirteenth man, Walter Moody, just off the boat from England. In a literary sleight of hand, Moody plays audience for the story’s setup (more on that to come) and subsequently participates in the unfolding plot.
The organizing principle for The Luminaries is the Zodiac. “Luminaries” is astrology speak for the brightest and most important objects in the sky: the sun and the moon. Put simplistically, the greater and lesser light of the sun and moon represent the twin poles of man and woman and their array of accompanying characteristics. Each of the many characters is assigned an astrological identity that cycles through the novel. The major sections of the book begin with an illustrated chart of the Zodiac, including symbols and positioning. In an interpretive hint in the prologue, we are told that the novel takes place during a time of precession, when “the motion of the vernal equinox has come to shift.” The author dares us to conjecture that time in this novel is “Piscean in its quality…an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.” It would be reasonable to focus a review of The Luminaries exclusively on these five Piscean themes; they would surely provide enough material for a Ph.D. dissertation.
In common with any respectable Victorian, Catton doesn’t hesitate to interrupt herself with explication and expansive moral judgments. Of Walter Moody she writes, “like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best.” Or, the banker, who “spoke with the controlled alarm of a bureaucrat who is requested to explain some mundane feature of the bureaucracy of which he is a functioning part: controlled, because an official is always comforted by proof of his own expertise, and alarmed, because the necessity for explanation seemed, in some obscure way, to undermine the system which had afforded him that expertise in the first place.”
Catton waxes lyrical in her physical descriptions. Here’s Anna Wetherell, the whore: “Her complexion was translucent, even blue, and tended to a deep purple beneath her eyes — as if she had been painted in watercolor, on a paper that was not stiff enough to hold the moisture, so the colors ran…Her nose was narrow, even geometric: a sculptor might render it in four strokes, with one slice on either side, one down the bridge, and one tuck beneath.”
But the genius of The Luminaries resides in its structure. The novel generates an unusual and unique rhythm. The setup occurs over a sprawling three-hundred-sixty pages. Technically it’s closer to three-hundred-forty; the remaining twenty consolidate and summarize the previous book-length introduction. By this point, the reader is luxuriating in a state of agreeable confusion, curious and eager to read on. The twenty pages of summary are useful, but they could never substitute for such a grand exposition.
Chapter titles reference the Zodiac and are followed by short, italicized summations. For example, “In which the chemist goes in search of opium; we meet Anna Wetherell at last; Pritchard becomes inpatient; and two shots are fired.” Homage, perhaps, to Oliver Twist and its ilk. As secrets are revealed and contradictions unmasked, the book picks up speed with shorter chapters, more truncated sections, and longer and longer “in which” introductions that finally substitute for text and plot. Part One may be the length of most novels, but Part Twelve takes a mere two pages. No doubt astrological numerology would offer further insight into how those twelve parts relate to the twelve characters seated in the Crown Hotel’s smoking room at the outset, who in turn reflect the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
The novel’s pace accelerates with snowballing revelations of hypocrisy, exploitation, mendacity, revenge, and cruelty; all sprinkled with a healthy dose of coincidence. Even the cleverest literary sleuth may fail to solve the whole puzzle until the end. This is the stuff of life in all its unpredictability: mistaken assumptions; arrogant presumption; substance over surface; truth and consequences; and, ultimately, good versus evil.
Steeped in history, The Luminaries feels completely fresh. Contemporary American writers increasingly decline the sweeping range and flow of the past tense. The resulting language compacts into ever-shrinking pages, serving up clipped sentences written in present tense. By contrast, The Luminaries takes its leisurely time roaming the past tense, developing an intricate and complex plot.
Catton’s nineteenth century style feels brand new.
From whence has Catton sprung? Unfortunately, precious few New Zealand writers reach American shores. Perhaps Katherine Mansfield is best known to U.S. readers, along with Janet Frame, whose eerie, haunting novels unfurl a psychologically troubled personal history. Catton’s contemporary, Fiona Farrell, recently set a novel in Victorian times: Mr. Allbones’ Ferrets: An Historical Pastoral Satirical Scientifical Romance, with Mustelids. In Mr. Allbones, Farrell explores the burgeoning scientific understanding of evolution in the time of Charles Darwin, while Kiwi writer Emily Perkins uses nature differently in The Forrests — to examine a contemporary family in dissolution.
But Catton’s talent is too capacious to be confined to place. Deeply entrenched in New Zealand’s South Island, The Luminaries makes clear that this author commands the world at her fingertips. Her literary ancestry derives less from her homeland and more from the British and American giants of the nineteenth century. Catton deserves their company. Nodding to Melville, she’s nailed the tormented sea captain and the revenge obsessed “Chinaman.” With so many characters taking on false identities and trying to out-cheat each other in New Zealand’s gold rush, Catton, too, has mined the seamy underside of greed and poverty so beloved by Dickens. Like George Eliot, Catton looks behind the stereotype of the whore and the opium dealer and forces us to question where the real morality lies. By the novel’s end, every character’s initial presentation has been destabilized. Reader, Catton instructs, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Catton deploys daunting technique, yes. She’s spun a solar system into orbit — the planets, the stars, and the sun and the moon. But more importantly, she’s persuaded readers to invest emotionally in each foibled, flawed, lying character right through to page eight-hundred-thirty. The love story is simply an added pleasure.
All that, and Eleanor Catton is still on the nearside of thirty. Small wonder that The Luminaries has been nominated for the Booker Prize. No matter the outcome, the literary firmament has birthed a new star.
What was Charles Dickens’s best novel? It depends whom you ask of course. G.K. Chesterton thought Bleak House represented the mature peak of Dickens’s skill as a novelist, although he went on to remark, “We can say more or less when a human being has come to his full mental growth, even if we go so far as to wish that he had never come to it.” This past February, on the occasion of Dickens’s 200th birthday, The Guardian put together this mesmerizing chart ranking 12 of Dickens’s 16 novels on a scale of most to least Dickensian. Bleak House came out first, Great Expectations was last, yet those two titles occupied the top two spots when Time issued its own Top-10 Dickens List for the Dickens bicentennial.
Searching for clarity, I decided to pose the question to a handful of leading Victorianists. In June, I sent out emails to select scholars asking them if they’d be interested in choosing a novel and making their case. I noted that of course there is no such thing as a singular best, and that really the exercise was meant to be fun. Just about everyone I reached out to was game. And, in recognition of how obsessive many Victorianists are about Dickens, one added that after debating his best novel, perhaps I’d be interested in curating a more esoteric discussion: Best Dickens character for a one night stand, or maybe which Dickens character you’d most like to have as your own child.
Saving those conversations for another day, here then are six impassioned, knowledgeable opinions on the topic of the best Dickens novel. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them, and that when you’re through, you’ll share your own views in the comments section.
1. Bleak House
Kelly Hager, Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies, Simmons College
“Not to put too fine a point upon it,” as meek Mr. Snagsby is wont to say, Dickens’s best novel is Bleak House. It might not be everyone’s favorite (that honor might go to Dickens’s own “favourite child,” David Copperfield, or to the newly-relevant tale of a Victorian Bernie Madoff, Little Dorrit, or to that classic of 10th grade English, Great Expectations), but Bleak House is absolutely his best: in terms of plot, characters, pacing, social relevance, readability, and its possibilities for adaptation, just to cite some of its virtues.
The BBC’s 2005 version brought to the fore the pathos of the heroine Esther Summerson’s plight and the hypocrisy of the world that produced that plight. Brought up by a guardian (actually her aunt) who led her sister to believe that her (illegitimate) baby was born dead, Esther does not learn who her mother is, or even that she is alive, until she has been so disfigured by smallpox that she no longer poses the danger of incriminating her (now married and ennobled) mother by their resemblance. The scene of their first (and only) meeting is heart-rending but not maudlin, revealing just how far Dickens has moved beyond the sentimental portrayal of Little Nell’s deathbed (in The Old Curiosity Shop) and his precious depiction of the orphaned Oliver Twist. The emotions the scene calls up are honest, earned, poignant.
Similarly, the anger John Jarndyce feels at the Chancery suit that occupies the novel is not the self-righteous ire of those who uncover the educational abuses of Dotheboys Hall (in Nicholas Nickleby) or rail against the inequities of the law of divorce (in Hard Times), but the heartfelt anguish of a man who has seen friends and relatives destroyed by the red tape and bureaucracy of the Court of Chancery (a court that relies not on common law statutes but solely on precedents and was abolished in 1875). Dickens mounts a comparable attack on the aptly named Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, where the important thing is to learn “how not to do it,” but there, the depiction is comic. He does the more difficult and subtle thing in Bleak House, relying not on humor but on sad case after sad case to reveal the evils of the system. He writes with empathy; he doesn’t poke easy fun. In Bleak House, written between two national epidemics of cholera, in 1849 and 1854, Dickens also draws attention to the need for sanitary reform (specifically for a regulated, clean supply of water for the public); Bleak House is, in fact, one of the earliest fictional engagements with the field of public health.
Engaged in social issues, moving, and full of characters we love (the unflappable army wife, Mrs. Bagnet; Jo, the crossing sweeper; Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock’s loyal husband) and characters we love to hate (the selfish parents Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop; Vholes, the vampiric solicitor), Bleak House is Dickens at his very best.
2. Bleak House
Anna Henchman, Assistant Professor of English, Boston University, and author of The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature
Bleak House begins in sooty obscurity: swirls of fog, snowflakes black with grime, indistinguishable masses. Movement is circular — “slipping and sliding,” — without progress. The laws of this world are quickly established: There is rigid separation between classes. Characters are moving parts in a system that consumes them. Separate realms coexist with little contact with one another.
But then the novel explodes when gauche Mr. Guppy presumes to call on the cold Lady Dedlock. She agrees to see him, and even more strangely, betrays in his presence a quivering vulnerability, a longing to know that echoes our own perplexity as readers of this novel. “What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury with the powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom…?” After Mr. Guppy’s visit, a new sequence of events unfolds, and Lady Dedlock’s life rearranges itself before our eyes. Later, on the open grass, another extraordinary meeting brings us even more closely into her consciousness.
Like us, Mr. Guppy has been playing detective, putting together the pieces of the book, and at this point he’s doing it better than we are. Bleak House is a novel full of detectives with whom we sit in uneasy intimacy because their inquisitive state of mind mirrors our own.Their “calling is the acquisition of secrets.”
Two distinct narrators take us through this increasingly comprehensible world. The omniscient narrator can enter anywhere, taking us from foggy London to Lincolnshire. He floats through walls, moving from the airless chambers of one house in town to the greasy interior of another that stinks of burnt flesh. Esther, by contrast, is a timid outsider, for whom everything is new and strange. Some of the greatest effects of the novel occur when Esther takes us through spaces we’ve visited many times and thought we knew. Right after Esther talks with Lady Dedlock, for instance, she walks through the fragrant gardens of Chesney Wold. “Grostesque monsters bristle” as she thinks about the lives they lead inside, and for the first time we feel attached to the stately home.
The great pleasure of this novel is the pleasure of plot — of retroactively putting events into sequence. Like detectives, novelists construct patterns out of disparate fragments. This novel more than any other Dickens novel feels both ordered and dynamic. Characters who flash past us — a man from Shropshire, a crossing sweeper — resolve into detail, acquire names, and fill out in time and space. As the lines between networks of characters thicken, the world gets smaller, more recognizable, but also more dangerous for the ones we love most.
3. David Copperfield
Maia McAleavey, Assistant Professor of English, Boston College
“Of course I was in love with little Em’ly,” David Copperfield assures the reader of his childhood love. “I am sure I loved that baby quite as truly, quite as tenderly, with greater purity and more disinterestedness, than can enter into the best love of a later time of life.” Loving a person or a book (and “David Copperfield” conveniently appears to be both) may have nothing at all to do with bestness. The kind of judicious weighing that superlative requires lies quite apart from the easy way the reader falls in love with David Copperfield.
To my mind, David is far more loveable than Pip (Great Expectations’ fictional autobiographer), and better realized than Esther (Bleak House’s partial narrator). And it does help to have a first-person guide on Dickens’s exuberantly sprawling journeys. David, like Dickens, is a writer, and steers the reader through the novel as an unearthly blend of character, narrator, and author. This is not always a comforting effect. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” David announces in his unsettling opening sentence.
Here he is, at once a young man thoroughly soused after a night of boozing and a comically estranging narrative voice: “Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains…We went down-stairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.”
Is the novel nostalgic, sexist, and long? Yes, yes, and yes. But in its pages, Dickens also frames each of these qualities as problems. He meditates on the production, reproduction, and preservation of memories; he surrounds his typically perfect female characters, the child-bride Dora and the Angel-in-the-House Agnes, with the indomitable matriarch Betsey Trotwood and the sexlessly maternal nurse Peggotty; and he lampoons the melodramatically longwinded Micawber while devising thousands of ways to keep the reader hooked. If you haven’t yet found your Dickensian first love, David’s your man.
4. David Copperfield
Leah Price, Professor of English, Harvard University
“Of all my books,” confessed Dickens in the preface, “I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”
David Copperfield fits the bill for a “best of” contest because it’s all about who’s first, who’s favorite, who’s primary. It’s one of Dickens’s few novels to be narrated entirely in the first person; it’s the only one whose narrator’s initials reverse Charles Dickens’s, and whose plot resembles the story that Dickens told friends about his own family and his own career. (But Dickens takes the novelist’s privilege of improving on the facts, notably by killing off David’s father before the novel opens in order to prevent him from racking up as many debts as Dickens senior did over the course of his inconveniently long life.)
That means that it’s also one of the few Dickens novels dominated by one character’s story and one character’s voice (This stands in contrast to Bleak House, say, which shuttles back and forth between two alternating narrators, one first-person and past-tense, the other third-person and couched in the present). As a result David Copperfield is less structurally complex, but also more concentrated, with an intensity of focus that can sometimes feel claustrophobic or monomaniacal but never loses its grip on a reader’s brain and heart. Its single-mindedness makes it more readable than a novel like Pickwick Papers, where the title character is little more than a human clothesline on which a welter of equally vivid minor characters are hung. Yet at the same time, it’s a novel about how hard it is to be first: Can you come first in your mother’s heart after she marries a wicked stepfather? And can your own second wife come first for you after her predecessor dies?
On David’s birthday, he tells us, “I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best — your very best — ale a glass?’ ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.'” David Copperfield is the genuine stunning: there’s nothing quite like it, in Dickens’s work or out.
5. Little Dorrit
Deb Gettelman, Assistant Professor of English, College of the Holy Cross
There’s a different best Dickens novel for every purpose. Even though Dickens’s peculiar characters with their tic phrases sometimes appear interchangeable, his novels as a whole are surprisingly different from each other in their focus of interest, narrative structure, and in some cases, length. The best Dickens novel to read? Bleak House. To teach? Oliver Twist. To boast that I’ve read? Martin Chuzzlewit (really, I have). To understand Dickens’s consciousness as a writer? Little Dorrit.
I’d like to think a writer’s best novel is the one that, if it had never been written, would cause the greatest difference in how much we think we understand about that writer’s overall work. It might be predictable, but for me the later, darker, reflective books often suit this purpose best: Persuasion, Villette, The Wings of the Dove. For Dickens’s readers it is Little Dorrit, his deeply personal novel of middle age that reveals the author’s consciousness as an artist at its most mature, reflective, and darkest stage
Little Dorrit is Dickens’s moodiest novel, and comparatively little happens in it. There are the usual plot complications — and what Dickens called the novel’s “various threads” often seem to hang together by a thread — but at its heart is the stasis of a debtor’s prison, where Amy, or Little Dorrit, has grown up tending to her self-deluding father. The novel’s many psychologically imprisoned characters mostly sit around brooding about their thwarted lives, especially the hero, Arthur Clennam, who is older and more anguished than Dickens’s other heroes and heroines. Elements familiar from Dickens’s other novels — satiric portrayals of bureaucrats and aristocrats, the self-sacrificing young woman, even a murderous Frenchman — seem more sinister in this novel because they are the cause of so much melancholy.
At one point Dickens summarizes Clennam’s thoughts in a way that seems emblematic of the novel: “Little Dorrit, Little Dorrit. Again, for hours. Always Little Dorrit!” As Lionel Trilling observed, Little Dorrit is the most interiorized of Dickens’s novels. Shortly after writing it Dickens made a spectacle of breaking up his family, and characters in the novel torture, contort, misrepresent, and stifle one another’s feelings in spectacularly awful ways. In a game of word association, ‘Dickens’ would readily call to mind words like ‘comedy,’ ‘caricature,’ and ‘satire.’ ‘Little Dorrit’ would yield ‘interiority,’ ‘psychological depth,’ ‘angst,’ and all the inventive strategies Dickens uses to achieve these qualities. It enables us to see the fullest possible psychological and artistic spectrum of his work.
Our Mutual Friend was my Dickens gateway drug. The opening sequence plays like a Scorsese tracking shot on steroids. A body fished out of the Thames becomes gossip at a nouveau riche banquet, from which two lawyers slip out to a dockside police station, where they meet a mysterious man who runs off to take lodgings with a clerk, whose daughter becomes the ward of a dustman, who hires a peg-legged balladeer to read him The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And I haven’t even mentioned the taxidermist.
It’s the Facebook fantasy: everyone is connected — though in the darkly satiric world of late Dickens, this is less an accomplishment than an indictment. The surprise comes from how much fun it is to navigate his corrupt social network. Conventional wisdom asks you to choose Dickens savory or sweet: the ineluctable fog of Bleak House or the bibulous conviviality of The Pickwick Papers. Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel, gives you both an intricate web of plots and a cast of delightfully scurrilous plotters.
Its particular tickle comes from the recognition that everyone’s an impostor, and a gleeful one at that. People who dismiss Dickensian eccentrics as fanciful caricatures miss how much the fancies are the characters’ own insistent projections. As the narrator says of the self-important balladeer: “His gravity was unusual, portentous, and immeasurable, not because he admitted any doubt of himself, but because he perceived it necessary to forestall any doubt of himself in others.” The self we perform is the self we become.
And everyone’s performing in Our Mutual Friend. A lawyer pretends to be a lime merchant for an undercover job in pub, and after the sleuthing concludes, he’s so enamored of the role that he offers the potboy a job in his fictional “lime-kiln.” When the orphan Sloppy reads the newspaper, “he do the police in different voices” — a line that T.S. Eliot pinched as his working title for the The Waste Land.
This literary legacy, along with the novel’s sustained imagery, have led some critics to call it proto-modernist. Dickens shows us as well that the insights we call post-modern (personality as performance, fiction as artifice) have Victorian roots. The creators of The Wire declared their debt to the 19th-century master of serial narration, and it’s no surprise that a season finale of Lost revolved around a copy of Our Mutual Friend. This is the book you want on a desert island.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
So, it’s the early hours of the morning and I’m fast asleep. I dream the following:I’m in an empty restaurant, deep in conversation with someone I’d never met before. Even in the dream, this person is meant to be a stranger – a Millions reader named Oliver. (I had recently watched a new BBC version of Oliver Twist, though the person in my dream was in no way urchinlike).He is relating to me the fascinating and sordid details of his life. After a pause, I proclaim to Oliver that I know what his “formative novel” would be: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Though I’ve never actually heard the phrase “formative novel” before, I seemed to imply a novel whose spirit and tone most closely impacted the life that dream-Oliver would go on to lead. Not so much the plot of the novel, and not the author’s autobiography. I was apparently matching up the tone of the book with the tone of the reader’s subsequent life.I then went on to tell Oliver that my Millions colleague Garth’s “formative novel” would be David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (I don’t know this to be true. I suspect that Garth’s passionate appreciation of David Foster Wallace planted the notion in my head several months ago. Nevertheless, dream-Garth’s “formative novel” was Infinite Jest).Oliver then asks me what my “formative novel” would be. I contemplate for a moment and then respond: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. This is a curious choice as I hadn’t read it until about five years ago, when I was already well into my 30s. Still, the accessibly off-kilter humor of the novel does seem a good fit. Had I read it at an impressionable age, I suspect that it would qualify as a close match for the tone of my subsequent adult personality.The dream then took an odd turn. I was lying on my back on the sidewalk, still in conversation with Oliver, as a pack of schoolchildren and their teacher hurdled over me, never once looking down or stepping on me.Oliver then morphed into Jack Lemmon, circa The Apartment, and I jolted awake, and reached for a notebook and pen.So: what would your “formative novel” be? This requires not just a reading of the novel, but a certain amount of self-awareness. Try to match the tone of the novel with the tone of your life or of your personality. I guess it doesn’t matter when you read it. It’s fine if you read it later in life and retroactively match it up with your life. And, Garth, feel free to set the record straight.