“Try to hold onto this tissue,” the leader said.
The man took the tissue. The leader snatched it back.
“Don’t hold it. Try to hold it.” The tissue floated to the hotel conference room’s geometrically-patterned carpet. “Do you see the difference?”
The difference is clear for those wishing to change their lives and willing (and able) to pony up the money to do so. The personal empowerment seminars that surged to prominence in the 1970s are going strong, some with a twist. New Age pyramid schemes in the age of Instagram; hard-sell self-help seminars; online mediumship: These manifestations of spiritual hucksterism are commodifying the sacred in a time of unprecedented connection and despair.
On a leave from work one year, I signed up for a weekend seminar that promised to change my life. For three 12-hour days, I sat full-bladdered in the too-close chairs, hands empty, phone off; told my story of job dissatisfaction at the mic; made uncomfortable phone calls to family members and had the promised epiphany. For days afterward, I floated, colors vibrant, music brighter, my euphoria so pronounced, my partner signed up, too. I took seminars for several months, but eventually the money ran out.
Garage-sale self-improvement books had shaped my thinking as a child. The practicality and optimism of 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary—only 15 minutes a day!—How to Win Friends and Influence People, and The Power of Positive Thinking appealed to me, so I knuckled down to follow their prescriptions.
Minister Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling The Power of Positive Thinking begins, “Have faith in yourself!” and ends chapters with lists of 10 actions that “you can do now to build up your self-confidence.” The actions include much repetition of phrases and many invoke a populist faith-based edict. The repetitions amount to a form of self-hypnosis and indeed theologians and psychologists have criticized them as doing more harm than good. Peale has a dark side, however: He is also known for having befriended Richard Nixon and has been credited as a source for Donald Trump’s relentless positive spins.
Motivational seminars, in all of their earnest, feel-good glory, also make money. Some work on a pyramid model that most rewards those at the top. Under the guise of genuine spirituality, they market platitudinal or pragmatic thinking though they may inspire feelings of improved well-being. Their structures are ripe for satire. A “peak performance coach” like infomercial-peddler Tony Robbins is easy to exaggerate or render ridiculous, evoking laughter to make a comment about our need for connection outside of religion or our desire to feel a sense of control.
In her novel Radiant Shimmering Light, Sarah Selecky satirizes sacred-based businesses like Danielle LaPorte’s Lighter and Marie Forleo’s B School, systems which operate much like Selecky’s own real-life online writing school. A glamorous woman at the helm of these enterprises promises an improved lifestyle: the opportunity to associate with other attractive aspirants with the promise of successful entrepreneurship. The novel’s charismatic leader, Eleven, markets a seminar called “Express Your Enlightenment,” complete with color palette, aphoristic tagline—Want What You Want—and alliances with New Age products like “conscious” truffles infused with positive energy. It’s a heady cocktail, and one I’ve drunk a couple of times (hello Spark Kit): one that blends business with core values, psychology with the bottom line.
As far back as the 1970s, the film Semi Tough skewered EST (Erhard Seminars Training), the cult-like, quasi-religious organization that evolved into Landmark Education. In Semi Tough, Bert Convy as Friedrich Bismarck leads a disturbingly (and hilariously) realistic seminar called BEAT (Bismarck Earthwalk Action Training): calling the participants “assholes,” refusing to let them go to the bathroom, insisting that they will know “IT” when they get “IT.” The bit is laugh-out-loud funny, and not just because of the presence of a laconic Burt Reynolds in a star-printed denim suit and 10-gallon hat dozing in an aisle seat. As Bismarck says, “Believing is shit. Being is where it’s at.”
As a young adult, my taste for self-help woo-woo continued unabated. Despite my graduate-level education, I devoured everything from Celestine Prophecy to The Rules to You Can Heal Your Life. Yet I struggled to put the fuzzy concepts into practice, sitting in front of a mirror in my junior one-bedroom apartment repeating, “I love and accept myself,” staring at trees and hoping to see their energy and not accepting Saturday-night dates after Wednesday. Then a breakup that coincided with a work drought and writers’ block plunged me into a depression. Among other salves, I bought A Course in Miracles—the text, workbook, and teacher’s edition, as well as a companion guide—and made it through 30 days’ worth of daily reading and incantations, fluffing over the claim that Jesus himself had dictated these muddled teachings to a woman named Helen [Schucman]. At a low point, I attended a church basement meet-up of random people, many of whom seemed as unemployed and unhappy as me.
Author Denis Johnson took a unique approach to incorporating New Age spirituality into his work, throwing random quotes from A Course in Miracles into his novel Already Dead: A California Gothic. In his author’s note, Johnson writes, “In some passages, the dialog is sprinkled with quotes from the text of A Course in Miracles in a way that distorts their intent.” He goes on to recommend the text, workbook, and teacher’s manual to readers. Already Dead ends up the worse for these insertions, which muddy an already confusing book and send readers (if they choose) on a wild goose chase rather than into an immersive experience.
More appealing is Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers, which features characters who’ve turned to a cult as a valid means of coping with the unbearable. In The Leftovers, a Rapture-like event disappears millions of random people all over the planet in a single moment. In response, a cult called The Guilty Remnant forms under the premise that those who remain didn’t make the cut in what the government has branded “The Sudden Departure.” Their business card makes their position clear: “WE STAND BEFORE YOU AS LIVING REMINDERS OF GOD’S AWESOME POWER. HIS JUDGMENT IS UPON US.” Members sell their businesses, donate the money and cut themselves off from their families. Yet there is a logic to the Guilty Remnant in the wake of such random loss on a massive scale. The group provides a template for how to respond to the unreasonable—a surrender, even.
Later in life, I sought any method I could find to remove whatever was blocking me from getting pregnant. On a naturopath’s recommendation, I ended up in a hotel conference room in Ottawa as a white-haired woman in a blue caftan led me through a garden-variety meditation down into a cave to (mentally) confront someone from my past. The visualization came through very clearly (visualizing has never been a problem for me) and the energy of the crowd was stimulating. I left ready to drop multiple thousands of dollars to take a cruise with the seminar leader (and hundreds of others) just to continue the teachings. Like many, I didn’t have enough in my bank account, so I settled for the CD, which would allow me to enter the cave on a daily basis and which I didn’t listen to once. I returned home no more or less fertile than I’d been before I left and hundreds of dollars poorer.
George Saunders takes a buoyant satirical approach to the motivational seminar that turns on a protagonist’s weak-moment humanity, often walking that fine line between the desire for the lottery-like promise of “success” and the realities of mental illness, responsibility, and family ties. In his short story “Winky” from Pastoralia, Saunders jumps into a head-on satire of self-help seminars complete with characters playacting negative emotional labels like “Whiny” and “Self Absorbed.” The leader’s patter soon reveals familial issues with a brother disabled by a drunken motorcycle accident. The leader has based the resultant book and seminar, the proceeds of which are able to fund a wheelchair ramp, on avoidance of responsibility as much as he has on helping others.
The seminar Yaniky attends in a hotel ballroom includes many trappings that induce the character to feel important. Inside he carries deep shame about his parents—their poverty and ignorance and inability to stand up for themselves. He deeply resents having his sister live with him and determines to kick her out. His self-talk—“Ho, man, he was stoked! He wanted a Jag, not a Benz!”—parrots the hollow, unattainable promise of the seminar. More poignantly, he thinks, “If Dad could see [me] now. Walking home in a suit from a seminar at the freaking Hyatt!” The seminar’s promise of a better life and his determination to attain it are underscored by his sister’s story of potential brain damage and the heaviness of our responsibilities to each other.
That desire for a better life is not unreasonable, and motivational seminars provide a non-religious, low-commitment access to self-improvement. They also dovetail nicely with capitalist principles: You are paying for a service—in some cases, as with EST/Landmark, a semi-abusive leader—and you will see change. The catch: The change comes from you, your effort. Another truth: As with “Winky,” the leader often carries a full share of trauma.
Frank TJ Mackey’s scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia are a trenchant send-up of motivational speakers, addressing the cocktail of arrogance and vulnerability unique to a charismatic individual with a life-changing process to market. Mackey (played against type by Tom Cruise) enters to Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra.” The backlighting, greasy, shoulder-length hair, and tight vest give Cruise the look of an erect penis about to take flight. From the flopping sound of the “Seduce and Destroy” banner dropping to Mackey’s sleazy, snake-hipped, Elvis-esque sex-mime, this parody has all the elements of a motivational seminar pushed to the extreme. Cruise sells it: His “respect the cock” is believable if laughable, and if the Youtube comments below the snippets are any example, its contents sincerely, if disturbingly, speak to some people. As with Radiant Shimmering Light and “Winky,” the satire bleeds into the real.
Ross Jeffries, known as “one of the biggest names in pickup,” purveyor of Speed Seduction, whom Anderson claims inspired the Mackey character, speaks about “manipulation” in an interview with Hayley Quinn, defining it as “the act of moving forward deliberately.” His interviewer agrees with him despite his glossing over the nuance of the word’s meaning, the aspects of unfairness and unscrupulousness. His offerings include webinars, home-study courses, and one-on-one coaching. He is using manipulation to sell the secret of manipulation and becoming wealthy in the process.
Mackey’s techniques, from his repetition to his booklets to his appeals to the hard-done-by nature of his pre-incel audience members, are Jeffries’s techniques exaggerated out to just a little beyond impossible. Like firewalker and “neuro linguistic programmer” Tony Robbins, he sports a head microphone and uses language to convince audience members to spend more money on his tapes, his CDs, his DVDs, his vitamins—whatever he tells them they need to make them attractive to women.
Serial TV show The Americans picks up on the need to connect that drives many of us to motivational seminars while resisting the urge to mock. When Russian spy and brutal killer Philip Jennings attends an EST graduate seminar on sexuality in 1983, he finds he can open up more readily in the context of Werner Erhard’s teachings. When discussing why he is there, Philip’s friend Sandra parrots Erhard: “Everyone comes here thinking they’re here for someone else but they’re here for themselves.” The props are the same—the chalkboards, the PowerPoint axioms, the microphone, the crammed-together chairs—but so is something else: participants baring their feelings in a roomful of strangers.
In her recent Netflix show Nanette, Hannah Gadsby speaks about how the reliance of comedy on the setup and the punchline is ineffective for comedians like her. Jokes depend on tension, may derive from trauma, and by their nature freeze the story at the moment of trauma. Motivational seminars promise a way forward from trauma and despair, one whose odds of success seem commensurate with how much one can afford to pay. Yet as Gadsby says, “You learn from the part of the story you focus on.” In satire of motivational speakers, we focus on the rube, the hopeful, easily fooled desperate person willing to surrender money to make a difference or make a connection. But the story freezes there.
A bout of nausea, precursor to a migraine, signaled the end of me taking seminars. It hit me as I sat in the front row of a weekend workshop sneak-eating salted chocolate. As I was leaving, the head coach reminded me of the agreement I’d signed the first night promising to make up any time missed. I consented to complete that day at my expense, a decision which meant I’d have to go fly to another city. I chose Vancouver. To friends and family, I dressed up the reason for my trip, calling it an “opportunity,” telling them (if I told them) I was going for “a conference.” Was this how it felt to belong to a cult? Vancouver felt significant, as if not going would pass worse judgments on who I was. I’d set out to hold onto the tissue. In the process, I missed the funeral of my partner’s well-loved nephew.
Beyond a few selfies in front of rainy windows, my Vancouver photos were generic: trees, nests, totem poles, beaches. Not so much those of a tourist, but those of one from a cold-locked place admiring the soft warmth of early spring. Embarrassed, I stayed for less than 48 hours, connected with no one, worried that others would think me a zealot.
Completing every minute of the course, as I told the seminar group the following week, even half a continent away, did increase my sense of my own integrity. Yet I didn’t take any more seminars, the cost too great. Our nephew had taken his own life. My cousin had died the same way. I’d dreaded being triggered and chose to heed the rules of a self-improvement seminar instead of canceling my plans, taking the financial hit and supporting my partner. Had I really improved? This is the story I am left with.
If I had only one word to describe Annie DeWitt’s prose it would be “equine” not only for the elegance of her sentences but also because of their strength and poise. The threat of danger lurks too — a subtle awareness that at any point a scene might buck and kick and tear away deep into the thicket.
DeWitt’s writing has always been intrepid: I recall from the first time I read her work in a writing workshop with Diane Williams its intensity and lyricism and mystery, her characters ability to seduce, as in, to make you want to listen to.
Her debut novel White Nights in Split Town City, doesn’t diverge in this sense. The book is set in Fay River, an isolated town where the closest neighbors are also the only friends, “a fact established by proximity and common denominator.” There are horses here, too, to be ridden and groomed; here nature seems boundless and because of this more fearsome too. It’s in Fay River that Jean grows up while living with her parents and sister, Birdie. White Nights is a coming-of-age tale, yes, but one that looks unflinchingly at what it means to be a young and come into one’s own, at what it means to be a woman and mother, at the responsibility and loneliness and disillusionment that so often comes with adulthood, at the varieties of feminine desire, at adolescence and the newfound thrill of sex and empowerment, at the secrets that are known and those that remain hidden.
White Nights captures so tenderly this sweet spot of falling into adolescence, the first luscious taste of independence and, with it, vulnerability and endangerment too.
The Millions: You mentioned in an interview with Luke Goebels for The Believer, that you are both fans of “bringing a radical eye to the page.” I’m curious to hear more about what this means for your writing and specifically in this novel. After reading White Nights in Split Town City I wonder too about the presence of a radical ear, as well as a radical “I”?
Annie DeWitt: I love your point about the radical “I.” And too a radical ear. I grew up learning to play classical music via the Suzuki method. I try to bring that same kind of radical ear to my work — I am constantly evaluating the sounds of words — both lyrically and sonically. Where do they mesh? Where does the tone or the pace shift? What section should be played “Lento,” “Legato,” “Fuerte,” “Fortissimo,” etc.
My understanding of the radical ear was solidified for me in Mrs. Hull’s sitting room in front of a piano in a small split-level house in 1998. I remember the first time I sat down and played for her. Afterward she was appalled. Mrs. Hull had an air of distinction about her, or at least wanted to cultivate one. Her husband’s Dartmouth banner hung over the front couch — even though he probably hadn’t attended since the ’50’s. The piano was a chestnut colored baby grand and was always finely polished and covered in stacks of classical music books. She was British. Or, at least she seemed British in my mind. She was also a piano teacher. She was not a warm woman, but she did not lack imagination. She opened up one of her classical music primers and said we’d have to start from the ground up even though I’d been playing for 10 years at that point. For the following week I was supposed to practice Mendelssohn’s “Song without Words.” As I played she sat next to me and dictated the piece as one would a story: “Close your eyes,” she said. “Imagine…here you are on the proscenium. The curtain is drawn. The crowd is hushed. The red velvet at your back. Then in marches the troops!” Another day she taught me how to play by thinking of the sound patterns a sewing machine makes when you press and depress the petal with your foot.
I’ve always admired writers who embrace the radical “I.” I don’t mean radical in the way of “outlandish.” I mean an “I” that is truthful, that hasn’t been seen before. That has something to tell. This could be a very quiet “I” like in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (which I adore). Or, it could be an entirely inventive, postmodern “I” as in George Saunders’s Pastoralia. Or, it could be the kind of drunken, religious, plain spoken “I” of Barry Hannah. Or, the visual and journalistic “I” of James Baldwin or the empathic eye of Flannery O’Connor.
In many ways I think the radical “I” comes down to empathy. Being an empath means that when you look at person you can’t help but hear his/her story unfold. A person on the side of the road next to the bus station as you drive by. Their life, their loves, their hardships grab you by the throat and shake you.
Too, I’ve always admired people who live fault forward. Courageously. Without fear. When I think of Baldwin writing Giovanni’s Room, I am struck by his courage. Not only because he was writing about a man leaving his fiancée for another man in Paris — but too for the depth and honesty of the feelings the book conveys which in turn feel universal. On a basic level, it’s just another love story. And on another, it’s about living a revolutionary act.
The radical “I” is about a desire to show the backside of life — the complexities, the places where the self falls apart — without embarrassment.
TM: Fay Mountain, where the story unfurls, is so isolated that there’s only one other younger family living within proximity to Jean’s, which means they are friends by default. I’m struck by how Fay Mountain is a character, idiosyncratic and cut off, and more vulnerable to natural woes — infections, fires, the people who set them, failing bodies, unchecked desire. What was important to you in depicting this rural mix of feral and refined? And what writers of the rural and works do you feel your book draws from and/or engages with?
AD: When I think of writers who engage with place I immediately think of the start of Hannah’s story, “Waterliars:”
When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The line-up is always different, because they’re always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Otherwise you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it’s spelled on the sign.
I’m glad it’s not my name.
This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tells big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past.
Whenever I teach the story, I always say — what’s the most important line in this opening? “I’m glad it’s not my name.” That says it all. The whole point of the story is that encountering the truth is the hardest thing to do. That this man is named Farte — “with a great French stress on the last syllable” — in this small town in the American South, immediately casts him as an outsider. It’s such a small detail but it shows that he’s going to be forever beholden to this fate of not fitting in with the locals. And yet, Hannah immediately turns that on it’s head and says — don’t feel too bad for the guy — “he’s a great liar himself.” Lying, of course, being an asset in this town. A way of “passing.”
I was drawn to Fay Mountain in White Nights for the same reason — here were a lot of simple truths, and rumors, and “better paid liars” as Hannah says so eloquently, living on the small rural road where I grew up. These people were difficult to encounter and yet their stories — plain as they may be — begged to be told. In the middle of “nowhere” all you have is the self and the self’s encounter with the world. People living in isolation understand that.
TM: For me, White Nights conjures an element of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, specifically Jean’s childhood filled with silences and seemingly endless days of abandonment, and also — much differently, a crisis with domesticity. When Jean’s mother abandons the family Jean is left to wander without much oversight. Could you talk more about the space that loneliness and vulnerability occupy for Jean, and the others too? How does it empower her too?
AD: It’s interesting to hear the word “abandonment” used so frequently when talking about White Nights. I think of the mother’s leaving in the book as Jean’s great opportunity. The thing which allows her to encounter the road, and everyone living on it for better or worse, without filter. I’ve always been interested in what people call “maternal instincts.” We are raised to think that this is something instinctual to women. I find this to be a fallacy. There are many ways in which one can be “maternal” without having children — one can teach, raise plants, rescue animals, become political, write, speak, sing. To me these are all “maternal” acts — as they represent a way of caring for the world. And yet once you become a mother you are tasked with the very real challenge of raising a life. The mother daughter bond is essential. However, it sometimes fails.
Think of the “Strange Situation” in which a mother leaves the room and then reenters and the psychologist watches how the child reacts in the mother’s absence and then again upon her reappearance: It’s the strength and continuity of this first bond which defines attachment — how we are then able to go on and function in adult relationships. Jean is in an interesting situation. In many ways, the mother is the victim of society’s expectations. I think so many women born in the ’50’s experienced this — the idea that they must somehow grow up to be mothers — that this was the imperative. I feel for the mother in White Nights, as this is an imperative which I myself have not met. As I approach my mid-30s I deal with this lingering question everyday — what does it mean to not have children? However, for Jean’s mother, this question is even more imperiled — for her the question becomes, “What does it mean to feel the burden of having to care for the children you’ve already had, when society never truly gave you the choice to decide if you wanted to ‘mother’ at all.”
TM: I was seduced by Jean’s mother’s charm, much like everyone else in the book. But as a mother figure Ania’s ambivalence about mothering and domestic upkeep leaves something to be desired. Ania believed that interesting people lived lives “whose subsistence required very little upkeep, yet whose true thriving was provided for by acts of excess.” Inevitably, this perspective leads to a fraught mother/daughter relationship. I’d love to hear more about this tension for Ania, between her responsibilities for family and her ideal life, how Margaret’s friendship provides a foil, and the possibilities this opens or closes for Jean.
AD: There is something seductive about this mother — she “flips every switch in the house” upon her return. Margaret too feels this pull — particularly in that scene where the mother is buttoning Margaret into her coat and runs her fingers through the elder woman’s hair. White Nights is all about exploring these unprogramatic, hidden tensions — woman to woman, adult to child. These types of taboos. To me, “attraction” is a very interesting word — it implies something sexual, but also intellectual. The mother in this book is attracted to Margaret for her intellectual freedom, for the fact that she’s British, smoked cigarettes, never had children, and is “othered” by her “purebred old world blood.” For the fact that she reads Didion and Yeats. Of course, Margaret is a photographer. She is allowed the freedom to capture the world from behind a lens rather than be captured by it. She tries to teach Jean that in the scene when Jean spends the day with Margaret in the lawyer’s house.
And yet when Margaret asks Jean what she thinks of the photo they’ve developed together, Jean reads the photo literally and says, “I’ve never been much good at diving.” In that moment, Jean experiences a great disappointment in herself — she knows this is not the answer Margaret was looking for. Margaret is all about encouraging Jean to harness “her intelligence.” To think independently.
And yet, ironically enough, Margaret at one point is challenged by her own freedom — her alcoholism. She kills Wilson with her car. I wanted this scene to represent the central question in the book — how and when are women victims or victors of their own agency on Fay Mountain?
TM: A difference in values: Father states that one’s ultimate goal in life should be “authoring something authentic” while for Mother it’s closer to the Didion quote: “Style is character.” How does this tension play out regarding art, creation, upkeep, and by extrapolation, mothering? In this way too I’m curious about her relationship to the Georgia O’Keeffe print Ania buys—it seems that she wants to be both artist and image, but can one be both?
AD: The idea for the O’Keeffe print came from Didion’s great essay on O’Keeffe in The White Album. What initially drew me to this essay is its humor. The section in White Nights is paraphrased from Didion directly, Margaret says to Jena’s mother, Ania:
O’Keeffe attended art school in Chicago, The boys there were always encouraging her to abandon her practice and become an art teacher or a live model. One even went so far as to pint over her work to show her how the Impressionists made trees. At twenty-four O’Keeffe said she moved to Texas because there were no trees to paint.
The section ends with Margaret’s remark:
When the men asked her why she painted “Red Hills” instead of her traditional flowers, O’Keeffe replied, “A red hill doesn’t touch anyone’s heart.”
I mean — could there be a better come back? “A red hill doesn’t touch anyone’s heart.”
I think I relate to this line so fiercely. With White Nights I didn’t want to write a “feminine” book that was going to touch people’s hearts — I wanted to write a book that wasn’t afraid of going to the depths of the darkness of which people are capable — and showing that in the plain light of day.
I often get the comment that my work feels “masculine” in some way. I find this humorous. Women too can see the world for exactly what it is. There’s this great line in an interview between Marguerite Duras and the French journalist Xavière Gauthier which was transcribed in the book Woman to Woman. Duras is talking about her novel The Ravishing of Lol Stein. She recalls:
I was experimenting with this blank in the chain. On the inside there’s an extraordinary surveillance so that nothing escapes. But what’s its about is simply noticing…the accidents: that is, a displacement, a voice.
She calls these blanks “anesthesia’s — suppressions.”
TM: What seemed most radical to me in White Nights is how female sexuality is depicted so openly and variously. The reader is privy to the way that Ania’s beauty empowers her while Jean’s, as a young girl, makes her more vulnerable. We hear the sounds Ania makes having sex through Jean’s ears, and we watch as Jean haphazardly experiences her first forays into desire and sexual experience. Despite the transgressions against Jean, the novel doesn’t veer into shame or judgment — or even dwell there. This restraint seems like an authorial call, and one that perhaps also comments on the haphazard experiences that accompany sexual awakening. I’d love to hear your thoughts on navigating all of this.
AD: I recently read this quote by Lao Tzu: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” White Nights sets out to explore this distinction. To me, transgression is about the ways in which love makes you vulnerable, courageous, deceitful, intoxicated, alone. I think sex for Jean at this stage is an enigma — one which she walks into out of a deeper curiosity about the adult desire to be both wanted and free. She understands that sexuality is a captivating and capturing force. She sees her father watch the light between Callie’s rear and the saddle as she trots off down the road and remarks on how he both “fears and admires it.” I think Jean too feels a kind of attraction and repulsion at the idea of adult love. She sees how it has trapped someone like Otto Hause — his dying wife, his son who will never leave home. And too she sees how it is something which both defines and entangles her own mother — making her the center of attention but yet harnessing her to her role as wife and mother.
Jean’s first encounter with the male gaze happens when Otto Hauser watches her play the piano from the vantage point of his porch in the evening. He sees her through the window and — though he can’t hear the sound she makes — he imagines the sound based on her body movements. In that moment, Jean understands sexuality to be about a kind of “fame which nearly embraces you.” This, I think, is a dangerous rubric for a young woman. To feel that her power is relegated to her physical self — an area in which Jean feels somehow inferior to both her mother and her sister, Birdie. In many ways, Otto Hauser provides Jean the basis to “prove” that she too can be captivating. That she too can be more than a brain. That she can somehow toss off her intellect. This is what saddens me the most about this moment, that Jean doesn’t realize that it’s actually her intellect and her ability — to play a sonatina — which captured Otto’s Hauser in the first place. That indeed talent itself can be a draw.
I’ve always been interested in the Sontag quote that beauty itself is a talent. Though I’ve always thought of Sontag as a great feminist and one of our most inspired thinkers (and transgressors!), I think there is a danger inherent in this idea that beauty is a talent rather than simply a gift. How do you define beauty? Is it culturally relativistic, etc.? Of course it is. To me, raw physical attraction itself can never have the kind of gravitas of human intellect. But, I too am an aesthete, and am often completely subjugated in the face of raw beauty of any kind — human, artistic, architectural, linguistic etc. — as Sontag was. In many ways I feel like what she was saying was, “Human relations are based on attraction. Even friendships are based on a feeling of being drawn to some quality in a person which you yourself desire to possess.”
TM: We met in Diane Williams’s fiction workshop at the then Mercantile Library, now the Center for Fiction. I recall vividly how Diane urged us to write into spaces that terrify us and mention this now because one thing I admired most about White Nights was how scenes slipped into terror while depicted so tenderly, with such awareness. I’m wondering if this was a lesson you took to heart, or were there others?
AD: One line from a recent interview on craft I did with Diane for The Los Angeles Review of Books will always stay with me. She said, “Getting up and shouting out the rawest stuff of life is a formidable business.” I couldn’t agree more.
In 1998, David Foster Wallace published an essay titled “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment” in Premiere magazine using not one but two pseudonyms. Though he was apparently outted against his will as its sole author, it seems strange to imagine he thought he could pull off the deception. Here’s the New York Daily News on the story: “The man of many words Bandana-wearing writer David Foster Wallace didn’t appreciate our scoop last week that he was the secret author of an article in the new Premiere about the porn business. It wasn’t that hard to unmask Foster…since the piece was littered with the same long-winded footnotes…used in his much-praised 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest. Even with such obvious clues, Foster doesn’t think it was his writing style that exposed him, but rather that someone at Premiere ratted him out.”
I didn’t read the Premiere article upon its release, but I don’t think I would have needed a rat to tell me who wrote it. As with most members of the relatively tiny literary community, had I been paying any attention I think it would have been pretty obvious. His voice is just that distinctive. It’s the same with any number of oft-parroted literary figures: Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Lorrie Moore, Cormac McCarthy.
It works for other art forms too, of course. Show me a photo by Robert Mapplethorpe or Diane Arbus, an interminable camera movement by Bela Tarr, an Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” sequence, play me a track from an AC/DC album, and I’ll know, I’ll know, I’ll know without even having to think about it. Some people just have Voice.
Among this generation of writers, there could be no Voice more recognizable and imitated than that of George Saunders. And with good reason, too. A style that singular, brilliant, and incredibly New Yorker-friendly is rarer than a lottery win.
Like everyone, I was wild about Saunders’s first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. And, like everyone, I was absolutely crazy about his second collection, Pastoralia. When his third, In Persuasion Nation, was released in 2007, I bought it in hardback and gobbled it up just as eagerly as the first two, this time experiencing a just a hint of disappointment. Something seemed off, or — more to the point — not off enough. I liked the new stories, sure, but they filled me with an unsettling sense of familiarity. They just seemed so…well, so similar to his others.
I closed the book, slid it into its place on the shelf, and said to myself, Enough Saunders. I get it. I get the funny, invented brand names and phony trademarks, the quirky intersection of erudition and stupidity on display in his characters inner (and outer) monologues. I get his “deadpan science fiction gloss,” as The New York Times labeled it. I just get it. However much I admired his work, it had started to seem like a magic trick I’d seen a hundred times. And the magic was wearing off.
I’ve been faithful in my Saunders hiatus since then. That is until recently, when, as part of a story exchange with a friend — picture a lazier version of a book club — I agreed to read and discuss “Victory Lap,” from the much-lauded 2013 collection Tenth of December, first published, of course, in The New Yorker. I wasn’t particularly excited about the selection, but I figured at the very worst reading a new Saunders story would essentially be like rereading one of his old ones.
I wanted to be wrong. But you know what? That’s exactly what it was like.
Here’s a passage, in case you haven’t read Saunders in a while. We’re in the mind of a 14-year-old boy here:
Hey, today was Tuesday, a Major Treat day. The five (5) new Work Points for placing the geode, plus his existing two (2) Work Points, totalled seven (7) Work Points, which, added to his eight (8) accrued Usual Chore Points, made fifteen (15) Total Treat Points, which could garner him a Major Treat (for example, two handfuls of yogurt-covered raisins), plus twenty free-choice TV minutes, although the particular show would have to be negotiated with Dad at time of cash-in.
One thing you will not be watching, Scout, is ‘America’s Most Outspoken Dirt Bikers.’
Classic Saunders, right? There’s something undeniably great about having Voice like that, a voice you can’t escape, like Tom Waits. Or Cher. And, career-wise, the upside must be huge. Recognition. The feeling of attachment that fans have to artistic output they feel they know because it shares an essential sameness with the work that came before. And it’s good, too. I mean, fundamentally, Saunders is a terrific writer, a great observer, a clever entertainer.
But that sameness — it’s there, and it’s nagging. There’s a downside to that much voice. An unsurprisingness. A feeling of sloggy repetition and even self-parody. At what point, after all, does Voice become a slump?
Reading “Victory Lap,” I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if Saunders did something completely different for his next book. Wouldn’t it be interesting if he wrote a historical novel or a techno-thriller, or even if he just played it straight and wrote about real feelings and people in a way that wasn’t couched in such predictable peculiarity, in a way that wasn’t so obviously him? Wouldn’t it be exciting to see him let down those droves of hard-won fans by swerving off in a completely unexpected direction?
It’s a lot to ask, I realize. And he certainly doesn’t need to change. In fact, I might be the only one calling for it, given the MacArthur Fellowship he’s been awarded and the spot he once landed on TIME’s list of the 100 “most influential people in the world.” Not to mention that I’m understating things dramatically by saying that the coverage of Tenth of December was ubiquitous and almost rabidly positive. Lest I be misunderstood, I completely appreciate everyone’s excitement over his work. I understand that he’s a Great Writer, and, according to everyone who has met him, an inspiring teacher and a hell of a nice guy.
Still, it would be a pleasure to see him take a risk. Just as I would have loved a chance to see what David Foster Wallace might have come up with deprived of his usual toolbox of idiosyncratic tricks and techniques.
Raymond Carver successfully navigated one of these big authorial shifts, as D.T. Max reported in his 1998 New York Times piece, “The Carver Chronicles,” writing:
There is an evident gap between the early style of ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,’ Carver’s first two major collections, and his later work in ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Where I’m Calling From.’ In subject matter, the stories share a great deal…But the early collections, which [Gordon] Lish edited, are stripped to the bone. They are minimalist in style with an almost abstract feel…The later two collections are fuller, touched by optimism, even sentimentality.
The toolbox of which Carver famously deprived himself for his final collections was the often-oppressive editorial intervention of Gordon Lish, who arguably sapped the fullness from Carver’s early stories favoring a style much sparer than the author himself intended. After something of a battle between them, Carver wrested (or Lish ceded) control of his work, and the result is that his last collection swells where his early stories flatten. Again from D.T. Max at The Times: “Once Carver ended his professional relationship with Lish, he never looked back. He didn’t need to. ‘Cathedral’ was his most celebrated work yet.”
J.K. Rowling is another author who appears to have managed an enormous and worthy transition in her career and authorial voice, following up the insane success of the Harry Potter series with The Casual Vacancy, a full-on adult novel in a completely different voice, and a bestseller despite mixed reviews. For her next book, she zagged yet again, releasing a crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling.
Interesting to note that Rowling chose to publish the latter pseudonymously, as Robert Galbraith. It’s not unusual for writers to use pen names when dabbling in genres other than the ones that clinched their fame, presumably for the same reason that writers fall into a reliance on certain “voices” or styles to begin with — because the last thing writers want is to let down their fickle audiences. And what most readers want is more of the same.
To be fair, this, too, is understandable. Nicholson Baker’s fiction always reads like Nicholson Baker, and I love reading his books. Same for Raymond Chandler, Anton Chekhov, E.E. Cummings, Marcel Proust, and a slew of other writers with incredible and incredibly-reliable voices. That said, I’d love to see what Proust might have done in another voice, in, say, science fiction or with the story of a pair of street urchins. Or how Chandler might have written differently to tell the story of a great romance, stretching beyond his comfort zone where something entirely fresh might be born.
Maybe early writerly instruction is partly to blame for all this authorial parochialism. Aren’t we all told from the beginning that we must “find our voices?” What no one ever says is that once you wander into that swamp, you might do well to toil your way out of it again. It’s rare that you hear anyone praise authors for avoiding a reliance on a particular voice to begin with, as writers like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Richard Yates did, or as an author like Jennifer Egan continues to do.
The careers of musicians might be instructive, the way they can change from one album to the next, as Madonna has famously done in all her various manifestations. Singer Joshua Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) abandoned his solo recording career as J. Tillman and his years of success with the indie-folkster band Fleet Foxes to try something completely different, an incarnation Stereogum dubbed “his shamanic lounge-lizard Father John Misty guise.” The result has been an incredible couple of albums and what will undoubtedly go down as the most interesting and creative period of his career.
Bob Dylan should perhaps be everyone’s idol on this score. I often think about the gamble he took by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Everything went haywire afterwards, and he must have questioned everything. But that act did more than merely change his career, it changed culture. It’s no wonder that some artists aren’t inclined to veer into unknown territory, but the courageous ones prove that Voice is never more powerful than the moment an artist forsakes it.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Saunders-mania reached a fever pitch early this year, with rapturous articles everywhere you looked. By the time I got around to reading Tenth of December, I was pretty sure there was no way it could live up to the hype — especially since so many other authors had imitated Saunders, at that point, that his own dystopian stylings seemed in danger of being clichéd. Saunders’s Kafkaesque tales of humiliation, complicity, and dehumanization had struck an exposed nerve in the era of pervasive surveillance, smartphones, and bitter irony. But I wasn’t prepared for how moving several of the stories in this volume were — and how indelibly they’ve stayed in my mind. You get the same sense of being crushed by life, and the same parodies of weird organizations — but there’s also a stronger feeling of compassion for these hapless people than I got from the previous book of his that I’d read, Pastoralia. The influence of Saunders’s old mentor Tobias Wolff showed through strongly. You really feel for the father who wants to give his daughter the status she craves at any cost, in “Semplica Girl Diaries,” or the failing egomaniac businessman in “Al Roosten.” I’ve read a lot of copies of George Saunders, of varying quality, in the last few years — but this book re-established him in my mind as an original.
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I concluded my voyage through Liberal Arts in May 2000—a typical fairly useless poised-to-succeed-and-doomed-to-fail twentysomething of a hazy new millennium, and a less typical city-sluck Irangelite-turned-Brooklynite with no concept of the country I’d lived in for nearly two decades—when George Saunders’ second collection came out. I was of course was many universes and still many years removed—it took me a few years to discover him—from the five stories plus title novella of Pastoralia. But I was already lovedrunk on American stylists and dark humorists and determined to only follow writers who turned my world upside down—still, I don’t think I had ever read anyone as revolutionary as Saunders. I certainly didn’t know of a writer with a world as fully realized as his, that America that I wholly dreaded and yet came to grasp more tenderly after going through Pastoralia’s psyche-of-below-average-to-average-America rollercoaster ride.
Immediately I fell in love. First reason: the humor that was earth-shattering; best reason: the humanity that was something else.
Saunders is in many ways our most contemporary writer, the voice of the Boomers/Gen X-ers/Millenials world we currently inhabit, the scribe of Saracuda-crazed Jerry-Springerian Red America of the Eighties/Nineties/Aughties. But it’s not just the scenarios but the sentences—especially the seamless coexistence of high and low that only reminds us their segregation in art is actually what’s shocking—that in themselves tell me Saunders isn’t simply one of our best writers, but one of our best humans. Even in the lowest and lowliest Saunderian universe—”Winky’s” self help seminar, perhaps, to combat those “crapping in your oatmeal”—there is the infusion of an entirely genuine authorial affection. His America, our America, is of course horrible but without the horror.
Is he funny? Is he wacky? Saunders is mostly observant. The average man in Pastoralia works as a caveman at a theme park (“Pastoralia”) or male stripper at an aviation-themed-strip club (“Sea Oak”) to make ends meet. Does life look like this? Actually in our America of Reality™ and color-coded neverending War(s?) on Terror, of Parables of Joe Plumber and Tales of Tito The What-Did-He-Do-Again, I’d say we’re more there than we might wish… and maybe closer than Saunders even guessed while writing Pastoralia just before the end of a decade and millennium, and the beginning of a rather Unbrave New World.
This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party, which we’re sharing with you this week in three installments. Part 1 focused on Form and Style. Part 3 will focus on Audience, Character, and Conclusion. Please note that today’s installment contains plot spoilers.Part 2: Geographic and Historical SettingGarth: The setting of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation reminds me of one of George Saunders’ theme parks, CivilWarLand or Pastoralia. It could be real, but everything is slightly exaggerated or off in the way of good science-fiction. The rational philosophers of the College of Lucidity refer to themselves by number rather than name, for example, which works both as a cool detail and as a commentary on the humanistic blind-spots of the Enlightenment, which we discussed earlier. M.T. Anderson does the set piece very well, and in his capable hands, historical footnotes like the titular “pox party” become hallucinatory visions that work perfectly to dramatize the book’s central concerns.Emily: And one historical footnote in particular gets a lot of attention. Although the removal of Thomas Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause from the list of grievances against King George in the Declaration of Independence is hardly a historical revelation at this late date, I couldn’t help thinking that it is a crucial hovering presence in Anderson’s miscellany. Here’s the clause:He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of an other.In the end, it was cut because the Southern states wouldn’t sign a Declaration with a condemnation of slavery (thereby laying the groundwork for the Civil War).Garth: This is totally fascinating, Emily. And it is a revelation, to me at least: I had no idea this was ever in the Declaration of Independence. I can see quite clearly now that much of the plot of the second half of Octavian, which is driven by a rumored alliance between American slaves and the English crown, is drawn not from the airy realms of authorial fancy, but, like so many other of Octavian’s seemingly absurd details, from Anderson’s research. Octavian would have been familiar with Horace’s poetics, wherein dramas were supposed to “instruct and entertain.” I think Anderson’s most effective instructional tool is letting us discover that the story’s seemingly science-fictiony details, which “shock the conscience,” are quite real. I want to flag, too, for future discussion, the sensibility Jefferson reveals in that deleted clause. Is he a rank hypocrite? Or is he – rather more appallingly – quite like us (although a much better writer, unless “us” includes M.T. Anderson)? Jefferson’s commitment to the sanctity of “life and liberty” strikes me as deeply felt, the contempt for “this execrable commerce” not merely rhetorical. And yet the force of Jefferson’s sentences is: Get off our back, George, and stop meddling with our slaves.Emily: Yes – the idea of “profit and delight” (to use an 18th-Century phrase often invoked with specific reference to miscellanies) is, I think, at the core of Anderson’s poetics. Octavian’s life as Anderson tells it is absolutely engrossing – entertaining – and it gives appalling force to the profound contradiction inherent in the American Revolution and the founding of the American Republic: A nation that upheld itself as particularly invested in personal freedom and liberty was also a nation of slave-holders. Octavian is less “Traitor to the Nation” than betrayed by it. In one of the most intellectually frightening scenes of the book, Octavian’s captors – rationalists to the end, even as they are hypocrites – explain to him that there is no contradiction between their commitments to “the cause of Liberty” and to keeping slaves. They explain that the freedom the revolution seeks to ensure is the freedom of exchange (capitalism), rather than some more abstract, philosophical freedom that would require the freeing of slaves. The scene is on par with Orwell or Kafka – the rational irrationality, the rational cruelty, the commitment to cold, abstract principals when the hideous inhumanity those principals inflict screams out for recognition.Garth: As a scholar of the 18th Century, you know a lot more about this than I do. Do you think this explicit argument about “freedom of exchange” is as historically accurate as the other elements of the book? Of course it’s implicit in “no taxation without representation,” but were pluralities of revolutionaries making it the fundament of their concept of natural rights? (If so, I shudder to think what the “strict constructionists” on the Supreme Court would do with this.) Because it really does seem like Jefferson’s “liberty,” enshrined in the Declaration and even the deleted clause above, is much more expansive than that. My bleeding-heart sense of the thing is that Jeffersonian “liberty” is like Hegel’s “spirit” or like divine love in The Bible – a universal principle that, as history progresses, comes closer and closer to being realized in the world. Until heaven is at hand, we struggle and contradict ourselves and do our best to explain away our blind spots. This is going to tie in to some things I want to say about character in the third part of our discussion, but I wanted to give you a chance to jump in and comment here.Emily: Freedom of exchange was definitely a part of the impetus for the revolution. As with so many other revolutions of this age (the English Civil War, the French Revolution) and others after it, the American Revolution began in practical, material grievances – issues like the stamp tax and England’s refusal to allow colonists to appoint their own governors. But this is not to deny a genuine intellectual and emotional commitment to the abstract ideal of freedom among the revolutionaries, or the reality that some believed the revolution would bring an end to slavery, and that there was a Christian imperative to end slavery. We see this view represented in Anderson’s book by Evidence Goring, a young American soldier who befriends Octavian. Goring believes that “slavery and subjugation shall soon fall away” and offers a gruesome vision of the fate that awaits slaveholders:And God shall curse those who hold their fellow Men as Slaves; and in the Last Day, they shall know Weeping, when Christ comes striding from the Skies, Hands drizzling His Blood, Eyes filled with a Sorrow at what He must do: For then they shall remain enchained to this Flesh, hobbled with Bone, when the Rest are released from their Gross Bodies into the hallowed Air.In this vision of Goring’s, which borrows the language and tone of Revelations, there are, perhaps, intimations of your ideas about Hegel? This vision also censures the kind of materialism that Octavian’s owners defend, the kind of materialism that puts property, particularly human property over liberty in the famous Revolutionary slogan “liberty and property.” Those who value material property, human property, bodies, above liberty, will never achieve transcendence.
Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.
I was going through the site analytics, checking out what kind of year The Millions had and I thought it might be fun to share some of the stuff I found out.Looking at the site’s most visited pages, there were some “evergreen” favorites in the top spots:Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: In August 2006, we unwittingly struck a chord with the reading public. We don’t know how to pronounce our favorite writers’ names, but we want to be able to discuss them. We took a first stab at creating a list, but after much debate about proper pronunciation, we hit the library and came back with this definitive version. It remains our most popular post and may stay that way for a long time.A Year in Reading 2007: This post only went up on December 1st, but thanks to dozens of great contributors, it was our best year-end series yet.Hard to Pronounce Literary Names: Our first, abortive attempt at the pronunciation post remains popular.The Most Anticipated Books of 2007: Readers got the year started with a look at the books we were most excited about. 2008’s installment is now posted.Keepers of the Flame: A Reply to n+1: Back in March, we noted N+1’s essay that took on the “litblogs.” It ignited a mini-controversy and The Millions was ground zero.We get a lot of traffic from Google, of course, but quite a few of our visitors arrive from other sites. These were the top 5 sites to send us traffic in 2007:The Elegant VariationConversational ReadingKottke.orgNPR.orgGawkerThose who take the Google route, however, come from these searches:the millionsbook blogsbook blogthe millions bloghow to pronounce namesFinally, I also thought it would be interesting to see which books were most popular on the site last year. We link to all the book titles mentioned on the site, and these were the ones that got the most clicks:The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisReporting: Writings from The New Yorker by David RemnickPastoralia by George SaundersThe Cottagers by Marshall N. KlimasewiskiThe Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez
The first half of 2007 was a Dark Age of reading for me. Virtually every time I sat down with even the most promising book, my mind would float to the massive Redesign project headaches we were having at the newspaper. I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t get drawn in. I was in the wrong frame of mind to read. I was in the frame of mind to brood.And then, as things do, the darkness cleared, and a new age of enlightenment began. And I began to read and absorb as if I’d just regained my sight. I began with Michael Chabon, an author I’d only heard of at that point. Very quickly I devoured two collections of short stories and three of his novels. His first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh and the collection A Model World introduced me to his storytelling and Wonder Boys and, especially, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay showed me the full depth and breadth of his writing.Other highlights of the year include George Saunders’ Pastoralia, a fiction collection brimming with wit and insight, and A Field Guide To The North American Family, the illustrated novella from my Millions cohort Garth Risk Hallberg, whose intertwined tale of the Hungate and Harrison families, with its tight prose – somehow simultaneously economical and gloriously open, and its shifting point-of-view and tone, and thematically-linked photos, is nothing short of fascinating, both in concept and execution.And capping the year, on the heels of my Hemingwayesque sojourn in Paris, was a re-read of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his formative years in 1920s Paris. Each vignette reads as a precise, evocative short story, and the collection is not only my favorite memoir of that era, but also my favorite Hemingway book. And my top read of 2007.More from A Year in Reading 2007
To read one of George Saunders’s stories is to gain a glimpse into an antic, often frightening, just-slightly-shifted alternative world. To read a George Saunders collection is to discover the human sorrow his stories plumb. Reading Pastoralia was something of a revelation for me because, though I’ve read many of Saunders’s stories before, I had never dug into one of his collections and had not appreciated the full force of reading several of his stories back to back. As an aside, this would be an argument in favor of short story collections, which, well constructed and edited, should bring on a “greater than the sum of its parts” reaction in the reader.
In the case of Pastoralia, Saunders’s characters are, as ever, pathetic, trapped in soul-sucking existences, with demeaning jobs and dysfunctional relationships. What elevates Saunders’s stories from what might be depressing muck is his eye for detail and his dry (almost deranged) wit. In the long title story that opens the collection, we peek in on the world of a caveman impersonator. Imagine if the life size caveman diorama at your local natural history museum were populated by actors, and you get the idea. That sounds bad enough, but Saunders overlays the world of corporate bureaucracy and buzzword double-speak onto this “edutainment” scenario. The “actors” are as much prisoners as they are employees.
But this is not 1984 or The Matrix. Saunders’s characters do not conform to the typical occupants of dystopias – millions of buzzing drones and a handful of “enlightened” struggling against the status quo. He offers characters, who are, well, like us.
In the story “Pastoralia,” we have a guy with a mind-numbing job (fake caveman), not enough money, a sick kid at home, coworkers that range from annoying to malicious, and a company in the throes of an “employee remixing.” This sounds more like someone who spends his days stocking shelves at Wal-Mart or temping at a cubicle farm than the gray and black Big Brother, robot-controlled nightmare of the future that has always been offered as civilization’s worst case scenario.
And this is what is so subversive about Saunders. He essentially is telling us that we are living in that worst case scenario, in the dystopia that we have been taught to fear and fight against. But he does so with such humor and well crafted detail that there is none of the didacticism that one my might expect from such a point of view. Saunders is no raving Luddite, instead he has the ability to highlight the absurd minutia of modern life that we typically ignore or take for granted: the “Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form,” the “fax makes the sound it makes when a fax is coming in,” “Stars-n-Flags… They put sugar in the sauce and sugar in the meat nuggets,” “Cute Ratings,” “Credit Calcs,” and “Personal Change Centers.”
If our dystopia hasn’t already arrived, then we are perilously close to it. And whether or not you choose to look for these parallels, consumed without prejudice, Saunders’s stories are well crafted and utterly readable. I found myself careening through, hungry for the next off-kilter detail and scenario. I finished the book thinking that Saunders is a worthy chronicler of modern life.
If you’re arriving here after hearing my appearance on Weekend Edition Sunday, welcome! Just to give you a little background, I started The Millions in early 2003 when I was a bookseller at an independent bookstore in Los Angeles. I’ve since moved on from there, but the blog has stuck around. We now have seven contributors besides me, and we write nearly daily about books and other cultural topics.If you want to look around, a great place to start is the notable posts on the right-hand sidebar. You can get to the archives by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.Finally, in case you want to get more info on the books I mentioned during the segment, here are some links to the books on Amazon (I haven’t heard the segment yet, so not sure if they edited any of these out):Ragtime by E.L. DoctorowPastoralia by George SaundersEast of Eden by John SteinbeckOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia MarquezThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThanks for checking out The Millions!
George Saunders’ collection of stories, In Persuasion Nation came out this year to rave reviews. He is also the author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. Earlier this year, Saunders explained to me why he could never have a blog (internal “labor dispute”), but, hoping that he wouldn’t mind making a small contribution to one, I asked him to share the best book(s) he read this year, and he generously obliged.The highpoint of my reading year was getting the chance to re-read Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith in preparation for public events with them; I was inspired by the kindness and courage and breadth-of-vision of both of these writers. I also really enjoyed The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright – an amazingly well-researched account of the roots of Al Qaeda.Thanks, George!
The annual MacArthur “Genius” Fellows were named today. This award gives people from diverse fields $500,000 with “no strings attached,” for “exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement, and manifest promise for important future advances.” There are typically a handful of literary types among the scientists, artists, and musicians who become Fellows, with this year being no exception. George Saunders is probably the best known among them, but I’ve listed all of the literary winners below along with some relevant links:David Carroll – Naturalist Author/Illustrator – From the bio on his site: “David is an active lecturer and turtles/wetlands preservation advocate. His art and writing, as well as his extensive fieldwork with turtles and wetlands has been widely recognized, and been the subject of many feature articles.” He is the author of a recently published memoir, Self-Portrait with Turtles and “the wet sneaker trilogy” of The Year of the Turtle, Trout Reflections, and Swampwalker’s Journal.Atul Gawande is a prominent surgeon, but he is better known for his book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science and his articles in the New Yorker, including “The Bell Curve: What happens when patients find out how good their doctors really are?”, “Piecework: Medicine’s money problem,” and many others. In my opinion, Gawande’s best quality is his ability to bring his perspective as a surgeon to his stories. Nearly all of his articles start with an observation he has made on the job that he then investigates further. (In this respect, he’s not unlike another great medical writer Oliver Sacks.) Other links: A Slate diary Gawande did in 1997; Gawande’s 2005 commencement address at Harvard Medical SchoolAdrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family was an incredible work of journalism. To write the book, she spent ten years following the lives of an extended family in the Bronx to paint a detailed portrait of the lives of people that don’t get typically get such attention in the press. In an interview with Salon from 2003 (you have to watch an ad to read it), LeBlanc explains what she discovered while writing the book. See also: a recent article by LeBlanc on child actors in the New York Times Magazine, reprinted here.David Macaulay is the illustrator and author behind those incredible “The Way Things Work” books. In them, he deconstructs everyday objects as well as big buildings and other structures in engaging, lighthearted, yet incredibly detailed illustrations. You can see a few of those illustrations here. Macaulay is probably best known for The Way Things Work, but his architectural books, like Mosque are fascinating as well.I can’t pretend to know much about Sarah Ruhl – theater is a blind spot for me – so I’ll point instead to this long and glowing profile from the Washington Post: “She has been writing and rising steadily ever since, creating plays that aren’t easy to categorize. (An anthology of her plays will be published this fall.) The Clean House is tight and funny, skirting the polemics you might expect from a scenario that begins with a demanding WASP doctor and her recalcitrant immigrant maid. Yet it deepens by sly degrees, sweeping the audience on a surprising cloud of feeling as the characters deal with terminal illness in unorthodox ways.”George Saunders likely needs little introduction here as he’s been a favorite at The Millions and on many other book blogs. He is known for his unique, dystopian yet bleakly funny style that somehow manages to capture everything that is weird about our world without being obvious about it. For more George Saunders fun, check out an interview at Identity Theory, his story “Adams” from the New Yorker (there’s more where that came from), or his books, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, and In Persuasion Nation.
I’ve talked about “sale books” once or twice here at The Millions, but since I just a got a great deal on some “sale books,” I decided to revisit the topic. “Sale books” are also known in the book biz as remainders. These are the books you see in your local Barnes & Noble, usually near the front, piled together in bins or on shelves under signs that say things like “clearance” or “all books on this shelf $5.99 or less.” It’s usually a rather odd assortment of books: super cheap hardcovers that mere months (or even weeks) ago were selling for full price. If you dig around you can sometimes find some decent books, but usually the titles are a who’s who of bad books, kind of like the mangled sale rack at your local department store. However, the path from frontlist to remainder bin can be a lot more circuitous than path from shop window to sale rack. And so I present the life cycle of the remaindered book. The remaindered book starts out as a regular old frontlist book, that is, one of the season’s new offerings from a publisher. Let’s call our new book Voyage to Hoboken, a widely anticipated coming of age story by a best-selling author. Since the book is expected to be a big seller, your local Barnes & Noble places a frontlist order of 60 copies from Turnpike Press. The book is released, and amid bad reviews and underwhelming publicity the book is a dud, an outright disappointment. After three months only nine people have bought the book at the full price of $26.95. Now, the book industry is rather odd in that, if a book doesn’t sell, the retail establishment can simply return it to the publisher and get most of their money back. Sometimes, when you work at a bookstore, you begin to get the eerie feeling that rather than selling books, you’re merely storing them until the publisher is willing to take them back. So, the time comes when the buyer at Barnes & Noble decides enough is enough and returns 50 copies to Turnpike Press, leaving one copy on the shelf in case some unwitting reader decides to buy it. At a Turnpike Press warehouse, thousands of copies of Voyage to Hoboken come in from all over the country. But the folks at Turnpike aren’t worried, they are ready to cut their losses. They have negotiated with “remainder houses,” companies that deal with these unwanted books, to get rid of our unfortunate novel in bulk, lets say $1.50 per copy. The remainder house then turns around and calls up the very same book buyer at Barnes & Nobel and sells back this once bought book at a severely reduced price, $3.00 per copy, and then Barnes & Noble tries to sell it to you, the reader, for $6.00. And, in the end, most folks can’t resist the bargain. So, such is the odd journey that bargain books take before arriving in their bargain bin. What inspired me to write about this? Well, the other day I got a catalog in the mail from one of those remainder houses, Daedalus Books, and, since shopping from a catalog is a lot easier than picking through the bargain bin, I got myself four fantastic books for about sixteen bucks. Not bad, eh? Here they are: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey, Pastoralia by George Saunders, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, and The Founding Fish by John McPhee. By the way, bargain books can be found at Amazon, too.Speaking of Amazon, here is an interesting article about what those sales rankings at Amazon actually mean. It’s written from the perspective of a self-publishing expert.One last thing. During my time at the bookstore, one of the hottest sellers was a collection of short stories by David Schickler called Kissing in Manhattan. Now Schickler has a novel coming out called Sweet and Vicious. It looks interesting.