In early 2016, I had a chance to take my wife and kids to Barcelona for a few months. It felt like a great time to be out of the U.S. in general—primary season!—but especially to be there on the Mediterranean, where winter is what we here call “spring.” I’d been abroad only a handful of times before, never for more than a couple weeks, and now I surrendered giddily to food and architecture and people, a whole different tempo of life. Perhaps not coincidentally, I fell in love with pretty much every book I opened there. I read Open City. I read Spring Torrents. I read Mercè Rodoreda, Catalonia’s answer to Clarice Lispector (and a shamefully neglected writer here at home). I read Isherwood and Saramago. Especially, though, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even later, back in the U.S., I would feel with these writers the connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. Over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The second in this series will be with Enrigue; the third with Marías.
The first is with Cercas, author of the international bestseller The Soldiers of Salamis and the acclaimed “novel with nonfiction” The Anatomy of a Moment, as well as the novels The Speed of Light and Outlaws. His new novel with nonfiction, The Impostor, tells the true story of Enric Marco, who passed himself off for a quarter century as a Holocaust survivor and leader of the resistance to Franco’s dictatorship. In her New York Times review, Parul Seghal wrote of the book’s “hot, charged energy” with the thrill of one discovering Cercas’s work for the first time. It’s a thrill I remember well myself.
The Millions: I wanted to start with a curious discrepancy. This summer, I picked up a copy of The Speed of Light in a used bookshop, and I was struck by the self-portrait you’ve embedded at the beginning there. As in many of your books, there’s a Javier Cercas character, and here he’s a young man in his mid-20s, a kind of writer manqué, but with no sense of what he might want to write. But then in Roberto Bolaño’s nonfiction collection Between Parentheses, he has an essay about you [“Javier Cercas Comes Home”] where he says, in essence, that he’s known you since you were 17 and you were always hunting big game, always going to write a masterpiece, and now you’ve come home to Gerona to do so. So which, I guess I’m asking, was the real you: the schlemiel or the focused, ambitious artist.
Javier Cercas: This is very easy, in fact. I was always an outcast. I’m an immigrant, a child of immigrants, from Extremadura. A guy without roots.
TM: Even in language, right? Your parents would have spoken Castilian, and now they’ve landed in Gerona, this city in Catalonia, where everyone speaks Catalan. You’re like the character Gafitas, in Outlaws.
JC: Yes. And I wanted to be a writer from the very beginning, when I was 14, I think. But because I was an outcast, it was like wanting to be an astronaut … a very weird thing to be. In fact, Bolaño was probably my first friend who wrote a book in Spanish—and he was something like 47 when he wrote that piece, 10 years older than me. And he still wasn’t famous yet the way he is today.
I’ll tell you a funny story about Bolaño. We were always on the phone, like boyfriend and girlfriend. One day, around the time when he began to be known, he calls me and says, “Javier, there is this anthology of young writers called Yellow Pages that’s just come out, and you’re not in it. You must have made a big enemy somewhere.” I told him, “No, no, that’s not true. The problem in fact is that no one even knows who I am!”
TM: As in “I should be lucky to have such enemies!”
JC: Well, a lot of that is just the way Bolaño saw the world, and it comes through in the piece you mentioned. He had that wonderful sense of literature as a fight.
TM: The novelist and the critic fencing on the beach in The Savage Detectives …
JC: Exactly. Anyway, for me, at that time, I knew I was a writer, or wanted to be a writer, but I was a complete outsider. I was completely outside of any literary milieu.
TM: Which is not such a bad way to be. So basically you were writing fiction for yourself while scraping by with journalism as a day job, like the Javier in your books, until Soldiers of Salamis came along and changed your life?
JC: No, I was in the university. Because I needed to earn my living, you know? This was my idea: being in the university, writing my books, and no one reading them. No one except Bolaño, my mother, and some friends. Which is normal! I have readers now, but that’s not normal. I had gone to America for a couple of years to study, and then I had been writing. But at the moment in my life when Bolaño wrote what he wrote about me, I was in a strong depression. I had come back to Gerona, you know, from the States, then Barcelona. At that moment, his piece was very important to me. And it was all lies!
TM: Prophecies, not lies.
JC: But yes, in any case, Soldiers was the book that changed everything.
TM: How did you come to the story of Rafael Sánchez Mazas? I mean, was it all at once, or was it something you had been carrying around? Or a combination: something you had been carrying around for a while that was then catalyzed suddenly by some other thing—the way the Sánchez Mazas story in the first half of book is catalyzed by the story of you and Bolaño and the search for Miralles in the second.
JC: The last of these, I think. I had the Sánchez Mazas story originally from his son, Sánchez Ferlioso, as the Javier Cercas character in the book gets it. I should say that all the characters in that book are real. It’s a false chronicle, so of course everything has to be real. Except for one character, who you’ll never guess.
TM: I surrender.
JC: The fortune teller, the girlfriend of Javier Cercas, who is completely made up. And of course—and this is completely true—that’s the one character who sued me. A real fortune teller in the town where the book is set sued me for using her in my book! The Bolaño part of the story, though, is a little different from the Sánchez Mazas story. Bolaño had told me that part, the story of Miralles, a long time ago. And it occurred to me that I could use it to tell the first story. I went to him and asked him for permission, expecting him to turn me down—
TM: Because in your mind it’s literary gold—
JC: Exactly. And of course he said, “No, no, this is not much of a story,” and he allowed me to have it.
TM: I sometimes think this is how books come about—that you discover you are the only one who sees the fictional value in a thing, and you almost have to write it because if you don’t, no one else will. Anyway, since before Soldiers, from your first work Relatos Reales, all the way up to The Impostor, you’ve been drawn to this borderland between fiction and nonfiction. What attracted you to it?
JC: Well, I thought from the beginning, pure fiction is always a lie, you know? In some way, the fuel is always reality. I wrote about this recently in an essay called The Blind Spot: that the novel is a wonderful genre where you can invent anything you want—that’s how Cervantes gave it to us. But that the fuel is reality. As for how to mix the two, each book has its own rules; it all depends on the book. To write a book is to create a game. You have to find the rules, to formulate the question in the most complex possible way. As in The Impostor: “Why did this guy, Enric Marco, the false Holocaust survivor, lie about the worst crime in history?” I’m always trying to write what I don’t know. And the first thing the writer must do is figure out the unique rules of the game. If two books have the same rules, one of them is bad.
JC: In the case of The Impostor, one rule was that it would be redundant to write a fiction about another fiction. Instead, I thought, let’s organize the book as a battle between the lies and the truth. And if people ask me, like the man on the radio [NPR’s Ari Shapiro] just now, “Why ‘novel without fiction?'” I think, “why not?”
TM: The “why not” is the freedom. And the rules are the constraints.
JC: Yes. You choose your constraints. And then you become a slave to them. There’s a moment in the book, I’ve been interviewing Enric Marco, picking apart his lies, and then at this one moment, this last lie, Marco says, hands on head, “Please leave me something.” But I couldn’t, because I was a slave to the rules. This was a difficult moment.
And yet when I actually sat down to do the writing, I was incredibly happy writing this book—which is not always the case.
TM: I wanted to ask you about heroism. We’ve talked about the method, but at least from Soldiers on, heroism is the subject—even in The Impostor, where it’s the image of the hero, or some debased idea of heroism, that seems to hold Marco captive and prod him into his many lies. Kitsch heroism, like the story he tells about playing chess with the concentration camp guard and refusing to lose, even though he knows it may cost his life. Are you aware of this as a through-line, heroism?
JC: I don’t know where it comes from. Probably my reading as a boy, adventure books. Stevenson. Verne. The Odyssey and The Iliad. But it’s a specific kind of heroism I’m interested in. Once Le Monde asked me and some other writers a question: What single word is most important for you? It’s a strange question, but the moment I hung up the phone, I knew the answer: the word “No.” Sort of quoting Camus: “The Man Who Says No.” My novels are about these kinds of heroes, people who say no, or try to say no.
TM: What you call, in The Anatomy of a Moment (following Hans Magnus Enzensberger) the “hero of retreat.” Like Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez there, who appears in that one moment or period as a very complicated sort of hero, and was far from heroic in all kinds of other ways.
JC: There is only one pure hero in all the books: Miralles in Soldiers of Salamis. He has to kill an enemy—a bastard—and still he says no. As for me, I would be among the members of parliament in The Anatomy of a Moment, ducking for cover. And then Marco in The Impostor, of course, is the man who says yes. He would love to be a hero, but can’t.
TM: Why do you think that is?
JC: Virtue is something secret, I think. When it becomes public, it’s no longer heroism. Yet Marco had to constantly be saying “I’m a hero, I’m a hero, we’re all heroes.” And of course, Marco is everyone. We are all, in a sense, this guy; he’s a perfect mirror of our time. This book says something awful: We prefer lies to the truth. Lies are beautiful.
TM: Sexy, maybe. Pretty. But not beautiful. Beauty is like virtue. Or is virtue.
JC: My question all along was, Why don’t people call him on his lies? And the answer is that people prefer pretty lies to the truth. The truth about Nazi camps is complex, dirty, and not beautiful. Claudio Magris wrote about Marco something like “He lied, yes, but for a good cause.” But that’s bullshit. What he was spreading was adulterated, romantic, heroic kitsch. And we prefer that. That’s why Donald Trump is in your White House.
TM: And in Spain, what was the reaction to this book? I knew when I first heard about it that American readers would be interested in it. We have the kind of relationship you’re describing with dirty parts of our own history, with slavery and exploitation, but we have this less complicated relationship, at least publicly, with the fight against Naziism. But in Spain, part of the “historical memory” movement you contributed to with Soldiers and write about in Anatomy and The Impostor has to involve negotiating the complicity of ordinary people with Francoism, with fascism. Marco, you suggest, offered a heroic version of “historical memory” that helped ordinary people feel virtuous. So what was the reaction domestically to your writing about Marco, and in a sense calling out the lies?
JC: The answer is quite easy. I have my readers in Spanish. So with them, I have no problem. But many other people were resistant to what I am saying in the book. Don’t get me wrong, “historical memory” is essential. What’s Faulkner’s line? The past is not dead. The past, of which we are living witnesses, is part of the present, without which the present is mutilated. The Spanish Civil War is the present. Francoism is the present.
But the truth is, necessarily, that most people accepted Francoism. And that most people adulterate or erase the worst part of their history. I recently read this suggestion by Tzvetan Todorov, that de Gaulle convinced the French people they were all Resistance: “Les français n’ont pas besoin de la verité,” he said. People tend to mask … and I understand that. But now, it is not possible. The movement for “historical memory” in Spain was insufficient, and became fiction: “We were all anti-Franco. We were all heroes.” It’s completely false—bullshit!
The reality is more complex and ugly: Fascism was supported by many people. And I don’t blame them. To be a hero is very difficult. You go to jail and die, is the usual outcome. Yet it shows a lack of respect to lie about it. If you lie about the past, you lie about the present. Another Faulkner line, from a letter, I think: “There is no such thing as was.”
A lot of Catalans and the Left, in particular, were mad at me for The Impostor. But it’s a national problem. We’re drowning in lies.
TM: Especially you, it seems. There’s a moment in the book, early on, that’s a curious one. You’re at a dinner, in Madrid I think, with Mario Vargas Llosa and some others, and the discussion turns to the just-unmasked Enric Marco, and someone suggests you have to write about him because he’s so much like a character in your books. You say something like, “Well we’re all impostors,” and someone says, “But especially you, Javier.” You don’t return to this line for many hundreds of pages in the book, but it seems to form some secret connection between you and Marco. Why are you, uniquely, an impostor?
JC: I’m going to tell you a secret, and it’s very interesting: There is one chapter in this battle between truth and lies that is invented. It’s a dialogue … I don’t know, a daydream or something. And the answer is there. Because there Marco can say what he really wants, can attack me. He says, OK, I lied. But you did, too. In fact, Marco wanted to be Miralles. But he tells me “You married fiction and fact, you became famous, a millionaire”—which is not true, of course—”But I did the same and I was a pariah. And remember,” he’s saying, “You are me. I am you.”
Of course, he’s lying.
TM: In the midst of a chapter you’ve invented.
JC: But that’s the idea. The book, really, is a fight between impostors.
In his new novel Immigrant, Montana, Amitava Kumar’s narrator admits to considering at least three other titles for the book we are now fortunate to hold in our hands. One: Migrants, clear and simple. Another: The Man Without a Nation. The third: The History of Pleasure, a phrase borrowed from another writer for whom sex was an essential topic, Philip Roth.
These graveyard titles are three of the major columns on which Montana, Kumar’s second novel, stands (he is also the author of many works of journalism and one book of poetry). The result is an intelligent and intimate novel which employs the increasingly popular techniques of auto-fiction and melds the bawdry humor of Hanif Kureishi with a W.G. Sebaldian wandering consciousness that cannibalizes—and analyzes—every image, cultural object, and idea it encounters.
Montana charts the intellectual and sexual becoming of Kailash, a recent arrival to the United States from eastern India. Kailash—often called “AK” by Americans who have rechristened him first “Kalashnikov,” then “AK-47,” and, finally, “AK”—is a graduate student at Columbia studying under a leftist Pakistani transplant (who is a buddy of Edward Said’s). At the start of the novel, Kailash is a goofy virgin in a Delhi hostel room inquiring about the escapades of his sole sexually initiated friend. At its close, Kailash has loved, lost, and hurt several women. Oh, and he’s an American citizen.
For every dip Montana takes into pleasure, it wades deeper into politics, displaying a concern for larger questions of exile. (In the latter, it’s reminiscent of Kumar’s friend Teju Cole, to whom Montana is both dedicated and stylistically indebted.)
Kumar explains early and forcefully why these subjects—geopolitics and sex; geography and desire; history and lust—should share pages. In an enormously funny yet simultaneously dark recurring device recalling Roth’s Portnoy addressing his psychiatrist, Kailash speaks to an imagined immigration judge whom he pictures adjudicating both his status in America and his libidinous proclivities. Sex, Kailash tells us, is the “crucial part of humanity denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK…you look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid.”
Indeed, Kailash finds his humanity in love. There’s Jennifer, who “recognized a hidden part of me.” There’s Nina: “I have entered the body of America,” Kailash mischievously tells his judge of sleeping with her. “I have spoken filth in the ear of one of your fair citizens when I was inside her.” Nina “gave me a map of the world in which we lived!” The couple road trips through Middle America; later Kailash learns they traveled near the town of Immigrant, Montana (Kumar’s invention, though Emigrant, near Bozeman, is real). There’s also Cai Yan, a Chinese student who does fieldwork in India; Kailash in turn spends a semester China. Both new immigrants, they chart American idioms and form a touching if temporary life together.
Kailash finds a home in other surprising places—he gives thanks to the cult leader Osho: “An Indian was holding forth on the English language, offering a sermon from below, an unholy discourse on how sex was the new divine, and all the white people couldn’t have enough of it! Fuck, we belonged!”
While Montana expertly reveals how desire houses us, it also explores how the same desire estranges us from our roots. Kailash’s family remains distant the whole novel, mere memories and voices on long-distance AT&T lines; they can never understand his new life, which contributes to Kailash’s protracted boyish self-centeredness. And Kumar always reminds us that belonging is fragile. The same Jennifer who “recognized” Kailash jokes that he’ll have his fill of white women and return to India for an arranged marriage. Late in the novel, at a point when a more sentimental book would have let the protagonist be happy already, Kailash returns to an English translation of a book he once read in Hindi. “I felt stranded in language. I had become a translated man, no longer able to connect with my own past. What else had I forgotten?” A page later, after weeping onto Cai Yan’s shirt, he calms as they fuck. There it is: the balm of sex, how it tends the wounds of exile.
An obvious critique of Montana is of its use of women’s bodies as metaphors for nationhood. I was prepared to lodge such a complaint upon seeing the table of contents, which I presumed to be a catalogue of the women Kailash seduces. And while some chapters are organized around a love affair, others address the book’s more surprising, yet no less affecting, erogenous zones: those of radical political history—India’s, America’s, and China’s. A corollary arises to Kailash’s assertion that to be recognized sexually is to be afforded belonging: “the plot of history is advanced through the acts of lovers,” he tells us, in writing about a priest and nun who fall in love over their shared anti-Vietnam politics. The sentiment is echoed in the chapter “Agnes Smedley,” as Kailash narrates the story of an American woman besotted by the Indian independence struggle.
Ah, and then there are the pleasures of the novel’s form and style, which befit its subject matter. Many lovely and satisfying immigrant novels by authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Sunjeev Sahota have hewn to traditional narrative structure. Kumar’s is a different, not necessarily superior but certainly refreshing, stylistic approach. He pleasantly crowds Montana with found objects (recalling another Sebaldian inheritor, Ben Lerner): snippets from Kailash’s (Kumar’s?) own notebooks, snaps of the Indian sex columnist on whom Kailash grew up, an ekphrasis on the photographs of Raghu Rai, auto rickshaw signs, Economist clippings, Gandhi and Gramsci quotes, letters from the anti-colonial revolutionary Har Dayal, Satyajit Ray’s sketches for the film Pather Panchali. Particularly pleasurable are the idiosyncratic celebrity cameos: Said plays Bach; Grace Paley leads a teach-in against the Gulf War.
Here is Cole, in Open City: “To be a writer in exile is a great thing. But what is exile now, when everyone goes and comes freely?” At a moment when protectionist and populist politics worldwide threaten free going and coming, Kumar sets the immigrant novel loose on our beds and base impulses. Kailash’s thesis advisor Ehsaan tells him he must “remain mindful of the present moment” and its politics even as he explores archive and fieldwork. Kumar has heeded this advice. Without mentioning the politics of 2018, he responds to our present moment. He liberates the immigrant mind, and the immigrant artist, to move freely through geographies, bodies, and memories. Kumar affords Kailash the right to both be angry at American intolerance and to respond to what modern readers might call microaggressions with irreverence. The book contains India and America, nostalgia and humor. Ambitious artistic undertakings like Kumar’s are how the literature of exile secures its place in the new country, becoming not immigrant novels but free American novels.
By the end of my first semester of a PhD in history, I was sure I was going to drop out. I felt out of place, as if I were a student who, for weeks, sat in on the wrong class and decided to play along, the inertia of a decision keeping me from finding the right place. I was—and am—a fiction writer with a deep and abiding interest in history, but I wasn’t sure if that was enough to keep me in a PhD program.
I began graduate school as a writer. It was 2011 and I had published my first essay in The Awl and had written 50 pages of a novel. When I think about my decision to start a PhD in history, I’m reminded of the essays in MFA vs NYC. It turns out that PhD in NYC was a third option. It’s not a common path, but not unheard of either. Prior to publishing Open City, Teju Cole was in the art history program at my university.
Why did I choose to enter graduate school in history? I’m still not sure. It was a fully-funded program, which meant that I was paid to spend my time in beautiful libraries and to travel for research. I suppose those reasons were as good as any.
Truthfully, a PhD can be a wonderful place for writing a novel. Marilynne Robinson found pieces of what would become Housekeeping while in graduate school at the University of Washington. She later wrote that lonesomeness is at the heart of creation: it focuses the mind and provides needed silence. I can now see that my training as a historian gave me the space to write what history could never mention. My lonesome moments spent in libraries and archives gave me a chance to find the quiet lives of the everyday.
Nevertheless, it felt daunting to balance graduate school with a novel. Rather than balance both, I thought it might be easier to flee one for the other. In such a state, I sent cold emails to a few writers who had entered PhD programs and asked them whether I should stay or go. The best advice was given to me by Siddhartha Deb. He told me that a PhD offered the chance to “read things no one else is reading, writing that will be far more interesting than what you could read on your own.”
He was right. My graduate work took me from Fiji to Trinidad, where I read about the lives and stories of indentured Indians, those whose restless toil took them across dark waters to new lives of promise and unimaginable despair. It was in this experience of traveling alone, of spending long hours in silence, where my writing began to gain focus. I threw out the first hundred pages of the novel that I started before I entered my PhD program. I read and travelled some more and I threw out another 225 pages of a second novel. Beyond access to manuscripts and archives, graduate school had given me a gift: the time to write (and revise).
Some find this baffling. How could a PhD in history provide time to write a novel? I, like most graduate students, learned how to develop a Cistercian sensibility. Life was defined by work only I could schedule—reading, researching, and writing—and the prayers to get it all done. I took a little bit of that self-discipline and found that I usually had two or three hours to write in the morning (right after waking, when my thoughts, uninterrupted by distractions, were still protected by the hazy cocoon of sleep). It also helped that if I did not write, my mood was soured for the rest of the day.
Graduate school gave me the time to write, but it never told me how to write. Flannery O’Connor reminded me that fiction begins with what is experienced. As she put it, “The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.” It’s advice that should always be well-taken.
This exhortation to remain faithful to a visible world could have lead me to a worn conclusion: write what I knew. What one knows is filled with the kind of sensate memories that can, at times, make for good fiction. But for someone with a background in academic research, this idea was horrifying. If I were to write a history from what I knew, my works would be incredibly short and unimaginably boring.
For someone who had an abiding interest in the world, writing from what I knew was not an option. I needed a bit of faith; I needed to take a flying leap into the unknown world just beyond my vision.
What I needed was more research.
Thankfully, graduate school had taught me the ins and outs of that.
The resulting novel trilogy is an arc of grief and solitude. These books quietly observe lives as they’re overturned by global calamity and strife in the mid-1980s. My characters were people who lived lives radically different than my own: a would-be botanist in a fictional South Pacific nation crumbling around her; an immigrant doing graduate work in mathematics in the American Midwest, his daily life brought to a halt by the tragedy of terrorism. Writing their stories meant building up their moral and physical worlds, piece by piece.
Part of this process was deeply entrenched in the act of writing. I had to sit, day in and day out, finding the characters on the page. These were (and are) lonesome moments of focus, where my only company was the soft sleeping breath of a housecat curled up in an adjacent room. I once sat alone at my kitchen table talking under my breath as I interviewed one of my characters and learning all she could tell, as if she held a cup of tea in a realm just beyond the dimness of my sight.
Characters like hers must always inhabit a place in the world. To build that required me to do what my academic training had primed me to do. I trawled JSTOR, wandered through library stacks counting on Library of Congress cataloging to introduce me to new and related books, and I wrote it all down in pages upon pages of notes: paper tucked into manila folders, Word documents, and scribbles in the margins.
These tasks now come easy to me. It’s because of my research background that I no longer fear going zero to 60, 80, 100 on any topic. It has erased all trepidation and belief that I cannot, replaced simply with a drive to do.
What was Delhi like in the 1980s? Find and annotate a travelogue. How does a botanist think? Find a memoir and take notes at every turn. What baseball game would have been broadcast in a no-name bar in San Francisco in mid-August 1985 at 5:00 in the evening? Check the newspaper archives for a recap.
But my training as a historian was not that of a forager. My primary task has never been to find and collect facts from the forest floor.
I first encountered Joan Scott’s masterful “The Evidence of Experience” as an undergraduate, but came to read it again and again in graduate school. It was in that essay where she deftly made the case for historians to historicize experience itself and to make clear that reality is not an “unmediated relationship between words and things.” Experience and reality are subject to context and specificity. The visible is not an absolute.
E.M. Forster thought of the historian and the novelist as two separate creatures. It was a given that “every British schoolboy knew” that “the historian records whereas the novelist must create.” This distinction doesn’t quite hold up under scrutiny—the historian’s and writer’s craft can be one and the same. The experiences I collected in the notes and margins of research were far from a neatly-packaged bit of history. If taken as a transparent recollection of time and space, my research for fiction would have been a pastiche: unfiltered experiences taken from one place and shoved haphazardly into the minds of my characters.
I had to disaggregate every strand of research; make sense of their barest essentials; recreate them into sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches of specific characters on specific pages; get it fast; and get it right. Only then could the visible be rendered the highest kind of justice in fiction. Only then could a world be created.
In the end, the threads of research can only be knit into fiction by a hand made deft by habits of mind. This task can take days, weeks, and even years. I miss that about graduate school. The endless days. Looking back on my six years, I see an extended exercise in finding my characters in the world. They were always there: in archives, upon street corners in Suva and Port of Spain, tucked into articles in obscure journals that no one else read. I’m not sure if I can recommend the process to anyone—I believe that there are faster ways to gather a story—but I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
I left academia after I finished my PhD. The hours I have in the morning to write are fewer.
It doesn’t matter.
As any researcher knows, there is always another book, always another article, always another piece of information yet to be considered. But there comes a moment when the gears of research must cease to turn and the machine must come to a grinding halt. In the silence that follows, all that’s left is to write, not only with competence, but with vision as clear as water and as bright as day. This, as far as I know, is something rarely, if ever, found in research.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In 1798, an unknown curate named Robert Thomas Malthus published the essay that would give his name to a new breed of anxiety. He argued that the growth rate of the population would always exceed the growth rate of the food supply, inevitably reducing every country to the brink of starvation, and turning the world into a Hieronymus Bosch painting: crowded, chaotic and cruel.
It was a unique, and uniquely grim, theory. For centuries, apocalyptic scenarios had been the sole purview of God, the price he would exact in exchange for sorting out our souls. Malthus demonstrated that not only did humanity possess the divine’s capacity for destruction, but also that the engine of this destruction could be as innocent an act as procreation. Friedrich Engels, joining a chorus of criticism, called it “the most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship.”
I wonder if Malthus knew he had discovered a new species of despair, and if he himself was affected by it. If he was the neurotic type, he must have struggled to suppress an uneasy foreboding at the sight of a festive crowd, a teeming market, or his own grandchildren. If he sought comfort in rural solitude, I doubt he found it. I picture him struggling to wave away a dismal image that his imagination was superimposing over a bucolic field, the muddy slum that he predicted it would become.
Malthus might have recognized himself in the narrators of W.G. Sebald. On seemingly every page of Sebald’s four novels, his narrators struggle to repress a feeling of horror at the most innocent scenes. For them, it’s the past that is always superimposing itself. This depressing tendency is so pervasive as to become almost absurd: when the narrator of Vertigo wakes up in Venice the beautiful stillness of a peaceful morning only reminds him of other, unpeaceful mornings: “How often, I thought to myself, had I lain thus in a hotel room, in Vienna or Frankfurt or Brussels, with my hands clasped under my head, listening not to stillness, as in Venice, but to the roar of traffic, with a mounting sense of panic.” He concludes with some choice words about humanity’s penchant for annihilation.
Sebald might seem like an odd choice to associate with Malthus. He is typically described as pioneering a new literary approach to the Holocaust, a tragedy synonymous with active human cruelty, not deterministic growth rates. In fact, it’s hard to associate any novelist with Malthus. Malthusian tragedies have not fared well in fiction. Global warming is the most empirically sound Malthusian threat that humanity has ever faced, but no good, let alone great, novel about global warming has yet been written. It’s not hard to see why. Try to see the world through the lens of global warming, and you experience a kind of narrative inversion. On the one hand, the physical reality of a warming planet makes your personal stories, the ones books are written about, irrelevant; acts of charity, love, or adultery don’t lower carbon emissions. On the other hand, the events that make up the forgotten background of your day-to-day—eating a meal, taking a plane, heating your home—take on a tragic significance. Look around and you will see a million tiny but irrevocable contributions toward an impending catastrophe.
A writer who succeeded in fictionalizing this unnatural dynamic without becoming unmarketably morose (already a tall order), would still struggle to avoid being misread. We don’t like to think our favorite writers are forsaking us. We don’t want the authors of beautiful phrases to be at the same time, as Engels said, striking down all those beautiful phrases. No matter how dark and depressing the prose, we like to claim it’s “redeemed” by the author’s “deep humanity,” as if the act of writing at all implies that a William Faulkner or a Cormac McCarthy cares about our happiness.
This kind of false redemption has been the fate of W.G. Sebald. His novels create precisely the narrative inversion I described, but this achievement of his, which points the way for a literature of climate change, has been overlooked, in part because of Sebald’s reputation as a Holocaust writer, but in larger part because we don’t like to acknowledge the hopelessness of Sebald’s vision, or to acknowledge it as the strength of his writing.
No one would say Sebald is an optimist, but many of his proponents have argued that a leavening agent exists in his prose, something that tempers the lugubriousness of his narrators, whether it be Sebald’s genuine sympathy for suffering or the sheer beauty of his sentences. For James Wood, who helped popularize Sebald among English-speaking readers, this leavening agent is comedy. In his most recent appraisal of the German author, Wood argues that an undercurrent of playful humor can be found in Sebald’s works, especially in moments when the repressed horror seems most exaggerated, like in this description of a defrosted fish the narrator is served in The Rings of Saturn:
The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over.
Wood claims this passage, with its sense of disgust barely concealed behind pedantic language, is worthy of Evelyn Waugh.
The challenge of interpreting Sebald at the level of his sentences is that the meaning of each sentence is never entirely contained within the words that compose it. In this, his sentences mirror the effect of his novels, which, though we agree are broadly “about” the Holocaust, almost never mention it directly. Rather, they treat it as a kind of negative space, tracing its outline through a series of seemingly miscellaneous travel anecdotes, history lessons, and capsule biographies. The Rings of Saturn, which is framed as a walking tour around England, touches on topics as varied as the destruction of Beijing’s Summer Palace, Rembrandt’s paintings, the decay of British holiday towns, and the melancholy of weavers. What keeps these vignettes meaningful is the way they are linked, not narratively, not even, in a narrow sense, thematically, but associatively, through the repetition of certain words, the symmetries between certain images, and even the way Sebald uses typesetting. All writers use associations, but the density of these links in Sebald’s prose is genuinely astonishing. They create a halo around each sentence, which, though as weightless by comparison, is as essential to its effect as the rings that surround Saturn.
To accurately convey the real effect of the seemingly humorous fish dinner, I have to describe three other passages from the novel that deal with animals. In one, the narrator recounts the Biblical story of Jesus exorcising Legion. The demons he casts out enter the bodies of 2,000 pigs, who run into a lake to drown themselves. The narrator wonders if Jesus didn’t commit a serious error: does “human reasoning, diseased as it is, [need] to seize on some other kind that it can take to be inferior and thus deserving of annihilation?”
In another, he describes how silkworms were distributed as educational materials to schools in the Third Reich because they “afforded an almost ideal object lesson for the classroom,” on account of being “docile” and “suitable for a variety of experiments.” The narrator watches an educational video on how the silkworms are raised and ultimately killed: “The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is done.”
Finally, there is a vignette on the mutilating experiments done in the 18th century on live specimens of herring, to test certain absurd beliefs about their mortality: “This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described as the most extreme sufferings undergone by a species always threatened with disaster.” Two grainy photographs bookend this vignette. One is of fishermen standing over a pile of dead herring. The other is of piled corpses in the woods outside the liberated Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
This is how the novel’s associative web is threaded, tying together seemingly unconnected stories using language that we associate with genocide, like “inferior other kinds” or “the entire killing business,” folding suggestions of suffering and forced experimentation into the mention of animals, creating a kind of associative hypersensitivity, the way a horror movie attunes you to the sound of a dripping faucet. So when I read about stabbing a fork into a burnt fish, about the “hideous mess,” and especially the word “operation” (which Wood uses as an example of Sebald’s comically “calm control of apparently ponderous diction”), I experience a hard-to-characterize feeling, like a movement or a crowding in the peripheral vision of my mind’s eye, and if I allow my inner gaze to follow it, I see a single name, unmentioned in the book: Josef Mengele.
Of course, we have hotlines for people who intuit signs in their dinner. There is a paranoid quality to these endless associations and their constant foreboding, which even Wood deems at times excessive: “What the reader might take on faith if encountered in Büchner’s Lenz [a 19th-century novella about the titular character’s struggles with madness, and a favorite of Sebald’s] is a little stagy when it concerns merely an academic who happens to be doing a bit of book research in Italy.” In other words, unlike Lenz, Sebald’s academics don’t seem genuinely crazy, so why do they act as if they are?
Lenz’s insanity offers an interesting comparison, because it actually differs in kind, not degree. There are, for one, examples of healthy minds in his world, if not the dissolute cosmopolitans that Lenz is fleeing, then at least the kind pastor Oberlin to whom he flees, and in whom Lenz believes lies “the way of God.” On his so-called better days, Lenz is able to follow that way, to live in quiet appreciation of the world, but ultimately his disposition proves too extreme. He asks Oberlin to whip him, he obsesses over his sins, he demands of God to bring a dead child back to life. He is one of those people of whom we say, they were too much for this world.
Of Sebald’s narrators, it would be more accurate to say the world is too much for them. The narrator of Rings of Saturn describes only one so-called better day, when he begins his walking tour, “carefree” as he’s rarely felt before. But in the next sentence he admits he was soon overtaken by the “paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place [East Anglia].” The walk, which triggers the cascading associations recorded in the novel, ultimately results in a nervous breakdown. To call this insanity is too simple. If the patterns of destruction the narrator is confronted by are real, his sensitivity to them puts him in a double bind, one that would be familiar to Malthus and climate pessimists: to ignore the reality of the world, to calmly go about your book research as if you’re not walking atop a stratum of suffering, is delusional, but to look at that reality with any clarity for a sustained period of time is to be horrified to the point of mental collapse. This bind leaves no room for Oberlins. In Sebald’s novels, there are only those who suffer the pain of reality and those who, oblivious to it, ensure its perpetuity.
Take another example of Sebald’s alleged playfulness that Wood elaborates on. It comes from Sebald’s second novel, The Emigrants, in which Wood claims the narrator “lovingly seizes on” British contraptions after emigrating to Manchester. One such contraption is a teas-maid, a kind of physical portmanteau of an alarm clock and a tea-making machine that starts boiling the water right before it wakes you. It is given to him by his hotel manager. The narrator says it looks like a “miniature power plant,” a “weird and serviceable gadget,” whose mere presence keeps him “holding on to life” in a time of deep isolation.
Reading Wood’s essay, I felt a vague suspicion that Sebald would never compare anything good to a power plant. The Emigrants is the most narrative of Sebald’s novels; the narrator investigates and retells the life stories of various emigrants who fled the turmoil of Europe. Among them, there is Paul Bereyter, the narrator’s grade school teacher, who ends his life by laying his head on train tracks. The narrator learns that Bereyter had taken great solace in trains his whole life, had hung up train schedules all over his apartment, and had even given over a spare room to a miniature train set. Bereyter’s friend describes this train set as “the very image and symbol of Paul’s German tragedy.” There is also Henry Selwyn, who shoots himself in the heart with a rifle he once brought to India to keep himself safe from wildlife. There is Dr. Abramsky, driven insane by his years of administering electroshock therapy, whose curative promise he clung to after losing his father. And there is Max Ferber, who becomes ill from the coal dust born of his obsessive artistic production.
Trains, guns, shock therapy, and coal, all industrial symbols, like the “miniature power plant,” and all, like the teas-maid, offering pyrrhic comfort to solitary emigrants, whose troubles reflect another of Sebald’s preoccupations, the unsuspecting support that many Jews offered to the project of German industrialization. When I reread the passage about the teas-maid, it began to seem like the image and symbol of some impending British tragedy. And, most uncannily, as the shadows of these other emigrants flickered behind his words, the narrator seemed to see the glimmer of that coming betrayal. But what could he do? Smash the teas-maid? His only choice is repression. Wood claims the narrator describes this incident with “mock-solemn gingerliness,” but I see nothing mock about it. In the pedantic expressions and torturously construct sentences, I feel the strain of the narrator trying to repress that glimmer, to hide it beneath layers of abstracted, unfeeling prose.
Of course, like all repression, it’s doomed to failure. Every path he follows, every story he collects, and every word he writes only retraces the indelible outline of the unmentionable. That’s why you can take seemingly any sentence from a Sebald novel, no matter how innocent or playful, like (another of Wood’s examples) the teapot in The Rings of Saturn that emits “the occasional puff of steam as from a toy engine” and offers the narrator a moment of distraction, and if you pull on the associative thread—which leads to the steam-powered toy train that the Empress Dowager used to distract her son while she starved her country, the same Empress who wished her subjects were docile like silkworms, the insects that schools in the Third Reich were so fond of—you will discover that even this stray sentence forms a part of that outline.
Sebald’s obliqueness, the way he hides the worst of the Holocaust from view, is crucial to this effect. If he had, for example, in The Emigrants, described the amount of power needed to operate the gas chambers or the conditions of the cattle cars that took Jews to Auschwitz, it would perhaps be clearer that the teas-maid and the miniature train set represent echoes of these terrible events, but it would also allow us to maintain our sense of proportion, our ability to distinguish what is actually evil from what merely reminds us of evil. Instead, we hear only the echoes, which, without their source, grow louder and more disorienting. Everything in any way related to industry becomes equally suspect.
That would all too obviously be the goal of a novel about global warming. It’s less obvious, however, why Sebald was bent on applying this technique to the Holocaust. The answers he offered are unsatisfying. In one interview, he said the Holocaust could be approached only “by reference rather than by direct confrontation…to write about concentration camps in my view is practically impossible.” It makes a good quote, but it would be news to Elie Wiesel, Claude Lanzmann, and H.G. Adler. Many great works of art confront the Holocaust directly. Furthermore, many of Sebald’s allusions, like the pile of shoes outside an Italian kindergarten, would be meaningless to someone who had never seen pictures of the camps. Sebald relies on readers having made a direct confrontation.
The real reason, I believe, is that Sebald actually saw the Holocaust as a Malthusian tragedy. This suspicion is raised by his fiction, and is confirmed by his academic writings. Before he wrote novels, Sebald was a professor of literature, and he produced a number of largely Marxist critical works that dealt with the history and literature of the Holocaust. These works have been ignored in discussions of his fiction, in part because they remain for the most part untranslated. English readers can sample them only through academic volumes like Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt’s Saturn’s Moons, or, more readily, through the excellent overview, titled “On Misunderstanding W.G. Sebald,” published by James R. Martin in the Cambridge Literary Review.
At first, reading about his academic scholarship feels like seeing Sebald’s other face. These works are highly polemic and strict in their judgments, tonally opposed to the later fiction. The central idea underpinning many of them seems to be that all of the so-called scientific, economic, and social progress that followed from the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution was nothing but a concealed effort by the ascendant bourgeoisie to purge the Other, and specifically the Jewish Other, from Western society. Even Enlightenment concepts of objectivity and human equality were only a way to disarm the Jews of their culture by encouraging assimilation into supposedly “universal” values. In this view, the Final Solution is not a historical anomaly realized by sheer Nazi will; it is the only possible endpoint to a long and violent process that started when humanity began burning coal and looking at things under a microscope. You can argue this is a Marxist take or a Malthusian one, both deal in historical inevitabilities, but it certainly sounds more like a system of despair.
Martin finds it curious that Sebald, given the faith he seems to have had in these theories, never provides, in his novels, “an account of why and how the Nazi genocide occurred.” But all the signs are actually there: the stories of betrayed assimilations, the mistrust of industry, the skepticism toward science, the awareness of modernity’s failures. And, of course, the all-encompassing sense of tragedy. If you believe the vision of history Sebald’s academic writings put forth, if you believe it so deeply that, as it does for Sebald’s narrators, it literally becomes your vision, embedded in how your brain processes visual information, then an defrosted fish really can arouse genuine horror, because it’s the product and continuation of scientific and commercial forces that have caused the most extreme sufferings in human experience.
Accounting for the influence of Sebald’s historical theories on his fiction, apparent as it is, opens Sebald up to a glaring objection, namely that his theories are wrong. They were, for one, received very poorly by the academic community. They have the strange effect of diffusing responsibility for the Holocaust away from committed Nazis and toward modernity as a whole. Sebald’s four novels were published between 1990 and 2001, a time when the reunited German state was peaceful, tolerant, and rich. The Nazis had long ago been vanquished, and not, after all, with scimitars and bows. Was it really fair of Sebald, as even some critics of his novels have wondered, to castigate modernity so thoroughly?
Purists might argue that if Sebald writes a private terror and writes it well then it makes no more sense to ask whether that terror is based in historical truth than it does to ask Franz Kafka whether people really turn into bugs. But the reason, I suspect, that Sebald has resonated with so many readers is not merely because he has captured the private terror of a narrator who sees suggestions of the Holocaust in fish and teas-maids, but because he has captured a precisely Malthusian terror, the terror that may define the 21st century. His narrators embody the submerged paranoia of living with the awareness of global warming. We know that our end is composed almost entirely of small contributions, that every flight, every cooked fish, and every humming appliance, even every day without war, during which we can produce goods more efficiently, all of these make that end infinitesimally less escapable. At the same time, we repress this knowledge, because to admit it would be to see the entire world as a coded message of its own destruction. Sebald’s narrators exist on the cusp of that admission. The cause of their suffering is different from ours, but the mechanics of it are identical.
Aspiring Malthusian novelists should note that Sebald remains the genre’s sole practitioner. While he has been hugely influential, his heirs have by and large applied his formal inventions to narratives that are more clearly individual in scale. Teju Cole’s Open City uses Sebald’s technique of writing associatively around an unmentionable tragedy, but for Cole’s narrator that tragedy is a rape he has possibly committed. In Rachel Cusk’s Outline, it is whatever caused the deterioration of her narrator’s marriage. The personal lives of Sebald’s narrators, by contrast, are insignificant. They are not complicit in the past that haunts them. And yet neither are they innocent. In Malthusian tragedies, individual innocence is an illusion. Like we in relation to the untenable heat of the future, Sebald’s narrators feel implicated in the brutality of the past, not by any moral choices they’ve made, but simply by their membership in a shameful species.
This mirroring of Sebald’s past and our future is not entirely fanciful. I draw it from the lone, oblique reference to global warming that I’m able to find in his novels. It appears in that peaceful morning the narrator describes in Venice, when he’s assailed by memories of waking up in other cities to the sound of traffic. “For some time now,” he says, “I have been convinced that it is out of this din that the life is being born which will come after us and will spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us.” In looking to the past, it was not just the pain that we have inflicted that Sebald witnessed. It was also a reflection of the pain that will be inflicted upon us.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I was pregnant with my second child for most of the year and I was also working from home, which meant I was very sedentary and slothful, and able to spend a lot of time reading articles that made me miserable. And since I was working on a book, and the pace and nature of that work were utterly different from any other kind of work I’ve done, I was grumpy and anxious a lot of the time even without reading anything at all. And I worried about being miserable and anxious and grumpy, and sedentary and slothful, wondering what it would do to the fetus, and whether the fetus would want to be around someone like me.
The reading I did while gestating the baby and my book was catch-as-catch-can and felt mostly like a reprieve and a cheat when I should have been working or doing something civic-minded. Books and the time they went with are blurring together for some reason. I think I read and was ruined by Housekeeping last year, but I can’t be certain it wasn’t this year. I think I read Private Citizens this year and found it spiky and perfect, but I’m not actually sure I didn’t read it in 2016. I do know this year I read The Idiot, which is among other things a delightful evocation of ostensibly fruitless but formative romantic pining, and Sport of Kings, which is absurdly ambitious and devastating. I read The Regional Office Is Under Attack, which is weird and transporting. I gratefully blew off my work for New People, The Windfall, Marlena, The Reef, Hunger, and Conversations with Friends. I read White Tears and The Changeling and Frankenstein in Baghdad on the bus to the OBGYN and marveled at the ways great writers are documenting the effects of the unholy past on the unholy present. I read 10:04 in a lovingly serene and receptive state after spending $60 to float in a very salty pool in the dark (I was trying to make the fetus turn head-down). When I was freaked out about everything the only book that sort of soothed me was the phenomenal new translation of The Odyssey, which is modern but not jarringly so, and highlights the sense of human continuity we apprehend from an ancient text. I re-read Off Course, a wonderful California novel that has become one of my favorite books in the last few years. I re-read A Suitable Boy to get ready for A Suitable Girl, which is allegedly arriving in 2018 and which I’ve been waiting for my entire adult life. I read The Golden Road, Caille Millner’s gemlike memoir about growing up. I read a Word document containing the first half of Michelle Dean’s excellent forthcoming literary history Sharp, and I’m clamoring for the rest of it. I read a Word document containing the entirety of Meaghan O’Connell’s forthcoming essay collection, And Now We Have Everything, and it is a stunningly insightful book that I’m hesitant to say is about motherhood because it might turn away people who might otherwise profit from it. I loved my colleagues Edan and Claire and Sonya’s novels Woman No. 17 and The Last Neanderthal and The Loved Ones, which are about motherhood (and fatherhood, and daughterhood, and a lot of other things too). More mothers: I cried over Mr. Splitfoot in an airplane after reading Samantha Hunt’s “A Love Story” in The New Yorker. The book I thought about most during my gestational period was Mathias Énard’s Compass, which is a love story of a different kind. I don’t think I’ve read another book so deft in transmitting both the desire and the violence that are bound up in the production of knowledge, another complicated act of creation.
In October I had the baby. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone have a baby just to shake things up, but babies have a way of returning you to your body and adjusting your relationship to time that I’d hazard is difficult to find elsewhere in the arena of positive experiences. First you have the singular experience of giving birth; then you have the physical reminders of that experience, and a baby. If you are lucky you get good hormones (if you are spectacularly lucky you get paid leave, or have a spouse who does). The morning she was born I looked at the baby lying in her bassinet and felt like the cat who swallowed the canary, or a very satisfied hen. Animal similes suggest themselves because it is an animal time: you smell blood and leave trails of it on the hospital floor; milk oozes. You feel waves of such elemental fatigue that rational thought and speech seem like fripperies for a younger species. Even now, nine weeks later, sneezing reminds me viscerally of what the flesh endured.
This is what I mean when I say the experience returns you to your body. If it’s your second child, it also makes you a time traveler. I spent my first child’s infancy desperate to slow down time, to fully inhabit this utterly strange nesting season of my life and hers before we were both launched into the future. When the second baby was born I got the unhoped-for chance to live in that season again. I had forgotten so much: the comically furtive and then plucky look a newborn gets when she is near the breast, and the bizarre thing her eyes do when she’s eating—zipping back and forth like a barcode scanner apprehending some ancient sequence. The sound she makes after sneezing, like a little wheeze from an oboe.
Since, during this period, I felt I had a legitimate excuse to not read every dire news item for at least a couple of weeks, and since I experienced a wonderful if brief disinclination to open Twitter, and since sometimes I got to sit in clean linen sheets that are my prized possession and nurse a tiny brown-furred baby, I fell in love both with the baby and with every book I touched. I started re-reading Mating when I was waiting to give birth and finished it the week after. I read it for the first time three years ago when my older daughter was born and felt so incredibly altered by it then, and I slipped back into that state immediately. Right after Mating I read Mortals, and after Mortals, I read Chemistry, and forthcoming novels The Parking Lot Attendant and That Kind of Mother, and I loved them all too.
Being with the baby and reading deeply and more or less avoiding the things that make me miserable was such an unanticipated return to Eden that even the bad things I now remembered about having a baby were good: the strange combination of agitation and dullness that enswaddled me when the sun went down and made me weep; the sudden urge to throw beloved visitors out of the house; visions of stumbling, of soft skulls crushed against sharp corners; fear of contagion; agonizing knowledge of other babies crying and drowning and suffering while your own baby snuffles contentedly in a fleece bag.
But even when the blues fluoresced what registered was not the badness of the thoughts, but their intensity. The shitty hospital food you eat after expelling a baby is the best food you’ve ever had because you had a baby and you didn’t die. And like a person on drugs who knows a cigarette is going to taste amazing or a song will sound so good, an exhausted, oozing postpartum woman can do her own kind of thrill-seeking. I re-read Under the Volcano, which really popped in my altered state. It’s a hard book to follow but I found to my delight that I’ve now read it enough I’m no longer spending a lot of time trying to understand what is going on. Its insane, calamitous beauty was perfect for my technicolor emotional state; rather than despairing over my inability to form a sentence I put myself in the hands of a pro, shaking though Malcolm Lowry’s were as he wrote.
It hasn’t all been déjà vu. There have been new things, some of them bad: namely the feeling of being driven absolutely bananas by my poor sweet firstborn, who is no longer tiny and blameless and new, but a harum-scarum toddler who jumps on the bed and windmills her arms and kicks and screams WAKE UP MAMA and refuses to put on her jacket. On this front one of the random galleys that pile up in the vestibule was a surprise hit—a children’s book from the Feminist Press called How Mamas Love Their Babies. My daughter loves this book, which has beautiful photo collage illustrations. It is a progressive book that encourages workers’ solidarity in a way I was not necessarily prepared to address with a just-turned-three-year-old but am now trying to do in my poky fashion (“Some mamas dance all night long in special shoes. It’s hard work!” the book reads, and my child peers inquisitively at a photo of platform lucite heels). It also helps me: I look at myself in the mirror and note that some genetic vandal has lately streaked what looks like raspberry jam across the skin of my hips and one (!) breast (“Some mamas care for their babies inside their own bodies,” the book reminds me). When the baby was three weeks old I got pneumonia, and that was a bad new sensation too, although even that interlude had its attractions. I discovered coconut water, and read Swamplandia in a febrile, almost louche state of abandon in my increasingly musty sheets, a perfect complement to the novel’s climate—its rotting house and the visions and moods of its protagonists.
During early nights of nursing I read a galley of a memoir by a writer who also got good hormones and who became addicted to having babies, having five in fairly rapid succession. If nothing else, I understood the irrational drive to overabundance. In the first weeks of this new baby’s life I astonished myself by wanting more, more, more. Around week five I actually googled “is it morally wrong to have a third child,” and if you are a well-fed, utilities-using first-worlder like me, yes, not to mention yes, in philosophical terms (not to mention we can’t afford it, not to mention it would surely drive me batshit). Everything you read about life on this planet, including some of the novels I read this year, suggests you should not have children, and if you must, that you should have only as many as you have arms to carry them away from danger. Even that formulation is a consoling fallacy.
Things are less technicolor now, but the hormones are still there, propping me up. (I read over this and see they’ve even led me to write a somewhat revisionist history of what the past few weeks have been like.) Last week, week eight, I finally read Open City, which is a few years old but speaks to the state of the world today in a way that is depressing. I love how it is a novel of serious ideas and style, but is also approachable and pleasure-making for its reader. I love that it is a humane book even as it is gimlet-eyed. Now I’m reading Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and finding it similarly humane and gimlet-eyed and serious and pleasure-making. It is about the state of the world at this moment. It also speaks to the double consciousness of people like its protagonist, who are living not necessarily with suffering but with a metastasizing awareness of suffering, and how it changes them, and this is on my mind. The novel also seems to be about time and space and how people are altered when their time and space are altered. It’s about the difference, not between “us” and “them,” but between “you” and “you.” I’m thinking about that too as I time travel this winter.
I know I need to prepare for the moment when all this gladness provided gratis by Mother Nature will deflate and disappear like a wet paper bag. And there will be a time—I feel it coming on as I type this and hope the baby stays asleep in her bouncer—when the deep satisfaction of one kind of generative act, this bodily one, will be supplanted with the need for other kinds of creation. I think Cole and Erpenbeck’s novels will help me with these eventualities. I’m counting on them, and on all the beautiful things I hope to read next year. You know what they say about books: they’re like babies; when you have one you’re never alone.
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What I get to read is not necessarily what I want to read–research pulls me this way and that, and then teaching exerts its own gravitational force, and then there’s book club, so I’m not exactly the captain of my reading list. But this year I finished a book, which opened some space for actual reading, rather than “research.” The single most provocative book I read this year was The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum, one of those books that changes the way you look at everything, from the feathers of birds to the penises of humans (and ducks) to the ways female choice shapes evolution. Everything about this book is unexpected, including the prose–fine and often funny. I got through book two of My Struggle, which became my insomnia go-to; Karl Ove Knausgaard’s account of becoming a father and at the same time a writer I found deeply affecting, especially as these bolts of bliss burst through his usual overcast of melancholy. I also loved Autumn, his book of short essays about the eruptions of wonder in everyday life. What’s great about liking Knausgaard is you can be sure there’s always more where that came from. The unexpected hit of our book club was Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, probably his best book but so scabrous it’s hard to recommend. The voice of Teju Cole, in both his novel Open City, and his essays, has been great company this year and, while I try to stay off cable news and Twitter, Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland has given me a slant view of the news that makes considerably more sense of it than Anderson Cooper or Lawrence O’Donnell. Writers (I’m embarrassed to say were) new to me whose voices I found particularly striking were Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams) and John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead).
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Teju Cole can seduce you a dozen ways. As a writer who refuses to be boxed in by the conventions of genre, he blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir, sprinkling in just enough tidbits from his own life to leave you wanting more. His essays cover an astonishing range of subjects, from favorite writers like W.G. Sebald and James Baldwin to photography, travel and the politics of race and nationality. His interests veer between aesthetics and politics, and he writes about both as the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine.
The pleasure of dipping into Cole’s work is encountering an extremely fertile mind. He seems instinctively drawn to creative work that’s fragmentary in nature rather than fully-formed worlds. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he turned Twitter into an art form. But just when Cole developed a huge Twitter following, he abandoned it. “I try to find out what I can do in that space,” he told me, “and then without any compunction or regret I move on.”
His latest experiment is Blind Spot, a strange hybrid of photography book and essay collection. Cole has traveled everywhere and come back to tell us what he’s seen, and it’s all filtered through his distinctive perspective – part Nigerian, part American and thoroughly cosmopolitan.
He recently came to Madison to speak at the University of Wisconsin, and shortly before his lecture, he stopped by my recording studio for an interview. Like he always does, Cole was carrying a camera. This one was his small Fujifilm X70 digital camera, one of nine cameras he owns. I asked if he uses them all. “Yeah. It’s helpful to have different tools,” he said. “Each one makes you shoot a little differently and opens up another seam in your head.”
We talked about what he likes in photographs, his dislike of artistic boundaries, the complexities of racial identity, and his roots in both Lagos and New York.
Steve Paulson: You always seem to be looking around and taking photos of the places you go, but you’ve called your new book Blind Spot. What does that title refer to?
Teju Cole: Well, if you’re looking a lot, at some point you become aware of the limitations of looking. It’s just like being a writer. At some point you understand there are things that words can accomplish and then there’s a moment when words cannot help you. Looking has been so central to my way of being in the world that it goes a little bit beyond the conventional. But I was also very much into art as a kid. And I’ve got three university degrees and they’re all in art history.
Art history is basically about looking closely and trying to give an account of what you’re looking at from the art tradition. Then I got into photography more than a dozen years ago. And not long after that I really got into writing about photography and that entailed even closer looking than just taking photographs because now I have to interpret other people’s photographs.
SP: It sounds like you’re saying the more you look, the more you realize what you don’t see.
TC: Absolutely. You realize that in everything you’re looking at, you’re missing something and it becomes a haunting question. The other thing that happened was that sometime around 2011, just after my first book, Open City, was published in this country, I had an episode with my eyes. I woke up one morning and was blind in my left eye. I wasn’t in pain. I just couldn’t see and it was like a veil had fallen over my vision, and my right eye wasn’t doing so great either. So of course this is a nightmare for anyone.
SP: Especially for you, since you’re a photography critic.
TC: An art historian and a photography guy. This occlusion went away over the course of a couple of days. But doctors could not quite figure out what was going on. Eventually I got a diagnosis from this top specialist on retinal problems. He said I had something called Big Blind Spot Syndrome. It’s something I kept thinking about afterwards. Later, I had some surgery. The problem has come back again but only rarely. But I kept thinking about the blind spot. And it changed my photography
SP: How so?
TC: I was already looking intently, but I started to look more intently, more patiently. My photography got a bit more meditative and mysterious. I began to pay attention to the ordinary in a more focused way.
SP: What’s striking when I look at your own photographs – of back alleys, side streets, a tarp hanging over a shack – these aren’t the usual tourist photos we see.
TC: That’s right. Having eye trouble made the ordinary glorious. It’s just the way the sun falls across concrete or, like you said, a hanging tarp. It’s almost like William Carlos Williams’s poetry. I’m not the first person in photography to pay attention to such simple scenes, usually devoid of people and excitement. Certainly in American photography we’ve had pioneers like Lee Friedlander or Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, but the discovery for me was finding out the highly personal way I wanted to do this. Simply to make images out of the ordinary and then to draw the extraordinary narrative that might be lying behind that terrain or city if it was a place I was visiting.
SP: Does your approach to photography match how you look at the world? Is seeing the same thing as taking a picture of it?
TC: It’s getting closer. This aspect of my work — writing for the public and making images — has been going on for about a dozen years, and in that time I’ve understood more and more that all of it is of a piece. I used to think they were really separate. Now I realize that looking at the world, making images, writing about images, writing about things that are not images, all of it is an attempt to testify to having been here and seen certain things, having looked at the world with a kind eye but an eye that is not ignoring questions of justice and history. And that’s why Blind Spot is a book of text and images.
SP: Nearly every page of this book has one image and an accompanying bit of text that you’ve written, often just one paragraph. Sometimes you reference the picture you’ve taken, sometimes you don’t. What’s the connection between text and image?
TC: I wanted to make a book that was a little bit novelistic but with none of the things you expect from a novel. This book is not made up. These are stories drawn from real life — personal experience, philosophy, essayistic-type of speculations. Novels usually don’t have 150 color photographs. And yet I wanted to give it the energy of a novel or a documentary film, just a very peculiar one. So in one sense it was about the excitement of working in a new genre — a genre I was developing myself — the rhythm of text and image. But if you look at just the images all by themselves, they have a common visual language. They’re in color. I shot everything in film in 25 different countries. They usually have streetscapes or interiors, not a lot of people. When we have people, they’re turned away from us, so there’s a quietness that connects all the images. And if you read all the text in sequence, they have a kind of philosophical temperature that unites them. So this adventure was finding my way into a new form that I hope has a coherence. So if somebody goes through the book, they feel they’ve been through something strange and marvelous. It’s a strange album, a strange movie, a strange novel, but it’s none of those things because it’s actually just texts and images.
SP: What can text do and what can an image do?
TC: Text is very good at being explicit. When you write, you’re saying something in particular about the world. Images are specific about what was seen but not about what it means. When you put them together, you have the opportunity either to explain, which is usually not what I’m doing, or to create a kind of poetry. So you put the semantics of text together with the description of the image and they meet at an interesting angle. And out of that angle, I’m hoping and praying that some kind of poetry happens.
SP: And there’s a third thing you do. Often you’re not just describing the picture. You refer to favorite books and writers and artists. There are layers upon layers. Nothing is ever direct with you.
TC: [Laughs] Not really. Well, it’s all part of my world. This library contains The Iliad and The Odyssey. It also contains the Bible. I’m very interested in Christian theology. I think this is my most personal book to date and Christian teaching was a big part of my formation. And the moment I start thinking about how much I am seeing, how much I am missing, all this Christianity just comes in — not as an explanation but as a lens to understand it. Stories like Jesus healing the blind, and religious faith as a kind of seeing, as a form of prophecy. Religious faith is something I drifted away from because I realized that some of the claims it made about special vision did not hold true. Having believed was a kind of blind spot.
SP: Is your project to remove the blind spots, or to acknowledge that we all have blind spots?
TC: It’s really about acknowledgement. To go back to these very old texts was also a way to acknowledge the antiquity of these questions. There’s something elemental about a person walking down a street, so I talk a lot about walking in the book because walking is connected to photography but photography is connected to seeing. The kind of seeing we do has to do with us being upright creatures whose eyes are flat on our faces. We’re not like dogs close to the earth, with eyes on either side of the snout. So these are very old questions. At some point we were on all fours and then we stood up. Of course the book is haunted by frailty, eventually also by death. I wanted this book to be very contemporary but also to deal with what it means to be a human creature upon the earth. Somehow thinking about theology and Homer gave me access to that.
SP: You’ve taken these photos all over the world. I started jotting down some of these places: Lagos, where you grew up, Nuremberg, Tivoli, Nairobi, Auckland, Tripoli, Milan, Berlin, Zurich, Copenhagen, Seoul, Bombay, Sao Paolo, Brooklyn, Beirut, Bali. The list goes on and on. You must like to travel.
TC: I get to travel a lot. I take a lot of pleasure from it and I get a lot of productive discomfort from it. I only included photos I felt were relevant to the project of the book. I only included places where I made film photographs because I wanted a consistency of effect and appearance. Not because film is better than digital. For example, on this visit to Madison, I’ve only brought my small digital camera.
SP: So I have this image of you. You land in a new place and just start walking with your camera, not necessarily to any particular destination. Is this what you do?
TC: That’s pretty accurate. You know, what’s missing from this book is I don’t have any pictures of Iceland because when I went there, I didn’t take a film camera. I took a digital one. I have no pictures from South Africa. I have no pictures from Australia.
SP: What does film give you that you don’t get in a digital picture?
TC: I think it affords a certain kind of slowness in the thinking. I have only 36 shots on this roll. Do I really want to take this picture?
SP: You have to be more selective.
TC: Yes. But having shot with film for many years now, I think that has also started to affect my digital shooting. I’m not so happy-go-lucky anymore.
SP: I know people who deliberately do not take cameras when they travel because they worry they’re always going to be looking for the good shot rather than just having the experience. Does that resonate at all with you?
TC: I understand where that thinking comes from. One of the most wonderful writers on photography was the English writer John Berger, who died earlier this year. He was somebody whose work I very much cherished. And I got the opportunity to ask Berger about why he didn’t take photographs and he said he tried it very briefly — maybe in the 80s. He had a photographer teach him how to take and develop photos and then he realized that when he took photos of a scene, it kind of foreclosed the writing he wanted to do about that situation. His attention to detail went to the image rather than to the writing he was able to do about it. So he preferred to observe and draw and write. But I find that I’m able to do both.
SP: Do you carry around a notebook as well as a camera?
TC: I always have a notebook, a pen and a camera. These are my tools because the world is always giving you various phenomena. You’ve noticed that some of what I’m writing about is different from what I photographed. Sometimes they coincide. I don’t want my photography to be an illustration of the text. I want the photograph to hold its own. What is the light doing? How are the colors working? How do things balance? The narrative also has to meet the demands of storytelling, of obliqueness, of compression. It has to detonate in a certain way that might actually be adjacent to the photograph, not sitting right on top of it. Which is why I don’t really call these texts “captions.” They are voice-overs. They are running parallel. Each has to emanate its own energy.
SP: You’ve talked about these elusive and mysterious photos that you like to take. Is that also what you like to see in other people’s photography?
TC: I like a very wide range of things in photography. This is important for me as a photography critic not to be closed-minded. So I like photos of the kind that is related to my work. I particularly like Italian contemporary photography. But I also like spectacular street photographers who can nail a decisive moment. I sometimes do that but not a whole lot of it. I also like a good portrait.
SP: Even though you rarely take portraits.
TC: I love strong portraits. I think it’s a challenging art form. Irving Penn was a great portraitist but I would rather look at a portrait by Gordon Parks. It seemed to have more import. And I think Richard Avedon, whose style is not so far from Irving Penn’s, was a more successful portraitist. But Henri Cartier-Bresson was an even better portraitist. There was something about what was happening around his portrait that gave it more energy. The young contemporary photographer Christopher Anderson is an extraordinary portraitist and he gets a lot of magazine work because of this extraordinary ability to work with color and appearance when making images of people. I like conceptual photography. And at the same time I like photojournalists and spot news reporting. So I like all sorts. But this applies to writing as well.
SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory.
TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal.
SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences?
TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way.
SP: So you don’t want a narrative that’s too self-contained and wraps everything up?
TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Excellent sentences and they’re somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it’s jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It’s about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it’s about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I’ve tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences.
SP: There’s one page in Blind Spot that I want to quote because it raises some interesting questions. It’s about Lugano. You have a photo of a park bench, a statue of a horse and some buildings. And here’s the entire text that accompanies that image:
She said to me: Europe is getting worse. I still don’t understand why you want to move to Switzerland. I said to her: I don’t want to move to Switzerland. Quite the contrary. I like to visit Switzerland. When I’m not there, I long for it, but what I long for is the feeling of being an outsider there and, soon after, the feeling of leaving again so I can continue to long for it.
There’s so much in that passage: your love of travel, your feeling of displacement, wanting to be an outsider but probably also experiencing the cost of being the outsider.
TC: Yeah, but some very profound pleasures in it. Why is that text in Blind Spot? Because it encapsulates a misunderstanding. “Oh, you talk about Switzerland. You must want to live there. You want to be a Swiss citizen.” No. So I’m thinking through that response. What is another possible reason for wanting to be in Switzerland? Well, one way is to enjoy visiting without the desire to live there. It also fits in this book because Switzerland is one of the hidden themes of the book. And I keep going back there.
SP: It made me think of an essay you wrote about James Baldwin in Known and Strange Things. He lived in a tiny mountain village in Switzerland in the 1950s, basically in exile. He was the only black person in that village, and that’s where he went to finish writing Go Tell It On the Mountain. Maybe he had to go there to be able to finish this book about America.
TC: Precisely. There’s a way that outsiderness either in your own person or in your location can help you understand what you’re an insider to. Being a Nigerian-American in America helps me to understand Nigeria in a more intense way.
SP: Is it easier to write about Nigeria when you’re in the U.S.?
TC: No writing is easy, but it affords me a certain insight while looking at it from a distance. Being in Nigeria, having grown up in Nigeria, also illuminates my understanding of America even though I’m an American. That outsiderness helps. But the peculiar thing about having a couple of Switzerland essays in Known and Strange Things is that it’s a perfect illustration of the way that each of my books hands on the baton to the next book. So Known and Strange Things becomes a kind of prequel to Blind Spot. The final essay in Known and Strange Things is called “Blind Spot.”
SP: Which is about the experience of losing your vision.
TC: Yes. And then in a weird kind of way this blooms out into an entire book of photographs. But Known and Strange Things takes up in essayistic form many of the concerns that have been raised in novelistic form in Open City. What does it mean to live together? What are the responsibilities of looking at art? What should migration look like? Meanwhile, Open City itself is a kind of expansion on the out-of-placeness of the narrator who was at the center of Every Day Is for the Thief, which is the first book I wrote. So I dream of this organic flow of books.
SP: Even though the format of each of these books is really quite different. Some are fiction. Some are nonfiction. One has a lot of photographs. You seem to enjoy playing with form.
TC: Not only are they four books in four different genres, but each one is also considered peculiar within the genre that it’s supposed to be. Open City is strange for a novel. It’s a novel without a plot. And 400 pages of an essay collection that’s curiously personal and still you don’t know too much about me [laughs].
SP: There’s one other form that you’ve mastered. You turned Twittter into an art form and developed a huge following.
TC: Thank you. It was a creative space for me and I enjoyed it very much.
SP: You wrote a series of tweets that got a lot of traction called the White Savior Industrial Complex. This was in response to the Kony 2012 video that was all the rage a few years ago, about the African warlord who had an army of child soldiers.
TC: So many things were coming together publicly and I wondered, what’s my response to this? It allowed me to think about what we do when we do charity. What do we owe to the people to whom we’re doing some kind of mercy or favor? How much of it is tangled up in our own ego for wanting to be the savior? How much of this is actually racialized? If white Americans are going to Africa to go save, how is this related to the history of colonialism? How is this related to racial politics here in the U.S.? How is this related to being a white person and how you view black people? Does equality have any role to play if we’re helping people who are desperate, or does desperation absolve us of the need to treat people like equals? I thought these were good questions to ask. Yes, the title was provocative. The White Savior Industrial Complex got people’s hackles up a little bit.
SP: Because you were calling out people, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes a lot about this kind of thing.
TC: Right. I was calling people out. But the interesting thing about justice is that unless somebody pushes, nothing really happens. If black people don’t push and speak out, nothing changes in race relations. If women don’t speak out and make a fuss and make things a bit uncomfortable, gender relations don’t really move. As we say, it’s the person who wears a shoe that knows where it pinches. And so the person whose shoe is pinching has to make the complaint. So there’s a space for complaint. And Twitter was an interesting place to put those ideas out there.
SP: Are you still on Twitter?
TC: I’m not on Twitter. I’ve not tweeted in about three years.
SP: Why did you let it go?
TC: That’s exactly what I do with each of these genres. I try to find out what I can do in that space. I try to do good work there, and then without any compunction or regret I move on. And I try to find the next place to continue my exploration.
SP: What was it about the Twitter moment that appealed to you?
TC: An instantaneous public. The conveyance of compression and sentences into the minds of others. How much can we fit into this form? I think what any artist has to offer is really freedom. Freedom can be contagious. I chafe at excessive convention but I love to work within conventions and then try to push them and stop somewhere before the breaking point. So perfectly good English sentences but then I’m pushing against what is permissible. So with this new book, what does the photography book look like? Well, not like this, which has a lot of text. So is it a selection of essays? Is it a memoir?
SP: Your personal history has clearly shaped your writing. You were born in Michigan, but within a few months your family moved to Lagos, where you grew up. How long were you in Nigeria?
TC: For 17 years.
SP: Why did you come back to America?
TC: I came back to the Midwest, to Kalamazoo, for university. My father was deeply unimpressed with the state of Nigerian universities in the early 90s and he wanted me to go back to the U.S. I didn’t mind that, but I certainly did not arrive in the U.S. as a desperate and eager immigrant. We had very little money, but the privilege of choice was there. I got some scholarships and loans and then I had to start learning what it meant to be here as an American who was Nigerian. It was almost as if for the first time I was also learning that I was black. That did not need to be stated in Nigeria because everybody else around me was black, but I had to learn the racial politics of the U.S. and then I had to start experiencing in my own body the variegations of racial prejudice.
SP: So at first, you did not have the experience of most African-Americans?
TC: I did not. But I’ve been in the U.S. for 25 years. I’m a black guy in America, so within those first couple of years, there are many things I did not have a narrative for. What does it mean if I’m strolling around in a small town in Michigan and a car slows down, the window is wound down and someone shouts the N-word at me? And what does it mean in a university setting where somebody says to me, “Oh, you’re not like those other blacks”? All of this stuff had to be understood as a black person in America. In fact, I’m an American African but I’m also an African American.
SP: Wasn’t it years before you actually went back to visit Lagos?
TC: Yeah. It’s a little bit different from the narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief but there are some similarities. I went back to Nigeria after three years, but then I didn’t go back again for another dozen years. There was a big mental distance. I kept not having the money. I kept not having the time. I kept worrying about whether I would be able to go. I went back in 2005 and I’ve been back every year since then. It became a priority and I reestablished roots there.
SP: But you live in Brooklyn now.
TC: I live in Brooklyn. I live in the U.S.
SP: Do you consider Brooklyn home?
TC: Yes. That’s where my wife is. My brother lives there. My friends are there. My books are there. My office is there. So that’s home. I also consider Lagos home. My parents live there. It’s where I grew up. If I go to Nigeria, my room is there. The two most spoken languages in Lagos — Yoruba and English — are languages I’m fluent in. So there’s an at-homeness, but a home is also wherever there’s good wi-fi. That connects me to the world in a way that is irreducible and essential to my experience of the world.
SP: Do you consider yourself more Nigerian or more American?
TC: Neither. Split right down the middle. Or rather 100 percent of both. I feel very invested in Nigeria’s future. There’s a book I’ve been working on for a long time about Lagos, so I think a lot about Nigeria. I’m American and America is in crisis at the moment and I feel invested. Open City was definitely an approach to this question but I feel invested in what this country ought to be. I’m a citizen who is not a patriot. I’m a citizen in the sense of being invested in what we owe each other. What do we do to protect each other’s rights? What do we do about people who break our mutual agreement? What do sanctions and punishments look like? Those philosophical questions are very interesting to me. Our borders are interesting to me. If my money’s being used to kill foreigners in the theater of war, that’s my business. So I’m very American and I’m also very Nigerian.
SP: The two cities where you’ve spent the most time are Lagos and New York. Are they totally different experiences for you or do they have certain similarities?
TC: The commonalities are extensive. It is the experience of cosmopolitanism, which is maybe the fourth definition of home for me. And this is what I find in spaces in Lagos. And it’s what I find in New York — restaurants, clubs, bookshops, shopping malls, traffic, crazy people on the street, high fashion. Cities as a kind of problem-solving technology. If there are 16 million people in the same place, then we have to use resources in a way that makes sense in such a compressed space.
SP: What are the biggest differences between Lagos and New York?
TC: New York is much richer. Lagos might have 25 buildings of monumental scale and New York has 300. The sheer physical scale of New York never ceases to surprise me. And then there’s that thing of New York being a world capital. Lagos is the capital of Africa.
Don’t let people in Cairo or Johannesburg tell you different. Lagos is the place where the pop culture of Africa is being made. Lagos is the capital of Africa but New York is the capital of the world. So there is something about encountering this expansive, complex mutual togetherness in conversation. It’s possible in New York. So New York is almost not an American city. It’s a city that’s a vision of what the world looks like if these borders are not as they are right now.
This interview was conducted through the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. An edited radio version will air soon.
“Like speech, which leaves no mark in the air,” Teju Cole writes in the calmly incantatory and unsettlingly alert Blind Spot, “our bodies leave no mark in space.” On the facing page is a photograph of two Berliners, two strangers, caught in a moment of uncanny resemblance. Blind Spot is comprised of text-image pairings, each of which takes a place-name as its title. Both men are turned away from us, being busy with the work of looking: one studies a sign from his wheelchair while, a ways off, the other leans against a tree. With no faces to know them by, their nearly matching hats take on a disproportionate resonance. (It’s worth noting at the outset that to try to capture the effect of Cole’s photographs, as a reviewer prevented from reproducing the images, is to reckon with a visual eloquence—spare in its means and tending toward a subdued surreal—that often eludes description. It also serves as a reminder that Cole’s facing text never does this work for us, never makes straightforward description its function.) Here the accompanying prose places his looking in time:
A moment later, the man by the trees has moved on. He has not noticed his echo behind him, and the man who echoes him has not noticed him or, even if he has, has certainly not noticed himself noticing him. There are thousands of such echoes and agreements every minute. Almost all go unseen, and almost none are recorded, unless photography intervenes.
In Blind Spot, Cole creates a space in which to notice himself noticing—he’s the third echo in the series, and invites us to stand in as the next—and the result is something richer and more ambiguous than we might have anticipated. Instead of being explained away, the resonance of the more than 150 photographs Cole has taken and collected here is deepened for being met with such sustained and lyrical textual scrutiny, with the free forays of his capacious mind—one that’s often unconsoled but never merely disenchanted.
Cole, a novelist and essayist—and, as we see here, photographer—who writes a column on photography for The New York Times Magazine, garnered a great deal of admiration for Open City, a novel that takes after W.G. Sebald in the way it makes its protagonist not, finally, a young psychiatrist named Julius but instead the solitary consciousness he’s possessed by, subject to the laws of dream and memory, capable of being swept up on “aimless walks” by all sorts of unsuspected associations, echoes, agreements. In this way, Julius’s inwardness both enforces his separation from the world and ties him to it. More than a few passages in Open City would be perfectly at home if set beside an image in Blind Spot. The reverse is true too: It might have been Julius who said to us, as Cole does in a memorable and almost definitive aside, “I’ve been walking for hours. I’m lost as usual in the precincts that others call home.”
Here, for instance, is Julius thinking back on his father’s burial—or, more precisely, taking up the way time has transformed its meaning, melding the original memory with other and later impressions, freighting this most personal of associations with a significance that moves from the fixity of pain to something at once more encompassing and more emotionally uncertain:
I was on the 1 train on the way to work when it came to mind that he had been committed to earth for exactly eighteen years. In that time, I had complicated the memory of the day, not with other burials, of which I had attended only a few, but with depictions of burials—El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Courbet’s Burial at Ornans—so that the actual event had taken on the characteristics of those images, and in doing so had become faint and unreliable…Sometimes, in waking dreams, I imagined my father with coins on his eyes, and a solemn boatman collecting them from him, and granting him passage.
Those “coins on his eyes” hark back to an earlier passage in which Julius broods on a shipwreck of slaves, some of whose bodies were recovered with relics traditional to their countries of origin. He has come to know his father, in the long remembering, as someone marked intimately by the sweep of history—and, so too, as a presence impossible to disentangle from artworks that might seem alien to that history. So they multiply, the complicating pressures on memory. And if much of the pathos of this passage arises from a muted sense of misgiving at the way memory and imagination spiral out from—and threaten to attenuate—the personal, part of the originality and force of Cole’s vision lies in its ultimate commitment to this same movement, its sense of the self as tending, in a rich indeterminacy, beyond the hard and fast dictates of biography.
The view is linked, in Cole’s writing, to an abiding emphasis on the visual plane: we take the work of looking seriously when we realize how deeply formed we are by what we see; or, put a bit differently, how deeply our ways of seeing shape us. Cole was once a child preacher; now his faith, such as it is, rests in the ambiguous resonance of images which, in all their “radical equality,” call us unwaveringly to the making of meanings:
Years later, I lost faith. One form of binocular vision gave way to another. The world was now a series of interleaved apparitions. The thing was an image that could also bear an image. If one of the advantages of irreligion was an acceptance of others, that benefit was strangely echoed in the visual plane, which granted the things seen within the photographic rectangle a radical equality. This in part was why signs, pictures, ads, and murals came to mean so much: they were neither more nor less than the “real” elements by which they were framed. They were not to be excluded, nor were the spaces between things. “We see the world”: this simple statement becomes (Merleau-Ponty has also noted this) a tangled tree of meanings. Which world? See how? We who? Once absolute faith is no longer possible, perception moves forward on a case by case basis. The very contingency and brevity of vision become the long-sought miracle.
Cole works movingly in places to convey this brevity, and there are moments where the goal of the accompanying prose, it seems, is not to further cement the permanence of an image but instead to restore to us a fuller sense of the subject’s precarious—so that much more miraculous—being in time. Here is Cole in an unabashedly faithful moment: there is only connection, sudden happiness of the man who looks up and finds, all unsuspecting, an echoing presence:
I swear he just suddenly appeared. The angel is the one who communicates between realms. Hermes, medium, channel between things, gatherer of potentials, the flow station of being. Is this Indra, who was as precocious as Hermes was, borne on the winds as Hermes was? Or is it Ganesh, messenger of the gods, opener of roads, first port of worshippers’ call? Out in the sun that day, some kind of Catholic procession was going on, raucous around the old cathedral, but inside the café of the Datta Prasad Hotel, a hermetic air reigned. I raised my camera slowly. His glance took hold of me.
The glance we see, tellingly, is not the kind we’d immediately expect to take hold of somebody. It is shadowed in more than one sense. There’s a surprising guardedness to the man’s expression, for all the ease of his pose, a decided and still-deciding inwardness. Cole’s echo, in other words, doesn’t simply sound the note of uncomplicated presence: he’s not entirely “in the moment,” to take up the truism, nor of it. He’s both there and elsewhere—a reminder that when we look out on the world we do so not just with the eye but with the whole mind. If this imposes a certain distance between us and what we see, it also heightens the possibility of human connection, since the mind’s entry allows for the act of association, that essential human art of drawing connections between things, of more deeply seeing what’s before you by following it out to what isn’t. Here is Cole in two places at once, in a single moment of vision:
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Quite by chance, while I was taking a photograph of the one-eyed car in Zürich—late afternoon, and the sun was going from the streets—I heard a friend’s voice behind me. “Was machst du denn da?” She laughed. I turned around and saw in her eyes a gale force grief, for her mother had only just died the previous week.
Cole has found himself in a row of stalled Bombay cabs, and a passenger in the next car but one has turned to look at him with an intensity that is as hard to ignore as it is to account for. There’s something staggering about the way text and image come together here to hit on a truth slantly, accumulating force by a shared indirection, looking head-on by looking away. We have to picture that “gale force grief,” and we see it more terribly for Cole’s not placing it before us. Part of what this pairing does so successfully is to meet us with a double sense of dislocation: that of Cole seeing past his friend’s casual laughter in Switzerland to something not spoken; and now, in putting the book together—its associations mimicking the work of memory—bearing us on to this man returning his glance in Bombay. The man is very conspicuously at a remove—the frames of four taxi windows come between him and Cole—and yet this framing has the effect of intensifying the instant’s exchange. Such is the sense of heightened concentration, of a zeroing-in, that it’s easy to miss a passenger bent over in the middle cab. To spot him is to inhabit even more fully a space of belated recognition, to live out Cole’s moment—on that street in Switzerland, taking a photograph other than the one we see—of awful clarity.
It’s a clarity that leaves Cole wary of a certain easy sort of beauty, even as he lets us feel its lure. Sometimes his text works to subvert the silent impress of an image. By way of the minute detail or great vista, history is always entering in. Next to a commanding mountainside scene, he sets this:
Windless day. Optical bliss. Many years later, and only in the current century, the government agreed to a fund out of which they would be paid, these now grown children who had been taken from their families, tens of thousands of them, and placed as slave labor in farms all around the country, the Verdingkinder as they are known, the contract children, back when Switzerland was not as rich as it now is. The fund was about half a billion francs. What it could not salve was the memories for these children of unmarried mothers, these gypsy children, these poor children: the angry shouts, the cold nights that cut like a blade, the hatred we naturally bear toward the weak and helpless, the terror of the long days in those mountains with their rough stones and vertiginousness and mocking beauty.
There’s a tragic strain in Cole’s vision, and you feel its full measure in the shock of that last pronoun—“the hatred we naturally bear toward the weak and helpless”—which acknowledges this thing of darkness as our own. And still the lyric accumulations of the last sentence (“the angry shouts, the cold nights”) work toward a different kind of identification, one with the children in question. It is borne of a bracing compassion. Elsewhere Cole offers a memorable definition of man as “the animal that can mourn strangers.” It’s a capacity on display in a lovely elegy-in-miniature, one that shows the suggestive power of Cole’s eye as well his deep trust in what he calls “the common”:
He was frail when I last saw him read. This was in 2010, some years after the stroke. I don’t remember if he had trouble walking then, but we thought of mobility because he read from “Miracle”:
Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in—
There was always bipedal grace in his poetry, the this helping the that, a forward motion. Years later his loss left me tottering.
What do we see? A couple pipes standing in for the great poet. I think Seamus Heaney, he of “A Stove Lid for W.H. Auden,” would have appreciated the gesture. To be surprised and moved by the association is to be reminded that what the imagination sees is truth too. Projection is not simply error. Who but Cole would look closely at a handful of metal fold-up chairs and, without moving his eye, come away with an urgent commentary on Black Lives Matter:
Something in the middle of a group of five. Something on the periphery: something first, something last. Something squeezed. Something brown. Something made of metal but susceptible to injury. Something designed for some other purpose. Something on the street. Something held up by others in its group. Something under pressure. Something exerting pressure. Something seen on the way to a rally in the time of Black Lives Matter.
These are acute acts of perception, and it may be worth applying scrutiny to Cole’s way of defining his project negatively, what with its title: he’s interested, he says, in the limits of vision (in much the same way, he has remarked that Open City “is in part an examination of the limits of sensitivity and of knowledge”). It’s a preoccupation whose urgency can be grounded partly in biography: as Cole has movingly described in an essay that takes the same title, and as he touches on several times here, he has suffered from poor vision his whole life. Quite apart from this, he woke up one day with no sight in his left eye and little in the right, and was ultimately diagnosed with a condition his doctor translates as “big blind spot syndrome”—its cause unknown, transitory but subject to return. Following this unsettling experience, Cole says, “the looking changed.” And though in Blind Spot he stays true to the ambition at a higher scrutiny, striving in passage after passage to “look through the skin of the photograph” for what is left out, to remain in the presence of his patiently accruing acts of attention is to realize that this is finally a constructive project, one animated not only by an ethic of alertness but by a kind of saving enchantment. Here and there Cole takes a photograph of a photograph, and the result persuades you of just that “radical equality” he remarks on. He finds a way of apprehending an artwork, of transparently situating it in place and time, that manages to leave intact its essential mystery:
“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him….Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’”
At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen is a photograph of a Catholic procession in rural Southern Italy. Next to it is a high marble relief of a Roman ritual procession from around the time of the Ara Pacis. It depicts a number of women in profile. Between the relief sculpture and the photograph is the museum’s russet wall, split so that which section is in front and which is behind is hard to read. The relief sculpture looks in fact like a photograph of a sculpture, and is difficult to resolve into its three-dimensional form. The women from 1 b.c.e. are on the verge of crossing the red sea and joining their distant Italian daughters and sons.
The facing photograph gives lovely life to this impression. Participants in the less ancient procession, captured in a photograph within the photograph, fix their eyes on us; the women of the Roman sculpture, set in profile, watch them in turn. An intervening sliver of wall does little to diminish the sense of a real looking, an achieved crossing—such is the charged space Cole has patiently created for us, image by image and passage by passage.
Blind Spot is a book composed of such crossings, or the hope of such crossings. Cole says what he values is not the shock of the new but “the shock of familiarity, the impossibility of exact repetition.” Following his mind’s maneuverings, you grow newly sensitive to the superabundance of ordinary transformations that life presents us with. One image enriches, both leans toward and tenses against, another; quietly, somehow, things cohere. In one memorable sequence, a spectator approaches a sculpture in a Chicago museum in more than one sense, the man bowing his head to read a placard and, in so doing, assuming the pose of the sculpted child; both are then lent a probingly unlikely evocation on the following page, in the form of a man in a gray hoodie using a New York payphone; all these are then recalled by an angled lampshade in distant Tivoli.
Such correspondences often strike us over the space of many pages. In its very structure, Blind Spot argues intimately for the capacity of each thing to illuminate, and find itself, in another. And still there are limits Cole remains alert to: grounding experiences that cannot be shared, gulfs he knows knowledge cannot cross. In the end, his close looking and thinking open out on the basic enigma of being. The following passage might have been lived or imagined: it is an existential mystery in miniature, prosaic in its details but imbued with a sense of the uncanny. We are left with a question whose only (and resonant) answer is its own inexact repetition. At the same time, we come away with one photograph, and another (or how many more) that could not quite be taken:
I had parked my car in the shadow of the overhanging rock above the precipice. A man walked past my car, went past the traffic mirror and red safety notice, and stood at the edge. He appeared to be a foreigner. He stood there for a very long time, maybe fifteen minutes. He had a camera but didn’t take any photos. I wondered what kind of life he lived, what his past contained, and how he came to be standing here in this faraway country, at the edge of the precipice. What was he thinking about, there ahead of me?
After taking the photo, I walked past a car parked in the shadow of the overhanging rock above the precipice. I went past the traffic mirror and red safety notice and stood at the edge of the precipice. There was a man in the car behind me, a local, to judge from the plates. He just sat there, not moving, and with no change in his expression. When I turned around and walked past him, probably a quarter of an hour later, his expression was still the same. I imagined that he came here to the edge of the precipice to get away from a difficult life, to enter into aloneness, silence, the cool of the rock’s shadow. What was he thinking about, there behind me?
In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The year I first swam in the Mediterranean. The year my wife became pregnant again. The year I finally finished Homage to Catalonia. The year I finally began a new novel. The year I fell in love with Diego Velázquez. The year of questionable decisions in a Neapolitan disco. The year I learned about kombucha. The year I would move overseas for a while. The year I would sometimes wonder why I’d ever come back. The year of the Trump hole. The year of YouTubing Mr. Rogers for self-medication. The year everybody needed to get the f*** off the Internet. The year of spectacular mid-Atlantic fall.
I’ve always believed in the idea of a zeitgeist, but there are years when the local topography feels especially entangled with the global map. 2016, for me at least, was not one of those. When I look back, I can’t avoid the sense of democratic crisis in Europe, or the open conflagration in the Middle East, or the airborne toxic event that was the U.S. presidential election. Winter may well be coming. Yet I also remember, at the more intimate level on which life is mostly lived, moments of mystery, adventure, and grace that seem connected to some other story entirely. Nowhere were those moments more readily available than in the books I chose to read. Perhaps it’s most accurate to say, then, that 2016 was a year that gave me plenty of reasons to keep reading.
As ever, it’s hard to settle on a single title to recommend above any other, but I think I can get the list of absolute best things I read this year down to four. Around the start of a three-month sojourn in Barcelona, I tackled Javier Cercas’s The Anatomy of a Moment, and found it to be be one of the most penetrating, mature, and nuanced books about politics ever written. Cercas’s ostensible subject is the coup that nearly toppled Spain’s fragile democracy in the early ’80s. It’s a story he unfolds with a characteristic blend of factual scruple and novelistic technique: the pacing is Three Days of the Condor by way of 24 Hour Psycho. Underneath, though, is an argument about heroism that feels both true and profoundly at odds with our usual assumptions. In the context of a government of men, Cercas suggests, real and durable greatness is marked by compromises, trade-offs, disappointments, and missed opportunities, rather than their absence. Not to give away the ending, but maybe politics is more like real life than we’d like to imagine.
While in Iberia, I also read José Saramago’s Blindness, and immediately regretted the 20 years it took me to pick it up. It, too, works as a kind of political allegory, with hard-to-miss Platonic overtones, but even more than Cercas, Saramago sees power relations as emergent properties of the whole rich mess of human experience: love, sex, death, community. That he can convey this richness with such impoverished means — the characters are all, for most of the novel, imprisoned in a building they can’t see — is a miracle of art. As beautiful and harrowing as its obvious model, The Plague (and for my money more lifelike in its intimacies), this is a novel people will still be reading in 100 years, if they’re still reading at all. Or indeed, still alive on planet Earth.
Another discovery for me this year, though of a different sort, was the Finnish-Swedish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. Best known for her ingenious Moomin comics, Jansson also wrote several books aimed at adults, including the The Summer Book. Not much happens in this portrait of a headstrong girl and her equally headstrong grandmother and the island where they spend their summers, but that’s the novel’s great virtue. The Summer Book is pure loveliness. The movements of tides and winds and boats and insects loom larger for our narrator than the currents of history, and the profound quiet of the setting — I’m reminded of Akhil Sharma’s description of a prose like “white light” — allows us to hear Jansson’s unsparing and ironic tenderness, a tone that remains purely her own, even in translation.
The fourth of my European discoveries this year was Christopher Isherwood. I was on my way to Berlin and, like the guy who wears the concert tee-shirt to the actual concert, decided to take Goodbye to Berlin. What drew me in initially was Isherwood’s (to my ear) flawless prose, which by itself would put him in a select group of 20th-century English novelists. But the real rewards were the book’s surprising scope and depth. For my money, Isherwood and his fictional avatar cast a more comprehensive eye on their moment than Evelyn Waugh or Henry Green or even Graham Greene. The novel walks the tragicomic line with an irreproachable poker face, and so maybe sets an example for us all in these shall-we-say interesting times.
Later, back on U.S. soil, I found myself allergic to my traditional time-waster, the newspaper, and so tried to escape into the news of other periods, to restore some perspective. Around the time of the party conventions, I read Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and (though it’s an odd kind of compliment) found it to be Norman Mailer’s most disciplined performance, and one that still resonates today. Barbarians at the Gate, which I found for a dollar at a library book sale in Maine, has likewise aged well, in part because the rank self-dealing it depicts now seems a kind of national ethos. As for Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: The Ascent…well, I guess it says something that I turned to this for refuge. Much was made earlier this year of certain historical parallels, but even as it reminds us that “it can happen here,” the book is also detailed enough to illuminate the ways it’s not happening here, not yet, and needn’t ever, unless we let it.
As for contemporary fiction, I read a lot of what you might call flaneurial fiction, fiction in the shadow of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and maybe Robert Walser’s The Walk. I finally read, for example, Teju Cole’s Open City, a New York novel of exquisite intelligence and refinement, weaving together urban anomie, the history of Dutch colonialism, and the aftermath of September 11. I read Valeria Luiselli’s haunting debut, Faces in the Crowd (which does the same for Harlem, potted plants, and Federico García Lorca), and Álvaro Enrigue’s psychedelic Sudden Death (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, tennis, the conquest of the Americas). Then, in search of further antecedents, I read, belatedly, Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., whose wit and melancholy sent me on a Vila-Matas bender.
In a somewhat different vein, I read Amit Chaudhuri’s beautiful Odysseus Abroad and Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. These are flaneurial novels in the sense of being plotless, but for the essayistic digressions of a Cole or a Luiselli, they substitute the momentum of a quest, a walk with a destination. And each, I think, further complicates the ongoing debate about fictiveness and authenticity. Though neither hides its “reality hunger,” exactly, each deploys on its autobiographical material a novelistic imagination as powerful as anything in Charles Dickens…it’s just tucked in the corners, where you don’t quite notice it. The result in each case is a work where the world and the word are beautifully in balance. (In August, when I finally got around to Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, I was reminded that this subtle form of transformation is an old-fashioned form of magic.)
As for current fiction that more fully gratifies my own imagination hunger, I can point to Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins, a tour de force of wit, suspense, and history. I can point to Nathan Hill’s The Nix, whose disparate concerns — video games, parental neglect, political anger — are bound together by the warmth, charm, and wit of the author’s voice. And I can point to Don DeLillo’s Zero K, whose extraordinary final pages seem a capstone for the author’s work of the last 20 years. To quote DeLillo himself (writing of Harold Brodkey), it’s been one of “the great brave journeys of American literature.”
Finally, speaking of great, brave journeys, I can’t look back on this year without talking about Go Down, Moses. I’ve been reading my way through the Faulkner oeuvre for almost 20 years now, and am down to what I think of as the “third shelf;” soon I’ll be left with only Requiem for a Nun and Soldier’s Pay. I’ve put off reading GD,M in its entirety because many of the short stories it collects are available in other forms; I don’t know how many different versions of “The Bear” I’ve read in my lifetime. But Go Down, Moses, taken as a whole, is really a novel, and one that reminds me of all the novel can do, as in this description of Sam Feathers’s wilderness grave:
the tree, the other axle-grease tin nailed to the trunk, but weathered, rusted, alien too yet healed already into the wilderness’ concordant generality, raising no tuneless note, and empty, long since empty of the food and tobacco he had put into it that day, as empty of that as it would presently be of this which he drew from his pocket — the twist of tobacco, the new bandanna handkerchief, the small paper sack of the peppermint candy which Sam had used to love; that gone, too, almost before he had turned his back, not vanished but merely translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold of these secret and sunless places.
The dark mold, the secret and sunless places, yes, but also the axle-grease and the peppermint candy, the specific, local, and alive, and the living generality that heals it all together. It’s an act of imagination on Faulkner’s part, and on his reader’s, but no less real — in fact more real — for it. And maybe in the most sunless part of this generally dark year, that’s reason enough for hope.
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Last week, we previewed 93 works of fiction due out in the second half of 2016. Today, we follow up with 44 nonfiction titles coming out in the next six months, ranging from a new rock memoir by Bruce Springsteen to a biography of one our country’s most underrated writers, Shirley Jackson, by critic Ruth Franklin. Along the way, we profile hotly anticipated titles by Jesmyn Ward, Tom Wolfe, Teju Cole, Jennifer Weiner, Michael Lewis, our own Mark O’Connell, and many more.
Break out the beach umbrellas and the sun block. It’s shaping up to be a very hot summer (and fall!) for new nonfiction.
How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky: Advice from “Polly,” New York magazine’s online column for the lovelorn, career-confused, adulthood-challenged, and generally angsty. Havrilesky pours her heart into her answers, offering guidance that is equal parts tough love, “I’ve been there,” and curveball. This collection includes new material as well as previously published fan favorites. (Hannah)
Trump: A Graphic Biography by Ted Rall: Just in time for the Republican convention, cartoonist Rall follows his recent graphic bios of Sen. Bernie Sanders and CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden with a comic book peek into the life and times of America’s favorite short-fingered vulgarian. Given that Rall once called on Barack Obama to resign, saying the 44th president made “Bill Clinton look like a paragon of integrity and follow-through,” it’s a safe bet that Trump won’t be flogging this one on his campaign website. (Michael)
Not Pretty Enough by Gerri Hirshey: A biography of Helen Gurley Brown, the founder and creator of Cosmopolitan magazine, following Brown from her upbringing in the Ozarks to her freewheeling single years in L.A. to her rise in the New York advertising and magazine world. The “fun, fearless” editor lived large and worked hard, embracing new sexual and economic freedoms and teaching other women to do the same by offering candid advice on sex, love, money, career, and friendship. (Hannah)
Bush by Jean Edward Smith: He did it his way. According to Smith, author of previous bios of Dwight D. Eisenhower and F.D.R., President George W. Bush relied on his religious faith and gut instinct to make key decisions of his presidency, including the fateful order to invade Iraq a year and a half after the 9/11 attacks. Only in the final months of his second term, with the banking system nearing collapse, did the “Decider-in-Chief” pay closer attention to expert advice and take actions that pulled the world economy back from the brink. (Michael)
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman: Fans of This American Life might recognize Braverman from Episode 558, “Game Face”, in which Braverman, working as a dog musher, got stuck in a storm on an Alaskan glacier with a group of tourists who had no idea of the danger they were in. Her memoir describes her tendency to court danger as she ventures into the arctic, a landscape that is not only physically exhausting but also a man’s world that doesn’t have much room for a young woman. (Hannah)
The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese: Some questioned Talese’s journalistic ethics when an excerpt from this book was published in The New Yorker in April. Others admired it as an endurance feat of reporting. Talese spent decades corresponding and visiting a voyeuristic motel owner, Gerald Foos, who constructed a motel that allowed him to secretly spy on his guests. After 35 years, Foos agreed to let Talese reveal his identity and lifelong obsession with voyeurism. In the weeks leading up to publication, Talese has admitted that some of the facts in the book are wrong and told The Washington Post that he won’t be promoting it. Then he told the The New York Times he would be promoting it. We don’t know what to make of it all, either. You’ll just have to read the book and decide for yourself. (Hannah)
Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye: Drawing on interviews, unpublished memoirs, newly released government files, “and fifty-eight boxes of papers that had been under lock and key for the past forty years,” Tye traces Bobby Kennedy’s journey from 1950s cold warrior to 1960s liberal icon following the assassination of his older brother, John, in 1963. In an era when presidential candidates are routinely excoriated for decades-old policy positions, it can be instructive to recall that the would-be savior of the urban poor began his public life just 15 years earlier as counsel to red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (Michael)
The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward: Fifty-three years after James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, and one year after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s scalding book-length meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Ward has collected 18 essays by some of the country’s foremost thinkers on race in America, including Claudia Rankine, Isabel Wilkerson, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. “To Baldwin’s call we now have a choral response — one that should be read by every one of us committed to the cause of equality and freedom,” says historian Jelani Cobb.
The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik: This parenting book takes issue with the culture of “parenting,” a hyper-vigilant, goal-oriented style of childcare that leaves children and caregivers exhausted. Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, and the author of The Philosophical Baby, argues that parents should adopt a looser style, one that is more akin to gardening than building a particular structure. Her metaphor is backed up by years of research and observation. (Hannah)
Scream by Tama Janowitz: A memoir from the author of Slaves of New York, the acclaimed short story collection about young people trying to make it in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Following the publication of Slaves, Janowitz was grouped with the “Brat Pack” writers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney famed for their deadpan minimalist style. Scream reflects on that time, as well as the more universal life experiences that followed as Janowitz became a wife, mother, and caregiver to her aging mother. (Hannah)
American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin: As the author of The Run of His Life, about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and A Vast Conspiracy, about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, Toobin is no stranger to tabloid-drenched legal sagas, which makes him an ideal guide to the media circus surrounding Patty Hearst’s 1974 kidnapping and later trial for bank robbery. Drawing on interviews and a trove of previously unreleased records, Toobin, a New Yorker staff writer, tries to make sense of one of the weirdest and most violent episodes in recent American history. (Michael)
The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe: The maximalist novelist returns to his nonfiction roots with a book that argues speech is what divides humans from animals, above all else. (Tell that to Dr. Dolittle!) Wolfe delves into controversial debates about what role speech has played in our evolution as a technological species. For a sneak preview of his arguments, check out his 2006 NEA lecture, “The Human Beast”. (Hannah)
Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson: Anyone needing to be reminded that the problems in America’s prison system date back to long before the War on Drugs may want to pick up Thompson’s history of the infamous 1971 Attica prison uprising. After 1,300 prisoners seized control of the upstate New York prison, holding guards and other employees hostage for four days, the state sent in troopers to take the prison back by force, leaving 39 people dead and 100 more severely injured. Thompson has drawn on newly unearthed documents and interviews with participants from all sides of the debacle to create what is being billed the “first definitive account” of the uprising 45 years ago. (Michael)
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole: This first work of nonfiction by the Nigerian-American novelist best known for Open City collects more than 50 short essays touching on topics from Virginia Woolf and William Shakespeare to Instagram and the Black Lives Matter movement. In one essay, Cole, an art historian and photographer, looks at how African-American photographer Roy DeCarava, forced to shoot with film designed for white skin tones, depicted his black subjects. In another essay, Cole dissects “the White Savior Industrial Complex” that he says guides much of Western aid to African nations. (Michael)
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: After performing at halftime for the 2009 Super Bowl, the bard of New Jersey decided it was time to write his memoirs. This 500-page doorstopper covers Springsteen’s Catholic childhood, his early ambition to become a musician, his inspirations, and the formation of the E Street Band. Springsteen’s lyrics have always shown a gift for storytelling, so we’re guessing this is going to be a good read. (Hannah)
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil: Big Data is everywhere, setting our insurance premiums, evaluating our job performance, and deciding whether we qualify for that special interest rate on our home loan. In theory, this should eliminate bias and make ours a better, fairer world, but in fact, says O’Neil, a former Wall Street data analyst, the algorithms that rule our lives can reinforce discrimination if they’re sloppily designed or improperly applied. O’Neil has a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, and runs the blog, mathbabe.org, where you can find answers to questions like “Why did the Brexit polls get it so wrong?” and why the data-driven policing program “Broken Windows” doesn’t work. (Michael)
Words on the Move by John McWhorter: Does the way some people use the word “literally” drive you up the (metaphorical) wall? Before you, like, blow a gasket, try this book by a Columbia University professor who argues that we should embrace rather than condemn the natural evolution of the English language, whether it’s the use of “literally” to mean “figuratively” or the advent of business jargon like “What’s the ask?” If that’s not enough bracing talk about how we talk, in January 2017 McWhorter is releasing a second book, Talking Back, Talking Black, about African American Vernacular English. (Michael)
The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré: The British intelligence officer turned bestselling spy novelist has written his first memoir, regaling readers with stories from his extraordinary writing career. A witness to great historical change in Europe and abroad, le Carré visited Russia before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and met many fascinating characters in his travels, including KGB officers, an imprisoned German terrorist, and a female aid worker who was the inspiration for the main character in The Constant Gardner. Le Carré also writes about watching Alec Guinness take on his most famous character, George Smiley. (Hannah)
Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb: Legendary editor and dance aficionado Gottlieb has had a career that could fill several memoirs. He began at Simon & Schuster, where he quickly rose to the top, discovering American classics like Catch-22 along the way. He left Simon & Schuster to run Alfred A. Knopf, and later, to succeed William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker. Gottlieb has worked with some of the country’s most celebrated writers, including John Cheever, Toni Morrison, Shirley Jackson, and Robert Caro. (Hannah)
This Vast Southern Empire by Matthew Karp: In the contemporary American mind, the Confederacy is recalled as a rump government of Southern plutocrats bent on protecting an increasingly outmoded form of chattel slavery, but as this new history reminds us, before the Civil War, many of the men who guided America’s foreign policy and territorial expansion were Southern slave owners. At the height of their power in antebellum Washington, Southern politicians like Vice President John C. Calhoun and U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis modernized the U.S. military and protected slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas. (Michael)
Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson, best known for her bone-chilling and classic short story, “The Lottery,” has to be one of our most underrated novelists. Franklin describes Jackson’s fiction as “domestic horror,” a pioneering genre that explored women’s isolation in marriage and family life through the occult. Franklin’s biography has already been praised by Neil Gaiman, who wrote that it provides “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly.” (Hannah)
When in French by Lauren Collins: New Yorker staffer Collins moved to London only to fall in love with a Frenchman. For years, the couple spoke to each another in English but Collins always wondered what she was missing by not communicating in her partner’s native tongue. When she and her husband moved to Geneva, Collins decided to learn French from the Swiss. When in French details Collins’s struggles to learn a new language in her 30s, as well as the joy of attaining a deeper understanding of French culture and people. (Hannah)
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly: During the early Space Race years, female mathematicians known as “human computers” used slide rules and adding machines to make the calculations that launched rockets, and later astronauts, into space. Many of these women were black math teachers recruited from segregated schools in the South to fill spots in the aeronautics industry created by wartime labor shortages. Not surprisingly, Hidden Figures, which focuses on the all-black “West Computing” group at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, is being made into a movie starring Taraji Henson and Kevin Costner. (Michael)
American Prophets by Albert J. Raboteau: This fascinating social history profiles seven religious leaders whose collective efforts helped to fight war, racism, and poverty and bring about massive social change in midcentury America. It’s a list that includes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Raboteau finds new connections between these figures and delves into the ideas and theologies that inspired them. (Hannah)
The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs: The title of this essay collection comes from Boggs’s much-shared Orion essay, which frankly depicted her despair as she realized that she might never conceive a child. What made the essay special was Boggs’s eye to the natural world, as she observed fertility and birth in the birds and animals near her rural home. Boggs continues to focus her gaze outward in these essays as she reports on families who have chosen to adopt, LBGT couples considering surrogacy and assisted reproduction, and the financial and legal complications accompanying these alternative means of fertility. (Hannah)
Time Travel: A History by James Gleick: The tech-savvy author of The Information and Chaos shows how time travel as a literary conceit is intimately intertwined with the modern understanding of time that arose from technological innovations like the telegraph, train travel, and advances in clock-making. Beginning with H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, Gleick tracks the evolution of time travel as a cultural construct from the novels of Marcel Proust to the cult British TV show Doctor Who. (Michael)
Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild: Perfectly timed for the start of the last lap of the presidential campaign, this book endeavors to see red-state voters as they see themselves — not as dupes of right-wing media, but as ordinary, patriotic Americans trying to do the best for their families and themselves. A renowned sociologist and author of The Second Shift, a classic 1989 study of women’s roles in working families, Hochschild ventures far from her home in uber-liberal Berkeley, Calif., to meet hardcore conservatives in southern Louisiana. There, as in so much of working-class America, she finds lives riven by stagnant wages, the loss of homes, and an exhausting chase after an ever-elusive American dream. (Michael)
Eyes on the Street by Robert Kanigel: Anyone who has window-shopped in SoHo or marveled at the walkability of their neighborhood can thank activist Jane Jacobs who forever changed how planners thought about and designed urban spaces with her landmark 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel, author of The Man Who Knew Infinity, traces the roots of the great urban pioneer who wrote seven books and stopped New York’s all-powerful planning czar Robert Moses from running a major highway through Lower Manhattan, all without a college degree. (Michael)
Love for Sale by David Hajdu: In his previous books, Hajdu has written about jazz and folk music; in Love for Sale he tells the story of American popular music from its vaudeville beginnings to Blondie at CBGB to today’s electronic dance music. Hajdu highlights overlooked performers like blues singer Bessie Smith and Jimmie Rodgers, a country singer who incorporated yodeling into his music. (Hannah)
Future Sex by Emily Witt: In her first book, journalist and critic Witt writes about the intersection between sex and technology, otherwise known as online dating. Witt reports on internet pornography, polyamory, and other sexual subcultures, giving an honest and open-minded account of how people pursue pleasure and connection in a changing sexual landscape. (Hannah)
Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner: No, it’s not the second volume of Springsteen’s memoirs — instead, it’s an essay collection from a bestselling author who may be as famous for her defense of chick-lit as she is for her own female-centric novels. This is Weiner’s first volume of nonfiction, and she has a lifetime of topics to cover: growing up as an outsider in her picture-perfect town, her early years as a newspaper reporter, finding her voice as a novelist, becoming a mother, the death of her estranged father, and what it felt like to hear her daughter use the “f-word” — “fat” — for the first time. (Hannah)
Truevine by Beth Macy: One day in 1899, a white man offered a piece of candy to George and Willie Muse, the children of black sharecroppers in Truevine, Va., setting off a chain of events that led to the boys being kidnapped into a circus, which billed them as cannibals and “Ambassadors from Mars” in tours that played for royalty at Buckingham Palace and in sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Like Macy’s last book, Factory Man, about a good-old-boy owner of a local furniture factory in Virginia who took on low-cost Chinese exporters and won, Truevine promises a mix of quirky characters, propulsive narrative, and an insider’s look at a neglected corner of American history. (Michael)
Upstream by Mary Oliver: Essays from one of America’s most beloved poets. As always, Oliver’s draws inspiration from the natural world, and Provincetown, Mass., her home and life-long muse. Oliver also writes about her early love of Walt Whitman, the labor of poetry, and the continuing influence of classic American writers such as Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Hannah)
Black Elk by Joe Jackson: A biography of a Native American holy man whose epic life spanned a dramatic era in the history of the American West. In his youth, Black Elk fought in Little Big Horn, witnessed the death of his second cousin, Crazy Horse, and traveled to Europe to perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In later years, he fought in Wounded Knee, became an activist for the Lakota people, and converted to Catholicism. Known to many through his spiritual testimony, Black Elk Speaks, this biography brings the man to life, as well as the turbulent times he lived through. (Hannah)
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: As the child of a white Dutch father and a black Xhosa mother who had to pretend she was her own child’s nanny on the rare occasions the family was together, comedian Noah’s very existence was evidence of a crime under the apartheid laws of his native South Africa. In his memoir, Noah recalls eating caterpillars to stave off hunger and being thrown by his eccentric mother from a speeding car driven by murderous gangsters. If you survived a childhood like that, you might not be so intimated at the prospect of replacing Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, either. (Michael)
My Lost Poets by Philip Levine: In this posthumous essay collection from one of our pre-eminent poets, Levine writes about composing poems as a child, studying with John Berryman, the influence of Spanish poets on his work, his idols and mentors, and his many inspirations: jazz, Spain, Detroit, and masters of the form like William Wordsworth and John Keats. (Hannah)
Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman: Ten years before Emmett Till was brutally lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, his father Louis was executed by the U.S. army for rape and murder. Wideman, who was the same age as Emmett Till, just 14, the year he was murdered, mixes memoir and historical research in his exploration of the eerily twinned executions of the two Till men. A Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, Wideman knows all too well what it means to have a close relative accused of a violent crime: his son, Jacob, and his brother, Robert, were both convicted of murder. (Michael)
Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond: Diamond has established himself as an authority on/gently obsessive superfan of John Hughes with pieces on the filmmaker for Buzzfeed and The Atlantic (from where I learned the shameful fact that John Hughes was responsible for the movie Flubber in addition to his suite of beloved suburban-white-kid films). Diamond’s Hughes interest stretches back to his time as an aspiring, and doomed, Hughes biographer. Diamond commemorates this journey through a memoir and cultural history of a brief, vanished moment in the Chicagoland suburbs. (Lydia)
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis: Why do people go with their guts, even when their guts so often steer them wrong? Lewis stumbled onto this fundamental human question in his bestselling 2003 book Moneyball, about how the Oakland A’s, a cash-strapped major league team, used data analysis to beat wealthier teams. A brief reference in a review of Moneyball in The New Republic led Lewis to two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work explores why humans follow their intuition. If Kahneman’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s a Nobel laureate and author of the 2011 bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. That’s a lot of bestseller cred in one book. (Michael)
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: In his first full-length book, due out in March 2017, longtime Millions staff writer O’Connell offers an inside look at the “transhumanism movement,” the adherents of which hope to one day “solve” the problem of death and use technology to propel human evolution. If O’Connell’s pieces for this site and his ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, published by The Millions in 2013, are any guide, To Be a Machine will be smart and odd and very, very funny. (Michael)
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos: Following on the success of her debut memoir, Whip Smart, about her years as a professional dominatrix and junkie, Febos turns back the clock to examine her relationship with her birth father, whose legacy includes his Native American heritage and a tendency toward addiction. Interwoven with these family investigations is the story of Febos’s passionate long-distance love affair with another woman. Abandon Me is slated for February 2017. (Michael)
Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A much-needed examination of the recent expansion of for-profit universities, which have put millions of young people into serious debt at the beginning of their careers. Cottom links the rise of for-profit universities to rising inequality, drawing on her own experience as an admissions counselor at two for-profit universities, and interviewing students, activists, and senior executives in the industry. (Hannah)
Hunger by Roxane Gay: In our spring nonfiction preview, we looked forward to Gay’s memoir Hunger, which was slated to be published in June 2016, but her publishing date has been pushed back to June 2017. According to reporting from EW, and Gay’s own tweets, the book simply took longer than Gay expected. She also wanted its release to follow a book of short stories, Difficult Women, which will be published in January 2017. (Hannah)
And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott offers a number of definitions for criticism in his new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. In one early chapter, he describes it as a process of “loving demystification.” Elsewhere he writes, “It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Later, he adds the highly distilled, harder-than-it-sounds dictum: “[D]escribe what you see; tell us if it’s any good.”
In a sense, the whole book is one big, provocative, often funny definition of criticism that hops from Rainer Maria Rilke to Chuck Berry to Teju Cole’s novel Open City to Yelp to countless other thinkers and cultural artifacts. (The book’s index, from “Abramović, Marina” to “Zuckerberg, Mark,” is six and a half pages long.)
Scott pulls from an array of genres to complete the task. On some pages, the book is a philosophical treatise asking big questions like, “How do we know what we know? Why do we feel what we feel?” On others, we ride shotgun inside his mind as he walks through the Louvre, pondering all of the layers of the place’s meaning. Interspersed with these chapters are self-interviews that read like modern Platonic dialogues seasoned with bits of memoir and odes to Pixar films. And, by book’s end, aspiring critics even find a bit of how-to wisdom. “To resort to the supremely empty word ‘compelling,’” Scott writes in a memorable anti-adjective riff, “is to confess that you have nothing to say.”
In short, Better Living is a book you should read if you want to feel like you’re talking about art and ideas with a low-key, yet scary-smart, guy who seems to have heard every record, read every book, pondered every painting, and seen every movie ever released. And The Millions did just that, last week, when we spoke with Scott over the phone.
The Millions: So, is this your debut book?
A.O. Scott: It is, indeed. I have contributed to a few books. I edited a collection of essays by Mary McCarthy some time ago, but this is the first book I’ve actually written and published.
TM: I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit, because I remember — and I went back and checked the time, it was 10 years ago — you wrote a piece about novels in The Times that ended with a note that said, “He is writing a book on the American novel since World War II.” I don’t want to bring up a sore spot but…
AOS: No, it’s fine. [Laughing]
TM: Is that book still in the works?
AOS: Uh, no. Before I started working at The Times, I was a book critic. And I kind of had this very grand idea, because no one had done it; no one had written, I thought, written a kind of big, sweeping, synthetic, critical, popular book about the American novel after the Second World War. So, being kind of young and arrogant and stupid, I thought I could do it.
And I was working on the proposal and getting it ready, and then I got this job at The Times, sort of by surprise. And being young and arrogant and stupid, I figured, “Oh, no problem. I can be a film critic in the morning and write the definitive history of the American novel since World War II in the afternoon.” And it didn’t really work out. I sort of kept at it, as much as I could, for as long as I could, but at a certain point I had to put it aside. And the publisher was very, very patient for a long time, and then, at a certain point, they were just like, “Look, this is probably not going to happen.” So I’ve moved on from that. But for a long time, yes, it was in my bio and you’re not the first or the last person to ask, “Hey, what about that book?”
TM: I don’t mean to be That Guy who says, “How’s that book coming along?” But, thankfully, we have a great new book we can talk about. And my first question is kind of a loaded question, given what you do and the subject of this book: have you been reading the reviews?
AOS: I’ve been reading all of the reviews. I sort of made a vow that it would be very hypocritical of me to avoid the reviews. I’ve been dishing it out for 20 years or more, in various ways, so I’d better be able to take it. And I have to say I have really enjoyed reading the reviews, including the less glowing reviews. I mean, it’s very nice to read a review like Michael Wood’s that appeared in The New York Times, which I was not tipped off about. It was great to read that in the paper.
But it’s also been really interesting to me to read some of the other, less glowing ones. Because I find that this is a book that — it’s about criticism, so I was hoping all along, in a way, that critics would have something to say about it. And I kind of suspected that a number of them — because we all do it in our own different ways, and have different ideas about how it should be done — that a lot of my colleagues would take issue with it.
TM: Let’s go back to the beginning. Why write this book?
AOS: Well, I’d been thinking about it for a long time, obviously. It’s in my nature to reflect on what I do. And over the years, I’ve written a couple pieces — as I think a lot of critics do — every once in a while, you’ll write an essay either defending what you do from people who complain about critics or trying to explain what critics do, or, as often is the case, complaining about other critics and how they do it wrong. But I hadn’t really thought about it comprehensively.
[And] I think what sparked it was there was a moment around 2010, 2011, which I think was one of many moments of kind of digital triumphalism, where print was collapsing, newspapers were going under right and left, and there was all of this cool stuff coming up. Social media was really on the rise and there were all of these powerful algorithms and there were sites like Yelp and there were Amazon reviews and there was user-generated content. And there was Twitter. And there was Facebook. And there was a certain amount being written and said about, “Well, this means that we don’t needs critics. Critics are finally obsolete. We don’t need people from ivory towers bossing us around and telling us what to like. We’re all just going to like what we like and we’ll hit the ‘Like’ button and share it with our friends. And we’ll do our own thing. We’ll be our own critics.”
And I thought, “Well, that’s really interesting.” I wondered if that was true. I thought, “Well, am I the last of the breed on my way out? Is this thing that I’ve enjoyed doing so much, that’s sort of been my vocation and my job — is that over?” So I kind of sat down to try to think about that and to try to think about it in as unprejudiced way as I could. Not to be just defensive and not say, “Oh, all you people on the Internet are…idiots. Who gave you the right to have these opinions?”
I didn’t want to just be defending my job and its prerogatives. But I wanted to explain, first of all to myself, what criticism was. Where does it come from? Why does it exist? Why do people do it? How is it a job? How is it something other than a job? How is it something that exists independently of the careers and professions of people like me?
TM: And then Samuel L. Jackson picked a fight with you.
AOS: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was pretty early. I had been working on this I guess for about a year. And it was a great gift. Because one of the things I’d been thinking about was why people seem to hate critics so much. Because you hear it a lot, if you review stuff, whatever you review, people get mad at you and people want you to go away. And people think you’re ruining their fun or you’re just some kind of egghead spoilsport raining on everyone’s parade.
So I wrote a review of The Avengers. And it was actually not an entirely negative review, by any means. It was, I thought, very measured and balanced and fair. And I really like the cast of that movie a lot, including Samuel L. Jackson. But it was also…I was complaining about the blockbuster imperative and the way that all of these movies, that whatever talent or wit or intelligence or originality that they seem to have often seems kind of compromised by the need to make them these big tent pole, giant-sized-blockbuster, globally profitable movies. And Samuel L. Jackson went on Twitter and said, “Avengers fans, we need to find A.O. Scott a new job — one he can actually do.” Which I thought was very funny. Because, I’d been thinking about it, [while] researching and starting to write this book, “Well, what is my job? How does one actually do it?”
And so I tweeted something back and it turned into one of those little Twitter tempests. Which are always hilarious. For about 12 hours, everyone is obsessed about it. And entertainment writers are writing about it. “Oh! A.O. Scott and Samuel L. Jackson!” And then it sort of moves on and people forget about it.
Interestingly, he didn’t forget about it. He came back in an interview like six months later, in The Huffington Post to elaborate on his problems with me and my review and with how critics, in his view, don’t get movies like The Avengers. And that was very useful to me, too. That really gave me material to work with and kind of helped me to think about and to write about, “Well, what is the nature of the subject? What is the tension between fans and critics? Or between artists and critics? What is the problem with thinking hard about popular culture?”
TM: That strain of hating critics and the idea of “There have never been any statues erected for critics” is strong in our culture, and you talk about it in the book. But I can think of at least one person who bucked the trend, and I know he’s someone you knew, because you appeared in the documentary about him. And that was Roger Ebert, who was perhaps the most beloved critic our culture has seen. What did people love so much about him, do you think?
AOS: It’s fascinating how that happened. And I’m not sure he was always loved. I think he grew into that and the audience grew to appreciate him over the years. And I think it’s partly because Roger was both — and I don’t think any other critic, maybe, has done this quite as well — he was both an extremely sophisticated and intelligent and knowledgeable judge and analyst of movies. I mean, he knew more about film history, more about cinematic form, more about how movies work than whole faculties at film departments in universities. He could have taught any course on film at any university. And he sometimes did.
But he was also a thoroughly democratic — small “d” — person. He had this kind of Midwestern, populist, public-spirited ethic. He never left the Chicago Sun-Times. He certainly didn’t need that salary after his TV show took off. He could have gone to any newspaper or magazine in the country. But he stayed at the Sun-Times, which is a blue-collar paper in Chicago. And he wrote in very plain, accessible language. And he never condescended to readers. And he never dumbed down his ideas.
People know him from television. He was a wonderful television personality. But if you read his writing, you see the open-mindedness and the generosity of spirit and the humanism, the feeling like he’s a person talking to you. He saw this movie, you saw this movie, and you’re having a conversation about it. He embodied that idea of criticism, which for me is a very, very attractive and important one, better than anyone else.
And I think it’s interesting when you look back at the film critics of the past, there are certainly giant and important figures. People talk about Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris as certainly the big ones of the ’60s and ’70s. I think of that period of the later 20th century, he turned out to be the giant. He turned out to be the one who really figured how to write with maximum intelligence and literary acumen about this popular art form that everybody loves.
TM: I recently saw Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, and he dedicated the movie to him! It’s like the inverse of your Samuel L. Jackson feud. It’s almost unimaginable.
AOS: It is. When Roger died, I went on Charlie Rose to talk about him with Dana Stevens, the film critic from Slate, and Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog was there by video feed from Los Angeles — he was this kind of giant floating head in the Charlie Rose studio. And he was talking about, in a classic Werner Herzog way, about how Roger Ebert was a “soldier of cinema” and a “warrior for ecstatic truth.” And I thought, “Well, yeah. You know, that’s about right.”
TM: The title of your book suggests almost a kind of self-help impulse. How can criticism — either consuming it or producing it — make our lives better?
AOS: There is a self-help component. It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously. But not entirely. And I think that what I’m arguing for, what I’m arguing that criticism provides or that criticism is, is a more thorough and thoughtful and open-minded engagement with our own experience, beginning — and particularly in this book — with our experience of works of art and products of culture.
These things are very powerful and complicated and sometimes mysterious vessels of meaning and emotion and products of human intention, and we need to take them seriously. We need to take our own experiences and our own pleasures seriously. We need to learn, I think, to think outside our own prejudices and to open our minds and our senses to what the world has to offer.
And I guess what I think of criticism as really being is that kind of thinking, that approach to experience, that approach to life. It’s different from — because art is different from — politics or morality or religion or any of these other things. But it is one of the things, one of the modes of expression and experience, that fulfills our lives.
TM: And, at the same time, the book is very good about telling people how much they are already doing criticism in their everyday lives.
AOS: For me, criticism starts with the conversation that you have about your experience. So, it can be a conversation in your head, or a literal conversation with other people. But I always think for me, movie criticism, long before I was a professional movie critic, [was] the experience of going to a movie with your friends and then arguing about it in the coffee shop or the bar afterwards. Or, in less pleasant scenarios, getting in a huge fight with your date about what a good movie is about. [Laughs.] That’s criticism.
When we take things seriously and react to them and think about what happened to us: Why do you love this song? Why do you play it over and over and over again? How are these things so meaningful to us? When you binge-watch a certain television show and you can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it and you go online and read the recaps. Or you go on Facebook with your friends and try to hash out, “What did that episode mean?” “What happened?” Or the kind of cliché of the “water cooler conversation.” That’s criticism. We’re doing it. It’s kind of wired into us. Something happens — we see something, we feel something — we want to make sense about it. We want to talk about it.
TM: In a recent Times piece that’s adapted from the book, you wrote, “The days of the all-powerful critic are over.” But, you still must have a pretty significant amount of power, as one of the lead critics in The Times. How much power do you feel you have? And, if at all, does that affect the way you go about doing your job?
AOS: I try not to think about it as I go about my job. I think it would be really paralyzing and it would kind of make me a bad person if I thought about that. You know, “I’m the mighty critic of The New York Times. I’m going to make you or break you, you little movie.” I have the good fortune and the luxury to be able to do most of my writing at home. So I can kind of pretend that this mighty institution —
TM: You mean you don’t have an office in the top floor of The New York Times skyscraper?
AOS: No. I have a little cubicle on the fourth floor. Which is basically where there are piles of books and DVDs. But I mostly am working from home in Brooklyn, so I can pretend I’m just like every other writer in Brooklyn, sitting with my laptop, either at home or in the coffee shop.
But I like to think that the power of critics is like the power of any other writer. It’s, finally, the power of persuasion. I might have influence to the extent that what I write can make sense to people and can make a strong argument and persuade them, at least, of the value of what I’m saying, of the complete truth of it. And I think where that influence, let’s say, comes from is the idea that a critic is an independent and honest voice in the culture.
Which doesn’t mean [a critic is] always right. I’m only one person doing my best to make sense of things and, to a very large extent, what I’m writing comes out of my own subjective experience, and my own views, and maybe my own biases, and my own history. But I’m trying to turn that into something, into some writing that people can find useful and that also is not — and I think this is very important and this is why criticism does matter in the world we live in now — that it’s not part of the machinery of advertising and publicity and marketing. That it’s independent.
Movie studios are able to flood the media with all kinds of publicity and promotion and marketing and advertising, including some that happens kind of under the guise of journalism. They can get lots of soft, appreciative features and profiles. And they can send the stars out onto the talk shows and stuff and create a climate of reception for these movies. And it’s important to have voices in the mix that can be heard that are speaking independently and truthfully about that.
Going back to Roger Ebert, the great appeal of that show, one of the ways that it lasted as long as it did, was that it was a place where people could go to hear two guys speaking their mind, speaking honestly and without compromise about movies.
TM: You talk in the book about a critic who “had seen too many movies.” Surely you’ve seen an extraordinary number of movies. How do you avoid that ailment?
AOS: I think the movies help a lot. The fact that there are so many of them and there’s such a variety and there are so many different kinds. And sometimes I can choose my assignments in a way that will refresh my sense of what the movies have to offer. For example, this year, after November and December and the Oscar movies, I was sort of exhausted and I was a little tapped-out with Hollywood movies, although I liked a lot of them. And so in the first month of the year, I was lucky enough to be able to review — I think in the month of January I reviewed only foreign-language films.
And it wasn’t that I loved all of them. Some of them I really liked; some of them were a little disappointing or flawed in some way. But they were different. They gave me another kind of filmmaking to think about. Different aesthetic questions…different kinds of stories. They came from different places. And the movies offer that variety. In a given week, I will review a documentary, a big blockbuster, a low-budget horror movie, a movie from Iceland or Mexico or China. So that keeps it very fresh and I’ve always thought that, the point at which I get tired, the point at which I get jaded, the point at which I start to think that’s it’s all been done, that all of the great or interesting movies are in the past, that’s when I should stop and get out of the way and let someone else do it.
You don’t necessarily have to be a starry-eyed Pollyanna. But it’s important to keep faith in the art form. To not get cynical. To not get jaded. To not get nostalgic. And sometime, when I take vacations, I have to just not see any movies. [Laughs.] You know, go sit on an island off the coast of Maine and look at the water for a week.
TM: Do you think there’s a viable path to becoming a professional critic today? What would you say to a student taking one of your classes [Scott is a Distinguished Professor of Film Criticism at Wesleyan University] who comes up to you — maybe this has happened — and says, “I want to be a critic. What do I do?”
AOS: It has happened. And it’s definitely a challenging time to embark on any kind of writing career or journalistic career. Although I think that things are maybe looking a little better than they were, say, four or five years ago when it just seemed like it was all bottoming out. But one thing is: people like to be sort of gloomy and nostalgic, but it’s never been — it’s not like any guidance counselor would ever have pointed a young person in a direction and said, “Oh yeah, film criticism. That’s the ticket. That’s the way to go.” It’s always been an uphill climb.
But I think that there are way more entry points and fewer barriers to entry than there used to be to getting your work out there, to getting your voice heard. There may also be fewer ways to get paid. And that’s kind of always the paradox of the Internet: you have this access, but how to monetize your content, as they say, is always the challenge.
But I have one example of a student of mine, from the first year I taught the course at Wesleyan. A brilliant student who followed a lot of critics and writers on Twitter and would get in these conversations and had these really smart things to say in 140 characters. And at a certain point, one of the people she was following and talking with about movies and TV was an editor at The Daily Beast who got in touch with her and said, “Hey, you want to write something?” And she’s been writing for that and for other outlets for a while now. I didn’t advise her [on any of that]; I can take no credit at all.
TM: It’s a modern-day Cinderella story.
AOS: It sort of is a modern Cinderella story. And the lesson is not about how to make a Twitter profile. But it was encouraging to me, because I thought, “If you have something to say, and you’re smart, and right, you can find ways to knock at the doors and to get noticed.” I mean, it doesn’t work all the time. It’s hard. There can be a long period of frustration, of not getting noticed or of having to kind of struggle to find an outlet. But in a way that’s no different.
I can remember when I was starting out, I was writing book criticism instead of film criticism. But I had one clip and I sent it out to like 60 different people and I heard nothing. But then I eventually heard from someone and got another assignment and another clip [and] slowly, slowly, slowly built something. But even then I remember talking to one editor I’d been writing for, when I was just kind of starting to get a taste for writing criticism in magazines and newspapers and stuff. And he said, “Well, you know, it’s impossible to make a living.” So that’s always been true. And yet people do.
TM: For people out there who are skeptical that criticism is an art form, in and of itself, how would you try to persuade them?
AOS: I would persuade them by saying, “Have a look at the theatre chronicles of Mary McCarthy, the music criticism of Greil Marcus, the film criticism of James Agee and Pauline Kael, and just about anything Susan Sontag ever wrote.”
I mean, if that’s not art, I don’t know what is.
My friend Jay Parini once observed that when his reading isn’t going well, his writing isn’t going well. Not only did I find myself in total agreement, but I would go even further: when my reading isn’t going well, it’s as if I’m missing some essential nourishment in my life.
Jay’s comment set me thinking on an added benefit to finding and reading great books: it helps my own writing to hang around good company whose fine qualities might rub off on my own work.
So here are the books that were my best reading company in 2015.
It was a big reading year for me as I’m at a crossroads in my own writing. I can viscerally, sensuously, intuitively taste and touch and hear the novel I want to write, but I don’t yet know how to do it. So as I read, I am “taking notes” with that part of my brain that learns by a kind of osmosis, immersing myself in the element I want to learn to navigate. And if all that comes of this voracious and exploratory reading is a year of being nurtured by wonderful books, so be it.
First, before all else, how I’ve started my reading year for the last decade: every January, I reread T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The poem is as close to liturgy as poetry can get, and each time I read it, it surprises me: I’m taken once again on many journeys, through mythic landscapes, phrases open up, passages stir the mystery in me again. In the midst of celebrating the beginning of a new chapter of chronological time, I’m reminded of the timeless. I can hear myself struggling to describe why I feel compelled to reread this poem at the start of every year. Let’s just say that rereading Four Quartets is how I ritually kick off my reading year.
While we are in the realm of reading that opens up space for the spirit, I’ve been reading a lot of spiritual guides and memoirs in the last few years. (Favorite writers include John Main, Laurence Freeman, Thomas Merton, Martin Laird, Jacob Needleman.) My great find this year is a little book by David Whyte, Consolations, meditations on certain words which Whyte peels open, layer after layer, in search of core truths to be found there. For someone who has spent her life using writing as her “string through the labyrinth,” looking to words to light my way is nothing new, and Whyte’s book lit up touchstone words in surprising ways. Among my favorite entries are “Ambition” (“…left to itself always becomes tedious, its only object the creation of larger and larger empires of control; but a true vocation calls us beyond ourselves; breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies, and enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place”); “Longing” (“…beckons us exactly because of the human need to invite the right kind of peril”); “Maturity” — which, at 65, I hope to reach soon (“is the ability to live fully and equally in multiple contexts, most especially, the ability, despite our grief and losses, to courageously inhabit the past, the present, the future, all at once”); “Solace” (“How will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light and then, just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?”).
My favorite nonfiction book of 2015 was Philip Roth’s memoir, Patrimony, about the his father’s final illness and death. I’ll admit that I know Roth’s work mostly through film adaptations of his novels. From those films, many of which I liked, I got the impression that Philip Roth was a master of the great American Male Novel. I’m not all that excited about spending reading time following the exploits of some guy who is looking to get screwed, make money, gain power, etc. An unfair bias, it turned out to be, in this instance. I loved this lucid and accurate look at the complex feelings and quandaries that arise from helping our parents at the end of their lives. Now I want to go back and give those Roth novels I know only through their movie versions a chance. I’d hate to miss the company of a fine writer out of a knee-jerk bias that might need to be revised, or at least ascertained, first hand.
Poetry is my first love, and I always start the day by reading a few poems. (I guess I do create ceremonies with reading time.) My favorite poetry books this year were Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska, the Polish 1996 Nobel Prize winner in literature, a sly and clever poet with a vivid, incisive moral imagination. I also am a huge fan of Kate Daniels, a contemporary Southern poet who combines both lyricism and a talent for narrative. This year, I reread my favorite of her books, A Walk in Victoria’s Secret, poems that gorgeously document a variety of experiences of being inside a woman’s body. One more poetry book that you will have to wait until 2016 is Jay Parini’s New and Collected Poems, due out next March. Jay asked me to blurb the book, something I do not like to do: blurb books by friends. (Forgive me, readers, if I inject this additional commentary: but blurbing is a practice I think you should all rise up and beg to be discontinued as the blurber is more often than not reading in a compromised way, at least I’ve found it to be so, usually out of loyalty to a writer friend, or a colleague who is up for tenure, or a respected editor who needs to round up a chorus, or a friend of a friend who asks for the favor, or a relative who will be sitting across from you at the family Thanksgiving table.) But I said yes to Jay because I’ve always loved his poetry above all else he has written — and he has written a lot. And I swear that the poems in this collection are as good as I proclaim them to be in my blurb, particularly the newest poems, which have a depth and earned wisdom and simplicity and lyricism that confirm my estimation that Jay is first and foremost a remarkable poet.
Okay, let’s get to the favorite novels of 2015. This is where my reading was most demanding, because I was in search of books that accomplished what I wanted to be doing with my writing, not necessarily the same kind of writing, but writing that surprises me, novels that take me places I haven’t gone before in a novel, novels that are infused with the same charged language and incantatory rhythms of the best poetry. I’m especially enamored of short poetical novels, maybe because of the same reason I find Kate Daniels’s poetry so intriguing: I like those hybrids that combine two genres I’ve been immersed in most of my writing life: fiction and poetry.
Three favorite novels: Teju Cole’s Open City, narrated by a Nigerian immigrant and graduate student studying in New York City, a lyrical ramble through his thoughts, impressions, memories as he wanders through the city, encounters friends, muses on strangers, situations. While reading it, I was caught in the currents of his language and rhythms and perceptions, which all affected the way I moved through my own world. Not a traditional novel, for sure, but absorbing and so intelligent and seamless in the way it moves. Another favorite this year was Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, another short, unusual novel, very different, more staccato in its rhythms but as original in its perception. Written in journal form as posts from the embattled frontiers of a relationship by a very smart, funny, slightly spacey lover/wife/betrayed wife/new mother. The writing is spare — not an extra ounce here! Offill packs so much in these short entries. A whole relationship deconstructed and reconstructed in less than 200 pages. How did she do it? I’m still “taking notes.”
But my favorite of the three has to be Ransom by David Malouf, an Australian novelist whose work I had never read before. It was recommended to me by my aunt who described it as a novel about The Iliad characters, Achilles and Priam. I thought, oh no, been there, read that (college courses, undergraduate courses; later, courses I taught where the curriculum was mandated by the old guard). But as with Philip Roth’s Patrimony, was I ever wrong about this novel, which does spring from an incident in The Iliad, but unpacks it and creates a space of grace and transcendence in all that blood and gore, which is what I mostly recall about reading and teaching the classic epic. The novel is a short, lyrical evocation of an encounter between two grieving heroes. (Achilles has lost his friend Patroclus to the Trojan war, and Priam his son, Hector.) A convincing breakthrough happens in the midst of violence, elucidating a moment in The Iliad that I hadn’t ever thought about much and probably missed by blinking when it was passing. (Or more likely, by covering my eyes, metaphorically, fed up with all the killing and violence.) When I closed Malouf’s novel, I did what I find myself doing when I am deeply moved and transformed by a book, I opened it again, and immediately began rereading it.
Would that we could do in the world what a book like this does in the imagination: create such baffling complex beauty that we are believers again in our power to infuse the world with more sweetness, more light.
In keeping with my opening ritual, I’ll close the reading year by saying, Amen to that.
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Teju Cole is a novelist, essayist, photographer, art history teacher, and Twitter aphorist. He approaches each of these roles as an amateur. This is a compliment. He is not trying to master any particular form as much as he is trying to work inside each with the curiosity of a young craftsman.
Open City, his first book to appear in the U.S., chronicled the wanderings of Julius, a Nigerian psychology student living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Julius filters ideas one usually encounters in a graduate school seminar through his own precise diction, as he describes the problems that theory often fails to confront. A Japanese-American professor, his mentor, remembers the internment camps of his childhood but sidesteps the subject of his homosexuality until the very end of his life. On a trip to Europe, he encounters anti-Semitic Muslims who harbor a justified paranoia of American power. And finally he finds himself caught within the tentacles of rape culture.
Every Day Is for the Thief, a work of fiction about a man returning home to Lagos from America, was first published in Nigeria in 2007 and is now making its first appearance in the U.S. Cole’s narrator studies Nigeria’s kleptocratic culture with a melancholy eye and considers the constant threat of violence and poverty in one of the 21st century’s megacities. The new edition includes pictures of street scenes Cole took many years after first writing the book. His prose guided but did not dictate the subject matter of his un-posed photographs.
I met Cole in Seattle on March 26. He had a full schedule for his book tour and he wanted to see the central building of Seattle’s Public Library system, a beautiful Rem Koolhaas structure located in the city’s downtown. We got to the lookout point where his reliable 40-year-old Leica M4 busted. He spent most of the hour of our interview trying to fix it. We spent a good portion of our time together standing by the elevators at the top of the building. We went downstairs to the library café for about 20 minutes and then we returned back upstairs. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.
The Millions: You maintain an essayistic voice in both your novels. You have more freedom with that essayistic voice in a novel than you would in an essay, because you are not as responsible for the ideas that are presented.
Teju Cole: I think that’s right. It becomes a way of exploring other ways that things could be, other thoughts that you might have. The master of this is Coetzee.
TM: You are talking about Elizabeth Costello.
[On the camera.] I’m having such a day with this. Why?
And I think that’s interesting, because it actually allows us to confront those ideas in a way that if someone gave a talk about them from their own reasonable or defensive point of view it would not be as provocative or would not get as far with it. Don’t you agree?
TM: I don’t know if I do. With an essay, you are putting much more on the line by saying, “This is what I’m saying. This is who I am.” When you put those ideas in a character, it’s an act of ventriloquism.
TC: Precisely. But you never know [whether the character or the author is speaking.] And because you don’t know which that sets up an interesting tension between the reader, the author, and the narrator or the leading character. Personally, I find it very intriguing.
TM: Well, it may be one of the reasons why Proust lives on. We read these thoughts filtered through a narrator who is not Proust.
TC: But who may be close enough to being Proust that we’re not sure. And I’m especially interested in those characters who advance ideas that I would find less attractive or a bit less friendly.
[Fiddling with the camera.] I’m sorry. I’m not distracted, but I’m being mechanical and I’m listening to you.
TM: You had a line at the beginning of your essay “The White Savior Industrial Complex” that a good novel does not have a point. How does that apply to the essay as it compares to the novel?
TC: That’s an interesting example to bring up. Because it’s probably my best-known essay, but it’s definitely not my best essay, and I think you know that. It’s an essay that is definitely meant to have a point. It is actually an activist essay. I’ve done long non-fiction narratives that contain ideas in them that I like as much as anything I’ve done that is fictional…Yes, an essay still has a point. It’s also exploratory, but fiction is more exploratory. And the analogy I would give is of people who take a picture of something like that yellow sign over there. [points to sign describing rules of library etiquette.] They say, “This is the frame,” and you take a picture of the object. But what I strive for both in fiction, but also in the best non-fiction that I try to write, is to actually take a photo of a situation rather than an object.
So, if I take a picture of this right now, [points to view of street down below from the perspective of the lookout point] there’s no object I’m taking a picture of. I’m taking a picture of the light on the glass, the vehicles down there, the zebra crossings, how they interact with these crossings over here [points to the railings and the diagonal frames on the windows.] That complexity is the subject as opposed to taking a picture of an object.
I think an essay might do that. I’m interested in how one might break the essay and do new things to it. So, in that particular essay, I made this assertion. An essay has a point and a novel does not. Well, that particular essay had a point, but many essays actually do not. However, I stand by that essay. I thought that essay was necessary. Absolutely. I 100 percent stand by it.
TM: I found Every Day Is for the Thief incredibly depressing.
TC: Could I tell you that many Nigerians thought it was hilarious?
TM: Well, that’s my question. I thought that if Naipaul had written some of those scenes, I would have been laughing.
TC: Interesting. Why?
TM: Well, he wouldn’t talk about the terrible pressures that the environment created.
TC: He would distance it and he would not bring in the personalized pathos of these people’s lives.
TM: You are writing about this kleptocratic culture.
TC: And I try to bring across the hurt of it as well.
TM: Yes, and the constant pressure, the feeling of betrayal over and over again, the inability to have a fellow feeling with the person you see walking down the street.
TC: Right. Right.
TM: Now, when Naipaul writes about it…
TC: He’s straightforward and brutal about it. He’s like, “I don’t give a shit about these people. I’m going to tell you how ridiculous they are.” And he can also be quite funny about it. I find it quite painful to read him when it comes to this stuff.
TM: But I didn’t laugh when I was reading your book.
TC: Except if you were Nigerian you would laugh, because that’s the only thing you could do. That was a very pleasant surprise for me when the book came out in Nigeria, that people really did find it hilarious.
TM: You did not intend it to be that way.
TC: Not so much, because I’m also writing with the sad distance of somebody who doesn’t live there anymore.
[Fidgeting with the camera.] It’s a comic sequence. This has never happened to me before. It takes me one minute to change some film. I’ve struggled with it and I’ve made certain things loose and now it’s not working. It’s not loving me back.
TM: Open City was mostly just as fragmented as Every Day Is for the Thief. You didn’t have a sense of an arc until the last 50 pages or so.
TC: There’s a way in which Open City…is actually a more conventional novel. I don’t call Every Day Is for the Thief a novel. I call it a work of fiction, or when pressed I’ll say it is a novella. So Open City is more novelistic. It does have these instances of continuous drama that have been foreshadowed and all of that interweaving. So there’s a certain sophistication to the way that it is all working together.
What I’m experiencing now that Every Day is for the Thief is being reviewed [are] the normal ways people talk about a person’s earlier work, not that Open City is [earlier]…just [how they talk about] other work that they know. Quite amazingly, almost uniformly, they all like Open City. So this is the benefit of the distance of time. “If all you motherfuckers had shown up when it came out!” It’s now this settled thing that Open City is a good thing…But as the author I know there was a lot of hemming and hawing about that book when it came out. “Oh nothing happens. Or the stuff that happens at the end is not resolved.”
TM: The second to last chapter is what made that novel work for me.
TC: There was a lovely review in The Times by Miguel Syjuco, a really, really positive review, and he thought that the end was an amateur move.
TM: To me Julius was the intellectual 30-something version of a likable narrator in a young adult novel.
TC: Absolutely. Absolutely. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the not-often-noticed shadows of this book.
TM: He’s an interesting person for you to listen to, and you like his observations. But he is capable of committing something so heinous.
TC: And that exactly is the point.
TM: That might be the best defense for the essay in the novel form. I guess it’s similar to what Coetzee does in Elizabeth Costello.
TC: Which, by the way, was panned.
TM: Well, there’s something of a consensus that since he’s moved to Australia he’s not as good.
TC: That’s right. I think that’s a bullshit consensus. He’s making it work. He can’t just sit back and relax on what has worked. That’s not how he got to where he is. He found out how far he could go with conventional forms. Now he has to interrogate those forms, and go farther and farther with them. It’s hard to part ways with an audience that would like to keep liking you in the ways they’ve always liked you. But that’s the way creativity is. That’s why late work is so puzzling.
Every Day Is for the Thief had been widely read in Nigeria. When Open City came out it was met with quite a bit of excitement there and almost total puzzlement. Like, “It’s too bad, he lost it. He had a good thing going there.”
I’m sorry to make you stand.
[On the camera] I’ve brought it all the way across this continent. And I’ll be damned if I can’t use it. And I can see the damn thing. I can see this picture and not being able to take this damn thing. The light’s been changing the whole time we’ve been here. It’s driving me nuts. This is not what I’m here for. This is nonsense.
[Takes a picture with his smartphone.]
To me it’s an interesting image.
This is my friend, this machine. I love it very much and now I’m a little bit worried.
[We go downstairs to the café where he continues to toy with his camera.]
TM: In this work of fiction, Every Day Is for the Thief, you are describing objects that were never there. So when I read this work of fiction and see these photographs, suggesting you are taking pictures of real things…it’s jarring.
TC: Well the thing you are reading was not made out of whole cloth. Already a lot of what you are reading leans toward memoir. But you know a lot of it must have been made up, not just because of the label, but because of some of the texture of the recollection. It is too precise not to be made up in some way. There are a number of coincidences in this book that almost nobody picks up that I’m embedding inside the text. So then you’re struggling. “It’s reading a lot like a memoir, but I want it to be fiction because it says it’s fiction.” And then you see these photos and it seems someone went on a trip and took these photos.
[Points to picture of a goat on the street, which relates to a passage in the book.] I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but…I didn’t have to set that up. It’s a street photo. It was by chance and by patience and just by the way anyone makes a street photograph that’s worth keeping. One thing I’ll say about this photograph is that this photograph appeared about seven years after the text, but it wasn’t posed. It is a street scene from Lagos. [These photographs] are also works of fiction.
TM: [One passage in the book describes a lynching, a filming of which circulated on VHS tapes.] You can’t photograph a lynching.
TC: I could go out and photograph a lynching, but that’s not what I want to do. You see this and you see that.
TM: No, you couldn’t do a lynching. Not in this book.
TC: Well maybe not here in the U.S.
TM: Well not in this book. It wouldn’t be acceptable.
TC: To whom? Maybe Random House would not want to publish it for its own reasons. But I totally could. You don’t understand what it’s like on the street over there. You have never driven down the street and seen a body decomposing for three days. It’s inconceivable. It’s not inconceivable in Lagos. And nothing would stop me from leaning out of a car and taking that picture. And you can go on YouTube and see lynchings.
TM: Yes, but you still wouldn’t put it in the book.
TC: The reason I wouldn’t put it in the book is because it wouldn’t function psychologically the way I want it to function in the book.
TM: Exactly, that’s what I’m getting at. Everything else is much more emotive.
TC: That’s right. Most of the photos in this book are anti-spectacular pictures.
TM: The photographic evidence of a child being lynched here would be assaultive.
TC: That would not keep it from being in the book, and I’ll tell you why. If you look at the work of someone like Sebald there are pictures not of piles of bodies, but of camps and empty interiors of cells or whatever. We have seen pictures of Auschwitz. They do exist. And they have a role that they play in these narratives. So it’s not impossible. It’s just that I was trying to do something different in this book. I was trying to present a series of pictures that if you did not read the text and you just looked at each photograph in the sequence that is presented, there is a kind of psychological mood that I’m building, which is quite similar to the one of the book. I think of it as a slant rhyme. [The photographs] rhyme with the book in a slant way.
TM: Not having that image of a lynching in this book plays off the narrator’s own desire not to look at something like this.
TC: It’s true, except that he does relive it in great detail. I don’t know. There’s definitely an aversion from the horror. When you’re in Lagos, you can’t avert your eyes. I’ve seen people being burnt. You can’t not see it. I don’t know. It’s a little complicated. I don’t know what role photography plays in terms of that particular act of violence. But if that’s what you want to do in a place like Lagos, you can do it because that’s a place where things like this happen and you can see the aftermath.
[He finally fixes his camera.]
Can we stroll up there before we lose the light?
[We head back upstairs.]
TM: There’s this idea that the maximum city is this late 20th-/early 21st-century phenomenon. Your approach to writing about [New York as well as the maximum city of Lagos] is [through the] intimate view of the flaneur, or stroller. Why?
TC: I think it’s because I believe in small-scale stories as a thing that can be revealing about what is true of a place. You don’t need to be that guy [Kenneth] Jackson, the guy who does those big New York books. You could do it that way, as an encyclopedia. Do we need that? Nobody needs to read a 1200-page history of New York.
Now I’m writing a non-fiction book about Lagos. It’s more panoramic. It’s going to owe a lot to Every Day Is for the Thief, to Open City, [but also to] [Orhan Pamuk’s] Istanbul, to [Michael Ondaatje’s] Running in the Family. It’s going to have a lot of those essayistic/memoir-ish aspects but it also will have lots of interviews.
TM: Do you love Lagos?
TM: Do you love New York?
TM: I sensed that in both books.
TC: It’s funny. When I was writing Open City I thought I hated New York. As I was writing it, I saw it was a love letter. When I was writing Every Day Is for the Thief, I had a love/hate relationship with Lagos. But then afterwards I realized that I love Lagosians, but I hate Lagos. Because I hate what the city does to the people who live there.
[Problem with the camera] Once again. Unbelievable.
TM: Are you drawn to write about Lagos from a feeling of responsibility?
TC: That’s how it’s being sold, but even if you don’t love the place, it’s an interesting subject. You don’t become a war reporter because you love war. You report on war because it expands and complicates our idea of what war is. As a Nigerian-American who lives in the United States, I would like to complicate our sense of what Nigeria is, of what Lagos is, of what Africa is like. So that’s why I write about it. Not because I hate it. Not because I’m from there. I’m working on my second book on it, and it probably won’t be my last.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Last year offered many treats for readers: long-awaited new books by Donna Tartt and Norman Rush; the emergence of Rachel Kushner as a literary superstar; the breakout success of George Saunders. 2014 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by E.L. Doctorow, Richard Powers, Sue Monk Kidd, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, Mona Simpson, Lydia Davis, and Peter Matthiessen. Our own Edan Lepucki and Bill Morris will have new books on shelves in a few months. Look ahead to the hazy end of summer 2014 and a new novel by Haruki Murakami will be hitting American shores. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 89 titles, this is the only 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
January or Already Out:
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Say what you will, but Shteyngart is putting the fun back in literary life. If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for his fourth book and first memoir, Little Failure, well, start your new year with a giggle or two and be prepared to be delightfully convinced by the romantic (if not quite “erotic”) affection between Shteyngart and James Franco in pink bathrobes. But seriously, folks—I’m guessing Adam Gopnik’s blurb is just what the Chekhov-Roth-Apatow of Queens (now upstate) was hoping for: “I fully expected Gary Shteyngart’s memoir of his search for love and sex in a Russian-Jewish-Queens-Oberlin upbringing to be as hilarious and indecorous and exact as it turns out to be; what I wasn’t entirely prepared for was for a book so soulful and pained in its recounting of the feints and false starts and, well, little failures of family love. Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart! What could be better?” (Sonya)
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Don’t expect to find Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel at the library anytime soon because Oprah has already selected it as her newest Book Club read. She praised the book as a “conversation changer” regarding how we think about womanhood and history. The novel follows two headstrong women trying to make a change in the Antebellum South. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation owner, trades slavery for abolitionism and the suffragist movement. Her slave Handful has equally progressive desires, and the two form an unlikely friendship. (Tess)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow’s latest novel, his twelfth, is “structured as an extended series of conversations between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and an unnamed man who initially appears to be his psychotherapist,” according to Publishers Weekly. Their conversations focus on Andrew’s guilt over giving up his daughter after her mother died. Given Doctorow’s reputation as king of the American historical novel, it’s worrying that early reviews complain of a lack of clarity about exactly when the story takes place, but no one dramatizes complex ideas better than Doctorow. (Michael)
The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar: Lena is on the brink of an early midlife crisis: her career is stalled, she feels disconnected to her adopted country, and her marriage is faltering. She finds romance with a similarly lost academic, Ben, and the two embark on an affair in a cabin in Maine. Yet Lara Vapnyar’s sophomore novel is more than just a sexy romp in the woods. Up north, Lena reflects on a romantic and mysterious summer she spent at a Soviet children’s camp 20 years before. Early reviewers have called Vapnyar’s latest a “Russian Scheherazade.” (Tess)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Many of Chang-rae Lee’s novels are firmly grounded in reality, examining the worlds of displaced outsiders from the Korean War to the lives of immigrants in the present-day United States. His latest book leaps further afield, into the realm of speculative fiction, in a dystopian American future where declining urban neighborhoods have been transformed into “highwalled, self-contained labor colonies,” whose Chinese immigrant residents work catching fish for the surrounding elites. As with any good dystopian work, it promises to highlight and draw parallels with growing inequalities in our own society, which might “change the way readers think about the world they live in.” (Elizabeth)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: When two seconds get added to clock time because “time was out of kilter with the natural movement of the Earth” in the 1970s, two young boys worry if the world will ever be the same. In the present day, a man is so crippled by his OCD that he struggles to maintain a normal life outside the psychiatric hospital. Rachel Joyce weaves these parallel narratives together in her highly anticipated followup to bestseller and Booker longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Perfect has garnered great reviews in the U.K. with Susanna Rustin at The Guardian lauding it as, “ambitious, darker and more honest.” (Tess)
Orfeo by Richard Powers: Richard Powers’ novels are often laced with serious science, with narratives that delve into the complexities of genetic engineering, computer coding, and cognitive disorders. In Orfeo Powers returns to the pairing of DNA coding and musicality from his Gold Bug Variations, with a tech-age take on the Orpheus myth. Orfeo follows a retired music professor who’s built a DIY genetics lab where he finds musical patterns in DNA sequences. When his dog dies unexpectedly, the FBI seizes the lab, and he goes on the lam. It seems that DNA and music are inextricably paired for Powers, who noted in an essay on having his genome sequenced, “If the genome were a tune played at a nice bright allegro tempo of 120 beats per minute, it would take just short of a century to play.” (Anne)
The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah: Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, detailed his experiences of the conflict and its aftermath in his 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone. His debut novel, which Edwidge Danticat has called “formidable and memorable,” tells the story of two friends who return to their village after the war and their struggle to restore a sense of order and normalcy in the space between an unspeakable past and an uncertain future. (Emily)
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: At Columbia’s M.F.A. Program, Ben Marcus teaches a course called “Technologies of Heartbreak”—a nifty coinage that also points to the two poles of Marcus’s own aesthetic. In his mind-blowing story collection, The Age of Wire and String, and in the first novel that followed, Marcus gravitated toward the technological: meat masks, air bodies, soft machines… Seldom did one encounter a normal human being. But his most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet, placed wild invention at the service of more straightforward emotion. It’ll be worth watching to see where Leaving the Sea comes down; it’s likely to be good either way. (Garth)
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor: Anybody else miss Kurt Vonnegut? Rachel Cantor is here to fill the void with her debut novel, which mixes the comic with the speculative in a voice that one early reviewer described as “Terry Pratchett crossed with Douglas Adams.” It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for? (Hannah)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: In a small Japanese town, eight people disappear from their homes with only a playing card marking their doors and absences; one man, a thread salesman, confesses to the crimes and is put in jail, but refuses to speak. These disappearances form the mystery around which Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, is constructed, and which obsess a journalist who shares Ball’s name. Interview transcripts make up the central text of a story ultimately concerned with speech, silence, and the control of information. (Anne)
The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Abani is both a novelist and a poet, and he brings a poet’s instinct for sublime language to his latest work, a crime novel set in Las Vegas. Salazar, a detective, is determined to solve a string of recent murders before he retires. He enlists the help of an expert in psychopathy, Dr. Sunil Singh, who is haunted by a betrayal of his loved ones in apartheid South Africa. “Here in Vegas,” Abani writes, “the glamor beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.” (Emily)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: In his seminal novels, the late W.G. Sebald more or less obliterated the line between essay and fiction, if one even existed in the first place. Here, Sebald explores the lives and work of Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, and other artists. The book is labeled nonfiction, but one imagines that this capstone to the English translation of Sebald’s work will offer many of the satisfactions of his novels. (Garth)
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor: Along with his colleague Matt Bell, Kyle Minor was the subject of a flame war in a recent comment thread here at The Millions. But the imputation of log-rolling struck me as unfair. As someone who’s never met, spoken with, or seen Kyle Minor, I can say that the Guernica excerpt of his as-yet-unpublished novel, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, was one of the more memorable pieces of fiction by a young writer I read in 2012. I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to see the rest, but in the meantime, Minor’s latest story collection, Praying Drunk, promises to explore some of the same territory. (Garth)
Bark by Lorrie Moore: New Lorrie Moore! Let us rejoice! Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection since the miraculous and magnificent Birds of America came out fifteen years ago. Some of these eight stories might be familiar; The New Yorker published “Debarking” back in 2003, and “The Juniper Tree” in 2005. All of these stories, new to you or not, should be about as pun-filled, clever, and devastating as we’ve come to expect from Moore, who is arguably the best American short story writer alive today. (Edan)
MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach: Although its title and implied dichotomy will pain any person who writes things and is neither an MFA-holder nor connected with the NYC publishing scene, Chad Harbach’s collection of commentaries on the two major drivers of the literary economy promises to deliver valuable collective insight on the current state of writing in America. Harbach first conceived this dichotomy in 2010 in an essay for n+1 (available online at Slate), wherein he made intriguing and provocative statements on, among other things, the rise of the MFA program (“an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market”) and argued that the “university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” The book will feature contributions from writers, editors, and teachers at various stages of their careers, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, Keith Gessen, Maria Adelmann, Emily Gould, and Alexander Chee. (Lydia)
Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li: Two things intrigue me right off the bat about Yiyun Li’s new novel—its title, and this, from the publisher: “Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed.” A murder mystery! And from a writer as patient, observant, and precise as Li. Given Li’s gifts of insight into human nature, the story will surely evolve less around whodunit? and more around what really happened? and does it matter? The eponymous kindness seems to have been bestowed upon one of the three friends, Moran, by a man who was once her husband, at a time when she fled into—and presumably believed in the kindness of—solitude; all of which is yet more intriguing. (Sonya)
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol: Molly Antopol’s debut is a collection about characters lost in the labyrinth of recent history. Stories are set against various geographical and historical backdrops—the McCarthy witch hunt, Communist-era Prague, Israeli settlements. The book has been accumulating some promising advance praise. Adam Johnson, for instance, has written that “Not since Robert Stone has a writer so examined the nature of disillusionment and the ways in which newfound hope can crack the cement of failed dreams.” Antopol was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year. (Mark)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel is reclusive seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Sobi, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut who spends her time translating books into Arabic and then stowing them away, never to be read. The book is an exploration of Aaliya’s inner life—of her memories of Lebanon’s troubled recent history and her own turbulent past, and of her thoughts on literature and art. Colm Tóibín has compared it to Calvino and Borges, describing it as a “fiercely original act of creation”. (Mark)
Thirty Girls by Susan Minot: In 1996, The Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped a group of 139 young teenage girls from a convent school in Uganda, holding them captive. The deputy headmistress of their school, Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the kidnappers and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls; the remaining thirty were kept and subjected to a long ordeal of captivity and brutality. Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls, is a fictionalized account of this mass abduction and its aftermath. Minot tells the stories of these abductees, interweaving them with that of an American journalist named Jane Wood who is interviewing them about their experiences. In 2012, Minot published an extract of the same name in Granta’s “Exit Strategies” issue. (Mark)
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux: The British broadcaster and novelist Marcel Theroux, a son of Paul Theroux, wants to have it all in his fifth novel. Strange Bodies is a high-concept literary thriller that flirts with science fiction while making inquiries into language, identity and what it means to be human. The concept is this: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months, yet one day he turns up to visit an old girlfriend. He leaves behind a flash drive containing something as unbelievable as he is—a cache of letters supposedly written by Samuel Johnson. This smart novel’s central conceit is that we are all, like books, made of words. (Bill)
The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton: Known for his wide-ranging curiosity and penchant for philosophical musing, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, Religion for Atheists, and The Art of Travel has turned his attention to the news. This branch of the media that incorporates everything from war to celebrities getting pizza is almost omnipresent in our lives, and de Botton here examines how that affects us and how much longer the news can get bigger. (Janet)
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert: Schaffert’s fifth novel, which he describes on his website as “a love story (with ghosts),” is set in the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. The fair marks a point of possible transformation, both for Omaha—still in some ways a Wild West town, but yearning for the glamor of Chicago—and for the actors, aerialists, ventriloquists, and assorted hustlers who descend on the city for the fair. Schaffert brings his trademark lyricism, precision, and exquisite character development to a love story between a ventriloquist and a secretive traveling actress. (Emily)
A Life in Men by Gina Frangello: Gina Frangello is a true champion of indie literature—she’s an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown and has appeared repeatedly on the annual “Who Really Books Chicago” list—and yet she somehow finds time to write her own books, too. Frangello’s fiction is often sexual, seductive, forward, and frank. Her latest novel, A Life of Men, promises more in the same vein, with a story about two young friends, one recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, who travel the world seeking to fill their lives, however brief, with a wealth of experience. (Anne)
Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic: Ugresic has published several distinguished works of fiction, but her wide-ranging, boundary-blurring essays on politics and culture may be the ideal entry point for English-language readers. Here, in pieces originally published in The Baffler and elsewhere, she ranges from Occupy Wall Street to Ireland’s Aran Islands. For a preview, check out Arnon Grunberg’s tribute to Ugresic, published here last year. (Garth)
What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson: Adam Wilson follows up his debut novel Flatscreen, a dark comedy of suburban listlessness, with a collection of stories taking place across the modern American landscape (the title story, which appeared in the Paris Review and was later included in the Best American Short Stories of 2012, describes a movie set in Texas and opens with the immortal question, “‘What is this cockshit?'”) Like Flatscreen, What’s Important is Feeling promises youthful- to middle-aged angst, ennui, relationship troubles, and weed. (Lydia)
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Teju Cole’s peripatetic, meditative Open City drew comparisons to Sebald and Coetzee and firmly placed Cole on the map of young authors endowed with serious smarts and talent, who engage in cultural critique—and this holds true whether he’s writing about race, class, and post-colonialism, or Tweeting about drones. Cole’s novel Every Day Is for the Thief is an “amalgamation of fiction, memory, art, and travel writing” originally culled from his blog (now removed) about a young Nigerian revisiting Lagos and a version of the book was published in 2007 by Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press. (Anne)
What Would Lynne Tillman Do by Lynne Tillman: I ask myself this question all the time – WWLTD? – and here, in a thick abecedarium of essays introduced by Colm Tóibín, Tillman offers a variety of answers. A crib sheet: sometimes Lynne Tillman would crack wise; sometimes Lynne Tillman would offer an insight so startling I had to go back and read it twice; always Lynne Tillman would do something smarter and finer and better than I would. And that’s why you, too, should be reading Lynne Tillman. (Garth)
The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant: Early reviews have compared Poissant’s stories, which ply the literary territory between realism and allegory, to the work of Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. In one story from this debut collection, a man throws his teenage son out a window when he learns the boy is gay, seeking reconciliation only after helping free an alligator from a golf club pond. In another, two parents confront the unusual complications of having a newborn baby that literally glows. Poissant, whose stories have appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and The Atlantic, also has a novel in the works. (Michael)
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi’s newest novel will be her fifth, not bad for a writer who will celebrate her 30th birthday later this year. Oyeyemi’s 2009 novel, White is for Witching, won a Somerset Maugham Award (the prize is given to British writers under 35) and she was named to the Granta Best Of Young British Novelists list last year, following the 2011 publication of Mr. Fox, the novel that introduced Oyeyemi to many U.S. readers. Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi told the Times last year, is “about a woman named Boy who tries to avoid becoming a wicked stepmother and really doesn’t know if she’s going to manage it.” (Max)
The Brunist Day of Wrath by Robert Coover: Coover’s enormous follow-up to his first novel, Origin of the Brunists, has been delayed several times, but this spring, it should finally see the light of day. Coover’s recent short stories in The New Yorker suggest he’s still near the top of his game. (Garth)
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov: A new translation of a Dovlatov novel is like Christmas morning for the English-speaking world; and this one from his daughter, no less. Pushkin Hills, published 30 years ago, is one of his most popular novels in Russia (posthumously, along with all his work). Said The Guardian of the translation that first hit the UK last fall: “Alma Classics have been searching for a suitable translator for years. Now the writer’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, has captured her father’s style. . . [she] only took on the task of translating it after the publishers rejected a previous translation and numerous samples.” The story is, of course, autobiographical, featuring “[a]n unsuccessful writer and an inveterate alcoholic, Boris Alikhanov. . . running out of money and . . . recently divorced from his wife Tatyana, who intends to emigrate to the West with their daughter Masha.” From The Independent: “Vodka-fuelled mishaps, grotesque comic cameos and—above all—quick-fire dialogue that swings and stings propel this furious twilight romp from the final days of Soviet power.” Counterpoint is publishing the book in the U.S. (Sonya)
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat, because it’s one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu. The author of the The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air—both concerned with Africans fleeing their countries—returns this year with All Our Names, an elegiac love story about pair of African men separated by a political revolution: one in exile, and another in their war-torn homeland. Split across two narratives—one in the past, one in the present—All Our Names dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change. (Nick M.)
Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn: Billed as an In Cold Blood for the 21st century, Walter Kirn’s non-fiction book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade tells the story of how this celebrated critic, essayist and novelist (Up In the Air, Thumbsucker) got duped by a man who claimed to be a Rockefeller but turned out to be an impostor, a child kidnapper and a brutal murderer. Part memoir, part true-crime story and part social commentary, Blood Will Out probes the dark psychological links between the artist and the con man. (Bill)
Mount Terminus by David Grand: The titular hilltop in David Grand’s third novel roosts high above sunny, sleepy pre-Hollywood Los Angeles. Mount Terminus is a refuge for grieving Jacob Rosenbloom, whose wife died back East. Jacob’s invention, the Rosenbloom Loop, has revolutionized the budding art of filmmaking, and he’s determined to use his invention’s earnings to protect his son, Bloom, from the family’s past. But Bloom, a dark, brooding genius, is prodded by his very different half-brother to come down from Mount Terminus and meet the world. This novel, 11 years in the making, becomes that rarest of things: a plausible myth, an intimate epic. (Bill)
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An acclaimed Israeli novelist, Grossman found an American audience with 2010’s To the End of the Land, an epic novel of love and war hailed as a masterpiece. He returns with a allegorical novel one third its length that tells the story of Walking Man, who walks in circles around his town in an attempt to come to peace with his son’s death. Having lost his own son in 2006, Grossman here probes the meaning of loss, memory, and grief. (Janet)
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell: The newly minted MacArthur grantee mines the fertile territory between short story and novel. In Russell’s lightly science-fictionalized world (which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like my house) a deadly insomnia epidemic is spreading. The well-rested can help out the afflicted by donating their excess sleep—but scarce supplies force everyone to reevaluate the line between gift and commodity. This is the first title from Atavist Books, so expect some bells and whistles in the digital edition. (Garth)
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley: Like Alice Munro and Evan Connell, Hadley’s devotees exclaim that her sophisticated prose and skill with character transcend their subject—the unfortunately named “domestic fiction.” Her fifth novel, Clever Girl follows the life of Stella from her adolescence in the 1960s to the present day. Stella’s life, in every description, is ordinary, but illuminates both the woman living it and the times around her. (Janet)
Updike by Adam Begley: What’s left to say about John Updike that Updike didn’t already say exhaustively, and say better than anyone else could have? Yet Adam Begley has apparently found enough fresh material, or a fresh enough angle on the well-trod, to fill 576 pages. For a primer on Updike, there’s no way this book can surpass Nicholson Baker’s U&I, but it’s always a good sign when a literary biographer is a novelist himself. (Garth)
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis: “Can’t and Won’t,” the title story from Lydia Davis’s new collection of short and short-short stories playfully pokes fun at the brevity of her fictions. In this two-sentence story the author is refused a literary prize, because of the laziness evident in his/her frequent use of linguistic contractions. Quite the contrary is true with Davis’s work, where much of the flare is tongue in cheek. Concision and precision invigorate her fictions, and apparently the prize committee agrees, as Davis was just awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. (Anne)
And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: In her fifth novel, Julia Glass revisits two beloved characters—Malachy Burns and Fenno McLeod—from her first novel, the National Book Award-winning Three Junes. The publisher’s description assures us, however, that the novel will range and weave and shift perspectives—as all Glass’s novels do—among new characters as well. In an interview with Bloom earlier this year, Glass, who debuted with Three Junes at age 46, said: “I suspect that I simply can’t help exploring a story from many angles. . . I have to look through as many windows as I can reach; now and then I resort to a ladder.” When interviewer Evelyn Somers described Glass as “fearless” in the way she weaves together complex stories, Glass replied: “I like the idea of being ‘fearless,’ but sometimes I think the complexity of my novels is more related to another trait I have: I’m an overpacker. . . Call me a maximalist. I won’t be insulted.” (Sonya)
Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: The plot of this novel revolves around the true history of the Hungarian gold train, a trove of stolen valuables that was seized by American soldiers during World War II but which was never returned to its rightful owners. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of the treasure-seizing soldiers must look into the turbulent past—and into her own turbulent life—when her grandfather gives her a jeweled pendant with a murky history. (Hannah)
Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932 by Francine Prose: Francine Prose’s 20th novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, is framed as a biography by a French feminist high school teacher. The subject of this fictional biography is Lou Villars, based on an historical figure, a professional athlete, lesbian, cross-dresser and German spy who became a torturer and was executed by the Resistance. One early reader claimed she could smell the nicotine on the fingers of Prose’s fictional French biographer. Woven into the text are sections of a fake Peggy Guggenheim memoir and a fake Henry Miller novel. The latter, Prose reports, “was super fun to write.” (Bill)
Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken: The novelist, short story writer, and memoirist Elizabeth McCracken, whose novel The Giant’s House was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, has earned a reputation as a writer of rare empathy and descriptive powers. Thunderstruck, her first short story collection in twenty years, charts the territory of family, love, and loss. In their review of the collection, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions.” (Emily)
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue: Best known for the 2010 bestseller Room, Donoghue latest novel sees her returning to historical fiction (four of her eight novels are historical), this one based on a still-unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco. After her friend is killed by a gunshot through a boardinghouse window, Blanche—a burlesque dancer, prostitute, and the only witness—is forced to seek justice on her own. (Janet)
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: This second novel from British thirty-something sensation Evie Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, 2009) is about a woman named Jake who, along with a flock of sheep, is the only inhabitant on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain. The novel came out abroad last year and revolves around a mysterious predator stalking Jake’s flock, picking off her sheep one at a time in gory fashion. As The Guardian put it in a review last June, the novel is “not a ruminant whodunnit exactly; it is a thoughtful and intense account of a young woman seemingly determined to disappear from the world’s radar.” (Kevin)
In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen: 86-year-old lion of American letters Peter Matthiessen has written his first novel since Shadow Country and what he told the NY Times may be his “last word.” A novel based upon his own experience attending three “Bearing Witness” Zen retreats at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, In Paradise will describe one attendee’s experience of meditation in a former concentration camp as a non-Jew of Polish descent. (Lydia)
Family Life by Akhil Sharma: Sharma’s first novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway and the Whiting in 2001. More than a decade later, the Indian-born writer publishes his second novel, which begins in Delhi in 1978 and tracks a family’s migration to the United States. “Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes,” the publisher writes, “leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land.” For a introduction to Sharma’s writing, his first short story in twelve years, about cousins living in Delhi, was published in The New Yorker this past spring: “I wrote this story as soon as I had e-mailed the novel to my editor,” he told New Yorker fiction editor Deboarah Treisman. “Get thee behind me, devil is what I thought about finishing the novel.” (Elizabeth)
With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst: If 2012 was the year of Clarice Lispector, when New Directions issued four new translations of her seminal works, then 2014 may very well be the year of Lispector’s friend and fellow Brazilian author, Hilda Hilst. Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first work translated into English, and it made appearances on my best of 2013 reading list as well as Blake Butler’s. Two more Hilst translations debut this year, with another from Nightboat (Letters from a Seducer) and Melville House’s publication of With My Dog Eyes. This title seems apt, as Hilst produced much of her work after retreating to an estate where a pack of more than one hundred dogs roamed. For a taste, check out the excerpt Bomb published last summer. (Anne)
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman: Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English, Traveler of the Century, was an enormous feat of fabulism, and was critically acclaimed when it appeared here in 2012. Talking to Ourselves demonstrates Neuman’s range by running in completely the opposite direction. This comparatively short work is set in the present day, and alternates among the voices of three family members. For those who missed Traveler of the Century, it may be an equally potent introduction to Neuman’s work. (Garth)
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval: Saval, an n+1 editor, has produced what may be an essential volume on a subject that bedevils so many of the over-educated and under-employed among us: the office. It is likely the rare desk jockey who hasn’t, in a fugue of 3pm boredom and amid a din of inane small talk, wondered “why does it have to be like this?” Cubed looks for an answer, exploring how the office as we know it came to be, “starting with the smoke one-room offices of the 19th century and culminating in the radical spaces of the dot-com era and beyond.” (Max)
Casebook by Mona Simpson: The consistently excellent Simpson returns with what sounds like a riff on Harriet the Spy: the story of a boy investigating his parents’ disintegrating marriage. The coming-of-age narrative is complicated here, though, by the disintegration of the possibility of privacy in the age of Facebook, or Snapchat, or whatever we’re all on now. Am I the only one hoping that the “stranger from Washington D.C. who weaves in and out of their lives” is Anthony Weiner? (Garth)
Off Course by Michelle Huneven: Michelle Huneven, author of Blame and Jamesland, returns with an engrossing and intimate new novel set in the early 1980s. Cressida Hartley is a young PhD candidate in Economics who moves to her parents’ shabby vacation cabin in the Sierras; she ends up getting drawn into the small mountain community there—in particular, its men. According to the jacket copy, Huneven introduces us to “an intelligent young woman who discovers that love is the great distraction, and impossible love the greatest distraction of all.” Publishers Weekly says that “Cress makes for an eerily relatable and heartbreaking protagonist.” If you haven’t yet read a book by Huneven, whom Richard Russo calls “a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent,” then you’re in for a treat. (Bonus: Michelle Huneven’s beautiful essay, “On Walking and Reading At the Same Time.”)
Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon: There’s no such thing as a predictable birth—a fact that maddens parents-to-be but eventually makes for a whopper of an anecdote. If your Aunt Mildred can tell a good story about her scheduled c-section, imagine the tales that writers like Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and The Millions’ own Edan Lepucki can spin. (Hannah)
All the Rage by A. L. Kennedy: The Independent once described A. L. Kennedy as “one of nature’s Eeyores”: “She knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.” So the Scottish writer’s sixth collection of short stories—billed as “a dozen ways of looking at love, or the lack of love”—should likely be avoided by the overly sentimental. But it promises to be marked by the dark humor that pervades her work—the “Department 5” (“a shadowy organisation about which it’s best you know nothing”) page on her website gives you a good taste. (Elizabeth)
Vernon Downs by Jaime Clarke: Clarke, the co-owner of Newtonville Books in Boston, offers a slippery roman-a-clef, or simulacrum thereof. A sad sack writer becomes obsessed with a more famous colleague, the titular Vernon Downs, who despite his lack of a middle name, bears more than a passing resemblance to Bret Easton Ellis. This is the intriguing debut title for a new indie called Roundabout Press. (Garth)
The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry: The Irish poet, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry’s new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, tells the story of Jack McNulty, an Irishman who served in the British army in the Second World and has washed up in Accra, Ghana, in 1957, determined to write down the story of his life. Jack is an ordinary man who has seen extraordinary things—as a world traveler, soldier, engineer, UN observer and ill-starred lover. Once again Barry, a repeat contender for the Man Booker Prize, deftly twines his own family history with the rumbustious history of the Irish in the 20th century. (Bill)
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: Michael Cunningham’s sixth novel is set in New York City in 2004 and tells the story of two brothers facing loss. One brother, newly bereft, experiences a religious awakening; the other, whose wife is gravely ill, falls into drug use. It sounds like a tearjerker of a story, one likely to be made even more heartrending by Cunningham’s graceful prose. (Hannah)
My Struggle, Book III by Karl Ove Knausgaard: It’s not really news anymore that Knausgaard’s unfolding project (unfolding into English, anyway; in Norwegian, it’s already complete) is phenomenal. But now that FSG is handling the paperback editions (replete with Williamsburg-ready jacket design) you’ll be hearing even more about My Struggle. And it’s true: you should read it! Start Book I now, and you will have caught up by the time Book III comes out. (Garth)
Lost for Words: A Novel by Edward St Aubyn: St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet of novels, based on his own upbringing, center around the nasty dealings of a family in the English aristocracy. (James Wood diminishes regular comparisons to Waugh and Wilde, saying that despite surface similarities, St Aubyn is “he is a colder, more savage writer than either.”) His newest novel is somewhat of a departure then, a “a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.” Readers hesitant to leave the Melrose family behind can rest assured that the new novel promises to be just as cutting as those before it. (Elizabeth)
Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer’s latest sees the prolific journalist, essayist, and novelist chronicle a two-week stay aboard a US aircraft carrier. As the tallest (well, second-tallest), oldest, and easily most self-conscious person on the boat, Dyer occupied an odd position on the crew, one which forced him to reconcile his own bookish life with a lifelong interest in the military. (Those readers with Army experience may not be surprised to learn that the text is heavy on acronyms.) (Thom)
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: If Roxane Gay wrote it, I’ll read it. Perhaps best known for her thoughtful and engaging essays about all kinds of topics, from Orange is the New Black to Twitter to Paula Deen’s racism, Gay will publish not only a book of essays in 2014, called Bad Feminist, but also this first novel. In An Untamed State, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of one of Haiti’s richest men, is kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days by a man who calls himself the Commander. Mat Johnson says, “An Untamed State is the kind of book you have to keep putting down because you can’t believe how good it is. Awesome, powerful, impossible to ignore, Roxane Gay is a literary force of nature. An Untamed State arrives like a hurricane.” (Edan)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blind French girl and a young German boy navigate the perils of occupied France in the latest by the author of Memory Wall. The French girl, Marie Laure, flees Paris with her father, eventually holing up with her agoraphobic uncle in his house on the coast of Brittany. The German boy, Werner, a mechanical whiz, parlays his aptitude into a spot in the Nazi army. The Nazis ship him off to Russia and then from there to northern France. If we can trust Abraham Verghese’s endorsement, the story is “put together like a vintage timepiece.” (Thom)
The Vacationers by Emma Straub: The highlight of Emma Straub’s short story collection, Other People We Married, was the romantically lost but sympathetic Franny. We left the collection wanting to read an entire novel on her, and fortunately, Straub has done just that with her second novel after Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Surprisingly, Franny is still married to Jim, and the Post family and friends are off to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th anniversary. Yet not everything is tranquil as the Mediterranean Sea, and the vacation dredges up embarrassments, rivalries, and secrets. (Tess)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: To read a Joshua Ferris novel is to stare at the gaping emptiness just below the surface of modern life—and, quite often, laugh. In this third novel from the author of the much-beloved Then We Came to the End, dentist Paul O’Rourke discovers that someone is impersonating him online, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account all mysteriously created in Paul’s name. As he looks into who has stolen his identity and why, Paul begins to fear that his digital doppelgänger may be better than the real thing. (Michael)
The Painter by Peter Heller: An expressionist painter with a penchant for violence tries to outrun his own crimes in this novel by the author of The Dog Stars. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, thought he’d settled into a peaceful life in his home in rural Colorado. One day, Stegner witnesses a local man beating a horse, and the act so enrages him that he hunts down the man and kills him. He then sets off on a Dostoevskyan quest, one which sees him make sense of his actions while hiding his crime from the cops. All the while, in spite of his turmoil, he keeps painting. (Thom)
Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro: When a group of thirty-something parents gather at a ramshackle beach house called Eden, no serpent is required for the sins, carnal and otherwise, to pile up. Fierro, founder of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, argued in The Millions last year that writers need to put the steam—and the human sentiment—back into sex scenes in literary novels. You may want to keep Fierro’s debut novel on a high shelf, away from children and prudish literary snobs. (Michael)
The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour: Porochista Khakpour is the author of the blazingly original (pun intended!) novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects. In her new novel, its hero, Zal, is born in a rural Iranian village to a mother who believes he is evil because of his pale skin and hair. For the first ten years of his life he’s raised in a cage with the rest of his mother’s birds—eating insects, shitting on newspaper—until he is rescued by a behavioral analyst who brings him to New York. The Last Illusion recounts Zal’s struggles and adventures in this foreign land, where he befriends a magician, and falls for a supposed clairvoyant. Claire Messud writes, “This ambitious, exciting literary adventure is at once grotesque, amusing, deeply sad—and wonderful, too.” (Edan)
The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner: A generational drama set on fictional Loosewood Island, about the King family vying to maintain control of a centuries old lobstering dynasty. Early reports speak of meth dealers, sibling rivalry, and intra-lobster boat love as the main threats to Cordelia King’s attempt to preserve the family business. In an interview last April, Zentner (Touch, 2011) also allowed that one of the characters has “a Johnny Cash tape stuck in the cassette player in his truck.” (Kevin)
Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo: I’m particularly excited about Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel Wonderland—not only because its protagonist is a female indie musician, the likes of whom have not made it into novels often, if ever (think about it); but because said musician, Anna Brundage, is on a comeback tour at age 44. Bloomer! From the publisher: “Wonderland is a moving inquiry into the life of a woman on an unconventional path, wondering what happens next and what her passions might have cost her, seeking a version of herself she might recognize.” D’Erasmo herself, who spent a decade as a books editor, first for the Village Voice and then Bookforum, did her own later-blooming comeback as a debut novelist at age 39, and now a professor at Columbia. (Sonya)
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Rachman follows The Imperfectionists, a pitch perfect novel-in-stories set at a dying English-language newspaper in Rome, with a novel about a bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg, who was kidnapped as a child and then adopted by her kidnappers. In a narrative that hopscotches the globe from Bangkok to Brooklyn to the border towns of Wales, Zylberberg is lured into setting off on a journey that will unravel the mysteries of her past. Never one to worry overmuch about plot credibility, Rachman is a master of wringing pathos from essentially comic tales. (Michael)
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings: Seven years after the publication of The Descendents—which you might remember because of a certain movie adaptation starring George Clooney—Kaui Hart Hemmings returns to the themes of familial loss, grief, and unexpected turns of fate all cast against gorgeous scenery. In The Possibilities, a Colorado mother loses her son in an avalanche near their Breckinridge home. Coping with her loss, and trying to piece her life back together, she’s suddenly confronted with something she couldn’t have seen coming. (Nick M.)
American Innovations by Rivka Galchen: It’s been six years since readers were introduced to Galchen via her ambitious debut Atmospheric Disturbances (James Wood called it “a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability.”) Since then she has been chosen as one of the New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 and produced an impressive body of unusually lyrical science journalism (on topics like quantum computers and weather control). Galchen’s new collection American Innovations reflects an experiment of another sort. Per publisher FSG, “The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Gogol’s “The Nose” are among the stories mined. (Max)
Funny Once by Antonya Nelson: Antonya Nelson’s new story collection brings together short pieces from the last few years as well as a previously unpublished novella. In the title story, a couple, united by a shared propensity for bad behavior, reckons with the consequences of a lie they tell to their friends. In “The Village,” a woman comes to grips with her feelings about her father’s mistress. In “Three Wishes,” the novella, a group of siblings deals with the fallout of their brother’s death. Like much of the native Kansan’s work, the collection takes place largely in Heartland and Western settings. (Thom)
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez: The Book of Unknown Americans, the second novel by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Cristina Henríquez, begins as a love story between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl. After the girl suffers a major injury, the story moves from Mexico to a cinderblock apartment building in Delaware populated with immigrants from Latin America. From there the novel expands outward to become a symphonic love story between these immigrants and an impossible America. Told in a multiplicity of voices, the novel manages that rare balance of being both unflinching and unsentimental. In doing so, it rewrites the definition of what it means to be American. (Bill)
Summer House With Swimming Pool by Hermann Koch: Last year, in a “Books of the Times” review, Janet Maslin took Hermann Koch’s novel, The Dinner, out into the town square for a public flogging. A funny thing happened though: the book ended up a bestseller. A bestseller translated from the Dutch, no less! Koch’s misanthropic view of contemporary life seemed to resonate with American audiences, and his latest appears to offer more of the same. Here, a murder disturbs the idyll of a group of friends on vacation together, bringing far darker currents to the surface. (Garth)
Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek: Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago was, like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, practically required reading in writing programs in the late ’90s and early Aughts. Dybek’s voice was lusher than Johnson’s, and more openly romantic, but equally poetic. His follow-up, I Sailed With Magellan, sometimes let that lushness grow too wild; the gritty Chicago settings of the earlier book gave way in places to nostalgia. But a new Dybek volume is always welcome, and this year offers a treat: the simultaneous publication of two. Paper Lantern is a group of love stories, while Ecstatic Cahoots gathers together the kinds of short shorts that so memorably punctuated The Coast of Chicago. (Garth)
I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-sook Shin is one of Korea’s most popular novelists. In I’ll Be Right There, set during a period of political turmoil in 1980s South Korea, she uses European literature to bridge experiential differences between East and West. The novel concerns a highly literate woman who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend after nearly a decade of separation. The call triggers a flood of memories, and she finds herself reliving her intense and tumultuous youth: memories of tragedy and upheaval and of profound friendships forged in a time of uncertainty. (Emily)
In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds: The third novel from British writer Foulds takes place at the end of World War II and follows two Allied soldiers during the final push to sweep the Germans out of Italy. In an interview last July with the Hindustan Times, Foulds previewed the book, saying, it “would like to give the reader a sense of history as being very complicated and rapid in these high-conflict situations. It is one thing after another. The events are too massive to care for particular individual stories, so there are a number of stories. For a while, one is unsure if they are going to converge but they do.” (Kevin)
California by Edan Lepucki: In July, Millions staffer and preferred writing teacher Edan Lepucki will follow up her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with her first full-length novel, California, a post-apocalyptic number set in, er, California. Lepucki’s debut follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness and straddles the (complementary) domestic and dystopian spheres, addressing horrors like marital strife, pregnancy, and the end of society as we know it. Dan Chaon called it “a wholly original take on the post-apocalypse genre.” (Full disclosure: I have eaten meals with Edan, squeezed her baby, and admired her tiny dog. My feeling of anticipation regarding this novel is thus not impartial.) (Lydia)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Our own Bill Morris, a Motor City native, tells the story of Willie Bledsoe—once an idealistic black activist, now burnt-out and trying to write a memoir about the ’60s—who joins his brother to drive a load of illegal guns up to Detroit in 1968. While in Detroit, Bledsoe becomes the top suspect in an unsolved murder from the previous year’s bloody race riots. The book will dive deep into some of Morris’s great fascinations: cars, Detroit, and the The Indigenous American Berserk that lurks below the surface. (Kevin)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: A couple of years back, Charlie Jane Anders—writing on i09—declared that Harkaway had invented a new genre: existential pulp. That might be as good a way as any to describe his wildly inventive ouevre, which involves ninjas, mimes, doomsday machines, schoolgirl spies, shadowy secret societies, and mechanical soldiers. His third novel, Tigerman, concerns a burnt-out sergeant of the British Army, Lester Ferris, who is sent to serve out his time on Mancreu, a shady former British colony slated for destruction, where he encounters a street kid in need of a hero. (Emily)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Emily Gould’s debut novel charts the friendship of two women who, at thirty, have been closely entwined in one another’s lives for years. Bev lives the kind of aimless life that’s easier to put up with at 23 than at 30. Amy has been coasting for some time on charisma, luck, and early success, but unfortunate decisions are catching up with her. A meditation on friendship and maturity in an era of delayed adulthood. (Emily)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann writes so much that you forget it’s been a blue moon since he’s published a work of fiction. And that book won the National Book Award! This collection is said to comprise a bunch of ghost stories—perhaps less inherently promising than, say, a Vollmann essay on how the FBI mistook him for the Unabomber, but still liable to fascinate. One of the remarkable things about Vollmann’s story collections is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts; I’m eager to see how these stories connect. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: If orbital “space mirrors” reflecting constant sunlight upon Oranzheria, a massive greenhouse in Petroplavilsk, Russia, doesn’t pique your interest, then I can’t do anything for you. These are the mysterious devices at the heart of Josh Weil’s second novel, which follows two twins, Yarik and Dima, who were inseparable as children, but who have grown apart in adulthood. Today, the two work in the collective farms of Oranzheria, the “great glass sea,” to harvest crops for the benefit of the place’s billionaire owner. What follows is a story of two brothers on oppositional paths, each hoping to reconvene, all set against the backdrop of an “alternative present-day Russia.” (Nick M.)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: Doug is an academic interested in the poetry of Edwin Parfitt. As it happens, Doug’s mother-in-law owns a former artists’ colony where the poet had long ago been an artist in residence. Fancy that. But for whatever reason, she prohibits Doug from entering the estate’s attic, where file cabinets of Edwin Parfitt’s papers are said to be located. After asking around, however, Doug ultimately gains access to some of the files—only to find that they are much more disturbing than he could have imagined. What ensues is a fragmented narrative, split between 1999, 1955, and 1929, in which readers see glimpses of the present day, the near past, and the final days of the artist colony, all the while affected by the enduring legacy of the estate’s original owners. (Nick M.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: When Murakami’s new novel—his first since the in-all-ways-gigantic 1Q84—came out in Japan last year, there were apparently 150-deep midnight queues outside Tokyo bookstores. It sold 1 million copies in its first week alone. This is a novel, let’s remember, not a new Call of Duty game. And such were its unit-shifting powers in its author’s country that it caused a significant spike in sales of a particular recording of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” piano pieces described in the novel, leading to a swift decision by Universal Music to reprint CDs of the recording to meet Murakami-based demand. The novel tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man mysteriously ostracized by his friends. It stands a good chance of selling a few copies in English translation too. (Mark)
The Kills by Richard House: The second section of this four-part novel is called “The Massive”; it’s a title that could have stood for the whole. House’s sprawling quadruple-decker, longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a literary thriller set against the background of the Iraq War. Intriguingly, House created extensive digital video and audio supplements that unfold alongside the narrative. Not sure how that works, though, if you’re going to be reading on boring old paper, as I am. (Garth)
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Some years ago, before my first novel found its eventual home, several editors in a row said the book was “too quiet.” I was told at the time that this was just a euphemism for “no obvious marketing angle,” but I found it interesting to consider the idea that some novels are quiet, whereas others are loud.
In her exquisite memoir, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes movingly of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Shelley gave birth to four children, but only the fourth survived. “In the years she gave birth to all those too-mortal children,” Solnit writes:
…she also created a work of art that yet lives, a monster of sorts in its depth of horror, and a beauty in the strength of its vision and its acuity in describing the modern world that in 1816 was just emerging. This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet.
But before the meeting comes the solitude, the book as a private space that a reader steps into, and nowhere is this clearer to me than on the subway. On any given morning, a majority of my fellow passengers are reading. It’s a way to pass the time, of course, but it seems to me that escaping into a book in these moments is also a bid for some measure of seclusion.
In the places where everyone drives, the roads fill with single-occupancy vehicles in the mornings and the late afternoons, thousands or millions of drivers in their solitudes. On a subway commute, packed in with strangers in an underground train, solitude is more elusive. We resort to small tricks to find some space for ourselves: the noise-blocking headphones, the iPad, the book. I wear earbuds on my commute, but unless I’m too tired to read or the person next to me is loud, the iPod in my pocket is dark. I just want things to be a little quieter, so that I can disappear into my book more fully. In those moments I just want to be a little more alone.
It probably goes without saying that you’ll crave different solitudes at different moments in your life, both in books and in physical places. I have an immense love for loud books. Novels like, say, Nick Harkaway’s, about which I’ve rhapsodized at length, books that come galloping into your life with their doomsday machines and schoolgirl spies and ninjas and leave you daydreaming for days afterward about clouds of mechanized bees. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the immense pleasure of novels like Teju Cole’s Open City, which I finally got around to reading a few weeks back. Very little happens in Open City, plotwise. It’s a very intelligent meditation on memory, dislocation, family, music, national identity, and other interesting topics, but the action is mostly a man wandering the streets of New York. I found it mesmerizing.
Lately, possibly because it’s been a long summer of continuous hard work on a new novel and I don’t want to think about plot just now, or perhaps because my annual allotment of vacation days at my day job resets every September 1st, I’ve been out of vacation time since February, and reading quiet books is the closest I can get to a vacation at the moment, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for books that fall on the quieter end of the spectrum.
Any definition of what constitutes a quiet book will naturally be subjective, but I think the important point here is that quiet isn’t the same thing as inert. I’m not talking about the tediously self-conscious novels written by authors who use “literary fiction” as a sort of alibi, as in “my book doesn’t have a plot, because it’s literary fiction.” I rarely get more than fifty pages into these books before they join the books-that-need-to-get-out-of-my-apartment-immediately pile by the front door. Nor is quiet necessarily the same thing as minimalist. Raymond Chandler’s prose is minimalistic, but his stories aren’t quiet.
The books I think of as being quiet, the ones I’ve been enjoying lately, have a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials. If the solitude you crave at the moment is a quiet one, here’s a short reading list of quiet books that I’ve recently read and admired:
1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The book takes the form of a letter written by an aging Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son. I found the language extraordinary.
2. Open City by Teju Cole
A young psychiatrist, Nigerian-born, walks the streets of New York City. The walks open the city to him and serve as a respite from the stress of his working life.
3. Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
A North Korean man defects and immigrates to a coastal town in Brazil following the Korean War, where he becomes a tailor’s apprentice. An elegant account of a quiet and solitary life.
4. The Number of Missing by Adam Berlin
A deeply moving chronicle of drinking, friendship, and grief. Paul was among the scores of Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the World Trade Center. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, his best friend, David, moves like a ghost between the bars of Manhattan, sometimes with and sometimes without Paul’s widow, Mel. Both are falling, but David is waiting for Mel to fall first, so that he can catch her.
5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Sophia, age six, and her grandmother, who’s nearing the end of her life, while away the days of a summer on a remote island in the Bay of Finland. Jansson’s depiction of both characters and of their relationship is delightful.
6. The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
A classic in Australia. A couple raise their children in the slums of 1940s Sydney, “in an unlucky house which the landlord had renumbered from Thirteen to Twelve-and-a-Half.”
Image via Michael Veltman/Flickr
Before we get to the pratfalls, some edifying poetry. Seldom do we walk in beauty, “like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies,” or move as fluidly as Robert Herrick’s Julia: “Whenas in silks my Julia goes, / Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows / That liquefaction of her clothes.” (Should Don Draper land a women’s fashion line in Mad Men’s final season, he’ll have his pitch.) We are too ungainly for such elegance and more like Maxwell, one of a hundred siblings in Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, who stumbles into and breaks things “at a rate of about one electrical fixture, decorative serving dish, potted plant, or item of statuary every three days.” And we are too harried and with limbs too extended for the virtuous compression, contractility, and “absence of feet” lauded by Marianne Moore in “To a Snail.” By contrast, our walking is a kind of Carrollian galumphing, which, however silly, can have its own comic grace: Charlie Chaplin’s iconic shuffle or the springy jaunts of Jacques Tati, slightly hunched over like a detective hunting for clues to the strange modern world whose machinery he so often fouls up.
Film and television are best suited to exploit walking’s comic potential, and the flexible comedian best suited to perform the “mechanical inelasticity” Henri Bergson identified as a central feature of the comic. For example, in the famed Monty Python sketch “Ministry of Silly Walks” there is a certain regularity even in John Cleese’s most spastic contortions, his body transformed into a series of independently operating parts instead of an organic whole. Or take Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer, whose jerky rhythms make him a walking illustration of “something mechanical encrusted onto the living;” he bursts through doors as if powered by a nitrous boost. But what of funny gaits in literature? If there is something mechanical in comic walks, can novelistic descriptions capture their magic, or will they merely read like operator manuals?
Our literary ramble will not include docented tours through Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and Charles Dickens’s London; nor the strolls in Jane Austen novels during which much is usually decided; nor the flâneur, whose beguiling circumflex and suggestive treatment by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin prove him too alluring a figure to resist constant theorization; nor the memory-inducing peregrinations in Teju Cole’s Open City, Will Self’s Psychogeography or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Rather, our route will include those walks that are less picturesque, less momentous, less worthy of remembrance, those that in their sheer absurdity inspire derision rather than aesthetic revelation. While they can never equal the sublime physical comedy of the Monty Python sketch, these walks still complicate the relatively simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, which is after all what poetry and rhapsodic prose are about: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Some genealogical background is perhaps necessary at the outset. The greatest comic writer of the Greek tradition, Aristophanes, envisioned our ancestors as four-legged creatures capable of some dazzling acrobatics. Speaking in Plato’s Symposium, he explains that:
They walked upright as now, in whichever direction they liked; and when they wanted to run fast, they rolled over and over on the ends of the eight limbs they had in those days, as our tumblers tumble now with their legs straight out.
A wrathful Zeus eventually cleaves humans in two, leaving us with half our original balance to pursue our romantic search for our missing halves. Aristophanes’s myth also goes a long way towards explaining the limitations of our two-legged gymnasts, who, because of their woefully inadequate anatomy, must pad their floor routines with pointless writhing in between tumbling passes.
If we are literally half the men we used to be, we are also fallen walkers, as our greatest epic poet, John Milton, made clear in his poem about our fall. Satan was a bold walker. Only he answers the call of the fallen angel Beelzebub: “…who shall tempt with wandering feet / The dark unbottomed infinite abyss/ and through the palpable obscure find out/ His uncouth way…?” Find his way — and tempt — Satan does; as a result, the poem famously ends as Adam and Eve “with wandering steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.” Fallen man has stumbled across the globe in various undignified strides ever since, from E.E. Cummings’s drunken “big wobbly foot-steps,” to Prufrock scuttling across the silent seas or doddering along the beach with his trousers rolled, to Malvolio, “a rare turkey-cock” in yellow stockings and cross garters who “jets under his advanced plumes,” to Samuel Beckett’s Watt, who, in a clear Miltonic echo, experiences a “manifest repugnancy” each time his feet leave the ground for the “air’s uncharted ways.”
Jonathan Swift’s Laputans best them all with a method so ridiculous that it requires two people to execute. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift satirizes the head-in-the-clouds quality (literally, given that the island floats above ground) of a race overly devoted to speculative thought. They are a “clumsy, awkward and unhandy people,” at least when it comes to practical considerations and anything not involving astronomical calculations. The frequently cuckholded men are so absorbed in their intellectual pursuits that if presented with a suitably absorbing scientific treatise, they will pay no attention to their wives carrying on with their sublunary lovers in the very same room (providing an explanation for the island’s name that Gulliver’s etymological investigations overlook.) But faithless wives are the least of their problems; the men can’t even walk straight without a servant called a flapper (a climenole in Laputan) walking next to them with a stone-filled bladder tied to the end of a stick. To what end?
This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes, because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post, and in the streets, of jostling others or being jostled himself.
On whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to be swatted in the face or to trip over a bush, the Laputans have made their choice. To compare these absent-minded Laputans to the phone-toting distracted drivers of today is less facile than it might seem given that Swift’s robed philosophers are steering not a car but an entire island, which they are only too happy to transform into a weapon should any of their terrestrial colonies rebel.
On the subject of eccentric husbands, I’ve always been struck by the masterful comic portrait of To the Lighthouse’s Mr. Ramsay and his “firm military tread,” a comedy that could get lost amidst Mrs. Ramsay’s — and the novel’s — “delicious fecundity.” Before his wife’s flashing needles give him a much needed “spray” of confidence, Ramsay, variously described as a tyrannical, pathetic, and magisterial figure, is most likely to be found marching on the front lawn and loudly declaiming Tennyson. At one point he almost barges into the painter Lily Briscoe’s work station:
Indeed, he almost knocked her easel over, coming down upon her with his hands waving shouting out, “Boldly we rode and well,” but, mercifully, he turned sharp, and rode off, to die gloriously she supposed upon the heights of Balaclava. Never was anybody at once so ridiculous and so alarming. But so long as he kept like that, waving, shouting, she was safe; he would not stand still and look at her picture.
Were he not tilting at easels on a sparsely populated island in the Hebrides, Mr. Ramsay could be institutionalized for such behavior, eminent philosopher or not. After Mrs. Ramsay’s death, a flustered Lily, now more cognizant of Mr. Ramsay’s pathos, can only think to praise his beloved boots when he comes to her so that she might “solace his soul.” She praises them so effectively — and Mr. Ramsay responds with such longwinded vigor — that “they had reached, she felt, a sunny island where peace dwelt, sanity reigned and the sun for ever shone, the blessed island of good boots.” Perhaps this blessed island is some version of the lighthouse rock reached by Mr. Ramsay and his children at novel’s end. After sailing over with his legs curled up underneath him like an invalid, Mr. Ramsay springs vigorously ashore, a distinctly non-comic version of the heroic stride that was so ridiculous earlier.
The protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is less lucky than Mr. Ramsay with his footware. The “lumbering, elephantine” Ignatius J. Reilly is “ready to burst from his swollen suede desert boots” as the novel begins, proving Mr. Ramsay’s contention that bootmakers “make it their business…to cripple and torture the human foot.” Reilly’s being is “not without its Proustian elements,” perhaps because he didn’t learn to walk in “an almost normal” manner until he was five years old. The obese waddle is a comic staple, but Reilly’s particular locomotive delay is key to understanding his “strange medieval mind,” his belief that touring is for degenerates and his reactionary desire for a “strong monarchy with a decent and tasteful king.” He espouses the concept of Fortuna’s Wheel, not so much because it best explains the vicissitudes of fate but because of its circular rather than linear movement. Here is Reilly walking with his mother down the wet flagstones of Bourbon Street:
Outside, Mrs. Reilly took her son’s arm for support, but, as much as they tried, they moved forward very slowly, although they seemed to move sideward more easily. Their walking had developed a pattern: three quick steps to the left, pause, three quick steps to the right, pause.
This method does give Reilly ample time to make his case for stopping at a hot dog cart, but it is also emblematic of the retarding effects of the humorous walk, the aim of which is not so much progress but rather a desultory exploration of a place’s comic possibilities — in his case, an exhaustive one, as he has only left the city confines once (disastrously, on a bus to Baton Rouge).
Lurking in Reilly’s aversion to degenerate touring is a pathological attachment to place that is positively Beckettian. Vladimir and Estragon (who has his own problems with boots) panic each time they contemplate leaving their rendezvous spot with Godot, and the protagonist in Company has “covered…some 25,000 leagues or roughly thrice the girdle [of the Earth] and never once overstepped a radius of one from home.” Given that Beckett’s characters are variously buried up to their heads in dirt, stuck in trash cans, mired in the mud, or confined to a jar on the Rue Brançion, we may forget that despite his circumscribed fictional worlds, Beckett is a great comic chronicler of human motion.
Consider Watt, which recounts the eponymous character’s employ in the house of a shadowy figure, Mr. Knott, who may be even more enigmatic than Godot. The novel begins as Watt journeys to Knott’s house in a “funambulistic stagger” that is both literally and figuratively diverting:
Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north…and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. So, standing first on one leg, and then on the other, he moved forward, a headlong tardigrade, in straight line. The knees, on these occasions, did not bend. They could have, but they did not…
Not the most efficient method, but given that the novel’s most notable event is the arrival of a pair of piano tuners who pronounce the instrument “doomed,” there is no need to rush. Watt’s odd preference for walking “with his back to his destination” is certainly eccentric, but it also displays a certain blind optimism, a faint ember of hope that he will find “the right place, at last.”
To add one final example to our menagerie of walkers, we lurch into an H.P. Lovecraft horror tale and find a stride so inhumanly macabre that it becomes almost comic (as most B-movie adaptations of the Dagon or Cthulhu mythos make clear). “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” betrays a pathological fear of “biological degeneration” that manifests itself in the narrator’s loathing of the Innsmouth natives, those “blasphemous fish-frogs of the nameless design” who hop irregularly through abandoned streets. The tale is partly about an abiding embarrassment over the clumsiness of our ancestors as they crawled forth from the ocean and were literally fish out of water. Aristophanic gymnasts these Innsmouth creatures are not. Fish-like though they may be, their motion at times seems “positively simian.” Particularly noteworthy is their “alien-rhythmed footfalls,” the “dog-like sub-humanness of their crouching gait,” as they surge “inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare.” The narrator feels a growing and uncanny connection to the natives, and thus in a nice touch, he manages to escape partly by imitating their shambling hop. The walk, though feigned, nonetheless reveals a certain truth about his origins. By the end of the tale, and after some timely physiological changes, the narrator becomes a Prufrock with gills who can more than merely fantasize about cavorting with underwater sirens.
And thus we end the walking tour, fittingly, in the “unknown sea-deeps” whence our tetrapod ancestors first emerged to take their uncouth way.
Several years ago, I attended a screening of Kiss Me Deadly at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Introducing the film, the critic David Thomson remarked of the peacocking protagonist, private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), that you can always tell a fascist by his walk. Thanks to Thomson, I was primed for that strut, at once menacing and ridiculous, which so defines the film’s unsavory hero. Thomson’s comment alerts us to the way the human gait expresses who or what we are. In our tour, which to avoid excessive fatigue has necessarily excluded many a worthy ambler, the silly literary walk has proven to produce more than a good laugh. It can resonate allegorically, produce pathos, reveal character, mirror the world’s absurdity, reflect back on the work that contains it, betray an anxiety of our origins, and even indicate a political affiliation. Regardless, no matter how eccentric the walker, each is welcome on the blessed island of boots, where one can do worse than to emulate this concise description from the “Calypso” chapter of James Joyce’s comic masterpiece: “Dander along all day.”
Image Credit: Flickr/southtyrolean
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.
Bring Up the Bodies
How to Sharpen Pencils
New American Haggadah
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
The Patrick Melrose Novels
Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language
A Naked Singularity
The Flame Alphabet
Four books — John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift — decamp for our Hall of Fame this month. The former three were brought to the attention of our readers during our Year in Reading series in December, while the latter anchored a holiday gift guide for writers.
With all those books departing, our new number one is Denis Johnson’s Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams. It also makes room for three newcomers on the list and a returning title, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision. The debuts are Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (reviewed here in February), A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (profiled by Garth Hallberg) and The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (we reviewed the book in early January and interviewed Marcus later in the month).
Near Misses: Leaving the Atocha Station, Open City, The Great Frustration, 11/22/63, and Gods Without Men. See Also: Last month’s list.