Reading The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick for a creative nonfiction craft lecture during the final residency for my MFA program gave me a greater appreciation for Hardwick’s work and changed the way I read. One essay from the collection,“Locations: The Landscapes of Fiction,” taught me to give more attention to objects and places in fiction instead of just viewing them as props that help set the stage or fill space. Using works from Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Wharton, and others, Hardwick explores the connections between interior and exterior landscapes in American fiction and the characters who inhabit those landscapes. She writes about how the landscapes created by these authors inform readers beyond establishing the setting. Hardwick writes:
The landscapes of fiction, the houses and things, are a shell for the creation of human dramas, the place for the seven deadly sins to do battle with probity and reality or outrageous demand and vanity. The shells, the habitations of America are volatile, inventive, unexpected, imponderable, but there they are, everywhere.
Dwellings—and the objects found in these dwellings—help form characters and their stories. Layers of landscape are placed around and within stories for readers to examine in order to grasp deeper meanings, like the rings of a tree.
Hardwick devotes a good chunk of “Locations” to fiction that takes place in New York City. She writes:
Manhattan is not altogether felicitous for fiction. It is not a city of memory, not a family city, not the capital of America so much as the iconic capital of the century. It is grand and grandiose with its two rivers acting as a border to contain the restless. Its skyscrapers and bleak, rotting tenements are a gift for photographic consumption, but for the fictional imagination the city’s inchoate destiny is a special challenge. Those who engage this “culture of congestion” today need a sort of athletic suppleness, such as we find in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Anna Qunidlen must possess the athletic suppleness Hardwick mentions; Alternate Side, a novel that unfolds in Manhattan, still contains elements of memory and family in addition to plenty of congested restlessness. Quindlen introduces the reader to the vacant lot around which Alternate Side revolves in the opening pages:
In the line of narrow townhouses that made up their side of the block, standing shoulder to shoulder like slender soldiers of flawless posture and unvarying appearance, there was one conspicuous break, a man down, a house-width opening to a stretch of macadam turned into an outdoor parking lot. It held only six cars, and since nearly everyone on the block wanted a space, it had become a hot commodity, a peculiar status symbol.
All of the residents on the block vie for one of the vacant lot’s six parking spots close to home. Those lucky enough to score one are obsessed with the lot and their spots. Convenience and comfort are powerful drugs. Feeling superior to your less fortunate, parking-spot-bereft neighbors is a powerful drug, too.
Quindlen explores themes connected to race, class, privilege, friendship, and family in ways that are only possible because of the empty lot she plops down in the middle of a rare dead-end block in Manhattan. After an act of violence occurs for reasons connected to the lot, the lucky six are no longer allowed to park their cars there. The relationships between various residents begin to unravel. Their homes start to fall apart as well, and the emptiness of the lot reflects the emptiness of some of the marriages and friendships on the street.
Early in the novel, Nora (the protagonist) contemplates the old New York of her youth compared to the current New York: the New York of her married-for-several-years-with-two-kids-in-college days. Quindlen writes:
It was crazy, but there was a small, secret part of Nora that was comfortable with trash on the street. It reminded her of her youth, when she’d first arrived in a nastier, scarier, dirtier New York City and moved into a shabby apartment with her best friend, Jenny. A better New York, she sometimes thought to herself now, but never, ever said, one of the many things none of them admitted to themselves, at least aloud: that it was better when it was worse.
Nora longs for a different New York, for a past version of herself—when a vacant lot wasn’t so important, when much of what her life has become wasn’t so important. Nora later discovers, thanks to the lot—the shell for the creation of her human drama—that people and circumstances aren’t always what they seem to be.
The hotel-cum-addiction-recovery-facility in Denis Johnson’s “The Starlight on Idaho” (from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden) serves as another notable shell. The main character in this epistolary short story, Cass, is going through detox in the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center and writes several letters to various people, including God and Satan. Cass writes a letter to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Bob:
Dear old buddy and beloved sponsor Bob,
Now hear the latest from the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue, in its glory days better known as the Starlight Motel. I believe you might have holed up here once or twice. Yes I believe you might have laid up drunk in room 8, this very one I’m sitting in at this desk writing this letter …
And in a letter to his father and grandmother, Cass says:
Do you remember when the Starlight was a motel? I remember when it was a motel and whores used to sit out on the bench at the bus stop across the street, really miserable gals with blotchy skin and dents in their head after getting run out of San Francisco … I mean you wouldn’t cross the street for them, but I guess once in a while some desperate character from one of these rooms in the Starlight would make the journey. Do you know what? I’ve had one or two minutes here when I might’ve done it myself. But the whores are gone, the bus-stop benches are empty. I don’t think the bus runs past here no more.
The Starlight helps make this story what it is. Johnson uses the Starlight as an additional character in the story, one that has gone through its own turnaround.
At the end of the story, readers learn that Cass has been told several times that he shouldn’t have survived some pretty terrible situations. But he’s still alive and he still hopes this round of recovery will stick. Perhaps some past frequenters of the Starlight Motel have ridden by—probably by accident—and noticed buses no longer serve the area; maybe they thought the motel would be abandoned and condemned but instead discovered it’s still alive, now a place where people go to recover, where people who should be dead have another chance at redemption.
I’ll keep paying more attention to locations and landscapes when I read and write now. Maybe I’ll include locations that have traits that mirror those of my characters or locations that represent a sort of redemption my characters desire for themselves. Maybe I’ll introduce locations that are unexpected, inventive, volatile.
Image: Flickr/Stephen L Harlow
My father’s father, John Morris, was born at a place called Goochland Court House, Virginia, on June 23, 1863. Nine days later an uncle of his, also named John Morris, got his left leg blown off and died fighting for the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. At the time, my grandfather’s father, Charles Morris, was serving as a quartermaster in Richmond, supplying Southern troops with food and ammunition and horses, safely removed from the escalating slaughter. The family home was a place called Taylor’s Creek, built in nearby Montpelier in 1732 by a Welsh immigrant named William Morris, and worked by slaves.
There is a black-and-white family photograph taken in November of 1952, the month the United States detonated the first thermonuclear device, precursor to the hydrogen bomb. The photograph shows my grandfather, hair as white as sugar, wearing a three-piece suit and an expression of delight mixed with terror, for on his right knee he’s balancing a swaddled infant who has the bewildered, bug-eyed look of a space alien. I am the infant.
Three years later, my grandfather died at the age of 92. I have no memories of the man, but even as a boy I marveled at the changes he must have witnessed in his long lifetime. He was born during the Civil War and died at the peak of the Cold War. When he was born, the dominant technologies were the railroad, the telegraph, and photography. He grew up in a world lit by kerosene and candles, he traveled by foot and horseback and wagon on dirt roads, drank water hauled from a well, used an outdoor privy. He went on to study Latin and Greek and German, and he became a lawyer, a philologist, and a college professor first in Virginia and then, for more than half a century, at the University of Georgia. Along the way, he lived through Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, urbanization, Prohibition, labor unrest, the Great Depression, two world wars, the atom bomb and the Korean War. He was among the original users of the telephone, radio, automobile, phonograph, airplane, elevator, moving pictures, typewriters, subways, safety razors, television, penicillin, pasteurized milk, electric lights, refrigeration, antibiotics, and central heat and air-conditioning. He endured the grim rigors of Jim Crow, unhappily. He was in Germany to witness Adolf Hitler’s rise, also unhappily. He wrote scholarly articles for obscure journals and spent decades producing a German-English dictionary that never got published. It seems that he dealt with all this dizzying change by remaining firmly rooted in the 19th century, an unapologetic member of the old school, a sugar-haired gentleman scholar in a three-piece suit. For all that, he held remarkably progressive beliefs on race, child rearing, women’s rights, and religious freedom.
As I grew older, my boyish sense of wonder spawned an allied suspicion: I came to doubt the oft-repeated mantra that, as a Baby Boomer, I was living in a time of unprecedented change. Yes, we curled up under our school desks as a pathetic way of preparing for nuclear Armageddon, and, yes, I lived to see the civil rights movement, interstate highways, the Vietnam War, a man on the moon, the flowering of feminism and gay rights, Watergate, personal computers and the Internet and the smart phone. These are not trifles. But my inventory led to an unassailable conclusion: not all that much has changed in my lifetime, really, and certainly not in the fundamental ways my grandfather’s day-to-day life changed.
For years I carried around these vague ideas until, by chance, I discovered a new book that put flesh on the bones of my theory. The Rise and Fall of American Growth: the U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon is that rarest thing: a work of densely researched macroeconomics that is compulsively readable. (Thomas Piketty’s surprise 2014 hit, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is another exception to the rule that macroeconomics tends to be a snore.) Gordon’s monumental book is guided by two central premises: that the years from 1870 to 1970, very nearly the dates of my grandfather’s birth and death, comprised “the special century,” a spurt of great inventions and economic growth in the United States that is unmatched in human history; and that since 1970, change has been far slower and it has been confined to the much narrower spheres of entertainment, communications, and information. Gordon argues persuasively that future growth and innovation will continue to be stunted by a relatively recent, and seemingly irreversible, development: “the rise of inequality that since 1970 has steadily directed an ever larger share of the fruits of the American growth machine to the top of the income distribution.” In other words, the game has been rigged for years, and with Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the federal government it’s not going to get unrigged anytime soon. The rich will keep getting richer, the middle class will continue to wither, innovation will continue to stagnate, and we’ll all be poorer for it. The “special century,” it turns out, was a one-off.
Books come out of books, and the best books lead us to new books. American Growth has led me to more than a dozen titles – histories, memoirs, reportage, novels. One of the closest in spirit to Gordon’s enterprise is Victorian America, a delightful work of popular history by Thomas J. Schlereth, who is guided by Sigfried Giedion’s dictum that “for the historian there are no banal things.” Indeed Schlereth, like Gordon, is determined to write history from the bottom up rather than from the top down, focusing on the way day-to-day life in America changed in the four decades leading up to the First World War. Schlereth’s chapter headings reflect his approach: “Moving,” “Working,” “Housing,” “Communicating,” “Striving,” “Living and Dying.” The book opens with the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and ends with the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. On the eve of the First World War, Schlereth writes, “Americans played more, put greater stock in education and engineering, and found themselves living in a culture more homogeneous and urban, more incorporated and interdependent, than their counterparts who had visited Philadelphia in 1876.” In 1915 the sun was setting on American isolation and innocence, an underlying theme of E.L. Doctorow’s great novel Ragtime. The San Francisco Exposition, according to Schlereth, “reflected a final sentimental, opulent display of American Victorianism.” After that, the deluge.
My grandfather lived to see it all — the bloodbaths of two world wars, the Holocaust, the dawn of the nuclear age, the gargantuan horrors of Jim Crow. But he did miss one truly momentous change. Less than a month before my grandfather died, a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till was brutally tortured and murdered by white men in Money, Miss. Till’s sin? He was accused of grabbing a white woman who worked as a cashier in a local market then whistling at her. Till’s killers were acquitted. In The Blood of Emmett Till, a new book by Timothy B. Tyson, Till’s white accuser, Carolyn Bryant, has finally admitted that she lied on the witness stand during the trial of Till’s murderers. Bryant tells Tyson that Till never “grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities,” as she had testified in court. Bryant added, “You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true.”
Two months after my grandfather died, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, as required by Jim Crow statues in place since the turn of the century. A year-long boycott of the city’s buses by black citizens ensued, and finally, grudgingly, the Montgomery bus system was integrated. Far more important, the death of Emmett Till and the courage of Rosa Parks provided the match that ignited the smoldering civil rights movement.
So my grandfather missed one of the most uplifting, violent, disappointing — and ongoing — narratives in all of American history. Other than the civil rights movement, though, John Morris didn’t miss much. His century was more than merely special. It was an astonishment.
Although 2016 has gotten a bad rap, there were, at the very least, a lot of excellent books published. But this year! Books from George Saunders, Roxane Gay, Hari Kunzru, J.M. Coetzee, Rachel Cusk, Jesmyn Ward? A lost manuscript by Claude McKay? A novel by Elif Batuman? Short stories by Penelope Lively? A memoir by Yiyun Li? Books from no fewer than four Millions staffers? It’s a feast. We hope the following list of 80-something upcoming books peps you up for the (first half of the) new year. You’ll notice that we’ve re-combined our fiction and nonfiction lists, emphasizing fiction as in the past. And, continuing a tradition we started this fall, we’ll be doing mini previews at the beginning of each month — let us know if there are other things we should be looking forward to. (If you are a big fan of our bi-annual Previews and find yourself referring to them year-round, please consider supporting our efforts by becoming a member!)
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: Gay has had an enormously successful few years. In 2014, her novel, An Untamed State, and an essay collection, Bad Feminist, met with wide acclaim, and in the wake of unrest over anti-black police violence, hers was one of the clearest voices in the national conversation. While much of Gay’s writing since then has dealt in political thought and cultural criticism, she returns in 2017 with this short story collection exploring the various textures of American women’s experience. (Ismail)
Human Acts by Han Kang: Korean novelist Kang says all her books are variations on the theme of human violence. The Vegetarian, her first novel translated into English, arrested readers with the contempt showered upon an “unremarkable” wife who became a vegetarian after waking from a nightmare. Kang’s forthcoming Human Acts focuses on the 1980 Korean Gwangju Uprising, when Gwangju locals took up arms in retaliation for the massacre of university students who were protesting. Within Kang tries to unknot “two unsolvable riddles” — the intermingling of two innately human yet disparate tendencies, the capacity for cruelty alongside that for selflessness and dignity. (Anne)
Transit by Rachel Cusk: Everyone who read and reveled in the nimble formal daring of Outline is giddy to read Transit, which follows the same protagonist, Faye, as she navigates life after separating from her husband. Both Transit and Outline are made up of stories other people tell Faye, and in her rave in The Guardian, Tessa Hadley remarks that Cusk’s structure is “a striking gesture of relinquishment. Faye’s story contends for space against all these others, and the novel’s meaning is devolved out from its centre in her to a succession of characters. It’s a radically different way of imagining a self, too — Faye’s self.” (Edan)
4321 by Paul Auster: Multiple timelines are nothing new at this point, but it’s doubtful they’ve ever been used in quite the way they are in 4321, Auster’s first novel since his 2010 book Sunset Park. In his latest, four timelines branch off the moment the main character is born, introducing four separate Archibald Isaac Fergusons that grow more different as the plot wears on. They’re all, in their own ways, tied up with Amy Schneiderman, who appears throughout the book’s realities. (Thom)
Collected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow is known for historical novels like Ragtime and The Book of Daniel, but he also wrote some terrific stories, and shortly before his death in 2015 he selected and revised 15 of his best. Fans who already own his 2011 collection All the Time in the World may want to give this new one a miss, since many of the selections overlap, but readers who only know Doctorow as a novelist may want to check out his classic early story “A Writer in the Family,” as well as others like “The Water Works” and “Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate,” which are either precursors of or companion pieces to his novels. (Michael B.)
Enigma Variations by André Aciman: The CUNY Professor New York magazine called “the most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century” returns with a romantic/erotic bildungsroman following protagonist Paul from Italy to New York, from adolescence to adulthood. Kirkus called it an “eminently adult look at desire and attachment.” (Lydia)
Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin: Martin ran the online magazine Scratch from 2013 to 2015 and in those two years published some terrific and refreshingly transparent interviews with writers about cash money and how it’s helped and hindered their lives as artists. The magazine is no longer online, but this anthology includes many of those memorable conversations as well as some new ones. Aside from interviews with the likes of Cheryl Strayed and Jonathan Franzen, the anthology also includes honest and vulnerable essays about making art and making a career –and where those two meet — from such writers as Meaghan O’Connell and Alexander Chee. It’s a useful and inspiring read. (Edan)
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh: A long, dull day of jury duty in 2008 was redeemed by a lunchtime discovery of Unsaid magazine and its lead story “Help Yourself!” by Moshfegh, whose characters were alluring and honest and full of contempt. I made a point to remember her name at the time, but now Moshfegh’s stories appear regularly in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, and her novel Eileen was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. Her debut collection of stories, Homesick for Another World, gathers many of these earlier stories, and is bound to show why she’s considered one of literature’s most striking new voices. (Anne)
Glaxo by Hernán Ronsino: Ronsino’s English-language debut (translated by Samuel Rutter) is only 100 pages but manages to host four narrators and cover 40 years. Set in a dusty, stagnating town in Argentina, the novel cautiously circles around a decades-old murder, a vanished wife, and past political crimes. Allusions to John Sturges’s Last Train From Gun Hill hint at the vengeance, or justice, to come in this sly Latin American Western. (Matt)
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran: Set in Berkeley, Sekaran’s novel follows two women: Soli, an undocumented woman from Mexico raising a baby alone while cleaning houses, and an Indian-American woman struggling with infertility who becomes a foster parent to Soli’s son. Kirkus called it “superbly crafted and engrossing.” (Lydia)
A Mother’s Tale by Phillip Lopate: One day in the mid-’80s, Lopate sat down with his tape recorder to capture his mother’s life story, which included, at various times, a stint owning a candy store, a side gig as an actress and singer, and a job on the line at a weapons factory at the height of World War II. Although Lopate didn’t use the tapes for decades, he unearthed them recently and turned them into this book, which consists of a long conversation between himself, his mother, and the person he was in the ’80s. (Thom)
The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen: Winner of Mexico’s Mauricio Achar Prize for Fiction, Xilonen’s novel (written when she was only 19, and here translated by Andrea Rosenberg) tells the story of a young boy who crosses the Rio Grande. Mixing Spanish and English, El Sur Mexico lauded the novel’s “vulgar idiom brilliantly transformed into art.” (Lydia)
Selection Day by Aravind Adiga: If Selection Day goes on to hit it big, we may remember it as our era’s definitive cricket novel. Adiga — a Man Booker laureate who won the prize in 2008 for his epic The White Tiger — follows the lives of Radha and Manju, two brothers whose father raised them to be master batsmen. In the way of The White Tiger, all the characters are deeply affected by changes in Indian society, most of which are transposed into changes in the country’s huge cricket scene. (Thom)
Huck Out West by Robert Coover: Coover, the CAVE-dwelling postmodern luminary, riffs on American’s great humorist in this sequel to Mark Twain’s classic set out West. From the opening pages, in which Tom, over Huck’s objections, sells Jim to slaveholding Cherokees, it is clear that Coover’s picaresque will be a tale of disillusionment. Unlike Tom, “who is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next,” Huck seems wearied and shaken by his continued adventures: “So many awful things had happened since then, so much outright meanness. It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up.” (Matt)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa called Schweblin “one of the most promising voices in modern literature in Spanish.” The Argentinian novelist’s fifth book, about “obsession, identity and motherhood,” is her first to be translated into English (by Megan McDowell). It’s been described “deeply unsettling and disorientating” by the publisher and “a wonderful nightmare of a book” by novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez. (Elizabeth)
Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, was about the children of performance artists. His second is about a new mother who joins a sort of utopian community called the “Infinite Family Project,” living alongside other couples raising newborns, which goes well until eventually “the gentle equilibrium among the families is upset and it all starts to disintegrate.” He’s been described by novelist Owen King as the “unholy child of George Saunders and Carson McCullers.” (Elizabeth)
Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke: Clarke’s award-winning short story collection Foreign Soil is now being published in the U.S. and includes a new story “Aviation,” specifically written for this edition. These character-driven stories take place worldwide — Australia, Africa, the West Indies, and the U.S. — and explore loss, inequity, and otherness. Clarke is hailed as an essential writer whose collection challenges and transforms the reader. (Zoë)
American Berserk by Bill Morris: Five years ago, a Millions commenter read Morris’s crackling piece about his experience as a young reporter in Chambersburg, Penn., during the 1970s: “Really, I wish this essay would be a book.” Ask, and you shall receive. To refresh your memories, Morris encountered what one would expect in the pastoral serenity of Pennsylvania Dutch country: “Kidnapping, ostracism, the paranormal, rape, murder, insanity, arson, more murder, attempted suicide — it added up to a collective nervous breakdown.” Morris has plenty to work with in these lurid tales, but the book is also about the pleasure of profiling those “interesting nobodies” whose stories never make it to the front page, no matter how small the paper. (Matt)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: This sequel to the Nobel Prize-winning South African author’s 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus picks up shortly after Simón and Inés flee from authorities with their adopted son, David. Childhood was a sometimes thin-feeling allegory of immigration that found Coetzee meditating with some of his perennial concerns — cultural memory, language, naming, and state violence — at the expense of his characters. In Schooldays, the allegorical element recedes somewhat into the background as Coetzee tells the story of David’s enrollment in a dance school, his discovery of his passion for dancing, and his disturbing encounters with adult authority. This one was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. (Ismail)
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: Millions staffer and author of Millions Original Epic Fail O’Connell brings his superb writing and signature wit and empathy to a nonfiction exploration of the transhumanist movement, complete with cryogenic freezing, robots, and an unlikely presidential bid from the first transhumanist candidate. O’Connell’s sensibility — his humanity, if you will — and his subject matter are a match made in heaven. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, but don’t take my non-impartial word for it: Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood have plugged it too. (Lydia)
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Pulitzer Prize Winner Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees has already received starred pre-publication reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, among others. Nguyen’s brilliant new work of fiction offers vivid and intimate portrayals of characters and explores identity, war, and loss in stories collected over a period of two decades. (Zoë)
Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay: A significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay is best-known for his novel Home to Harlem — which was criticized by W.E.B. Dubois for portraying black people (i.e. Harlem nightlife) as prurient — “after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.” The novel went on to win the prestigious (if short-lived) Harmon Gold Medal and is widely praised for its sensual and brutal accuracy. In 2009, UPenn English professor Jean-Christophe Cloutier discovered the unpublished Amiable with Big Teeth in the papers of notorious, groundbreaking publisher Samuel Roth. A collaboration between Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, a long-awaited, edited, scholarly edition of the novel will be released by Penguin in February. (Sonya)
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: The Oakland-based Li delivers this memoir of chronic depression and a life lived with books. Weaving sharp literary criticism with a perceptive narrative about her life as an immigrant in America, Your Life isn’t as interested in exploring how literature helps us make sense of ourselves as it is in how literature situates us amongst others. (Ismail)
Autumn by Ali Smith: Her 2015 Baileys prize-winning How to Be Both was an experiment in how a reader experiences time. It has two parts, which can be read in any order. Now, Smith brings us Autumn, the first novel in what will be a Seasonal quartet — four stand-alone books, each one named after one of the four seasons. Known for writing with experimental elegance, she turns to time in the post Brexit world, specifically Autumn 2016, “exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take.” (Claire)
A Separation by Katie Kitamura: A sere and unsettling portrait of a marriage come undone, critics are hailing Kitamura’s third book as “mesmerizing” and “magnificent.” The narrator, a translator, goes to a remote part of Greece in search of her serially unfaithful husband, only to be further unmoored from any sense that she (and in turn the reader) had of the contours of their shared life. Blurbed by no fewer than six literary heavyweights — Rivka Galchen, Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard — A Separation looks poised to be the literary Gone Girl of 2017. (Kirstin B.)
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez: This young Argentinian journalist and author has already drawn a lot of attention for her “chilling, compulsive” gothic short stories. One made a December 2016 issue of The New Yorker; many more will be published this spring as Things We Lost in the Fire, which has drawn advanced praise from Helen Oyeyemi and Dave Eggers. The stories themselves follow addicts, muggers, and narcos — characters Oyeyemi calls “funny, brutal, bruised” — as they encounter the terrors of everyday life. Fair warning: these stories really will scare you. (Kaulie)
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle. Darnielle is best known for the The Mountain Goats, a band in which he has often been the only member. But his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for a number of awards, including the National Book Award for Fiction. His second novel, set in Iowa in the 1990s, is about a video store clerk who discovers disturbing scenes on the store’s tapes. (Elizabeth)
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso: It’s as if, like the late David Markson, Manguso is on a gnomic trajectory toward some single, ultimate truth expressed in the fewest words possible — or perhaps her poetic impulses have just grown even stronger over time. As its title suggests, this slim volume comprises a sequence of aphorisms (“Bad art is from no one to no one”) that in aggregate construct a self-portrait of the memoirist at work. “This book is the good sentences from the novel I didn’t write,” its narrator writes. (Kirstin B.)
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso: Set in South Africa, Omotoso’s novel describes the bitter feud between two neighbors, both well-to-do, both widows, both elderly, one black, one white. Described by the TLS as one of the “Best Books by Women Every Man Should Read.” (Lydia)
Running by Cara Hoffman: The third novel from Hoffman, celebrated author of Be Safe I Love You, Running follows a group of three outsiders trying to make it the red light district of Athens in the 1980s. Bridey Sullivan, a wild teenager escaping childhood trauma in the States, falls in with a pair of young “runners” working to lure tourists to cheap Athenian hotels in return for bed and board. The narrative itself flashes between Athens, Sullivan’s youth, and her friend and runner Milo’s life in modern-day New York City. According to Kirkus, this allows the novel to be “crisp and immediate,” “beautiful and atmospheric,” and “original and deeply sad.” (Kaulie)
Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: Academic and Twitter eminence McMillan Cottom tackles a subject that, given a recent spate of lawsuits, investigations, and closings, was front-page news for a good part of 2016. Drawing on interviews with students, activists, and executives at for-profit colleges and universities, Lower Ed aims to connect the rise of such institutions with ballooning levels of debt and larger trends of income inequality across the U.S. (Kirstin B.)
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos. Febos’s gifts as a writer seemingly increase with the types of subjects and themes that typically falter in the hands of many memoirists: love (both distant and immediate), family, identity, and addiction. Her adoptive father, a sea captain, looms large in her work: “My captain did not give me religion but other treasures. A bloom of desert roses the size of my arm, a freckled ostrich egg, true pirate stories. My biological father, on the other hand, had given me nothing of use but life…and my native blood.” Febos transports, but her lyricism is always grounded in the now, in the sweet music of loss. (Nick R.)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: A sweeping look at four generations of a Korean family who immigrates to Japan after Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea, from the author of Free Food for Millionaires. Junot Díaz says “Pachinko confirms Lee’s place among our finest novelists.” (Lydia)
Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin: Following in the literary tradition of Charles Baudelaire, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe, Elkin is fascinated by street wanderers and wanderings, but with a twist. The traditional flâneur was always male; Elkin sets out to follow the lives of the subversive flâneuses, those women who have always been “keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.” In a review in The Guardian, Elkin is imagined as “an intrepid feminist graffiti artist,” writing the names of women across the city she loves; in her book, a combination of “cultural meander” and memoir, she follows the lives of flaneuses as varied as George Sand and Martha Gellhorn in order to consider “what is at stake when a certain kind of light-footed woman encounters the city.” (Kaulie)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: In an unnamed city, two young people fall in love as a civil war breaks out. As the violence escalates, they begin to hear rumors of a curious new kind of door: at some risk, and for a price, it’s possible to step through a portal into an entirely different place — Mykonos, for instance, or London. In a recent interview, Hamid said that the portals allowed him “to compress the next century or two of human migration on our planet into the space of a single year, and to explore what might happen after.” (Emily)
The Idiot by Elif Batuman: Between The Possessed — her 2010 lit-crit/travelogue on a life in Russian letters and her snort-inducing Twitter feed, I am a confirmed Batuman superfan. This March, her debut novel samples Fyodor Dostoevsky in a Bildungsroman featuring the New Jersey-bred daughter of Turkish immigrants who discovers that Harvard is absurd, Europe disturbed, and love positively barking. Yet prose this fluid and humor this endearing are oddly unsettling, because behind the pleasant façade hides a thoughtful examination of the frenzy and confusion of finding your way in the world. (Il’ja R.)
White Tears by Hari Kunzru: A fascinating-sounding novel about musical gentrification, and two white men whose shared obsession with hard-to-find blues recordings leads them to perdition. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called White Tears “perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South.” (Lydia)
South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion: Excerpts from two of the legendary writer’s commonplace books from the 1970s: one from a road trip through the American south, and one from a Rolling Stone assignment to cover the Patty Hearst trial in California. Perhaps the origin of her observation in Where I Was From: “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” (Lydia)
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg: A novel about a 39-year-old woman taking stock of her life, from the best-selling author of The Middlesteins and St. Mazie. This one prompted Eileen Myles to ask “Is all life junk — sparkly and seductive and devastating — just waiting to be told correctly by someone who will hold our hand and walk with us a while confirming that what we’re living is true.” Evidently so. (Lydia)
Ill Will by Dan Chaon: Dustin Tillman was a child when his parents and aunt and uncle were murdered in his home, and it was his testimony that sent his older, adopted brother, Rusty, to jail for the crime. Forty years later, he learns that Rusty is getting out based on new DNA evidence. As that news sends tremors through Dustin’s life and the life of his family, he buddies up with an ex-cop who has a theory about some local murders. As often happens in Chaon’s book, you’ll be gripped by the story and the characters from the first page, and then all of a sudden you suspect that nothing is as it seems, and you’re sucked in even further. (Janet).
The Accusation by Bandi: For readers interested in a candid look at life in North Korea, The Accusation — originally published in South Korea in 2014 — will immerse you via the stories of common folk: a wife who struggles to make daily breakfast during a famine, a factory supervisor caught between denouncing a family friend and staying on the party’s good side, a mother raising her child amidst chilling propaganda, a former Communist war hero who is disillusioned by the Party, a man denied a travel permit who sneaks onto a train so he can see his dying mother. Bandi is of course a pseudonym: according to the French edition, the author was born in 1950, lived in China, and is now an official writer for the North Korean government. The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, were smuggled out by a friend — and will be available to us via Grove Press. (Sonya)
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti: This new novel by the editor of One Story magazine follows a career criminal who goes straight to give his daughter a chance at a normal life. But when his daughter, Loo, gets curious about the 12 mysterious scars on her father’s body, each marking a separate bullet wound, she uncovers a history much darker than she imagined. Twelve Lives is “is one part Quentin Tarantino, one part Scheherazade, and twelve parts wild innovation,” says Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth. (Michael B.)
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge: Fiction meets history in The Night Ocean’s series of intricately nested narratives. A psychologist’s husband, obsessed with a did-they-or-didn’t-they affair between horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and a gay teenage admirer, disappears while attempting to solve the mystery. Set over a 100-year period and spanning latitudes from Ontario to Mexico City, this novel from New Yorker contributor La Farge promises to pull Lovecraft’s suspense into the present day with flair. (Kirstin B.)
Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth: Unferth is an author about whom many overused litspeak cliches are true: she is incisive, bitingly funny, and — here it comes–— whipsmart. A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her memoir, Revolution, her short stories have been published in Granta, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, and are collected here for the first time. (Janet)
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: “As I was writing My Name Is Lucy Barton,” said Strout, the New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, of her 2016 novel, “it came to me that all the characters Lucy and her mother talked about had their own stories.” Anything is Possible was written in tandem to Lucy Barton. For Strout’s many devoted readers, this novel promises to expand on and add depth to the story, while exploring themes for love, loss, and hope in a work that, “recalls Olive Kitteridge in its richness, structure, and complexity.” (Claire)
Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Set in post-colonial Kenya, this troubling allegory from the perennial Nobel candidate explores the evil that men do and the hope that serves as its only antidote. Written while in prison, the book’s proverbial structure and unapologetically political message — think Karl Marx delivering liberation theology in East Africa — follow a young Kenyan woman, Jacinta Wariinga, who, despite grave injustice, is determined to see neither her spirit nor her culture crushed. This is the original 1982 translation from the Gikuyu language, now being rereleased as part of the Penguin Classics African Writers Series. (Il’ja)
Marlena by Julie Buntin
I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of Buntin’s remarkable debut novel, about an intense friendship between two young women in rural Michigan, and I agree with Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter, who calls it “lacerating.” Aside from a riveting story and nuanced characters, Buntin has also delivered an important story about addiction and poverty in middle America. In its starred review, Booklist called it “Ferrante-esque.” (Edan)
American War by Omar El Akkad: El Akkad is an award-winning Canadian journalist, whose reporting has ranged from the war in Afghanistan to the protests in Ferguson, Mo. His brilliant and supremely disquieting debut novel opens in 2074, at the outbreak of the Second American Civil War, and follows a young Louisiana girl, Sarat Chestnut, as time and conflict gradually transform her from a child into a weapon. (Emily)
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch: In a new kind of world, we need a new kind of hero and a reimagined Joan of Arc from Yuknavitch seems like just the thing. Following her widely lauded The Small Backs of Children, this novel takes place in the near future after world wars have turned the Earth into a war zone. Those surviving are sexless, hairless, pale-white creatures who write stories on their skin, but a group of rebels rally behind a cult leader named Jean de Men. Roxane Gay calls it, “a searing condemnation, and fiercely imaginative retelling.” (Claire)
The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron: Our own Cameron returns with a new novel about two women separated by, oh, only 40,000 years: Girl, the eldest daughter in the last family of Neanderthals, and present-day archeologist Rosamund Gale, who is excavating Neanderthal ruins while pregnant. How these two stories echo and resonate with one another will be just one of its delights. Such an ingenious premise could only come from the writer who brought us The Bear, which O, The Oprah Magazine deemed “a tender, terrifying, poignant ride” and which People gave 4 stars, saying “it could do for camping what Jaws did for swimming.” (Edan)
Startup by Doree Shafrir: Probably you know Shafrir by her byline at Buzzfeed — her culture writing always whipsmart, current, and grounded. Shafrir’s debut novel sounds like more of the same: three people working in the same Manhattan office building with colliding desires, ambitions, and relations, head for major conflict and reckoning as scandal sucks each of them into a media-and-money vortex. Hilarity, a mindfulness app, and an errant text message are also involved. Looking forward to this one. (Sonya)
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah: This debut collection of short stories, which takes its name from a story published in Catapult in 2015 to wide acclaim — one that seamlessly blends magical realism and a kind of sci-fi, resulting in a one-of-a-kind dystopia — announces the arrival of a brilliant new talent. Don’t take our word for it: one story, “Who Will Greet You at Home,” appeared in The New Yorker and was a National Magazine Award finalist, and others are already drawing high praise from across the publishing community. These stories explore the ties that bind us together, but in magical, even subversive forms. (Kaulie)
Void Star by Zachary Mason: In Mason’s second novel, three people living in wildly different circumstances in a dystopian near-future are drawn together by mysterious forces. The future that Mason imagines in Void Star is not particularly startling — extreme climate change, ever-widening class divisions, and AIs who have evolved well beyond the understanding of the humans who created them — but what sets Void Star apart is the stunning and hallucinatory beauty of Mason’s prose. Both a speculative thriller and a meditation on memory and mortality. (Emily)
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke: I tell as many people as possible how cool I think Radtke is, so that when she blows up I’ll have proof that I was ahead of the curve. Besides having her own career as a writer and illustrator, she is the managing editor of Sarabande Books (where she not only published Thrown by Kerry Howley — one of my favorite books of the last 5 years — but designed its killer cover). Her first book is graphic memoir/travelogue about her life, family history, and a trip around the world in search of ruins. (Janet)
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard: The author goes home in Gerard’s thorough, personal, and well-researched collection of essays on Florida, its inhabitants, and the ways they prey upon each another. As far as Floridian bona fides, it doesn’t get much more Sunshine State than growing up on the Gulf in an Amway family, and truly in the book’s eight essays, Gerard covers more of the state’s ground than Walkin’ Lawton Chiles. (Nick M.)
Kingdom of the Young by Edie Meidav: A new collection of the stories by novelist who brought us Lola, California, Crawl Space, and The Far Field. The stories have invited comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, Clarice Lispector and Italo Calvino. (Lydia)
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami: The seven stories in Murakami’s new collection concern the lives of men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone. In “Scheherazade,” a man living in isolation receives regular visits from a woman who claims to remember a past life as a lamprey; in “Yesterday,” a university student finds himself drawn into the life of a strange coworker who insists that the student go on a date with his girlfriend. (Emily)
The Purple Swamp Hen by Penelope Lively: Across her many wonderful books, Lively has ranged from low farce (How It All Began) to high feeling (Moon Tiger), from children’s literature to a memoir on old age. Now comes her fourth story collection, the first in 20 years. The title story draws on reliably entertaining source material: the meretricious lives of Roman rulers. Robert Graves turned to a stammering Claudius for his narrator, Lively to a less exalted personage: a purple swamp hen. Other stories involve trouble: a husband and wife working their way out of it, and a betrayed wife doing her best to cause some for her husband. (Matt)
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Our own Lepucki has always had keen insight into the psyches of women — particularly so-called “difficult” protagonists. Her first novel, California, may have been about a family surviving the end of society, but it was really a post-apocalyptic domestic drama full of sharp wit and observations. Her sophomore effort is more grounded in reality but equally cutting. Lady is a writer struggling to raise her two kids and finish her memoir when she hires S. to help, but the artist becomes more than just a nanny for Lady’s eldest troubled son. (Tess M.)
Trajectory by Richard Russo: In this new collection, Russo, a 2016 Year in Reading contributor, takes a break from the blue-collar characters that readers have come to know from his bestselling novels Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls to spin tales of struggling novelists trying their hands at screenwriting and college professors vacationing in Venice. No matter. Readers can still count on Russo to deliver deeply human stories of heartbreak leavened by gently black humor. (Michael B.)
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris: The book after Ferris’s Man Booker shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a collection of short stories. The title story, first published by The New Yorker in 2008, is about a couple who invite a boring couple over to dinner (“even their goddam surprises are predictable,”) only to be surprised when the boring couple manage to surprise by not showing up. The collection pulls together stories that promise the, “deeply felt yearnings, heartbreaking absurdity, and redemptive humor of life,” for which Ferris is so well known. (Claire)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Ko’s debut novel has already won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize created and selected by Barbara Kingsolver. The contest awards a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships,” and Ko’s book certainly fits that laudable description. The novel is the story of Deming Gao, the son of a Chinese-American immigrant mother who, one day, never returns home from work. Adopted by white college professors, Deming is renamed and remade in their image — but his past haunts him. (Nick R.)
Isadora by Amelia Gray. The endlessly inventive Gray (whose story “Labyrinth” from The New Yorker is a gem) creates a fictional interpretation of Isadora Duncan, once described as the “woman who put the Modern into Modern Dance.” A dancer who mixed the classical, sacred, and sensual, Duncan is the perfect subject matter for Gray; if a writer can expertly resurrect the Theseus myth at a small-town fair, then she can do justice to a life as inspiring — and troubled — as Duncan’s. (Nick R.)
Chemistry by Weike Wang: In this debut novel, a graduate student in chemistry learns the meaning of explosive when the rigors of the hard sciences clash with the chronic instability of the heart. A traditional family, a can’t-miss fiancé, and a research project in meltdown provide sufficient catalyst to launch the protagonist off in search of that which cannot be cooked up in the lab. If the science bits ring true, in her diabolical hours, the author doubles as a real-life organic chemist. (Il’ja R.)
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal: Satyal’s novel takes place in a suburb near Cleveland and tells the story of Harit and Ranjana, who are both Indian immigrants that are experiencing loss. Harit’s sister has passed away and he’s caring for his mother; Ranjana’s son has left to college and she’s worrying her husband is having an affair. These two characters form a friendship amidst grief and self-discovery in a novel that is both heartfelt and funny. (Zoë)
Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley: The New Yorker stalwart (whose title story “Bad Dreams” appeared in the magazine in 2013) comes out with her third collection of short stories in the past decade. In one set in 1914, a schoolteacher grapples with the rising power of the women’s suffrage movement; in another, a young housesitter comes across a mysterious diary. In general, the stories let tiny events twirl out into moments of great consequence — in the title story, a young child’s nightmare turns out to be the hinge of the plot. (Thom)
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul. Ah, the current frontrunner for Most Relatable Title of the Coming Year. The Canadian writer’s debut essay collection is “about growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Western culture, addressing sexism, stereotypes, and the universal miseries of life.” Fans of her work online will be eager to see her on the printed page. Canadian journalist (and Koul’s former journalism professor) Kamal Al-Solaylee said of her writing, “To me, she possesses that rarest of gifts: a powerful, identifiable voice that can be heard and appreciated across platforms and word counts.” (Elizabeth)
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan: In her debut novel, Alyan tells the story of a Palestinian family that is uprooted by the Six-Day War of 1967 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This heartbreaking and important story examines displacement, belonging, and family in a lyrical style. (Zoë)
So Much Blue by Percival Everett: In Everett’s 30th book, an artist toils away in solitude, painting what may be his masterpiece. Alone in his workspace, secluded from his children, best friend, and wife, the artist recalls memories of past affairs, past adventures, and all he’s sacrificed for his craft. (Nick M.)
The Accomplished Guest by Ann Beattie: 1976 was a good year for Beattie: she published her first story collection, Distortions, as well as her debut novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Forty years and roughly 20 books later, Beattie has a new collection of stories, closely following last year’s The State We’re In, linked stories set in Maine. One defining trait of Beattie’s short fiction is her fondness for quirks: “However well you write, you can become your own worst enemy by shaping it so highly that the reader can relate to it only on its own terms. Whereas if you have some little oddities of everyday life that aren’t there to be cracked, it seems to me that people can identify with it.” (Nick R.)
Hunger by Roxane Gay: A few years ago, Gay wrote Tumblr posts on cooking and her complex relationship with food that were honest yet meditative. It was on the cusp of her breakthrough essay collection Bad Feminist. Now she may be a household name, but her second nonfiction book delves into the long-running topic of the role food plays in her family, societal, and personal outlook with the same candor and empathy. (Tess M.)
The Last Kid Left by Rosecrans Baldwin: The Morning News cofounder and author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down returns with a murder mystery/romance/coming-of-age story set in New Hampshire. (Lydia)
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim: Lim has long been publisher of the small, avant-garde Ellipsis Press, whose authors, including Joanna Ruocco, Evelyn Hampton, Jeremy M. Davies, and Lim himself, are remarkable for their unique voices, their attention to language and experimentation. Together they make a significant if lesser-known body of work. Dear Cyborg, Lim’s third novel, will be his first with a major press (FSG). Tobias Carroll has said, “Lim’s novels tread the line between the hypnotically familiar and the surreptitiously terrifying.” With comparisons to Tom McCarthy and Valeria Luiselli and praise from Gary Lutz and Renee Gladman, Lim’s work is worth seeking out. (Anne)
The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro: In this follow-up to Cutting Teeth, about a zeitgeisty group portrait of Brooklyn hipster moms, Fierro turns back the clock to the summer of 1992 when a plague of gypsy moths infests Avalon, an islet off the coast of Long Island, setting in motion a complex tale of interracial love, class conflict, and possible industrial poisoning at the local aircraft factory. Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year, says Fierro, director of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, has written “a novel to slowly savor, settling in with her characters as you would old friends.” (Michael B.)
The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton: A debut novel about the Egyptian revolution from filmmaker and activist Hamilton, who has written about the events of Tahrir square for The Guardian and elsewhere. (Lydia)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The Odyssey has been repeatedly invoked by early reviewers of Sing, Unburied, Sing, which follows its protagonist on the journey from rural Mississippi to the state penitentiary and beyond. In the hands of a less talented writer, that parallel might seem over-the-top, but in the hands of one of America’s most talented, generous, and perceptive writers, it’s anything but. (Nick M.)
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy: What does Niels Bohr’s take on quantum mechanics have to do with Johann Sebastian Bach and the suicide of a young New Orleans woman? Perhaps nothing. Or perhaps this, overheard at an advance reading — from 2015 — of Cormac McCarthy’s long-awaited new novel: “Intelligence is numbers; it’s not words. Words are things we made up.” That semi-colon haunts me. From Knopf: a “book one” and “book two” by McCarthy are set for a March 2017 release. A week later the story changes. Maybe July. Perhaps December. With McCarthy, the calculus remains inscrutable but the wait worth it. (Il’ja R.)
And So On by Kiese Laymon: We’ve learned virtually nothing new about this book since our last preview, but continue to expect it in 2017. As I said then, “Laymon is a Mississippi-born writer who has contributed to Esquire, ESPN, the Oxford American, Guernica, and writes a column for The Guardian. His first novel, Long Division, makes a lot of those ‘best books you’ve never heard of’ lists, so feel free to prove them wrong by reading it right now. What we know about his second novel is that he said it’s ‘going to shock folks hopefully. Playing with comedy, Afro-futurist shit and horror.’” (Janet)
The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: A madcap critical theory mystery by the author of HHhH. In the new novel, a police detective comes up against the likes of Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristeva. It sounds bonkers. (Lydia)
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Zhang’s got range: the poet/Rookie writer/essayist/ and now fiction writer has a voice that’s at once incisive and playful and emboldened. “If I fart next to a hulking white male and then walk away, have I done anything important?” she asks in her chapbook Hags, when wondering about ways to fight imperialism; she has written of encounters with white privilege as a Chinese American, of messiness and feelings and depression, of errata and text messages and Tracey Emin, and of resisting Donald Trump. Zhang’s sure to bring this force to her first collection of short stories, Sour Heart, which will be the first book published by Lena Dunham’s Lenny imprint. (Anne)
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: Hazel ran out of her husband and moved into her father’s retirement community, a trailer park for senior citizens. She’s laying low for a while. Things are complicated, though. Her husband is the founder and CEO of Gogol Industries, a tech conglomerate bent on making its wares ubiquitous in everyday life, and he’s determined to use the company’s vast, high-tech resources to get her back. Meanwhile, did I mention Hazel’s father is obsessed with a realistic sex robot? (Nick M.)
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: A debut novel from Apogee Journal cofounder and contributing editor at LitHub. Thandi loses her South African mother and navigates the process of grieving and growing up in Pennsylvania. (Lydia)
And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)
This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: Jerkins is way too accomplished for her age, but her range of skills and interests – 19th-century Russian lit, postwar Japanese lit, speaker of six languages, editor, assistant literary agent — is so awesome I just can’t begrudge her. Jerkins writes reportage, personal essays, fiction, profiles, interviews, literary criticism, and sports and pop culture pieces. Now she has an essay collection coming out: This Will Be My Undoing. Some of her previously published essays include “The Psychic Toll of Reading the News While Black”, “Why I Got a Labiaplasty in My 20s”, and “How Therapy Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Christian” — all of which may or may not be collected in the new book; but you get a feel for the great stuff we can expect. (Sonya)
Sharp by Michelle Dean: Dean has made a name for herself as an astute feminist journalist and critic for the likes of The Guardian, the New Republic, and The Nation. Her work often focuses on the intersection of crime, culture, and literature. So it’s fitting that her first book is nonfiction on other powerhouse female critics. (Tess M.)
A couple of weeks ago, finding myself between books, I went to my shelves in search of something to read. After a time, I came to a copy of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime that I’ve had for years, but never got around to reading. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate is one my favorite novels, and I recently enjoyed his Homer & Langley. That settled it: Ragtime it would be.
However, when I opened it that night, I let out a disappointed groan. Highlighter marks were everywhere; on the first page of text alone, seven words (among them “stouter” and — snort — “steamers”) were underlined in neon blue, and the sentence “There was a lot of sexual fainting” had been, for some reason, parenthesized. I flipped ahead, and the blue marker was even thicker on subsequent pages. Though I’ve occasionally read secondhand books that previous owners had scribbled through, Ragtime was far too damaged to read. There was practically more highlighter than printer’s ink.
The handwriting had a bouncy innocence to it, leading me to believe that it had come from a high school student, maybe a freshman or sophomore. It also seemed to have come from a female, though the vandal’s gender is immaterial.
Do I have this right? I’m asking you directly, teenager who ruined my copy of Ragtime. Have I identified you correctly?
By now, you’re probably in your 30s; I’ve had the book for at least a decade, and it was old when I got it. Since so much time has passed, then, I hope you won’t be upset with me for pointing out a few absurdities in your novel-wrecking note-taking style. You destroyed Doctorow’s masterpiece; the least you can do is understand my frustration.
First: when you highlighted a word, did you look it up soon afterward? Or did you wait until much later, seeking the definitions of 50 or 60 words at a time? I’m genuinely baffled by your approach. For example, the word “vaudeville” is underlined three times in the first six pages, and “vaudevillian” is marked not long after that. Did you ever look up “vaudeville,” or did you just keep underlining it in manic exasperation? You underlined “affidavit” three times in the same paragraph. Wouldn’t one mark have sufficed? Or did you just think that the blue looked neat? And could you really not figure out what a “sexologist” was? Was it that difficult to parse? Wouldn’t a “cheeseologist” be someone who studies cheese?
Chapter three ends with the sentence “And up through the slum alleys, through the gray clothes hanging listlessly on lines strung across air shafts, rose the smell of fried fish.” A highly evocative passage, seemingly straightforward enough. Yet you drew a bracket around “fried fish” with an arrow pointing to a plaintive question: “Why?” Why? Why would the smell of fried fish rise through the slum alleys? Sadly, I never had the chance to meet Doctorow — he died in 2015 — so I’ve never been able to ask him what he meant by this riddle. But I’d guess — and mind you, it’s only a guess — that it had something to do with the fact that SOMEONE WAS FRYING FISH.
A similar conundrum confronts us on page 17, where you wrote “what year is this???” I assume you’re asking in what year Ragtime takes place — not that, addled by the book, you forgot what year you were actually living in. Operating on that assumption, we can see that, on the first few pages alone, Doctorow secreted a number of clues as to when his story occurs. First, there are references to Harry Houdini, Jacob Riis, and to the shooting, years before, of “the steel millionaire Henry Frick” — so anyone with a decent grasp of American history might begin to infer an answer. Ragtime also depicts European immigration to Ellis Island and Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. Still, one can’t be sure. Yet there is a tantalizing nugget that, if looked at in the proper way, could answer your thrice-punctuated question. It’s buried deep within the very first line of Ragtime’s very first chapter: In 1902…
Again, though, one can’t be sure. “In 1902.” What does that even mean?
At the bottom of page 25, you scrawled “what kind of jail is this?” I assume you’re referring to the prison that Doctorow described Houdini escaping from, but there’s an existential poignancy to your question that I can’t fully shake. Is Ragtime itself — assigned by some tweedy English teacher; full of arcane terminology and long-dead characters — the jail you were referring to? If so, you pulled your own shrewd Houdini move, didn’t you? Because just eight pages later, the highlighting ceased. The rest of the book is blessedly free of your scrawlings, as unmarked as the day it came off the press. It appears that you escaped the novel, mad with glee, never to blue its pages again.
I truly wish you the best. I hope the time you spent trapped in Ragtime didn’t scar you too much, now-aging teenage highlighter. Hopefully, you’re now a well-adjusted adult — and aren’t the sort of almost-middle-aged crank who complains incessantly about trivial matters like, say, highlighter marks on an old paperback. That sort of person can seem like an irritating character in an old vaudeville show, don’t you think?
Mark Binelli and I met for the first time on Oct. 27, 2012, in New York City. The excuse for the meeting was the TV broadcast of Game 3 of that year’s World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers. I grew up in Detroit and its suburbs and have remained a life-long fan of the Tigers, so the sports editor at The New York Times thought it might be amusing to have me hook up with fellow Detroiters and write a string of sketches about the agonies and ecstasies of watching the Series. With a nod to Frederick Exley, they called the sketches “A Fan’s Notes.”
Mark Binelli also grew up in the Detroit area, and he agreed to join me for Game 3 at a dive called the Motor City Bar, about halfway between our apartments in lower Manhattan. As soon as we were settled on our barstools, Binelli delighted me by confessing that he didn’t have much use for Detroit’s twinned obsessions, cars and sports. So with one eye on the TV screen — a Detroit loss, one of four straight in an ignominious sweep — Binelli and I spent the game talking mostly about books. We talked about his first novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, a wicked recasting of the two doomed anarchists as a slapstick comedy act; we also talked about Binelli’s forthcoming non-fiction book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, which turned out to be a marvel, a clear-eyed look at our hometown’s history, its racial divide, and the many forces that brought it low.
Since that night in 2012, Binelli, a contributing editor Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, has published a stack of superb journalism — about Pope Francis, supermax prisons, George Clinton, feral dogs and ruin porn in Detroit, and a U.S. Border Patrol guard who gunned down an unarmed Mexican boy on the far side of the border fence. And now Binelli has published his second novel, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits, a title of considerable irony since Hawkins’s only hit record, “I Put a Spell on You,” qualified him as the quintessential one-hit wonder, though one with an outlandish stage show and a backstory that Binelli found irresistible. Binelli and I met recently in a park near New York’s Chinatown, where we drank beer and talked about books.
The Millions: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits is one weird little book.
Mark Binelli: Thanks very much [laughs]. I take that as a compliment.
TM: In spots the book reads like straight journalism, then it’s almost a biography, then there are passages of pure fantasy, a little autobiography — but somehow it all hangs together. How did you arrive at this strange narrative strategy?
MB: I guess what attracted me to Jay [Hawkins] as a subject initially — I never thought I would write fiction about a musician, I’d been writing about musicians for Rolling Stone for years and that always felt like kind of a separate zone — and honestly it didn’t interest me that much, fictionalizing Jay’s story. I’d been backstage, I’d been on tour buses, I’d been in recording studios with musicians — and the idea of creating made-up scenes that I’d already lived through didn’t hold much appeal. The idea to write about Jay basically came from reading the liner notes on his albums.
TM: So there was no life-long attraction to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins for you?
MB: I loved “I Put a Spell On You” the moment I heard it, which was probably at some point in college. I’m pretty sure my first exposure to it was in the Jim Jarmusch film, Stranger Than Paradise. I immediately thought, this is such a weird fucking song — it’s funny but it’s also very haunting and evil. It’s hard to make a funny song not cross into a novelty song. It was recorded in 1956, so it’s 50 years old, but to record something that’s that timeless, almost out of time, it’s a tough thing to do. So years after I first heard the song I was reading the liner notes to one of his CD’s, and the way his biography unfolded — in his telling — I thought, God, this is the ultimate rock star story/novelistic picaresque.
TM: You say “in his telling” because he was always embellishing his life’s story — claiming that he was adopted and raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, that he studied opera in Cleveland, that he joined the Army at age 14, that he was a middleweight boxing champion in Alaska, that he fathered 75 illegitimate children. Did that attract you as a novelist — the fact that it was almost a made-up life to begin with?
MB: Yeah, that immediately gave me liberties to take him at his word, and then go further than that and make up scenes based on these stories that he told. But back to your original question about how the form came about, it was kind of through that. Once I was attracted to the idea of writing about him as a character, I started thinking about all kinds of different ways I might get at it. At one point I thought it could be kind of cool to write a straight, thoroughly researched biography.
TM: But you rejected that idea.
MB: I rejected that idea ultimately. I liked the perversity of the idea, because he’s not that sort of iconic musician, like John Lennon or Dylan. We could sit here and make a list of hundreds of musicians and Jay would be very, very far down the list of subjects for a biography or a novel or a rock biopic. For me, that was a big part of the appeal. It was such a weird idea to take this marginal figure who had one hit song and who made up all this shit about his life story — and then elevate him into the pantheon of rock gods.
TM: Did you start doing research into a possible biography before the book became a novel?
MB: I did a little bit of research, but pretty quickly I decided it was going to be a novel. And then at that point I decided I didn’t really want to know the truth, which is the opposite of what we have to do in our jobs as journalists. It was very freeing and nice not to want to know if he actually fought in World War II. If I know the truth, it might impair my ability to imagine it.
TM: So in a sense, the less you knew, the freer you were?
MB: Yeah, and I intentionally kind of researched around his stories. I probably could have found his military records and figured that out, but I didn’t want to do that. I did look into whether or not younger kids lied about their age to enlist, and that turns out to be true. I did look into what it was like for an African-American in the Army at that time? — how segregated was the Army? I wanted to get the details kind of right, or at least have a sense in my head of what it might have been like.
TM: Little tiny things, like when Jay goes squirrel hunting as a boy and winds up feeling that killing the squirrel was such a pathetic act — I’ve got to believe there was some autobiography in that. It was such a vivid little grace note.
MB: The funny thing about a lot of the childhood scenes is that some of that is the most autobiographical writing I’ve done. I love the idea of grafting details from my life — a white Italian-American living in 2016, in his 40s — grafting that onto the life of a black singer born in Cleveland in the late-1920s. Being able to mix all that stuff together was really appealing to me.
TM: You mentioned the Jarmusch movie Stranger Than Paradise. Something I was surprised you didn’t include was Screamin’ Jay’s movie parts. He played a hotel clerk in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. There’s that great scene in A Rage in Harlem, based on the Chester Himes novel, where Hawkins is performing “I Put a Spell on You” while Forest Whitaker is trying to dance with Robin Givens. Why didn’t you include some of that stuff?
MB: That did cross my mind, but in my head the book stops with him in Hawaii, sort of in exile. Pretty early on, I became less interested in what he did after that. The only point in the book that jumps forward in time is that one short scene where all of Jay’s offspring have a family reunion.
TM: That actually happened, right?
MB: Again, I’m not sure. There really was a website somebody put together after Jay died called “Jay’s Kids,” and they put out a call to Jay’s offspring to get together. I don’t know if there really was a meeting. Early on, I thought about doing a chapter where I interviewed a bunch of his kids. Then I had an idea about doing a long chapter from the point of view of one of his kids, going around the country trying to meet his lost siblings. I kind of cycled through lots of alternate scenarios. I have a problem picking one book when I start writing a book, and I think that’s partly where this hybrid style comes from.
TM: Have you heard this term “ahistorical fantasia?”
MB: Um, no.
TM: I’ve seen it used in reference to Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! — where there’s a set of historical facts, which the author twists and then adds fantasy on top. Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown is such a book, and I would certainly think Screamin’ Jay would fit in there.
MB: I’ve never heard that term, but I like that kind of book. Based on these first two novels, I guess that’s what I do [laughs].
TM: What is it that you do?
MB: Before I wrote Sacco and Vanzetti, I was trying for years, pretty unsuccessfully, to write short stories taken from my life. It never worked. When I hit upon the idea of Sacco and Vanzetti, part of what worked for me was the history element of it — having something I could research and draw upon. In a way, it connects with my work as a journalist. You go out and talk to people and take notes. You have raw material to work with. With the novels, I liked having raw material to work with — with Sacco and Vanzetti, it was the history of Italian anarchists and film comedy teams; with Screamin’ Jay, it was his story of the world he was living in. I liked having that stuff and then being able to just fuck with it.
TM: So the history is a springboard, a beginning point. It’s not the point.
MB: Right. You can play off of it and mess with people’s expectations. I found that works for me.
TM: What are some other books that you would consider similar in that approach? E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime?
MB: Maybe Ragtime. I loved the book, but Doctorow is not doing anything totally crazy with history. A novel by Kevin Barry, Beatlebone, is a recent example, where he takes this sliver of a fact from history–
TM: That John Lennon actually owned an island off the west coast of Ireland.
MB: — and then he makes up this great taxi driver/fixer character who takes Lennon around on this lost weekend there. I think all of that’s made up. I don’t know if Lennon even visited the island. That’s something great. I think maybe Pynchon to a degree does a lot of that. It’s funny, the other day I was in a Duane Reade and they were playing an old Chuck Berry tune, one of his big hits. I love Chuck Berry, it was a great song, but I heard it and I thought this really sounds like a song from the ’50s. It sounds very dated. And it just made me think how weird “I Put a Spell on You” is — you don’t really know where it comes from. I think that’s partly why it’s been covered so often and in so many different ways. And then Jay’s theatricality was ahead of his time.
TM: He was fucking with political correctness before political correctness existed. Going onstage inside a coffin? With a bone in his nose? Come on!
MB: Right, he was dressing like an African witch doctor from a very racist Looney Tunes cartoon from the ’40s. He knew what he was doing. He was messing with audience expectations — white audience expectations. One of his later records was called Black Music for White People, and it seems to me his stage persona, his get-up, his whole shtick was a way of saying to white audiences, “You think you want authenticity from a black performer? How ’bout this?” I kind of love the idea of that. Again, I don’t know what his true intentions were, but I’ve got think some of that was going on in his head.
TM: Are you going to write about musicians again, other than in your journalism? You think fictionally you’ll attack other musicians?
MB: I don’t have a next project. I have a few rough ideas, but none of them involves music. I stumbled onto Jay’s story and was drawn to it, so it could happen again. You never know.
Of the many high-drama events that occur throughout Alexander Chee’s second novel Queen of the Night, my favorites are identity theft via cancan shoes, murder by fire-breathing, a hot-air balloon escape, and a scandalous curtsy. Queen is a Big Book in every way: within its 550 pages, a lot happens, and it’s “about” a lot of things. Big Books are back, it seems, though I confess I’ve started and chosen not to finish several over the past few years. On the other hand, once I started reading Queen, I could not put it down.
Paris, 1882. A decade into the Third Republic. Our heroine, the celebrated “Falcon” soprano Lilliet Berne — née a Minnesota farm girl whose real name we never learn — makes her entrance at a ball in Luxembourg Palace. Lilliet is also our narrator, and within the first pages she tells us she has had a “premonition” about this return to Paris after an extensive European tour: “I would be here for a meeting with my destiny.” Enter the writer Frédéric Simonet, who corners Lilliet and conveys a proposition: he has written a novel, the novel will be staged as an opera, and she must play the starring role. Unbeknownst to Simonet, the story he describes — of a circus performer, later a courtesan, who sings for the Emperor and so moves him that he bestows upon her a ruby brooch — is Lilliet’s own. She is duly spooked: how does this man know these details of her secret past? Who has prompted him to approach her with the role? What sort of trap is this?
“In an opera this moment would the signal the story had begun, that the heroine’s past had come for her, intent on a review of her sins decreed by the gods.”
And so launches our heroine’s recounting — infused with this decidedly operatic sense of fateful retribution — of her farm girl-to-diva tale. Interspersed with a flashback narrative, which takes place between 1867 and 1872 and features the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 as its central historical crisis, are present-time (a decade later) scenes in which Lilliet confronts characters from that past; for if someone is in cahoots with Simonet, perhaps with malicious intent, she must find out who, and why.
Writers and readers alike will recognize this narrative structure as both familiar and sound: the past and the present move forward simultaneously, criss-crossing at strategic moments, generating suspense upon suspense. Lilliet herself literally, anxiously, turns the pages of Simonet’s novel as she investigates its ulterior intentions, while the reader becomes absorbed in Lilliet’s tale — her unlikely and at times outlandish journey from orphan to opera star, which she recounts in a voice somehow both taut and melodramatic at once:
“I slunk from the bed and stood again in the cold. As I dressed myself in that dim kitchen light, I felt the opposite of ruined. I felt strong again, ready to cross the ocean again.
“I was sore, that was all. And so this felt like a triumph over death, as if I had been dealt a murderous blow and lived.”
The “murderous blow” — her first sexual experience — occurs shortly after her entire family dies from fever. She is alone and hungry; she takes up with a widower who shelters her. The transaction of sex becomes then inevitable, as does the pattern of Lilliet’s life henceforth — bargaining for survival, over and again. Herein perhaps is a key to Chee’s success in crafting a captivating protagonist: our heroine is a celebrity in the Paris opera world, yes, but she never forgets her hardscrabble Methodist roots. Her love of opera — its outsized gestures, symbols, and emotions — is real, while at the same time she has no delusions about life’s essential requirements. When later in the novel, during the Siege of Paris, Lilliet must survive weeks of hunger, we have no trouble believing that she could in fact do so — no matter what gowns and jewels she now dons.
And we love this sort of protagonist, don’t we? In Lilliet, Chee has done that thing that all historical novelists must do well: draw the modern reader into a past world via the glamor of that past (we enjoy detours into evenings at the opera and Rules of the Game type gatherings, as well as cameos from Ivan Turgenev, George Sand, Cora Pearl, Giuseppe Verdi, and others) but also with contemporary ideas and conflicts. Her twisty-turny journey takes Lilliet from farm girl to orphan to circus performer to courtesan, back to orphan, then to servant, again to courtesan, finally to opera singer (there’s more, but no spoilers here); and as she drifts from the street to the conservatory to the ballroom and back again, we are aware that our heroine has a complicated and heterogeneous identity, with all the attending, familiar dilemmas. Lilliet is ultimately a distinctly modern American heroine: the child of parents who “came to settle America for God,” Lilliet must, and can, continually reinvent herself.
In this vein, the episode with the widower sets another pattern: it is from a dead child’s gravestone near the widower’s farm that our heroine takes her name, Lilliet Berne. In a later scene where Lilliet steals yet another identity — from a girl with whom she shares a jail cell and who dies in her sleep — we see Lilliet switching clothing (parting with the aforementioned cancan shoes) and calculating her opportunity: “[S]he couldn’t use her future, and I could.” At this point one can’t help but think of another historically-conceived protagonist of recent years who hit a contemporary nerve: Don Draper. Like Don, Lilliet is a consummate opportunist and chameleon; unlike Don, of course, she is female in a world where what she desires most — independence, love on her own terms — is impossible.
There is a curious way in which Queen of the Night wears its feminism — by which I mean portrays and expresses the timeless female struggle to be free — so heavily that it ultimately wears it lightly. The book does not read so much as an “argument” for female power or independence, nor as an activist cry in the face of female oppression; rather, Chee expresses himself authorially in such a way that you are just enough aware of him — an enlightened, empathic, culturally heterogeneous male in the 21st century crafting this tale — to simply take for granted, even enjoy, the dramatic ways in which this female protagonist’s struggle for self-determination plays out.
Voice is an obvious central trope here: Lilliet is deemed a “Falcon” because her voice is as fragile as it is strong (the soprano Cornélie Falcon lost her voice at age 23); thus, the female voice as both power and liability. As she navigates her successive identities, Lilliet learns that feigning muteness is a useful disguise. In this way Lilliet, and Chee, reclaim traditional female voicelessness in service of self-preservation.
Jewels and dresses figure prominently throughout the plot: jewelry is gifted and worn in acts of love, dominance, charity, regret, rebellion, and terror, and a woman’s choice of gown has the power to determine not only individual but national fates. None of this strikes the reader as particularly farfetched: While Chee may have been having fun with the characters of Louis-Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie, it seems perfectly plausible, and pleasingly so, that it was indeed a rivalry between Eugénie and Louis-Napoléon’s mistress the Comtesse to Castiglione (which involved both jewels and dresses) that catalyzed the Franco-Prussian War. This is just one example among many where Chee fulfills with gusto yet another crucial, if hackneyed, obligation of the historical novelist — to make history “come alive” through human personality. In this sense Queen joins ranks with the best historical novels and made me think, not infrequently as I read, of one of my all-time favorites — E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Lilliet’s dividedness when it comes to romantic prospects is perhaps the most explicitly feminista thread of her story, the one that seems to want to “say” something to our current culture. One man seeks to possess Lilliet, another she falls for “at first sight” — at first listen, actually, as he is a pianist who plays a mesmerizing Frédéric Chopin. While the choice between them seems conventionally obvious throughout most of the story, there is an unsettling moment when she considers romantic love and abusive obsession not so far apart: perhaps the man who essentially imprisoned and raped her, and the man who manipulated her to manage his own fears, are not so different in the end. In trying to more fully inhabit her role as Carmen, Lilliet concludes:
“She loves neither the toreador nor the killer,it came to me as I went on the stage. More than these men, she loves her freedom.”
In other words: Up with single women; down, once and for all, with the derisive notion of a spinster.
For the most part, though, the strain of feminist messaging does not bog the novel down. This is a particularly subjective assessment, I recognize: it did matter to me as I read that the author is male. This character did not seem like someone Chee had to force into a psychology of freedom-seeking: she is a woman the author seems to know better than any, and one the reader thus recognizes instantly. Her desires, conundrums, strategies, and strength are all, at this moment in time — the reader’s historical moment — wonderfully and completely familiar, and written into this story as The New Normal. It’s exhilarating to follow Lilliet, over the course of 550 high-drama pages, as she simply does what needs to be done — as any woman with talent and intelligence would.
Speaking of subjective, this wouldn’t be a piece written by me if I didn’t acknowledge my initial interest in Queen of the Night based on its long-blooming history. Chee’s first novel, the award-winning Edinburgh, was published nearly 15 years ago, in 2001. By lit-world norms, and for someone as visible and active in the literary community as Chee — he teaches, has written for The Rumpus and The Morning News among other publications, won a Whiting Award and an NEA grant, was named one of Out’s 100 Most Influential People, hüber-active on social media, and is an editor of LitHub — 15 years is quite a long time. There was also a first novel preceding Edinburgh — a “Great American Novel” type as he puts it — that he was unable to publish.
Queen of the Night is itself the protagonist of a twisty-turny narrative — much of which Chee describes in his recent interview with our own Claire Cameron. The novel began with inspiration from a real historical figure, Jenny Lind, aka the Swedish Nightingale, and a fruitfully mistaken notion on Chee’s part that she had sung with a circus. When I asked Chee if the novel had always been conceived in the first person, and/or if he had hesitated to take on a female voice, he wrote:
There were seasons of hesitation and apprehension. I put the novel down for three years before I finally sold it because I was both drawn to and afraid of the idea, sure that I knew that woman on the train very well and then later sure that the vision had tricked me into making a terrible mistake that I just couldn’t see.
When he did sell the novel, it was sold based on 115 early pages and a synopsis, with a manuscript due date of 2006. In 2008, the novel still very much in progress, Chee’s editor at Houghton Mifflin was laid off; thus began Queen’s fittingly itinerant quest, including a total of four different editors to date.
Cameron’s interview focuses on Chee’s coping with the low points and dismay of Queen’s odyssey. As a fellow novelist who struggled mightily with novel #2, I felt the following like a punch in the gut:
The longer the novel wasn’t published, the more it seemed to endanger everything in my life — my ability to get teaching work, to successfully apply for grants, my relationship, future projects. Each small delay, each mistake, each wrong turn in the writing became enormous as a result and it was unendurable in the last two years.
But Chee endured; and so, I believe, will the critical acclaim that has and will be showered on Queen of the Night. The novel thus has a personal resonance for me as a testament to persistence, and to the pursuit of a driving, ambitious artistic vision that just won’t cooperate with conventions of time and career progress.
A Big Book asks a lot of the reader, who is also a busy person eager to get on to other books and her own projects. When a Big Book doesn’t satisfy, the reader feels especially betrayed: in the contract between reader and writer, the stakes are higher. Some might feel that the bigger the book, the more forgiving we are as readers: surely among so many pages, there will be bagginess and flaws and plot points that ring false.
The truth is I did put Queen down — for a couple of days at the point where the past and present-time threads converged. This occurs approximately three-fourths of the way through and felt like the moment to take a breath. Lilliet readies herself for the dramatic finale, and so do we. When I picked it back up, I found that the final 130 pages read differently: with so many plot points finding their resolutions, mysteries solved and threads reaching back toward details that both Lilliet and the reader brushed over, I became confused and frequently flipped back and forth to earlier scenes.
I also found myself less engaged by extended descriptions of operatic plots. Faust, Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lamermoor, La Sonnambula, Carmen, Orphée aux enfers, The Magic Flute, among others, all figure significantly into Lilliet’s story. The novel is true to Lilliet’s initial premonition, that her life is an opera and vice versa, so the material is utterly relevant. Still, if you are like me — a listener and a fan, but not a buff — those sections may feel more opaque than others. Chee is at his best, I think, when he is doing opera, via Lilliet’s life, as opposed to describing it.
I am not one to be more forgiving of a Big Book when it comes to the interruption of John Gardner’s notorious vivid continuous dream; but what is notable about these so-called “flaws” is that they are also part and parcel of what makes Queen worth reading. It’s a challenging novel in addition to a page-turning one. You feel, as you read, that you are being swept away by this delicious plot and voice, and that the novel wants to be read slowly — is actually smarter and deeper and more intricately constructed than can be appreciated at its decidedly propulsive pace. Great books satisfy in that particular way, leaving you sated and spent, but at the same time craving to do it all over again. Queen is a book that I look forward to rereading, savoring, studying for my own novelistic purposes. And when I do, it would not surprise me if those flaws were revealed as my own.
Once again in 2015 some of the literary firmament’s brightest stars were extinguished. We lost a pair of Nobel laureates, a pair of former U.S. poets laureate, beloved novelists, prize-winning poets, a tireless human rights activist, a wily agent, a revered teacher, a champion of black writers, a writer of shameless sexcapades, and memoirists who refused to flinch when dissecting their first-hand experiences with addiction, persecution, disease, and the horrors of Jim Crow. Here is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2015.
The Robert Stone novel that sticks in my mind is Dog Soldiers, winner of the 1975 National Book Award, the story of a Vietnam-to-California heroin smuggling scheme gone horribly wrong. It’s also a singular portrait of how the blissed-out ’60s, which Stone experienced first-hand with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, turned into one very bad trip. Stone, who died on Jan. 10 at 77, produced eight big novels, a pair of story collections, and a memoir, books in which danger is everywhere, Americans behave badly either at home or in some far-flung hot spot, and neither God nor any hope of salvation is to be found. Stone was an American rarity: a writer who dared to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and never stumbled.
Anne Moody produced just two books in her lifetime, but her debut, the wrenching memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, is as timely today as it was when it appeared in 1968. Moody, who died on Feb. 5 at 74, told in spare unflinching prose what it was like for the daughter of black sharecroppers to grow up in the Jim Crow deep South, and then to dare to join the civil rights struggle. She worked with various organizations — the Congress for Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — once getting dragged by her hair from a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, while watching a fellow protester get bloodied by a brass-knuckle punch. After leaving the movement, she moved to New York City, where she wrote her memoir, then lived quietly for decades working non-writing jobs. Late in life, she acknowledged to an interviewer that writing her memoir had taught her a painful lesson: “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”
Moody’s only other book was a slim collection of short stories for young people called Mr. Death.
In 1976 I came upon a book of poems that proved that art can be made from absolutely anything, including a night-shift job at the Chevy Gear & Axle factory in Detroit. The book was peopled with autoworkers, fading boxers, and working stiffs, people who stubbornly refuse to admit defeat in the face of the monstrous forces that belittle them. The book was called Not This Pig, the second volume of poems by a Detroit native named Philip Levine, who died on Feb. 14 at 87. On the back cover, Levine explained that the book is filled with “the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all costs and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’” Reading that book was the birth of a passion for Levine’s poetry that endures to this day and shows no signs of flagging.
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at 14 — the first in a long string of factory jobs that could have crushed his body and spirit but instead gave him the raw material for a body of work that would win him high honors, a devoted readership, and a stint as U.S. poet laureate. His great subject was the people who do the brutal manual labor that usually gets ignored, by poets and everyone else. When I wrote an appreciation of Levine four years ago (here), I quoted a 1999 interview in which Levine realized, looking back, that Not This Pig was the book that gave him his voice.
“Those were my first good Detroit work poems — the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine said. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work…I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it — that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
Günther Grass’s life turned out to be an illustration of just how treacherous and slippery the high moral ground can be. After blazing onto the world literary stage with his 1959 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, Grass spent his long and productive career as Germany’s self-anointed conscience, pushing his countrymen to face up to the dark strains of their history, especially the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Grass, who died on April 13 at 87, railed against militarism and nuclear proliferation, opposed German unification, denounced the Catholic and Lutheran churches, supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and spoke of the “unchecked lust for profit” that drove German companies to sell weaponry to Saddam Hussein. He also found time to be a novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, poet, sculptor, and printmaker. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But it was not until 2006, on the eve of the publication of a memoir, Peeling the Onion, that a dark truth emerged. For years Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer during the war, one of many youths charged with guarding antiaircraft gunneries. But finally he admitted that he had been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, notorious for committing many atrocities. Though Grass was not implicated in any war crimes, the belated revelation caused a furor.
“My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,” he explained. “It had to come out in the end.” In the memoir he added, “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept silent.’”
James Salter is often pinned with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer.” Even worse, James Wolcott called Salter America’s “most under-rated under-rated writer.” I prefer to remember Salter, who died on June 19 at 90, as a writer of gem-like sentences that added up to a handful of highly accomplished novels and short stories, a man who lived a long and fruitful life and, in the bargain, had no peer when it came to writing about flight.
In 1952 Salter flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 jet, hunting and fighting MiG-15s in the skies over Korea. His writing about flying — most notably in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir, Burning the Days — has won high praise, including this accolade from a fellow military pilot, Will Mackin: “Salter’s writing about flying made me miss flying even while I was still flying.” Salter took a dim view of such praise: “I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”
So who was James Salter? A writer who put the exact right words in the exact right order to produce books full of beauty and insight and pain — six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, essays on food and travel, and a memoir. (Salter also wrote screenplays, including the 1969 Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer. It wasn’t art, Salter acknowledged, but the Hollywood money was wonderful.) Salter was also a writer who craved the broad popularity that never came his way. He explained the craving this way: “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.”
Like Philip Levine before him, Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at 79, turned his indifferent early years into indelible writing. Instead of soul-crushing factory jobs, Weesner had to contend with an alcoholic father and a teenage mother who abandoned him and his older brother when they were toddlers. After living in a foster home and dropping out of high school to join the Army at 17, Weesner went on to attend Michigan State University and earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Worskhop.
His first novel, The Car Thief, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim, and it has become a cult classic. The novel, which was reissued in 1987 as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series, reads as neither a screed nor a cry for help, but rather as a tender and clear-eyed portrait of a troubled boy, 16-year-old Alex Housman, whose only available means of self-expression is to steal cars. Weesner went on to produce half a dozen other works of fiction, which, like his debut, won critical praise but a modest readership. Late in life, Weesner seemed to come to terms with his fate. In 2007 he told an interviewer, “I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot…The Car Thief got a lot of awards and praise and was widely reviewed. And (since) then no one has given me a whole lot of credit.”
I would not presume to single out the best book by E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at 84. But I’m convinced Ragtime was both his best loved and his most influential book. Published in 1975, it did something unheard-of at the time: it mingled fictional characters with historical figures — Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and many others — to create a vivid portrait of America on the eve of the First World War, the dying moments of the nation’s heedless exuberance and innocence. The novel was not universally loved. John Updike famously dissed it, and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of it. “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said,” Doctorow said years later. “Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
Ragtime opened the gates for writers of wildly different temperaments to start inserting historical figures into their novels, either at center stage or in the background. These writers included Joyce Carol Oates (who channeled Marilyn Monroe), Colum McCann (Rudolf Nureyev, Philippe Petit, and Frederick Douglass, among others), James McBride and Russell Banks (John Brown), and Don DeLillo (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby). For Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Doctorow’s fiction — including Loon Lake and World’s Fair, but especially Ragtime — offered novelists a “magic way out” of the confining box made by the reigning ’70s vogues of “dirty realism” and post-modernism. In The Guardian two days after Doctorow’s death, Chabon wrote, “In opening that particular door, Doctorow made a startling discovery: done properly, the incorporation of historical figures into a fictional context did not come off as some kind of smart-ass critique of subjectivity and the fictive nature of history. Done properly it just made the lies you were telling your reader — with his or her full and willing consent, of course — sound that much more true. And that small-t truth then became a powerful tool for getting across whatever Truth, subjective or fragmentary though it might be, that you felt you had it in you to express.”
By the time she died on Sept. 19 at 77, Jackie Collins had produced some 30 steamy novels that tended to carry a Hollywood zip code and sold more than half a billion copies. Collins, who was born in London, was refreshingly candid about the shameless commercialism of her fiction. “I never pretended to be a literary writer,” she once said. “I am a school dropout.”
Her writing style brought to mind the USA Today columns of Al Neuharth — short sentences, liberal use of fragments, no words that would send readers to the dictionary. Her books were also loaded with sex, beginning with her debut, The World Is Full of Married Men, from 1968, when, as Collins put it, “no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.” Perhaps Collins’s keenest insight was to understand that literature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so she set about filling it to the brim. And she did her research. While still a teenager, she visited her actress sister Joan in Hollywood, where she met and bedded a hot young actor named Marlon Brando. When an interviewer suggested in 2007 that America had become a great big titillating Jackie Collins novel, she replied, “That’s true. When Clinton had his affair and the Starr report came out, reviewers actually said, ‘This is like a Jackie Collins novel.’ But in my books, the sex is better.”
Grace Lee Boggs
The indefatigable social activist and prolific author Grace Lee Boggs died in Detroit on Oct. 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. While earning degrees from Barnard and Bryn Mawr, she steeped herself in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, then moved to Chicago and started organizing protests against slum housing.
Her life changed in 1953, when she relocated to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker and activist. Together they plunged into the city’s radical politics, protesting racism, sexism, and police brutality. Malcolm X was a frequent visitor in their home. When fires and shootings swept Detroit in the summer of 1967 — a justified rebellion, not a senseless riot, in the eyes of Boggs and her fellow radicals — she reached what she described as “a turning point in my life.” She began shunning confrontation in favor of nonviolent strategies, a path she followed for the rest of her days. She founded food cooperatives and community groups to fight crime and to stand up for the elderly, the unemployed, and people fighting utility shutoffs. She planted community gardens. Always, she kept writing. She published her autobiography, Living for Change, in 1998. In her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011, the former radical aligned herself with Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Here are some other noteworthy literary deaths from 2015, in alphabetical order:
John Bayley, 89, was an Oxford don and literary critic whose moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, recounted his life with his wife, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Iris Murdoch, both before and after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy was published in 1999, shortly before Murdoch died, and two years later it was made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Judi Dench as the ailing Murdoch.
David Carr, 58, was a celebrated New York Times columnist who weathered cancer, alcoholism, and crack cocaine addiction, then wrote about his battles with verve and black humor in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.
Assia Djebar, 78, was an Algerian-born novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker who was often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for her unflinching explorations of the plight of women in the male-dominated Arab world. Djebar was also adept at kicking down doors. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman admitted to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française. Despite these achievements, she insisted, “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing.”
Ivan Doig, 75, produced 16 works of fiction and non-fiction that celebrated his native western Montana, where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” Doig, whose affecting final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously, liked to say he came from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” The critic Sven Birkerts called him “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.”
When Charles F. Harris, who died on Dec. 16 at 81, went to work as an editor at Doubleday in the mid-1950s, the work of black writers was a niche market that was treated more like a ghetto by New York publishing houses. Harris helped change that, most notably as chief executive of the nation’s first black university press, Howard University Press, where he published Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, Walter Rodney, and many other black writers. Harris also founded Amistad Press, which published critical volumes on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, among others.
Jack Leggett, 97, was a novelist, biographer, editor, and teacher who was the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1970 to 1987. He stocked the nation’s oldest creative writing program with big-name teaching talent, including John Cheever, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, and Leggett’s eventual successor, Frank Conroy. Students included Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Denis Johnson. During Leggett’s tenure there was a fundamental shift in students’ approach to writing, which he summarized this way after a decade on the job: “In 1970 there were a lot of kids out of the armed forces and the Peace Corps. They were an undisciplined lot. They would say, ‘Don’t tell me about form.’ Now they are very interested in technique. They want to know what novelists have done in the past. And it shows in their work.”
When Leggett arrived in Iowa City there were about a dozen creative writing programs in the country. Today, for better or worse, there are more than 200.
Colleen McCullough, 77, was a neurophysiological researcher who decided to write novels in her spare time and wound up striking gold with her second book, the international bestseller The Thorn Birds, in 1977. A panoramic tale of McCullough’s native land, it was made into a popular TV mini-series and was often called “the Australian Gone With the Wind.”
The Scottish writer William McIlvanney, 79, became known as “the father or Tartan noir” for his novels featuring the Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw. McIlvanney was also a poet, essayist, teacher, short story writer, TV narrator, and, in the eyes of The Telegraph, “the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, 66, the knighted British novelist, produced more than 70 immensely popular works of fantasy, including the series known as Discworld. It was a Frisbee-shaped place balanced on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a giant turtle, a place populated by witches and trolls and a ravenous character known as Death. While frequently ignored by serious critics, Pratchett had fans in high places. A.S. Byatt applauded his abundant gifts, not least his ability to write “amazing sentences.”
Ruth Rendell, 85, was the British author of more than 60 mystery novels that hit the trifecta: they were intricately plotted, psychologically acute, and immensely popular with readers and critics, selling some 60 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was her most durable character and a sort of alter-ego. “I’m not creating a character,” Rendell said, “so much as putting myself as a man on the page.” Along with her friend P.D. James, who died in 2014, Rendell is credited with exploding the confines of the mystery genre. In a 2013 interview, Rendell vowed she would never stop writing. “I’ll do it until I die,” she said. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October, five months after her death.
Oliver Sacks, 82, was a neurologist who used his patients’ conditions, from amnesia to Tourette’s syndrome, as starting points for his bestselling books about the human brain and the human condition. He called his books “neurological novels.” More than a million copies are in print.
Timothy Seldes, 88, was one of the last of a vanishing breed — an old-school literary agent and editor who believed that literature should be seen as a vital source of oxygen for the nation’s culture, not as product that needs to be moved. How quaint. He was, in a word, a gentleman, whose devoted clients included Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, Annie Dillard, and Nadine Gordimer.
William Jay Smith, 97, was a poet, critic, memoirist, translator, and teacher who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1968 to 1970. His poems, both tactile and empirical, embraced rhyme, meter, and other conventions deemed passé by many of his contemporaries. To his credit, Smith ignored them. In “Structure of a Song,” he offered this lovely anatomy of the making of a poem:
Its syllables should come
As natural and thorough
As sunlight over plum
Or melon in the furrow,
Rise smoother than the hawk
Or gray gull ever could;
As proud and freely walk
As deer in any wood.
So lightly should it flow
From stone so deep in earth
That none could ever know
What torment gave it birth.
James Tate, 71, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who believed “the challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary.” His 17th book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, has come out posthumously, and it’s marked by his trademark surrealism and wordplay, deployed in narrative-driven prose poems that Tate turned to in his later years. He never lost his child’s sense of wonder at the plastic magic of language, its ability to startle. These lines come from his final book:
I was sitting on the porch when I watched my neighbor’s kids walk by on their way to school. One of them turned and waved to me. I waved back. That’s when I realized they were zombies.
Tomas Tranströmer, 83, was an accomplished pianist, an amateur entomologist, and a trained psychologist who worked with juvenile offenders. He was also a popular and beloved poet, sometimes called “Sweden’s Robert Frost,” whose crystalline, sometimes chilly poems won a Nobel Prize in 2011.
C.K. Williams, 78, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who, unlike James Tate, wrote morally charged, politically impassioned poems about such weighty topics as poverty, love, death, war, climate change, and the shootings at Kent State University. Like Tate, Williams moved toward longer ribbony lines that freed him to “talk about things.” Shortly before he died, from multiple myeloma, Williams completed a collection of poems about death and dying. He called it Falling Ill.
Rest in peace. Through your words you will all live on.
Two debut novels – one freshly published, the other on its way to becoming a classic – have reminded me that for the past century American writers and artists have been obsessed with that shimmering, sexy, liberating, lethal contraption known as the automobile. Small wonder. Is there a more potent metaphor for American restlessness, for the American hunger for status and sex, for the American tendency to wind up, broken and bloody, in a ditch?
In a thesis written in 2007, a doctoral candidate named Shelby Smoak neatly summed up the role of the automobile in American fiction as a way for characters to experience “violence, sacredness and consumption.” Reversing this order, cars give writers and artists a way to talk about that unholy troika: status, escape (including sexual escapades), and death. In the bargain, the automobile, which introduced the concept of planned obsolescence back in the 1930s, is the shiny embodiment of American capitalism’s relentless quest to make consumers hunger for the next new thing, whether they need it or not.
The first of the two debut novels that brought all this home to me is Lot Boy by Buffalo native Greg Shemkovitz, just published by Sunnyoutside Press. It’s the story of Eddie Lanning, a twentysomething fuckup in Buffalo who works as the titular lot boy, performer of the lowliest tasks at the Ford dealership founded by his late grandfather and now run by his father, who’s dying of cancer. All Eddie wants to do is hook back up with his former girlfriend and get the hell out of Buffalo. To finance his escape, Eddie’s working a scam selling hot auto parts from the dealership, which inspires this rosy portrait of the local scenery:
To get here, you have to go through a shitty part of South Buffalo to get to an even shittier section, until you cross a bridge into the wetlands and fields and eventually hit the rundown industrial lakeshore. Seeing all this decay and frozen debris pass by my windows, I realize that the only reason anyone would come here is to sell stolen auto parts to somebody who would only come here to buy them.
Among its many virtues, this novel offers a peek behind the curtain of a world few people have experienced – the claustrophobic, corrupt, filthy, noisy, inefficient and mind-numbingly banal world of a Big Three car dealership. Reading Lot Boy, you’ll find yourself rooting for Eddie’s escape, while coming to understand why the American automobile industry went so far down the toilet that the U.S. taxpayer had to reach in and pull it out. Here’s the terse but uplifting author note at the end of this winning novel: “Greg Shemkovitz left Buffalo.”
Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at age 79, published his debut novel in 1972 to foam-at-the-mouth critical praise but modest sales. The Car Thief is the sometimes brutal, sometimes tender story of a troubled teenage boy named Alex Housman whose biography has much in common with Weesner’s. Alex’s hard-drinking mother abandoned him in infancy, and after spending some time in foster care he’s now growing up in a Michigan factory town, living with his alcoholic father, an autoworker. To give his “uncounted” life some account, Alex steals cars and takes them on aimless drives before abandoning them and stealing again. It’s the only means of self-expression available to a boy in such stunted circumstances. Here’s the novel’s opening:
Again today Alex Housman drove the Buick Riviera. The Buick, coppertone, white sidewalls, was the model of the year, a ’59, although the 1960 models were already out. Its upholstery was black, its windshield was tinted a thin color of motor oil. The car’s heater was issuing a stale and odorous warmth, but Alex remained chilled. He had walked several blocks through snow and slush, wearing neither hat nor gloves nor boots, to where he had left the car the night before. The steering wheel was icy in his hands, and he felt icy within, throughout his veins and bones. Alex was sixteen; the Buick was his fourteenth car.
There is not a shred of sentimentality or self-pity in this book, and it never sinks to the dreary level of a treatise on “the juvenile delinquent problem.” This is a work of art, fuelled by all those purloined Buick Rivieras and Chevy Bel Airs. In the end, like Lot Boy, it is less a coming-of-age story than a story about our shared yearning to escape.
Here are a dozen other writers and artists who have used the automobile to tell stories about Americans on their way to escape, status and death, sometimes all three. This list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. Feel free to offer your own additions:
E.L. Doctorow, the renowned novelist and fiction writer best known for books including Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and the National Book Award-winning World’s Fair, passed away in Manhattan last night at the age of 84. You could read one of our numerous pieces about his work if you’d like to look back on his life and career.
Miniatures on a Broad Canvas
At the National Book Awards ceremony in New York City on November 2, E.L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On that night he joined a rarefied posse of past recipients that includes Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, John Ashbery, and Elmore Leonard, among others. The award formalized something legions of readers have known for more than half a century: E.L. Doctorow is a national treasure.
While I wouldn’t presume to single out one of Doctorow’s dozen novels or story collections as his “best” book, I do think it is fair to say that, so far, his best known and best loved work is the novel Ragtime. And I would argue that this has also been his most influential book, the one that has done more than all the others to change the way American authors approach the writing of novels.
Ragtime, like so much of Doctorow’s fiction, is pinned to a particular, acutely rendered moment in American history. In other novels he has taken us back to the Wild West (Welcome to Hard Times, 1960), the Civil War (The March, 2005), post-bellum New York City (The Waterworks, 1994), the Depression (World’s Fair, 1985, winner of the National Book Award; Loon Lake, 1980; and Billy Bathgate, 1989), and the Cold War (The Book of Daniel, 1971).
In Ragtime he takes us back to the years immediately preceding the First World War, when America and much of the world lived in a state of dreamy innocence, oblivious that twinned calamities loomed. The book’s theme, as I read it, is that such innocence is an untenable luxury, then and now, and its inevitable loss is always laced with trauma, pain, and bloodshed. To heighten the trauma, Doctorow first builds a nearly pastoral world. Here is the novel’s serene opening:
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
In just four deceptively simple sentences, Doctorow has established the novel’s tone and central strategy. The key word in this passage is seemed, for it hints that this stout manse will not be able to provide the stability it promises. More subtly – and crucially – Doctorow also establishes a slippery narrative voice, which will be a key to the novel’s success. When we learn that “Father” built this house, we assume that the man’s son or daughter is narrating the story. Later references to “Grandfather” and “Mother” and “Mother’s Younger Brother” and “the Little Boy” reinforce the familial sleight of hand. But three sentences after the intimate introduction of “Father,” Doctorow switches to the impersonal third-person plural and tells us that after “the family” took possession of the house, it seemed that “their” days would be warm and fair. It is a deft shift of focus, a quiet, barely noticeable pulling back, but it gives Doctorow the freedom to have it both ways – to paint miniatures on a broad canvas. The strategy is crucial to everything that will follow.
The novel was stylistically innovative in other ways. The paragraphs are long, unbroken by quoted dialog. This allows Doctorow to immerse the reader in the seamless atmosphere of a particular place and time. In the middle of the novel’s long opening paragraph, Doctorow plays the gambit that will become the novel’s signature and the source of its enduring influence on the way many American novelists work right up to today: he starts injecting historical figures into his fictional world.
The gambit unfolds like this: “Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes. In New York City the papers were full of the shooting of the famous architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, eccentric scion of a coke and railroad fortune. Harry K. Thaw was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated beauty who had once been Stanford White’s mistress.” A few lines later Emma Goldman, the revolutionary, strolls onto the page. Soon after that, Harry Houdini wrecks his car, “a black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” in front of the family’s house in New Rochelle. Five pages in, and Doctorow is already off to the races.
In the course of the novel we’ll meet the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Dreiser, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and Emiliano Zapata. With one exception – a luncheon meeting between Ford and Morgan – the appearance of these historical figures feels unforced and plausible. Doctorow’s historical research is obviously prodigious, but the reader never feels that the author is emptying his notebook or showing off. The historical details, such as Houdini’s “black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” are chosen carefully and slipped into the narrative without fanfare. In other words, Doctorow’s mastery of his material and his narrative voice prevents the novel’s central conceit from sliding into mere schtick.
From Kohlhase to Kohlhaas to Coalhouse
All writing comes from other writing, and of course E.L. Doctorow was not the first writer to populate a fictional narrative with historical figures. It just seemed that way to many people when Ragtime was published, to great fanfare, in the summer of 1975.
But as Doctorow happily admitted in an interview in 1988, Ragtime sprang from a very specific source – an 1810 novella called Michael Kohlhaas by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The parallels between the two books are unmistakable. In Kleist’s novella, the title character is based on an historical figure, a 16th-century horse dealer named Hans Kohlhase, who seeks justice when he is swindled out of two horses and a servant, a campaign that wins the support of Martin Luther but eventually leads to Kohlhass’s violent death; in Doctorow’s novel, the black musician Coalhouse Walker mounts an equally fierce campaign for justice when his pristine Model T is desecrated by a company of racist firemen, a campaign that wins the support of Booker T. Washington but eventually leads to Coalhouse’s violent death.
“Kleist is a great master,” Doctorow told the interviewer. “I was first attracted to his prose, his stories, and the location of his narrative somewhere between history and fiction… Ragtime is a quite deliberate homage. You know, writers lift things from other writers all the time. I always knew I wanted to use Michael Kohlhaas in some way, but I didn’t know until my black musician was driving up the Broadview Avenue hill in his Model T Ford that the time had come to do that.”
Ragtime’s Ragged Spawn
I read Ragtime not as a conventional historical novel – that is, a novel that hangs its fictions on a scaffold of known events – but rather as a novel that makes selective use of historical figures and events to create its own plausible but imaginary past. Yes, Doctorow did his research and he includes factual renderings of numerous historical figures and events, but these are springboards for his imaginings, not the essence of his enterprise. Put another way, Doctorow is after truth, not mere facts. But as he set out to write the book he understood that a prevailing hunger for facts had put the art of conventional storytelling under extreme pressure. He explained it this way in a 2008 interview with New York magazine: “I did have a feeling that the culture of factuality was so dominating that storytelling had lost all its authority. I thought, If they want fact, I’ll give them facts that will leave their heads spinning.” And when William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of the novel, Doctorow remarked, “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
I think he’s right. Doctorow’s selective use of historical figures and events lends Ragtime its air of verisimilitude without robbing him of the freedom to imagine and distort and mythologize. It is, for a writer of fiction, the best of all possible worlds. Small wonder, then, that Doctorow’s strategy, radical in 1975, is now so commonplace that it’s impossible to keep up with the torrent of novels, short stories, and movies that owe a debt to his act of transgression.
(For an interesting take on how transgressions can become commonplace, go see the 100th-anniversary recreation of the Armory Show, currently at the New York Historical Society. Works by Duchamp, Matisse, and Gauguin that shocked America in 1913 – the precise moment when Ragtime is set – are now part of the Modernist canon, tame and acceptable.)
Colum McCann, the decorated Irish writer now living in New York, is among the many writers who have come around to Doctorow’s way of writing novels. McCann’s early fiction is loosely based on historical events but populated with fictional characters. Then in 2003 he published Dancer, a fictional telling of Rudolf Nureyev’s life. McCann’s National Book Award-winning novel from 2009, Let the Great World Spin, pivots on Philippe Petit’s mesmerizing high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Earlier this year, McCann published TransAtlantic, a triptych that fictionalizes the stories of three journeys across the ocean by actual historical figures: the aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown; the abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and the former U.S. Senator and peace envoy George Mitchell. In an interview with The Guardian, McCann explained his shift toward historical figures and events over the past decade by citing a maxim from the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “The real is as imagined as the imaginary.” It follows that the imagined is as real as the real. McCann added, “I said about 12 years ago that writing about biographical figures showed a sort of failure of the writer’s imagination.” And then? “Absolutely busted. Because then I wrote Dancer…and then more or less ever since I’ve been hovering in this territory.”
He’s not alone. Here is a list, far from exhaustive and widely varying in quality, of Ragtime’s progeny, with some of the historical figures who appear in each work: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Marilyn Monroe); Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (John Brown); Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (the mass-murderer Harry F. Powers); Hollywood by Gore Vidal (William Randolph Hearst, Warren Harding, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks – not to mention Vidal’s more conventional historical novels such as Lincoln, Burr and 1876); The Public Burning by Robert Coover (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, the Marx Brothers); Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More); The Women by T.C. Boyle (Frank Lloyd Wright); DaVinci’s Bicycle by Guy Davenport (Picasso, Leonardo, Joyce, and Apollinaire); Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda and Scott, Hem, Ezra Pound); Dead Stars and Still Holding by Bruce Wagner (Michael Douglas, the Kardashians, a Russell Crowe look-alike and a Drew Barrymore look-alike); The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Franco, Truman, Stalin, Churchill, Mao); and the movies Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks meets Elvis, Bear Bryant, JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon) and Zelig (Woody Allen brushes up against Babe Ruth, Adolph Hitler, and others in this faux documentary, with added commentary from the real-life Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim).
The last three items on this list illustrate the dangers of the strategy Doctorow pursued in Ragtime. In each of these three works, the central character encounters historical figures by pure chance and for no good reason, other than to amuse the reader or audience, or show off the filmmaker’s technical wizardry. There is nothing organic or plausible about any of these contrived encounters, and they drag the works down to the level of mere schtick.
On the other end of spectrum is one of Ragtime’s worthiest successors, the under-appreciated 1990 novel Silver Light by David Thomson, a writer best known for A Biographical Dictionary of Film. The novel takes the central conceit of Ragtime – fictional characters interacting with historical figures – and then gives it a delicious twist. Using the medium he knows so well, the movies, Thomson gives us a rambling cast of characters, a mix of real and imagined people and – here’s the twist – the actors who played some of them in movies. It was not until I read the extensive Note on Characters at the end of the book that I understood the histories of these people. The character Noah Cross, for instance, was lifted directly from the 1974 movie Chinatown. The (real? imagined?) character Susan Garth is the cantankerous 80-year-old daughter of a cattle rancher named Matthew Garth, who was played by Montgomery Clift in the 1948 Howard Hawks movie Red River, which was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase. Thomson makes superb use of this layered source material. In a scene that goes to the heart of such fiction, Thomson puts Susan Garth on the Red River set outside Willcox, Arizona, in 1946 with Hawks, Clift, and John Wayne. No one on the movie crew is aware that Susan is the daughter of the character Clift is playing in the movie. She has told Hawks her name is Hickey, and when Clift arrives on the set, Hawks performs the introductions:
“Miss Hickey…may I introduce Mr. Clift, our Matthew Garth?”
The spurious father and the unknown daughter shook hands, worlds and fifty years apart.
“Interesting role you’ve got,” said Susan.
“Well, look,” grinned Clift, tolerantly, “this is just a Western, you know.”
“Still,” she persevered, “the real Garth. He was an unusual fellow.”
“Hey, Howard,” whined Clift, “was Garth a real person? Is that right?”
Delicate and dangerous, Howard saunteringly rejoined them. “There are no real people,” he told them. “See if they sue.”
There are no real people; there are only the ones we can imagine truly. When I read Hawks’s made-up words, I could hear echoes of Clifford Geertz and Colum McCann and E.L. Doctorow and every writer on my incomplete and ever-growing list.
The I’s Have It
This homage to Ragtime would not be complete without mention of two related strains of fiction. In the first, a writer places a historical figure at center stage and then attempts to channel that character’s voice and enter his mind. One of this strain’s early avatars was the wildly popular 1934 novel I, Claudius, in which Robert Graves set out to refute the conventional view that the man who ruled the Roman Empire from 41 to 54 A.D. was a stuttering, doddering idiot. (Graves followed it a year later with Claudius the God.) Jerry Stahl took on a similar revisionist challenge in 2008 with I, Fatty, a look into the dark soul of the supposedly sunny silent-movie star Roscoe Arbuckle. Other figures from history, literature, and myth who have become titles of I, ______ novels include Hogarth, Iago and Lucifer. And then there are such masterpieces of ventriloquism as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Margeurite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (whose narrator, fictional 111-year-old Jack Crabb, recounts his encounters with such historical figures as Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok).
In the Epilogue to Little Big Man, Ralph Fielding Snell, the fictional character who tape-recorded Jack Crabb’s reminiscences of the West, offers this caveat about their veracity: “So as I take my departure, dear reader, I leave the choice in your capable hands. Jack Crabb was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions.” Or maybe he was both. Does it matter? This novel, like Ragtime, is distinguished not by the facts it relates, but by the truths it reveals.
The second strain is something that has come to be known as “self-insertion,” which sounds like a sexual kink but is actually the increasingly common practice of writers inserting themselves, as characters with their own names, into their novels and stories. The practice – gimmick? – has proven irresistible to Ben Marcus, Jonathan Ames, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Philip Roth, and Nick Tosches, among others. As the wave of postmodernism became a tsunami, this trend was probably inevitable; mercifully it’s not yet universal. I can’t imagine coming across a character named E.L. Doctorow in a novel by E.L. Doctorow. His imagination is too rich and too demanding to allow such a thing.
Too Much Like Work
With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination now upon us, it’s worth noting that the events in Dallas in November of 1963 continue to inspire a steadily growing shelf of American fiction, movies, and TV shows. Among the writers and filmmakers who have mined the assassination for fictional ends are Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Oliver Stone, Bobbi Kornblit, J.G. Ballard, and Stephen King. For readers operating under the illusion that novelists and filmmakers use historical figures and events as crutches for a hobbled imagination, listen to Stephen King’s thoughts on the research that went into the writing of his novel, 11/22/63: “I have never tried anything like that before and I’m not sure I would ever want to try it again because, man, it was too much like work.”
E.L. Doctorow has been doing that hard work for more than half a century, producing novels and stories that have illuminated the American soul by bringing American history to life. It’s why he deserves his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It’s what makes him a national treasure.
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?
This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
ekphrasis (/’ek.fr ə-səs\): a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art; from the Greek ἔκφρασις (ekphrasis, “description”), from ekphrazein, to recount, describe; from ex- out + phrazein to point out, explain.
It’s no coincidence that ekphrasis shares its prefix with ecstasy. Originally used as a rhetorical device, ekphrasis — a technique for translating music, performance, or visual art into words — has traditionally gone beyond objective description, past art theory or criticism, to express an emotion or make some kind of subjective declaration. And often — because after all, this is art we’re talking about — that assertion is one of great joy. From Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa,” the best art about art is born out of passion for the original.
But what happens when the work in question is too wonderful for words? How might a writer go about describing the indescribable — a painting, for instance — so moving, so sexy, so game-changing as to defy the vocabulary of formal analysis?
Maybe he doesn’t. Perhaps, instead of relying on the conventional tools of ekphrasis, such a work demands that the tale of its equally ecstatic creation be told instead. Thomas Van Essen’s The Center of the World is such a novel, and it may not surprise a receptive reader that it has a few things to say as well about beauty and decay, luck and the gods, class, mortality, and the power of art to transform lives.
The Center of the World is, simply, the story of a painting. But the eponymous painting, a full-figure portrait of Helen of Troy by the 19th-century British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner, turns out to be more than just oil on canvas. It is imbued, somehow, with Helen’s mystical beauty and erotic life force, and as the book moves between the story of its creation in the 1830s and its rediscovery in 2003, the reader is treated to tantalizing glimpses — but glimpses only — into how this came to be.
In fact, there is no work called “The Center of the World.” While Joseph Mallord William Turner occasionally painted figure studies, his reputation rested almost entirely on his stunning treatment of light in landscape. But in Van Essen’s fictional world, the painting’s existence is entirely believable.
We first meet Turner at Petworth, the majestic Sussex estate of the Third Earl of Egremont. Lord Egremont is a salonnière and patron of the arts, holding court to a mix of gentry, commoners, and artists with his mistress, the lovely Mrs. Spencer. She and Charles Grant, a recent guest of Egremont’s, become good friends; theirs are the voices narrating the birth of “The Center of the World.” Eventually Turner asks each to model for him; she is to be his Helen, Grant her Paris. The result is a stunning, almost alchemically powerful work that enthralls, entices, and — in one way or another — enslaves everyone who views it.
The painting is no less potent a century and a half later, when Henry Leiden discovers it on his family’s upstate New York property, wrapped up and hidden behind a barn wall. Leiden is a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-management guy, long-married and vaguely sad about practically everything. Finding the painting changes all that in an instant — not only the thought of the fortune an original Turner might bring, but the sudden possibilities of a world where such beauty can exist. He has never seen anything like “The Center of the World” — nor, as it turns out, has the unscrupulous Manhattan art dealer Arthur Bryce, but he has been following its trail for a while. Bryce enlists his pretty young go-getter of an assistant, Gina, to help track it down, and it’s through Gina’s and Henry’s eyes that we watch the painting’s 21st-century trajectory.
A painting goes on a journey; a painting comes to town. The Center of the World is a great yarn and a bit of a thriller, but it’s also an arresting expression of the inexpressible. Part of that is literal, and obviously intentional. Although Van Essen describes its components — Helen, barely clothed, waiting for Paris, her jewels discarded on the floor, soldiers locked in battle on the field seen through her window — most of it is left to the reader to visualize. And though we know it strikes lust into the heart of every viewer, how that’s done is up to us to decide as well. Van Essen’s words do the same work as Turner’s brushstrokes: he implies, working around the actual image by describing, instead, the reactions it inspires. A young prostitute, hired off a London street by one of the painting’s owners in the 1930s, attests:
I had seen a lot of paintings, sir, and I had seen my share of French postcards that showed all sorts of things, but I never seen nothing like this. It made me feel all shimmery inside, like I was on fire, and it brought a smile to my face so I almost forgot who I was and why I was there.
Much as Turner used light and reflection to model a figure in space, Van Essen uses the passion of viewers for “The Center of the World” to stand in for the painting itself.
The act of creation is also a major touchstone. Turner is a wonderfully odd and prickly character, and Van Essen does a fine job of teasing out how a master painter might think about what he does:
All of this. This wine. This meat. This house. This countryside. And all the shades of light that illuminate them. It is all a burden. A blessing, too, of course, because, you know, we wouldn’t have anything if it were not for everything. But for the artist, you see, all this is a burden, a weight. Sometimes I feel it on my shoulders, pressing me down. Or a curtain. Heavy rich stuff — some tapestry, you know. One can’t see truth through it. But I do what I can. Sometimes a speck of light peeps through.
Light, as a subject, is fleeting. And, as every artist knows, so is beauty. Even as Van Essen is bewitching us with Turner’s magical painting, there is also a strong backbeat of memento mori running through the narrative. As Turner tells Grant,
The passage of the past to the present, of youth to age, of the golden age to the dismal one, the rise of empires and their fall. Most fellows don’t think of it as they paint, but one must, since it takes so damn long to execute a painting and nothing is as it was when you started.
Or, as a private investigator describes Henry Leiden’s house on the page just preceding, “There’s nothing here…. Just the same old same old. Middle age and all that shit. Some day it will bite you in the ass too. Just you wait.”
Both Grant and Mrs. Spencer find modeling for Turner deeply unpleasant, the artist’s intense objectification discomfiting to a former courtesan and a homosexual man. Both feel physical beauty to be a blessing and a curse, and their ambivalence draws them together. But that is no concern of Turner’s; he is interested only in what needs to be created in the moment. Even he can’t explain his sudden need to paint the figure, when it has not historically been his strong suit: “[I] had my doubts. Not my usual line, you know…. I thought perhaps I might be mad. See the thing for one thing when in fact it is another. Enthusiasm can lead one astray — it’s hard to trust it.” Not this time, however. He has the chance to make beauty last, and he will not be denied.
Thomas Van Essen knows a few things about creativity’s insistence.
A self-described literary-magazine type in high school, Van Essen went on to Amherst, which proved to be a bit too much “like boarding school with beer.” He transferred to Sarah Lawrence, which was more to his taste; his girlfriend — now his wife — was there, and Grace Paley, Tom Lux, Clarence Major, and Jane Cooper were on the school’s stellar writing faculty. Van Essen studied with Joseph Papaleo and E.L. Doctorow, whose “Writing a Novel” class was a fine place for an aspiring young author. Students critiqued each other’s work in class, met with Doctorow individually whenever they completed 50 new pages, and got to hear him read pieces of his work in progress, Ragtime.
Van Essen went on to graduate school at Rutgers, where he studied English — mainly Victorian — literature, and wrote his dissertation on Wilkie Collins. (The Collins family makes a cameo appearance in The Center of the World.) But as his degree was moving along, so was the rest of life. He married after leaving Sarah Lawrence, and had two children by the time he completed his Ph.D. Teaching was enjoyable, but family life called for something a little steadier.
He ended up taking a job writing test questions for Princeton’s Educational Testing Service — first logical reasoning questions for the GRE and then analogies and reading comprehension questions for the SAT, where his close reading skills proved to be an asset. He was a good manager as well, and rose up steadily through the ranks.
Van Essen fully intended to keep writing. Just because his academic dreams hadn’t worked out, he thought, he could still write at home, at night, after the kids were in bed. And he did — after a few years he had what he felt was a good, “Paul Auster-ish” detective novel. He found an agent, and the book made some rounds, but ultimately she couldn’t place it. “After she started asking me to pay for photocopies,” he says, “I gave up,” and spent the next decade concentrating on his family and career.
Life was comfortable, and he was good at what he did. But in 2003 he turned 50, and one evening, out of the blue, that creative longing reared its head with a vengeance. As he told Other Press in a recent interview:
I was the last one left in the office; I had just gotten off the phone with a very demanding client and I knew that I had done a pretty good job of handling a complicated situation. In some universe I should have been very pleased with myself, but I just felt empty and depressed. Is this what I really want out of life? Is this all there is? I had stopped writing after I had failed to find a publisher for my first novel …but I knew that I needed to go back to it.
What he needed to do, Van Essen decided, was just write — not worry about publishing, or declare himself an artist or join a writers’ group, but just get the ideas on paper. He had an idea that had been in the back of his mind since graduate school, and he needed to follow it through:
I made this deal with myself. I would get up an hour and half early every morning and write before I went to work. No adolescent agonizing, just produce some prose every day. All I had to do, I figured, was write 200 words a day, or 1,000 words a week. 50,000 words a year and I’d have a novel in two years. Piece of cake. It was, of course, more complicated than that and the two years turned to three and to four between living and crossing stuff out, but I stuck with it because I fell in love with what I was doing.
That love, of course, is what it takes. Like Turner in his borrowed garret at Petworth, Van Essen worked in private — only his wife and a couple of close friends even knew he was writing — until his vision was ready.
We will never know what “The Center of the World” really looks like, or what its hold over its witnesses actually involves. But Turner is the first to admit he doesn’t know what Helen truly looked like. He asks Grant:
But what about “the face that launched a thousand ships” and all that? She surely must have looked like something.
But that is Marlowe, not Homer. And Marlowe put it as a question. What Faustus saw before him was a boy actor smeared with paint and covered with horsehair. “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” I think not. Shakespeare came closer to the mark when he has Ulysses describe her as “a theme of honor and renown.” He understood that she was not flesh so much as an idea.
And so it serves the reader well to remember that “The Center of the World” is not so much pigment on canvas as an idea — about the impulse that drives people to make art, and the wish to apprehend time and beauty for a satisfying instance. That Turner was sure of what he was doing was his gift; that Van Essen allows his ekphrasis enough ambiguity for ecstasy is our good fortune.
A literary controversy (or what passes for controversy in our fairly tame circle) erupted last month when the Pulitzer Prize Board elected not to award a Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction. It was the first time they had done so since 1977. The reason why this can happen has to do with the way the Pulitzer Prize Board’s selection process works: three initial readers — this year they were novelist Michael Cunningham and critics Susan Larson and Maureen Corrigan — pore over several hundred books published in the previous year and settle on three finalists. Then they turn this list over to the twenty members of the Board, eighteen of whom have voting power (who knows why the board includes two members who can’t vote) to pick one. A majority vote among the Board is required to select a winner. This year, a majority could not come to agree on one book.
The three books nominated were: Swamplandia!, the second book by my friend Karen Russell, a garrulous oddball romp that forays into satire and surrealism; Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a decorated luminary on his way to becoming an old guard figure as our village elders like Vonnegut and Updike are vacating their positions; and The Pale King, the unfinished last novel of David Foster Wallace, the most energizing, polarizing, and influential literary voice of our generation, his reputation as a genius now safely beatified by his suicide.
Apparently not one of these three books was liked enough unanimously by ten people on the Board, and so none was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in America this year. “There’s always going to be dissatisfaction, frustration,” said Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, regarding the indecision. “But [this year] the board deliberated in good faith to reach a decision — just no book got the majority vote.”
When the unusual and disappointing decision was announced, the reaction among the literati—writers, I suppose, and critics, and a vast rearguard of booksellers, bloggers, and book geeks on Twitter who have greatly expanded and diversified the circle of conversation in recent years — was like the moment in the courtroom drama when the unassuming girl on the witness stand calmly says something that suddenly changes everything, and the room bursts all at once into a frenzy of barely contained whispers. What’s more, the Pulitzer Prize Board was pissing on a parade that already felt drenched. Just a few days before, the hobbits of the publishing industry had been dismayed when the Justice Department sued three major publishers over e-book pricing, siding with Amazon like Saruman sided with Sauron, whose ominous red eye sweeps across the land from his Dark Tower in that northwestern Mordor, Seattle.
Ann Patchett, a novelist who last year published a book eligible for the prize (State of Wonder, a novel as magnificent as her other masterpiece, Bel Canto), and now also a bookseller, as she recently opened an independent bookstore in Nashville (so she’s got two horses in this race) maligned the Pulitzer Board’s non-decision in a widely read op-ed piece in The New York Times. “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,” she writes. She argues that the bestowal of a Pulitzer Prize has the power to get people excited about a book in particular and books in general, and under the shadow of our current zeitgeist, it’s a bad time to put down literature. “What I am sure of,” she writes, “is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction.”
Patchett’s piece is heartfelt and impassioned, and in some respects I agree with her — but what this controversy mostly did was remind me of how fundamentally I dislike the whole idea of literary prizes at all. I believe with all my soul that the concept of a board of twenty journalists — or people of any profession for that matter, it doesn’t really make a difference who they are — awarding a prize to a work of art, putting an official stamp of approval on one book and thus by implication saying the other books published that year aren’t as good, should strike us as misguided, shortsighted, and dumb.
I’m not saying this in a sour-grapes way, as a novelist who also wrote an eligible book that was published last year. If I were awarded the Pulitzer, it’s not like I’d fling it in their faces. Obviously I would kiss their feet with gratitude. I have benefited greatly from a literary prize, the Bard Fiction Prize, for which I am hugely grateful, and was nominated for a couple of others, the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and the Young Lions Fiction Prize here (which Karen Russell did win, by the way). These prizes can help writers out tremendously, especially early in their careers, giving them prestige, publicity, and money, and for that, they’re a good thing. But this isn’t about me — I’m making this argument not as a writer, but from a more abstract standpoint, from a big-picture view.
There was a shrewdly observant piece in n+1 that was rerun in Slate last year by Chad Harbach (whose roaringly hyped novel, The Art of Fielding, also came out last year) titled “MFA vs. NYC,” and given the headline, which pretty much spells it out, “America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” I found the piece spot-on about its observation that our literary culture is sharply bifurcated into two contingents, one concentrated in the publishing mecca of New York City, and the other scattered far and wide across the land at various colleges and universities. Harbach is sharply critical of MFA programs, essentially making all the usual arguments against them and coming down on the side of NYC. After I got an MFA at the ur-program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I moved to New York City, because I figured that’s where writers go, and I’ve lived there for the last few years. So I feel I’m in a commodious place from which to observe these two literary cultures, and I must say, though both the insular little MFA world and the New York City world of literary culture come with their own and different forms of attendant bullshit, there is far, far — and I mean far — more bullshit in NYC.
The difference between the two cultures becomes most profoundly evident contrasting the books that get talked about at the bar over after-class or after-work drinks, respectively. There are many books I came to fall in love with that altered the course of my writing and changed what I thought could be done with literature that were recommendations from some of my friends in the MFA program. We would excitedly talk about what we had been reading lately, or great books we had read before — it was a conversation that was happening constantly and everywhere. A quick list of things I discovered in grad school from my friends’ recommendations that hugely affected me would include the philosophy of Antonin Artaud, the poetry of Paul Celan, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, the stories of Mavis Gallant, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. And I dashed out that list in part to illustrate that we were not exactly shrieking and hyperventilating about the brand-new hot young rising stars of American fiction. (Well, some of us were, but I wasn’t one of them. And indeed in retrospect I notice how most of what I just listed were the recommendations of my poet friends, by necessity bound for academia, if they were lucky, and not for the networky New York literary scene.) Of course, we wanted lustily to be those hot young rising stars of American fiction soon. But when we talked about books, we would pull out the interesting and unusual jewels of our collections the way a music geek will pull out a rare LP in a plastic sleeve. We didn’t really give a shit about what book won what prize and did such-and-such really “deserve” to win the Pulitzer? Those are the kinds of gossipy, facile book conversations you have in New York, where everything is in some way tainted with commerce. Ours were the conversations of collectors, enthusiasts, purists, of people genuinely interested in the art itself, and I miss them.
All that is by way of suggesting that literary prizes are mainly manifestations and obsessions of that buzzy New York literati hive, which can become less of a hive and more of an echo-chamber. It’s an observable phenomenon: a book comes out, which for whatever reason gathers a tsunami of critical praise that perpetuates itself — for by the time the great wave makes landfall, some critics may either be hesitant to disagree with their peers, timorously fearing that they’re missing something everyone else can see (Naked Emperor syndrome), or what’s more probable, their perception has been primped by the power of suggestion, in the same way we are more likely to declare a fine wine magnifique if we know before tasting it that the bottle cost a hundred dollars than if it cost ten. This is why sometimes quite mediocre books wind up vaunted with widespread and lavish praise, and are sometimes even buoyed all the way up to the Pulitzer. But mediocre books getting overpraised does not bother me seriously, as I would rather let ten guilty men go free than hang one innocent — it irritates me far more when truly great books are ignored, which happens all the time.
A book has a vertical life and a horizontal one. The vertical life is what happens to it up to, during, and very soon after its publication; the horizontal life is what happens as the years and decades and even centuries slide by. As the Pulitzer is awarded to a work of fiction published in the previous year, all it can take stock of is a book’s vertical life, which sometimes can be deceiving. I’m sure this helps explain some of the more embarrassing retrospective head-slaps in the Pulitzer’s history, such as when, in 1930, it awarded the prize to Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy — a second-rate and now utterly forgotten book by an utterly forgotten writer — for the year in which both Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury were published. It’s perfectly natural they would make that mistake; back then, Faulkner and Hemingway were not yet Faulkner and Hemingway, they were just a couple of young writers who happened to be named Faulkner and Hemingway. The Pulitzer Board would try to atone for their sin years later by awarding them both (Faulkner twice) prizes for far lesser works after their reputations were already secure. The hype of the moment does not necessarily translate into lasting luminance. Just scroll down the list of all the past winners of the prize, and count how many you’ve ever heard of. Start at the bottom and move upward chronologically, and you’ll find the occurrence of familiar names increases as we move closer to the present. This is not because the Pulitzer Board has gradually been growing wiser — it’s because we’re living now, not a hundred years in the future. Then we’ll see. We can’t help it — we’re blinded by our own times; all prizes are like that, and that is why, as a measure of what is good and what is not in art, they are not exactly the trustworthiest oracles.
Also, a twenty-member prize board may be seducible by groupthink. I trust groupthink more when we’re talking about the long and justice-bending arc of history, not twenty journalists (eighteen of whom have voting power) talking about fiction, which is not even their forte. Come to think of it, why have we been letting a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature tell us what the best book of fiction was last year, year after year? Why didn’t they just let Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson pick it? I would be more interested to hear their opinions on the matter, anyway. (The 2012 board did include one — exactly one — fiction writer, past winner Junot Díaz. The only other person on the board I’d heard of was New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who I’m sure is a wonderful man but the dude writes like a clown honks a bicycle horn.)
Let me tell you a story about the problem with a group of people of about that number locked in a room trying to come to a decision about a work of art, fiction specifically. The stakes here are much smaller, but the phenomenon I believe is similar. For a short time I was a submissions reader for a fairly well-known, medium-cachet literary review. There were usually about ten to fifteen of us around the editorial meeting table. Each of us would read through the slush pile and select a few stories we liked, and then the boss would Xerox the top stories for everyone, we’d all go home and read them, pick out our favorites among those, and at the next meeting discuss which stories to put in the issue. After all our arguing and deliberation, usually the pieces that wound up being selected for publication were not the most interesting, or what I thought were the best of what we had to choose from. They were the pretty good pieces that we could all compromise on. Because a truly great and interesting work of art will have both its loving defenders and its outraged detractors, such a work is intrinsically less likely to be selected for honor by a large committee. That is the nature of good art: it provokes. I agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time, but not when it comes to lionizing certain novels over others. That I prefer to do on my own, thank you very much.
Historically, this obsession with prizes — and its grandchild, the micro-hysteria over those “best-of” lists that seasonally return to stipple the hills like dandelions — seems to be an impulse particularly characteristic of the twentieth century and beyond: the first Nobel Prize in Literature went in 1901 to the great Sully Prudhomme (what, you’ve never heard of him?), the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1918 to Ernest Poole for His Family, the first National Book Award in 1950 to Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975 to E.L. Doctorow for Ragtime, and the first PEN/Faulkner in 1981 to Walter Abish for his How German Is It. I’d say the only one of those that’s still well remembered today is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (although I happen to have read Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm — it’s pretty good).
However, there’s also an argument that this misguided impulse is not necessarily so much a modern one as an inherently human one (and we have plenty of those), when one considers that in ancient Greek festivals, prizes were given out, as they were for the more objectively measurable outcomes of athletic contests, to the best plays. But this phenomenon was in evidence even back then — that of the critics of the time failing to recognize what history would discover greatness in: angered and confused by the way he broke the conventions of Greek drama, the judges snubbed Euripides.
The next-to-next-to-last time the Pulitzer Board chose not to award a prize at all was in 1974, when all three of the readers recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and every member of the Board categorically denied it. Considering what a rambunctious, rebellious book it is, and considering the long life it has since enjoyed as both a cult classic and a classic, a necessary item on the bookshelf of every druggy collegiate pseudo-intellectual on his way or not to becoming an intellectual, fiercely hated by many and by many fiercely loved (and both parties have their points), it is so fitting that that, of all books, would be bestowed this negative honor; if anything, it’s an enduring badge of coffee-shop cool, and it well deserves it Of course Gravity’s Rainbow can’t win a Pulitzer. It would be like a punk band winning a Grammy.
Here’s a question. Imagine Satan were to appear in a sulfurous cloud as the host of some Faustian game show, on which the contestants, who are artists at inchoate and uncertain stages of their careers, are forced to confront interesting spiritual dilemmas. Old Scratch says to the Young Writer, I offer you a choice between two fates. In the first, he says — and this seductive vision appears in an orb of smoky light hovering above his outstretched claw — your books are met with blazing success. Every critic fawningly gushes over your work. You’re heralded as a genius. You’re interviewed on TV and on widely-syndicated NPR programs, your phone won’t stop ringing with interview requests. Packed houses at every reading you give. The New York Times Best-Seller List. The money rolls in, you easily clear your outrageous advances. You win the National Book Award, you win the National Book Critics Circle Award, you win the PEN/Faulkner, you win the Orange Prize if you’re a woman, you win the Pulitzer. The movies based on your books hit the screens with famous actors and actresses playing your characters, and everyone says the books were so much better. This is your life. But! — and the vision vanishes — know this: after you die, after your life of literary celebrity, interest in your work will fade. None of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you. Or, behind door number two… The world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter. But! —in the years following your death, your work will be rediscovered, and one of your books in particular will even become a classic that lives on for many generations and forever changes the landscape of our collective imagination. In other words, you’ll be Herman Melville.
Now, both of these are rare and lucky fates. If the variables were at all uncertain — if in the first case there was a chance your work would be remembered, and in the second there was a chance you’d remain forgotten — it would be a much harder decision. But I’d like to think that any artist who is truly interested in art would choose the second option in a heartbeat. I know I would, and I’m not too humble to say so. It’s the first option, not the second, that’s the Faustian bargain: heaven on earth, hell for dessert.
The reason a real artist would choose the second option over the first has nothing to do with any inner nobility — far from it; in fact each fantasy springs from the same megalomaniacal, insatiable hunger. (It’s no coincidence that Hitler was a failed painter and Franco a failed poet. The heart of an artist beats wild and greedy in the chest of every despot. It’s the very same source of energy that produces both.) It is because, while worldly recognition may be an object of lust, immortality is an object of love. As I once read in Plato’s Symposium, and was so amazed by their truth that I’ve never forgotten these sentences, “the soul has its offspring as well as the body. Laws, inventions and noble deeds, which spring from love of fame, have for their motive the same passion for immortality. The lover seeks a beautiful soul in order to generate therein offspring which shall live for ever.”
This is why, for any artist, dying in obscurity is among the worst nightmares. If I had a time machine, I would visit Herman Melville at his deathbed and tell him the good news from the future, so he might go into that good night with some sense of satisfaction. But on second thought, why wait until the very end? I’d go further back and tell him sooner, give him something to help him through those nineteen years he spent growing old as a customs inspector, his public literary career long dead in the water after the critics of his day shouted him out of town as a crackpot, though he was still returning home every night to quietly scribble out poetry and a novella that would be published many years posthumously as Billy Budd. On third thought, seeing as he was in fact working on Billy Budd, and wasn’t so frustrated he’d completely given up writing, maybe somebody already told him. On fourth thought, maybe he didn’t need anyone to tell him, because he knew he was a genius and held out hope the world might one day see it.
All in all, I would urge readers to not pay too much attention to big prestigious literary prizes. In a perfect world, I would wish for every writer a magical bag of money that is never empty (to level the financial question) and simply do away with them all: no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award, no PEN/Faulkner, no Man Booker, no Nobel Prize in Literature. Let writers write, let critics have their say, let readers read, let time decide.
It doesn’t really matter, though. Even without the magic moneybags, and even with the swells of cacophonic hype surrounding all the literary prizes and all the literary darlings of any given moment, history will plod on, and the Ozymandias of now will be the half-sunk and shattered visage of later. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who never won a Pulitzer, will remain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington will remain Booth Tarkington. And anyway, I am absolutely certain there have been many writers the equal of Fitzgerald who, through their own bad luck or other people’s bad taste, were never published and never read, let alone given prizes, and it’s especially to these unknown soldiers of literature that I raise my glass. John Kennedy Toole killed himself believing he was doomed to be one of them, and he most certainly would have been, had his mother not accosted Walker Percy years later with his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win a twelve-years-posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It was a nice gesture.
Today I began teaching E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel in my first-year writing seminar at Fordham. I feel kind of bad about it. They’re nice kids, and they don’t deserve the royal butt-kicking Doctorow’s underappreciated Vietnam-era novel dishes out.
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, now 81, occupies an avuncular place in our literary culture. He has been an eminence grise in the NYU creative writing program for many years, and before his rise as a writer in his own right, he was editor-in-chief at The Dial Press where he edited the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and William Kennedy. With his bald pate and genial, bearded countenance, the guy just looks nice. But as we know from books, looks can be deceiving.
A grandchild of Russian Jewish immigrants raised in the depths of the Great Depression, Doctorow often centers his historical novels around violent insurgents bent on overturning a smug, wealthy elite. Ragtime, perhaps his best-known book, sets a white upper-middle class family that owes its fortune to the production of American flags and fireworks against a family of poor Jewish immigrants who find solace in the politics of anarchist Emma Goldman, and a fictional black jazz musician named Coalhouse Walker, who turns violent after white policemen kill his wife. The March follows General William Tecumseh Sherman on his scorched-earth March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah in the waning months of the Civil War.
As good as these books are – and they are good – they keep these historical fire-breathers safely in the past, dead and buried and of no threat to us. This is what makes The Book of Daniel an outlier on the Doctorow bookshelf. Published in 1971, Daniel tells the story of accused Communist spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg – called the Isaacsons in the novel – from the perspective of their son, Daniel, who is not merely still alive, but over the course of the novel becomes deeply enmeshed in one of the principal historical movements of his day, the fight against the Vietnam War.
As a literary conceit, this is in itself daring. The Rosenbergs, when they were executed in 1953, did have two children, Michael and Robert Meeropol, both still living today, and both former academics long aligned with left-wing causes. In the novel, the two brothers morph into Susan, a mentally unstable twenty-year-old college student involved in the protests against the Vietnam War, and her older brother Daniel, a twenty-four-year-old Columbia University graduate student trying to finish his dissertation. The novel is that dissertation, or rather, the crazy mishmash of autobiography, historical analysis, self-justification, and blind rage that Daniel pours out onto the page after he learns that his sister has attempted suicide after being betrayed by the anti-war New Left.
Structured in this way, and set during the long hot summer of 1967, the novel poses the question: What would it be like to know that your own government, in a fit of mass political hysteria, murdered your parents? How would you relate to such a government? And, more importantly, how would you function if you saw your country entering a new phase of political hysteria against a phantom Communist menace, this time located half a world away in North Vietnam, that appears likely to consume the last remaining member of your family, your own baby sister?
Daniel at first responds to this crisis by going mad, and it is this, Doctorow’s depiction of a very bright, very angry young man losing his grip on his senses, in real time, right there on the page before you, that gives the book its taut drama. But what makes the book work as fiction is that Doctorow never loses his grip, not for a second. Daniel is a horror show: cruel, vituperative, physically abusive toward his young wife, and at times just this side of clinically psychotic. The text he produces is fractured and wild, careening from first-person to third-person perspective, from engrossing family narrative to dry historical analysis, from quirkily annotated lists to long, barely coherent rantings from Daniel’s crazy Russian grandmother – and yet the whole thing, if you take the time to read it carefully, makes perfect sense.
The Book of Daniel is metafiction done right, by an author who cares as much about telling stories as he does about talking about telling stories. And just as that other great modern metafictional triumph, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, is the smartest book about the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War, The Book of Daniel is the smartest book I know about the home front during that war.
As is frequently the case, having met and yakked with young novelist and NYU writing mentor Darin Strauss back in 2002, on the occasion of the publication of his second novel The Real McCoy, he and I kept in touch and resumed our conversation for his 2010 memoir Half a Life.
Though, for a number of reasons, Strauss’ tome is not my kind of story — the memoir recounts a profound event in his life when, as a teenager, he runs into and kills a bicyclist — as Strauss is a bright, thoughtful, and engaging conversationalist, I was pleased to talk with him again. In the course of the chat that follows, we talk about this event that has been central in his life, its aftermath, why he wrote the book, readers’ responses, his own post-publication conclusions, and a wide swath of topics, literary and non-literary.
Robert Birnbaum: If I didn’t know you as a writer of three well-regarded novels, why would I want to read this book, a memoir?
Darin Strauss: Well, I think this book [Half a Life] has had more commercial appeal than my novels. I am not a fan of memoirs in general. I am a novelist and I will remain a novelist but I think this story — I should say what it’s about. I was in a car accident in high school — I was driving in the far left lane. A young girl on a bicycle on the shoulder swerved across two lanes of traffic into my car and she died.
RB: Does the sentence “I killed her” apply to this?
DS: Well, yeah. That was the thing I couldn’t say for a long time. The first sentence of the book is, ”Half of my life ago I killed a girl.” Which is something it took me 20 years to be able to say. I think she was at fault but I was driving a car and hit her and she died — it’s linguistic cowardice to avoid that sentence.
RB: Saying you killed her doesn’t assess responsibility. Blame is a separate issue.
DS: Yes, I think I blamed myself in the past more than I do now. But to answer the first question, the reason I wrote the book is because of the response I got. I did something on This American Life about the accident. Which was the first time that I had done anything publicly about it. The first time I told anyone besides the people close to me was on National Public Radio. I thought I would just do a radio thing about it, but I got hundreds of emails asking me for the text saying they thought it would help them or someone they knew who was going through some sort of grief. And so I thought I should maybe do it as a book — I was always as a kid going through this wishing there was something I could read that would help me. There isn’t anything specifically for people who are survivors of these accidents. Which police call dart-out accidents. And there are 2,000 of those a year and people who are in these dart-outs, or no fault deaths as the insurance companies call them — people who are not at fault are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress. And so, there was no book for me and so I thought I will write a book for the 18-year-old me who didn’t have the book. And the response has been amazing. Overwhelming. I got emails from people who were coming back from Iraq suffering PTS, or someone whose brother committed suicide. There’s something beneficial in reading a story about someone who is going through grief if the story is told honestly.
RB: What is the benefit?
DS: There are things that I hadn’t seen written about that I wanted to write about. The performative nature of grief — how people don’t feel sad 100% of the time but have to pretend that they do because society expects you to act a certain way. How also we have inappropriate thoughts at these moments, inappropriate actions. I hadn’t seen that written about or examined enough so I wanted to look at that. It’s funny, my editor said I should cut something out of the book that was about that. The girl cut in front of my car. I hit her. She died. But as she is lying there in the street some pretty 18-year-old girls came over to me and asked me if I was okay. I can only explain it by saying I was in shock, but these girls were cute and I started flirting with them. As the bicyclist is dying in the street waiting for the ambulance. That’s something I was always embarrassed about but felt I should write about because it was one of those inappropriate moments that I think reveals something about the way we were designed not to deal with grief. But the book’s editor wanted to cut that out because it made me look too unsympathetic.
RB: Isn’t that the point?
DS: If the book is only about me trying to look sympathetic then there is no reason to write the book. I didn’t want to write an advertisement or a piece of propaganda for me. I wanted to write about the young me as I would write about a character in a novel. And look at all that person’s flaws and hold them up to the light. Because I think that’s what we get out of good fiction, too. Good fiction teaches you how to live. What I turn to good fiction for is not the plot really — that’s what hooks you into the story. But it’s the observation of how people go through the world. And you learn by seeing people be imperfect and so that’s what I wanted to do. Hopefully — I didn’t set out to write a self-help book but if —
RB: Those tend not to hit their target. Are there stories that shouldn’t be told? Or needn’t be? Years ago Stephen Dixon wrote a book called Interstate, in which two infants are shot and killed in a drive-by and the father who is driving the car descends into a pit of despair. My son had just been born and I just couldn’t read past the first chapter.
DS: I remember the book — it’s the first chapter played out again and again, with different ways the father would handle it. Yeah I think there are some stories that are — but even that handled really well could be great.
RB: Even handling it well —
DS: I know what you are saying. That’s why memoirs for the most part turn me off. When memoir opens itself up to criticism it’s because it’s prurient or self-aggrandizing or salacious in some way. So this was an attempt not to — I wanted to make it an anti-memoir. I was going to do the book with Penguin but I ended up doing the book with McSweeney’s —
DS: I said, I don’t want to write a memoir, I just want to write about this accident and what I learned from it. And I want to do that because people responded really well to the This American Life thing. I wanted to examine it a little more deeply than I did on the radio. (I am actually embarrassed now — having written the book I think the early piece was kind of glib.) But I am not sure how long it’s going to be — it might just be 50 pages. It’s just going to be about the accident. My editor said, that’s great but it has to be 200 pages. We are happy to print it — we need for it to be a viable paperback. It’s got to be 200 pages. I said, what if the story is only 50 pages? He said, well you can pad it. I said, forget it, but then Dave Eggers contacted me or maybe it was Eli [Horowitz] — and McSweeney’s said they would publish it at 50 pages. I said, that’s great, and it ended up being 200 pages. It’s longer than I thought it would be but it’s still a short book.
RB: Why are there no chapter headings or numbers or titles?
DS: I wanted it to have a disjointed feeling in the manner that you feel when you go through something like this that life comes at you in a disjointed way.
RB: Can you start anywhere in the book and move backward or forward?
DS: I don’t think so — I hope that there is an arc to it. The challenge was to — every book is a magic trick. Every realistic novel pretends to be realist but is actually a complete fabrication. The trick is to make it seem like it’s not. [In] this book [it] was more difficult to do that because I wanted to remain truthful and to be respectful of the girl in the incident, but also I was very aware that I wanted it to be a good reading experience — not just to be a therapy exercise for myself. So I thought, I have to make an arc and a dramatic structure and all that but I wanted it to be less visible. And wanted it to be somewhat disjointed especially in the beginning because that’s the way we experience these things. So hopefully it was mirroring that.
RB: How firm is that border between fiction and non-fiction?
DS: Ah, I’m not a non-fiction writer for the most part, so my wife who is a journalist would laugh and say, “Are you sure you are not making things up? Are you being truthful?” So that was the real challenge — to remain absolutely faithful to the facts. I didn’t want to make anything up.
RB: Two of your novels were based on historical figures or characters —
DS: Chang and Eng, my first book, which was about two famous conjoined twins, I took a lot of liberties.
RB: I noticed you refrained from using “Siamese twins.” [laughs]
DS: Yeah, because I was corrected a lot. People from Thailand are sensitive about that. I sold the book to Thailand — it’s not very often there’s an American book about Thailand. They were going to make a big deal of it and fly me out for a Thai book festival, and then they translated it [laughs] and I kept hearing from the translators that they were having a lot of problems: ”You’re making stuff up here. This is not what happened in Thailand back then.” And so I never got the invite. I took a lot of liberties with old Siam, too. I wrote that book when I was 26 and broke and couldn’t afford to fly there. So I bought a Let’s Go Thailand and used that as my research and invented stuff. Which is okay. A novelist doesn’t have to tell the truth. The beginning of Kafka’s Amerika is the Statue of Liberty holding up a big sword. There is a debate of whether he was trying to make a point or he didn’t know.
RB: Alan Furst, who rigorously researches his novels, says he doesn’t take any liberties because as he says, “a lot of blood was shed” in these stories. And beyond that readers still have unwarranted expectations —
DS: I think we talked about this four years ago [more like nine years]. There is a quote from [E.L.] Doctorow where he said, “that historical novelists should do the least amount of research they could get away with.” The key part of the sentence is what you can get away with. You don’t want to make ridiculous mistakes. You don’t want to embarrass yourself or take the reader out of the situation. But you can take liberties because it says “novel” on the book.
RB: More and more it says, “Such and Such, a novel.” And less and less do people pay attention.
DS: It’s true. Although writers go into a publisher and say “novel,” and the publisher kind of slides out into another room. I have a number of students trying to sell novels and they have been told to say it’s a memoir, it’s easier to sell memoirs. But Doctorow once told me that he received a letter from someone saying, “In Arizona there aren’t X kind of cactuses which you had in your book.” He said, “There are in my Arizona, madam.” Which is a dashing way of saying he screwed up but he didn’t care.
RB: Tom Franklin [for Hell at the Breech] pointed out that readers would heckle him about armadillos and the shape of a cigarette tin.
DS: Yeah, yeah. Bellow said he was tired of being crucified on the cross of American Realism. Hopefully a novel gets to deeper truths than the shape of a Lucky Strike container. But you do want to be truthful enough — if it’s not plausible the reader will lose confidence and then the book is lost. I was just talking to someone about Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, where she apparently makes tons of mistakes about Boston geography, saying something like Harvard was in Porter Square and things like that. Which took Boston readers out of the book. I didn’t notice it because I am not from Boston. So I thought it was a great book.
RB: Who am I to say something is irresolvable. But I was reading an essay by Curtis White [The Middle Mind] and he refers to William Shawn as the publisher of the New Yorker. I didn’t think it made the rest of his remarks without value, but I wondered about what editors or fact checkers were doing.
DS: I know there are fewer and fewer fact checkers. My wife works at Newsweek and they hire younger and younger people and they have fewer and fewer people to catch mistakes at these magazines. There has been a loosening of standards across the board but that’s a different conversation.
RB: There is always Edward Jones — he spent 12 years writing The Known World, intending to research from a long list he had, and he never used that list. And he most definitely made stuff up. But I dare you to identify it.
RB: [chuckles] Though a history professor from Texas was upset that in my various online citations of my chat with Jones I had no problem with his approach.
DS: I don’t know why people come to fiction with that expectation — that it’s going to be the same as a biography or something. And have the same standards of factualness when it’s a fairy tale — what Nabokov called his books. Peter Carey told me when he writes about his hometown he purposely puts in mistakes just to piss people off. That’s kind of funny.
RB: The other side of the coin is that you can get a certain kind of pleasure out of a book that is about a place with which you are familiar. I loved [the late lamented] Eugene Izzi, a Chicago crime story writer, or I suppose people in Boston like Robert Parker and they expect everything to be as they know it.
DS: A lot of Jon Lethem’s popularity came from taking Brooklyn as his literary subject before anyone else had, and people turned to Motherless Brooklyn — I’m from Brooklyn now so it feels his territory because he wrote about it. So there is a pleasure for natives in reading about their home turf.
RB: So we have variable valences of why we derive pleasure from reading — some are higher than others but when we talk about this stuff we are supposed to say smart things —
DS: Yeah hopefully we turn to books for the writing or the moral truths or whatever you get out of it but there is something nice about saying, “Oh I know that street.”
RB: I find I have learned more history from Gore Vidal, Edward Jones, Alan Furst, John le Carré, John Lawton, and Philip Kerr than as an undergraduate history student.
DS: I was talking to a writer friend David Lipsky. He wrote a book called Absolutely American about West Point and the book about David Foster Wallace where he traveled with him [Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] — kind of a new way of doing biography. It got good reviews, but I am not sure reviewers understood how revolutionary it could be. Even when people say the novel is in trouble and there aren’t as many readers, which people have been saying as long as there has been a novel around, I am sure more people read about the French-Russian war than read War and Peace, but nobody goes back to read the newspapers. These made-up stories are the way future generations find out about these things. I am sure more people read Libra by Delillo about [Lee Harvey] Oswald than anything else.
RB: Than the Warren Commission Report [laughs].
DS: Exactly. Or anything. If you think about it like that then we have a certain responsibility to be honest.
RB: There is a mistake about the way history is taught — the emphasis is on minutiae and not narrative — not the juicy stories about human frailty and foibles. And what do you know after you know all the details?
DS: Look at the political discourse. It seems like people know nothing.
RB: I see signs calling for the impeachment of the president. And I am sure that the sign carriers know nothing about impeachment. The House decides there is to be a trial —
DS: — based on crimes and misdemeanors. It’s not like saying we don’t like the guy. It’s like if the president is unpopular he should be impeached. The memories are so short — the Clinton impeachment was 10 years ago or so. He was impeached but not forced to leave office. I don’t what it is — there is something narcotized about this country.
RB: I look at James Howard Kunstler’s website ClusterFuck Nation and he decries the public conversation, and he recently asked, “Where did all the sensible people go who used to stand up against the kind of radical silliness that is so prevalent now?”
DS: It’s very strange. Where are the country club Republicans who were fiscally conservative but didn’t want to get rid of public education or meddle in social issues? Didn’t want to overthrow the government?
RB: Sold out? Went to ride their horsies? They supported McCain.
DS: The thing about McCain that was so weird — there’s a great McCain piece by David Foster Wallace — he was honorable enough to do the right thing —
RB: — once in his life.
DS: But in the worst circumstances. To have his fingers broken and to refuse medication — after all this torture to say, “I’m not the first in line so [other] people should go home before me.” Which is the most noble thing I can imagine. And then to totally sell out, which makes me think if you can stand up to Viet Cong torture but not attack ads, it says something interesting about power.
RB: And that we are more complicated. I think in some twisted way McCain feels entitled because of his war experience. He is convinced of his own nobility and that the rest of it is just politics. And in a way it is just politics.
DS: It is just politics although he did bring Palin onto the national stage. And so if she is the next president we have him to thank.
RB: My son brought home a chart from school in which he was asked to evaluate himself in ten categories and his teacher would also. The point of the exercise was whether the world was better off with you in it. His self-score was 96 and his teacher scored him 89. They were obviously close, but the class participation was scored a 5 by the teacher. I bring this up because how we see ourselves is a fluctuating thing. And I wonder about this when I try to assign a value to a book like yours. If I understand you correctly the people who benefit from this book are people who have had a similar experience.
DS: Most people have had a similar experience — it doesn’t have to be as spectacular. Everyone carries something that they are guilty about.
RB: You’re extending the franchise of this book.
DS: I’m telling the response I have gotten. People that carry something they are guilty about around or feel a grief they don’t know how to express. It’s been more universal than I thought. Which has been nice. It’s strange for a fiction writer. If you write a novel and people email you it’s generally, I liked it or didn’t like it. Not, here’s my terrible story please tell me what you think. I was doing Philadelphia NPR, and they took callers and each call was sadder than the one before. One woman called in saying her son was killed in a car accident and she had never seen grief written about in that way and she thanked me. That was weird since I wasn’t sure that people who lost kids in car accidents were a demographic for the book. And then a guy called in whose daughter was killed in a car accident and his wife was made quadriplegic and he is taking care of his wife now and his daughter is gone. I didn’t know what to say and he asked me if he should reach out to the driver. I said, “I am only a story teller, I don’t know. If it would make you feel better I think you should.” It sounds like Dr. Phil but I didn’t know how to respond.
RB: Well, you wrote the book – need you say anymore? Or what more is there to say?
DS: I don’t think so but these kinds of books open you up to that. Right before I published I heard from A.M. Homes, who wrote a really good memoir, and she said, ”Be prepared. It’s exhausting.” And Dave Eggers who edited the book with me —
RB: He has his own story.
DS: He said you have to prepare yourself. People want to talk to you in a way that they don’t with novels. In a way, it’s better if they don’t meet the novelist because the novel stands as its own thing and meeting the novelist can muddy the feeling you get from the book. But if you are writing about yourself, people want to meet you and talk to you to see if you compare to the you in the book or how you are now after you have written the book. So it’s much more intimate.
RB: With the expectation that you have some expertise.
DS: Surprisingly that’s happened a lot. Maybe I just choose subjects that are arcane. My first book about twins — anytime conjoined twins are separated around the world I would get a call from some reporter asking about conjoined twins. And I would say, I’m a novelist.
RB: The world’s foremost authority —
DS: — on Siamese twins. For my third book, a novel called More Than It Hurts You about Münchausen by proxy where a mother injures a child, I was on Good Morning America talking about Münchausen’s disease with an expert. I kept saying I’m happy to go on TV but I’m no expert on this. But maybe that’s not true — Roth said one of the jobs of the novelist is to be smarter on the page than he is in real life. So I had to become an expert — at least temporarily.
RB: It does also speak to the efficacy of the so-called talking cure.
DS: That’s been one of the moving things. I kept a file with hundreds of emails now and a number of them have said, I haven’t told anyone this. I’ve never met you but I haven’t told my husband or something like that. That’s a validation of the talking cure. I had terrible experiences with therapy. Another reason I wrote the book — to figure out what I think about this. That’s the way I do it. Since I’m a writer, to understand how I see something I write it down. It’s much more effective than therapy — sitting at the computer working my way through something.
RB: People certainly organize their perceptions of the world differently — some effortlessly. To me everyday is a new day, almost like starting over again.
DS: Maybe that’s why people look for help — they don’t know how to organize their lives into stories until they see someone else do it. With this book I stumbled into therapeutic cures that I didn’t know about. Not that the book should be therapy for me. If it’s just therapy for me then I should write it and not publish it. I hope it has value beyond being cathartic for me. In this disorder called complicated grief therapy, which is a fancy way of saying people are sad, the therapy for that is that you are to talk into a tape recorder and say what makes you sad and then play it every night for 16 weeks. It sounds like torture — it’s thought to be effective because you have a tape, a physical object that you can turn off and put away. I didn’t know about it until I was researching the book. But writing the story every day and turning the computer off at night was a version of that therapy. The book is like my tape. And then talking about it to you and on the radio and to crowds at readings is like A.A. — making a public confession. So to me it was a great therapy. You said something about organizing life; my friend David Lipsky was saying anyone who teaches writing by saying you should show and not tell is going to fail. As he put it, “life is showing all the time, what literature does is tell you what that show means.” Movies are a show, life is a show. What books can do is tell in a way the others can’t.
RB: Where do these clichés come from, like “write what you know”? What do you know?
DS: Exactly. It’s bad advice for other reasons too. If you only write what you know, you will never know anything new. That’s the weird thing about our education system — right now in the Army they force you to take classes all the time as an adult. Which makes sense — why only be taught for 16 years of your life and then never be taught anything again? That’s to last you for 70 years. Why is that the method? Why wouldn’t you want to keep learning?
RB: There is some science that holds if you continue to learn that is in fact a benefit to your brain.
DS: Yeah, I read about a study that said you should try to switch things up every week just to keep your mind active without taking a course. Open doors left-handed one week and right-handed the next — just to teach yourself even in the most minor way something new to keep your brain active.
RB: When I drive to places I try to take different routes each time. I leave enough time so I may get lost or just wander around. So when will you be done with this?
DS: I was taking to Dani Shapiro who was nice enough to review the book for the Times. I didn’t know her beforehand, but I thanked her for the review and we got to talking and she was saying memoirs kind of never end. A novel is over when your next novel comes out but people still talk to her about the memoir she wrote ten years ago. Because it’s personal, and you are opening up your closet. We’re a voyeuristic society. I find most memoirs distasteful — it’s strange I ended up writing this. I thought, I will never write about this, I am a novelist. Not only that but I don’t read non-fiction a lot so I would never want to write a memoir. Something about this story was very insistent, asking to be told. I realized in writing the book that I had been writing about this all along. The girl’s parents at her funeral told me, we will never blame you — don’t worry about that. But whatever you do in life you have to live it twice as well because you are living for two people. And then they sued me for millions of dollars after that. After they said they wouldn’t blame me. The important thing from that is I took that very seriously, living for two people. I think that’s why I wrote Chang and Eng. That book deals with how we are different people at once. The end of the book — “this is the end that I have feared since we were a child.” So the “I” and the “we” means they are both one and two people. My second book was about a guy who lives in NYC and becomes an imposter and doesn’t tell anyone about his past. I had this accident in high school, went to college, and then moved to NYC and never told anyone about this. My third book is about a family from the suburbs with a secret that no one knows — I was growing up in the suburbs and had this secret, so obviously this has been informing my writing, in a way I hadn’t realized, forever. I wonder how stark a line it will draw in my fiction.
RB: Have you started the next novel?
DS: I have — I wanted something light after this. We’ll see. Writers often have this one thing they obsess about. Roth seemed to be writing the same book for a time — now he is writing obsessive books about being older. I wonder if my obsessions will change — a lot of writers have their one subject and keep writing around it, circling it. Bellow, no matter where his books were set, wrote about what it means to be a thinking person in a society where thinking people are not valued. And Updike had his pet obsessions — they seemed to be about a good boy being naughty. What does that mean? Bellow also said he didn’t want to go there because he didn’t want to know why he was writing what he was writing. Now I know and I wasn’t Bellow to begin with.
RB: Have been teaching since we last spoke?
DS: I went to Columbia as an adjunct for a while and came back when this new director of the creative writing program [of NYU] Deborah Landau, who amazingly re-energized, not even re-, she energized NYU faculty and brought in a bunch of people. I was lucky to be hired by her. She brought in Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer — she brought in this amazing constellation of people. On the poetry side she brought Anne Carson and Charles Simić. It’s an amazing place to work. I have my office there because I can’t work at home — I have three-year-old twin boys. And I go to work and it’s almost stiflingly overwhelming because you know these incredible people are doing incredible work — that’s both energizing and terrifying.
DS: In some ways it’s beneficial to the writing — it forces you to return to first principles all the time. You have to tell students why you think something works and why it doesn’t. It gives voice to your aesthetic in a way that helps you form it. Also, it keeps you open-minded because you are reading people who have a different aesthetic. And you try to help them not by saying how you would write it yourself but try to get them to figure out how to be more successful in what they wanted to do. It can also be stultifying. It’s like when you try to walk up the stairs if you spend the day telling people, ”Well you put one foot in front of the other, and then you lift up your knee and move it forward and put the other foot down.” When you walk the stairs next you will be pretty self-conscious about it. It’s a balancing act.
RB: You use novels in your courses.
DS: In the Crafts classes — I often use books that I think are flawed. I teach Marry Me by Updike which is a good book but not his best.
RB: Glorious failures?
DS: Yeah. I wouldn’t say the book is a failure — but when you see a great writer make mistakes it can be instructive. I teach some all-out masterpieces. I shouldn’t say this but with modern academia you are also expected to have from many different — from both genders and a lot of different ethnic groups. You have to fill those slots.
RB: You feel that is an obligation? Are you conscious of it?
DS: Yes, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing — you want students from all different backgrounds to feel you are not being exclusionary. But I wouldn’t teach an author I don’t like.
RB: Right, it’s not like the choices are limited.
DS: I teach Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. I like Zadie’s work better.
RB: I wasn’t impressed by Lahiri’s stories. I liked the film of her novel, The Namesake.
DS: Her stories are well-constructed. They are ingenious but they aren’t exciting language-wise.
RB: How well-read are your students?
DS: It varies. A lot of undergrad students are well-read, but I am often shocked at how they are not. A lot of people want to be writers who don’t care about why or how to get there. So when you come across someone who is paying a lot of money to go to grad school and one assumes they are trying to make that their life, it’s very strange to see that they haven’t read that much.
RB: Assuming it is a prerequisite of being a decent writer?
DS: Yes. It’s kind of like saying I want to be a professional baseball player but I don’t watch or practice much baseball. I just want to put on the glove and play. It’s fine if you are doing it as a social activity. When you make a commitment to be a writer then it’s strange you wouldn’t want to learn about it.
RB: Despite the warnings and evidence, your students still aspire to become writers?
DS: Yes, that’s something I feel guilty about in teaching in these programs.
RB: How many students have you had over the last ten years or so?
DS: 30 a year for nine years. Whatever that is.
RB: 270. Of those, how many have published one book?
DS: Two so far. But a lot of them were undergrads and they are not 30 yet. I think more will do that. It’s a good grad class if two or three publish.
RB: And what are the rest doing?
DS: I don’t know. That’s what’s scary about these programs. They are expensive, although NYU is good about giving money and they are working on making it free for everyone. Then I would feel less guilty about it. You can get a lot out of learning how to write and learning to be a reader.
RB: That’s one self-justification of teachers — you get better readers.
DS: Michael Thomas [Man Gone Down] tells all his students that if they are taking these courses to be writers, it’s a bad idea. This will help you become a smarter reader and if you chose to become a writer, good luck.
RB: Being a smarter reader is a great benefit.
DS: It sure is. But the issue is, is it worth the money? NYU is very competitive to get into — 30 fiction students out of about 800 are accepted.
RB: Like the Writer’s Workshop.
DS: Yeah, and once you are in that circle of fire you are expected to get somewhere. Maybe two out of 30 will publish one book and one of those two will have a career. It’s very tough.
RB: To quote Fats Waller, “One never know, do one?”
RB: Thomas hasn’t been heard from since he won the IMPAC award in 2007.
DS: That was recently. He teaches at Hunter.
RB: That’s an interesting place. They have —
DS: — Peter Carey —
RB: — Colum McCann.
DS: A small department [Tom Sleigh and Gabriel Packard]. McCann won the National Book Award last year and Peter was nominated this year and they are both really, really good.
RB: McCann is Mr. Exuberant.
DS: He really lives up to the image of the Irish raconteur, try to go out drinking with him and you won’t make it home. A great writer. Peter, too. He was a teacher of mine at NYU. It ended up working out for me, but when students ask if should they get an MFA I never give an unqualified yes.
RB: If someone asked me I’d ask, what are the choices? Go into plastic.
DS: I did a reading with Jennifer Egan and she hasn’t gotten her [MFA] and she wondered if she missed out. It hasn’t hurt her. She is having a good career. I tell students if they need the time to write and have people read their stuff then it’s great. I was talking to someone taking a course from Oscar Hijuelos, and he was considered the worst one in the class and the teacher was hard on him saying he shouldn’t be a writer and then something switched and one day he came in with the beginning of his first book and he was great all of a sudden. There shouldn’t be anyone who is an arbiter, saying you can’t write because sometimes it takes people a while.
RB: Isn’t it the same with editors and buying books? Think of all the stories about writers who have gotten 20 to 30 rejections and then one editor says, “Yeah” and they are off.
DS: Proust had to self-publish the first volume of Remembrances of Things Past. One of the things that’s great about him is that everyone said his sentences are too long, that’s why we can’t publish him, [both laugh] so at the beginning of the second book, the sentence is one of the longest in the entire book. What a great fuck you.
RB: It’s fascinating that these literary chats are an attempt to regularize an exploding array of characters and stories. It seems like an untameable beast. As we talk here, what are we explaining or clarifying? The best stuff is maybe what we can’t explain.
DS: That’s true. Writing can be taught to a degree. The best thing it can do is save you years of self-discovery — which may not be a good thing. Maybe you should learn on your own. You can teach people tricks you have learned from reading but obviously you can’t teach talent. Maybe you can help students achieve the maximum from their talent.
RB: Talent can be overrated. There’s something to be said for perseverance.
DS: Lethem who taught at NYU said this to me once: talent was kind of meaningless. Whether you publish or write good books it’s the people who keep trying, keep trying. There’s that Malcolm Gladwell theory — which sounds kind of glib — 10,000 hours at something will make you great at it. I don’t know where that number comes from but it’s probably true. If you sit in the chair for 10,000 hours and that translates over four or five hours a day for eight years, six, seven days a week —
RB: Well, that’s from the outside, from an external observer. Our sense of that time must be indescribably different.
DS: The first 7- or 8,000 hours are fumbling around being terrible — people who are talented might not progress because they are too embarrassed to do the apprentice period. They can’t allow themselves to be bad.
RB: Or someone tells them they are crap and they believe it.
DS: Or someone tells them they are great and they believe it. You really have to get in there in those hours whatever the magic number is, and force yourself to work hard. When I was a grad student it wasn’t the most talented people who moved on — it was the people who could take their first draft and make it a second draft. For example everyone at that level can do a pretty good first draft. It’s people who listen to criticism and say, “Fuck that, I’m good enough” who don’t go on to make a good first draft into a great second draft.
RB: Writing fiction must be about delayed satisfactions — writers take five, eight, twelve years to finish a novel.
DS: The problem with Foer and Zadie Smith being as good as they are – and I think they are both really good writers and I’ve heard they are good teachers – they are dangerous examples because of their early success.
RB: Don’t try this at home, kids.
RB: There seems to be an attitude about Foer in the literary world. Have you noticed that? Jealousy?
RB: In addition to the normal quotient of anti-Semitism? [laughs]
DS: I ran into Jonathan Wilson, a professor of mine, and he was planning on giving talks on new takes on anti-Semitism. I asked, what was he going say? He said, “It exists.” [laughs] If there is bad feeling toward Jonathan [Foer] it’s because he has outsized success. That’s hard for people to take. I’m sure a lot of the anti-Franzen griping is the same thing. You make the cover of Time and people will grumble — that’s the way it is.
RB: I remember getting into it with a writer when they retracted a review of Foer’s second novel and came up with a negative one.
DS: I hate when people retract reviews. My first book was badly reviewed in the Washington Post for what I thought were silly reasons. The reviewer didn’t like three things about the book — I named certain characters after my friends (I thanked friends in the afterword) and very minor characters had similar names. The reviewer asked, “Is he playing games or writing a serious book?” I thought, well why are those things in opposition? Second, how am I as a white male in the 20th century qualified to write about Asians in the 19th century? And third, she claimed five words I used were not in currency in the 1800s. She was wrong about that. Those words were found in Shakespeare. I was really pissed off. I was doing an interview somewhere and this reviewer who is also a novelist was there also, doing an interview. And they said such and such is here, she wants to meet you. I said that’s okay and I sneaked out the back.
DS: And she came around and ran into me in the parking lot. She said, “Hey I am so-and-so and I gave your book a bad review.” I said, “Yeah, I remember.” She said, “I’m really sorry I kind of liked the book. I was in a bad mood and my husband is Asian, and I thought I should say something about that.” I thought it was crappy she liked the book —she was entitled to her opinion but to apologize for it was even worse.
RB: Do you write reviews?
DS: I wrote a few that I regret — not that the book was good. It’s not good karma to write negative reviews. I am going to stop doing it. I wrote a good review of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, which I thought was a good book — that was fun.
RB: As I have said many times, I think book reviewing, especially in newspapers, is a degraded enterprise.
DS: [Martin] Amis has a great quote about that. He said something like, “Reviews are the only forum where the practitioner is working in the exact same mode as the art itself but generally doing it less well.” You don’t have movie critics making a movie about the subject of their reviews. So yeah, I think it’s degraded. There was a recent review of Roth where the reviewer wrote, “I never read any Roth until this book was assigned. I dismissed him without thinking about it.” This is Philip Roth, maybe the greatest living American writer. Not having read Roth, having dismissed him, shouldn’t that disqualify the reviewer?
RB: I recently reviewed the new Cynthia Ozick and according to the dust jacket it was an homage and reworking of Henry James’ The Ambassadors. I hadn’t read that book. It bothered me that other than an epigram from The Ambassadors, I had no clue of anything Jamesian. I see that quite often, that certain stories are tied to an older work. Why tell the reader — if they are familiar with the referred-to book they should recognize it and if not they should not be distracted?
DS: On Beauty is supposed to be an homage to an E.M. Forster book, which I never read. But I liked Smith’s book. It might be a way to spark your imagination. Doctorow’s Ragtime’s plot was lifted from a 19th century novella by Kleist.
RB: And you know this, how?
DS: I took a class from him and he said so.
RB: But was it on the dust jacket?
RB: Does it improve your enjoyment of Ragtime? What does it do for the reader if he knows?
DS: It’s a way of coming clean. Lifting plots is as old as Shakespeare but now people are so afraid of even the whiff of plagiarism they feel if they are upfront about it it’s okay. It’s okay whether you own up to it or not because there are only 36 stories out there anyway, and certainly Zadie and Doctorow made something new. But I don’t know why people feel that compunction to own up to stuff. This is something that I have noticed that’s new — even novels are listing all the books used for research. But why bother, it’s a novel.
RB: Over the weekend I read a book that very much resembles [Cormac] McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men — an unstoppable psychopathic killer searching for the protagonist — even when that came to mind I wasn’t put off because the writing was crisp and propulsive. But I could already imagine reviewers taking the author to task for lack of originality.
DS: When I said there were 36 plots, that’s based on this crazy French book called The 36 Dramatic Situations — the author, Georges Polti, spent his life doing a scientific study of writing and came up with the fact that there are only 36 possible stories and there is a wide berth within those. Number 1 is revenge and number 1A is revenge, father against son. You know there is a limited scope within which to work, so what? Why not do what Shakespeare did and use famous stories? There is something energizing about having every plot and format to work with.
RB: Do you ever think about what you would have done if your writing hadn’t panned out?
DS: Oh wow! Well, when I was a kid I thought I might be a lawyer —
RB: — and then you were sued —
DS: — and then I was so turned off by the lawsuit — I wasn’t angry with the parents, they had just lost their daughter and were very vulnerable. But I was certainly angry with the lawyer — he knew they had no case and he actually screwed them over because he told them they could make millions. But they ended up getting the most nominal sum from the insurance company just to make them go away. Which they could have gotten at the outset. And so they had to take five years of legal fees out of that. So they received almost nothing. It was just awful. The police said I wasn’t at fault, five witnesses said I wasn’t at fault. He tried to say I was drunk — 10 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. Then he tried to say that the policeman who said I wasn’t drunk, was drunk.
DS: It was just an awful experience, dragging me through the mud. And so I thought I am not going to be a lawyer, that’s an awful thing. But I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know that I could do anything else, so it’s hard to say.
RB: Sold insurance?
DS: I could have done something like that.
RB: A trader or speculator?
DS: That might have been more satisfying. Writing is great in so many ways — being your own boss —
RB: As Shaw said, you don’t have to dress up.
DS: Yeah, so in all the obvious ways it’s great. It is also a job where you are never not working. So I kind of envy those people who are 9 to 5.
RB: How much has your writer life changed now that you are a writer dad?
DS: A lot. The book is short —
DS: The book is short. I started it when my kids were one — to have one-year-old twins in the house means all hands on deck.
RB: One of the challenges of journalism is to write within a word limit.
DS: Thank you so much for having me back.
RB: My pleasure.
Image credit: Robert Birnbaum
In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a young man finds himself in the presence of Evelyn Nesbitt, the famous “It Girl” of the 1920s, and falls into a room “clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.” In Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, the madams of New Orleans are categorized by their staffs of various racial mix. “Ann Jackson featured mulatto, Maud Wilson featured high browns, so forth and so on. And them different stables was different colors. Just like a bouquet.” In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier first meets Rosa Saks, whom he will later marry, as she sleeps naked on a bed, a scene he draws in Conte crayon on an overdue notice from the New York Public Library. “Fifty-three years later . . . the drawing of Rosa Saks naked and asleep was found . . . in a Barracini’s candy box, with a souvenir yarmulke . . . and a Norman Thomas button.” In Bruce Olds’ Bucking the Tiger, Doc Holiday describes sex as “crest after crest of the most coilsprung and soaring carnality, shanks asplay, thighs agape, cunt akimbo, slicker than a skyful of starglide.” All of the details in these references—the jism falling through the air like ticker tape, a Barracini’s candy box, a skyful of starglide, the dated but somehow lovely phrase “high browns”—lead to one conclusion. History is a whore.
Ron Hansen has made a career of pimping history for its details. Although his best novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, dealt explicitly with real historical figures, Hansen has scattershot most of his fiction with just-as-real historical settings. Each of them is made real, in the sense of authenticity, in the sense of perception, by the well-researched minutiae of everyday life, the ambrotype photographs, the cuspidors, the bootjacks, the coal-oil lanterns, all of them specific to each story’s particular time period. Mariette in Ecstasy takes place primarily at a monastery in upstate New York during the early part of the 20th century. “Wickedness,” an excellent short story from Hansen’s collection Nebraska, centers a series of vignettes around the infamous Midwestern blizzard of 1888. Desperadoes recounts the life and times of the Dalton gang in the Old West during the late part of the 19th century. Even Hansen’s novels with contemporary settings, Isn’t It Romantic? and Atticus, borrow either their storylines or their stylistic voice from works of yesteryear, the former modeled after Preston Sturges’s comedies and the latter a modern take on the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
In his most recent work, Exiles , Hansen sets his eye, with its historian’s acuity for the factual tempered by its novelist’s astigmatism to the fictional, on Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889), a Jesuit priest, Roman Catholic convert, and English poet who has posthumously become known as one of the best innovators of traditional verse. The first of the novel’s dual narratives depicts Hopkins throughout the different stages of his life. Initially, he is shown as a young seminarian, “a gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher,” who at first denies but later accepts his love of poetry. The few poems he writes over the years are consistently rejected by publishers. Finally, Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged man, dying of typhoid but keeping the faith, “steadied, poised, and paned as water in a well,” who would not live to see his poetry canonized decades later as one of the most significant forebears of modernism. The second of the dual narratives dramatizes the true story of a shipwreck. Five Franciscan nuns, exiled by Bismarck’s Falk Laws against Catholic religious orders, forced to seek sanctuary in the distant state of Missouri, die tragically when their steamship runs aground near England. Hansen includes Hopkins’ poetic ode to the event, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a literal and figurative union of the two narratives, in the appendix to Exiles.
The novel begins with the two narratives, that of Hopkins and that of the nuns, occurring at the same time but in different locations, Hopkins a theological student in Wales and the five nuns fellow members of a German convent. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the narratives diverge in time and place, one spanning the many years that encompass the failures and rejections of Hopkins’ life, the other focusing on the few nights leading up to and including the wreck of the Deutchsland. Hansen fully understands the advantages of coupling two storylines. The narrative involving the nuns serves as a sort of superheroic origin story for Hopkins, rekindling his love of poetry and inspiring some of his best work. The narrative involving the nuns also serves as a stereophonic counterpart to the tragedies suffered throughout Hopkins’ life, paralleling the “wreckage” of his being denied priesthood and publication for so many years. According to those conditions, generally and apparently and ideally, the combination of each narrative is meant to create a single story not only as enlightening and seamless as the flashbacks to Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s fateful laboratory accident in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, but also as harmonious, dulcet, quiet, and melodic as the duet of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”
Exiles’s dual narratives, unfortunately, don’t work that well. Despite his reputation as a masculine writer, given his two best-known books are westerns, given also his prose tends to venerate hardware and toolkits, Hansen is remarkably adept at creating believable, unique, impressive characters that are female, particularly Mariette in Ecstasy’s titular, monastic protagonist. The five nuns in Exiles are no different. Within just half of an already short novel, each of them, not unlike the pupils of Jean Brodie in her prime, becomes a distinct person, made particular through abstraction. One sister, for example, who is known most commonly as “the pretty one,” is vividly described as having been “ill so often at age ten that Mastholte’s doctor told her mother to have Lisette lie on a seaweed mattress, but Frau Dammhorst soon found underneath the seaweed Dutch elm branches that her strange, pretty daughter had put there to disturb her sleep so she could ‘ease the pain of the souls in Purgatory.’” Within the other half of the novel, Hopkins, the focus of the book in as much as Miss Brodie is of her own, remains an obscure entity, made abstract through particularization. One scene, for example, which showcases the complexities of his psyche, ends with the reductive line, “Hopkins accused himself of a snorting, sour, unspiritual tone to some of his conversations, prayed for those who’d died, were injured, or lost loved ones in the shipwreck, but thanked God for the beauties and contrarities of nature, the tonic of outdoor exercise, and the cheer and solace of his Jesuit brothers.”
Another problem concerns the novel’s layout. In the first, less successful half, the passages for each of the narratives are longer and slower, less scene-based, and include fewer shifts back and forth between them, while in the second, more successful half, the passages are shorter and quicker, more immediate, one cutting to the other in better illustration of their subtextual connections. It should be noted these issues are only minor. Hansen’s strengths as a writer have never been for the broader components of narrative structure—Desperadoes, his exquisite, violent, beautiful debut, underutilizes its framing device; Atticus, his tender portrait of a father’s love, awkwardly shifts its point of view—but rather, he excels at using phrases, words, and sentences, those details of language, to make his fiction into a kind of poetry. Exiles has a hell of a fitting subject.
Since the posthumous publication of his collected works in 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ stature has grown steadily within the literary establishment, so much so that today he is credited with several poetic neologisms, including “inscape,” the distinctive and essential quality unique to any given thing, “sprung rhythm,” a use of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry that mimics the natural rhythm of human speech, and “instress,” the force by which the essential quality of a thing creates an external impression. Hopkins’ poetry was intimately connected to his spirituality. Hopkins’ poetry was a way for him to speak with God. So, to do justice to the poet that British literary critic F.R. Leavis said “is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest,” an author would need a generous understanding of religious faith and a sizeable if not commensurate poetic sensibility.
Ron Hansen, the “Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.” Professor of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University as well as a Catholic Deacon in ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, California, is up to the task. His authorial voice, by inclination and by disposition, is an authoritative voice, as though spoken from behind a lectern, and his writing style, pious as it is poetic, shows a reverence for God equaled only by its reverence for language. “He had long had haunting his ear the echo of a new rhythm,” Hansen writes in Exiles, paraphrasing a letter written by Hopkins, “that would re-create the native and natural stresses of speech.” The most interesting aspect of such a sentence is that Hansen describes how Hopkins mimicked others’ use of language and, more importantly, that Hansen does so by mimicking Hopkins’ own use of language.
Elsewhere, the novel’s prose bears the stigmata of Hopkins’ poetry. Images such as, “The knuckling flames consumed the wicks of the votive candles,” “Gold, Teutonic calligraphy,” and, “Their eyes silvering with tears of bliss,” are beautiful examples of poetic inscape. A description like, “The swell’s comb morseling into fine string and tassel before bursting on the rocky spurs of the cove and breaking into white bushes of foam,” utilizes sprung rhythm. Phrases such as, “Language his bloody knife,” “Wakening gaslights,” and, “Boats sliding with satiny, Elysian motion,” are lovely examples of poetic instress. Throughout Exiles, Hansen uses Hopkins’ poetic techniques not only to recreate the historical setting but also to explore the workings of a poet’s mind. It is at that juncture between language and consciousness that the thick, industrial shellac of caricature dissolves into the fine, vivid oil paint of characterization. Consider this passage describing one of the rectors who taught Hopkins:
“Father Rector,” as he was called, was a manly, rattling, genial, ever-courteous man from County Slip, Ireland, a shrewd, scientific professor of moral theology who’d studied at the English College in Rome, served as a Superior in British Guiana and Jamaica, and published two scholarly books on the Athanasian creed, yet welcomed contradiction in class and the nickname of “the Governor,” delighted in jokes and singing, and so worried about the seminarians’ health that he stayed at their bedsides when they were ill, tipping into their mouths his mother’s cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg.
In such a simple description, the broad, dull, and usual tapers to the specific, the memorable, the unusual. Trivial characteristics like “manly” and “ever-courteous” and “shrewd” shift to more precise, albeit dryer biographical details like “served as a Superior in British Guiana” and “published two scholarly books on Athanasian creed,” all of which are concluded by the wonderful, telling, intimate, gorgeous bit about the rector tipping a “cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg” into the mouths of ill students. Such mobilization in the degree of details sets apart Hansen’s writing from the source material of Hopkins’ poetry and the framework of historical fiction. Exiles is not simply an imitation of poetry. Exiles is not simply a recreation of history. In reference to historical fact, George Santayana’s saying goes, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” but in reference to historical fiction, a better saying would be, “Those who don’t add something new to the past are simply repeating it.”
Among the many characteristics of historical fiction, one of the most noteworthy is the tendency to assimilate, digest, and transfigure the various tropes of other genres. What are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Charles Portis’s True Grit, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man if not westerns elevated by fine literary craftsmanship? Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Frazier’s Cold Mountain are romances as much as they are historical novels. Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, Steven Milhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle are fantasies. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Umbarto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are at once postmodern and historical works of fiction. What are Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 if not crime novels provided with scope and novelty by meticulous research?
These examples are a testament not only to historical fiction’s malleability but also its inherent advantages and disadvantages: Historical fiction can be adapted readily to other genres because its advantages can resolve other genres’ limitations and its disadvantages can be resolved by other genres’ attributes. Hansen’s Exiles, a religious romance as well as a historical novel, exemplifies those abilities.
One feature of historical fiction is the flash-forward, a technique used recently and amply in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, as well as in much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, particularly the famous first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The auxiliary verb “would” and its variations play a crucial part in the flash-forward. “Thirty-three years later,” Hansen writes of a minor character in Exiles, “Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water. But now the doctor said in his soothing voice, ‘Well, the sea can be very wild.’” The passage’s narrative leap into the future creates a thematic link, that of fate, that of irony, connecting two disparate episodes of a person’s life. “In a hundred years,” Hansen writes of one of the five nuns on the Deutschland, “no less than two of Catharina Fassbender’s relatives would become international opera stars, and the harbinger of that singing talent was heard in her lovely contralto.” Again, by mentioning the future continuance of the nun’s lineage and by mentioning it in a scene aboard a ship the reader knows will sink, the author allows the machinations of fate and irony to limn the inevitable tragedy of a character’s death. In Exiles as well as in other historical fiction, the use of flash-forwards lends the narrative a sense of omniscience and authority. It also helps the narrative avoid one of the genre’s most common mistakes, the trompe l’oeil effect, a tendency to make the reader aware of a book’s artificiality by way of its blatant immersion in a past time. Think vinyl-like scratches added to a cover of some 19th-century Irish ballad. Think portraits of upper-crust families painted in the style of a Dutch master. With flash-forwards the reader is shown the past but also told they are being shown the past, thereby, incongruously but effectively, making the past they are being shown seem less artificial.
Another characteristic of historical fiction is the use of different found documentation, including correspondence, radio transcripts, court records, newspaper articles, brochures, medical tests, receipts, interviews, grocery lists, and personal diary entries. The very diversity of such a list attests to the convention’s expediency in conveying breadth—of time and of place, of emotion and of experience, of people and of things—not only within a fictional world but also in terms of the larger context of reality. In Exiles, Hansen writes how one of the seaman on the sinking ship “looked up . . . in pining silence and with a ‘helpless expression that gave me a chill all through, for I knew it meant nothing else but that death was coming.’” Note how the shift to first-person creates greater immediacy. The addition of the seaman’s own words, with his antiquated syntax, with his resignation to death, reminds the reader, expeditiously, palpably, excitingly, that this really happened to someone. Despite the benefits of found documentation, however, it can often lead an author to the Merchant-Ivory recidivism of letting attention to historical accuracy obstruct, overwhelm, or obscure the goals of a fictional narrative. One of the reasons the five nuns seem more dynamic than Hopkins may be that, because so little is known of the five women and because so much is known of the one man, Hansen is less constrained in the former case by strict adherence to the facts. On the whole, though, Hansen avoids the pitfall of excessive accuracy by never making the entire book an assemblage of research, by exploring the interiority of his characters, by imagining what might have happened, by never letting his reportage commandeer his artistic intentions.
Still another feature of historical fiction is the technique of making common objects into dramatic artifacts. Specificity is the trick. The same way AMC’s Mad Men revels in gender inequality and skinny ties, the same way HBO’s Deadwood rejects Latinate words and the authority of law, Exiles is packed with common objects made into dramatic artifacts through specificity, such as a morning paper: “The front page, as always, was filled with three- and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall’s-End coal, Bailey’s elastic stockings, ladies’ abdominal belts, Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and ‘Want Places’ appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each wanting to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities.” The book contains “Staffordshire pitchers” and a “lucifer match” next to “Turkish towels” and “the pine and fir planks” commonly known as “deal.” Even the modest steamship Deutschland has “a grand saloon paneled with bird’s-eye maple and buttressed by oak pilasters inlaid with rosewood, and with leafy, gilt capitals. Hanging between brass gaslights were eight oil paintings by Franz Hunten, each a mediocre seascape of shipping and fishing vessels in full sail. Empire sofas and thirty armchairs were matched with Biedermeier tables and hand-painted cabinets.” Although such “fetishistic” details can at times become overwhelming, the previous passage being a good example, most of the time they don’t merely give the writer an opportunity to flaunt his research and bore the reader with inconsequential esoterica. They recreate the world of a historical period, and they create a whole world unto themselves. Such “fetishistic” details allow both writer and reader to suck each other’s pinkie toes, throw on a bit of leather, and, within the high-class brothel of fact and fiction, get their respective nut.
In the preface to Stay Against Confusion, a collection of essays that includes his first assessment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, Ron Hansen writes of religion presenting a narrative “helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now.” In the same preface, Hansen quotes Robert Frost on how a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Historical fiction could be said to be a stay against the confusion of time. How does it do so? Historical fiction, like history itself, like God, like any good story, is all in the details. Ron Hansen knows that real history is the jism flying through the air like ticker tape. It’s a Barracini’s candy box. It’s the phrase “high browns.” Even when his subject is a 19th-century celibate priest, Ron Hansen knows that real history is a skyful of starglide, beautiful for its language, damn sexy, and limitless with potential.
Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.I.When a friend admits to me – usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader – that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even “worse,” a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I’m sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers’ names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.II.Am I just an insufferable snob? Possibly. If you think so, feel free to stop reading now; we may be at an impasse.III.A spiritual war rages between art and entertainment, elitism and populism, the difficult pleasure and the mindless escape, complex meaning and convention-driven predictability… literary fiction and genre fiction.Or not. On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, a new “Summer Thriller” series – featuring, this past Sunday, a story (or serial installment?) by Dean Koontz. The protagonist is a whipsmart hostage negotiator who faces off with a Hannibal Lecter/Buffalo Bill-esque psychopath (he “displays” his dead [raped] female victims after dipping them in polyurethane). In a zippy plot twist (SPOILER alert), the hostage (ah coincidence!) turns out to be the negotiator’s savvy wife; the revelation elicits a “gasp” from the psychopath.In The New Yorker this week, a profile by staff writer Lauren Collins on prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. I haven’t read the full profile, but it’s got Slate’s XX Factor blogger Willa Paskin (presumably not currently a romance reader) ready to pick up a Roberts novel – “Collins makes the case, without ever overselling, that Roberts’ books might not be totally devoid of artistic merit” – and eager to hang out with Roberts herself, who “comes across as a down-to-earth, foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, extremely grounded, extremely disciplined woman.”IV.What is going on here? Are we in the literary and genre camps laying down our arms and reaching across the proverbial aisle to hold hands and work together? More importantly, is “not totally devoid of artistic merit” some kind of newly-acceptable standard for reading selection? (Like how the standards for “organic” loosen to near-meaninglessness as big farming corps get into the business?)To anyone feeling ready to click away from this post in a huff: I feel a little like Sherman Alexie, who said last week in a follow-up to his feather-ruffling comments about the Kindle being elitist that he felt like David being mistook for Goliath.With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction. Which is another way of saying that more people buy books and spend time with the words in them to evade the (messy, complicated) world as it is than to see it more truly – in all its mystery, pain, complexity, and beauty. Resistance – perhaps opposition is not too strong a word – to genre fiction for a writer and reader of literary fiction is, in my opinion, a literary ecosystem imperative.V.Why do The New Yorker and The New York Times want me to rethink my dividing lines? Are my soul or my artistic integrity at risk of atrophying if I don’t see the light and embrace a new political correctness that’s deemed formulaic genre writing and literary writing more alike than they are different?Let me, for the sake of this essay and the ensuing discussion, take a (overstated, survival-driven) hardliner’s position: pure genre writing invites and indulges engagement and validation of our lesser, lazier, unthinking, hedonistic selves; well-wrought literary fiction affords, in the critic Harold Bloom’s words, a difficult pleasure and illuminates the truths of the human soul, for better or for worse, thus opening the engaged reader to the possibility of courage, intellectual and emotional honesty, wisdom. Popular genre writing and literary writing represent diametrically opposed visions of the value and necessity of reading books; they are as different as lust and love, band-aids and surgery. To imply otherwise is to cop to hysterical anti-intellectualism and give credence to the same sorts of “elitist!” cries that sought to make Barack and Michelle Obama appear out of touch and John McCain a man of the people.There are real stakes here. What you read matters.VI. But enjoy your genre books, I say. Life is tough, we all seek ways to effectively distract and soothe ourselves. Consume your genre series with gusto and pleasure, like a drippy, juicy bacon burger; kick back and let them carry you away weightlessly, like an after-midnight Wii session. But do not imagine or attempt to argue that they play a vital role in augmenting the human experience. They allow for, are designed for, reader passivity and thus do not do what Joe Meno described eloquently in Edan Lepucki’s profile this week:Books have a different place in our society than other media. Books are different from television or film because they ask you to finish the project. You have to be actively engaged to read a book. It’s more like a blueprint. What it really is, is an opportunity… A book is a place where you’re forced to use your imagination.VII.So with Roberts and Koontz now occupying prized real estate in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, it’s fight or flight as far as I can tell. Recently, I’ve been developing a list of what I call “bait n switch” books – books that bring together the strengths of both the genre and literary forms: suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets; and fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery. I’ve given these as gifts or recommended them to people who tend to read only genre fiction or little fiction at all; with good response. My ultimate mission: to convert the unbelieving to the (crucial, soul-shaping) fact that you needn’t ingest bad or “not that bad” writing in order to be entertained and/or absorbed by a book. For anyone who’d like to suit up for the battle:Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (for erotic thriller lovers)Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help (for chic lit readers)Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog,” and really anything by Henry James (for romance readers)E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair and Ragtime (for Harry Potter and other boy-adventure fans)Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (for manly men who are into horror)Poetry by Jane Kenyon and Rilke (for people “intimidated” by poetry)The following two are a little riskier, but I’d like to try inflicting one or both of them on a poor unsuspecting soul one of these days:Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees (a simple, universal story of love/breakup/love again)Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth (pure storytelling, you hardly know what hit you)And, if all else fails, well: there’s always “The Wire.”[Image Credit: Randen Pederson]
I’ve read and enjoyed many of E.L. Doctorow’s short stories, typically in the New Yorker, but I’d never had the occasion to read Ragtime, Doctorow’s most famous work, one that has been made into a film and Broadway musical.I don’t know that I’m well read enough to insist that Doctorow invented this sort of quasi-historical book, a work of fiction that necessarily intersects with the notable political and cultural figures of the day, rather than using them as simply a backdrop, but it has certainly become more prevalent in recent years.Back then, apparently, it was new and different. So new and different in fact that my 1976 Bantam paperback edition comes with this quote emblazoned on its back cover:It is a novel so original, so full of imagination and subtle pleasure, that to describe it further would only dilute the pure joy of reading. Turn to the first page. Begin. You will never have read anything like Ragtime before. Nothing quite like it has ever been written before.On the front cover the sentiment is the same, if less verbose. Ragtime is “the astonishing bestseller about America.” 30-plus years later, Ragtime is still a remarkable book, but to today’s reader it likely won’t feel quite as fresh, as “astonishing,” as it may have when it was first published, if only because it has, knowingly or not, been an inspiration for many novels that have followed.Set at the turn of the 20th century, Ragtime traces a few intersecting threads, but the main one involves a family in New Rochelle, New York. Father is the owner of a fireworks and American flag business (“about America” remember) and also an amateur polar explorer; Mother runs the house and is the household’s real source of strength; Mother’s Younger Brother is a quiet dreamer with anarchist tendencies and skills with explosives; the boy, child and nephew of these three, is the window through whom the story is told. The family’s relatively quiet existence is shifted when a baby is discovered buried in the back yard, miraculously still alive. A black baby. In not altogether enlightened New Rochelle this causes something of a stir and sets in motion the arrival of Sarah, the baby boy’s mother, and Coalhouse Walker, his father. This in turn sets in motion further events that eventually, cascading, bring bustling New York City to a standstill. But this center thread is augmented by intimate fictionalized views of notables like Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman, all of whom peripherally interact with the central family at one point or another.Perhaps because it shares with Ragtime a fascination with Houdini and a polar interlude, Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is the recent novel I most associated with Doctorow’s. And indeed the two books seem to inhabit the same gritty New York City, though they are set decades apart. At the same time, however, Kavalier is a more evolved form, crisper and brighter like the comic books Chabon evokes. With Ragtime, Doctorow is more lyrical and wandering, willing to swaddle the central narrative with peripheral stories, willing to leave loose ends untied.Not long ago, in the New York Times and elsewhere, there was much discussion of the “best” novels of the last 25 years. Ragtime, being too old, was ineligible to be bandied about by pundits and bloggers, but, having read it, I can see that it was essential in laying the groundwork for the tone that a certain influential strain of popular literary fiction has taken since then. The hype on the back of my paperback may be overwrought, but clearly Ragtime was something special.