In the past two years of my life I’ve moved many times, ricocheting through three places that I’d call home: Budapest, Hungary; my childhood home in Ohio; and several different places in my college town—landing here, in Boston, where I know only a handful of people and am starting literature grad school. This is all much to the surprise of my family, who remembers my childhood hatred of change and my being a bit of a terror when we lived a year abroad. It’s been a joyful, dizzying two years; it’s also held some of the most lonely days I’ve ever experienced. The sort of loneliness that comes with moving around is something peculiar. I find it to be something in between the knee-to-the-gut of heartbreak and the blissful confusion early on in a vacation—some kind of marriage of possibility, overwhelmedness, and some slight grief. There’s an almost physical wrench to it, to be sure, but during this move I’ve been thinking that perhaps there is value in being lonely. I’ve done some of my best thinking—and most certainly my best reading—in the early, lonely days of these moves. This reading has been some of the most immersive of my entire life, the kind that I crave when doing other things or with real people. Perhaps this is because the books I’ve read at these times have, inadvertently, featured lonely people, who provide good company. (Perhaps this is also because I don’t really have any plans yet.) Either way, I’m here to offer—to all those moving away, wallowing in the melancholic last days of summer, or possibly needing something to bring them down out of euphoric joy—a booklist to encourage you in your loneliness. First (always) Middlemarch by George Eliot I’m not sure I’ve ever read a single novel in such varied circumstances before: I started sporadically two years ago, and then began again and devoured Middlemarch over the fall in transit around Europe—on a bus to Prague, marooned overnight in a Ukrainian train station, in my tiny Budapest apartment. It is the kind of book that can go places with you, probably because it’s such an ecosystem in itself. It feels like a portable home. You’ll be immersed whether reading aloud to your friend who has just been hospitalized in a foreign country or sitting in your favorite café. I found many of the characters to be just as lonely as I surmised myself (looking at you, Dorthea), but there’s such a surfeit of them that you’ll soon be spending your free time thinking about them instead of missing your old friends and dwelling on your current lack of new friends. The Lone Pilgrim by Laurie Colwin A friend gave me this book over the summer and it floored me, despite my general preference for novels over short stories. I canceled plans with friends I was soon to leave in order to read, and reread, and reread. I was infatuated with the characters and their bizarre but lovely lives. These women were like none I’d ever read before: vibrant, smart, even-keeled, sometimes potheaded. Though many of the stories were very romantic, I found the collection to celebrate independence and indeed, loneliness. The titular story ends with this: “Your imagined happiness is yours. Therefore, you lose your old bearings. On the one side is your happiness and on the other is your past—the self you were used to, going through life alone, heir to your own experience. Once you commit yourself, everything changes and the rest of your life seems to you like a dark forest on the property you have recently acquired.” Colwin makes me want to go it alone, basking in the space of my relatively empty home and unplanned days. On Beauty by Zadie Smith While I’m a bit obsessed with Zadie Smith, and I’d probably agree that any of her books might help you inhabit your loneliness, I think On Beauty might be her best for the task. This book is almost a talisman for me at this point—I reread it often, and it’s moved far and wide with me. It’s the kind of book I’ve studied and written about and know my way through easily, but Smith is such a master that I’m delighted anew each time. This familiarity is certainly one reason I return to it, often during moves. Another reason is that On Beauty makes me appreciate being alone, as it dwells on the sheer dysfunction of human relationships and families, especially via the incorrigible Howard Belsey. And there is Katie Armstrong, narrator of a single, lovely chapter, who puts words to the forlorn experience of every slightly naive student in an upper-level class who learns that their theory class isn’t about art or literature at all. Yet despite its cynicism and some potentially horrible characters, the novel somehow manages to be funny and charming and quite hopeful. And totally absorbing, in that classic Forsterian style. The Door by Magda Szabo I’m including this Hungarian novel not only as a sentimental choice, but because it deserves a wider audience than it’s had and I’m recommending it to everyone. The Door, translated from Hungarian to English in 2015, wrecked me in an already wrecked state last January. The very reading of it changed how I thought about other people—The Door dwells on humans and their secrets and suggests a gruff sort of love that might entail just leaving people alone. The tangled relationship between Magda, a writer, and Emerence, her housekeeper, both exacerbates and celebrates the very perils of relying on someone else. It’s brilliant and heartbreaking. By the end, you will be glad to be on your own—but the language, the women, and the dog (Viola!) are all excellent company for dark days. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk I picked this novel up for my most recent move. Though for some it might be a bit of blast from the past—the setting of 16th-century Istanbul aside—I’m coming off of an end-of-summer Pamuk binge, and this is by far my favorite (though Pamuk’s 2014 novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, deserves an honorable mention here for a very lonely character). My Name is Red is terrifically complex, a murder mystery woven together with threads of religious fervor, theories about art, sex, and power. Perhaps by dint of the narration, which isolates each character in first person perspective—including the murderer, a gold coin, and a corpse, among other characters—or the manner in which these characters address and sometimes even mock the reader’s response, I found it to be the perfect lonely read. One character, recently returned to Istanbul, thinks back on his reading abroad and muses, “Books, which we mistake for consolation, only add depth to our sorrow.” I would concur, especially in this case. My Name Is Red is engrossing, disturbing, and very difficult to put down, even when you may or may not be running late to your first seminar. And who else might be more forlorn than you right now but an actual murderer? Image Credit: Maxpixel.
We wouldn't dream of abandoning our vast semi-annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here's what we're looking out for this month -- for more November titles, check out the Great Second-Half 2016 Fiction and Non-Fiction Previews. November Swing Time by Zadie Smith: The Orange Prize-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty returns with a masterful new novel. Set in North West London and West Africa, the book is about two girls who dream of being dancers, the meaning of talent, and blackness. (Bruna) Moonglow by Michael Chabon: We’ve all had that relative who spills their secrets on their deathbed, yet most of us don’t think to write them down. Chabon was 26 years old, already author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he went to see his grandfather for the last time only to hear the dying man reveal buried family stories. Twenty-six years later and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eighth novel is inspired by his grandfather’s revelations. A nearly 500-page epic, Moonglow explores the war, sex, and technology of mid-century America in all its glory and folly. It’s simultaneously Chabon’s most imaginative and personal work to date. (Tess) Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao: A staggering tale of the death of a child, this novel is a poetic meditation on loss, the fluidity of boundaries, and feeling like a fish out of water. Viet Thanh Nguyen has described it as a “jagged and unforgettable work [that] takes on a domestic story of losing one’s children and elevates it to Greek tragedy.” (Bruna) Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson: Lawson’s magazine debut was in the Paris Review with the title story of the collection. Other stories like “Three Friends in a Hammock” have appeared in the Oxford American. Fans of Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More will be drawn to Lawson’s lyric, expansive dramatizations of Southern evangelical Christians, as she straddles the intersection of sexuality and faith. Her sentences, so sharp, are meant to linger: “The problem with marrying a virgin, he realized now, was that you were marrying a girl who would become a woman only after the marriage.” (Nick R.) Valiant Gentleman by Sabina Murray: PEN/Faulkner Award-winner (The Caprices) Murray returns with her latest novel Valiant Gentlemen. Murray’s first novel, Slow Burn, was published when she was just 20 years old. Currently the chair of the creative writing department at UMass Amherst, Murray has also received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her sixth book (seventh, including her screenplay), Valiant Gentlemen follows a friendship across four decades and four continents. Alexander Chee writes, “This novel is made out of history but is every bit a modern marvel.” (Cara) Collected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: Written between the 1960s to the early years of this century, the 15 stories in this collection were selected, revised, and placed in order by the masterly Doctorow shortly before he died in 2015 at age 84. The stories feature a mother whose plan for financial independence might include murder; a teenager who escapes home for Hollywood; a man who starts a cult using subterfuge and seduction; and the denizens of the underbelly of 1870s New York City, which grew into the novel The Waterworks. They are the geniuses, mystics, and charlatans who offer both false hope and glimpses of Doctorow’s abiding subject, that untouchable myth known as the American dream. (Bill) Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías, one of Spain’s contemporary greats, is nothing if not prolific. In this, his 14th novel, personal assistant Juan de Vere watches helplessly as his life becomes tangled in the affairs of his boss, a producer of B-movies and general sleaze. Set in a 1980’s Madrid in the throes of the post-Francisco Franco hedonism of La Movida, a period in which social conservatism began to crumble in the face of a wave of creativity and experiment, the novel calls to mind Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and the paranoid decadence of Weimar Germany. Spying and the intersection of the domestic with the historical/political isn’t new territory for Marías, and fans of of his earlier work will be as pleased as Hari Kunzru at The Guardian, who called Thus Bad Begins a “demonstration of what fiction at its best can achieve.” (Brian) These are the Names by Tommy Wieringa: Winner of the Libris Prize (the "Dutch Booker") and now published in translation by Sam Garrett (Herman Koch's translator), this is "a moody, brilliantly ironic saga following a group of starving refugees on a harrowing quest for survival in the Eurasian steppes." (Lydia) My Lost Poets by Philip Levine: In this posthumous essay collection from one of our pre-eminent poets, Levine writes about composing poems as a child, studying with John Berryman, the influence of Spanish poets on his work, his idols and mentors, and his many inspirations: jazz, Spain, Detroit, and masters of the form like William Wordsworth and John Keats. (Hannah) Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman: Ten years before Emmett Till was brutally lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, his father Louis was executed by the U.S. army for rape and murder. Wideman, who was the same age as Emmett Till, just 14, the year he was murdered, mixes memoir and historical research in his exploration of the eerily twinned executions of the two Till men. A Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, Wideman knows all too well what it means to have a close relative accused of a violent crime: his son, Jacob, and his brother, Robert, were both convicted of murder. (Michael) Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond: Diamond has established himself as an authority on/gently obsessive superfan of John Hughes with pieces on the filmmaker for Buzzfeed and The Atlantic (from where I learned the shameful fact that John Hughes was responsible for the movie Flubber in addition to his suite of beloved suburban-white-kid films). Diamond’s Hughes interest stretches back to his time as an aspiring, and doomed, Hughes biographer. Diamond commemorates this journey through a memoir and cultural history of a brief, vanished moment in the Chicagoland suburbs. (Lydia) Am I Alone Here by Peter Orner: A book about books, or “a book of unlearned criticism that stumbles into memoir" by novelist Orner. Read Orner's thoughts on writing, social media, and self-promotion for The Millions here.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M -- a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?” Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling. I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything -- a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic. Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.” This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled? The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here. 1. Outfits that don’t sound real Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me. One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good -- it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague. 2. Outfits that make too much of a point Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her. Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine ... put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look...She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots ... She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans. Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing. There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive -- just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right. Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
This year is already proving to be an excellent one for book lovers. Since our last preview, we’ve gotten new titles by Don DeLillo, Alexander Chee, Helen Oyeyemi, Louise Erdrich; acclaimed debut novels by Emma Cline, Garth Greenwell, and Yaa Gyasi; new poems by Dana Gioia; and new short story collections by the likes of Greg Jackson and Petina Gappah. We see no evidence the tide of great books is ebbing. This summer we’ve got new works by established authors Joy Williams, Jacqueline Woodson, Jay McInerney, as well as anticipated debuts from Nicole Dennis-Benn and Imbolo Mbue; in the fall, new novels by Colson Whitehead, Ann Patchett, and Jonathan Safran Foer on shelves; and, in the holiday season, books by Javier Marías, Michael Chabon, and Zadie Smith to add to gift lists. Next year, we’ll be seeing the first-ever novel (!) by none other than George Saunders, and new work from Kiese Laymon, Roxane Gay, and (maybe) Cormac McCarthy. We're especially excited about new offerings from Millions staffers Hannah Gersen, Sonya Chung, Edan Lepucki, and Mark O'Connell (check out next week's Non-Fiction Preview for the latter). While it’s true that no single list could ever have everything worth reading, we think this one -- at 9,000 words and 92 titles -- is the only 2016 second-half book preview you’ll need. Scroll down and get reading. July Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn: In a recent interview in Out magazine, Dennis-Benn described her debut novel as “a love letter to Jamaica -- my attempt to preserve her beauty by depicting her flaws.” Margot works the front desk at a high-end resort, where she has a side business trading sex for money to send her much younger sister, Thandi, to a Catholic school. When their village is threatened by plans for a new resort, Margot sees an opportunity to change her life. (Emily) Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers: The prolific writer has made his reputation on never picking a genre, from starting the satirical powerhouse McSweeney's to post-apocalyptic critiques on the tech world. But if there's one thing Eggers has become the master of, it's finding humor and hope in even the most tragic of family situations. In Eggers's seventh novel, when his protagonist, Josie, loses her job and partner, she escapes to Alaska with her two kids. What starts as an idyllic trip camping out of an RV dubbed Chateau turns into a harrowing personal journey as Josie confronts her regrets. It's Eggers's first foray into the road trip novel, but it's sure to have his signature sharp and empathetic voice. (Tess) Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra: The Chilean writer Zambra’s new book is: a.) a parody of that nation’s college-entrance Academic Aptitude Exam, b.) a parody of a parody of same, c.) an exercise in flouting literary conventions, d.) all of the above. The correct answer is d.) -- because this sly slender book, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is divided into 90 multiple-choice questions suggesting that how we respond to a story depends on where the writer places narrative stress. The witty follow-up questions suggest that the true beauty of fiction is that it has no use for pat answers. For example: “What is the worst title for this story -- the one that would reach the widest possible audience?” (Bill) Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams: Williams is the sort of writer one “discovers” -- which is to say the first time you read her, you can’t believe you’ve never read her before; and you know you must read more. Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a “slim volume,” according to Kirkus, at the same time it lives up to its name: each of the very-short stories (yes, there are 99 of them) features God and/or the divine -- as idea, character, or presence. In the world of Joy Williams, we can expect to meet a God who is odd, whip-smart, exuberant, surprising, funny, sad, broken, perplexed, and mysterious. I look awfully forward. (Sonya) Home Field by Hannah Gersen: The debut novel from The Millions’s own Gersen has one of the best jacket copy taglines ever: “The heart of Friday Night Lights meets the emotional resonance and nostalgia of My So-Called Life”...I mean, right? Its story bones are equally striking: the town’s perfect couple -- high school football coach Dean and his beautiful sweetheart, Nicole -- become fully, painfully human when Nicole commits suicide. Dean and his three children, ages eight to 18, must now forge ahead while also grappling with the past that led to the tragedy. Set in rural Maryland, it’s a story, says Kirkus, built upon “meticulous attention to the details of grief,” the characters of which are “so full, so gently flawed, and so deeply human.” (Sonya) How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s last novel, A Cure for Suicide, wrestled with questions of memory’s permanence, existence, and beginning again -- all subjects that, according to The New York Times, “in the hands of a less skilled writer...could be mistaken for science fiction cliché.” Ball’s newest novel, his sixth, is something of a departure. How to Set a Fire and Why takes place in a normal-enough town peopled by characters who have names like Lucia and Hal. Don’t worry, though, Ball the fabulist/moralist is still very much himself; the young narrator muses on the nature of wealth and waste as she gleefully joins an Arsonist’s Club, “for people who are fed up with wealth and property, and want to burn everything down.” (Brian) Problems by Jade Sharma: Problems is the first print title from Emily Books, the subscription service that “publishes, publicizes, and celebrates the best work of transgressive writers of the past, present and future” and sends titles to readers each month. They’ll be publishing two original printed books a year in conjunction with Coffee House Press. Sharma’s debut is described as “Girls meets Trainspotting,” about a heroin addict struggling to keep her life together. Emily Books writes, “This book takes every tired trope about addiction and recovery, ‘likeable’ characters and redemption narratives, and blows them to pieces.” (Elizabeth) The Unseen World by Liz Moore: Ada is the daughter of a brilliant computer scientist, the creator of ELIXIR, a program designed to “acquire language the way that human does,” through immersion and formal teaching. Ada too is the subject of an experiment of sorts, from a young age “immersed in mathematics, neurology, physics, philosophy, computer science,” cryptology and, most important, the art of the gin cocktail by her polymath father. His death leaves Ada with a tantalizing puzzle to solve in this smart, riddling novel. (Matt) The Trap by Melanie Raabe: Translated from the German, the English version of this celebrated debut was snaffled up by Sony at the Frankfurt Book Fair and is now on its way to a big-screen debut as well. A thriller, The Trap describes a novelist attempting to find her sister’s killer using her novel-in-progress as bait (this always works). (Lydia) Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon: The Pushcart-winning author received a lot of praise for her debut, The Little Bride, and accolades are already flowing in for her latest, with J. Courtney Sullivan calling Lucy Pear, "a gorgeous and engrossing meditation on motherhood, womanhood, and the sacrifices we make for love." It opens with an unwed Jewish mother named Bea leaving her baby beneath a Massachusetts pear tree in 1917 to pursue her dreams of being a pianist. A decade later, a disenchanted Bea returns to find her daughter being taken care of by a strong Irish Catholic woman named Emma, and the two woman must grapple with what it means to raise a child in a rapidly changing post-war America in the middle of the Prohibition. With poetic prose but a larger understanding of the precarious world of 1920s New England, Solomon proves herself as one of the most striking novelists of the day. (Tess) Bad Faith by Theodore Wheeler: Kings of Broken Things, Wheeler’s debut novel about young immigrants set during the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, is coming in 2017 from Little A. The riot followed the horrific lynching of Will Brown. A legal reporter covering the Nebraska civil courts, Wheeler brings much authenticity to the tale. For now, readers can enjoy Bad Faith, his first story collection. (Nick R.) Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan: Described in promotional materials as both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Emma set in Singapore, Tan’s first novel explores “the contentious gender politics and class tensions thrumming beneath the shiny exterior of Singapore’s glamorous nightclubs and busy streets.” It is also the first novel written entirely in “Singlish” (the local patois of Singapore) to be published in America. The long-time journalist -- Tan has been a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal, In Style, and The Baltimore Sun -- previously published a memoir called A Tiger in The Kitchen: A Memoir of Food & Family, which was praised as “a literary treat.” (Elizabeth) Pond by Claire Louise-Bennett: Published in Ireland last year, a linked series of vignettes and meditations by a hermitess. The Guardian called it a “stunning debut;” The Awl’s Alex Balk offers this rare encomium: “the level of self-importance the book attaches to itself is so low that you are never even once tempted to make the 'jerking off' motion that seems to be the only reasonable response to most of the novels being published today.” (Lydia) An Innocent Fashion by R.J. Hernández: Ethan St. James was born Elián San Jamar, the son of multiracial, working-class parents in Texas. At Yale, he befriends two wealthy classmates, who help him reinvent himself as he moves to New York to work for the fashion magazine Régine. But once he’s there, things begin to crumble. It’s described as “the saga of a true millennial -- naïve, idealistic, struggling with his identity and sexuality,” and an early review says that Hernández writes in “a fervently literary style that flirts openly with the traditions of Salinger, Plath, and Fitzgerald.” (Elizabeth) Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Following up The Fates Will Find Their Way and Reunion, two-time Year in Reading alum Pittard hits us with a “modern gothic” novel about a faltering marriage and an ill-fated road trip. (Lydia) My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal: A former magistrate who has spent years doing family law and social work in England, de Waal publishes her debut novel at the respectable age of 55, bringing experiences from a long career working with adoption services to a novel about a mixed family navigating the foster care system in the 1980s. (Lydia) Night of the Animals by Bill Broun: A strangely prophetic novel set in London, Night of the Animals takes place in a very near, very grim future -- a class-divided surveillance state that looks a little too much like our own. A homeless drug addict named Cuthbert hears the voices of animals who convince him to liberate them from the London Zoo, joining with a rag-tag group of supporters to usher in a sort of momentary peaceable kingdom in dystopian London. The book is difficult to describe and difficult to put down. (Lydia) Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter: The fiction debut of Slate editor Winter, a seriocomic look at a woman trying to do what used to be called “having it all,” dealing with a job that sucks -- a send-up of a celebrity non-profit -- and uncooperative fertility. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “biting lampoon of workplace politics and a heartfelt search for meaning in modern life.” (Lydia) August Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: This is one of those debuts that comes freighted with hype, expectation, and the poisonous envy of writers who didn’t receive seven-figure advances, but sometimes hype is justified: Kirkus, in a starred review, called this novel “a special book.” Mbue's debut, which is set in New York City at the outset of the economic collapse, concerns a husband and wife from Cameroon, Jende and Nemi, and their increasingly complex relationship with their employers, a Lehman Brothers executive and his fragile wife. (Emily) The Nix by Nathan Hill: Eccentricity, breadth, and length are three adjectives that often earn writers comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. Hill tackles politics more headlong than Pynchon in this well-timed release. The writing life of college professor Samuel Andresen-Andersen is stalled. His publisher doesn’t want his new book, but he’s in for a surprise: he sees his long-estranged mother on the news after she throws rocks at a right-wing demagogue presidential candidate. The candidate holds press conferences at his ranch and “perfected a sort of preacher-slash-cowboy pathos and an anti-elitist populism” and his candidacy is an unlikely reason for son and mother to seek reunion. (Nick R.) Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson: Although the National Book Award winner's Brown Girl Dreaming was a young adult book, everyone flocked to lyrical writing that honed in on what it means to be a black girl in America. Now Woodson has written her first adult novel in two decades, a coming-of-age tale set in 1970s Bushwick, where four girls discover the boundaries of their friendship when faced with the dark realities of growing up. As Tracy K. Smith lauds, "Another Brooklyn is heartbreaking and restorative, a gorgeous and generous paean to all we must leave behind on the path to becoming ourselves." (Tess) Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney: This is the third of three McInerney novels following the lives of New York book editor Russell Calloway and his wife Corinne. The first Calloway book, Brightness Falls (1992), set during leveraged buyout craze of the late-1980s, is arguably McInerney’s last truly good novel, while the second, The Good Life (2006), set on and around 9/11, is pretty inarguably a sentimental mess. This new volume, set in 2008 with the financial system in crisis and the country about to elect its first black president, follows a now-familiar pattern of asking how world-historical events will affect the marriage of McInerney’s favorite cosseted and angst-ridden New Yorkers. (Michael) Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss, Jr.: Each unhappy mortgage is unhappy in its own way. A man and his beautiful wife (“a face that deserves granite countertops and recessed lighting”) try to flip a house in a California development at the wrong time. Now “it’s underwater, sinking fast, has...them by the ankles, and isn’t letting go.” This is the bleak but gripping setup for McGinniss’s second novel (coming 10 years after The Delivery Man), a portrait of a marriage as volatile as the economy. (Matt) Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi: Korkeakivi’s second novel -- her first was 2012’s An Unexpected Guest -- opens with the death of a 43-year-old WWII veteran, and follows the lives of his widow and children in the years and decades that follow. A meditation on family, the long shadow of war over generations, and myth-making. (Emily) How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee: Lee’s debut novel (following her praised short story collection, Drifting House), is set in and adjacent to North Korea. The novel follows three characters who meet across the border in China: two North Koreans, one from a prominent and privileged family, the other raised in poverty, and a Chinese-American teen who is an outcast at school. Together the three struggle to survive in, in the publisher’s words, “one of the least-known and most threatening environments in the world.” (Elizabeth) Moonstone by Sjón: “One thing I will not do is write a thick book,” asserts Icelandic author Sjón, who seems to have done just about everything else but, including writing librettos and penning lyrics with Lars von Trier for Björk’s Dancer in the Dark soundtrack. Sjón’s novels often dwell in mytho-poetic realms, but Moonstone, his fourth, is set firmly in recent history: 1918 Reykjavik, a city newly awash with foreign influence: cinema, the Spanish flu, the threat of WWI. Moonstone deals with ideas of isolation versus openness both nationally and on a personal scale, as Máni navigates his then-taboo desire for men, his cinematic fantasies, the spreading contagion, and the dangers imposed. (Anne) Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott: The fictional town of Cross River, Md., founded after our nation's only successful slave revolt, serves as the setting for the 13 stories in Scott's latest collection. Here, readers track the daily struggles of ordinary residents trying to get ahead -- or just to get by. By turns heartbreaking, darkly funny, and overall compelling, Insurrections delivers a panorama of modern life within a close-knit community, and the way the present day can be influenced by past histories, past generations. Scott, a lecturer at Bowie State, is a writer you should be reading, and this book serves as a nice entry point for first-timers. Meanwhile, longtime fans who follow the author on Twitter are in no way surprised to hear Scott’s writing described as "intense and unapologetically current" in the pre-press copy. (Nick M.) White Nights in Split Town City by Annie DeWitt: DeWitt’s first “slender storm of a novel” White Nights in Split Town City lands on the scene with a fury worthy of a cowboy western. To wit, Ben Marcus calls the book a “bold word-drunk novel,” that deals a good dose of swagger, seduction, and “muscular” prose (as corroborated by Tin House’s Open Bar). It’s a coming-of-age tale where a young girl’s mother leaves, her home life disintegrates, and she and her friend build a fort from which they can survey the rumors of the town. Laura van den Berg calls it a “ferocious tumble of a book” that asserts DeWitt as a “daring and spectacular new talent.” (Anne) A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi: Hashimi, part-time pediatrician and part-time novelist (The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, When the Moon Is Low), offers readers an emotional heavyweight in her latest story, A House Without Windows. An Afghan woman named Zeba’s life changes when her husband of 20 years, Kamal, is murdered in their home. Her village and her in-laws turn against her, accusing her of the crime. Overcome with shock, she cannot remember her whereabouts when her husband was killed, and the police imprison her. Both the audience and Zeba’s community must discover who she is. (Cara) Still Here by Lara Vapnyar: In her new novel, Russian-born writer Vapnyar dissects the lives of four Russian émigrés in New York City as they tussle with love, tumult, and the absurdities of our digital age. Each has technology-based reasons for being disappointed with the person they’ve become. One of the four, Sergey, seeks to turn this shared disappointment upside down by developing an app called Virtual Grave, designed to preserve a person’s online presence after death, a sort of digitized cryogenics. It could make a fortune, but is there anyone -- other than Ted Williams or an inventive novelist – who could seriously believe that Virtual Grave is a good idea? (Bill) Divorce Is in the Air by Gonzalo Torné: For his third novel (and first published in the U.S.), Spanish writer Torné gives us a man we can love to hate. Joan-Marc is out of work and alone as he sets out to make things right by coming clean with his estranged second wife, giving her a detailed account of his misspent life -- from childhood scenes to early sexual encounters, his father’s suicide and his mother’s mental illness, and on through a life full of appetites indulged, women mistreated, and the many ways his first wife ruined him. The novel, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, becomes an unapologetic exploration of memory, nostalgia, and how love ends. (Bill) September The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: In 1998, Whitehead appeared out of nowhere with The Intuitionist, a brilliant and deliciously strange racial allegory about, of all things, elevator repair. Since then, he’s written about junketing journalists, poker, rich black kids in the Hamptons, and flesh-eating zombies, but he’s struggled to tap the winning mix of sharp social satire and emotional acuity he achieved in his first novel. Early word is that he has recaptured that elusive magic in The Underground Railroad, in which the Underground Railroad slaves used to escape is not a metaphor, but a secret network of actual tracks and stations under the Southern landscape. (Michael) Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: It’s tempting to play armchair psychiatrist with the fact that it’s taken JSF 11 years to produce his third novel. His first two -- both emotional, brilliant, and, I have to say it, quirky -- established him as a literary wunderkind that some loved, and others loved to hate. (I love him, FWIW.) Here I Am follows five members of a nuclear family through four weeks of personal and political crisis in Washington D.C. At 600 pages, and noticeably divested of a cutesy McSweeney’s-era title, this just may be the beginning of second, more mature phase of a great writer’s career. (Janet) Nutshell by Ian McEwan: "Love and betrayal, life and death come together in the most unexpected ways," says Michal Shavit, publisher of the Booker Prize-winner's new novel. It's an apt description for much of his work and McEwan is at his best when combining elegant, suspenseful prose with surprising twists, though this novel is set apart by perspective. Trudy has betrayed her husband, John, and is hatching a plan with his brother. There is a witness to a wife's betrayal, the nine-month-old baby in Trudy's womb. As McEwan puts it, he was inspired to write by, "the possibilities of an articulate, thoughtful presence with a limited but interesting perspective." (Claire) Jerusalem by Alan Moore: For anyone who fears that Watchmen and V for Vendetta writer Moore is becoming one of his own obsessed, isolated characters -- lately more known for withdrawing from public life and disavowing comic books than his actual work -- Jerusalem is unlikely to reassure. The novel is a 1,280-page mythology in which, in its publisher’s words, “a different kind of human time is happening, a soiled simultaneity that does not differentiate between the petrol-colored puddles and the fractured dreams of those who navigate them.” Also: it features “an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters.” Something for everyone! (Jacob) Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: A new novel by the bestselling author of gems like Bel Canto and State of Wonder is certainly a noteworthy publishing event. This time, Patchett, who also owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., takes on a more personal subject, mapping multiple generations of a family broken up by divorce and patched together, in new forms, by remarriage. Commonwealth begins in the 1960s, in California, and moves to Virginia and beyond, spanning many decades. Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review, remarking, “Patchett elegantly manages a varied cast of characters as alliances and animosities ebb and flow, cross-country and over time.” (Edan) Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua: A one-time staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle who filed stories from around the world while winning prizes for her fiction (including The Atlantic’s student fiction prize), Hua makes her publishing debut with this collection of short stories. Featuring characters ranging from a Hong Kong movie star fleeing scandal to a Korean-American pastor who isn’t all he seems, these 10 stories follow immigrants to a new America who straddle the uncomfortable line between past and present, allegiances old and new. (Kaulie) The Last Wolf & Herman by László Krasznahorkai: To get a sense of what Booker Prize-winning author Krasznahorkai is all about, all you need to do is look at the hero image his publishers are using on his author page. Now consider the fact that The Last Wolf & Herman, his latest short fictions to be translated into English, is being described by that same publisher as “maddeningly complex.” The former, about a bar patron recounting his life story, is written as a single, incredibly long sentence. The latter is a two-part novella about a game warden tasked with clearing “noxious beasts” from a forest -- a forest frequented by “hyper-sexualized aristocratic officers.” All hope abandon ye who enter here. Beach readers beware; gloom lies ahead. (Nick M.) Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, earned her comparisons to such postmodern paranoiacs as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Her second book, Intimations, is a collection of 12 stories sure to please any reader who reveled in the heady strangeness of her novel. These stories examine the course life in stages, from the initial shock of birth into a pre-formed world on through to the existential confusion of the life in the middle and ending with the hesitant resignation of a death that we barely understand. With this collection, Kleeman continues to establish herself as one of the most brilliant chroniclers of our 21st-century anxieties. (Brian) Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch: The author of the international bestseller The Dinner, will publish Dear Mr. M -- his eighth novel to date, but just the third to be translated into English. A writer, M, has had much critical success, but only one bestseller, and his career seems to be fading. When a mysterious letter writer moves into the apartment below, he seems to be stalking M. Through shifting perspectives, we slowly learn how a troubled teacher, a pair of young lovers, their classmates, and M himself are intertwined. With a classic whodunit as its spine, the novel is elevated by Koch's elegant handling of structure, willingness to cross-examine the Dutch liberal sensibility, and skewering of the writer's life. This is a page turner with a smart head on its shoulders and a mouth that's willing to ask uncomfortable questions. (Claire) The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: Set in 1850s rural Ireland, The Wonder tells the story of Anna, a girl who claims to have stopped eating, and Lib, a nurse who must determine whether or not Anna is a fraud. Having sold over two million copies, Donoghue is known for her bestselling novel, Room, which she also adapted for the screen to critical acclaim. But as a read of her previous work, and her recent novel Frog Music shows, she is also well versed in historical fiction. The Wonder brings together the best of all, combining a gracefully tense, young voice with a richly detailed historical setting. (Claire) Black Wave by Michelle Tea: Expanding her diverse body of work -- including five memoirs, a young adult fantasy series, and a novel -- Tea now offers her audience a “dystopic memoir-fiction hybrid.” Black Wave follows Tea’s 1999 trek from San Francisco to L.A. in what Kirkus calls “a biting, sagacious, and delightfully dark metaliterary novel about finding your way in a world on fire.” The piece has received rave reviews from the likes of Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson, which promise something for readers to look forward to this September. (Cara) The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano: Modiano, a Nobel Prize winner, used a setting that shows up often in his work to give atmosphere to his 2012 novel L'herbe du nuit (appearing in English for the first time as The Black Notebook): the underdeveloped, unkempt suburbs of Paris in the 1960s. The book follows a man named Jean as he begins an affair with Dannie, a woman who may or may not be implicated in a local murder. As their relationship progresses, Jean begins to keep a diary, which he then uses decades later in a quest to piece together her story. (Thom) Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy: Released last year in the U.K., Sleeping on Jupiter will hit the shelves in the U.S. this October. Longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and winner of the 2016 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Roy’s latest novel follows the story of Nomita, a filmmaker’s assistant who experiences great trauma as young girl. When Nomita returns to her temple town, Jarmuli, after growing up in Norway, she finds that Jarmuli has “a long, dark past that transforms all who encounter it.” (Cara) Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Discussing The Sound of Things Falling, his atmospheric meditation on violence and trauma, with The Washington Post several years back, the Columbian writer Vásquez described turning away from Gabriel García Márquez and toward Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo: “All these people do what I like to do, which is try to explore the crossroads between the public world -- history and politics -- and the private individual.” That exploration continues in Reputations, which features an influential cartoonist reassessing his life and work as a political scourge. (Matt) Umami by Laia Jufresa: A shared courtyard between five homes in Mexico City is frequently visited by a 12-year-old girl, Ana. In the summer, she passes time reading mystery novels, trying to forget the mysterious death of her sister several years earlier. As it turns out, Ana’s not the only neighbor haunted by the past. In Umami, Jufresa, an extremely talented young writer, deploys multiple narrators, giving each a chance to recount their personal histories, and the questions they’re still asking. Panoramic, affecting, and funny, these narratives entwine to weave a unique portrait of present-day Mexico. (Nick M.) The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies: Davies, the author of The Welsh Girl and a professor at University of Michigan’s esteemed MFA program, returns with a big book about American history seen through the lens of four stories about Chinese Americans. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it “a brilliant, absorbing masterpiece,” and said it can be read as four novellas: the first is about a 19th-century organizer of railroad workers, for instance, and the last is about a modern-day writer going to China with his white wife to adopt a child. Celeste Ng says, "Panoramic in scope yet intimate in detail, The Fortunes might be the most honest, unflinching, cathartically biting novel I've read about the Chinese American experience. It asks the big questions about identity and history that every American needs to ask in the 21st century.” (Edan) Loner by Teddy Wayne: David Federman, a nebbishy kid from the New Jersey suburbs, gets into Harvard where he meets a beautiful, glamorous girl from New York City and falls in love. What could go wrong? Quite a bit, apparently. Wayne, himself a Harvardian, scored a success channeling his inner Justin Bieber in his 2013 novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This book, too, has its ripped-from-the-headlines plot elements, which caused an early reviewer at Kirkus to call Loner “a startlingly sharp study of not just collegiate culture, but of social forces at large.” (Michael) Little Nothing by Marisa Silver: From its description, Little Nothing sounds like a departure for Silver, the author of the novels The God of War and Mary Coin. The book, which takes place at the turn of the 20th century in an unnamed country, centers on a girl named Pavla, a dwarf who is rejected by her family. Silver also weaves in the story of Danilo, a young man in love with Pavla. According to the jacket copy, Little Nothing is, “Part allegory about the shifting nature of being, part subversive fairy tale of love in all its uncanny guise.” To whet your appetite, read Silver’s short story “Creatures” from this 2012 issue of The New Yorker, or check out my Millions interview with her about Mary Coin. (Edan) After Disasters by Viet Dinh: Four protagonists, one natural disaster: Ted and Piotr are disaster relief workers, Andy is a firefighter, and Dev is a doctor -- all of them do-gooders navigating the after-effects of a major earthquake in India. Their journeys begin as outward ones -- saving others in a ravaged and dangerous place -- but inevitably become internal and self-transforming more than anything. Dinh’s stories have been widely published, and he’s won an O. Henry Prize; his novel debut marks, according to Amber Dermont, “the debut of a brilliant career.” (Sonya) The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas: Cardenas’s first novel The Revolutionaries Try Again has the trappings of a ravishing debut: smart blurbs, a brilliant cover, a modernist narrative set amongst political turmoil in South America, and a flurry of pre-pub excitement on Twitter. Trappings don’t always deliver, but further research confirms Cardenas’s novel promises to deliver. Having garnered comparisons to works by Roberto Bolaño and Julio Cortázar, The Revolutionaries Try Again has been called “fiercely subversive” while pulling off feats of “double-black-diamond high modernism.” (Anne) Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler: Butler, who won the Pulitzer in 1993, is still most well-known for the book that won him the prize, the Vietnam War-inspired A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. In his latest, a novel, he goes back to that collection's fertile territory, exploring the relationship of a couple -- both tenured professors at Florida State -- who can trace their history to the days of anti-war protests. When the husband, Robert, finds out that his father is dying, he gets a chance to confront the mistakes of his past. (Thom) The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride: McBride’s first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, unleashed a torrent of language and transgression in the mode of high modernism -- think William Faulkner, think James Joyce, think Samuel Beckett. James Wood described its prose as a “visceral throb” whose “sentences run meanings together to produce a kind of compression in which words...seem to want to merge with one another.” McBride’s follow-up, The Lesser Bohemians, is similar in voice, though softer, more playful, “an evolution,” according to McBride. Again the novel concerns a young woman, an actress who moves to London to launch her career, and who falls in with an older, troubled actor. (Anne) Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello: Each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way, but the families in Frangello’s latest novel are truly in a category all their own. Every Kind of Wanting maps the intersection of four Chicago couples as they fall into an impressively ambitious fertility scheme in the hopes of raising a “community baby.” But first there are family secrets to reveal, abusive pasts to decipher, and dangerous decisions to make. If it sounds complicated, well, it is, but behind all the potential melodrama is a story that takes a serious look at race, class, sexuality, and loyalty -- in short, at the new American family. (Kaulie) October A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem: Lethem’s first novel since 2013’s Dissident Gardens has the everything-in-the-stewpot quality that his readers have come to expect: the plot follows a telepathic backgammon hustler through various international intrigues before forcing him to confront a deadly tumor -- as well as his patchouli-scented Berkeley past. Though it remains to be seen if A Gambler’s Anatomy can hit the emotional heights of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, it will be, if nothing else, unmistakably Lethem. (Jacob) The Mothers by Brit Bennett: The Mothers begins when a grief-stricken 17-year-old girl becomes pregnant with the local pastor’s son, and shows how their ensuing decisions affect the life of a tight-knit black community in Southern California for years to come. The church’s devoted matriarchs -- “the mothers” -- act as a Greek chorus to this story of friendship, secrets, guilt, and hope. (Janet) Nicotine by Nell Zink: Zink now enters the post-New Yorker profile, post-Jonathan-Franzen-pen-pal phase of her career with Nicotine, a novel that seems as idiosyncratic and -- the term has probably already been coined -- Zinkian as Mislaid and The Wallcreeper. Nicotine follows the struggle between the ordinary Penny Baker and her aging hippie parents -- a family drama that crescendos when Penny inherits her father’s squatter-infested childhood home and must choose “between her old family and her new one.” Few writers have experienced Zink’s remarkable arc, and by all appearances, Nicotine seems unlikely to slow her winning streak. (Jacob) The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine: I love a novel the plot of which dares to take place over the course of one night: in The Angel of History, it’s the height of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, and Yemeni-born poet Jacob, who is gay, sits in the waiting room of a psych clinic in San Francisco. He waits actively, as they say -- recalling his varied past in Cairo, Beirut, Sana’a, and Stockholm. Other present-time characters include Satan and Death, and herein perhaps lies what Michael Chabon described as Alameddine’s “daring” sensibility...“not in the cheap sense of lurid or racy, but as a surgeon, a philosopher, an explorer, or a dancer.” (Sonya) The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung: Her second novel, this ambitious story is a multigenerational saga about family, race, difference, and what it means to be a lost child in a big world. Charles Lee, the African-American patriarch of a biracial family, searches for meaning after a fatherless childhood. His connection with a caregiver, Hannah, uncovers her Korean immigrant family's past flight from tradition and war. Chung is a staff writer at The Millions and founding editor of Bloom, and her work has appeared in Tin House, The Threepenny Review, and BOMB. Early praise from Nayomi Munaweera compares Chung’s prose to Elena Ferrante or Clarice Lispector, “elegant, sparse, and heartbreaking.” (Claire) The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky: Dermansky’s Bad Marie featured an ex-con nanny obsessed with her employer and with a tendency to tipple on the job. The protagonist of her latest is a less colorful type: a struggling novelist suffocated by her husband, also a struggling novelist. When her former boss dies in a crash, Leah is willed the red sports car in which her nurturing friend met her end: “I knew when I bought that car that I might die in it. I have never really loved anything as much as that red car.” What is the idling heroine to make of the inheritance and the ambiguous message it contains? (Matt) Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Margaret Atwood joins authors Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, and Anne Tyler in the Hogarth Shakespeare series -- crafting modern spins on William Shakespeare’s classics. Hag-Seed, a prose adaptation of The Tempest, follows the story of Felix, a stage director who puts on a production of The Tempest in a prison. If Felix finds success in his show, he will get his job back as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. The Tempest is one of Atwood’s favorites (and mine, too), and Hag-Seed should be an exciting addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series. (Cara) The Mortifications by Derek Palacio: Palacio’s debut novel follows his excellent, tense novella, How to Shake the Other Man. Palacio shifts from boxing and New York City to the aftermath of the Mariel boatlift, set in Miami and Hartford, Conn. Here Palacio’s examination of the Cuban immigrant experience and family strife gets full breadth in a work reminiscent of H.G. Carrillo’s Loosing My Espanish. (Nick R.) The Fall Guy by James Lasdun: Lasdun is a writer’s writer (James Wood called him “one of the secret gardens of English writing;” Porochista Khakpour called him “one of those remarkably flexible little-bit-of-everything renaissance men of letters”). Now, the British writer adds to his published novels, stories, poems, travelogue, memoir, and film (!) with a new novel, a spicy thriller about a troubled houseguest at a married couple’s country home. (Lydia) The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin: It’s not without good reason that Jin has won practically every literary prize the United States has to offer, despite his being a non-native English speaker -- he is something of a technical wizard who, according to the novelist Gish Jen, “has chosen mastery over genius.” Steeped in the terse, exact prose tradition of such writers as Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy, Jin’s work is immediately recognizable. His newest novel, The Boat Rocker, follows in the same vein. It finds Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin, a fiercely principled reporter whose exposés of governmental corruption have made him well-known in certain circles, wrestling with his newest assignment: an investigation into the affairs of his ex-wife, an unscrupulous novelist, and unwitting pawn of the Chinese government. (Brian) Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: Semple, formerly a writer for Arrested Development and Mad About You, broke into the less glamorous, less lucrative literary world with 2013’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (her second novel), which this reviewer called “funny.” In this novel she sets her bittersweet, hilarious, perceptive gaze on Eleanor, a woman who vows that for just one day she will be the ideal wife, mother, and career woman she’s always known she could be. And it goes great! Just kidding. (Janet) No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Khaled Khalifa: This novel, Khalifa’s fourth, illuminates the prelude to Syria’s civil war, and humanizes a conflict too often met with an international shrug. Tracking a single family’s journey from the 1960s through the present day, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City closely examines the myriad traumas -- both instantaneous and slow-burning -- accompanying a society’s collapse. As of this year, the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates there to be 65.3 million refugees or internally displaced persons around the world, and more than 4.9 million of those are Syrian. For those hoping to understand how this came to pass, Khalifa’s book should be required reading. (Nick M.) Mister Monkey by Francine Prose: Widely known and respected for her best-selling fiction, Prose has had novels adapted for the stage and the screen. It’s impossible to say (but fun to imagine) that these experiences informed her latest novel, Mister Monkey, about an off-off-off-off Broadway children’s play in crisis. Told from the perspective of the actress who plays the monkey’s lawyer, the adolescent who plays the monkey himself, and a variety of others attached to the production in one way or another, this novel promises to be madcap and profound in equal measure. (Kaulie) The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa: This debut novel, set in the 1930s, follows a young Jewish family as it tries to flee Germany for Cuba. When they manage to get a place on the ocean liner St. Louis, the Rosenthals prepare themselves for a comfortable life in the New World, but then word comes in of a change to Cuba's immigration policy. The passengers, who are now a liability, get their visas revoked by the government, which forces the Rosenthals to quickly abandon ship. For those of you who thought the boat's name sounded familiar, it's based on a real-life tragedy. (Thom) The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke: A decade ago, The Guardian described Lianke as “one of China's greatest living authors and fiercest satirists.” His most recent novel, The Four Books, was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. The Explosion Chronicles was first published in 2013, and will be published in translation (by Duke professor Carlos Rojas) this fall. The novel centers on a town’s “excessive” expansion from small village to an “urban superpower,” with a focus on members of the town’s three major families. (Elizabeth) The Trespasser by Tana French: In her five previous novels about the squabbling detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad, French has classed up the old-school police procedural with smart, lush prose and a willingness to explore the darkest recesses of her characters’ emotional lives. In The Trespasser, tough-minded detective Antoinette Conway battles scabrous office politics as she tries to close the case of a beautiful young woman murdered as she sat down to a table set for a romantic dinner. On Goodreads, the Tanamaniacs are doing backflips for French’s latest venture into murder Dublin-style. (Michael) The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang: Entertainment Weekly has already expressed excitement about former journalist Chang’s novel, calling it “uproarious,” and in her blurb, Jami Attenberg deemed The Wangs vs. the World her “favorite debut of the year.” Charles Wang, patriarch and business man, has lost his money in the financial crisis and wants to return to China to reclaim family land. Before that, he takes his adult son and daughter and their stepmother on a journey across America to his eldest daughter’s upstate New York hideout. Charles Yu says the book is, “Funny, brash, honest, full of wit and heart and smarts,” and Library Journal named it one of the fall’s 5 Big Debuts. (Edan) Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria: A new English translation of a work that the journal El Cultural has suggested “could well be considered the highest summit of Basque-language novels.” The novel follows the interlinked lives of a group of friends in the contemporary Basque country, and the young American sociologist who’s recently arrived in their midst. (Emily) Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar: Jarrar, whose novel A Map of Home won a Hopwood Award in 2008, comes out with her first collection of short stories old and new. In the title story (originally published in Guernica in 2010), a woman whose father has recently died goes to Cairo to scatter his ashes. In accompanying stories, we meet an ibex-human hybrid named Zelwa, as well as an Egyptian feminist and the women of a matriarchal society. In keeping with the collection's broad focus on "accidental transients," most of the stories take place all over the world. (Thom) The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle: In 1994, a group of eight scientists move into EC2, a bio-dome-like enclosure meant to serve as a prototype for a space colony. Not much time passes before things begin to go wrong, which forces the crew to ask themselves a difficult, all-important question -- can they really survive without help from the outside world? Part environmental allegory, part thriller, The Terranauts reinforces Boyle's reputation for tight plotlines, bringing his talents to bear on the existential problem of climate change. For those who are counting, this is the author's 16th (!) novel. (Thom) November Swing Time by Zadie Smith: The Orange Prize-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty returns with a masterful new novel. Set in North West London and West Africa, the book is about two girls who dream of being dancers, the meaning of talent, and blackness. (Bruna) Moonglow by Michael Chabon: We've all had that relative who spills their secrets on their deathbed, yet most of us don't think to write them down. Chabon was 26 years old, already author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he went to see his grandfather for the last time only to hear the dying man reveal buried family stories. Twenty-six years later and the Pulitzer Prize winner's eighth novel is inspired by his grandfather's revelations. A nearly 500-page epic, Moonglow explores the war, sex, and technology of mid-century America in all its glory and folly. It's simultaneously Chabon's most imaginative and personal work to date. (Tess) Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao: A staggering tale of the death of a child, this novel is a poetic meditation on loss, the fluidity of boundaries, and feeling like a fish out of water. Viet Thanh Nguyen has described it as a “jagged and unforgettable work [that] takes on a domestic story of losing one’s children and elevates it to Greek tragedy.” (Bruna) Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson: Lawson’s magazine debut was in the Paris Review with the title story of the collection. Other stories like “Three Friends in a Hammock” have appeared in the Oxford American. Fans of Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More will be drawn to Lawson’s lyric, expansive dramatizations of Southern evangelical Christians, as she straddles the intersection of sexuality and faith. Her sentences, so sharp, are meant to linger: “The problem with marrying a virgin, he realized now, was that you were marrying a girl who would become a woman only after the marriage.” (Nick R.) Valiant Gentleman by Sabina Murray: PEN/Faulkner Award-winner (The Caprices) Murray returns with her latest novel Valiant Gentlemen. Murray’s first novel, Slow Burn, was published when she was just 20 years old. Currently the chair of the creative writing department at UMass Amherst, Murray has also received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her sixth book (seventh, including her screenplay), Valiant Gentlemen follows a friendship across four decades and four continents. Alexander Chee writes, "This novel is made out of history but is every bit a modern marvel." (Cara) Collected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: Written between the 1960s to the early years of this century, the 15 stories in this collection were selected, revised, and placed in order by the masterly Doctorow shortly before he died in 2015 at age 84. The stories feature a mother whose plan for financial independence might include murder; a teenager who escapes home for Hollywood; a man who starts a cult using subterfuge and seduction; and the denizens of the underbelly of 1870s New York City, which grew into the novel The Waterworks. They are the geniuses, mystics, and charlatans who offer both false hope and glimpses of Doctorow’s abiding subject, that untouchable myth known as the American dream. (Bill) Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías, one of Spain’s contemporary greats, is nothing if not prolific. In this, his 14th novel, personal assistant Juan de Vere watches helplessly as his life becomes tangled in the affairs of his boss, a producer of B-movies and general sleaze. Set in a 1980’s Madrid in the throes of the post-Francisco Franco hedonism of La Movida, a period in which social conservatism began to crumble in the face of a wave of creativity and experiment, the novel calls to mind Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and the paranoid decadence of Weimar Germany. Spying and the intersection of the domestic with the historical/political isn’t new territory for Marías, and fans of of his earlier work will be as pleased as Hari Kunzru at The Guardian, who called Thus Bad Begins a “demonstration of what fiction at its best can achieve.” (Brian) December Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins: Collins is described as “a brilliant yet little known African American artist and filmmaker -- a contemporary of revered writers including Toni Cade Bambara, Laurie Colwin, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, and Grace Paley.” The stories in this collection, which center on race in the '60s, explore the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in ways that “masterfully blend the quotidian and the profound.” (Elizabeth) The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma by Ratika Kapur: Kapur’s first novel, Overwinter, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. This, her second, chronicles a changing India in which the titular Mrs. Sharma, a traditional wife and mother living in Delhi, has a conversation with a stranger that will shift her worldview. Described as a “sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity,” Asian and European critics have described it as quietly powerful. The writer Mohammed Hanif wrote that it “really gets under your skin, a devastating little book.” (Elizabeth) And Beyond The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy: Recent reports of the author’s death have been greatly exaggerated, but unfortunately reports of delays for his forthcoming science fiction book have not. Longtime fans will need to wait even longer than they’d initially suspected, as The Passenger’s release date was bumped way past August 2016 -- as reported by Newsweek in 2015 -- and now looks more like December 2017. (Nick M.) Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders -- dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” -- and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob) And So On by Kiese Laymon: Laymon is a Mississippi-born writer who has contributed to Esquire, ESPN, the Oxford American, Guernica, and writes a column for The Guardian. His first novel, Long Division, makes a lot of those “best books you’ve never heard of” lists, so feel free to prove them wrong by reading it right now. What we know about his second novel is that he said it’s “going to shock folks hopefully. Playing with comedy, Afro-futurist shit and horror.” (Janet) Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: If this were Twitter, I’d use the little siren emoji and the words ALERT: NEW ROXANE GAY BOOK. Her new story collection was recently announced (along with an announcement about the delay on the memoir Hunger, which was slated to be her next title and will now be published after this one). The collection’s product description offers up comparisons to Merritt Tierce, Jamie Quatro, and Miranda July, with stories of “privilege and poverty,” from sisters who were abducted together as children, to a black engineer’s alienation upon moving to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to a wealthy Florida subdivision “where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other.” (Elizabeth) Transit by Rachel Cusk: In this second novel of the trilogy that began with Outline, a woman and her two sons move to London in search of a new reality. Taut and lucid, the book delves into the anxieties of responsibility, childhood, and fate. “There is nothing blurry or muted about Cusk's literary vision or her prose,” enthuses Heidi Julavits. (Bruna) Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh: This first collection of stories from Moshfegh, author of the noir novel Eileen, centers around unsteady characters who yearn for things they cannot have. Jeffrey Eugenides offers high praise: "What distinguishes Moshfegh’s writing is that unnamable quality that makes a new writer's voice, against all odds and the deadening surround of lyrical postures, sound unique." You can read her stories in The New Yorker and the Paris Review. (Bruna) Selection Day by Aravind Adiga: The Booker Prize-winning author of The White Tiger returns with a coming-of-age tale of brothers and aspiring professional cricketers in Mumbai. (Lydia) Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Long-time Millions writer and contributing editor Lepucki follows up her New York Times-bestselling novel California (you may have seen her talking about it on a little show called The Colbert Report) with Woman No. 17, a complicated, disturbing, sexy look at female friendship, motherhood, and art. (Lydia) Enigma Variations by André Aciman: New York magazine called CUNY Professor and author of Harvard Square “the most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century). Aciman follows up with Enigma Variations, a sort of sentimental education of a young man across time and borders. (Lydia)
Last week my husband and I were having breakfast with our seven-month-old baby, sticking bits of fruit into her mouth and prattling inane words of love. For a couple of months now the baby has been smiling big, open-mouthed smiles that show her two teeth and animate her entire body; her feet kick and her chubby hands wave and the recipient feels the smile like the warmth of a cheerful little sun on a minor planet. “Pretty baby,” my husband said to her that morning, when she beamed thus at him. “What a pretty little girl.” There is a common evocation of beauty during the very new newborn period. Babies emerge as slightly mottled fruits that have been sitting in their syrup too long. But if you are very lucky and the things happen that are supposed to happen, they unfurl and dry off and fill out and within a few days or weeks they’ve become those velvet-skinned, bright-eyed beings in the first and most tender season of human beauty. I never recoiled, in that first season, to hear the nice people on the bus say “beautiful baby,” to us in reverent tones. It’s a thanksgiving for safe passage, a prayer for all new defenseless things. In any case, the adjective is usually invoked without its invoker seeing much more than a scalloped ear or a tiny scrumpled face. And even if the baby alarms you with its rawness, “beautiful baby” is really the only thing to say. The new mother doesn’t need to hear “Nice prune,” or “You must have squeezed ‘er good coming out.” But after a few months have passed, when the word “newborn” must be set aside with the tiny hats and receiving blankets and impossibly small onesies, faint suggestions of the adult visage emerge. Friendly strangers and the baby’s own parents and relatives eagerly fixate upon recognizable features. And if you have a girl, the specter of beauty, or the looking-for-it, begins to hover. Girl babies grow and the observations about their looks are freely traded -- comments about eyes and future heartbreaking. At a certain point a more furtive category of looking makes itself felt. When Cal Stephanides, the hero/ine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s wonderful novel Middlesex recalls his dark-eyed, aquiline-nosed loveliness as a young girl, it is not the beauty that is remembered so much as the world’s response to it: I can only remember a time when the world seemed to have a million eyes, silently opening wherever I went. Most of the time they were camouflaged, like the closed eyes of green lizards in green trees. But then they snapped open -- on the bus, in the pharmacy -- and I felt the intensity of all that looking, the desire and the desperation. When Callie enters adolescence -- before her male secondary sexual characteristics manifest -- she undergoes a subtle transformation that likewise transforms her way of being in the world: To paraphrase Nietzsche, there are two types of Greek: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I’d been born Apollonian, a sun-kissed girl with a face ringed with curls. But as I approached thirteen a Dionysian element stole over my features. My nose, at first delicately, then not so delicately, began to arch. My eyebrows, growing shaggier, arched, too. Something sinister, wily, literally ‘satyrical’ entered my expression. Like most brilliant novels, Middlesex manages to describe a very particular set of circumstances -- the sex misidentification and eventual transformation of Callie to Cal Stephanides -- in a way that highlights their universality. When Callie describes her turn to the Dionysian, she is contrasting her elfin looks with those of the "normal" girls growing breasts all around her. But the feeling she described is familiar to me from girlhood -- that feeling of change from being a beautiful baby, petted and cooed over, into something crooked and frizzed and untoward, requiring braces and other, more secret interventions. And before long, the eyes are back. If you are Callie, switched over to Cal, they come from a predatory subculture that looks for runaway waifs in highway truck stops. If you are a young woman, your new, marginally adult female body becomes public property, free for comment by men and other women alike. Lest you think I’m in the middle of an extended humblebrag about my own looks, recall The Blind Assassin, wherein Margaret Atwood’s wizened narrator identifies the appeal of very young women, whether they are celebrated as beauties or not: "The three of them were beautiful, in the way all girls of that age are beautiful. It can't be helped, that sort of beauty, nor can it be conserved; it's a freshness, a plumpness of the cells, that's unearned and temporary, and that nothing can replicate." In this conception of beauty, we might see parallels to the reverence for the newborn -- the instinctive and uncheckable response of humanity to its own most new and unsullied, and then its most fertile, members. You might say that there’s a purity to this response, the way that there’s a purity, at the most basic level, to youth. But as Atwood’s narrator goes on to point out, there is the essential beauty of youth, and then there is the ideal of beauty that interferes with a woman’s view of herself: “None of them was satisfied with it, however; already they were making attempts to alter themselves into some impossible, imaginary mould, plucking and pencilling away at their faces. I didn't blame them, having done the same once myself.” In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine’s Scarry’s short, poetic refutation of the "political critique of beauty” -- and the title inspiration for Zadie Smith's On Beauty-- Scarry states that “the moment of perceiving something beautiful confers on the perceiver the gift of life." Her “something,” in this formulation, can be a person, or not a person: “faces, flowers, bird-songs, men, horses, pots, and poems.” Human beauty is merely one “site” of beauty; it has, in Scarry’s reckoning, “site-specific” attributes that cause us to keep it separate from pots and bird-songs, and in doing so wander into ontological errors about beauty. These errors, Scarry argues, make people want to expel beauty -- that is, the acknowledgment and discussion of beauty -- from our classrooms and lecture halls. It was this current against which On Beauty and Being Just was penned. A major beef of the anti-beauty brigade, says Scarry, is the “gaze" (as in "the male gaze") -- the idea that “when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object.” Scarry argues that it is a mistake to take this negative, “site-specific” byproduct of human beauty and apply it to the entirety of the humanities, or to "a mourning dove, or a trellis spilling over with sweet pea, or a book whose pages are being folded back of the first time." According to Scarry, the rejoicing in the beauty of our little baby is motivated by the same benevolent and generative impulse that causes people to “get upset about the disappearance of kelp forests they have never even heard of" -- a net positive. Scarry’s book is a work of philosophy, a discipline in which I am not at home, and she writes in theorems, which are likewise alien. It is also not addressing itself to the problems of female subjugation, but to the role of aesthetics in scholarship. In one sense I found On Beauty and Being Just to be a sort of refreshing bath for the mind; it sluiced away the noise and arterial plaque of the day-to-day and affirmed, for example, my love of books or paintings. But I’m a woman, and not a pot or a bird-song, and as such I have a special relationship to those "site-specific" problems of human beauty, the pursuit of which makes Atwood’s cellularly plump sprites whittle away at themselves. Site-specific things are on my mind right now, more than university debates between desconstructivists and positivists. People who have grievances dislike for their grievances to be disappeared by thought-exercises, even highly successful and elegantly composed ones. And in my site-specificity, I can rejoice in the beauty of the kelp, but fear the implications of human beauty. Beauty obligates, either in its presence -- wherein it is the obligation of the beautiful one to be looked-upon, and to retain her beauty -- or in its absence, in which case it must be perpetually sought. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s penniless mother reminds her daughter of this obligation: Only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian; and she tried to instil into the latter a sense of the responsibility that such a charge involved. In Scarry’s section on the effect of the “gaze,” she argues, rather speciously, that the gazer is as affected by the gazing as the gazee: “It is odd that contemporary accounts...place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at.” After all, she points out, Plato sees a beautiful boy and “shudders and shivers.” Dante Alighieri, laying eyes on Beatrice, feels his “senses go into a huddle.” And those things do sound hard, but I doubt that two drunken 20-something men ever crabwalked over to 14-year-old Dante and his buddy on the metro and argued freely over which one was “the hot one.” I doubt one of Plato’s male friends told him when he was 15 that “some of the boys in school think you’re really ugly, but some of them think you’re really hot.” When Dante was in college and unhappy and padded with Keystone light and cheeseburgers, it’s unlikely that a male visitor to his room looked at his prom photo and marveled at how hot he “used to be.” Plato didn’t try Zumba and Body Jam and Cardio Kickboxing and Barre Method and Dailey Method and Cardiobarre, or give up beer for months before his wedding. Dante never sorrowed over the absence of his thigh gap, or purchased Groupons for laser hair removal and teeth whitening. To conflate human beauty with rape is to make the same error as conflating rape with sex; rape is about power and ownership and rage. But all of these things are knotted together in a way that makes it difficult to disentangle the skeins. The artist Eric Gill wrote that “the beautiful thing is that which, being seen, pleases, and it is man that is pleased.” You know what else Eric Gill did? Molested two of his daughters. You know who else “shivered and shook” from the effects of his gazing? Humbert fucking Humbert. But back to my baby. It’s currently my job, along with her father, to mediate the world for her until she’s old enough to do it herself. So I’m, obviously, her gravest liability, the one most likely to do damage by loading her up with a bunch of my own baggage. And she is a lovely little baby, with big blue eyes, eyes with no bearing on her father’s brown or my own brindled orbs. I exhort her father not to call her pretty, but I look at her and find myself knocking wood, saying mashallah to ward off the evil eye in a way that is in itself a recognition of beauty. But I want her never to feel that she is with all of womanity on a ladder that equates beauty with worth. I want her never to join the oppressors by talking casually about her friends’ looks, or to instinctively perform a half-predatory, half-defensive assessment of every other woman within a 100-yard radius. And yet I want her to appreciate the many modes of human beauty -- not only the boobs and butts and legs of Garry Winogrand's deceptively titled Women are Beautiful, but the unexpected lines of an eyebrow or a hand. I want her to feel unencumbered by anyone's opinion of her beauty or lack thereof. And yet I also want her to feel beautiful, to wear whatever she wants, to luxuriate in a sense that her chosen mate finds her irresistible, to never fear a dressing room or bathing suit or florescent light. And I want somehow for all this to be accomplished without conferring those heavy, killing, Lily Bart obligations. So that morning at breakfast, I panicked and chastised my husband for an innocent remark, one that people will make again and again about my baby, as they will do about any woman's baby. And then I fumbled around in my psyche and pulled out something worn and démodé -- highly problematic, in its way, but functional and attractive, like an ivory crochet hook or a whalebone stay. I looked at my seven-month-old and spoke into her uncomprehending face that almost-true thing that people have only ever said to women: “Pretty is as pretty does.” Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ever since the advent of modern neuroscience, the language of the brain scientist has entered our common vocabulary. Words and phrases like "synapse," "chemical imbalance" and "hardwired" point to its relevance in contemporary culture. At Page-Turner, a look at how cognitive language and our notion of attention affects the way we think about fiction and music, with particular reference to On Beauty by Zadie Smith and Orfeo by Richard Powers.
"To start with, look at all the books." This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend's always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, "Fourteen books? Really?" Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me? So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I've been writing essays about them. Some of them I've published. My essay "The Art of the Epigraph," published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I'm turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books. I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I'm just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I've even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and "Opening Sentences" popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category. Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I'm not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence––after the book design, title, and epigraph––is among the reader's first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly. But how do they work? What's makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all? As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina; "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," from Austen's Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens's "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…" from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen's case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They're great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don't need to be cued into the game so directly. Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself," expressed a woman's small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with, "They're out there." J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel's famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose. It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel's aims, but this isn't––and shouldn't––always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which opens with, "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically," and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here––the first-person-plurals "our" and "we"––are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: "This was more or less Constance Chatterley's position." The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the "tragic age" remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will "England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking"? Jumping ahead a number of decades, let's examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: "The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen." Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay: "My idea," Chip said, "was to have this 'hump' that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it's a classic modernist strategy. There's a lot of rich suspense toward the end." Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the "rich suspense" of the rest? It's hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper's essay "Why Bother?" He writes: I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn't sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn't incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I'm doing is simply better than Crichton's. Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen's style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip's girlfriend (who couldn't make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening's value: "You see, though," he says, "the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form––gender, power, identity, authenticity––and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?" Though Chip's argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren't necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they're looking, as Franzen himself wrote, "for a way out of loneliness." I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can't begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it's the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: "Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closetlike room he rented on Stoliarny Place." From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary. A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn't believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The "exceptional heat wave" (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows––subtly, maybe inexpressibly––that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn't.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: "I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man." You do not get any grander than that. In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line's efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something "offputting" at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea. Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer's beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: "On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time." Simple, direct, yet enticing––suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they're fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur––a kind of historical importance––to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect––and the opening sentence reflects that. Eleanor Catton's whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale––no other word for it––with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here's how Catton answers those questions: "The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met." Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you've got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence: From the variety of their comportment and dress––frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill––they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway––deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain. Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip's screenplay, "prefigured" in that opening. Except here, Catton's work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you'd have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader. Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old. Both Wolitzer's and Catton's openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn't mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness. Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, "Call me Ishmael," from Melville's Moby Dick. Melville's line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it's not their real name, so "Ishmael" appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator's exiled status. Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville's line in Cat's Cradle: "Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John." Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we're given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that's the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is––you guessed it––swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut's Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales––religion and politics. Zadie Smith's allusive opening of On Beauty isn't nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut's (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: "One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father," and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster's Howards End, which goes: "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sisters." Smith's is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer "to whom," she writes, "all my fiction is indebted." But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster's titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith's novel may have borrowed Forster's title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrow her title from Elaine Scarry's essay "On Beauty and Being Just.") Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I've seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka's famous, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect," from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka's famous sentence with wit and originally. His story "Samsa in Love" from The New Yorker takes this approach: "He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa." Now that's interesting. In Kafka's time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We're used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character. But, you know, that's Murakami. Most writers aren't as imaginative. And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth's Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: "Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over." This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath's mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are "maddeningly improbable." Roth really does his reader a favor––if you're not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn't the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there. Toni Morrison's Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: "They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time." The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the "white girl" is; she joins the list of millions––billions, even––of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: "Don't be afraid." Song of Solomon: "The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o'clock." And, of course, Beloved: "124 was spiteful." Morrison's prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition––to, in part, "work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary"––has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches. I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I'm a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You've earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out. Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit's incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: "Those who saw him hushed." The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening––hell, about great literature in general: it's amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness. Image via Thunderchild7/Flickr
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s a writer’s rite of passage and also her curse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez admitted to copping from Kafka when he began writing short stories. Zadie Smith borrowed the structure of On Beauty from Forster's Howard’s End. Most writers try on the voices of writers they admire, at least until they carve out their own. William Faulkner famously said that a novelist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.” While it seems that Faulkner was speaking of a writer’s resources, this also applies to the work on the page -- stealing material from other sources, be it books, writers, lives. This year, as I embarked on a novel, I became a kind of kleptomaniac, with all of the ghosts and voices and ideas from the books I’d just read haunting my attempts to put words on the page. Adoring a book meant that some aspect of it either influenced or turned up in my own writing, often catabolized and not in flattering ways. And I learned that while I’m good at stealing, I’m not very good at covering my tracks. That being said, what follows is a list of the books that occupied my mental space this year, a list that I borrowed from mindfully or unconsciously, and a few that I’d still like to steal from (but will try to withhold from), a list beginning with books by two Brazilian female authors who were also friends, Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst. Both Lispector’s Passion According to G.H. and Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D are intense, sprawling fictions whose action, paradoxically, is extremely limited. In Lispector’s book, G.H. crosses the room to kill a cockroach and in Hilst’s, a dead husband sits atop the stairs while speaking with his wife, hidden below. This physical stillness opens an intimacy and interiority that lets them transcend time, and leads to an interrogation of the nature of the big questions, identity, existence, language, death, and life. I reread and recommend Kelly Link's collection Magic For Beginners, and I specifically adore one story, “The Faery Handbag.” It’s an incredible mash-up of fairytale and conventional story of love and loss, with a speculative element and other disparate items jammed in, too, including and most importantly, a grandmother’s lost handbag that literally contains a village. Herta Müller’s The Passport sits on this list for its haunting imagery and simple beauty that builds an ominous village landscape, with flies buzzing and a tree that eats its own apples. Even cutting a melon is a menacing act. Dodie Bellamy's Cunt-Ups is all sex and sharp edges. She borrowed from William Burroughs’s cut-up method, taking scissors to her erotic poetry and laying them out in lusty and violent (re)configurations Joanna Ruocco’s stories in Man’s Companions are concise gems, playful and linguistically surprising, evoking a synesthesia of ideas. Veronica Gonzalez Peña's The Sad Passions is told in six distinct voices that reveal facets of a shared family history -- a mother’s mental illness, a sister sent away, and another born very late. Blood connects the characters but the cities they inhabit are also organisms, spaces where each person becomes "a cell within its system.” Heidi Julavits's The Vanishers won me over with its intricate plotting, exquisite language, and fantastical premise (its protagonist Julia Severn is enrolled at an institute for parapsychology). I would likely be smitten with any book that connects elements of parapsychology, experimental French film, performance art, and characters who wear the guise of another. The stories in Amina Cain’s Creatures are intricate structures, with sentences like lattice work that create open spaces that breathe and become like living organisms themselves. Beatriz Preciado's Testo Junkie is a mélange of manifesto, memoir, novel, and social critique -- a book that actively attacks divisions of genre and gender as the genderhacking author documents her experiments with testosterone gel. Matias Viegener reappropriates the status update in his 2500 Random Things About Me Too. Originally published piecemeal on Facebook, the collected lists tuck online voyeurism into a book that's just as addictive and binge-worthy and beautiful. It’s also charming, gossipy, thoughtful, and intelligent -- a memoir distilled to its essence. Agnes Denes's Book of Dust is another book of lists that ends this list. Denes is a land artist with a poetic sensibility. In Book of Dust she uses dust as a metaphor for human life in order to explore the scope of the universe, including the powders that give life and the ones that kill (meteoric, radioactive, and happy dusts included); it begins with the birth of the universe and stretches to speculate on potential catastrophic futures that seem relevant today, despite having been written over 40 years ago. Denes said of an earlier artwork, a time capsule that she made and buried, “It was about communication with the earth and communicating with the future.” The same intent and preoccupation applies here. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
My high school’s theater department put on two Shakespeare plays a year, and when I was old enough to audition, I ran to the front of the line – not to read for the part of Juliet in that year’s headlining Romeo and Juliet, but rather for her lesser known, and much more intoxicating complement, the lady Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Miraculously, I got the part. At the time, I was young and knew little of the play save the recent Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson adaptation, but quickly found myself madly in love with this character: a strong-willed, funny, independent wordsmith. For years, I envisaged Beatrice and her ilk as the exemplar of female empowerment in literature and theater, and yet while I’ve personally fixated on the Beatrices that have populated the centuries, I’ve done so because it is clear they were the exceptions to the rule. The rule, in fact, was Juliet. It was Beatrice’s younger cousin, Hero. It was Bianca and Disney princesses and anything that presented an ingénue as a leading lady. Sadly, for every Scarlet O’Hara, there is a Melanie Hamilton offsetting an absurdly independent protagonist. Clearly this paradigm is what has propelled literature forward, but lately, as I’ve explored my bookshelves, it seems as though this requisite stock character, as antiquated as its stock cousins, is finding its way off the pages of great novels, leading me to believe that she has been graciously euthanized by literary fiction. And thankfully so. The ingénue in contemporary fiction is a powerful mirror against which society is reflected, and its notable absence is indicative of ambitious thirst for change. That there has been a gradual evolution on the page that is sadly not reflected even off the page for female writers, female politicians, and female business leaders is significant in this long-awaited evolution. Pinning down the issue to the paltry representation of women writers in reviews and literary journals as explored through the latest VIDA counts extrapolates the problems women writers face in representation, coverage, and reviews, and there is much work to be done to establish equality. Yet this lack of real estate does not mean that there is a deficit of powerful female characters written today. When looking directly at the content of contemporary fiction, however, I am as excited as I was when I got the part of Beatrice back in the mid-1990s. Writers, both male and female, are creating strong, authentic characters who can stand on their own. There may be criticism on the outside, but directly on the page, this glorious affirmation of strong-willed women drives me as a writer, as a lawyer, and as a woman, to know that we are represented on the page, whether instantly likable or not. As an aside, perhaps the hotly contested debate currently surrounding this question in fact hinges on the lack of ingénues populating today’s great novels. A simple glance at titles reflects this: The Woman Upstairs, Look At Me, Gone Girl, State of Wonder, On Beauty, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Hours, and even in non-fiction with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. None of these books apologizes for anger, frustration, strength, manipulation, power, emotion, sensuality. And mostly, none of these books requires a supporting ingénue waiting in the corner, ready to cry foil to a Lizzy Bennett or Jane Eyre or even Catherine Earnshaw. In contemporary society and fiction, women run companies, perform surgeries, and question their desire to even have children. Dr. Marina Singh and Dr. Anneck Swenson battle wits in the South American jungles of State of Wonder, almost inverting the stereotype by making an ingénue out of the missing male doctor, Anders; Eva Khatchadourian begs people to question her “traditional female values” by often wishing she never had a child in We Need to Talk About Kevin; and women of three generations dominate The Hours, portraying this very evolution of the literary female character in a single brilliant narrative. I could continue to list the novels, but it would probably exceed my word count, so instead, it’s probably better to review how we got to this point. It’s not that strong women were absent from literature in the past, but rather that they were welcomed with antithetical reception: if not written amongst a flock of female stereotypes (read, “the villain,” the “mother,” the “nurse”), they may have needed the ingénue as a foil to the less commonly recognized strong women of the time. In contemporary culture, however, no one denies the presence of strong, successful, complex women in every facet of society, and likewise, readers are not shocked when they turn up in great literature. It is simply that contemporary literary fiction portrays a realistic society so that ingénues are no longer needed within the texts — as foils or otherwise. When looking back at some of our most beloved “strong women in literature” from Shakespeare to Victorian England to the early 20th century, almost none of these women is allowed to exist on her own, almost as if the supporting ingénue (or another stock female character) must balance the strong woman so that society may rest. This seesaw of female identity so portrayed in literature of the past seemed necessary in order to propel forward movement. By having the rare and special woman on one end and the stock female (usually the ingénue) on the other, their interaction pushed the story forward, enabled the game of wits to persist, and flexed the narrative into motion. Beatrice, the gloriously witty self-effacing, proud bachelorette of Much Ado About Nothing, vows never to marry and is teased, mocked, and pitied as a result, countered by the requisite companion ingénue in the banal Hero. Kate of The Taming of the Shrew, who we all know and love as the girl who just didn’t want to fit in, is deemed eponymously shrewish by her unabashed expression, and of course, is, of course, neutralized by her ingénue of a sister, Bianca. Portia, the brilliant heiress of The Merchant of Venice, stands initially as a stellar example of intelligence, power, and leadership, but in order to fulfill her needs as an ingénue, she must impersonate a man. Although pillars of force, these women cannot be fully portrayed without a veil of disbelief, either by unrivaled presentation beside a flattering ingénue or the forced portrayal of a man, so that societal equilibrium of the time is restored. Fast-forward to early 19th century England, not far from the domination of yet another female monarch, and strong women in literature are still not singularly permissible. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, the presumed model of the era, is a wonderfully suspicious, intelligent representation of female strength, yet still must be presented beside her exhaustively ingénuesque sisters, so that we all know how rare and special a creature she is. Lizzy Bennett is sublime, and I share a name and nickname with her, so I can’t help but beam with pride whenever she is listed amongst the feminist wonders of the literary world; but the sad truth is that she is so well cited because she is the outlier. Society does not yield a sea of stereotypes in order to hone in on a strong woman, and nor should literature require this pool of ingénues, out of which we may select and conclude that, indeed, Ms. Bennett is different. Even in late 19th/early 20th century literature, women who battled this stereotype were plagued with depression and expropriated labels. In England, Virginia Woolf wrote of depression and isolation, while in America, Charlotte Perkins Gilman openly divorced her husband, but not before writing about post-partum depression in an incisive story that had never been seen before on the page. Sadly, these women committed suicide, and their autobiographical roles were neither accepted nor credible by the male literary establishment, reflecting yet another mirror of their times. Their characters, however, have lived on, refusing to succumb to literary archetypes. Had they been written as ingénues, they would have evolved into that other stock character of “the madwoman in the attic.” Unfortunately, by removing the label of ingénue and refusing to share the scenes with a classic ingénue, these characters and their architects met a tragic end. Now, however, strong female characters reign aplenty in literature without their necessary ingénue escorts, slowly eroding the role of that stock accompanying character. It’s not that these strong female characters newly exist, or that they suddenly gained mass appeal, but rather that they are surviving on their own. They are flawed, beautiful representations of women that provide depth, understanding, and sympathy, regardless of their periodic unlikeable actions. They bear their identities proudly, and never require an accompanying convention to confirm their individuality, so that the role of the primary and supportive ingénue is no longer required. I recently went to hear Isabel Allende speak about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook. At the Q&A, a young aspiring female writer rose to ask a question that surprised a majority of the audience. “You write a lot of strong women in your books,” she said, before asking, “Has there been anyone who has influenced you?” Allende either didn’t understand the question or wanted to emphasize the lunacy of it, and after three attempts replied: “Do you know any weak women?” Needless to say, a resounding uproar of applause emerged from the previously unobtrusive audience. This is not a topic that is far from the consciousness of the literary establishment, nor is it one that should be. It is so prevalent on people minds and hearts precisely because of its relevance. Readers don’t want to see any more ingénues or stock characters. They want to see the people that they know, the strong women who populate their lives, because, as Isabel Allende so bluntly and perfectly stated, there really aren’t weak women. I’m not naively suggesting that contemporary fiction has conclusively banished the ingénue from its pages; nor am I claiming that the character is close to her coffin in certain genres, but I am suggesting that that she should be. Fiction, as any vital art form, serves a purpose to reflect society in its emotional, environmental, and political nuances. It informs us, teaches us, reflects humanity in its reverie. If the ingénue, which may be dying in literary fiction, begins to fade in all genres of contemporary literature, if we accept the evolution of the young female protagonist in literature, we may stop expecting women off the page to play that stock role, as well. By exiling the word to the trash bin or perhaps feeling a little bit guilty whenever used, we might continue to represent women as they are – likeable or not. Powerful characters who sometimes want love, sometimes want power, ache with ambition and passion, refuse to be called ingénues, or any other pile of stock stereotypes. They are merely women who need no other label. Image via Wikimedia Commons
It's a big season for Zadie Smith. While most of us eagerly await the publication of her latest book, NW, the author's earlier work, On Beauty, is set to become a feature film. Smith's first book to be dramatized on film was White Teeth, a UK mini-series from 2002 based on her book of the same name. (And available online if you have Hulu Plus.)
The ultimate in writing spaces seems to be the writing shed, a spare, distraction-free room set in some verdant landscape, where, in fertile solitude, the writer may create worlds out of nothing. Roald Dahl had one, so did Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps one day, we'll each be writing in our own. Until then, as our Millions staffers share in their illustrated entries below, we're making do (often happily!) with offices, studio apartments, coffee shops, and guest bedrooms. Share a photo of your own writing space using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter and we'll repost some favorites on our Tumblr. Michael Bourne: That’s right, I write in bed. I used to have a desk, one of those hideous pasteboard rolling-keyboard-drawer deals, but this being Brooklyn, when we adopted our son five years ago, my “home office” became his bedroom and I was relegated to the guest bed. But now I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The big stack of paper in the foreground is my recently finished novel, which I’m now reading one last time before sending out. The yellow legal pads are where I take notes for my reported pieces (yup, I do most of my phone interviews in bed, too). There’s also some old New Yorkers and a Toy Story comic book that I read to Luke before he goes to bed. (Also, I now see peeking out from the Thomas the Tank Engine blanket, a big black motorized toy car, whose provenance I cannot fully account for.) What the photo doesn’t show is the built-in bookshelves that cover the far wall and the prints of Impressionist paintings on the other walls. It also doesn’t show the cats – one ginger tom and a silver-and-black girl cat – who snuggle around me as I write. I thought about cleaning it up, but that would not only present me as a neat freak, which I am not, but more importantly it would convey the wrong impression. This isn’t a work space so much as a work nest. Like a lot of writers, I write a ton of bad stuff. Really bad stuff. Embarrassing bad. But here, behind closed doors, in my messy bed in my son’s bedroom, with the big wall of my favorite books smiling down at me and the cats curled up in purring puddles at my side, I can be my fraudulent self and no one will ever have to know. Sonya Chung: I live in a studio apartment with one other human and two dogs. It's pretty crowded. I work at a long table that is divided from the sleeping/TV area by bookshelves. I straightened up a little for this photo, but generally, I work, and think, in piles. Writing pile; teaching pile; life administration pile. On the far right end of the table is the miscellaneous crap/mail pile (and, of course, dog biscuits). I included my knitting-in-progress in the photo (a scarf) because it's a strategy I'm trying out, i.e. I'm teaching myself to knit and hoping (as many people have told me) that it helps to de-stress and focus scattered thoughts. The kneeling chair recently replaced an exerball-as-deskchair (which gradually deflated) -- back pain, anyone? The lamp is a Kmart special that was originally all-white, but we spray painted the shade hot pink, couldn't tell ya why... Garth Hallberg: This probably isn't the messiest workspace you'll see, though the handprints I've left in the laptop grime are pretty gross. Still, when I behold The Desk objectively like this, any pleasure I might take in the externalization of my own mind loses out to my chagrin at all the work remaining to be done. Atop the compact O.E.D. are six books I'm currently supposed to be writing about - one of them a three-novel omnibus, another a year past deadline. To the left of that, bits of my wife's dissertation have drifted down on top of the desk references (Shakespeare, Hobsbawm, Trucker's Atlas, Complete New Yorker). Multiple drafts from my own work in progress lie atop books unread (Juan Jose Saer) and un-reread (Joseph Mitchell), because there's no open space on the desktop. To the front right looms…well, the less said about that, the better. The picture of my son is for inspiration. The knife is to be used against hostile invaders. The envelope of inspirational quotations has yet to be unpacked, a year-plus after we moved. The coffee right now is what is keeping me going. If you look closely in the glass of Amos' Ab/Ex masterpiece, on the wall, you can see me shadowed against the awful pink bathroom tile, camera to eye, heavily caffeinated, but, for a moment at least, no longer quite so hard at work. Kevin Hartnett: Whenever I start focusing on the less desirable features of where I work I remind myself of this: It’s an upgrade. I started as a freelancer three years ago. At the time, my wife I were living in Philadelphia in a one-bedroom apartment. We got on all right in our small space. Then we had a kid. And another kid. By the end of our time in Philadelphia I had to move two piles diapers and a changing pad just to find a place to put my laptop down. Now we live in Ann Arbor. I work on the second floor of our house, at an antique secretary, in a room with sliding glass doors that lead out to a deck in our backyard. It’s not strictly speaking “my office,” but from 9am-2pm everyday, when my wife is at work and our kids are with their nanny, I have the space all to myself. My idée fixe of office spaces is a clapboard shed that overlooks Buzzard’s Bay on the front lawn of a friend’s house on Cape Cod. My present situation is a far cry from that. The sliding glass doors face west, which means I work in dimness. And the view out my window is just a boring suburbanish backyard. Occasionally a scrum of kids will burst into view, toting sleds or soccer balls. More often it’s just me and the squirrels who are so obviously fat and healthy it’s off-putting. But overall I try not to fetishize where I work. All I really need is quiet and enough light to see by. When I find myself longing for a New England sea breeze I try to remind myself of this: The most consequential feature of any potential office is that I’ll be the one sitting in it. Lydia Kiesling: Before a friend moved and bequeathed us the coffee table, the workspace was just the couch, where I sat with computer perched on lap and fretted about irradiating my womb and/or femurs. Now that we have the coffee table, my womb and femurs are presumably okay, but my back suffers. For now, this is where I do everything that I routinely do--homework, writing, cat-hugging, facebook-creeping, school reading (I prefer to read novels before bed, in bed). Most important: My betrothed, knowing this to be the lint-filled navel of my universe, pried the leftovers from my hands and proposed marriage in this very spot. Edan Lepucki: Last summer I wrote about my workspace for the deliciously voyeuristic Tumblr site, Write Place, Write Time. The photos show my desk at home, which is my preferred place to write. Since having a baby, though, my apartment and the desk within it are far less calm and tidy, and I've had to go elsewhere to work. Most days I write fiction at my neighbors' kitchen table while the baby plays and eats furniture next door. (Don't worry, someone is watching him.) Since it feels weird to post a photo of my neighbors' place, I present you instead with a picture of their dog, Saul. He is my muse. He understands only Spanish. His mohawk is growing out. Que lindo, no? I write most of my essays for The Millions at Paper or Plastik Cafe, the coffee shop down the block from me. The place boasts excellent coffee, friendly baristas, beautiful high ceilings, and internet access, which I need for all these damn links. Here is a shot of my most recent camp-out. Mine is the only Toshiba on the block, but it's proud not to be a fancy-pants Mac. Who cares if the bottom is duct-taped together? Emily St. John Mandel: I'll be the first to admit that my workspace is looking a little strange these days. It used to be much less eccentric, but then I decided that I wanted a standing desk, and, since all the standing desks I saw online were either hideously generic or too expensive, I made some improvisations involving a couple boxes, an unused Ikea shelf, and a two-volume dictionary. It isn't beautiful, but I like it, and I find that I much prefer to work standing up. Other details: that's Ralph in the desk chair, the papers taped to the wall are notes for current and future projects, and the window looks out on rooftops. Nick Moran: My desk is full of nomads, and much of its population changes regularly. To wit: the five different histories of Russia. Though I minored in the stuff as an undergraduate, and I've always been drawn to the place, those are only visiting until I finish something I'm writing. (I don't always use Red Star Over Russia as a mouse pad, either.) The rest: the asthma inhaler, the little wooden box from an Amman bazaar (labeled, adorably "Cofee"), and the Real Housewives-noise-canceling headphones are permanent residents. So, too, is the stack of aborted articles beneath the VQR. And the computer, of course. There's also a Qur’an left over from a recent trip I took to visit my mother in Jordan. An exercise in immersion, that was, and a longtime desk resident it’s become. Finally, there’s the art on the wall above, a relic from my AP art class in high school. My theme was "breakfast." That one you see is a diptych of a pig turning into a slice of bacon. Bill Morris: I like a short commute. So I made an office out of the second bedroom in my apartment on New York's Lower East Side. Normally the place is not such a pigsty – honest! – but at the moment I'm working on a long magazine article about the future of my hometown, Detroit, and my notes, tape transcripts and drafts have taken on a life of their own. In case you're curious, that Royal manual typewriter is not a prop. I still write on the gorgeous beast, then use the Mac for editing and sending my stuff. Looking at this picture reminds me of the beautiful simplicity of the writing life: all you need is a table, a chair, a writing tool, a stack of blank paper (optional), and an idea. How much less could anyone ask for? Mark O'Connell: My desk is normally a lot more cluttered than this, but I didn’t want to let the side down, so I did a little spring cleaning before taking the photo. I work in Trinity College Dublin, where I’m doing a postdoctoral research fellowship; I’m in an open plan office in a snazzy new building dedicated to interdisciplinary research in the humanities. On the right, my desk overlooks an atrium where book launches and wine receptions for academic conferences are often held. As a result, I’ve become a connoisseur of awkward standing. I also get to see a lot of surreptitious lunging (for plates of sandwiches) and timid but determined sidling (toward established clusters of interlocutors). That can be fun to watch, and is often a reason in itself to work late. On to the desk proper: the obvious centerpiece here is the nifty set-up with the elevated laptop, wireless keyboard and trackpad: this discourages slouching and does wonders for the lower lumbar region. Those books lined up at the back are mostly by or about Walter Benjamin, who might have something to do with something I might end up writing (that’s about an average number of mights for me). A lot of them I haven’t so much as opened, but I feel significantly smarter just having them there in front of me. In that sense they’re like a sort of bibliographic mascot or talisman. On the right of the laptop is a hybrid pencil sharpener/rubber I picked up earlier in the week. I probably paid more for it than I should have (€3), but you’ve got to spend money to make money in this business. I don’t mean for this to turn into a bragging session, but I do also own an electric pencil sharpener. It’s a very high-end machine. I keep it at home, though, because in an academic work environment, a thing like that can be viewed as a vulgar display of status. Janet Potter: Four minutes after this photo was taken, I started packing everything pictured into boxes. I'm moving this month, so my work area will soon be reconstructed in another Chicago apartment with a bigger kitchen and walk-in closets. I can say with some confidence, however, that it will look a great deal like this, because the iterations of my work area in each of my post-college apartments have been built around the following, horcrux-esque elements: #1 - The Big Blue Desk. How great is that desk? It's royal blue! It's a solid wood secretary desk (with the flip-up thing for a typewriter) that I bought on craigslist for $30 in 2005. #2 - The Posters. The signed cover prints of On Beauty and Ghostwritten were going away presents when I left my old job at Brookline Booksmith, and the signed print of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a gift from a friend at Random House. #3 - The Chair. That stool with the ugly green cushion was the bench to my grandmother's vanity. #4 - The Formative Books. The bookshelf that sits to my back holds only the best of my childhood, teenage, and college reading. The Hedgehog and the Fox, Cloud Atlas, The Harry Potter series, Proust, Natasha's Dance, Banvard's Folly. Only the best. #5 - The Presidential Biographies. Each time I finish another biography in my project, I add it to the ranks lined up on top of the bookcase, supported by Abraham Lincoln bookends that used to be in Conan O'Brien's New York office (long story). 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At a reading in Cambridge this past fall, Ann Patchett said in passing that she doesn’t believe in acknowledgements. During the question and answer period, I asked her why. She explained that she feels it’s better to thank the important people in your life by giving them a copy of your novel in which you’ve written a personalized inscription. If nothing else, she added, a private inscription saves the author from the possible future embarrassment of having her book forever tagged with the reminder of a friendship that has faded away. But Patchett’s deeper concern seemed to be that the handwritten acknowledgement was more sincere, free of the performative element of a thank you that will be publicly reproduced every time the book is printed. Inscribing my own copy of Run that evening, Patchett wished me luck in deciding what to do with “this acknowledgement thing” when it comes time for my own novel’s back page in a little over a year. Indeed, what might have once seemed to me like a purely joyous opportunity now seems like a potential minefield, a hazard of etiquette and emotions. It’s so easy to put a foot wrong. What if you omit a key player in a workshop? What if you go on too long and risk looking like someone who couldn’t have managed without an enormous entourage? What if you feature someone prominently in your list and later have a falling out? Perhaps that last one is among the worst, beaten only by the dedication to an eventual ex-spouse. There was a time when acknowledgements were brief and rare. There was even a time when dedications sufficed. Charlotte Brontë signed Jane Eyre off to Thackeray, plain and simple, while Anne was even sparer, offering no dedication at all to Agnes Gray. One could argue that the sisters’ need to conceal their identity led them to be circumspect in their gratitude. Maybe that’s why someone as confident in his place among men of letters as Wilkie Collins could dedicate The Woman in White to “Bryan Walter Procter from one of his younger brethren in literature who sincerely values his friendship and who gratefully remembers many happy hours spent in his house.” Or why Collins’ friend Dickens could say that Bleak House is “Dedicated, as a remembrance of our friendly union, to my companions in the guild of literature and art.” Of course, there’s nothing plain and simple about even the most seemingly simple dedication. Collins’ to Procter can be seen as a strategic move to ally himself with someone whose name hardly made it to posterity but who, at the time, held some reputation in Collins’ world. And Brontë’s nod to Thackeray may have been purely reverential but looked to contemporary readers like proof of a romantic connection. Then there’s George Eliot’s lack of any dedication to Middlemarch. Looking at that unaccompanied title page now, it’s tempting to see her direct stride into the novel as a move of extreme confidence in the masterpiece that follows. Though novels went along for more than a century without them, acknowledgements have now become an expected part of a novel’s presentation -- along with the reader’s guide and the about the author page. Which is why I was astonished to turn to the end of Rosamund Lupton’s Sister this summer and find this: “I’m not sure if anyone reads the acknowledgements, but I hope so because without the following people, this novel would never have been written or published.” She’s a first-time author, but still: doesn’t she know? Everyone reads the acknowledgements. In fact, for many of us, the first thing we do when we pull a book off the store shelf is to flip to the back. The writers among us might be searching for the agent or the editor we can query, or we might be seeking our own name in the list. But we certainly read the acknowledgements for the drama and the human story revealed therein. Some acknowledgements are works of art, expressing with finesse and sincerity the gratitude for a supportive surrogate family, a patient and understanding spouse and kids, a best friend who saw the writer through difficulties hinted at sufficiently so that we can glimpse a bit of the author’s life. At their best, acknowledgements can be finely-wrought short stories with the author as protagonist. At least one acknowledgements has made me cry. What makes Robin Black’s acknowledgements for If I Loved You I Would Tell You This so moving is the simple fact that she hasn’t let up on the rigor of her prose in writing them. The language is just as careful and precise here as it is in the collection. Black’s thanks run to three full pages and have the narrative arc of a story -- fitting for the story collection they conclude. She begins typically enough, thanking her agent, her editor, and her publishers, moving on to the various institutions that supported her, and then to individual readers, friends, and colleagues. Finally, she gets serious, taking in turn her mother, her children, and her husband. Some might say this is a bit over the top, but when you reach this point, you realize that the pleasant bath of thanks you’ve been lolling in contains quite serious emotions. It’s almost like eavesdropping, reading these last paragraphs, and I won’t quote them here out of a sense that to do so would be somehow nosy -- despite the fact that every single copy of this strong-selling book ends with these words. When Ann Patchett speaks about acknowledgements, it’s clear that she’s not opposed to expressing gratitude, but is instead against its public expression. If the gratitude is sincere, convey it directly to the person who deserves it; why does the rest of the world need to know? I can see her point. There is nothing so transparent as the message that hitches the writer’s wagon to a more illustrious star. But I hope this doesn’t mean that writers who choose to express their thanks in public, as I am likely to do, are inherently insincere. Because I imagine that by the time I’m in a position to write up my thanks, I will feel a strong need to shout them from the rooftops. Every book comes with a second narrative, that of its creation. I keep going to those framing pages to see what that other story is. Sometimes, the discovery is unsettling, as with this eerie dedication to Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs: “To Jon Cook, who saw them too.” And sometimes the discovery is sweet. In the step from White Teeth to On Beauty, Zadie Smith reveals a lovely transition in her own life. In 2000, for White Teeth, Smith says she is “also indebted to the bright ideas and sharp eyes of the following people” and includes “Nicholas Laird, fellow idiot savant” among them. By 2005, she dedicates On Beauty to “my dear Laird.” There are no acknowledgements. Image credit: Editor B/Flickr
As is frequently the case, having met and yakked with young novelist and NYU writing mentor Darin Strauss back in 2002, on the occasion of the publication of his second novel The Real McCoy, he and I kept in touch and resumed our conversation for his 2010 memoir Half a Life. Though, for a number of reasons, Strauss' tome is not my kind of story — the memoir recounts a profound event in his life when, as a teenager, he runs into and kills a bicyclist — as Strauss is a bright, thoughtful, and engaging conversationalist, I was pleased to talk with him again. In the course of the chat that follows, we talk about this event that has been central in his life, its aftermath, why he wrote the book, readers' responses, his own post-publication conclusions, and a wide swath of topics, literary and non-literary. Robert Birnbaum: If I didn’t know you as a writer of three well-regarded novels, why would I want to read this book, a memoir? Darin Strauss: Well, I think this book [Half a Life] has had more commercial appeal than my novels. I am not a fan of memoirs in general. I am a novelist and I will remain a novelist but I think this story — I should say what it’s about. I was in a car accident in high school — I was driving in the far left lane. A young girl on a bicycle on the shoulder swerved across two lanes of traffic into my car and she died. RB: Does the sentence “I killed her” apply to this? DS: Well, yeah. That was the thing I couldn’t say for a long time. The first sentence of the book is, ”Half of my life ago I killed a girl.” Which is something it took me 20 years to be able to say. I think she was at fault but I was driving a car and hit her and she died — it's linguistic cowardice to avoid that sentence. RB: Saying you killed her doesn’t assess responsibility. Blame is a separate issue. DS: Yes, I think I blamed myself in the past more than I do now. But to answer the first question, the reason I wrote the book is because of the response I got. I did something on This American Life about the accident. Which was the first time that I had done anything publicly about it. The first time I told anyone besides the people close to me was on National Public Radio. I thought I would just do a radio thing about it, but I got hundreds of emails asking me for the text saying they thought it would help them or someone they knew who was going through some sort of grief. And so I thought I should maybe do it as a book — I was always as a kid going through this wishing there was something I could read that would help me. There isn’t anything specifically for people who are survivors of these accidents. Which police call dart-out accidents. And there are 2,000 of those a year and people who are in these dart-outs, or no fault deaths as the insurance companies call them — people who are not at fault are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress. And so, there was no book for me and so I thought I will write a book for the 18-year-old me who didn’t have the book. And the response has been amazing. Overwhelming. I got emails from people who were coming back from Iraq suffering PTS, or someone whose brother committed suicide. There’s something beneficial in reading a story about someone who is going through grief if the story is told honestly. RB: What is the benefit? DS: There are things that I hadn’t seen written about that I wanted to write about. The performative nature of grief — how people don’t feel sad 100% of the time but have to pretend that they do because society expects you to act a certain way. How also we have inappropriate thoughts at these moments, inappropriate actions. I hadn’t seen that written about or examined enough so I wanted to look at that. It's funny, my editor said I should cut something out of the book that was about that. The girl cut in front of my car. I hit her. She died. But as she is lying there in the street some pretty 18-year-old girls came over to me and asked me if I was okay. I can only explain it by saying I was in shock, but these girls were cute and I started flirting with them. As the bicyclist is dying in the street waiting for the ambulance. That’s something I was always embarrassed about but felt I should write about because it was one of those inappropriate moments that I think reveals something about the way we were designed not to deal with grief. But the book’s editor wanted to cut that out because it made me look too unsympathetic. RB: Isn’t that the point? DS: If the book is only about me trying to look sympathetic then there is no reason to write the book. I didn’t want to write an advertisement or a piece of propaganda for me. I wanted to write about the young me as I would write about a character in a novel. And look at all that person's flaws and hold them up to the light. Because I think that’s what we get out of good fiction, too. Good fiction teaches you how to live. What I turn to good fiction for is not the plot really — that’s what hooks you into the story. But it’s the observation of how people go through the world. And you learn by seeing people be imperfect and so that’s what I wanted to do. Hopefully — I didn’t set out to write a self-help book but if — RB: Those tend not to hit their target. Are there stories that shouldn’t be told? Or needn’t be? Years ago Stephen Dixon wrote a book called Interstate, in which two infants are shot and killed in a drive-by and the father who is driving the car descends into a pit of despair. My son had just been born and I just couldn’t read past the first chapter. DS: I remember the book — it’s the first chapter played out again and again, with different ways the father would handle it. Yeah I think there are some stories that are — but even that handled really well could be great. RB: Even handling it well — DS: I know what you are saying. That’s why memoirs for the most part turn me off. When memoir opens itself up to criticism it’s because it's prurient or self-aggrandizing or salacious in some way. So this was an attempt not to — I wanted to make it an anti-memoir. I was going to do the book with Penguin but I ended up doing the book with McSweeney’s — RB: Why? DS: I said, I don’t want to write a memoir, I just want to write about this accident and what I learned from it. And I want to do that because people responded really well to the This American Life thing. I wanted to examine it a little more deeply than I did on the radio. (I am actually embarrassed now — having written the book I think the early piece was kind of glib.) But I am not sure how long it’s going to be — it might just be 50 pages. It’s just going to be about the accident. My editor said, that’s great but it has to be 200 pages. We are happy to print it — we need for it to be a viable paperback. It’s got to be 200 pages. I said, what if the story is only 50 pages? He said, well you can pad it. I said, forget it, but then Dave Eggers contacted me or maybe it was Eli [Horowitz] — and McSweeney’s said they would publish it at 50 pages. I said, that’s great, and it ended up being 200 pages. It’s longer than I thought it would be but it's still a short book. RB: Why are there no chapter headings or numbers or titles? DS: I wanted it to have a disjointed feeling in the manner that you feel when you go through something like this that life comes at you in a disjointed way. RB: Can you start anywhere in the book and move backward or forward? DS: I don’t think so — I hope that there is an arc to it. The challenge was to — every book is a magic trick. Every realistic novel pretends to be realist but is actually a complete fabrication. The trick is to make it seem like it's not. [In] this book [it] was more difficult to do that because I wanted to remain truthful and to be respectful of the girl in the incident, but also I was very aware that I wanted it to be a good reading experience — not just to be a therapy exercise for myself. So I thought, I have to make an arc and a dramatic structure and all that but I wanted it to be less visible. And wanted it to be somewhat disjointed especially in the beginning because that’s the way we experience these things. So hopefully it was mirroring that. RB: How firm is that border between fiction and non-fiction? DS: Ah, I’m not a non-fiction writer for the most part, so my wife who is a journalist would laugh and say, “Are you sure you are not making things up? Are you being truthful?” So that was the real challenge — to remain absolutely faithful to the facts. I didn’t want to make anything up. RB: Two of your novels were based on historical figures or characters — DS: Chang and Eng, my first book, which was about two famous conjoined twins, I took a lot of liberties. RB: I noticed you refrained from using “Siamese twins.” [laughs] DS: Yeah, because I was corrected a lot. People from Thailand are sensitive about that. I sold the book to Thailand — it's not very often there’s an American book about Thailand. They were going to make a big deal of it and fly me out for a Thai book festival, and then they translated it [laughs] and I kept hearing from the translators that they were having a lot of problems: ”You’re making stuff up here. This is not what happened in Thailand back then.” And so I never got the invite. I took a lot of liberties with old Siam, too. I wrote that book when I was 26 and broke and couldn’t afford to fly there. So I bought a Let’s Go Thailand and used that as my research and invented stuff. Which is okay. A novelist doesn’t have to tell the truth. The beginning of Kafka’s Amerika is the Statue of Liberty holding up a big sword. There is a debate of whether he was trying to make a point or he didn’t know. RB: Alan Furst, who rigorously researches his novels, says he doesn’t take any liberties because as he says, “a lot of blood was shed” in these stories. And beyond that readers still have unwarranted expectations — DS: I think we talked about this four years ago [more like nine years]. There is a quote from [E.L.] Doctorow where he said, “that historical novelists should do the least amount of research they could get away with.” The key part of the sentence is what you can get away with. You don’t want to make ridiculous mistakes. You don’t want to embarrass yourself or take the reader out of the situation. But you can take liberties because it says “novel” on the book. RB: More and more it says, “Such and Such, a novel.” And less and less do people pay attention. DS: It’s true. Although writers go into a publisher and say “novel,” and the publisher kind of slides out into another room. I have a number of students trying to sell novels and they have been told to say it’s a memoir, it's easier to sell memoirs. But Doctorow once told me that he received a letter from someone saying, “In Arizona there aren’t X kind of cactuses which you had in your book.” He said, “There are in my Arizona, madam.” Which is a dashing way of saying he screwed up but he didn’t care. RB: Tom Franklin [for Hell at the Breech] pointed out that readers would heckle him about armadillos and the shape of a cigarette tin. DS: Yeah, yeah. Bellow said he was tired of being crucified on the cross of American Realism. Hopefully a novel gets to deeper truths than the shape of a Lucky Strike container. But you do want to be truthful enough — if it’s not plausible the reader will lose confidence and then the book is lost. I was just talking to someone about Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, where she apparently makes tons of mistakes about Boston geography, saying something like Harvard was in Porter Square and things like that. Which took Boston readers out of the book. I didn’t notice it because I am not from Boston. So I thought it was a great book. RB: Who am I to say something is irresolvable. But I was reading an essay by Curtis White [The Middle Mind] and he refers to William Shawn as the publisher of the New Yorker. I didn’t think it made the rest of his remarks without value, but I wondered about what editors or fact checkers were doing. DS: I know there are fewer and fewer fact checkers. My wife works at Newsweek and they hire younger and younger people and they have fewer and fewer people to catch mistakes at these magazines. There has been a loosening of standards across the board but that’s a different conversation. RB: There is always Edward Jones — he spent 12 years writing The Known World, intending to research from a long list he had, and he never used that list. And he most definitely made stuff up. But I dare you to identify it. DS: Exactly. RB: [chuckles] Though a history professor from Texas was upset that in my various online citations of my chat with Jones I had no problem with his approach. DS: I don’t know why people come to fiction with that expectation — that it’s going to be the same as a biography or something. And have the same standards of factualness when it’s a fairy tale — what Nabokov called his books. Peter Carey told me when he writes about his hometown he purposely puts in mistakes just to piss people off. That’s kind of funny. RB: The other side of the coin is that you can get a certain kind of pleasure out of a book that is about a place with which you are familiar. I loved [the late lamented] Eugene Izzi, a Chicago crime story writer, or I suppose people in Boston like Robert Parker and they expect everything to be as they know it. DS: A lot of Jon Lethem’s popularity came from taking Brooklyn as his literary subject before anyone else had, and people turned to Motherless Brooklyn — I’m from Brooklyn now so it feels his territory because he wrote about it. So there is a pleasure for natives in reading about their home turf. RB: So we have variable valences of why we derive pleasure from reading — some are higher than others but when we talk about this stuff we are supposed to say smart things — DS: Yeah hopefully we turn to books for the writing or the moral truths or whatever you get out of it but there is something nice about saying, “Oh I know that street.” RB: I find I have learned more history from Gore Vidal, Edward Jones, Alan Furst, John le Carré, John Lawton, and Philip Kerr than as an undergraduate history student. DS: I was talking to a writer friend David Lipsky. He wrote a book called Absolutely American about West Point and the book about David Foster Wallace where he traveled with him [Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] — kind of a new way of doing biography. It got good reviews, but I am not sure reviewers understood how revolutionary it could be. Even when people say the novel is in trouble and there aren’t as many readers, which people have been saying as long as there has been a novel around, I am sure more people read about the French-Russian war than read War and Peace, but nobody goes back to read the newspapers. These made-up stories are the way future generations find out about these things. I am sure more people read Libra by Delillo about [Lee Harvey] Oswald than anything else. RB: Than the Warren Commission Report [laughs]. DS: Exactly. Or anything. If you think about it like that then we have a certain responsibility to be honest. RB: There is a mistake about the way history is taught — the emphasis is on minutiae and not narrative — not the juicy stories about human frailty and foibles. And what do you know after you know all the details? DS: Look at the political discourse. It seems like people know nothing. RB: I see signs calling for the impeachment of the president. And I am sure that the sign carriers know nothing about impeachment. The House decides there is to be a trial — DS: — based on crimes and misdemeanors. It’s not like saying we don’t like the guy. It’s like if the president is unpopular he should be impeached. The memories are so short — the Clinton impeachment was 10 years ago or so. He was impeached but not forced to leave office. I don’t what it is — there is something narcotized about this country. RB: I look at James Howard Kunstler’s website ClusterFuck Nation and he decries the public conversation, and he recently asked, “Where did all the sensible people go who used to stand up against the kind of radical silliness that is so prevalent now?” DS: It’s very strange. Where are the country club Republicans who were fiscally conservative but didn’t want to get rid of public education or meddle in social issues? Didn’t want to overthrow the government? RB: Sold out? Went to ride their horsies? They supported McCain. DS: The thing about McCain that was so weird — there’s a great McCain piece by David Foster Wallace — he was honorable enough to do the right thing — RB: — once in his life. DS: But in the worst circumstances. To have his fingers broken and to refuse medication — after all this torture to say, “I’m not the first in line so [other] people should go home before me." Which is the most noble thing I can imagine. And then to totally sell out, which makes me think if you can stand up to Viet Cong torture but not attack ads, it says something interesting about power. RB: And that we are more complicated. I think in some twisted way McCain feels entitled because of his war experience. He is convinced of his own nobility and that the rest of it is just politics. And in a way it is just politics. DS: It is just politics although he did bring Palin onto the national stage. And so if she is the next president we have him to thank. RB: My son brought home a chart from school in which he was asked to evaluate himself in ten categories and his teacher would also. The point of the exercise was whether the world was better off with you in it. His self-score was 96 and his teacher scored him 89. They were obviously close, but the class participation was scored a 5 by the teacher. I bring this up because how we see ourselves is a fluctuating thing. And I wonder about this when I try to assign a value to a book like yours. If I understand you correctly the people who benefit from this book are people who have had a similar experience. DS: Most people have had a similar experience — it doesn’t have to be as spectacular. Everyone carries something that they are guilty about. RB: You’re extending the franchise of this book. DS: I’m telling the response I have gotten. People that carry something they are guilty about around or feel a grief they don’t know how to express. It’s been more universal than I thought. Which has been nice. It’s strange for a fiction writer. If you write a novel and people email you it’s generally, I liked it or didn’t like it. Not, here’s my terrible story please tell me what you think. I was doing Philadelphia NPR, and they took callers and each call was sadder than the one before. One woman called in saying her son was killed in a car accident and she had never seen grief written about in that way and she thanked me. That was weird since I wasn’t sure that people who lost kids in car accidents were a demographic for the book. And then a guy called in whose daughter was killed in a car accident and his wife was made quadriplegic and he is taking care of his wife now and his daughter is gone. I didn’t know what to say and he asked me if he should reach out to the driver. I said, “I am only a story teller, I don’t know. If it would make you feel better I think you should.” It sounds like Dr. Phil but I didn’t know how to respond. RB: Well, you wrote the book – need you say anymore? Or what more is there to say? DS: I don’t think so but these kinds of books open you up to that. Right before I published I heard from A.M. Homes, who wrote a really good memoir, and she said, ”Be prepared. It's exhausting.” And Dave Eggers who edited the book with me — RB: He has his own story. DS: He said you have to prepare yourself. People want to talk to you in a way that they don’t with novels. In a way, it's better if they don’t meet the novelist because the novel stands as its own thing and meeting the novelist can muddy the feeling you get from the book. But if you are writing about yourself, people want to meet you and talk to you to see if you compare to the you in the book or how you are now after you have written the book. So it’s much more intimate. RB: With the expectation that you have some expertise. DS: Surprisingly that’s happened a lot. Maybe I just choose subjects that are arcane. My first book about twins — anytime conjoined twins are separated around the world I would get a call from some reporter asking about conjoined twins. And I would say, I’m a novelist. RB: The world’s foremost authority — DS: — on Siamese twins. For my third book, a novel called More Than It Hurts You about Münchausen by proxy where a mother injures a child, I was on Good Morning America talking about Münchausen’s disease with an expert. I kept saying I’m happy to go on TV but I’m no expert on this. But maybe that’s not true — Roth said one of the jobs of the novelist is to be smarter on the page than he is in real life. So I had to become an expert — at least temporarily. RB: It does also speak to the efficacy of the so-called talking cure. DS: That’s been one of the moving things. I kept a file with hundreds of emails now and a number of them have said, I haven’t told anyone this. I’ve never met you but I haven’t told my husband or something like that. That’s a validation of the talking cure. I had terrible experiences with therapy. Another reason I wrote the book — to figure out what I think about this. That’s the way I do it. Since I’m a writer, to understand how I see something I write it down. It’s much more effective than therapy — sitting at the computer working my way through something. RB: People certainly organize their perceptions of the world differently — some effortlessly. To me everyday is a new day, almost like starting over again. DS: Maybe that’s why people look for help — they don’t know how to organize their lives into stories until they see someone else do it. With this book I stumbled into therapeutic cures that I didn’t know about. Not that the book should be therapy for me. If it’s just therapy for me then I should write it and not publish it. I hope it has value beyond being cathartic for me. In this disorder called complicated grief therapy, which is a fancy way of saying people are sad, the therapy for that is that you are to talk into a tape recorder and say what makes you sad and then play it every night for 16 weeks. It sounds like torture — it’s thought to be effective because you have a tape, a physical object that you can turn off and put away. I didn’t know about it until I was researching the book. But writing the story every day and turning the computer off at night was a version of that therapy. The book is like my tape. And then talking about it to you and on the radio and to crowds at readings is like A.A. — making a public confession. So to me it was a great therapy. You said something about organizing life; my friend David Lipsky was saying anyone who teaches writing by saying you should show and not tell is going to fail. As he put it, “life is showing all the time, what literature does is tell you what that show means.” Movies are a show, life is a show. What books can do is tell in a way the others can’t. RB: Where do these clichés come from, like “write what you know”? What do you know? DS: Exactly. It’s bad advice for other reasons too. If you only write what you know, you will never know anything new. That’s the weird thing about our education system — right now in the Army they force you to take classes all the time as an adult. Which makes sense — why only be taught for 16 years of your life and then never be taught anything again? That’s to last you for 70 years. Why is that the method? Why wouldn’t you want to keep learning? RB: There is some science that holds if you continue to learn that is in fact a benefit to your brain. DS: Yeah, I read about a study that said you should try to switch things up every week just to keep your mind active without taking a course. Open doors left-handed one week and right-handed the next — just to teach yourself even in the most minor way something new to keep your brain active. RB: When I drive to places I try to take different routes each time. I leave enough time so I may get lost or just wander around. So when will you be done with this? DS: I was taking to Dani Shapiro who was nice enough to review the book for the Times. I didn’t know her beforehand, but I thanked her for the review and we got to talking and she was saying memoirs kind of never end. A novel is over when your next novel comes out but people still talk to her about the memoir she wrote ten years ago. Because it’s personal, and you are opening up your closet. We’re a voyeuristic society. I find most memoirs distasteful — it’s strange I ended up writing this. I thought, I will never write about this, I am a novelist. Not only that but I don’t read non-fiction a lot so I would never want to write a memoir. Something about this story was very insistent, asking to be told. I realized in writing the book that I had been writing about this all along. The girl’s parents at her funeral told me, we will never blame you — don’t worry about that. But whatever you do in life you have to live it twice as well because you are living for two people. And then they sued me for millions of dollars after that. After they said they wouldn’t blame me. The important thing from that is I took that very seriously, living for two people. I think that’s why I wrote Chang and Eng. That book deals with how we are different people at once. The end of the book — “this is the end that I have feared since we were a child.” So the “I” and the “we” means they are both one and two people. My second book was about a guy who lives in NYC and becomes an imposter and doesn’t tell anyone about his past. I had this accident in high school, went to college, and then moved to NYC and never told anyone about this. My third book is about a family from the suburbs with a secret that no one knows — I was growing up in the suburbs and had this secret, so obviously this has been informing my writing, in a way I hadn’t realized, forever. I wonder how stark a line it will draw in my fiction. RB: Have you started the next novel? DS: I have — I wanted something light after this. We’ll see. Writers often have this one thing they obsess about. Roth seemed to be writing the same book for a time — now he is writing obsessive books about being older. I wonder if my obsessions will change — a lot of writers have their one subject and keep writing around it, circling it. Bellow, no matter where his books were set, wrote about what it means to be a thinking person in a society where thinking people are not valued. And Updike had his pet obsessions — they seemed to be about a good boy being naughty. What does that mean? Bellow also said he didn’t want to go there because he didn’t want to know why he was writing what he was writing. Now I know and I wasn’t Bellow to begin with. RB: Have been teaching since we last spoke? DS: I went to Columbia as an adjunct for a while and came back when this new director of the creative writing program [of NYU] Deborah Landau, who amazingly re-energized, not even re-, she energized NYU faculty and brought in a bunch of people. I was lucky to be hired by her. She brought in Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer — she brought in this amazing constellation of people. On the poetry side she brought Anne Carson and Charles Simić. It’s an amazing place to work. I have my office there because I can’t work at home — I have three-year-old twin boys. And I go to work and it’s almost stiflingly overwhelming because you know these incredible people are doing incredible work — that’s both energizing and terrifying. RB: Yeah. DS: In some ways it’s beneficial to the writing — it forces you to return to first principles all the time. You have to tell students why you think something works and why it doesn’t. It gives voice to your aesthetic in a way that helps you form it. Also, it keeps you open-minded because you are reading people who have a different aesthetic. And you try to help them not by saying how you would write it yourself but try to get them to figure out how to be more successful in what they wanted to do. It can also be stultifying. It’s like when you try to walk up the stairs if you spend the day telling people, ”Well you put one foot in front of the other, and then you lift up your knee and move it forward and put the other foot down.” When you walk the stairs next you will be pretty self-conscious about it. It’s a balancing act. RB: You use novels in your courses. DS: In the Crafts classes — I often use books that I think are flawed. I teach Marry Me by Updike which is a good book but not his best. RB: Glorious failures? DS: Yeah. I wouldn’t say the book is a failure — but when you see a great writer make mistakes it can be instructive. I teach some all-out masterpieces. I shouldn’t say this but with modern academia you are also expected to have from many different — from both genders and a lot of different ethnic groups. You have to fill those slots. RB: You feel that is an obligation? Are you conscious of it? DS: Yes, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing — you want students from all different backgrounds to feel you are not being exclusionary. But I wouldn’t teach an author I don’t like. RB: Right, it’s not like the choices are limited. DS: I teach Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. I like Zadie’s work better. RB: I wasn’t impressed by Lahiri’s stories. I liked the film of her novel, The Namesake. DS: Her stories are well-constructed. They are ingenious but they aren’t exciting language-wise. RB: How well-read are your students? DS: It varies. A lot of undergrad students are well-read, but I am often shocked at how they are not. A lot of people want to be writers who don’t care about why or how to get there. So when you come across someone who is paying a lot of money to go to grad school and one assumes they are trying to make that their life, it’s very strange to see that they haven’t read that much. RB: Assuming it is a prerequisite of being a decent writer? DS: Yes. It’s kind of like saying I want to be a professional baseball player but I don’t watch or practice much baseball. I just want to put on the glove and play. It’s fine if you are doing it as a social activity. When you make a commitment to be a writer then it’s strange you wouldn’t want to learn about it. RB: Despite the warnings and evidence, your students still aspire to become writers? DS: Yes, that’s something I feel guilty about in teaching in these programs. RB: How many students have you had over the last ten years or so? DS: 30 a year for nine years. Whatever that is. RB: 270. Of those, how many have published one book? DS: Two so far. But a lot of them were undergrads and they are not 30 yet. I think more will do that. It’s a good grad class if two or three publish. RB: And what are the rest doing? DS: I don’t know. That’s what’s scary about these programs. They are expensive, although NYU is good about giving money and they are working on making it free for everyone. Then I would feel less guilty about it. You can get a lot out of learning how to write and learning to be a reader. RB: That’s one self-justification of teachers — you get better readers. DS: Michael Thomas [Man Gone Down] tells all his students that if they are taking these courses to be writers, it’s a bad idea. This will help you become a smarter reader and if you chose to become a writer, good luck. RB: Being a smarter reader is a great benefit. DS: It sure is. But the issue is, is it worth the money? NYU is very competitive to get into — 30 fiction students out of about 800 are accepted. RB: Like the Writer’s Workshop. DS: Yeah, and once you are in that circle of fire you are expected to get somewhere. Maybe two out of 30 will publish one book and one of those two will have a career. It’s very tough. RB: To quote Fats Waller, “One never know, do one?” DS: [laughs] RB: Thomas hasn’t been heard from since he won the IMPAC award in 2007. DS: That was recently. He teaches at Hunter. RB: That’s an interesting place. They have — DS: — Peter Carey — RB: — Colum McCann. DS: A small department [Tom Sleigh and Gabriel Packard]. McCann won the National Book Award last year and Peter was nominated this year and they are both really, really good. RB: McCann is Mr. Exuberant. DS: He really lives up to the image of the Irish raconteur, try to go out drinking with him and you won’t make it home. A great writer. Peter, too. He was a teacher of mine at NYU. It ended up working out for me, but when students ask if should they get an MFA I never give an unqualified yes. RB: If someone asked me I’d ask, what are the choices? Go into plastic. DS: I did a reading with Jennifer Egan and she hasn’t gotten her [MFA] and she wondered if she missed out. It hasn’t hurt her. She is having a good career. I tell students if they need the time to write and have people read their stuff then it’s great. I was talking to someone taking a course from Oscar Hijuelos, and he was considered the worst one in the class and the teacher was hard on him saying he shouldn’t be a writer and then something switched and one day he came in with the beginning of his first book and he was great all of a sudden. There shouldn’t be anyone who is an arbiter, saying you can’t write because sometimes it takes people a while. RB: Isn’t it the same with editors and buying books? Think of all the stories about writers who have gotten 20 to 30 rejections and then one editor says, “Yeah” and they are off. DS: Proust had to self-publish the first volume of Remembrances of Things Past. One of the things that’s great about him is that everyone said his sentences are too long, that’s why we can’t publish him, [both laugh] so at the beginning of the second book, the sentence is one of the longest in the entire book. What a great fuck you. RB: It’s fascinating that these literary chats are an attempt to regularize an exploding array of characters and stories. It seems like an untameable beast. As we talk here, what are we explaining or clarifying? The best stuff is maybe what we can’t explain. DS: That’s true. Writing can be taught to a degree. The best thing it can do is save you years of self-discovery — which may not be a good thing. Maybe you should learn on your own. You can teach people tricks you have learned from reading but obviously you can’t teach talent. Maybe you can help students achieve the maximum from their talent. RB: Talent can be overrated. There’s something to be said for perseverance. DS: Lethem who taught at NYU said this to me once: talent was kind of meaningless. Whether you publish or write good books it’s the people who keep trying, keep trying. There’s that Malcolm Gladwell theory — which sounds kind of glib — 10,000 hours at something will make you great at it. I don’t know where that number comes from but it’s probably true. If you sit in the chair for 10,000 hours and that translates over four or five hours a day for eight years, six, seven days a week — RB: Well, that’s from the outside, from an external observer. Our sense of that time must be indescribably different. DS: The first 7- or 8,000 hours are fumbling around being terrible — people who are talented might not progress because they are too embarrassed to do the apprentice period. They can’t allow themselves to be bad. RB: Or someone tells them they are crap and they believe it. DS: Or someone tells them they are great and they believe it. You really have to get in there in those hours whatever the magic number is, and force yourself to work hard. When I was a grad student it wasn’t the most talented people who moved on — it was the people who could take their first draft and make it a second draft. For example everyone at that level can do a pretty good first draft. It’s people who listen to criticism and say, “Fuck that, I’m good enough” who don’t go on to make a good first draft into a great second draft. RB: Writing fiction must be about delayed satisfactions — writers take five, eight, twelve years to finish a novel. DS: The problem with Foer and Zadie Smith being as good as they are – and I think they are both really good writers and I’ve heard they are good teachers – they are dangerous examples because of their early success. RB: Don’t try this at home, kids. DS: Exactly. RB: There seems to be an attitude about Foer in the literary world. Have you noticed that? Jealousy? DS: Yeah. RB: In addition to the normal quotient of anti-Semitism? [laughs] DS: I ran into Jonathan Wilson, a professor of mine, and he was planning on giving talks on new takes on anti-Semitism. I asked, what was he going say? He said, “It exists.” [laughs] If there is bad feeling toward Jonathan [Foer] it's because he has outsized success. That’s hard for people to take. I’m sure a lot of the anti-Franzen griping is the same thing. You make the cover of Time and people will grumble — that’s the way it is. RB: I remember getting into it with a writer when they retracted a review of Foer’s second novel and came up with a negative one. DS: I hate when people retract reviews. My first book was badly reviewed in the Washington Post for what I thought were silly reasons. The reviewer didn’t like three things about the book — I named certain characters after my friends (I thanked friends in the afterword) and very minor characters had similar names. The reviewer asked, “Is he playing games or writing a serious book?” I thought, well why are those things in opposition? Second, how am I as a white male in the 20th century qualified to write about Asians in the 19th century? And third, she claimed five words I used were not in currency in the 1800s. She was wrong about that. Those words were found in Shakespeare. I was really pissed off. I was doing an interview somewhere and this reviewer who is also a novelist was there also, doing an interview. And they said such and such is here, she wants to meet you. I said that’s okay and I sneaked out the back. RB: [laughs] DS: And she came around and ran into me in the parking lot. She said, “Hey I am so-and-so and I gave your book a bad review.” I said, “Yeah, I remember.” She said, “I’m really sorry I kind of liked the book. I was in a bad mood and my husband is Asian, and I thought I should say something about that.” I thought it was crappy she liked the book —she was entitled to her opinion but to apologize for it was even worse. RB: Do you write reviews? DS: I wrote a few that I regret — not that the book was good. It’s not good karma to write negative reviews. I am going to stop doing it. I wrote a good review of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, which I thought was a good book — that was fun. RB: As I have said many times, I think book reviewing, especially in newspapers, is a degraded enterprise. DS: [Martin] Amis has a great quote about that. He said something like, “Reviews are the only forum where the practitioner is working in the exact same mode as the art itself but generally doing it less well.” You don’t have movie critics making a movie about the subject of their reviews. So yeah, I think it’s degraded. There was a recent review of Roth where the reviewer wrote, "I never read any Roth until this book was assigned. I dismissed him without thinking about it.” This is Philip Roth, maybe the greatest living American writer. Not having read Roth, having dismissed him, shouldn’t that disqualify the reviewer? RB: I recently reviewed the new Cynthia Ozick and according to the dust jacket it was an homage and reworking of Henry James’ The Ambassadors. I hadn’t read that book. It bothered me that other than an epigram from The Ambassadors, I had no clue of anything Jamesian. I see that quite often, that certain stories are tied to an older work. Why tell the reader — if they are familiar with the referred-to book they should recognize it and if not they should not be distracted? DS: On Beauty is supposed to be an homage to an E.M. Forster book, which I never read. But I liked Smith’s book. It might be a way to spark your imagination. Doctorow’s Ragtime’s plot was lifted from a 19th century novella by Kleist. RB: And you know this, how? DS: I took a class from him and he said so. RB: But was it on the dust jacket? DS: No. RB: Does it improve your enjoyment of Ragtime? What does it do for the reader if he knows? DS: It’s a way of coming clean. Lifting plots is as old as Shakespeare but now people are so afraid of even the whiff of plagiarism they feel if they are upfront about it it's okay. It’s okay whether you own up to it or not because there are only 36 stories out there anyway, and certainly Zadie and Doctorow made something new. But I don’t know why people feel that compunction to own up to stuff. This is something that I have noticed that’s new — even novels are listing all the books used for research. But why bother, it’s a novel. RB: Over the weekend I read a book that very much resembles [Cormac] McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men — an unstoppable psychopathic killer searching for the protagonist — even when that came to mind I wasn’t put off because the writing was crisp and propulsive. But I could already imagine reviewers taking the author to task for lack of originality. DS: When I said there were 36 plots, that’s based on this crazy French book called The 36 Dramatic Situations — the author, Georges Polti, spent his life doing a scientific study of writing and came up with the fact that there are only 36 possible stories and there is a wide berth within those. Number 1 is revenge and number 1A is revenge, father against son. You know there is a limited scope within which to work, so what? Why not do what Shakespeare did and use famous stories? There is something energizing about having every plot and format to work with. RB: Do you ever think about what you would have done if your writing hadn’t panned out? DS: Oh wow! Well, when I was a kid I thought I might be a lawyer — RB: — and then you were sued — DS: — and then I was so turned off by the lawsuit — I wasn’t angry with the parents, they had just lost their daughter and were very vulnerable. But I was certainly angry with the lawyer — he knew they had no case and he actually screwed them over because he told them they could make millions. But they ended up getting the most nominal sum from the insurance company just to make them go away. Which they could have gotten at the outset. And so they had to take five years of legal fees out of that. So they received almost nothing. It was just awful. The police said I wasn’t at fault, five witnesses said I wasn’t at fault. He tried to say I was drunk — 10 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. Then he tried to say that the policeman who said I wasn’t drunk, was drunk. RB: [laughs] DS: It was just an awful experience, dragging me through the mud. And so I thought I am not going to be a lawyer, that’s an awful thing. But I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know that I could do anything else, so it’s hard to say. RB: Sold insurance? DS: I could have done something like that. RB: A trader or speculator? DS: That might have been more satisfying. Writing is great in so many ways — being your own boss — RB: As Shaw said, you don’t have to dress up. DS: Yeah, so in all the obvious ways it’s great. It is also a job where you are never not working. So I kind of envy those people who are 9 to 5. RB: How much has your writer life changed now that you are a writer dad? DS: A lot. The book is short — RB: [laughs] DS: The book is short. I started it when my kids were one — to have one-year-old twins in the house means all hands on deck. RB: One of the challenges of journalism is to write within a word limit. DS: Thank you so much for having me back. RB: My pleasure. Image credit: Robert Birnbaum
In 1826, the philosopher John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown, and one of its causes was pretty odd. “I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations,” he wrote in his autobiography. The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty. In a way, Mill was being prescient: within a hundred years, serialist composers would forge onward, like the Vikings colonizing Greenland, to combinations of semi-tones that were not conventionally beautiful. But in another way, Mill was being ridiculous: no, a contemporary composer can't use a tune that Mozart also used, unless it's a deliberate allusion, but she can certainly use a tune that Weber also used, because no one listens to Weber any more. Mill's nightmare of permutational famine would only be a real danger if any motif that any composer invented was registered permanently in some sort of giant musical database. Perhaps such a database does now exist, but no composer would be silly enough to check it. I only wish the same were true for narrative art. Discovering that the website TV Tropes began as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer messageboard is like discovering that Borges' "Library of Babel" began as a one-volume cricketer's almanac. Since 2004, TV Tropes has swollen into a frighteningly comprehensive taxonomy of all known plot devices across all known media. Every story that's ever thrilled you is there in microscopic cross section. In some respects it resembles books like Georges Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations or Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots, but it's not nearly so reductive: it's maximalist not minimalist, always delighted to add new categories. Really, its closest cousin is the Aarne–Thompson classification system, which attempts to anatomize all the world's folklore into about 2,500 elements. And as a writer, I find it impossible to browse TV Tropes without feeling like Mill: how will anyone ever come up with anything new? This fear isn't abstract. Recently, I was on the point of starting my second screenplay when I thought I might as well check at the patent office for any prior art. On the TV Tropes page for Double Reverse Quadruple Agent, I came across a listing for Cypher, a 2002 film I'd never seen by Vincenzo Natali, director of the terrific Cube. The best twist in my outline was sitting there in Cypher. Dejected, I gave up on the screenplay. TV Tropes may have saved me from wasting my time on an idea that had already been wrung dry, but it may also have prevented me from developing that idea far enough that I could find something in it that was uniquely my own. So far, the same thing hasn't happened with my prose fiction, but perhaps it's only a matter of time. Of course, this is only a problem because my writing happens to be so preoccupied with plot. Most literary fiction is inoculated against TV Tropes. When Zadie Smith updates Howard's End in On Beauty or Cynthia Ozick updates The Ambassadors in Foreign Bodies, they are assuming that the storylines are not by any means the most gripping things about those novels. I once interviewed the critic James Wood, and he told me that in his reviews he deliberately describes the entire book because he likes “destroying the tyranny of plot.” In other words, if TV Tropes gives you writer's block, then maybe you're not much of a writer. And you can even make that same argument starting from the other side of the field. I recently asked the author China Miéville about TV Tropes, on which he has his own lengthy entry; because his work wallows in plot, I thought he might find the website as lethal as I do. In fact, he told me that he loves TV Tropes but he doesn't worry about it. You don't need a database, he said, to prove that it's almost impossible to come up with anything truly original – just riffling through the canon will do that. Your task is just to force new tricks on old dogs. (After all, both Cypher and my abandoned screenplay were basically variations on Philip K Dick. TV Tropes itself has an entry for this called Older Than They Think.) And I agree with Miéville up to a point. But a lot of the joy of his novel The City and the City, for instance, arises from its ingenious premise. If he'd read on TV Tropes that The Twilight Zone had used the same plot in 1961, he would probably still have written his book, but I find it hard to believe he wouldn't have been disappointed. And the horrible thing is, it doesn't stop there. There's a remark somewhere by (I think) Martin Amis about how all young writers have to confront the fact that there just aren't many new ways left to describe an autumn sky or a pretty girl. It's like peak oil for lyricism. And in the age of Google Books and Amazon Search Inside, we have to confront this even more brutally. Every time I come up with a simile that feels like it might be too obvious, I can put it into the search box and find that a dozen romance novelists have used it before me. The answer, I think, is to think more about your audience. The average reader just isn't as obsessive about precedent as the average writer. She is less likely to notice an echo, and if she does notice, she is less likely to mind. In other words, she is saner. To invent some contorted new plot twist because your previous one was already on TV Tropes, or some cumbersome new metaphor because your previous one was already on Google Books, is just self-indulgence: you like your book a bit more, but everyone else likes it a bit less. It's best to spend just enough time on TV Tropes that you're anxious to do something original, but not so long that you're paralyzed. That's easier advice to give than to follow, however, and whether or not I succeed, there is one pretty humbling circumstance I have no choice but to acknowledge: that the biggest existential challenge that I currently face as a novelist comes from a website that started life as a place for people to talk about whether Buffy should really have got together with Spike. Previously: Trope is the New Meme Image credit: bo foto/Flickr
1. “Two Paths for the Novel” It was late October, 2008, and Robert Silvers had earned a victory lap. The New York Review of Books, which he’d co-founded with the late Barbara Epstein during the New York printers’ strike of 1963, was about to observe its 45th anniversary. And equally improbably, after the tumultuous reign of Bush fils, the country seemed poised to elect a president aligned with the social-democratic politics for which the New York Review had provided life support. Interviewed by a reporter at a San Francisco restaurant, though, Silvers, 78, sounded less like an eminence grise dining out on past accomplishments than a hungry young editor on the make…or maybe the cat who ate the canary. The end of the conversation found him talking up “‘an ambitious essay’” slated to appear in the Review’s anniversary edition, “‘a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind’”—a “dismantl[ing]” (in the reporter’s paraphrase) of the literary “status quo.” “‘Some people will be slightly shaken,’ Silvers said with delight,” before “grabbing a handful of smoked almonds and making a dash for the door.” The mind in question was the English novelist Zadie Smith's, and the dismantling turned out to be a 9,000-word essay on two well-received recent novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Or perhaps “essay” isn’t the right word; as the title “Two Paths for the Novel” suggested, it was closer in spirit to a polemic. The rhetorical embroidery was dazzlingly multiform, but the gravamen ultimately rested on that old workhorse, compare/contrast. As Smith saw it, Netherland—at that point well on its way to bestsellerdom and President Obama’s nightstand—represented the excesses, the exhaustion, of “a breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had freedom of the highway for some time now.” McCarthy’s Remainder, meanwhile, was “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” “an avant-garde challenge” meant to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. In the event, I’m not sure anyone apart from Joseph O’Neill was actually “shaken." Manifestos are a dime a dozen these days—to borrow a line from Dale Peck’s manifesto-infected Hatchet Jobs, “that and $2.50 . . . will buy you a skinny mochaccino” (with adjustment for inflation)—and even before David Shields’ Reality Hunger, obsequies for “lyrical Realism” had been performed at length by Ben Marcus, the editors of N+1, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann…not to mention a whole host of Continental theoreticians. Then again, to measure the success of a literary manifesto by whether or not the status quo stays mantled is fundamentally to misapprehend the genre. Its prime object and beneficiary is not “the novel” but the critic herself, and in this sense “Two Paths for the Novel” was a triumph. To other polemically minded reviewers (particularly the vicar of capital-R Realism whose name Smith had worked into an uncharacteristically juvenile pun (see above)), the essay served notice: Your boy’s club’s been breached. “Two Paths for the Novel” (with a slight adjustment of title) would constitute the longest piece but one in Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, published in 2009. Now ascended (or condemned) to the post of New Books columnist at Harper’s, Zadie Smith will no doubt have discovered the limited and erratic scope of the authority to which she’s laid claim. On one hand, her elegant dressing-down of Netherland seems to have had approximately zero effect on the novel’s reception, aside from giving people who didn’t like it something to point to. On the other, “Two Paths for the Novel” does appear, several years out, to have shifted the literary landscape in one very particular way: it’s positioned Tom McCarthy, who as late as 2005 couldn’t find a publisher for Remainder, as the English language’s leading avant-gardist. Indeed, so subtle were its powers of persuasion that no one seems to remember he was ever anything but. This was most visible last summer, when Knopf published with great fanfare McCarthy’s third novel, C. Jonathan Dee, writing in Harper’s, adjudged it “an avant-garde epic” (adding, somewhat bewilderingly: “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”) “An avant-garde masterpiece,” proclaimed Meehan Crist, in The Los Angeles Times. The redoubtable Adam Kirsch went so far as to borrow Smith’s technique, putting C. in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” he decided, “of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the keeper of the avant-garde flame. The “Two Paths” effect even persists, albeit subtly, in the long McCarthy retrospect Amanda Claybaugh, an English professor at Harvard, published last month in N+1. Claybaugh seeks explicitly to engage with “the claims made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.” As that last phrase suggests, though, Claybaugh leaves mostly intact the claim that underpins the others: that McCarthy himself is to be found among the avant-garde. This hints at both the brilliance and the weakness of “Two Paths for the Novel”: several of its conclusions are actually smuggled in as premises, which become ours as well. Accepting “the violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland” is the price of admission. This is probably the place to declare for the record that I’m half in love with Zadie Smith’s critical voice. Also that I think Remainder is a terrific novel. But, thanks in no small part to Smith's advocacy, what’s at stake in assessing McCarthy’s burgeoning reputation is something much more than that: "the future of the avant-garde novel." The artistic avant-garde is, Adorno would remind us, one of the few free spaces we’ve got left. (That's assuming there is one.) And because its future is so important—and because, if we’re lucky, we’re going to be reading Smith’s criticism for a long time to come—I think it’s worth revisiting her premises and treating them as open questions. How, specifically, is Remainder avant-garde? And also: how avant is it? 2. Language + Matter = Death…Or Something. To the first question—how is it avant?—Smith offers one clear answer. Remainder challenges “the essential fullness and continuity of the self” that is the soul of Realism. McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist is literally discontinuous; he awakens at midlife from an unspecified accident unsure of who he’s been. This might, in run-of-the-mill amnesia fiction, inaugurate a quest: Hero Seeks to Recover Past. Remainder’s “hero,” though, mostly shrugs off concerns about identity, to subversive comic effect. Here, the comparison with Netherland is illuminating. Joseph O’Neill, too, knows better than to present his hero as a unitary psyche; one of his chief effects is the subtle altering and re-altering of perception that attend the passage of time, and the narrator, Hans van den Broek, seems troubled by a nagging lack of “fullness” in his character. Still, the debt is more to Fitzgerald and Hemingway than to Deleuze & Guattari, and so the difference between the two novels’ approach to the "self” is one more of kind than of degree. Hans van den Broek seeks communion; Remainder’s “Enactor” (as Smith calls him) seeks to secure for himself, through industry and cash on the barrelhead, those depthless sensations Frederic Jameson calls “intensities.” Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs.... In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of "self"-sabotage to a superhighway? Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things. At which point it becomes apparent that the schizoid depthlessness of postmodernism ain’t it. Think of Bret Easton Ellis. Play it as it Lays. Tao Lin. As with the Realist plenitude Netherland draws on, “our receptive pathways” for the discontinuous self “are solidly established.” There’s another way in which Smith believes Remainder to be avant-garde. It’s apparent in the word “trace,” which is to “Two Paths for the Novel” what descriptions of clouds are to Netherland: almost a nervous tic. In short, Smith feels McCarthy to have assimilated the destabilizing linguistic insights of Jacques Derrida in a way O’Neill hasn’t. (Isn't "remainder" just a synonym for "trace?") But whenever she turns to theory as such, Smith’s native lucidity gives way to an undergraduate overeagerness. Critiques of Realism, we are told, blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. Then again: The novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real. But: Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel. And: [Remainder] tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters. Smith seems to be following the pronouncements McCarthy has promulgated as General Secretary of a “semi-fictitious” avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society (INS). She offers an excerpt: "If form…is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism." The syntax of these sentences is easy enough to follow, but, in their mingling of metaphysics, materialism, and aesthetics, these are, I think, far murkier waters than Smith realizes. I confess to being on shaky ground with Derrida; the failure to find rigor in Smith’s use of the “trace” may well be my own. But the materialism here is “dialectical” in only the loosest sense, and Smith’s gloss on being-towards-death seems reductive, even hedged. At any rate, we’d do well to read more than a word of Heidegger, for whom the kind of being “the things” have - especially in the broken, obtrusive, or useless state Remainder finds them in (e.g., the "gnarled, dirty and irregular" carrot) is most important in adumbrating the kind of Being we have...which is precisely where the Necronauts are at their glibbest. Moreover, it’s difficult, reading Remainder’s handling of things qua things, to find anything more disruptive than what Viktor Shklovsky was doing in 1925, or William Carlos Williams in 1935, or Georges Perec, quite differently, in 1975. In fact, the hospitality of Remainder to allegorical readings might just as easily be read as a failure of its ability to resist metaphor, or to foreground language's inability to do so—to capture materiality in the sense of “thingness.” And again, notwithstanding the artful stammerings, elisions, and self-corrections of the first-person narrator, the linguistic subject these objects encounter is still a consistent, confessional, Cartesian (if unusually estranged) “I.” In general, then, Remainder’s formal choices seem less troubled by its theoretical convictions than Smith makes them out to be. The novel’s ideas may be novel enough, but McCarthy dramatizes them the way Cervantes did it: embody them in a character, launch him into a plot (albeit one that ends in a Borgesian loop). We might, if so inclined, read this as a conscious rejection of another of Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form.” More likely, though, Remainder, like Netherland, is simply drawing on the formal vocabulary of Realism to “enact” the philosophical agenda Smith can’t quite pin down. (C. may well be another matter. I haven’t yet read it, but in Claybaugh’s account, it seems to go a step further toward assimilating theory into language and, especially, structure, with mixed results.) That philosophical agenda may itself be somewhat incoherent; even Claybaugh doesn't entirely clarify it. I’m struck by the possibility, which Smith only glances at, that the garbled quality of the INS’ transmissions is intentional—that the avant-garde to which McCarthy is authentically the heir is not Existentio-Deconstructo-Dialectico-Materialism, but the Situationism of Guy DeBord. As I've got it from Lipstick Traces, the Situationists (who their mark on the near-revolution in France in 1968) sought to expose the gaps in the seemingly solid bourgeois political and aesthetic order through acts of play and imposture—of “détournement.” You can see their legacy in attenuated form in flash mobs and Improv Everywhere and Exit Through the Gift Shop. I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy isn’t thinking in earnest about "the melancholy impasse out of which the...novel has yet to work its way"; this weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover story on The Pale King was lucid and engaged, and, notably, offered no answers. But the iron-fisted theorizing of the General Secretary may be less a way forward for the novel than a way of having us on for the baggage we bring to it—and for the ease with which even the messiest “remainder” gets assimilated into the cultural order (Remainder the novel having been picked up for a movie deal by the U.K.'s Film4.) McCarthy alluded to these slippery possibilities in a recent essay on the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint: “Will he turn out, ultimately, to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” It's likewise possible to see Remainder's avant-gardism as purposefully "semi-fictitious." By positioning his novel as a work of violent rejection, rather than of pop accomplishment, McCarthy may have insinuated into the bookshop a kind of Trojan-cum-Morse horse—a container that encodes something quite different from what it is. 3. I’ll Be Your Mirror Internally, though, Remainder is less the “antipode” of Netherland than its photo-negative. That is, each stands in exactly the same relation to its respective tradition as does the other. This is not to accuse either of mannerism, exactly, but in each case, “the obvious imperfection of the world” is brought under the government of a familiar aesthetic reflex. In Netherland’s case, the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing, in the mode of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In Remainder, the potentially meaningful gets reduced to the narcotic flatness we enjoyed in the nouveau roman. Each is exactly as “aestheticized” as the other; it’s just that Smith likes one aesthetic better. Borrowing her own key terms, “identity,” “authenticity,” and “anxiety,” it’s possible to reconstruct why this might be so. The “identity” reading points to the evident seduction Continental Philosophy holds for a Cambridge alum. In the heady world of literary theorizing, Derrida opens doors. But Smith thinks like a novelist, not like a philosopher. (Indeed, she may think more purely like a novelist than any other writer we have.) Consequently, her keen attunement to the nuances of Forster and Woolf, the playfulness with which she approaches Kafka and Hurston, go rigid whenever her thoughts tend toward academe. The false notes in Changing My Mind—I’m thinking here of the essay on Nabokov and Barthes, and parts of the essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are almost always a product of her desire to force the play of her intelligence into some theoretical scheme. The “anxiety” reading points elsewhere. Smith’s shadowboxing with a certain unnamed “lapsed high Anglican,” and the NYRB’s positioning of her essay hard on the heels of a review of How Fiction Works, would seem to suggest that “Two Paths” grows out of what one blogger has called “the James Wood neurosis.” Certainly, Smith is entitled to feel that she acceded too quickly and too publicly to Wood’s criticisms from the pulpit of Realism of her own first book, the multiethnic social novel White Teeth. And it was Wood whose rapt review launched Netherland, unbothered by the considerably more conventional uses to which it put its multiethnic milieu. But the "authenticity" reading is the most revealing. In her mid-30s, Smith is still "changing her mind," working through what kind of novelist she wants to—and can authentically—be. As she herself has suggested, here and elsewhere, her considerable gifts for characterization, irony, description, and dialogue fall squarely within the Realist tradition. But perhaps she feels, rightly or wrongly, that even her most accomplished novel, On Beauty, sits too tidily on the bourgeois bookshelf. She channels E.M. Forster, but wants to be David Foster Wallace. "Anything, anything at all, that doesn't sound like me," she wrote in her response to Wood's "Hysterical Realism." "Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important." It’s as though the “existential crisis” or “nervous breakdown” she sees O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel inflicting on “what we have been taught to value in fiction” is her own. Fortunately for her and for us, Smith labors under a misapprehension about what it means to be avant-garde. To borrow a metaphor, she can’t quite see the forest for the “dead wood.” Here are the rhetorical questions she throws at the feet of Netherland: Is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? These are, of course, the very mimetic questions that animate canonical Realism, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Proust. Smith’s avant-garde is a gradual convergence on what she insists doesn’t exist: the one true and transcendent Real. But look at the “disturb and disrupt” mandate I sketched above—hell, look at Smith’s essay—and you’ll instantly see that avant-gardism, like its dark twin kitsch, is always situational. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Wagner’s innovations are disruptive; by the mid-Twentieth, they're the soundtrack for Triumph of the Will. The enemy to be rebelled against today is hardly “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Rather, it is a world order that reduces form, language, and selfhood to mere options in the supermarket of aesthetic choices. And insofar as it presents an aesthetic binary—write like this tradition, rather than this other tradition, and you’re on the right path—Smith’s conception of the avant-garde is woefully insufficient. Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? It amounts to a game of Distinction, whose logical end is to deny that the kind of avant-garde Adorno champions is even possible. Then again, in a less theoretical mood, Smith once wrote these sentences: "We can only be who we are.... Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can." What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular “team,” and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla that mark books as mainstream as Netherland and Remainder as "violent rejections" of each other, and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. A true path forward for the novel—Zadie Smith's or Tom McCarthy's or anyone else's—will run through those trackless spaces, and we must follow it there. Otherwise, we give the status quo the victory, no matter how ardently we might wish to dismantle it. Vive la différance. From Our Archives: "Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder." "The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland." "Bulletin: Interview with Tom McCarthy, General Secretary, INS."
A few years ago, a woman I hardly know and whose name I’ve now forgotten invited me to become her friend on Goodreads, a social-networking site on which users log the books they’re reading (or have read, or intend to read), and in some cases write casual reviews of these books and rate them on a scale of one to five stars. I thanked the woman but told her I didn’t participate in social-networking websites. Because, I didn’t elaborate, I found them more estranging than connecting, or suspected I would, and because I didn’t want to turn myself into some kind of product (not true: in my huffing, protracted climb from anonymity to obscurity, I’ve attempted quite a lot of that), and because I was very tired, and finally because I couldn’t afford another distraction from my writing or from checking my email forty times a day. I’ve since softened my position on all this and now have an impressive though not obscene number of friends on Facebook. Sometimes these nominal friendships bring into depressing relief my paucity of substantive friendships, but on the whole I’d say I’m slightly less lonely and no less productive (which is to say: not terribly productive) than I was before I joined Facebook. But this essay, if that’s what it is, isn’t about Facebook (boring), it’s about Goodreads (sort of). So some night this past winter—it was very late; I’d been having trouble sleeping—I found myself Googling a minor figure in the publishing industry, and in doing so came across his Goodreads page, which he allows to be viewed by friends and non-friends alike. His tastes were impeccable and strikingly similar to my own, which is odd because my tastes aren’t impeccable. I studied this man’s picture; he seemed elegant, loyal, athletic. I imagined him as my literal, that is, non-internet friend, and also as my champion, my Colonel Tom, imagined our spandexed bike rides together, our shared energy bars, our semicolon debates. I joined Goodreads but didn’t send this man a friend request, not wanting to seem like some scheming gnat, nor did I elect to follow him (as one follows a Twitter feed), not wanting to seem like some mousy sycophant. I spent another hour or so snooping around the site, but didn’t do anything with my own just-established Goodreads page, mostly because I was very tired. Then I avoided the site for about six months, during which period I was mainly dealing with a bat infestation in our old and porous house. Recently some other internet research of dubious value led me back to Goodreads, where I discovered that, during my absence, I’d received three friend requests. That seemed flattering, three is more than two after all, and in the embrace of my small public I finally put some information on my Goodreads page. First I noted the book I was currently reading, which I won’t note here, and then I considered adding my picture to the page, though in the end that seemed like too much work. Satisfied, I turned off the computer and read more of the book I’d just advertised while advertising myself on Goodreads. As I was reading, I sometimes paused to think of a pithy, even poetic comment I might post on Goodreads after finishing the book. I sometimes review books professionally, and in fact have a few books I should be reviewing now, so I didn’t want to write anything on Goodreads that might resemble a book review; I don’t mind procrastinating on writing book reviews, it’s one of my specialties, but it seemed foolish to put off writing a paying (barely remunerative) book review in order to write a volunteer one. But as I said, I thought I could come up with commentary of a different stripe, something terse and poetic—more and more I was thinking of something poetic. Such as: But I couldn’t come up with anything, or nothing good, even after I’d actually finished the book. I wrote and revised, took a walk, revised further. All junk. And even if I were to come up with something good, I thought, it might set an overhigh standard, and then, driven to routinely meet or exceed that standard, I’d devote altogether too much time to my Goodreads poems, distracting me from more serious writing as well as from checking my email and humanely (all in all) removing bats. The bats were just one of the things keeping me up at night; I blamed fatigue, in part, for my failure to write even one presentable Goodreads poem. I decided to ignore the comments box and just give the book a star rating. All my favorite books are four-star books: great (or very good) books that here and there bore, vex, or disgust me. “Might I confess to finding that it is exquisite to be of two minds regarding works or art?” Robert Walser wrote in a four-star short story. “To find fault with something that I welcome on the whole, how nice I find it is!” Exactly, and I suppose there was no avoiding that frothy exclamation point. Although no artwork is perfect, some are perfecter than others, and whenever a book offers too few opportunities for fault-finding, flirts too brazenly with perfection, with five-starness, I lose interest. For me to give a book five stars would be to insult it, would be more or less the same as giving it three stars. Still, it would look sophomoric to give a close-but-no-cigar four stars to, say, Don Quixote, a book I love, even though parts of it bore, vex, or disgust me. Especially because at some point, for instance when a friend publishes a book, I’m going to trot out all five of those stars. I don’t have many writer friends, or many non-writer friends, my Facebook account notwithstanding, but I have a few, and the next time one of them publishes a book, I’d be inclined to give that book the maximum rating on Goodreads, even though none of my friends—I can just tell—are capable of writing a five-star book (which by my lights is a good thing), and no doubt some of them will write two-star books. And to those two-star books, fair books, neither good nor bad, I’d happily fill in five stars on Goodreads and hope that my friends would do the same for me if and when my two-star book quietly hits tens or even dozens of shelves. But that would make the four stars I gave Don Quixote look even dumber, and then everyone—all my friends, my three Goodreads friends—would know that either my judgment is unreliable or my rating system is a sham. I could refuse to treat my friends’ books on Goodreads, and inform them, my friends, of this policy so they wouldn’t wonder why I was neglecting their books, their mostly as-yet-unpublished books. But I fear my Goodreads friend numbers, already low, might suffer as a result. The whole pursuit seemed doomed. Better, I decided, to skip the star rating along with the commentary, simply let the book speak for itself. This would be my clean, disinterested procedure: no clever (yet moving) poetic fragments, no reductive star ratings, just a log of the books I’ve read, or skimmed. Many people, including Art Garfunkel, keep such records. If you go to Garfunkel’s website, as I sometimes do, you can see every book he’s read since 1968. In April of ’72 he read Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity; in June of that year, when he and Simon reunited for a McGovern fundraiser at Madison Square Garden, he read no books (or finished up the Watts); last July he read Cicero’s On the Good Life, followed by Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. He was On. Of course I’m not famous and interesting like Art Garfunkel is, nor can I sing harmony, but my book log, I thought, might nonetheless be of interest to my three Goodreads friends, one of whom I’ve never actually met, or might at least be of interest to a future version of myself. Twenty years from now I would know that in June of 2010 I reread (skimmed) a book about insomnia, among others. Having worked through these dilemmas, I needed to start a new book. This is one of my favorite things to do, to choose and start a new book. I try to really concentrate on my emotional conditions and intellectual acuity at that moment, and consider what plans I have over the next few days or weeks, and then home in on the one book, of all the books I know, or that I happen to find in my bat-ridden home or at the nearest bookstore (where I believe I’ve also seen bat droppings), that I most want, most need, to read, so that I won’t put the book at a disadvantage by reading it at the wrong time. These pains notwithstanding, I often choose the wrong book. It may be that I like to choose and start books more than I like to finish them. Probably I abandon sixty percent of the books I start. Sometimes I fail the book (and set it aside with some shame); sometimes the book fails me (and I hurl it away with some relish). As it happens, the book I was thinking about reading next was one I’d left unfinished several years ago, too many years ago to start from where I’d marked page 122 with the business card of a sleep therapist, it may have been, or a bus transfer (I threw out the bookmark without studying it). But starting again at page one is fine, since, as I just explained, I love to start books. As it also happens, I’d once, over ice cream with a friend I’m almost certain, claimed to have read and enjoyed this book—not entirely false, I’d read and enjoyed part of the book, and I’d read three other books by the same writer, so perhaps I had the right to fudge. Besides, I’d read all the books years ago—not twenty years ago, granted, but six, seven, or eight—long enough for memory to do its destructive, distorting work, to the point where the three wholly read books were about as hazy to me as the mostly unread one. Still, I didn’t want to indicate to my Goodreads friends that I was currently reading the book as if it were brand new to me, since after all I’d had the sense to start the book ages or at least seven years ago, when its author was a bit less fashionable, and furthermore I didn’t want my ice-cream buddy to discover and friend me on the site (I would have to accept), then call my bluff, humiliating me in front of the others, and yet I didn’t want to heap lies on lies in the comments section: “What a delight to revisit this longtime favorite,” or the like. I would have to start some other book, I decided. And probably it would be best, as long as I was on Goodreads, not to read any book I had earlier started but not finished, or any book I’d ever directly or obliquely but either way falsely claimed to have read in its entirety, or any book that I feel I should have read long ago, but didn’t, partly because I was so tired. The next book I wanted to read was a famously difficult work of philosophy that, to judge from my previous experience with the same book, I would understand only sporadically and almost certainly not finish. Undoubtedly it would look pretentious to list this book on Goodreads; perhaps it would even be pretentious. But I might, I thought, be able to clear the air of some pomposity by reading the philosophy book in tandem with something breezy, even utilitarian (in the non-philosophical sense)—Psyching Up for Tennis or something like that. But I wasn’t about to read Psyching Up for Tennis or tell more lies. I decided to look for another book, but each one I settled on was wrong for Goodreads: too fancy, too populist, too hip, too square, too predictable, too self-consciously curve bally. I would have to give up Goodreads or give up reading. I deleted my account, but felt no relief. Last night, disturbed by anxieties only tangentially related to Goodreads, I had trouble falling asleep again, and eventually got up at three-thirty, ate a bowl of cereal, and started a new book, a smart, soulful little book of poetry, a book that might, I thought, cast a becoming light on its public readers and even in some small way boost the poet’s career. I thought I could give Goodreads another go, and that this time I would relax and let the site link me to kindred spirits, let it give me fizzy blips of communitarian joy, let it alert me to overlooked books that I too might come to cherish. And it was these optimistic thoughts, and the book of poetry, which started to drag, that finally allowed me to close my eyes, make heavy my limbs, and settle into what I believe were the most restful three hours of non-postcoital adult sleep I have ever known. [Image credit: pachakku]
Zoë Heller's new novel, The Believers, is an enormously entertaining and sharply observed story about the Litvinoff family in New York City. When father Joel, a famous radical leftist lawyer, suffers from a stroke and falls into a coma, his wife Audrey and his two grown daughters, Rosa and Karla, find themselves wrestling with revelations about his identity, and their own. Joseph O'Neill calls the novel, "A moving, intelligent look at intellectual loyalties - to ideology, religion, family--and the humans attached to them." You can browse inside the book here.Zoë Heller is the author of two previous novels, Everything You Know and, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, which was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize in 2003.The Millions: Early in the book, Audrey's friend Jean wonders if the whole Litvinoff family possesses a genetic "gift of conviction" (26). It's an interesting idea, and throughout the novel we see the female members of the family - Audrey, Karla, and Rosa - grasping onto old or new beliefs, perhaps as a way to render their lives comprehensible, or meaningful. Were you playing with this idea from the beginning, or did it emerge as you wrote these characters' lives?Zoë Heller: I think I always saw this book as a novel about people with a particular aptitude for faith. But the way in which these characters struggle to maintain their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence is something most people have experienced at some point in their lives, I think.TM: Why did you decide to portray a famous family of leftists? How do their political beliefs shape not only who they are, but how they interact with one another? When you began, were you setting out to satirize leftist politics, or simply strong political beliefs in general?ZH: I don't think my aim was to satirize the left. Actually, I don't think my aim was satire, period. I wanted to write about the way in which beliefs of all kinds - political, religious, conservative, progressive - operate on their adherents. The novel focuses on a family of leftists, largely I think because that is the political culture with which I am personally familiar, but it also deals with a number of other beliefs: Orthodox Judaism, the rigid ideas the characters have about themselves and their relationships. And so on.TM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Rosa's interest in Orthodox Judaism, and her struggle to understand what she believes. She is resistant to the religion's tenets, and yet, defends them to her atheist mother. Why did you decide to explore this world, and why did you place Rosa in this conflict?ZH: I think of Rosa as a woman with a particular susceptibility to grand theories of everything. When one God (revolutionary socialism) fails for her, it is only a matter of time before she finds another grand, ideological system (Judaism) to replace it. I am not a religious person, but I wanted to try to write sympathetically about a person finding religion and to point up some of the similarities between political and religious faith.TM: You're British but you live and write in New York. Most of the characters in your book, aside from Audrey (who is English), are American, and you capture their varying voices and habits of speech with great accuracy - and humor, too. The myriad voices in your novel reminded me of On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, another British writer with a similar gift for rendering speech on the page. As a Briton among Americans, do you find yourself particularly sensitive to the ways in which people in the U.S. communicate? What went into capturing these characters' speech habits on the page?ZH: I don't think my immigrant status has much to do with my interest in how people talk. I'm just as interested in the speech mannerisms and dialects of my fellow Britons. Dialogue is the most purely enjoyable part of writing a novel, I think.TM: The novel begins in 1962, when Audrey and Joel meet in London. On the first page we are introduced to "a young woman" standing alone at the window - this woman happens to be Audrey. After reading further in the book, I was curious about this initial anonymity. Why did you decide to precede the story (the rest of which takes place in 2002) with this early history? What does this courtship tell us about Joel and Audrey?ZH: I wrote the Prologue partly because I wanted to show the reader the political climate and culture in which Audrey and Joel started out together. More important, I wanted the reader to get a glimpse of Audrey as a vulnerable young woman, so that later on, when she was being monstrous, the reader might be able to muster some empathy for her. The other thing I was interested in showing was Joel and Audrey's initial misprision of one another. Like a lot of relationships, theirs begins on mutually faulty assumptions. Joel thinks Audrey is an enormously cool and self-possessed woman; Audrey thinks Joel is a man of political virtue, offering her a role as his equal partner in the struggle. And of course, neither of these initial impressions turns out to be quite correct.TM: I read your book twice, and the second time it was totally accidental - I simply could not stop myself! Do you have anything to tell us about readability, about what makes a narrative wonderfully infectious?ZH: I don't think I have anything useful to say about readability. I spent the greater part of my working life as a journalist and it's possible, I guess, that writing for newspapers teaches you a certain succinctness.TM: And, since this is a book blog, I must ask you: What is the last great book you read?ZH: The last great book I read was an advance copy of Colm Toibin's novel, Brooklyn. It is a beautifully rendered portrait of Brooklyn and provincial Ireland in the 1950s. It is also an astute and utterly unsentimental portrait of a young woman's journey into adulthood. Toibin writes about women more convincingly, I think, than any other living, male novelist.
Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I've hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year's syllabus. We currently read Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace ("E Unibus Pluram") to Chuck Klosterman ("The Real World"). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more "critical" eye.So. I'm trying to replace Fortress for this year's class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year's students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven't read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I'm currently considering Bock's Beautiful Children, Ferris' Then We Came To The End, Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers' Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I've tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven't. Of the four you're considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It's told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they're written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It's equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage's DeNiro's Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys - where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage's debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn't say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen's All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus - not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages - oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) - not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into - particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book ("Fame - fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.").Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition - almost zeugma perhaps? - in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political - the sublime and the ridiculous - are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith's desire to sleep with the vice president's daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that "refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order" and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it's an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I'd had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction - Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis' The Thin Place; Lydia Davis' Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon's The Question of Bruno - may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn't care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two "21st Century" books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders' Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty's The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It's interesting that the students didn't like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven't read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones's two collections - Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children - Jones's stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones's The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying "reveal" at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven't already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.
Again, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features one splendid fiction writer's meditations on another brilliant fiction writer Last his time, it was Eisenberg on Nádas; this time it's Zadie Smith considering the critical legacy of E.M. Forster, who provided the inspiration for On Beauty.As a novelist, Forster has suffered by comparison to his more conspicuously innovative contemporaries (for my money, Howards End is as much a technical achievement as that other Bloomsbury monument, Mrs. Dalloway); Smith suggests that Forster is underrated as a critic, as well.Perhaps his critical medium - BBC radio - made it easy to overlook Forster's seriousness; perhaps his characteristic modesty did as well. Still, we can learn much from Forster, and from Smith's appreciation of him:He could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other. Stubbornly he defends Joyce, though he doesn't much like him, and Woolf, though she bemuses him, and Eliot, though he fears him [...] Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry's right to be Valéry. He understood the beauty of complexity and saluted it where he saw it.
Brian Morton's novels include Starting Out in the Evening and Breakable You.A few things I loved this year:Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Her humor can remind you of Ring Lardner; her fondness for Southern grotesques can remind you of Flannery O'Connor; and her mordant reflections on the difficulty of love can remind you of Proust - but really, there was nobody like her, ever. More than fifty years old, this short novel is the liveliest thing I've read in years. If the world of MFA programs moved O'Connor off the pedestal and replaced her with McCullers, it would be a good thing for the future of American literature.It might seem superfluous to add another word of praise for Zadie Smith's On Beauty, except that it's impossible to praise her enough for how well she listens. Who else, for example, pays such close attention to the way we never, ever finish our sentences? "'Man, why you gotta be all...I just ahks a question, that's all, and you gotta be all...' Here Levi provided an inconclusive mime that gave no idea of the missing word."Fade to Blonde, by Max Phillips, is a brilliant homage to (and parody of) the noir tradition. Raymond Chandler said something to the effect that his Philip Marlowe novels were primarily experiments with language; you could say something similar about Fade To Blonde. I've never met Philips, but, having heard a rumor that he's not writing anymore, I want to address him directly: You are a fantastic writer, man! Keep going!More from A Year in Reading 2007
A recent post at Pinky's Paperhaus entitled "The backwards academic," muses critically on the backward-looking focus of the GRE subject exam in English literature, required for applicants to English department Ph.D. programs, and, in Pinky's case, Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.Having cited the breakdown of the GRE subject exam in English Literature (pasted in below from the post):- Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 - 5-10%- British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) - 25-30%- British Literature 1660-1925 - 25-35%- American Literature through 1925 - 15-25%- American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 - 20-30%Pinky expresses some concerns - both personal and philosophical:To sum this up, 70-80% of the exam focuses on work before 1925. 25-30% of the entire exam will be on BRITISH LIT BEFORE 1600. What concerns me isn't that I can't possibly do well on the test (I can't. I was terrible at recognizing poets from excerpts when I learned them more than a decade ago, and I don't know a caesura from a sestina) but what this focus indicates. The discipline, as it appears through the lens of this exam, is inherently colonial, still trying to prove to big bad monarch daddy that we deserve his love, we do, we really really do, because we can appreciate him and study his dirty bards and his pious poets and his sarcastic essayists and his metaphysical poets and his beowulf, thank you very much, and since we've been so good, may we please have some more moors, please?The essence of Pinky's concern, is the exam's historical focus - What about, she wonders, contemporary fiction, blogs, the effect of the internet on reading? All of these, she suggests, seem the relevant questions - not Milton, sestinas, and Beowulf.I have a few thoughts on these questions, both practically and philosophically speaking, as someone whose taken this exam, and is now entrenched in the academy. Practically speaking, the only way to do well is to spend a few months studying Norton anthologies: No one, even with a freshly minted B.A. in English, is ready for this exam without putting in some time. Also, it's a multiple choice exam: How, realistically, could they ask questions about the amorphous world of the blogosphere (Name the contributors of certain blogs? Pick traits of a blog essay?) or the yet to be determined effects of things like Google Books and Project Gutenberg on reading practices? Exams have genres too and multiple choice exams cannot help us explore abstract and emergent fields.Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the desire to get a Ph.D. implies a desire for a deep understanding of a field, and a deep understanding means history. If you just want to contemplate the effects of the internet on literature and read contemporary novels, blogging and book-reviewing will certainly suit you. The doctorate in literature (and, I presume, Creative Writing, since faculty in CW do end up teaching literature quite often), for better or for worse, means theory, the history of forms, the evolution of genres, methodical consideration of allusion and borrowing.Someone with an interest in the internet's effects on literature and the rise of the blogosphere might naturally appreciate the 18th century English pioneers of the newspaper and essay (Addison and Steel's The Spectator, for one) and maybe read a little bit of Jurgen Habermas' Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which resemble nothing so much as the ultimate fulfillment of quintessentially 18th century ideas about the periodical press as a virtual space for rational debate on subjects of public interest, a space in which all who desired to participate, regardless of class, were allowed. The rise of the periodical press and its role in facilitating writing as a profession for middle-class people was revolutionary - and we're still enjoying it today as we write our blog posts. Again, to read examples of the early "essai" as practiced by Montaigne - coiner of the genre's name - (or by Sir Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon) is to be delighted to discover that the rambling, loose essay format that blogging allows and sometimes seems to encourage is nothing so much as a return to the essay's generic origins. In sum, feelings about how a new technology impacts literature are only broadened by knowledge of literature's history.And a final philosophical point: The best modern and contemporary writers draw from the literature of the past. Joyce and Pound's titanic knowledge of the history of forms, T.S. Eliot's profound reliance on Shakespeare's The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy in The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf's delightful literary critical essays, and her respectful appreciation of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen in A Room of One's Own for the help they'd inevitably given her as a woman writer. More recently, I offer J.M. Coetzee's Foe as a re-reading of Robinson Crusoe, his Disgrace as a reading of Clarissa (this reading is Blakey Vermeule's), Zadie Smith's On Beauty as a reading of Howard's End. Frank Miller's 300 as a rereading of Herodotus.I am also generally horrified by how little I know, how little my peers know, how little my students know or care about history. And I find myself thinking about the affable but fraudulent academic hero of Don Delillo's White Noise, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn't know German. Shortchanging history when studying literature inevitably leaves a similarly gaping hole.