In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Donald Antrim is perhaps the master of the novel in which men are crammed into confined spaces — a group of psychotherapists in a pancake joint (The Verificationist) or 100 brothers in a library (The Hundred Brothers). Chris Bachelder contributes a gem to the genre with The Throwback Special, in which a football team’s worth of men descend upon a hotel to conduct an annual ritual based on a football game that occurred 30 years ago.
The men loiter in “concentric arcs” around the hotel’s lobby fountain as they wait to check in, “not unlike the standard model of the atom;” they gather to eat pizza in a cramped room smelling of “sweet tomato sauce and warm meat;” and when they find another group of hotel guests descending on the continental breakfast station, they “[lurk] at the boundaries of the dining area, anxious about resources.” All this clustering is a prelude to the formation of a football huddle, “a perfect and intimate order, elemental and domestic, like a log cabin in the wilderness…they could perhaps sense in the huddle the origins of civilization.” (Zog, you go deep while Durc and Plarf sneak up on the mammoth from the blind side.)
Bachelder’s portrait of middle-class, middle-aged males revolves around football, in which we find a unique combination of brute force, obsessive strategic organization, and improvisation. Full disclosure: In my version of hell, scowling football coaches pace up and down the River Styx, their steady barking of martial commands only interrupted to consult their laminated sheets on which every possible variation on the off-tackle running play is written. My distaste for the sport’s phony militarism notwithstanding, Bachelder’s “football” novel is an eerie, witty work dissecting a modern-day sacrificial (sack-rificial?) ritual. Though the curious rite described herein takes place in a “two-and-a-half-star chain” hotel off of I-95, it taps into our ancestral roots; the novel’s epigraph is taken from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, a treatise on the “primacy” and “sacred earnestness” of play across cultures.
The group of men meet to recreate a famously disastrous, and violent, football play. (Bachelder’s first novel, Bear v. Shark, was structured around a more absurdist agon.) During a 1985 game against the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins attempted a flea flicker — quarterback hands ball to running back, running back tosses ball back to quarterback, who looks to pass the ball downfield. The trick was clumsily executed, the defense wasn’t fooled, and quarterback Joe Theismann was carted off with a career-ending compound fracture courtesy of the Giants’ Lawrence Taylor, the fearsome outside linebacker who seemed shaken by the bone-crushing damage he has inflicted. The TV commentator Frank Gifford warns his audience before cutting to the replay: “And I’ll suggest if your stomach is weak, just don’t watch.”
These men did watch as boys, and something about the play’s cataclysmic failure, the collapse of the best-laid plans of mice and offensive coordinators, lodged in their adolescent psyches. The novel opens on the 16th year of the men reenacting the snap. We don’t find out how these performers, who lead relatively humdrum lives devoid spectacular drama, established the group or found each other; illuminating the society’s origins, it seems, would dampen its mystery. The men are not really friends; socialization is confined to the reenactment weekend. Some of their familial or professional troubles are recounted, and Bachelder does flit in and out of their psyches, but in general the men, partly because there are so many of them, remain purposefully flat. It is the ritual that matters — the men’s role in it and their behavior leading up to it. The description of one man breaking in his new mouthguard tells you everything you need to know about him.
At times, The Throwback Special has the feel of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which itself explores the transporting thrill of re-creation. This pleasure lies in the chance to asymptotically “approach perfection” by getting closer and closer to the historical model; or in submitting to the play’s “choreography of chaos and ruin;” or in the suspense that all great drama, even when we know the outcome, generates: “He had liked the sense that anything at all might happen, even though only one thing could happen.”
A blend of comfort and tension lies at the heart of this ritual, faith in its power and anxiety about its stability. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga mentions the fragility of play, the ease with which its sustaining illusion can be shattered or its cordoned-off space violated. Though the men have at it for nearly two decades, one worrywart has the “anxious sensation that the ritual, seemingly so entrenched, was in fact precarious.” The conference room in which they usually conduct the lottery has been usurped by a vaguely-named company, Prestige Vista Solutions. (“They just despoil the environment and establish tax havens and seize conference rooms,” gripes one of the deposed reenactors.) The hotel fountain is initially dry. A jersey, and a player, is missing. There are murmurs that this will be the last year, which opens up the “ancient wound of seclusion” in some of the more insecure men. Each wrinkle contributes to a disturbing sense of impermanence, the fear that the mythic ceremony they have devised is not eternal.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how the ritual at once reveals and promises to assuage male neuroses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lottery scene, in which the men draw lottery numbers from a giant drum to determine the order in which they will select their roles. Bachelder shrewdly anatomizes the various psychological types: those who find “nobility in ruinous failure” tend to choose a Washington player who is “essential to the calamity,” a member of the crumbling offensive line for example; others are drawn to the Washington offense “out of a keen, if unrecognized, identification with disappointment and culpability and bumbling malfunction;” the “aesthetes” opt for players based on some aspect of some sartorial accessory or distinctive posture; men who “craved the familiar comfort of anonymity and insignificance” yearn to play an insignificant role in the recreation — a retreating Giants cornerback for instance — but “overcompensate for their shameful desire by choosing the most significant player available.”
Regardless of one’s temperament or build, it would be almost sacrilegious not to pick Lawrence Taylor first. Derek, the one black man in the group, simultaneously yearns for and dreads the prospect of winning this first selection, which would force him to “[wade] into the psycho-racial thicket” of picking the star linebacker. In past reenactments, men have played him as a “with a kind of wild-eyed, watch-your-daughters primitivism,” profiting from the reenactment to indulge in a “transgressive racial thrill ride.” Derek wonders how his pick will be interpreted by the other men, and whether or not he could change things by adding some depth to the character:
Selecting Taylor — it was so clear — would not be an opportunity for racial healing and gentle instruction, but an outright act of hostility and aggression. He, Derek, would not control the meaning and significance of Lawrence Taylor’s sack. Centuries of American history would control the meaning and significance of Taylor’s sack.
(That one of the teams still clings to its offensive name adds another element to the “charged racial allegory.”) Derek’s ethical dilemma vanishes when another man wins the first pick and selects L.T., “beating his chest with his fists” and thereby signaling the kind of nuanced portrayal he is likely to produce.
Taylor’s partner and antagonist in the consummating sack is Joe Theismann: “By tradition the man playing Theismann and the man playing Taylor stayed away from each other, like a bride and groom before a wedding.” While failing to pick Taylor would signal weakness, no player is allowed to pick Theismann; the honor falls to the man with the lowest number. The quarterback is a kind of pharmakos, a sacrificial victim at once polluted and holy. While the other men share beds, “it was customary for the man playing Theismann to sleep alone…[a] mildly punitive…form of exile or symbolic estrangement.” Theismann himself, we are told, described his injury in Christ-like terms, his shattered leg bearing the sins of his bumbling linemen; the men who have played him all testify to the intensity of voluntarily offering up themselves to the rushing horde.
Theismann submits to the group’s channeled violence, which is a concentrated form of the scattershot, hostile humor that defines certain kind of male relationship and the “typical masculine joke, a crude homemade weapon that indiscriminately sprayed hostility and insecurity in a 360-degree radius, targeting everyone within hearing range, including the speaker.” One man arrives to the hotel and circles the parking lot in his car, “blasting his horn and shouting community-sustaining threats and maledictions.” This aggressive bantering masks an underlying sincerity: to insult is to love. As Bachelder writes,
…each man…was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary.
That this passage happens to refer to the men’s feelings for an inanimate object — the much-maligned lottery drum — makes the men at once more ridiculous and more poignant.
If describing the admittedly silly ritual in such elevated ways seems bombastic, that is partly the point. Serious play depends on a complete adherence to the arbitrary nature of its established rules. Therefore, the reenactment seems puerile to anyone looking in from the outside, including the several Prestige Vista Solutions employees who witness it. These outsiders adopt an ironic stance, but their irony, along with the reader’s, fades when we finally witness the men’s solemn play.
1. Two Sides of the Same Street
If you’ve read a review of any novel by Tom McCarthy anytime in the last 10 years, you know that you don’t have to look very far to find the term avant-garde, and equally as often, the consensus that McCarthy is the new standard bearer of the avant-garde in contemporary fiction. While the claim is no less true despite the ease with which it is repeatedly made, the framing of what this mantle means is less frequently explored, and has somewhat problematic origins. The stone in the pond here belongs to Zadie Smith, who in 2009 contrived a binary between Joseph O’Neill’s bestselling novel Netherland and McCarthy’s debut work, Remainder, announcing the latter as an “assassination” of an exalted brand of realism, and an “alternate road down which the novel, might, with difficulty, travel forward.” The philosophical templates behind this antagonism were well sketched, if muddled somewhat is Smith’s distillation; on the one hand — epiphany, redemption, coherency of language and memory, and the ontological superiority of subjective experience over the world; on the other — method, process, simulacra, hard materialism, and false transcendence.
Simple enough, yes? If there was a charm to the proposal it was in its sincere, if not somewhat mannered frustration about a long-standing though largely non-threatening conflict with traditional literary realism (in Smith’s words: “lyrical realism,” an equally slippery designation.) And though the blemishes of Smith’s argument lie precisely in wind-up prescriptions like the kind mentioned above, it is also a part of her success and influence as a critic –– and lo, in the years since the publication of “Two Paths For the Novel” in The New York Review of Books, the contention that McCarthy is the inheritor of a much needed literary iconoclasm has been almost universally adopted and disputed only by a few. The underlying assumption that both its affirmers and detractors leave largely unexplored however, is the question of what exactly the avant-garde means to contemporary literature, where it is to be found, what defines it, and whether or not it is even possible.
Smith herself can hardly be blamed; her essay –– another addition to an ever-expanding catalogue of literary manifestos –– is merely one person’s testimony in a waiting room full of patients claiming the same malady. The real, albeit incidental insight that emerged in the aftermath of the essay, was that its proposed solutions betrayed a genuine need born out of something endemic, something we are all actually desperate for –– a coherent framing of contemporary literary conflict and an authentic mode of resistance to a increasingly corporate literary monoculture.
Today, manifestos are a cheap commodity, as easy to pen as they are to rally behind, and must, it seems, in order to maintain their integrity, announce this fact; (Lars Iyer’s “Nude In Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto After The End of Literature and Manifestos”) comes to mind.) But while its authors aren’t able to escape this debilitating self-awareness, it is precisely in this irony that the manifesto reveals its necessary value. As co-founder and chairman of the International Necronautical Society –– an organization with an foundational manifesto of inauthenticity and a self-proclaimed penchant for death, failure, and false-redemption –– McCarthy seems playfully complicit in the genre’s comic real estate, as well as in the idea that the avant-garde does not inherently represent an obliteration of artistic or intellectual tradition, but is rather a renewable resource. Consequently, McCarthy has found himself enlisted in an argument that he not only didn’t start, but seems to have been working actively to deflate for two decades now.
It would be myopic to view Remainder as an assassination of a lyrical trend the likes of which Joseph O’Neill’s novel represented, since both novels are mutually loyal progeny to their literary ancestors, with Remainder owing as much to Alain Robbe-Grillet and J.G. Ballard as Netherland does to Gustave Flaubert and Vladimir Nabokov. Even though this posture feels affected and outmoded only six years later –– with several critics pointing out how the argument dissolves when taken to its logical terminus –– the attitude of the “Two Paths” model still has currency, though less in its clarion calls than in the subtle and insidious brand of market logic it represents; its inheritors seeking to establish their camps based on the successes and failures of recent novels instead of challenging what the avant-garde means in an increasingly monolithic industry where favored aesthetics are bred based on what brings in the highest profits. McCarthy’s new novel tackles this question head on and in a way that frees itself from the kind of pigeonholing his first novel was susceptible to. If Remainder represented the abandonment of the pure and sacred self against the apparatus of a long held tradition of realism, then Satin Island seeks to reveal how such distinctions are ultimately meaningless.
2. Explain Everything!
Satin Island takes on a lot within the space of its covers. Indeed, for a novel that is fewer than 200 pages, it is remarkably dense and polysemous –– at times it seems to accomplish more in this space than many much larger novels achieve in triple the length. This time McCarthy concerns himself directly with manifestos, and the manifesto here is on perhaps the greatest subject of all: The Contemporary –– which is to say, the Postmodern (whatever that means.) Indeed, this is precisely the joke that surrounds our protagonist –– a “Corporate Anthropologist” (a sort of liberal arts student-cum-corporate cog) –– throughout the novel. Like Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon before him, McCarthy maintains an interest in hidden networks and bottomless bureaucracies that baffle common sense and intuition. As usual, McCarthy remains comically oblique about the presumed details of plot and character, though our protagonist, known only as U. (there’s Kafka again) is certainly not without psychology or ambition. Of “The Company” that employs him in Present Tense Anthropology™ he says only:
“…[it] advised other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies; governments how to narrate their policy agendas –– to the press, the public and, not least, themselves. We dealt, as Peyman liked to say, in narratives.”
This can be read as the mission statement of modern brand marketing: the total dissemination of an idea, not a product –– less concerned with things than with the narrative between things. The “Great Report” for the “Koob-Sassen Project,” for which our protagonist inherits the role of “architect,” is never clearly explained, though it is suggested that it’s a kind of master narrative that explains everything and is everywhere all the time: “It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed…” U. discusses the Project in circumambulatory fashion, (assuming some non-disclosure clause) and only ever describes it in relation to his visions of a titanic, desert-bound work site:
I saw towers rising in the desert — splendid, ornate constructions, part modern skyscraper, part sultan’s palace lifted from Arabian Nights: steel and glass columns segueing into vaulted cupolas and stilted arches, tiled muqarnas, dwindling minarets that seemed, at their cloud-laced peaks, to shed their own materiality, turn into vapor. Below them, hordes of people — thousands, tens of thousands — labored, moving around like ants, their circuits forming patterns on the sand; patterns that, in their amalgam, coalesced into one larger, more coherent pattern, just as the meandering, bowing, divagating stretches of a river delta do when seen from high enough above.
In addition to many others, this vision belongs to U.’s private bank of revisited images –– including footage of oil spills, hydraulic machines stretching taffy, and a possible murder mystery surrounding the death of a sky diver.
When collected, they reveal how the corporate superstructure (or supra-structure) can become a lattice through which one can view all human activity, and diagram that activity into a single coherent narrative. After all, anthropology, in its most ambitious form, is essentially totalitarian, seeking to explain all human behavior –– not simply to diagnose what prompts that behavior, but to find a grid through which it can be connected and codified. In short, everything that appears distinct and separate is actually a different version of the same thing. In The Gift, Marcel Mauss was convinced that however foreign and irrational the trade practices of primitive societies appeared to westerners, the most sophisticated and advanced industrial economies rested on the same integral logic of exchange. That everything can be explained with a narrative that allows all features to co-exist in apparent disharmony is the dream of the structural anthropologist, the father of which, Claude Lévi-Strauss, U. tells us, is his hero. This is also the dream of the modern corporation, is it not?: to assimilate all culture into a single, interchangeable narrative, which continues to succeed despite internal variance and transition. If this is the dream, than the Koob-Sassen Project is its manifesto.
Historically the novel and the manifesto have been the two delivery systems for the avant-garde. While the latter hopes to goad the former into existence by commanding a switch in consciousness, the novel creates consciousness on its own terms and for its own sake. Manifestos are inherently arrogant and utopian by nature, seeking to explain the whole of their time and replace the miserable, vulgar past with an exalted vision of the future. Often bound to hard ideologies, like fascism and communism, it is no surprise that the early 20th century was the heyday of the form (F.T. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism and the 1918 Manifesto I of the De Stijl group are perhaps the best examples of this.)
To regard the manifesto as something that serves an art form is to slightly misunderstand its usefulness. As a genre it is essentially self-satisfying, always benefitting its loyal disciples more than the form as a whole. McCarthy, of course, is all too aware of this, having described the manifesto in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist as “macho” and “inherently ridiculous,” and indeed he seems to have laid this attitude into the marrow of Satin Island’s satirical bones. So, if the ambition of the avant-garde is essentially constructive, seeking to establish a kind of new world order, than McCarthy’s novelistic treatment of this idea seems to be one of negation and dismantlement.
A high ideal of the avant-garde would be a Heideggerian one –– to erupt a new form of consciousness out of a kind of nothingness, and to hurl ourselves through that consciousness which we are scarcely prepared for and desperate to understand, ahead of which only oblivion lies. This certainly appears in the pious avant-gardism of the modernists, vis-à-vis Marinetti’s sleek futuristic visions and Ezra Pound’s refrain “make it new.” In this sense, the challenge that faces new novelists is always epistemic –– an attempt at “new knowledge,” which is ultimately what lies at the heart of U.’s work with the Great Report.
McCarthy himself has spoken about the reusable, or recreational avant-garde –– the kind of experimentalism that beats ahead by reaching back into tradition and appropriating old forms to the standard of our time, sometimes subverting that tradition, sometimes disrupting it violently, sometimes remaining faithful to its origins. This is the avant-garde of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, whom U. seems to hint at when he imagines, “…cells of clandestine new-ethnographic operators doing strange things in deliberate, strategic ways, like those conceptual artists from the sixties who made careers out of following strangers.” In a sense, all appropriations of existing narratives are a form of the avant-garde, from Don Quixote’s demented and bathetic recreations of chivalric romance to the plays of William Shakespeare. This seems to be the avant-garde that McCarthy is most interested in both disrupting and verifying, and providing a fictional framework in which both its braggadocio and its necessity can co-exist.
In Satin Island, the battleground of this vision of the avant-garde is the modern bureaucracy, that node of systemic knowledge, that endless vista of departments, branches, and research. Through this, the novel immerses itself in the vertiginous and ever-expanding matrix of networked human experience. In other words, McCarthy doesn’t seem to subscribe to the redemptive power of the avant-garde novel within a monolithic industry, but sees the form rather as an endless discursive palliative to a circuitous conflict that only ends with failure and stunted-epiphany. Some authors chose to abandon the novel’s most immediate and natural resources in order to achieve a similar dismantling effect, mainly character and coherency of language as a means of apprehending the World. Jorge Luis Borges sought it through metaphysical abstraction and speculation; writers like Thomas Bernhard and Lázló Krasznahorkai through exhaustive language; theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Robbe-Grillet –– who seemed to regard the novel’s natural resources as ultimately inadequate –– were more willing to saddle their fiction with a philosophical treatment at the expense of things like character and plot.
Blanchot and Robbe-Grillet are obvious influences on McCarthy, but McCarthy himself seems to work more out of the left brain, or perhaps more appropriately, the gut. More often than not, Satin Island operates in the open and imaginative spaces that one would sooner associate with Kafka. Indeed, for all his continental headiness, McCarthy thinks like a novelist better than pretty much anyone, with an acute sense of irony and negative capability thoroughly worked into his characters and not just his theoretical schemas. But where his post-war ancestors believed that form, language, and other aesthetic techniques could be used as tools to overthrow existing orders, McCarthy has seen (if only by virtue of hindsight) that the mainstream coopted this hope of the avant-garde long ago.
3. The Long Last Stop
Nostalgic for eras that have yet to begin, the other side of the avant-garde is equally concerned with the end of institutions. Postmodernism, as Frederick Jameson reminds us, is concerned with the end of things: “the end of art,” “the end of philosophy,” etc. –– an old Hegelian an idea that regained traction in the 1960s when the prospect of a cultural-wide revolution seemed imminent, and continued on through Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history,” after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the end of Weekend (1967) Jean-Luc Godard announced that the film was “the end of cinema,” intuiting some kind of upheaval that would destroy the cultural patrimony and make art as it had previously been thought of no longer possible. As both McCarthy and Iyer seem to understand, this is the reality in which the manifesto, and its literary counterpart, the avant-garde novel, has to exist, if it is to exist at all.
Jameson most notably described the Postmodern “not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features.” (This is the best definition of Postmodernism I know of, and the only one that has ever made any sense to me.) It could also be the thesis statement for the Koob-Sassen Project. For today, this “cultural dominant” is the modern corporation. Think about it. It explains how The Beatles’ “Revolution” (actually a counterrevolutionary song) can be the soundtrack for a Nike commercial, or how Walt Whitman’s “O Pioneers!” can be used as a narrative to hawk Levi’s jeans. The corporation is at the forefront of the avant-garde, the central engine of appropriation, which is to say, that if the modern avant-garde exists in any form, it is in appropriation, only in what can be hijacked and redeployed. This is precisely what I believe is at the heart of McCarthy’s novel. At one point U., in describing his intellectual style within the company, relates how he stole Gilles Deleuze’s idea of “folds” (or le pli) as a way of explaining various levels of meaning found in the stitching patterns and creases of Levi’s jeans. Here, the engine appropriation appears in disquietingly familiar terms:
“This pretty much set up the protocol or MO I’d deploy in my work for the Company: feeding in vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that reweaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero [Lévi-Strauss] would have called a master-pattern — or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master.”
(“…always from the left side of the spectrum.” This is one of many iconoclastic sentiments woven into the protagonist’s noble vision of his profession. On another occasion, in one of U.’s scripted fantasies, he describes the cleanup processes of a massive oil spill as “a putsch, a coup d’état.”)
But, if the Postmodern can only be defined by negation, as a kind of everything and nothing, then its very definition as an aesthetic under which artists might choose to band together or writhe in discontent is essentially meaningless. If we are living in an age beyond epochs, beyond movements or era –– one of perpetual transition and integration in which disparate and often mutually contradictory ideas are swallowed into a larger pattern that ironizes them into co-existence –– can one make a rallying call like Zadie Smith’s with any kind of honesty, without seeming like a mere reactionary? Consider the grim concession of Iyer’s essay –– we can only entertain the illusion that true resistance is possible anymore. Can one eschew popular trends in favor of niche cultures, like the American hipster, without also being a slave to that niche? Isn’t all resistance to the market via consumption itself ultimately an illusion of pluralism and independence?
The overriding fear here, is what Theodor W. Adorno warned us about long ago: that to challenge something is to inherently confer power upon it. Adorno believed that the machine of institutionalized culture made any alteration to that institution, however disruptive, a mere continuation of that system, and that which appeared different was only a stylistic variance; in this system, the avant-garde becomes a set of “additional rules” to the standard vocabulary, in which it “merely increases the power of the tradition which the individual effect seeks to escape.”
McCarthy, respectfully aware of this, offers “the individual effect” as a potential escape hatch for his protagonist, who later in the novel begins to fantasize about destroying The Great Report and the entire Koob-Sassen Project by way of technocratic guerilla-type sabotage: “And then my cohorts, that semi-occluded network of covert anthropologists I’d dreamed into being already…Together, we could turn Present Tense Anthropology™ into an armed resistance movement.” This is the necessary deviation from the system, as Adorno foresaw, which the system itself breeds into existence, reintegrates, and then stabilizes. And fearing the prospect genuine redemption, U. informs us later, rather laconically, rather dispassionately, that the Project, despite his efforts to destroy it, succeeded all the same.
It was perhaps Lévi-Strauss’s greatest and most prophetic premonition that humanity was doomed to monoculture in the absence of space –– in other words, a disposable culture, a non-culture, one that could be created one day and discarded the next, in which the avant-garde is less a genuine adversary of the mainstream than a ventriloquist for dissent. This is the monocultural dead end, the existential equivalent of Coke or Pepsi? Apple or Samsung? And think again about Smith’s essay: Realist or Anti-Realist? It’s no different than a T-Mobile ad that boasts switching providers as a form of liberation and self-definition. And still further into the literary conversation: the hip, enervated insouciance of Tao Lin or the new sentimentalism of David Foster Wallace? To think of the avant-garde this way is to treat it as a mere genre in the cafeteria of literary identity; both are the same kind of unfreedom, different forms of the same essential meaninglessness. The irony inherent in this misplaced sense of independence is exactly what lies underneath U.’s ultimate refusal to visit Staten (Satin) Island at the close of the novel –– that materialist wasteland, the dumping ground for all culture past and present, success or failure:
To visit Staten Island –– actually go there –– would have been profoundly meaningless. What would it, in reality have solved or resolved? Nothing. What space would I have discovered there, and for what concrete purpose? None…And so I found myself, as I waded back through the relentless stream of people, struggling just to stay in the same place, suspended between two types of meaninglessness.
So what are we to take away from this? While the ending of the novel is depressingly bleak, suggesting a perennial void, there is a muted resilience that underscores its very effort, something beyond what the manifesto with all its dogmatic prescriptions could ever hope to achieve. At the risk of sounding formulaic, taking on the idea of what the avant-garde means seems to be the truest path forward for the avant-garde. Satin Island is a successful work of the contemporary avant-garde, I submit, because it does exactly this.
However you wish to group the terms, McCarthy remains one of the few novelists we have who consistently challenges our conceptions of what the novel is for and what it can achieve, even if it never quite succeeds, as the end of Satin Island would suggest. But maybe it does succeed. It succeeds, like the Koob-Sassen Project, even when it attempts to fail, and is always failing even when it appears to have succeeded, with one always elegantly contained in the other. Maybe this ambiguity is the not-so-sexy virtue to abide by. Freedom (however we choose to define it in art) will always go, as Rosa Luxemberg once said, to the one who thinks differently. (But wait, there’s one more caveat: can we uphold this as a single-entendre ideal when one of the most successful marketing campaigns of arguably the most successful company in the history of western capitalism is “Think Different?”)
The avant-garde, in whatever form it takes, ought to be heralded as the last territory of free intellectual and creative identity in spite of this, even within the obvious indefinability of “The Contemporary.” One thing’s for sure, the literary climate we should avoid at all costs is the one in which the avant-garde continues to be a commodity, a standard that is handed off from one writer to the next. Literature has always been a project of the self, a project out of which new forms of consciousness can be forged, and the self is not a supermarket, even when the rest of the world feels like one. As the corporation has coopted the tenets of the avant-garde, so too should the avant-garde (wherever it is to be found) take back the language of corporations and use its own grammar against it. I still like to believe (if only because I have to) what Walter Benjamin said; that a writer can either dissolve an order or found a new one. Today however, the dictum seems slightly different: in an era beyond eras, writers can either choose to found an order or steal one back, even if, like U., we continue to find ourselves forever in between.
Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.
In Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, the eponymous Spivet faults a chemistry teacher for falling short of his profession’s duty. Petty and competitive, he has failed, in Spivet’s words, to “distribute wonder.” Like so many in that novel, the formulation lodged itself in my memory, stowed away for future theft. It occurs to me now, however, that the phrase is best repeated to describe Larsen himself, whose extraordinary second novel, I Am Radar, an epic about genocide, performance art, and puppetry, has just been published.
Larsen, as game and thoughtful an interviewee as he is novelist, agreed to talk with me about Radar and my own forthcoming debut, The Poser, a novel about a man born with the compulsion and ability to imitate anyone he meets.
Jacob Rubin: I Am Radar spans radically divergent places, many of which, though not all, are undergoing or on the verge of genocide. There is Cambodia of the ’70s, Congo in 2010, the Bosnian War, Norway of the ’70s, and (perhaps most horrific) New Jersey in 2010. From the outset, did you know these places would make up the book? Were there other settings you considered? At what point in the process, did you know that the performance art group Kirkenesferda would be the novel’s linchpin?
Reif Larsen: During the first three years I was writing Radar I had no idea where this book was going. I originally started in what is now part three, then quickly realized I had to go both back in time but also laterally in space and story. The book really felt like it had this willful mind of its own, which I know is a schizophrenic thing to say because there was no one making this all up but me, but at times I really felt like I was riding this bucking bronco and just trying to hang for dear life. And the book was like: “We’re going to Cambodia, motherfucker.” And I was like…“Okay, fine whatever, you say. Just don’t kill me.” Obviously the cheerful through line of genocide limited some of the places I could potentially set the book in. Also, all of these places I’d had some kind of prior interest in or history with. (My roommate during grad school was writing a book about Cambodia. My friend had been going to the Congo for years making movies.) So the book just started gobbling these places up like a hungry monster. And in the end, I did get to visit all of them too, which was slightly uncanny, particularly when I’d written a scene in a place I’d never been to and then actually went to that place. I was constantly racked by a kind of fictional déjà vu.
Kirkenesferda came about organically. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to establish this group that was there but not there. A kind of ghost — formed by a literature around it, by images and references and anecdotes, and this weird, Borgesian book of all books that obsessively documented the history of the group but which itself cannot be found. There is a line from the novel: “After a while the reader cannot help but wonder how anyone could be so committed to something if it were not, at least in some sense, true. Devotion, at its core, must be a kind of truth.” So I wanted to press this notion of “devotion as confirmation” to its inevitable breaking point.
JR: Let me ask you about curiosity, which seems paramount in your work. In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, we have Spivet’s joyful, compulsive mapmaking. In Radar, it’s reflected both in the performance group’s mission and in the novel’s radical inclusiveness. I’m thinking, in particular, of the brilliant elucidations of real world phenomena, such as talking drums, quantum mechanics, telegraphy, puppetry, radiography, Morse code, among much else. What is your research process like? I realize the answer here is probably “both,” but which comes first — do you have the inkling that you’ll want to write about a certain place (ie. Cambodia in the ’70s) and then study it, or do you come to experience a place (Norway, for instance) and then feel the itch to set something there?
RL: As you suspected, there’s often a crazy interrelationship between my research and writing. Something will get stuck in my craw years before I ever write a word of the book — in this case it was a micro puppet show I witnessed down a dark staircase in Prague — and it will remain stuck, and I’ll keep coming back to it and usually this is a good sign I’m going to have to digest it via fiction somehow. Usually it’s not a one-to-one correspondence and not at all clear how that little morsel of observation will manifest itself on the page. Often the original reference will become quite veiled. I’ve been accused of writing “anti-autobiographical” fiction.
But then, just as often, my interests come out of the story itself. I will be writing a sentence and the father brings out a Morse Key and I’ll be like, “Shit. Gotta go learn about telegraphy.” For me, it’s always very important to be open to these kinds of messages (Morse or otherwise). The book will tell you what it’s interested in and then you have to go meet its demands. I was also amazed about the inclusivity of this particular book. The challenge was to cover that much ground and still make it feel like a novel, which I wasn’t really sure I did until the thing was finished, five years later. Still not quite sure, actually.
Along these lines, what was your process for researching Giovanni’s imitations? Part of the brilliance of this conceit is that imitations are the stuff of good fiction — noticing these inexplicable details that are there but not there, “the thread” that is unique to only this character. You are forcing yourself to write to specifics, to write compelling descriptions, but also to mine that vital territory of what separates a description of a person from the person itself. So I could see you writing this book armed with only the research of living on this planet as an observant being, but did you do other work as well?
JR: I did do some research, mainly about clothes in the 1940s and some of the history of Hollywood and of the Red Scare in Hollywood, as echoes of that period make their way into the book. In terms of the impressions themselves, as you suspected, I relied mainly on observation, experience, and caffeine. It was fun, though, to dramatize natural qualities of the writer (gesture obsession, hyper-observation) without Giovanni literally having to be one.
To get back to process for a sec, once you’ve assembled some of the research and let the book lead you to where it wants to go, do you think at all about genre? In the same way the best sci-fi bridges those liminal gaps between existing science and the science of, like, 12 hours from now, I Am Radar pulls at the bounds of what seems currently feasible. Did you think of it as science fiction?
RL: As a storyteller, I get very confused by the notion of genre. Even now, if you put a gun to my head I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. If there is a talking robot is it science fiction? If there is a dwarf with an axe and a cappuccino is it fantasy? I mean what even is YA anymore? Smaller words? Less complex emotional situations? No sodomy? Mostly genre is a shortcut for publishers and readers looking to categorize stories. Good writers rarely take shortcuts so genre doesn’t seem to be a very helpful discourse for us. A story is a story is a story.
JR: I want to ask about the theme of the exceptional. Radar, like The Selected Works of TS Spivet, explores precocity and its consequences. Many of the oddballs, eccentrics, and foundlings (some literal) who comprise Kirkenesferda are prodigies of a kind. I guess my question is about precocity and family. The precocity seems to give these collaborators joy and a kind of destiny at the price, often, of emotional orphanhood. How often does genius for these characters represent an expression of who they are, and how often does it represent a flight from home, or, at times, a burden parentally imposed?
RL: I’m not sure how to answer this question entirely — I, like many, am obsessed with the unanswerable questions of nature v. nurture and what is inherited and what is created on our own. It’s probably the most fundamental question of our humanness. But I do think you’ve pinned me to a familiar theme that comes up in my writing, which are these people who are imbalanced in some way — they present a particularly extraordinary skillset in one dimension, but then offer suffer an emotional imbalance because of it. Imbalanced characters are much more interesting to write about and throw up onto the canvas. There’s some purchase there and the imbalance leads to movement across the page. But the precocity that you’re referencing does allow for a sort of celebration of the strange; these characters have access to unusual or profound habits or thought processes that give you an excuse to tunnel deep into a mind or a scene or situation.
The same could be said, I suppose, about Giovanni, yes? He’s a great example of an imbalance in a character — a great skill at mimicry but paired with this interpersonal stuntedness. And I think you trace his growth so well over the course of the book. We really feel like we grow with Giovanni as he accepts, masters, and succumbs to his gifts. We feel his pitfalls and his triumphs. As a writer, how do you pace such growth on the page? How do you make it believable?
JR: Oh, definitely, yes. There’s a Buddhist adage about this, the exact wording of which I’m forgetting now, but it’s something like, the worn pocket leads to enlightenment more readily than the gilded robe (I write horrible fortunes cookies on the side). The idea, I think, is, “your strength is your weakness” because you will almost certainly rely too much on your strength, which creates an imbalance, a problem. This is certainly the case with Giovanni who is, in the end, impaired by his gift.
In terms of tracing growth, I think that’s really a matter of rhythm, of merciless rereading, of seeing when certain moments feel like they should come, and then engineering things as best you can to have that moment come maybe slightly before it’s expected. Like a lot of white people, I love rap music, and I’ve noticed really skilled rappers often complete the run of breath just slightly before the downbeat. Jay Z does this a lot. If he hit the beat exactly, it would feel late somehow. I became a bit obsessive about trying to do that with paragraphs and scenes.
What about getting started, inspiration? You’ve said that Susan Sontag’s decision to stage Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1992 was a seed for Radar. How did that seed begin to flower? Were there others?
RL: This is an example of one of those things that got stuck in my craw before a word ever hit the page. I had read an article Sontag wrote about her time putting on Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the war and it struck me as so absurd, almost offensive, in its audacity: to believe that this city under literal siege, where crossing every intersection became a life or death situation because of the snipers, where there was no running water, where people were saving a single onion so that it would last for weeks — why would you go to this place and believe that putting on Godot could possibly be a good idea? But Sontag did and her actors risked their lives to be in the show and the theatre was in terrible shape and people came and after the war they named a street after her. But that knife edge between the sublime and the offensive was something I wanted to explore: the human necessity to put on this existential farce while real horrors were knocking on the door. It gets at the deepest questions of why we feel this strong, totally inexplicable will to create art. We will turn our lives upside down just so we can create art. And these are very personal questions for me because not a day goes by that I do not have some kind of deep doubt about why I’m spending my life writing silly books when there are people in real need out there. And yet I continue to write.
But while we are on this topic: let me ask you…what were the seeds for The Poser? What’s been your own experience acting or on the stage? Often first novels are famous for the writer throwing everything into it (is Radar actually a first novel?) but what I admired about your book was how controlled it felt. The boundaries of the world and the story were delineated in this very self-assured way. Did you spend a lot of time editing down the book?
JR: That Sontag story is fascinating, and Radar explores that dialectic of futility/essentiality so well. I do have some history with performance. I was a rapper in a college hip-hop group in the early-2000s and have done stand-up comedy, so I think a lot about the stage and performance. Years ago I used to entertain at kids’ parties as a juggler, which is my humblebrag way of saying I was a sex symbol. I think I like the disguise the stage demands and the way that disguise allows for the truth. The whole mask thing. It’s a very simple paradox, really, but is somehow, for me, inexhaustible.
I’m glad it felt controlled, thank you. Earlier iterations were less so. This is sort of The Poser 3.0. As I worked through each incarnation of the book, I felt myself becoming more ruthless. I was like Walter White by the end of it. I cut hundreds of pages from the book. A whole section about Giovanni’s childhood. Cut. The asperity of cutting becomes its own sort of decadence. My editor had to stay my hand from cutting more. I wanted to get rid of everything remotely extraneous. The faux America in which the book takes place seemed to require a radical sparseness or the kind of heightening that sparseness ensures. Roberto Calasso has a nice bit about Franz Kafka, how in Kafka a “cabinet” is, like, the only cabinet in the world. It is the platonic Cabinet. In cutting things down, I wanted the nouns in the book to feel like that: the sole furnishings of a concrete abstraction.
This makes me wonder about a certain tradition of literature and its influence on you. Radar is inflected throughout by a Nabokovian sense of play. Elsewhere you’ve written about Orhan Pamuk. How important is a sense of the meta-textual and gamesmanship for you in writing and reading? Would you describe Vladimir Nabokov and Pamuk as influences on Radar? Were there novels you frequently reread or revisited while working on Radar?
RL: I feel like our generation of writers has been washed by the rains of postmodernism and come out the other side cleaner and a little wiser, but largely our own selves still. We can admire and applaud Roland Barthes and Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, but I get this sense from our peers that we’re maybe ultimately not that interested in turning the camera on the whole game and have that be it. In of itself this maneuver is not that interesting and feels like it’s been done before: “Yes! It’s a farce! Fiction is a mirage!” etc. Now that we’ve gotten this out of our system, I think we have permission to almost go back to telling stories. Because it turns out telling good stories — even if you’re propping them up on all kinds of canned maneuvers of realism — is, and will always be, really very hard.
That said, I remain interested in the mechanics of how we do what we do, almost like a boy picking apart an insect to see how all the parts connect. And, in this particular book, I was interested in not just postmodernism for postmodernism sake, but I was shooting for a kind of “quantum fiction,” based on the science of quantum mechanics, whereby you purposefully leave things in a state of indeterminacy — you don’t fundamentally address whether a character is alive or dead. And the trick is to do this so that it has an emotional impact, and isn’t just a game. All maneuvers of these sort I believe have to be working on a pathological level — they can’t just hit the reader in the brain, they have to hit them in the heart. And this is where a lot of postmodernists for me fell short.
I read many books doing research for Radar and quite a few novels. I have to be careful reading fiction while writing fiction because I find there’s a lot of spillover. I’m too exposed. I start copying whomever I’m reading in the moment. But this book took so long to write that I couldn’t avoid fiction altogether and there were a number of books that lent me great wisdom in the process. Many of them are listed in the bibliography, but some important ones were: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Graham Green’s The Quiet American, Danilo Kis’s Garden, Ashes, Miroslav Krleža’s The Return of Philip Latinowicz, and Willem Frederik Hermans’s Beyond Sleep.
What about you? Were their books that you turned to while writing The Poser? And what’s your relationship to other people’s fiction when you’re deep into writing your own?
JR: I’ve been meaning to read Garden, Ashes for years. This reminds me to do it. I am sort of a picky reader when I’m writing. Often I read the same passages from favorite books over and over until I’ve sucked all the word fuel out of them. Some specific works, though, did help as I was writing. Remainder by Tom McCarthy, when I was doing a later pass, helped me with some alienated descriptions of human gesture and attitude. I read some Steven Millhauser, too, who is so good at creating mysterious, seductive landscapes immanent with danger. I think I was also influenced by Robertson Davies’s The Deptford Trilogy, which has sort of lightly magical properties and a crisp, evocative prose style I liked. Otherwise, I often return to Thomas Bernhard, Barry Hannah, and Denis Johnson, and sometimes the poetry of Dave Berman and Emily Dickinson.
RL: So now that you’ve written your first book, what advice would you give to writers who are attempting to do the same?
JR: More and more, I think, solutions to writing problems are found away from the desk. Attention to an obstacle, I think, is like sunshine to a succulent: the more you marshal your energies against it, the more the obstacle tends to grow. Whereas if you go take a nap or throw a javelin or something, the obstacle might very well shimmer and disappear. Mind you, this is advice I almost never take myself, but when I do, it always seems to help.
It is easy to get discouraged, and there is no wonder why. There is much about writing that is unhealthy in a very real and clinical sense. Sitting, as we all now know, kills billions of people. The time spent away from regular company, required for the practice, can’t be good for serotonin or dopamine levels, not to mention vitamin D. Staring at the screen, even from the perch of an ergonomic chair, is terrible for your eyes, wrists, back, and shoulders. Of course, any real labor is a million times worse. It’s just, anyone privileged enough to think of writing a novel could likely entertain any number of careers that would provide at least decent remuneration, status, and some recognition, even the rare, implausible shot at improving the world. So, if despite this very real discomfort and uncertainty, you feel better writing than not — well, then you damn better keep writing.
And you? Any tips on approaching a second novel? Asking for a friend…
RL: Hmmm. The second novel is where things get tricky. All I can say is that it was much more difficult than the first. You become more aware of all the things you aren’t capable of doing. Also, maybe this will change with future books, but I wasn’t really sure how to apply my experience of the first book to the second. I had to learn how to write the ecosystem and logic of the new book and almost had to start from square one again. But I would say: don’t shy away from it. Take the more difficult path because who knows when you will ever write another?
If the language of the pictorial arts is firmly lodged in descriptions of the narrative process — writers sketch out, paint, depict, trace, draw, color, outline — then the pictorial arts, in turn, seem to cry out for narrative, however doomed language ultimately is in its attempt to reproduce the particular alchemy of oil on canvas.
Among the most famous instances of narrative descriptions of art, or ekphrasia, are Homer’s description of Achilles’s shield in The Iliad, Rabelais’s characteristically bawdy, violent description of a mosaic depicting the god Bacchus rampaging through India, Auden’s consideration of the old masters, Wilde’s figurative and literal portrait of immorality and Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” in which the Duke of Ferrara unveils the portrait of his unfortunate last duchess, she who was doomed by a blush:
Sir, ‘twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek…
explains the jealous duke of his wife’s undiscriminating tendencies. A few dabs of red paint is all it takes to unloose the whole vengeful, deranged story, which makes the poem particularly illustrative of the ekphrastic urge to narrate, analyze, or recreate a given painting in another medium.
Sometimes this urge is so strong that it can compel an essay from even a half-remembered viewing. In his short piece on “Turner and Memory,” Geoff Dyer produces a typically sharp rumination on a particularly hazy Turner painting, <“Figures in a Building.” But as he admits at the outset: “I’m not entirely sure that this is the picture I am writing about.” What he does remember about the unfinished painting, an underground scene of darkness save for a revelatory “core of molten light” mysteriously radiating from some distant passageway, is precisely “the refusal of certain artworks to be reduced to memory.” Aesthetic rapture is experienced here as a half-remembered dream.
The same sense of thrilling uncertainty appears in another extraordinary and sui generis work of ekphrasis: Pierre Michon’s The Life of Joseph Roulin. “What can be done with him?” asks Michon in his novelized study of the postman with a “sultan’s beard” immortalized in several portraits by Van Gogh. And yet after reading a few pages of his luminous novella about Roulin’s portraits, a better question is “What can’t be done with him?”
Considering the contradictory renderings of the man Van Gogh drank with and painted in Arles, Michon confesses at the outset that Roulin is “a character of little help when one is foolish enough to write about painting.” Reservations aside, Michon soon launches into an ecstatic, incisive foolishness, losing himself in the “entire forest” of Roulin’s beard as he fleshes out the postman’s life. Roulin, Michon decides, is “a minor character in a Russian novel who’s forever hesitating between the Heavenly Father and the nearby bottle;” he is “the devoted muzhik, the grumbler, driving his boyar’s [Van Gogh’s] sled onward with strong prayers and mild impieties;” his “sacred cap” seems like it belongs to “some sort of icon, some saint with a complicated name, Nepomucen or Chrysostom.” Roulin is also an “outlaw prince,” nurturing beneath his civil servant exterior a love of the ferocity and “impeccable savagery” of the French republic’s violent origins.
If Michon’s imaginative exercise demonstrates anything, it’s that language can indeed hold its own against the vibrant swirl of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes:
I want…words [to] end up sprouting beards; they’ll appear in Prussian blue; they’ll be alcoholic and republican; they won’t make sense of one drop of the paintings; but with some luck, or by kidnapping, perhaps words will once again become a painting; they’ll be muzhik or boyar as the spirit moves me — and completely arbitrary, as usual—but will come visibly to light, manifest, and die.
Rimbaud’s colorful letters from his poem “Voyelles” suddenly don’t look as appealing — beardless and sober as they are.
Alessandro Baricco’s recently translated novellas, Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn, published in a single edition by McSweeney’s, don’t rise to the ecstatic heights of Michon’s study, but together they constitute a sly, atmospheric work about copying a fine arts method. Baricco is less concerned with forging a new language worthy of painting than with dramatizing an artist attempting such a feat. Chronicling a fatigued writer’s efforts to reinvent himself as a copyist, a profession that he himself admits doesn’t properly exist, Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn are the portrait and self-portrait, respectively, of a linguistic portraitist.
After publicly renouncing novel writing, the successful British writer Jasper Gwyn comes across an exhibition of paintings, “large portraits, all similar, like the repetition of a single ambition, to infinity.” Staring at the nudes, each “unfit for nakedness,” he is moved by the artists’ ability to “take home” the subjects, so much so that he decides on a new profession for himself as an executor of a new kind of written portrait:
It wasn’t a real profession, [Jasper] realized, but the word had a resonance that was convincing, and inspired him to look for something precise. There was a secrecy in the act, and a patience in its methods — a mixture of modesty and solemnity. He would not like to do anything but that: be a copyist.
That mixture of modesty and solemnity suggests that Gwyn is thinking of the medieval manuscript tradition, secluded monks preserving the wonders of Western thought — without, presumably, what must have been the soul-crushing boredom of such an endeavor.
But there is another, etymological explanation for Gwyn’s attraction to the profession and model of “copyist.” Copyist derives from copia, “to write in plenty,” that is, to write over and over again. The great Renaissance scholar Erasmus wrote a little primer on copia, or the abundant style as he calls it. While warning of the pitfalls of such a style, which he defines as “richness is subject matter and expression,” he generally lauds the stylistic and argumentative advantages of expansion: “The speech of man is a magnificent and impressive thing when it surges along like a golden river, with thoughts and words pouring out in rich abundance.” (An eloquent defense to be deployed when accused of being a windbag.)
Even before he knows precisely what this new vocation entails, Gwyn begins to prepare, by attuning himself to the “luxurious rhythm” and “elegant slowness” of life, “concentrating on every single gesture” and running his hand over the surfaces he encounters to “[rediscover] the infinite range between rough and smooth.” In other words, he must tap into the fullness of life so that he can somehow convey the fullness of the people he wishes to copy: it is an apprenticeship in copia.
Guided only by a vague sense of what he wants, Gwyn chooses a studio according to his specifications (high ceilings, unfurnished, exposed old water pipes, scraps of wallpaper clinging to the walls, a swollen wooden door), commissions a musical composition from a famous avant-garde composer to be played on loop, and orders artisanal “Catherine de Médicis” light bulbs custom-built to emit a “childlike” color and burn out after a period of time. Gwyn’s preparation of his studio is hypnotic, and Baricco’s flat style — the same which creates the hallucinatory effect of his previously translated novel, Silk — nicely captures the trancelike state of an artist compelled by a vision he does not yet understand. In this way, Gwyn resembles the recreating hero of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, who finds similar satisfaction in reproducing scenes from an apartment building down to the wafting smells of slightly burning bacon.
After having set up the apartment to his specifications, he studies his (nude) subjects for around 30 days for four hours each day, mostly in silence until he deems it right to ask them a question — one, we are vaguely told, is about laughing or crying. He then provides his well-paying subjects with a document, its paper and font and ink color and wrapping chosen with the same care as the artisanal bulbs. (In her review, The New York Times’s Rachel Donadio rightly mentioned Lucien Freud as an inspiration both for these fictional portraits and for Gwyn’s exacting methods.)
Gwyn’s first subject is a young woman who works for his literary agent and only friend. She is described in Ann Goldstein’s translation as “fat;” the original Italian, grassa, is similarly blunt. Not, in should be noted, rubicund, fleshy, or Rubenesque. Each of Gwyn’s subsequent sitters is cursorily introduced in the same clipped way; it is in Gwyn’s executed portraits, the contents of which are never divulged, that he will aesthetically flesh out the subjects. We only witness their reactions: intense gratefulness at receiving written versions of themselves that capture the full range and expression of their bodies and personalities.
The mystery of what the copyist produces is finally and neatly resolved, though the way Baricco explicitly accounts for the portraits’ emotional power in Mr. Gwyn’s closing scene slightly diminishes the novella’s seductive reticence. Indeed, the second novella, a triptych of scenes meant to demonstrate Gwyn’s unique style of portraiture, has its moments, but doesn’t quite explain all the fuss. Sometime a portrait is more alluring described rather than displayed.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Tom Nissley’s column “A Reader’s Book of Days” is adapted from his book of the same name.
July is the month of revolutions, so much so that in France’s upheaval even the month itself was swept away. The French Revolution that began with the liberation of the Bastille on July 14 tried to reinvent many traditions from the ground up—the metric system lasted longer than most—and the calendar was among them: under the new regime 1792 was declared Year I, with 12 newly defined months of three ten-day weeks each. (Since that only adds up to 360, the five or six days left over became national holidays, les jours complémentaires, at the end of the year.) The poet Fabre d’Églantine was given the task of choosing names for the new months, among them the two that overlapped the traditional span of July: Messidor, from “harvest,” and Thermidor, from “heat” (British wags were said to have suggested “Wheaty” and “Heaty” as local equivalents). Each day of the year received an individual name too, inspired by plants, animals, and tools: In Year II, for example, luckless Fabre d’Églantine was executed for corruption by his own revolution on Laitue (Lettuce), the 16th day of Germinal. He handed out his poems on his way to the guillotine.
By comparison, America’s revolution hardly altered its calendar, except for the new Fourth of July celebration (which didn’t become an official federal holiday until 1870). For fiction that evokes the American Independence Day, you can turn to Ross Lockridge Jr.’s nearly forgotten epic, Raintree County, which uses the single day of July 4, 1892, to look back on a century of American history, while George Pelecanos’s King Suckerman crackles to a final showdown at the Bicentennial celebration in Washington D.C., and Frank Bascombe, in Richard Ford’s Independence Day (a Pulitzer winner like Raintree County), attempts a father-son reconciliation with a July Fourth weekend visit to those shrines to American male bonding, the baseball and basketball Halls of Fame.
Here is a list of suggested reading for the heat and upheaval of July:
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1788)
Anybody can have a revolution: the real achievement of the American experiment was building a system of government that could last, as argued for in these crucial essays on democracy and the balance of powers.
Autobiography by John Stuart Mill (1873)
In July 1806, the scholar James Mill challenged a fellow new father to “a fair race with you in the education of a son.” It’s hard to imagine Mill didn’t win: his son, John Stuart Mill, was reading Greek at three and was a formidable classicist by 12. His memoir of his precocious childhood remains a legend of Victorian education.
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)
No Antarctic tourist would choose the height of the southern winter for a visit, but that’s when emperor penguins nest, so Cherry-Garrard and two companions set out on a foolhardy scientific expedition across the Ross Ice Shelf in the darkness of the Antarctic July, a “Winter Journey” that became the centerpiece of Cherry-Garrard’s classic account of the otherwise doomed Scott Expedition.
“Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty (1941)
Why? Because they all ganged up on her: Mama slapped her face and Papa-Daddy called her a hussy and even Uncle Rondo threw a package of firecrackers into her bedroom at 6:30 in the morning, all because Stella-Rondo came home on the Fourth of July and turned them all against her, that’s why.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (1959)
Before there was John Frankenheimer’s film in 1962, there was Condon’s original Cold War fantasia—the direct source of most of the movie’s deliciously bizarre dialogue and convoluted paranoia—which begins with an Army patrol that goes missing in Korea in July before being saved by their sergeant, Raymond Shaw, the finest, bravest, most admirable person they’ve ever known.
The Great Brain Reforms by John D. Fitzgerald (1973)
The fifth of Fitzgerald’s eight Great Brain books is perhaps the finest and most dramatic in the superb series for kids set in turn-of-the-century Utah, with a story of a rigged Fourth of July tug-of-war between the Mormons and the Gentiles and a rare comeuppance for Tom, the charming, swindling Great Brain himself.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974)
“It rained all that night. The next day was Saturday, the Fourth of July.” There’s no danger of spoiling the ending of Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel of Gettysburg by giving away its final words, but knowing the battle’s outcome makes the drama no less appealing.
Saturday Night by Susan Orlean (1990)
Orlean’s first book, a traveling celebration of the ways Americans spend their traditional night of leisure—dancing, cruising, dining out, staying in—follows no particular season, but it’s an ideal match for July, the Saturday night of months, when you are just far enough into summer to enjoy it without a care for the inevitable approach of fall.
Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant (2002)
What better way to celebrate Canada Day and Bastille Day (and Independence Day, too, for that matter) than with the stories of Montreal’s great expatriate writer, who left empty-handed for Paris with a plan to make herself a writer of fiction before she was 30 and found an American audience for her stories in The New Yorker for six decades afterwards.
Remainder by Tom McCarthy (2005)
It’s July 11 and everything is in place: the glum pianist playing Rachmaninoff, the liver lady frying liver in a pan, the motorcycle enthusiast clanging in the courtyard, and the staff ready behind the scenes for the first re-enactment in McCarthy’s relentlessly provocative (and diabolically approachable) experiment in fiction, in which a suddenly wealthy man’s attempt to recreate his own fleeting past exposes the limits and seductions of memory and the tyranny of unlimited power.
The Damned Utd by David Peace (2006)
Brian Clough’s unlikely decision in 1974 to manage Leeds United, the club that had once been his bitterest rival, began a spectacularly disastrous 44-day summer reign that Peace transformed, with his propulsive and obsessive style, into what many have called the greatest novel on English football.
Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman (2007)
“This summer’s houseguest. Another bore.” Hardly. For teenage Elio, the intrusion of a young American academic into his family’s Italian summer sets off a summer’s passion whose intensity upends his life and still sears his memory in Aciman’s elegant story of remembered, inelegant desire.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
Five years are all it’s taken for the marriage of Amy and Nick, a once-high-flying media couple, to curdle, and Amy’s disappearance on their wedding anniversary, July 5, sets off this twisted autopsy of a marriage gone violently wrong.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
“These aren’t particularly healthy times,” wrote Zadie Smith in her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel.” Casting Tom McCarthy’s Remainder as a violent, avant-garde rejection of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, she dramatized an “ailing” literary culture where “a breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.”
Now that we’re a couple years into the new decade, it’s revealing to glance over our shoulders at the 2000s and see so much hand wringing about the health of literature. Sure, the State of Writing is an evergreen topic, and with all the political, cultural, and technological disruption at the turn of the millennium, folks had good reason to be nervous. Yet in retrospect, it’s disturbing to read so many famous writers in famous venues anxiously gerrymandering the literary map, roughly along the lines of Traditional Literature versus so-called Experimental Writing.
A quick trip in the Wayback Machine takes us to September 2002. A year after his spat with Oprah made him a household name in well-shod neighborhoods, Jonathan Franzen appraises William Gaddis in The New Yorker, lamenting that novelists have lost their grip on the public consciousness. Are books just too hard-to-read these days? Do writers even care about audience anymore? Franzen sketches two types of novelists: Contract writers who “sustain a sense of connectedness,” and Status writers for whom “difficulty tends to signal excellence.” He wastes no time letting us know which card he carries. “The Status position is undeniably flattering to a writer’s sense of importance. In my bones, though, I’m a Contract kind of person.”
Flash forward to 2005 and witness Ben Marcus slamming Franzen to the asphalt in Harper’s, defending all the “alien artisans, those poorly named experimental writers with no sales, little review coverage, a small readership, and the collective cultural pull of an ant.” Bullies like Franzen reinforce the status-quo when young writers ought to be pushing linguistic barriers and forging new neural pathways. Marcus is especially miffed that Franzen once used a New Yorker column to crap on the tiny avant-garde press Fiction Collective 2. “In Franzen’s world a small press that publishes experimental fiction is a convenient villain as audience-safe as a Muslim terrorist in a movie.”
Jump ahead to 2007, and Cynthia Ozick materializes in Harper’s to chide both Franzen and Marcus for their petty, ahistorical pissing match. “Why must one literary form lust to disposes another?” she asks, likening their argument to a gang fight. “The Bloods and Crips would be right at home in this alley.” Ozick is also keen to diagnose a sickly literary culture, but to her mind, the primary ailment is the dearth of rigorous literary criticism. For writers to discuss literature in such binary terms is ridiculous. “The novels that crop up in any given period are like the individual nerves that make up a distinct but variegated sensation, or act in chorus to catch a face or a tone…the white noise of the era that claims us all.”
Which brings us back to Smith’s “Two Paths” in The New York Review of Books, a thoughtful answer Ozick’s call for more insightful, sensitive criticism. Despite framing the Realist and Avant-Garde traditions as violent opponents, Smith at least gestures toward their points of connection. “At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov…”
Yet after lingering a moment to admire these bountiful crossroads, Smith resumes her polarizing discourse: Fictional possibilities have narrowed, and the literary culture has fallen ill.
Meanwhile, as the luminaries raced to diagnose Literature as if they were doctors on the season finale of House, 21st-century Literature was going viral on the Internet and in the little magazines. You lived through it, so I’ll spare you the details, but please tolerate 10 quick bullet points (in no special order) illustrating how vigorously literature and publishing were shaken during the 10 years since Franzen’s essay appeared:
Oprah’s Book Club went supernova.
Entire forests breathed sighs of relief as dozens of print book review sections went the way of the Dodo.
Online venues like this one have replaced or at least supplemented the literary supplements.
Millions of devoted bibliophiles reluctantly began e-reading.
Instead of disappearing, print became more democratized, insofar as anyone with access to word processing software and a few hundred dollars can publish their own book in seven to 10 business days.
Tiny presses and lit mags are sprouting like tulips or dandelions, depending on your worldview.
Those tiny presses are now winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards and National Book Critics Circle Awards, and those tiny lit mags are landing more stories and essays in the Best anthologies.
“Literary” genre novels are A-OK!
The mainstream pop entertainment complex regularly taps literary novelists like Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Richard Price, David Benioff, Jennifer Egan, and others to provide rich source material for big-budget dramas.
A writer like Ben Marcus, whose sublimely weird The Age of Wire and String originally appeared with Dalkey Archive, is now published by Knopf, complete with prominent coverage in major outlets, a swell tour, and a trippy trailer.
Now I’m neither a doctor nor an esteemed literary critic, but it seems that either the literary culture has made a miraculous recovery, or it wasn’t that sick in the first place. Which is to say that when those famous writers were so certain the patient was ailing, perhaps they were looking at the wrong patient. Lately it seems like whether you write unconventional novels or straight-laced novels or novels replete with vampires and weremonkeys, there are more ways than ever before to get your work out to readers. And not just on Lulu, iUniverse or Blogger.
Consider Marcus’ “alien artisans.” Even a quick glance suggests that life ain’t half bad for writers of unconventional prose. The innovative fiction being published today is too multifarious for neatly defined schools, but at least a handful of writers can be unified, if not aesthetically, then by the amount of attention they’ve received. Ryan Call, Blake Butler, and Tao Lin come to mind as three who’ve won fancy awards or scored national reviews or climbed from tiny presses to New York houses. These writers might not be stage diving from MFA programs into a sea of adoring literary agents, but they’re findings readers in their own way on their own time, building audiences that may prove to be more loyal and sustainable than those erected overnight by conglomerate publishers.
Perhaps no young writer is more emblematic of this sea change than Amelia Gray. Her 120-story collection AM/PM was published by Featherproof Books in 2009, and was more likely to be reviewed in The Eugene Weekly than Entertainment Weekly. Powered by a Kickstarter funded book tour, Gray and others traveled to indie stores and bars along the West Coast, earning readers book by book, beer by beer. A year later, her second collection Museum of the Weird won the Innovative Fiction Prize from Fiction Collective 2 — that very same rogue press that Franzen mocked in The New Yorker.
The Sickly Literary Culture narrative imagines Gray “toiling” in obscurity for decades if not her entire career. Yet now with her debut novel Threats, Gray has made the leap to Farrar, Straus and Giroux — the House of Franzen! That’s not to suggest that any publisher is an empirical benchmark for literary merit — and in most cases I couldn’t give a flying fig where or how a book came to be published — but given the pervasive strangeness of Gray’s work, I wonder if her grassroots ascension to a big-time press might be evidence that our literary culture is far more robust than the doctors would have us believe.
Narrated in a precisely controlled 3rd person, Threats is the story of a childless husband and wife in Ohio: David, a disgraced dentist, and Franny, an aesthetician who specializes in chemical peels. On a cold winter morning, Franny stumbles in from the backyard, barefoot and bleeding. She says to forget about calling the fire department. No telling what may have killed her. “David sat next to his wife for three days. They leaned against each other and created a powerful odor. In that way, it was like growing old together.”
With Franny gone, David scarcely leaves his ghostly abode, which is also his former childhood home. Soon Franny’s former boss at the salon sends a group of five girls over to give him a haircut in the kitchen, yet they go about the job without speaking to him. “One of the girls said nothing the entire time, but instead hummed a tune that was familiar to David. He thought of his mother cutting his hair while he sat on a wooden chair wedged into the bathtub.” Unsettling, one-off encounters like this pace the entire book, usually in settings as domestic as the post office, the laundromat, or the bus stop.
In a grief-struck stupor, David bumbles about for days, pissing his pants, growing paranoid, spraying Franny’s perfume in his mouth until it makes him retch. He is convinced that the front doorknob is electrified, which is why soft-boiled Detective Chico and his partner have to climb through the window to ask questions about Franny. As the story proceeds, a series of strange written threats begin appearing in David’s coffee maker, in his bathroom, and other increasingly bizarre places in his home and across town:
YOUR FATE IS SEALED WITH GLUE I HAVE BOILED IN A VAT. I SLOPPED IT ON AN ENVELOPE AND MAILED IT TO YOUR MOTHER’S WOMB.
Over 77 short chapters, this slim book gets weirder and weirder, answering questions with more questions. A few central mysteries propel the skeletal plot forward. What exactly happened to Franny? Who is responsible for these threats? Why is David so haunted by his past? Years ago, Detective Chico responded to a distress call from an old hotel that may hold the key (or a key) to the entire mystery:
The call came in concurrently with an ambulance call for a drowning. No residents came out to greet the siren. The noise set off wails from the two or three children who were heard but not seen in the recesses of the motel. Their noise made it seem as if the building itself was crying, the sound released from multiple points.
In “Two Paths,” Zadie Smith observed that the primary mode of postmodern metafiction was to play with the notion of the first person and the question of where there narrator is coming from. Yet it’s the measured fluctuations of Gray’s third-person narration that make Threats such an interesting read. Crystalline descriptions of domestic life belie passages of uncanny imagery and existential dread, and the result is a generally unreliable atmosphere where emotion and metaphor are askew, and even the laws of time and space are vulnerable to subtle shifts in mood.
Example: A doctor visits David’s kitchen to inquire about his mental health. She’s spoken to a few of Franny’s former co-workers who claimed never to have met him, joking that maybe he didn’t even exist. When David mentions the girls who came to cut his hair, the doctor points out that his hair is down to his ears. Later on, when David visits the salon in search of answers, the reader has to rely on confirmation from another character to be certain that the haircut indeed happened.
“Did you send some women from the salon to my home?”
“Some women, some girls. A group of them arrived a few days ago and said they had been sent to cut my hair. They were very kind and helpful. One of them cut my toenails.”
“Some girls,” Aileen said. She took a deep breath in and looked at the door. She was silent for long enough that he thought she hadn’t heard part of the question. “A group of girls. Yes, I sent over a group of girls from the salon. I thought it might make you feel better.”
“Thank you, it did.”
In moments like these throughout the book, Gray calls to mind her literary forebears Kate Bernheimer and Donald Barthelme, but also filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman and David Lynch. As Chris Rodley, editor of the book Lynch on Lynch wrote, this is a borderland between dream and reality, “a badly guarded checkpoint where no one seems to be stamping passports.”
At one point David discovers that, unbeknownst to him, a trance regression therapist has been operating from his own wasp-infested garage, researching volumes of books to determine whether “you” or “love” is linked with more devastating sentences in the English language. Later, visiting his elderly mother at her home for women, David finds their heart-to-heart conversation dissolve into a discussion of quasi-Carmichael integers.
Yet just when you think the story might be veering too far to one side of the dream/reality border, Gray shifts modes. It’s as if she’s internalized FC2 Board Member Brian Evenson’s response to Ben Marcus’s Harper’s essay:
Realism and experimentalism are not alternatives in a binary opposition; instead, each exists on a continuum that runs between abstraction and representation. Great writers, instead of standing at one point on the continuum, chose to lie down along it. All writers can potentially reposition themselves not only from book to book but from sentence to sentence.
The only thing predictable about Threats is that the story will constantly reposition itself. We find lyrically realistic discussions of David’s dental practice: “The patient might wince through the Xylocaine but would hold still as a sleeping dog while the dentin was breached and burred, Dycal installed to obliterate the possibility of a return, a white resin filler approximating the shape and texture of a tooth so closely it made David wish for his patients’ sake that the entire procedure could be performed without their knowledge, that they could come in unknowing and leave unknowingly improved.” Elsewhere, repeated chapters painstakingly transcribe David’s voicemail: “Message erased. Next message. From, phone number three three zero, eight four five, free four three three. Received, October fifteenth at eleven-eleven a.m.” Elsewhere, sudden ruminations on loneliness while sorting socks at the laundromat: “Think about just a pair of people, how they can sit in a room and stare. These are not strangers to each other. They have spent nights sharing their secrets. They see each other and think of those complexities, yet there is nothing that can truly draw them together. It’s a primary flaw of human distance. And what causes it?…Could it be what we eat for breakfast in the morning? Could it be the mechanism of the human eye? Could it be what we eat for breakfast in the morning?” Throughout, David yearns for Franny: “His wife’s scent that night was of a wet stone, as if she had been created from the stream that ran behind his childhood home.” Wherever the narrative stands on the continuum, it simmers with tragicomic dread.
Smith argued that that “the American metafiction that stood in opposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history…dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart.” Threats is too slippery for a safe corner, too haunted to lack heart. Following Gray’s aesthetic leaps, we forego a varnished emotional banister for disquieting cracks of perception and pain. On any given page you might laugh, cringe, or scratch your head. This is a book that operates on numerous planes of reality, that allows you to peer into the many windows of one artist’s imagination.
None of this is to say that Threats is a watershed moment in avant-gardism, nor that it’s even all that avant-garde. As Ozick wrote, “The avant-garde’s overused envelope was pushed long ago…” In many ways, this latest garde of innovative novelists is rekindling the embers of a more surreal period in American fiction, or else smuggling ashore aesthetics that have been prevalent in poetry and international fiction for decades.
You’ll know within 20 pages if this book is right for you. Either way, it’s all good. This book is too daring for universal acclaim. But let’s set aside this notion that our literary culture is too sickly to tolerate innovative prose. Whether you like Threats or not, let’s not define this kind of novel as oppositional to the realist mode. Books like this deserve to be main courses, not side dishes. As Garth Risk Hallberg wrote in response to “Two Paths” here last year, “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.”
Of course, famous writers aren’t going to stop probing the literary culture for illnesses, so let’s challenge them to diagnose other chronic conditions, starting with the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in our magazines. Insofar as aesthetic diversity is concerned, unconventional prose has a place at the table, or at least the avant-garde has been absorbed into the garde, and the next avant-garde is out there somewhere, reading from a chapbook to three people in a bar.
Threats proves that there are many paths for the novel, for the chapter, for the sentence. It’s an act of what Zadie Smith calls constructive deconstruction — a novel that like Remainder “clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.” Writers like Amelia Gray see not one thorny alternative road, but rather a whole open territory where artists use old roadblocks to fuel bonfires.
Image Credit: Flickr/rosmary
With the increasingly important role of intelligent machines in all phases of our lives–military, medical, economic and financial, political–it is odd to keep reading articles with titles such as Whatever Happened to Artificial Intelligence? This is a phenomenon that Turing had predicted: that machine intelligence would become so pervasive, so comfortable, and so well integrated into our information-based economy that people would fail even to notice it.
—Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines
1. Things are in the Saddle
Sometime in the sixth century, Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine monastery in Italy, required his monks to pray at seven scheduled times throughout the day. Given this rather assiduous prayer regimen, it is perhaps unsurprising that Christian monks — requiring a more exact form of timekeeping — were the ones who propelled innovations in clock technologies. Ultimately, the mechanism they produced would have unexpected consequences on the world outside the hallowed confines of the monastery. By the fourteenth century, the mechanical clock was a staple of the European urban landscape, a clanging device that monitored the hours and announced the day’s exigencies. Applying new pressures of punctuality and scheduling to life, the clock dramatically revamped how people worked and traveled and leisured. It operated as a haunting reminder of time’s inexorable progress. As T.S. Eliot said, “Because I know that time is always time/and place is always and only place/And what is actual is actual only for one time and only for one place.” A simple ticking device changed reality.
Throughout history the best minds have debated about the ways in which technology has impressed itself on humanity. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr outlines the argument rather nicely. On one side are “technological determinists” who believe that the technologies we use autonomously determine the type of people we become, without our consent. By way of example, one could point to the invention of the clock, or other seminal technologies. Marx wrote, “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” Emerson posited, “Things are in the saddle/ And ride mankind.” On the other end of the debate are “technological instrumentalists” who contend that our technologies are “the means to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own.” In the post-millennial world, the debate is one of paramount importance, but is rarely given serious attention and compelling dramatization in the contemporary literary novel. This is not to say that contemporary novelists aren’t interested in the subject (see Jonathan Franzen’s “Liking is for Cowards: Go for What Hurts” or Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why”). Or that historians and sociologists haven’t turned the subject into something of an intellectual G-spot (see Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, Sherry Turkel’s Alone Together, or Carr’s The Shallows).
2. A Master of a Language that Never Rears its Head
Such questions about technological determinism occupy a vital space in the artistic medulla of the Portuguese novelist Gonçalo M. Tavares. Since 2001, Tavares has been publishing plays, story collections, essays, and novels while concomitantly snagging a whole bevy of literary prizes. Born in 1970, the Portuguese novelist’s Jerusalem won the 2005 Jose Saramago Prize and inspired the Nobel Prize-winning Saramago himself to rather hyperbolically state that “in thirty years’ time, if not before, [Tavares] will win the Nobel Prize, and I’m sure my prediction will come true…Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him.” It is perhaps unsurprising then that I approached Tavares’ books with equal amounts of skepticism and expectation, since there was simply no way a writer who’s only in his early 40s could be generating this kind of revelatory and cornea-brightening work without my having heard whisper and murmur of it. Turns out I was wrong. His books made me want to throw an envy-inspired uppercut, too.
His novels Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, Klaus Klump: A Man, and Joseph Walser’s Machine (out this month in paperback from Dalkey Archive Press) constitute the twisted and ruminative series called The Kingdom, which explores the pathology of political ambition, the logic of human cruelty, the collateral damage of madness, and the senescence of morality in the technological age. Though soul-withered and psychotic, his characters are also breathtakingly smart and often interrupt the narrative action to pontificate on moral relativism, power, politics, and the telos of the individual. Combine the villainous unction of Hannibal Lecter with the grisly impulses of Patrick Bateman and you’ll have a composite psychological sketch of Tavares’s more disturbing creations. His less menacing characters range from the schizophrenic and mentally unstable to the pathologically detached. But his characters aren’t simply fictional renderings of Oliver Sacks’s patients. Instead, Tavares creates an assemblage of people who take the prevailing ethics and logics of society — capitalism, corporatism, and intellectual technology — and radicalize them in an effort to muse about what would happen to humanity if our political and economic efficacy trumped the importance of our souls.
3. As if Humans Were Substances that Thought, Substances with Souls
Joseph Walser’s Machine is a slender though pithy meditation on the ways in which systemic routines — economic, medical, industrial, and political — scour the human psyche to a bloodless husk. Like all Tavares’ novels, Machine is set an unidentified European city and is populated by characters with vaguely Germanic-sounding names. The year is unknown, but the psychic aura of the book suggests late-millennium panic. An odd hybrid of social critique, philosophical tract, and black comedy, Machine opens with an oblique snapshot of Joseph Walser’s life. “He was a strange man… He wore a simple pair of pants, almost like a peasant’s, and his hazel-colored shoes were absolutely out of style… Walser was a collector. Of what? It’s too early to say.” His days are existentially moored by routines: He gets up in the morning, shaves, eats a sensible breakfast, goes to his job in a factory owned by the most important business man in the city, reprieves for lunch around two, and walks home around six. Walser maintains a somnambulant existence in which the events of the outside world constitute a predictable landscape, a scheduled set change on a choreographed stage. Everything is ordinary, nothing spontaneous. Even the threat of war that looms over his city gets regarded as just another variable in the cyclical rhythms of history: “The technique of influencing men by frightening them about things that don’t exist yet is ancient. It’s happening again. There’s talk of a military unit approaching with great appetite.” Numb to these expected political events, Walser similarly views other people — his wife Margha, his boss Klober Muller, and his friends — with pathological blankness. Consider Walser’s impassive discovery of his wife’s affair with Muller. He fails to confront either of them and instead resumes the quiet fulfillment of the rote. Another staple of his routine is the weekly Dice Game he plays with his coworkers, some of whom eventually plan and execute an act of terrorism against the occupying army, which, even though it’s intended to be a catalyst for disorder, only further confirms that this type of violent resistance is to be expected during wartime. Because the Dice Game allows the men to gamble on chance, it seemingly offers a necessary break from the deadening routines of daily life. But the omniscient narrator explains the paradox of the game: “There was nothing lacking, everything was there already, in the game, nothing new could crop up to disrupt the proceedings. There were six numbers struck to the die and they weren’t going anywhere. There was no seventh cipher, no seventh hypothesis. Six was the limit.” It seems then the habitual decision to submit to chance and unpredictability every week is, for Walser, just another kind of routine. All this perhaps explains why his emotional potential amounts to that of a storefront mannequin. Other people misconstrue his silence and carelessness toward the outside world as a faculty for proletarian obedience.
Walser’s relationship with his machine is the only bond in his life that demands his precise attention:
Walser had long since operated the machine with unceasing concentration, since, from the beginning, he’d realized the following: if the machine could, in the worst case, as a result of a mistake, kill him, him the honorable citizen Joseph Walser, in peacetime, the most tranquil of times, while lazy children played in the parks on Sundays, then he, Joseph Walser, was, after all, at war, for he was dealing with a dangerous friend, a friend that was potentially an enemy, a mortal enemy, because it could — not in a few months or a couple of days, but in a second — turn into that which seeks to inflict bodily harm. The foundation of his very existence — this machine — which supported his family and was, therefore, what saved him, day after day, from being some other person, eventually his own negative, the opposite of the Man that he thought himself to be… but in saving him day after day, the machine also constantly threatened him, without abeyance.
This almost symbiotic relationship with his machine imbues Walser’s life with meaning. In fact, whenever he turns it off, he is overcome by an acute apprehension, wondering whether his own heart has stopped. Eventually, the machine makes good on its threat and severs Walser’s index finger, a gruesome incident that occurs while his friends from the factory detonate a bomb on a nearby street, which momentarily sends the city into hysterics. In the face of such chaos, the citizens begin the expected triage and abide a municipally enforced emotional prudence — carrying out routines to create some semblance of normal life. Walser’s own routine involves collecting shards of metals broken off from various mechanisms and storing them in his study as a kind of shrine to technological rationality. It is his way of constructing meaning — a personal logic — out of entropy. Despite the backdrop of war and the privations of his personal life, Walser all the while behaves with the chilly equanimity of a heart surgeon. At one point, he considers himself to be a great man because he is “prepared to not love anyone…” Such a formulation of human greatness allows him to commit twisted actions — having sex with his dead friend’s wife, stealing the belt off the corpse of recently murdered man, which he adds to his metal collection — the consequences of which converge in one of the strangest endings to a novel I’ve read, up there with Don Delillo’s Americana, Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones, or Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.
What should by now be rather obvious is that Joseph Walser isn’t intended to strike us as a flesh-and-blood human being. This is not to suggest that Machine eschews the aesthetics of Realism, though. Instead, Tavares plumbs the internal life of a character who has or is slowly metamorphosing into a machine, a type of person whose morality is not a divine deliberation of how best to live, but is a mechanical operation. If the requested action is executed successfully — regardless of whether we find that action laudable or opprobrious — then the action is good. Such is the compassionless morality of Tavares’s Kingdom, where people value machines more than they do human beings. These characters are atomized individuals who are slaves to their own base desires, who fail to see themselves as part of a collective.
I teach literature and writing at a small college in Wisconsin, and oftentimes center my composition courses on discussions about how digital technologies are changing our definitions of communication, friendship, love, and morality. We read Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr, Martin Buber and Ray Kurzweil. APA studies about how Facebook increases narcissistic tendencies among its users, a documentary about Internet Addiction Recovery Camps in Asia, and Thomas de Zengotita’s essay from Harper’s about “the numbing of the American mind” are a few examples of the vast catalog of arguments we encounter throughout the semester. Thoughtful and at times intimidatingly smart, my students have curious reactions to these texts. They at once confirm the desensitization to reality and the ablation of serious thought that digital technologies eventuate, while at the same time praising the convenience, efficiency, and sleekness of their smartphones, which they often utilize in class to fact-check my lectures (a practice that fills me with a kind of searing dread). Recently, my students and I were discussing the ways in which texting and Facebook posts and Instant Messaging reduce our expectations of human interaction — one should note that the majority of my students absolutely abhor making actual, vox-a-vox phone calls. They related anecdotes about text message conversations gone awry (“I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic!” or “I thought she was pissed at me!”). One student recalled a face-to-face conversation she recently had with her friend. She had said that friend is the kind of funny where whenever you’re around her you find yourself clutching your stomach and begging her to stop. Anyways, the friend told a joke, and instead of laughing, instead of giving the friend some expressive indication that she thought the joke was that delicious blend of irreverence and wisdom, my student sat there stone-faced and saw a familiar acronym fill up the IMAX of her head. It read: “LOL.” As she bravely recounted the anecdote, speaking with that special intensity that attends a kind of personal revelation, she seemed preoccupied in a haunted way.
Now, I’m not saying that my student bears even a remote likeness to a single one of Tavares’ characters. In fact, she’s a terribly nice person who I have faith will do important things with her life. But we shouldn’t disregard the seriousness of the incident, for it speaks to the subtle and disturbing ways in which technologies sometimes limit or reduce our appreciation of reality, our ability to sensitively apprehend and partake in reality. While it’s easy to sneer or bristle at Tavares’ characters, to close his books and say, “Boy, that was weird,” I don’t think these are meant to be portraits of the cold and the sociopathic, the damaged and the damned. What makes these books necessary, urgent, and arguably genius is Tavares’ unapologetic presentation of characters who follow contemporary society’s prevailing ethics—the ethics of efficient machines—to their logical and devastating ends: a world without what Tavares calls “the efficient distribution of divine breath.” Told in pellucid prose, Joseph Walser’s Machine is a terrifying and mesmeric novel, offering a dark premonition of where we might be headed and what we might become.
Like her contemporaries Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, Helen DeWitt went much of the last decade without publishing a novel, and in a just world, her new book, Lightning Rods, would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month. I’m picturing editors from glossy magazines knife-fighting in alleys for a chance to feature DeWitt on the cover… Times Square billboards of DeWitt traversing some rustic byway, vest saucily aflap… A giant inflatable Helen DeWitt looming over the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, nodding down at rapt throngs of skinny-jeaned teens…
Then again, a world more hospitable to minds like DeWitt’s would likely deprive her of the frustrations that give her writing its unique moral intensity. Her first novel, The Last Samurai (2000), was among other things a look at the fate of the imagination in a fin-de-siecle culture consecrated to the superficial, the gaseous, and the ephemeral. Your Name Here (2007), her unpublished and more or less unsummarizable follow-up, hinges on an exiled writer named “Helen DeWitt” and her struggles to wrest art from the lunacy of post-9/11 life.
At first blush, Lightning Rods looks like a departure. The Last Samurai fits into an erudite subgenre called the “anatomy” – the novel that wants to swallow the whole world. (This may be part of what the critic Marco Roth had in mind when he called DeWitt “Twenty-First-Century America’s finest Seventeenth-Century novelist.”) Lightning Rods, by contrast, is a tapered, tailored 280 pages. It confines itself largely to the willfully beige environs of the contemporary American office park. Moreover, it is a comedy. By this I mean not so much “a book with jokes in it” as that rarer thing, the laughing-so-hard-other-people-on-the-subway-are-starting-to-wonder-if-you-require-psychiatric-attention book. But fear not, Samurai lovers; DeWitt’s moral vision remains as sharp as ever. Which is to say, Lightning Rods belongs to another venerable literary tradition: the satire.
Satire’s a lot like haiku, or Marxism: there’s the loose version and there’s the strict version. In recent decades, American writers, being American writers, have preferred the former. You pick a subject, usually institutional (politics, the university, the news media), and you attack it with as many comic exaggerations and caustic jokes as possible. This technique has yielded some good novels, but it’s formally a fair piece from the canonical satire of, say, Jonathan Swift. This latter is an art of constraint, rather than of license. Its genius is to invent a single premise – the proposal of “A Modest Proposal,” the catch of Catch-22 – and to follow it without flinching to the most absurd ends. The excitement comes from watching the writer chain himself to the implacable machinery of his own logic. And as DeWitt’s idiosyncratic intellect has always gravitated toward the gap between messy reality and the logical Ideal, it’s no surprise to find her choosing the narrower path, and succeeding brilliantly.
The protagonist of Lightning Rods is a guy named Joe, whose surname, never given, might as well be Schmoe. He’s a particular sort of American Everyguy – a hapless door-to-door salesman who at age 33 has sacrificed the possibility of emotional or spiritual fulfillment on the altar of the most conventional sort of material success. Or, more accurately, has lost any ability to distinguish between the two. By day, Joe travels around failing to sell encyclopedias, and later vacuum cleaners. By night, he concocts baroque masturbation fantasies that fail to assuage his sense of failure. He should be out selling right now, he thinks. He should be a different and better person. “Which just goes to show,” DeWitt writes,
how blinkered we can be by our preconceptions. Because little though he knew it, it was the hours he spent trying to sell vacuum cleaners that were the waste of time, something he would remember with shame and self-loathing for the rest of his life. His well-meant efforts to develop an efficient masturbatory program, likewise, were completely misconceived. What he didn’t realize is that a genius is different from other people. A genius doesn’t waste time like other people. Even when he looks like he is wasting time he may in fact be making the most productive possible use of the time.
Joe’s particular insight is to take his favorite masturbation fantasy and not only bring it to life but monetize it. I wouldn’t want to spoil for you the pleasure of discovering that fantasy yourself. Nor would I want to give away exactly how – with the help of a future Supreme Court justice, an adjustable-height toilet, several pairs of PVC undergarments, and a dwarf named Ian – Joe manages to realize it. Suffice it to say, the genius is in the details. And, speaking of details, look again at the passage above. Notice the double entendre of “a genius doesn’t waste time like other people,” and the sly redundancy (i.e., time-waste) of the sentence that follows. Joe’s target demographic – office worker – gives DeWitt a chance to luxuriate in the eloquent dumbness of the corporate idiom. Her delight in nuggets like “orientated” and “product feature” and “bifunctionality” (and, come to think of it, “corporate culture”) is evident in every deceptively artless sentence.
She never condescends to her characters, however; like George Saunders, that other poet laureate of the management handbook, she’s too damn curious about the way they think. “In an ideal world,” Joe muses, in another typical moment,
he would obviously have wanted to spend more time making sure no one was doing anything she didn’t feel comfortable with. Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal, sustainable client development was absolutely vital to the success of the business, and it was up to him to single-handedly pursue that goal for all their sakes.
We are too close to Joe’s thoughts here to comfortably condemn them, or even to be sure where they end and DeWitt’s begin. “Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal”: is that a banality contaminated by truth, or a truth contaminated by banality? And make no mistake about it: Joe is after truth, to exactly the extent that he’s able to frame the concept. He is a strangely moving figure, a devoted pilgrim in a world whose prophetic tradition consists of Dale Carnegie, George Gilder, and Napoleon Hill.
According to the publisher’s flap copy, Lightning Rods “take[s] on the complex issues surrounding sexual tension in the workplace.” To my ear, this betrays a questionable sense of salesmanship. I keep hearing a snatch from an old Monty Python routine: “Tonight on Who Cares: Sexual Tension in the Workplace.” (I would have gone with Remainder meets House of Holes, by way of Then We Came to the End.) More importantly, though, it’s a classic case of the slipperiness of satire. Lightning Rods is no more “about” sexual tension in the workplace than A Tale of a Tub is about the tub. But if Joe’s “Lightning Rods” are the vehicle, what is the tenor? What, exactly, is being skewered? By the end of the book, the answer, wonderfully, seems to be “everything”: bureaucracy, sexual politics, the objectification of the female body, the sanctification of same, political correctness, political incorrectness, etiquette, boorishness, ambition, laziness, late capitalism, and even logic itself. DeWitt brings to satire what Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 brought to the detective story: purity of means, ineffability of ends. This is not to say that Lightning Rods shares that novel’s epic sweep. It is, by design, a minor work. (DeWitt says she began writing it, and several other books, in 1998, “to pave the way for” The Last Samurai) But it so emphatically aces the tasks it sets for itself, and delivers such a jolt of pleasure along the way, that it reminds me of just how major a minor work can be. I wish the other leading American novelists would produce more books in this vein. Come to think of it, I wish Helen DeWitt would, too. At any rate, as one of her endearingly flummoxed characters might say, I literally cannot wait to see what she does next.
Image credit: New Directions
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.”
There are many ways to measure a year, but the reader is likely to measure it in books. There was the novel that felt as fresh and full of promise as the new year in January, the memoir read on the bus to and from work through the grey days of March, the creased paperback fished from a pocket in the park in May, the stacks of books thumbed through and sandy-paged, passed around at the beach in August, the old favorite read by light coming in the window in October, and the many books in between. And when we each look back at our own years in reading, we are almost sure to find that ours was exactly like no other reader’s.
The end of another year brings the usual frothy and arbitrary accounting of the “best” this and the “most” that. But might it also be an opportunity to look back, reflect, and share? We hope so, and so, for a seventh year, The Millions has reached out to some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2011 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2010 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Fiona Maazel, author of Last Last Chance.
John Banville, author of The Sea, The Infinities, and many other books.
Al Jaffee, legendary Mad Magazine writer and cartoonist.
Lionel Shriver, author of So Much for That and several other books.
Emma Rathbone, author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters.
Joshua Cohen, author of Witz.
Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges and several other books.
Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red.
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries.
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future.
Bill Morris, Millions staff writer and author of Motor City.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Emma Donoghue, author of Room and several other books.
Margaret Atwood, author of Year of the Flood and many other books.
Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius and several other books.
Hamilton Leithauser, of The Walkmen.
Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood and other books.
Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and other books.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists.
Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and several other books.
Philip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag and several other books.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and other books.
Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge.
Joseph McElroy, author of Women and Men and several other books.
Alexander Theroux, author of Laura Warholic and several other books.
Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
Emily St. John Mandel, Millions staff writer and author of Last Night In Montreal and The Singer’s Gun.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Edan Lepucki, Millions staff writer, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Ed Champion, proprietor of edrants.com and The Bat Segundo Show.
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review.
Tom McCarthy, author of C and Remainder.
Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men and founding editor of n+1.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There and co-founder of The Morning News.
Paul Harding, author of Tinkers.
Sigrid Nunez, author of Salvation City and several other books.
Matt Weiland, editor of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup and State by State.
Allegra Goodman, author of The Cookbook Collector and several other books.
Adam Levin, author of The Instructions and several other books.
Michael Cunningham, author of By Nightfall, The Hours and several other books.
Sam Anderson, book critic, New York magazine.
Richard Nash, of Cursor and Red Lemonade.
Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News and The Panic Virus.
Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age.
Marisa Silver, author of The God of War and other books.
David Gutowski, of Largehearted Boy.
Emily Colette Wilkinson, Millions staff writer.
Jenny Davidson, author of Invisible Things and other books.
Scott Esposito, proprietor of Conversational Reading and editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times staff writer.
Anne K. Yoder of The Millions.
Marjorie Kehe, book editor at the Christian Science Monitor.
Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making Of A Yoga Dude and other books.
Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
Allen Barra writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast.
Dorothea Lasky, author of Black Life and AWE.
Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.
Stephanie Deutsch, critic and historian.
Lydia Kiesling, Millions staff writer.
Lorraine Adams, author of The Room and the Chair.
Rachel Syme, NPR.com books editor.
Garth Risk Hallberg, Millions staff writer and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
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Year in Reading logo and graphics by Michael Barbetta
Another big, literary title hits shelves today. Tom McCarthy turned heads with Remainder in 2007. Now he’s back with C. Posthumously published is Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey. Also newly released is Sara Gruen’s tale of bonobos and reality television: Ape House, William Gibson’s latest Zero History, and The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass. Culture mavens will be intrigued by The Official Preppy Handbook reboot True Prep. And this week’s intriguing art book is Full Bleed: New York City Skateboard Photography. And in non-fiction, Bob Dylan In America by Sean Wilentz and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, so compellingly written up in last week’s New Yorker.
March 12, 2010
Five months from today, my first novel, You Lost Me there, is being published. Max from The Millions emailed me today wondering if I’d write something come publication time. I stared at the kitchen table. I drank a delicious Diet Coke. (Superfluous—all Diet Cokes are delicious.) How about, I suggested, a pre-publication diary?
I’ve always been curious about what it’s like for writers in that period before a first book appears. The back-room deals, the marketing plans. Perhaps, I suggest to Max, the subhed could read, “The Ecstasy and Agony of My First Novel Being Published.” Ecstasy because getting a novel published is an extraordinary thing! It’s a meteor landing in the backyard. It burns down the swing-set. It completely freaks me out. And agony because, obviously, such a thing would be terrifying. JEREMY WHO THE FUCK BURNED DOWN THE SWING SET.
You Lost Me There took me four years to write. Before it, I wrote two other novels, one that was junk and another that received many polite rejection notices from big publishers. What happens if this book is judged to be corrosive to the Earth? What if little girls cry when they read it?
This summer, a new David Mitchell novel and a new Gary Shteyngart novel will arrive on shelves, both of which I will rush out to purchase. A new Andrea Levy, new Tom McCarthy (Remainder—!!!), new Jennifer Egan. Six billion terrific “debut” novels will appear, I’m sure, in a year when many terrific novels have already been published. And then there’s Franzen. Franzen. For years, publishing executives have stage-whispered over lunch, “When will Franzen return to rezap our cojones?”
I am ridiculously lucky and deliriously happy to be so seriously fucked.
March 13, 2010
I’ve never kept a diary before. My wife and I live in the woods on the rural fringe of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We moved here after stints in New York and Paris because we wanted to be around nature again. We have blueberry bushes, a gigantic fig tree, and thousands of ticks. Behind our house is an acre of forest. On its back side, there’s a guy with a lumber business who wields a much bigger, louder gun than I do. Mine is my wife’s dead grandfather’s BB gun, which we use to frighten away deer, whereas the neighbor’s gun is a shoulder-mounted cannon that he fires whenever he likes. Eleven o’clock tonight, I’m reading on our porch and the neighbor blasts five shots in a row. KAPLOW5. Does he wear night-vision goggles? In my fantasy he says to himself while reloading, in a Rue McClanahan voice, You sweet little motherfucker.
March 15, 2010
Nice day. Brisk. This afternoon, I submitted the final changes to the novel’s manuscript. My editor’s assistant bears with me. After this, I’m warned, I’ll be charged for every changed word, something like $20/sentence. I need to send brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 16, 2010
I’ve been working on two other books for two years. One’s a novel about Tijuana. It will be completed in 2044, by which time David Mitchell will have already written it and written it better. Also working on a nonfiction book about Paris, or at least a proposal for one. I can’t seem to get it right, the proposal. It propels me away from my desk. Today I called a local author who’s become a friend. “Book proposals are hell,” she said. “They fuck you.” “Fuck you up?” I said. “No,” she said, “they fuck you.” She didn’t want to talk about it after that.
March 18, 2010
Worked late last night and went to bed happy. No crickets, no frogs, dead silence. Then this morning I erased the file I’d been working on. Who needs book proposals when I’m so competent at self-fucking? I should begin sleeping with a caffeine drip.
March 19, 2010
Sent brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 20, 2010
Played tennis with another local author, Nic Brown. Per capita, I believe the Raleigh-Durham area to possess more writers than Brooklyn. Nic’s second book, a wonderful novel, Doubles, comes out in July. At one point in his book, there’s a doubles tennis team named Brown and Baldwin who aren’t very good. Today, Nic beat me 6-0. During a break I socked him in the head with a ball. I felt bad about that until bedtime.
March 21, 2010
If I’m not writing, reading, exercising, or talking on the phone, I worry about money. Ergo, I really, really love writing, reading, exercising, and talking on the phone.
March 22, 2010
7:43 a.m., the neighbor with the shotgun was out pounding squirrels. I saw him through the trees. Black cargo pants, tall desert boots, no shirt, American eagle/flag bandanna skullcap, and a pair of mirrored yellow Oakley sunglasses. Like he’s defending America while playing right field. Twice at night I’ve see him across the road in the woods, feeding trees into a big red splitter under construction lights.
Inchworm snuck into the picture
March 23, 2010
My brother-in-law and his wife had a baby. Wonderful day.
March 24, 2010
Awful day. Lost six hours to a panic meltdown. Anxiety is a future that hasn’t happened yet, but makes no other future seem possible. I made coffee, did some push-ups, and went for a walk. No problem can’t be solved by caffeine, push-ups, and a long walk in the woods.
March 25, 2010
Drizzling rain and severely windy. Did a lot of email, including asking an artist to help me make a video trailer for my book, Aya Padrón, a wonderful photographer based in Maine. Perhaps her pictures, I suggested, will get people excited about reading my novel, once rendered into YouTube format? Though, really, who the fuck knows. Does anyone know how to flog books online? Social-media flavor crystals don’t seem to be the answer.
March 26, 2010
No expression on America’s Defender today. Maybe he’s sad. He’s standing there holding some type of shotgun, staring at me. He pumps the gun, turns around, and goes back into his house.
March 29, 2010
Lovely spring weather. Spent an hour writing thank-you notes to various people at Riverhead, my publisher. I’ve heard nightmare accounts from other writers about their publishers. Let it be said, Riverhead is a dream, every employee.
March 31, 2010
On my birthday I have a tradition of taking the day off to bum around and get drunk and read stuff. I keep it classy. This year, my friend Melissa asked me to keep tally of what I consumed in chronological order. It went:
– 4 coffees
– 2 paper newspapers (News and Observer, Wall Street Journal)
– 1 Diet Coke
– 2 breakfast tacos
– 3 slices of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 turkey, avocado, bacon sandwich
– 1 espresso
– 1 novel (The Wings of the Sphinx, Andrea Camilleri)
– 2 shots of tequila, 2 beers, 2 glasses white wine
– 1 cheese plate
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 magazine (The Atlantic Monthly)
– 1 coffee
– 1 glass of champagne, 2 glasses red wine, 2 glasses white wine
– 4 rounds of tapas
– 1 shot of tequila, 1 beer
– 1 college basketball game
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– Half of Inspector Morse episode #31
April 2, 2010
Panic about the novel is set to low simmer. The next novel and the non-fiction book proposal aren’t flying, they’re flunking. Anxiety is causing my fingernails to reverse course and grow inward. What if You Lost Me There is perceived to be a bomb, would it be so bad? Playing around today, I figured out that Michiko Kakutani is an anagram for “Atomic Haiku Kink.” Michiko alone becomes, “Hi I Mock.”
April 4, 2010
Sunny day. Spotted two snakes, several lizards, and a pie-sized snapping turtle under our fig tree. Went to mow the yard, but the mower crapped out, so I called my wife’s uncle, a race-car driver with an elaborately equipped garage, and we threw the mower in his truck, grabbed some tools, cut a new spring, and refit the mower cap. Very satisfying afternoon.
April 7, 2010
Dread, the proper noun, is a pussy. Dread can’t stand Real Shit. When Real Shit turns up at the party, Dread resumes playing wall-flower, all envy. In a way, I’m thankful for today’s Real Shit, of a private nature that I’m not comfortable revealing here, but anyway, it’s a reminder. A novel’s only a novel. I’m extremely grateful for what I’ve got here in this world. My wife, my family, my health. And I am also thankful for Diet Coke and András Schiff.
April 8, 2010
Got off the phone. It happened again. In conversation and correspondence with other writers, two books routinely come up from the last couple years, as in, Dude, have you read this yet? David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. To the list, I would add Chimamanda Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.
I find it weird to meet writers who aren’t also big readers. Met one the other day at a bar and I looked at him queerly. He said he couldn’t find the time. This reminded me that readers are probably my people first, before writers. Writers are more likely to be dicks. Look at all the thug authors, unsmiling and posing so hard on their book jackets. I spent way too many afternoons in seventh grade reading Piers Anthony and Dragonlance books (and every one of my sister’s Babysitter Clubs) to pretend I’m a thug.
I just remembered I’m neither smiling nor appearing particularly thuggish in my own author photo. What’s really happening in that photo is I’m trying not to laugh, which is what happens when you’re trying to obey instructions not to smile or frown but to smile with your eyes and seem appealing. Not easy!
April 11, 2010
Dark outside. Woke up at four a.m. during a panic attack. Rocked myself back to sleep with visions of Andy Murray’s service returns.
April 13, 2010
Today I spoke to Daniel Wallace’s class of fiction-writing students. Daniel Wallace is the local king of novelists and a very nice guy. One of his students, after hearing about my work schedule, asked when I sleep. I told them something eloquent like, “Sleep is dumb.” Which is me paraphrasing Diddy, who says things like, “Don’t sleep, there’s too much to do,” and “Let’s go!” However, let’s call bullshit, bullshit. These poor kids only had a Pepsi machine in the lobby of the building, no Coke. Who could blame them for napping?
April 16, 2010
Ahoy! You Lost Me There was chosen by Entertainment Weekly for their summer list. I yelped when I received the news. My publicist and editor were as surprised as I was, especially by the caption, “a much-hyped debut novel,” since this is the first piece of “hype” we’ve seen. My book won’t appear for another four months. Have I already jumped the shark? I wet myself. Nearly.
April 19, 2010
First gunshot of the day, 8:42 a.m. Lesson relearned by the end of the day: nonfiction book proposals are hell. Very long walk followed by tequila.
April 29, 2010
Today we received the following email, from a newsgroup for people in our area:
A friend moved to a cabin across the road. On Monday afternoon she and her father were in her yard when they heard some close-range gunfire, said it sounded like a semi-automatic. Bullets were hitting the trees and even the house. She and her father lay flat until the shooting stopped, then called the sheriff’s department. If you have any information, could you please call the County Sheriff’s Office?
May 3, 2010
Finished Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano today walking around a New Urbanist community while Rachel went to the gym. Hard to imagine Lowry, with his extremely powerful imagination, imagining someone finishing his book in these circumstances.
May 4, 2010
9:43 a.m., first shot of the day. Ran into the squirrel hunter on the road yesterday. He waved. Warning sign of impending assassination? Vultures circled the house this afternoon, at least thirty of them.
May 12, 2010
Vultures are circling the house again, which means something died in the woods. After four hours, I’m nowhere with writing. Maybe ten satisfying lines. I wrote on my left wrist, WWDJD? (What Would Denis Johnson Do?)
Caught myself in the afternoon chasing a squirrel down from the side of the house while yelling Old Dirty Bastard lyrics at him, “Shame on you, if you step to!” First gunshot today, 10:12 a.m.
May 15, 2010
Finished the non-fiction book proposal and shipped it. Good riddance and good luck, dear proposal. Had drinks tonight with another writer, a friend of a friend swinging through town. I asked him what he writes. Among other things, he said, he’s the author behind a much beloved children’s series (that shall remain nameless). I.e., he’s the most current ghostwriter handling the work. I told him how I used to love the series when I was a kid. “Oh it’s different now. You’d hate it. The main characters are hackers,” he said. “They bust terrorists.”
May 16, 2010
Half the day I spend in my imagination, half I spend in car repair.
May 17, 2010
First advance review of You Lost Me There appeared today, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly. They’re giving it a pass. The anonymous critic found my book, among other things, to be “a highbrow melodrama.”
Afterward, my head’s hitting the kitchen table every ten minutes, spilling brain fluid. I’ll be thinking something else, then wham, my head hits the table. Melodrama? What’s so wrong with melodrama anyway? I told my editor never to send me another review, good or bad. Full of self-pity, I wondered, what do reviews offer anyway other than fluff jobs or despair? I moped until lunch, then I really started feeling bad for myself. In one month’s time my book had gone from “much-hyped” to passé. Maybe there’d still be time for a comeback?
The hardest part about jumping the shark is getting humped by its mouth.
May 21, 2010
Aya Padrón, the Maine photographer, loved the book and has decided to go shoot some pictures on Mount Desert Island, where the novel’s set. Wonderful news. Then I found out that You Lost Me There was recommended by TIME magazine for summer reading. Well, we flipped out.
May 24, 2010
Three days in New York with my sister. My sister lives in Brooklyn and we spent the weekend eating and drinking. Deviled eggs, I discovered, are in vogue in Manhattan right now, and now there’s a hatchery in my lower intestine. Diary note from the return flight, “New York is an office-park with a very good food court.” First gunshots this morning at 8:28 a.m. Good to be home.
May 25, 2010
Two events occurred simultaneously. 1) I found an egg on the counter; 2) a squirrel appeared on the window, clawing at the screen. I went outside and threw the egg at the squirrel. I hit a tree.
June 7, 2010
Woke up with dread around my neck like a chinstrap. Terrible hangover gave me a pork brain. Everything is horrible, only Publishers Weekly knows the future. I made coffee and it tasted like balsa wood. Worked from 6-10:30 am, then went back to bed to take a nap, but I couldn’t sleep for a panic attack about bad reviews to come, i.e., the end of the universe. (God, I’m pathetic.) Called my wonderful agent, PJ Mark, and if you account for our conversation based on what was actually said, rather than what was meant, I called PJ in order to apologize for calling him.
Went for a walk and listened to a radio show about tumors. Tumors are endlessly fascinating. Everything is interesting, inside I’m blank and unknowing.
June 9, 2010
Threw a can of generic diet cola at a squirrel because I hate both the fuckers, squirrels and generic diet sodas.
June 14, 2010
A week since I opened this diary. Well, diary, I spent the past week floating on air. Really floating. Received an offer on that nonfiction book and I’m still floating. Wolves briefly held at bay for a few more months. Writing is my peppermint-flavored heroin.
June 21, 2010
Yesterday something died in the woods. We could tell by the smell. This morning, Rachel barely made it to the car without barfing. It’s the smell of rotting flesh, of ninety-six-degree heat producing cheeseburger. I spent half an hour this morning beating the undergrowth for Death. Quite a sight, I had a black and white winter scarf wrapped around my head for a makeshift mask. Didn’t find Death.
June 22, 2010
Smell’s gone. Goodbye, Death. Thank you, vultures.
June 28, 2010
Had an article published on Slate about how frequently the phrases “a dog barked in the distance” and “somewhere, a dog barked” appear in novels, something I started noticing in college. Today, @dankois wrote on Twitter that he loved the new David Mitchell novel except for two instances where “a dog barked in the distance.” He added the hashtag, #thanksalotrosecransbaldwin. I felt the need to apologize.
July 7, 2010
There are endless sneaky ways to feel no good. Especially in the early hours, when Despair hides surface-to-air missiles in the couch and aims them at my amygdalae. This morning, I read a letter Nicholson Baker wrote to John Updike twenty-five years ago and I just felt awful. It’s one hell of a letter. Very Bakeresque. Me, I admire authors who keep digging after the same thing book after book. Baker, Ishiguro, Greene, Murakami. I mean, none of them’s a Philip Roth, a Coetzee, but who is? I go out into the woods and dig a hole with the toe of my boot to bury some coffee grounds and egg shells. No gun blasts.
July 12, 2010
Shotgun man just rode by my kitchen window on his motorcycle, stars and bars flying off the back. He was wearing tiny running shorts, tennis shoes with socks pulled up to his knees, and that’s it. Moustache blowing in the wind.
July 14, 2010
This afternoon, there was a thump on the front porch. The FedEx guy was walking back to his truck while I eyed the package. I knew what it was. Can I be a thug about this and still say I cried when I opened it and saw my book for the first time? Do thugs never cry? Who said thugs can’t be happy, can’t be true to themselves and their Lucy Lius?
July 20, 2010
Great advance review came in from the American Library Association. Thank you, Booklist! Libraries and librarians the world over, I honor you. Otherwise, my anxiety is causing acid reflux. I’ve started buying big bottles of chocolate milk. It is delicious, so sweet and so cold, and so fatty.
July 23, 2010
Book trailer went live today on YouTube. I love the novelty of book trailers. Why not? Why shouldn’t novels be sold every which-way? Look at the Shteyngart trailer, look at Sloane Crosley’s videos. We need more of this, not less.
Three years ago, I worked in advertising for 18 months and participated in a few big-scale shoots. One involved me interviewing Sir Sean Connery at his private Bahamas retreat. Highly ulcerous. Beforehand, the island faxed us a dress code requiring that men wear slacks and keep their shirts tucked in at all times. The filming was done in the afternoon after the photo shoot, and I can testify that the dock in the following picture was constructed that morning. I can also say that Sir Sean Connery was extremely nice. I’d say he was more nervous than me, but then he’d also been posing on a beach for three hours in ninety-degree weather in a wool sweater and a tuxedo.
July 26, 2010
Only way to get up in the morning and work steadily is to imagine there aren’t six million writers doing the same exact thing at the same moment with more imagination. That is one reason why I no longer live in New York.
July 29, 2010
Shit is really swinging. Reviews, interviews, news of reviews slated, online thingies solicited, and all are wonderful! I say yes to everything! And when I run my tongue over the gift horse in my mouth, I swear it’s chocolate and I pray it’s not squirrel inside. As you read these words I am very likely somewhere south of you, breathing into a paper bag. I am the luckiest bastard in the world.
August 3, 2010
We invited a farmer to visit and have his way with our fig tree. He brought a stepladder about sixteen feet too short; our fig tree is as tall as the house. He climbs up the tree and picks eight baskets full. The plan, he tells me, is to sell everything at a nearby farmer’s market, and in return he’s offering me trade in homemade sausage and cheese. Ne Fuck Pas Avec Les Benefits de La Semi-Rural Life. Evening lesson: Chocolate milk and tequila do not mix.
August 5, 2010
Self-Googling is never not shameful. Lots of push-ups today, some not very good work, a not very good nap, and I read a very good novel by Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver. Can NYRB Classics publish no wrong?
August 8, 2010
No gun shots in a week. Non-book stuff today: caught a pro-am tournament in Durham and watched NBA players battle in a tiny gym while listening to Gucci Mane. Man—or, as pronounced down here, mane—I wish I were athlete enough to get away with wearing shower sandals with dark socks pulled up to my knees.
August 10, 2010
So, this is what they call sleep deprived. Interviews have gone strangely, some wonderfully, some odd. One reporter called and we immediately went to tape for a radio broadcast while my mouth was full of a tomato sandwich. Most common question I’ve heard when people learn I’ve got a book coming out, “Are you touring?” The answer is, not really. I.e., I’m doing three readings in North Carolina and one in New York in September. But I wonder about the impulse behind the question. When did “author tour” become so popular a notion? What does happen when authors tour? I have no idea. Backyard amateur wrestling? Masked group sex? Eyes Wide Shut recreated nationwide in English department conference rooms? Diary, if I ever author-tour, it will be all of that, and commemorative T-shirts will be given out for free.
August 11, 2010
Last day of the diary. Diary, it’s been fun. To anyone reading, I hope you were entertained, I hope you laughed and cried, and I hope that was enough. Tomorrow my book will be published and shelved in stores, and we can socially-communicate regarding its inability to out-swim the hype shark. In the evening, I will visit one of my local bookstores, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill (one of the events I’m doing), and they will serve (red) wine, (white) wine, and pabst (blue) ribbon. Perhaps I should invite my neighbor, America’s Defender.
I went running this afternoon to burn off some nerves. I saw him, my shotgun-toting neighbor, drinking beer outside his buddy’s trailer. He waved. I waved. I called out, “How you doing?” He yelled back, “Good man, good.”
Well, that’s exactly how I’m doing, times a thousand.
2010 has already been a strong year for fiction lovers, with new novels by the likes of Joshua Ferris, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, and David Mitchell. Meanwhile, publishing houses offered up posthumous works by Ralph Ellison, Robert Walser, and Henry Roth, and the font of Roberto Bolaño fiction continued to flow.
The second half of 2010 will bring much anticipated work by Gary Shteyngart, Antonya Nelson, Salman Rushdie, and especially Jonathan Franzen. So that readers may set their literary calendars anew, we’ve selected a few dozen books we’re looking forward to. (The writer of each preview is noted in parenthesis.)
July (or already available)
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman: I first took note of Allegra Goodman’s off-kilter prose thanks to a New Yorker short story five years ago. As it turns out, that story, gently poking fun at the exuberance of the late 1990s, but also quietly weighty, touching on pain, religion and the whole idea of being “centered,” was a piece of Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector. The book focuses on a pair of sisters at the turn of the millennium toiling on either end of the technology continuum, one the founder of a dot-com startup, the other an antiquarian book dealer. PW loves the book, calling it “Goodman’s most robust, fully realized and trenchantly meaningful work yet.” (Max)
The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody: The Four Fingers of Death is a 700 page supercollider. It brings together the various interests Rick Moody has explored in his eight previous books: metafiction, domestic drama, satire, the entertainment industry, and the Way We Live Now…er, tomorrow. The framing tale, set in the year 2025 (yes, man is still alive), concerns Montese Crandall, a self-involved writer-type who will be familiar to readers of Moody’s short stories. The longer, framed section is a Vonnegut-inspired sci-fi romp. Gradually, one imagines, the two converge. Mutual illumination ensues. (Garth)
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr: Doerr came to the attention of many readers with his debut collection of stories The Shell Collector. Now, after a novel and a travel memoir, he’s back with another collection that includes two novellas and four short stories. As with The Shell Collector, Doerr’s scope in Memory Wall is global. A recent profile with Boise Weekly — Doerr is wrapping up his tenure as Idaho’s writer in residence — places the action in China, South Africa, Germany, Korea, Lithuania, Wyoming and, of course, Idaho. (Max)
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: The author of the critically acclaimed and deliriously off-kilter novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan returns with a third novel set in an apocalyptic near-future. Books are all but extinct and America is functionally illiterate, there are riots in Central Park and National Guard tanks on every Manhattan street corner, and the narrator is, as the Random House publicity department puts it, “the proud owner of what may well be the world’s last diary.” It’s difficult to resist the book’s opening lines: “Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die. Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off.” (Emily M.)
Faithful Place by Tana French: Faithful Place is the #1 Indie Next Pick for the month of July. (This is a big deal—it means that independent booksellers across the United States have picked French’s new novel as their favorite out of all the books being published in the US in July 2010.) This alone should be enough to make us sit up and take notice,
but the plotline is particularly beguiling: when Frank Mackey was nineteen, he made plans with his girlfriend Rosie to leave the poverty and dysfunction of their lives in Dublin’s inner city and flee to London. But Rosie never appeared on the night they were supposed to meet, and Frank, assuming that she’d changed her mind, went on to England without her. Twenty-two years later, a suitcase is found behind a fireplace in a run-down building on the street where Frank grew up; when it becomes clear that the suitcase belonged to Rosie, Frank returns home to try and unravel the mystery of what happened to her. French is also the author
of two previous critically-acclaimed novels: In the Woods, which won the Edgar, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony awards, and The Likeness. (Emily M.)
The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer: Adam Langer, who is the author of the well-received Crossing California and two other books, will publish The Thieves of Manhattan this month. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “an über-hip caper that pays homage to and skewers the state of publishing and flash-in-the-pan authors… Part Bright Lights, Big City, part The Grifters, this delicious satire of the literary world is peppered with slang so trendy a glossary is included.” (Edan)
The Return and The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication continues. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories. And The Insufferable Gaucho (August) — more stories, plus two essays — was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And we hear there’s more “new” Bolaño to come in 2011. (Max)
My Hollywood by Mona Simpson: Simpson, author of Anywhere but Here and Off Keck Road, among others, took ten years to write this new novel about Claire, who has recently moved to Los Angeles with her husband and young son, and Lola, their Filipina nanny. In Publishers Weekly, Simpson said, “There are thousands of women who are here working, often with their own young children left behind. That leads to a whole different vision of what it is to raise a child, what’s important.” (Edan)
Hollywood by Larry McMurtry: Although Texas epicist Larry McMurtry has written dozens of novels, he’s best known for the films that have come from them: The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Hud, and the CBS colossus “Lonesome Dove.” Over the last five decades, he’s turned others’ work into triumph (Brokeback Mountain), seen his own ground into pabulum (Texasville), and written a screenplay for The Cougar (John Mellencamp’s Falling From Grace). In short, he’s a veteran of the L.A. movie wars, and in Hollywood—his third memoir in as many years—he’ll share the stories behind them. Or, at least, he should: in a harsh review of his second memoir, 2009’s Literary Life, The New York Times wrote, “Too often… Mr. McMurtry will sidle up to an interesting anecdote and then tell the reader to wait for his third and concluding memoir, Hollywood… He’ll explain then.” (Jacob)
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.” (Max)
Encounter by Milan Kundera: Fans of Milan Kundera’s previous essays on the power of art (particularly that of the novel), memory, mortality, and human nature can look forward to Encounter, his newest collection, which was released in France in 2009 and will land in the English-speaking world in August. Kundera’s devotion to modernism is a particular focus here, with reflections both critical and personal on the work of established masters – Francis Bacon, Leo Janacek, Garcia Marquez, Dostoevsky, and Fellini – as well as homages to those he considers unsung, including Anatole France, Curzio, Malaparte, and Celine. (Both the Malaparte and Celine sections apparently hone in on episodes involving dogs – the dignified way in which animals face death, in contrast to human posturing and vanity – which I especially look forward to). In a review last year, Trevor Cribben Merrill described Encounter as “a self-portrait of the artist as an old man […]the most personal of Kundera’s essays.” (Sonya)
You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin: In this debut novel by the co-founder of one of The Millions’ favorite sites, The Morning News, Alzheimer’s researcher Victor Aaron discovers his late wife’s notes about the state of their marriage. Her version of their relationship differs greatly from his own, and Victor is forced to reexamine their life together. Wells Tower says the novel “is a work of lucid literary art, roisterous wit, and close, wry knowledge of the vexed circuits of the human mind and heart.” (Edan)
Sympathy for the Devil, edited by Tim Pratt: This anthology will collect stories from an impressive roster of writers — Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others — with the devil being the common thread. This being a reprint anthology, fans of the individual authors included may find nothing new, though they may appreciate the clever theme and may encounter work by writers they don’t regularly read. (Max)
The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile: While many readers might associate Guilfoile with McSweeney’s, where he’s a frequent contributor, or The Morning News, where with John Warner he provides essential commentary for the Tournament of Books, his fiction occupies a space that some readers might not associate with these latter-day literary tastemakers. Case in point, the titular Thousand are “a clandestine group of powerful individuals safeguarding and exploiting the secret teachings of Pythagoras.” That may sound like Dan Brown fodder, but you’ll be getting something much, much smarter. (Max)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s first novel in nearly a decade, is a love story – albeit one surrounded by more ideas and insights and plot-lines than many novelists manage in a career. As he anatomizes the marriage of Minnesotans Patty and Walter Berglund, Franzen also looks at environmentalism, politics, sex, gentrification, and the pains and pleasures of growing up. And though a youthful anger animates his writing on the Bush years, his patience with Patty, in particular, suggests a writer who has done some growing himself. Franzen’s longest book is also, for great swaths of pages, his best. (Garth)
Bound by Antonya Nelson: If two women can bond by mutual disdain for a third, then reading Antonya Nelson’s fiction is like being the second woman listening as Nelson dishes tales of family, friends, and small town life with precision, venom, and humor. Typical to Nelson is a swift and biting portrait that’s as honest as it is unsentimental–consider this line from her story “Incognito” for example: “My mother the widow had revealed a boisterous yet needy personality, now that she was alone, and Eddie, least favorite sibling, oily since young, did nothing more superbly than prop her up.” Nelson’s latest novel, Bound, returns to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and depicts the turmoil of a couple on the rocks–the wife haunted by her past and the husband a serial adulterer–while a serial killer, the BTK (Bound Torture, and Kill), reappears after a long silence, taking vicious to a new level. (Anne)
Zero History by William Gibson: Zero History will round out a trilogy that also includes Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Gibson recently laid out how the three books fit into our 21st century milieu: “If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event.” (Max)
Ape House by Sara Gruen: Following her surprise hit with Water for Elephants, Gruen earned a $5 million advance for Ape House and whatever she writes next. Whether or not Gruen earns back that hefty advance, the new book sounds like madness: super smart apes — bonobos, specifically — escape a lab in an explosion and not long after, a mega-hit reality TV show appears featuring the missing apes. This reminds me of that movie Project X. (Max)
C by Tom McCarthy: One of Tom McCarthy’s many roles in addition to novelist includes acting as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, who in their first manifesto declared: “our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death” and that “the construction of mankind’s sole chance of survival lies in its ability, as yet unsynthesised, to die in new, imaginative ways.” In keeping with these moribund tendencies, McCarthy returns with his second third novel, C, which in general terms deals with technology and mourning. In McCarthy’s own words, “C is about the age of the wireless: the roar of transmission, signals flung from towering masts, global reaches crackling out of earphones. And empire. And insects. And incest.” Simultaneously a bildungsroman and an anti-realist period novel, C follows the life of Serge Carrefax, the son of a man who runs a school for the blind, who grows up to become a WWI radio operator for reconnaissance planes, is imprisoned by the Germans, and escapes. The book jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, claims that if MacCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, recalls Beckett then C reads like Joyce. McCarthy says that if Remainder is his French novel, then C is his German. If one can judge a book by its cover and anticipatory buzz, C will be one to remember. (Anne)
True Prep by Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd: The Official Preppy Handbook had that rare spark of wit that makes a good joke many things to many people. Actual preppy people were chuffed to find themselves the subject of a well-drawn lampoon (or earnestly concerned with inaccuracies), the great unwashed found an arsenal or an atlas, depending on their aspirations, and people somewhere in the middle could feel a sheepish pride in being kind of sort of related to a tribe important enough to have its own book. People with real problems, of course, didn’t care either way. Now, True Prep is upon us, and if it fulfills the 1.3 million-print run promise of its precursor, Knopf Doubleday and authors Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd (original collaborator Jonathan Roberts did not participate, fearing the project wasn’t true to the subversive intention of the Handbook) stand to rake it in. But the popularity of the original book, the shifting sands of American society and wealth, and the proliferation of lifestyle blogs by people with no sense of humor or irony have created a monster simulacrum of “prepdom,” one without easily defined parameters. Will the sequel be able to paint such a sharp and comic portrait as the first Handbook, or will it be yet another non-book littering the aisles of Borders? (Lydia)
All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: Chang, who is the author of one other novel, Inheritance, and a story collection, Hunger, is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Perhaps the Workshop inspired her new book, which is about poets at a renowned writing school. At just over 200 pages, this slim novel examines the age-old question, “What are the personal costs of a life devoted to the pursuit of art?” (Edan)
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: Cunningham’s last novel Specimen Days didn’t quite replicate the critical and commercial success of The Hours. This new novel was initially called Olympia, and a long excerpt of it was published in the inaugural issue of Electric Literature. Discussing the novel, Cunningham told Entertainment Weekly, “Peter is the central character. He’s an art dealer and he finds that he is increasingly drawn to his wife’s very much younger brother, who evinces for him everything that was appealing about his wife when he first met her. He’s not gay. Well, he’s probably a little gay because we’re all a little gay, right? But it’s certainly eroticized. It’s not because he wants to f— this boy. The boy is like the young wife.” (Max)
Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez: In early 2009 in these pages, Sana Krasikov considered the contention the women aren’t known for writing novels of ideas. Her rejoinder to this was Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, “a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters.” This new novel exploring a dystopia — it’s set in the near future after a flu pandemic has ravaged the world and a sheltered, but cultish community has survived the carnage — seems likely to extend Krasikov’s thesis. (Max)
The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago: From the late Nobel laureate, this novel “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria.” (Max)
Nemesis by Philip Roth: This latest novel from Roth should prove to be more accessible than his last, The Humbling. The book is set during a war-time polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey in 1944. At the center of the book is a 23-year-old playground director who sees polio ravage the children he looks after. The book has been in the works since at least early 2009, when it was first described by Roth. (Max)
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier: If, like me, you were wowed when you read in The New Yorker Ian Frazier’s expansive, two-part travelogue of a trip across Siberia at the turn of the millennium, then you’ll be thrilled to find out that this massive piece was likely just a small fraction of Frazier’s forthcoming 544-page book. Frazier’s entertaining guides Sergei and Volodya (they are a pair of lovable, though sometimes frightening, curmudgeons), his insistence on traveling by car (which lent Frazier’s NYer piece many comic moments but also an unimpeachable authenticity), and the moment in history when his trip takes place (he arrives at the Pacific on September 11th, 2001), seem likely to make this book a classic. (Max)
Listen to This by Alex Ross: If New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s second book Listen to This lives up to its title essay, then we’re in for a treat. I remember being floored and invigorated by that essay in 2004; Ross’s depth of knowledge, passion, and youth – just 36 then – converted me to his cause in a blink. “I hate ‘classical music,’” he wrote, “not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past… Yes, the music can be great and serious… It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values.” In other words, no music, classical or otherwise, is categorically superior nor the moribund realm of rich ladies; all great music is by definition “something worth loving.” In Listen to This, Ross reaches beyond “classical” (his award-winning first book The Rest is Noise explored 20th century classical composers) into a more eclectic canvass — in Ross’s words, a “panoramic view” – of music worth loving, including Verdi, Brahms, Marian Anderson, Chinese classical music, Kiki and Herb, Led Zeppelin, Björk, Radiohead, Mitsuko Uchida, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Bob Dylan. (Sonya)
Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book by Lynda Barry: For the visually patient—those who inspect collage, squint into details, and willingly sift through doodles—Lynda Barry’s work is a unique gift. The cartoonist/novelist/lecturer’s Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book will continue the thread begun with 2008’s What It Is, her bust-out graphic memoir-cum-instructional. As What It Is encouraged the act of writing, Picture This will push the reader to draw and remind us of the happiness it once could bring. Remember when you filled your looseleaf margins with rough Darth Vaders and ridiculous monsters? If anyone can get us to put down our phones, pick up our pencils, and get back to that pleasure, it’s Barry—whose boundless, cramming technique is evidence of both the work and reward of creation. (Jacob)
The Masque of Africa by V.S. Naipaul: V.S. Naipaul, hoping to reach “the beginning of things,” traveled to six sub-Saharan African countries and examined the belief structures found therein for The Masque of Africa, a travelogue and treatise on the role of religion in culture. Apparently Naipaul learned much from this project, which complicated his sense of an old-new dichotomy and his notion that religious practices varied greatly between nations. Naipaul’s detractors have accused him of being a colonial apologist, so it will be interesting to see how this work of non-fiction will engage with complex ideas of faith and progress, neither of which can be separated from Africa’s colonial past, nor, as Naipaul concedes, from the present-day politics of the nations he explores. (Lydia)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky): Pevear and Volokhonsky’s vigorous translations have turned new editions of the Russian greats into publishing events, and we’ve watched as their translations of classics like War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories climbed our otherwise contemporary-leaning top-ten lists. Last year, we interviewed the husband and wife team and got a sense of their unique process. In an interview around the same time with the Wall Street Journal, the couple called Zhivago the toughest of the 16 books they’ve translated: “The issue is the prose. It’s not that rich or ornate, but it’s extremely difficult to translate. His language is very studied. Even when it looks simple, it’s not. The sentences aren’t long or complex, but it’s the quality of the words. It’s never what you expect.” (Max)
The Great House by Nicole Krauss: Bestselling author of The History of Love, Nicole Krauss returns with The Great House, a novel about a desk that, according to the publisher’s description, “contains the secrets, and becomes the obsession, of the lives it passes through… a desk of enormous dimension and many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away.” Krauss was one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” writers, and “The Young Painters,” published in the magazine’s June 28, 2010 issue, is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel. You can read a Q&A with her here. (Edan)
X’ed Out by Charles Burns: I once saw a comics panel discussion in which Charles Burns complained, fairly wryly, about the amount of effort he forces into his work: in one issue of Black Hole, he said, he spent hours applying his sharp black inks to an endpaper image of twigs—a picture that each reader would spend “maybe three seconds on,” then move along. Such frustration is understandable, but I don’t know that he was actually right. Each page, each panel, of Burns’ work claws you in; each line is unsettling in its perfection. He cannot be read casually. His newest, X’ed Out, will touch on typically Burnisan themes: quiet distress, eerie isolation, a heavy apocalyptic oddness. But, as always, the look of the book is the thing: we’ll be gripped by its feel as much as by its story—and, yes, take our time with its potent renderings of splintered boards, broken walls, and specimens shut in jars. (Jacob)
False Friends by Myla Goldberg: We included Goldberg on our own “20 under 40” list and suggested that “literary mandarins” put off by her smash-hit debut Bee Season take a look. Another opportunity to do so will arrive in October with Goldberg’s third novel. (Max)
If You’re Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki: In October, Millions contributor Edan Lepucki will publish her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me under Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint. The title will initially be available for limited edition presale under Flatmancrooked’s LAUNCH program, designed for emerging authors. (Max)
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie: In the wake of the fatwa and accompanying media frenzy that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie, apparently at the prodding of his then nine-year-old son, shifted gears to focus on something much less contentious, a children’s book called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Now, twenty years later, Rushdie is returning with a sequel to the book he wrote for his son. Fatherhood has once again inspired Rushdie, who, according to bookseller.com, decided to write this new book for his “youngest son, Milan, who was born in 1999.” (Max)
Autobiography of Mark Twain: On April 21, 1910, Mark Twain died of a heart attack. His death brought to a close maybe the greatest literary life America has ever known, and it started the countdown to the publication of Twain’s autobiography, which Twain instructed was not to be released until he had been good and gone for 100 years. Well, the waiting is finally over, and from early reports it appears as though it might have taken an entire century to wrestle the mass of writing Twain left behind into publishable form. This November, the University of California Press will release the first volume in a trilogy that Twain wrote according to the rambling dictate, “talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment.” (Kevin)
The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass: The publisher’s description of this one lays out its unique premise: “In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives.” It’s another journey into autobiography for Grass, whose Peeling the Onion set off a furor in Germany and elsewhere with its revelation that Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. (Max)
Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer: FSG will collect the “best” short fiction from the South African Nobel laureate in this hefty volume. (Max)
The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll: Readers mourned the death of punk poet Jim Carroll last year. As Garth wrote in these pages, “Before he was a screenwriter, Carroll was a diarist, a frontman, an addict, and a poet, and he left behind at least a couple of very good books.” For Carroll fans, this posthumously published novel that takes the late-1980s art scene as its inspiration, will at the very least be another opportunity to experience his work and at best may be another one of those “very good books.” (Max)
Selected Stories by William Trevor: This volume will collect nearly 600 pages worth of short stories from this verable master of the form. (Max)
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick: This forthcoming novel from Ozick is framed as a nifty literary trick. It’s a retelling of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, but, according to the publisher’s description, “the plot is the same, [but] the meaning is reversed.” (Max)
Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy: It’s actually been seven years since the last Tom Clancy book came out, the longest gap of his career. This fact plus the usual excitement from Jack Ryan fans could make this more of a publishing event than expected. (Max)
My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard: This collection of essays was originally published in 1980 but never in the U.S. The book will be a balm to those worked up by literary prizes and the teapot tempests they tend to foment. Bernhard’s focus here is the myriad prizes he collected and his bemused, sardonic reaction to them. The book seems likely to stand as an irreverent footnote at the intersection of 20th century literary history and 20th century publishing culture. A review of the German edition of the book suggests: “Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Karen Russell was just 23 when she had a story in The New Yorker’s 2005 debut fiction issue. Since then, she has published an acclaimed collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and been named to The New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 list. With the accolades already piled sky high, this will be one of the more anticipated debut novels in recent years. The publishers’ description suggests we should expect big, ambitious things: “think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades.” (Max)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III Dubus, already much feted for his short stories and novels, will be trying his hand at the memoir. In this case, the trajectory is from hard-bitten youth to redemption in writing. Fans can expect perhaps to gain some insights into the genesis of Dubus’ fiction. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard: You Think That’s Bad will be Shepard’s fourth collection of short stories, and from the Knopf catalogue description, it sounds like it won’t disappoint; there’s a story about a farm boy who “becomes the manservant of a French nobleman who’s as proud of having served with Joan of Arc as he’s aroused by slaughtering children”–need we say more? Shepard’s previous collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was nominated for the National Book Award. (Edan)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Obreht secured a special place in the literary pantheon not just by being on The New Yorker’s recent 20 under 40 list, but by being, at 25, the youngest one on it. With her debut novel, readers will get a larger sense of what the praise for Obreht is all about (an excerpt of the novel, in the form of a peculiar story of the same title, appeared in the magazine last year). (Max)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When he died in September 2008, David Foster Wallace left behind more than 1,000 pages of notes and drafts of an unfinished novel that he had given the preliminary title The Pale King. The book had been in progress for more than a decade and one of the last things Wallace did before taking his own life was to tidy what he written so that it would be easier to sort after he was gone. Since then the manuscript has been in the hands of Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor at Little, Brown, and it is expected that a version of the book running about 400 pages will be published late this year or early next. Four confirmed excerpts from The Pale King have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s. They suggest a story centered around IRS agents at a Midwestern processing office struggling to deal with the “intense tediousness” of their work. (Kevin)
There are many other exciting books coming out in the coming months not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in the comments section below.
As we had hoped, our “Best of the Millennium (So Far)” poll stoked a fair amount of conversation around the web last week. List-making, as we’ve argued in the past, is an imperfect enterprise, and reactions ranged from “Great picks” to “Why didn’t you mention x?”
One of the difficulties of reaching consensus on books is that there are so many of them; The Corrections‘ appearance at #1 in our poll may reflect the likelihood of our panelists having read the book as much as it reflects inherent excellence. In our survey of 56 panelists – who had, collectively, 280 votes to allocate – something like 160 titles were mentioned. And so, as we sifted through the ballots, what struck us was not a “unified sensibility,” but an exhilarating diversity, which we plan to share with you in the coming days.
As we continue to discuss our “Best Fiction of the Millennium” results – and the heuristic value of list-making in general – we’ll announce the rest of the titles that received votes, and maybe some of those that came up in the comments. We hope that you discover some pleasant surprises on these lists, as we did, and we hope you’ll continue the conversation about what books from the last decade were worth your reading time. First, though, we thought we’d post an “Honorable Mention” list of 15 books that received multiple votes in our poll but didn’t crack our Top 20.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon.
This massive – and massively popular – novel follows two comic book creators in the World War II era.
Any Human Heart, by William Boyd.
A series of journal entries documents the life of an Englishman and his century. (See our review.)
By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño.
A Catholic priest embroiled in the hothouse of Chilean politics delivers a riveting dramatic monologue.
The Children’s Hospital, by Chris Adrian.
A flood of possibly divine provenance turns the titular hospital into an ark in this, the second novel from a hugely ambitious young writer.
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, by Ken Kalfus.
The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter.
Stories of love knit together a community in Ann Arbor in this novel by a critical favorite.
The first and third installments of the His Dark Materials trilogy open up a parallel universe of daemons and Dust.
The Great Fire , by Shirley Hazzard
Traveling East Asia after World War II, an English war hero finds love among the ruins. (See our review.)
HomeLand , by Sam Lipsyte.
Class notes from a ne’er-do-well form the spine of this comic novel.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Samantha Clarke.
Two magicians spar in this novel, which is long and erudite in the Victorian manner. (See our review.)
The Master, by Colm Tóibín.
Tóibín, an Irishman, recreates a pivotal period in the life of Henry James.
The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall.
A half-Apache youth matriculates at the school of hard knocks and various other failing 1960’s institutions.
Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace.
Wallace’s final collection of short fiction is dark and dense, bleak and exhilarating.
Remainder, by Tom McCarthy.
McCarthy bends the legacy of the Gallic avant-garde in the direction of pop perfection in this novel of memory and forgetting.
Still Holding, by Bruce Wagner.
The final entry in Wagner’s cell-phone themed trilogy explores the glitter and emptiness of Hollywood.
In the current New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith dives deep into the philosophical frame of avant-garde novels in a review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. The article is, generally speaking, written more for an academic audience than a casual reader (if you don’t have a precise working definition of “lyrical realism” it can be hard to gain traction in places), but overall it provides a provocative framework for thinking about the ways that postmodern thought has influenced the form of the novel.McCarthy is the General Secretary for the International Necronautical Society, a group founded around a mash-up of postmodern thinkers and writers – Derrida, Heidegger, Dostoevsky – and fond of manifesto-esque statements about the “brute materiality of the external world.”As an intellectual perspective, postmodernism is concerned with the untruth of systems, be they moral, metaphysical, or hermeneutic and in the realm of art it takes aim at the question of narrative authenticity – who exactly is the “I” telling the story. The result is the destruction of traditional form and the rise of the avant-garde. When false systems are stripped away – including the form of a story and the social constructions which gird a narrator’s identity – what remains is the “brute materiality” of the world. For this reason, Smith writes, “it’s not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry.”But poetry, as Auden famously put it, “makes nothing happen,” and something has to happen in a novel. Remainder is a search for authenticity, for the Real McCoy, and as Smith describes it, the novel finds it in the game of cricket (her review of Remainder appears alongside an equally rigorous review of Netherland) which is elevated, Smith writes, for its “pure facticity.” The game is an array of objects ordered in space: a ball, a batsmen, crisp white lines, and proceeds by a series of events that can be definitively known.What has always perplexed me about avant-garde literature is why the writer conceiving a story does not receive the same high status as a wad of gum on the sidewalk or a cricket ball flying through space. For all the worry of avant-garde literature, I am convinced that a human being telling a story is every bit as real as a rock.
For those who missed it, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder faced Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in the final. The winner was crowned here. If you’ve got a little time to spare, I encourage you to read all of the judge’s decisions and the accompanying “booth” commentaries from Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, as I found them to be quite entertaining. Incidentally, I would have liked to have seen Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, and/or Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, if only to read more people’s thoughts on them, but it’s hard to complain about such a fun enterprise.Bonus Links:Andrew’s review of Remainder.Junot Diaz participates in our Year in Reading.Joshua Ferris participates in our Year in Reading.Garth’s review of Tree of SmokeGarth on Bolano
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, and is a contributor to The Millions….And what a year it was: the manic highs, the crushing lows and no creamy middle to hold them together. In this way, my reading life and my other life seemed to mirror each other in 2007, as I suppose they do every year. As a reader, I try not to pick up a book unless there’s a good chance I’m going to like it, but as an aspiring critic, I felt obliged to slog through a number of bad novels. And so my reading list for 2007 lacked balance. It’s easy to draw a line between the wheat and the chaff, but harder to say which of the two dozen or so books I loved were my favorites, so grateful was I for their mere existence.If pressed, I would have to say that my absolute greatest reading experience of the year was Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. Zadie Smith inspired me to read this book, and I can’t believe I waited this long. Forster’s style seems to me the perfect expression of democratic freedom. It allows “the passion” and “the prose” equal representation on the page, and seeks the common ground between them. Forster’s ironies, in writing about the Schlegel family, are of the warmest variety. I wish I could write like him.A close runner-up was Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. It’s been years since I reacted this viscerally to a novel, as you’ll see if you read my review.Rounding out my top three was Helen De Witt’s first novel, The Last Samurai. Published in 2000 and then more or less forgotten about, The Last Samurai introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year, a child prodigy named Ludo. Ludo’s gifts are ethical as much as they are intellectual, and I loved De Witt’s rigorous adherence to her own peculiar instincts; her refusal to craft a “shapely” novel in the M.F.A. style.Other favorite classics included Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Fielding’s Tom Jones – each the expression of a sui generis authorial temperament – and Anne Carson’s odd and arresting translation of the fragmentary lyrics of Sappho. Every year, I try to read at least one long, modernist novel from my beloved Wiemar period; in 2007, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers reminded me why. And from the American canon, I was smitten with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (essay) and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (review).Three books by short-story writers whom I’d nominate for inclusion in the American canon: Excitability: Selected Stories by Diane Williams, Sylvia by Leonard Michaels (review), and Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favorite contemporary writers.Of the many (too many) new English-language novels I read, the best were Tom McCarthy’s stunningly original Remainder, Mark Binelli’s thoroughly entertaining Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die, Thomas Pynchon’s stunningly original, thoroughly entertaining, but unfocused Against the Day (review), Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. This last book seemed to me unfairly written off upon its release. I taught an excerpt from it to undergraduates, and for me, DeLillo’s defamiliarized account of September 11 and its aftermath deepened with each rereading.The best book of journalism I read this year was Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (review). And my two favorite new translations were Gregoire Brouillier’s memoir, The Mystery Guest (review), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel, The Slynx (review).Thanks for reading, everybody. See you in ’08!More from A Year in Reading 2007
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Looking at the fiction, it appears that some of these books crossed our radar as well:The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta: A most anticipated book.After Dark by Haruki Murakami: Ben’s review.Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo: A most anticipated book.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: A most anticipated book.Exit Ghost by Philip Roth: A most anticipated book.Falling Man by Don Delillo: Tempering Expectations for the Great 9/11 NovelThe Gathering by Anne Enright: Underdog Enright Lands the 2007 BookerHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling: Harry Potter is Dead, Long Live Harry Potter; Top Potter Town Gets Prize, Boy-Wizard Bragging Rights; Professor Trelawney Examines Her Tea Leaves; A Potter Post Mortem; A History of MagicHouse of Meetings by Martin Amis: A most anticipated book.In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar: The Booker shortlistKnots by Nuruddin Farah: A most anticipated book.Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard: National Book Award FinalistOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: Booker shortlistThe Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid: Booker shortlistRemainder by Tom McCarthy: Andrew’s reviewSavage Detectives by Roberto Bolano: A most anticipated book; Why Bolano MattersThen We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris: A most anticipated bookTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson: Garth’s reviewTwenty Grand by Rebecca Curtis: Emily’s reviewVarieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis: National Book Award FinalistWhat is the What by Dave Eggers: Garth’s review.The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon: Max’s review; Garth’s review.
Neil writes in with this question:I’m trying to remember the name of a new book I’ve recently read about and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think the general concept was that it was about a guy who was in an accident and when he wakes up, he has no memory of his life or who he is. Once the company that caused his accident pays him damages, he hires a bunch of actors to essentially play his family and friends. I think it’s a British book. Does this sound familiar? Would love to remember the name.As luck would have it, the book you describe was reviewed here at The Millions by Andrew back in February. It’s Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Of the book’s high concept hook, Andrew wrote:You’d think all of this would be implausible, but the rendering is so painstakingly detailed that every time you think, “but what about…?”, you find that McCarthy is one step ahead of you. He’s already worked out the logical leaps. And once you wrap your mind around the notion that money can buy any service, somehow the improbable becomes possible.For more on Remainder, check out its page at The Complete Review, chock full of links to commentary on the book.Thanks for writing, Neil!
What if… What if you were an anonymous urbanite, going about your daily routine in, say, London, when some indescribable airborne object falls through the nothingness and crash-lands on your head, forever altering your somethingness…What if that happened, and then it’s months later. You’ve doubled back from the abyss and there you are, at home, relearning everything. Physically you’re fine, but there’s a gaping hole where your sense of connection used to be. A piece of the puzzle is missing and with it your own sense of reality. You wish you could piece together some sense of your previous self because only then, you think, you’d be complete. Occasionally you brush up against that reality – a scrap of paper, a passing word – something to tease you, to trigger the connection with your past, with your self.And then the money. You learn that your bank balance has shot through the stratosphere, the result of a settlement from the perpetrators of your condition. And now, as they say, money is no object.You think long and hard and you decide that the best use for your magical millions is to attempt to regain your reality – to rebuild, in every way, and by any means necessary, your vaguely-remembered life. This is the ultra-high concept of Tom McCarthy’s meticulously plotted and crafted Remainder.A rational search through memory doesn’t work so our hero opts for the irrational. A memory shake-up. Everything in his past would have left a mark of some sort – some kind of footprint. So he sets out to trigger these marks randomly. Though consciously implementing a random search cancels out its randomness.Eventually, he plots the few vague or triggered memories that he has and tries to rebuild his surroundings around them so that every step within this recreated environment would trigger his sense of whole. So he buys an apartment building that resembles the one in his memory, and then the surrounding buildings, alters them to match the half-remembered images in his mind. Then he auditions actors to populate his new/old world. These players would be there for him around the clock to repeatedly enact the triggered memories.You’d think all of this would be implausible, but the rendering is so painstakingly detailed that every time you think, “but what about…?”, you find that McCarthy is one step ahead of you. He’s already worked out the logical leaps. And once you wrap your mind around the notion that money can buy any service, somehow the improbable becomes possible.Our hero isn’t the most likable of heroes, and more than once I became frustrated with his obsessive, often cruel, perfectionism. But then I remember that every supporting character is on his payroll. Everyone – his long-suffering facilitators, his “actors” – they all knew what they were getting into, at first at least, and are handsomely compensated.And just how perfect does his recreated environment need to be? Partial success is abject failure. The point for him is to capture the connection, not merely an acceptable re-enactment. And once captured, it must be repeated. Realness is a state, not an isolated action. To experience it, our narrator must return to it again and again. It is only in the constant repetition of a remembered action that he finds the connection that he seeks.And until when? As the story progresses, you realize that our hero needs to do more than just re-enact his environment over and over again. He reaches a point in his obsession where he must merge with his action, slow down the motion and be one with his environment, with the increasingly hyper-real experiences that he’s manufacturing. Only then will he feel complete.Along with memory gaps, words and concepts have disappeared from our narrator’s verbal toolbox. And so we also get a complete sense of narrative process. Like the Tourette’s-affected hero of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, we’re privy to the machinations and linguistic somersaults that our narrator goes through to make himself understood.A story of obsession, then, obsessively told. A meticulously rendered tale of meticulousness itself. It’s hard not to feel simultaneously irritated at both the action and the narrator, and yet utterly compelled to see his obsession through.