Toward the end of the long process of writing my own book, I felt tired of books and words. I read less—and then I had a baby! Now I read Goodnight Moon almost every night. Fortunately, it’s very beautiful. Over the past year, when I did read, I wanted books that would nourish me, so I read books I already knew, with a few exceptions. The good thing about familiar books is that they continue to change.
I read On Chesil Beach, for its simplicity, perfection, and cadence; This Boy’s Life, for its humanity and joy; Patrimony and Housekeeping, for inspiration. There’s a scene in Patrimony in which Roth’s father asks him not to write the scene he has just written, and Roth says he won’t. I guess this speaks to the betrayal at the heart of memoir—if it’s going to be good, it must be honest, and if it’s going to be honest, it cannot always be nice. I read stories by Jhumpa Lahiri and Alice Munro for their scope and insight.
When my confidence about my own work or my life, is low, those two are the best cure. I love The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, too, for her voice of authority, and how she contains many different perspectives in one scene. There’s a mystery at the end that’s solved in the first few pages, but this is easy to miss. I know it’s there, but it still gives me a zing. I read two new books I loved, Phillip Lopate’s exquisite A Mother’s Tale, about his own mother, in her own words, and Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro, a masterful novel about love and longing that moves with seamless grace between all forms of modern communication—email, text, letters, journals, speech—so that it seems to be both a classic and utterly modern.
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Hollywood has always looked to the literary world for stories, and 2018 has already seen a number of big screen adaptations, including Annihilation, A Wrinkle in Time, Ready Player One, and On Chesil Beach. Here’s a look ahead to the summer’s offerings, so if you’re the type of person who prefers to read the book before the movie—and we know you are, Millions readers!—you’ll have time to prepare.
Eating Animals is Jonathan Safran Foer’s memoir about becoming vegan. Now it’s a documentary narrated by Natalie Portman. Make sure to eat a good meal before watching it, because it’s one of those documentaries, like Food, Inc., that’s sure to make you lose your appetite (in theaters June 15).
Leave No Trace is an adaptation of Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, the story of a father and daughter who live secretly in a public urban park in Portland, Ore.—until they are accidentally discovered by a jogger. It’s written and directed by Debra Granik, who also directed Winter’s Bone (in theaters June 29).
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is based on the memoir of John Callahan, whose wickedly funny cartoons are the kind that make you say, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.” At 21, Callahan was involved in a bad car crash that left him a quadriplegic. After years of therapy, he learned to hold a pen again and started drawing. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan, with Gus Van Sant directing (in theaters July 13).
Far from the Tree is a documentary based on Andrew Solomon’s nonfiction book about parents whose children are very different from them, e.g., hearing parents whose children are deaf, the parents of children with autism, the parents of child prodigies, the parents of children with dwarfism—to name just a few of the many people Solomon interviews. I loved this doorstopper of a book when it was first published and am curious to see how Solomon’s in-depth reporting and research translates to the screen (in theaters July 20).
The Wife will star Glenn Close as the titular wife of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, which is narrated by the self-sacrificing wife of a famous novelist. It’s a bitterly comic novel, one that the 2003 Publisher’s Weekly review notes has “no cheap, gratifying Hollywood ending to make it all better.” Let’s see if the movie stays true to form (in theaters Aug. 3).
Juliet, Naked is based on Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel about the girlfriend of a fanboy who begins a correspondence with the object of her boyfriend’s obsession, a singer-songwriter called Tucker Crowe. Hornby has had success with previous adaptations of his novels, including High Fidelity and About a Boy, and this latest book-to-screen transition looks like a smooth one. Starring Ethan Hawke as Tucker Crowe (in theaters Aug. 13).
Crazy Rich Asians looks like it’s going to be just as much fun as Kevin Kwan’s novel, a romantic comedy about an NYU student, Rachel Chu, who travels with her boyfriend, Nick Young, to Singapore to meet his family—who turn out to be ridiculously wealthy. Also, Nick is the sole heir to the family fortune! This spells trouble for Rachel, who is just a naive, middle-class girl from California. Kwan’s novel, the first of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, was a bestseller in 2013. So maybe this isn’t the last film adaptation we’ll see (in theaters Aug. 13).
The Bookshop adapts Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel by the same name. It’s a tragicomedy about a bookstore trying to thrive in a small fishing village in 1959. Today’s bookstore owners might relate? Originally published in 1978 in the U.K., it didn’t make it to the U.S. until the late 1990s. Now it’s a film starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson, written and directed by Isabel Coixet (in theaters Aug. 24).
The Little Stranger is based on Sarah Waters’s bestselling haunted house thriller. Set in postwar England, it tells the story of a country doctor, Farady, who is called to the estate of Hundreds Hall to treat a servant. The house is one he knows from childhood, because his mother used to work there as a maid. He soon becomes entangled with the family. With Domhnall Gleeson as Farady and Charlotte Rampling as the lady of the house, and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who directed the 2015 adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room (in theaters Aug. 31).
William Giraldi spent more than half of his 2008 review (pdf) of Cary Holladay’s A Fight in the Doctor’s Office considering the etymology of “novella,” identifying the history and characteristics of the form, and suggesting essential writers. He claims that the demands of character development are one way to separate novellas from novels, noting that Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice does not require the 800 pages necessary for the titular character of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Giraldi’s introductory thoughts seem like a rather long preface to evaluate a work of new fiction under 150 pages. Such an observation is not meant as criticism. To write about novellas is to engage in a form of literary apologia. Giraldi’s approach is the norm. Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form.
This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works. We might begin by mining appreciative notes rather than simply cataloging criticisms. Tucked between Giraldi’s prefatory critical observations in “The Novella’s Long Life” are notes of admiration: “an expert novella combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.” He continues a critical tradition whose modern genesis might have been the novella-loving 1970s, when even novels were short; think The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, or A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. In a 1972 essay he would later develop into a book, Robert J. Clements considers the oral tradition behind the novella form as helping him “define its length as long enough for a dry split birch log to be consumed by a blazing bivouac fire.” That image was still popping in 1977, when Graham Good, in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, almost elevates the novella beyond the novel, noting that the shorter work often focuses on “simple natural or preternatural exigencies: apparitions, cataclysms like great storms or earthquakes, and individual declines or deaths.” Of course novels also contain deaths, but it’s the speed and tension that matters: the “novella is a closed form whose end is latent in its beginning: there is usually some initial indication that the end is known, and this enhances the narrative art of holding in suspense what it is.”
Fast-forward to very recent memory. At The Daily Beast in 2010, Taylor Antrim considers the focus on novellas by presses such as Melville House and New Directions, and the publication of the “wispy thin” Point Omega by Don DeLillo and Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, as proving that the form is in “pretty healthy shape.” Citing works as diverse as “The Dead” by James Joyce and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Antrim claims that “novellas are often structurally syncopated…their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative.”
In “The Three-Day Weekend Plan,” from the 2011 anthology The Late American Novel, John Brandon offers a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: hoard your novella. Best to “downplay the novella in casual conversation,” and instead keep the form to “ourselves, the adults.” The novella is a personal document, something that will “let us find out, in the writing, how we truly write.” Work to keep in a closet or desk drawer, “away from any and all publishing apparatus.”
In “Notes on the Novella,” published that same year in Southwest Review, Tony Whedon waxes lyric about the form: “novellas are not so much told as dreamed aloud; they inhabit a realm of half-shapes and shadowy implication.” Historically, they “[thrive] on travel and adventure and [are] often set in exotic climes.” Whedon stresses the need for control, and uses language that mimics John Gardner’s oft-quoted definition of the form: all “subplots need subordinating to their main storyline.” That control, in the formal sense, enables time and tense shifts. That temporal compression increases tension and pacing, resulting in a “swirly and gunky” effect. Novellas are “implosive, impacted, rather than explosive and expansive.” I read this as novellas refract rather than reflect. They are something shaken, but not spilled.
“The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread” by Jon Fassler appeared last year at The Atlantic. Fassler laments that novellas are tucked into short story collections as an afterward, or packaged with other novellas to be “sold as a curiosity.” Although Fassler’s piece is primarily a profile of Melville House’s success with re-issuing older works in their “Art of the Novella” series, he concludes that “a renaissance in the mid-length non-fiction” form, the “journalistic equivalent of the novella,” is enabled because of electronic editions.
Upon the release of his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, in which a character publishes a novella, Ian McEwan quipped a series of imagined critical reactions to the short form in The New Yorker: “Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” McEwan confidently calls the novella the “perfect form of prose fiction,” citing a “long and glorious” lineage: Mann, James, Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon, Melville, Lawrence, and Munro.
A few weeks earlier, at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, McEwan claimed that he “would die happy” if he “could write the perfect novella.” Although he worries the form is unseemly for publishers and critics, readers love that they could “hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.” Inverting the typical criticism, McEwan claims that the “novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life.” In sarcastic response, Toby Clements at The Telegraph thinks that McEwan is “lucky to be allowed to publish novellas.” Clements quotes Philip Rahv, who says that the novella form “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” Returning to McEwan, Clements considers the foolishness of word and page count definitions. At 166 pages, On Chesil Beach was considered a novella by McEwan, but a short novel by the Booker prize judges. Giraldi notes that “Adultery” by Andre Dubus is identified as a short story in one collection, and a novella in another. I would add Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor to that list. I have defaulted to italics appropriate for a short novel, but many consider the work a novella. Confusion, idiosyncrasy, beauty: welcome to the world of the novella.
While charting the lineage of novella discussions is worthwhile, as a writer of the form I am most interested in application. Perhaps the most writer-friendly treatment in recent memory is “Revaluing the Novella” by Kyle Semmel from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Rather than formal comparison, Semmel focuses on what successful novellas contain. Like Giraldi and Whedon, Semmel applies John Gardner’s definition of a novella, as explicated in The Art of Fiction. He supports Gardner’s claim that novellas move through a series of small climaxes. Semmel rightly stresses the “series” element of the definition. The mode of the novella is athletic, forward-leaning.
Gardner splits his definition to contain three modes of novellas: single stream, non-continuous stream, and pointillist. The nomenclature might be idiosyncratic, but Gardner’s criticism was always homegrown. Semmel adds to Gardner’s discussion: often novellas contain “resolution; there is closure.” He admits that the point might sound obvious, but it stresses that novellas are not meant to be top-heavy or flimsy. A necessary point to make, as even Antrim, an admirer of novellas, claims that the form “has ambivalence built into its DNA…[it] serves up irresolute endings.”
Semmel considers a range of examples, from “Voices from the Moon” by Andre Dubus to Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. He also considers “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass, but quickly dismisses the work as a “gangly prose poem” of more interest to “literary scholars” than readers. My literary heart sunk. I have loved Gass’s longer novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” ever since it was recommended to me by novelist Tom Bailey, while I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. Bailey thought novellas were defined by time—a season or a weekend—and Gass’s piece was offered as an example.
Gardner devotes several sentences to that longer-titled, shorter work, but spends pages explaining why “The Pedersen Kid” is “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” It is important to note that Gardner stressed not only the stream of climaxes, but that they were “increasingly intense.” Yet what interests me most is Gardner’s further qualification that these climaxes are “symbolic and ritualistic.”
It should not be surprising that Gardner loves this novella: Gardner published it in 1961 in his magazine, MSS. Gass’s novella nabbed the magazine thirty charges of obscenity, one of which, co-editor LM Rosenberg shares, was “‘nape,’ as in neck.” Federal fines caused the magazine to fold after three issues, but Gardner never stopped appreciating the novella. His summary of the plot: “In some desolate, rural landscape . . . in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s child, the Pedersen kid, arrives and is discovered almost frozen to death near Jorge’s father’s barn; when he’s brought in and revived, he tells of the murderer at his house, a man with yellow gloves; Big Hans and Pa decide to go there, taking young Jorge; when they get there, Jorge, making a dash from the barn to the house, hears shots; Big Hans and Pa are killed, apparently — Jorge is not sure — and Jorge slips inside the house and down cellar, where at the end of the novella he is still waiting.”
I reread the novella each winter. I also revisit Gass’s preface to the collection, which explains the composition of “The Pedersen Kid.” He “began by telling a story to entertain a toothache.” Such a story must contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” After weeks of writing he “began to erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” He “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of the sonnet.” He cast away a focus on theme for devotion to the “necessity for continuous revision, so that each word would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound.”
“The Pedersen Kid” was planned end-first, with all action “subordinated” toward “evil as a visitation — sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” It was “an end I could aim at. Like death.” And yet, also like death, “I did not know how I would face it.” He imagined the book as a work of visual art: “the physical representation must be spare and staccato; the mental representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed. It falls, I think, into three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” Three also correlates to the story’s main characters — Jorge, Big Hans, and Pa — who enter the blizzard to find the Pedersen’s abandoned home. Although Whedon does not consider Gass’s work in his essay, it fits one of his theses that symbols in novellas “present themselves orchestrally in the form of leitmotifs that dovetail with disparate time sequences to create a strong over-arching moral theme: hence the novella’s connection with allegory.”
Gass’s novella contains extended spaces between words, which John Madera calls “caesuras,” and Samuel Delany thinks are “actual suspensions of sound.” Gass says that he “wanted pages that were mostly white. Snow.” He practiced typographical and pictorial experimentation in another novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The novella form is short enough to be both art and artifice. Experimentation does not become exhausting.
The novella is ritual: for Gardner, for Gass, for Whedon, for me, but for others?
Despite claims about the paucity of options, writers continue to draft and publish novellas in literary magazines and as standalone books. Big Fiction, At Length, A Public Space, PANK, New England Review, Seattle Review, Glimmer Train, and The Long Story have published novella-length work; The Missouri Review included one of my favorites, “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin. Ploughshares Solos releases novellas as single e-books. Miami University Press and Quarterly West have revived their novella contests. Iron Horse Literary Review holds an annual chapbook contest that publishes a novella-length work during select years. Texas Review Press has its own annual contest, the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Readers and writers of speculative fiction continue to embrace the novella form. Consider Ted Chieng, Jason Sanford, and Kij Johnson; not to mention the nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novella. The most recent winner was Brandon Sanderson, for The Emperor’s Soul.
Deena Drewis founded Nouvella, a press devoted solely to novellas, in 2011. Drewis initially considered works as low as 10,000 words, but became worried that some readers would consider such standalone books as “long short [stories].” She admits that defining a novella is difficult, and instead uses the work of Andre Dubus, Jim Harrison, and Alice Munro as formal affirmations.
At 4 x 6 inches, Nouvella books can feel too bulky beyond 40,000 words, so form requires practical function. Her longest release, The Sensualist by Daniel Torday, “occupies more temporal space” than her other books. Torday told Drewis the work had originally been a novel, but she received the manuscript “pared down to its working limbs. It doesn’t feel compacted the way a short story is often a work of compression, but it also doesn’t take the liberty of meandering, like a novel sometimes does.”
Nouvella’s stated mission is to “find writers that we believe have a bright and dedicated future in front of them, and who have not yet signed with a major publisher.” She finds that the form is “a good point of entry for readers to discover emerging authors.” If readers enjoy a short story from a new writer, they need to do the legwork to find other stories, “or wait until a collection comes out, but that requires a good deal of dedication and perseverance.” Instead, a novella “allows you to spend a little more time inside the author’s head, and because it’s a stand-alone book, it demands more attention from the reader. It’s also not a novel, which for readers, can seem like a big commitment.”
Drewis is prescient: Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Such evolution is not exclusive to Nouvella. Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas from Coffee House Press, preceded his forthcoming debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Mark Doten, who acquired Ervin’s title for Soho Press, notes that “having a strong favorable opinion” of Ervin’s shorter work “was certainly a factor [but not the only one]…in that book going to the top of my reading pile.”
Of course writers are not simply drawn to the novella form for its exposure opportunities. Tim Horvath has always written fiction “on the long side…[before he] knew a thing about word counts and literary journals and what they were looking for.” “Bridge Poses,” his 9,000 word story, was published in New South, yet he was unable to publish another, longer work, Circulation, in literary magazines. An editor at AGNI, while encouraging, “warned that it would be difficult to publish in a journal because of its length.” Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, wrote some paragraphs in support of the work, and that convinced Horvath to remain with the piece. Sunnyoutside Press ultimately released the novella as a book, and Horvath appreciated how the story’s manageable length meant that the work’s “cartographic and library obsessions” could be “echo[ed] throughout the design elements of the book.”
Horvath is drawn to “stories that feel as though they encompass multitudes, that take their sweet time getting going, that have a leisurely confidence in themselves, that manage nonetheless to feel urgent, their scale necessary.” That macro approach can be compared with Peter Markus, whose novella collection, The Fish and the Not Fish, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books: “every word in this new collection is monosyllabic, [and] you would maybe think that such limitation would limit such things as the length of the piece, how much can and can’t be done, how long such a project might be sustained. The interesting thing here is that the restriction worked the other way. The river flowed up the mountain, so to speak.” Markus has always been interested in “short novels or long stories” like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “The Pedersen Kid,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, and the novellas of Jim Harrison.
The novella form’s length afforded Horvath and Markus a particular sense of control over structure and presentation. The same approach might be applied to The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams, which he viewed as a “parody of an academic essay.” After he published a story in Main Street Rag, the journal’s publisher, M. Scott Douglass, approached Williams about being a part of the press’s new novella series. The form matched the writer: Williams wonders who would not appreciate “fiction that equally borrows the short story’s precision and the novel’s potency.” Williams uses the same word as Gardner — “perfection” — to describe the unique tightness of novellas, citing his list of favorites: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Nothing in the World by Roy Kesey, Honda by Jessica Treat, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth.
My own forthcoming novella, This Darksome Burn, began as an experimental, long story; early readers thought it a one-act play. I expanded the manuscript to a novel, reaching 300 pages, but was unsatisfied. Subplots upon subplots had blurred the central narrative. I started-over a year later. I turned the manuscript into a pitch, treatment, and finally a film script. Thought was subverted to action. Everything existed on the page. The script became a novella, and Erin Knowles McKnight, my editor and publisher at Queen’s Ferry Press, suggested I switch to present tense, which allowed me to increase the story’s immediacy. My dark story about an overprotective father in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains had found its form: a novella. I had found my form: I placed a novella about opium traffickers and atomic bomb scientists in storySouth, and another novella about a defrocked priest is coming from CCM Press in 2015.
I have practical and ritual reasons for being drawn to novellas. I am the father of five-month-old twin girls, and my writing is done in bursts, late at night. I spend my days living—preparing bottles, changing diapers, writing reviews, teaching, having lunch duty in my high school’s cafeteria, mowing the lawn, and watching my girls grow—but the cadences of story remain like a faint metronome. My old office will become a playroom for the twins, so I have migrated to a smaller room downstairs, the walls lined with books, and, proper to my Italian Catholic sensibility, a cross above the doorframe. I close the door, and in a small space, within a small page amount, I try to write stories that stretch their invisible seams. I love novellas. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt a novel, or short stories, or essays, or poems. But my heart is set on that form that feels both mysterious and manageable. No apologies needed for that.
In Ian McEwan’s thirteenth novel, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) is an assistant officer in MI5 who is part of a special project to fund writers who are critical of the communist utopia in 1970s — this is the soft cold war. The author she is running, T. H. Haley, who also becomes her lover, thinks that he is receiving the generous stipend from a private foundation, because he’s an up-and-coming writer with a lot of potential. In reality, it’s because he’s written some newspaper articles against communism. At one point, Serena reads one of Haley’s stories, which is “narrated by a talking ape prone to anxious reflections about his lover, a writer struggling with her second novel.” On the last page of the story, Serena learns that the narrator of the story is, in fact, the female writer in question. “The ape doesn’t exist, it’s a spectre, the creature of her fretful imagination.” Serena is revolted; she distrusts “this kind of fictional trick.”
Without this kind of trick, Sweet Tooth, the large novel in which T. H. Haley’s own fictions are nestled like mirrors reflecting back upon reality, would fall apart completely. The tension between truth and duplicity lies at the heart of Sweet Tooth, which turns out to be a carefully constructed trick, as spectral, perhaps, as the ape in Haley’s story.
Fabrication is a well-explored topic in McEwan’s fiction. Briony Tallis’s manipulation of real events into fiction lies at the heart of Atonement, while a very big lie forms the principal device in Solar’s elaborate climate change plot. Similarly, double duplicity is what drives Amsterdam to its tragicomic finale. In these novels, however, the fabrications become so elaborate that they begin to sound hollow. In order to raise the stakes and make the fiction more compelling, McEwan has been known to stretch his plots to the point of tearing. In Sweet Tooth, the stakes — a budding relationship, government money, one or two people’s jobs — are high enough to be interesting, but low enough for the novel to remain manipulative in a merely pleasant way.
For the trick to pay off at the end, McEwan does require a certain amount of patience from the reader. If, like me, you expect the lush, thickly internalized prose of Saturday, the sparkling dialogues and quirky characters of On Chesil Beach, or even the atmospheric sense of dread of McEwan’s other spy novel, The Innocent, you will be disappointed. The principal reason for this lack is that, for Sweet Tooth to work, it needs to be told in the first person. While Serena Frome — a beautiful, blonde, romantic young woman who obtains a third in math at Cambridge and uses her photographic memory to devour novels — makes for an interesting character, she does not have a particularly compelling narrative voice. Her landscape is a little flat, her story is strictly chronological, her tone is chatty but cold. More importantly, she — or, I began to wonder as the novel progressed, perhaps McEwan himself — is obsessed with realism. The novel’s backdrop is the social and political crises in England in the 1970s: the IRA, the coal miners’ strike, the return of the Labor government in 1974. For a better part of the book, the narrator reminds us what decade we’re in regularly, defending herself if she’s acting against the norm, and explaining how the 70s were different from today when she isn’t.
Being constantly hit on the head with historical facts can get a little frustrating; if you’ve read Atonement, you’ll know that McEwan can make history come to life without overstating it. Serena herself may offer an explanation for this narrative tic when she describes her own reading habits:
I craved a form of naive realism. I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car. Then, I thought, I had a measure, I could gauge the quality of the writing by its accuracy, by the extent to which it aligned with my own impressions, or improved upon them.
This passage suggests that Serena’s obsession with historical accuracy as a narrator is a result of her own literary taste for hyperrealism, fiction that borders on fact. At least she practices what she preaches. Still, my resistance to this forced historicity raises an interesting caveat: how far should a writer stray away from what he does well, and what pleases the reader, in order to create a narrative voice that is consistent with the character? The answer, of course, depends entirely on the book.
When dealing with a writer as experienced as McEwan, however, one must be ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad I did. A few months into Serena’s work at MI5, she receives a warning from a superior and one-time love interest (the word in the agency is that she’s more trouble than she’s worth):
In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big grey space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things — and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real.
Intelligence work sounds a little bit like writing novels, and McEwan proves that he’s sufficiently deft at the latter to navigate the grey space between fact and fiction without getting lost in it. In the end, Sweet Tooth is successful enough as a work of well constructed, brilliantly rendered fiction for Serena’s voice to work within the larger whole. The author remains so removed from his fiction that, once you understand what he’s up to, you have to strain to see him pulling the strings of the narrative.
Sweet Tooth purports by its content and its opening lines to be a spy novel, but it isn’t really. In a traditional spy/thriller/whodunit, the end reveal is never as interesting as the tension-filled pages of clues and red herrings that got you there. On the contrary, Sweet Tooth is a much finer novel in retrospect, once the final chapter and its revelations have been absorbed. Only then can the reader understand why the early elements in the book, characters shown for only a few pages and then quickly carried offstage, were there at all. These characters are carefully mentioned again throughout the book like touchstones for the plot’s unraveling, and are finally given their full purpose in the story. The novel’s ending, and its final question, turns the fiction back upon itself. Therein lies McEwan’s genius when he’s at the top of his form; he writes a novel like a jeweler cuts a diamond, by following the natural tensions in the raw material to create an object of admirable sharpness, perfection, and complexity. Like a diamond, the novel may not be to everyone’s taste, but its objective qualities are undeniable, nonetheless.
Were I to claim that Jean-Philippe Toussaint shared a certain amount of common ground with Ian McEwan, I might be in danger of coming off as flippant or, worse, willfully obtuse. Toussaint, after all, is a Belgian avant-garde novelist known for his radically plotless books that seem intent on revealing as little as possible about their protagonists. McEwan is a purveyor of skillfully propulsive novels about upper-middle class English people, who has — fairly or unfairly — become synonymous with upper-middlebrow literary fiction. Toussaint is an exemplar to those of us who want to see the novel being taken to places it has not yet been. Ian McEwan is a writer whose books David Cameron has used for PR purposes (he once arranged to have himself photographed on a suspiciously empty tube between Epping and Charing Cross, cross-legged and suavely engrossed in On Chesil Beach). It’s the kind of comparison that could easily be mistaken for an attention-grabbing stunt. But I’m going to make it anyway — in good faith, I assure you — because it’s one that kept occurring to me as I read Toussaint’s brilliant and compelling The Truth About Marie, the latest of his novels to be translated into English.
I don’t mean to imply that Toussaint is really an upper-middlebrow novelist masquerading as an avant-gardist (he’s definitely not), or that he shares a sensibility or a set of artistic objectives with McEwan. They present the reader with very different kinds of experience, and demand very different intensities of reading. But they are each in possession of a rare and remarkable gift for creating stunning standalone scenes that involve the steep deceleration of narrative time. McEwan’s long and absorbing set-pieces — Enduring Love’s hot air balloon disaster, the battle scene in Atonement, the disappearance of the child in the opening pages of The Child in Time — are, famously, the best thing about his books.
The truth about The Truth About Marie is that it is essentially one set-piece after another. It’s divided into three distinct parts. The first details the events of a single night, during which Jean Christophe de G., the wealthy lover of Marie (the ex-girlfriend of the unnamed narrator) suffers a massive heart attack in her apartment and dies on the spot. In her state of panic, she phones the narrator, who leaves his flat just half a mile away (where he has been making love to another woman, also named Marie) and walks through a Parisian downpour to be with her in the apartment they used to share. The second part jolts us back to the beginning of Marie and Jean-Christophe’s affair. It’s this section that really showcases Toussaint’s spooky powers of chronological manipulation, his idly urgent exploration of the vast spaces of a single moment. In a sequence that accounts for almost half the length of this short novel, the narrator (who offers us no plausible assurance of the reliability of his testimony) comprehensively details an occurrence at which he himself was not present: the transportation via cargo plane of a racehorse, owned by Jean-Christophe, from Tokyo to Paris. In the third part, Marie invites the narrator to come and stay with her in Elba at the home of her recently deceased father, and a forest fire breaks out that threatens to consume them. The novel, in other words, is three show-stopping climaxes specifically not in search of a plot. It’s as though the best, most audacious bits of McEwan’s books had been extracted from the stories of which they serve as centerpieces, in order to be fastened loosely together into some wholly strange and original (nouveau) nouveau romanesque construction.
The Truth About Marie reveals its author’s perennial obsession with the tensions between motion and stasis, which is, as always, nested within a larger concern with the inescapable progression of all bodies towards immobility, and all lives towards death. (Even in the earlier, more whimsically comic works like The Bathroom and Camera with which Toussaint made his name in the 1980s, there is always this slow, quietly horrified circling of the abyss of mortality.) When the paramedics arrive and attempt to resuscitate Jean-Christophe de G. with a defibrillator — to reverse, as it were, his body’s progression from movement to stillness — Marie observes the failure of this attempt, and her lover’s lifeless body is suddenly revealed to her, laid bare in the fullest sense of the term:
Falling back onto the floor, the body lay motionless, and Marie understood then that Jean-Christophe de G.’s heart had stopped beating. Marie approached the paramedics and looked down at the stripped body, its face hidden by the oxygen mask, its white inanimate flesh dotted with electrodes, skin like a fish, cod or flounder, and Marie couldn’t help thinking that it was this same motionless body that she’d held in this room less than an hour earlier in that very spot, this body stripped naked and dispossessed, objectified by a whole array of medical apparatuses, shaved, hooked to an IV and ventilator — this body reduced to its bare substance, bearing no sign of Jean-Christophe de G.’s personality. She realized then that up until this moment she hadn’t really looked at his body, not once throughout the whole night, not even while making love had she taken an interest in his body, she’d hardly even touched it, hadn’t paid it the least attention, being concerned as she always was with her own body alone, caring only for her own pleasure.
The word that keeps impressing itself upon the reader here is “body.” It appears eight times in three sentences. The passage is a kind of narrative still life, in which the facticity of death, the pallid truth of what we are, is stared down. Marie is apprehending this man as though for the first time here, really seeing the condition of his existence at the precise moment at which that existence has ceased. What she is looking at, in other words, is a thing — a thing that, without her ever beginning to appreciate it, has always been a thing — a body revealed and “objectified” by the epiphenomena and appurtenances of sudden death. Here and elsewhere, Toussaint’s beautifully ruthless descriptions reveal the seemingly paradoxical way in which a death at once conceals and lays bare what a person, every person, actually is. As the narrator reaches Marie’s apartment, he passes the paramedics as they carry Jean-Christophe’s body to the ambulance, and he does not know who or what he is seeing on the stretcher. All he knows is that he has been summoned by a panicked Marie, and that now he is seeing a body being removed from her building — a body which, for all he knows, could well be hers. He then observes some visual details that reveal the form as that of a man. “I gleaned nothing,” he tells us, “but isolated details, focused, removed from their context, caught only in passing, his socks, dark, imposing, as if this man would henceforth be reduced to these, his wrist, horrid, to which the IV was attached, a livid wrist, yellow-hued, cadaverous, his face pale, on which I focused closely, scrutinizing its features to see who this was, but in vain, his face, completely covered by the oxygen mask, was perfectly invisible.”
Jean-Christophe de G. is depersonalized in death, “reduced” to an anonymous aggregation of parts. Most novelists would use this as a starting point for an attempt at reintegration, for a narrative that might endeavor to give this man back the identity taken from him by death. But Toussaint’s narrator makes no such effort, and Jean-Christophe remains a more or less wholly concealed figure (as does the narrator himself, and as does Marie). In fact, he casually informs us at the very beginning of Part II that Jean-Christophe de G.’s real name was actually “Jean-Baptise de Ganay” — a fact gleaned from his obituary in Le Monde — and then reverts anyway, for the remainder of the novel, to calling him Jean-Christophe. There’s something savagely vindictive about this insistence on ignoring the facts of the man’s life. He is denying Jean-Baptiste his real name, using the privileges of narratorship to punish him for his affair with Marie. There’s a lesson in this that might be too awful for us to want to learn, which is that death takes from us not just our lives, but also our right to insist upon a particular version of those lives. What we think of as “our” truths, in other words, are just as provisional and corruptible as what we think of as “our” bodies.
There’s a suspect and slightly creepy moment not much later when the narrator admits that he may have been wrong in many of his assumptions about Jean-Christophe — or “Jean-Christophe” — but insists that he is on much surer ground when it comes to Marie. “I knew Marie’s every move,” he assures us, “I knew how she would have reacted in every circumstance, I knew her instinctively, my knowledge of her was innate, natural, I possessed absolute intelligence regarding the details of her life: I knew the truth about Marie.” As is so often the case with such excessive insistences, this draws attention to precisely the kind of uncertainty it attempts to conceal. The narrator does not, cannot, know “the truth” about Marie. Either there is a truth, and he doesn’t know it — because he wasn’t there — or (more likely) there is nothing like a truth to “know” about a person in the first place, let alone a person who isn’t oneself.
So the substance of the novel is, necessarily, an indulgence of the narrator’s imagination, as he creates a vivid version of what happened before and after Jean-Christophe’s death. The Japanese section, about the transportation of the racehorse, is by far the most impressive of these. (It takes place, incidentally, just after the events described in Toussaint’s earlier novel Making Love, in which Marie, who is a successful fashion designer, brings the narrator with her on a business trip to Tokyo so that they can take some time out to concentrate on breaking up properly). It focuses much more intently on the horse than on the two human characters. There’s a long, nightmarish sequence in which Marie and Jean-Christophe remain in the hold of the cargo plane with the petrified animal, trapped in a metal container inside a winged metal tube hurtling through a turbulent night sky. The fact that the horse’s name is Zahir is a clue to the position he occupies in the narrator’s mind (Borges’s story “The Zahir,” which is about an object that completely and exclusively occupies the waking and sleeping consciousness of anyone who beholds it, is referenced as the source of his name). This animal, whose raison d’etre is speed, is being kept completely immobile inside a machine that is moving at incomprehensible speed toward a destination that is, to him, likewise incomprehensible. The scene, which seems to illuminate and magnify our powerlessness to escape the trajectory of time and the destination of death, produces in the reader a kind of base animal unease.
At one point, the narrator happens across Marie and Jean-Christophe at a racecourse in Tokyo, and he observes them without their noticing him. It is not long after he himself has broken up with Marie. “I looked at Marie,” he says, “and it was clear to me then that I was no longer there, that I wasn’t the one with her anymore, this man’s presence revealed nothing if not the reality of my absence. I had before my eyes the striking revelation of my own absence.” This, in fact, is one of the few moments up to that point at which the narrator is actually present for the scene he describes. It becomes a sort of premonitory glimpse at the reality of his own death, and it illuminates the paradoxical way in which his absence has all along been the most overbearing presence in the novel. This is the way Toussaint’s writing achieves its revelations: at first slowly and imperceptibly, and then suddenly and blindingly. It’s a beautiful moment in a strange and unsettling novel that upholds its author’s status as one of the most exciting figures in contemporary fiction.
Last week, The New Yorker ran a profile (subscription required) of Ian McEwan that was scarcely shorter than McEwan’s most recent novel, On Chesil Beach. For all its expansiveness, however, the article failed to offer readers the supreme pleasure of McEwan’s best fiction: a kind of psychological X-ray. And where writer Daniel Zalewski did manage to see inside McEwan the man, he seemed to discover there – perhaps unwittingly – a certain metaphysico-aesthetic complacency. For example, of John Banville’s quite valid complaint about Saturday’s “rosy” view of marriage (the wealthy and brilliant protagonist starts his day with wake-up sex), McEwan remarked, “The critic was revealing far more about himself and his wife’s teeth-flossing habits than anything about the book.”A measure of pride may be in order – Atonement sold 2 million copies! Still, self-satisfaction represents one of writing’s occupational hazards, in both senses of the phrase. Doubt is for the novelist what faith is for the priest.Anyway, I’m pleased to report that my worries about McEwan were short-lived. His meditation on John Updike in the New York Review of Books shows us an empiricist still capable of wonderment. Better yet, unlike the New Yorker piece, the NYRB essay is free to all online. If time constraints force you to choose between reading Ian McEwan and reading about Ian McEwan… well, you know what to do.
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its voluminous 2009 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 146 novels on the list, nominated by 157 libraries in 41 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2007 (including translations).Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least five libraries.A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (18 libraries representing Belgium, England, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Uganda, and the US)Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje (13 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US)On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (10 libraries representing Canada, the Czech Republic, England, Estonia, Germany, Portugal, The Netherlands, and the US)The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (8 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and the US)The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (8 libraries representing Canada, England, and the US)The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (7 libraries representing Ireland and the US)The Gathering by Anne Enright (6 libraries representing Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, and the US)What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn (5 libraries representing Canada, England, and Northern Ireland)You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:In The Netherlands, The Dinner Club by Saskia Noort and Lost Paradise by Cees NooteboomIn the US, Tree of Smoke by Denis JohnsonIn Canada, Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay and The Outlander by Gil AdamsonThere were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:From Colombia, Delirium by Laura RestrepoFrom Barbados, Man Gone Down by Michael ThomasFrom Estonia, Between Each Breath by Adam ThorpeFrom Jamaica, The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-ThompsonFrom Russia, Tomorrow by Graham SwiftFrom The Gambia, Ishq and Mushq by Priya BasilThe shortlist will be announced on April 2, 2009 and the winner on June 11, 2009.