David Shields and I met almost 30 years ago, just after the publication of his breakthrough second novel, Dead Languages, at the sadly now defunct Bailey/Coy Bookstore in Seattle. We’ve been discussing and debating literature and media ever since. The occasion of this conversation is the release of his 21st book, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention, which I was lucky enough to read as it evolved through several drafts. “I wasn’t going to read it because I’m so tired of anti-Trump shit,” says Bret Easton Ellis about the book, “but I love the book, agree with everything Shields nails about this moment. It’s the best summation of Trump I’ve come across. Such a relief to see someone get it. I was reading passages to my millennial Communist ‘Trump is going to kill us all’ bf, who didn’t say anything, just rolled away.”
1. Blowing Things Up
Scott Karambis: Why did you decide to take on the Trump project? Do you recall the inspiration?
David Shields: About a year and a half ago, Melanie Thernstrom, whose first book, The Dead Girl, I hugely admire, said to me, “I know what your next book should be.” She mentioned one of my earlier books, Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, and thought I should keep a diary, as I did with Black Planet, but use Trump as the sort of magnetizing force and see what happens. For me, the whole point of writing is freedom from other people’s expectations, but Melanie’s suggestion struck me as difficult to dismiss. I could stop imposing my Trump insights on perfect strangers on the bus.
SK: Trump has to be the most discussed human in the world. The coverage and commentary are literally nonstop. Were you concerned your riffs might not breakthrough the noise?
DS: This question is kind of a nonstarter for me. Every topic has been covered from the beginning of time. In ancient Athens, everyone already thought pretty much every topic had already been thoroughly covered. Every writer imposes his or her consciousness on the time in which he or she lives. I’m not a political journalist with inside information (beyond about a dozen leaked transcripts). I’m not a trained psychotherapist. But I’m not aware of anyone having written about Trump in the way I have.
SK: How would you describe that way?
DS: I’ve always been terribly interested in the self-destructiveness of human beings. Trump’s self-hatred is a key source of his connection to other human beings. A third of the country, say, responds to the way in which he’s a “total loser” who’s housed in a “winner’s” palace. Also, as Richard Nash says, the business of literature is to blow shit up. The business of Trump is to blow shit up. To people who “run things”—the “media,” the government, the courts—he just keeps saying, “Fuck you.” For people who are really sad and lost and angry and dispossessed of the future, this is invaluable. Frank Bidart is very good on this: We all live symbolic lives—through TV, film, literature, love, politics. Trump’s base is a fan base; it’s fan fiction; through his bellicosity, they’re expressing by indirection their rage.
2. Collage Is Not a Refuge
SK: But in terms of existing material, it must have looked insurmountable, and growing bigger every second. How did you approach the otherworldly abundance of Trumpiana?
DS: The way the book works for me is that you see all these Trump alter egos, substitutes, avatars (see the Frank Bidart point above). Every single person in the book, including occasionally myself, is meant to be a Trump surrogate. If you read the book the way I want it to be read, every moment in the book is connected by a spider web and every part of the web vibrates.
I’m a bit of a pack rat. I just gather stuff. When I was writing The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, which is being published in February, at one point I had literally 3,000 pages. The final version of that book is quite short, as is the Trump book.
SK: That’s a lot of pages. Do you have a method for organizing it or is it intuitive?
DS: A huge number of narratives have five gear shifts. For instance, dawn, morning, noon, dusk, and night. Every Greek tragedy. Every Shakespeare play. Very nearly every movie. I’m obsessed with collage form, but collage, as I like to say, isn’t a refuge for the compositionally disabled. I’m hyper-aware of each collage book of mine having distinct and graduated emotional and philosophical gear shifts. So the Trump book might, to the casual reader, feel loosely curated, but in fact it’s organized to within an inch of its life.
3. There Are Many Answers
SK: For all your rejection of traditional narrative structure, you do make use of some of the most dominant cultural narratives of modernism. Family romance dynamics, for instance, play a significant role in many of your books.
DS: The psychoanalytic thread is there, for sure, but it’s woven into an entire tapestry of many different threads, I hope. It’s not as if I say, “Here’s my explanation of Trump: X or Y or Z.” I’m just saying, “Here are many ways to understand his brokenness and how crucial that brokenness is to understanding his appeal.” For instance, I treat Trump’s insane relationship with the media as part of a family romance; he’s obviously trying and failing (needing to fail) to get the perfect love from mass media that he never got from his mother and father.
SK: Media has been a central concern of yours from the beginning. I’m curious—what’s the source and enduring interest in media as a topic?
DS: I grew up in California, where both of my parents were journalists. The movie business was never very far away. Also—and this is what my first nonfiction book, Remote, is about—in the early 1980s, something shifted, having to do with wall-to-wall media filling every crevice in American culture, and now of course this has become exponentially magnified with the invention of the web and social media. I just feel in my bones—and I know on my nerve endings—that the real story is no longer what happens; it’s how what happens gets mediated. Or at the very least it’s about the relationship between the former and the latter.
SK: You write a lot. As you know there have been many writers, especially British and American writers, who have been criticized for overabundance. The implication is usually that facility reveals either a lack of seriousness or care with their craft. Whether you worry about that or not, what do you think motivates your rate of production?
DS: Of all the things to worry about, that doesn’t make my top 1,000. At this point, I hope my collage scissors are pretty sharp. I know how they cut. (Joyce: “I’m happy to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.”) So, too, I’m hyper-aware of my own mortality, for some reason, and I just want to get a lot of work done while I’m still present and accounted for. If I were to explain my somewhat accelerated rate of production over the last several years, I do think it has to do in part with the controversy that my book Reality Hunger caused in 2010. There’s a way to see every book that I’ve written since then—and there have been a dozen or so—as practice to Reality Hunger’s theory.
Sometimes I want to be awestruck. It’s a feeling that I seek out. And so, usually late at night, I’ll open my laptop and type into a YouTube search bar: “s-c-a-l-e o-f t-h-e u-n-i-v-e-r-s-e.” I load a video at random; they all perform the same basic gesture: zooming out to incomprehensibility.
Then come the numbers. Twenty-five trillion miles to reach the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. At least one hundred billion stars and one hundred billion planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone. More than two trillion galaxies in the Observable Universe, and that’s just what we can see. Physical reality extends and expands far beyond our speed-of-light-limited view.
From our earthbound perspective we refer to all of this cosmic immensity with a modestly geocentric name: “outer space.” To me, this seems like a compartmentalization of epic proportions. On the one hand, there is the world as we know it, the ground-level of human life and everything it entails: the whole arc of history, the transformation of our natural environment, nervous first dates over coffee. On the other hand, there is the remaining 99.999 percent of material reality that exists beyond the stratosphere, always there but rarely acknowledged.
Strictly speaking, “outer space” refers to the vast expanses between celestial objects, the near-perfect vacuum of space once thought to be filled with aether, the fifth element. In practice, though, we imagine outer space in much the same way that we do the ocean, so that far-flung material bodies (dusty asteroids, murky trenches) are implied within the whole. Outer space is a metonym for the great “out there.”
But I can’t swim in outer space. It’s out of sight and out of mind. Even the best images—heroically gathered from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Voyager space probes, and the Mars rovers—bespeak something uncanny, something unearthly. When I consider the bare fact of two trillion galaxies (as when Whitman “heard the learn’d astronomer”), I experience a jarring dissonance between what I know and what I feel to be true.
Is it really all out there? If so, can it be written?
In his recent collection of short meditative essays, Winter, Karl Ove Knausgaard takes up the problem of outer space in a piece called “The Local”:
The first time I saw photographs of a planet taken at ground level, I was shaken. The photos were from Mars, they showed a plain of sand and rock extending towards a mountain that towered up in the distance, the light pale grey as it is on certain autumn mornings. What was so astounding about it? I suddenly realised that it was a place, as concrete and physically real as the frost-covered garden where I have just been standing, gazing at the sky. I understood that it was local. That the spirit of place, what the Romans called genui loci, existed there too. And perhaps that is how we should imagine the universe, not as something alien and abstract, all those dizzying numbers and vast distances, but as something nearby and familiar. The wind whipping up a snowdrift beneath an outcrop somewhere in the Pleiades, the air full of swirling snowflakes which in the faint gleam of the moon resemble veils, and the sound of the wind forcing its way through the gulch, wailing, almost whining. A door banging in a house on a desert-like plain near Achernar, a circular lake in a forest on the outskirts of Castor. It is a pleasing thought.
Knausgaard is rightly lauded for his psychological realism, his ability to represent the affective nature of lived experience. As Toril Moi writes of his six-part autobiographical novel, which is both praised and criticized for its sheer abundance of the human real, “My Struggle is one man’s attempt to tell us how it is to be here, now.”
In outer space, though, there is no “here” and “now,” not for us anyway. The universe cannot be imagined as “nearby” or “familiar” because it is neither. In “The Local,” Knausgaard gives us romantic descriptions of faraway sights and sounds (“swirling snowflakes,” “a circular lake in a forest”): mere setting, in other words, which is the lowest element in the holy trinity of narrative structure: character, plot, and setting.
Because outer space precludes character (we cannot exist there) and plot (as far as we know, nothing worth telling ever happens), literary realism suffocates in the vacuum as quickly as any person would. David Shields argued in Reality Hunger that much of what we crave in the experience of reading is an encounter with reality. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” Shields writes in the book’s opening sentence. If by reality we mean all that exists, then there’s plenty to be smuggled from the cosmos, or, for that matter, from the damp corners of a glacier cave, the parched pavement of an Australian desert, or the worn interior of my left shoe.
But this isn’t what we mean—what most artists mean—when framing “reality,” a term that Nabokov once suggested means nothing without quotation marks. To represent reality, to engage in what the ancient Greeks called mimesis, always involves some degree of exclusion, and, without the spark of consciousness, both the pebble and the quasar occupy the fast track to irrelevance. There are subjects worthy of representation and subjects unworthy, ranging on a wide scale with the human and the nonhuman as its poles, so that a person is vastly more interesting than a house which is vastly more interesting than a mountain. Raw nature is unnarratable, open to all our parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives…) but closed for storytelling. Among other things, outer space is a grand reminder that realism is a humanism: if we’re not around, what’s there to represent?
For these reasons, realist narrative, with its close ties to literary fiction, cannot survive in outer space. What, then, is possible on a “desert-like plain near Achernar?” Knausgaard flirts with the obvious answer when he conjures up a “door banging in a house” on an distant planet. With that sole detail (how could there be a house?), he, if only for a moment, slips into the realm of science fiction, the genre of “what-if?” With its strong claim to outer space, science fiction enjoys by far the most real estate of any literary genre.
To set a story in outer space means to frame that narrative in the future (if not a long time ago in a galaxy far away…) because, as things currently stand, we, as human beings, are simply not there, barring a few brave astronauts on the ISS. Then, as the writer of outer space painfully knows, an explanation must be given as to how a puny human character is able to survive beyond his ecological home and traverse the light years between the raging stars. And thus the tropes and technologies of science fiction pour into the story and render it generic: spaceships, FTL drives, and wormholes; terraformed planets and Big Dumb Objects (BDOs); alien interventions and monsters-in-the-Jefferies-tube.
Setting aside surreal fantasy or magical realism, it is impossible to narrativize outer space without reference to (1) the future and (2) technology, and the foregrounded presence of either concept will always signal “sci-fi” to contemporary readers. The association of outer space with science fiction stretches back to the space-bound works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires, which were described as “scientific romances” rather than science fiction proper, involved the use of exciting technologies to reach the plains of Antarctica, the depths of the ocean, the center of the earth, or, indeed, the orbit of the moon. Written in the late 1860s, From Earth to the Moon and its sequel Around the Moon tell the story of three men who are projected by a massive cannon on a daring lunar voyage. These novels are somewhat dated today, but they proved influential for decades to come, inspiring the popular silent film A Trip to the Moon (1902) and providing a model for Wells to react against when he—in 1901—published The First Men in the Moon. Wells’s moon voyage (like much of his early bibliography) is filled with remarkable ideas, from anti-gravity propulsion to insectoid aliens, and it remains an intellectually stimulating read even after more than a century of Wells’s sci-fi progeny.
Verne, for his part, was critical of Wells’s intermixing of the scientifically plausible with the speculatively fantastic, making his position clear:
I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. we do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on a very scientific basis. No, there is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an air-ship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ca, c’est tres joli, but show me this metal. Let him produce it.
Of course, it was precisely Wells’s spirit of invention that made him the principle founder of modern science fiction and brought the vast expanses of outer space under the genre’s wing. As science fiction scholar James Gunn puts it, “Verne was writing an ‘if-this-goes-on’ kind of story and Wells, a ‘what-if’ kind.” It was Wells who introduced the term “outer space” into the popular lexicon, and it was he who first defined the cosmos as a properly science fictional space, a space of what-if.
Verne and Wells, then, set the rules of the game: science fiction would be the wrench that opens up new arenas of space and time. Following Edwin Hubble’s revolutionary discovery of a profusion of “island universes” (what astronomers now call galaxies) in 1924, the next serious writer of outer space was Olaf Stapledon. Star Maker (1937) explicitly grapples with a universe that is incalculably large and incomprehensibly old. Stapledon understood the de-centering significance of Darwin, Hubble, and the deep time of modern geology, and so he wrote a narrative that spans billions of years, with an everyman narrator who becomes capable (through an act of sheer imagination) of traversing time and space in a disembodied form. During his long voyage out and back home again, the traveler encounters a number of alien intelligences, astronomical phenomena, and even the universe’s creator, the eponymous Starmaker. In full view, the novel—revered by many illustrious writers of the day, including Virginia Woolf and Jorge Luis Borges—is a strange achievement, predictably thin on plot and characterization but bursting with ideas in typical high-concept fashion. With his other great novel, Last and First Men, written in 1930, Stapledon exerted massive influence on the development of twentieth-century genre fictions, cited glowingly by authors like H.P Lovecraft, C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, and James Blish, among others.
After Stapledon came years of pulp-fiction, the Roswell incident, the space opera of sci-fi’s Golden Age, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and all the rest. Over the long and tumultuous century, writers of outer space dreamt up inspired places, scenarios, and species, and, in equal measure, recycled and re-recycled clichés, old and new. Looking backwards, I imagine each story, each discrete rendering of “what-if-the-stars-were-such,” as contributing to the sci-fi-ification of outer space. What we end up with is a massive swath of physical reality defined in the popular imagination by an artistic genre.
Outer space, in the end, becomes a giant projective surface for the dreams of tomorrow, more idea than place. I’m often reminded of George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnsen’s Metaphors We Live By, in which the authors argue that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Lakoff and Johnsen describe the centrality of spatial metaphors, particularly the up/down metaphor: happy is up (“I’m feeling up” or “My spirits are high”) and sad is down (“I’m feeling down” or “My spirits sank”); conscious is up (“Wake up”) and unconscious is down (“He fell asleep”); more is up (“My income is up”) and less is down (“Profits are down”). There is an exception to the up-is-good-and-down-is-bad rule, however: unknown is up (“It’s up in the air”) and known is down (“The matter is settled”). Go up far enough, and you reach the greatest unknown—how far it all goes, we can only speculate. At some level, I suspect that outer space represents the unsayable, the unconscious, the undiscovered country of death, and so we don’t talk or think about it very much. For now, the bells and whistles of science fiction are the only way for the resistant cosmos to be narratively represented and emotionally encountered.
There’s finally, of course, the question of literary respectability: realist fiction is up, genre-fiction is down. In a short essay entitled “Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of Contempt,” Peter Watts, author of Blindsight, calls Atwood to task for her aversion to the science-fiction label: “Here is a woman so terrified of sf-cooties that she’ll happily redefine the entire genre for no other reason than to exclude herself from it.” Watts continues, “Atwood claims to write something entirely different: speculative fiction, she calls it, the difference being that it is based on rigorously-researched science, extrapolating real technological and social trends into the future (as opposed to that escapist nonsense about fictitious things like chemicals and rockets, presumably).” For Watts, “the literary credscape […] hold the realist novel to be the benchmark against which all else is judged.” Since Atwood strives for high art, she strives for realism, and science fiction must be discarded.
The whole exercise is silly. Within science-fiction (including those stories set in outer space), there is plenty of room for realism, if by realism we simply mean those moments of keen observation, getting at deep truths, reflecting the human condition, inspiring a head-nod and an internal murmur of “Yes, this speaks to me.” Of course it’s there in science fiction. My favorite sci-fi writers, including Watts, Atwood, Le Guin, Banks, and so many others, all use fantastic lies to tell the truth.
But, in any space-fi novel, it’s always yesterday or tomorrow because characters are a necessity. Without character, there is no plot, no representation beyond “the faint gleam of the moon.” This is why writing outer space as it actually exists now is unimaginable: no one is there. We can certainly wonder what-if, but we cannot represent what is.
Awestruck again, I’ll close my laptop. Falling asleep, I’ll picture the countless light years as an endless highway. All the empty systems are abandoned towns, and the stars are street lamps left on for eons. There is the promise of human presence, painted by more than a century of science fiction, but we’re not there yet. If we ever arrive, what stories will we tell?
How many times have I checked my Instagram feed since I attempted to start writing this review? I have lurked on the Internet and seen sulking selfies and sultry men posing with plants and a green glow framed in darkness; I have witnessed cats playing with a Ping-Pong ball, a humble brag shot of mail received and photo “memories” of past AWPs. With Wi-Fi always at the ready, we are armed during our waking hours with iPhones and Androids and multitudes of screens; we are inundated in images like no age previously. We are the “Picture People,” “addicted to images, in all their varieties,” declares Ezekiel “Zeke” Hooper Stark, cultural ethnographer, sufferer of indecision, New Man, middle son, and protagonist of Lynne Tillman’s grand and sprawling new novel, Men and Apparitions.
What does it mean to come of age amongst this glut of images, and how does this alter the way we as a culture perceive? This is one of two central questions asked in Tillman’s Men and Apparitions. As a 38-year-old man, Zeke is situated on the cusp of multiple transitions—from the analog to the digital, from dark room to Polaroid to cell phone selfie. In his lifetime a photo has gone from a way of remembering and memorializing to a throwaway—something evanescent. Zeke is old enough to have a childhood immortalized in the family photo album yet young enough to be fully fluent with digital media. New media’s proliferation has brought about a more fluid and abundant display of images, expanding possibilities of self, and notably, with regard to the “Men” in the novel’s title, new tropes of masculinity. We’ve gone from the iconic tough cowboy of a Marlboro Man, then appropriated by Richard Prince, re-appropriated by Brokeback Mountain’s gay lovers, and by now signals of masculinity have morphed somewhat, though not entirely.
Another transition to consider: Zeke is one among a generation of sons of second-wave feminists who have matured into adulthood. The second central question of Men and Apparitions is how has their idea of masculinity expanded, and has it expanded in commensurate ways? The answer is murky. Zeke doesn’t question the way he performs tropes of masculinity, the way he is on autopilot, with his wife and his advancing academic career, until he encounters personal failure and betrayal. His wife leaves him for his best friend, triggering a crisis (he has dissociative amnesia, wanders Europe, tells people he’s Henry Adams). This rending makes real something he already knew intellectually, that identity is fluid not static. And he starts to discover his depths, to discover his true work, doing investigative work to explore and define this new masculinity, what he calls the “New Man.” Photography plays a role in this redefinition too, Tillman implies through Zeke: “To perform gender there must be an image to base it upon: this is who a woman sits, this is how a man walks.” If nothing else in this book is clear, we are performing ideas of ourselves all of the time.
Zeke is obsessed with photographs, especially their role in forming and reifying identity. In his work as a cultural ethnographer, he analyzes relationships in family photographs—birth order, gender relations, and how this is portrayed, i.e. “how does that ‘fact’ become an image for the family?” Through Zeke we learn of his family’s obsessions: of his mother’s intense connection to her ancestry through their images, of his hatred for his insensitive brother Bro Hart (oldest), and the selective mutism of Little Sister (youngest), with whom Zeke feels a quiet and robust solidarity. We learn of their family propensity to depression and suicide through Zeke’s meandering mental cataloging, just as we learn of his ex-wife’s immunity to failure, and of the nearly mythological status of ancestor Clover Hooper Adams, wife of Henry. And yet it’s striking that in this novel so focused on images, filled with images even, we don’t ever “see” Zeke, either through his perceptions of the physical world or through photographs. While I’m inclined to interpret a photomontage before the final section as Zeke’s personal collection, and wish some of these faces to be his, it’s never defined as such. Certainly my desire to “see” Zeke influences my reading, and the novel’s consideration of images and interpretation leads me to question why I want this. That somehow this “fact” of Zeke’s existence would confirm my own intuitions. As if he weren’t a fictional character. As if the photo were evidence. As it is, we only see through him, and rarely if ever glimpse the physical world around him.
Zeke, however, does describe and analyze the expressions and posturing and framing in photos, and some are included in the text. Early on he describes a series of photographs by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, and specifically, one of a child standing in a crib on the lawn of a suburban house: “The picture was shot from the child’s POV, from behind his head, so the shot was low to the ground. The child looked out from his crib, the view was cone-shape, of street, houses, a car. It was a child’s eye-view, a Christina’s world. A new theoretical world, with a new eye wide open.” This description provides a key to understanding the reader’s relationship to Zeke, and Tillman’s as author. I couldn’t help but read this as a nod to Tillman as author/photographer who turns the reader’s gaze toward the world with a Zeke’s eye-view, or rather, to witness through Zeke’s filter of a mind, which is analytic, punny, and always thinking.
It’s an authorial wink, too. Tillman has written male narrators before, though her only novel from a male perspective is an older gay man in Cast in Doubt. Women authors write men all of the time, and vice versa. What’s striking in this instance is the intimacy of voice, and Zeke’s focus on defining masculinity, his intent of reappropriating Henry James’s feminist ideal of the 19th-century’s self-made New Woman (Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer, for example) to define the 21stt century’s New Man. Or rather: Henry James wrote in drag then; Tillman is doing it now, inquiring into the status of the New Man as a second-wave feminist. Gender is performance. Writing it is too. It makes me wonder, too, what nuances Tillman as a woman perceives, what she misses too. The attempt is certainly ambitious.
Much of the book’s first section is a Roland Barthes-like disquisition about the image, all from Zeke’s point of view. It includes a consideration of images and photos scattered throughout the text. Zeke states: “Images don’t mean as words mean, though people (and I) apply words to them.” However, these images are very much a kind of language too: a transmission of postures and facial expressions and gestures and framing; they tell stories, of identities, of the eye behind the camera’s lens, of pasts, of inheritance, of how we are seen and how we wish to be seen. The photograph creates and reinforces mythologies and narratives, about members of a family or a social group and their interrelationships. It makes me think of the four Brown sisters, photographed by Nicholas Nixon every year for more than 40 years. Always standing in the same order, with subtle changes in their gestures and faces and expressions; the most striking changes are in appearances: haircuts or a change in weight. The series captures their relationships over time and forms an intimate story. While the Fox sisters aren’t mentioned by Zeke, he traffics in contemporary photography and culture (riffing on O.J. Simpson, the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, Bernie Madoff, John Cage) and a network of 19th-century Americans associated with Clover Adams (Henry Adams, the James brothers, etc., etc.)
As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “All images appropriate.” Zeke too considers appropriation in many dimensions: how we fall in love with projections, our aspirational branding and signification. He doesn’t state this directly, but this fantasy of transformation is the foundation of the American Dream: “Portraits of selves reside inside or beside portraits of desirable or desired others, too. The other’s desired life is a fashion or style, there is no inner to the outer-wear. Fashion and style rule because the shopper assumes the style of the designer and imagines it’s his or her own. When in fact he or she is merely branded. (See Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)”
Erving Goffman is a touchstone for Zeke, as are Sigmund Freud and Clifford Geertz and a smattering of cultural anthropologists and thinkers, but it’s through Goffman and his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that he considers performative qualities we bring to the daily interactions that define us. In effect, Zeke confirms Goffman who confirms the old Shakespearean adage—“The world’s a stage” — in that the roles we play and the way we convey (and betray) ourselves is a choice, or a repetition. Habits, they make you. Or they become you. A disruption can also change you. As Zeke remarks at the beginning of Men and Apparitions, he’s been conjugating breakfast for his entire life. It seems relevant here to tie in Tillman’s writing on the gaze and the desire in Cindy Sherman’s photos, from an essay in The Complete Madame Realism:
[Sherman’s] photographs are not about her. They are about us. Human beings want to look at themselves, and the ubiquity of the camera and its photographic products demonstrates that obsession. People construct ways to look at themselves and others. It is an incessant desire, impossible to satisfy, which creates more pictures. Humans stare at each other longingly, or with disgust, anxiety, curiosity. People watch people, as if everyone might live in a zoo or be a zookeeper…Sherman’s art registers the restlessness of people to see who they are, or who they might be or become. And what will happen to them.
Tillman, through Zeke, is not asking how should a person be or how does the world look, but rather, how does a person become? And how do images complicate these notions of ourselves and this desire to become someone else?
Zeke’s rhythm of thinking, his patois, his clipped observations, his tendency to employ maxims evoke a far different mind than the narrator of Tillman’s previous novel, American Genius, A Comedy, whose smooth recursive thoughts loop back on themselves, riffing on skin, memory, and American history. And yet, what unites their voices is Tillman’s commitment to writing the drifts and vagaries of the mind, attempting to capture the generation of ideas on the page, and to stay with them over an extended period of time—here for nearly 400 pages. The depths Tillman plumbs seem almost paradoxical to a novel so intensely focused on surfaces and photography. It’s as if Tillman is acknowledging that life is life, but the active life occurs in the interface with the mind. Thinking is life. Zeke’s inaction or as he puts it, his “Hamlet disease,” is pitted against a multitude of photographic surfaces. Zeke’s depth begs the question, how does coming to know Zeke through voice differ from knowing him through an Instagram feed? And do the profusion of images surrounding him threaten depth of character, as in, will our surfeit of images lead us to understand, or “see” character or personality differently? Think of the balderdash on Twitter, the sound bites, the seduction of social media feeds, selfies. The fragmentation already.
The novel ends in fragmentation. A field study, “Men in Quotes,” was performed and collected and arranged by Zeke, but his observations merely order the responses by subjects interviewed about their roles, their love lives, their relationship to masculinity. Of the largely heterosexual pool, some are confused, some admit to repeating their fathers’ lechery, some admit to desiring partners who are equals and more independent than their mothers, some aren’t mystified by women while others still are. Zeke articulates his idea of the New Man as a reappropriation of James here. too, but with a twist:
Guyville in Jeopardy: The New Man is analogous to Henry James’s New Woman, but change for him isn’t about his greater independence; it’s about recognizing his interdependence, with a partner, in my study, usually female, even dependence on her…He must recognize different demands and roles for him, and for her. A New Man must investigate the codes that make him masculine, and the models for hetero-normative behavior. And make him who he is or was, make him what he never believed had been ‘made.’
This new awareness of interdependence between sexes seems all the more timely, and fragile too, given the resurgence of the strong man, partially as backlash to this new masculinity. As this recent headline in The Guardian states, there’s a crisis in modern masculinity. This too is shifting, not set. “We think we can be whatever we want to be,” says one subject in Zeke’s field study.
“Men in Quotes” is a collection of observations more than a summation, and it’s meaningful that the voices are not mediated through Zeke. It’s also curious to note how this section nods to the final chapter of Susan Sontag’s On Photography—“A Brief Anthology in Quotations”—which collates an assortment of quotations relating to photography; this in itself nods to Walter Benjamin’s cataloguing of quotations documenting the shift to modernity in Paris in The Arcades Project.
Earlier in On Photography Sontag observes, “A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations.” Men and Apparitions, then, appropriates Sontag’s linguistic equivalent of the photo album with “Men In Quotes,” and in doing so marks its own shift in voice. Ending the novel with prismatic voices speaking to the many facets of the New Man is a deliberate opening of form to other voices, and quite literally, too. The responses from interview subjects are in fact responses to questions Tillman posed to a small survey of interlocutors identifying as male, age 25 to 45, and “Men in Quotes” features a glimpse at their candid responses with Tillman’s Zeke acting as a guide. Could this making room for other voices also mark a shift towards a new form of novel? It opens up possibilities. The gesture expands upon a form used in David Shields’s Reality Hunger and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, where the proximity and ordering of quotations creates a narrative of its own. Like setting images side by side. Like in the best books, where readers’ imaginations are coaxed to leap. Men and Apparitions is a loose and beautiful baggy monster of a novel that opens in on itself like a fun house hall of mirrors. What a tremendous experience it is to walk through, never quite sure who’s who or what you’re looking at.
David Shields has just published his 20th book, a rambling collection of essays called Other People: Takes & Mistakes. Though he acknowledges that the book is in keeping with his metamorphosis from “a writer of novels and short stories to a writer of nonfiction books and personal essays,” he’s quick to add this disclaimer: “(Never mind, for the moment, that I don’t of course believe in the validity of these generic distinctions.)” Of course the author of Reality Hunger doesn’t believe in the validity of such archaic distinctions. He has moved beyond all that.
Nevertheless, Other People reads a lot like straight nonfiction that’s firmly grounded in the “real” world, to use the quotation marks mandated by Vladimir Nabokov. Shields’s real-life source material here includes his family, his college mentors and classmates, baseball and baseball-stadium cuisine, his bad back, his teenage acne, bad reviews of his books, sports clichés and sports movies, Howard Cosell and Charles Barkley, Curt Cobain and Bill Murray, love and sex and porn stars and ’60s TV shows, and the pleasing remoteness of his current hometown, Seattle. From its Philip Roth epigraph to its final page, this book is tied together by what Shields calls his “favorite idea”—that “language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite.”
By page 29, I’d begun to realize that this book was going to be personal to me in a way no book has ever been before. The essay called “The Groundling” begins with this sentence: “As a student at Brown in the mid-1970s, I admired my writing teachers, John Hawkes and R.V. Cassill, but both of them were more than 30 years older than I, so I admired them as father figures, from a distance.”
My eyes widened. I, too, was a student at Brown in the mid-1970s, and I, too, took a creative writing course taught by R.V. Cassill. I didn’t admire the man as a father figure; in fact, I disliked him for any number of reasons. First, his weekly classes—I suppose they would be called “workshops” today—were a refined form of physical and psychological torture that consisted of sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours as Cassill and my fellow students took turns tearing our undercooked short stories to shreds. For good measure, Cassill chain-smoked Gauloises cigarettes and wore a beret, surely a hangover from his Fulbright year at the Sorbonne. Cassill also assigned his own manual, Writing Fiction, to his students year after year, which struck me even then as shameless self-dealing, the academic racket’s version of an annuity. To make matters worse, Cassill’s latest novel, Doctor Cobb’s Game, a yeasty yarn about the John Profumo sex scandal in Britain, had just hit The New York Times bestseller list, a sure sign of mediocrity in my idealistic young eyes. I still believed that good writing did not make money, and writing that made money could not possibly be good. Riding the bestseller list with Doctor Cobb’s Game was Erich Segal’s Love Story. I rested my case. And finally, during the one-on-one student-teacher conferences at the end of the semester, my girlfriend reported that Cassill tried to seduce her over half a dozen Gauloises and a “bottomless” pot of coffee at the off-campus IHOP where I worked as a dishwasher. This, you must realize, was the age when sleeping with students was a professorial prerogative, like sabbaticals and tenure. The seduction attempt failed, according to my girlfriend, but Cassill had the final say when he used just six words to sum up my literary potential: “Works hard but possesses limited talent.” Up yours!, I remember thinking. I never took another writing course. Instead, I got a job as a newspaper reporter after graduation and embarked on a tortuous, self-taught apprenticeship that led to the publication of my first novel 15 years later.
It wasn’t until much later in Other People, in an essay entitled “The Smarter Dog Knows When to Disobey,” that Shields really hit me where I live. This longish recounting of Shields’s formation as a writer opens with a description of Brown’s much-vaunted New Curriculum, which was instituted in 1969 but had begun to feel dated to Shields by the time he arrived on campus in 1974: “no distribution requirements, optional pass/fail, fewer total courses required to graduate, the freedom to direct your own education, the encouragement to go deep rather than wide.” The New Curriculum was a primary attraction when I applied to Brown, and, after that disastrous class with R.V. Cassill, it afforded me the freedom to go deep—researching and writing a book-length history of the city of Providence under the guidance of two inspiring professors, Tom Gleason and Howard Chudacoff.
Shields’s formation as a writer had less to do with the New Curriculum than with postmodernism, the experimental novelist John Hawkes, and the fledgling semiotics program founded by Robert Scholes during Shields’s freshman year. To establish the school’s literary atmosphere and aesthetic, Shields ticks off the writers who have trod the campus down through the years, including Nathanael West and his brother-in-law S.J. Perelman, Cassill and Hawkes and Scholes, Robert Coover and C.D. Wright, Nancy Lemann, Jaimy Gordon, Rick Moody, Susan Minot, Ira Glass, Thomas Mallon, Joanna Scott, Mary Caponegro, Jeffrey Eugenides, Andrew Sean Greer, A.J. Jacobs, and many more. Shields states flatly that he never would have become a writer without the encouragement of Hawkes, who preached that the “true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.”
As much as it’s an exploration of the personalities and ideas that shaped Shields as a writer, “The Smarter Dog” is also an exploration of the self-consciousness and self-reflexivity bred into students at Brown, “that nervous self-awareness that never turns off.” Small wonder that Brown was (still is?) the anti-Ivy Ivy League school, a place with an “overdog/underdog ethos,” the fallback (or “safety school,” in Shields’s preferred term) for those who didn’t make the cut at Harvard or Yale or even Princeton. “In the work of a striking number of creative artists who are Brown grads,” Shields writes, “I see a skewed, complex, somewhat tortured stance: antipathy toward the conventions of the culture and yet a strong need to be in conversation with that culture.” This leads him to wonder “to what degree, if any, Brown can be seen as an incubator of American postmodernism.”
A piece of an answer comes from Brown grad Ira Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life,” who makes an astonishing admission: “Semiotics is how I defined myself. To a large extent, it still is. Most of what I understand about how to make radio is all filtered through what I learned in semiotics at Brown.” What Glass learned in semiotics at Brown was that “language itself was actually a system designed to keep you in your place.” What I learned at Brown was that language, specifically the English language, is a limitlessly versatile tool for expressing oneself, and the only way to learn how to use that tool is to fail again and again, until you are finally able to call yourself a beginner. Most of what I understand about writing has come from watching people and listening to them (and of course from reading). I learned to interview people not by understanding that language is a system designed to keep me in my place, but by sitting down with people and interviewing them (and of course by reading such masters of the form as Studs Terkel, Oriana Fallaci, and The Paris Review). One of my very first interviews became the closing chapter of my history of Providence—a taped Q&A in the palatial offices of the city’s brash young Republican mayor, a felon-in-training with a bad toupee named Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. The interview was a hash, but the point is that I believed in learning by doing, and I wasn’t afraid to fail.
Semiotics was all the rage during my last two years at Brown, and I wouldn’t have dared admit to anyone that I didn’t know exactly what it was, had only a vague notion that it had something to do with signs and symbols. Thanks to Shields, I now realize I was not alone. When Scholes was invited to a semiotics conference in Italy in the late 1960s, he had not yet heard the term. When he founded the program at Brown, Scholes chose to call it semiotics, according to Shields, precisely because the word was so imprecise. “It didn’t have a lot of baggage,” Scholes said. “It was almost a blank signifier.” When Shields’s mother learned that he had taken up this obscure new line of study, she said, “Semiotics? What the hell is that?” The novelist and Brown grad Samantha Gillison provides one answer: “Semiotics was an exclusive, self-contained puzzle for super-smart, super-rich kids.” Shields wound up switching his major to British and American literature.
Which brings us to this essay’s punch-in-the-gut line. After parsing Brown students’ self-consciousness and insecurity, their uneasily co-existing pride and dismay that they don’t go to Harvard, Shields writes this paragraph:
My junior year an essay appeared in Fresh Fruit, the extremely short-lived and poorly named weekly arts supplement to the Brown Daily Herald. A Brown student, writing about the cultural clash at a basketball game between Brown and the University of Rhode Island, referred in passing to Brown students as “world-beaters.” I remember thinking, Really? World-beaters? More like world-wanderers and-wonderers.
This time my eyes didn’t just widen, they nearly popped. My first thought was: I was the Brown student who wrote that article! My second thought was: Shields got it all wrong. Coming in a distant third, but still in the money, was the rueful realization that Shields neglected to mention me by name. I had become the lowliest link in the literary food chain: a U.F.O. or Unidentified Footnote Object.
What Shields got wrong was that the culture clash described in my article took place at a basketball game in the downtown Civic Center between Brown and Providence College, not the University of Rhode Island. The distinction is important, at least to me, because this sketch fed into the history of Providence I was writing. It was an attempt to describe the chasm that separated Brown, perched on College Hill, from the surrounding city, with its rotting waterfront and ghostly downtown, its tap rooms and abandoned textile factories and crumbling triple-decker neighborhoods, including Federal Hill, where Raymond L.S. Patriarca ran the New England mob out of the ramshackle offices of a vending-machine company, aided by colorful, cold-blooded lieutenants named Baby Shacks, the Frenchman, and Luigi Manocchio. Another thing Shields got wrong was saying I called Brown students “world-beaters.” Actually, I contrasted Providence College’s “pre-dental” students to Brown’s “pre-earth-ruling” students. It’s a formulation I stand by. Compared to the home-grown, Narragansett-swilling, blue-collar fans of the Catholic college on the far side of town, the Brown students at the Civic Center the night of February 4, 1975 were indeed a pampered posse of super-smart super-rich kids poised to rule the worlds of literature, art, politics, academia, and business. Shields was interested in comparing Brown students to Harvard students, while I was interested in comparing Brown students to the people of Providence.
This is not a knock on Shields—or me—because all writers are free to choose their subject matter and use their source material as they see fit. Frankly, I’m more than a little flattered that a writer as prolific and brainy as Shields bothered to notice a trifle I wrote during my apprenticeship four decades ago. His inadvertent conflating of Providence College and the University of Rhode Island is probably not significant to anyone but me, and his failure to mention me by name is forgiven. To harp on the omission would be to risk parroting that schlemiel Bob Uecker in the old Miller Lite ad where he’s sitting alone way up in the nosebleeds at a baseball stadium, bellowing at the umpire: “He missed the tag! He missed the tag!” The umpire can’t hear him, of course, and it’s a sure bet he wouldn’t care even if he could. Which is as it should be.
It’s not all bad here in the purgatory of the Unidentified Footnote Object. The pay’s not great, but we pretty much get to write whatever we want to write. And best of all, we never have to take—or teach—classes in creative writing or semiotics.
Renata Adler’s new collection, After the Tall Timber, which spans 40 years of her reporting, essays, and criticism, has a distinctly valedictory purpose. It is startling to be reminded that Adler is now 76 years old — a product, as she calls herself, of World War II and the Dwight D. Eisenhower era. Her voice on the page is ageless; never that of a young writer precisely, it is even now not the voice of senescence. From the start, Adler’s work has been sophisticated, well-defended, and willfully provocative. The strong tendency of her career has been to resist the received idea — to unpack that idea, disprove it, and remind the reader whose interests the false account serves. After the Tall Timber implicitly argues for a particular view of Adler as a writer, the bomb thrower-aesthete. But as the title of her 1970 collection, Toward A Radical Middle, suggests, Adler is a bomb thrower of a curious sort, a Jean-Pau Marat figure in the service of what can seem distinctly like ancien regime values: erudition, critical distance, a restrained elegance of style.
Herewith follow some observations on one of the more unusual careers in American journalism.
1. She Is a Cautionary Tale
Adler has spent much of her career ridiculing her fellow journalists, and she has generally aimed high, repeatedly attacking The New York Times for what she views as its complacency and self-regard, lamenting the decline of The New Yorker following its sale to the Newhouse family, and suing Vanity Fair for libel. That all of these institutions employed her before, during, and/or after becoming the objects of her scorn tells us something about Adler’s self-conception; she is perennially Will Kane in High Noon, flinging her press pass into the dirt. Adler is a celebrity journalist who has decried celebrity and careerism as the dominant impulses of her peers. She has also walked the walk, consistently biting the editorial hand that feeds, frustrating the commercial motives of her publishers by producing uncategorizable work ranging across genres, and taking several years away from journalism at the height of her fame to earn a Yale J.D. Adler has written to please herself, and for posterity; and everyone else be damned. This has periodically left her unpublishable, or nearly so. These days, a journalist can want her autonomy, or she can want health insurance, but she had better not want both.
2. She Was Right About The New Yorker — Before She Was Wrong
Adler’s 1999 book, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, asserted that the magazine was “dead” and that “not a single element” of the enterprise created by Harold Ross and carried forward by William Shawn remained. Adler had by then worked for The New Yorker for 35 years and was strongly identified with the magazine, though she had published elsewhere and had even left for 14 months to be The Times film critic. Shawn had, in effect, given her life as a writer, hiring her in 1963 while she was still a graduate student, and Gone is the work of someone who has taken her boss perhaps a little too seriously and the purported betrayal of the great man’s standards a bit too personally. It is also marred by a disconnect between its high-minded tone and a good deal of what amounts to score-settling with colleagues at the magazine with whom Adler had clashed either personally or in the internecine fights for editorial favor for which The New Yorker is famous. Gone is distinctly inside baseball, as one of its targets, Robert Gottlieb, noted in a New York Observer essay-review after the book was published, remarking of the web of interconnections among the main antagonists, “Small world, isn’t it?”
Still, Adler had a point. The New Yorker, at the moment she was writing, seemed to be badly adrift. The Newhouse family, owners of the glossy Condé Nast empire, had taken over in 1984, and the editorial direction signaled by the 1993 hiring of Tina Brown was not promising. Adler argued that the magazine under Brown and her predecessor, Gottlieb, had changed from being one that created its own audience through the integrity of its editorial product to one that sought a kind of commercial mean driven by a finger-to-the-breeze sense of what was hot or trending in the culture. As Gone went to print, David Remnick had just taken over from Brown as editor. How could Adler have predicted that The New Yorker under Remnick would become the consistently excellent publication that it is today — a New Yorker to rival the A.J. Liebling/Joseph Mitchell Golden Age?
3. Her Legal Journalism Is Especially Distinguished
Adler was part of a vanguard, including Lincoln Caplan, James Stewart, Steven Brill, and others, who brought to legal journalism a new rigor, technical competence (each of the foregoing had a legal education), and understanding of the law’s disciplinary tensions and limitations. Adler was a trained lawyer, but she brought a philosopher’s fine attention to the subtlest processes of discourse — to the vigorous fakery, really, of much legal argument. In this, Adler’s model seems to have been Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann In Jerusalem is one of the first and most famous trial books.
In her writings on the law, as elsewhere, it can be difficult to tell whether Adler is a cynic or a scandalized idealist. From Reckless Disregard (1986), Adler’s great book about two high-profile libel trials of the early 1980s:
[T]hough the First Amendment has been held, since [New York Times v.] Sullivan, to tolerate a certain category of inadvertently false statements, in the name of freedom of debate and of expression, it cannot be held to license wholesale violations of the Ninth Commandment, or to abrogate a profound system of values, which holds that words themselves are powerful, that false words leave the world diminished, and that false defamatory words have an actual power to do harm. Nor can it be that any Constitutional or journalistic interest is served by these stages of resolute insistence (first, in the world, after the moment of publication; then, under oath, in the courts) that the story, the “witness,” as published, is true; and of resolute refusal to inquire (first, for reasons largely of public relations; then, when suit is brought, on the advice of lawyers), all for the sake of “winning,” and without care, at any point after publication, whether the story, the witness (now even in the literal, legal sense) is, quite simply, false.
“Decoding the Starr Report,” her attack on the goals, the methods, and the honesty of Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, is some of the best work of the later part of her career. Adler argues, through her customary method of close reading of sources and materials, that Starr’s investigation of the Clintons — for whom Adler also has no great regard — was lawless, self-serving, and entirely motivated by politics and personal enmity.
The six-volume Report by Kenneth W. Starr to the U.S. House of Representatives — which consists, so far, of the single-volume Referral and five volumes of Appendices and Supplemental Materials — is, in many ways, an utterly preposterous document: inaccurate, mindless, biased, disorganized, unprofessional, and corrupt. What it is textually is a voluminous work of demented pornography, with many fascinating characters and several largely hidden story lines. What it is politically is an attempt, through its own limitless preoccupation with sexual material, to set aside, even obliterate, the relatively dull requirement of real evidence and constitutional procedure.
“Decoding the Starr Report” is a confluence of Adler’s signature strengths: her Robert Caro-like doggedness with source materials; her vast rhetorical resources; her capacity, by no means common among journalists, for abstract thought; and finally — and this has served her well and at times not so well — her capacity for indignation.
Adler never practiced law, and she seems to have developed a hearty dislike for lawyers, for their self-importance, their ingrained relativism, and their combination of grandiloquence and syntactic clumsiness. It is easy to imagine, however, Adler having become a very powerful First Amendment lawyer in the Floyd Abrams mold — if only she could have behaved herself, even by the modest standards of contemporary law practice. But then, if she could behave herself, in the sense of not giving offense to judges and to her law partners and clients, she would not be Renata Adler, and “Reckless Disregard,” Speedboat, and the rest would never have been written. And how much does the world need another corporate lawyer, anyway?
One note of reservation. Adler’s editors have not served her well by reprinting “Searching for the Real Nixon Scandal,” her look back at the impeachment case presented by the House Judiciary Committee she served as a staffer. She argues, not entirely implausibly, that the articles presented against Richard Nixon were legally deficient, but also, startlingly, that Nixon should have been impeached for an entirely different crime: accepting bribes from South Vietnamese officials in 1972 to keep the U.S. in the war, leading to the needless deaths of U.S. soldiers. This is the sort of thing that should not be written in a magazine like The Atlantic (where the story was published, in December 1976) without substantial evidence, and the evidence, in my view, is not there. It is not that one is reluctant to believe the charge; at this point, one imagines the Nixon White House capable of almost anything. But Nixon, as Adler herself points out elsewhere, has the same right as anyone else to be convicted on the basis of evidence rather than innuendo. The inferential leap between the Nixon campaign’s notably opaque finances and the conclusion that blood payments from the South Vietnamese were thereby concealed is simply too great.
4. She Is an Exemplary Modern Novelist, But Not a Great One
Adler published two mid-career novels, Speedboat (1978) and Pitch Dark (1983), slender volumes about intelligent but neurotic women tossed by the roiling sea of New York media culture. Speedboat in particular owes a good deal to Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970), in which Maria Wyeth is a human seismograph, an instrument delicate, responsive, and finally inert. Adler’s novels are characteristic of the period in American fiction to which they belong, many of whose major figures (John Barth, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Didion) enacted a calculated distance from the traditional aims of narrative faction. Speedboat states its author’s position quite clearly:
There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots…Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta, they are shuffled and dealt then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls flat on the floor.
Speedboat and Pitch Dark are back in print from NYRB, the publishing imprint of The New York Review of Books (the publication where Adler has perhaps belonged all along), and their virtues have been warmly extolled by a new generation of readers (“for sheer linguistic pleasure, fierce intelligence, and a vivid picture of seventies New York, look no further”; Sadie O. Stein, Paris Review blog). It seems almost inevitable that Adler’s novels, which have been passed hand to hand, samizdat-style, for decades, should be enjoying a renaissance now, at a moment when the privileged status of the traditional novel, and even the very basis of its claim on our attention, have been called into question. Critics like David Shields, who cites Speedboat approvingly in his manifesto, Reality Hunger, regard the imposition of order upon experience that has been the basic genre-work of the novel for 200 years as suspect, a dead letter, a mannerist exercise, in light of the way we live now.
I will admit to being a bit impatient with this claim, though not necessarily with the claimants. It is certainly true that one might find the order imposed by a given novel unsatisfying. More fundamentally, one might reject the entire Western enterprise of self-construction through narrative, preferring radical acceptance, or religious submission — some form of permitting the flow of experience to sluice over and around oneself rather than damning it up in the service of order; in this view, narrative is almost a form of technology, another wrongheaded Western means of taming nature. And I do understand the frustration of readers with the synaptic familiarity of novelistic plot, the patting down of loose ends that so often makes the last third of a novel so much duller than what preceded it.
And yet I think the smart money is on the novel to survive in the age of Twitter and beyond. Jonathan Gottschall has argued (The Storytelling Animal), to my mind persuasively, that narrative has an essential evolutionary function. Making meaning is as endemic to our nature as our biological functions. The revanchist argument for the traditional novel is deeply unfashionable just now; one risks being cast as stodgy, middlebrow Arnold Bennett to the brilliant, gossamer-like Virginia Woolf — and we know how that fight turned out. Still, we should not mistake the aesthetic exhaustion of a few writers, even very gifted ones like Adler, for the exhaustion of a genre as a whole. The novel has been a remarkably flexible and capacious form, adapting easily to the most jarring shifts in the social order, taking in Western and non-Western, advanced and relatively primitive societies. Perhaps the pure novel of consciousness, the lightly fictionalized, largely shapeless, one-damned-thing-after-another novel, of which Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle is the latest instantiation, is simply one more adaptation. The fact that Adler published only two short, episodic novels in a long career (she told The Believer in 2012 that she had completed the manuscript of a third novel, but no announcement has since appeared) suggests that, for her at least, what seemed like a new pathway ended in an infernal grove.
This is not to deny the elegance and conviction of Speedboat and Pitch Dark, which have, perhaps, a small place in the history of the American novel. When I say that Adler is an exemplary modern novelist, I mean simply that she has any aesthetic agenda — that her work is self-conscious, the product of thought, as so many novels are not. That I have yoked her into service in an argument over the future of the realist novel is perhaps even a little unfair. Fitting, then, to conclude with a reminder of how well Adler the novelist actually wrote. From Speedboat, the toxic party we have all attended:
Some people, in a frenzy of antipathy and boredom, were drinking themselves into extreme approximations of longing to be together. Exchanging phone numbers, demanding to have lunch, proposing to share an apartment — the escalations of fellowship had the air of a terminal auction, a fierce adult version of slapjack, a bill-payer loan from a finance company, an attempt to buy with one grand convivial debt, to be paid in future, an exit from each other’s company that instant.
5. She Embodies a Paradox of Gender Politics
Some of the bitterest criticism of Adler has been heavily gendered. She has been accused of shrillness, vindictiveness, excessive self-regard — qualities that would not necessarily be disqualifying in a male journalist. The irony here is that Adler is in some ways an ambivalent feminist, an assertive woman writer who “reads male.” She is by no means reliably liberal in her politics, and she has demonstrated no excess of sorority in her treatment of Pauline Kael, Monica Lewinsky, and some other female subjects. For the most part, she has chosen to dwell within the largely male precincts of politics and law and has eschewed the “domestic” subjects toward which women writers are often steered. She has refused to be ghettoized, which can be read either as a feminist position or as a rebuke of the feminine sphere, or both. Like Hillary Clinton, she has been too “masculine” for some and can never be masculine enough for others. It is embarrassing even to invoke these categories; my point is that for a writer of Adler’s generation they were inescapable. This is one fight she never chose.
6. Her Work Was Made to Last
Most journalism is written quickly and is meant to be digested in the same way. One is reminded of the old Jay Leno joke about his being informed while flying that he could take the in-flight magazine with him when he landed: “No, thank you. I don’t think I’ll be wrapping any fish today.” Adler does journalism to a different tempo and with very different goals in mind. She aspires to write not just the first draft of history, but the last. She is justly praised as a stylist, but her work reminds us that elegance of style cannot be separated from elegance of thought. There can be no mere lacemaking for the author of “The Porch Overlooks No Such Thing,” her critique of The Times’s handling of the Jayson Blair affair:
[T]he Times, as an institution, believes what has been published in its pages. To defend this belief it will go very far. The search, the grail, the motivating principle for individual reporters has become, not the uninflected reporting of news, but something by now almost entirely unrelated: the winning of a Pulitzer Prize. In the interim, some other prize will do. But once won, the Pulitzer turns into both a shield and a weapon — a shield in defense of otherwise indefensible pieces by Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, a weapon in the struggle for advancement within the hierarchy of the Times. The paper still has some fine editors and reporters, with highly honorable concerns. But a five-year moratorium on the awarding of Pulitzer Prizes to journalists at powerful publications might be the greatest service to journalism the Pulitzer Committee could now perform.
In the puncturing of pretensions, this paragraph does double duty, letting some air out of The Times and the Pulitzers both. I suspect that I think more highly of The Times than does Adler; in a media age in which mere talk truly is cheaper than ever before, The Times is still slugging away in Aden and Caracas and Nairobi, trying to do honorable work on beats most journalistic organizations have long abandoned. The fact that a Times staffer may be reporting virtually alone in these places is, however, cause for more editorial vigilance rather than less. Like any other institution at heightened risk of dangerous self-regard, The Times needs critics like Adler, even if it cannot be expected to appreciate them.
“After the Tall Timber” is the kind of writing that ought to speak for itself, and perhaps one day it will. For now, every conversation about Adler’s work will also be a conversation about her controversies, her rages, her silences, and her enemies. Renata Adler has not been clubbable. She has picked fights. She has generally been eager both to take offense and to give it. And once the battle has been joined, she has always had to have the last word. For this, and for the great embarrassment of her irrepressible talent, she has not been forgiven.
Ben Lerner can’t possibly be the persona that inhabits his fiction, the one who surfaces fleetingly in the jagged word clusters that make up his poetry. This shifty, brooding character might share some basic reportable details with his creator, but the difference between them, between writer and work, serves as the primary tension in all of Lerner’s writing. If works of art were about something, instead of existing self-sufficiently for themselves, this is what Lerner’s work would be about: the chasm between a life lived and a thing made; the discouragement one suffers when trying to find one in the other.
With his second novel, 10:04, Lerner has decisively passed from the abbey of poets, who trained him in these stark aesthetic distinctions, into the bustling town of fiction. (If 10:04 were about something, it would be about this passage.) His poetic pedigree draws attention like the priest’s white collar worn at a pub. At 35, he is still very much a younger poet, precociously so, ten years after an award-winning first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, followed in 2006 by Angle of Yaw, a National Book Award finalist. He edited a literary journal and received a Fulbright Scholarship to Spain, and though it is technically impossible to determine precisely how much the latter experience contributed to Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) deals entirely with that kind of experience abroad.
On his fellowship in Spain, the young Topeka-bred poet Adam Gordon worries over his incapacity for being profoundly affected by art. He stares at paintings to no avail. When Spanish translations of his poems are read at a Madrid art gallery, he is bafflingly applauded. The better his Spanish gets, the less poetic he seems around his Spanish friends. Leaving the Atocha Station, named after an early John Ashbery poem, amounts to a deeper disillusionment than in the standard artist novel, where the audience refuses to sanction the artist’s naïve ambitions. In Lerner’s discursive first-person, a provincial romantic fervor is lost on Adam as he examines the “disconnect” between his voided encounters with artworks and “the claims made on their behalf.”
Lerner, on the other hand, has good company among a faction of likeminded American novelists and critics who bristle at the hidebound claims they insist are responsible for an embarrassing profusion of substandard literary product. Simple, re-teachable tropes reign because they are market-tested, while advanced and otherwise marginalized techniques are branded Difficult, because the new is never as easily digestible, or salable, as the familiar. These prose writers—anyone who wasn’t appalled by David Shields’ Reality Hunger—admire the poetry community for valuing their progressives, thus keeping pace over the last century with the vanguards of other media. In both of Lerner’s novels, there is a sense of his sentences catching up, unfurling, distending, pursuing the unclaimed experience or the unexplained artwork. He structures his fiction around passages drawn from his growing body of criticism—studies of John Ashbery and damaged or “totaled art”—as well as the writings of others, like Daniel Zalewski’s essay on Christian Marclay, designer of the 24-hour video montage The Clock, which is given a prominent thematic role in 10:04.
Collage, when used in Lerner’s novels, doesn’t result in the patchwork effect applied by a proponent like Shields in How Literature Saved My Life. Lerner’s novelist sensibility is to cohere and blend, the way Norman Mailer incorporated the shards of Gary Gilmore’s prison letters into the grand cathedral window of The Executioner’s Song. The found objects discovered in 10:04—photographs, poems, epigraphs—are characters that, above more conventional plotlines in the novel, galvanize the contemplative momentum.
The crown jewel of these objects—the antagonist—is a short story published by Lerner (but also his protagonist, Ben) in The New Yorker. (Other excerpts have appeared in The Paris Review and Harper’s.) For the poet in the novel, this story is a moment of concession, a means to the curse of a six-figure book deal. For Lerner, it’s a reconciliation of language. The sequence of untitled sonnet-length poems that make up The Lichtenberg Figures degrades linearly from more coherent, finished announcements to scattershot surrealist amalgams. It is more rationally conservative, more reasonable, than John Ashbery’s debut, Some Trees, published nearly fifty years earlier. Or maybe it could be seen as progressively seeking territory beyond the old familiar conservative-progressive continuum of styles. (“Perhaps what remains of innovation/is a conservativism at peace with contradiction,” Lerner half-kids.)
His most recent book of poems, Mean Free Path, makes use of even shorter overlapping units or strips, fused into nine-line stanzas. The barrage of interruptions conspire to strengthen or stress the precious attractions between words. At this threshold of coherence, Lerner maintains a formal unity of concept and appearance. This formal awareness is a constant presence throughout his novels, always holding the reader at an honest critical distance from the words—critical in both senses, skeptical and art-loving.
Adam Gordon, unbeknownst to him, takes us on a journey through stages of suggestion and communication, led by Lerner’s hand. His Spanish, at first, is lacking. The dialogue is paraphrased and indeterminate. Facial cues go unrecognized or misinterpreted. Adam’s mystique thrives on meaningful silences his acquaintances run with, or so he thinks. He changes his story. First, his mother is dead. Then, he says she’s dead because she’s ill. His father is a fascist. Adam is less a poet and more like one of Lerner’s poems.
In Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, he suggests that “the voices in so-called ‘nonfictions’ were themselves artful impostures, arrangements of sentences…that mimicked the presence of a human being offering sincerely intended and honestly useful guidance into this or that complicated area of human thought or experience.” It is the fictional element in nonfiction, Lethem reminds us, that makes the autobiographical question moot. But starting from words isn’t necessarily starting from scratch. This I think is the genuine motivation for collage, and also pastiche. Nothing new under the sun, but also infinite combinations and riffs. Lerner’s new poet-cum-novelist stops worrying about the novel. Lerner clearly loves it.
This question was posted all over New York City — on subway platforms and the sides of buses, in bright caps-locked letters. It was advertising the new documentary by Shane Salerno and David Shields about the ever-elusive writer. It also worked to promote the companion oral biography by the same name, Salinger. By adding no byline or description, the title sounds authoritative and definitive, it promises new insights into the author’s life and never-before-seen accounts by friends, ex-lovers and contemporaries.
The book is written in a cut-and-paste format familiar to readers of Shields’s “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a jarring style for a biography. The book is made up of pieces from Shields and Salerno’s own research as well as interviews conducted by other people, and — dominant in the book — accounts taken from other publications — the memoirs, biographies and letters already printed about old J.D. The style creates a sort of Salinger-history montage. An In Case You Missed It! of Salinger studies in the past several decades.
Most of the so-called new revelations in Salinger are well known to dedicated fans of the writer. His experience in World War II was detailed extensively in Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography and his questionable experiences with younger women have been told countless times, most notably in Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World. That Salinger was not the most dedicated father or husband is no mystery to anyone who’s even heard of his daughter Margaret Salinger’s account in her own memoir, Dream Catcher. Salinger’s earlier fiction and the content of his letters is available to anyone with transportation to Princeton’s Firestone Library in New Jersey. While certainly not known to the average reader, these sections of the biography are hardly new discoveries.
To Salinger’s credit it does manage, between the stitches of its frankenstein format, to show a different, and quite clear, picture of Salinger’s life. All together, the fragmented accounts work as snapshots that create vibrant scenes of the experiences around and with J.D. Salinger. We hear the chatter and smell the cigarette smoke in the Stork Club as cameras flash to capture a moment in the life of Oona O’Neill, the Debutante of 1942 and sometimes-date of Salinger. Later we find ourselves waist-deep in water storming Utah Beach, surrounded by shellfire and chaos. In one of the final scenes of the book we see two photographers for the New York Post blocking in Salinger’s car in a grocery store parking lot, snapping photos and yelling harassment at the 69-year-old author.
Yet in all of the scenes in Salinger, through all the vivid color and sound, we see only what is going on around Salinger. The man himself is left in the shadows, remaining just out-of-frame. There is no moment, excepting the few quotations from Salinger’s own work or letters, when he feels present at all. The biography manages to circle in the air around old J.D. without ever hitting center.
There are attempts to fill these holes and reassert Salinger in what should be a story about him, but these feel rushed and speculative. Interviewees, and even Shields at times, insert statements that begin with “Salinger probably thought” or “Salinger must have felt” — and these instances feel like neighborhood gossip, not the work of literary biography.
After finishing the book I found myself with the same question that I began it with: What happened to J.D. Salinger? He appears absent in his own biography — a ghost, as Shields calls him several times. But this is the same Salinger we’ve seen, or rather haven’t seen, since he moved himself up a mountain in New Hampshire in 1952. He maintains, after death, the same elusiveness regarding his motives, his intentions, and his feelings, as he did for the last half century of his life. We have, instead of answers, a list of possible culprits for Salinger’s reclusion: heartbreak over Oona O’Neil, post-traumatic stress disorder from the war, and dedication to a Vedantic way of life which, we’re told rather adamantly, “killed his art.” These postulations fall short and don’t satisfy Salinger readers any more than previous accounts of his life had done.
So if this new project, hyped as one of the great literary reveals of our time, cannot help us find Salinger, what can?
Most striking in Salinger is the repetition of Salinger-seekers who went on to write or be interviewed about meeting the author, who didn’t expect their personal stories to elicit the attention and publicity that they received. Whenever news of Salinger was revealed, throughout his lifetime and especially after he ceased to publish, it was met with a flurry of public interest. Salinger has managed to not only maintain a readership through new generations, but to instill the same kind of devotion and excitement that once had readers rushing to newsstands the morning of a new New Yorker story.
Scholars, critics, everyday readers — everyone wants answers about (and from) Salinger. Many of the accounts in Salinger are from fans who decided that they needed, were even entitled, to an audience with the recluse, and they showed up at his doorstep only to be disappointed.
Michael Clarkson, the subject of the book’s first “Conversation with Salinger” section, drove 450 miles to meet the man he instinctually, and without permission, called Jerry. “I wanted to ask him, ‘Where do I go from here? What’s the next step?’” Unsurprisingly, Salinger was exasperated at being sought out as a guru to a stranger, to countless strangers, who showed up in the town that was supposed to be his santuary. Clarkson claims that he felt a certain obligation to Salinger fans to tell his story, and could not fathom that Salinger did not feel such a loyalty himself.
There’s something about Salinger that touches readers unlike any other 20th-century writer — he actually made people believe, in all sincerity, that he understood them, and truly cared. “There are few writers in this century,” Adam Gopnik is quoted saying, “who find or forge the key that enables them to unlock the hearts of their readers and their fellow people. And Salinger did that.”
He created his own small living room universes, revolving around three families — the Caulfields, the Glasses, and the Gladwaters of his early war stories who are mysteriously absent in the Shields/Salerno project — who struggled, as all people do, to reconcile that the world is full of suffering and horror, but no less full of beauty and hope. I can’t help but wonder why, for the fans who banged down his door, the fiction Salinger already gave us wasn’t enough.
In the 1959 New Yorker novella, Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy Glass, speaking as character and creator, says “I must reveal that my reputedly heart-shaped prose has knighted me one of the best-loved sciolists in print since Ferris L. Monahan, and a good many English Department people already know where I live, hole up; I have their tire tracks in my rose beds to prove it.”
Salinger fans, it seems, are forever leaving those tire tracks, trying to peek through the window. Perhaps his prose invites it — after all Salinger wrote the sort of books that, when you’re all done reading them, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours. For a lot of readers this instilled an entitlement for answers from the man who had already given them so much in those four slim volumes.
This, in part, feels like the premise of Salinger — that this writer, who we once dearly loved, abandoned us, and we deserve answers. The book seeks to answer not what happened to J.D. Salinger, but what was J.D. Salinger’s problem, anyway? It seeks answers like a child seeking an absent father.
So where do we go from here? With all of the information compiled in these new projects, the what’s, where’s, and when’s of Salinger’s life — what is there left to find? The why’s and how’s interest us most of all.
I believe the only way to fill these blanks is by returning to the beginning. To re-read The Catcher in the Rye with PTSD in mind. By reading Franny and Zooey, knowing that “Franny” was written as a wedding present for Salinger’s second wife Claire — a marriage that faded away as the Glass family grew more and more defined. Return to “For Esmé”, knowing that all of its hope and fragile beauty were created by a man present in many of the bloodiest battles of World War II and witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. He managed to not only convey the numbing desolation of shell-shock, but to put the pieces back together again.
It’s time to not only return to his books, but to go back even further to his early stories — of Vincent Caulfield (later D.B.) and his brother Holden, each of whom die in the war and are resurrected in Catcher. To discover the Gladwater family, friends of the Caulfields, whose siblings Babe and Mattie mirror the relationship we see developed more fully between Holden and Phoebe. For those too far away from Princeton’s Firestone Library, the library at the University of Texas in Austin, or the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England — many of Salinger’s old stories can be found in library archives or, less reputably, transcribed online.
To read Salinger with new awareness of his experiences, retaining the grains of salt which must be taken alongside the Shields/Salerno projects, a new Salinger just might emerge. Now is the perfect time to revisit Salinger’s work and breathe new life into a body of critical work that is lacking at best. The conversation about him is re-starting and the readers who have remained quiet, holding their collective breath, for new Salinger material, can come out of hiding.
Perhaps we’ll even be rewarded with something truly new. There is not, for anyone who has read his final interviews or, better yet, read his letters, any doubt that Salinger kept writing. Salinger wrote his old friend Donald Hartog in 1991 that he kept busy writing, “fiction, as always.” In 1997 he noted, with great relief, that the fire which scorched a good part of the house, including his study, had spared his writing. After, he invested in a fireproof safe to protect his writing from future disasters, showing that Salinger didn’t only write for himself, but he actually took pains to preserve his work. If this doesn’t indicate an intention to publish, Shields and Salerno have word from “two independent and separate sources” that there are five works approved for publication beginning in 2015.
What awaits Salinger readers in the vault? Maybe more of the ecstatic prose of Seymour: An Introduction, or spiritual healing of “Zooey”. Perhaps, even, he continued in the direction of “Hapworth,” which so bewildered his critics. We may only speculate until the works are actually released but, whatever the outcome, new Salinger writing would help fuel the of renewed interest in the writer’s work and perhaps even relieve some of the bitterness that marks the better part of the Shields/Salerno project and so many other seeker accounts besides.
Whether or not Shields’s sources have any validity will be seen in time. It’s telling that Colleen O’Neill and Matthew Salinger, the two executors of the writer’s estate, both refuse to make a statement one way or the other. It will be impossible to gauge what the result of new Salinger fiction could have on the way that we view his writing as well as how we come to judge his reclusive years.
Icelandic poet, playwright, and novelist Sjón (pronounced “Shohn”) rummages through all of nature, history, and imagination in his newly translated trilogy, cobbling found fragments together. The resulting work holds up not through any logical scheme or solid foundation but through collective heat and gravity. More important than the fragments themselves, however, are the gaps between them, which open onto a larger and more sublime world, far beyond what any single book can encompass.
Perhaps best known as a lyricist for Björk (he co-wrote the Oscar-nominated “I’ve Seen It All” from Dancer in the Dark, as well as many other songs), three of his books – The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse, and From The Mouth Of The Whale – have just appeared for the first time in America, in snazzy FSG editions translated by Victoria Cribb.
They’re peculiar things. Ribald, raunchy, sometimes brutal and sometimes unselfconsciously goofy (a revered 17th century Danish scholar is named Dr. Wormius; a merchant ship sets sail for Mold Bay), they combine legends and tall tales, magical realism and biblical allegory, landscape and maritime studies, arcane scientific and theological musings, YA-style swashbuckling and personal confession. Calling to mind Borges and Sebald with their cracked pseudo-scholarship and deliberately pedantic inquiries into botany, zoology, geography, and the cosmos, they’re wonder books, cabinets of curiosity, and extended riffs, not straightforwardly plotted and thematically streamlined novels.
Projecting tricks of light and memory across frozen fields, lonely islands, and stormy seas, Sjón takes a distinctly human pleasure in relating how harsh and inhospitable the world can be to human habitation within it. He renders nature, which “breeds in its lap both unimaginable horrors and precious gems,” with the romantic longing of Caspar David Friedrich and the cool desolation of Nicholas Winding Refn’s film Valhalla Rising.
Life impacts Sjón’s characters like Forrest Gump bled of all corny uplift. Dwarfed by superstition, politics, and endless winter, they bear their torment by thinking and talking endlessly, spinning a loose narrative web out of whatever absurdity is afoot.
Entering this web as a reader felt like slipping into a drawn-out encounter with an enthusiastic and linguistically agile stranger at a bar. Professing to be in no hurry, I listened to the stranger toss off boastful yarns and laments about his and the world’s younger days. As we both went on drinking and the night got deep, I found myself believing him more and more.
There’s something frivolous about an exchange like this, a sense that nothing concrete can be accomplished, but there’s also a desperate import, a sense that transitory, half-coherent communication is our only recourse in a world that always gets the better of us. The truth can never be said outright, but a storyteller like this convinces you it can be stabbed at.
In The Blue Fox, a priest trapped for five days under a glacier begins to fear for his sanity, “so he did what comes most naturally to an Icelander when he is in a fix. That is to recite ballads, verses, and rhymes, sing loud and clear to himself…This is a failsafe old trick, if men wish to preserve their wits.”
It’s a failsafe old trick in much of world literature, but there’s something distinctive in the simultaneous lightness and heaviness of Sjón’s touch, the way in which his narrators are always both joking and not-joking. “Uncouth exclamations about endless nights, burning snow, whales the size of mountains, trumpet blasts of the dead from volcanoes and icebergs”: Jonah, the exiled scholar who narrates From The Mouth Of The Whale, lists “far-fetched tales” about his homeland. But, he concedes, “in some strange way they come close to the stories we ordinary, humble folk tell ourselves in an attempt to comprehend our existence here and make it more bearable.”
What is Iceland to me? As soon as my imagination strays from the clean modern streets of Reykjavik, it lapses into a medieval dreamscape of glaciers, fjords, elves, bright astral phenomena, ships emerging from or disappearing into the mist.
I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to the Edda, which Sjón is surely playing with, and I quake before Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s “Nobel Prize winner who bridged the nation’s literary past and future,” their Mann or Hamsun. Sometimes I range over his books on the shelf and fantasize about having read them, but most of the time I fear I’m no longer brave or patient enough to take that plunge for real.
Beyond this, of course there’s Björk, but, more crucially for me, there’s Sigur Rós. Their eerie, spacey soundscapes, built of sporadic percussion, bowed guitar, and angelic falsetto vocals, have soundtracked many a headphones-wearing bus or train trip through the dead of night, or hours spent half-sleeping in layover airports…so much so that I hear them now whenever I enter these disembodied headspaces, whether or not I’m listening to their music.
They first took root in me when my freshman year roommate passive-aggressively strung a bunch of Christmas lights across our shared sleeping quarters. Instead of asking him to take them down so I could maybe sleep (I don’t think I even considered this option), I started playing Sigur Rós on repeat all night on my laptop.
For that year and several thereafter, I couldn’t sleep without going to the place their music took me to, which is to say that I couldn’t sleep without going to Iceland. I’ve never been there in my waking life, but I’ve spent thousands of sleeping hours constructing a dream-version of it.
At first, Shields’s call for boundary-breaking fiction is laughably at odds with Sjón’s compendia of wonders and horrors. Almost too fittingly, from Reality Hunger:
I don’t have a huge pyrotechnic imagination that luxuriates in other worlds. People say, “It was so fascinating to read this novel that took place in Iceland. I just loved living inside another world for two weeks.” That doesn’t, I must say, interest me that much.
But, as I thought more about it while continuing to read both, they drew unexpectedly together.
What I understand Shields to be saying, beneath his supposed attack on fiction, is cut to the chase. Whatever you’re trying to do in writing, do it right away. Don’t build a house for the things that are important; just spill them naked onto the page.
Sjón’s ultra-digressive style does just this. Though he relishes not getting to any particular point, soaring through stories within stories like a rogue angel of history, he makes no attempt to do anything else. His narrators aren’t dragging their feet or turning their backs on more pressing matters. They’re interested in a great many things and they leap freely and sometimes jarringly among them, but they aren’t motivated by anything other than their own genuine interest.
These aren’t books designed to be filed in memory as discrete artistic units. Rather than telling any definite and delimited story, they open a tap and let out a draught of Story, formless and potent as beer. “What a symphony,” Whale’s Jonah exclaims as he tries to gather his thoughts. “It is as if the east wind is bringing me all the songs of Earth at once, bellowing out the saddest dirge together with the most joyous paean…”
This is a recognition, in the mind and in nature, of the same charged collage quality that Shields hungers for in literature.
As if I needed any help, Shields got me thinking hard about death. He has no interest in literature that doesn’t confront it directly; he won’t invest in a writer who promises escape or treats writing like a safe haven.
Without getting too Jungian here, I’ve always felt that leaving behind plot and entering Story (what John Crowley calls “The Tale” in Little, Big) is a means of subjectively overcoming the dominion of my own death, not just of ignoring it for a while.
Conventional novels begin and end. Whether or not the characters you identify with die, the last page marks the death of the world the novel has labored to create, a world that has tried to impress its autonomy and uniqueness upon you. This death is singular and finite. You can read the novel again but you can’t use it to enter a place bigger than what it contains.
The Story that Sjón’s books open onto is such a place. It’s a place of Life and Death, not of individual lives and deaths. When I’m truly engrossed in this realm, I feel neither alive nor soon-to-be-dead. I feel nothing but engrossment. Death becomes no less awesome, but it does not remain in ultimate opposition to everything else. It becomes part of the party rather than the infinite darkness that shuts it down.
The drunken storyteller, like the 1940’s sailor in The Whispering Muse who claims to have sailed with Jason and the Argonauts, takes on a life that’s immeasurably greater than that of a single person. Both he and Jonah appreciate that “God’s tongue…pronounced the world, as if it were a tale so tremendous that no one but He Himself would live to hear it all.” Story is greater than any lifetime and yet only realized, in the moment of telling, through a living teller: somehow it houses life while housed within it.
Sjón’s narrators aren’t talking about other worlds; they’re talking about the real but often unseen places beneath and inside of this one. In a flight of especially poetic prose, The Whispering Muse characterizes the onset of Story thus:
Once the ear has fallen asleep, the humming takes on a new form. It becomes a note, a voice sounding in the consciousness, as if a single grain of golden sand had slipped through the mesh of the sieve and, borne on the tip of the eardrum’s tongue, passed through the horn and ivory-inlaid gates that divide the tangible from the invisible world.
Ships rarely get where they’re going, but this voyage away from the tangible world and into the invisible proves possible for those who sincerely attempt it. For me, it was a journey back to the Iceland I first discovered during those long nights in college, contemplating the grim relief of drifting off to the place the music was coming from and never returning.
David Shields won’t place his faith in the bulwark of a novel that claims to encompass everything. He wants porous, disjointed work that makes no attempt to master all that it takes on. One way or another, the literature that saves his life has to take on everything, all of Life and all of Death, and break down in the face of that ambition, rather than living and dying in a vacuum. He doesn’t want to hang out in a place of make-believe with Death lurking just outside. Neither do I. I want to open the door, invite Death in, and take it from there.
Like many recovering English majors before me, I have a longstanding infatuation with heavy Russian novels. So on one level, a new edition of Dead Souls seems like a no-brainer: an excuse to return to a story that has endured for nearly two centuries.
Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece centers on a con man named Chichikov who is literally buying dead souls — or more accurately, serfs who have died but are still counted on official tax rolls. His journey sweeps through a swath of 19th-century Russian life, as he glides from landowner to landowner, trying to charm and flatter them in an effort to buy as many deceased serfs as possible. The book is smart and funny; it deftly unpacks the social structure of 19th-century Russian life. It says something profound about the dehumanizing effects of buying and selling everything. And it’s the first of the great Russian novels — predating War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and all the rest of those weighty tomes that pretentious undergraduates lug around to coffee houses. And that gives it mystique.
But as I sat down to read Donald Rayfield’s new translation of the book, I felt a sensation I didn’t expect — guilt. I got to thinking about my reading over the past few months, as I’ve hopped from The Radetzky March to Jude the Obscure to Demons to Chekhov’s plays. All of them brilliant, and all of them properly vetted by the relevant authorities. And I realized I don’t want to get in the habit of “checklist reading” — paging through an old book for no other reason than to say I’ve read it. Ultimately, we live in a consumer society, and it is really easy to let the habits of consumption, the habits of a collector, seep into everything. Even our reading choices.
As Dwight Macdonald pointed out decades ago in his (now ironically canonical) essay “Masscult and Midcult,” “The chief negative aspect is that so far our Renaissance, unlike the original one, has been passive, a matter of consuming rather than creating, a catching up on our reading on a continental scale… We have, in short, become skilled at consuming High Culture when it has been stamped by the proper authorities.” And that’s why I can’t manage to love the classics without reservation. I am afraid that it is far too easy to read them passively — to get so caught up in their mystique that the words don’t matter. And I fear it would be very easy to get stuck in the books of the past, and miss out on newer ones that might relate more directly to the world as I experience the rest of the day.
For example, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, while nowhere near as brilliant as Dead Souls, made a profound impact on how I think about contemporary media. Shields’s book-length essay, which came out about two years ago, is downright dismissive of the traditional novel, announcing, “To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.” But, more importantly, it backs up its iconoclasm with a fragmentary style that genuinely captures something about the way people read today. A literary collage that collects fragments (mostly) taken from preexisting works by other writers and then weaves them into a single “manifesto,” it is a genuinely unique work, one that captures something very real about our — or at least my — current reading habits.
Engaging with Reality Hunger’s bits of text made me more attuned to the way much of my reading — on Twitter, or just surfing online — consists of gliding between small bursts of words. Instead of presenting a clean, straightforward argument, Shields makes his case for collage-style writing through accumulation. His fragments build and build, until the reader is able to piece together the argument is his or her own mind. I do the same thing online every day. I read tweets and status updates and blog posts one after another, and eventually, I piece them together in my head to form a coherent view of the world. Shields’s book finally made me aware of something I had done unconsciously for years. This is what literature is supposed to do — call our attention to the way society or technology or history has shaped us.
Reading matters because of its relationship to thinking. What I love most about books is the way they force the reader to get involved. Unlike other leisure activities, a reader needs to actually participate in the experience. You don’t just turn a book on and enjoy it — you need to actively engage with the material, not only sorting out the words, but imagining what they describe. The scenes, the characters, the voices: all of it needs to be created inside the reader’s mind. In that way, reading itself is an imaginative act.
I’ve always seen a minor parallel between a reader and a concert musician — a pianist for example — just in the sense that both are taking notations written by someone else and bringing them to life. In both cases, the work of art as it exists on paper is mediated by someone else. A reader may follow the cues of the author, she may give every word her full attention, her emotions may stir in exactly the way they were intended to — but the images and voice she creates in her mind are hers. But they are not only hers — they are a collaboration between her and the writer. Alone among the arts, reading/writing involves mingling the thoughts of the artist and the audience. In a way, reading is itself a performance.
When a critic like B.R. Myers sniffs at contemporary writing by declaring, “Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread,” I immediately worry that an entire reading life spent rehashing books approved by the proper authorities risks turning a reader (like me) into a perpetual student, someone who treats literature as a way to check off titles on an imaginary syllabus. Someone passive. I worry those images in my head will be subsumed by what I think they’re supposed to be; what a well-known Gogol critic like Vladimir Nabokov thinks they should look like. I worry Dead Souls belongs to so many people, it might never belong to me the way a book really need to. I worry my performance as a reader will borrow to heavy on the performances of others.
And yet I want Gogol’s novel in my head. It remains a profoundly inventive book, with a narrator who comments on the story as it goes along, even to the point of upbraiding the audience:
I apologize. It would seem that a phrase picked up on the streets has slipped from our hero’s lips. What can one do? That’s the situation a writer in Russia finds himself in. Though, if a street word finds its way into a book, it’s not the writer’s fault, it’s the readers’, above all readers in high society: they’re the last people you will hear a decent Russian word from…
Harold Bloom has used the term “canonical strangeness,” and it is precisely an inherent weirdness that makes Dead Souls so hard to give up. Think of a symphony, where a certain movement may repeat in a slightly different key — the subtle repetitions built into Gogol’s text help build the absurdity, the humor, and the emotional force of his tale. It isn’t very realistic — life is not so well constructed — but that’s okay. It gives us an opportunity — if only an opportunity — to stand outside our regular way of looking at the world, and perhaps notice something we have been taking for granted.
The strangeness of Dead Souls, its alien subject matter and its realistic-but-not-lifelike narrative structure actually aid a reader’s performance precisely because, when taken on their own terms, they draw attention away from the process of reading the book. They demand so much energy to really follow, to navigate on their own terms, that the reader’s performance becomes, if not unconscious, at least less self-conscious. As soon as I realized that, my guilt about spending so much time immersed in old books began to melt away.
The way to avoid passive reading is to pay attention to what is on the page and engage it as best you can. This matters because reading offers us something quite rare — a quiet, solitary activity that allows us to clear a little space in our minds. This feels especially true in the context of my own daily habits, which involve spending an extraordinary amount of time online, a decidedly noisy, un-solitary environment that encourages the reader to respond — through retweeting, commenting, or “liking” — as opposed to reflecting.
Reality Hunger sticks with me because it made me more sensitive to the noisy media landscape I inhabit almost continuously. The book forced me to read actively by calling attention to just how I was looking at text. Its fragments made the fragments in my head all too obvious. Dead Souls does the opposite. It is quiet and strange and in some respects inaccessible; it uses a plot that doesn’t dwell too much on the rambling pointlessness of daily life; it is set in a past I don’t understand as much as I pretend to. It is the opposite of the tailored, easy-to-digest world of social media. With the right attitude, the right approach, its contrast with today’s fragmentary reading environment can be every bit as valuable as Shields’s effort to engage it.
The key is to take both together — to avoid getting trapped only reading classics, like Macdonald’s “catch-up” reader, or only reading fragments or bits of text online. The point is not to set up a dichotomy between old and new — and certainly not between “good” and “bad” approaches to writing or reading. What both Shields, with his contempt for traditional narratives, and Myers, in his contempt for everything else, both miss is that each kind of text — those grounded in the technology of the present and those insulated from it — is equally valuable, because it offers the reader a chance to perform (to think) in very different ways. Both matter because a good performer — good reader — is one with a lot of range, and the only way to develop that range is to perform as many different kinds of stories as possible.
In conversation, I’m fond of telling people that the difference between a work of art and a mere product is that art ultimately aspires to contemplation, while a product aspires only to consumption. I suppose my anxiety about turning the classics into a checklist stems from my realization that “art” exists only through collaboration between the artist/creator/writer and an audience; that it’s not the work that should aspire to contemplation, but myself. And that, as a reader, that means I need to be willing to work hard. To approach the performance of reading with every bit as much seriousness and effort as I expect the writer to approach the performance of writing. Art can’t exist without an audience to take it seriously.
The wonder of a book like Dead Souls comes from its silence, the way it offers us a calm place to think. But that place is only as valuable as the reader makes it. A calm place to think is only worthwhile if the reader seizes the opportunity to do some thinking. Perhaps it’s not really guilt I fell about the classics but trepidation — because at the end of the day the classics need to earned. So now, it’s up to me to put in the effort to earn them.
2013 is looking very fruitful, readers. While last year offered new work from Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, Michael Chabon, and many more, this year we’ll get our hands on new George Saunders, Karen Russell, Jamaica Kincaid, Anne Carson, Colum McCann, Aleksandar Hemon and even Vladimir Nabokov and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as, beyond the horizon of summer, new Paul Harding, Jonathan Lethem, and Thomas Pynchon. We’ll also see an impressive array of anticipated work in translation from the likes of Alejandro Zambra, Ma Jian, László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marías and Karl Ove Knausgaard, among others. But these just offer the merest hint of the literary plenty that 2013 is poised to deliver. A bounty that we have tried to tame in another of our big book previews.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 7,900 words strong and encompassing 79 titles, this is the only 2013 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
Tenth of December by George Saunders: Tenth of December is George Saunders at his hilarious, heartbreaking best, excavating modern American life in a way that only he can. In “Home,” a soldier returns from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a deteriorating family situation. In “Victory Lap,” a botched abduction is told from three very different perspectives. Tenth of December has already prompted an all-out rave profile from the New York Times. And for those George Saunders super fans out there, yes, there is a story set at a theme park. (Patrick)
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright: While Wright was working on his 25,000-word take-down of the Church of Scientology for The New Yorker (where he is a staff writer), a spokesman for the organization showed up with four lawyers and 47 binders of documentation. “I suppose the idea was to drown me in information,” Wright recently told the Times, “but it was like trying to pour water on a fish.” The investigation has blossomed into a full-length book that’s shaping up to be as controversial as anything that crosses Scientology’s path: Wright has been receiving numerous legal missives from the church itself and the celebrities he scrutinizes, and his British publisher has just backed out—though they claim they haven’t been directly threatened by anyone. (Elizabeth)
Umbrella by Will Self: Shortly before Umbrella came out in the UK last September, Will Self published an essay in The Guardian about how he’d gone modernist. “As I’ve grown older, and realised that there aren’t that many books left for me to write, so I’ve become determined that they should be the fictive equivalent of ripping the damn corset off altogether and chucking it on the fire.” Umbrella is the result of Self’s surge in ambition, and it won him some of the best reviews of his career, as well as his first Booker shortlisting. He lost out to Hilary Mantel in the end, but he won the moral victory in the group photo round by doing this. (Mark)
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa: English-reading fans of the prolific and much-lauded Yoko Ogawa rejoice at the advent of Revenge, a set of eleven stories translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder. The stories, like Ogawa’s other novels (among them The Diving Pool, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and Hotel Iris) are purportedly elegant and creepy. (Lydia)
Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra: Drop the phrase “Chilean novelist” and literary minds automatically flock to Bolaño. However, Alejandro Zambra is another name those words should soon conjure if they don’t already. Zambra was named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish Language Novelists in 2010, and his soon-to-be-released third novel, Ways of Going Home, just won a PEN translation award. The novel has dual narratives: a child’s perspective in Pinochet’s Chile and an author’s meditation on the struggle of writing. In Zambra’s own words (from our 2011 interview): “It’s a book about memory, about parents, about Chile. It’s about the 80s, about the years when we children were secondary characters in the literature of our parents. It’s about the dictatorship, as well, I guess. And about literature, intimacy, the construction of intimacy.” (Anne)
Scenes from Early Life by Philip Hensher: In his eighth novel, Scenes from Early Life, Philip Hensher “shows for the first time what [he] has largely concealed in the past: his heart,” writes Amanda Craig in The Independent. Written in the form of a memoir, narrated in the voice of Hensher’s real-life husband Zaved Mahmood, the novel invites comparison with Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Described as a hybrid of fiction, history, and biography—and as both “clever” and “loving”—the inventive project here is distinctly intriguing. (Sonya)
Exodus by Lars Iyer: Exodus, which follows Spurious and Dogma, is the eminently satisfying and unexpectedly moving final installment in a truly original trilogy about two wandering British intellectuals—Lars and W., not to be confused with Lars Iyer and his real friend W., whom he’s been quoting for years on his blog—and their endless search for meaning in a random universe, for true originality of thought, for a leader, for better gin. (Emily M.)
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell: Russell’s short stories are marked by superb follow-through: many succeed due to her iron-clad commitment to often fantastical conceits, like the title story of her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which draws a powerful metaphor for adolescent girlhood in an actual orphanage for girls raised by wolves. Last year saw her debut novel, Swamplandia!, nominated for the Pulitzer prize; this year, her second short story collection—and another batch of fantastical conceits—finally arrives. Just imagine the characters in this title story, trying to quell their bloodlust, sinking their fangs into lemons under the Italian sun. (Elizabeth)
My Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak: When Maurice Sendak died last May he left one, final, unpublished book behind. It is, according to a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a beautiful, intensely serious elegy for Sendak’s beloved older brother Jack, who died in 1995. The story, illustrated in watercolors, has Guy (a stand-in for Sendak), journeying down the gullet of a massive polar bear named Death- “Diving through time so vast—sweeping past paradise”- into an underworld where he and Jack have one last reunion. “To read this intensely private work,” writes Publisher’s Weekly, “is to look over the artist’s shoulder as he crafts his own afterworld, a place where he lies in silent embrace with those he loves forever.” (Kevin)
Benediction by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf’s previous novels, which include Plainsong and Eventide, have all taken place in the fictional Colorado town of Holt, which is based on the real life city of Yuma. His newest work is no exception. It is a network of family dramas in a small town, most of which revolve around loss or impending loss, strained relationships, and efforts to grapple, together, with the pain the characters face in their own lives and feel in the lives of those around them. (Kevin)
See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid: For See Now Then, her first novel in a decade, Jamaica Kincaid settles into a small town in Vermont, where she dissects the past, present and future of the crumbling marriage of Mrs. Sweet, mother of two children named Heracles and Persephone, a woman whose composer husband leaves her for a younger musician. Kincaid is known as a writer who can see clean through the surface of things – and people – and this novel assures us that “Mrs. Sweet could see Mrs. Sweet very well.” (Bill)
The Bridge Over the Neroch: And Other Works by Leonid Tsypkin: Like Chekhov, Tsypkin was a doctor by trade. In fact, that was all most people knew him as during his lifetime. At the time of Tsypkin’s death, his novel Summer in Baden-Baden, one of the most beautiful to come out of the Soviet Era, remained unpublished, trapped in a drawer in Moscow. Now New Directions brings us the “remaining writings”: a novella and several short stories. (Garth)
How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields: Like his 2008 book The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, which was nearly as much a biology text book as it was a memoir, How Literature Saved My Life obstinately evades genre definitions. It takes the form of numerous short essays and fragments of oblique meditation on life and literature; and, as you’d expect from the author of Reality Hunger, it’s heavily textured with quotation. Topics include Shields’s identification with such diverse fellows as Ben Lerner (his “aesthetic spawn”) and George W. Bush, the fundamental meaninglessness of life, and the continued decline of realist narrative fiction. (Mark)
The City of Devi by Manil Suri: Manil Suri is perhaps best known for his first novel The Death of Vishnu, which was long-listed for the Booker and shortlisted for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award. The City of Devi, his third novel, takes place in a Mumbai emptied out under threat of nuclear attack. Sarita, a 33-year-old statistician, stays in the city to find her beloved husband, who has mysteriously vanished. She ends up teaming up with a gay Muslim man named Jaz, and together they travel across this dangerous and absurd and magical landscape. According to Keran Desai, this is Suri’s “bravest and most passionate book,” which combines “the thrill of Bollywood with the pull of a thriller.” (Edan)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s & Other Voices, Other Rooms: Two Novels by Truman Capote: Holly Golightly is turning 55, and to mark her entry into late middle age, the Modern Library is reissuing Capote’s dazzling 1958 novella that made her and Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue showroom into American icons. The short novel is paired with Capote’s (also brief) debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, a strange and haunting semi-fictional evocation of Capote’s hauntingly strange Southern childhood. Modern Library will also reissue Capote’s Complete Stories in March. (Michael)
Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash: Ron Rash has earned a spot as one of the top fiction writers describing life in Appalachia with his previous books, The Cove, Serena, and One Foot in Eden. His newest collection of short stories tells of two drug-addicted friends stealing their former boss’s war trophies, of a prisoner on a chain-gang trying to convince a farmer’s young wife to help him escape, and of an eerie diving expedition to retrieve the body of a girl who drowned beneath a waterfall. (Kevin)
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne: If you have ever wondered what, if anything, is going on inside the head of one of those kiddie pop stars who seem animatronically designed to make the tween girls swoon, then Jonny Valentine may be for you. Winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award for his first novel Kapitoil, Wayne has built a reputation for offbeat wit in his humor columns for Vanity Fair and McSweeney’s, as well as “Shouts & Murmurs” pieces in The New Yorker. Here, he channels the voice of a lonely eleven-year-old pop megastar in a rollicking satire of America’s obsession with fame and pop culture. (Michael)
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun: English poet, novelist and short story writer James Lasdun’s new book is a short memoir about a long and harrowing experience at the hands of a former student who set out to destroy him and through online accusations of sexual harassment and theft. J.M. Coetzee has called it “a reminder, as if any were needed, of how easily, since the arrival of the Internet, our peace can be troubled and our good name besmirched.” (Mark)
Fight Song by Joshua Mohr: Joshua Mohr’s previous novels—Some Things That Meant The World To Me, Termite Parade, and Damascus—formed a loose trilogy, each book standing alone but all three concerned with a mildly overlapping cast of drifting and marginal characters in San Francisco. In Fight Song, Mohr is on to new territory, “way out in a puzzling universe known as the suburbs,” where a middle-aged man embarks on a quest to find happiness, to reconnect with his distant and distracted family, and to reverse a long slide into purposelessness. (Emily M.)
Middle C by William H. Gass: Not many writers are still at the height of their powers at age 88. Hell, not many writers are still writing at 88. (We’re looking at you, Philip Roth.) But William H. Gass has always been an outlier, pursuing his own vision on his own timetable. His last novel (and magnum opus) The Tunnel took thirty years to write. Middle C, comparatively svelte at 400-odd pages, took a mere fifteen, and may be his most accessible fiction since 1968’s In The Heart of the Heart of the Country. It’s a character piece, concerning one Joseph Skizzen, a serial (and hapless) C.V. embellisher and connoisseur of more serious forms of infamy. The plot, such as it is, follows him from war-torn Europe, where he loses his father, to a career as a music professor in the Midwest. Not much happens – does it ever, in Gass? – but, sentence by sentence, you won’t read a more beautifully composed or stimulating novel this year. Or possibly any other. (Garth)
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout: Maine native Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge, her novel in the form of linked stories. Strout’s fourth novel, The Burgess Boys, is the story of the brothers Jim and Bob Burgess, who are haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children in Maine. They have since fled to Brooklyn, but they’re summoned home by their sister Susan, who needs their help dealing with her troubled teenage son. Once they’re back home, long-buried tensions resurface that will change the Burgess boys forever. (Bill)
The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte: Sam Lipsyte returns to short stories with his new book The Fun Parts. The collection contains some fiction previously published in The Paris Review, Playboy, and The New Yorker, including his excellent “The Climber Room,” which ends with a bizarre twist. Several of the stories, including “The Dungeon Master” and “Snacks,” explore the world from the perspectives of misfit teens. As with all of Lipstye’s stories, expect his absurdist humor and a just a touch of perversion. Get excited. (Patrick)
Red Doc> by Anne Carson: It’s been more than a decade since Carson, a poet and classicist, published The Autobiography of Red, a dazzling and powerful poetic novel that reinvents the myth of Herakles and Greyon: hero and monster reworked into a story of violently deep unrequited love. Red Doc> promises to be a sequel of sorts, with “a very different style,” “changed names,” and the spare preview is incredibly intriguing: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.” (Elizabeth)
A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee: Author of The Privileges, arguably the best novel about haute New York in the boom years of the past decade, Dee returns with another tale of family life in the upper reaches of New York society, this time post-recession. When her husband loses his job as a partner at a white-shoe law firm, Helen Armstead finds a job at a PR firm, where she discovers she has an almost magical, and definitely lucrative, gift: she can convince powerful men to admit their mistakes. But this is a novel, so her professional success does not necessarily translate into success in her personal life. (Michael)
Speedboat by Renata Adler: This novel, first published in 1976, brings to mind the old saw about the Velvet Underground. Not everybody read it, but everybody who did went on to write a novel of his or her own. Adler is primarily known for her acerbic New Yorker fact pieces, but, like her omnicompetent contemporary Joan Didion, she is also a terrific fiction writer. This fragmented look at the life of an Adler-like journalist may be her Play It As It Lays. Writers still urgently press out-of-print copies on each other in big-city bars near last call. Now it’s getting the NYRB Classics treatment. (Garth)
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver: Following the success of her novel The God of War, The New Yorker favorite Marisa Silver returns with Mary Coin, a novel inspired by Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” photo. The book follows three characters: Mary, the mother in the photograph; Vera Dare, the photographer; and Walker Dodge, a contemporary-era professor of cultural history. Ben Fountain says it’s “quite simply one of the best books I’ve read in years,” and Meghan O’Rourke calls it “an extraordinarily wise and compassionate novel.” (Edan)
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s previous novels were The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke. His third borrows the structure of self-help books (chapter titles include “Avoid Idealists”, “Don’t Fall in Love”, and “Work For Yourself”) to follow a nameless man’s ascent from a childhood of rural poverty to success as a corporate tycoon in a metropolis in “rising Asia.” (Emily M.)
The Tragedy of Mr. Morn Vladimir Nabokov: I furrowed my brow when I saw Nabokov’s name on the preview list, imagining a horde of publishers rooting through his undies for hitherto undiscovered index cards. But this is a very old play, in the scheme of Nabokov’s life–written in 1923, published in Russian in 2008, published in English this spring. The play is about royalty, revolutionaries, allegories; “On the page,” writes Lesley Chamberlain for the TLS, ” the entire text creeps metonymically sideways. Its author weaves language into a tissue of reality hinting at some veiled, mysteriously interconnected, static truth beyond.” I’m not sure what that means, but I think I like it. (Lydia)
The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon: Sarajevo-born, Chicago-based author Aleksandar Hemon—winner of the MacArthur “genius grant” and editor of Dalkey Archive’s stellar Best European Fiction series—abandons fiction for essay and memoir in his fifth book, The Book of My Lives. The title alludes to and, as far as we can tell, calls upon Hemon’s New Yorker essay “The Book of My Life,” about his former literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. Just as Hemon’s novel Lazarus Project straddled the fiction/nonfiction divide, The Book of My Lives isn’t strictly memoir, pushing boundaries of genre now from the nonfiction side. (Anne)
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma: Kristopher Jansma, academic and Electric Literature blogger, drawer of daring and controversial parallels on the digital pages of our own august publication (Is The Killing like or not like Kafka?), publishes his debut novel on the first day of spring. The novel features young writers, young love, artistic competition, girls, jaunts. I predict that at least one blurber will reference This Side of Paradise. (Lydia)
A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal: In the 2003, “a young Oklahoman who work[ed] in New York” stole the eleventh issue of McSweeney’s from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and T.C. Boyle with a story – well, scenario, really – called “Weena.” Maybe I only loved it so much because I, too, was from outlands like those it so lovingly described. Still, I’ve been keeping an eye out for that young Oklahoman, Benjamin Lytal, ever since. I assume that A Map of Tulsa, too, is about coming of age in Tulsa, a city that looks from the window of a passing car at night “like a mournful spaceship.” (Garth)
In Partial Disgrace by Charles Newman: Newman, the editor who put TriQuarterly on the map in the 1960s, was once spoken of in the same breath with the great dark humorists of postwar American writing. Even before his death, in 2006, his novels were falling out of print and his reputation fading. If there is any justice in the republic of letters (which is a big if), the belated publication of his incomplete masterwork, a sprawling trilogy set in a fictional Mitteleuropean nation to rival Musil’s Kakania, should put him permanently back on the map. (Garth)
The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: J.M. Coetzee, Nobel laureate and two-time Booker Prize winner, continues to explore the plight of the outsider in his new allegorical novel, The Childhood of Jesus. It’s the story of an unnamed man and boy who cross an ocean to a strange land where, bereft of memories, they are assigned the names Simon and David before they set out to find the boy’s mother. They succeed, apparently, only to run afoul of the authorities, which forces them to flee by car through the mountains. One early reader has called the novel “profound and continually surprising.” (Bill)
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: The beloved author of Case Histories, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and Started Early, Took My Dog (among others) is out with the stor(ies) of Ursula Todd. In 1910, Todd is born during a snowstorm in England, but from then on there are parallel stories — one in which she dies at first breath, and one in which she lives through the tumultuous 20th century. As the lives of Ursula Todd continue to multiply, Atkinson asks what, then, is the best way to live, if one has multiple chances? (Janet)
All That Is by James Salter: Upon return from service as a naval officer in Okinawa, Philip Bowman becomes a book editor during the “golden age” of publishing. The publisher’s blurb promises “Salter’s signature economy of prose” and a story about the “dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition.” In our interview with Salter in September, he told us it was “an intimate story about a life in New York publishing,” some 10 years in the making. From John Irving: “A beautiful novel, with sufficient love, heartbreak, vengeance, identity confusion, longing, and euphoria of language to have satisfied Shakespeare.” Tim O’Brien: “Salter’s vivid, lucid prose does exquisite justice to his subject—the relentless struggle to make good on our own humanity.” April will not come soon enough. (Sonya)
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: The Emperor’s Children, Messud’s bestselling novel from 2006, did as much as anyone has to bridge the gap between the social novel and the novel of consciousness her husband, James Wood, has championed in his criticism. Now, Messud returns with the story of a Boston-area woman who becomes entangled with a Lebanese-Italian family that moves in nearby. Expect, among other things, insanely fine writing. (Garth)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: In a review of her most recent book, 2011’s The Uncoupling, the San Francisco Chronicle declared that, “At this point in her career, Meg Wolitzer deserves to be a household name.” Wolitzer’s tenth novel begins at a summer camp for the arts in 1974, and follows a group of friends into the adulthood. They’re all talented, but talent isn’t enough, and as they grow up, their paths split: some are forced to exchange their childhood dreams for more conventional lives, while others find great success—and, as one might imagine, tensions arise from these differences. (Elizabeth)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner: Rachel Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba, was lauded for its evocative descriptions and its power of suspense. Kushner will surely call on both talents for The Flamethrowers, as her heroine first becomes immersed in a late ‘70s New York downtown scene peopled by artists and squatters, and then follows a motorcycle baron to Italy during the height of the Autonomist movement. Images are central to Kushner’s creative process: a ducati, a woman in war paint, and a F.T. Marinetti lookalike riding atop a cycle with a bullet-shaped sidecar were talismans (among others) for writing this book. (Anne)
Harvard Square by André Aciman: In 1970s Cambridge, Massachusetts, a young Harvard graduate student from Egypt wants to be the consummate American, fully assimilated and ensconced in the ivory tower as a literature professor. Then he meets Kalaj — an Arab cab driver who denigrates American mass culture and captivates the student with his seedy, adventurous life. Harvard Square tells the story of this young student’s dilemma, caught between the lofty world of Harvard academia and the magnetic company of his new friend. (Janet)
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel: Woke Up Lonely is Fiona Maazel’s first novel since being named a “5 Under 35” choice by the National Book Foundation. The book focuses on Thurlow Dan, the founder of the Helix, a cult that promises to cure loneliness. Ironically, Thurlow himself is profoundly lonely and longing for his ex-wife, Esme. The book has been compared to the work of Sam Lipsyte and Karen Russell, and if there’s one phrase that continually appears in early reviews and press materials, it is “action packed.” (Patrick)
The Dark Road by Ma Jian: Ma Jian, whose books and person are both banned from China, published his third novel The Dark Road in June (Yunchen Publishing House, Taipei); the English translation will be released by Penguin. The story: a couple determined to give birth to a second child in order to carry on the family line flee their village and the family planning crackdown. At Sampsonia Way, Tienchi Martin-Liao described it as “an absurd story” that uses “magical realism to describe the perverse reality in China.” The publisher describes it as “a haunting and indelible portrait of the tragedies befalling women and families at the hands of China’s one-child policy and of the human spirit’s capacity to endure even the most brutal cruelty.” Martin-Liao tells us that the book’s title, Yin Zhi Dao, also means vagina, or place of life and origin. (Sonya)
The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard: Stothard’s second novel (after Isabel and Rocco) follows an unnamed 17-year-old narrator as she flies from London to L.A. for the funeral of Lily, a mother she never knew, the proprietess of The Pink Hotel. While the hotel’s residents throw a rave in Lily’s honor, her daughter steals a suitcase of Lily’s photos, letters, and clothes. These mementos set her on a journey around L.A., returning letters to their writers and photos to their subjects and uncovering the secrets of her mother’s life. Longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize, The Pink Hotel has been optioned for production by True Blood’s Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin. (Janet)
Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perišic: Perišic is one of the leading new writers to have emerged from Croatia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In this, his first novel to appear stateside, he offers the funny and absurd tale of two cousins from Zagreb who get caught up in the American Invasion of Iraq, circa 2003. Perišic speaks English, and assisted with the translation, so his voice should come through intact, and a blurb from Jonathan Franzen never hurts. (Garth)
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Few details have been released so far about the third novel from international publishing juggernaut Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns). In a statement posted to Penguin’s website, Hosseini explains, “My new novel is a multi-generational family story as well, this time revolving around brothers and sisters, and the ways in which they love, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for each other.” (Kevin)
My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard: The first part of Knausgaard’s six-part behemoth was the single most stirring novel I read in 2012. Or is the word memoir? Anyway, this year sees the publication of Part Two, which apparently shifts the emphasis from Knausgaard’s childhood and the death of his father to his romantic foibles as an adult. But form trumps content in this book, and I’d read 400 pages of Knausgaard dilating on trips to the dentist. There’s still time to run out and catch up on Part One before May rolls around. I can’t imagine many readers who finish it won’t want to keep going. (Garth)
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt: You Are One of Them is Pushcart Prize-winner Elliott Holt’s debut novel. You might be forgiven for thinking she’d already published a few books, as Holt has been a fixture of the literary Twittersphere for years. Holt’s debut is a literary suspense novel spanning years, as a young woman, raised in politically charged Washington D.C. of the 1980s, goes to Moscow to investigate the decades-old death of her childhood friend. (Patrick)
The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien: In a letter to his American publisher two decades after abandoning The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien expressed regret that he’d left the epic poem unfinished (some suggest it was cast aside as he focused on writing The Hobbit, published in 1937). Nearly eighty years later, the work has been edited and annotated by his son, Christopher, who has written three companion essays that explore the text and his father’s use of Arthurian legend in Middle Earth. Tolkien fans will be grateful for the uncharted territory but unused to the book’s bulk, or lack thereof: in the American edition, poem, notes, and essays clock in just shy of 200 pages long. (Elizabeth)
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The author of the critically acclaimed novels Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus, both set in Adichie’s home country of Nigeria, now turns her keen eye to the trials of cultural assimilation for Africans in America and England. In the novel, a young Nigerian couple leave their homeland – she to America for an education, he to a far more unsettled, undocumented life in England. In their separate ways, each confront issues of race and identity they would never have faced in Nigeria, where they eventually reunite. (Michael)
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy: Percy, whose previous books include the novel The Wilding and the story collection Refresh, Refresh, imagines a world wherein werewolves have always lived among us, uneasily tolerated, a hidden but largely controlled menace, required by law to take a transformation-inhibiting drug. He describes his new novel as “a narrative made of equal parts supernatural thriller, love story and political allegory.” (Emily M.)
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel: A short story collection that includes the author’s New Yorker debut, “Atria”. If that piece is any indication, the book is more than a bit fabulist – the plot involves a girl who finds herself pregnant and worries she’ll give birth to an animal. The specter of parenthood, as the title suggests, appears in numerous guises, as does the reinvention that marked the protagonists of her novel (the genesis of which she wrote about in our own pages). (Thom)
The Hanging Garden by Patrick White: The last work of Nobel Laureate Patrick White gives his homeland an Elysian feel. At the beginning, we meet two orphans, Eirene Sklavos and Gilbert Horsfall, whose parents both died in separate conflicts early on in the second World War. They escape to a house in suburban Sydney and bond in a lush little garden. As with most things published posthumously, the story is a little bit scattershot, but early reviews out of Oz (and our own take) say the book is worthy of its author. (Thom)
Love Is Power, or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett: Barrett’s middle name, Igonibo, means stranger, though he’s no stranger to all things literary: he chronicled his childhood bookishness in our pages last year, and his father is Jamaican-born poet Lindsay Barrett who settled in Nigeria, where the younger Barrett was born and still lives. The streets of Lagos provide the backdrop for his second story collection, Love Is Power, or Something Like That. His first was called From the Cave of Rotten Teeth, and rotting teeth seems to be something of a recurring motif. It’s picked up at least tangentially in this book with “My Smelling Mouth Problem,” a story where the protagonist’s halitosis causes disturbances on a city bus ride. (Anne)
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer: George Packer reveals the state of affairs in America in his ominously-titled new book, a history told in biographical inspections of its various residents (read about one, a lobbyist, in a truly riveting excerpt in The New Yorker). The bad news, probably, is that American is fucked. The good news, I learned from an interview in The Gunn Oracle, the paper of record at Packer’s high school, is that Packer didn’t become a proper journalist until age 40, which is sort of heartening, and may officially qualify him for Bloom status. (More bad news: no posted vacancies at The Gunn Oracle.) (Lydia)
Pacific by Tom Drury: Drury’s fans will be ecstatic to learn that his new novel focuses once again on the inhabitants of Grouse County, Iowa, where two of his four previous books, The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams, also take place. In this new novel, Tiny Darling’s son Micah travels to L.A. to reunite with his mother who abandoned him years before, while back in the Midwest, a mysterious woman unsettles everyone she meets. The novel tells two parallel tales, plumbing both the comic and tragic of life. Yiyun Li says that Drury is a “rare master of the art of seeing.” This novel is sure to prove that—yet again. (Edan)
Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm: The title of this collection comes from a 1994 New Yorker profile of the artist David Salle, in which Malcolm tried in 41 different ways, without success, to penetrate the carefully constructed shell of an artist who had made a bundle during the go-go 1980s but was terrified that he was already forgotten by the art world, a has-been. Malcolm trains her laser eye on a variety of other subjects, including Edward Weston’s nudes, the German photographer Thomas Struth, Edith Wharton, the Gossip Girl novels, and the false starts on her own autobiography. (Bill)
Transatlantic by Colum McCann: Known for deftly lacing his fiction with historical events – such as the high-wire walk between the twin towers that opened his National Book Award-winning novel, Let the Great World Spin – McCann threads together three very different journeys to Ireland in his new novel, Transatlantic. The first was Frederick Douglass’s trip to denounce slavery in 1845, just as the potato famine was beginning; the second was the first transatlantic flight, in 1919, by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown; and the third was former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell’s repeated crossings to broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In an interview, McCann said it’s the aftermath of such large historic events that interests him as a novelist: “What happens in the quiet moments? What happens when the plane has landed?” (Bill)
The Hare by César Aira: A recent bit of contrarianism in The New Republic blamed the exhaustive posthumous marketing of Roberto Bolaño for crowding other Latin American writers out of the U.S. marketplace. If anything, it seems to me, it’s the opposite: the success of The Savage Detectives helped publishers realize there was a market for Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and the fascinating Argentinian César Aira. The past few years have seen seven of Aira’s many novels translated into English. Some of them, like Ghosts, are transcendently good, but none has been a breakout hit. Maybe the reissue of The Hare, which appeared in the U.K. in 1998, will be it. At the very least, it’s the longest Aira to appear in English: a picaresque about a naturalist’s voyage into the Argentinean pampas. (Garth)
Taipei by Tao Lin: Indie darling Tao Lin officially enters the world of big six publishing with his eighth published work, Taipei, an autobiographical novel beginning in 2009 and concerning a few years in the life of a 25-year-old protagonist moving from Taiwan to New York City and Las Vegas. In an Observer interview from 2011, Lin said that the book “contains a marriage, somewhat extreme recreational drug usage, parents, [and] a book tour” – all of which should be familiar subjects to people who’ve followed Lin’s exploits on Twitter, Tumblr and his blog over the past few years. (And especially if you’ve been one of his “interns.”) (Nick)
In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell: Matt Bell’s novel is an exploration of parenthood and marriage, and it carries the premise and the force of myth: a woman who can sing objects into being and a man who longs for fatherhood get married and leave their hectic lives for a quiet homestead by the side of a remote lake. But as pregnancy after pregnancy fails, the wife’s powers take a darker turn—she sings the stars from the sky—and their grief transforms not only their marriage but the world around them. (Emily M.)
His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: Stephen Dixon, a writer known for rendering unbearable experiences, has built his 15th novel around a premise that is almost unbearably simple: A man named Martin is thinking about the loss of his wife, Gwen. Dixon’s long and fruitful career includes more than 500 shorts stories, three O. Henry Prizes, two Pushcart Prizes and a pair of nominations for the National Book Award. His Wife Leaves Him, according to its author, “is about a bunch of nouns: love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscence, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.” (Bill)
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: The novels of the great Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai have recently begun to break through with American audiences. Thus far, however, we’ve only glimpsed one half of his oeuvre: the one that deals (darkly, complexly) with postwar Europe. Krasznahorkai has also long taken an interest in East Asia, where he’s spent time in residence. Seiobo There Below, one of several novels drawing on this experience, shows a Japanese goddess visiting disparate places and times, in search of beauty. (Garth)
Carnival by Rawi Hage: True to its title, Carnival – which takes place in a city loosely based on the author’s hometown of Montreal – takes the reader on a tour of a place well-populated with odd and eccentric characters. The protagonist, Fly, is a cab driver with a penchant for binge reading. We learn that he chose his name to draw a contrast with a group called the Spiders. The Spiders are a loose collection of predatory cab drivers, who choose to wait for their customers rather than to hunt them on the streets. Fly himself, too, is no slouch when it comes to weirdness – he says that his mother gave birth to him in front of an audience of seals. (Thom)
Cannonball by Joseph McElroy: Of the American experimental novelists of the 1960s and 1970s, Joseph McElroy may be the most idiosyncratic. He specializes in what you might call information architecture, overloading his narratives with nonfictional data while strategically withholding the kinds of exposition that are conventional in fiction. The results speak for themselves: moments of startling resonance, power, mystery…and topicality. His work has previously tackled the Pinochet regime, artificial intelligence, and, in his terrific recent story collection, Night Soul, terrorism. Now he turns his attention to the Iraq War. (Garth)
On the Floor by Aifric Campbell: Banker-turned-novelist Aifric Campbell takes on the testosterone of the eighties. At Morgan Stanley, she saw firsthand the excesses of the era, which drove young female analysts to develop “contempt” for other women. As a product of that environment, her main character, Geri, feels like a “skirt among men.” She lacquers her ambitions with conspicuously feminine gestures and modes of dress. In an interview with the Guardian, Campbell pointed out that she used to race greyhounds, which gave her a “certain logic” that helped her in banking and writing. (Thom)
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff passed away last summer at the age of 47, shortly after completing this slender novel “written entirely in verse.” His previous books have been largely satirical, so this final work is a departure: stretching across the country and the twentieth century, the novel’s stories are linked by “acts of generosity or cruelty.” Ira Glass, who brought Rakoff to the airwaves for more than a decade, has described the book as “very funny and very sad, which is my favorite combination” (a fair descriptor of much of Rakoff’s radio work, like this heartbreaking performance from the live episode of “This American Life” staged just a few months before his death.) (Elizabeth)
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: In his third novel, Aw writes about Malaysian immigrants to contemporary Shanghai, featuring an ensemble cast who hail from diverse backgrounds; their stories are interwoven, and counterpointed with the lives they left behind. Aw, who was a practicing lawyer while writing his first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won accolades for his debut: longlisted for Man Booker Prize, International Impac Dublin Award and the Guardian First Book Prize; winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region). (Sonya)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: This much-anticipated, oft-delayed follow-up to Pessl’s bestselling Special Topics in Calamity Physics originally set to come out in 2010 is now scheduled – no, this time they really mean it – in the fall. The novel is a “psychological literary thriller” about a young New Yorker who sets out to investigate the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, daughter of a reclusive European movie director. (Michael)
The Infatuations by Javier Marías: Javier Marías’s new book, translated by Marguerite Jull Costa, is his 14th novel to be published in English. It was awarded Spain’s National Novel Prize last October, but Marías turned it down out of an aversion to receiving public money. It’s the story of a woman’s obsession with an apparently happy couple who inexplicably disappear. It’s his first novel to be narrated from a woman’s perspective, so it will be interesting to see how Marias manages to accommodate his penchant for detailed descriptions of ladies crossing and uncrossing their legs. (Mark)
Clare of the Sea-Light by Edwidge Danticat: My time at the University of Miami overlapped with Danticat’s, though unfortunately I never took her creative writing course. I did, however, see her speak at an event for the English department during my junior year. She was astounding. There are prose stylists in this world and then there are storytellers, and rare are people like Danticat who are both. She read from her memoir Brother, I’m Dying, which features one of the most devastating and personal depictions of our wretched immigration system ever written. Haiti has always been an remarkable place – a nation built with equal measures of hope, passion, charm, malfeasance and tragedy. In this forthcoming story collection, Clare of the Sea-Light – which draws its title from a piece she originally published in Haiti Noir – we can expect the prodigiously talented author to render each aspect of the place beautifully. (Nick)
Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Caleb Crain’s debut novel, which concerns the topic of “youth,” borrows its title from W. H. Auden’s 1929 poem “[It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens]” and takes place in the Czech Republic during the last decade of the 20th century. Look for Crain, a journalist, critic and banished member of the NYPL’s Central Library Plan advisory committee, to use research and insight from his previous book – a provocative look at male friendship, personal lives, and literary creation – in order to give Jacob Putnam and the rest of the characters in Necessary Errors a great deal of interwoven influences, covert desires and realistic interaction. (Nick)
Enon by Paul Harding: In 2009, the tiny Bellevue Literary Press published Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Tinkers tells the story of George Washington Crosby, an old man reliving the memories of his life as he dies surround by family. Enon, named for the Massachusetts town where Crosby died, is about his grandson, Charlie Crosby, and Charlie’s daughter Kate. (Janet)
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-bestselling Eat Pray Love put her on Time Magazine’s list of most influential people in the world, and then Julia Roberts played her in the movie adaptation. What many fans of that memoir don’t know is that Gilbert started her career as a fiction writer, penning a short story collection, Pilgrims, and the novel, Stern Men, which was a New York Times Notable Book in 2000. Now, 13 years later, she returns to the form with the publication of “a big, sprawling, epic historical novel that takes place from 1760 to 1880, following the fortunes of a family called the Whittakers, who make their name in the early botanical exploration/proto-pharmaceutical business trade.” That description is from Gilbert herself, taken from this candid, illuminating and entertaining interview with Rachel Khong for The Rumpus. (Edan)
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: Sunnyside Queens has long held a contrarian perspective. In the 1920s, as urban development projects washed over the outer boroughs, the folks in Sunnyside did all they could to keep the place from turning into a cookie-cutter suburb. Driveways were banned and garages were disallowed. Instead of lawns, the neighborhood’s designers recommended long courtyards that spanned the entire length of blocks – these were meant to encourage mingling and space sharing. It’s no doubt this spirit of dissent, skepticism and opinionated egalitarianism that’s drawn Jonathan Lethem to the neighborhood as the centerpiece for his new novel, a “family epic,” which focuses on three generations of American leftists growing up in the outer borough. (Nick)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Washington Post critic Ron Charles broke the news recently that Thomas Pynchon will have a new book out from Penguin this fall called Bleeding Edge. (Though Penguin says the book has not yet been scheduled). Charles said the news of the new book was confirmed by two Penguin employees and that “everything is tentative” at this time. More as we know it, folks. (Max)
Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: There’s still not much to report on Rush’s latest, a novel of love and friendship set in upstate New York on the eve of the Iraq War. In October, though Granta Books in the U.K. announced an autumn 2013 publication date, so here’s hoping… (Garth)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The fifth of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams books to appear, The Dying Grass will most likely not see print until summer of 2015, according to his editor. First up is Last Stories, a collection of ghost stories slated to hit bookstores next year. Assuming there still are bookstores next year. (Garth)
Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt: Your Name Here seems to be stuck in a holding pattern at Noemi Press, befitting, one supposes, its tortured publication history. In a recent Believer interview, DeWitt suggested that the version that appears in print, if it appears in print, may not be the same as the .pdf she was selling on her website a few years back. Chunks may have been spun off into other works of fiction. Whatever the damn thing ends up looking like, we eagerly await it. (Garth)
Escape from the Children’s Hospital by Jonathan Safran Foer: Foer returns to childhood, to trauma, and to interwoven voices and storylines. The childhood here is Foer’s own, though, so this may mark a kind of departure. We’ll have to wait and see, as no publication date has been set. (Garth)
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Two years in print, David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, retains its provocative allure as he explores what he argues is the arbitrary distinction between non-fiction and fiction, what’s real and what is made up. His manifesto is still fun and easy to read –– open up to any page and you get an aphorism or mini-essay, inciting you to rally to his cause. Here’s a short entry I picked by randomly opening the book, on pg. 133:
A conversational dynamic––the desire for contact––is ingrained in the form.
Interesting, and it certainly makes sense (he’s talking about non-fiction), but who said that? To find out, you can turn to the list of citations in the Appendix, which Shields introduces with a disclaimer, saying the Random House lawyers forced him to put the citations in, as he prefers you not to know who wrote what, and you’ll see that number 391 is associated with Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. No page number is given, for this or any of the other citations, but if you enter key terms from the passage into Amazon.com’s “Look Inside The Book,” you’ll find the source, on page xxv of Lopate’s book, which Shields truncated but otherwise didn’t change. This is interesting, since, as Shields admits, sometimes he rewrites his quotes to suit his artistic goals.
According to his interview with The Millions (Part II), Shields doesn’t encourage these investigations into the sources of his material. He says:
My ideal reader is not going to be a quote-spotter or a cite-sifter. I very much want the reader to experience a certain vertigo when reading the book—is this Shields? Is it Chung? [Our interviewer]. Is it some odd combination of the two? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it all of us?
Shields wants us, as he advises in his disclaimer in the Appendix, to “simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter” and cut out the citation pages and read the book as he originally intended. But isn’t this part of the conversational dynamic, as well, to follow his quotes and appropriations to the original sources, to get further provoked, entertained, and delighted? And why should I listen to Shields, anyway? He clearly takes delight in blurring the distinction between truth and fiction, even suggesting that he sometimes lies. Who made him the boss?
When I sat down to talk to Paul Elie about his new book, Reinventing Bach, I had a question for him that was inspired by Shields’ book: I wanted to ask if he believed that writing about his experience and passion for Bach in such a direct and palpable way satisfied the reader’s hunger for the reality that Shields is talking about, that if he believed that by cutting through the obfuscations of most biographies with their mounds of academic detail, be brought us closer to the “real” experience. But Elie brought up Shields before I did, to lament how Shields not only misquoted him in Reality Hunger, but also gravely misrepresented the overall intent of his work, and how recently this has led to another author, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, perpetuating this misrepresentation in his new book, A Sense of Direction. I followed the trail of the citations to trace how the original source in Elie’s book morphed via Shields to reach the pages of Lewis-Kraus, and see for myself whether Elie was justified in accusing Shields of falsifying his work.
Let’s start the investigation with the entry in question in Shields’s manifesto, on page 182:
Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always secondhand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.
When I read the manifesto for the first time, over a year ago, I was constantly flipping back and forth between the entries and citations, and learned that 547 was from Paul Elie’s first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which was, unlike most of the entries, from a book I’d actually read. I didn’t look up the source of the quote, though, not then –– the subtitle of Elie’s first book was An American Pilgrimage, so the passage was resonant of his subject matter, at least at a glance. And if the stridency or negativity of the passage set off any warning bells, I don’t remember them, though I may indeed have experienced a tinge of the vertigo that Shields says he likes to provoke, as the passage is not characteristic of Elie’s book, which wasn’t a polemic with a negative spin. It’s anything but. I should have been astute enough to realize that “We’re doomed to an imitation of life” wasn’t something Elie was likely to have ever written, but I was probably too excited to keep reading the manifesto to find out what cool passage-citations I’d discover next. In retrospect, I wish I’d slowed down and read more carefully.
Using “Look Inside the Book” again, I entered different search terms from Shields’s passage to find the source of his entry in Elie’s book –– “contemporary culture” yielded zero results, but “spoiled by self-consciousness” led me page 278, to a discussion of Walker Percy’s essay, “The Loss of the Creature,” which Elie described as “an essay about the ways language stands between the self and reality.” Elie summarizes and comments on a story Percy tells in his essay about tourists struggling to find an authentic experience, including an American couple who “leave town, get lost, and stumble on some natives performing a ‘corn dance’ in a remote village.” The couple, according to Percy’s story, convinced this was the authentic experience they were looking for, bring an ethnologist back with them, to validate it and get his approval. Then comes the encapsulated inspiration for Shield’s entry. Elie writes:
Percy’s point –– in the language of pilgrimage –– is that the modern predicament makes pilgrimage impossible. In the modern world (now generally called postmodern), all experience is always secondhand, planned, and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare authentically direct experience is spoiled by modern self-consciousness. The modern person is doomed to an imitation of life; the self cannot escape itself and know the world or the Other.
Let’s compare Elie’s original passage and Shields’s subsequent riff, restated here so you don’t have to scroll up and down.
Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always secondhand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.
You might argue that Shields keeps the gist of the original, and, like any good aphorist, even improves on the point being made by streamlining the main ideas. Shields changes the existential term “modern predicament” to the easier-to-relate to “contemporary culture,” in order to paint a more tangible villain for the crime, and he also gets rid of the religious aspect of the passage by editing out the last part: “the self cannot escape itself and know the world or the Other” –– meaning God or the divine. Nor does he bother including anything from the subsequent paragraph, which introduces Elie’s hopeful counter perspective –– “The self can try, however. That is Percy’s real point.” As he does throughout the book, Elie offers a brilliant, nuanced evocation of a great writer’s ideas –– in this case, Walker Percy’s –– from various angles.
In addition to extracting the quote from a larger narrative and changing words, Shields also purges any reference to the original source of these ideas: Walker Percy himself. So instead of us readers clearly understanding that in the passage Elie is not presenting his own argument, but clearly providing a summarization and commentary on Walker Percy’s essay, we are led to believe through the citation that Elie himself argued for, believed, and was trying to convince us that “we’re doomed to an imitation of life.”
To get at the nuance of this is difficult without reading Elie’s book, but trust me, Elie is not saying “we’re doomed to an imitation of life.” As he stated in our interview, “the thrust of both my books is that you can live authentically and the obvious fact that experience is mediated to us is not necessarily crippling. It’s often enabling.”
But what’s the harm? Shields told us what he was up to, in that disclaimer in the Appendix, that in his book he is appropriating and plagiarizing and us not knowing when and where is part of the fun. And if Elie has a right to be offended, was it even Shields’s fault? Why not blame the Random House attorneys who forced Shields to put in the citations (Upon the threat of what? They wouldn’t publish the book?). If the attorneys hadn’t insisted, it was unlikely anyone would have associated the condensed and rewritten passage in Shields’s book with Elie’s original in the first place. (I studied the book for an interview we did, and I didn’t see the connection). And as for the quote-spotters and cite-sifters who do spot the connection, get a life! As Shields says in his Appendix, reality can’t be copyrighted.
Elie may have forgiven Shields for taking his self-avowed creative license if Elie hadn’t received emails this spring telling him that he was quoted in a new memoir by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, A Sense of Direction. Here’s the quote in question in Lewis-Kraus’s book, which I found on page 236.
Paul Elie writes, “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”
Yes, you read it right, this quote that Lewis-Kraus attributes to Elie, is not from Elie’s book at all, but an exact quote of the passage in Shields’s book (that is, besides adding the dash to “secondhand”). Lewis-Kraus is quoting Shields, not Elie. And here’s what Lewis-Kraus says next, about the (mis)quote:
Of course, life is never an imitation of life; life is simply life. And no experience is any more or less direct than any other one. But the point of view Elie offers is worth considering, more for its assumptions than its shoddy lament. Being self-conscious about an experience means, to Elie, standing at a remove from it. This remove is created by the fact that we all know, at any given time, that there is an associated cost, that we could be doing something else. (Author’s emphasis).
Let’s review. Lewis-Kraus first misquotes Elie, then he proceeds to contradict what he misquotes Elie had written (“life is never an imitation of life; life is simply life”), and then characterizes what he wrongly alleges Elie having written as a “shoddy lament.”
Since the word “shoddy” struck me as especially harsh here, I looked it up. According to the Free Dictionary, shoddy means: 1. Made of or containing inferior material. 2. a. Of poor quality or craft. b. Rundown; shabby. 3. Dishonest or reprehensible: shoddy business practices. 4. Conspicuously and cheaply imitative. I understand now, with a healthy dash of the vertigo Shields hoped to provoke in me, why Elie was irked. It irks me to read Lewis-Kraus’s excerpt, which I’m afraid epitomizes the term shoddy. Not only does Lewis-Kraus screw up the attribution, assigning it not to Shields but to Elie, he disparages what he says is Elie’s work, and then to top it off, carries on with statements that Lewis-Kraus might believe — this business about self-consciousness and knowing we could be doing something else — that don’t follow from anything that Shields or Elie or Percy wrote.
So let’s agree this is shoddy work. So is it Lewis-Kraus’s fault or maybe his publisher’s? Unlike in Shields’s manifesto, Lewis-Kraus includes no citations at all, with page numbers or not. If he had included citations, perhaps a thoughtful editor would have traced the misquote back to that artsy prankster Shields and this mess would have been averted. But no citations; this is art.
Or maybe we should let Lewis-Kraus off the hook and blame Shields instead? He is the perp, after all, who put this meme out there, however he couched it, associating his shoddy lament (Lewis-Kraus’s term, not mine) with Elie, who I reiterate did not write either of these identical passages attributed to him by Shields and Lewis-Kraus. But whether Shields is culpable or not, he may be delighted at this cascade of appropriations and misquotes –– and why wouldn’t he be? They prompted this inquiry, which will in turn perhaps spur more controversy and further the reality hunger conversation that he has gleefully provoked in our literary culture. Or: maybe he feels, like I do, or any reasonable person who takes the time to follow the trail, a sense we may have lost something with this shoddiness masquerading as art.
Back in 2003, I interviewed Paul Elie about The Life You Save May Be Your Own, his book on the lives and work of the great Catholic writers Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, and the connections between them. Unlike so many biographers who pummel you with exhaustive detail while affecting a cool academic distance, Elie put his deep emotional connection to his subjects at center stage, inviting us to join him in knowing the lives and work of writers who mean so much to him.
When he told me back then that his next book would be about the recordings of J.S. Bach, it seemed a jump in an entirely different direction, but after reading his new book, Reinventing Bach, I can see that the move makes absolute sense. Here, as in the earlier book, Elie mixes biography, history, travelogue, and personal reflection to tell the story of the great composer, and also the captivating stories of the most celebrated modern interpreters of his music, including Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, and Glenn Gould, who reinvented Bach for the age of recordings. In doing so, Elie once again gives us a compellingly readable and intellectually satisfying meditation on art that inspires us to discover and find joy in the work — in this case from Bach and the constellation of geniuses who devoted their lives to his music.
This February, Elie, who for many years was a senior editor at FSG, became a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. We met near his shared writing studio at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, with pies and scones on the plank table and Pandora playing loudly in the background, to talk about the book.
The Millions: When did you decide to write a book about Bach?
Paul Elie: I think I suspected that my interest in Bach would turn into a book even before I wrote my first book, but I didn’t know enough about Bach yet to write it. I had the ardor without the sense to know what to do with it. I kept making notes and listening to recordings and putting myself into encounters with Bach’s music, aware that after some time something would come of it.
TM: Were you conscious of the connections between your two books as you were writing this new one?
PE: Very much so, in the sense that I knew that in the new book as well as the old one I was telling distinct stories that come together as one story. I realized that Albert Schweitzer and Pablo Casals were near-exact contemporaries, that they had similar preoccupations, and that they made their crucial Bach recordings in London in the middle thirties. Casals’s famous recording of Bach’s cello suites, which he began at Abbey Road studios in November 1936, follows Schweitzer’s recording at the church of All Hallows in the old City by about a year. You read those dates in CD liner notes and feel connections emerging unbidden.
Also, the two books are alike in the sense that they are meant to represent areas where transcendence still feels authentic in our society. The four writers whose stories I told in The Life You Save May Be Your Own make Christian belief credible to people for whom it might not otherwise be so, and that’s true of Bach, too. His music seems to find receptive ears among people of faith, people of no faith, and people who don’t think the matter of faith makes any difference one way or the other.
[Elie pauses and smiles at the music being played on the radio — the slow organ opening to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”]
Listen to that. That organ riff is basically the same riff as in Bach’s “Air on the G String.” Gary Brooker of Procol Harum said that he was noodling around on Bach on the piano and the song came out — a song that has made millions of dollars for him and the rest of the band. It’s not just the two of us sitting here in a café saying, “That sounds like Bach.” The songwriter himself actually said so. People often describe the instrumental middle section of the Beatles’s song “In My Life” as Baroque-like, but it’s not just an impression: John Lennon himself said to George Martin, “Play like Bach” — and then went out for a smoke or whatever.
TM: When you first mention Abbey Road (in regard to Casals’s recording of the cello suites), I of course thought of the Beatles and hoped they’d come into the story, and they do.
PE: If you are writing a narrative work, you never flash-forward if you can help it; you forbid yourself to make comments like “Abbey Road, which would later become famous as the studio of the Beatles.” So many biographies are ruined by that move: it’s a biography of Shelley, say, and the author will intone, “It was now a week before Shelley’s death.” And so you know when Shelley goes out sailing that he’s never coming back — when the power of Shelley’s story lies in the fact that his life was cut off abruptly when he was still a young man.
TM: Takes away the suspense.
PE: Withholding some of the information you have is a way to produce the narrative effect that you need. The excitement of writing the book is figuring out where to do certain things — when to withhold, and when to disclose.
TM: How, in the practical sense, did you work out a story that covers 75 years and brings in Bach’s own story, which took place two hundred years earlier? Did you have timelines? An architecture you were trying to fit the pieces into?
PE: At one point early on I had a giant piece of graph paper, as big as a tablecloth, with a lot of Post-Its on it — but that was just a way to get the brain working; once it was made, I never looked at it again. The decision to give Schweitzer, Casals, and Stokowski each his own part or suite came pretty early. When I realized that each suite coincided with a great leap forward in audio technology, the structure firmed up considerably. The wild card was Bach — how to get Bach himself in there. When I realized that he was an inventor — the composer of the Two- and Three-Part Inventions — it clicked. Bach’s way of invention could run in parallel to the inventive powers of his modern interpreters and of pioneers in recording technology. But that was several years in. You have to be ready to work in the dark.
TM: It seemed you used musical techniques, not only in making the overall structure akin to a suite but in particular passages. For example, you return to certain key scenes, like Schweitzer making his seminal recording of the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” as if they are recurring musical motifs.
PE: I definitely wanted the book to feel musical, but I didn’t attempt to use musical motifs in a rigorous way. In Bach’s cello suites, the fifth suite is longer than the others, so I made my fifth suite a little longer. But I left it at that. I’m not a classically trained musician. I don’t know canon and fugue inside out the way some musicians do.
I’ve noticed that those formal preoccupations sometimes deform books about music. Take Anthony Burgess, a writer whose more naturalistic work I love: in the works where he’s expressly trying to make a piece of music in words, the formal element can become a distraction. I was definitely wary of overdoing the musical effects that way. I hoped instead to absorb enough of Bach’s way of doing things to approximate some of his effects. All the while I was writing the book, after all, I was listening to recordings of the music of Bach, the best pattern maker who ever lived, and I hope that I was able to bring a little of that patterning into the book through my own patterns.
TM: By listening, the inventions get inside of you, and you let it come out organically.
PE: Right. Even if you don’t know every jot and tittle of the Inventions, you can hear that they are inventive. You can hear how they are distinctly different from one another. When I was teaching writing at Columbia, I found myself stressing the need for variety, especially in longer work. You need to keep making it new straight through to the end, not just develop the motifs you’ve already set going. So if you opened chapter three with a long descriptive passage, you might try to open chapter four with dialogue, and chapter five by extending a metaphor that goes outside the main story, or whatever — the way Bach varied his openings in his suites, or the way a card player would vary his openings.
TM: How do you approach listening to this near inexhaustible supply of great music? Did you strive for a sense of completeness or trust your explorations would take you were you needed to go?
PE: I had to trust that the book would take me there. The fact that there is so much of Bach’s music, and so many recordings, means that you know from the start that you are never going to hear it all, even if you live to be 100. There’s always going to be a freshly rearranged cantata, or another new recording. So as a writer you know you have to cover all the important works and let other pieces fill themselves in.
Once FSG moved from Union Square to 18th Street, I had the tremendous good fortune of working upstairs from Academy Records, the best CD shop I can imagine for obscure CDs of classical music remastered from old 78s. I’d go down to the shop religiously at least once a week and keep an eye out for strange stuff: the lute suites played on the Lautenwerk, an instrument Bach invented, or a straight-through live recording of the Goldberg Variations by a pianist who threw the I Ching with John Cage. I would also talk about Bach with people and they would send me things — links to YouTube videos, movies with Bach used as incidental music. Somebody told me that Jimmy Page quotes a Bach bourrée in the live version of “Heartbreaker” — and sure enough, in the Led Zeppelin video from Earls Court, there it is.
One evening I was walking up Broadway on my way to teach at Columbia, and I noticed that a street vendor selling CDs had about three quarters of a “complete” Bach set issued in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. I took one look and said, “Forty dollars,” and he said, “Done.” I showed up at class five minutes late with a rubber-banded stack of CDs as long as my arm and told the students — this is the way the book is being written. You have to be willing to get lucky.
TM: There’s so much depth there, how did you know when to stop? The book is 400 pages and probably includes the stories of a hundred musicians, not just your protagonists. Was the manuscript much larger in draft? Did you have to prune it down?
PE: It wasn’t that much larger. I like the definition of art given by St. Thomas Aquinas. A work of art, Aquinas said, possesses wholeness, harmony, and radiance, and some translators render it as order, proportion and radiance. In writing the book, I was always thinking about proportion. Before you go too deeply into an arcane exploration of the “St. Matthew Passion” or whatever, you have to ask yourself whether the structure of the book you are writing can bear it. In the case of the “St. Matthew Passion,” I found a way to dovetail the two main narrative lines of the book so that the account of Bach composing the work in 1727 was followed immediately by the account of Otto Klemperer leading a recording of it in London in 1961. That kind of joinery is what makes the structure hold up. That’s the idea, anyhow.
TM: In the prelude of the book, you write that the recorded music from Bach “defies the argument that experience mediated by technology is a diminished thing.” Glenn Gould embraced this idea — he believed that the microphone and his ability to record his performances in relative solitude and them send them out into the world expanded his possibilities as a musician, rather than diminished his creative life.
PE: All of us are aware of the potential of technology, but we assume that there’s a cost too — that there’s something inhuman about technology, and that the inhumanity is the price we have to pay for the convenience. But Gould’s experience was very different. He said, No, I’m more myself when I am playing before the microphone than in the crazy circus of a recital, where I’m wearing awkward concert dress and I have to talk to strangers afterwards. I’m more human when I’m in a recording studio.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own was written out of the conviction that mediated experience is not necessarily inauthentic. The four writers in the book had religious experience “mediated” to them through the works of great writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; they sought such experience for themselves, and then in effect “mediated” their experience to the next generation through their own writing.
In Reality Hunger, as you know, David Shields made a hodgepodge of riffs on other people’s work and one of the riffs is taken from my first book. It’s a baffling revision of what I wrote — he got the sense of the passage and the book exactly wrong. It’s a paraphrase of a stock late modern or postmodern point of view that Walker Percy was writing his way out of, in a particular essay and then, in effect, in his entire subsequent 30-year career, and the story I tell in the book is of the great effort he made to transcend that point of view in his life and his writing. Percy succeeded, I’d say, and that he and his counterparts managed to do so is the heart of my book.
TM: Shields is attributing the paraphrase to you.
PE: I know him a bit, and I have admired his work. I couldn’t figure out whether he’d gotten the point wrong because he had honestly missed it, or because he was angry at me and decided to falsify my work, or because it’s part of the game he’s playing to show that you can rewrite other people’s conclusions to suit your own, or because he didn’t actually read the book, just saw that passage quoted somewhere. I don’t know. In any case, now people are writing to me — “do you see you’re quoted in Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s book [A Sense of Direction]?” Well, I’m not quoted, and it seems to me that the whole passage as I wrote it would have been more apt for Lewis-Kraus than the paraphrase he wound up citing. I’d like to send him my book. Because the thrust of both my books is that you can live authentically and the obvious fact that experience is mediated to us is not necessarily crippling. It’s often enabling.
TM: If I picked up a typical biography of a vaunted figure like Bach, I’d expect a crushing amount of “authoritative” detail. Your book is almost the opposite. You’re not trying to say, “This is the final authoritative work on Bach,” but “This is my experience of this great artist and his work. See and listen for yourself.”
PE: I’m not capable of writing the definitive book about Bach. I don’t have German. I’m not a musicologist. But the fact is, the books by musicologists and German language scholars aren’t definitive either. Five biographies of Bach were published in English or in English translation in the last 10 years. They are remarkable works, and I was able to draw from an amazing flowering of research and scholarship that is found in them. The fact that those books exist enables me as a writer on Bach to get everything right, I hope, but also frees me from certain obligations. I don’t have to produce a chart or table showing which pipe organ Bach inspected at which date in his career. It has already been done.
I think the presence of the web can be liberating for nonfiction writers. In the age prior to ours, there was a certain kind of biographer who felt a professional obligation to work stuff into the book, because if it weren’t in the book there would be no access to it. You wound up with multi-volume biographies of middling people, books that are a combination of a life story and a scholarly resource. I don’t want my book to be a resource. I want it to be a work of art in its own right an invitation to the reader to experience all the music of Bach that’s out there.
TM: You’re saying to the reader you don’t need to have a certain background. You can experience Bach as music. That just listening can be your way in.
PE: My most important formative experience of Bach was the WKCR Bachfest, which airs every year. In graduate school, I listened to the station for jazz, and suddenly the music of Bach took over for 10 days around Christmas and I was blown away. I know now that I was getting educated in Bach, but at the time I was just blissing out. I was having what to me is the fundamental experience of Bach — the experience of the superabundance of the music. There is so much Bach. WKCR can play Bach for 10 days and have lots left over. As a listener, you’re buoyed up by the knowledge you’re not going to reach the end of Bach — not ever.
That’s a long way of saying my point of entry was pleasure, full stop. I hope the pleasure comes through in the book.
TM: As I was reading, I was engaged in the stories of Schweitzer, Casals, Stokowski, and Gould, but then they all die about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I wondered how could you possibly sustain the narrative drive to make me want to keep reading. Then you interject yourself into the story and you give the reader another opportunity to experience the seminal recordings, through you.
PE: People often say that you have to decide whether your book is written in the first person or the third person, that you must have a scheme. But the FSG way is to figure out what feels right rather than working in absolutes. Most great works of literature are mongrel works, blended things. When he was editing my first book, Jonathan Galassi warned me not to load up the story with personal experiences early on. He was absolutely right. This time, at some level he let me know that it felt right for me to come into the book later rather than earlier. As for the earlier sections, I drew on my own experiences as a listener — and I tried to make my descriptions of the music personal and passionate but without suddenly putting the reader in my apartment in 2000 and spoiling the flow of the story that is taking place in the war years.
The narrative possibilities for non-fiction are just extraordinary right now. We know that we don’t have to make our books resources. We don’t have to take timeouts from the narrative to enter data into the record. We know that we can make a nonfiction book a work of art — a sculpted thing that does allow the reader to be immersed, does have the vividness associated with fiction, the sense of layering, of recapitulations, and of a whole figurative scheme working organically between the lines. That’s tremendously exciting.
We are poor passing facts
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
—Robert Lowell, “Epilogue”
Next year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Roberto Bolaño, the prolific genre-bender whose narratives and exile from Chile began seriously enchanting the literary world in 2005, the year The New Yorker began publishing his short stories. Altogether, nine stories have appeared in the magazine, including January’s “Labyrinth,” which accompanied a curious photograph. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a bit about Bolaño’s following, which may be credited in part to his early exit from said world at the age of 50, by way of liver failure. For the uninitiated, “Gomez Palacio,” his posthumous New Yorker debut about a tormented writer interviewing for a teaching post in a remote Mexican town, tends to work a kind of magic. A ragged copy of the issue in which “Gomez Palacio” appeared caught critic Francine Prose in a waiting room: “I was glad the doctor was running late,” she wrote later in reviewing Last Evenings on Earth, “so I could read the story twice, and still have a few minutes left over to consider the fact that I had just encountered something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.”
Francisco Goldman, who likened “The Great Bolaño” to Borges in a profile for The New York Review of Books, dates the ex-Chilean’s rise to 1999, the year The Savage Detectives won a coveted Venezuelan prize for the best Spanish-language novel. “The inseparable dangers of life and literature, and the relationship of life to literature, were the constant themes of Bolaño’s writings,” reads Goldman’s summary of his subject’s legacy, which at the time spanned ten novels and three story collections. (Bolaño’s drive to finish his 900-page masterwork, 2666, a far-flung novel involving the murders of women in the Sonora desert, is thought to have exacerbated his liver condition.) “It’s as if Bolaño is satirizing the routine self-pity of exile,” adds Goldman, in turning to one of his short fictions (“Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva”). “Yet the story’s mood of nearly inexpressible and lonely grief leaves you an intuitive sense of its truthfulness, which seems something other than a literal truthfulness.”
Separating facts from other kinds of “truthfulness” in Bolaño’s oeuvre becomes a difficult task, to say nothing of counting up the author’s works themselves. The Millions began keeping “A Bolaño Syllabus” in 2009 and has updated that list since. “Oh!” an anxious reader posted the following year. “But what about all the new and recent translations out from New Directions? What of them?” What indeed; let’s recap. With the help of American translator Natasha Wimmer and Melbourne-based Chris Andrews, who first brought Bolaño to English and continues to handle his shorter works, New Directions has published more than a dozen posthumous volumes ranging from poetry to newspaper columns. In an interview that coincided with “Labyrinth,” Barbara Epler, president of New Directions and a longtime editor, relates the story of her house’s 2006 windfall to The New Yorker:
Bolaño’s rights were represented by Agencia Literaria Carmen Balcells, and I was asking and asking them about the offer we’d made for The Savage Detectives and getting no reply. My heart sank when they e-mailed to say, “We’re coming to New York and want to take you out to dinner.” I knew they must be shopping The Savage Detectives. I went to supper, and considerably (by our standards) improved my offer. Finally one of the Balcells ladies put her hand on my arm and said, “The Estate wants a larger house for the big books.” I was about to cry, and they knew we’d done everything we could for the author here, so they offered, if we were willing to take all the “small” books on, that we could. So we took everything we could get, everything that at that point we knew existed.
With the close of the post-Bolaño decade, it seems that the tide of the author’s original works is finally ebbing. New Directions’ latest release, much to my delight and that of other genre boundary-watchers, is The Secret of Evil, a thin collection of fictions that occasionally read as essays. Or is it the other way around? At times, we’re not sure. In turning the title page, explains the book’s jacket, we open a certain computer file: “BAIRES,” Bolaño called it — a nickname for Argentina’s metropolis. “There are multiple indications that Bolaño was working on this file in the months immediately preceding his death,” writes Ignacio Echeverría, the author’s executor, in his prologue. But the task of gleaning 19 semi-finished works from BAIRES, STORIX (another riddle), and about 50 other files was not without complications — namely Bolaño’s “poetics of inconclusiveness,” which Echeverría compares to Kafka’s abruptness. “Decisions as to the wholeness and self-sufficiency of particular pieces,” he warns the critic, became inevitably subjective. Thus, along with a couple of previously-published lectures (“Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” and “Sevilla Kills Me”) as well as the story of a Spanish family’s decimation in a bus accident (“Muscles,” likely an unfinished novel), the bulk of The Secret borders on flash fiction — two, four, and six-page sketches ranging from the swimming pools and watering holes of Mexico City, Guatemala, Santiago, and Buenos Aires, to Madrid, Berlin, and most luminously, Paris.
As with The Insufferable Gaucho and Last Evenings before it, The New Yorker had the honor in January of cherry-picking from The Secret. Unlike the task of compiling this year’s collection, the choice was obvious: at 18 pages, “Labyrinth” stands apart. It narrates the comings and goings of a cadre of European intellectuals, including a brush with “Z,” a foreigner who ambushes the offices of Tel Quel, the Paris journal of the avant-garde whose disappearance in 1982 roughly mirrored the waning of structuralism. “Who else knows Z?” Our narrator — presumably Bolaño — poses the question, which gradually nags at the reader. “No one, or at least there is nothing to suggest that his presence is of any concern to the others.” But then a few clues: “Maybe he’s a young writer who at some stage tried to get his work published in Tel Quel; maybe he’s a young journalist from South America, no, from Central America, who at some point tried to write an article about the group.”
The startling thing about “Labyrinth,” beyond Z’s ghostly presence on the page, is the way the story unfolds, almost by way of evasion. (A footnote: Bolaño quit the Americas in 1977 after being imprisoned and nearly tortured by Pinochet’s forces in 1973; Barbara Epler vouched for this sometimes disputed fact in her January remarks.) For an illustration, try picturing the opening scene:
They’re seated. They’re looking at the camera. They are captioned, from left to right: J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Réveillé, P. Guyotat, C. Devade, and M. Devade.
There’s no photo credit.
They’re sitting around a table. It’s an ordinary table, made of wood, perhaps, or plastic, it could even be a marble table on metal legs, but nothing could be less germane to my purpose than to give an exhaustive description of it.
What Bolaño’s last masterpiece does proceed to describe, with East Germanic voyeurism, is the web of relationships on display. Why? Because (1) unlike many tableside portraits in Paris, this image was not intended for a magazine spread; and (2) because, importantly, not everyone is paying attention to the photographer. Two of the women pictured gaze off-camera, in the same direction. They might be preoccupied with an object of affection and it’s precisely this quality of deduction that fuels Bolaño’s narrative.
What of the photo itself? Unfortunately for readers, it can’t be found in The Secret of Evil. But it did appear in The New Yorker’s publication of “Labyrinth,” spread right across the opening pages. What more can be said of the seated figures, we begin to wonder? This Henric, Goux, Sollers, Kristeva, Réveillé, whose gaze might betray surprise, her companion, Guyotat, and Mr. and Ms. Devade, one of whom wears a half-smile? Quite a lot, we discover, as the story wanders away from the table, into streets and garages and bedrooms, and back again in the evening, when “night falls over the photograph.” Yet these figures — their vigorous couplings and jealousies — are not at all figments of Bolaño’s imagination. A peculiar hint of this reality can be found in a credit omitted from print but included in the story’s online publication, just below the magazine’s end sign: “PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY JACQUES HENRIC.”
There are other signs, amid his wanderings, that our narrator is employing a fact pattern that Bolaño found more intriguing than outright fiction: “The photo was probably taken in 1977 or thereabouts”; “The photo was taken in winter or autumn, or maybe at the beginning of spring, but certainly not in summer”; “Let’s suppose, for the moment, that it’s in a café.” By the story’s midpoint, first names have emerged, via conjecture and supposition, along with a few biographical details. Jacques Henric is a broad-shouldered French novelist, born in 1938. Philippe Sollers, editor in chief of Tel Quel, has the look of a man who enjoys a good meal. Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian seminologist at Sollers’s elbow? His wife. And Pierre Guyotat, author of Prostitution, among other works? A balding pervert whose temples resemble “nothing so much as the bay leaves that used to wreathe the heads of victorious Roman generals.” Réveillé and the Devades come into focus, too, but Bolaño’s chess game is already a thing to behold. He’s built for himself not just a labyrinth of the houseplants that obscure our view of the table (“there are three plants — a rhododendron, a ficus, and an everlasting”), but a living-breathing, true-to-life mystery with so many shades of exposure, the story’s inconclusiveness seems preordained, exquisitely inevitable.
In Reality Hunger, David Shields’ manifesto on society’s latter-day enthusiasm for art rooted in fact (and often troubled by genre), some 600 hastily-sourced meditations, including this essay’s epigraph, narrate the author’s own evolution as a consumer of literature, in a sort of collage. “I’m interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what are roughly called nonfiction and fiction,” reads an from entry from Jonathan Raban (no. 191). But in the end Shields, like Bolaño, crosses over the border, leaving behind the dusty Republic of the Make-Believe. Take the following passage, one of the few in Reality Hunger that doesn’t need sourcing: “I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now” (Shields, no. 212). Plotlines, for this kind of writer, begin to feel like artifice — something to be stripped away and replaced by shape-shifting narratives “open for business way past closing time.” Photographs, it just so happens, do just that. Why take them so constantly, so obsessively? “So that I’ll see what I’ve seen” (Janette Turner Hospital, no. 137). “It’s just this breathtaking world — that’s the point. The story’s not important; what’s important is the way the world looks. That’s what makes you feel stuff. That’s what puts you there” (Frederick Barthelme, no. 142).
Bolaño goes missing from Shields’ collage, but I imagine Bolaño would have enjoyed following its leads in the manner of a good detective or a wayward journalist. “I would have liked to be a homicide detective, much more than a writer,” Bolaño told the Mexican edition of Playboy, in his last interview. “Of that I’m absolutely sure. A string of homicides. Someone who could go back alone, at night, to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts.” That fondness for investigation and self-projection becomes recognizable throughout Bolaño’s fiction, but especially in later stories such as The Insufferable Gaucho’s “Police Rat,” about four-legged Pepe, a rodent cop assigned to a vacant sewer. The Secret of Evil’s title story, a three-page sketch of Joe A. Kelso, an American journalist in Paris stalked by a pale man, “a watcher with no one to watch him in turn, someone it’s going to be hard to get rid of,” carries a similar paranoia. And the same holds true for “Labyrinth,” whose shadowy, off-camera Z seems not a stand-in for Bolaño but a kind of alter ego: the handsome-but-nervous sort of exile desperate to join a circle of writers sitting just beyond his reach.
I’ve said enough about the above gathering already, but there is one further mystery worth noting. The photo that appeared this past January — the same arrangement of eight figures from “1977 or thereabouts,” courtesy of Henric — can be found published 14 years earlier, in a French history of Tel Quel by Philippe Forest (Histoire de Tel Quel, Seuil, 1998). In translation, Forest’s caption reads “Party of L’Humanité, 1970. From left to right: Jacques Henric, Jean-Joseph Goux, Phillip Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Thérèse Réveillé, Pierre Guyotat, Catherine and Marc Devade (photo D. R.).” L’Humanité, the Internet tells us, is a Paris daily still in print today, although its circulation rose and fell with the French Communist Party, which began a slow decline that same decade. Where was Roberto Bolaño in 1970? Not, as the overexcited reader might assume, leaning against the bar, drawing stares from the table, but working as a journalist in Mexico City, already involved with liberal causes and preparing to return, three years later, to socialist Chile.
We could go on in this vein, asking questions about Henric and “D. R.” and wondering whether Bolaño happened on Forest’s book late in life. Perhaps he recalled reading Tel Quel during his first days in Paris, still shaking from what he’d escaped, and decided to change a few details in service of a last, great story. But we should, in fairness, allow Bolaño a few secrets, and instead pause to marvel at the whole collection. In some respects, The Secret of Evil fails to cohere: two brilliantly speculative shorts about a roving V. S. Naipul vexed by the origins of sodomy end in confusion; another promising piece about Bolaño and his son playing a game of turning invisible turns into a rant. Still, the range and “reality” of the writing left behind in cryptic BAIRES and STORIX, from an artist whose days were numbered, will enchant even the uninitiated Bolañonista. And taxonomists, myself included, should praise New Directions for a small thing that happened somewhere between the uncorrected proof and the finished hardback that arrived at my door the other day: “FICTION,” on the book’s jacket, now reads “LITERATURE.”
Image: Jean Silver/Flickr
The fuss is currently over John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s clashes over factual accuracy, but frankly I’m tired of hearing about it. Maybe it’s because it sounds so reminiscent of David Shields’ Reality Hunger (2010). Or, better yet, maybe it’s because it sounds so reminiscent of David Sedaris’ Naked (1997).
More and more, I read in pieces. So do you. Digital media, in all its forms, is fragmentary. Even the longest stretches of text online are broken up with hyperlinks or other interactive elements (or even ads). This is neither a good nor bad thing, necessarily — it is simply a part of modern reading. And because of that, works that deal with fragmentation, that eschew not only a traditional narrative structure but the very idea of a work comprising a single, linear whole — take on a special kind of relevance. Fragmentary writing is (or at least feels) like the one avant-garde literary approach that best fits our particular moment. It’s not that it’s the only form of writing that matters of course, just that it captures the tension between “digital” and “analog” reading better than anything else out there. And that tension, in many ways, is the defining feature of the contemporary reading experience.
What is fragmentary writing? To answer that, it helps to first look at how writers wrestled with fragmentation in an earlier, pre-digital context. The approach played a major role in twentieth-century modernist literature, for example, and the very best modernists utilized fragments in particularly revealing ways. Few writers of the period, or any other, understood the nature of fragmentary writing better than Samuel Beckett, who experimented with short, nonlinear forms throughout his career. My favorite example of these fragmentary experiments is a series of thirteen nonlinear prose shorts he wrote called Texts for Nothing.
The Texts are not stories or essays, at least not in the traditional sense. They are instead focused on images/symbols and on the often-prevaricating “voice” (or is it “voices”?) behind each Text. Images and phrases appear in a particular context, and nearly every word is essential to understanding the Text. The voice of each Text often doubles back, contradicts itself, or moves from image to image in no discernible pattern, as in Text 2:
Is this stuff air that permits you to suffocate still, almost audibly at times, it’s possible, a kind of air. What exactly is going on, exactly, ah, old xanthic laugh, no farewell mirth, good riddance, it was never droll. No, but one more memory, one last memory, it may help, to abort again.
The images contained in Text 2 (though not necessarily the other Texts) could be interpreted as a series of “memories,” ranging from a woman digging through a trash can to a man “with only one leg and a half” ringing a bell. Memory often works piecemeal — after all, people don’t really remember an entire experience, instead they hold on to particular images, emotions, or impressions. In that way, the Texts resemble human memory — and human thinking. Their fragmentary nature therefore reflects the fragmentary nature of memory, and of the human mind.
Writing about Franz Kafka — another writer given to fragments, whose work served as a key influence on Beckett’s — Albert Camus declared, “The whole art in Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.” The Texts certainly live up to this dictum — they are meant to be looked at more than once, from different points of view. The attentive reader spends time with each Text as a distinct object, since there is not linear narrative or argument to follow forward. Meaning suggests itself indirectly, through the accumulation of phrases and images.
However, while Beckett wrote at a time when rereading was widely encouraged, contemporary media often pulls us in a very different direction. In his recent book about digital reading, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr calls the Net our society’s “communication and information medium of choice,” and says that, “The scope of its use is unprecedented, even by the standards of the mass media.” And he claims that this new medium has changed reading as profoundly as did the bound codex.
He points to a series of studies that indicate “people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” Essentially, hypertext distracts the reader enough to change the reading experience — even a long, linear text becomes fragmented with the addition of links, because the unconscious mind is forced to devote energy determining the value of the link (and whether or not to click on it). In Carr’s telling, the Internet creates not fragmentary but fragmented reading, where the mind is so distracted that it is difficult to become fully immersed in a given text. This is a different process than what happens when we read a fragmentary work — as Carr explains, “When transcribed to a page, a stream of consciousness becomes literary and linear.” The structure of a print book — its existence as a discrete, finite object, the lack of distractions built in to the format — creates a contemplative atmosphere that allows the reader to “merge” with a text; or as Carr puts it, “The reader becomes the book.” Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, with their emphasis on contemplation, accumulation, and rereading, are firmly rooted in the quieter, more contemplative world of “analog” media. For a writer interested in engaging the digital world, however, there are different challenges and that calls for a different kind of fragmentary writing.
The most prominent fragmentary work in recent years is probably David Shields’ Reality Hunger, a book made up primarily of quotations from other texts. While most critics focused on its two most controversial assertions — that the linear novel is an obsolete form, and that writers should feel free to “borrow” text from other works, the way a DJ might sample a piece of music — the book’s fragmentary structure is far more compelling. It is intended as a “literary collage,” in keeping with Shields’ belief that, “Collage, the art of reassembling fragments of preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image, was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century.” Shields wants “a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation,” in effect, a literature that reflects the workings of the human mind. And his collection of fragments is his effort to produce that kind of work. If Shields fails in this effort — and I think he does, though understandably so — he is able to give the reader an idea of how his mind processes the written word. The breadth of his reading is evident not only from the wide range of writers “appropriated” into Reality Hunger — Walter Pater, James Joyce, and Walter Benjamin, among others — but from the obvious restlessness visible on the page.
Like Beckett’s Text 2, the fragmentary nature of Reality Hunger has its roots in human memory. As Shields points out, his interest in the essay stems from his belief that, “The essay consists of double translation: memory translates experience; essay translates memory.” And his essay resembles the way many of us remember the books we read — we hold on to particular ideas, images, and quotes, which hold the place of the larger work in our memories. I’ve read Hamlet three times in the last year and a half — and many times before then — but I can’t recite the entire play by heart. Instead, certain lines stand out (“The rest is silence,” etc.), and when I “remember” the play, it is those lines that spring to mind. In that way, Shields’ book gives us a window into how he reads — it shows us not only the works he gravitates too, but what pieces of those works he keeps with him.
Where Shields differs from earlier fragmentary writers, including Beckett, is that Reality Hunger, due to its origin in many different works, not only emphasizes its fragmentary nature, but uses it to connect with the reader. While making my way through the book, I found myself copying out Shields’ most interesting fragments into a separate notebook; when I want to “reread” Reality Hunger, I simply look at my own, private version instead. This seems at least in part to be Shields’ intention — the fragmentary style of his book forces the reader to become an active participant in the work itself. In that way, it draws from online writing styles, including blogging, which encourage readers to comment on, excerpt, or link to an existing text (which, as Carr points out, brings on even more fragmentation). Perhaps the most extreme version of this is the blogging platform Twitter, which both limits users to writing 140-chracters at a time, and encourages them to “retweet” other users’ content.
The most interesting use of the platform that I’ve seen is Masha Tupitsyn’s (print) book Laconia: 1,200 Tweets on Film, which she composed entirely on the site. The end result, however, is presented not as a mere assembly of Tweets, but as an experiment in form. As she explains in the introduction, “I avoided tweeting arbitrarily or simply churning out a collection of tweets that would result in a book. Instead, I wrote and crafted each entry as though it was for and part of a book, rather than the other way around.” One of Carr’s great worries about the digital realm is the way it appropriates and changes print forms. As he explains, “When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image.” With Laconia, Tupitsyn attempts the reverse, re-creating a digital medium (Twitter) in an “analog” space. In a sense, Tupitsyn is appropriating a digital space into print.
What’s especially interesting about that appropriation is the way she toys with Twitter’s 140-character limit. Often, she will break multi-tweet passages abruptly, calling attention to the platform’s tendency toward fragmentation. For example, tweets 782 and 783 (each tweet in the book is numbered and time-stamped) appear this way:
Our feelings and emotions about our lives and our faces are in other people’s faces. Changing movie faces are our feelings and emotions
about our feelings and emotions.
It would be very easy to recast these tweets in a way that keeps both sentences whole:
Our feelings and emotions about our lives and our faces are in other people’s faces.
Changing movie faces are our feelings and emotions about our feelings and emotions.
This would be particularly more readable on Twitter itself, where the more recent tweet — “about our feelings and emotion” — would appear on top. But by breaking them so abruptly, by taking Twitter’s “hard” character count so literally and writing right up until it is reached, Tupitsyn underlines the digital origin of the project.
Where, at least in Carr’s telling, the Web cuts a textual whole into fragments by appropriating it, the print book (at least this particular print book) takes fragments and forces them into a kind of whole. We read tweets 782 and 783 in sequence, and the meaning is obvious. Tupitsyn plays a similar trick with the book’s content. Though the book is ostensibly a work of film criticism, it does not contain anything that resembles a conventional movie review. Instead, it appropriates what social media specializes in — quotations, personal reactions, biographical revelations, and commentary about pop culture — and turns them into something more ambitious. The different fragments are not so much about film as they are about how Tupitsyn watches film. As she puts it, the book “dramatizes the act of thinking through film.”
Reality Hunger and Laconia are very different books, but they share this desire to use fragmentary writing to dramatize the act of thinking through culture (in Shields’ case mostly books, in Tupitsyn’s mostly films). Even this desire has its roots in the digital world, where culture is constantly being repackaged and analyzed. If neither work achieves the majesty of Beckett’s Texts — to be fair, an obscenely high standard — both find an approach to fragmentary writing that pushes the form in a new direction, rather than just rehashing modernism’s innovations. They manage this by drawing on digital forms — Shields by creating a “collage” that mimics the mash-up culture that dominates online media, Tupitsyn by writing her book via Twitter. In so doing, they suggest an interesting new path for both writers and readers, one that takes the clutter of the digital world and transforms it into something quieter and more thoughtful.
It’s not that fragmentary writing is the only acceptable form of writing today — I have no intention of breaking this essay into tweets — but it is the form best suited to address the conundrum Carr is so concerned about in The Shallows. We all read online, and the rise of smartphones, tablets, and e-readers means we will be doing so even more. This means we will all be spending ever more time reading with a medium that encourages distracted, fragmented reading. Fragmentary writing — work that accumulates fragments of text and presents them in a way that encourages introspection and contemplation — seems like a logical response to that experience. And that makes me incredibly curious to see where people will take it.
Image credit: Unsplash/CHUTTERSNAP.
If you don’t think the lads dominate the Irish literary landscape with all manner of Colums and Seamuses, quickly, name three Irish women writers. I’m guessing two of those would be Edna O’Brien and Emma Donoghue. And one of those would no doubt be Anne Enright, whose novel The Gathering, garnered the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2007.
Enright has followed up that dark novel with The Forgotten Waltz, which on the surface is a lighter more external narrative. Set in 2009, Gina Moynihan, a married mid-30s IT professional, looks back at her adulterous adventure with a married man named Sean. It’s a survey of that dysfunctional coupling with precise snapshots dating to Gina’s first sighting of Sean at her sister’s housewarming barbeque seven years earlier.
The period of her dalliance corresponds to the economic bubble known as the Celtic Tiger when, much like other countries riding an economic upswing, the material world dominated the attentions and energies of Ireland’s striving classes (and then some). And so Enright, who is acutely observant and precisely expressive, paints that consuming hysteria as the backdrop for the Gina’s romantic and illicit thrill seeking.
Robert Birnbaum: Did you look at any news source this morning?
Anne Enright: Umm, yeah I glanced at the papers.
RB: What the big story for you today?
AE: Me, I am checking the Eurozone and keeping an eye on the banks. Whether they are going to fall apart — how slowly or how quickly.
RB: Who is going first — is Greece going?
AE: Greece hasn’t gone. They really are going to work to keep it together. There hasn’t been any doubt about that for a while. On the panic level, the worst panic level was probably September, October 2008. After Lehman’s, when the Irish government guaranteed all the banks. Everybody was going crazy about this decision that was made to guarantee all deposits in Irish banks. But in fact I had gone to bed the night before with the assurance that I was going to go into the bank and take all my money out the next morning.
RB: How much has the defanging of the Celtic Tiger affected you?
AE: Personally, I am really lucky. I am always out of sync with Ireland, you know. When Ireland was booming away, I was sitting in my garret, writing The Gathering, rearing two small children out in Bray, which is south of Dublin, wondering why this had nothing to do with me. All I got from the boom was ripped off.
AE: It’s true. Childcare, fees, everything was ridiculously expensive. My nieces and nephews are coming up to their 20s now — so my generation and their generation missed the worst of it. The worst of it hit the people in their 30s. And their early 40s, who really felt the need to buy a house they couldn’t afford, in a place they didn’t want to live and stuck with partners they don’t like anymore.
RB: Much like the characters that appear in The Forgotten Waltz.
AE: Yeah, The Forgotten Waltz is full of real estate that’s unsellable.
RB: Is this an Irish novel?
AE: Umm, when you think about it, it’s a highly contemporary novel set in February 2009, when the economy is falling. There is real estate in it. There’s money in it.
RB: Designer names.
AE: Designer labels. You look at John B. Keane’s The Field, and love and land; we always understood the connection between the two in Ireland. So, it’s Irish to that extent. It’s also interested in family ties and family love and what’s the difference between romantic and family love. That’s quite Irish as well. It’s Irish in that you can’t get away from those forces. The novel is a highly individualistic form — my characters are dragged back to the communal, (laughs) blood ties — and that’s quite Irish.
RB: To look at it, the focus appears to on adultery. But–
AE: Yeah (pauses) actually, it’s a book that seems to be about adultery but is about a different kind of love that sort of creeps in afterwards. On February 6, 2009, it was a day of snow in Ireland and the place was stalled. I was making a journey through the countryside with my family in the snow with all of them annoying me about how to drive —
AE: “Watch out for the black ice,” and all of that, in the back of the car. It was a very melancholy sort of moment — the country was falling and we didn’t know how fast, how far. And something about the stillness of that day (pauses) — you know, it made me think of the silence after all the noise; all the hubbub has stopped. And that’s when reality come stealing in. I’m not against reality. The adultery part of the book is glorious and fantastic, full of denial and bliss and getting away with it–
RB: And passion.
AE: Passion, a bit like the boom. Doing what you want. The country was doing what it wanted for a while.
RB: Maybe, it could be viewed as mass hysteria.
AE: Well, there was a hectic quality to those last years. And there was a lot of — you were not allowed disbelief. If you said it’s all going to come falling down — no, you have to believe in property prices, if you don’t they will crash.
RB: Barbara Ehrenreich has written about this industry of self-improvement rooted in being positive and upbeat.
AE: But it really works economically. Until it doesn’t work at all. It’s a confidence trick — you take belief out of the system and all the money turns into dust.
RB: It’s true in a lot of areas. It’s true in sports. Is it true in writing? Writers don’t have any confidence (laughs)
AE: Writers have a lot of emotions about their work, and about themselves in relation to the work. None of them matter that much. It’s just a way of making you get to the desk a bit more, with more intensity. But yeah, writers always think their work is no good and they have no confidence and yada, yada, yada.
RB: After you won a major prize and went on to work on the next book how did you feel?
AE: I felt just fine. The whole prize thing was so external and so much hard work, actually. And I felt so relieved to get back to the desk, you know.
RB: You were in some way anonymous before winning the Man Booker.
AE: I felt a bit robbed in that way.
AE: Because books are incredibly personal items and you have to keep vulnerable, to keep your vulnerability at the desk. Too famous is not good — for whatever limited amount of time that that happens.
RB: Did I read correctly that you never returned to the room where you wrote The Gathering?
AE: You’ve been doing your research? (laughs) Well, it’s a small room and full of books, it’s a bit unmanageable as a space. No, I didn’t go back, really. I mean, I never wrote in that room again.
RB: Are there other things in your life that you do but can’t explain? Like that — can you explain why you never wrote in that room again?
AE: I didn’t realize I wasn’t going back for a long time. And then I did [realize]. Yeah, I knew why — it wasn’t much.
RB: Sometimes we call those ghosts or skeletons, hanging there, not fleshed out.
AE: Yeah, it’s more an aura.
RB: When I spoke to John Banville recently, he was very positive about the future of the U.S. — the great hope of civilization. When you come to the USA what do you see and feel?
AE: It’s more interesting going to China and looking around China (both laugh). Sean in The Forgotten Waltz, says you should go to Shanghai, just to see that it’s all happening, it’s all real. It was very much my experience in Shanghai, these eight-lane highways with no cars on them. Ah, what do I think of America? Elsewhere is always important for Irish writers because Ireland is a little bit like that room where I wrote The Gathering. (laughs) I always wanted to come back to it (laughs). It’s a complicated place for writers. It’s the origin, it’s the spring of it, you know. The place things come from.
RB: The U.S. is the place things come from?
AE: No Ireland is. Elsewhere is really important for Irish writers because that’s where your book goes. And, the flavor of the readership is important. Or the critical response. America has always been a great opportunity for Irish writers.
RB: And the Continent?
AE: France is slightly impermeable to foreign influence. They say in France, “But we have so many great French writers” — none of whom are translated into English, of course. You want to say, “But who are they?” Germany is important.
RB: The French like Paul Auster and Julian Barnes?
AE: Yeah, they like what they like. Paul Auster walks down the street in Paris and he is bothered. People take his picture. Germany is interested in Ireland in a way that France isn’t. France thinks we are savage (pronounced with French accent).
RB: (laughs) Well, so that should be a positive. Does that mean wild?
RB: Don’t the French use the word apache as a positive description?
AE: I know — of course, they consider themselves very tamed, very sophisticated. It’s not so interesting to be looked upon as some sort of wild object. Fintan O’Toole wrote an article in The Irish Times about how important America was to a whole generation of Irish writers, but he didn’t include me in the list. He said partly because I was a woman. I didn’t know that as a woman I would be less interested in America. I am a little outside the run of regular Irish writing which has post-colonial concerns. So I don’t write about that kind of power relationship between the rural and the urban between Ireland and England, between the noble savage and the chilly aristocrat. Within that argument, America is clear space and an opportunity. And also it has a huge diaspora Irish community. So there is a kind of melancholy connection between the two countries — of loss and opportunity.
RB: Irish Americans are strongly supportive of what is exported from Ireland?
AE: In the readings you meet them. My name is Anne Theresa. I met an Anne Theresa Enright in Australia — Melbourne. And I met an Anne Theresa Enright; it may have been in Kansas, I’m not sure. They looked like each other. They didn’t look like me. I knew there were different Enrights. I am signing books and there is often, there used to often be a Bernadette. We’d know when she was born. She was born when the Song of Bernadette came out as a movie. And then Martinas were born when Saint Martina was being canonized. Not only can you spot trends, you can know what age people are when they tell you their names. Why did Banville voice his admiration for America — he wants Americans to buy his novels? They do. They love him.
RB: I live here and I have my disappointment about the USA. I am buoyed by this Wall Street occupation.
AE: Who’d a thunk it. In Ireland there was a march — 50,000 depressed middle class, middle-aged people walking silently through the city, through the streets in their good shoes. Not their best shoes, but in their decent walking shoes.
RB: One day?
AE: One day. Nobody burned any cars. In Greece they were turning cars over in the streets.
RB: Do you believe in class warfare? Isn’t there complicity between such people?
AE: Yea, but of what kind? It’s a bit like Regina says in the book — the way people have, the way men have of getting ahead. For no ascertainable reason the guy just has a talent for being “on side.” It’s not an envelope full of money. It’s not any of these things — it’s just because–
RB: How or why did you decide to use the title, The Forgotten Waltz?
AE: I was sitting in a chair downstairs writing and the afternoon radio was on, the classical station and he said that was the “Forgotten Waltz” by Franz Liszt. I was half way through the book and I just put it in a headline, as an email to my editor. And I don’t talk to him really at all when I am working. I pressed send to see what it would look like. And then it came back and it was on the title of the email and it looked just fine.
RB: There are no other obvious reference points in the book.
AE: There are various dances.
RB: You also title the chapters after pop love songs.
AE: There is one reference. I mean, there is nothing cheesier than putting “a waltz that has been forgotten” in a book called The Forgotten Waltz. Gina is in the room at the hotel where they have their affair, and says, “…the shape of our love in a room like some forgotten music, beautiful and gone.” So that’s the waltz. Also, I wasn’t going to do explicit descriptions of sex in this book because I didn’t think Gina would. A forgotten waltz is a better way of describing what has been going in between her and Sean. This romance, this game.
RB: And the chapter titles? Any concern that they will be distracting if the reader notices what they are?
AE: I wanted the songs to be catchy and a bit kitsch. Because love is best described in song, I think. The thing I like about pop songs is that they are aware of the foolishness of love. They are delighted by the foolishness of love. I mean, Gina clearly is a woman who likes to be in love and who wouldn’t, ya know? Do they stick in your head and annoy you?
RB: No, they don’t annoy me. It’s another thing to reckon with for a close reader. Do they mean something? Are they clues to the chapter? Is there a code in their order?
AE: Well, there’s a whole heap of The Good Soldier [Ford Maddox Ford] in my Forgotten Waltz — after the fact. Edward, in it, falls in love with the girl at the end — his ward. It depends how plugged in you are to music.
RB: I was tempted to create an iTunes playlist to see if there was a message in the sequence
AE: No, it’s a little more arbitrary that that. As in some of the chapter titles were there before — Like “There Will be Peace in the Valley” which is sort of a little anomalous. And “Love is Like a Cigarette” which is slightly anomalous too. Before it gets into the catchy, boppy, you know, “the Shoop Shoop Song.” Yeah. And then the Leonard Cohen — I had a lot of doubts about putting in the Leonard Cohen. Because his lyrics — he’s too interesting (laughs). You know?
RB: You must listen to music a lot?
AE: I listen to classical music. I had some trepidation with the song titles because I hate the way boys do music — because I always like the wrong things. “Oh you like that, yeah?”
RB: Give me an example.
AE:I don’t know — it’s sort of what I mentioned about men — they use music as a counter. I don’t know what the game is. ”You say Arcade Fire?” “Oh you like Arcade Fire?” “Yeah, I don’t know about Arcade Fire.” Constantly pushing their taste. In a kind of slightly strange–
RB: Using groups as identifiers or parametrics. You are supposed to understand something about someone.
AE: It’s slightly a competition and it’s slightly warm — because music is a filter. If you like something you are really quite exposed by liking it. I listen to Bach. No, I don’t. My husband brings in the new stuff. I am slow to catch on to his stuff. It’s amazing that with the Internet our external sources get smaller and smaller. It’s all about selecting.
RB: Your life is composed of writing and raising your kids–
AE: Which isn’t conducive to keeping up with the music scene, I have to say.
RB: How old are your children?
AE: Eleven and 8. I couldn’t even listen to music after they were born. That was the thing that went.
AE: I don’t know. It wasn’t talking about emotions that I had.
RB: Did you play Mozart to make your kids smarter?
AE: There’s Mozart around. I do love Mozart. But I didn’t do that. Actually, it put Rachel to sleep. Now they’re coming in and she has her earphones on. Do you know Adele? Adele is on the other end. She can sing.
RB: How much of your life is now devoted to the persona of being a writer? Conferences, festivals, awards juries, and on?
AE: I get invitations — I’m a conscientious sort of chick. I said yes and I went to Australia. It was amazing. I suppose it was amazing. Martin my husband said, “Just do it, do the year.” As opposed to Linda, Roddy’s wife—
RB: Roddy Doyle?
AE: Yeah. When he won [the Booker] they looked at the schedule and decided what he was going to do and said no to the rest of it. He’s very unswayable. I met Kiran Desai. She had won the Booker. And we met in Colombia — in Cartagena. I was there for 2 days. I mean what a life. It was fantastic. I didn’t have much time to go outside.
RB: You would never had gone there–
AE: No. And to meet Kiran Desai, also a great pleasure. Although we did kind of glance off each other. And she said I am going to sit down in March. I emailed her next March and she was doing something else. (laughs) Really, it was hard. I have to say, ”No more, absolutely no more.” So then I sat down in January and looked at the wall for three months, until March basically. I had the book started. It’s the same thing, the same problem as it always is. You have to sink in order to write a book. I don’t mean in a depressive sort of way.
AE: It is like a depressive state. You have to sink into it — not even focus. You have to diffuse as much as anything else. Just in those early days — to lose control of it and to be helpless and not know what you are doing. And then the focus comes sentence by sentence.
RB: A vulnerability and openness. I’m reminded of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) who said that in order to hit really low notes, to sing in low registers, you almost had to go to sleep. Almost suspended animation, hibernation
AE: Ah, ah hah. Those are both good.
RB: Was it hard to come out and talk about The Gathering — since, as you say, it was more private, seemingly more personal?
AE: The great thing about having done two books — people ask if they are autobiographical? — and I am really delighted when they ask that because it means I have succeeded in what I wanted to do. And I have never bothered about those questions. But you know, I steal from my own life quite freely. So some of it, yes for sure happened to me.
AE: (laughs) You have no other place to write from. You can’t be someone else at the desk.
RB: You change some names and some nuance and–
AE: No, actually it much more mechanical, no as organic as that. You steal a bit. For example, I once took a train journey to Gstaad, and I’ve been waiting to use that train journey for 20 years.
RB: You have vivid recollection of the details, exactly as you think it happened?
AE: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
RB: What now?
AE: I have nothing on the screen for the first time in 10 years. This summer I stopped working for the first time in 10 years. I would be in holiday saying, “Isn’t it lovely being able to write my book in the sun?” And so I stopped. We went to South East Asia for a long trip with the kids — came back and I had two weeks when I didn’t work.
RB: That’s a good feeling?
AE: It’s like being young again. It’s amazing. I haven’t a single idea, a single fragment.
RB: I assume you love writing and are devoted to it?
AE: But this is the first time I’ve stopped in 10 years, yeah. Maybe it’s a bit like ooooooooohh yeah? No I am very poor company when I am not writing — so I do need it. Everybody around me needs it.
RB: Am I the only person willing to talk with you right now (laughs)?
AE: I’ve been fine.
RB: You don’t know what to make of it?
AE: Yeah, it’s great. I mean, I have some intimations.
RB: Is there anything else you want to do in addition to writing?
AE: No (pause). No.
RB: You produced a TV show.
AE: I did yeah. I was a baby. I was one of those trendy young media types that get burnt out, thrown on the scrap heap in four to six years. So I was that one.
RB: Like Tina Fey?
AE: No she’s a bit older and she is a much better manager than I ever was.
RB: Like the woman in the BBC’s “The Hour”?
AE: The woman in Broadcast News — Holly Hunter (laughs). No, I used to do things to earn money and there is a kind of balance there. Where you are writing stuff to earn money, but you are writing. So that’s OK. It’s as good a reason as any other. And so it really pushed you. And you go places where you wouldn’t necessarily have thought to go. And I am a great believer in a bit of hard work actually. I was reduced to walking around hands on my forehead saying “Where’s my book?” So, I don’t have to do that so much anymore.
RB: Do you have a timeframe for writing a book?
RB: You churn away at it?
AE: I do.
RB: Can you imagine spending seven to 10 years writing a book?
AE: I can. You know Trollope wrote for three hours every morning. And if he was finished with a book an hour and a half in, he would start another book. But he knew three hours was it.
RB: Do you look forward and have a sense of where you want to go, what you want to accomplish?
AE: (pause) Staying alive is a good way of advancing in the literary world. I am slow — I did a count. It was too scary. I reckoned I have five books left — but it was too scary. I am quite interested in looking at the idea of the late style. And the feeling after a certain stage that you don’t give a monkey — so that you are able to expand on the page or go somewhere strange. Strange (chuckles), I don’t need more strange.
RB: You don’t strike me as someone constrained by much.
AE: No, I wouldn’t mind — you change so much from decade to decade. I like to sort of reflect in the book, where I am. Or find out by writing the book where I am. So, I am into my 50s now and I am thinking it would be good to write some longer, more — having a book that you don’t really know what the edges are so precisely. Does that make sense?
RB: When you are well published you have a couple of jobs.
AE: Yes, it’s an absolute full-time job — the Booker was another full time job. And I had two full-time jobs already. I had a home to run and I had books to write. It was a third full-time job, for sure. And then there’s being the travel agent. After the Booker, I was on Expedia saying, ”I think I can do this — this journey can be done in under 20 hours.
RB: What’s your feeling about winning awards in the future (laughs)?
AE: I am sure I will get a bit plaintive. After the Booker they don’t give you any little ones any more — they give them to other people on the way up.
RB: Some people claim about these awards that they don’t mean anything until you win one–
AE: They mean everything when you don’t have one.
AE: Yeah. “If only I had the Booker.” I was taking to my husband, we were in Indonesia and we were looking at shooting stars and my daughter asked me what I wished for? And I said, ”Probably that I win the fucking Booker Prize.” (laughs) I really wanted it. Ever writer has that–
RB: Some awards seem to mean something and some seem to be beauty contests.
AE: Yeah, yeah, sure.
RB: I like the IMPAC Dublin because the long list comes from librarian nominations from around the world. Also, the MacArthur–
AE: And the Lannan. I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have a Lannan (laughs).
RB: We could talk some more but you need to go. So thanks.
AE: Thank you.
Image Credit: Robert Birnbaum
When she was seventeen, Deb Olin Unferth trailed her boyfriend into Central America to join a revolution. Any revolution. They ran out of money, and so they came home. “I was eighteen. That’s the whole story,” Unferth tells us. This is not the whole story, and we know this because we are only two pages into a 224-page book. The revolution winds up serving as the backdrop for a different kind of war, the one between the author and George, the philosophy major she fell for as a freshman at a “large state school in a large state. “ George is mysterious, magnetic, incapable of genuine human interaction. Unferth convinces herself that he is a genius and affixes herself to him with a love that borders on veneration. It’s this infatuation, and not concern for the fate of Latin America’s children that compels her to leave school to take a volunteer job at an orphanage caught in the middle of warring El Salvadorian military forces. After Unferth gets them banished from the orphanage because she won’t wear a bra, they hitchhike through a series of ravaged countries, running out of money and falling out of love and not wanting to admit to either one.
With Revolution: the Year I Fell In Love and Went to Join the War, Unferth accomplishes what a lot of writers wish they could, completing a book that establishes her as a literary light and also serves as a settling of scores after a relationship that veered madly off course. The whole score-settling aspect of things is more complicated than I’m giving it credit for here, but the fact remains that there are a lot of reasons to write a memoir and one of them is to give yourself the chance to live history again, this time with all the events that matter solidly under your control. Revisiting her early twenties gives Unferth the agency she didn’t have back then, and it’s this tension between the Unferth of now—two well-received works of fiction, a professorship at the Wesleyan University, a star on the Believer walk of fame—and the Unferth of 1987—knobbly, insecure, the type of person who will follow her boyfriend into war-torn territory because it doesn’t occur to her not to—that becomes the axis around which Revolution spins. This conceit is risky, and it wouldn’t work at all if Unferth weren’t so likeable. But she is, so it does, so much so that by the end of the book, the reader replaces her as the stricken lover, willing to follow her anywhere she wants us to go.
Unferth and George lead us through Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador and Nicaragua, interviewing priests, politicians and civilians and recording the interviews on tape. They never listen to the tapes and later, when she begins to understand the level of carnage at work at the time, Unferth gets a “sick feeling of knowledge.” A parade of massacres was happening before their eyes, and, she confesses to us, she had no clue. As she recalls her earnest, bewildered march across Central America, she takes jabs at herself and the other expatriates on extended vacations in countries they have no business in. In Managua, she meets a troop of traveling Canadian jugglers traipsing their way through Nicaragua. “Imagine. We were walking across their war, juggling. We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats….The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet.”
Moments like this one save Revolution from the narcissism that could so easily disable this particular species of memoir. The current version of Unferth, the one narrating the story, reads about her younger self along with us, judging her pratfalls and mistakes before we can. We’re free to watch as Unferth wrestles her early twenties into novelistic elements: exposition, climax, epiphany, logical conclusion. Of course, reality isn’t shaped like that, and this is something the author knows, and seems bent on making sure we know, too. She circles her narrative back in on itself, calling into question her own account of the truth. What she’s going for here isn’t accuracy so much as faith. Alongside her remembered version of the story, she offers her mother’s comments and notes from her journal, always allowing for the idea that things didn’t happen the way she’s telling us now, that maybe some of it never happened at all. This reordering of history results in a formidable deconstruction of the genre, a subtle but effective response to state-of-the-form manifestos like Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir and David Shields’ Reality Hunger.
The writing here is visceral. We feel it when a horde of tiny flesh eating bugs takes residence under the author’s skin, or when the sun threatens to smother her while she sleeps in a metal-roofed hostel. Her description of the unforgiving landscape mirrors her evolution as a writer, as she finds herself playing out a fate she didn’t plan. She doesn’t, she discovers too late, particularly want to be part of the revolution but she trucks gamely along, long after she’s admitted to herself that can’t explain why she’s there. Later, she does the same thing as a fiction writer, teaching composition at too many universities while the rejection slips pile up and her parents wonder what they did wrong. Of course, it all works out in the end but here, Unferth shares with us that point in her life when nothing is working out, when she has no inkling that it ever will. Her candor is what keeps us with her as she returns, many years later, to Central America by herself, trying and failing to recapture something she can’t name.
“Why would this trip mean so much that I’d have to keep going back to find it?” she asks. What compels us to rewrite the past? To turn life into something meaningful instead of absurd? Near the end of the book, Unferth attempts to find George, whom she hasn’t spoken to in decades. For the sake of the story, of course, she hires a private detective to search him out, and what she discovers first disappoints and then delights her. While her trips back to El Salvador and Nicaragua fail to bring the back the past the way she wants them to, in George she discovers that the thready, magnificent days of her youth are still alive. George’s fate offers her the same revelation we experience as we make our way through her careful memories: it is possible to trammel our histories. The past is right there, waiting for someone to come along and put it into words.
1. “Two Paths for the Novel”
It was late October, 2008, and Robert Silvers had earned a victory lap. The New York Review of Books, which he’d co-founded with the late Barbara Epstein during the New York printers’ strike of 1963, was about to observe its 45th anniversary. And equally improbably, after the tumultuous reign of Bush fils, the country seemed poised to elect a president aligned with the social-democratic politics for which the New York Review had provided life support. Interviewed by a reporter at a San Francisco restaurant, though, Silvers, 78, sounded less like an eminence grise dining out on past accomplishments than a hungry young editor on the make…or maybe the cat who ate the canary. The end of the conversation found him talking up “‘an ambitious essay’” slated to appear in the Review’s anniversary edition, “‘a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind’”—a “dismantl[ing]” (in the reporter’s paraphrase) of the literary “status quo.” “‘Some people will be slightly shaken,’ Silvers said with delight,” before “grabbing a handful of smoked almonds and making a dash for the door.”
The mind in question was the English novelist Zadie Smith’s, and the dismantling turned out to be a 9,000-word essay on two well-received recent novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Or perhaps “essay” isn’t the right word; as the title “Two Paths for the Novel” suggested, it was closer in spirit to a polemic. The rhetorical embroidery was dazzlingly multiform, but the gravamen ultimately rested on that old workhorse, compare/contrast. As Smith saw it, Netherland—at that point well on its way to bestsellerdom and President Obama’s nightstand—represented the excesses, the exhaustion, of “a breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had freedom of the highway for some time now.” McCarthy’s Remainder, meanwhile, was “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” “an avant-garde challenge” meant to
shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.
In the event, I’m not sure anyone apart from Joseph O’Neill was actually “shaken.” Manifestos are a dime a dozen these days—to borrow a line from Dale Peck’s manifesto-infected Hatchet Jobs, “that and $2.50 . . . will buy you a skinny mochaccino” (with adjustment for inflation)—and even before David Shields’ Reality Hunger, obsequies for “lyrical Realism” had been performed at length by Ben Marcus, the editors of N+1, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann…not to mention a whole host of Continental theoreticians.
Then again, to measure the success of a literary manifesto by whether or not the status quo stays mantled is fundamentally to misapprehend the genre. Its prime object and beneficiary is not “the novel” but the critic herself, and in this sense “Two Paths for the Novel” was a triumph. To other polemically minded reviewers (particularly the vicar of capital-R Realism whose name Smith had worked into an uncharacteristically juvenile pun (see above)), the essay served notice: Your boy’s club’s been breached. “Two Paths for the Novel” (with a slight adjustment of title) would constitute the longest piece but one in Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, published in 2009.
Now ascended (or condemned) to the post of New Books columnist at Harper’s, Zadie Smith will no doubt have discovered the limited and erratic scope of the authority to which she’s laid claim. On one hand, her elegant dressing-down of Netherland seems to have had approximately zero effect on the novel’s reception, aside from giving people who didn’t like it something to point to. On the other, “Two Paths for the Novel” does appear, several years out, to have shifted the literary landscape in one very particular way: it’s positioned Tom McCarthy, who as late as 2005 couldn’t find a publisher for Remainder, as the English language’s leading avant-gardist. Indeed, so subtle were its powers of persuasion that no one seems to remember he was ever anything but.
This was most visible last summer, when Knopf published with great fanfare McCarthy’s third novel, C. Jonathan Dee, writing in Harper’s, adjudged it “an avant-garde epic” (adding, somewhat bewilderingly: “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”) “An avant-garde masterpiece,” proclaimed Meehan Crist, in The Los Angeles Times. The redoubtable Adam Kirsch went so far as to borrow Smith’s technique, putting C. in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” he decided, “of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the keeper of the avant-garde flame.
The “Two Paths” effect even persists, albeit subtly, in the long McCarthy retrospect Amanda Claybaugh, an English professor at Harvard, published last month in N+1. Claybaugh seeks explicitly to engage with “the claims made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.” As that last phrase suggests, though, Claybaugh leaves mostly intact the claim that underpins the others: that McCarthy himself is to be found among the avant-garde. This hints at both the brilliance and the weakness of “Two Paths for the Novel”: several of its conclusions are actually smuggled in as premises, which become ours as well. Accepting “the violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland” is the price of admission.
This is probably the place to declare for the record that I’m half in love with Zadie Smith’s critical voice. Also that I think Remainder is a terrific novel. But, thanks in no small part to Smith’s advocacy, what’s at stake in assessing McCarthy’s burgeoning reputation is something much more than that: “the future of the avant-garde novel.” The artistic avant-garde is, Adorno would remind us, one of the few free spaces we’ve got left. (That’s assuming there is one.) And because its future is so important—and because, if we’re lucky, we’re going to be reading Smith’s criticism for a long time to come—I think it’s worth revisiting her premises and treating them as open questions. How, specifically, is Remainder avant-garde? And also: how avant is it?
2. Language + Matter = Death…Or Something.
To the first question—how is it avant?—Smith offers one clear answer. Remainder challenges “the essential fullness and continuity of the self” that is the soul of Realism. McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist is literally discontinuous; he awakens at midlife from an unspecified accident unsure of who he’s been. This might, in run-of-the-mill amnesia fiction, inaugurate a quest: Hero Seeks to Recover Past. Remainder’s “hero,” though, mostly shrugs off concerns about identity, to subversive comic effect. Here, the comparison with Netherland is illuminating. Joseph O’Neill, too, knows better than to present his hero as a unitary psyche; one of his chief effects is the subtle altering and re-altering of perception that attend the passage of time, and the narrator, Hans van den Broek, seems troubled by a nagging lack of “fullness” in his character. Still, the debt is more to Fitzgerald and Hemingway than to Deleuze & Guattari, and so the difference between the two novels’ approach to the “self” is one more of kind than of degree. Hans van den Broek seeks communion; Remainder’s “Enactor” (as Smith calls him) seeks to secure for himself, through industry and cash on the barrelhead, those depthless sensations Frederic Jameson calls “intensities.”
Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs…. In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of “self”-sabotage to a superhighway?
Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things. At which point it becomes apparent that the schizoid depthlessness of postmodernism ain’t it. Think of Bret Easton Ellis. Play it as it Lays. Tao Lin. As with the Realist plenitude Netherland draws on, “our receptive pathways” for the discontinuous self “are solidly established.”
There’s another way in which Smith believes Remainder to be avant-garde. It’s apparent in the word “trace,” which is to “Two Paths for the Novel” what descriptions of clouds are to Netherland: almost a nervous tic. In short, Smith feels McCarthy to have assimilated the destabilizing linguistic insights of Jacques Derrida in a way O’Neill hasn’t. (Isn’t “remainder” just a synonym for “trace?”) But whenever she turns to theory as such, Smith’s native lucidity gives way to an undergraduate overeagerness. Critiques of Realism, we are told,
blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy.
The novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real.
Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel.
[Remainder] tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters.
Smith seems to be following the pronouncements McCarthy has promulgated as General Secretary of a “semi-fictitious” avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society (INS). She offers an excerpt:
“If form…is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism.”
The syntax of these sentences is easy enough to follow, but, in their mingling of metaphysics, materialism, and aesthetics, these are, I think, far murkier waters than Smith realizes. I confess to being on shaky ground with Derrida; the failure to find rigor in Smith’s use of the “trace” may well be my own. But the materialism here is “dialectical” in only the loosest sense, and Smith’s gloss on being-towards-death seems reductive, even hedged. At any rate, we’d do well to read more than a word of Heidegger, for whom the kind of being “the things” have – especially in the broken, obtrusive, or useless state Remainder finds them in (e.g., the “gnarled, dirty and irregular” carrot) is most important in adumbrating the kind of Being we have…which is precisely where the Necronauts are at their glibbest.
Moreover, it’s difficult, reading Remainder’s handling of things qua things, to find anything more disruptive than what Viktor Shklovsky was doing in 1925, or William Carlos Williams in 1935, or Georges Perec, quite differently, in 1975. In fact, the hospitality of Remainder to allegorical readings might just as easily be read as a failure of its ability to resist metaphor, or to foreground language’s inability to do so—to capture materiality in the sense of “thingness.” And again, notwithstanding the artful stammerings, elisions, and self-corrections of the first-person narrator, the linguistic subject these objects encounter is still a consistent, confessional, Cartesian (if unusually estranged) “I.”
In general, then, Remainder’s formal choices seem less troubled by its theoretical convictions than Smith makes them out to be. The novel’s ideas may be novel enough, but McCarthy dramatizes them the way Cervantes did it: embody them in a character, launch him into a plot (albeit one that ends in a Borgesian loop). We might, if so inclined, read this as a conscious rejection of another of Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form.” More likely, though, Remainder, like Netherland, is simply drawing on the formal vocabulary of Realism to “enact” the philosophical agenda Smith can’t quite pin down. (C. may well be another matter. I haven’t yet read it, but in Claybaugh’s account, it seems to go a step further toward assimilating theory into language and, especially, structure, with mixed results.)
That philosophical agenda may itself be somewhat incoherent; even Claybaugh doesn’t entirely clarify it. I’m struck by the possibility, which Smith only glances at, that the garbled quality of the INS’ transmissions is intentional—that the avant-garde to which McCarthy is authentically the heir is not Existentio-Deconstructo-Dialectico-Materialism, but the Situationism of Guy DeBord. As I’ve got it from Lipstick Traces, the Situationists (who their mark on the near-revolution in France in 1968) sought to expose the gaps in the seemingly solid bourgeois political and aesthetic order through acts of play and imposture—of “détournement.” You can see their legacy in attenuated form in flash mobs and Improv Everywhere and Exit Through the Gift Shop.
I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy isn’t thinking in earnest about “the melancholy impasse out of which the…novel has yet to work its way”; this weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover story on The Pale King was lucid and engaged, and, notably, offered no answers. But the iron-fisted theorizing of the General Secretary may be less a way forward for the novel than a way of having us on for the baggage we bring to it—and for the ease with which even the messiest “remainder” gets assimilated into the cultural order (Remainder the novel having been picked up for a movie deal by the U.K.’s Film4.) McCarthy alluded to these slippery possibilities in a recent essay on the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint: “Will he turn out, ultimately, to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” It’s likewise possible to see Remainder’s avant-gardism as purposefully “semi-fictitious.” By positioning his novel as a work of violent rejection, rather than of pop accomplishment, McCarthy may have insinuated into the bookshop a kind of Trojan-cum-Morse horse—a container that encodes something quite different from what it is.
3. I’ll Be Your Mirror
Internally, though, Remainder is less the “antipode” of Netherland than its photo-negative. That is, each stands in exactly the same relation to its respective tradition as does the other. This is not to accuse either of mannerism, exactly, but in each case, “the obvious imperfection of the world” is brought under the government of a familiar aesthetic reflex. In Netherland’s case, the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing, in the mode of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In Remainder, the potentially meaningful gets reduced to the narcotic flatness we enjoyed in the nouveau roman. Each is exactly as “aestheticized” as the other; it’s just that Smith likes one aesthetic better.
Borrowing her own key terms, “identity,” “authenticity,” and “anxiety,” it’s possible to reconstruct why this might be so. The “identity” reading points to the evident seduction Continental Philosophy holds for a Cambridge alum. In the heady world of literary theorizing, Derrida opens doors. But Smith thinks like a novelist, not like a philosopher. (Indeed, she may think more purely like a novelist than any other writer we have.) Consequently, her keen attunement to the nuances of Forster and Woolf, the playfulness with which she approaches Kafka and Hurston, go rigid whenever her thoughts tend toward academe. The false notes in Changing My Mind—I’m thinking here of the essay on Nabokov and Barthes, and parts of the essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are almost always a product of her desire to force the play of her intelligence into some theoretical scheme.
The “anxiety” reading points elsewhere. Smith’s shadowboxing with a certain unnamed “lapsed high Anglican,” and the NYRB’s positioning of her essay hard on the heels of a review of How Fiction Works, would seem to suggest that “Two Paths” grows out of what one blogger has called “the James Wood neurosis.” Certainly, Smith is entitled to feel that she acceded too quickly and too publicly to Wood’s criticisms from the pulpit of Realism of her own first book, the multiethnic social novel White Teeth. And it was Wood whose rapt review launched Netherland, unbothered by the considerably more conventional uses to which it put its multiethnic milieu.
But the “authenticity” reading is the most revealing. In her mid-30s, Smith is still “changing her mind,” working through what kind of novelist she wants to—and can authentically—be. As she herself has suggested, here and elsewhere, her considerable gifts for characterization, irony, description, and dialogue fall squarely within the Realist tradition. But perhaps she feels, rightly or wrongly, that even her most accomplished novel, On Beauty, sits too tidily on the bourgeois bookshelf. She channels E.M. Forster, but wants to be David Foster Wallace. “Anything, anything at all, that doesn’t sound like me,” she wrote in her response to Wood’s “Hysterical Realism.” “Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important.” It’s as though the “existential crisis” or “nervous breakdown” she sees O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel inflicting on “what we have been taught to value in fiction” is her own.
Fortunately for her and for us, Smith labors under a misapprehension about what it means to be avant-garde. To borrow a metaphor, she can’t quite see the forest for the “dead wood.” Here are the rhetorical questions she throws at the feet of Netherland:
Is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past?
These are, of course, the very mimetic questions that animate canonical Realism, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Proust. Smith’s avant-garde is a gradual convergence on what she insists doesn’t exist: the one true and transcendent Real. But look at the “disturb and disrupt” mandate I sketched above—hell, look at Smith’s essay—and you’ll instantly see that avant-gardism, like its dark twin kitsch, is always situational. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Wagner’s innovations are disruptive; by the mid-Twentieth, they’re the soundtrack for Triumph of the Will.
The enemy to be rebelled against today is hardly “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Rather, it is a world order that reduces form, language, and selfhood to mere options in the supermarket of aesthetic choices. And insofar as it presents an aesthetic binary—write like this tradition, rather than this other tradition, and you’re on the right path—Smith’s conception of the avant-garde is woefully insufficient. Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? It amounts to a game of Distinction, whose logical end is to deny that the kind of avant-garde Adorno champions is even possible.
Then again, in a less theoretical mood, Smith once wrote these sentences: “We can only be who we are…. Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular “team,” and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla that mark books as mainstream as Netherland and Remainder as “violent rejections” of each other, and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. A true path forward for the novel—Zadie Smith’s or Tom McCarthy’s or anyone else’s—will run through those trackless spaces, and we must follow it there. Otherwise, we give the status quo the victory, no matter how ardently we might wish to dismantle it.
Vive la différance.
From Our Archives:
“Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.”
“The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.”
“Bulletin: Interview with Tom McCarthy, General Secretary, INS.”
The Drawing Center in New York recently mounted a show called “Day Job” that neatly upended the timeless lament of every struggling writer, artist and musician – My day job is robbing me of the time to do my REAL work! In a clever, counter-intuitive twist, the curator of the show asked a dozen artists to produce a work that illustrated how their day jobs enrich their art. There were intriguing contributions from artists who pay the rent by working as a landscape architect, a medical illustrator, a set designer, an art installer, a museum guard. One work in particular jumped out at me. It was a collage called “Substantially Similar? (after Koons 2010),” [above] composed of 36 rectangular panels, each contributed by a different artist and then assembled by the artist who conceived the piece, Alfred Steiner. The result was an instantly recognizable riff on Jeff Koons’s “Popeye” series – an appropriation from an appropriator who has made headlines in several highly publicized copyright cases. A note beside “Substantially Similar?” left no doubt about its creator’s stance on the passionate arguments for and against copyright laws: “By engaging these issues, the project may also suggest how copyright antagonizes artistic freedom while providing artists no discernible benefit.”
Alfred Steiner is a 37-year-old Ohio native who grew up believing he was going to be an artist, then wound up attending Harvard Law School. Today he paints, draws and produces conceptual pieces – when he isn’t practicing copyright law for a large Manhattan law firm. We sat down together at a cafe near his home recently and talked about how copyright law – for better and for worse – affects the books, art, music and journalism of Jonathan Lethem, Jeff Koons, Jay-Z, the New York Times and the Pittsburgh mash-up D.J. Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk.
The Millions: I was wondering how to describe you to our readers. Is this guy a copyright lawyer who happens to be an artist, or is he an artist who happens to be a copyright lawyer? Or both? Or neither?
Alfred Steiner: I spend the majority of my time on the art part. But the law is an important part of my life, and it’s certainly how I make a living. But I view the art as what I’m most interested in doing.
TM: So you’re an artist who happens to be a copyright lawyer.
AS: Yeah, if I had to choose.
TM: Let’s start with your piece at the Drawing Center. Where did the idea come from?
AS: Well, there was a call from the Drawing Center for proposals about how your day job related to your work. It could be antagonistic, it could be complimentary. So I was thinking about how my artwork relates to my day job, and how I might raise certain issues related to intellectual-property law and copyright law.
TM: So you commissioned other artists to do pieces of the work? Tell me about that.
AS: Essentially, I wanted to select a work that fulfilled a number of criteria. One of which was, when it was broken into many pieces, few if any of the pieces would be recognizable. And I wanted to pick a work by somebody that would have some significance in terms of contemporary art and copyright, which is why I selected Jeff Koons. He’s used all sorts of things – Odie from “Garfield,” the Pink Panther – and in this case he was using Popeye. While I was working on this, I learned that Popeye is no longer under copyright in Europe, but he is the United States for a few more years. Which is another interesting twist that was serendipitous.
TM: So you got different artists to contribute patches, which you patched together?
AS: Right. I took an electronic version of the Koons original and divided it up into 36 pieces and sent each artist just one little piece, via e-mail, so they wouldn’t recognize the whole thing. I gave them instructions on how to create an image based on the image that I’d e-mailed them. The only other instructions were a very close paraphrase of the 2nd Circuit’s test for copyright infringement – which is, “would a reasonable person regard the two works’ esthetic impact as the same?”
TM: In other words, would a layman recognize these two works as being the same thing?
TM: So the contributors didn’t know what they were reproducing?
TM: And the result was a piece that looked vaguely like Koons, but was different.
AS: It had the essence of the original but was clearly a new work.
TM: In your note at the show you mentioned that copyright antagonizes artistic freedom while providing artists no discernible benefit. Tell me what you mean by that.
AS: Well, the point is that as an artist your livelihood, in general, depends on your sale of unique objects, or small editions of objects. So copyright is not as important to you as it is to a musical artist…
TM: Or a writer.
AS: Exactly. Because contemporary artists don’t sell millions of copies. The fact is in the art world when one artist copies another artist, it only helps the artist being copied because the more people who imitate you or are influenced by you – the more that happens, the more it shows you’re part of the ongoing story.
TM: Let’s talk about writers. In his essay in Harper’s, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem wrote that copyright isn’t a right but a “government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results.” Would you agree with that?
AS: Yes, I would agree with that. The Constitution allows Congress to protect the works of authors for limited periods of time in order to promote creative work.
TM: But Lethem’s point is that the Founders thought works should be protected a short amount of time, maybe 14 years or so. Now it’s the lifetime of the author, plus 70 years. He thinks that’s a terrible idea for writers, and for writing, and for books. Do you agree?
AS: My sense is that life plus 70 years is too long. It doesn’t need to be that long to fulfill the purpose. You could argue that one interesting analog is fashion. There’s no intellectual-property protection for fashion, but I don’t think anyone would argue that fashion lacks for innovation. So, do we really need to protect the author for his entire lifetime plus 70 years to encourage innovation? I don’t think so.
TM: You know, William Gibson has this famous quote – “All information wants to be free.” It’s a good sound bite, but is it true?
AS: Well, for me there are two strains to that. One is that information is inherently hard to contain, but people are curious, they want information, they historically have wanted to know the truth, not necessarily with a capital T. So when you try to control information, you’re running an uphill battle.
TM: Now we’re talking about WikiLeaks. But getting back to books – information might want to be free, but if you flip that over, don’t people who write books and create works of art have a certain right to be remunerated for their creative effort?
AS: I think there’s a scale. Let’s say all 50 states had different copyright laws. You could imagine a state where it was extremely restrictive and you couldn’t copy anything. What would the products of that state look like compared to a state that was laissez faire and you could do whatever you want? To me that’s an interesting question: where should the bar be set? I think you’d have enforcement problems in the very strict state. And if you had very powerful media players who controlled everything, you wouldn’t have YouTube with the millions of things that are on there, many or most of which are probably infringing someone’s copyright. You would have fewer viewpoints expressed, and I think that’s detrimental. The more things that get created, the more viewpoints and opinions will be expressed, and that’s better for a democracy.
TM: You’re talking not just about graphic art, but about writing, music.
AS: I’m talking about all creative endeavors but I was thinking primarily about writing.
TM: Where do you think copyright is going in America right now? Is it becoming more porous, more loose, more free? Or is it going in the opposite direction? I’m thinking about the $125 million Google settlement, paying authors for the right to digitize their books.
AS: The Google settlement is an interesting case because they think if a project is interesting, they’ll go ahead and do it even if there are intellectual-property problems – then deal with those later. But I think information is becoming much easier to distribute and, as a result of that, copyright laws are tightening in a sense, to try to deal with that ease of distribution and allow creators to recoup the investment they make in producing this stuff. This becomes even more important when you’re creating, say, an encyclopedia, something that requires the collective effort of lots of people, and a lot of coordination, and a big budget to produce. Those things will never be produced if somebody can immediately make a million copies and not have to pay whoever produced it. That applies even more so in the context of film, where you have budgets routinely north of a hundred million dollars. Who’s going to invest in that if everybody can download a copy with no fear of prosecution?
AS: Yeah, “Jay-Z is not a Proudhon of Hip-Hop.” (laughs)
TM: In that essay, I mentioned the young German writer Helene Hegemann, who copied passages of her novel, Axolotl Roadkill, from other sources – websites, other novels – and a lot of people in Germany said, “That’s okay. It’s a novel about Berlin club kids, that’s the culture it’s about, and it’s an expression of that culture.” She was up for a big literary prize and they let her continue to compete for the prize even after the plagiarism became known. I thought that was a little bit shocking – for people to say that since it’s a novel about people sampling in clubs in Berlin, then the writer has the right to sample from other writers and that’s a legitimate form of artistic expression. I think that’s stretching it.
AS: I tend to agree with you. Just because you’re writing about how people are sampling, or taking from other sources, that doesn’t allow you to plagiarize or copy without providing either attribution or some sort of remuneration. It depends. If she’s taking a sentence here or there from hundreds of different places, that’s one thing. The other thing I would say – and this is the tougher question – if she’s copying a couple of pages here or there, in the context of a 400-page novel, that’s not that much. And if what she has created with this novel is startlingly new or interesting, I think it would be sad to say she can’t distribute this thing that is great and that everybody would benefit from. One other thing I would mention in that context – have you ever heard of Girl Talk?
TM: Sure, the D.J. from Pittsburgh.
AS: He’ll make songs that are totally based on samples. One song may have 200 samples, so many that there’s no way you could pay each artist. He’s very well received critically. The question is, should it be possible to make that kind of work or not? I kind of think, yes, it should be possible.
TM: What Girl Talk is doing is very similar, to me, to what William S. Burroughs did – and that’s very different from what Helene Hegemann did. Burroughs said, “I’m going to take a pair of scissors and cut up hundreds of books and newspapers and magazines, then scramble it around and put it back together to recreate a certain state of mind.” That was his “cut-up” technique – and that’s very much what Girl Talk is doing. They both say, “This is our intent and this is our method.” And it’s transparent. When someone takes a huge passage from someone else’s book and then says, “That’s what I was trying to do,” I say that’s bullshit.
AS: I tend to agree with you. If you go to my website and look at my works, when I borrow something it’s obvious, it’s transparent. I have these drawings that are based on characters from The Simpsons. They’re not merely copies, but anybody who’s familiar with American pop culture will recognize where they’re from. I’m not trying to hide it. Or if I’m basing something on a work by another artist, I’ll say “after Koons.” Going back to that novelist in Germany, if she’s got footnotes and everything’s attributed to whomever it came from, then I think it’s a lot harder to criticize her for it.
TM: I would go with that, but there were no footnotes. I’m not against people using other people’s things; I’m against them not admitting that they’re using them and then saying, as Hegemann said, that “there’s no such thing as originality, there’s only authenticity.”
AS: I agree. I think you and I are on the same page on this. If you challenge most people about their beliefs on this, I think you’ll get them to agree that there needs to be some way for people to get paid and to have confidence that other people are not going to be out there using their work in a way that harms their financial interest.
TM: To sum up, do you think that protection is going to be around forever? Let’s face it, the way things are changing right now with the digitization of so much information – entire libraries – it’s an unknown where we’re going. Where do you think it’s heading?
AS: There’s actually a book by a colleague of mine named Paul Goldstein, and its task is to make that prediction. I think copyright protection is likely to continue indefinitely, and I think it will become even more important in a world that becomes increasingly intangible, where people’s lives are less about walking down the street getting hit by a rock and more about watching a screen or looking at their Twitter feed. That stuff is going to become more and more valuable and there’s going to be more and more spent to protect it. And technology is going to be very important here. Most consumers are going to be at a point where it’s cheap enough and it just makes life easier to pay the toll that media people put there.
TM: Speaking of tolls, the New York Times just announced that it’s going to start charging for its web content, but it’ll be free for print subscribers. Do you think people will pay the toll?
AS: In that case, maybe no. With news, people just want news, and the source doesn’t tend to matter. People may just go to Google News and get it for free. With music and literature, the source is much more important. If you want to read a James Patterson novel, you’re not going to download Moby-Dick just because it’s free. And there are always going to be people who steal, who don’t mind the possibility that they’re going to get a virus from downloading some file. I think it’s going to be a race between these pirates and the people trying to control it.
Out this week is a highly touted seafaring debut We the Drowned. This book in translation is by Danish writer Carsten Jensen. Another debut effort arriving this week is Open City by Teju Cole, which PW likened to Coetzee, Sebald, and Nicholson Baker. Out in paperback today are Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic and controversial Millions Hall of Famer Reality Hunger by David Shields.
Everybody loves a train wreck. This one started when Jonathan Lethem came barreling down the tracks with an essay in Harper’s called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” in which most of the lines were cribbed from other sources and then ingeniously stitched together to argue in favor of appropriation and against the tired old 20th-century notion that an artist owns what he or she makes – that dinosaur known as copyright. Then right behind him on the same tracks came David Shields with last year’s sensational freight train of a book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, an expanded echo of Lethem’s themes made up of a pastiche of Shields’s own words and the words of many other artists. Among Shields’s words: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.”
Then suddenly – watch out! – along came the little engine that could, Marco Roth chuffing down the tracks in the opposite direction with an essay in the journal n+1 called “Throwback Throwdown,” in which he set out to derail the two speeding locomotives. He called Shields’s book “an authentic act of copying” that fits snugly into the “pervasive and growing fantasy of the writer as hip-hop DJ.” Roth added, “To a certain kind of white writer, engaged in the increasingly professionalized and seemingly ‘nice’ work of churning out novels, poems, essays and reviews, the rapper DJ comes to stand for this brazen, unapologetic appropriator, regardless of whether actual rappers think of themselves as heroes of ‘copyleft,’ Proudhonists of the ghetto.”
Once the collision took place, as you can imagine, there was a lot of twisted metal on the tracks. But before the smoke cleared, an actual rapper, the superstar Jay-Z, plowed into the debris with a book called Decoded that cleverly turned the train wreck upside-down by showing how a master of an art form built on appropriation uses old-school literary techniques and a quaint thing called imagination to write lyrics that bristle with originality and socially potent meaning. For good measure, Jay-Z tells the story about the time he stabbed a rival for stealing his music. Train wrecks don’t get any more perfect than this.
Which brings us to the fun part. Now we get to sift through the wreckage, counting bodies and looking for survivors.
I just found a survivor. It’s Michel Houellebecq, the baddest bad boy in French lit today. All this racket about copyright and appropriation (or bricolage, sampling, collage, poaching, rip-off, homage, plagiarism, call it what you will) – it bloodied him a bit but he’s actually in excellent shape. His latest novel, The Map and the Territory, was an instant smash – until someone pointed out that Houellebecq had lifted several uncredited passages almost verbatim from Wikipedia and other websites, including an entry on how flies have sex. The bad boy went ballistic when the word “plagiarism” was uttered. “If those people really think that (this is plagiarism), they haven’t the first notion of what literature is,” he fumed. “This is part of my method. This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors. I have been influenced especially by Perec and Borges… I hope that this contributes to the beauty of my books, using this kind of material.” The novel wound up winning France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.
Sitting next to Houellebecq, also battered but in remarkably good shape, is a German teenager named Helene Hegemann. Her novel about Berlin nightclub kids, Axolotl Roadkill, was a best-seller in Germany last year and was nominated for a major prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. Then word got out that she had lifted passages from several other sources. After admitting to “thoughtlessness” and “narcissism,” an unrepentant Hegemann told Die Welt newspaper: “But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material. What matters is what they do with it. If my novel is interpreted as representing our times, then it has to be recognized that the novel was created in accord with what we saw in the last decade – that is, with the rejection of all those copyright excesses and the embrace of a right to copy and to transform.” The newsmagazine Der Spiegel agreed, comparing Axolotl Roadkill to Naked Lunch and Manhattan Transfer: “Everything from newspaper articles to ads to all kinds of other texts are embedded in these foundational works of literary modernism.” In a statement released by her publisher, Hegemann added, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
James Frey is slumped in a seat across the aisle. He’s not going to make it. As far as Shields and Lethem are concerned, his fatal mistake was not that he fabricated much of his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces; it was that he went on TV and apologized for it and, to prove his contrition, allowed Oprah to pillory him publicly. He forgot the First Commandment of the 21st Century: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.” Frey is toast.
Jay-Z came through without a scratch, of course, which brings us to this train wreck’s central irony. The makers of popular music have been brazen and fruitful plunderers for many years because, let’s face it, there are only so many ways to arrange a simple melody and only so many ways to say “I love you” or “It’s over” or “You tore my heart out and stomped that sucker flat.” While blues and jazz artists and practitioners of other more saccharine forms of pop music have been borrowing for years, hip-hop DJs were perhaps the first to revel in their piracy, though they made a point of dressing it up with the lofty word “sampling.” Being a pirate, an outlaw, a gangsta has always been central to the rapper’s pose. Jay-Z didn’t need to do a lot of posing, it turns out, because he was an industrious purveyor of cocaine long before he transformed himself into a one-man corporation.
The source of Decoded’s fascination, for me, is not the author’s projects-to-the-penthouse biographical arc, nor his tales of hustling drugs and hobnobbing with Russell Simmons and Bono and starting his own clothing line and helping turn Cristal champagne into a bling brand. The book’s fascination comes from three very different and very surprising sources.
First, it’s beautifully made – lavish illustrations, clever layouts and ingenious use of fonts, quality paper, plus a Warhol on the cover. Second, and most importantly, the book allows us to peek into the tent of Jay-Z’s creative process. He begins with his epiphany, the day he heard a kid named Slate rhyming couplet after couplet before a rapt, clapping audience at the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. Jay-Z writes that he “felt like a planet pulled into orbit by a star.” That day he started writing rhymes feverishly in a spiral notebook and poring over the dictionary to expand his vocabulary. (This brings to mind Lewis Hyde’s contention: “Most artists are converted to art by art itself.”)
Decoded illustrates its author’s creative process by laying out song lyrics on one page, then on the facing page letting Jay-Z deconstruct (decode) the sources and meanings of the lyrics through elaborate footnotes. It’s a revelation. On one drug-selling run to New Jersey, for instance, here’s how he describes his crew watching television while they work – Watchin Erik Estrada baggin up at the Ramada. In the corresponding footnote he writes: “There are a lot of motel references in my songs. Hotels are where a lot of our work got done, where we bagged our powder.”
There’s a telling reference to the made-up selves of rappers. The lyric “They’re all actors” is limned like this: “When I say that rappers are actors, I mean it in two ways: first, a lot of them are pretending to be something they’re not outside the booth; second, it also means that those who are being real often use a core reality as a basis for a great fantasy, the way a great method actor like DeNiro does.”
Street slang is dissected. “Spike Lees” are “the best seats in the house – in this case whether it’s at the arena or in the jet.” “Sprees” are “custom rims that have internal discs that spin when the car stops, named after Latrell Sprewell… Fun for kids, but for grown-ups, a sign that you might be trying too hard.” Sometimes the reader absorbs the method without aid of footnotes, as when the words “breakfast,” “Lexus” and “necklace” cozy up to each other in a single couplet. Jay-Z freely acknowledges that he plundered his parents’ vinyl record collection, floor-to-ceiling stacks of Motown, pop, R&B, soul and funk, but the act of plundering led to his creative birth, not to mere mimicry. “We were kids without fathers,” he writes, “so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves… Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.”
The book’s elaborate footnotes demolish twin misconceptions: that rappers are merely brazen, unapologetic appropriators with nothing original to say; and there’s no longer such a thing as originality, just authenticity. Jay-Z, for one, does not see himself as a hero of “copyleft” or a Proudhonist of the ghetto. As he puts it, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.” He’s also a writer in the purest, oldest sense of the word – that is, he’s someone who uses his experiences, his influences and his skill with language to say something original and new.
I agree with what Michiko Kakutani wrote recently in the New York Times: “In the end, Decoded leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of how rap artists have worked myriad variations on a series of familiar themes (hustling, partying and ‘the most familiar subject in the history of rap — why I’m dope’) by putting a street twist on an arsenal of traditional literary devices (hyperbole, double entendres, puns, alliteration and allusions), and how the author himself magically stacks rhymes upon rhymes, mixing and matching metaphors even as he makes unexpected stream-of-consciousness leaps that rework old clichés and play clever aural jokes on the listener (‘ruthless’ and ‘roofless,’ ‘tears’ and ‘tiers,’ ‘sense’ and ‘since’).”
To say that rappers possess originality and that they rely on traditional literary devices is not to say that they don’t – or shouldn’t – borrow from other sources. And it’s not to say that writers of prose and poetry shouldn’t borrow from other writers of prose and poetry and, for that matter, from rappers and jazz musicians and newspaper reporters and advertising copywriters and absolutely anyone else. All art comes from art. To admit this is not to concede that there’s no such thing as originality any more than it’s a license to borrow without attribution and then call it your own. William S. Burroughs freely admitted that he cut up texts and re-arranged them and inserted the results in his novels. Michel Houellebecq is free to be influenced by Perec and Borges and Burroughs (and anyone else), but I think he’s making a mistake if he thinks copying from Wikipedia adds to the beauty of his books. He’s too good a writer to make such a lazy claim. And while I agree with Helene Hegemann that what matters is not where artists get their materials but what they do with them, I believe all artists need to give up the cheap crutch of claiming that since it’s all been done before, all they can hope to do is rearrange the familiar in some unfamiliar way and then call it “authenticity.” That trivializes art. And it’s stupid and wrong.
Back in 1992 Cormac McCarthy told an interviewer: “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” That’s not to say that writers do nothing but steal from other writers; it is, rather, to admit that literature comes to us not through a writer’s unfiltered experience of life, but through that experience as filtered through the things the writer has read, as well as the things the reader has read.
In “The Ecstasy of Influence” Lethem writes, “The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.”
Of course we all quote. But if quoting is all we do, then we don’t do very much. Shields and Lethem seem to acknowledge this without fully admitting it, because they do so much more than merely quote in Reality Hunger and “The Ecstasy of Influence.” As Roth put it in his essay in n+1: “Art may be theft, as Shields likes to quote Picasso, but it doesn’t follow that theft is art. Art is not ex-nihilo, but neither is it all ‘ready-mades.'” Precisely.
Lynne McTaggart, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against Doris Kearns Goodwin, acknowledged in the New York Times in 2002 that all writers are “relentless scavengers.” Then McTaggart added, “Writers don’t own facts. Writers don’t own ideas. All that we own is the way we express our thoughts… But it is important not to excuse the larger sins of appropriation. In this age of clever electronic tools, writing can easily turn into a process of pressing the cut and paste buttons, or gluing together the work of a team of researchers, rather than the long and lonely slog of placing one word after another in a new and arresting way.”
I think she’s right. Shouldn’t we expect novelists to do more than cut and paste Wikipedia descriptions of how flies have sex?
The third and final source of Decoded’s appeal is the revealing story Jay-Z tells about what happened the night of December 1, 1999 at New York’s Kit Kat Club. His album Vol. 3, Life and Times of S. Carter was not due to be released for a month, but bootlegged copies were already selling on the street. This infuriated Jay-Z. After all, he’s a business, man. He believes that he – and he alone – should get paid for the music he makes. When a rival record producer showed up at the club and admitted that he was behind the bootlegging, Jay-Z stabbed him twice.
This violent outburst left no doubt about Jay-Z’s opinion of people who hijack his material and don’t apologize – and take money out of his pocket while they’re at it. You might argue that bootlegging is more invasive than sampling, and that it goes way beyond the relatively benign forms of plagiarism Lethem and Shields so ingeniously espouse. In fact, Lethem admits as much in the closing lines of his essay: “Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.”
It’s a seductive bill of goods, but you simply can’t have it both ways. You can’t say Pay me for what’s rightfully mine and feel free to rob me while you’re at it. Jay-Z, who understands the workings and the worth of originality, isn’t buying this bill of goods. Neither is Marco Roth. Neither am I.