There’s a line in my book that reads, “I have been so many things along my curious journey: a poor boy, a nigger, a Yale man, a Harvard man, a faggot, a Christian, a crack baby (alleged), the Spawn of Satan, the Second Coming, Casey.” My reading tends to be torn between—or at the nexus of—all these little (or ginormous) vestibules of myself.
Sobonfu Some’s The Spirit of Intimacy helped me rethink ritual and relationship. Lucille Clifton’s sublime poems in Good Times gave me many nuggets of joy during a difficult year. Richard Siken’s Crush was so devastating when I first read it in 2016, that I try to read it again every year. I don’t think I’ll do the same for Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, though I’m glad I spent time with it, once.
I was glad to write my book without first reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, though I was even more glad to finally read it once I finished, and to know that I was writing in that tradition. Also, it’s hard to complain about anything in my writing life when I compare it to Mr. Douglass’s.
A critic told me, this summer, that my book reminded her of reading Beckett’s Endgame, which I took as a compliment. I read the play myself soon thereafter, and I suppose it was a compliment, though I am a bit less sure now.
Edouard Louis’s History of Violence is a book I keep evangelizing about, along with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Everyone seems to evangelize about Elena Ferrante’s novels, but I have found her Fratumaglia to be so vital as an example of making a creative life on your own terms. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet did the same. So too did The Gospel According to Luke. I think it was Oscar Wilde who suggested Jesus was an artist. Something like that.
Speaking of Jesus, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son knocked me out. The way he describes the sun. I mean. Yes. So much of my work is trying to take old images, old stories, and bring new language to them—maybe that’s any writer’s job. Johnson got it done, as did Anne Carson with Autobiography of Red. Loved it so much I named a character in my book “Red.”
Perhaps the most important books I read this year were: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Not important in terms of being the greatest books (though I do believe The Color Purple might be one of the most important queer books ever). These books were important because they helped me better situate myself in certain lineages—or rather, know which lineages I would like to belong to—Genet and Walker, rather than Austen and Hemingway. Not that I am conflating the four into two pairs. But there seemed to be more life and danger and strangeness in the former, and that’s the kind of work I’d like to read and write.
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Kurt Vonnegut’s caution against the use of semicolons is one of the most famous and canonical pieces of writing advice, an admonition that has become, so to speak, one of The Rules. More on these rules later, but first the infamous quote in question: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
To begin with the lowest-hanging fruit here—fruit that is actually scattered rotting on the ground—the “transvestite hermaphrodite” bit has not aged well. The quote also, it seems, may have been taken out of context, as it is followed by several more sentences of puzzlingly offensive facetiousness, discussed here.
That said, I also have no idea what it means. My best guess is that he means semicolons perform no function that could not be performed by other punctuation, namely commas and periods. This obviously isn’t true—semicolons, like most punctuation, increase the range of tone and inflection at a writer’s disposal. Inasmuch as it’s strictly true that you can make do with commas, the same argument that could be made of commas themselves in favor of the even unfussier ur-mark, the period. But that is a bleak thought experiment unless you are such a fan of Ray Carver that you would like everyone to write like him.
Finally, regarding the college part, two things: First, semicolon usage seems like an exceedingly low bar to set for pretentiousness. What else might have demonstrated elitism in Vonnegut’s mind? Wearing slacks? Eating fish? Second, in an era of illiterate racist YouTube comments, to worry about semicolons seeming overly sophisticated would be splitting a hair that no longer exists.
But however serious Vonnegut was being, the idea that semicolons should be avoided has been fully absorbed into popular writing culture. It is an idea pervasive enough that I have had students in my writing classes ask about it: How do I feel about semicolons? They’d heard somewhere (as an aside, the paradoxical mark of any maxim’s influence and reach is anonymity, the loss of the original source) that they shouldn’t use them. To paraphrase Edwin Starr, semicolons—and rules about semicolons—what are they good for?
As we know, semicolons connect two independent clauses without a conjunction. I personally tend to use em dashes in many of these spots, but only when there is some degree of causality, with the clause after the em typically elaborating in some way on the clause before it, idiosyncratic wonkery I discussed in this essay. Semicolons are useful when two thoughts are related, independent yet interdependent, and more or less equally weighted. They could exist as discrete sentences, and yet something would be lost if they were, an important cognitive rhythm. Consider this example by William James:
I sit at the table after dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally to bring the act about.
The semicolon is crucial here in getting the thought across. Prose of the highest order is mimetic, emulating the narrator or main character’s speech and thought patterns. The semicolon conveys James’s mild bewilderment at the interconnection of act (eating the raisins) and thought (awareness he may eat the raisins) with a delicacy that would be lost with a period, and even a comma—a comma would create a deceptively smooth cognitive flow, and we would lose the arresting pause in which we can imagine James realizing he is eating, and realizing that somehow an awareness of this undergirds the act.
An em dash might be used—it would convey the right pause—but again, ems convey a bit of causality that would be almost antithetical to the sentence’s meaning. The perception follows temporally, but not logically. In fact, James is saying he doesn’t quite understand how these two modes of awareness coexist.
Or consider Jane Austen’s lavish use of the semicolon in this, the magnificent opening sentence of Persuasion:
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.
Periods could be ably used here, but they would not quite capture the drone of Elliot’s stultifying vanity. Again, form follows function, and the function here is to characterize the arrogantly dull mental landscape of a man who finds comprehensive literary solace in the baronetage. More than that, the semicolons also suggest the comic agony of being trapped in a room with him—they model the experience of listening to a self-regarding monologue that never quite ends. We hardly need to hear him speak to imagine his pompous tone when he does.
The semicolon’s high water usage mark, as shown here, was the mid-18th to mid-/late 19th centuries. This is hardly surprising, given the style of writing during this era: long, elaborately filigreed sentences in a stylistic tradition that runs from Jonathan Swift to the James brothers, a style that can feel needlessly ornate to modern readers. Among other virtues (or demerits, depending on your taste in prose), semicolons are useful for keeping a sentence going. Reflecting on the meaning of whiteness in Moby Dick, Melville keeps the balls in the air for 467 words; Proust manages 958 in Volume 4 of Remembrance of Things Past during an extended, controversial rumination on homosexuality and Judaism. There is a dual effect in these examples and others like them of obscuring meaning in the process of accreting it, simultaneously characterizing and satirizing the boundaries of human knowledge—a sensible formal tactic during an era when the boundaries of human knowledge were expanding like a child’s balloon.
Stylistically, the latter half of the 20th century (and the 21st) has seen a general shift toward shorter sentences. This seems intelligible on two fronts. First—and this is total conjecture—MFA writing programs came to the cultural fore in the 1970s and over the last few decades have exerted an increasing influence on literary culture. I am far from an MFA hater, but the workshop method does often tend to privilege an economy of storytelling and prose, and whether the relationship is causal or merely correlational, over the last few decades a smooth, professionalized, and unextravagant style has been elevated to a kind of unconscious ideal. This style is reflexively praised by critics: “taut, spare prose” is practically a cliche unto itself. Additionally, personal communication through the 20th century to today has been marked by increasing brevity. Emails supplant letters, texts supplant emails, and emojis supplant texts. It stands to reason that literary writing style and the grammar it favors would, to a degree, reflect modes of popular, nonliterary writing.
Beyond grammatical writing trends, though, semicolons are a tool often used, as exemplified in the Austen and James examples, to capture irony and very subtle shades of narrative meaning and intent. It might be argued that as our culture has become somewhat less interested in the deep excavations of personality found in psychological realism—and the delicate irony it requires—the semicolon has become less useful. Another interesting (though possibly meaningless) chart from Vox displays the trend via some famous authors. As fiction has moved from fine-grained realism into postmodern satire and memoir, has the need for this kind of fine-grained linguistic tool diminished in tandem?
Maybe. In any case, I have an affection for the semi, in all its slightly outmoded glory. The orthographical literalism of having a period on top of a comma is, in itself, charming. It is the penny-farthing of punctuation—a goofy antique that still works, still conveys.
A larger question Vonnegut’s anti-semicolonism brings up might be: Do we need rules, or Rules, at all? We seem to need grammatical rules, although what seem to be elemental grammatical rules are likely Vonnegutian in provenance and more mutable than they seem. For instance, as gender norms have become more nuanced, people—myself included—have relaxed on the subject of the indeterminately sexed “they” as a singular pronoun. Likewise, the rule I learned in elementary school about not ending sentences with prepositions. Turns out there’s no special reason for this, and rigid adherence to the rule gives you a limited palette to work with (not a palette with which to work).
We know, on some level, that writing rules are there to be broken at our pleasure, to be used in the service of writing effectively, and yet writing is such a difficult task that we instinctively hew to any advice that sounds authoritative, cling to it like shipwrecked sailors on pieces of rotten driftwood. Some other famous saws that come to mind:
Henry James: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.”
Elmore Leonard: “Never open a book with weather.”
John Steinbeck: “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
Annie Dillard: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place.”
Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
And more Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”; “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action”; “Start as close to the end as possible.”
In the end, of course, writing is a solitary pursuit, and for both good and ill no one is looking over your shoulder. As I tell my students, the only real writing rule is essentially Aleister Crowley’s Godelian-paradoxical “Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law.” Or alternately, abide by the words of Eudora Welty: “One can no more say, ‘To write stay home,’ than one can say, ‘To write leave home.’ It is the writing that makes its own rules and conditions for each person.”
“It is February,” Anne Carson once wrote, perhaps from within the polar vortex. “Ice is general.” By the time we get to February, the days may be getting longer, but there is a weariness to the winter. Hibernation’s novelty has long expired, and the fruits of the fall harvest are running low. On the coldest day of 1855, Henry David Thoreau noted the old saying that “by the 1st of February the meal and grain for a horse are half out.” (He spent the rest of that frozen month skating on the local rivers.)
But in the middle of the month the calendar calls to break the ice with romance. We’ve settled on February 14, the feast day of St. Valentine, as love’s holiday, but there’s little evidence that any of history’s St. Valentines were linked to romance until Geoffrey Chaucer, first artificer of so much in our language, joined them in his Parliament of Fowls: “on Seynt Valentynes day, / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make.” (And even he may have had an Italian St. Valentine’s festival in May, not February, in mind.) We celebrate birthdays too in February: Lincoln’s, for instance, a holiday Richard Wright chose for his first novel, Cesspool (published after his death as Lawd Today), a violent and raunchy satire of one day in the lives of a Chicago postal worker and his friends. And some authors have celebrated their own February birthdays: James Joyce asked that Ulysses be published on the day he turned forty, February 2, 1922, while Toni Morrison, one of the least autobiographical of novelists, nevertheless tucked a small hint of herself into the first page of Song of Solomon: the day the insurance agent Robert Smith announces he will fly from the cupola of Mercy Hospital is February 18, 1931, the date of Morrison’s own birth in Lorain, Ohio.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for February, full of love, birthdays, and late-winter gloom:
Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)
Austen readers looking for a love story in the month of valentines have many choices, but her last novel, the story of an overlooked but independent woman finding love despite obstacles of her own creation, offers perhaps the most moving moment in all her work: the unexpected delivery of a love letter upon which all depends.
Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope (1832)
Mrs. Trollope’s February arrival in the frontier town of Cincinnati (she left her future-novelist son at home in England) may have led to business disaster — the glamorous department store she struggled to build there failed — but ultimately it made her fortune, thanks to this sharp-tongued and coolly observant travelogue, a scandal in America but also a bestseller.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)
There are plenty of obstacles between Bathsheba Everdene and true love in Hardy’s breakthrough novel, beginning with an idle and frolicsome Valentine’s Day joke that turns deadly serious. This being Hardy, more death follows.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1881; 1892)
The third autobiography of Douglass, who chose to celebrate his unrecorded birthday on Valentine’s Day, doesn’t carry the compact power of his original 1845 slave narrative, but it’s a fascinating and ambivalent self-portrait of a half-century in the public life that was launched by that bestselling Narrative.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)
Every day is more or less the same at the Buckets’ tiny ramshackle house—watery cabbage soup for dinner and the winter wind whistling through the cracks—until young Charlie Bucket finds a dollar in the snow and then a Golden Ticket in his chocolate bar inviting him to appear at the Wonka factory gate on February 1 at 10 o’clock sharp.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
One of the most challenging and imaginative of love stories takes place entirely in winter, as an envoy from Earth has to learn to negotiate an ice-bound planet populated by an androgynous people who can take the role of either sex during their monthly heat.
Moortown Diary by Ted Hughes (1979)
These poems from the decade Hughes and his third wife took to farming in North Devon, the country of her birth, are journal entries hewn rough into verse, wet and wintry like the country and full of the blood and being of animals.
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam (1981)
February is doldrums season in the National Basketball Association, well into the slog of the schedule but still far from the urgency of the playoffs, and few have captured the everyday human business of the itinerant professional athlete better than Halberstam in his portrait of the ’79-’80 Trailblazers’ otherwise forgettable season.
Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich (1989)
Over four Maine winters, with as much ingenuity and persistence as his intelligent subjects and an infectious excitement for the drama of the natural world — the “greatest show on earth” — Bernd Heinrich tried to solve the mystery of cooperation among these solitary birds, better known as literary symbols than as objects of study.
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor (1996)
“By the second week in February, the city’s wholesale calendar salesmen pack up their samples and enter a state of self-induced hibernation,” begins one of the comic-strip tales in Katchor’s second Knipl collection, which celebrates the minor industries, fading establishments, and idle off-seasons of his unnamed city with a profound, if paunchy, elegance.
February House by Sherrill Tippens (2005)
Fans of literary anecdotes and surprising artistic encounters will find an embarrassment of riches in this account of the short time in the early ’40s when Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, stripper-turned-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee, and others shared a Brooklyn brownstone that got its nickname because so many among them (McCullers, Auden, Jane Bowles, and house organizer George Davis) had birthdays in this month.
On a desert plain out West, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a band of Indians, all of them slowly closing in. Sunlight reflects off tomahawks. War paint covers furious scowls. “Looks like we’re done for, Tonto,” says the Lone Ranger, to which Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
That old joke raises a question other than its own punch line. Why would anyone decide to write a novel in first-person plural, a point of view that, like second-person, is often accused of being nothing but an authorial gimmick? Once mockingly ascribed to royalty, editors, pregnant women, and individuals with tapeworms, the “we” voice can, when used in fiction, lead to overly lyrical descriptions, time frames that shift too much, and a lack of narrative arc.
In many cases of first-person plural, however, those pitfalls become advantageous. The narration is granted an intimate omniscience. Various settings can be shuffled between elegantly. The voice is allowed to luxuriate on scenic details. Here are a few novels that prove first-person plural is more of a neat trick than a cheap one.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Prior to the publication of The Virgin Suicides, most people, when asked about first-person plural, probably thought of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” This novel changed that. A group of men look back on their childhood in 1970s suburban Michigan, particularly “the year of the suicides,” a time when the five Lisbon sisters took turns providing the novel its title. Most remarkable about Eugenides’s debut is not those tragic events, however, but the narrative voice, so melancholy, vivid, deadpan, and graceful in its depiction not only of the suicides but also of adolescent minutiae. Playing cards stuck in bicycle spokes get as much attention as razor blades dragged across wrists. Throughout the novel, Eugenides, aware of first-person plural’s roots in classical drama, gives his narrators functions greater than those of a Greek chorus. They don’t merely comment on the action, provide background information, and voice the interiority of other characters. The collective narrators of The Virgin Suicides are really the protagonists. Ultimately their lives prove more dynamic than the deaths of the sisters. “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling.”
Our Kind by Kate Walbert
This title would work for just about any book on this list. A collection of stories interconnected enough to be labeled a novel, Our Kind is narrated by ten women, suburban divorcees reminiscent of Cheever characters.
We’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen the murder-suicide of the Clifford Jacksons, Tate Kieley jailed for embezzlement, Dorothy Schoenbacher in nothing but a mink coat in August dive from the roof of the Cooke’s Inn. We’ve seen Dick Morehead arrested in the ladies’ dressing room at Lord & Taylor, attempting to squeeze into a petite teddy. We’ve seen Francis Stoney gone mad, Brenda Nelson take to cocaine. We’ve seen the blackballing of the Steward Collisters. We’ve seen more than our share of liars and cheats, thieves. Drunks? We couldn’t count.
That passage exemplifies a technique, the lyrical montage, particularly suited to first-person plural. Each perspective within a collective narrator is a mirror in the kaleidoscope of story presentation. To create a montage all an author has to do is turn the cylinder. Walbert does so masterfully in Our Kind.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
“There were the four of us — Celia and Jenny, who were sisters, Anne and Katie, sisters too, like our mothers, who were sisters.” In her New York Times review, Margaret Atwood considered this novel, narrated by those four cousins, to be concerned with “the female matrix,” comparing it to works by Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson. First-person plural often renders itself along such gender matrices. This novel is unique in that its single-gender point of view is not coalesced around a subject of the opposite gender. Its female narrators examine the involutions of womanhood by delineating other female characters. Similar in that respect to another first-person-plural novel, Tova Mirvis’s The Ladies Auxiliary, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, taking an elliptical approach to time, braids its young narrators’ lives with those of the other women in their family to create a beautifully written, impressionistic view of childhood.
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
Novels written in first-person plural typically have one of four basic narrative structures: an investigation, gossip, some large and/or strange event, and family life. The Jane Austen Book Club uses all four of those structures. The novel manages to do so because its overall design is similar to that of an anthology series. Within the loose framework of a monthly Jane Austen book club, chapters titled after the respective months are presented, each focusing on one of the six group members, whose personal stories correspond to one of Austen’s six novels. The combinations of each character with a book, Jocelyn and Emma, Allegra and Sense and Sensibility, Prudie and Mansfield Park, Grigg and Northanger Abbey, Bernadette and Pride and Prejudice, Sylvia and Persuasion, exemplify one of the novel’s most significant lines. “Each of us has a private Austen.” Moreover, such an adage’s universality proves that, even when first-person plural refers to specific characters, the reader is, however subconsciously, an implicit part of the point of view.
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
If one doesn’t include sui generis works such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem — a dystopian novella in which the single narrator speaks in a plural voice because first-person-singular pronouns have been outlawed — Kristof’s The Notebook, narrated by twin brothers, contains the fewest narrators possible in first-person-plural fiction. Its plot has the allegorical vagueness of a fable. Weirder than Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters, another first-person-plural novel narrated by siblings, the brothers in The Notebook are taken by their mother from Big Town to Little Town, where they move in with their grandmother. In an unidentified country based on Hungary they endure cruelty and abuse during an unidentified war based on World War II. To survive they grow remorselessly cold. Kristof’s use of first-person plural allows her to build a multifaceted metaphor out of The Notebook. The twins come to represent not only how war destroys selfhood through depersonalization but also how interdependence is a means to resist the effects of war.
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In the same way narrators can be reliable and unreliable, collective narrators can be defined and undefined. The narrators in this novel include both parts of that analogy. They’re unreliably defined. Sometimes the narrators are the people who find the corpse of the titular patriarch, an unnamed dictator of an unnamed country, but sometimes the people who find the corpse are referred to in third-person. Sometimes the narrators are the many generations of army generals. Sometimes the narrators are the former dictators of other countries. Sometimes the point of view is all-inclusive, similar to the occasional, God-like “we” scattered through certain novels, including, for example, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Even the dictator, periodically and confusingly, uses the royal “we.” For the most part, however, the collective narrator encompasses every citizen ruled by the tyrannical despot, people who, after his death, are finally given a voice.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
What about first-person plural lends itself so well to rhythm? Julie Otsuka provides an answer to that question with The Buddha in the Attic. In a series of linked narratives, she traces the lives of a group of women, including their journey from Japan to San Francisco, their struggles to assimilate to a new culture, their internment during World War II, and other particulars of the Japanese-American experience. “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall,” the novel begins. “Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.” Although the narrators are, for the most part, presented as a collective voice, each of their singular voices are dashed throughout the novel, in the form of italicized sentences. It is in that way Otsuka creates a rhythm. The plural lines become the flat notes, singular lines the sharp notes, all combining to form a measured beat.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
For his first novel’s epigraph, Ferris quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Is it not the chief disgrace of this world, not to be a unit; — not to be reckoned one character; — not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong…” The line nicely plays into this novel about corporate plurality. At an ad agency in Chicago post-dot-com boom, the employees distract themselves from the economic downturn with office hijinks, stealing each other’s chairs, wearing three company polo shirts at once, going an entire day speaking only quotes from The Godfather. The narrative arc is more of a plummet. Nonetheless, Ferris manages to turn a story doomed from the beginning — the title, nabbed from DeLillo’s first novel, says it all — into a hilarious and heartfelt portrait of employment. Ed Park’s Personal Days, somewhat overshadowed by the critical success of this novel, uses a similar collective narrator.
The Fates Will Find a Way by Hannah Pittard
Define hurdle. To be an author of one gender writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite gender investigating the life of a character of said author’s own gender. The most impressive thing about The Fates Will Find Their Way is how readily Pittard accomplishes such a difficult task. Despite one instance of an “I” used in the narration, the story is told in first-person plural by a collection of boys, now grown men, pondering the fate of a neighborhood girl, Nora Lindell, who went missing years ago. Every possible solution to the mystery of what happened to the girl — Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment works similarly, as does Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods — becomes a projection of the characters affected by her absence. In that way this novel exemplifies a key feature of many novels, including most on this list, narrated by characters who observe more than they participate. The narrators are the protagonists. It can be argued, for example, that The Great Gatsby is really the story of its narrator, Nick Carraway, even though other characters have more active roles. Same goes for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, to name a few. What’s more important, after all, the prism or the light?
One such famously mischievous writer, J.M. Coetzee, does just that in his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus. After acclimating to Novilla, the hellishly placid utopia in which he has landed, Simón asks his friend and sometimes sexual companion, Elena, if, “hypothetically,” she would ever consider someone like him as a husband. Elena’s reply makes it clear that good citizens of Novilla are not prone to idle conjecture: “If that is your way of asking whether I would marry you, then the answer is yes, I would…When would you want to do it? Because the registry office is open only on weekdays. Can you get time off?”
In stripping the marriage proposal of any trace of romance, seduction, and emotion, The Childhood of Jesus spurred me to think about similarly uninspired literary declarations of love. These offers, always disappointing and often unacceptable, dispel the excitement implicit in the expression, “to pop the question,” which conveys how asking for someone’s hand in marriage is tied to a sense of surprise, and by extension, a narrative surrounding that surprise: an engagement story. If all proposers pale in comparison to Christopher Marlowe’s passionate shepherd, who tells his prospective bride quite the tale about the pleasures of Arcadian life, we nonetheless hope for something more memorable than Simón and Elena’s coolly rational courtship.
Then again, some proposals are perhaps better forgotten. The following unromantic, bizarre, poorly delivered or conceived proposals elicit reactions less like Molly Bloom’s orgasmically affirmative “yes I said yes I will Yes!” and more like this underwhelmed response to a lackluster offer in David Stacton’s A Fox Inside: “You might at least pretend…that I’m a person. After all, I move and talk like one the best way I can.”
Uriah Heep, the scheming, writhing, oleaginous villain of David Copperfield, demonstrates why asking a potential bride’s father for permission is risky. Heep has already wriggled his way into Mr. Wickfield’s house and business, partly by encouraging the latter’s dipsomaniac tendencies, when he decides to go after Wickfield’s daughter: “I’ve an ambition to make your Agnes my Agnes.” The dissolute father doesn’t take the news particularly well: “He was mad for the moment; tearing out his hair, beating his head…not answering a word, not looking at or seeing any one; blindly striving for he knew not what, his face all staring and distorted — a frightful spectacle.” Heep’s ambitions — marital and professional — go unfulfilled, but not before Wickfield has voiced what many a prospective father-in-law might wish to: “But look at him!…Look at my torturer.”
While the variously insulting, ridiculous, and romantic marriage proposals directed towards Elizabeth Bennett are well known, Jane Austen’s Persuasion boasts of its own, subtler failed bid. Anne Elliot, despite the “early loss of bloom and spirits,” receives a sly proposal in the midst of a party from her cousin, the dashing but unscrupulous Mr. Elliot: “The name of Anne Elliot…has long had an interesting sound to me. Very long has it possessed a charm over my fancy; and if I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name might never change.” Pretty smooth as far as cousin-to-cousin proposals go, but to his misfortune Anne gets distracted by hearing someone utter the name of her true love, Wentworth, “which rendered every thing else trivial.” Unlike other characters in this novel of second chances, Mr. Elliot misses his only shot, and his ignored avowal raises an interesting philosophical question: if a proposal falls on deaf ears, is it still a proposal?
Tom Sharpe’s The Great Pursuit treats us to a proposal scene considerably raunchier than a Regency tea party. A literary agent, Frensic, is hunting down the anonymous author of Pause O Men for the Virgin, an “odyssey of lust” that goes into “exquisitely nauseating detail” about the affair between a teenage boy and an octogenarian woman. Frensic eventually locates the manuscript’s typist, Cynthia, whom he must seduce in order to get vital information about her secret client. The problem is that Frensic isn’t in great shape: “Driven frantic by Cynthia’s omnivorous sexuality he had proposed to the woman. It had seemed in his whisky-sodden state the only defense against a fatal coronary and a means of getting her to tell him who had sent her Pause.” Frensic’s quick-thinking proposal proves yet again that the heart wants what the heart wants, which is first and foremost to avoid a myocardial infarction.
Alcohol can hurt or hinder a swain’s cause. Whisky spurs Frensic to action, but in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, overindulging in punch disables Becky Sharp’s suitor and gives rise to one baggy monster of a novel. Or as Thackeray puts it: “That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history.” Becky has devoted all of her considerable charms in her attempt to get Jos Sedley, the longwinded “ex-collector of Boggley Wollah” to propose. A Vauxhall party provides a propitious setting to settle the matter, until Jos singlehandedly gulps down an entire bowl of rack punch. The effects are initially stimulating to Jos’s connubial urge, as the “fat gourmand” drunkenly resolves to wake up the Archbishop of Canterbury the next morning and marry Becky, but as the world-wise Thackeray informs us: “Oh, ignorant young creatures! How little do you know the effect of rack punch! What is the rack in the punch, at night, to the rack in the head of a morning?” Mortified by his orgiastic outburst, Jos decamps and leaves Becky to make her way through Vanity Fair unescorted.
Yet another English satirist, Evelyn Waugh, sets his black comedy, The Loved One, in Los Angeles, the “quiet limit of the world.” The slim novel presents a classic “Jamesian problem” of American innocence and European experience. In Waugh’s hands, however, there are distinctly un-Jamesian touches: an open-casket funeral of a parrot, a crapulous advice columnist named Guru Brahmin, and an acrid perfume, Jungle Venom, extracted “from the depths of the fever-ridden swamp.” Denis Barlow, a cash-strapped British poet, learns that his memorably named paramour, Aimée Thanatogenos, receives a promotion to become the new female embalmer at Whispering Glades, a funeral parlor featuring mausoleums that are replicas of European edifices. To a European man with no American prejudices about living off his wife, Aimee’s promotion means one thing: “Fifty [dollars a week] is pretty good. We could get married on that.” When Aimee rightly asks why she should marry him, he responds with English aplomb: “Why, my dear girl, it’s only money that has been holding me back. Now you can keep me, there’s nothing to stop us.” Not exactly “Come live with me and be my love,” but amidst the ersatz structures at the “mecca of replicates” that is Whispering Glades, honesty counts for something.
How best to goad one’s partner into proposing is an open debate, but as far as blunt ultimatums go, it’s hard to beat Emma Bovary’s from “The Kugelmass Episode.” In Woody Allen’s classic New Yorker story, a magical box can transfer characters in and out of fictional worlds. Just throw an old paperback in and a reader is free to disport with a character of his or her choice. Kugelmass, an unhappily married humanities professor on the lookout for a discreet affair, shrewdly chooses a pre-Rodolphe Emma Bovary to seduce. He eventually brings her back with him to New York and installs her in the Plaza, but when transporter breaks, Emma voices her expectations with Flaubertian precision: “Get me back into the novel or marry me…”
For those seeking to exploit the romantic potential of rodents, Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm is an invaluable guide. In this classic comic novel about yokel relatives, Flora Poste travels from London to stay with the Starkadder clan, among them Urk, a “little, red, hard-bitten man with foxy ears” who once pushed his cousin down a well, and Elfine, a “shy dryad” with a love of poetry and a hatred of houses. Flora grooms Elfine to catch the eye of the local squire, which infuriates Urk, who has long ago, and indelibly, marked her as his: “I put a cross in water-vole’s blood on her feedin’-bottle when she was an hour old, to mark her for mine, and held her up so’s she might see it and know she was mine.” Given this gruesome engagement, it is safe to say that the matriarch Ada Doom saw something nasty in the nursery as well as in the woodshed.
We move from water-voles to “The Monkey,” Isak Dinesen’s story about the aversion of humans and animals to literal and figurative cages (matrimony included). To say that Dinesen’s gothic tale is a marriage plot orchestrated by a demonic chimp only captures some of its lurid weirdness. Briefly, an urbane prioress plots to marry her homosexual nephew to a local nobleman’s daughter, Athena, “a strong young woman of eighteen, six feet high and broad in proportion, with a pair of shoulders which could lift and carry a sack of wheat.” After Athena rejects the proposal, the Prioress hatches a brutal plan to compromise the young lady and force her into submission, which proves to be beyond her nephew’s sexual and combative powers (and costs him his two front teeth). Nonetheless, the Prioress eventually compels Athena to accept, but with one minor qualification: “I promise you I shall marry him. But, Madame my Aunt, when we are married, and whenever I can do so, I shall kill him. I came near to killing him last night, and he can tell you that.” One can only hope that Athena is allowed to write her own vows.
To conclude, a non-traditional proposal for a marriage of minds, or rather, of follies. In the first cliché in a book that feeds on them, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet experience “love at first sight.” Meeting on a park bench, the two copy clerks cement their friendship over lengthy intellectual and political discussions, visits to Paris’s museums, and by sneaking into an Arabic class at the College de France, where the bemused professor notices “two strangers struggling to take notes.” After coming into some money, Bouvard unexpectedly proposes, or rather asserts, a new plan for the pair: “‘We are going to retire to the country!’ And this statement, which included his friend in his good fortune, struck Pécuchet as beautiful in its simplicity. For the union of these two men was deep and absolute.” Deep and absolute it better be, given the setbacks, frustrations, explosions, disasters, and disloyal servants that will strain that union as the two men pursue their unending studies and experiments.
For anyone mulling over whether to ask the big question via Jumbatron announcement, by conscripting a flash mob, or by reenacting my own clumsy efforts (turtle, horticultural maze), consider the proposal aesthetic espoused by Flaubert: It should be beautiful in its simplicity.
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What was Charles Dickens’s best novel? It depends whom you ask of course. G.K. Chesterton thought Bleak House represented the mature peak of Dickens’s skill as a novelist, although he went on to remark, “We can say more or less when a human being has come to his full mental growth, even if we go so far as to wish that he had never come to it.” This past February, on the occasion of Dickens’s 200th birthday, The Guardian put together this mesmerizing chart ranking 12 of Dickens’s 16 novels on a scale of most to least Dickensian. Bleak House came out first, Great Expectations was last, yet those two titles occupied the top two spots when Time issued its own Top-10 Dickens List for the Dickens bicentennial.
Searching for clarity, I decided to pose the question to a handful of leading Victorianists. In June, I sent out emails to select scholars asking them if they’d be interested in choosing a novel and making their case. I noted that of course there is no such thing as a singular best, and that really the exercise was meant to be fun. Just about everyone I reached out to was game. And, in recognition of how obsessive many Victorianists are about Dickens, one added that after debating his best novel, perhaps I’d be interested in curating a more esoteric discussion: Best Dickens character for a one night stand, or maybe which Dickens character you’d most like to have as your own child.
Saving those conversations for another day, here then are six impassioned, knowledgeable opinions on the topic of the best Dickens novel. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them, and that when you’re through, you’ll share your own views in the comments section.
1. Bleak House
Kelly Hager, Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies, Simmons College
“Not to put too fine a point upon it,” as meek Mr. Snagsby is wont to say, Dickens’s best novel is Bleak House. It might not be everyone’s favorite (that honor might go to Dickens’s own “favourite child,” David Copperfield, or to the newly-relevant tale of a Victorian Bernie Madoff, Little Dorrit, or to that classic of 10th grade English, Great Expectations), but Bleak House is absolutely his best: in terms of plot, characters, pacing, social relevance, readability, and its possibilities for adaptation, just to cite some of its virtues.
The BBC’s 2005 version brought to the fore the pathos of the heroine Esther Summerson’s plight and the hypocrisy of the world that produced that plight. Brought up by a guardian (actually her aunt) who led her sister to believe that her (illegitimate) baby was born dead, Esther does not learn who her mother is, or even that she is alive, until she has been so disfigured by smallpox that she no longer poses the danger of incriminating her (now married and ennobled) mother by their resemblance. The scene of their first (and only) meeting is heart-rending but not maudlin, revealing just how far Dickens has moved beyond the sentimental portrayal of Little Nell’s deathbed (in The Old Curiosity Shop) and his precious depiction of the orphaned Oliver Twist. The emotions the scene calls up are honest, earned, poignant.
Similarly, the anger John Jarndyce feels at the Chancery suit that occupies the novel is not the self-righteous ire of those who uncover the educational abuses of Dotheboys Hall (in Nicholas Nickleby) or rail against the inequities of the law of divorce (in Hard Times), but the heartfelt anguish of a man who has seen friends and relatives destroyed by the red tape and bureaucracy of the Court of Chancery (a court that relies not on common law statutes but solely on precedents and was abolished in 1875). Dickens mounts a comparable attack on the aptly named Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, where the important thing is to learn “how not to do it,” but there, the depiction is comic. He does the more difficult and subtle thing in Bleak House, relying not on humor but on sad case after sad case to reveal the evils of the system. He writes with empathy; he doesn’t poke easy fun. In Bleak House, written between two national epidemics of cholera, in 1849 and 1854, Dickens also draws attention to the need for sanitary reform (specifically for a regulated, clean supply of water for the public); Bleak House is, in fact, one of the earliest fictional engagements with the field of public health.
Engaged in social issues, moving, and full of characters we love (the unflappable army wife, Mrs. Bagnet; Jo, the crossing sweeper; Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock’s loyal husband) and characters we love to hate (the selfish parents Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop; Vholes, the vampiric solicitor), Bleak House is Dickens at his very best.
2. Bleak House
Anna Henchman, Assistant Professor of English, Boston University, and author of The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature
Bleak House begins in sooty obscurity: swirls of fog, snowflakes black with grime, indistinguishable masses. Movement is circular — “slipping and sliding,” — without progress. The laws of this world are quickly established: There is rigid separation between classes. Characters are moving parts in a system that consumes them. Separate realms coexist with little contact with one another.
But then the novel explodes when gauche Mr. Guppy presumes to call on the cold Lady Dedlock. She agrees to see him, and even more strangely, betrays in his presence a quivering vulnerability, a longing to know that echoes our own perplexity as readers of this novel. “What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury with the powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom…?” After Mr. Guppy’s visit, a new sequence of events unfolds, and Lady Dedlock’s life rearranges itself before our eyes. Later, on the open grass, another extraordinary meeting brings us even more closely into her consciousness.
Like us, Mr. Guppy has been playing detective, putting together the pieces of the book, and at this point he’s doing it better than we are. Bleak House is a novel full of detectives with whom we sit in uneasy intimacy because their inquisitive state of mind mirrors our own.Their “calling is the acquisition of secrets.”
Two distinct narrators take us through this increasingly comprehensible world. The omniscient narrator can enter anywhere, taking us from foggy London to Lincolnshire. He floats through walls, moving from the airless chambers of one house in town to the greasy interior of another that stinks of burnt flesh. Esther, by contrast, is a timid outsider, for whom everything is new and strange. Some of the greatest effects of the novel occur when Esther takes us through spaces we’ve visited many times and thought we knew. Right after Esther talks with Lady Dedlock, for instance, she walks through the fragrant gardens of Chesney Wold. “Grostesque monsters bristle” as she thinks about the lives they lead inside, and for the first time we feel attached to the stately home.
The great pleasure of this novel is the pleasure of plot — of retroactively putting events into sequence. Like detectives, novelists construct patterns out of disparate fragments. This novel more than any other Dickens novel feels both ordered and dynamic. Characters who flash past us — a man from Shropshire, a crossing sweeper — resolve into detail, acquire names, and fill out in time and space. As the lines between networks of characters thicken, the world gets smaller, more recognizable, but also more dangerous for the ones we love most.
3. David Copperfield
Maia McAleavey, Assistant Professor of English, Boston College
“Of course I was in love with little Em’ly,” David Copperfield assures the reader of his childhood love. “I am sure I loved that baby quite as truly, quite as tenderly, with greater purity and more disinterestedness, than can enter into the best love of a later time of life.” Loving a person or a book (and “David Copperfield” conveniently appears to be both) may have nothing at all to do with bestness. The kind of judicious weighing that superlative requires lies quite apart from the easy way the reader falls in love with David Copperfield.
To my mind, David is far more loveable than Pip (Great Expectations’ fictional autobiographer), and better realized than Esther (Bleak House’s partial narrator). And it does help to have a first-person guide on Dickens’s exuberantly sprawling journeys. David, like Dickens, is a writer, and steers the reader through the novel as an unearthly blend of character, narrator, and author. This is not always a comforting effect. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” David announces in his unsettling opening sentence.
Here he is, at once a young man thoroughly soused after a night of boozing and a comically estranging narrative voice: “Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains…We went down-stairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.”
Is the novel nostalgic, sexist, and long? Yes, yes, and yes. But in its pages, Dickens also frames each of these qualities as problems. He meditates on the production, reproduction, and preservation of memories; he surrounds his typically perfect female characters, the child-bride Dora and the Angel-in-the-House Agnes, with the indomitable matriarch Betsey Trotwood and the sexlessly maternal nurse Peggotty; and he lampoons the melodramatically longwinded Micawber while devising thousands of ways to keep the reader hooked. If you haven’t yet found your Dickensian first love, David’s your man.
4. David Copperfield
Leah Price, Professor of English, Harvard University
“Of all my books,” confessed Dickens in the preface, “I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”
David Copperfield fits the bill for a “best of” contest because it’s all about who’s first, who’s favorite, who’s primary. It’s one of Dickens’s few novels to be narrated entirely in the first person; it’s the only one whose narrator’s initials reverse Charles Dickens’s, and whose plot resembles the story that Dickens told friends about his own family and his own career. (But Dickens takes the novelist’s privilege of improving on the facts, notably by killing off David’s father before the novel opens in order to prevent him from racking up as many debts as Dickens senior did over the course of his inconveniently long life.)
That means that it’s also one of the few Dickens novels dominated by one character’s story and one character’s voice (This stands in contrast to Bleak House, say, which shuttles back and forth between two alternating narrators, one first-person and past-tense, the other third-person and couched in the present). As a result David Copperfield is less structurally complex, but also more concentrated, with an intensity of focus that can sometimes feel claustrophobic or monomaniacal but never loses its grip on a reader’s brain and heart. Its single-mindedness makes it more readable than a novel like Pickwick Papers, where the title character is little more than a human clothesline on which a welter of equally vivid minor characters are hung. Yet at the same time, it’s a novel about how hard it is to be first: Can you come first in your mother’s heart after she marries a wicked stepfather? And can your own second wife come first for you after her predecessor dies?
On David’s birthday, he tells us, “I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best — your very best — ale a glass?’ ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.'” David Copperfield is the genuine stunning: there’s nothing quite like it, in Dickens’s work or out.
5. Little Dorrit
Deb Gettelman, Assistant Professor of English, College of the Holy Cross
There’s a different best Dickens novel for every purpose. Even though Dickens’s peculiar characters with their tic phrases sometimes appear interchangeable, his novels as a whole are surprisingly different from each other in their focus of interest, narrative structure, and in some cases, length. The best Dickens novel to read? Bleak House. To teach? Oliver Twist. To boast that I’ve read? Martin Chuzzlewit (really, I have). To understand Dickens’s consciousness as a writer? Little Dorrit.
I’d like to think a writer’s best novel is the one that, if it had never been written, would cause the greatest difference in how much we think we understand about that writer’s overall work. It might be predictable, but for me the later, darker, reflective books often suit this purpose best: Persuasion, Villette, The Wings of the Dove. For Dickens’s readers it is Little Dorrit, his deeply personal novel of middle age that reveals the author’s consciousness as an artist at its most mature, reflective, and darkest stage
Little Dorrit is Dickens’s moodiest novel, and comparatively little happens in it. There are the usual plot complications — and what Dickens called the novel’s “various threads” often seem to hang together by a thread — but at its heart is the stasis of a debtor’s prison, where Amy, or Little Dorrit, has grown up tending to her self-deluding father. The novel’s many psychologically imprisoned characters mostly sit around brooding about their thwarted lives, especially the hero, Arthur Clennam, who is older and more anguished than Dickens’s other heroes and heroines. Elements familiar from Dickens’s other novels — satiric portrayals of bureaucrats and aristocrats, the self-sacrificing young woman, even a murderous Frenchman — seem more sinister in this novel because they are the cause of so much melancholy.
At one point Dickens summarizes Clennam’s thoughts in a way that seems emblematic of the novel: “Little Dorrit, Little Dorrit. Again, for hours. Always Little Dorrit!” As Lionel Trilling observed, Little Dorrit is the most interiorized of Dickens’s novels. Shortly after writing it Dickens made a spectacle of breaking up his family, and characters in the novel torture, contort, misrepresent, and stifle one another’s feelings in spectacularly awful ways. In a game of word association, ‘Dickens’ would readily call to mind words like ‘comedy,’ ‘caricature,’ and ‘satire.’ ‘Little Dorrit’ would yield ‘interiority,’ ‘psychological depth,’ ‘angst,’ and all the inventive strategies Dickens uses to achieve these qualities. It enables us to see the fullest possible psychological and artistic spectrum of his work.
Our Mutual Friend was my Dickens gateway drug. The opening sequence plays like a Scorsese tracking shot on steroids. A body fished out of the Thames becomes gossip at a nouveau riche banquet, from which two lawyers slip out to a dockside police station, where they meet a mysterious man who runs off to take lodgings with a clerk, whose daughter becomes the ward of a dustman, who hires a peg-legged balladeer to read him The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And I haven’t even mentioned the taxidermist.
It’s the Facebook fantasy: everyone is connected — though in the darkly satiric world of late Dickens, this is less an accomplishment than an indictment. The surprise comes from how much fun it is to navigate his corrupt social network. Conventional wisdom asks you to choose Dickens savory or sweet: the ineluctable fog of Bleak House or the bibulous conviviality of The Pickwick Papers. Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel, gives you both an intricate web of plots and a cast of delightfully scurrilous plotters.
Its particular tickle comes from the recognition that everyone’s an impostor, and a gleeful one at that. People who dismiss Dickensian eccentrics as fanciful caricatures miss how much the fancies are the characters’ own insistent projections. As the narrator says of the self-important balladeer: “His gravity was unusual, portentous, and immeasurable, not because he admitted any doubt of himself, but because he perceived it necessary to forestall any doubt of himself in others.” The self we perform is the self we become.
And everyone’s performing in Our Mutual Friend. A lawyer pretends to be a lime merchant for an undercover job in pub, and after the sleuthing concludes, he’s so enamored of the role that he offers the potboy a job in his fictional “lime-kiln.” When the orphan Sloppy reads the newspaper, “he do the police in different voices” — a line that T.S. Eliot pinched as his working title for the The Waste Land.
This literary legacy, along with the novel’s sustained imagery, have led some critics to call it proto-modernist. Dickens shows us as well that the insights we call post-modern (personality as performance, fiction as artifice) have Victorian roots. The creators of The Wire declared their debt to the 19th-century master of serial narration, and it’s no surprise that a season finale of Lost revolved around a copy of Our Mutual Friend. This is the book you want on a desert island.
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