When my friend Amelia Morris and I decided to start a podcast about motherhood called Mom Rage, my first thought was, “We need to get Meaghan O’Connell on the show!”
O’Connell’s first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, recounts her accidental pregnancy at age 29, her harrowing birth story, and the angst and anxieties of early motherhood. She writes honestly and with humor about looking at her own body in the mirror soon after returning from the hospital, about her complicated feelings surrounding breastfeeding, and about the time she fled a library story time, unable to connect with the other moms. When she writes, “I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak. And which one was preferable,” I nod with recognition, and I cheer when she writes, “What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?” Meaghan is a brilliant writer. I am so glad she became a mother so that she can convey on the page all the muck of parenting that seems—while it’s actually happening to me—impossible to convey.
As hosts of Mom Rage, Amelia and I start every show sharing our own struggles and frustrations as parents, and we investigate the unfair expectations and assumptions placed on mothers. We then interview a guest: authors, healthcare professionals, and regular parents just trying their best. Meaghan fulfills two of those three categories. We talk to her in episode 4.
After our podcast conversation, which focused on parenting and her expectations for her soon-to-be-born second child, I sent Meaghan some questions via email. These were about the craft of writing a book like hers; they were my way of asking, “How did this masterpiece come to be?” She was kind enough to shed some light on her process.
The Millions: You were penning regular columns on parenting for The Cut before your memoir came out. Were you writing the memoir alongside these essays? I’m curious how the shorter work informed the book, and how writing about parenting related to parenting itself. More to the point: How does writing help you process motherhood?
Meaghan O’Connell: I was. The book came out of the regular freelance writing I was doing and then became its own, separate thing. I would have loved to only write the book but couldn’t afford to do that. So it was a year or two or three of being completely immersed in this subject, for better or worse. At the beginning it was where my brain was anyway, so it was very convenient in a sense. Like being paid to think about what I was already thinking about in the first place.
Web writing became a sort of farm team for my brain. Some of it ended up being adapted into the book; some just led to deeper thinking; some was about getting things out of my system. It was also nice to publish little things along the way, proof of life, getting to feel like I was part of the conversation, etc.
I thought writing a book would be so much more overwhelming than writing a column, but I was surprised by how much safer it felt. Just spending the time on it, in what felt like a secret document. And then the year of editing that went into it! It is overall much less terrifying than writing 1,000 words in two to three days and then seeing it online with a comments section under it. That is a different kind of fun!
Writing helps me process everything. There is a sweet spot for me with essays where I know I have a lot of ideas about something, but they’re only 60-80 percent formed, and getting to that last 20 percent can happen in the writing. Or maybe it’s just 10 percent more and you leave the rest open because certainty is a lie. That’s what’s been funny about doing interviews. If I could easily talk about this stuff in a way that is neat or cogent, I would not have needed to write a book about it.
TM: What was your process for putting this memoir together? Was each chapter considered a discrete section, planned ahead of time as a separate essay, or was it all in your head as an overall arc?
MO: Well, I will start by saying I never thought of it as a memoir! It’s certainly autobiography, and I wouldn’t argue it’s not a memoir, but the m-word has really only come up now that the book is out.
In the writing (and selling) of the book, it was always “essays.” Granted, some chapters (technically the word “chapter” is not in the book either! But I keep falling back to it, so maybe that is a tell) are more essayistic than others, meaning there is more of an attempt to figure something out, with a central question or a central idea, and others are more story-ish.
So to answer your question, there wasn’t an arc. I thought of the book as a series of distinct essays around different ideas or experiences: pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, sex, gender roles, etc. The list was always changing, and it was never as neat as that. But still.
The structural challenge all along, though, was that the birth is a natural climax. But it couldn’t be at the end. I had a few talks with editors about putting it at the beginning. It wasn’t supposed to matter whether it was chronological. Part of me wanted everything out of order.
But then you write all these words, and I really wanted it to feel like a cohesive BOOK, not just a bunch of essays “packaged” as a book as a career move (you know the sort of book I mean). I wanted it to be its own world. I wanted it to be propulsive. Or I was afraid to want this and resisted it, feeling it beyond me, until I sent the first draft to my editor. I got the sort of feedback that you dread but more so because you know it’s true, that you have work to do, that it’s not quite there yet, etc.
The trick for this particular book was how to have each essay/chapter have a mini-resolution but not enough of one where the book loses momentum. It also took me a long time to figure out how to end it in a way that could carry all the emotional weight that came before but not be false or too tidy or undermining. I think at one point I literally Googled “suspense.” I was semi-resentful initially at having to even think about this stuff—what was I, a fiction writer?—but really, I was just in uncomfortable territory, doing something I didn’t know how to do yet.
Then one day on a walk it came to me as almost a revelation: I could structure the last chapter the same way I did the pregnancy chapter (“Holding Patterns”)—short, numbered sections written in the present tense. This form can feel like a cheat to me, and I think people use it when it isn’t justified, so I hesitated. But when I realized it would solve the bigger problem—of resolution and suspense and so on—I just went for it. It wasn’t as simple as cutting the last few paragraphs of every essay that came before and adding them to this last one, but in many cases that’s exactly what I did. And it still feels like a cheat, but I think it works enough to not matter. I don’t know how else I would have solved the structure of the book.
TM: What books on motherhood and parenting did you look to as you were writing yours? I certainly felt a spiritual connection to Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, which you quote in the epigraph: “Oh dear, they say. Poor baby. They do not mean me.” I’m curious what other books lit your path, and why they spoke to you.
MO: Well, once I started writing mine I actively avoided reading anything too similar, but I read them all already and had the books sort of ringing in my head, spurring me on.
I read all of Rachel Cusk’s other books, for instance. And Maggie Nelson’s. I remember reading a passage in The Red Parts that unlocked something for me—I’m looking through the book now and nothing jumps out, and I don’t even remember what I took away from it. What I remember and miss now, being out of that stage of the writing process, was the feeling of something being unlocked. It was always a little beyond language, just a sense of possibility, a door opening in my brain after I’d been hitting a wall. Despondency giving way to hope.
I read a lot of Sylvia Plath, which I guess is funny. Her journals, her poetry. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which is a genius book. Then a lot Anne Sexton poetry. I also read Knausgaard. Book 5 and then reread Book 2.
I mean if Sylvia Plath can write Ariel and if Knausgaard can write My Struggle…
As a person, I am self-conscious and shy and I second-guess myself, but as a writer I am trying to break out of that, to be unabashed and unapologetic (about being abashed and apologetic) in a way I wish I could be in life. I think I turned to writers who really know how to wield and twist the knife, to remind myself that in this realm, I can be that way, too.
TM: It feels like we’ve gotten some terrific mother-centric literature in the past few years. Moms are really enjoying some cultural relevance right now! Any hypotheses of why that is?
MO: I could answer this a dozen different ways and none would be the full picture. But from a publishing perspective—maybe the least interesting but most straightforward way to look at this? My theory is that there were a few breakout hits three to five years ago and we are currently in the next wave of that. Of bigger houses acquiring books that might have seemed like more of a risk before Graywolf published The Argonauts (2015) and On Immunity (2014), for instance. A book of personal essays by an unknown entity about something “ordinary” is a hard sell in publishing, but it’s maybe easier than it’s ever been? Again, look to 2014: Graywolf published the breakout Empathy Exams and Harper Perennial published Bad Feminist—in an interview for Scratch, Roxane Gay said her advance for that book was $15,000.
2014 was the year I had my son. So all of this was happening as I started writing my own book. Whether writing about this stuff was respectable, or intellectual, or ART, felt like less of a question than it had ever been. I imagine other writers had the same experience.
TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?
MO: Well, this being The Millions, I have a very relevant answer: Lydia Kiesling’s forthcoming novel, The Golden State. I love the voice and prose style so much, I could have stayed swimming in it forever. It’s the perfect mix of bleak and funny and angry and desperate and tender. Also motifs such as string cheese, cigarettes, small-town restaurants, road trips, work emails—I JUST LOVED IT.
For more about Mom Rage, be sure to access all the episodes here.
I’ve tried to come up with so many different themes for this year and the way I read my way through it. The year I read all the Russians! The year I read all the sad white woman poetry! The year I tried and failed to read all the books I’ve been hoarding under my sofa! And all of those are true, but none of them are all the truth. For me, reading comes in waves; these are the ones I’ll remember from 2017.
There was the week I spent in March reading The Master and Margarita on a river bank while my family kayaked in circles. My surprise when I discovered the book was infinitely more fixated on Pontius Pilate than on tequila is both embarrassing and, I maintain, not wholly unreasonable. My surprise when I found myself silently rooting for a demon cat on rampage in Soviet Moscow was just fun. Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire is biting, his characters insane, and his story strangely and deeply moving. I recommended the book to everyone I talked to for months, and I recommend it now. And as a kind of bonus, The Master and Margarita somehow, eventually, led me to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, now one of my all-time favorite essay collections.
Later, over the long Texas summer, I filled the days and nights with women writers and what must have been gallons and gallons of sparkling water. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God felt like a miracle to me—why hadn’t anyone recommended it before?—and I fell through Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jane: A Murder, The Argonauts, and The Art of Cruelty in a matter of days. I read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a sharp and challenging look at how we’re failing to respond to the migration crisis striking Central America and the U.S. Then I picked up the collected poems of H.D. for a cooling dose of classicism and a biography (or three) of Joan of Arc, who reminded me how to fight.
It was also over the summer that I looked around my apartment and realized (not for the first time) that I own far too many books I’ve never read and keep accumulating more. I spent the next few months trying to read through all the books stacked around and under and over all my furniture. That meant a lot of Graham Greene—The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, both immeasurably powerful books I’ve already stacked in my reread pile—and finally finishing Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which I resisted and resisted until it undid me completely. It also meant trying to force my way through a tattered old copy of the Essays of Elia, for some reason, which made me abandon the whole project.
There’s one book, though, that I’m thinking about more than any other as we all collapse towards the end of 2017: Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation. Though first released in 2014, when the national conversation about vaccination was much bigger than, say, any talk of an immigration ban, I’m willing to argue this book has grown more significant over the years, not less. Biss’s elegant explanation of our interconnected fates, her careful consideration of what we owe one another and her gentle (and not-so-gentle) unraveling of our isolating, protectionist instincts is a powerful reminder that we don’t—and can’t—move through this world alone.
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Corporate entities and media conglomerates have historically tended to take me for their target demographic. Representation? I’m a straight white man: I could be Walter White one day, Louis C.K. the next, and any Avenger I wanted (Tony Stark, obviously). “Everyone listens to me!” I could declaim, like Homer Simpson opening a can of Nuts and Gum.
Then my wife and I became parents, and I became a stay-at-home dad. Suddenly popular culture wasn’t an endless hall of mirrors, reflecting most superficial aspects of my life and circumstances back at me.
I had better luck when I turned to books. A number of writers were dwelling on parenthood and the seemingly impossible demands it made of artistic practice. But all of these writers were women. (There was one major exception, of course, which I’ll get to later.) Their subject wasn’t parenthood in a gender-neutral sense, but rather motherhood, an all-encompassing identity if ever there was one.
The wisdom in these books and related commentary seems to be that the roles of mother and writer are inherently in conflict. Give attention to your child and your writing suffers; give attention to your writing and your child pounds on the door of your office like the SWAT team. A feature article in New York magazine’s The Cut examined this conflict at length; Kim Brooks surveyed these books while detailing her own struggles to finish her manuscript while cutting up apple slices. She dubbed this subgenre “the literature of domestic ambivalence,” and its paradigmatic example was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Brooks comes across this book, appropriately enough, in the bedroom. She writes:
I first became aware of it lying beside my husband one night, our kids sleeping after the usual protracted battle. He was reading a slim book with an attractive cover. He read the last page, closed it, and extended it toward me. “Read this,” he said. “Read it now.” The book was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and I read it in a single gulp, loving it for the oldest and silliest reason a reader can love a book, because I saw myself on the page, heard my own, unarticulated angst in the voice.
She goes on to read many more works in this vein—sister books, you could say—including Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, and Elisa Albert’s After Birth. You’ll notice that Brooks collects both fiction and nonfiction under this heading; Dept of Speculation is a novel related in aphoristic bursts, On Immunity is a book-length essay about vaccination and the demands of modern society. A body of literature about individual women performing multiple, even contradictory roles has the happy result of producing books that pick and choose from a wide breadth of styles and techniques, genre boundaries be damned.
I read these books and thrilled to the descriptions of quotidian tasks. Lyrical paragraphs about changing diapers! Ethnographic studies of playground moms! But there was a running theme in nearly all of these books that didn’t quite translate into my own experience. And no, it wasn’t breastfeeding. I used a bottle to feed my kids, sure, but I still recognized the semi-conscious state one falls into during that 3 a.m. feeding. What I didn’t experience was precisely that sense of domestic ambivalence, the conflict between the roles of artist and caregiver. This isn’t to say that writing while parenting is all paychecks and playdates. Far from it! I have two children under the age of five, and on a not-infrequent basis will I retreat to the kitchen, closing the childproof gate behind me, to get a few minutes’ peace and check Twitter while they watch Peppa Pig.
But for me, this struggle is an issue of resources more than identity. If only my kids napped more like when they were younger, or if only we had more money to afford a babysitter or daycare, then I could write more pages per day and feed my kids something other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Rather then being two states in opposition, I’ve found that domestic and artistic life have many parallels. Both involve shuffling around the house in sweatpants while accomplishing minor tasks: write a paragraph here, read Curious George there. Unlike Offill’s conception of the “art monster,” I discovered that the transcendent and the mundane make good partners.
Is my male privilege showing yet? “Wow, sir, congratulations on navigating the demands of art and life! You must be the first person in recorded history ever to accomplish such an apparently insurmountable task!” Yes, I get it. Women have been maintaining this balance for centuries before I came along. I think that this disconnect of mine says something about the nature of contemporary parenthood, and how expectations differ depending on who does it.
Back when my oldest child was first born, I experienced a burst of creative energy. I finished work that had stalled before I was a father; I did research for future projects. I wrote a complete rough draft of a novel in a couple months, then I went back and rewrote it again in a couple more months, and again, and again. In my first year as a father, I wrote more than I had in the previous five. I chalked this up to what I called the American Idol effect. Every season on the show, there was at least one contestant, if not multiple ones, who claimed that they were competing on their children’s behalf, to demonstrate that anything was possible, they should always follow their dreams, #staypositive. Supremely corny, yes, but if that’s where my motivation was coming from, I wasn’t going to question it.
After a while, I grew convinced that I was able to experience that creative burst because I had chosen, consciously and deliberately, to be a stay-at-home father. Granted, it wasn’t a terribly difficult decision to make. My wife earned more than I did, and had health insurance to boot. Still, it didn’t feel like I was backed into a corner. Conversely, my wife feels that the decision to continue working has been, in some sense, made for her, as she has to provide for our family. There’s a structural conflict to her side of our domestic arrangement, sometimes making her feel that she’s doing what she has to do while I, more or less, am doing what I chose to do. Not to say that she’s unhappy with the arrangement; raising a family together has shown us that she’s more comfortable going to work and earning an income, while I’m more comfortable staying home. But the mere fact that I’ve assumed an unconventional domestic role further demonstrates that it’s a choice I made for myself. It’s one that seems to work, too. Once my daughter started sleeping through the night (at six weeks—yes, I did win the lottery on that one), I was able to establish a routine that allowed me to write for a few hours every day while still keeping her alive. Work, family, a reasonable balance between the two: it’s what I want out of life, honestly.
My experience ran directly counter to much of Domestic Ambivalence Lit. The mothers writing these books often felt like the choice to care for their children wasn’t a choice at all, but an imposition foisted on them by the one-two punch of society and biology. This is, of course, one of the central struggles of modern feminism. Even if you can manage to assert yourself in a patriarchal culture and make an actual choice, is it the right one?
Related, and perhaps even more salient, is the fact that it’s easier to be a stay-at-home dad than it is to be a stay-at-home mom. Not in the terms of the workload, mind you. I change as many diapers and weather as many tantrums as any mother. The biggest difference, to put it bluntly, is guilt. On a day-to-day basis, I would imagine that I experience significantly less guilt about my abilities as a caregiver than my female counterparts. Are the kids alive? Yes? Then I’m doing fine. And I’m not the only one grading myself on a curve. When I go the library, when I go to the grocery store, I am greeted with beatific smiles and congratulatory nods. Behold the stay-at-home dad, savior of civilized society!
This asymmetry often means that I’m reading about the same mundane events that make up my life at the moment without sharing some of the underlying emotions. It’s an unusual experience, like reading a Wikipedia summary of a movie without ever watching the movie itself. Probably this contributed to the fact that my favorite entry in this subgenre is Little Labors by Rivka Galchen, a short book of short entries, some no longer than a sentence, whose central emotion isn’t guilt, but wonder. Staying home with my kids, in my experience, consists of long stretches of tedium and stress, punctuated by occasional moments of transcendence and general oneness of the universe. Galchen somehow resides in those moments while letting the stresses recede into the background, a trait that would make me resentful if her book weren’t so good.
Still, Galchen’s book touches on the theme of the role of caregiver being imposed on those who practice it, rather than choosing it. Nor is this ambivalence new; writers of various commitments to feminist ideals have been examining it for years, from Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen in the 1970s, all the way back to Virginia Woolf, the godmother of Domestic Ambivalence. There’s a history to this sensibility, and I never considered myself a part of it.
This is why I haven’t written about stay-at-home fatherhood until this essay. All those drafts I wrote when I first became a father had nothing to do with being a father. Even trying to write this short piece is difficult, and it’s because there are few models for how to depict these experiences.
“But Adam,” I hear you think. “What about celebrated Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard? He writes about the quotidian nature of fatherhood at great, some would say unreadable, length!” Indeed he does! I confess to you that, after multiple attempts, I simply haven’t been able to find my footing in My Struggle. I suspect it’s a structural issue. Part of what I enjoy about the Domestic Ambivalence works is their fragmentary nature. They are, almost without exception, short books made up of small parts. For me, the chamber music approach gets closer at depicting the realities of staying home with kids than Knausgaard’s opera-cycle tactic. Plus, reading about his reliance on Norway’s free, state-mandated childcare simply makes me jealous.
So where do I look for models? I’ve found one in an unusual place.
Don DeLillo is one of my favorite writers. The gnomic pronouncements on technology, the pervasive paranoia, the verbose yet affectless dialogue: I love all of it. But there’s an aspect to his work that receives less attention than the postmodern pyrotechnics, and it is that he is a poet of the domestic sphere. For all the schemata of late capitalist information networks in his work, the characters themselves are frequently confined to isolated, cramped spaces. “Men in small rooms,” goes the refrain from Libra, his novel about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. History is made by men sitting in small rooms, waiting for the opportunity to assert themselves on the public consciousness. A number of his works feature little more than a few characters in a confined domestic setting. Great Jones Street finds rock star Bucky Wunderlick holed up in a small apartment in Lower Manhattan, staring at an unplugged phone and meditating on fame. The Body Artist tracks performance artist Lauren Hartke as she wanders around her home following the death of her husband. Perhaps most germane, Mao II gives us Bill Gray, a blocked writer who sits at his desk all day, blowing his nose and accumulating drafts. Much like a parent, you could say.
This thread running through DeLillo’s work testifies to his belief that a small, single room can function as a node where one can plug into the larger forces of economics, history, and technology. Where did this computer come from? How does it change the room in which it sits, and how does it change me? These are the kinds of thoughts that cross my mind during the lulls that sometimes occur during the course of the day, when my kids are thankfully quiet for a few moments and I can let myself think. If there’s a model for how to write about the experience of a stay-at-home father, I could do worse than choosing this one.
But maybe I’m kidding myself. I’m a man performing a role that gets coded as feminine, and I might be assuaging my insecurities about occupying such a marginalized position by spinning elaborate fantasies of masculine intellect and profundity. Housewives in the 1950s had soap operas and sleeping pills; I have my college reading list.
But maybe doubting the validity of my own perspective is the quintessential problem of the stay-at-home parent, one that mothers have struggled with for ages—precisely the sort of trap that I shouldn’t fall into. Trust your instincts: good advice for writers and caregivers both.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
1.Standing at the DMV counter for a new license, I grit my teeth against a vivid mental picture of my mangled body being pulled from a car wreck. I am about to check “yes” for organ donor. As pen hits paper, I shudder at images of sharp tools flashing at the accident scene, removing my eyeballs and kidneys. I resist the urge to ask the clerk behind the counter if the medics will absolutely ensure I’m dead before removing my organs. My fear is mitigated by knowing that there is such great need for organs; I’ve recently learned this by teaching bioethics to nursing and premedical students. When the shiny plastic card is handed to me, I look at the tiny blue heart enclosing “Organ Donor” in red and feel a flush of satisfaction: I’ve done the right thing.
Two recent books, Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, probe our conflicted feelings about giving parts of ourselves to others. Russell’s novella uses the delightfully sly conceit of an insomnia epidemic to dramatize the interpersonal dynamics of donation. Protagonist Trish Edgewater works for Slumber Corps, a nonprofit funded and run by former CEOs Rudy and Jim Storch; she secures sleep donations by telling recruits the heart-wrenching story of her sister who succumbed to fatal sleep deprivation. In Atwood’s novel, a corporation disguised as a collective is secretly euthanizing prisoners and selling their organs.
These two sci-fi tales pose pressing ethical questions that affect us now: What motivates donation? How does donation work in a for-profit health care industry? What are our obligations to others and what are our rights to our organs and tissues? Karen Russell and I discussed these questions over the phone on the day before the election; in the post-election reality, their urgency has intensified.
Anxiety over organ harvesting has a long and ghoulish life in our collective imagination. Historian Katharine Park, in Secrets of Woman, notes the persistent cultural narrative of early dissectionists in Renaissance Italy shunting corpses out of trapdoors in their laboratories when the authorities came around. Mary Shelley was thinking of both public autopsies on executed criminals and the vulture eating Prometheus’s liver when she described Victor Frankenstein assembling human cadaver parts into a new creature. A foreigner draining good English blood from Lucy Westenra — and transfusions from four men — sets off an international vampire hunt in Dracula. In our century, Kazuo Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go imagines an eerily plausible world in which people clone themselves for their own future transplant needs. Private organ and tissue banking is already a thriving industry; only the completion of human cloning technology seems to stand between Ishiguro’s medical dystopia and us.
Sleep Donation is Russell’s first foray into “straight science fiction.” As a young reader, she was influenced by Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, a Cold War era thriller about bioengineered plants that revolt against humans; and Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. Of the last, she said, “It’s an amazing, prescient epic about ecological fragility, monopolistic guilds, and an interstellar community addicted to ‘spice’ the way we are dependent on fossil fuels. Dune showed me how an alternate universe can hold up a mirror to our own reality.” In her novella, the idea of dream donation “gets at the global transmission of ideas — that accelerated connectivity of the Internet age, and the increasingly porous boundaries of this new world,” Russell said.
While drafting Sleep Donation, Russell researched organ and blood donation and read up on the history of the AIDS epidemic. The novella captures the turbulence of a new disease outbreak. Scientists race to find the cause and develop a cure. Meanwhile, people seek their own solutions. Some “file for dream bankruptcy” and wait to be approved for a sleep donation; others resort to medical tourism — seeking treatment abroad; and a fringe of Night Worlds spring up complete with nostrum sellers and social spots catering to those who are awake all night. In her recruitment, Trish has stumbled across a particularly valuable sleep donor, Baby A. Her pure sleep makes her a universal donor. Trish forms a bond with her mother, Mrs. Harkonnen, who volunteers Baby A to give the maximum amount of sleep to the Corps. The baby’s father, however, resists the unrestricted donation.
The conflict between Mrs. and Mr. Harkonnen raises questions about motives for donation. Like blood donation, sleep donation does not seem to harm the donor; blood and sleep are renewable resources. “What has always felt so beautiful to me about blood donation is that it’s so literal and simple, a very visceral way to give and to receive. You get to participate in the circulatory system of a human community, a communal body,” Russell said. But more murky is the question of manipulating goodwill and consent to secure bodily gifts.
I’ve been able to avoid consenting to post-mortem organ harvesting for most of my adult life because the U.S. follows an opt-in system; those wishing to donate organs after death must give explicit permission via a living will, driver’s license, or donor registry under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act — a piece of legislation that sounds like it could have been invented by Russell or Atwood. Other countries like Austria have an opt-out system, which presumes consent and requires explicit refusal to donate; these countries have about a 90 percent donation rate. In an opt-in system, recruiting donors is paramount, as Sleep Donation dramatizes.
Mrs. Harkonnen insists on donating the maximum amount of sleep from her baby, but her husband’s objections make us consider the limits of our obligations to others. In her meditative essays in On Immunity, Eula Biss recounts her experience of blood loss during labor. She has Type O negative blood, making her a universal donor. Like Baby A, the rarity of her “anatomical gift” exponentially increases its value because it can help anyone, regardless of the recipient’s blood type. At the same time, Biss can only receive Type O negative transfusions. Her understanding, exquisitely woven throughout the essays in this volume, that we are all somatically interdependent — and interdependently vulnerable — motivates her to donate blood. She has benefitted, and so has learned with visceral immediacy what her body has needed to survive from another human body. Her motive, at least in part, is reciprocation.
Biss’s intention seems to be enlightened volunteerism. Sleep Donation, on the other hand, highlights the ethical problem of emotional manipulation for a “good cause.” Trish uses emotional inducements to form relationships with donors by performing the maudlin tale of her sister’s fatal insomnia. She grieves afresh with every pitch — her anguish is genuine, and the Storches exploit her as their most valuable recruiter. Corporate motives of maximizing gain lurk ominously in this gift economy.
The Storches’ Slumber Corps and Atwood’s Orwellian corporation, Consilience, play to our wariness of big business. Of Sleep Donation, Russell said, “I wanted to explore this tension that I think many people feel today between the desire towards openness and generosity, and a mistrust of institutions and corporations, a fear that you will get sapped dry by the for-profit world.” The instincts that Russell and Atwood tap into may be justified in the real-world case of the human tissue industry. Tissues are more easily harvested, stored, and transplanted than whole organs, and unless a donor specifies otherwise, consent to organ donation also permits tissue harvesting.
It is illegal for citizens to buy or sell organs and tissues. The law prohibiting organ and tissue sales by citizens is intended to avoid incentivizing body part sales (other than blood, sperm, and eggs, all legally sold by individuals), which could affect people disproportionately according to income. It could also further reduce donation of biomaterials in our inefficient opt-in system, experts postulate, if people will hold out for the highest bid and/or always expect remuneration. These intentions seem ethical, given the huge economic and health disparities in the U.S.
What donors often don’t know, however, is that the tissue industry is explicitly and legally for-profit — a fact that surprised even Russell in our recent conversation. The industry generates more than $1 billion annually. Corporations such as biotech companies routinely buy organs, tissues, cells, and medical record information from medical centers and government banks in order to develop new treatments for profit. Organ donors are not the only contributors to tissue harvests. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to your blood or tissues removed for regular care or testing, or where your newborn’s umbilical cord went, they all get banked for research and potential sale. At a recent doctor’s appointment, I signed a Notice of Privacy Practices (4 pages of miniscule font), which effectively secures my consent for my tissues and fluids to be banked and used at the facility’s discretion without notifying or compensating me. Every doctor’s office has a similar waiver for patients to sign before being seen, but most patients are unaware of what they are consenting to. We are all unwitting donors.
Perhaps because the reality of profiteering from human parts is already here, in The Heart Goes Last, Atwood bumps the ethics of human body part sales into darker territory. Her corporation, Consilience, bypasses the complicated dance of donation and instead kidnaps people from outside the town, euthanizes them, and sells their organs to a nursing home franchise. Most chillingly, the citizens perform the euthanasia without question because they are hostages to the middle-class comforts provided by Consilience against the lawlessness and poverty that had set in after a realistically-limned economic collapse. Atwood is having a dark laugh at our dependence on capitalist luxuries when Charmaine dutifully carries out what she thinks is the execution of her own husband without knowing that all of her victim’s organs are going to be sold.
I’ve done the right thing, I tell myself to quiet down the gory, TV medical drama-informed mental image of medics harvesting my organs beside my crumpled car. Both the fictional Mrs. Harkonnen and the real Eula Biss offer antidotes to corporate profiteering. They are persuaded to donate for personal reasons — desires to respond to human needs not quantifiable in dollar amounts, to return a life-saving gift. My own decision to donate was based on seeing how many young adults just learning to become healthcare providers had registered themselves as donors. In class, even before we tackled the details of opt-in versus opt-out systems and ethical questions of informed consent, the nursing students had very practical understandings of the egregious organ shortage in the U.S. They didn’t share my fierce attachment to my somatic wholeness after death. (There are prohibitions in some cultures to opening the body before and after death; cultural variation in rules about bodily wholeness must be respected in any donation system). Some of my students explained their reasoning for being such willing donors: if I’m dead, I don’t need my parts, but they could save other lives. Listening to others showed me a new way to think about my dead body as a gift.
We are exposed to new perspectives through live encounters, but imaginary ones may hold even more potential for stimulating ethical deliberation. Russell agrees: “I think fiction is a realm where people can play out different scenarios, engage with these questions in a way where a certain kind of stakes are reduced (‘it’s just fiction’) so it becomes safe to really take a look at the unexamined assumptions that underlie our values and decisions.”
There are individual stakes, and then there are corporate stakes. Russell and Atwood both avenge the sinister business of bioprofiteering in their sci-fi worlds. The Storches sell some of Baby A’s pure samples to Japanese researchers and make a huge profit. Atwood’s corporate creeps are planning to sell infant blood and scale up their sale of prisoner organs to the rich, preparing an empire that will easily flourish in the lawless post-crash climate. And in both novels, the plots are foiled by female whistle-blowers. In Atwood’s dystopia, corporate vampirism is stopped — but only for one corporation. The novel leaves open the possibility that it could happen with other companies because the conditions are still there.
The ending of Sleep Donation is ambiguous. Russell said, “My original desire was simply to tell a story, the story of this particular character, Trish Edgewater, who is confronted with a terrible dilemma, and the questions arose as I drafted forward. [For the ending,] I wanted to leave open both possibilities, that Trish brings down the Storches, and that Trish ends up getting scapegoated. ‘Rewarding’ that move with a happy ending (or a happier one than Trish going to prison), or ‘punishing’ it by showing that Trish loses everything [including her friendship with Mrs. Harkonnen] — either of those moves would have felt somehow reductive to me, as if I were only writing this to show people the ‘right’ thing to do, making it a blunt moral fable, instead of a world to explore those questions about giving and receiving that haunt me still (and that I hope will haunt the reader).”
Despite the ambiguity of Russell’s ending, both novels’ revolutionary endings give us hope; they offer an antidote to what Russell described in an email the day after the election as the “corrosive cynicism that causes people to feel justified in ‘opting out’ of caring, trying. What a shame it is,” she added, “when our best impulses, the deep and genuine desire to give to one another, cannot find an outlet that we trust.”
Storytelling is perhaps our best inoculation against a donation dystopia of selfishness and unwitting complicity in a market of human parts; Russell emphasized that although she did research, she “wanted to be careful that the parallel between sleep donation and organ donation did not feel too one-to-one because sleep donation also felt analogous to storytelling generally. When you read or receive a story, you embody that author’s dream. Stories and novels have always given me a perch in an alternate world that lets me see something that was invisible to me when I was zipped into my own tight-fitting skin, pursuing my own interests.” Sleep Donation and The Heart Goes Last let us see ethical questions taking shape around bodily ownership and gifting, questions with enormous stakes that are often invisible in everyday cultural narratives about health and healthcare.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Who has baby fever? Belle Boggs does. Or rather, she did before she had her daughter. An attempt to understand this self-described “child-longing” during her trials with infertility treatments and her inability to conceive was one of the driving forces behind writing her book The Art of Waiting.
As Boggs writes, in Scandanavia this phenomena is known as “baby fever,” and has been studied by sociologist Anna Rotkirch, who believes this desire is not a social construction but rather the expression of an instinctual longing. Rotkirch conducted a study where she placed an ad in a paper that asked people to write in with their baby fever experiences. She was flooded with letters recounting dreams of babies every night, of the need to touch onesies, of the desire borne of holding a child, of the agony of not having one.
Not everyone has baby fever, thank goodness. I don’t have baby fever but I am prone to obsessive thinking and my curiosity about this specific obsession and the ways that I’m not in its thrall is part of what drew me to Boggs’s The Art of Waiting. Also, Boggs is a smart and attentive writer, and her book is championed by Eula Biss and Leslie Jamison — two writers who’ve helped stake out a distinct corner in the medical humanities. The Art of Waiting promised to engage in a multifaceted dialogue, not just with Boggs’s experience with infertility treatments, but also with the broader cultural implications that lie at the intersection of child-longing and infertility and reproductive technologies, their benefits but also their detriment, and what this child-longing means for us as human animals and whether we have a choice in it.
The first half of the book delivers on this, for the most part. Boggs offers an engaging and empathetic description of her inability to conceive, the way she felt personal failure. Excluded from the natural rhythm of life, Boggs became even more keenly aware of mating among human and nonhuman animals, the ways that some species like marmosets depend on the suppression of reproductive capabilities because of limited resources within a community. She considers too mating in captivity, how at a North Carolina zoo, one female gorilla mates to conceive while another is given birth control as she’s groomed to take over in case the child is rejected.
Boggs considers the possibility of never having children, and briefly arrives at “the conscious possibility of a new purpose, a sense of self not tied to reproduction,” though with regard to the book, this is fleeting. She considers Virginia Woolf’s bareness and, as counterbalance, her creative output. Boggs writes too of the ways that her students become surrogate children — and how they never ask why she doesn’t have biological children, because, she surmises, “they think they’re enough.”
But of course they aren’t. We know this as readers, and it’s easy to consider Boggs’s dilemma with compassion. But also, she might want to go one step further and ask, why isn’t it?
Boggs holds the reader close as she tells of her travails and heartache associated with her inability to conceive. She writes of watching Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the high school English class she teaches. She points to the way that George kills the imaginary son in the last scene, and wonders if this killing was cruel or necessary. Boggs looks at this tendency toward surrogates among infertile couples, how Virginia Woolf wrote in her story “Lappin and Lappinova” of a marriage held together by a shared investment in their imaginary “private world, inhabited, save for the one white hare, entirely by rabbits.” Boggs too has a place within this lineage: she writes about how she and her husband unwittingly created an imaginary stuffed animal family when they first married, how they’d bring them out for holiday meals, but that later, after not being able to have children, this seemed more like a masquerade that embarrassed and pained her, and so she stuffed them in a basket with other bric-a-brac and shoved it all under the bed.
And sometimes Boggs’s imagination is too willing to shove ideas under the bed. She writes wistfully: “Nonhuman animals wait without impatience, without a deadline, and I think that is the secret to their composure.” This is an oversimplification of animal experience and it doesn’t interrogate or even attempt to consider the ways that other animal species might long to mother. Anna Rotkrich found — as Boggs pointed out — that a longing for children and to mother is instinctual. So why would Boggs assume another animal species would not feel this? Perhaps they’re at a loss to express it — to her.
Boggs’s interpretation gestures toward other species but is inherently anthropocentric. She conjectures rather than wonders, and this shuts down the possibility of delving deeper, to interrogate, research, consider, and perhaps even attempt to find companionship, an alliance, or at least acknowledge the mothering and longing that any animal might feel.
Of course we all have limited life spans and periods of fertility, and while animals may not be aware of or able to communicate this longing and desire in human terms it doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by a similar longing. When I was a child I was gifted with a book about Koko the gorilla who was taught human sign language as part of a graduate student’s experiment. Koko asked for a cat but was given a stuffed animal. She knew the difference and signed, “sad.” When she was given a kitten she mothered it as if it were a child. How is this not mothering? And why did Boggs, when writing and researching this book, not try harder to think about the experience of the nonhuman animal beyond her own anthropomorphic fantasy?
Boggs writes too with sympathy for the gorilla at the North Carolina zoo who’s forced to take birth control, but she also assumes that this gorilla doesn’t feel her longing: “To wait without knowing [one] is waiting.” Maybe not her longing, but how does she know what this gorilla thinks? Isn’t this pure conjecture?
Boggs looks to the nonhuman animal, to these gorillas, seemingly to expand the conversation about motherhood beyond species. But instead she uses them as a screen for her own longings. To speak of longing: what longing must salmon feel to swim upstream from their adult habitats back to their birthplaces so that they can spawn and, as a result of this journey, die? Perhaps if Boggs had encountered Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of umwelt she might have considered that the gorilla has a distinct sphere of existence, that its methods of communication and perception don’t necessarily translate to terms she can understand.
The onus was on Boggs to delve further, to have researched the ways these animals long or don’t long for motherhood. To consider what this child-longing might mean for nonhuman animals, what mothering means beyond one’s own progeny. Wouldn’t that have reinforced Anna Rotrich’s research that baby fever is instinctual? I can’t help but wonder, if this gorilla had been taught human sign language like Koko, would Boggs have been able to make the same proclamations? And if the answer is no, it seems that this is an inherent flaw.
But also, Boggs’s observation denies that many human animals do wait without impatience, that we don’t measure our personal success and failures by our reproductive capabilities, that perhaps we might recognize that a child could bring personal fulfillment, but that we don’t measure our worth by it.
Among those of us who aren’t natural caretakers, bringing a child into the world might signify an end as much as a beginning. I recently sat up late with friends, all of us in our late-30s or early-40s and childless and okay with it — we realized how we would be obligated to care for a child. A child demands an investment in petty conversations at times. A child is always brilliant in its parents eyes. At least until it develops its own mind. It’s easy to talk about from the outside, I realize.
I see too how a child can be a source of fascination, of seeing anew. I have seen friends’ lives replenished and nurtured, a newfound satisfaction with life brought on by the presence of their children. But what about the idea of not having children? What does this mean historically? Boggs talks about how in the period after WWII zero families thought it was ideal to have no children. That’s changed now, or common sense tells me this. But has it really? Despite waiting longer to have children, the number of women without children in their early-40s is falling. The Washington Post recently featured a profile of philosopher Travis Rieder who works at the Berman Institute of Bioethics and who published a book about the ethical imperative of limiting reproduction. We can limit our carbon footprint most significantly by choosing not to have children, and, with significant climate change and its consequences in our near future, Reider offers a radical suggestion for action to take now: “Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.”
Reider himself has a child, and admits this was largely a concession because of his wife’s desire to have a child. But in The Art of Waiting, these types of ethical considerations are largely superficial or left untouched. The pressure to reproduce within families is one that we need to shift, Reider argues. And this isn’t entirely different from the “reproductive futurism” and the indisputable cult of the child that Lee Edelman described as a driving force of our heteronormative society in No Future. Edelman posits that the jouissance and non-reproductive sex associated with queerness is precisely what threatens the cult of the family, this continuous process of self-perpetuation. In the 12 years since Edelman’s book, perhaps tables have reversed, so that the idea of not reproducing is now a way too to perpetuate life.
But what I’m pointing to is that The Art of Waiting for all of its intelligence and care and research isn’t invested in considering the broader cultural and ethical contexts of assisted reproduction, of whether or not this desire to have children should be fulfilled. Or whether alternative forms of mothering when one can’t carry a child to term might not conform to Boggs’s idea of mothering, but could be just as dynamic and fulfilling.
Of the privilege of having the choice and resources to choose IVF, Boggs discusses the financial investment, how costs can reach close to $100,000, and how some states have laws that mandate health insurance cover at least part of this. Boggs’s answer is that she largely supports making infertility treatments more accessible. Of course she does. But it’s also more complicated than she’s willing to grapple with.
It seems that an obstacle to Boggs’s consideration of motherhood, infertility, and medicine is that she did conceive. That her great longing was fulfilled. With the help of contemporary medicine she was able to bring a genetic child to gestation, a child that she carried within her womb. She had this child and perhaps it’s unconscionable for her to truly consider the alternative forms of mothering and meaning-making and mothering through care-taking, for children not her own genetic makeup, for other species even. She says that she and her husband consider adoption, but do they really? I don’t get the sense that this was a serious consideration — adoption is someone else’s choice, but not Boggs’s, and despite being down on their luck, they were privileged, were able to invest in IVF and conceived a daughter during their first course.
Perhaps my expectations were set because of Biss’s endorsement. Her own book, On Immunity was also published by Graywolf. As someone who’s sat through an eight-hour class on vaccination and administration schedules and live versus dead vaccines, I can vouch that the straight science is rather tedious. But Biss stumbled into a rabbit hole when deciding whether or not to vaccinate her son and with which vaccines, and accompanying her as she finds her path through this is fascinating. Her son anchors the narrative, but provides more of a stepping off point to discuss the cultural history: the ways that milkmaids didn’t contract smallpox because of their exposure to the virus through a cow’s udders. About Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, Dracula’s need for blood as a critique of capitalism, and about how choosing not to vaccinate as a privileged, less-at risk family, isn’t ethical. That immunization is about the community, and as much as we’d like to think of our bodies as distinct islands, we’re truly interconnected.
While Biss states that the decision to vaccinate her son was an ethical decision, one that she felt she had to do despite its risks, Boggs also states that IVF was the best choice she and her husband ever made because they conceived their daughter. And while she may believe this personally, she says this without reflecting on its ethical underpinnings, like what this means for the habitability of our planet. Boggs talks about the ways infants vie for resources in the wild, but not the ways limited resources will play out for human and nonhuman animals in the near future. Many people are choosing not to have children for the good of the planet. Because of the carbon footprint. And to not consider this interconnection in this highly personal decision is an avoidance I can’t not think about, perhaps fixate on, in relation to this book and discussion.
Maybe it is enough for Boggs herself to “[tell] the stories that don’t get told, the ones some people don’t want to hear,” of what she and her husband learned before they had their daughter — of the little known difficulties and travails of adoption, the infertility message boards and support groups, the way that passion and pleasure are replaced with clinical monitoring and pharmaceutical intervention and hormonal regulation associated with in vitro fertilization.
But The Art of Waiting isn’t memoir. It lacks the interrogation and consideration of what it truly means to mother beyond the heteronormative definitions of vaginal birth and sharing your offspring’s DNA. Boggs looks to nonhuman animals for answers but lacks interspecies empathy, or openness to other possibilities — perhaps because she doesn’t care to ask, perhaps because she now has a natural-born child, perhaps because it might cast the best decision that she’s ever made in a more muddled light? It’s obvious Boggs considers herself a success story. With patchwork she’s found a heteronormative solution, in fact, it seems that her answer is that she wishes similar luck for other who long for children. That they might not have to wait so long. This is unfortunately where the discussion rests.
They say it is a symptom of aging when one begins to see historic catastrophe looming in the events of the world. “Times are bad,” Cicero is supposed to have said in the first century B.C. “Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” I’m not the first to remark that this same Ciceroian sentiment sums up plenty of recent articles to the tune of Millennials, amirite tho? All the same, sometimes the center really cannot hold. Things do fall apart. The widening ocean gyre turns and turns and is full of plastic. What if the falcon really cannot hear the falconer? And what rough and bloviating beast, with fake tan and tawny comb-over, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
It is when the passionate intensity of the world’s worst aspects gets too much that I turn to the conviction of books. When I decided to take the books that had the biggest impact on me this year down from the shelf and lay them like tiles on the bedspread, I noticed a theme. They were all, in some way or other, about our broken world. Taken together, they formed a kind of atlas, articulating the wounded geography of the Earth’s subtle body: the Republic of Community, the Sea of Politics, the United States of Racism and Rape Culture, the Desert of Personal Tragedy, and the Empire of Environmental Loss.
It went like this.
I read Eula Biss’s On Immunity early in the year. Although it is ostensibly about vaccination, like all excellent nonfiction it transcends its stated focus. It is about community, and how we imagine the boundaries between self and other, between “us” and “not us.” It addresses our human permeability and the fact that no matter how much we may seek to isolate ourselves, even at the most basic biological level we as human beings are all in the same boat.
Speaking of community, I also read Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary. As someone familiar with the politics and history of the Middle East, I am sometimes asked if I can recommend “the one book” a person might read who wished to understand the region better. I will now recommend this book. It isn’t perfect, but it is a good place to start.
On the environment, I read four books that worked especially well when taken in chorus. They were: Waste by Brian Thill, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, by Donovan Hohn. Thill describes types of human detritus, from excess browser tabs cluttering our laptop screens to the radioactive byproducts of nuclear energy that will be dangerous long after the demise of everything else we have ever created. Kolbert takes the reader on a tour through the shrinking biosphere, and Klein delineates the forces of greed that lie behind its destruction. Hohn’s Melvillian odyssey brings an essential element of the personal — the frail, the tender, the humane — to what is so often sweepingly abstract about the ecological wars we are waging.
I read Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, back-to-back in about 48 hours; both, in their own way, a kind of manifesto. I read the first with nodding recognition, and the second with a deepening sense of what my privilege as a white person has shielded me from. I recommend them as companion works.
I loved the novel Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, which consists of many different ways to tell the same story, or variations on a theme. I was floored by it for similar reasons that I loved a retrospective of the painter Gerhard Richter I saw at MoMA many years ago: the use of multiple styles in an attempt to find the truth. Richter is an artist whose work has taken so many different forms, from abstract pigments scraped across a canvas to the most impressive photorealism. When all viewed together, his works look like many different attempts to break into the same room, by a person so intent on reaching it that he’ll try anything. The nature of this room that he’s trying to break into by any means necessary remains something of a mystery; its opacity is not entirely breached. So too, with Mr. Fox. Still, the sheer inexhaustibility of the attempts suggests the transcendent importance of whatever lies, or crouches or, probably, glows within its locked walls. This is how I felt reading Oyeyemi, once I got a sense of what she was playing at.
I want to say that I’ve included Mr. Fox here because it is a kaleidoscopic take on love and pain; that the whole world is a kaleidoscope of love and pain, of beauty and nothingness, problem and solution. I want to say that our view of it is kaleidoscopic, the colors tumbling and rearranging themselves with each turn of the lens. The theme of my reading this year was of our tumbling, broken world, yes, but also of the light that fills it. This light was perhaps best expressed in H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. The scope may seem small: one person, existing in the physical world, while trying to cope with the loss of another person. But it isn’t small. Because what good are empires, or politics, or the Earth itself, if we do not have the ones we love beside us? Things fall apart, it’s true. But it was cathartic to run through the dark, wet forest with Macdonald and her goshawk, Mabel, and to come out into the light again; one falconer at least who brought her wild bird to heel.
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My professional reading life is fairly regimented — I have to be attentive to new, newsworthy books to assign for review or to write about myself — and my personal reading habits have become suitably random in response, subject to mood as much circumstance, which, this year, meant the purchase of a new coat. Said coat, a voluminous and awful garment — moss green, somehow both pilly and prickly — has, to its credit, pockets like wells. Which meant that I, who do most of my reading on the Q train to and from work, fell in with a group of regular traveling companions. Four books (or rather, 3 and 3/4), whose slenderness was, at first, their chief qualification, took up permanent residence upon my person: a new Picador edition of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping that’s about the size of a pack of cards; my friend Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2012 collection of poems Our Andromeda, a book I worship; my husband’s high school copy of Macbeth minus an act or two; and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.
I read and reread many books in 2015 (my favorite books of the year can be found here and here), but these are the books I kept in orbit, the books I wore out. Desperate Characters, in particular, I couldn’t stop rereading. It’s the type of novel it’s become so fashionable to deride — one of the “quiet” books about middle-aged women staring out of windows, enjoying quiet epiphanies — when it’s really a wallop of a book, a barbed portrait of a marriage, not to mention a brilliant take on gentrification, white fears of black and brown people, the hostile insularity of the nuclear family, and how power reproduces and how power conceals itself. And from time to time, sure, the heroine stares out of a window.
(It occurs to me now that these books are more connected than not — they’re all about paralysis and ambition, about moving through trauma, trying to move past it. Reading choices can seem so random, but aren’t we always just digging deeper and deeper grooves into old obsessions?)
But it was also a year of discoveries — the late Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal was one, the poet Anne Boyer another — and rediscoveries. I taught a class in criticism, which allowed me to go back and reread a few favorites — The Sight of Looking at Death by T.J. Clark, Zona by Geoff Dyer, Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, My Poets by Maureen N. McLane, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman.
Most of all I was grateful for the number of writers finding fresh and intelligent ways to think about family life — I’m thinking of recent books like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, On Immunity by Eula Biss, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, 10:04 by Ben Lerner — but also older books, beloved books I returned to as I wrote about these issues in an essay for Bookforum, including Zami by Audre Lorde, The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. These books position the family not in conflict with creativity but an extension of it, not a way of retreating from our obligations to our communities but a reaffirmation of them. It’s a lovely thought — that what tethers us, burdens us can somehow also set us free — especially to one in a coat bogged down with books, standing on a subway platform too early in the day.
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Trying to make sense of the books I loved in the last year and why is a bit like trying to divine the logic that guided me into past relationships. The books — each a kind of lover — all just…made sense at the time.
I don’t have favorite lovers, just current ones. Right now, I’m cheating on all of you with Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Mr. Fox. Like her excellent Boy, Snow, Bird — another recent paramour of mine — the magical realism in Mr. Fox pulled me into its grasp one page at a time, seducing me so effectively I didn’t realize I had walked into a heart-shaped trap until it was too late.
My relationship with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was so brutal I spent the entire summer in France trying to get my groove back. Reading a galley of Alexander Chee’s forthcoming epic The Queen of The Night helped a great deal. But then I returned to New York City in the fall and couldn’t walk down a single sidewalk in the city without meeting someone else who’d also been seduced then wrecked by A Little Life. There should be a recovery group, ALL-Anonymous, for people who, like me, didn’t know that a book could be so gorgeously wrought and exacting at the same time. That book hurt me; I’m not sure if this is a recommendation or confession.
Some lovers sent me running into the arms of old haunts. Reading Eula Biss’s On Immunity forced me to think about the self in relation to others. If the borders of our bodies are in fact porous, what do we owe one another? I expected a book about disease and instead Bliss’s brilliant meditation urged me to consider morals in a challenging, beautiful way. And so from that lover, only one ghost would do: I got my hands on a copy of Melville House’s James Baldwin: The Last Interview. The conversations the book captures speak to the self’s relationship with racism, America’s most infectious disease, and I just don’t know what to do with the fact that everything Baldwin says feels so hauntingly contemporary — except know it and honor it.
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