2018 has been politically dismal, but buoyant on the literary front, and the confluence of these two things have made this a year in slow reading for me. During the most difficult time in my life, when I left my home country 20 years ago, I only had one short story collection with me. It was a Julio Cortazar collection of short stories. I read it over and over, especially the short story “La autopista del sur.” I found solace in reading the same plot, but also in the fact that as I read something abstract seemed to be gaining intractable solidity. I found silly hope in the way life stalled completely in the middle of that surreal and interminable traffic jam just outside of Paris in “La autopista del sur.” I felt joy reading over and over that life emerged out of the strangest circumstances. That if traffic stopped for long enough, the stuff of life would come forward: suicide, love, pregnancy, a break up. I found joy too in the way lives broke apart just as suddenly, once the traffic began once again to move.
There is an exciting moment when one part of reality crumbles and a new one can emerge—that’s what I learned from reading this story on repeat.
I have been often distracted, dismayed by political outcomes and procedures this year, but I have remained blissfully absorbed in the only thing that matters the most to me—books.
When I think back to my year in reading, I am infinitely grateful to a number of books that gave me joy in one way or another.
There was Rebecca Makkai’s sublime The Hundred Year House and Luis Alberto Urrea’s House of Broken Angels—this last written in the liminal heaven between Spanish and English; my kind of heaven. There was Viet Thahn Nguyen’s expansive anthology The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. I finally got to Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees, which I have not been able to move on from let alone forget. I loved Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home. Tommy Orange’s There There and Nana Kwame Adjei-Branyah’s Friday Black were important to me. Friday Black is unnerving and wild, satirical and masterful. I’ve been pushing into the hands of everyone I meet, describing it as Get Out meets Black Mirror—I may be obsessed. There There is such a gorgeous book. It is bold and unforgettable—a work of stunning imagination from its preface to last line. I closed this book in late June but continue to feel reverberations from it—thinking at odd moments about its expression of land as memory lost, and its people as people unmoored.
Six women and their books are foremost on my mind. R.O. Kwon’s powerful The Incendiaries—a fuse of a novel about the chasm of losing faith and going off the deep end of belief—is a profound meditation on faith and losing faith. Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me—which opens in Korea during the civil war—had me thoroughly impressed, heartbroken, wedded to its world. All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung startled me. This memoir about interracial adoption and the unshakeable ties of family is inexhaustibly insightful. Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, about a mother and a baby and a road trip, is visceral, deliciously smart, and stirred up my all my emotions at once. Vanessa Hua’s River of Stars, about a pair of Chinese immigrant woman searching for and contending with the reality of the American dream, was luminous in the way that all of Vanessa’s writing is luminous to me. And Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant, following the life inside a restaurant, is so exuberant it makes me downright excited for this writer and all the books she will come to write.
I am also dying one sentence at a time by Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Organized around the nature of writing and the basic operation of the craft of story, this is a book about life itself. I believe in this book so much I find myself opening it at random as if it were an oracle. I recently finished Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which I may have lost my mind over.
Lastly, I’ve been rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude all year. It’s something I do sometimes. Read and reread sentences one at a time. Open the book at random. Try to shake something true out.
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If a writer from Madagascar wishes to reach a wide audience, they write in French, not Malagasy.
In Madagascar, French is the language of higher education, of high-paying jobs, and of international communication. The story of how Madagascar came to use the language of its colonizers is like that of many former colonies: When French and British missionaries arrived in Madagascar more than 200 years ago, they brought Western education and the Latin alphabet, along with religious conflict and political violence. Madagascar regained its independence in 1960, after 64 years under official French rule, but for many years the Malagasy education system was still based on the French. Today the country’s small publishing scene remains largely francophone. French, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, has always been the only venue through which a Malagasy writer could reach an international audience.
Now, Malagasy literature has come to the English-speaking world: Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo is the first novel from Madagascar to be published in English. A familiar arc of love and loss in an unfamiliar setting, this novel never lets the reader forget that it is a work of translation. Naivo uses Malagasy phrases and form to undermine the very language in which the story is written.
Beyond the Rice Fields takes place in the first half of the 19th century, as white missionaries first arrive in Madagascar. Within this changing world we meet Tsito, a young slave, and Fara, who is the daughter of Tsito’s master and his childhood playmate. The first half of the book is a slow build, set in the small farming village of Ambohimanelo. Tsito works hard, but Fara and her family are largely kind to him, and the two complete chores together, attend a missionary school where they learn to read and write, and take part in the traditional fampitaha dance competition. As the Malagasy government grows increasingly unstable, Tsito leaves for the capital city of Antananarivo to work and earn his freedom. From there the book picks up in tempo and suspense as Tsito and Fara realize their feelings for each other and seek to reunite against a backdrop of regime changes that lead to deadly religious conflict.
Though the book was primarily written in French, it employs liberal use of Malagasy words and phrases (there’s a helpful glossary at the back). This technique is retained in the English translation: vazaha, or foreigner, is used to refer to white men; an ambalavelona is a mental illness attributed to a curse; the tangena is a trial-by-poison used to judge religious offenders. By employing Malagasy words, and especially those that don’t exist in French or English, Naivo constantly reminds the reader that the storytelling language is not the language of the story. The harm done by the French invaders—starting in 1800 and still lingering today—is tangible in these disturbances to the story itself, as the reader is forced to notice again and again that which cannot be translated.
Equally notable is the way the novel reflects the form of traditional Malagasy oral poetry, hainteny. These extended poems take the form of a conversation between a man and a woman, generally lovers, and Naivo recreates this custom by alternating points of view between Tsito and Fara. The hainteny is, further, like a courtship, a jeu de paroles in which the woman playfully challenges the man to prove his love. Within the story, Tsito and Fara play these word games together as young adults as Tsito tries to flirt with his crush:
“How will you love me?” [Fara asks.]
“I will love you like my eyes, the windows of my soul: without them, I am weak as a child, but with them, the world smiles at me.”
“Then you do not love me, for I will be of no use to you in the darkness.”
“I will love you like the door to my home, protecting me from enemies and keeping the hearth warm.”
“Then you do not love me, for you push through me without shame to achieve your ends.”
“I will love you like the Sovereign of this realm, mistress of our lives and our destiny.”
When Tsito and Fara reunite as adults, the childish game is repeated as a moment of deep connection and romance. These evocations of hainteny provide a satisfying framework, even to those unfamiliar with the form. They are also reflective of the Malagasy tradition of circular storytelling, which uses recurring phrases for impact.
In particular, hainteny repeat proverbs, and Naivo’s novel is full of Malagasy proverbs and turns of phrase: “A crying orphan, only pitied by the back of his own hand.” “Do not cook meat without knowing its name.” “They can rise to the top as cream does, but milk will always reveal a common ancestor.” The English translation also retains descriptions that make use of metaphors: Fara’s father “smells like bulls moving to summer pastures” and a man falls under a woman’s charm “like a wild cricket halted in flight by a field of tender grain.” Some of these translate better than others, but they each help place the reader firmly in the narrators’ world. And though presumably unfamiliar to the English-language reader, the proverbs and expressions are familiar and comforting to the characters that draw on them.
In an interview in Africultures (conducted in French), Naivo admits that he took some liberties with historical events and dates in favor of what served his story, but all proverbs, songs, and traditions are historically accurate. This is because they are not just set dressing, but the most vital part of the novel. Asked whether the Malagasy phrases are meant to contribute a kind of “exoticism” to the narrative, Naivo replies,
The opposite. The Malagasy expressions, as well as the evocation of traditions, are the very vehicle that must teach us about the past. It is the romantic story that is built around them and not the other way around. Here, the decorative and entertaining element, exotic, reassuring, is the novel as an institution of Western culture with all its stylistics and expectations.
Naivo does make use of plenty of Western tropes, particularly those of the Elizabethan tragedy: unrequited love, forbidden love, a romantic power imbalance, a reversal of fortune, and of course heartbreak—Beyond the Rice Fields has enough death and destruction to make any tragedian proud. The brutality is matter-of-fact, rather than lyric or emotional, and so the horror builds over the course of the novel, until the final few chapters race by in a mess of carnage. There is no redemption narrative here.
The regime changes, political maneuvering, and massacres that lead to this tragedy can be hard to follow for those unfamiliar with Madagascar history. The world of Beyond the Rice Fields is huge, with a growing cast of characters that can be difficult to track. In this way it’s reminiscent of One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its quickly expanding world, incoming enemies, and characters with similar-sounding names. The book is certainly vast rather than tight, and occasionally messy in how it shifts through time or moves characters around the board. But as with Gabriel García Márquez’s classic, a little bit of effort (and the chronology and list of proper names in the back matter) make for a fascinating read, and a world that feels full to the brim.
And in fact, any difficulty a non-Malagasy reader finds in tracking names and history is part of the point. After spending some time in England, Tsito says he’s “getting a little tired of hearing [his friend] always explain things to white men, obvious things. Every time we did that I felt like we had to use a bit of lie and imprecision to make the vazaha words fit.” In the Africultures interview, Naivo explains his fatigue with the long, historical deference to the colonizer, the “white stranger.” Instead, “there is less need to clarify than to highlight. Yes, there are many things that are not obvious but…If the stranger feels some discomfort and misunderstanding in contact with this culture, that’s good. It means that he has encountered something unusual, which is worth any difficulty.”
Naivo goes on to explain that his novel is also a criticism of modern Malagasy society, and especially of the upper class. In that context it is a scathing review: in Beyond the Rice Fields the upper class either fails to protect its home villages or seeks to destroy anyone who might be associated with its enemies, and those who worship the regime are doomed regardless. Today, it remains uncommon in Madagascar to write from the point of view of the lower class or about slavery, and particularly with such clear eyes about the brutality slaves endured. Translator Allison Charette was initially drawn to the novel because it was stirring up controversy in Madagascar. In the bookstore where she first found Beyond the Rice Fields, the booksellers told her, “He’s writing about slavery. No one ever thought they could get away with that before.”
Abroad, as well as at home, Beyond the Rice Fields is an important read: amidst a tradition of deference, a story of colonization is told from the point of view of the colonized. Most strikingly, it challenges Western readers to see themselves as the foreigners, centering Madagascar in its introduction to the English-speaking literary world.
I’m a binge reader. And I also read in spurts. Usually when I’m not caught up inside the lives of characters I’ve created and I can’t or don’t want to disrupt the dream. I don’t read to escape anything. I read to feel better. To respect other folks’ lives, the difficulties they’re facing, the way they manage, ignore, or flee from them. I want to see how the writer makes me care about the people she’s invented because I want to believe they could be real, that their problems are complex but plausible, such that I forget about my own and am empowered by watching, and fingers-crossed that these characters will unravel some of these knots in such a way that when they arrive at another plateau, a clearing, regardless of how temporary, I’ll be just as relieved for them as they are. I want to go on an emotional journey where their payoff is also my payoff, and when I close the book I not only feel grateful for my life, but the story I’ve just read has enriched me and it’s power has now snuck into my heart and soul and will be with me forever. I don’t ever forget a good book because I am changed. In much the same way being in love changes you.
Having said this, I admit I was feeling pretty purple earlier this year, so I revisited these novels and story collections that were guaranteed to take me on realistic journeys I knew would make me laugh out loud, empower and uplift me, but also make me feel as if what I was going through couldn’t compare to what these folks were dealing with. Of course, they delivered and helped me feel lavender again.
Haircut & Other Stories by Ring Lardner. Back in college, when I first read “Haircut” and “I Can’t Breathe,” I hadn’t read any stories where the characters spoke in voices that weren’t measured or “pretty” (like we’d been forced to read in high school literature class), but they were conversational, tragic, and hilarious. Ring Lardner taught me that humor could be taken seriously, and his idiosyncratic and satirical style helped me to honor my own voice. Plus, we’re both from Michigan!
We the Animals by Justin Torres. A 126-page novel that broke my heart from page one. I’d never read a coming-of-age story about a Puerto Rican family, and this one is both heartbreaking and beautiful because Torres’s prose is pungent, written in jewel-tones, but not deliberately to draw attention to it. I cried while reading this novel, and believed every word of it because I know families and especially children who do suffer like this, but am glad some of them are able to escape out into the open and survive.
The Boat by Nam Le. I wish I could write like him! From the opening of the first short story: “My father arrived on a rainy morning. I was dreaming about a poem, the dull thluck thluck of a typewriter’s keys punching out the letters. It was a good poem — perhaps the best I’d written. When I woke up, he was standing outside my bedroom door, smiling ambiguously.” What an image. Nam Le was 29 when this collection of stories was published, but he writes as if he has a long past. His prose is seamless and the stories offered me a glimpse inside the lives and worlds of people I would probably never come to know, but his genius is how he manages to capture the voices of characters unlike himself, characters whose struggles reflect all of our humanity.
I’m a sucker for a strong voice in fiction and memoir, which is why I’ve seen fit to get reenergized to prepare for my next novel by rereading these masterpieces: Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price; Who Do You Love by Jean Thompson, Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons; Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan; Loving Donovan by Bernice L. McFadden; Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, and my favorite memoirist, Rick Bragg: All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, and The Prince of Frogtown. (They read like novels and I thought for sure Rick was probably black or a member of my family based on how his kinfolks lived, as well as the language he used).
It goes without saying that I usually reread One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez and his short story collections about every two to three years, mostly because I want to believe in magic not just magic realism.
I wish I could write a short story, but I’m too long-winded, which is why I have so much respect for them. Also, it’s easy to read two or three short stories back to back and travel emotionally without feeling you’re ending a marriage, but simply getting off an exit, which is another reason why I devour The Best American Short Stories annually (as I’ve since 1984), along with The O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses and New Stories from the South.
There are so many brilliant and powerful writers whose work doesn’t get the attention it deserves, I wish I could tell them how grateful I am for all the beauty, joy, and pleasure reading their words have given me. Their stories have been life affirming. And we so need it now.
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This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters.
(Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.)
There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite.
The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby’s equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing):
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general — the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality.
Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it.
Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.”
Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom…and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin:
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.
Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason.
Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively:
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees — he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– — his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves.
Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it.
Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ — which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible — may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed).
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov — truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction — guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does:
I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will
Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– — quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note.
I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency — the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist — they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity — the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you — give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up — take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty!
See? It’s easy.
Now everybody —
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In 2014 we lost some great writers — two Nobel laureates, prize-winning poets and playwrights, a beloved memoirist/poet, an unrivalled nature writer, satirists, historical novelists, crime novelists, biographers, critics, and authors of books for children and young adults. Here is a selective compendium:
Incendiary poet and playwright — or old man playing with matches? Champion of the disenfranchised — or racist, anti-Semitic homophobe? There was never a consensus on the merits of the prolific writer who was born Leroy Jones, began publishing as LeRoi Jones, changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and died on Jan. 9 in his hometown of Newark, N.J., at 79.
Regardless of what he called himself, the man was always going against the grain. Born into Newark’s black middle class, he dropped out of prestigious Howard University, then got a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force before melting into the bohemian hothouse of 1950s Greenwich Village. There he married a white woman named Hettie Cohen, who helped him found a literary magazine that published his work and that of many Beat notables. As his career took off — his poetry was gaining notice, his play Dutchman won an Obie Award, and he wrote perceptively about black music — he became increasingly radicalized. He shed his white wife and moved to Harlem, where he helped found the Black Arts Movement. The murder of Malcolm X in 1965 and Baraka’s savage beating by white cops during the 1967 Newark riot — which he called a rebellion — completed his radicalization.
The transformation, in some eyes, did not improve his writing. The poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth lamented that when the gifted Jones became the angry Baraka, he also became “a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort.” That dart resonated a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Baraka, then poet laureate of New Jersey, gave a public reading of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” It read, in part:
Who knew the World Trade Center
Was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
The poem’s anti-Semitic overtones led the New Jersey General Assembly to abolish the poet laureate’s post. Baraka fought the move in court, without success. Six months after Baraka’s death, his son Ras was elected mayor of Newark.
Peter Matthiessen could make just about anything interesting to readers. A restless naturalist who devoted himself to preserving the planet’s vanishing wilderness, Matthiessen produced more than 30 works of fiction and non-fiction on such subjects as Peruvian tribesmen, Long Island fishermen, Caribbean turtle hunters, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Florida cane planters, a safari in Tanzania, migrant farmworkers, and Native Americans. His human subjects were joined by a menagerie of white sharks, snow leopards, shore birds, and other exotic species. Matthiessen, who died on April 5 at 86, is the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both fiction and non-fiction.
His resumé was nearly ridiculous. A son of privilege — which made him uneasy — Matthiessen grew up in an apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. He attended Hotchkiss, Yale, and the Sorbonne. In 1953 he co-founded The Paris Review, though it wasn’t until years later that it came out that the magazine was Matthiessen’s cover for his brief career as an operative for the C.I.A. He befriended a who’s Who of American letters, including William Styron, George Plimpton, and E.L. Doctorow. He became a commercial fisherman and a Zen priest.
Matthiessen’s last novel, In Paradise, was published three days after his death. He was a connoisseur of the world’s most unforgiving terrain right up to the end: the novel tells the story of a group of people who come together for a meditation retreat on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Too bad America hasn’t produce a satirist to skewer Ronald Reagan and the depredations he visited on America in the 1980s. England was blessed with Sue Townsend, a self-educated high school dropout whose fictional teenage misfit, Adrian Mole, got millions of readers to laugh at the highly Reaganesque bill of goods Margaret Thatcher sold to Great Britain during the 1980s.
Adrian Mole may have grown up in a chronically underemployed working-class family and he may have attended shabby, underfunded schools, but he learned to love royal weddings. In adulthood, he fell victim to predatory lenders and wound up living in a converted pigsty — a nifty metaphor for the fallout of Thatcher’s merciless policies. Townsend, who died on April 10 at 68, shared Adrian’s grim upbringing and his ambivalent view of the Iron Lady. “Sometimes I think Mrs. Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman,” he tells his diary in 1984’s The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. “The next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid. She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person. It is a bit confusing.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Few writers are as deeply loved by readers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, though deserved, was almost beside the point. He had already earned a writer’s most treasured honor: the devotion of millions of readers around the world.
Like many of those readers, I came to his work through One Hundred Years of Solitude, a masterpiece of magical realism that I started reading on a fall day in 1974 and read straight through in two sleepless, nearly foodless, intoxicating days. The book changed my life, opened me to new worlds and new ways of seeing. As astonishing as it was — those all-night rains of yellow blossoms, those swamps of lilies oozing blood — I think Love in the Time of Cholera was an even better book. It teemed with fleshed-out characters and their potent emotions. It was less reliant on stylistic pyrotechnics and whimsy. It was earthier, meatier than its more famous predecessor. It showed us that love grows more solid the closer it comes to death.
Other readers will have good reasons for preferring one or more of the other 15 books by the amazing Marquez, who died on April 17 at 87, having achieved the thing all writers yearn for, whether they admit it or not: immortality.
Thirty-two years after Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1961, Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Those events stand as twin pinnacles in the power and prestige of American poetry. But Angelou, who died on May 28 at 86, will probably be even more vividly remembered for her searing 1969 memoir about growing up in the Jim Crow South, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the six volumes that recount the story of her remarkable life.
After growing up mostly in Stamps, Ark., a small town brimming with “dust and hate and narrowness,” she traveled the world working as a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, prostitute, actress, magazine editor, college professor, and civil rights activist, associating with nobodies and with such notables as James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, and at least two U.S. presidents. Her poetry was more coolly received by critics than her memoirs, but her influence was undeniable. In 2011 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And on the day she died, President Barack Obama remarked, “She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”
“Don’t try to fool an Indian who has seen a lot of white men.” So advises 111-year-old Jack Crabb, the unforgettable narrator of one of the greatest novels written by an American, Little Big Man. Its author, Thomas Berger, who died on July 13 at 89, will be long remembered for that astonishment of a novel, though too few readers realize that he produced two dozen others, as well as a sprinkling of stories and plays. In addition to the myths of the American West that he dissected so deftly in Little Big Man, Berger’s other great subject was the mores of the American middle class, whose deep-rooted paranoia he satirized wickedly in such novels as Neighbors (made into a 1981 movie starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd), The Feud, The Houseguest, and Best Friends. In these novels, routine social encounters have a way of morphing into comic horrors. A disciple of Franz Kafka, Berger’s range was vast. He wrote horror, pulp detective stories, science fiction, utopian fiction; he mined Greek tragedy, the survival saga, and the Camelot myth; he wrote about invisibility and time travel; his literary alter ego, Carl Reinhart, who appeared in several novels, was described as “representative of the unrepresented.”
Once highly sociable, Berger in his later years became a recluse in a league with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Even his publisher and literary agent didn’t know how to get in touch with him. In a rare interview in 1980, Berger posed a rhetorical question: “Why does one write?” He answered, “I suspect that I am trying to save my own soul, but that’s nobody else’s business.”
Nadime Gordimer cast a wide net in trying to capture the iniquity and human cost of apartheid in her native South Africa. She crossed lines of race, class, religion, and gender, bringing to life the cinderblock mazes of the black townships, the poolside barbecues of white society, the terror visited on those who resisted society’s rigid divisions. She brought to life Indian Muslims and mixed-race characters. Her Booker Prize-winning 1974 novel, The Conservationist, had a white male protagonist.
Gordimer, who died at age 90 on July 13 (the same day as Thomas Berger), wrote two dozen works of fiction, personal and political essays, and literary criticism over the course of a 60-year career. Some critics saw her personal struggle for liberation from her possessive mother as a mirror of her characters’ struggle against apartheid. Though she insisted she was not political by nature, she became engaged in the struggle — joining the banned African National Congress, passing messages, hiding friends from the police, driving people to the border — and she used many of these events in her fiction. The authorities were not pleased, and they banned three of her books, including one of her best known, Burger’s Daughter.
On Feb. 11, 1990, after 26 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison into the sun-washed streets of suburban Cape Town. The first person Mandela asked to see was Nadine Gordimer. A year later, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Mark Strand set out to be an artist. But while studying under the great colorist Josef Albers at Yale, Strand discovered poetry and embarked on a long and fruitful career that included a stint as U.S. poet laureate, a Pulitzer Prize, a Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the publication of his selected poems last year. Strand, who died on Nov. 29 at age 80, was too dark for some tastes, but he insisted that his poems were “evenly lit.”
In the 1980s, after a decade and a half of publishing poems shadowed by death and dissolution, Strand became dissatisfied with the autobiographical vein of his work, and he stopped writing poetry. He turned to writing children’s books and short stories, books on the painters Edward Hopper and William Bailey, and a collection of critical essays. Late in life, he made collages with paper he had made by hand. Eventually he returned to writing a more expansive kind of poetry.
In a Paris Review interview in 1998, the year before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Blizzard of One, Strand mused about death: “It’s inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems.”
Here’s one such ha ha, moment from the poem “The Remains,” in Strand’s 1970 collection, Darker:
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.
What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.
My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds.
How can I sing? Time tells me what I am.
I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
Kent Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) staked out his patch of literary ground and never stopped working and reworking it. Like William Faulkner (Yoknapatawpha County), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Macondo), Flannery O’Connor (rural Georgia), and Patrick Modiano (Paris during the Nazi Occupation), Haruf, who died on Nov. 30 at 71, became possessed by his chosen place. He called it Holt, a fictional small town on the high plains of eastern Colorado, a place of “pointless cruelty and simple decency,” where he set all of his fiction, including his 1999 breakthrough, Plainsong, and Our Souls at Night, which will be published posthumously in May.
Single-mindedness can lead to repetitiveness, and some critics noted that Haruf didn’t outdo himself with each new book; rather, he redid himself. One critic went so far as to compare Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture, with its “aged patina” and “rustic lines.” But Haruf’s many fans embraced the moral clarity of life in Holt — the town’s esteem for honest work, its belief in innocence as a virtue — and they saw the place as a refuge from the snark and irony and equivocation that fester beyond the rim of the high plains.
This list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, but there were a number of other literary deaths in 2014 that are worth mentioning. In alphabetical order they are:
Norman Bridwell, creator of the Clifford children’s books; James MacGregor Burns, an award-winning political biographer and student of the art of leadership; Mary Cheever, the long-suffering wife of John Cheever, who published a book of her poems in 1980, two years before her husband’s death; P.N. Furbank, a British critic and scholar best known for his biography of E.M. Forster; Mavis Gallant, a master of the short story whose great subject was rootlessness; Doris Pilkington Garimara, an Australian Aborigine whose book about the government’s brutal campaign to eradicate the native population, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, became the basis of the 2002 movie Rabbit-Proof Fence; Dermot Healy, the Irish novelist, poet, and memoirist regarded by many as a modern master in the mold of Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett; P.D. James, who became known as “The Queen of Crime” for her layered mysteries starring the dashing detective Adam Dalgliesh; Galway Kinnell, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for lyrical poems written to be understood, as he put it, without the help of a graduate degree; Alistair MacLeod, a Canadian writer whose lofty reputation was built on his single novel, No Great Mischief, and two collections of stories; the far more prolific Walter Dean Myers, who wrote more than 100 books, including best-selling children’s books centered on the lives of disenfranchised black kids; Alastair Reid, the peripatetic poet, New Yorker writer, and translator; Rene Ricard, an eighth-grade dropout, brilliant self-taught poet and art critic, painter, and movie actor, who Andy Warhol called “the George Sanders of the Lower East Side”; Louise Shivers, a late-blooming Southern writer who produced just two novellas but won rapturous praise and comparisons to Flannery O’Connor.
Through your words you will all live on.
Drawings by Bill Morris
We’ve mentioned the “What books have stayed with you?” social media trend before, and now Facebook has tallied up the most popular titles by country. The results are both exactly what you would expect – The Little Prince ranks high in France, One Hundred Years of Solitude fairs well in Latin America – and a little surprising as the Harry Potter series tops the list in countries ranging from India to Italy to Brazil.
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende.
Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly — for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions.
Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon — “I don’t like the funny names” — might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away…it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.”
The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time — what would become the hallmark of magical realism — and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry.
But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream — Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed — to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.
That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters — Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon — were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it.
The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness — but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example — the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have — quite rightly! — never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks — a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s.
At their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness — their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like — his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness.
Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.
At my wedding last September, my theme — beyond the necessary trilingual nature of the event due to being Russian and marrying an Israeli — was books. For the centerpieces, I chose my favorite literary works, stacked ten copies of them on top of each other, tied them with a large gold ribbon, and then gave them away to the attendees when the night ended. I had classics for the more aged (and non-English-speaking) of the bunch, Russian translations of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but for the younger crowd, I picked Jonathan Franzen and Safran Foer titles, Gary Shteyngart’s appropriately titled Super Sad True Love Story, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. But probably my most current favorite of the bunch was The Borrower by fellow Chicagoan Rebecca Makkai. It was a book I had recently read and one that had stuck with me as a great representative of contemporary literature. I wanted everyone I knew to read it (and it didn’t hurt that there were Russian characters involved, since anyone reading it from my wedding would at least be able to relate on that level). Makkai now has a new book, The Hundred-Year House, a novel about the life of a haunted family and a haunted mansion, told in reverse. We recently sat down to discuss it:
The Millions: The first thing that was really clear to me after finishing your book is how incredibly complicated the structure of it is, especially how every section goes backward in time – from 1999 to 1955 to 1929. How did you go about writing it? Did you write it in chronological order, or did you play around with it a lot?
Rebecca Makkai: I wrote a short story once called “Gate House,” which consisted of some of the plot of the 1999 story. And it didn’t work as a short story at all; it was terrible. But when I revisited it, years later, I suddenly thought of turning it into a novel, and that’s when I started to consider what I would have to do to move backwards in time. At that point the whole thing was coming to me as I went about my day, as I was brushing my teeth – I would have these ideas of the way the plot would be layered. Soon I realized it would be stupid to start writing without seriously outlining, so that was the next thing I did. I ended up with a sixty-page outline. I had calendars, I had timelines, I had historical events. And of course it changed a ton as I was actually writing it. I knew I wanted to write it in reverse chronological order, as it appears in the book, but I had to outline first. Because I couldn’t write 1955 until I knew what happened in 1929.
TM: So you did have to jump around a little?
RM: Well it’s not that I was jumping around, it’s that I had to have every detail worked out before I could write anything, which is unusual. I think people are afraid of outlining, but it didn’t take any of the creativity out of it. And even with the scaffolding the outline provided, I was still catching things up to the last moment. For instance, there’s this bear statue in the woods, and you find out later that it was built in 1957, but I accidentally had it there in 1955… It’s probably not something the reader would really catch until the second or third read—but someone would eventually.
TM: I saw Nathan Englander last year at Printer’s Row, and he said something very similar to that, about how every detail of a story needs to be thought out, no matter how small. If there’s a story set in Chicago, you can’t have a character turn left down a one-way street going in the opposite direction.
RM: Yes, exactly. For me, the details of this house were really important. I ended up drawing the floor plans three times, once for every era. From different angles too. I had to refer to them constantly.
TM: Did you have fun with that, or do you not like drawing?
RM: Oh they look horrible – and I was staying at Ragdale [an artists’ residency] at the time, so there were actual artists there.
TM: Did they see the drawings?
RM: Oh yeah. One of the painters was laughing at me. But it was very helpful. I thought I knew the space pretty well, but then as I drew it, I realized that mentally I’d had the kitchen in two different spaces, depending on the scene.
TM: I would imagine it was really helpful to draw it, since basically all of the scenes take place in that house.
RM: Exactly. In each era there’s someone kind of trapped there.
TM: I did have that feeling a lot. Especially with Case, where all those bad things keep happening to him; the car fire, the knee injury, the bee stings.
RM: The house has this sort of magnetism to it. In 1999, Case is literally crippled by all these accidents. Then in 1955, Grace is trapped there by an abusive husband. And in the ’20s, when it’s an artists’ colony, the characters want to be trapped there. It’s their home, and they’re protecting it. I talk to students a lot about keeping people trapped together in a story so that they don’t just leave, because most people are so conflict-averse that they’d realistically just walk away. I have them practice by writing a scene with characters trapped in an elevator. I don’t think I realized that I’d done that myself until just now.
TM: Was your intention to have some sort of magical element to that feeling of entrapment? And to the house in general?
RM: For sure. I wanted everything to theoretically have some kind of an explanation, but at the same time there’s this question of luck – can you really have that much good luck or bad luck, or does it at some point start to feel supernatural? That’s the question a lot of them are dealing with. For Case, its almost like the house hates him. He just doesn’t belong there.
TM: You said that the first section, the one in 1999, was also the first thing you wrote. Did it change a lot once you decided to make it novel-length?
RM: Yes, quite a lot. Originally, if you can believe it, the story was about male anorexia. No one believes that this guy, who later becomes Case, is anorexic, and the character who later became Doug follows him around, obsessively trying to prove it. The main problem with that story was it was too long. But there was something in it that I loved, and I kept going back to it and trying to cut it, so that it would be publishable, but nothing ever came of it. Five years later it was still sitting there, one of many unpublished stories.
TM: Do you remember why you suddenly came back to it?
RM: I wish I could remember, but no, I don’t. And the original story, about the anorexia, it’s not even there at all anymore. The only trace of it that’s left is the idea of Violet, the original owner of the house, possibly starving to death. There is also a point when Doug takes that idea and puts it into one of the children’s books he’s writing, and it gets him fired. I tried really hard to keep that anorexia in the novel; it was hard to admit that was the thing that needed to go because it was the spark. It was like putting out the match that lit the candle.
TM: The character of Miriam probably resonated the most with me, because I lived with a lot of art majors in college, so someone creating works of art with found objects is very familiar. Did you know someone like that as well?
RM: Twelve years ago, I was in a pizza restaurant in New Haven, CT, with my husband and in-laws. It’s this world-famous place called Pepe’s, where you have to wait in line for hours to get in the door. We had finally made it into the lobby and there’s this group there, and it’s clearly a guy introducing his girlfriend to his parents for the first time. And what she did for a living was create portraits of people’s pets out of strange materials. In my memory, she was making marionette puppets, but I could have made that up. And the parents were trying so hard to be supportive, but they clearly didn’t understand. For some reason that was the seed of Miriam—this person who does this thing that no one would think would be sustainable but she’s actually quite successful.
TM: One thing that surprised me is that you had three separate sections with characters that we never see again. Did you think about the risk of that a lot?
RM: It’s not entirely true, though. The middle section is about Grace, and you do see her again in the 1929 section, as a small child. And there are other characters you see briefly too. I did worry that readers might be disgruntled as I divorced them from these people I’d just gotten them invested in, but I was careful to try and keep certain characters’ spirits in the story. For Doug and Miriam in particular, even though you never get back to 1999, you learn things in 1955 and 1929 that affect their story – that even change our understanding of what’s going to happen to them.
TM: Was there anything else you worried about?
RM: Well, I’m confident that none of my readers will remember 1929 clearly. But I’m worried about 1955, because readers who were around (and know that I wasn’t) could go into it looking for mistakes. But 1999, I remember myself. For a long time I’d wanted to write about the Y2K hysteria, because it was an interesting time, and I like to give deadlines to my stories. There’s a clock ticking; things that are going to happen have to happen by a certain time.
TM: It was a lot like a movie in that way, with the pacing.
RM: Yes. That said, I don’t think it would make a good movie. You’d have to take a lot of liberties, and do it very differently, and maybe return to 1999 in the end.
TM: The Borrower would make a good movie too.
RM: I feel like no one would want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. A ten-year-old boy… With sexuality issues… It would have to be an indie film.
TM: These two books are so different from each other. Was there anything different about the writing processes?
RM: I think it was more fun [with The Hundred-Year House]. All that outlining that I had to do paid off hugely when I sat down to write. The problem with The Borrower is that in the beginning I didn’t understand what I was doing yet and I wasted years floundering around, just figuring out how to write a novel.
TM: How long did this one take, after you just sat down to finish?
RM: I really got back to it around the time The Borrower came out, in 2011. So it happened fast. The Borrower took ten years, because I was poking at it, and I was working full-time so I didn’t have as much time to write.
TM: If you could tell your past self anything about writing The Borrower, what would it be?
RM: Just to outline. You can see the shape of something when you outline. You can see the structural flaws. Working on a novel is like painting a mural: if you’re close enough to work on it you’re too close to see the whole thing. You have to step away and look at it from across the room.
TM: Do you edit as you go along? Or do you write and come back?
RM: Both. You don’t want to spend time editing language when you’re not even sure if that scene is going to stay in the book. You don’t want to polish something you’re still carving. I’ll fix it up if something sticks out, but I wont do micro-edits.
TM: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
RM: I actually love outlining. Especially when it’s new and you’re just generating ideas. I also love polishing the language. I don’t like the big structural edits as much. I get myself geared up for those edits by letting myself play spider solitaire. It turns on the math-and-logic part of my brain. At least that’s what I tell myself.
TM: How much of an impact do your editors at Viking have on your books? Do they change it quite a bit?
RM: They don’t change it themselves; they ask the writer to change it. But it’s mostly bigger things, not the details. They pushed me to cut a lot from the 1999 setting; it was much, much longer before.
TM: Oh! Is that why the chapters are kind of short? Or is that just how it came out?
RM: No, that’s just how it came out. I ended up cutting entire chapters, rather than parts within the chapters. I think I cut it by a third or a half. But I’m really happy with the way it turned out. I’m glad they pushed me.
TM: How many times has your husband read this book?
RM: That’s a good question! Definitely not as much as The Borrower… He’s probably read the entire book three times. I held off giving it to him, so he didn’t read it till close to the end.
TM: Was he helpful?
RM: Yes. He’s my best editor.
TM: Are you in a place where you never want to look at it again?
RM: Weirdly, I’m not. I’m never going to sit down and read the whole thing, but I’m not dreading the many occasions where I’ll have to read from it out loud. Whereas with The Borrower, I’ve read from it so much that I don’t particularly want to read from that again for a while.
TM: Do you have a book tour coming up for the release?
RM: Yes. I’m going to the east coast in July, and in August I’m doing Chicago, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee.
TM: What are you working on now?
RM: I’m wrapping up a short story collection called Music For Wartime that’s coming out next summer.
TM: Are you editing a lot or is everything pretty much done?
RM: Yes and no. There’s one story I feel strongly about that’s unpublished and I really need to revise it, so I’m working on that. I’m also working on the order of the stories. It was done a couple years ago, but we decided to publish the novel first, so I had an order picked out, but since then I’ve written more stories.
TM: How many stories total?
RM: Some of them are short, one or two pages, so it actually ends up being sixteen stories all together – but the total page length isn’t unusual for a story collection.
TM: Have you started a new novel?
RM: I have the idea. I want to work on something set in the New York art world in the ’80s amidst the AIDS epidemic, and Paris in the ’20s. There are artists, some stuff about tuberculosis, and a connection between the two worlds, though I’m not sure what yet.
When relatives visited my home city of Cali during the ’80s and ’90s, my father would take them on the Magical Tour. These were the peak years of the city’s infamous drug cartel, an organization that came to control eighty percent of the global cocaine trade, and the tour consisted in loading everyone into our old Nissan Sentra and driving around the neighborhood to see the mansions of the major drug lords — often called mágicos, or “magic ones,” due to their near-miraculous abilities to generate wealth. At the neighborhood’s entrance was Miguel Rodriguez’s house, a fortress that occupied two entire blocks and whose two parts — as we had learned from a contractor friend who had worked on the project — were joined by a secret passageway dug beneath the road. A little farther down on the street, entirely hidden behind a twenty-foot wall decorated with glimmering white stones, was the house of Joaquín Mario Valencia, another major kingpin, and next to it were the concrete ruins of a veritable castle that was never completed due to the murder of its owner. The major highlight of the tour lay little more than a block from my house. It was the home of Chepe Santacruz, number three in the cartel’s hierarchy, who had built himself a replica of the most exclusive social club in the city after its members had denied him admittance. This mansion he eventually tore down, and when some years later he was killed in a gunfight with the police, he left unfinished an even greater architectural taunt at his enemies: what was to be a twin sister of the White House. Call it magical realism.
Not surprisingly, this is a kind of magic that my compatriots and I would rather forget. It pains us to remember those days, when the only version of our country that foreigners knew was “Locombia,” a mythical hellhole infested with murderous barbarians. This skewed narrative was so dominant for a time that we have often reacted by taking the opposite extreme, denying there was any truth in it at all. But one need not accept the bizarre portrayal of Colombia that appears in movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith — where Bogotá, a cosmopolitan metropolis of nine million people, is portrayed as a sweaty backwater at the edge of a jungle — to acknowledge that we have indeed known something of the gates of Hell. The problem, however, is that this take on the country has too often obscured all that has long made countless people, both locals and foreigners, fall deeply in love with Colombia. And I don’t mean only now, when the travel writers at the New York Times seem to have developed an infatuation with the country and Gallup has crowned it the happiest nation on earth. The truth is that the Colombia of the ’80s and ’90s contained within itself Hell and Paradise all at once, each in its full force, neither diluting the other. This point is essential to understand why so many of us have taken to calling our beloved Nobel Laureate, the late Gabriel García Márquez, the most important Colombian who ever lived. Some may consider that an excessive title for someone who made up stories for a living. Yet as the country plunged into the bloody chaos of narco-terrorism, his works not only held together our identity as a people, but in an unexpected sense brought our history to fruition, breaking the curse of our solitude, of which he so eloquently wrote.
Early in his Nobel acceptance speech, “The Solitude of Latin America,” García Márquez describes the legendary city of Eldorado as “our so avidly sought and illusory land.” In many ways, this is truly an apt metaphor not just for Latin America in general but Colombia in particular, under whose Guatavita Lake the golden city was supposed to lie. Colombians have long seen their country as a potential paradise, one that has unfortunately always remained just beyond the bend of the nearest hill. In the experience of our culture and history — from the mysterious rhythms of our cumbias and vallenatos that speak of Africa and old Europe, to the yellow butterflies that forever fluttered around the tragic figure of Mauricio Babilonia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and which we have adopted as an unofficial national symbol — we intuited something profound and valuable in our experience that was nevertheless passed over by world history. We saw ourselves cut off, in particular, from the Western tradition to which we believed we rightfully belonged, like a juvenile delinquent in the family who is to be pitied and occasionally sent to rehab, but never consulted about family decisions.
Since the time of the country’s struggle for independence against Spain, however, Colombia has always had greater aspirations. Simón Bolivar, the Liberator, dreamed of a united Latin America, one that would advance the cause of democratic freedom in a world still dominated by monarchies — a southern counterpart to the United States with its capital in Bogotá. The dream was born in 1819 with Gran Colombia, whose territory encompassed modern-day Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and Colombia, as well as parts of Peru, Brazil, and Guyana, but it died in its infancy with the country’s breakup barely a decade later.
It’s a dream that would have stayed dead, had it not been for our beloved Gabo and One Hundred Years of Solitude. His previous books had been praised by critics, but they sold only modest numbers of copies. In contrast, within a week of the release of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, the entire print run sold out. From its first paragraph, which references a firing squad, a troupe of travelling gypsies, a fifteenth-century suit of armor, the idea that inert objects have souls, and the notion of harnessing magic and wonder in service of the profit motive, the book broadcasts the broadness of its vision and historical sweep.
The novel, which goes on to tell the story of a family who founds the fictional town of Macondo, is really the history of the world, Colombian history, and the Bible all rolled into one. Colombians immediately understood that it perfectly captured — if not the details of a typical Colombian life — certainly what it feels like to be a Colombian. The Buendía family is our family, each one of our families, down to their maddeningly repeating names and their fear that marriages between relatives will lead to a child with a pig’s tail being born — an image that soon entered our popular lexicon. My family’s own pig tail is bad hips, which not just my grandfather but three of my aunts and uncles have had to get replaced (with several others likely to follow in their footsteps). As for names, the million José Arcadios and Aurelianos in the book are rivaled in my family by a plethora of Marios, Gonzalos, and Alejandros, whom my American wife has had a fun time trying to keep straight every time we visit. As for seemingly fantastical events, what Colombian family does not have a list of them? Off the top of my head, I can think of the miraculous healing of my grandfather, the ghost that haunted his farm, the eerily accurate presentiments of my great-grandmother, and the time an accidental shot from a rifle left a hole in the wall directly behind my aunt while somehow missing her entirely, all of these being widely acknowledged as simple facts of the family’s history.
This way of looking at the world, which García Márquez so gloriously explored in One Hundred Years of Solitude, indeed places family at the center of history itself, and sees things as infused with meanings — not just in literature, but also out there in the world, in themselves. García Márquez was, after all, a lapsed Catholic, and it is hard not to see the influence in his writing of the sacramental vision of reality that formed not only his early years, but his culture at large. His genius was to take this experience of the world — one that his writing revealed to be not just that of Colombia, but of Latin America more generally — and bring it to the level of epic poetry, which is what One Hundred Years of Solitude really is. Such poetry, which in his Nobel speech García Márquez described as giving wind to Greek civilization in Homer’s “overwhelming catalogue of ships,” or “bearing up, in the delicate scaffolding of Dante’s tercets, all the dense and colossal fabric of the Middle Ages,” he both brought to and formed out of the soul of Latin America. In doing so, he did for us what all the great epics have done: transformed a people from a tribe into a civilization. He thus accomplished what Simón Bolivar never could, not at a political but rather a spiritual level. As his work resonated throughout the world, culminating in his 1982 Nobel Prize, he gave us a voice in the great conversation of history, ending, in a sense, our solitude.
If this all sounds too grandiose, let that too count as evidence of the great debt of gratitude that Colombians owe to Gabo, which cannot help but express itself in an inability to remain impartial about him. His work is, in Colombia, not only high art but also popular culture, as widespread as the songs of Shakira. His Nobel, our Nobel, became a vindication of our existence on the world stage, especially during the two decades that followed when we threatened to slip into the status of a pariah country. Like nothing else — not even soccer, and that’s saying something — his books united us across ideological boundaries, this despite Gabo’s own socialist stances in the midst of a country waging a war against deeply corrupt and unpopular Marxist guerrilla groups.
His death comes at a time when a new, modern Colombia is emerging, raising the question of what will happen to this identity that he helped to craft. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabo leaves us a final warning through the famous episode of the insomnia plague, a mysterious sickness that strikes the town of Macondo. “When the sick person became used to his state of vigil,” the book tells us, “the recollection of his childhood began to be erased from his memory, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of his own being until he sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.” When news of the disease first reaches the town’s inhabitants, however, no one sees a reason to be alarmed. “If we don’t ever sleep again, so much the better,” one of the main characters states, “That way we can get more out of life.” Even after hearing about the consequent loss of memory, most characters laugh at the warnings. Soon, however, the foundations of their world begin to erode, and Macondians are forced to begin posting signs next to every imaginable item in order to remember its name and its use. They post bigger ones to remind themselves of their place in the universe (“Macondo”), as well as who put them there (“God exists”). This approach works for a while, but in a telling sentence the narrator explains that “the system demanded so much vigilance and moral strength that many succumbed to the spell of an imaginary reality, one invented by themselves.” It is not hard to see how all this relates to a world in which the word “reality” most often brings to mind a television show in which cameras follow a group of impossibly beautiful people trying to outwit each other within some absurd scenario.
But why exactly does insomnia lead to amnesia in Macondo? García Márquez gives no straight answers, but he mentions in a significant passage that despite their lack of fatigue, some inhabitants nevertheless desperately want to sleep, simply “because of the nostalgia for dreams.” The insomnia plague thus becomes uncomfortably familiar, the vision of a society trying to “get more out of life” by bowing down before the relentless imperatives of doing and producing. In this distorted understanding of carpe diem, people lose the capacity to dream, and soon the immediate present becomes all that exists. It is not long before characters start using tarot cards to read the past as well as the future.
García Marquéz leaves us, then, with the challenge of once again claiming a place at the table on our own terms, of creating a Colombian and Latin American modernity that is true to our vision of who we are, one that can harness globalization and material progress without sinking into an idiocy with no past, without sacrificing family and the souls of things to the god of GDP per capita. Time will tell whether the real Macondians will be “wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men,” but at least we can say without hesitation that thanks to García Marquez, we did have a second opportunity on earth.
One is tempted to attach the pop-cultural sobriquet “overnight sensation” to writer Edith Pearlman’s current moment in the sun. (She quotes comedian Danny Kaye when I used the phrase). As it is, Ann Patchett’s introduction to Binocular Vision (Lookout Books), Pearlman’s award-winning story collection and any number of reviews ask the question, “Why have I not heard of this fine writer before?”
Why indeed? Pearlman has published over 250 short fictions and works of non-fiction in all the usual (and some unusual) places, and has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, The Pushcart Prize Collection,and The O. Henry Prize Stories Collection.
My own take on Ms. Pearlman’s fair-weather fame has something to do with the limited attention paid to the practitioners of short fiction — when I grouped her in the company of much heralded short story maestros Alice Munro and William Trevor, Edith blushed (though she did not demur, false modesty is not an attribute she has).
As is the case with my author colloquium, Edith Pearlman and I talked about many things – Tales From Shakespeare, Hermes typewriters, Penelope Fitzgerald, reading Dickens, the task of literature, Aunt Jemima cookie jars, and more.
Robert Birnbaum: What was the first book you remember reading?
RB: How old were you?
EP: I don’t know – eight. You asked about the first book I remember reading — I am sure there were books I read before then. My aunt taught me to read at four. I think we read [Lamb] together.
RB: How did she teach you?
EP: Some kids are ready to read. I don’t think they need much teaching and I was one of those. My grandson is the same way.
RB: Your reading career started in earnest when, at age six?
EP: I suppose so. There were plenty of children’s books around — maybe I read Five Little Peppers and How They Grew or–
RB: After reading Lamb were you a fully engaged reader?
EP: Then I read the plays in order. (Both laugh). No, I think I went back to Mary Poppins. I read Lamb with my aunt.
RB: And when did your writing career start?
EP: It started even earlier. I started a book, I think, at the age of three. And it was called All About Jews.
RB: I have recently come across three writers who began writing really young – Gary Shteyngart wrote a novel when he was six or seven. And Ben Katchor, he started early.
EP: I started to write the book at three, but I didn’t get any further than the title.
RB: Really – writer’s block? (Both laugh).
EP: I think so.
RB: Will you ever revisit that story?
EP: I have revisited it often in interviews.
RB: I mean All About Jews.
EP: Probably not.
RB: Are there generalizations with which one can describe short form fiction writers? For instance, many novelists write short fiction, but it seems that short fiction practitioners don’t often write novels.
EP: It is something that clings to you and that you fall in love with. And though I love to read novels and so do my colleagues, I have no wish to write in the long form. It’s my destiny.
RB: Have you ever tried?
EP: I started to write — actually I finished writing a mystery story with a friend but it wasn’t very good. And no — I don’t think I ever have.
RB: How do you know it wasn’t any good?
EP: Well, nobody took it.
RB: (Laughs). Alright. Writing came to you as an avocation, hobby, and obsession–
EP: It came to me as an occupation. I was making my living as computer programmer, so writing was in those days confined to letters. But my letters were rather long.
RB: Do you still write letters?
EP: I do still.
RB: Hand write?
EP: No, but a typewriter. I write my stories on a typewriter too.
RB: It seems there is a renaissance of interest in typewriters
EP: Yes, somebody told me that.
RB: Well, at least if you pay attention to The New York Times. I have a few — one is a [portable] Hermes 3000, which reportedly was the typewriter of choice for journalists.
EP: I used to use a Hermes. I don’t remember what model it was. It was pretty old.
RB: For some reason, the 3200 comes up in a few stories.
EP: It was a very good typewriter. I used it for years.
RB: Did you study writing anywhere?
EP: I took a course in college and a course or two in my 30s. I did not get an MFA — I took a total of three courses.
RB: In the course of your writing career I read that you had written over 250 stories.
EP: I have written 250 short pieces, not all fiction.
RB: Is there a group of people you talk with about writing?
EP: I have particular friend and colleague whom I meet with every month who is also a writer and we exchange manuscripts. That’s been going on for 25 years.
RB: Any fights?
EP: We have had and we are ruthless with each other. I also have a non-fiction group of four and we meet once a month too.
RB: Which writers do you like to read?
EP: Well, I like best to read Dickens and I read him over and over again. I have been doing that for a long time. So I have probably read each book five or seven times.
RB: Rereading is a great thing. I feel compelled to keep digging in to the newly published. Although I reread 100 Years of Solitude three or four times. The last time I didn’t feel I got anything new and it made me wonder about past judgments about the book.
EP: Well, in Dickens, each time I find something, some turn of phrase, a manipulation of plot or a character I hadn’t appreciated. I read them in order to live in them. My purpose is not to find new things. My purpose is to sink into them.
EP: That was a riff on Magwitch in Great Expectations. I don’t think Dickens appears.
EP: There is a story by Evelyn Waugh, a novel I can’t remember which one it is. The end of it is a about young people and explorers and takes place in Africa — Black Mischief? The hero alone is captured by a crazy, fanatic ex-preacher who lives alone. And is held captive in order that the young man can read over and over and over the novels of Dickens until the old man dies. It’s supposed to be a tragic ending. To me it sounded like a wonderful life.
RB: Is that the extent of your reading, you just read Dickens? (Both laugh).
EP: I thought you asked who I read most or my favorite — at any rate.
RB: You gave me the impression that you aren’t required to read any particular writer.
EP: Right. I don’t feel I have to read anybody. At this point I feel like I’ve probably read enough. Not enough to educate myself — if I stopped reading, which would be a horror, I would probably not be a different person. People are made by the books they read and I think I am finished. That is to say, my making is finished.
RB: Do you think the task of literature is to instruct and entertain?
EP: Exactly. How did you know?
EP: I would put entertain first.
RB: Richard Russo introduced the volume of Best American Stories he guest edited with an amusing anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting the campus where Russo was teaching and answering a graduate student’s inquiry with the “task of literature is to instruct and entertain.” Apparently the gathering wanted a more elaborate answer. I think that view is actually taken from Horace.
EP: Oh really?
RB: Is writing short fiction important?
EP: Because literature is important. The project is important.
RB: Do you have any sense that it’s being drowned out?
EP: It is being attacked so to speak. Drowned out isn’t the word I would use. It’s being narrowed by all sorts of things. But it probably always was. We notice the Internet, television, and all these electronic things, but 100 years ago it was affected by farm work. Only the very rich could read.
RB: That was probably the case for most of history — that only a small fraction could benefit from reading and writing.
EP: I don’t know that the percentage is any different now.
RB: The percentage may not be the different but the cause may be and thus the hold it has on our civilization may be different — more tenuous. I work with people who don’t read — 35 year olds who play video games.
EP: Well some time ago they might have been plowing the fields.
RB: There is this meme of the educated working class guy who finishes his shift on the assembly line and goes home and picks up William Faulkner. In fact, that is the story of Southern writers like Larry Brown and William Gay. I don’t think that obtains any more — especially because I don’t think one can be poor with dignity in the 21st century.
EP: People do come home and read no matter what their occupation is.
RB: Working class people have to work hard — frequently taking on second jobs
EP: Why don’t they have that luxury in their off hours?
RB: Besides fatigue, there aren’t a lot of cultural prompts.
EP: Where did people get it before?
RB: This belabors the obvious, but this a world that is far different than what we were raised in.
EP: My husband plays early music — he plays the viola de gamba as an amateur. The early music crowd is eccentric and a world unto itself. And passionate and they don’t write early music — it’s already been written, but they play it and adapt it. It is their overwhelming hobby. I think that’s what reading may become. A small group of people who love it and don’t care if they are thought of as crazy.
RB: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has seemed prescient to me.
EP: It is. It is.
RB: People who collect guns or Aunt Jemima cookie jars are passionate also. Today it would seem passion — people who like reading and literature passionately began to champion the independent bookstore. That’s okay. I mean, who likes cookie cutter retailers? On the other hand, booksellers were beatified as if they weren’t merchants and capitalists. C’mon! Maybe a few were/are heroic — Truman Metzel of the late Great Expectations in Evanston Ill., or Sylvia Beach in Paris, Vincent McCaffrey in Boston.
EP: And now they have readings. Those of us who want to sell books are delighted.
RB: I understand. Do you go to the annual BEA?
EP: Tell me what it stands for?
RB: It’s a big booksellers trade show.
EP: In Frankfurt?
RB: That’s the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is the big American convocation of the book industry.
EP: Obviously, I don’t go to it since I don’t know what it is.
RB: So, do you go to book related events?
EP: I go to literary events — mostly at colleges. I go to bookstores. I go to festivals. I go where I am asked. If the BEA invited me, I would go.
RB: That does speak to the assumption that writers should help their publishers promote and sell their books.
EP: Yes, right. I do it for my publisher.
RB: Your publisher is blessed to be located in a civilized place like North Carolina (laughs). Wilmington? Chapel Hill?
EP: Wilmington. Do you know him?
RB: Ben? No.
EP: I thought he introduced us.
RB: Oh yeah, by email.
EP: He knows you, knows of you.
RB: I don’t remember the chain of events that brought us together — it must be because you are an overnight sensation (laughs). I must have read about you in Variety.
EP: No you didn’t. I am an overnight sensation of a sort. I have been writing for 40 years and this is my fourth book. And I always had a small following. And I never expected to have any bigger following. I would go to my grave with a small collection, happy. So this somehow happened.
RB: You knew about Ann Patchett’s intro to [Binocular Vision]? [She writes:“My only challenge was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, ‘Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?’”]
EP: That certainly helped.
RB: And there was a review in the LA Times that took the same tone. As did Roxana Robinson. I am happy for you, but that’s a bit of journalistic gimmickry. There are many artists that one can say that about.
EP: Absolutely. I had the luck to be plucked. It was luck. There are writers absolutely as good as I am or better who write their books and don’t get noticed.
RB: I am disturbed by that — I am reluctantly drawn into thinking about the business part of book publishing. Success frequently is serendipitous. I am certain you know the stories of writers who have submitted their books to many publishers and were rejected.
EP: Absolutely. Or 30 rejection letters for a story.
RB: Tibor Fischer’s story is particularly amazing. Of the almost 50 publishers in Britain he was rejected by all except the last one he approached. How do these decisions get made?
EP: By human beings. By fallible human beings.
RB: It would be okay if there were some humility attached to the gate keeping of publishing. Don’t you think?
EP: Yes. And the prize givers ought to be more humble and certainly the writers. In general the writers are — they know how lucky they are.
RB: You start out with a sense that there is a civilizing effect of thinking and writing and telling stories. It made life somehow better. And looking around today, it may be true but the contemplative life seems to be losing the battle.
EP: It improves the individual life, I think. People who read, people who write–
RB: Wouldn’t it be nice if they were to be salvation for all of us? (Laughs).
EP: I would, but I am not a proselytizer.
RB: All right, I scratch that line of thought. I have three favorite stories in Binocular Vision. “The Ministry of Restraint,” in part because I didn’t know what was going to happen — how well do you remember your stories — pretty well?
EP: I think so.
RB: A guy takes a trip to some backwater town, and takes a train back to the capitol and meets a woman. The train is blocked at a tunnel and the passengers have to get off and return to the starting point — as man and the woman walk side by side, their hands come close to touching but do not. And then over the years they meet. In final pages, you learn explicitly that they were lovers once. I was charmed by their initial close proximity which was brought to some fruition much later.
EP: I’m glad you liked it.
RB: And then the heart wrenching tale of a damaged infant. Why did you name her Tess?
EP: I don’t remember. I don’t remember. It has a slightly angelic appeal to me.
RB: Any connection to Thomas Hardy?
EP: No. She wasn’t named after Tess of the D’Ubervilles.
RB: How many Tesses do you know?
EP: Probably none.
RB: It’s an unusual name
EP: Yes, it’s taken from the nickname for Theresa.
RB: Was it a hard story to write?
EP: Yes. I wrote it in pieces. And, of course, it’s told in pieces. And I didn’t write it in the order of its final form.
RB: You chose to have a number of people tell the story.
EP: Only one person speaks in her own voice — that’s the mother. There are probably a half of dozen people who see the child — each of them has a thought that you know about. But it’s the mother who speaks in the first person.
RB: And it was hard to write because?
EP: It dealt with such sad things.
RB: Do you have enough time to emotionally identify with the characters?
EP: Yes, I think I do. I have enough intensity to get involved.
RB: I wonder about the aftermath of writing a novel, which requires a writer to inhabit lives for a period of time. How long does it take to write a story — a year?
EP: No, no. A few months. I suppose in a hardhearted way I forget the sadness of the story I have written. Life goes on and I write the next story.
RB: Are you tempted to write what seems to be a current trend–
EP: Linked stories? Well I have several stories that take place in the same place — in soup kitchen. The stories about the woman who works for the joint distribution committee — there are four about her. It’s not a temptation so much as I am not through with that character, so I want to write another story about them.
RB: Is there one thing that moves you in taking up or developing a story — a name, an image, feeling, a memory?
EP: All of those things. It’s not one — something I dream–
RB: When you begin, do you know what is going to happen?
EP: When I start out, it’s a lot of improvising and I write many pages of improvisation and then I begin to see what story I want to write. I start all over again with the knowledge that I have gotten from the improvisation.
RB: Do you think the piece is finished when the story is written?
EP: Well, I take them to my friend, whom I meet every month, who is ruthless with me and I with her.
RB: Does she use any instruments in her ruthlessness (laughs)?
EP: No, no. It’s all an abuse of the mind. And she either says, “This is almost done” or “Go back.” And I do.
RB: One writer told me that she submits the draft — her editor sends a back a few notes, which enrage her. She writes back to her editor expressing her anger. The editor doesn’t respond. And a few weeks later, the writer decides the editor was right (laughs).
EP: She had to get over her rage and humiliation first.
RB: Really! Where was I?
EP: You were going to tell me the third story you liked.
RB: Right. It was the one entitled “Chance.” It had a Torah study group card game. I enjoyed the Hassidic slant, but I really like that it went somewhere I didn’t see coming. I lost track of why the card game devolved to the temple and presentation ceremony.
EP: It begins with the Torah being delivered, and so I had hoped that the Torah would always be somewhere in the back of the reader’s mind.
RB: Yes, it’s mentioned in the middle of the story. I was distracted by the card game interlude.
EP: Well, the title of the story is “Chance.” That’s what poker is about–
RB: And what the Torah is about (laughs)?
EP: No, that’s what the destruction of Jewry was about. That is to say it was chance that some Jews lived and some died.
RB: The story’s last two lines were quite powerful. Story collections are a delight because despite what is usually a deliberate sequence you can go through and begin with titles that you find appealing. I would never skip around in a novel.
EP: My daughter used to read novels that way. A piece here and a piece there. And I read somewhere that Nabokov wrote his novels that way on 5×8 cards. There is a writer who found or could have found his ideal reader.
RB: Movies are made that way — out of narrative sequence.
EP: When I was a girl, I‘d go to a double feature in the middle and go around for the part I missed. They don’t let you do that now. I tried and was told that the director did mean for you to see it that way.
RB: In the last few years, I have relaxed my personal rule about finishing books that I begin–
EP: Many of my friends have said that [same] thing to me: “Now, if I don’t like it out it goes.”
RB: It means I have shifted more responsibility to the writer. It’s always an issue, the immediacy of our reaction — you may hate a book one day and find it quite readable the next.
EP: Yes. And the things we believe today, we can expect not to believe tomorrow.
RB: (Laughs) If we can remember them.
RB: Do you go back to your work?
EP: Well, I do when I make a collection. Because it’s a chance to improve them. So I go back — when a story is accepted by a magazine, it’s an opportunity to correct things.
RB: You see that as a correction?
EP: Improve? If it then goes into an anthology like Best American, I take an opportunity to correct or revise there — but not much. Not wholesale revision. And then, for a collection of my own, I certainly have an opportunity to change or review.
RB: Where does that impulse come from? At one point you felt the story was finished. Not perfect but done.
EP: I thought it was done to the best of my ability at the time.
RB: And then you got better since you wrote it? (Laughs).
EP: I don’t know that I got better — I got different. I was in an event in which three short stories were read by three actresses which was a lot of fun. I was watching one writer listening to her own story — she said later all she could hear were the infelicities. So I am sure if that story gets re-collected she’ll change some things.
RB: There is also the matter that the creator has expectations of the audience to grasp their creation in a certain way.
EP: No, I don’t feel that way. I agree with the statement, “Trust the tale, not the teller.” My attitude about a story I have written may well be different from a reader’s. And I don’t mind that.
RB: Would you say it should be different?
EP: No, I don’t say that. It can be appreciated in many ways. Or not appreciated.
RB: This recent collection was a collection of stories that already existed?
EP: Thirteen new stories that had not been in a book. They had previously been published in magazines. There were 16 stories that had never been collected.
RB: They had all been previously published somewhere?
EP: Except for one. I can’t remember which one.
RB: Some writers say they will write stories specifically for a book.
EP: No, I don’t do that. I write hoping that a magazine will take it. And I don’t think about a collection until I have quite a few stories.
RB: Why are writers like Alice Munro, William Trevor, and yourself admired in a way that seems different than many writers?
EP: Thank you very much for putting me in that threesome. I was so dazzled by that that I didn’t hear the rest of the question.
RB: (Laughs) I took your breath away. Does it strike you that there’s a craftsmanship assigned to the writers I mentioned. That short fiction writers are looked as artisans?
EP: Yes, we have to have our end not only in mind, but pointed towards, within the story. Like the ones you mentioned.
RB: You seem to travel a lot.
EP: I’m traveling now because–
RB: You’re an overnight sensation?
EP: Did you ever hear Danny Kaye’s comment when he became a success and somebody said he was an overnight sensation? He responded, “Yes, after 20 years in the Borscht Belt.” I’m not an overnight sensation, but at the moment I’m in demand. It won’t last forever, so I am responding to it.
RB: How do you know? Mostly there is a six-week window of attention for books and then goodbye. Your “15 minutes” has lasted since the Spring.
EP: It’s been three months.
RB: That’s a long time.
EP: Yes, yes. It received these very good reviews. But other books are coming along with good reviews.
RB: What’s come out that has really excited reviewers?
EP: The Tiger Wife. I’m trying to think of fiction — I am sure there are others.
RB: I think not. Except for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
EP: What about David Mitchell’s book?
RB: That was a while ago — it just came out in paper.
EP: I bought it in hardcover.
RB: Did you like it?
EP: I haven’t read it.
RB: (Chuckles) You bought the book and haven’t read it.
EP: I have a lot of books I haven’t read.
RB: What are you reading now?
EP: The Worst Journey in the World, which is about Scott’s last expedition. It’s a nice alternative to fiction.
RB: Do you know Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal? It’s about an Arctic expedition.
EP: I’ll bet its good — I like her short stories. Anthony Doerr got very good reviews.
RB: Sure, but within the usual window of attention. And not a widespread choice. So what’s next? Any polar expeditions?
EP: No, no. I have a grandchild I walk every day. I have lots of friends whom I meet for coffee. Love to go to the movies.
RB: What was the last movie you saw you liked?
EP: I liked The King’s Speech. I usually like movies when I see them. There are very few movies I don’t like.
RB: Meaning you choose carefully?
EP: No, I have a general love of movies. I love the experience.
RB: Do you watch TV?
EP: (Shakes her head).
EP: I don’t have one.
RB: Wow. Isn’t there a whole bunch of culture you are missing?
EP: I am. Yes there is. I do lead a somewhat insulated life without television.
RB: Well, you have missed one of the great TV series — The Wire.
EP: Oh yeah? What’s that about?
RB: Big city life in Baltimore — drugs, unions, corruption, public schools, politics, media. There were five seasons and every season had a different focus. It was a Tolstoyan tale.
EP: I am sure I am missing things that are good. I have a feeling that I’d become addicted if I started watching. And I also have a very good radio.
RB: What do you listen to?
EP: Music mostly. I listen to interesting interviews
RB: What’s it like to be on book tour? Especially when a small amount of people show up for an event — has that happened to you?
EP: It certainly has. This [current] book seems to get a crowd. I read for my other three books a lot and seven people would be there. You do as well as you can for those seven people. I once was on a lineup that included David Sedaris and I was the first reader and he was the second. I had the experience of standing before 500 people reading my story — all of 499 had come for him. It was fun.
RB: That’s show business.
EP: Thank you.
In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a young man finds himself in the presence of Evelyn Nesbitt, the famous “It Girl” of the 1920s, and falls into a room “clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.” In Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, the madams of New Orleans are categorized by their staffs of various racial mix. “Ann Jackson featured mulatto, Maud Wilson featured high browns, so forth and so on. And them different stables was different colors. Just like a bouquet.” In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier first meets Rosa Saks, whom he will later marry, as she sleeps naked on a bed, a scene he draws in Conte crayon on an overdue notice from the New York Public Library. “Fifty-three years later . . . the drawing of Rosa Saks naked and asleep was found . . . in a Barracini’s candy box, with a souvenir yarmulke . . . and a Norman Thomas button.” In Bruce Olds’ Bucking the Tiger, Doc Holiday describes sex as “crest after crest of the most coilsprung and soaring carnality, shanks asplay, thighs agape, cunt akimbo, slicker than a skyful of starglide.” All of the details in these references—the jism falling through the air like ticker tape, a Barracini’s candy box, a skyful of starglide, the dated but somehow lovely phrase “high browns”—lead to one conclusion. History is a whore.
Ron Hansen has made a career of pimping history for its details. Although his best novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, dealt explicitly with real historical figures, Hansen has scattershot most of his fiction with just-as-real historical settings. Each of them is made real, in the sense of authenticity, in the sense of perception, by the well-researched minutiae of everyday life, the ambrotype photographs, the cuspidors, the bootjacks, the coal-oil lanterns, all of them specific to each story’s particular time period. Mariette in Ecstasy takes place primarily at a monastery in upstate New York during the early part of the 20th century. “Wickedness,” an excellent short story from Hansen’s collection Nebraska, centers a series of vignettes around the infamous Midwestern blizzard of 1888. Desperadoes recounts the life and times of the Dalton gang in the Old West during the late part of the 19th century. Even Hansen’s novels with contemporary settings, Isn’t It Romantic? and Atticus, borrow either their storylines or their stylistic voice from works of yesteryear, the former modeled after Preston Sturges’s comedies and the latter a modern take on the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
In his most recent work, Exiles , Hansen sets his eye, with its historian’s acuity for the factual tempered by its novelist’s astigmatism to the fictional, on Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889), a Jesuit priest, Roman Catholic convert, and English poet who has posthumously become known as one of the best innovators of traditional verse. The first of the novel’s dual narratives depicts Hopkins throughout the different stages of his life. Initially, he is shown as a young seminarian, “a gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher,” who at first denies but later accepts his love of poetry. The few poems he writes over the years are consistently rejected by publishers. Finally, Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged man, dying of typhoid but keeping the faith, “steadied, poised, and paned as water in a well,” who would not live to see his poetry canonized decades later as one of the most significant forebears of modernism. The second of the dual narratives dramatizes the true story of a shipwreck. Five Franciscan nuns, exiled by Bismarck’s Falk Laws against Catholic religious orders, forced to seek sanctuary in the distant state of Missouri, die tragically when their steamship runs aground near England. Hansen includes Hopkins’ poetic ode to the event, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a literal and figurative union of the two narratives, in the appendix to Exiles.
The novel begins with the two narratives, that of Hopkins and that of the nuns, occurring at the same time but in different locations, Hopkins a theological student in Wales and the five nuns fellow members of a German convent. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the narratives diverge in time and place, one spanning the many years that encompass the failures and rejections of Hopkins’ life, the other focusing on the few nights leading up to and including the wreck of the Deutchsland. Hansen fully understands the advantages of coupling two storylines. The narrative involving the nuns serves as a sort of superheroic origin story for Hopkins, rekindling his love of poetry and inspiring some of his best work. The narrative involving the nuns also serves as a stereophonic counterpart to the tragedies suffered throughout Hopkins’ life, paralleling the “wreckage” of his being denied priesthood and publication for so many years. According to those conditions, generally and apparently and ideally, the combination of each narrative is meant to create a single story not only as enlightening and seamless as the flashbacks to Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s fateful laboratory accident in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, but also as harmonious, dulcet, quiet, and melodic as the duet of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”
Exiles’s dual narratives, unfortunately, don’t work that well. Despite his reputation as a masculine writer, given his two best-known books are westerns, given also his prose tends to venerate hardware and toolkits, Hansen is remarkably adept at creating believable, unique, impressive characters that are female, particularly Mariette in Ecstasy’s titular, monastic protagonist. The five nuns in Exiles are no different. Within just half of an already short novel, each of them, not unlike the pupils of Jean Brodie in her prime, becomes a distinct person, made particular through abstraction. One sister, for example, who is known most commonly as “the pretty one,” is vividly described as having been “ill so often at age ten that Mastholte’s doctor told her mother to have Lisette lie on a seaweed mattress, but Frau Dammhorst soon found underneath the seaweed Dutch elm branches that her strange, pretty daughter had put there to disturb her sleep so she could ‘ease the pain of the souls in Purgatory.’” Within the other half of the novel, Hopkins, the focus of the book in as much as Miss Brodie is of her own, remains an obscure entity, made abstract through particularization. One scene, for example, which showcases the complexities of his psyche, ends with the reductive line, “Hopkins accused himself of a snorting, sour, unspiritual tone to some of his conversations, prayed for those who’d died, were injured, or lost loved ones in the shipwreck, but thanked God for the beauties and contrarities of nature, the tonic of outdoor exercise, and the cheer and solace of his Jesuit brothers.”
Another problem concerns the novel’s layout. In the first, less successful half, the passages for each of the narratives are longer and slower, less scene-based, and include fewer shifts back and forth between them, while in the second, more successful half, the passages are shorter and quicker, more immediate, one cutting to the other in better illustration of their subtextual connections. It should be noted these issues are only minor. Hansen’s strengths as a writer have never been for the broader components of narrative structure—Desperadoes, his exquisite, violent, beautiful debut, underutilizes its framing device; Atticus, his tender portrait of a father’s love, awkwardly shifts its point of view—but rather, he excels at using phrases, words, and sentences, those details of language, to make his fiction into a kind of poetry. Exiles has a hell of a fitting subject.
Since the posthumous publication of his collected works in 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ stature has grown steadily within the literary establishment, so much so that today he is credited with several poetic neologisms, including “inscape,” the distinctive and essential quality unique to any given thing, “sprung rhythm,” a use of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry that mimics the natural rhythm of human speech, and “instress,” the force by which the essential quality of a thing creates an external impression. Hopkins’ poetry was intimately connected to his spirituality. Hopkins’ poetry was a way for him to speak with God. So, to do justice to the poet that British literary critic F.R. Leavis said “is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest,” an author would need a generous understanding of religious faith and a sizeable if not commensurate poetic sensibility.
Ron Hansen, the “Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.” Professor of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University as well as a Catholic Deacon in ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, California, is up to the task. His authorial voice, by inclination and by disposition, is an authoritative voice, as though spoken from behind a lectern, and his writing style, pious as it is poetic, shows a reverence for God equaled only by its reverence for language. “He had long had haunting his ear the echo of a new rhythm,” Hansen writes in Exiles, paraphrasing a letter written by Hopkins, “that would re-create the native and natural stresses of speech.” The most interesting aspect of such a sentence is that Hansen describes how Hopkins mimicked others’ use of language and, more importantly, that Hansen does so by mimicking Hopkins’ own use of language.
Elsewhere, the novel’s prose bears the stigmata of Hopkins’ poetry. Images such as, “The knuckling flames consumed the wicks of the votive candles,” “Gold, Teutonic calligraphy,” and, “Their eyes silvering with tears of bliss,” are beautiful examples of poetic inscape. A description like, “The swell’s comb morseling into fine string and tassel before bursting on the rocky spurs of the cove and breaking into white bushes of foam,” utilizes sprung rhythm. Phrases such as, “Language his bloody knife,” “Wakening gaslights,” and, “Boats sliding with satiny, Elysian motion,” are lovely examples of poetic instress. Throughout Exiles, Hansen uses Hopkins’ poetic techniques not only to recreate the historical setting but also to explore the workings of a poet’s mind. It is at that juncture between language and consciousness that the thick, industrial shellac of caricature dissolves into the fine, vivid oil paint of characterization. Consider this passage describing one of the rectors who taught Hopkins:
“Father Rector,” as he was called, was a manly, rattling, genial, ever-courteous man from County Slip, Ireland, a shrewd, scientific professor of moral theology who’d studied at the English College in Rome, served as a Superior in British Guiana and Jamaica, and published two scholarly books on the Athanasian creed, yet welcomed contradiction in class and the nickname of “the Governor,” delighted in jokes and singing, and so worried about the seminarians’ health that he stayed at their bedsides when they were ill, tipping into their mouths his mother’s cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg.
In such a simple description, the broad, dull, and usual tapers to the specific, the memorable, the unusual. Trivial characteristics like “manly” and “ever-courteous” and “shrewd” shift to more precise, albeit dryer biographical details like “served as a Superior in British Guiana” and “published two scholarly books on Athanasian creed,” all of which are concluded by the wonderful, telling, intimate, gorgeous bit about the rector tipping a “cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg” into the mouths of ill students. Such mobilization in the degree of details sets apart Hansen’s writing from the source material of Hopkins’ poetry and the framework of historical fiction. Exiles is not simply an imitation of poetry. Exiles is not simply a recreation of history. In reference to historical fact, George Santayana’s saying goes, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” but in reference to historical fiction, a better saying would be, “Those who don’t add something new to the past are simply repeating it.”
Among the many characteristics of historical fiction, one of the most noteworthy is the tendency to assimilate, digest, and transfigure the various tropes of other genres. What are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Charles Portis’s True Grit, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man if not westerns elevated by fine literary craftsmanship? Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Frazier’s Cold Mountain are romances as much as they are historical novels. Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, Steven Milhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle are fantasies. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Umbarto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are at once postmodern and historical works of fiction. What are Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 if not crime novels provided with scope and novelty by meticulous research?
These examples are a testament not only to historical fiction’s malleability but also its inherent advantages and disadvantages: Historical fiction can be adapted readily to other genres because its advantages can resolve other genres’ limitations and its disadvantages can be resolved by other genres’ attributes. Hansen’s Exiles, a religious romance as well as a historical novel, exemplifies those abilities.
One feature of historical fiction is the flash-forward, a technique used recently and amply in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, as well as in much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, particularly the famous first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The auxiliary verb “would” and its variations play a crucial part in the flash-forward. “Thirty-three years later,” Hansen writes of a minor character in Exiles, “Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water. But now the doctor said in his soothing voice, ‘Well, the sea can be very wild.’” The passage’s narrative leap into the future creates a thematic link, that of fate, that of irony, connecting two disparate episodes of a person’s life. “In a hundred years,” Hansen writes of one of the five nuns on the Deutschland, “no less than two of Catharina Fassbender’s relatives would become international opera stars, and the harbinger of that singing talent was heard in her lovely contralto.” Again, by mentioning the future continuance of the nun’s lineage and by mentioning it in a scene aboard a ship the reader knows will sink, the author allows the machinations of fate and irony to limn the inevitable tragedy of a character’s death. In Exiles as well as in other historical fiction, the use of flash-forwards lends the narrative a sense of omniscience and authority. It also helps the narrative avoid one of the genre’s most common mistakes, the trompe l’oeil effect, a tendency to make the reader aware of a book’s artificiality by way of its blatant immersion in a past time. Think vinyl-like scratches added to a cover of some 19th-century Irish ballad. Think portraits of upper-crust families painted in the style of a Dutch master. With flash-forwards the reader is shown the past but also told they are being shown the past, thereby, incongruously but effectively, making the past they are being shown seem less artificial.
Another characteristic of historical fiction is the use of different found documentation, including correspondence, radio transcripts, court records, newspaper articles, brochures, medical tests, receipts, interviews, grocery lists, and personal diary entries. The very diversity of such a list attests to the convention’s expediency in conveying breadth—of time and of place, of emotion and of experience, of people and of things—not only within a fictional world but also in terms of the larger context of reality. In Exiles, Hansen writes how one of the seaman on the sinking ship “looked up . . . in pining silence and with a ‘helpless expression that gave me a chill all through, for I knew it meant nothing else but that death was coming.’” Note how the shift to first-person creates greater immediacy. The addition of the seaman’s own words, with his antiquated syntax, with his resignation to death, reminds the reader, expeditiously, palpably, excitingly, that this really happened to someone. Despite the benefits of found documentation, however, it can often lead an author to the Merchant-Ivory recidivism of letting attention to historical accuracy obstruct, overwhelm, or obscure the goals of a fictional narrative. One of the reasons the five nuns seem more dynamic than Hopkins may be that, because so little is known of the five women and because so much is known of the one man, Hansen is less constrained in the former case by strict adherence to the facts. On the whole, though, Hansen avoids the pitfall of excessive accuracy by never making the entire book an assemblage of research, by exploring the interiority of his characters, by imagining what might have happened, by never letting his reportage commandeer his artistic intentions.
Still another feature of historical fiction is the technique of making common objects into dramatic artifacts. Specificity is the trick. The same way AMC’s Mad Men revels in gender inequality and skinny ties, the same way HBO’s Deadwood rejects Latinate words and the authority of law, Exiles is packed with common objects made into dramatic artifacts through specificity, such as a morning paper: “The front page, as always, was filled with three- and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall’s-End coal, Bailey’s elastic stockings, ladies’ abdominal belts, Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and ‘Want Places’ appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each wanting to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities.” The book contains “Staffordshire pitchers” and a “lucifer match” next to “Turkish towels” and “the pine and fir planks” commonly known as “deal.” Even the modest steamship Deutschland has “a grand saloon paneled with bird’s-eye maple and buttressed by oak pilasters inlaid with rosewood, and with leafy, gilt capitals. Hanging between brass gaslights were eight oil paintings by Franz Hunten, each a mediocre seascape of shipping and fishing vessels in full sail. Empire sofas and thirty armchairs were matched with Biedermeier tables and hand-painted cabinets.” Although such “fetishistic” details can at times become overwhelming, the previous passage being a good example, most of the time they don’t merely give the writer an opportunity to flaunt his research and bore the reader with inconsequential esoterica. They recreate the world of a historical period, and they create a whole world unto themselves. Such “fetishistic” details allow both writer and reader to suck each other’s pinkie toes, throw on a bit of leather, and, within the high-class brothel of fact and fiction, get their respective nut.
In the preface to Stay Against Confusion, a collection of essays that includes his first assessment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, Ron Hansen writes of religion presenting a narrative “helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now.” In the same preface, Hansen quotes Robert Frost on how a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Historical fiction could be said to be a stay against the confusion of time. How does it do so? Historical fiction, like history itself, like God, like any good story, is all in the details. Ron Hansen knows that real history is the jism flying through the air like ticker tape. It’s a Barracini’s candy box. It’s the phrase “high browns.” Even when his subject is a 19th-century celibate priest, Ron Hansen knows that real history is a skyful of starglide, beautiful for its language, damn sexy, and limitless with potential.
Oh, what a vileness human beauty is,
Corroding, corrupting everything it touches.
-Euripides, Orestes, 126-7
With such painstaking awe is the beauty of The Red and The Black’s Julien Sorel detailed that one might think Stendhal was describing a woman. We are treated to countless descriptions of Julien’s “fine complexion, his great black eyes, and his lovely hair, which was curlier than most men’s…” We learn that his eyes sparkle with hatred when he is angry, and indicate thought and passion when he is at peace. “Among the innumerable varieties of the human face, there may well be none more striking,” Stendhal suggests, almost matter-of-factly.
In The Greater Hippias, Plato argues that beauty is good and the good is beautiful: the two are identical. Superficial though the ancient Greeks might have been, even later Christian philosophers like Castiglione held that only rarely does an evil soul dwell in a beautiful body, and so outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness.
Stendhal would have agreed. With Julien’s high Napoleonic ideals and his violent, even physiological, reactions to all things base or hypocritical, he has “a soul fashioned for the love of beauty.” But life does not turn out so well for this young romantic because, predictably, Julien “was barely a year old when his beautiful face began to make friends for him, among the little girls…”
Fictional characters enjoy exaggerated attributes, but few have the sort of beauty that marks Julien Sorel, where the beauty is not only essential to his character, elevating his soul, but outside of it, dictating his destiny. If beauty can be distilled from its specific fictional forms, does it have a cogent power of its own in literature?
1. The Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
If there were ever a fictional beauty contest of sorts, the stand-out winner might very well be Remedios the Beauty from 100 Years of Solitude. Naive to the point of saintliness, Remedios the Beauty unintentionally causes the deaths of several men who lust over her. But despite being entirely uninterested in feminine wiles, dressing in course cassocks, and shaving her head:
…the more she did away with fashion in a search for comfort and the more she passed over conventions as she obeyed spontaneity, the more disturbing her incredible beauty became…
Under the Platonic model there is a “scale of perfection ranging from individual, physical beauty up the heavenly ladder to absolute beauty.” And in that lofty vein, Garcia Marquez describes Remedios the Beauty as though she were beauty manifest, in too pure a form for this Earth, and she leaves her novel by mysteriously ascending to the sky, like a spirit.
What exactly was it that made Remedios the Beauty so “disturbingly” beautiful? For one, it had very little to do with the worldly practice of seduction. Writes Neal Stephenson (about another beautiful character) in The System of the World:
Faces could beguile, enchant, and flirt. But clearly this woman was inflicting major spinal injuries on men wherever she went, and only a body had the power to do that. Hence the need for a lot of Classical allusions… Her idolaters were reaching back to something pre-Christian, trying to express a bit of what they felt when they gazed upon Greek statues of nude goddesses.
Still, the ascending beauty of Remedios the Beauty struck me as close to paradoxical. She might have been beauty in essence, but her absolute beauty was something she achieved, namely, by renouncing her beauty through eschewing feminine clothing and, more vividly, shaving her head.
There is a curious relationship between hair and destiny in literature. Chaucer, like Hollywood, is known for casting women by their hair color, but he is far from the exception. In keeping with the practices of Remedios the Beauty, the most reputable beautiful women in fiction part ways with their hair altogether at some point, such as Maria “the cropped headed one” in For Whom The Bell Tolls (whose name is an arguable allusion to the Virgin Mary by Hemingway), or Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, who hides her hair under a rag for much of her life (and is reputable to her readers, if not always to the townsfolk of Eatonville). Even fictional literary scholar Maud Bailey from A.S. Byatt’s Possession picked up on the strange connection between hair and destiny for beautiful women: she kept her head nearly shaved in her early teaching days, recounting Yeats’ “For Anne Gregory”:
Never shall a young man
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
But Julien Sorel never made such sacrifices. It would be most remiss to compare him to the saintly Remedios the Beauty, as he dabbles in vanity, employs manipulative mind-games, and continuously – though not malevolently – makes full use of his preternatural sex appeal in pursuit of his romantic ambitions. Rather, Julien is far better suited to a category of characters with a starkly different literary reputation…
2. The Second Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
Notable beautiful women with such a lust for life include Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who “had that indefinable beauty that results from joy, from enthusiasm, from success” and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with her “mysterious, poetic, charming beauty, overflowing with life and gayety…” But the most beautiful of all is The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye:
Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity… Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnights; her moods recalled lotus-eaters… her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light… her figure might have stood for one of the higher female deities…
Eustacia’s textual description is not exactly an exercise in restraint. On Hardy goes for two pages, describing the curve of her lips, her “pagan” eyes, the weight of her figure – and two paragraphs alone devoted to the sheer bounty of her dark hair, of which “a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.”
Like Julien Sorel, Eustacia Vye is naive, egotistical, self-serving, and obsessed with the idea of Paris, “the centre and vortex of the fashionable world.” She is far too human to achieve the Platonic ideal of beauty, “transcending sex, sensuality and ‘mere’ physical beauty” to “the region where gods dwell.” Nevertheless, Hardy gives a nod to “the fantastic nature of her passion, which lowered her as an intellect, raised her as a soul.”
And like Julien Sorel, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, Eustacia – mired by the societal constraints on her free will – ponders:
But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world?
3. The Curse of Beauty
The short answer: Yes. Without question. All four romantic leads bring about varying degrees of generalized suffering and to some degree their own demise, whether in gruesome and painful detail, like Emma Bovary, or only in critical speculation, like Eustacia. In literature, as it turns out, it is dangerous to be ambitious just as it is dangerous to be beautiful, but to be both ambitious and beautiful is fatal.
Helen of Troy is the prototypical example that ancient aesthetic philosophy ascribed a darker tone to female beauty than it (generally speaking) did to male beauty. Historian Bettany Hughes writes, “Rather than positioning Helen’s beauty as a worthy gift of the gods – ancient authors… saw her peerless face and form as a curse.” And yet, the power of Julien’s beauty proves to be as inevitably corrosive in The Red and The Black as it does in the respective novels of our beautiful female characters.
In fact, that sheer absence of a double standard to a great extent saves The Red and The Black from losing its modern flavor. As P. Walcot acknowledges the ancient Greek belief in “the male’s inability to resist… the immense power that the female wields through her sexuality,” so, too, are Julien’s female admirers Madame de Rênal (despite being married!) and Mathilde de La Mole (despite being solely motivated by boredom!) judged equally helpless in succumbing to their desire for him.
In part this arises from an amount of sympathy that Stendhal clearly harbored for women (he apparently had a beloved sister), even wealthy, spoiled, bored young women like Mathilde: in reference to her, he quotes from the Memoirs of the Duke d’Angouleme, “The need of staking something was the key to the character of this charming princess… Now, what can a young girl stake? The most precious thing she has: her reputation.”
Julien Sorel, conversely, escapes Stendhal’s goodwill far longer. From Diane Johnson’s introduction to The Red and the Black:
This accounts for the side of Julien that is calculating, flattering, insincere, and inwardly hostile even to people who intend to help and love him – indeed, he is an early example of an anti-hero of whom, at first, even Stendhal cannot approve. (emphasis added)
4. The Cure of Youth
But The Red and The Black has an unexpected twist: Julien gets to die like a martyr. There is hardly a consensus on this interpretation, but I read his death as something akin to a happy ending. Julien somehow manages to give everyone what they want from him – in particular, his most affected conquests. He returns the pious Madame de Rênal’s love and fulfills the passionate Mathilde’s Gothic fantasies while (outwardly) rejecting neither of them. But more amazingly: he reaches a sort of inner peace. He listens to his own heart which – unbelievably – instructs him to be truthful, sincere, to love the woman who most deserves it, and to carry the sole blame and make the entirety of amends for all the misfortune his (prior) self-indulgent, romantic nature hath wrought. Rather than marking a fundamental lack of character, Julien’s selfishness can be dismissed as mere youthful indiscretion.
Having sought the mystery behind the divergent destinies of Julien and his beautiful female counterparts in terms of the role of beauty in fiction, I come to find that it resolves itself in another, altogether more disconcerting thesis: that perhaps the nature of the young romantic hero in literature is eventually malleable, whereas the nature of the young romantic heroine in literature is essentially fixed.
Towards the end of her life, it occurs to Anna Karenina, “I am not jealous, but unsatisfied…” Emma Bovary and Eustacia Vye have similar exits: their earthly desires resist satiation, but congeal and turn ever more destructive. Their three fates recall the following canto from Dante’s Inferno, which warns of a female beast:
And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.
And so beautiful women in literature are brought to ultimately ugly ends.
Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]
As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this.
I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on.
On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree.
It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up.
No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world.
But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings.
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power.
He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise.
But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition.
Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read.
So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance.
And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine.
This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders.
All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.)
Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere.
Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day.
[Image credit: Tim]
In late 2001 among the people I knew, cellphones went from being a gadget of the technorati to something that everyone had. I was living in a dorm with five roommates at the time and one consequence of the change was that we no longer ever spoke with each other’s parents. Previously parents had called the room line and whoever was around would pick up. I enjoyed shooting the breeze with my friends’ moms (it was mostly moms who called) and I regretted that there was no longer much opportunity to do that once cellphones allowed our parents to call each of us directly.
Ereaders today feel somewhat like cellphones just before 2001. They are not yet ubiquitous, but they are well past the early-adopter stage and their growth seems poised to go geometric. When the Kindle came out in 2007 I poopooed it as the future face of reading; the hyperactivity of the Internet just seemed like a bad match with the meditative experience of reading a book. But the other day while watching my eight-month-old son knock around a pile of books, I knew suddenly and viscerally that I was wrong. The clunky objects he was playing with seemed like relics.
The Millions has written previously about the externalities of e-readers. Edan has commented on how they portend a drawing down of the public space in which we read—with the Kindle you don’t know what the person next to you is reading, or how far along in it they are, or whether their copy of the book is dog-eared or brand new (because it’s neither).
One of the most prominent losses in this regard stands to be the loss of bookshelves. A chief virtue of digital books is said to be their economical size—they take up no space at all!—but even a megabyte seems bulky compared to what can be conveyed in the few cubic feet of a bookshelf. What other vessel is able to hold with such precision, intricacy, and economy, all the facets of your life: that you bake bread, vacationed in China, fetishize Melville, aspire to read Shakespeare, have coped with loss, and still tote around a copy of The Missing Piece as a totem of your childhood. And what by contrast can a Kindle tell you about yourself or say to those who visit your house? All it offers is blithe reassurance that there is progress in the world, and that you are a part of it.
Of the bookshelves I’ve inspected in my life, two stand out as particularly consequential. The first was my mother’s, which was built into the wall of the bedroom where she grew up. When I would visit my grandparents in the summer I would spend hours inspecting that bookshelf. The books were yellowed and jammed tightly together, as though my mother had known it was time to leave home once she no longer had any room left on her shelves. In the 1960s novels, the Victorian classics, and the freshman year sociology textbooks fossilized on the bookshelf, I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.
And then there was my wife, whose bookshelves I first inspected in a humid DC summer, while her parents were away at work. The shelves were stuffed full of novels—Little House on the Prairie, The Andromeda Strain, One Hundred Years of Solitude—that described an arc of discovery I had followed too. At the time we met, her books still quivered from recent use and still radiated traces of the adolescent wonder they’d prompted. In the years since, on visits home for the holidays and to celebrate engagements and births, I’ve watched her bookshelves dim and settle. Lately they’ve begun to resemble a type of monument I recognize from my mother’s room. They sit there waiting for the day when our son will be old enough to spend his own afternoons puzzling out a picture of his mother in the books she left behind.
It remains to be seen how many more generations will have the adventure of getting to know their parents in just this way. One for sure, and maybe two, but not much beyond that I wouldn’t think. To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy. The more interesting story, however, the open-ended, undirected progression of a life defined by books will surely be lost to a digital world in which there is no such thing as time at all.
[Image source: David Goehring]
A recent Millions essay by Michelle Huneven got us thinking: much hay has been made of how various print and digital platforms affect reading practices, but what about setting? Where you do your reading, and how much unbroken time you can give to it, will arguably shape your experience far more than does the difference between screen and page. And as cable and the web colonize our homes, it seems to us that the best reading is increasingly done in transit – for better and for worse. We’ve read pieces of War and Peace on the DC Metro (tough) and half of Anna Karenina in a single gulp on a night train through Tuscany (sublime).
By way of starting a conversation about the ideal marriage of text and transportation, we’ve asked our contributors and our Facebook group to make recommendations for three modes of transportation: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. “Planes” should be self-explanatory; “Trains” comprises commuter rail (and buses) as well as longer distance trips; and “Automobiles,” perforce, centers on audiobooks, podcasts, and works read out loud by those not behind the wheel. Contributor responses appear first, followed by selections from the Facebook response. We invite you to add your own in the comments section or via twitter (using the hashtag #roadbooks). Bon voyage!
Sonya: While traveling far from home, I like to give myself over fully to a changed perspective, leaving my customary myopia behind as much as possible; The Economist is my preferred reading. The robust “World” and “Business” sections in particular knock me off my precious literary perch, which can be awfully refreshing.
Kevin: My criteria for a plane book are two: I want it to be fast-paced, and I want to be able to finish it, if not by the time I touch down, then at least during the return flight home. I’ve never had a better plane reading experience than Boston to Los Angeles, 1994, The Hunt for Red October.
Edan: When flying, I always want something short enough to read cover-to-cover (in addition to a novel, a fashion magazine or gossip rag, and a book of jumbles, crosswords, or soduku). On my last few flights, I’ve brought a volume from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. I’ve written about Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra here. I can also recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteutre, about a man with cell phone issues who just wants help from a goddamned human being. It’s an appropriate read for when you’re flying through the air in a magical bullet, and you’ve just been forced to pay for a bag of peanut m&ms (a.k.a., dinner) with your credit card because cash is no longer accepted.
Garth: Last summer, en route to Hawaii, I read most of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. If I say that I wasn’t even tempted to look at The Real Housewives of New Jersey (on a continuous loop on my back-of-seat TV), it’s not to slight Jacqueline or Dina, but to indicate how engrossing and provocative I found Talese’s exploration of sex in America.
Anne: For the nervous flyer (like myself), who wants to forget they’re in a fuselage for the duration of the flight, Lucy Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face offers a gripping and unsentimental account of her childhood bone cancer and living with the consequent facial disfiguration. The book can captivate for the time it takes to cross an ocean – even, in my case, the Pacific.
Emily W: My fear of flying makes reading when skybound a rare pleasure. For me, it’s usually the iPod, cocktails, and a Vogue or a Harper’s Bazaar. The one book that managed to suppress my fear of death in the sky for five hours was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I read from cover-to-cover on a red-eye from San Francisco to DC.
Max: Plane rides are perfect for magazines, especially the New Yorker. The freedom to work through an entire issue in one sitting feels like a luxury, even if the leg room is lacking.
Anne: Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories offer enchantments brief enough for daily a commute, but the collection provides a cornucopia of word play and eclectic tales to occupy a longer haul. Plus, Hempel’s story, “To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights Out of O’Hare,” is a sure endorsement of the soothing lull of a long train ride.
Sonya: I like the Russians for train travel. When you’re watching the natural landscape – the largely uninhabited regions – of a country fly by in flashes, it just feels right to be reading stories that take place over the great land mass of Mother Russia. For a long trip, Dr. Zhivago; for, say, the DC-New York Metroliner, Chekhov’s “The Steppe” – in both cases, the land journey is also the journey of the soul.
Garth: The subway is feast or famine for me. The right book, and I’ll miss my stop; the wrong one, and I’ll read for half an hour without registering a single word. When I don’t have a New Yorker handy, Joan Didion – say, Play it as it Lays or Salvador – is perfect subway reading: lucid enough to let me in quickly; sophisticated enough to hold my attention; and discretely structured, for ease of exit.
Kevin: Typically before boarding at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I stop at a news kiosk and pick up the NYT and the WSJ. I enjoy having the time to read each front to back, and I like being able to change from news to business to sports and then back again. There’s also no doubt that I like the romance of a newspaper on the train: the economy fold, the crinkle of the pages mixed with the sound of the clattering tracks.
Emily W: On trains, I’m usually one for gazing out the window or striking up a conversation with a stranger, but this winter on the Northeast Direct from DC to Boston, I found Poets and Writers’ January/February 2010 issue quite absorbing, particularly their “Literary Life” essays. I’m a bit of skeptic when it comes to writing about writing but P&W convinced me otherwise.
Edan: I never travel by train, but the next time – or, really, the first time – I get the opportunity to ride one across the country, or even state lines, I plan to bring along my copy of Selected Stories by Alice Munro. I will flip immediately to “Wild Swans,” a startling, discomfiting, and accurate account of an encounter with a stranger on a train. Munro writes: “Victim and accomplice she was borne past Glasco’s jams and Marmalades, past the big pulsating pipes of oil refineries.” I’d like to read that sentence as another landscape glides by my own train car window.
Max: There’s something about taking a longer train ride that puts one in the mood for adventure. When I was younger, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a train ride from Washington D.C. to New York and emerged from Penn Station feeling pleasantly addled and ready for a night on the town.
Amir Hother Yishay: I finished the last 200 hundred pages of A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin, on a subway ride
Jane Weichert: Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose is an very readable story of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. It was built by the immigrant Chinese and Irish and gives an understanding of the brutal conditions under which they worked. Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford is a spell-binding tale of the last of the privately financed infrastructure projects undertaken by larger-than-life 19th century businessmen. Here Henry Flagler races against his own mortality to complete a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, with the final run south from Miami requiring herculean engineering, management, and financial resources.
Becky Donahue: Short stories are wonderful…just finished reading Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. Podcasts…Slate does a great job and lots of content to choose from. My new favorites are Spilled Milk and The Moth.
Sonya: Once weekly, I drive two hours each way – prime audiobook time. “As read by the author” is often a great way to go when choosing nonfiction in particular. I recommend Elizabeth Gilbert reading Eat, Pray, Love; Anne Lamott reading any of her memoirs; Helene Cooper reading The House at Sugar Beach; and, my favorite among these, Dreams From My Father. The author was allowed much more range of expression back in 2005 when he recorded it, and it’s a rare experience hearing a future president do Kenyan accents and urban “Negro dialect” (ahem) and using the f- and n-words. [Ed.’s note: for the latter, we also recommend the Lyndon Johnson tapes.]
Anne: It’s rare that I travel by car these days, and even rarer that I find myself behind the wheel, but when I do, I like to listen to In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Listening to poems, like songs, lets me internalize their rhythms and cadences. This collection features a wide range of twentieth-century poets reciting their own poems, from Sylvia Plath’s contemptuous “Daddy” to Gertrude Stein’s playfully repetitive “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.”
Emily W: With audiobooks, it’s all about the reader; audio samples are essential to choosing a good recording. On recent car trips, my husband and I have found Huckleberry Finn and The Da Vinci Code particularly entertaining (in the latter case, guffaw-inducing) because the readers were so excellent at accents, genders, and dialects. And I have extremely fond memories of listening to Larry McMurtry’s Anything for Billy with my parents and sisters on a childhood drive from Virginia to Massachusetts.
Kevin: Audiobooks are not foolproof. A couple years ago I tried to listen to Cold Mountain on a road trip; between changing lanes, counting out toll money, and generally trying to stay alert, I found Charles Frazier’s slow, somnolent reading impossible to follow. These days my voices of choice are David Sedaris (yes, please, Santaland Diaries one more time) and Garrison Keillor, or anyone else working in short-form comedy.
Garth: Though my wife and I like to read aloud to each other on long trips, The Lannan Literary Foundation podcasts are a recent discovery I’m pretty enthusiastic about: lengthy readings by writers like Deborah Eisenberg and Samuel R. Delany, followed by intelligent discussion with peers like Ben Marcus and Junot Díaz. We parcel them out like rest stops.
Max: A good travel audiobook can make even a drive from Chicago to New York seem something more than just endless fields and turnpikes. Most memorable was Paul Theroux’s account of his train trip from Cairo to Johannesburg, Dark Star Safari. The library is great for these.
Amir Hother Yishay: I always read on car rides, never having been a fan of audio books myself. One of my greatest car reading experiences would probably be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude over a two week trip from Toronto to St. Johns.
Miriam Parker: One of my most enjoyable long car rides included listening to Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. He reads it and is fantastic. I actually had to stop the car once to write down something brilliant he had said or else I would have caused a huge accident on I-40.
Christine Magee: Commuting in and out of the city on a regular basis last year was made palatable by listening to Carson McCullers, The Heart is a lonely Hunter. The fact that the narrative transported me to a different place and time made it the perfect choice. It got to the point where I was looking forward to sitting in traffic so I could hear more! This wonderful book full of tension and struggle made my daily commute seem like a breeze!
On the occasion of Scribner’s publication of the “Restored Edition” of A Moveable Feast, Gioia Diliberto, biographer of Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley, writes of her discovery of the Hadley Hemingway tapes.Sarah Schmelling’s McSweeney’s piece “Hamlet (Facebook News Feed Edition)” has spawned a book Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don’t Float: Classic Lit Signs on to Facebook, the canon retold in social networking parlance.Speaking of the canon, The Second Pass plays devil’s advocate and tells us which of history’s most praised books are best avoided. (We will pass over in silence the inclusion of One Hundred Years of Solitude.)Mark Athitakis writes about the National Book Award in 1980, “an interesting time for the prize.” The previous year, publishers pulled out of the awards, contending according to an NYT article, “the awards favored little-read books.” (This criticism resurfaced in 2004.) After 1980, the festivities ballooned to eight fiction categories before eventually being scaled back in subsequent years. (via Maud)In Slate, Nathaniel Rich wonders why “the most peaceful people on earth [Scandinavians] write the greatest homicide thrillers.”The “Significant Objects project,” in which worthless trinkets are sold on eBay along with original fiction written about said worthless trinkets, has launched. Participants include Curtis Sittenfeld, Lydia Millet, Matthew Sharpe, Sam Lipsyte, and a few dozen others. The eBay auctions can be found here.
In what seems peripherally related to our recent exercise in award aggregation, The Prizewinners, the Booker Prize recently announced their Best of the Booker, a prize to commeorate the 40th anniversary of the Prize and also to name the “best overall novel to have won the prize.” It went, somewhat predictably, to Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children – the book also won when the Booker gave out a similar award 15 years ago. Scott, however, makes a very compelling argument that J.G. Farrell’s “novel of imperial decay,” The Siege of Krishnapur, deserved to be honored instead.Meanwhile, in what seems peripherally related to our recent exercise in books-in-translation aggregation, The Prizewinners International, the Lit Saloon points us to The Times’ (UK) list of “the 50 outstanding literary translations from the last 50 years,” presented alphabetically. Some Millions favorites like The Master and Margarita, 100 Years of Solitude, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler appear. Interestingly, Edith Grossman, one of the most celebrated translators in recent years, does not make the list.
Book reviews are not the easiest things to write in the world. No, this is not an “oh, me, book blogging is so hard” piece. Though, judging from the New York Times Magazine’s cover story of Emily Gould last week, that may be appropriate, too. I digress.The books I read motivate me. If I am moved by one, I am compelled to write and talk about it, making sure I entice as many people as possible to check it out and share the experience. And, vice versa for books I dislike. It is tricky, however, to keep your audience interested without giving away the whole book.I became very self conscious about my book reviews during journalism school. (Hence, the lack of my verbose dispatches of old.) Picking the right words to describe a style, characters, the story flow and experience proved harder and harder. Escaping cliches, in other words, became more difficult. And that brings me to today’s theme. (This is called burying the lede in journalism.)Reading about some new releases last week, I noticed recurring themes and started to Google them. The results were entertaining – or, from a creativity point of view, dismal. My methodology is to pick a phrase and put it in quotes (e.g., “lively cast of characters”) and add the word “novel” next to it (as in: “lively cast of characters” novel).Here are some phrases and searches I found to be especially intriguing and entertaining:“captures the very essence of” novel: But of course, which novel doesn’t capture the essence of something or another? From James Bond to Jane Eyre and Fight Club, your quintessential book reviewer phrase.“an irresistible story” novel: Apply to any novel or biography. Preferably, use the phrase before the preposition “of” followed by a noun or description. Examples: an irresistible story of love, an irresistible story of two worlds, an irresistible story of justice.“lively cast of characters” novel: From the NYT to Amazon, blogs and publishers, this seems to be a phrase that all reviewers fall for at one point or another.“inner circle” memoir: Mostly for policy wonks, but applies to rock bands too.“washington insider” novel (or memoir): Same as above; applies to John Grisham novels too.”not your typical diet book”: Or is it? It appears that all your diet books are not your typical diet book.“master of suspense” novel: Too many chiefs, not enough warriors? Anyone?“emotionally charged novel”: Watch out, the next book might just “push you over the edge.” (And this is where I fall in the fold.)“timeless classic” novel: Classic or not, there is plenty of timelessness.“the quintessential novel”: Precedes descriptions like “the Lost Generation” (Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises), post-World War II New Orleans (John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces) and of the Jazz Age/about the American Dream (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), among others.Another test you can run is breaking up and joining phrases:“most gifted storytellers” novel: Care to guess how many gifted storytellers there are?“most innovative storytellers” novel: And innovative ones?“most innovative and gifted storytellers” novel: But combine the two, and you get Dean Koontz, the only innovative and gifted storyteller.Yet, there is hope, dear Millions readers:“combustive movements”: Seems to apply only to Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution – which, by the way, is a great discourse on “turbulent politics.” (I succumb, once again.)“masterpiece in the art of fiction”: Or should we say art of magical realism? Presenting: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.Google away and enjoy the folly. And, by all means, please speak loudly when we “fall into the same trap” here at the Millions.
Friend of The Millions, proprietor of Pinky’s Paperhaus, and all around great gal Carolyn Kellogg has landed at the LA Times book blog Jacket Copy. We have little doubt that she’ll do great things there.Following Heath Ledger’s untimely death, BBC looks at the myriad ways in which Hollywood has dealt with losing an actor mid-production, dating back to 1937 “when Jean Harlow died, aged 26, during the making of Saratoga. With filming 90% complete, a lookalike and two Harlow sound-a-likes (voice doubles) took up where the star left off.”Bookride is back with an intriguing look at the collectors’ market for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. Don’t miss this tidbit: “By the way sending books to authors for signing is something of a gamble – Thomas Hardy used to keep all the books sent to him neatly shelved in a spare room.”Speaking of Garcia Marquez, Edith Grossman, the translator who has shaped the Latin American canon for English speakers over the last few decades, is profiled in bookforum.The New Republic offers the story behind the controversial New York Times John McCain/lobbyist story.The Morning News returns with its third annual Tournament of Books. Sadly, there will be no Bloggers’ Pool this year (despite our being eager to participate again), but Coudal Partners is sponsoring a betting pool for charity this year. As of this writing, On Chesil Beach and Run have had the most money thrown their way.A cartoon drawn on the pages of Moby DickAnd finally, McSweeney’s offers up some sweet Ashton Kutcher fan fiction.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy recommended by EdanYannick Murphy’s short story “In a Bear’s Eye,” from the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, stunned me with its beauty and strangeness, and led me to her new novel, which is just as lovely, and just as strange. Murphy’s Mata Hari tells her life story from a prison cell in Paris as she awaits trial for treason. The book fluidly moves from the Netherlands, to Indonesia, to various cities in Western Europe, switching points of view throughout, the language begging to be read aloud it’s so musical, so dream-like. This novel is erotic (oh lord, some parts left me breathless), sad, and fascinating. Check out Bat Segundo’s interview with Yannick Murphy for more.+ Coming Through Slaughter (Vintage) by Michael Ondaatje recommended by AndrewAfter cornet player Buddy Bolden suffered a mental breakdown during a parade through the streets of New Orleans about a hundred years ago and had to be put away, rumors began to swirl about his life. Michael Ondaatje’s first novel, from 1976, is a jazz riff on all the possibilities of Buddy Bolden. A work of fiction, the narrative line running through it involves his friend Webb’s search for Buddy after his sudden disappearance a few years before the breakdown, through the resurfacing, and then his final silencing on that fateful day at the parade.That’s the thread. But this short novel unfolds, or rather, explodes, like a scrapbook filled with bits and pieces of Buddy’s life. Interviews with his former lovers, with his friends and band-mates, with the denizens of the underbelly of New Orleans circa 1907. A poem here, a list of songs there, these fragments seem so haphazard, and yet these contextual glimpses all hang together, swirling around Buddy. And when the music ends, they leave you with a rich story of a jazzman who swung to his own rhythms.+ Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau recommended by GarthTexaco, by the Antillean writer Patrick Chamoiseau, won France’s Goncourt Prize in 1992. It has pretty much everything I look for in a novel: a sweeping plot, a great heroine, a rich setting (geographic and historical), an ingenious structure, and – especially – an exploration of the possibilities of language. In a resourceful translation by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, Chamoiseau’s fusion of French and Creole seems positively Joycean. Recommended for fans of Faulkner, Morrison, and 100 Years of Solitude.+ My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony LoydRecommended by TimothyWar is not only hell, it’s also addictive, at least for British war correspondent Anthony Loyd, who for severals years covered the conflict in Bosnia for The Times. In this honest and poetic personal account – no index of names and places – the young reporter breaks some of the traditional rules of journalism by taking sides in the multi-ethnic war and revealing how the high he gets from life on the battlefield is matched only by the high provided by heroin during the occasional trip back to London. “War and smack: I always hope for some kind of epiphany in each to lead me out but it never happens,” he writes. In the war zone, Loyd befriends civilians whose resilience is almost unfathomable. He also introduces us to modern-day mercenaries – not the highly organized and well-funded security details found in Iraq, but gritty thrill seekers from across Europe. These are fighters who don’t necessarily believe in a cause, unless that cause is war itself. The book is by no means a primer on the events that unfolded in Bosnia; it simply tells how in war some people get by and others die.+ Hellfire by Nick Tosches recommended by Patrick”The God of the Protestants delivered them under full sail to the shore of the debtors’ colony, fierce Welshmen seeking new life in a new land.” So begins the first chapter of the finest book ever written about rock and roll, Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire. Not a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis? Hate rock and roll? Couldn’t possibly care less? Doesn’t matter. Tosches’ style – mock-biblical, profane, and wild – will amaze you:Old rhythms merged with new, and the ancient raw power of the country blues begat a fierce new creature in sharkskin britches, a creature delivered by the men, old and young, who wrought their wicked music, night after dark night, at Haney’s Big House and a hundred other places like it in the colored parts of a hundred other Deep South towns. The creature was to grow to great majesty, then be devoured by another, paler, new creature.+ Water Music by T.C. Boyle recommended by MaxI’ve read nearly all of Boyle’s books, but his first (and the first I read by him) remains my favorite. Boyle is now well-known for his mock histories that refigure the lives of prominent eccentrics. But if those books are sometimes held back by the inscrutability of their protagonists, Water Music sings on the back of Mungo Park, an 18th Century Scottish explorer who ventured deep into the heart of Africa, and Ned Rise, a thief from the gutters of London who meets him there. It’s part Dickens, part comic book, and, as one reviewer once put it, “delightfully shameless.”+ The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem recommended by EmreEmbedding Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, racial dynamics and the explosive 1970s at the heart of its narrative, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem delves into the white world of Dylan Ebdus in the black heart of a changing neighborhood. It is the story of a motherless white kid estranged from his father and “yoked” by his schoolmates. It is also the story of Dylan’s brilliant journey from solitude to friend of burned-out-soul-singer’s-son Mingus Rude, to neighborhood punk, to Camden College drug dealer, to San Francisco-based music reporter. The trip is outward bound, but the reader is given the benefit of also traveling through Dylan’s heart and mind – be it through a delicious sampling of the era’s music, fashion and city life, or through exploits with Mingus and a ring that gives them superpowers. Lethem paints a brilliant cultural portrait of the U.S. by presenting Dylan’s isolation, desire to fit in – somewhere, anywhere – and transformation to readers. And, for music junkies, there is the added bonus of identifying endless trivia.+ Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller recommended by EmilyStephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art is a smart yet approachable account of an art that most of us take for granted: the lively and friendly exchange of ideas among equals on topics lofty and commonplace, otherwise known as conversation. While Miller’s book is indeed a history – including different manifestations of conversation in the ancient world (the Spartans, for example, were known for their compressed, economical use of words and thus the word “laconic,” Miller tells us, comes from Laconia, the region surrounding and controlled by Sparta) – it focuses mainly on what Miller considers the heyday of conversation, eighteenth-century England, an age in which conversation was considered an art worthy of study and about which manuals and essays were written. Miller’s book – which he describes as an “essay – an informal attempt to clarify a subject, one that includes personal anecdotes” – is a nostalgic one, which views our own culture as averse to genuine intellectual and emotional exchange undertaken in a spirit of goodwill. We are either, he shows, too aggressive or too timid to converse about the opinions we seem to declare so boldly on t-shirts and bumper-stickers, and thereby we deny ourselves what the likes of Adam Smith, James Boswell, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson considered one of life’s greatest pleasures, as well as a means of sharpening one’s intellect, polishing verbal expression, alleviating melancholy, and acquiring new knowledge. “Society and conversation” Miller quotes Adam Smith, “are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it.” A timely, thoughtful book and one not to miss.+ The Art of Fiction by John Gardner recommended by BenOnce upon a time, in a land far, far away, a friend told me that anyone who is serious about writing needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve since read the book a half dozen times and feel confident in amending the statement: “Anyone who is serious about reading needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.”Although Gardner is best known for Grendel, his retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view, The Art of Fiction, finds him at his most engaging. This is no mere how-to book. In simple, captivating prose, Gardner lays out his theory of writing, stopping along the way to add anecdotes about his own experiences as a novelist and commentary on works he admires. In the process, he thoroughly examines the structure of the modern novel, from plot to word choice. The first read changed the way I viewed both writing and reading, and I’ve come away from every encounter with new insight.If you only read one book about writing, this is the one.
If you’re arriving here after hearing my appearance on Weekend Edition Sunday, welcome! Just to give you a little background, I started The Millions in early 2003 when I was a bookseller at an independent bookstore in Los Angeles. I’ve since moved on from there, but the blog has stuck around. We now have seven contributors besides me, and we write nearly daily about books and other cultural topics.If you want to look around, a great place to start is the notable posts on the right-hand sidebar. You can get to the archives by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.Finally, in case you want to get more info on the books I mentioned during the segment, here are some links to the books on Amazon (I haven’t heard the segment yet, so not sure if they edited any of these out):Ragtime by E.L. DoctorowPastoralia by George SaundersEast of Eden by John SteinbeckOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia MarquezThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThanks for checking out The Millions!