When Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade came out in 1976, it was a Book of the Month Club selection, alongside Judith Guest’s Ordinary People. Yates—who’d achieved career-making acclaim with his first novel, Revolutionary Road, but less success with subsequent ones—was excited about his expanded readership. But he also called up his editor Sam Lawrence to express his worry that Delacorte planned to market the novel, which follows two sisters from the 1930s to the 1970s, as a “woman’s book.”
Yates was not the first or last male novelist (see also: Franzen) to worry that his work would be diminished by its association with women. Even today, women’s fiction remains a category in publishing—my own books are sometimes labeled that way—and I often wonder what it means. Is it a book that features women? Is it anything I write, because I’m a woman?
I was working on my new “woman’s book,” Dual Citizens, about two sisters and their complicated, life-long bond, when a friend suggested I read The Easter Parade. Like most people, the only Yates I’d read was Revolutionary Road. In the decades since his death in 1992, Revolutionary Road has kept Yates’s reputation alive; according to NPD BookScan, it has sold 483,000 copies in paperback since 2004, with over half of that coming after the release of the film version in 2008. The Easter Parade, by contrast, has sold just more than 10,000 copies in paperback since 2004.
It deserves more readers. I fell in love with it from the dark, once-upon-a-time cadence of its opening sentence: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” If this is a woman’s book, Yates is clear that it won’t be a light-hearted one. Emily and Sarah Grimes grow up with their alcoholic, self-deluding mother, Pookie, in a series of rental homes they can’t afford. Their father, who lives in New York City, is well-intentioned but distant, a copy-man at a newspaper who didn’t amount to much and knows it. The three women form an awkward triad, often struggling to find anything to talk about, yet forever implicated in each other’s lives.
Things look promising when Sarah meets a handsome, genteel neighbor, Tony Wilson. At the start of their courtship, he and Sarah dress up in their finest clothes, walk in the Easter Parade, and are photographed for the rotogravure section of the New York Times. But after this brief high point, the relationship goes precipitously downhill: Tony and Sarah have three children and descend into dysfunctional family life. They drink to excess; Sarah is isolated, her occasional attempts at writing going nowhere; Tony beats her.
Marriage is no happily-ever-after conclusion—it’s a prison that the prisoner has to pretend to enjoy. Little wonder that Emily mistrusts it. When Sarah tells Emily to marry one of her boyfriends, Emily snaps, “‘You’re always telling me to marry people, Sarah. You say that about every man I bring out here. Is marriage supposed to be the answer to everything?’ Sarah looked hurt. ‘It’s the answer to an awful lot of things.’”
They’re both wrong. Emily takes a different path from her sister; smart and studious, she attends Barnard, later working at magazines and in advertising. She has affairs with a number of men, most of them awful. (While I wouldn’t exactly call Yates a comic writer, Emily’s boyfriends star in a number of bleakly hilarious scenes.) Yates narrates Emily’s sexual experiences with frankness, her desire acknowledged without prudishness, and the issues that come along—one of her lovers is impotent, another is bisexual—are treated as matters of fact. She has two abortions, which Yates, again, presents without judgment. For a while she works on an essay about her experiences, and when she puts it away, it’s not because she’s traumatized or fearful of writing about abortion but because she can see, with her editor’s “gelid eye,” that the writing isn’t very good.
Yates based Emily in part on Natalie Bowen, a friend/girlfriend who worked as an editor at Putnam’s, and in part on himself. His own mother, Dookie, shared Pookie’s artistic ambitions and alcoholism, and he and his sister Ruth grew up in an environment that exactly tracks Sarah and Emily’s. The novel remains autobiographical throughout, from Sarah’s move to an under-maintained family estate on Long Island to Pookie’s eventual institutionalization.
In middle-age Emily, Yates’s stand-in, meets Jack Flanders, a poet who also seems a stand-in for Yates, animating a love affair between two versions of the same person. Flanders asks her to accompany him to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he’s been invited to teach for two years. As Jack struggles to work and teach—evoking Yates’s own experience at Iowa, when experimental writers like the Chilean novelist José Donoso competed with traditional realists like himself—he traps Emily in the web of his narcissism and despair. Insisting on writing in the main room of the house, he tells her, “I like being able to look up and see you. Moving in and out of the kitchen, hauling the vacuum cleaner.”
Emily tries to write too, but can’t, and Yates’s portrait of a woman stifled by male ego is so acute here. When she turns down Jack’s proposal of marriage and family and goes back to New York alone, it seems an excellent choice, no matter what the consequences might be.
Of course the consequences, Yates being a poet of life’s everyday brutality, are not good. Emily suffers just as much as Sarah does; her independent life is every bit as poisonous as Sarah’s housebound one. When her nephew Peter tells her admiringly, “You’ve always struck me as the original liberated woman,” the observation lands grimly and without solace.
The Easter Parade covers 40 years of massive social changes in the lives of women, but it offers almost no lengthy descriptions of the era or deliberations on what these changes mean. Instead Yates presents a compressed montage of brisk, vivid scenes, each one a masterpiece of gesture and detail. Late in life Sarah and Emily meet in a coffee shop to discuss the possibility of Sarah leaving Tony. In the middle of the scene, the narrative gaze travels to a booth across the aisle, where “a couple of young lovers were murmuring, side by side, the girl’s fingers tracing little elliptical patterns on the inner thigh of the boy’s tight, well-faded blue jeans.” It’s a tiny but electric shock of youthful sensuality that contrasts sharply with the sisters’ tense conversation. Sarah and Emily are alone together, while sex and pleasure sit nearby, almost close enough to touch.
The Easter Parade may be harsh in the fates it hands to Sarah and Emily, but it’s also even-handed in its treatment of them, two women who straddle the radical shifts of the twentieth century and discover that any path they might take is vexed with difficulty. And though neither of them makes good on their desire to write, Yates never treats their aspirations as foolish. Like the Grimes sisters, the characters in my novel have artistic ambitions that are hard to realize, and in The Easter Parade’s troubled women I found both historical connection and timeless resonance.
Yates himself was hardly a feminist. As Blake Bailey outlines in his well-wrought and wildly depressing biography, A Tragic Honesty, Yates was old-fashioned in his aesthetic and political values, and he was a pretty bad husband too. Yet he also lived his life among women—first his mother and sister, then his two wives and three daughters and assorted girlfriends—and from the evidence he understood a great deal about their lives. I think The Easter Parade is an inadvertent feminist classic, a woman’s book in the best possible meaning of that fraught term.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: ASTERISK.
Richard Vine has a day job, a very good one. He’s managing editor of Art in America magazine, where he has written hundreds of articles about Chinese ink art, the Chicago Imagists, photographers from Mali, Korean sculptures installed in the gardens at Versailles, and the way art subsidies work in Singapore. Now Vine has a new entry on his globe-spanning resume: noir novelist.
Vine’s debut novel, SoHo Sins, has just been published by the Hard Case Crime series, and it’s a terrific addition to the pulp tradition, which Charles Ardai, a co-founder of Hard Case, summed up this way: “There’s a body on page one. The cover art is classical realism with a heightened sense of sexuality and menace. The stories are heart-stopping, a wonderful blend of high and low culture.”
SoHo Sins checks all the boxes. The moody cover art is by Robert Maguire, a prolific illustrator who produced more than 600 pulp covers beginning in the mid-20th century. It shows a man in a fedora and trench coat in a darkened alley, looming over a seated blonde in a red dress, a fallen woman in obvious distress. There’s a dead body in the opening sentence: “I slept rather badly the first few nights after Amanda’s murder.” And the story that unspools from there, as narrated by the suavely decadent SoHo art dealer and real estate speculator Jackson Wyeth, is a wonderful blend of high art and low-down deeds, a whodunit with room for de Kooning paintings and child pornography, art biennials and back-room deals, millionaires and mistresses and murder. The novel spins around a question: did the mentally unstable art collector and tech millionaire Philip Oliver murder his socialite wife in their SoHo loft, as he claims, even though he was apparently in Los Angeles when the killer pulled the trigger?
The novel is set during the late 1980s or early1990s, when big money like Philip Oliver’s had begun to infect and distort the New York art scene. The money has gotten even more obscene in the ensuing quarter-century, partly because dealers like Jackson Wyeth have never been inclined to ask indelicate questions. “You can’t deal successfully in art if you dwell on where the money comes from and how it gets made,” the glib Wyeth says at one point. “I concern myself with my clients’ tastes and credit ratings, not their ethics.” The novel’s money-drunk art scene is described on the cover, in suitably breathless prose, as “a world of adultery and madness, of beautiful girls growing up too fast and men making fortunes and losing their minds. But even the worst the art world can imagine will seem tame when the final shattering secret is revealed…”
The worst the art world can imagine — those words are the key. Simply put, SoHo Sins succeeds because it was written by a man with a day job, a job that gives him intimate knowledge of how a subculture works – its personalities and preoccupations, its business practices, its styles, its silliness and occasional beauty and, above all, the ugly money that pumps through its rotten heart. You have to be inside such a world to plausibly imagine the worst it can imagine.
In America today it’s maddeningly difficult to make a living writing books, and it’s just about impossible to make a living writing fiction. That’s largely because the pool of writers is constantly growing while the pool of serious readers, especially readers of fiction, is constantly shrinking — never a good business model. As a result, all but a few writers of fiction have some sort of day job, which most of them view as a time-sucking, soul-crushing impediment to the making of their art.
But as Richard Vine has shown, a day job can be a counter-intuitive blessing to the writer of fiction. Since most people spend nearly half of their waking hours at work, the workplace would seem like natural and fertile ground for setting a novel. We already have more than enough novels, written in flawless, bloodless MFA prose, about a bunch of Oberlin grads struggling to find themselves in brownstone Brooklyn. As Jason Arthur pointed out on this site recently, we need more novels that draw on worlds where people do actual work — like the art dealers and pornographers and tycoons and cops in SoHo Sins, or the metal scrappers in Matt Bell’s Scrapper, the eco-saboteurs in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, the wheat-threshers in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the drug dealers in Richard Price’s Clockers, the admen in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, John le Carré’s spies, Elmore Leonard’s hard-working petty criminals, and the lonely department store clerks in Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. These can be worlds the author knows first-hand, or they can be vividly imagined worlds of the past, such as the 17th-century Dutch commodity speculators in Davis Liss’s The Coffee Trader, or the Irish immigrant sandhogs who dug the New York City subway tunnels in Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness.
The point is that a day job — as a commodities trader, say, or a construction worker or an art dealer — can be a way for a writer to admit readers to plausible, fully realized worlds that would otherwise be off-limits. Richard Vine grasps this. In a recent interview in Brooklyn Rail, Vine discussed how his day job informed his novel:
SoHo Sins, you might say, is a lament not for the art world that was, or is, but the art world that is rapidly emerging. By now, its corruption by unregulated wealth is almost complete; this book simply imaginatively extends present trends…My projection goes into the immediate past rather than the immediate future, but that reversal of vectors is just an amusing bit of game-play to help highlight the present.
An argument could be made that the art world today, ultimately dependent as it is on the buying decisions of a few super-rich individuals, is fatally tainted throughout. (Artnet.com reports a new financial scam almost every week.) Do some further digging, and the facts soon reveal that no one can become that rich, or maintain that level of inherited wealth, without being a moral criminal. Such disproportionate lucre is accumulated either through activities that are literally illegal or through the utterly unconscionable exploitation of employees, stockholders, taxpayers, and customers — an economic crime and a moral one.
A world that’s “fatally tainted throughout” — and populated with operators like Philip Oliver, who uses his tech company to both finance his art acquisitions and distribute child pornography around the world. Could there be a richer backdrop for a noir novel? And could there be a better person to write it than someone who has a day job on the inside, deep in the tainted shadows, where the dirty money does its work?
Two debut novels – one freshly published, the other on its way to becoming a classic – have reminded me that for the past century American writers and artists have been obsessed with that shimmering, sexy, liberating, lethal contraption known as the automobile. Small wonder. Is there a more potent metaphor for American restlessness, for the American hunger for status and sex, for the American tendency to wind up, broken and bloody, in a ditch?
In a thesis written in 2007, a doctoral candidate named Shelby Smoak neatly summed up the role of the automobile in American fiction as a way for characters to experience “violence, sacredness and consumption.” Reversing this order, cars give writers and artists a way to talk about that unholy troika: status, escape (including sexual escapades), and death. In the bargain, the automobile, which introduced the concept of planned obsolescence back in the 1930s, is the shiny embodiment of American capitalism’s relentless quest to make consumers hunger for the next new thing, whether they need it or not.
The first of the two debut novels that brought all this home to me is Lot Boy by Buffalo native Greg Shemkovitz, just published by Sunnyoutside Press. It’s the story of Eddie Lanning, a twentysomething fuckup in Buffalo who works as the titular lot boy, performer of the lowliest tasks at the Ford dealership founded by his late grandfather and now run by his father, who’s dying of cancer. All Eddie wants to do is hook back up with his former girlfriend and get the hell out of Buffalo. To finance his escape, Eddie’s working a scam selling hot auto parts from the dealership, which inspires this rosy portrait of the local scenery:
To get here, you have to go through a shitty part of South Buffalo to get to an even shittier section, until you cross a bridge into the wetlands and fields and eventually hit the rundown industrial lakeshore. Seeing all this decay and frozen debris pass by my windows, I realize that the only reason anyone would come here is to sell stolen auto parts to somebody who would only come here to buy them.
Among its many virtues, this novel offers a peek behind the curtain of a world few people have experienced – the claustrophobic, corrupt, filthy, noisy, inefficient and mind-numbingly banal world of a Big Three car dealership. Reading Lot Boy, you’ll find yourself rooting for Eddie’s escape, while coming to understand why the American automobile industry went so far down the toilet that the U.S. taxpayer had to reach in and pull it out. Here’s the terse but uplifting author note at the end of this winning novel: “Greg Shemkovitz left Buffalo.”
Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at age 79, published his debut novel in 1972 to foam-at-the-mouth critical praise but modest sales. The Car Thief is the sometimes brutal, sometimes tender story of a troubled teenage boy named Alex Housman whose biography has much in common with Weesner’s. Alex’s hard-drinking mother abandoned him in infancy, and after spending some time in foster care he’s now growing up in a Michigan factory town, living with his alcoholic father, an autoworker. To give his “uncounted” life some account, Alex steals cars and takes them on aimless drives before abandoning them and stealing again. It’s the only means of self-expression available to a boy in such stunted circumstances. Here’s the novel’s opening:
Again today Alex Housman drove the Buick Riviera. The Buick, coppertone, white sidewalls, was the model of the year, a ’59, although the 1960 models were already out. Its upholstery was black, its windshield was tinted a thin color of motor oil. The car’s heater was issuing a stale and odorous warmth, but Alex remained chilled. He had walked several blocks through snow and slush, wearing neither hat nor gloves nor boots, to where he had left the car the night before. The steering wheel was icy in his hands, and he felt icy within, throughout his veins and bones. Alex was sixteen; the Buick was his fourteenth car.
There is not a shred of sentimentality or self-pity in this book, and it never sinks to the dreary level of a treatise on “the juvenile delinquent problem.” This is a work of art, fuelled by all those purloined Buick Rivieras and Chevy Bel Airs. In the end, like Lot Boy, it is less a coming-of-age story than a story about our shared yearning to escape.
Here are a dozen other writers and artists who have used the automobile to tell stories about Americans on their way to escape, status and death, sometimes all three. This list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. Feel free to offer your own additions:
Old School, by Tobias Wolff:
This limpid novel offers up a vivid anatomy of the adolescent sensibility. The challenge in writing about high-school age kids — particularly the sort of generally well-off and healthy kids that populate this book — is that the whole world lies before them, and even if they fail, they have years to recover. The stakes always feel high to adolescents, but adults tend to look back on all but the worst dramas from that period with the wistfulness of veterans who have stared down life’s real problems. Wolff, though, manages to make the stakes inOld School feel high even to an adult reader by never condescending to his characters. He gives them baroque angsts and passionate urges, but he also gives them a sense of proportion and an innate understanding of their own moral failings. Wolff takes seriously the predicament of a narrator, at any age, who wants more than he has and is willing to sink into a morass of moral turpitude to get it. He allows his narrator to fail and to know that he’s failing. After visits by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand (both personalities are dramatized unforgettably here), some gamesmanship around a chance to meet Ernest Hemingway provides the narrator an opportunity to enact the sort of calamitous bad judgment that can lead to profound regret and tip one over into adulthood. Adulthood, the book seems to argue (and this is where Wolff’s lack of condescension to his teenage characters comes through most beautifully) is just childhood with greater responsibilities and without the benefit of an apparently limitless future. The stakes, we feel at the end of this book, were really as high as they felt all along. The child is father to the man. Our regrets stay with us. Dean Makepeace set up the visit with Hemingway and hinted at knowing him personally, but he had no acquaintance with him. The dean put himself into a mental prison as a result of that bit of dissembling, but how much different is that prison from the tortures of adolescence? We may run from ourselves, Wolff seems to say, but we’ll never get very far — which sounds like a curse, but looks like a blessing at the end of this affecting book.
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes:
What’s chilling in this book, beyond the dramatization of the way memories are corrupted by time, is the notion that it’s possible to see one’s present self in a positive light and not realize how much one’s own past actions have negatively affected others. The selves we take pride in, the parts of us we’re willing to be readily identified by, this book reminds us, are filtered versions of ourselves. Over the course of the novel, the narrator strips away the layers of his own illusion — or rather, he has them stripped away from him by force. And that is probably what is most disturbing about this beveled gem of a book. We cherish the progressive notion that if there is a moral imbalance in our lives, we will address it, but how can we address what we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the existence of entirely? We bury our mistakes so successfully that we no longer feel accountable for atoning for them. Much of life is a détente between whom we want to think we are and whom we are. This book is a draught of cold air, a slap in the face, a wakeup call.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid:
The way the second-person narration functions in this novel is a thrill to behold. Hamid keeps things tense by keeping them indeterminate. Part of that tension springs from the extraordinary politeness and deliberateness of Changez’s overtures to his unheard interlocutor (“if you will permit me”) which read as sinister somehow — something more out of the register of “The Cask of Amontillado” than any book of etiquette. The very fact that that politeness scans as sinister is part of the driving engine of this book. The frisson one feels in reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes from the way Hamid implicates the reader in the narrator’s disillusionment. One is forced to interrogate one’s own assumption — the title leads us to it, archly — that the narrator has chosen the path of jihad. Could he not simply harbor non-violent objections to a way of life he’s come to disagree with? And his interlocutor, about whom we know so little — is he a regular civilian or an intelligence agent of some sort? I was spellbound by the artistry of a book that succeeds at the challenging task of making possible two diametrically opposed interpretations — that Changez is a jihadist, and that he is an ordinary man in an intense conversation who may be being radically misunderstood. As the book approaches its climactic final moment, the pitch of emotions rises subtly, inexorably, and one feels like a lobster in a slow-boiling pot. The book is a triumph of form, but it’s also an opportunity for an extended self-analysis on the reader’s part, and an argument for a more empathetic understanding of the lives of people on the margins.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell:
So much has been said about this extraordinary book that one wonders what one might add to the conversation. Still, it ought to be observed that in another writer’s hands, this material might have yielded a series of bloodless experiments. Instead, what we have is a full-blooded, big-hearted, human story. Mitchell’s triumph is to make every leap in time, every technological novelty feel utterly necessary, and to wring an astounding amount of emotion out of settings that could easily have felt cold and clinical. By scrupulously rendering the everyday reality of his characters’ lives, Mitchell earns the right to go to outlandish places in his telling. There is no ironic distance from the more conceptual material, no winking at the reader. He’s taking it all seriously, even the oddball stuff. We relax in the hands of a storyteller who will see to every detail and think through the larger implications of every choice. We settle in for the ride. And what a ride it is. One of the under-remarked aspects of this book is what a page-turner it turns out to be, how thoroughly engrossing. Mitchell’s talents seem to know no bounds.
The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates:
A book whose astringent worldview makes Revolutionary Road seem at times almost cheerful. These characters fail each other over and over, and fail themselves. I felt a keen sympathy for the divorced Walter Grimes when he’s visited by his young daughters at work. He’s not a reporter, the way they think he is; instead, he works at the copy desk. He’s not ashamed, just a little embarrassed, but their disappointment is palpable, and it sets the stage for this story of disillusionment on a grand scale. These sisters are estranged early and spend their lives running on parallel paths toward disappointment in men, in marriage, in careers, in life itself. They fail to meet, even when they’re in each other’s presence. There aren’t a lot of people to “like” in this book, but The Easter Parade provides the greatest antidote I can think of to the assertion that a book has to be populated with likable characters for it to be enjoyable. The impossible beauty in Yates’s sentences would be balm enough by itself, but when you combine it with the extraordinary perception about humanity on every page, one is left feeling less alone on the planet knowing that someone like Yates once walked around taking things in and caring enough about people in their flawed humanity to attempt to reproduce them convincingly on the page, however odious they could be at a given moment. He somehow loves everyone, even when he’s skewering them. The gorgeousness of Yates’s prose and the heartbreaking accuracy of his insight into our sometimes-dark hearts provide enormous emotional sustenance. The care he takes in getting his sentences right, in staring accurately into a moment, is its own kind of embrace. One need not get the milk of human kindness from Yates’s characters to get it from his books.
10:04, by Ben Lerner:
Among the many pleasures in reading this astonishingly nimble book is watching to see where this consciousness will take you. There are so many surprises here, so many things seen afresh with that particular sort of attention that Ezra Pound calls for in ABC of Reading, wherein to know a fish really well is to know it back and forth, to study it for weeks until it is a moldering pile of bones, but one has learned something about it. The thing that’s known in this case is the way the mind works, the tortuous byways one’s thoughts can wend on the path to an ever-receding but tantalizing total understanding of the workings of the universe for a fleeting moment. Lerner gives his narrator extreme perceptiveness, hyper-articulacy, great curiosity, and a laconic voice that suggests more emotional exposure at any given moment than he is prepared to handle. The triumph of this book — with its impacted sentences that involute on themselves and interrogate the meanings of words and pack as much signification as possible into each unit of cognition — is to present observations of such freshness, originality, and vivacity that they instantly feel like old wisdom one has had access to for years. Everything in this book one hadn’t seen before Lerner wrote it suddenly becomes an article of longstanding faith, a core principle one has lived by. I was particularly captivated by his discussion of the numinous power in “totaled” art, damaged works that have been declared valueless by an insurance company. Lerner spins the word “totaled” into a captivating riff that extends in several meditative directions. Seeing that art for what it was was just one of many new ways of perceiving the world that this book gave me as gifts. But the greatest gift this book gives is its willingness to slow everything down, to stop time for long enough to get everything thought and everything said that can be thought and said in a given moment. This preoccupation with accuracy and comprehensiveness makes the narrator a prison of his perceptions at times, because he sees with a fly’s eyes, taking in every stimulus around him and folding it into whatever thesis he is constructing in his mind at a given moment. In a culture that insists on speed and thoughtless consumption, Lerner’s willingness to parse a moment down to its component parts is a welcome corrective.
My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh:
This gutsy book (coming in 2015) examines the effects of a rape on both the victim and the community she grows up in in Louisiana. The identity of her attacker is unknown. The narrator is a classmate of hers who also happens to have had an obsessive crush on her for years. Right away, we know we’re in complicated territory. Like Lolita and The Stranger before it, My Sunshine Away understands that every confession is also an attempt to convert listeners to the speaker’s worldview. We’re not sure whether this confession will end in a revelation of evil or renew our faith in humanity, but the deft structural control, artful prose, and extraordinary psychological acuity on display mean we’re riveted either way. As we parse the narrator’s words to determine what he’s capable of, we conspire with him to direct attention away from the person who needs it the most, namely the victim. Walsh captures how the fear of discovery in untidy urges can turn ordinary people into monsters of pragmatism. The last third snaps with a tautness of a thriller, and Walsh keeps the reader guessing until the very end, as the best mystery writers do, but this is literature of the highest order, an elegy for lost youth everywhere and an argument for empathy at all costs. This book asks the essential questions: How much responsibility do we have to each other? Can we reassemble the pieces of broken lives? Walsh hints at answers, but none is more potent than the fact that he’s engaging such profound questions in the first place.
Small Mercies, by Eddie Joyce:
Small Mercies, also coming in 2015, is the Staten Island novel you didn’t know you were waiting to read. It’s also the best novel yet at capturing the human suffering that resulted from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Rather than writing a safe-remove “systems” novel about the roots and impacts of the attacks, Joyce takes on the more ambitious task of bringing vividly into focus one of the 3,000 people who died that day and the family members and friends who pressed on in the wake of their unspeakable loss. In telling the story of the demise of beloved Bobby Amendola — son, brother, husband, friend, lover of life, Staten Islander, firefighter — and the divergent ways his loved ones responded to it, Joyce tells the story of all New York during that heartbroken, haunted period. Joyce understands the role one’s native place plays in the development of one’s character, and he has a gift for choosing resonant details and peeling back the layers of emotion in ordinary moments. He builds his story around the negative space created by Billy’s absence, alternating perspectives throughout to provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of a people in grief. Small Mercies effortlessly tackles weighty subjects — the value of the bonds of family in changing times, what debts we owe the dead and ourselves, what to make of the American Dream of prosperity in an era when America’s influence is on the wane — without being weighed down by its own seriousness of purpose. The high-spirited characters in this book have such a good time even when grieving that it’s easy to fall in love not only with Billy’s memory, but with most of the flawed-but-human people who will carry that memory around in them for the rest of their days.
Redeployment, by Phil Klay:
Klay does outstanding work to make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar. We think we know war stories, and he makes us see that we don’t know these war stories. Whatever our preconceptions about war are, Klay estranges us from them. The bewildering array of technologies, the arcane system of acronyms, the rules of procedure in the contemporary theater of war, with military contractors, ubiquitous improvised explosive devices, and a direct engagement with civilians that dwarfs even that in Vietnam — all these are, for the reader who has never seen them personally, deeply unfamiliar, and Klay makes that unfamiliarity palpable.
In the end, though, war stories or not, these are stories about people in different states of crisis on either side of a divide, American or Iraqi, and Klay makes their experiences feel familiar enough to allow an enormous transference of empathy. The way the soldiers eat cobbler at the end of “Frago” stands in for so much about the way they try to preserve their humanity in the midst of inhuman psychological challenges. And the end of the title story, “Redeployment,” is a heartbreaker, with the narrator’s mind fuzzy as he tries to remember what he was going to do with the body of the beloved dog he has killed. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the mental disturbance he is going to have to deal with going forward, as he tries to live a normal life.
When the narrator of “After Action Report” says, “It was another three weeks before I got home and everybody thanked me for my service. Nobody seemed to know exactly what they were thanking me for,” it captures the predicament of civilians dealing with veterans in an era when there isn’t pervasive military service, and wars are fought on distant shores for reasons that remain abstract or inscrutable to ordinary people, and the experience of war, in part due to the technological advances, departs so radically from the one described in history books or movies. Part of this book’s argument is that the story of the senselessness of war needs to be told afresh in every generation for it to be heard at all.
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It may seem counterintuitive to claim that a writer as abundantly praised and rewarded as Joshua Ferris has been misunderstood and even ill-served by reviewers. Ferris’ first novel, Then We Came To The End (2007), was immediately heralded in the New Yorker (“A masterwork of pitch and tone”), was a finalist for the National Book Award, and by the graded-on-a-curve standards applied to literary fiction, was a rousing commercial success. His two subsequent novels, The Unnamed (2010) and To Rise Again At A Decent Hour (2014), have also received mostly positive reviews (To Rise Again is a finalist for the Man Booker Prize) and have sold well. He has been interviewed and handsomely photographed at the website of the luxury retailer, Mr. Porter, by Interview, and by Vanity Fair. He is not yet 40 years old. Even amid the laurels, however, there has been a degree of interpretive failure, a misunderstanding of the kind of writer Ferris is and of the large scale of his ambition.
Ferris set out from the UC-Irvine MFA program (whose other alumni include Richard Ford and Michael Chabon) in 2003 with at least three major advantages over most young writers on the make. First, and most obviously, he has very unusual linguistic ability, a quality necessary but generally not sufficient to distinction; he is a gifted literary “athlete.” Second, while others dither, Ferris seems to have a strong conviction in the potency of the novel as a genre, one capable of accommodating both the largest philosophical concerns and close, the-way-we-live-now observation under the same roof; possessing that conviction, Ferris by all accounts works very hard at his writing. Finally, Ferris has a strong sense of his subject matter, or rather, several interrelated matters: the very large place of business in American life; the role of technology, particularly in its more pernicious effects; and the social isolation and loss of a sense of the commonweal that have been among the byproducts of our digital abundance. He is not the only name-brand writer working this patch of ground; Don DeLillo is an obvious forebear, as Ferris has noted in interviews, but Ferris is less wised-up than DeLillo, more willing to risk sentimentality. For DeLillo, there is no escape from the prison-house of modern life; Ferris is still trying all the doors.
Ferris makes a strong demand upon his readers, but that demand is not principally syntactic. He is not a particularly ambitious prose stylist, though he is a very precise and controlled one. He is not generally given to lyricism or otherwise heightened language. He abjures “fine writing” in the usual sense, merging his syntax entirely with his narrative aims. He is therefore not particularly quotable, but he does cultivate a certain strangeness, a tendency to wrong foot the reader through the sudden introduction of a grotesque or perverse element. Like Jonathan Franzen, he has a strong prescriptivist streak about which it does not occur to him to be embarrassed. He uses humor to leaven what gradually emerges as a rather severe Emersonian message about the state of the American soul in the consumer age. He really does want you to put away your iPhone—no kidding.
The lives of office workers seem to lend themselves more easily to comedy than to drama, perhaps because so little is at stake. Ferris starts with the comedy in his first novel, Then We Came To The End, set in a mid-sized Chicago advertising agency that is rapidly circling the drain. The agency’s employees are slowly driven to the brink of madness by serial rounds of layoffs. Confronted with the possibility that they will be ejected from the middle class, they become selfish and scheming, almost feral in their desire to cling to an office identity that they probably never consciously sought but that they now suspect they would suffer hideously without. Ferris wrings his laughs from his cubicle-dwellers’ fear of their bosses and their livid hatred of one another.
Ferris’s advertising “creatives” are funny and pathetic because of their helplessness, not in the sense of their being victims but rather of their being unable to escape themselves. Moment by moment, they confess their pettiness and self-regard.
How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into our new office, how we loved everything all over again, and thought hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space. There was no doubt in our minds just then that we had made all the right decisions, whereas most days we were men and women of two minds. Everywhere you looked, in the hallways and bathrooms, the coffee bar and cafeteria, the lobbies and the print stations, there we were with our two minds.
There seemed to be only one electric pencil sharpener in the whole damn place.
Comedy is the first dominant note, but comedy’s pressure on personality creates fissures through which notes of stasis and despair soon begin to appear. An older worker dies, leaving behind in his colleagues vaguely valedictory feelings but little in the way of specific recollections. One terminated employee continues to sneak into the office to work on his resume. Another unravels spectacularly, seeming to threaten violence against those who remain. This latter character serves roughly the same narrative function as John Givings in Revolutionary Road (a novel Ferris admires), the madman who is also a purveyor of uncomfortable truths about the way the others live. The news is not good.
It would not be quite accurate to say that Ferris belongs, with Vonnegut or Heller, to the black comedy genre. In those writers, the comic and the tragic sensibilities have fused into a single characteristic tone. This may be why Vonnegut and Heller wear on some readers; they play the same chord over and over, albeit with brilliant variations. In Ferris, by contrast, the comic and the tragic are competing motifs, locked in internecine conflict. Sometimes they negotiate an uneasy peace, and coexist rancorously for a few pages like Balkan neighbors. But that peace is not an equilibrium, and in Ferris, the tragic finally triumphs.
Then We Came is partly a triumph of technique. It is an extraordinarily disciplined piece of fiction for a writer so young. The creation of any novel involves the construction of limits, experiential, expressive, and syntactic; a novelist seeks islands of refuge within the vast sea of experience. In his first novel, Ferris dwells upon a very small island indeed. The principal limitation he imposes on himself is the use of the first person plural, which he departs from only in a crucial middle section (which Ferris has called “the heart of the novel”) rendered from the point of view of a woman facing breast cancer surgery alone, rifling through her inner resources like a burglar. What she finds there is: not much.
The use of “we” creates a fascinating tension in a novel whose principal theme seems to be the trap of corporate identity. Work relationships for Ferris have a certain urgency, but they are not real. We know they are not real because they do not survive an employee’s departure from the business; it is therefore the corporation that has decided they should end.
Ferris is very much concerned with how we come to have a self, or sadly fail to do so, and his conception of the self is finally rather traditional. In his work, the near at hand and the authentic rarely coincide. Being a person rather than a nexus of consumer messages is hard work, and there is risk involved, and probably a good deal of reading. Digital culture is one of his subjects, but Ferris is analog all the way.
The lukewarm reception afforded Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed, may one day be regarded with puzzlement. Like Sandy Bates, the alienated filmmaker in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories whose fans love his “early, funny” movies best, Ferris made the unforgivable error of setting up expectations with Then We Came that he then declined to fulfill in his subsequent work. The Unnamed asks a great deal of its readers—asks them, in effect, to suffer alongside its central character, Tim Farnsworth—and some critics seemed to find such a demand impertinent coming from a writer whom they thought of as acidly comic, a Ricky Gervais of the printed word. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that despite the basic comic mode of Then We Came, Ferris is a very self-serious young novelist. That novel’s dark subtext was not well apprehended even by reviewers who raved about the book, and this partial interpretive failure as to Ferris’s first novel created the conditions for a more comprehensive failure as to his second.
Tim Farnsworth is a hard-charging Manhattan corporate litigator, a handsome, overworked middle-aged man whose identity is tied to the profession at which he excels and that he seems to find almost embarrassingly gratifying. He is happily married, and he wishes to be a good husband and father using what little of his time his legal practice leaves him. And then one day, carried by an impulse he neither understands nor can control, he walks out of his office, leaving behind an important client. He is a case for the medical journals, the victim of an idiopathic illness, which is to say one that puzzles even the most expensive specialists. He is fitted for a helmet intended to isolate his neurological disturbance (it does not). His illness abates and then recurs, and each time the compulsion is more ungovernable. He loses his law practice, and then his home; he becomes a vagabond with an American Express card, walking for days until he falls into fathomless sleep, frequently dirty, sometimes incoherent, making a hobo’s tour of America. His wife, Jane, keeps the phone under her pillow, drives the Mercedes through the night to retrieve him when he calls, exhorts him to carry on. Gradually he is driven from the family of man almost entirely; he loses his fingers to frostbite, his sanity to the shock of his circumstances. Finally, he seems to give up entirely. His wife and daughter are left to go on without him. More than this cannot be said, except that they are eventually reunited, albeit only briefly.
Tim and Jane Farnsworth continue to cling to each other long past the point when reason, not to mention the intensity of their suffering, should have pulled them apart. They have the kind of us-against-the-world marriage that all of us want but almost no one actually has. This in spite of the fact that Jane is generally quite clear-eyed about her husband, even in health, and realistic about what his progressive illness means for their chances of recapturing the charmed life they once knew.
Was she up for this? She lay in bed under the covers, her breath visible in the slant moonlight. Really up for it? The long matrimonial haul was accomplished in cycles. One cycle of bad breath, one cycle of renewed desire, a third cycle of breakdown and small avoidances, still another of plays and dinners that spurred a conversation between them late at night that reminded her of their like minds and the pleasure they took in each other’s talk. And then back to hating him for not taking out the garbage on Wednesday. That was the struggle. Sickness and death, caretaking, the martyrdom of matrimony—that was fluff stuff. When the vows kick in, you don’t even blink. You just do. She had to be up for it.
Jane Farnsworth seems at first to be a type, someone we might see coming out of Lincoln Center in a gown, the lady of a certain age, who knows how to wear jewelry: the elegant wife of one of the princes of Manhattan’s corporate and professional world. In some ways, Jane plays to type. When Tim loses his partnership, Jane gets her real estate license and starts selling co-ops: the expected career for an expensively educated woman without meaningful work experience. And she goes through a period of drinking too much white wine, which is even the expected brand of alcoholism for her socioeconomic status. But Jane is both smarter and less complacent than one might expect, and she turns out to have unexpected inner resources. She keeps alive a memory of her life with Tim that has nothing to do with the gown or the Mercedes. It turns out that in addition to expounding the aridities of professional life, The Unnamed is also, improbably, a love story.
The Unnamed is daring in its reliance on a book-length metaphor, that of Tim Farnsworth’s unexplained illness, that must be left somewhat indeterminate. The readily available interpretation is that Tim’s walking compulsion has a spiritual rather than physical etiology. Like the female executive in Then We Came, he is outwardly successful but inwardly incomplete. In the service of his law career, he has forsaken his irreducible human complexity and come to think of himself only as a warrior. By thus betraying his own nature, he has become a stranger to his family and to some degree to himself. And finally his spirit has rebelled, asserting itself through the body because that is the only strategy it has left. This account is too neat in many respects, but there does not seem to be much question that we are meant to connect Tim’s motor compulsion to a suppressed inner turmoil.
But Tim’s suffering is also something of a mystery, a Job-like afflicting of a man who has been to some extent absent from his own life but who remains basically decent. The novel invites us to project our own anxieties onto the story of his fall, a strategy not without risk. It is difficult to say exactly why this approach succeeds—why it does not seem like an abdication of a novelist’s creative duty to know everything about his characters. Ferris must have contemplated saying more, and one can imagine discarded drafts that make his intended meaning more plain. In this and in other respects, The Unnamed invokes Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, the Wall Street law clerk of an earlier era whose sudden, unexplained refusal to perform his job after many years of loyal service to his employer haunted that employer and has unsettled readers for a century and a half.
It happens that I worked with Ferris’s wife, Elizabeth Kennedy, at the Manhattan law firm that Ferris drew upon to create Tim Farnsworth’s professional world. (I admired Kennedy’s talent as a lawyer, but we were not friends, and I do not know Ferris. Kennedy has since left the law and published a novel of her own.) This gives me no special insight into Ferris’s work, since “Troyer, Barr” is not the Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP where Kennedy and I worked, not the serious professional enterprise that takes up expensive commercial office space in New York and London, but a place of the writer’s imagination (even if a few stock Cravath anecdotes have been borrowed and repurposed). But my acquaintance with Troyer, Barr’s storied antecedent did cause me to think about the way writers metabolize experience and render it heightened, refined, and purposive on the page in the way that life rarely is. Ferris invokes the world of a white shoe Manhattan law firm in a relatively small number of decisive strokes, the way Daumier did the Paris bar, swiftly but indelibly, with tolerance enough but without sentiment. Another writer might have given us several knowing paragraphs on the Janus-faced relations between the partners; on the process by which students are selected from the top law schools to join the firm; or on the provenance of the art hanging on the walls, or the woods and lacquers used in the bespoke conference room tables on the top floors. Ferris surely knows all about these things. But he also knows something more, something better. He inhabits his fictional firm rather than describing it from the outside. He knows what a novelist knows.
Ferris’s most recent novel, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, is like The Unnamed in that it layers over a recognizable social setting a small but pervasive strangeness, disturbing the settled life of a man who has achieved (if that is the right word) a privileged and complacent life. Paul O’Rourke is a successful Manhattan dentist with a good practice and no family. He is an overachiever, a grind, a man of little social instinct and almost as little feeling. He finds himself at first annoyed, and then more and more disturbed, by a curious phenomenon: someone has created a website that purports to belong to his dental practice. This website is conventional in form, but it begins to feature cabalistic writings that, after an increasingly fevered investigation, O’Rourke finally connects to a shadowy religious movement. The movement’s representatives claim that O’Rourke is one of them—that he can trace his roots to an ancient people called the Ulms, who conceive of themselves as uniquely chosen to fulfill a Biblical destiny. O’Rourke is drawn deeper into their network, meeting a prominent and charismatic hedge fund manager who is also among the elect. O’Rourke never quite relinquishes his skepticism of the Ulms, but his equilibrium is definitely disturbed and in some way he finds himself awakened. In the end, however, the Ulms disappear much the way that they came, and O’Rourke is thrown back on himself. As in The Unnamed, the metaphysical mystery remains unsolved.
Initially, To Rise Again seems burdened by a weakness of voice, surprising in that Ferris’s prior novels showed such extraordinary command of voice, indeed were built in large part on that single virtuosic ability. But the muffled quality of the narration in the first 100 pages of To Rise Again turns out to be not a technical failure but a strategic choice.
Each Ferris novel is characterized by a doubled sense of arrival or becoming; we know that Ferris must resolve his plot, but there is also a secondary mystery, that of how he will write his way out of some technical quandary to which, Houdini-like, he has voluntarily submitted. In Then We Came To The End, it was his much-remarked use of the first person plural; in The Unnamed, it was giving Tim Farnsworth an illness that had to be specific and devastating in its effects but remain vague in its etiology, and to make of this vagueness a strength, an interpretive enlargement, rather than something that wears away the reader’s affection. In making the narrator of To Rise Again unredeemably dull, Ferris sets up a different problem: how to write a compelling novel about a man who is not compelling even to himself. In Paul O’Rourke, Ferris deliberately gives us a man worn smooth by convention—a man who is no one in particular. Of course, in life many of us are no one in particular, are merely a collection of second hand attitudes and weakly motivated affections. But in fiction it is the convention to emphasize what is most telling and authentic in character, which is largely what makes the characters in a novel paradoxically so much more vivid than the people we encounter in life.
It is tempting to say that O’Rourke is depressed, but it is more accurate to say that he is soul-sick in a way that clinical psychology does not have a term for – and this seems to be Ferris’s project as a writer, to develop that vocabulary and also, perhaps, to gesture toward a cure. It might also be said that Paul O’Rourke is an empty vessel by narrative necessity and that the story of To Rise Again is that of his being filled, briefly, by a species of alluring, Scientology-like cabalistic nonsense, only to find himself empty again at the end when the illusion fades. Such a fate can only befall a protagonist who begins in a condition of spiritual emptiness. It so happens that Joshua Ferris has diagnosed this condition in many of his fellow Americans, which is what gives his work much of its motivation and its urgency.
To Rise Again also displays Ferris’ cultivated hostility to digital culture, about which he has commented publicly and which is real enough. It would be a mistake, however, to over-read this element of his critique of contemporary culture and to turn him into a McLuhan figure. Technology in Ferris is a telling symptom, even a kind of signature trait, but it is not the disease itself. Facebook may provide an at-hand means of escaping our broader ethical responsibilities, but the urge to escape is not new. For Ferris, the most humane act is listening, and this is the thing his characters are most tellingly unable to do. Because they are unable to listen, to attend to others, they cannot know them; because they cannot know the people around them, they are essentially alone; and being, despite their inability to listen, basically social creatures, they suffer in their isolation. But their suffering is not Mark Zuckerberg’s responsibility, and in any event he does not care.
Ferris inhabits the genre of the novel as few writers do, even very good ones. It is always tempting, perhaps especially for the ambitious novelist, to resort to devices that seem to deliver the message more efficiently: the embedded essay; the set piece character introduction; extended exposition. Ferris diligently resists all of these temptations, preferring to work almost constantly at the intersection of character and narrative, with dialogue and action thus doubly motivated. Another way to say this is that Ferris believes absolutely in the plasticity of the novel, its unique work as a genre. He is not looking for a way out.
Like Wallace and Franzen, Ferris is rooted in the Midwest, and he dwells rhetorically within the culture of the American middle even as he satirizes it. At the same time, the virtues he seems prepared to endorse are not those of our blighted contemporaneity but older, possibly even mythological American virtues: self-reliance, the dignity of work (of the proper sort), the authenticity of unmediated experience. He pointedly rejects religion, but he sometimes talks like a preacher, and his prophecy is dark. For Ferris, our culture is full of traps and lures; what is sold to us with the cant of spontaneity and free expression is gradually revealed to be ersatz and despair-inducing, just a way of separating us from our money. Our desire for belonging is ruthlessly exploited; our wanting makes us vulnerable, and our love makes us weak. Ferris is often a very funny writer, but the paradox of his work is that if you laugh too long, you may miss the fact that the joke of our cultural moment is on us all. Resistance is imperative.
If Ferris’s art has lacked anything it has only been a sense of scale. To date he has been a kind of “domestic” novelist, albeit an especially compelling one. Of course, the domestic novel can sometimes throw into relief the very largest human questions, and there is no doubt that Ferris regards these as his proper quarry, or that certain of them—including what it might mean to have a soul, and whether the concept of the soul can have any meaning in the absence of God—have always lay beneath the sometimes antic surface of his narratives. Ferris has deliberately chosen to work within a small frame, which highlights his gifts of linguistic discipline and narrative economy but threatens now to constrain his vision. A sprawling, socially ambitious book, even a putative failure, written in a new register or multiple registers, might be the best possible next move for him. To risk sentimentality, or imprecision or vagueness of expression—to reach for slightly more than he can grasp—may be anathema to the author of so austere and unyielding a novel as The Unnamed. But the rewards, whether harvested now or later as the result of some fuller maturity, could be immense. A writer of Ferris’s talent and conviction appears only rarely. That the fullest realization of that talent be achieved matters greatly, insofar as the American novel matters at all.
Unfortunately even writing that sentence makes me feel uneasy. Enough people already like James Wood; enough people hate him, too. And while there are instances of novelists who admit to being influenced by critics – the most famous recent one is probably Michael Chabon deciding to expand the scope of his work after Jonathan Yardley praised his gifts but criticized the narrowness of their use – there’s something unsavory in that reversal, something suggestible and therefore at odds with the single-mindedness and determination that I associate (perhaps wrongly?) with good fiction.
Still, there’s the truth to deal with. When people ask me about influence I don’t think of the living writers I like best – David Lodge, Jeffrey Eugenides, Norman Rush. As Jonathan Franzen pointed out, by the time they reach maturity most novelists have moved beyond the stage of direct influence. What I think about instead is James Wood: his emphasis on precision in language, his (implicit and brave) rejection of the intentional fallacy and consequent belief that he can ascertain an author’s aim, his rejection of vague or lyrical cant.
But that uneasiness! I feel it. And therefore maybe it would be best to start with an inoculation – the things that are wrong with James Wood. I’ve compiled a list in my mind over the years.
James Wood has a terrible sense of humor.
Here’s a passage that Wood describes as “sublimely funny,” about how a character in Hardy called Cain Ball was named:
O you see, mem, his pore mother, not being a Scripture-read woman, made a mistake at his christening, thinking ‘twas Abel killed Cain, and called en Cain meaning Abel all the time. She didn’t find out till ‘twas too late, and the chiel was handed back to his godmother…She were brought up by a very heathen father and mother who never sent her to church or school, and it shows how the sins of the parents are visited upon the children, mem.
Only a deranged person could find this sublimely funny, even using the least general definition of the word sublime. It’s maybe faintly amusing in the donnish, ironic, humorless manner of a letter to the Economist. But the simple fact is that Hardy wrote a century and more ago, and humor is the least durable form of human communication. Someone is being born out there right now who will find it bizarre that I consider The Forty-Year Old Virgin funny, and in all but the most exceptional cases, P.G. Wodehouse for instance, comedy fades after ten or fifteen years.
So to conclude, I’ve read a lot of James Wood, and whenever he finds something funny it’s a sure sign that it’s not funny.
James Wood seems naïve about art.
One of the interesting little ghosts in the James Wood machine is his sophisticated and perceptive love of music, which was the subject that earned him a scholarship to Eton.
But his intermittent mentions of art are embarrassing. There are a few examples of this (including one nails-on-a-blackboard invocation of Andy Warhol) but the worst for me is in an essay on Laszlo Krasznahorkai, in which he describes a series of paintings as “exquisite and enigmatic.” What the hell is that? It’s unlike Wood to use such uninteresting words, the words a docent at a regional art museum might use, but there they are in print. “Exquisite,” in particular. It tells us nothing about the pictures, and worse, it implies that beauty is the metric by which to judge art. In an essay about one of the least stylistically beautiful (and one of the most stylistically interesting) writers alive!
James Wood is obsessed with character names.
Or of a character named Adam Morey in The Privileges, a book about, unsurprisingly perhaps, privilege, he says “the name suggesting both ‘money’ and ‘more’ of it.”
Oh, thanks James Wood!
So there you have it – I’m out now. I guess he sometimes chases the strong, vibrant language that he so admires in novelists. He can be unattractively dogmatic.
But the most honest thing to say is that the way he sees fiction has changed the way I see fiction. Whether he’s funny doing it or not.
What makes James Wood great? One thing is his willingness to quote at length, and it seems only fair to grant him the same courtesy. Here is the long first paragraph of his review of The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, a review that I think should be handed out on the first day of every MFA program.
Most of the prose writers acclaimed for “writing beautifully” do no such thing; such praise is issued comprehensively, like the rain on the just and the unjust. Mostly, what’s admired as beautiful is ordinary; or sometimes it’s too obviously beautiful, feebly fine — what Nabokov once called “weak blond prose.” The English novelist Alan Hollinghurst is one of the few contemporary writers who deserve the adverb. His prose has the power of re-description, whereby we are made to notice something hitherto neglected. Yet, unlike a good deal of modern writing, this re-description is not achieved only by inventing brilliant metaphors, or by flourishing some sparkling detail, or by laying down a line of clever commentary. Instead, Hollinghurst works quietly, like a poet, goading all the words in his sentences — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs — into a stealthy equality. I mean something like this, from his novel The Line of Beauty (2004): “Above the trees and rooftops the dingy glare of the London sky faded upwards into weak violet heights.” We can suddenly see the twilit sky of a big city afresh, and the literary genius is obviously centered in the unexpected strength of the adjective “weak,” which brings alive the diminishing strata of the urban night sky, overpowered by the bright lights on the ground. The effect is paradoxical, because we usually associate heights not with weakness but with power or command. And the poetry lies not just in what the sentence paints but in how it sounds: there is something mysteriously lovely about the rhythm of “weak violet heights,” and the way the two adjectives turn into a plural noun that is really just another adjective; the sentence does indeed seem to drift away into the far distance.
This is not a particularly original passage of criticism – for one thing re-description sounds an awful lot like defamiliarization. But it has two qualities I associate with Wood. First, it’s absolutely correct; he’s a great reader, whether you like him or not. This passage is itself a re-description of a sentence one might easily have passed without noticing. Second, it’s a close reading that is attuned to the significance of language within fiction.
The second point is the significant one. In the last ten or fifteen years precision of language has become the password that marks out serious writers of fiction. (In this respect, though in fewer and fewer others, John Updike’s influence remains enormous.) There aren’t many literary novelists at the moment who are content to be plainspoken, and those who are, Kazuo Ishiguro for instance, have clear narrative motives for the choice. Instead, when you open almost any well-regarded novel today it will have long passages of precisely poetic prose, full of surprising and carefully curated language.
I attribute this generation of writers’ embrace of non-narrative and extra-narrative observation at least in part to Wood. From his first days at the Guardian he’s been a persistent and sometimes lonely advocate for Hardy and Lawrence’s brand of language-based realism. (The writers he’s criticized over the years – Richard Powers, A.S. Byatt, Paul Auster, this last to devastating effect – often have an element of magic in their works, and a fair criticism of Wood might be that he restricts his affections to books that even when they are fanciful make total sense, which sounds like a fair metric until you think about it.)
To pick out language for special attention might seem like an affectation in a critic of fiction. Language is important in a novel, obviously, but less so than in poetry, where the sense of distillation makes it overarchingly vital. Novels should have room for mess and digression, the way life does – and in my opinion they should also have some speed, which precious language can check.
But what seems to me to make Wood such an important critic is that he doesn’t care about language simply for itself, even when he cites its beauty, as in Hollinghurst’s case, but, crucially, as an indicator of a novel’s quality of thought. That seems to me to be his central insight: that since language is our only point of access to a writer’s intentions, its care or carelessness is the first test we ought to take of a book’s merit, and more than that our greatest clue to the quality of their thoughts. “Intelligence is not mere ‘smartness,’” he writes at one point, “but an element inseparable from the texture and the movement of the book.”
This – the division between smartness and thought – is where Wood’s brain began to work on my own.
In the spring of 2011 I was living in Oxford, doing halfhearted work on a doctorate (its subject was false genealogies in the work of Edmund Spenser; film rights still available) and working intensely on the final third of a novel about the city, where by then I’d lived for nearly three years. One day I read that Wood was going to be in town, to deliver a series of six lectures on fiction at St. Anne’s College.
I went to all six, excited to hear him speak. They were intermittently terrific; it seemed to me that he was strongest in his readings of contemporary writers, where the weight of academic thought had yet to settle. In particular his lectures on Melville and Woolf were perceptive in parts but also seemed less persuasive in that academic setting, and I was reminded that in a very real way criticism is journalism, a first, delible draft of literary history. That was Wood’s strength, I thought: getting a living writer just right for a literate but not professional audience. His opinion of Orwell seemed less vital to me than his opinion of Ben Lerner.
Around the same time I read How Fiction Works, his short guide to (truth in advertising) how fiction works. Though that book was genial company it made very little impact on me, probably because I was already aware of the existence of free indirect speech, which Wood discovered in the same way that Columbus discovered America – long after it was settled terrain. Combined with the good-but-not-great lectures, the effect of the book was to lessen his importance in my mind. It wasn’t as if he was the only critic I liked, anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever read a word Zoe Heller wrote that I didn’t love. Dwight Garner was never boring.
Then a funny thing happened.
By June I had finished my novel about Oxford. It was under contract to a publisher and I took some time away from it, two or three months, because I wanted to return and edit it with fresh eyes. When I went back to it late in the summer I felt pleased with the book from sentence to sentence, and with its characters. But I started to have a terrible, itchy, and at first seemingly irrelevant thought: James Wood would dislike this book.
This was truly stupid, I thought at first. You might write for yourself, or some ideal reader, but never for a critic.
But then my thought clarified into something worse: James Wood would dislike this book and he would be correct.
There were two levels to this realization. The first was the level of language, and I experienced it as I edited from line to line, like those fibrillations you feel in a muscle just as you’re falling asleep: I would pass by a sentence and then startle back toward it, realizing the fatal slackness of its language. Where I thought I had been precise I had been quick, where I thought I had been quick and free I had been inexcusably careless. (Wallace Stegner put it so well – hard writing makes for easy reading, and the reverse.) I began to edit much more fastidiously, not in accordance with what I thought Wood would like (I wasn’t that far gone) but with what sounded like the truth. If, for instance, I had a character “crunch through the snow” in my first draft, now I would stop and think. Was there any vitality left in that word, “crunch”? Where had I received it? Was it the best word I could think to describe the sound of shoes in the snow? What about the little shreds of wisdom (“fail better” was one I can recall cutting) that had been hollowed of meaning by familiarity?
The second level of that Woodian realization, and the less agonizing, more liberating one, was about a subtler idea: withholding.
That is one of Wood’s own words, an attribute he values enormously in a writer. Reticence might be another thing to call it. In his assessment (one of his most profound to me) of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, he writes:
And throughout the novel, present but never spoken, never written – it is the most beautiful act of Sebald’s withholding – is the other historical name that shadows the name Austerlitz, the name that begins and ends with the same letters, the place that Agata Austerlitz was almost certainly “sent east” to in 1944, and the place that Maximilian Aychenwald was almost certainly sent to from the French camp in Gurs, in 1942: Auschwitz.
As I read through The Last Enchantments – as my book was and is called – I began to see how catastrophically little I had withheld. Partially this was a fault of using the first person, a choice that I began to look on with dismay. My narrator analyzed every gesture of the people around him, and was constantly checking in on his own thoughts. He also explained the emotional significance of all the interactions he had, as if he were writing for a child.
So I began to cut as ruthlessly as possible, and just as importantly to elide plot, to remove connective tissue, to cede control of the book to the reader. As with the language, it wasn’t a slavish choice, taken in obeisance to James Wood’s critical opinion. Instead, it was that he had, as in the opening to his Hollinghurst review, illuminated an idea I already understood in my mind – that the best texts are writerly, per Barthes – but had never cared all that much about, until I relearned it through his gift for instantiating abstractions through criticism. How rare that seemed to me at the time, and seems still, in a critic.
I spent that whole fall of 2011 cutting and rewriting my novel. By the end of it I felt nearly sick with anxiety over the process. Still, I forced myself to take another few months away from it, and when I returned again I realized, with a tremendous exhalation of relief, that it was a better book now. When I finished reading the last draft I was sitting in a coffee shop in New York, and I can remember, though it sounds bizarre, thinking of James Wood – and feeling grateful to him.
Also, and not irrelevantly, on that day I remember thinking that even after all of my changes he would see the book as a failure. A few months away from publication, I still do, for reasons I’ll describe now.
Of John Updike, whom I mentioned earlier, Wood has written, “he is not, I think, a great writer, and the lacuna is not in the quality of his prose but in the risk of the thought.”
The risk of the thought. That phrase has settled in my brain. The Last Enchantments is a relatively conventional story about an American abroad at Oxford, where he makes a break with his past life, meets new people, and falls in love. These could be the elements of a radical book or a safe one, a good one or a terrible one. I don’t personally think it’s terrible, but it may be safe. The fact of the matter is that language and elision – the lessons that James Wood reshaped and renewed for me as I was editing – are important, but they’re still not as important as conception. As I look upon my book as a finished object, preparing to exchange it for money with people out in the world, I can’t help but feel its conception risks too little. (I should say I don’t think risk means formal radicalism – Alice Munro, to me, is a far riskier writer than, say, John Barth, because her stories rely on her perception of human psychology, which when written falsely is disastrous.) The Last Enchantments seems to exist too much within the contours of books that I’ve loved in the past, both long ago (Brideshead Revisited) and not that long ago (The Line of Beauty). That may sound odd, since at the outset of this essay I specifically disavowed the direct influence of other novelists, but I don’t mean that the books were influential on my own. I mean that I accepted the terms of other writers too easily – their view of the world. My own book is new, in the sense that I feel very sure it’s written with my voice, but I now I wonder if perhaps it’s not new enough.
Of course this is a common tactical retreat. Every writer must feel his last book is the worst one ever, and I don’t know how I’ll come to judge this one when I’ve traveled farther away from it. I’m working on something now that is riskier, or feels riskier to me, but it could be that I’ll look back on it with far greater regret than I do on The Last Enchantments. At any rate it’s certain that I’ll look back on it with regret. It seems impossible to me not to. Iris Murdoch said it best: every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.
This returns me to James Wood. Almost no subject on earth has more nonsense mysticism attached to it than writing. I think perhaps in the end what he has given me is the feeling that any real work of literature is underwritten not by inspiration, or genius, but by actual thought – actual work – actual choice. In every line of his criticism, Wood searches for the real work that an author is doing, rather than the most generous possible reading of its brilliance. No wonder his highest praise for Lydia Davis is for her “relentless control” of her work, which “gives it an implacable Beckettian power.”
The fact that this praise gets right is that writers live within the borders of their choices. That is the lesson I owe James Wood for teaching me, better than I was able to teach it to myself. Critics should never determine what a writer should write, of course. But writers shouldn’t be proud, either; they should take their lessons where they can find them. Read with the craft in mind, Wood can give a writer who pays attention the wherewithal to write with greater care, to take greater risks, and therefore ultimately to – one more time, why not – fail better.
Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions.
Walker Percy, author of the 1962 National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer, believed in the power of film on many levels — as a means of escape, as the unifier of cultural experience, as a metaphor for all the ways we tell each other stories. And in fact his own life story had the kind of arc that could have been pulled straight from a movie of just about any era. Perhaps that’s why he identified with the medium, perhaps that’s why he found both hope and despair in it.
Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916, the oldest of three boys. When he was 14 his father, LeRoy Walker Percy, shot himself — as had his grandfather the year after he was born. His mother took the boys to spend a year with their grandmother before moving on to Greenville, Mississippi, where they all moved in with LeRoy Percy’s cousin, William Alexander Percy. Two years later Martha Percy was killed when her car plunged into a creek, and Uncle Will, as he was known to the boys, adopted all three brothers: Walker, Leroy, and Phinizy.
Will Percy was something of a Renaissance man; a lawyer, poet, plantation heir, and progressive activist, he was by all reports devoted to the boys and their education. He had an enormous library, which he encouraged them to explore, and it was in Greenville that Walker Percy developed the habit of inquisitive, investigative reading that would shape a lifetime of work. Uncle Will also introduced Walker to Shelby Foote, a neighborhood boy his own age, and the two hit it off immediately. (Foote went on to become a successful writer and historian himself; his trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative was the basis for Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary.) Their deep friendship and mutual encouragement sustained both writers’ careers and lasted until Walker’s death.
Walker attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as did Foote, two years behind him. He then went on to New York, to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, to study pathology. There he began to feel the first pricklings — a term he would use often in his fiction — of the melancholia that was the ruin of his father and grandfather. He responded by initiating several years of psychotherapy and the escapist moviegoing habit that would last a lifetime. Years later, describing his love of the movies to Robert Coles in the New Yorker, he pinpointed those days as the beginning of his consciousness as a novelist, even though he had no desire, at the time, to write:
I think at the movies I was getting to know how people looked at the world, what they thought — the way a doctor does. The movies are not just fantasies; for a lot of people they provide important moments, maybe the only point in the day, or even the week, when someone — a cowboy, a detective, a crook — is heard asking what life is all about, asking what is worth fighting for, or asking if anything is worth fighting for.
Percy’s medical career was cut short in 1942, when he contracted tuberculosis six months into an internship at Bellevue Hospital. He spent the next two years recovering in a sanatorium in the Adirondacks, observant and restless as ever but largely confined to bed. While both his brothers and his best friend were serving their country honorably, he was flat on his back, dramatically detached from action of any kind. Percy had always been somewhat reserved — unsurprising for a boy who had sustained such huge losses so early. In the hospital, cut off from friends and family and any feeling of connection to world events, he turned further inward, and, as always, found escape in books. Rather than medical texts, though, Percy picked up Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, and then Camus, Sartre, Thomas Mann, Kafka, and Tolstoy. The answers he was seeking, he realized, were not necessarily to be found in science, and the questions he was forming were new as well. As he would later explain in an essay titled “From Facts to Fiction” in his collection Signposts in a Strange Land,
What began to interest me was not so much a different question as a larger question, not the physiological and pathological processes within man’s body but the problem of man himself, the nature and destiny of man; specifically and more immediately, the predicament of man in a modern technological society.
Percy returned to Columbia in 1944 as an instructor, but relapsed within a couple of months, this time ending up at a sanatorium in Connecticut. He went home to Greenville a year later and looked for a place to settle down, driving out to Santa Fe with Shelby Foote but returning a few months later. In 1946 he married Mary Bernice Townshend, whom he had met five years earlier while working over the summer at a Greenville clinic, and the two moved to a summer place of Uncle Will’s in Sewanee, Tennessee. Percy had grown up nominally Presbyterian, but for some time had been feeling the need to solidify and centralize his faith. Six months after their marriage, he and his wife converted to Catholicism, a decision that would deeply inform his writing and thinking for the rest of his life. In 1947, when Percy was 31 years old, they moved to a furnished house in New Orleans. Its owner, the philosopher Julius Friend, had amassed a large library, and again, Percy was able to further his autodidactic ethical education. He never returned to the practice of medicine, and instead devoted himself to reading: philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, and semiotics.
Percy immersed himself deeply in his studies. A modest inheritance enabled him to spend his days reading widely and methodically, living the life of a gentleman scholar. In the fall of 1954, he published his first essay in Thought, the Fordham University quarterly, titled “Symbol as Need.” It posited semiotics as a discipline more dependent on the spiritual than the scientific; that symbolization is not a biological need, but a social activity. He followed it two years later with the dense, technical, “Symbol as Hermeneutic in Existentialism: A Possible Bridge from Empiricism” in Philosophy & Phenomenological Research. Percy was 40 years old, fascinated by states of consciousness, existential anxiety, ontology and its relation to his faith, and the mystery of what he called “the zone of the other.” He began publishing scholarly articles regularly, but all the while considering other, more accessible ways to frame his thoughts.
Shelby Foote had published his first novel, Tournament, in 1949, and in the course of their lively correspondence he never stopped encouraging — and goading — Percy to move on to fiction. Percy did, in fact, complete two novels that would never see print; the first collected a series of rejections, and the second he never bothered sending out. In the meantime he published philosophical essays, book reviews, and articles. But then in 1958, at age 44, he started work on what would become The Moviegoer, and suddenly everything fell into place. As Percy describes it:
I can only report that something did happen and it happened all of a sudden. Other writers have reported a similar experience. It is not like learning a skill or a game at which, with practice, one gradually improves. One works hard all right, but what comes, comes all of a sudden and as a breakthrough. One hits on something… It is almost as if the discouragement were necessary, that one has first to encounter despair before one is entitled to hope.
The Moviegoer narrates a few days in the life of Binx Bolling, a disaffected young New Orleans man on the eve of his 30th birthday and on the brink of growing up. Describing it in a few words is an empty exercise — this is a novel of nuance and inference, about unarticulated feelings, the fear of malaise, and the life force that simply will not be denied. Percy was thinking hard about Kierkegaard, especially his postulation in Either/Or that “Boredom is the root of all evil… The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” His exploration of the fault lines between alienation and engagement in The Moviegoer is both strange and exhilarating, with moments of stunning beauty. Percy sets his readers up to refute the assumptions he’s handed them: Bolling is a self-identified outsider yet he’s very much in the world, and while he goes to the movies to escape, at the same time they bring him to life. There is a moment at a drive-in when Binx is watching a Western — sitting on the warm hood of a car in the company of a new girlfriend and his beloved, disabled half-brother Lonnie — that made me feel as alive as any words on a page ever have:
A good night. Lonnie happy (he looks around at me with the liveliest sense of the secret between us; the secret is that Sharon is not and never will be onto the little touches we see in the movie and, in the seeing, know that the other sees — as when Clint Walker tells the saddle tramp in the softest easiest old Virginian voice: “Mister, I don’t believe I’d do that if I was you” — Lonnie is beside himself, doesn’t know whether to watch Clint Walker or me), this ghost of a theater, a warm Southern night, the Western Desert and this fine big sweet piece, Sharon.
He was nearly 45 when the book was published. Sales were initially slow and reviews were scattered, but the following year it went on to win the National Book Award for fiction, beating out Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, and Revolutionary Road. Five years later he published his second novel, The Last Gentleman, which introduced Will Barrett, another of what Robert Coles referred to as Percy’s “anguished pilgrims.” Barrett is also Southern, also chronically detached — the novel’s opening finds him in New York’s Central Park, spying on people through a telescope — and he’s also prone to fugue states, although his are medical in nature, not cinematically induced. He too undertakes an odyssey in the process of connecting with the world, although his covers more physical and less emotional ground than Binx Bolling’s; it’s a good book, but The Moviegoer would have been a hard act to follow.
Still, Percy had become, irrevocably, a novelist. He took the job seriously, sitting down to write in his office over his daughter’s bookstore every day without fail, and when Foote, his original cheerleader, was floundering with his last novel, Percy cheerfully dispensed advice and encouragement. He never stopped writing, going on to publish four more novels — Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), and several collections of his essays, including The Message in the Bottle (1975), Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983), and the posthumous Signposts in a Strange Land (1991). All his work, fiction and nonfiction, was about seeking in one form or another — seeking connection, seeking involvement, seeking God in the everyday. While he never had another hit like The Moviegoer turned out to be, he was unwavering in his regard for the truth. While he complained to Foote that he had been pigeonholed as a “Christian Existentialist,” it also seemed to please him at least a little.
As the real-life version of an orphan boy from some kind of dark fairy tale, Percy must have loved the promise held by the narrative arc of the movies. You entered the dark theater and two hours later all would be revealed, all would be redeemed, and the lights would go up. In fact, his life did turn out well. He discovered what he loved to do when he was old enough to do it well and realized enough success to keep at it, and was able to stay true to his precepts throughout. Nobody else important left him: he married well, his daughters and grandchildren stayed close by, Foote remained a treasured friend — and was with his family at his bedside when he died — and he seemed to remain on fine terms with his God throughout. Walker Percy’s was a good tale, well told. As he wrote in 1966,
Perhaps the only moral to the story is that a serious writer, or any other artist for that matter, is a peculiar bird who has to find his own way in his own time and who had better be left alone to do so.
Bonus Link: Living Out the Day: The Moviegoer Turns Fifty
I read and admired Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet when it first came out –and was immediately curious about its author: How could someone so young (Jamison was 26 at publication) write a book so lyrical, dark and knowing? As she and I both found ourselves in Iowa City this last spring, Jamison, now 28, agreed to sit down for a chat.
This was Jamison’s second stint in Iowa City; she’d received her MFA from the Writers Workshop five years ago, and is presently a PhD candidate at Yale. Now, she was accompanying her boyfriend, another Yale PhD student, while he got his MFA in poetry at the workshop.
On a cool spring day, before the cornfields were plowed or the leaves of the trees had unfurled, Jamison and I drove to the small town of Mount Vernon twenty miles north of Iowa City. Our destination was a coffeehouse called Fuel, a standard-bearer among coffeehouses with nooks and comfortable chairs, ample table space, amusing oddments to look at and buy, not to mention great coffee, and cookies baked in small batches all day long. (Jamison works part time in a bakery and has developed, she says, a snobbery about cookies: Fresh from the oven or none at all!). Fuel is one of Jamison’s natural habitats; she reads and writes there for hours at a stretch, so it seemed the ideal spot for a good long chat into the digital recorder. Also, as Jamison herself pointed out, The Gin Closet, which came out in paperback this month, is concerned with three generations of women and Fuel is run by three generations of women. Today, the granddaughter served as barista as the grandmother baked.
Stella, The Gin Closet’s protagonist, joins a long line of literary heroines, very intelligent young women on the cusp of adult lifewho willfully make bad choices (think Emma Woodhouse, Dorothea Brooke, Hester Prynne, Isabel Archer). At loose ends in her mid-twenties, Stella works for a famous, abusive boss and has fallen in love with a married man. In part to console herself, Stella moves in with her grandmother Lucy only to discover that Lucy is dying.
Jamison’s prose is lyrical, with the frank blare of youth:
Every night I said things like: Today my boss and I got drunk at lunch. Today my boss was on Oprah! Today I spent a thousand dollars on gift baskets. Today I used the word “autumnal” twice, and both times I was speaking to tulip salesmen…I compressed my days neatly into appetizer courses. I worked as a personal assistant for a woman with a reputation for treating people like shit, and she treated me like shit. I couldn’t spin witty versions of the rest. In the darkness I began caring for my collapsing grandmother. She wasn’t being inspirational or having sex or treating anyone like shit. She was just getting old.
As Lucy dies, a secret emerges: Stella has an aunt, Matilda, who was cast out of the family before Stella was born. After the funeral, Stella sets out to find this Aunt Tilly, ostensibly to deliver a letter but really to set things right. Tilly is found in a trailer in the Nevada desert.
The novel alternates between Stella’s first person and her aunt Tilly’s limited third person narrations. Tilly is a late-stage alcoholic and ex-prostitute whose difficult past Jamison renders fearlessly. Tilly’s one son Abe, a banker, has been sending her enough money so she can quit turning tricks; he wants her to live with him in San Francisco, but only if she’ll stop drinking. Stella convinces Tilly to take up this longstanding offer and the three of them—Stella, Tilly and Abe—set up housekeeping together in the city.
The center, if there ever was one, doesn’t hold.
As I suspected, Jamison is whip smart, articulate and intense—a terrific conversationalist.
Michelle Huneven: What got you started on this book—what was the germ, the seed?
Leslie Jamison: The short answer is my family I was working on a different novel and was stuck–I didn’t understand how stuck. I moved into a family home with my grandmother who was very sick. My life was taken over by her declining health. Trying to take care of her was completely beyond what I understood how to do. I realized when I woke up in the morning that there was no way I could work on this other novel, it had no claim on my heart or thoughts, so I just started writing with no particular plan about what was happening with my grandmother and how it was bringing up a lot of feelings about our family, a lot of old wounds that hadn’t been repaired. I had a fantasy that they could all be repaired before she died. It didn’t happen that way. But I was left with these pages about how I wish things had been different in our family, in particular with an aunt who had been estranged for a long time. I started to write a novel that explored bluntly what if– what if my aunt came back into the conversation of my family. That scenario had a lot of emotional weight with me and really drove the first draft of the novel. It took many more drafts to get further in–and further away from my family.
MH: I particularly liked Stella’s mix of naieve hopefulness and her blind confidence that she could repair the familial breach and somehow accomplish what her mother and grandmother hadn’t managed to do.
LJ: Yes, Stella has a dual feeling of guilt and superiority. I shared some version of that, myself. You feel responsible for what your family has done, even if you weren’t alive for it, but you also feel like, I’m better than that, I would never do that to somebody, and what’s more, I can go fix it. Stella thinks “I can do what my mother wasn’t capable of doing, which was to love the damage in another person.”
MH: In a way, Stella’s a classic young heroine. She’s smart and deep, but she’s not yet fully-formed, which makes her ripe for demons—in the beginning of the book, she has a terrible boss, she’s deep in it with a married man, then she’s in over her head with her sick grandmother. A flick on the back of the head is all that’s needed to send her down some misbegotten path—like saving her aunt.
LJ: Which lets you in on the dirty secret of what altruism really is, which is saying I don’t know how to deal with my own stuff so I’ll immerse myself in somebody else’s stuff, so I can feel like a hero in their life.
MH: Yes, but there are times when nothing can touch your low self esteem except getting out of yourself and being of service to another person.
LJ: We can do good things out of flawed motives–which doesn’t make them less good. But you can also show up for a certain situation only to discover that the situation is bigger than you are–you’re really signing up to lose control.
MH: One scene really haunts me. Stella goes to her aunt’s trailer in Nevada and sees the gin closet, her aunt’s drinking room. It’s a terrible womb-tomb place, bottles, flies, a turkey carcass of all things, a stool in the corner—truly the nightmare version of a tuffet. Appalling! But the next thing you know, Stella and Tilly are drinking together. Reading along, I was thinking: No! Don’t do it, Stella–you’re giving too much ground! I knew she wanted to help her aunt and bring her back into the family. While I never thought she had a chance of succeeding, I really didn’t want her to sink to her aunt’s level.
LJ: I wanted to destabilize Stella’s hero complex from the start to show it as confused. She wanted to connect with her aunt and build a sense of trust and to not be just another voice saying, “you’re a fuck up and we want your problems far away from us.” The short cut to that was to get low with her, get shamed with her.
That’s as opposed to saying I’m here, in a better spot, and I want you to come here too, which imposes a boundary and a separateness that requires a lot of moral fortitude and a kind of caring that’s willing to be patient.
MH: And drinking with her aunt is like taking food in the dark realm, like Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds—it compromises the mission, prefigures its doom.
The novel also plays with a universal orphan fantasy: you’re a little girl and you’re mad at your parents and then you think, Hey! what if I had another, secret family which was my real, true family. Even the happiest child imagines at some point that she actually belongs with the fairies.
LJ: (Laughs) Yeah! Drunken fairies! Absolutely. Stella replaces her mother with a woman she can be a mother to. She has trouble recognizing all the ways that her mother has been a mother for her, and wants to instead focus on what she resents her for and to replace her with a relationship that can make her feel good about herself, where she can occupy this nurturing role. What Stella’s mother has given her is complicated, but there’s a lot of good in it. And that, I think is ultimately the reckoning in the orphan family fantasy–where you have to come back and say, maybe I didn’t want the fairies after all.
MH: It’s Coraline—suddenly your busy, hardworking mother seems infinitely better than the one who wants to replace your eyes with buttons.
LJ: Or Where the Wild Things Are. Suddenly, your cold porridge in your room doesn’t look so bad after where you’ve been…
MH: I was interested, too, in how, when the new family forms, when they move into Abe’s apartment, closeness doesn’t follow. The two educated young people don’t really know how to find common ground with Tilly, who is white-knuckling it through her days working at a new job that’s essentially busywork, and trying to put her stamp on the loft by decorating it with cheap little trinkets she finds on her wanderings. The three don’t even enjoy a honeymoon period together.
LJ: Yes. It’s strange to suddenly be family with someone with whom you don’t have that whole backlog of quiet awkward shared family experience. Tilly and Stella are family but there’s no territory that they share beyond a feeling that it’s wrong that they hadn’t been family so far. So there’s kind of a rabid good intention coming up against, well, what it looks like day to day.
MH: Here’s a question all the bookclubs will ask you: How did you write so convincingly about prostitution?
LJ: I did what every self-respecting PhD student does…which is to say, I went to the library. I checked out 20 books from the Yale system and spent a month doing little but reading them. The main thing I remember feeling from all these womens’ stories was that, yes, many of them were stories of incredible hardship, but they weren’t about soul-erasure or the effacement of dignity–they weren’t black and white Before and After stories. There was a tremendous amount of dailiness; not quite so much melodrama as I’d imagined. I remember thinking, I’m not qualified to imagine my way into this. And then thinking, I’m just going to have to get over that.
MH: What writing, what literary models conditioned you for writing The Gin Closet?
LJ: I distinctly remember reading–over the course of two long, lonely, completely engrossed days–the entirety of Yates’ Revolutionary Road. I’d reached one of those points where I’d forgotten what the point of a novel was–why the world was better-off for having it, I guess–and why I was writing my own; and I read Yates and felt such deep humanity and honesty and richness in his world, and felt myself so changed–I thought, if I can do this for anyone, the book will be worth it. The deep geneology of my conditioning had been going on for a long time before the draft, as is true for all writers: Faulkner and Woolf are my twin gods; Plath has always been important to me, Anne Carson, the many beautiful and talented writers I’m lucky to call friends.
MH: What’s the next book? How is it different or the same from The Gin Closet?
LJ: I am working on the second draft of a novel about the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaraugua.
I feel like The Gin Closet was a gush of consciousness. I wrote it from pure feeling. I followed it intuitively. I’m not sure if any of my other books are going to be like that. The process of writing since then has been much more deliberate– not that my heart isn’t involved. But I’ve been extending out of myself much more, whereas with the first one, I was dredging stuff out from inside myself. That’s not to say it’s totally autobiographical.
MH: Who are you looking to now, for the new book? What writers do you reach for to “prime the pump” so to speak—to make you want to write?
LJ: There are some writers who make me want to write, and other writers who make me feel as if I can write–as if I have it in me–and these circles aren’t entirely overlapping. Shirley Hazzard makes me want to write–in fact, she makes me want to write exactly like she writes–but this is usually bad, because I end up writing second-tier Hazzard instead of any-tier Jamison. I usually read poetry when I’m trying to write–it makes me swollen with beauty and possibility, with honesty, but it doesn’t call up the urge to imitate. Lately I’ve been reading Carson’s Nox, and Berryman’s Dream Songs. The new book is about history, which gives me a rich well of reading that isn’t fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of Sandinista memoirs–they are just so fucking interesting; full of the physical world and translated curse-words and a surprising (maybe not so surprising) amount of sex and humor.
MH: You seem to have a penchant for poets…how has living with/among poets affected your writing and your attitudes toward fiction and poetry?
LJ: I’ve always thought “A penchant for poets” might be a good title for my memoir, if I ever publish one. I’ve dated a few of them, and–as you point out—I have been living with one for several years, in a house so laden with books in multiple genres it’s creaking at the seams. As I’ve mentioned, poetry gets me inspired to write–I love getting close to the minds that make it. I love having conversations over scrambled eggs about line breaks and refrains, because I get to think about making without thinking about my own making. Sometimes it’s hard because I feel like Practical Peggy juxtaposed against the infinite and infinitely disorganized energy of a poet–short attention span, fickle production, wild strokes of genius.
MH: So which side are you going to root for this year at the Writers Workshop softball game?
LJ: I’m going to have to root for fiction. Genre before love. Plus, my boyfriend loves to argue, so I think this will suit him just fine.
MH: How has it been being back in Iowa City for two years, when you’re not at the workshop?
LJ: Yeah! (Laughs and squints at the iphone on the table between us) How much time do you have left on your little recorder there?
To blurb or not to blurb?
This seemingly innocent question was put to me for the first time a couple of weeks ago when a paperback review copy of a non-fiction book arrived in my mailbox. I knew it was coming. The author, Earl Swift, is a former newspaper colleague and an old friend, and he had written earlier to say he was hoping I would give his new book a blurb. At the time I didn’t even consider saying no because, as a blurb virgin, I thought I was simply being asked to do a friend a small favor. I had no idea I was agreeing to walk across an artistic, personal and ethical minefield.
When I opened the envelope, my heart sank. The book’s title had that distinctive rotten-egg aroma of something that came out of the hind end of a focus group. It’s called The Big Roads. Worse, the subtitle is one of those 15-car pile-ups that sound like somebody in the focus group was trying way too hard: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. All the subtitle lacked was three exclamation points.
What had I gotten myself into? Earl Swift, as I say, is an old friend, but I also know that he’s a dogged reporter and a deft writer. (Full disclosure: when we first met I owned a pink-and-black 1954 Buick and he was driving a creamy white 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible. Never underestimate the power of classic Detroit pig iron to make two men bond.) So of course I wanted Earl’s book to succeed. Besides, he had shrewdly softened me up in advance by telling me how my first novel had changed his life: “I remember reading (it) and thinking: I’m a newspaper writer. This guy’s a writer who happened to work for a newspaper. I’m not overstating the case to say that reading that book helped prod me to get serious about my own work. It was a wake-up. True story.”
Now Earl was counting on me. What should I do if the book was as bad as its generic title and breathless subtitle? Was I obliged to lie in my blurb like most other blurb writers presumably do? Or did ethics require me to back out and, in doing so, break an old friend’s heart?
I’ll admit that I’m swayed by blurbs from time to time even though I’ve always thought of them as suspect, vaguely sleazy. I suppose I’m suspicious partly because I was a big fan of Spy magazine in its heyday, and my favorite feature was “Logrolling in Our Time,” a hilarious and devastating monthly roster of writers who shamelessly plugged each other’s books. It was my first hint that book publishing might not be the gentleman’s game it then pretended to be. That it might, in fact, be a sweaty little orgy of incest.
In due time, I got a glimpse of how blurbing actually worked. When my second novel was nearing publication, someone in my agent’s office persuaded the best-selling author Nelson DeMille to read a galley of the book, which is set in Southeast Asia in 1963 and climaxes with the American-backed assassination of South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, less than three weeks before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. DeMille, to everyone’s amazement, sent back the following blurb: “This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel that captures time and place, an illumination of a pivotal point in history. Bill Morris is an exceptionally gifted and savvy writer. The comparison to Graham Greene is fully merited.”
When I got my jaw off the floor, my first thought was, This is bullshit! Nobody in his right mind would compare me to a god like Graham Greene! But then I let it sink in for a while and I thought, Hmm…I’ve got no quarrel with “wonderfully atmospheric” or “exceptionally gifted and savvy.” And even if the Graham Greene bit is bullshit, it’s the kind of bullshit I can learn to live with. So I kept my mouth shut and let the publisher put DeMille’s quote on the front flap of the dust jacket. Did this blurb sell any books? Sadly, we’ll never know.
To find out if blurbs help sell books, I decided to conduct a highly unscientific survey. I asked several well read friends the following questions: Do you ever buy books on the basis of blurbs? If so, do you have to know something about the blurb writer, or will any intriguing blurb do the trick?
Marianne Schaefer, a woman who makes documentary films and devours science fiction and fantasy novels by the metric ton, said, “Yes, blurbs from respected publications frequently convince me to buy a book. If I know the blurb writer and really like his or her writing – Neal Stephenson, say, or China Mieville – I’ll do further research about the book because it’s possible the blurb writer is a friend of the author.” Now comes the juicy part. “I have also not bought a book because it was blurbed by a writer whose recommendations I distrust. Ursula K. Le Guin is a perfect example. If she liked a book, I know it’s politically correct, female-empowering, pretentious crap.”
Sara Nelson is probably as close to an authority as anyone on the question of whether or not blurbs sell books. She was once editor in chief of that industry bible, Publishers Weekly, and she’s now books director of O, the Oprah magazine. For good measure, she’s also an omnivorous reader and the author of a book about reading, So Many Books, So Little Time, which got its share of blurbs from brand-name authors. “A feast,” wrote Pat Conroy. “A joy,” wrote Susan Isaacs. “A smart, witty, utterly original memoir about how every book becomes a part of us,” wrote Augusten Burroughs. Most writers would kill their own mothers for such blurbs.
Nelson told me, via e-mail, “I always look at blurbs when I’m in a bookstore, and I’m always intrigued by them, but…I’m more interested in figuring out how/why this particular author got that particular author to blurb him (‘Oh right, they have the same agent!’) than in thinking like a consumer. Obviously this is not typical. When I was at Publishers Weekly, I often spoke to consumers about their buying habits, and usually asked if blurbs influenced their book-buying decisions. Most of the time their answer was ‘yes’ – so I guess that’s why we keep going after blurbs. But of course there’s no way of knowing” if they work.
Many writers who have hit the best-seller lists or won major awards have a strict policy of not writing blurbs. Some even talk about being in a “blurb-free zone,” which sounds like a bad Rod Serling spinoff. Colum McCann, who won the National Book Award in 2009 for his novel Let the Great World Spin, admits that he has been tempted to step into the blurb-free zone. The reason is simple.
“In the past week I got exactly eight books in the post to blurb. Eight!” he wrote in an e-mail. “I also got six separate e-mail requests from publishers and friends. Then I got two requests from former students. That’s a total of sixteen requests in just one week. The mailman hates me!”
That works out to 832 blurb requests per year.
“I feel so damn guilty not being able to blurb all the books, but it is just plain impossible,” McCann went on. “I’ve been trying to institute a policy of no blurbs, but I understand their necessity. They’re not even designed for readers since I think most people see through the bullshit factor. They are designed more for bookshops and just helping to get the books on the shelf… But again I understand the necessity. The blurbs for Let the Great World Spin (by Richard Price, Dave Eggers, Frank McCourt, Amy Bloom, John Boyne) were very, very important to its initial bookshop push. They helped the book succeed.”
Frank McCourt, by the way, never entered the blurb-free zone. Prior to his death in 2009 he was a tireless blurber, a true champion of other writers, proof that some authors write blurbs even if they’re not trying to curry favor with other writers as possible sources of future blurbs. The prolific McCourt did, however, tend to get a bit repetitious, which seems to be an occupational hazard for serial blurbers. He wrote that Peace Like a River by Leif Enger has passages “so wondrous and wise you’ll want to claw yourself with pleasure.” He also wrote, “Open to any page of Helen Gurley Brown’s I’m Wild Again, and you’ll claw yourself with pleasure.” And of Colum McCann’s 1998 novel This Side of Brightness, McCourt wrote, “In language that makes you claw yourself with pleasure, he powerfully evokes the stink of the present and the poignancy of the past.” We can only hope that McCourt was diligent about trimming his fingernails.
As for McCann’s theory that blurbs help to get books on store shelves, Toby Cox, owner of Three Lives & Company in New York’s Greenwich Village, has his doubts. “When I buy books I do it by looking through publishers’ catalogs, and they have blurbs,” Cox told me. “A blurb generally doesn’t sway me that I should bring a particular book into the store, but it does give me a feel for how a publisher is trying to position a book.” As for his customers, “If the blurb is by a favorite writer of theirs, it may have an influence. For my market it’s mostly reviews and word of mouth that sell a book. I think you can probably trace most blurbs back to a connection – the author and blurb writer are friends, or they have the same editor or the same agent – so I tend to take them with a grain of salt.”
One man who decidedly did not take blurbs with a grain of salt was the writer who coined the word, a turn of the last century humorist named Gelett Burgess (1866-1951). The cover of his 1906 book Are You a Bromide? shows a woman identified as MISS BELINDA BLURB IN THE ACT OF BLURBING. She’s shouting the book’s praises in no uncertain terms:
YES, this is a “BLURB”! All Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn’t We? Say! Ain’t this book a 90 H.P., six-cylinder Seller? … WE consider that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked into the coal bin, telephoning for “Information.” WE expect to sell 350 copies of this great, grand book. It has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck. No hero, no heroine, nothing like that for OURS, but when you’ve READ this masterpiece, you’ll know what a BOOK is, and you’ll sic it onto your mother-in-law, your dentist and the pale youth who dips hot air into Little Marjorie until 4 A.M. in the front parlour. This book has 42-carat THRILLS in it. It fairly BURBLES. Ask the man at the counter what HE thinks of it! He’s seen Janice Meredith faded to a mauve magenta. He’s seen BLURBS before, and he’s dead wise. He’ll say:
This Book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!!
Aware that I had a lot of tough acts to follow, I dug into The Big Roads. The title still bugged me, not only because it was bland but because I had a much better one: Six Sidewalks to the Moon. From the research I’d done while writing the novel that prodded Earl Swift to get serious about his own work, I happened to know that President Dwight Eisenhower, the putative father of our interstate highway system, had once gushed that this engineering marvel would require enough concrete to build “six sidewalks to the moon.”
But my misgivings began to evaporate when I reached page 5, where Swift notes that the interstates used enough concrete to “fill sixty-four Louisiana Superdomes to the rafters.” No flies on Earl! Soon my dread was replaced by relief, then pure delight. Earl Swift is still a deft writer, but the dogged reporter has turned into a prodigious researcher, a real-live historian, someone’s who’s willing to paw through acres of archives, troll the internet, conduct interviews, and read every available book, government report, biography and article on his subject. Along the way he gives us delightful thumbnail histories of motels, McDonald’s golden arches and that mother of all tourist traps, South of the Border. And he can be drolly funny. One man “seized on the task like a pit bull on a flank steak.” And Ike “wasn’t much of a detail man” but he did adhere to a “rigorous golf and vacation schedule.” Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is to dispel the prevailing myth that the interstate highways popped fully formed out of Dwight Eisenhower’s shiny, empty skull. They did not. Nothing did.
As good as it is, the book isn’t perfect. It could have used a bit more…artiness. Earl does quote a beautifully surreal passage about road-weary motorists that James Agee wrote for Fortune magazine in 1934, but he missed the chance to illustrate his point that the flame-throwing, technicolor cars of the 1950s had outgrown the roads they traveled on and, as a result, the country seemed to need the interstates. Here’s Richard Yates on the subject, from his immortal novel Revolutionary Road, which was written at the precise moment when Ike was talking about all those sidewalks to the moon: “Their automobiles didn’t look right either – unnecessarily wide and gleaming in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each splatter of mud, they crawled apologetically down the broken roads that led from all directions to the deep, level slab of Route Twelve. Once there the cars seemed able to relax in an environment all their own, a long bright valley of colored plastic and plate glass and stainless steel – KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT – but eventually they had to turn off, one by one, and make their way up the winding country road…”
I was off the hook but I still had to write the blurb. Thinking of Pat Conroy and Susan Isaacs, I wanted to open with something pithy. A joy ride, I thought. Not bad. Now follow it up with something that has gush and go to it. An epic tale of… No, that’s as flat as the title. After many false starts and wrong turns, I came up with this: Earl Swift has written the best kind of popular history – one that paints vivid portraits, debunks myths and brings to life the fascinating and appalling stories behind the creation of that massive mixed blessing known as America’s interstate highways.
It may not have been a work of art but at least it wasn’t bullshit. I re-read it a dozen times, then typed it into an e-mail addressed to the book’s editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. My finger hovered over the keyboard for a long time. I’m no Colum McCann, but once my blurb got published I had visions of the mailman dropping off stacks of review copies in front of my door. Did I really want to dive down that rabbit hole? I took a deep breath. Then another. And then I hit Send.
Yes reader, I blurbed him.
(Image: Librairie le Bleuet from gastev’s photostream)
James Ross published just one novel in his lifetime. This is a rare thing because of a paradox that lies at the heart of novel writing: it demands such sustained focus, such persistence, so much raw pig-headed stubbornness that anyone who does it once almost invariably does it again, and again, and again. Once is almost never enough. The agony is just too delicious. Yet after his debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, appeared in 1940, James Ross published a dozen short stories but no more novels. When he died in 1990 at the age of 79, he could have been a poster boy for that rarest and most tortured breed of novelist: the one-hit wonder.
Truth to tell, They Don’t Dance Much was not a very big hit. When Ross met Flannery O’Connor at the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the late 1940s, O’Connor wrote to her agent: “James Ross, a writer who is here, is looking for an agent. He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much. It didn’t sell much.”
Yet Ross has always had a fiercely devoted, if small, band of acolytes. I count myself among them. So did Raymond Chandler, who called Ross’s novel “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story.” Another fan is Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones, who last year picked They Don’t Dance Much as one of his 10 favorite crime novels. In his New York Times review of a 1994 novel called Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale, the gifted novelist Daniel Woodrell listed some of Lansdale’s “country-noir” predecessors, including James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson. “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned,” Woodrell wrote, “though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot. He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind. They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man’s voice speaking when he has a witch’s brew of a tale to tell. No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required…”
True on every count. There is abundant savagery in Ross’s novel, including a graphic description of a man getting tortured, beaten to death, dumped into a vat off bootleg beer, then burned. But the savagery has a point – it is almost always a by-product of greed – which is a very different thing from saying it points toward some sort of moral, or even some species of authorial judgment. Ross was too cold-eyed, too much of a realist to care about such niceties. As he put it himself: “Some reviewer said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting. My…aim was merely to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.”
The “straightforward power of a man’s voice” in this case belongs to the novel’s narrator, Jack McDonald, a down-on-his-luck North Carolina farmer who is about to lose his exhausted 45 acres for non-payment of back taxes. Jack jumps at the chance to go to work as cashier for a roughneck named Smut Milligan, who’s about to expand his filling station into the biggest, noisiest, nastiest roadhouse for miles around, a bona fide knife-and-gun club that attracts a barely literate, frequently drunk, occasionally violent and largely worthless clientele. With this crew – and a ringleader like Smut Milligan – it’s inevitable that there will be blood.
The straightforward power of Jack’s voice is established in the book’s opening sentences: “I remember the evening I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn.”
Ross needs fewer than 50 words to tell us many valuable things: that his narrator is the shiftless type who hangs around filling stations; that Charles Fisher is so rich he can afford the very best, including a purring new Cadillac that drinks high-test gas; and that Fisher isn’t the sort of rich man who lords it over the hired help.
Ross continues: “Fisher’s wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.”
In addition to being straightforward, this writing has the great virtue of compression, which means its seeming simplicity is both a mask for and the source of its deep complexity. Writing this way might look easy, but it’s not. Writers as diverse as Hemingway, Joan Didion and Elmore Leonard are proof, as are their legions of tin-eared imitators.
Another of the novel’s many pleasures is the way Ross uses money to do something all successful novelists must do – bring his story to life in a particular place at a particular time. In this he’s reminiscent of Balzac, who managed to mention money at least once on every page he ever wrote. To cite just a few examples from Cousin Bette: “It cost me two thousand francs a year, simply to cultivate her talents as a singer” … “At the age of fifty-two years, love costs at least thirty thousand francs a year” … “Tell me, are you worth the six hundred thousand francs that this hotel and its furnishing cost?”
Money is every bit as important, though not nearly as plentiful, in Ross’s fictional North Carolina mill town called Corinth, a stand-in for the hamlet of Norwood where he grew up. The time is the late 1930s, when the Depression is ending and the Second World War is beginning. In that place at that time, Ross tells us, a bottle of beer cost 10 cents, a steak sandwich cost 40 cents and a pint of “Breath of Spring” corn liquor cost a dollar. A cotton mill worker earned $40 a month while the more skilled hosiery mill worker earned that much in a week, though the work frequently drove him blind by the age of 30. All this is a shorthand way of establishing the thing that is not supposed to exist in America but always has and always will: a class system. Another tool Ross uses to expose it is his characters’ speech.
Here’s a bit of social analysis from one of the roadhouse regulars: “Oh, Yankees is got the money… They’s a few folks in Corinth got money too. Henry Fisher is got plenty of money. But folks like that go to the beach and to Californy, and to Charlotte, and up Nawth to spend it. They ain’t comin out here for no amusement.” And here’s Charles Fisher pontificating to a visitor from the North about the South’s troublesome white trash: “The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress. They are, in the main, fearful of new things… I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning.”
Jack, who lost his farm and can’t afford to pay for his mother’s burial, has a low opinion of the higher-ups: “They were the people that are supposed to be nice folks, but like a dram now and then. And when nobody is looking like to kiss somebody else’s wife and pinch her on the behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course.” That accidentally, of course establishes Ross’s kinship with all true storytellers since Homer, his understanding that all classes – that is, the whole human race – is essentially unimprovable, an eternal mix of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion, horror and humor.
Which brings us to Ross’s greatest gift of all, his sly wit. Here’s Jack describing the woods around the roadhouse: “It was still down there toward the river. You could hear the mosquitoes singing, ‘Cousin, Cousin,’ just before they bit you. When they got their beaks full of blood they’d fly off singing, ‘No kin, No kin,’ just like humans.”
And here’s Jack asking Smut about a gift he gave the sheriff:
“What was that you gave him in the paper sack?” I asked.
“A quart of my own private Scotch. Confound his time, he ought to appreciate that. I paid four bucks a quart for that stuff.”
“I didn’t know the sheriff drank,” I said.
“He don’t drink much. Just takes a little for medicine when he has a cold.”
“You think he’s got a cold now?” I asked.
“I understand he keeps a little cold all the time,” Smut said.
Even such wonderfully wry writing couldn’t keep the book from slipping into obscurity. Then in 1975, 35 years after its original publication, the novel was re-issued in hard-cover by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Lost American Fiction series edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Ross was about to retire after 20 years as a political reporter and editorial writer at the Greensboro Daily News, which followed stints as a semi-pro baseball player, farmer and IRS clerk. A few years after his retirement, I took a newspaper job in Greensboro and happened to rent an apartment a few blocks from where Jim and his wife, Marnie Polk Ross, lived. I was still in my twenties, still more than a dozen years from publishing my own first novel, and so naturally I was in awe of a writer who’d hob-nobbed with Flannery O’Connor and written a novel that had just been anointed a classic. Beyond that, Jim Ross became a friend to me and many other young writers in town because he never offered false praise and yet he had a way of making us believe in ourselves. He showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression – that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time – and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery. It was the sort of encouragement and inspiration only the luckiest aspiring writers get. Coming from Jim Ross, it meant the world.
While visiting Greensboro recently, I pulled up to the house where Jim spent his last years. To my surprise, Marnie was out in the front yard in lemony sunshine, raking leaves. Though I was uninvited and unannounced and hadn’t seen her since Jim’s funeral 20 years ago, she invited me in, gave me a glass of ice water, and started telling me stories, which is something Southerners of a certain age still tend to do.
Right off, she stunned me. She told me a college professor named Anthony Hatcher had visited her a while back, expressing an interest in writing some sort of scholarly article about Jim. She’d given Hatcher all of Jim’s papers, including the 318-page manuscript of a novel called In the Red. I remembered Jim mentioning something about a second novel when I first met him, back in the 1970s. When I’d asked him if he planned to try to publish it, he’d said, “It’s no damn good.” Then his voice had trailed off. I assumed it was unfinished, or unpolished, and that he had never showed the novel to anyone. Marnie set me straight.
“Jim tried very hard to get it published,” she said. “He sent it to (the agent) Knox Burger, but nobody wanted to publish it. I think that rejection had a lot to do with Jim’s declining health. I think Jim was kind of a pessimist and he didn’t really expect it to sell. He hoped it would sell – writers are always hoping their work will sell. They want it more than anything, but it doesn’t always happen.”
Knox Burger, I learned later, was the fiction editor at Collier’s when the magazine published two of Jim’s short stories in 1949, “Zone of the Interior” and “How To Swap Horses.” (Jim also published short stories in the Partisan Review, Cosmopolitan, the Sewanee Review and Argosy.) Burger went on to become a book editor and then, beginning in 1970, a celebrated literary agent. If he couldn’t sell your novel, your novel was in serious trouble.
So Jim Ross, it turns out, was something even more tortured than a conventional one-hit wonder. He was an unwilling one-hit wonder, a writer who went back to the well and wrote a second novel and then gave up because nobody bought it and he convinced himself it was no damn good. There can’t possibly be anything delicious about that kind of agony.
Rosemary Yardley, a former newspaper colleague of mine and a good friend of the Ross’s, remembers visiting Jim in Health Haven Nursing Home, where he was frequently admitted in his later years due to debilitating osteoarthritis. Jim called the place “Hell’s Haven.”
“I asked him about that novel,” Rosemary told me, “and he said, ‘I tried to sell it but they don’t like the way I write anymore. I don’t write what they look for today.’ He was probably right. He wrote old-fashioned stories in the sense that they always had a good plot.”
Finally I reached Anthony Hatcher, who lives in Durham, N.C., and teaches journalism and media history at nearby Elon University, which Jim Ross attended for one year. “I re-read They Don’t Dance Much last year,” Hatcher said, “and when I learned that he left the college under mysterious circumstances, I became extremely interested. I decided I would dive into the life of Jim Ross. I tracked down Marnie, some of Jim’s former newspaper colleagues, his sister Jean Ross Justice (a short story writer and widow of the poet Donald Justice) and his sister Eleanor Ross Taylor (a poet and widow of the fiction writer Peter Taylor). I’m still collecting archival material. In addition to the In the Red manuscript, which is based on political figures in Raleigh, there’s a 113-page fragment of a novel called Sunshine In the Soul. My initial thinking is that I would write about Jim Ross the fiction writer – his published novel and short stories – and then tackle the unpublished work. I would love to do an in-depth treatment of Jim Ross and his place in the Greensboro literary scene, going back to the days of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 1930s.” Hatcher plans to take an eight-month sabbatical next year to work on the book.
So Jim Ross was an unwilling one-hit wonder who might yet have another day in the sunshine. This unlikely twist of fate got me thinking about other writers who stopped publishing after they sold their first novels, for reasons that range from rejection to writer’s block to drink, drugs, depression, shyness, madness, a loss of interest or a loss of nerve, or the simple realization that they said all they had to say in their one and only book. The most famous are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Less well known was Anna Sewell, who was not a professional writer but scored a major hit with Black Beauty in 1877. A few months after the book was published she died of hepatitis. That is just plain wrong. (Ellison and Henry Roth, who published his second novel 60 years after his debut, Call It Sleep, have recently joined Vladimir Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño in publishing novels after they died, which can’t be an easy thing to do.)
And then there is the group I think of as Mislabeled One-Hit Wonders – writers who actually published more than one novel but will forever be identified with the one that made their names. J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) come immediately to mind. Those books dwarfed everything else their creators wrote, which is a both a tribute to those books and an unfair slap at their sometimes very fine but terminally overshadowed brethren.
And finally there’s the curious case of Dow Mossman, who published a novel called The Stones of Summer in 1972, then evaporated. Thirty years later, a fan named Mark Moskowitz made a documentary film called Stone Reader, about his love for the novel and his quest to find its mysterious author, who, it turned out, was hiding in plain sight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the house he grew up in. Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio was so taken by the movie that he invested $200,000 in its distribution and paid Mossman $100,000 for the right to re-issue the novel in hard-cover. The reclusive Mossman suddenly found himself on one of the most improbable book tours in the history of American publishing.
Moskowitz’s motivation for making the documentary was simple: “I can’t believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear and never do anything again.”
Well, believe it. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It sort of happened to Jim Ross and Ralph Ellison. Many people wrongly think it happened to J.D. Salinger. It definitely happened to Harper Lee. And it almost never ends as it ended for Dow Mossman, whose book tour took him to Boston, where one day in the fall of 2003 he found himself puffing a cigar while gazing out at the Charles River and talking to a newspaper reporter. “I don’t think I’ve caught up with the reality of it yet,” Mossman said. “It’s pretty unreal.”
What happened to Mossman is way beyond unreal. It’s just about impossible.
In “Hunger Was Good Discipline,” from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes about his short story “Out of Season”:
I had omitted the real ending of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.
In a recent interview with Jennifer Egan at Guernica, the interviewer mentions a review of Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep in which the reviewer, Maureen McClarnon of Booklsut, declared the ending section unnecessary:
The Keep is easily the best book I’ve read all year. Actually, allow me one small qualification: it’s the best if one disregards the last section […] the book has this excellent ending, but what’s with all of those extra pages? What, an entire extra section? […] I don’t think it was necessary, or that it made the book stronger; the last section is there to tie up some loose narrative ends that could have been left dangling. If the reader has fully bought in to the whole willing suspension of disbelief package for the duration of the book, why burst the bubble?
The Guernica interviewer added that “most readers I’ve spoken with disagree.” Egan’s response to the review: “Whatever. To me, there was no question that it was the right thing to do. And it was probably the hardest part of the book to write.”
During the dark days of revising and seeking publication for my novel, Long for This World, a friend and veteran (former) literary editor read the manuscript and encouraged me with her praise. I remember in particular her saying, “The ending is one of the strongest and most memorable I’ve read,” which I was especially glad to hear, because the ending felt right to me as well. During the Q&A at a recent reading, I called on a woman sitting in the far back who shouted boldly: “I really enjoyed the book, but I hit the ending like a brick wall. It felt unfinished.” To which I replied, “Um, well, I… guess it’s always better to leave people wanting for more?”
Christopher Allen Walker wrote here at The Millions: “It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption, found in the resolution of the plot.” If there is such thing as an “average reader” – and I’m not sure there is – then perhaps, yes, a survey would show that resolution is preferred over open-endedness. And yet my examples above show that readers (and writers) are quite mixed on this. Even Hemingway has fans and detractors, particularly in regards to his stories, the endings of which do sometimes feel like an amputated limb whose corporal existence lingers as a ghost-like sensation.
It’s tempting to imagine a linear spectrum of ending “types,” with tied-up-in-a-bow on one end, chopped-off-with-a-blunt-ax on the other. But really, there are so many different kinds of literary endings. What constitutes “satisfying” for different readers? I wonder if a particular reader tends to enjoy one kind of ending across the board, or is there a more complex alchemy of writer and reader that happens, book by book? As readers, do writers prefer the same kinds of endings that they write?
Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely.” I’ve always loved this quote, because it implies that a work of art is a whole thing, as opposed to an assemblage of component parts. I’m guessing Jennifer Egan did not think of her ending as modular; in other words, she didn’t consider it “an ending” at all, but rather “the last XX pages of the work.” Often, when advising writing students about endings, I suggest that if the ending isn’t quite working, the revision needs to be focused somewhere earlier on, not as much (and certainly not exclusively) on the last section, page, or paragraph.
That said, all this brings to mind an interesting example of an artist working toward an ending: the DVD of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love includes outtake scenes, most of which are alternate versions of a particular middle section, and of the ending. Each of these scenes represents a drastically different ultimate emotional affect, and the mixing and matching of them does feel a bit like modular-furniture rearrangement (an apt metaphor for a filmmaker whose aesthetic is very designerly). Is the forbidden-love relationship between the main characters one of 1. (passionate) consummation or 2. (passionate) abstention? If the latter, does the tension/longing stay with 1. both characters long into the future, or 2. just with one of them? Do the characters 1. reunite or 2. never cross paths again? If the former, is it by chance or by design, and, either way, what is the emotional tenor / ultimate implication of that reunion? Wong shot many different possibilities; it seems he needed to play them out in order to decide. As much as I loved the film as is, watching all these possibilities and “doing the math” afterwards feels like the appropriate complete experience; it makes doubly clear that the final version — the most minimal and the most poignant — is the right one, the best one.
Here are some adjectives I often hear applied to endings:
surprise / twist
heartbreaking / tear-jerking
cheesy / sentimental
Following are a few of my own favorite kinds of endings and some examples:
Endings that make you go, HOW did the writer DO that? and thus make you want to re-read immediately:
“The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, “Safari” by Jennifer Egan, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates each does something at the end that feels like a stomach-turning shift, and yet it works; you are jarred, but just the right amount. In writing classes, these endings are sometimes described as “surprising but inevitable.” (This is perhaps the most common type of successful ending, so I’ll unpack it a bit.)
In “The Point,” an adolescent narrator whom you’ve been with for 15 pages reveals/confesses something shocking to you. The narrative tone also shifts abruptly, from wry/humorous/lyrical to unflinching and direct. You should feel strong-armed by the author, but you don’t; you realize this is just what you’ve been wanting to know, and in just this voice, all along.
In “Safari,” Egan’s omniscient narrator flashes forward from a present time in which the main characters are children, to a crystal-ball future. It’s disturbing, both in terms of what is revealed in the crystal ball, and also in terms of the reader’s stability; somebody is spinning the room on its horizontal axis, has switched your flat screen for a 3D Imax. When the narration returns to the present, you feel the buzz of the spin, but your feet re-plant on the ground; it works beautifully.
In Revolutionary Road, at the very end of the novel, we finally get the female protagonist’s (April Wheeler’s) narrative point of view. Just for a moment – and at just the right moment – we are right inside her head. As with “The Point,” we realize it’s what we’ve wanted all along, and we marvel that the writer has engendered that craving, over the previous 200-some pages, at a slow simmer, so skillfully.
Endings that leave you speechlessly marooned in emotion / sensation:
John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” and James Salter’s “Last Night” jolt you out of intellect into something you can’t think your way through or out of. Cheever does this with that stunning final image:
I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.
Salter does it with an ostensibly neat and tidy closing paragraph that creates so much dissonance vis-a-vis the emotional disturbances of the story thus far (an affair, an assisted-suicide gone wrong), you find yourself trapped in a kind of feeling-thinking purgatory, your response relegated (arguably elevated) to the realm of pure sense.
Endings that cannot be summed up in words:
Certainly there are literary examples of this, but Kelly Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy comes to mind first. Perhaps this is a dog owner’s thing, but I remember a friend describing to me the ending, trying to reassure me (since I have low tolerance for dead-dog movies). “You’ll be all right,” she said. “Lucy [the dog] comes out just fine.” This is correct, strictly speaking, but there is nothing “just fine” about the ending of this movie. It’s emotionally and narratively understated, but wrenchingly sad; nowhere near “just fine.”
Endings That Can Be Interpreted in More Than One Way:
When very different readings of an ending can be equally resonant, that’s what I call masterful. I am thinking of Walter Kirn’s story “Hoaxer,” a coming-of-age story in which a boy’s ambivalent relationship with his unstable father comes to a head. On an outing with his father, the boy commits a definitive act; the act could be interpreted as a door-closing rejection, or as a claim on intimacy/connection. Either reading is both moving and disturbing in light of the story’s intricate characterizations to that point. Amazing. The other example that comes to mind is Hemingway’s notorious six-word story, which, according to Peter Miller, came about in this way:
Ernest Hemingway was lunching at the Algonquin, sitting at the famous “round table” with several writers, claiming he could write a six-word-long short story. The other writers balked. Hemingway told them to ante up ten dollars each. If he was wrong, he would match it; if he was right, he would keep the pot. He quickly wrote six words on a napkin and passed it around. The words were: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Of course, the question the reader is left with is, why were the shoes never worn? There are countless ways to read this “ending,” mostly tragic; and yet anything from miscarriage (tragedy) to mis-gendering (comedy) could explain it. As gimmicky and over-quoted as this story has become, it really is brilliant; inclusion and omission working together perfectly.
Endings you can’t even remember because the rest of the book/story was so good:
The unmemorable ending is sometimes a work’s strength. I feel this way about Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (and I read this very recently), which is memorable for every gorgeous sentence and image, and for its dream-like, first-person-plural voice; decidedly not for its narrative Whodunnit or Whydunnit or even Howdunnit (a penultimate suicide scene). The novel doesn’t so much bring you to “an ending” as it does absorb you deeply all throughout, in an experience of language and longing, mystery and unknowing (reopening the book just now, though, I must admit that the last sentence is quite beautiful). I experienced Roberto Bolaño’s story collection Last Evenings on Earth, in a similar way. I would never describe a Bolaño story by saying, “This happens, then this, then it ends like this.” The stories seem to end for no other reason than that the story has now been told and there’s no more to tell; the “action” is in the story-telling itself, the rich emotional and psychological interplay between the Narrator and the Narrated.
How to end an essay about endings? Hmm… at this point, I take off my reader’s hat and don my writer’s (in this case, it’s a Chilean chupalla — a cheap imitation, of course). I suspect that writer and reader will often part ways when it comes to endings (even in the same person). As a writer, I tend to have more questions than answers with regard to my characters, my story, my subject. Will this satisfy the reader? The writer never knows, sometimes does not particularly care. In this case, my considerations have run their course. The End.
[Image credit: Tiago Ribeiro]
Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There’s no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.
All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”
I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.” What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.
It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.” But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”
This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”
The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.
While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.
While I believe it’s best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer’s life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke’s creator and his methods. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.” She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.
And Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger,” Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody” – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – “and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries. A few stand out, including James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses, which I’d dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago. (What was I thinking to wait so long?) Another was James Crumley’s crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” For once, the fawners nailed it.
And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of “secret handshake” among its small but devoted band of acolytes. For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates’s masterpiece. The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life. Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. It’s a pity Richard Yates wasn’t around to enjoy his revival.
And finally there was the curious case of Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment. I first heard of Flann O’Brien (the pen name for Brian O’Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” That sounded promising. So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans. While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman’s Library collection of all five O’Brien novels. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. “A very queer affair,” as the author himself admitted of his life’s fictional output. “Unbearably queer perhaps.”
Or perhaps not. In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he’s asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters). Frustrated by their maker’s iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it. We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O’Brien’s weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates’s blackly unblinking realism.
In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music. None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today’s world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago. Today Americans who write “serious” fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called “the prospect of irrelevance.” When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, “serious” American writers faced no such worries. (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.)
Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism. Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. “Every time I teach the class,” Guzlowski writes in his essay, “there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels.”
He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction.
John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life. It was a time, in Updike’s phrase, when “books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry.” Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us. And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.
With her new novel, So Much for That, Lionel Shriver strengthens her already credible claim to the title of best living American writer. This won’t surprise her readers in the UK and much of Europe. In many countries, she is now regarded as one of our most important novelists. Americans, however, have been slower to find her. That’s okay. We were the same way with Faulkner and Poe. Nothing’s more American than not quite recognizing some of our most accomplished artists.
Besides, Shriver’s lack of recognition in the U.S. is relative. Her novels tend to be highly valued by the American critics who discuss them, and she has received strong reviews from that toughest of readers, Michiko Kakutani. The Post-Birthday World, Shriver’s last novel, was a New York Times bestseller, and I’m sure we’ll all start arguing about her breakthrough book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, as soon as the movie version comes out next year.
Still, we don’t need to wait for the theater screens to bring her to our full attention, especially when most of her novels are in print and easily available. Her work offers an appealing combination of qualities that seldom come together in a single writer. She couples the hardheaded social observation of Edith Wharton or George Eliot with a relentless psychological and artistic boldness that belongs more to the tradition of Melville or Dostoevsky. Exerting these different skills with immense confidence and penetration, Shriver is one of our great American originals.
Shriver didn’t become well-known until she was in her late forties, and she had the talent and the will to deepen her work gradually, making the most of what must have been a trying period of obscurity. Born in 1957, she grew up in North Carolina, graduated from Columbia, and supplemented her fiction writing with a career as a journalist. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist. More recently, she has become a columnist for The Guardian, and has divided her time between London and New York. In addition, she has lived all over the place: twelve years in Northern Ireland, a year in Kenya, and shorter stints in Israel and Thailand.
The fierce independence of her writing seems to come from her compulsion to push her thoughts as far as she can take them, whether she is describing demographics experts in Africa or the pressures of professional tennis. Her two best early novels are Game Control and Double Fault. The main character in Game Control moves to Kenya so she can work on a family-planning project. She then falls in love with a man who believes that the solution to the world’s overpopulation problem is mass murder. Like all of Shriver’s novels, Game Control is intellectual and political in the best sense—not as a polemic, but as an examination of ideas in action, ideas as part of people’s lives. Here’s the main character scrutinizing some of her boyfriend’s research associates:
Eleanor had already noticed their tendency to circulate the same informational tidbits, as in small incestuous communities where neighbors copy one another’s recipe for chicken balls. For example: that if we had dropped a bomb the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima every day since 6 August 1945, we would still not have stabilized human population: she had heard that three times now. The repetition felt clubby, claustrophobic and it was boring.
Double Fault, Shriver’s tennis novel, came out in 1997. It traces the brief marriage of two low-level professional tennis players, and presents a merciless study of their collapsing relationship. It’s a cruel book, a Revolutionary Road for our times. The story is determined to show us the worst of both the husband and the wife, and it goes so far in this direction that it seems to have freed Shriver for the more generous and contradictory vision of human nature in her recent novels.
The narrator, Eva, lives out a nightmare: Kevin, her teenage son, goes on a killing spree at his high school and murders nine people. Shriver creates a bracing story of a mother who has always hated her son as intensely as she has always loved her husband and her young daughter. Eva can never be sure if her hatred helped turn Kevin into a murderer, or if she simply identified his savagery before anyone else did.
The novel follows Eva’s motherhood from Kevin’s birth to the time of the killings, and grows into a meditation on all kinds of things we don’t at first expect. We Need to Talk About Kevin plows deeply into anti-Americanism, the sacrifices women are expected to make for their children, the complexities of family life, and the dizzying questions of where individual responsibility begins and ends. Shriver has finally discovered a subject that makes full use of her ruthless psychological honesty. Eva’s narration is often brutally tough on herself and her son, and she slowly wins our trust—in part because she is smart enough to see that her version of events contains its own distortions, which are worked into the story with intriguing elegance. We Need to Talk About Kevin is an exhilarating book, alive with the author’s excitement at constantly going further than even she might have expected, and it gets better on repeated readings.
Shriver’s follow-up novel, The Post-Birthday World, is her best-known work in America, since it was released by HarperCollins with great fanfare in 2007. It would have been easy for Shriver to continue in the sensationalistic vein of Kevin, but with typical stubbornness she chose to try something different. The Post-Birthday World is a meta-fiction love story. It takes us through two parallel plotlines, two possible lives for the same woman. In one plotline, she remains in a troubled marriage. In the other, she leaves her husband for another man. The chapters alternate between the first plotline and the second, and much of the novel is a formal tour de force, with nearly every sentence in the first story playing off against another sentence in the second. Shriver also brandishes an unexpected flair for writing about small pleasures—her characters’ love of snooker and home cooking, the satisfaction they take in their casual conversations. Yet the story always opens onto broader perspectives: the rise of terrorism in the background of our lives, the influence of our relationships on our careers, and the different possibilities that we create for ourselves and that are created for us by others.
So Much for That, the new Shriver novel, offers us her ferocious take on the American healthcare system. Shriver has always been good at the dark comedy of catastrophe. Here she faces a monster worthy of her clear-eyed attention to absurdity: the giant insurance-powered beast of medical costs that devastate two families in New York.
Shep Knacker is a handyman whose wife is diagnosed with cancer. His best friend, Jackson, is a fellow employee whose daughter is slowly dying of a degenerative disorder. With methodical Catch-22 illogic, Shep is forced to give up all the money he has saved over the years to pay for the medical care that his grotesquely inadequate (but perfectly standard) insurance fails to cover. The treatments cause his wife nothing but agony, and provide little hope of curing her or even of extending her life for very long.
Meanwhile, Jackson and his wife carry on with their daughter, who has been ill since birth. Her disease plays an ongoing part in Jackson’s sometimes entertaining and sometimes destructive obsessions, from his compulsive spending to his frenzied hatred of the government and of nearly everything else in the world.
Health is the novel’s constant concern—not just physical and economic health but health in friendships, marriage, work, parenthood, and society at large. Shep is in some ways a modern Prince Myshkin, determined to do the right thing even if some people think this makes him foolish. One of the novel’s many thorny questions is whether Shep’s foolishness is truly admirable or a mistake in judgment, a personal flaw that condemns him to pointless pain. Shriver’s effects are hard to summarize because she builds them up so densely, thickening the texture of her world with each page. She makes our vision of Shep and the others depend not on glib generalities but on the total force of the novel’s accumulated impressions, with their many crosscurrents and subtleties.
We learn, for instance, that Shep associates his wife Glynis with the metalwork she makes, and the role of this metalwork becomes a continually deepening part of Glynis’s illness. Without giving away too much of the plot, the metalwork is at the core of Glynis’s shifting views of Shep, Shep’s shifting views of her, and both of their ideas about personal and public responsibility. Throughout the novel, Shriver is fascinated by our possible choices in the face of death and overwhelming injustice, by how we can and can’t control our lives in situations where all action seems quixotic.
Shriver’s characters are always capable of surprising each other, and this is central to her rich sense of human relationships. She expertly captures the give-and-take between friends, and the ways our friends both annoy and beguile us. Shep changes Jackson and Jackson changes Shep, but the changes are intricate and unpredictable, and they fill the novel with an invigorating energy. You come away feeling that you’ve learned to see your own friendships more clearly and appreciatively.
A similar complexity is at work among all the characters, particularly Shep and Glynis. Early on, Glynis is a monument to rage, refusing the role of loveable victim. When Shep ponders Glynis’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina, we can see the efficiency of Shriver’s writing style, which is flexible enough to accommodate many different voices and situations yet still retains a distinctive sharp bounce, like a good topspin serve:
She loved watching destruction—the big bountiful houses of the sort she and her husband had never bought for themselves filled with acrid, oily water to the second floor. The stranded black matriarchs waving fruitlessly on rooftops for rescue that would never come, who now knew they were alone in the world and no one cared. Well, he could sense Glynis responding coolly, welcome to the club. Other people’s suffering did not disquiet her. Glynis did nothing but suffer, and if others suffered too that was only fair. She seemed gratified by the prospect that one whole city would not survive her… In a fell swoop of self-liberation, Glynis had relinquished her empathy for other people, defiantly reflecting back the very apathy about her own fate that she increasingly perceived in would-be well-wishers.
Shriver’s bold approach to the novel’s structure delays a series of revelations for us about Glynis, and about what the disease has done to her mentally and emotionally. For the first 300 pages of this 450 page book, we go back-and-forth solely between Shep’s perspective and Jackson’s. When we finally enter Glynis’s mind, the experience is heartbreaking and chilling, and clears the way for the book’s simultaneously tragic and jubilant climax. In all of her novels, Shriver works towards honest feeling the hard way—by pushing into places we’re afraid to go and making them not ugly but essential, an enrichment to our lives. She might just be the best we’ve got.
I’ve just finished reading Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. I can’t believe how good this is, is the refrain that’s been echoing in my mind. Yates’s masterful prose, psychological insight, and immaculately rendered dramatic tension get all your pistons firing—emotional, intellectual, spiritual, sexual, political—as writer and reader at the same time, and in a way that makes analysis and critique of its many wonders (and horrors) difficult. Believe me, I just spent a day and a half trying.
So. Another time, then. (Or not, since quite a lot of ink has been spilled about it since the movie version came out last year, including Garth Hallberg’s piece here at The Millions). Instead, I’m going to write about dogs. And believe it or not, I’ve got a segue for this. Here is April Wheeler, pleading with her husband Frank, during the first of several spectacular marital showdowns that take our breath away in Revolutionary Road:
“All right, Frank. Could you just please stop talking now, before you drive me crazy?”
Then again, after one of Frank’s long-winded speeches, where he works to convince April that she needs to see a psychiatrist; that all their troubles are hers:
“Could we sort of stop talking about it now?”
And then later, part two of the argument featuring this particular tactic:
“I guess you’re right. I guess there isn’t much more to say, then, is there?”
Finally, toward the end of the novel, in the midst of what becomes the most horrific (and final) knock-down between the Wheelers:
“Oh, Frank, you really are a wonderful talker. If black could be made into white by talking, you’d be the man for the job.”
Talking talking talking. This is what Frank Wheeler does best, has always done best; the mark of his supposed “first-rate, original mind”:
“…that men, and intelligent men at that, could actually want to listen to him talk…there was nothing average about his performance in the beery, all-night talks that had begun to form around him…”
But it’s this talking, ceaseless talking, that works as a kind of loaded gun in Yates’s tale of contrasexual warfare. There is a brief, shining moment in their life together when talking brings Frank and April Wheeler together—indulgent talk of travel and new lives and authentic living; but for the most part in Revolutionary Road, talking destroys. With his insistence on talking as control— including talking inside his own head, rationalizing cowardly acts and flabbiness of character—Frank commits a kind of irrevocable violence against his own soul and April’s by making neat with words what is not at all neat, or manageable, or knowable. With talk, he wrenches and twists and throttles the life out of the human heart, because he doesn’t know what else to do with the messy frightening business of damage, grief, and longing.
[Animals] look at us across a void made of the distance between their lives and our immersion in language. ‘Not a single one of his myriad sensations,’ wrote Virginia Woolf of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush, ‘ever submitted itself to the deformity of words.’ (from Mark Doty’s, Dog Years)
I’ve got dog on the brain, because my pup is turning 10 years old this year (yes, yes, that’s 70 in human years), and I’ve just purchased health insurance for him. And in case you’re wondering, the answer is no – the U.S. health insurance overhaul does not include pet health insurance. The three lumps that my pup has developed in the last year (all benign, not to worry) are not covered by the plan I just purchased for him; meaning, if any of them go rogue, it will be considered a “pre-existing condition.” Same with the Lyme Disease for which he tested positive three years ago (to date not manifesting any symptoms). So I guess I have to hope that new illnesses befall him—new lumps, new viruses, etc.—while the old ones remain innocuous.
On a windy, snowy winter day last year, I was walking my dog on a country road. Normally, he does fine off-leash and doesn’t stray out of sight. This time, I was listening to an audio book on my ipod and lost track of him. For 15 minutes, I shouted his name, but he didn’t come. I began climbing (sliding) down the steep embankments off the side of the road, trudging through ice-crusted snow at two-feet high, screaming his name into the bitter-cold wind, panicked. A friend who lives on a farm in Minnesota had recently told me that the harsh winter was killing off the deer, both because of food supply and because as they made their way through the icy snow, they’d suffer severe cuts across their limbs and would bleed to death. I remembered that there were a few ponds in the area, and I imagined him traipsing across one, then falling through the ice, limbs freezing before he could get his dog-paddle going. After 45 minutes of this, I was breathless and sobbing, I fell to my knees in a pile. I gathered myself, wiped the snot from my face, and walked slowly home to find him sitting on the porch, nose up, waiting. That was when I knew—for the first time I really knew—that my attachment to my dog was something I couldn’t—shouldn’t—talk about with just anyone.
For a memoir unit in a creative writing class recently, I distributed to the students the first chapter of Mark Doty’s Dog Years, his memoir of the death of his dog Beau and the 16 years they spent together. The students were not fans of the Doty excerpt (preferring a humorous essay by Sloane Crosley), finding his tone—in the first chapter at least—self-righteous. It’s true, I suppose, that he opens the book in a defensive posture:
One of the unspoken truths of American life is how deeply people grieve over the animals who live and die with them, how real that emptiness is, how profound the silence is these creatures leave in their wake. Our culture expects us not only to bear these losses alone, but to be ashamed of how deeply we feel them…
…no one should have to defend what he loves. If I decide to become one of those dotty old people who live alone with six beagles, who on earth is harmed by the extremity of my affections? There is little enough devotion in the world that we should be glad for it in whatever form it appears, and never mock it, or underestimate it depths.
A student said: “Clearly, Mark Doty is one of these people who likes dogs more than he likes people.” The student did not mean this in a neutral observation kind of way. I laughed it off, trying not to betray my feeling of being caught out.
The following writers contributed to Unleashed: Poems By Writers’ Dogs, edited by Amy Hempel and Jim Shepard:
Edward Albee, Jennifer Allen, Danny Anderson, Lynda Barry, Rick Bass, Charles Baxter, Robert Benson, Roy Blount, Jr., Ron Carlson, Jill Ciment, Bernard Cooper, Stephen Dobyns, Mark Doty, Stephen Dunn, Anderson Ferrell, Amy Gerstler, Matthew Graham, Ron Hansen, Brooks Haxton, Cynthia Heimel, Amy Hempel, Noy Hollan, Andrew Hudgins, John Irving, Denis Johnson, R.S. Jones, Walter Kirn, Sheila Kohler, Maxine Kumin, Natalie Kusz, Anne Lamott, Gordon Lish, Ralph Lombreglia, Merrill Markoe, Pearson Marx, Erin McGraw, Heather McHugh, Arthur Miller, George Minot, Susan Minot, Honor Moore, Mary Morris, Alicia Muñoz, Elise Paschen, Padgett Powell, Wyatt Prunty, Lawrence Raab, Mark Richard, John Rybicki, Jeanne Schinto, Bob Shacochis, Jim Shepard, Karen Shepard, Lee Smith, Ben Sonnenberg, Kate Clark Spencer, Gerald Stern, Terese Svoboda, William Tester, Abigail Thomas, Lily Tuck, Sidney Wade, Kathryn Walker, William Wegman
Amy Hempel has been known to bring her dog with her to graduate lectures.
If you haven’t read Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” you really should.
A wonderful story by Stephanie Vaughn, “Dog Heaven,” begins like this—“Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again”—and features a heroic dog you’ll never forget.
It seems there may be some relationship between love for dogs and being a writer. Not that to be a writer one must love dogs (steady down, cat-lovers), or that dog-lovers make for better writers. Poet Susie DeFord, creator of the blog Dog Poet Laureate, puts it this way:
Animals are all about the little things, the insects buzzing and the scents of the earth and air; for writers these details that build a framework for our world and trigger emotional responses in our reader are our biggest asset.
It’s true — dogs and animals are keen observers, they listen and notice so well. We are drawn to their silent attentiveness instinctively, I think — creature to creature.
And, like a musician who is sensorially tortured by the off-pitch note, so a writer feels acutely, in mind and soul, the failures of human speech in everyday life (how I dread talking on the phone, which relies solely on the forced expressions of speech, absent other physical cues). The wordless companionship between dog and human offers the writer something like refuge from the necessary dishonesties — sometimes harmless, yes, but just as often injurious — of talk.
When I teach the writing of dialogue, I try to convey that the key in rendering speech compellingly is to make it sound real, when in fact it is condensed, stylized, and carefully shaped from the lumpiness of verbatim transcription. I encourage students to eavesdrop, and to distill the principles of how people really talk, the essence of verbal intercourse. What we’ve concluded in our discussions:
People generally do not say what they mean, or mean what they say
People tend not to listen very well; rather each person is more focused on what it is he wants to say
People speak in half-formed fragments more than complete sentences or fully-formed thoughts
There is almost always a power dynamic in any conversation, whether subtextual or overt
My God, why talk at all? And Yates’s Frank Wheeler – the violence of his talking, of which he is tragically unaware – drives the point home for me. Stop talking, April Wheeler pleads repeatedly. Frank’s “deformity of words” is more than she can bear as she desperately struggles to sort through her own distorted inner voices. On some (sadly misguided) level, Frank and April are trying to love; but talking, Yates seems to posit convincingly in Revolutionary Road, is not love; it may even be anathema to it. Tellingly, the last word of the novel belongs to Howard Givings–reticent husband of Helen Givings, the Wheelers’ real-estate agent and neighborhood busybody—who listens for as long as he can to his wife’s endless chattering, another version of Frank’s control-talk: “But from there on, Howard Givings heard only a welcome, thunderous sea of silence. He had turned off his hearing aid.”
Maybe [dogs] remind us…of our own origins, when our bodies were not yet assumed into the world of speech. Then we could experience wordlessly, which must at once be a painful thing and a strange joy, a pure kind of engagement that adults never know again.
The intimacy—the purity—of silent togetherness is—I agree with Doty—a basic and original creaturely longing, and one that we find in our relationships with dogs. Somewhere between the painfully disappointing limits of verbalized human language and a dog’s humble, uncomplicated efforts at communication with its human—a wagging tail, a perked up ear, a whimper or a bark, a pushy wet nose, those insistent eyes—a writer finds rest from the assault of poorly-used words.
The skeptic of human-animal attachment wonders how much of this is arrested development. Are dog and human together in anything but body—that is, are we concocting an intimacy born of some grotesque misanthropy—when we luxuriate in the assurance of a dog curled up at our feet, sighing contentedly? To which I say, who knows; and isn’t the not knowing the heart of the intimacy anyway? Whatever it is, there’s no need to either wonder or worry, because the togetherness is as real as any other—mysterious, and beautifully wordless, a deep and welcome peace not unlike Howard Givings’s “thunderous sea of silence.”
Image Credit: Pexels/Jack Redgate.
Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We’ll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel’s movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel’s movie is breathtaking – one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I’ve had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven’t read this novel of Carey’s, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda’s factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey’s novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse’s book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar’s father.This Boy’s Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff’s memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother’s bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack’s mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff’s prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there’s Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you’re in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert’s novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg’s deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast – Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon – is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture – a charmed, leisured life – is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella’s reading of his source text gives Highsmith’s book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece – necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don’t be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it’s about where you go after you commit suicide. But it’s not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down – kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from “Arrested Development”) and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There’s a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there’s also something quietly humane and understated about it. It’s refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them:
The English Patient – It is not Michael Ondaatje’s fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first, but I wasn’t as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler’s List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, “Oh hey, I’d like to watch Schindler’s List,” just as I might think, “It’s been a while since I watched High Fidelity.” That’s kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession – This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It’s like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited – Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson – I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn’t feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from “Emergency,” to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba’s extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone – probably because it loses Barbara’s wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara’s lesbian obsession with Sheba – in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!
For no reason at all, I always thought this book was about horses and cavalry officers. (This is a good example of why, when you ask me a question and I answer, you should be careful to ascertain whether I know the answer, or if it’s just a feeling I have. Especially when I am giving you directions.) So, this novel, which I never wanted to read because I thought it was about horses, piqued my interest when I saw it mentioned in conjunction with Revolutionary Road (which I’ve yet to read) and forgotten novels about men feeling sad even though they have a lot of nice items in their homes. Because, rather than horses, that’s what Appointment in Samarra is about. It is about the nameless malaise of the moneyed man of the modern era – the madness which no Cadillac can assuage. And it’s about alcoholism. Two of your popular literary themes, really.
So I read it, and it’s great. It’s like a lewd version of The Beautiful and Damned, but set in Pennsylvania, where people are slightly less fancy. The novel centers around Julian English, a cash-poor upper-cruster, who runs a Cadillac dealership. (Fitzgerald upper-crusters are too posh to even have jobs, let alone jobs in the automotive industry.) Julian drinks to excess with great frequency, and one day he throws a drink in a man’s face at the club, because the man is rich and fat and Irish Catholic and just de trop, somehow. And even though everyone in Gibbsville, PA is always doing grotesque drunken things at the club, this is for some reason the limit, and society begins to close ranks against Julian. After that, things go to complete shit very quickly. Julian, through desperation or madness or sheer orneriness, continues to behave badly, digging himself deeper with his peers and his wife, all the while drinking enough to kill an ox. At the end of the novel, his demise (figurative or literal, take your pick) is so inevitable it’s not even a spoiler. The title, taken from the epigraph, taken from Maugham, tells all.
Two things struck me about this book. One, it’s very spicy. I would imagine that it made an absolute scene upon its publication. The story talks a lot about all the fooling around that Julian and his wife Caroline did before they got married, and the romps they have after. It also talks about drunken foursomes, college girls “going the limit,” Parisian sex shows, men exposing themselves to helpless females, and “experienced” lady reporters. It’s the antidote to talking about the good old days when people cherished modesty.
Secondly, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to make this comparison, in addition to having obvious similarities with Fitzgerald (the man and the work), Appointment in Samarra is like a depression-era, mid-atlantic precursor to Under the Volcano. Not in its scope; Appointment in Samarra is a crude, meaningless sketch compared to the insanely complex (although perhaps equally meaningless) cosmologies that Malcolm Lowry wove together around Geoffrey Firmin. But the core of each novel is similar – the last day (or three) in the life of a man who is doomed. Each man (educated, posh), should be able to take himself in hand and pull himself together and stop drinking and stop perpetrating pointless cruelties on their respective wives, but they can’t, and they don’t, and you know they won’t from the first. They share the same fatal trajectory. But while Appointment in Samarra is easier and more fun to read, I thought Under the Volcano was sadder and better (so did the Modern Library, it seems); Firmin feels like a more real character, maybe because he was more of Lowry than English was of O’Hara. Or maybe because Lowry, a doomed, disastrous virtuoso, pulled himself together for one monumental achievement, while O’Hara, who sounds like a more garden-variety pain in the ass, managed to spread his talent out over a longer career. That’s just a feeling I have, though.
Amanda Eyre Ward’s new novel, Forgive Me, will be published in paperback in January 2008. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her family. Visit amandaward.comHow the hell had I not read Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, until this year? Why didn’t anyone tell me about it? Where have I been, under a freaking rock? This book is so amazing, so elegant and careful and devastating, that I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s about to be a movie, so I’ll spare you the details, but it’s amazing, and I don’t care how great the movie is, these are sentences that must be read.I am obsessed with Africa, and of the many books about that continent that I read this year, two novels slayed me: What is the What by Dave Eggers, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Both of these novelists know that characters are paramount, and that a great novel must tell an awesome story. I was caught up in both books by page two, and both taught me not only about history and foreign cultures, but about the human heart.We’ve all read Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, but have you read The Last of the Savages? Published in 1996, Savages is my favorite McInerney. It’s a slow, thoughtful novel, the story of two friends’ relationship evolving and fraying over thirty years.Lastly, I was blown away by a book I grabbed from the library on a whim because its cover creeped me out in an intriguing way: What You Have Left by Will Allison. It reminded me of Dan Chaon (who I read last year, but nobody asked me what I read last year). I admired Allison’s clean, insightful sentences, and I loved each self-contained section of the book. The story is not told chronologically, and I was rapt, piecing together the story of Holly Greer and her disasterous family. Come to think of it, the structure is very similar to Half of a Yellow Sun. I like it when authors assume I’ll take the time to appreciate a gorgeous paragraph, to think hard about the emotions between the lines. I will, and thank you for trusting me.More from A Year in Reading 2007
One of my favorite magazines, which I now finally subscribe to thanks to a surplus of frequent flier miles, is The Week. It’s done in the “digest” format, taking the week’s news, events, and cultural goings on from hundreds of sources – newspapers, magazines, etc. – and distilling it down to about 45 pages. It’s a great way to fill in the small gaps left by my other two standbys, the New Yorker and The Economist.One of my favorite features in The Week is called “The Book List,” (not available online) in which the magazine asks a notable person to recommend a handful of books. This week’s featured recommender was Lionel Shriver, whose new book The Post-Birthday World comes out soon. Her list of six books caught my eye because it includes two of my favorite books, Atonement by Ian McEwan and Paris Trout by Pete Dexter, as well as a book recently read and enjoyed by Mrs. Millions, Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (which I hope to read soon, too). So, naturally, I was curious to see what else Shriver was recommending since our tastes seem to be aligned.As it turns out, rounding out her list are two more books I’ve wanted to read and a third I’ve never heard of. The first two are The Age of Innocence and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. The third book – new to me – is As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann.