Robinson Crusoe (Penguin Classics)

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Born from Books: Six Authors on Their Childhood Reading

Books are our first, and sometimes best, teachers. I inherited the books of my older brothers. While they were away at college, I went into their rooms and stacked and arranged the titles by color and letter. My two favorite relics from their childhood were Punt, Pass and Kick and The How and Why Wonder Book of Stars. The diagrams of movement across the gridiron reminded me of the constellation maps. I appreciated that athletic bodies and celestial bodies were in constant motion, and yet might be captured in a single glance.

I was years away from the writing instruction of workshops and line edits, or the training of literary analysis. Those early years of reading were charged with the stuff of raw imagination. After I exhausted the books of my brothers, my parents took me to the library and used book sales. I wanted to run and play basketball, but I also wanted to read until I fell asleep, chin planted on open pages. My father had been a college football player who studied theology; my mother read history and poetry and told stories with layers and layers of detail. I was raised to appreciate words and to embrace wonder.

It might be because I teach young students, but I am endlessly fascinated by the routes of our reading lives. I seek interviews with writers because I look for their origin stories. I want to pinpoint the moment reading became a life-breathing activity. I am particularly drawn to the memories of writers whose imaginations remains raw and jarring; writers who are “charged,” to borrow the language of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I contacted six writers with such imaginations, and am happy to share their memories about the books that were most formative during their childhoods.

1. Nina McConigley, author of Cowboys and East Indians:
It’s hard to grow up in the American West and not read Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read all the Little House on the Prairie books at a young age, and I was in love with the whole pioneer narrative. Like Laura, my parents had traveled far to make a home in the West. I also came to love the simplicity of her language and her storytelling. She had no sentimentality. She would so matter-of-factly say the worst news: Mary was blind. The crops failed. It was a sad day though when I realized Laura and I would not have been friends. Her ma hated Indians (albeit the other kind), and the books weren’t that kind to others or brown people. But I marveled over her making a lot out of little — sewing, canning, simple pleasures. But I mostly connected with how Laura loved the land—the prairies and woods, the sky and open– which were so important to me as a little girl in Wyoming.

Since my parents both grew up in colonized countries — India and Ireland, much of what they read as children was British. So, as a little girl, I was introduced to Enid Blyton, who seemed to be the most prolific writer ever. She wrote several series from the Famous Five and Secret Seven to scores of boarding school narratives like The O’Sullivan Twins or The Naughtiest Girl. But what I loved were her fairy stories. She wrote a trilogy about a magic tree which started with The Enchanted Wood. In the book, three children found a magic tree, and climbed it — and at the top was a series of ever-changing lands — The Land of Birthdays, The Land of Sweets. I think as a brown kid living in Wyoming, these books were the ultimate in escapism. I was transported into a forest in England where the world was constantly shifting. I found this extremely comforting. I would often find myself climbing the big cottonwood tree in our backyard, hoping I would be taken away by something bigger than me.

2. William Giraldi, author of Hold the Dark:
In the late 1980s, Time-Life Books had a popular, 33-volume series called Mysteries of the Unknown. At 11 years old, I didn’t know enough to be irked by the redundant title — all mysteries are unknown: that’s the definition of “mystery” — and so I grabbed the phone (Time-Life advertised on television) and soon began receiving books on UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster, poltergeists and Sasquatch, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle and the Great Pyramid of Giza, werewolves and vampires and witches. For a cradle Roman Catholic reared in only one acceptable species of the supernatural, these titles seemed great feats of transgression and betrayal, fonts of the extraordinary and occult, a concussion of the spiritual and the cerebral, the factual and the fantastical. The books were mostly cascades of conjecture and fatuity, of course, but they rubbed against my imagination in all the ways I needed then. Mystery is another word for hope; monsters are how we make sense of ourselves. New Jersey seemed so drab without them. In the years after the Time-Life series, I’d be found by Poe and Stoker, by Stevenson and Wells, and then it was off into the more “serious” stuff: important books, yes, but hardly ever as wondrous.

3. Sara Eliza Johnson, author of Bone Map:
I remember loving Black Beauty and A Little Princess, which was my mother’s favorite book as a girl (and one reason for my name, which has no “h!”). I also read a lot of series meant for young girls — Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club, the Ramona Quimby books — though my absolute favorite series was Goosebumps. R.L. Stine wrote the original series in my prime formative reading years, from 1992 (when I was eight years old) to 1997 (when I was 13), and I was always so excited when a new one came out. My early love of Goosebumps (as well as the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series) blossomed into the unapologetic affection for the horror genre I have today, a lonely affection to have in adulthood! But my favorite book as a child was probably The Giver, which, like many in my generation, I read for English class at the beginning of sixth grade. It was my first taste of dystopia, and so, in some ways, the first challenge to my world, and the first literary protagonist with whom I truly felt a kinship. When Jonas receives from the Giver the unwieldy collection of memories his monotone community has buried — of pain, war, starvation, but also pleasure and art — he becomes isolated and lonely in a way I think that I sometimes felt then, as a shy child without siblings. In the Receiving process, memory is a physical phenomenon literally subsumed and experienced by the body, as when Jonas receives the memory of a broken leg and feels as if his leg is broken — an early reminder that these entities we often consider purely psychological, such as memory, language, and dream, have physical and even physiological presences. I never read the rest of the books in the series, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I think perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the book — one of its lessons for even adult authors — is how it ends, in that it doesn’t quite end, leaves us in the aperture of uncertainty: “Behind him, across the vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo.”

4. Dimitry Elias Léger, author of God Loves Haiti:
The books that absolutely rocked my world as a kid, before my 10th grade teacher introduced me to The New York Times Book Review and Great Classic Literature, were a French series dating back to the early 20th century. You see, the first novels I read were in French because I lived in Haiti from ages eight to 14. Somewhere around the age of 10 probably I met Arsene Lupin, the gentleman thief. The clever master of disguise starred in 16 novels and 36 short stories starting in 1905. The novels were thrilling. As befitting a French answer to the cerebral Sherlock Holmes, Lupin was a darkly humorous lady-killer. Come to think of it, he may well indeed be a good precursor to James Bond. I devoured Maurice Leblanc’s Lupin stories, and, during summer vacations in New York City, the books that slayed my pre-teen imagination were Chris Claremont’s X-Men. The Phoenix Saga may very well be the greatest, most epic comic story of all time, much as the love story of Cyclops, with his death-ray eyes, and Jean Grey, an unsuspecting world consuming telepath, was the most riveting love story. The tragic story of the brooding band of mutants and the stories of a leaping, thieving lover of Parisian rooftops and the jewels of Parisian nobles were my favorite books as a kid. These series’ gentle high-low balance rewards rereads to this day.

5. Tony Ardizzone, author of The Whale Chaser:
I grew up on the North Side of Chicago, the oldest boy in a large working-class Italian-American family. We lived in a basement flat, then a second-floor flat across the street from a liquor store, and finally in a brick two-flat, with tenants upstairs. I grew up in a house without books. We always had newspapers — when I was a boy Chicago had four daily newspapers — because my father sold newspapers. I went to Roman-Catholic schools and read the books they gave us: the Baltimore Catechism (much of which I still know by heart) and Bible stories. In school after lunch each day, the Sister of Christian Charity who taught us read to the class a chapter or so from a series of books about a boy named Tom Playfair, a rough-and-tumble kid sent off to Catholic school, who had to struggle to live up to his name.

After we moved to the brick two-flat in Chicago’s Edgewater district, I discovered a mobile library van parked about six blocks away, and I got a library card and checked out as many books as I could carry. The librarian often questioned me, asking if I was sure I could read all the books I wanted in one week. I told her I could, and I did. Reading was a sort of sanctuary to me. Our flat was small and our family had a lot of kids and reading was a way for me to be by myself for a while. I read every book the mobile van had about dinosaurs. I also read what were considered the classics at the time: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Robinson Crusoe, an edited version of Moby Dick. I supplemented these books by reading every Classic Illustrated comic I could get my hands on. Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Time Machine were among my favorites. I often read these while standing around those circular comic book displays in a neighborhood drugstore. When the owner yelled for me to quit browsing, I’d do my best to remember my place, then pick up the comic the next time I was in the store.

A middle-aged woman cashier in the grocery store where I was often sent to buy milk and eggs took a liking to me and one day gave me a big, marvelous hardback anthology of dog stories. The book had a blue cover. I wish I still had it. I read and re-read every story in the book several times. Best of all, it was my book, not one I’d have to return to the mobile library van on Saturday morning.

My turning point came years later when I was in high school. On Saturdays my friends and I would go down to Chicago’s Old Town, where we’d knock around the neighborhood. I always ended up spending hours in Barbara’s Bookstore on Wells Street. It was a big, wonderful place, full of books and posters and poetry on placards and broadsides up on the walls. It was there in Barbara’s Bookstore that I saw a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book of poetry, Coney Island of the Mind. It knocked me out. I never before realized that poetry could be written this way. The book made me truly want to be writer.

6. Christa Parravani, author of Her:
Most every street of our Tarawa Terrace neighborhood on Camp Lejeune was named after a battle: Bougainville drive. Inchon Street. Iowa Jima Boulevard. The battle of Tarawa was for a small Pacific atoll in 1943. The battle of growing up with a Marine stepfather, was he believed that children should be seen and not heard.

Marines have a way of saying things. Houses are housing. Dinner is chow. A bed is a rack. Teeth are fangs. But get lost was still get lost.

I escaped silently into books. I read whatever my teachers gave me.

I was 13 the summer my stepfather left. The Persian Gulf War was televised that January. I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried not too long after. The novel was live in my hands, my first real touch of literature’s flame. The story of Vietnam, how it haunted every military family I knew, how its lure was part of me like my family’s story was. My stepfather may not have loved me, but I had to love him, and those years on Lejeune gave me a love of country, of the fighter. O’Brien opened my heart with a story that arguably has nothing to do with a teenage girl. But I’d shut up for far too long. The war was alive in me.

The Art of Close Writing

Jonathan Russell Clark sits at his desk, writing an essay about free indirect discourse. Surrounding him are books by authors who employ the technique with considerable skill: Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Dixon, and Joshua Ferris. He recalls a time when he did not even know what free indirect discourse was, and a time, later, when he knew the term but viewed it more as a descriptor than a crucial component. He remembers how his relationship to the term evolved over the years: his initial distrust of it, as many of his favorite writers cavalierly disregarded the tactic; his frustration with its limitations: how would he communicate the thoughts of other characters if he couldn’t leave the brain of the protagonist?; his eventual understanding of its importance while reading James Wood’s illuminating (though much debated) book How Fiction Works, in which he refers to it as “close writing”; and then, finally, his acceptance and full embrace of the method. Though he still admired novelists who could successfully avoid using free indirect discourse, he knew he would never break from it himself. It was just too liberating, the way close writing allowed his sentences to spill out of him, effortlessly, like thoughts, rapid and rabid and rampant, just spit out onto the page––it was so easy, or, well, easier, because it’s not as if he’s without problems, creatively speaking, oh he has problems, like how is he supposed to know which thoughts are important and which simply aren’t? and why is he unable to write economically, why are his pieces always longer than they need to be?––but yeah anyway, he now loved close writing because it made writing fun.

To be clear: close writing is not vital to all fiction. In fact, it doesn’t even speak to most fiction. For instance, first-person narrations cannot use free indirect discourse. When a character is speaking directly to a reader, the aim of close writing is already happening; no technique required. Also, novels and stories that feature an omniscient narrator are similarly excluded––all-knowing narrators simply tell us information. The skill required to pull off such a voice is its own subject. No, close writing only relates to third-person limited narrations, and, even more specifically, ones with an active interest in the inner lives of the characters. Not all fiction cares about that.

Here’s how James Wood explains close writing:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing.

And later:

Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words.

Without being able to articulate it, free indirect discourse appealed to Clark greatly. Novels that used the style effectively gave him a giddy sensation, the prose seeming to not have been written but transcribed from a person’s mind but filtered through the ostensibly distancing third-person point-of-view, and though he didn’t know it, he came to depend on such techniques to let him “settle” into a character. Even more striking, when he read a piece of fiction (especially in a workshop environment) that failed to use close writing and didn’t effectively employ another style, something irked him as his eyes moved over the words. He was made uncomfortable by these stories, but he didn’t know why. What the hell was it?

When he finally learned the term––in a college course, he thinks––he started to understand what it was that had been bothering him. Once he read How Fiction Works, he knew with satisfying finality. Free indirect discourse. Close writing. Thankfully the grey cloud hovering over his frustration had a name. Nameless things give aimless dreams.

How important is free indirect discourse? In the history of the novel, it’s extremely important. Clark at first didn’t even realize that the technique had to be developed at all, but in fact it was an astonishing feat. According to Michael Schmidt’s monumental and astounding work of scholarship and criticism, The Novel: A Biography (a book so big and important it merits its own essay, which is forthcoming), early iterations of the novel concerned themselves less with verisimilitude than outright deceit. When Daniel Defoe composed Robinson Crusoe (or, to use its full title––no joke––The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. with an Account of How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pirates), “he believed he had to honor readers’ expectations of a true and edifying story. An untrue story had to seem true.” The nuanced psychology of the characters was irrelevant to the task of moral tutelage. But the method of mimicking eventually morphed into the representation of human thought.

Generally, the development of close writing into its modern form is attributed to Gustave Flaubert in novels like A Sentimental Education, but the early traces of “inner monologue” are as subtle and elusive as the technique itself. Gabriel García Márquez “detects the original use of ‘interior monologue'” as far back as Lazarillo de Tormes, a picaresque work from 1554. James Wood points out an example in Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock from 1712. Jane Austen, who died four years before Flaubert was born, occasionally abandoned her lofty point-of-view in order to take the reader into the character’s mind, if only briefly, as in this passage from Pride and Prejudice:
Elizabeth felt herself completely taken in. She had fully proposed being engaged by Wickham for those very dances:––and to have Mr. Collins instead!––her liveliness had been never worse timed. There was no help for it however. Mr. Wickham’s happiness and her own was per force delayed a little longer, and Mr. Collins’s proposal accepted with as good a  grace as she could. She was not the better pleased with his gallantry, from the idea it suggested of something more.––It now struck her, that she was selected from among her sisters as worthy of being the mistress of Hunsford Parsonage, and of assisting to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors.
Austen’s tactics are very subtle––the exclamation point punctuating the shock over Mr. Collins, the italicized she, and the sound of contemplative flow in “There was no help for it however”––but those little moments of language all belong to Elizabeth, not Austen. It is Elizabeth who can’t believe she has Mr. Collins instead; it is Elizabeth who can’t believe that she was selected from among her sisters, and it is Elizabeth who doesn’t think there was any help for it however. A reader may not be able to articulate with precision the, as Wood describes it, “marvelous alchemical transfer” that just took place, but they’ll feel it. They’ll understand Elizabeth a little bit more.

Flaubert took it a bit further. He organized his entire style around close writing. In A Sentimental Education, the prose moves into the protagonist Frédéric’s mind without any explicit hint at the shift. Here is Frédéric’s first seeing Mme Arnoux, the older woman with whom he falls in love with:
Never before had he seen more lustrous dark skin, a more seductive figure, or more delicately shaped fingers than those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past?
Those last questions are Frédéric’s, as if transcribed verbatim from his thoughts. But where did that shift happen? There was no, “He thought…” Instead, the language slips first into the character’s vernacular––the words “lustrous,” “seductive,” and “delicately” are all Frédéric’s––and then into his mind. It’s quite a nifty trick. “Thanks to free indirect style,” James Wood writes, “we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”

If this all seems very basic to you, consider that there was a time when close writing simply didn’t exist. Additionally, though readers and writers often implicitly understand these ideas, sometimes the act of naming something and recognizing its traits leads to understanding. Like David Foster Wallace’s fish parable, sometimes you have to say: This is water.

Moreover, once the modernists enter the picture, close writing is taken to new depths: the inner thoughts of characters become just as important––or more important––than the plot. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce went so far as to construct novels that took place in a single day, Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, meaning the reader spends most of the narrative inside a mind as it thinks. Joyce loved to catalogue very ordinary thoughts, and through Leopold Bloom he mastered close writing like nobody before him. Here is Bloom just after he is first introduced, as he prepares breakfast for Molly:
Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry.
Listen to the fragmentary nature of Bloom’s thoughts as they mingle with action. Taking Flaubert’s technique even further, Joyce gives us full access to Bloom’s mind with almost no indication he’s doing so. His thoughts aren’t profound––they’re quotidian, mundane, banal. Clark’s favorite moment comes when Bloom is unable to recall someone’s name:
Stream of life. What was the name of that priestylooking chap was always squinting in when he passed? Weak eyes, woman. Stopped in Citron’s saint Kevin’s parade. Pen something. Pendennis?
Who hasn’t had a similar moment, a name stuck on the tip of the tongue? Then, a full 25 pages later (in the 1922 text, that is), as Bloom assists a blind man across the street, and whose face strikes him “like a fellow going in to be a priest,” it suddenly hits him: “Penrose! That was the chap’s name.” The image of a priest brings to mind the “priestylooking chap” whose name he couldn’t recall earlier and he’s able to conjure the name, except Joyce doesn’t clue the reader into the association. The line is simply plopped down in the middle of another scene.

Virginia Woolf wastes no time delving into her titular character’s inner life. After her famous opening––”Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”––the prose immediately becomes one with Mrs. Dalloway’s ruminations:
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning––fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”––was that it?––”I prefer men to cauliflowers”––was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace––Peter Walsh.

Who’s Lucy? Why does she have her work cut out for her? Why is Mrs. Dalloway buying flowers? And who is Peter Walsh? Why does he suddenly appear in her mind? Remember: this is the first page of the novel. In 1925, when Mrs. Dalloway was published, people still expected some exposition, some introductory orientation, but Woolf provides none. She doesn’t have to. That’s the power of close writing.

>Since then, free indirect discourse has become an integral part of third-person novels. Grab any one at random and you’ll probably find that it employs close writing. And there are still writers who experiment with this voice in their fiction. Stephen Dixon’s I. plays around with the separation of author and subject. The protagonist’s is named I., which means Dixon gets to write sentences like: “I. met Fels more than twenty years ago.” Yes, it’s third person, but it’s also first.  Dixon, then, further erases the gap by having the character, I., also be the writer of the prose, so that he can stop in the middle of a paragraph (which, in Dixon’s fiction, are always long) and say, “Oh, he’s not explaining himself well,” or “What’s he going on about?” Then, those murmurs of uncertainty become full-blown self-doubt:
Oh, stop with the crypt of memories swinging open and all that. Fine, then what? Simply this: he finished something yesterday––okay, a short story––wanted to start something new today––story, novel, two-page short-short: what did he care? A fiction of any length––even a play if it was possible––because he gets agitated with himself and grumpy with his family if at the end of the day after the one he finished a fiction he still doesn’t have something to work on the next day. In other words––but he thinks he explained that okay.
He continues to edit himself as he goes, noting, at one point, “that last parenthetical sentence could be clearer, and he knows it’s going to take work.” After a lengthy explanation of I.’s morning, he writes, “He could have done that so much more simply: he finished writing something yesterday, wanted to start writing something today, saw the obituary and started to write.”

The transfer of voice from the author to the character, here, is thrown right back to the author. Dixon’s I. is also the writer, so close writing here traces not simply the character’s thoughts, but the very words he’s typing. Thinking and writing meld into one organism. Dixon’s metafictional approach could be thought of as elaborate autobiography, but whatever it is it shows how close writing can still be stretched and expanded for new purposes. Dixon’s work is often neglected, or deemed too difficult for casual enjoyment. Too bad; he’s wonderful.

The last writer Clark wants to focus on is Joshua Ferris, a writer noted for his experiments with voice. His Then We Came to the End is written in first-person plural, an entire office represented with the narrative we. Recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (in the first year Americans were considered), Ferris is one of contemporary fiction’s most assured practitioners. His abilities with close writing are prodigious, as unequivocally demonstrated by his New Yorker story “The Pilot.” It basically focuses on the neuroses of Lawrence, a wannabe television writer who gets an email invitation to a producer’s “yearly blowout.” “He’d R.S.V.P’d,” we’re told, “but not immediately. Two days after the message came in. Two days plus maybe an hour.” When he receives no reply from her, he starts to worry:
He would have liked a reply. After a few days went by, he’d have liked a reply a lot. Was his e-mail too effusive? Was it a mistake to use the word “sick” to describe her show? Or maybe she was just busy shooting the season finale. She was just busy shooting the season finale. He should have just written back quick-like, something like “Thanks for the invitation, Kate. See you then.” Then she might have quick-like hit Reply, with a confirmation, and he’d have known that she knew he was coming. Did she even know she’d invited him? Sometimes, with e-mail, some programs, you hit All Contacts or something and invite people you didn’t even mean to invite. Of course she’d meant to invite him. He just didn’t have any confirmation that she’d received his R.S.V.P. That was kind of unnerving. But, think about it, would he then have to confirm her confirmation? That wasn’t really feasible. It was just…Everything was fine. She was just wrapping. He was too effusive. “Sick little fuck-you”: that might have been––no, it was fine––just a little insulting? No, no, it was fine, who knows, not him.
That is a virtuoso stretch of comic writing, and a better representation of human thought as it occurs than almost anything Clark’s read in his life. The thoughts interrupt each other, the narrator oscillates between two poles of neurotic uncertainty, even repeating himself to emphasize a statement’s validity (yet inadvertently showing how questionable Lawrence finds that validity), and yet the reader never loses the train, the writing is crystal clear, the rhythm natural. Even though Lawrence isn’t technically narrating, he owns every single word on the page. The reader is in his mind.

Close writing really is an amazing thing. Consider that this essay right now has been narrated in the third person, and yet there is no question as to what Clark’s opinions are. There was never any confusion over “who” was asserting the statements made above. The “marvelous alchemical transfer” made it so the separation between Jonathan Russell Clark and some ostensible narrator disappeared––after a while, you probably stopped noticing, except for the occasional use of Clark’s name. Here, of course, Clark and the author are the same, but the same technique used in fiction functions the same way. The writer disappears and only the character is left––the voice, the thoughts, the little details that make us human.

Image via John Lester/Flickr

All Happy Meals Are the Same; Every Unhappy Meal Is Unhappy in Its Own Way

Ad Age recently revealed that McDonald’s is getting into the publishing business. For the first two weeks of November, children’s books with a nutritional theme will replace the toys in Happy Meals. With titles like The Goat Who Ate Everything and Dodi the Dodo Goes to Orlando, the books are processed products through and through, created by the ad agency Leo Burnett, intended to create good press for the fast-food company by signaling its commitment to literacy and nutrition. McDonald’s ran a similar campaign earlier this year in the U.K., which inspired a list of satirical book titles (e.g., Harry Potter and the Deathly Swallows) under a #mcbooks hashtag on Twitter.The hashtag has been revived with the announcement of the new campaign.

This is not, however, the first time McDonald’s has distributed children’s books.  In 1979, when I was five years old, living in Wilmington, DE, my family took one of our painfully rare trips to McDonald’s to get Happy Meals for my sisters and me. There were few things more exciting at the time than opening up that iconic box to see what sort of toy was inside. On this visit, however, there was no toy. The counterperson handed over a little paperback with a drawing on the cover of a boy whitewashing a fence.

McDonald’s introduced me — and I would venture thousands of other kids — not only to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but also to the notion of a classic. In 1977 and again in 1979, the fast food chain paired up with the publisher I. Waldman & Son to distribute Illustrated Classics Editions in their restaurants. Waldman had published children’s versions of classic literature, such as The Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, and Moby-Dick, in 1977 under the brand name Moby Books and, in 1979, the publisher paired with Playmore, Inc. to distribute the series in supermarkets, drugstores, and other retail sites. They released 12 titles that year and another dozen in 1983. The books measured 5.5 by 4 inches and were typically 238 pages long, with each page of text facing an illustration.

Over the next few years, I collected a half dozen Illustrated Classics books, but that first encounter with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the moment when I discovered literature.

Granted, Deidre S. Laiken’s adaptation of Twain’s novel might not count for everyone as literature.  Here is Twain’s opening:

“TOM!”
No answer.
“TOM!”
No answer.
“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”
No answer.

Here is Laiken:

Tom Sawyer was always getting into trouble. He was the kind of boy who just could not resist adventure.

In this textbook example of the difference between writing that shows versus writing that tells, Twain gives us an immediate sense of what Laiken can only report to us. Tom Sawyer in the original is such a miscreant that he does not even bother to show up for the start of the novel that bears his name, while the Illustrated Classics version frames Tom’s character and the entire narrative for its readers, wary of letting us interpret too much on our own.

What really mattered to me in the long term, however, was not the quality of the text but the authority behind it. There were few institutions I respected more than McDonald’s, so when I saw that it had endorsed a line of books grouped under this mysterious rubric “classic,” I knew that this was a work worth reading. More significantly, I learned from McDonald’s that there was a whole class of books out there that were especially worth reading. I read a lot of junk as a kid — loads of books about movie monsters, World War II, and science fiction, plus a mountain of comics — but I took special pride in reading classics and presidential biographies and was thrilled when adults complimented me on my taste and sophistication.

All this reading and complimenting eventually led to a PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley, where I learned that what McDonald’s had introduced me to at the age of five was the concept of cultural capital. The term comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and it refers to “forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society.” Speaking Standard English, knowing how to order and eat at a four-star restaurant, and being able to discuss art and music are all forms of cultural capital. They are ways of signaling one’s membership in a class and even of advancing within and beyond it. My primary motive for reading Illustrated Classics, to be sure, was pleasure (as is the case with my reading of literature today), but I was aware early on that some of that enjoyment derived from the sense of distinction I felt in doing so.

I used to enjoy the irony that I have held onto the taste for literature that I picked up at McDonald’s much longer than I did the taste for its food. Nowadays, I feel more wistful for a moment in time when a fast food company thought it could promote itself by providing kids with editions of Twain, Dumas, and Dickens. I am not naïve enough to think McDonald’s did so on account of its pure love of literature. The company entered into this promotion with the same sense of self-interest and desire for synergy that it did when it embarked on it first cross-promotion of a film with the Star Trek Happy Meal in 1979, the year the Happy Meal debuted. And in much the same way that this upcoming publishing endeavor is likely intended to wash away some of the association of the McDonald’s name with junk food and childhood obesity, the Illustrated Classics scheme was probably meant to raise the brow of a company whose main contribution to culture was a mountain of advertising featuring a creepy clown and his oddly shaped friends.

What seems unbelievable now — and even sweet — is that McDonald’s ever cared about its brow enough to try raising it. McDonald’s and I had that in common: we wanted to elevate ourselves by association with the classics, only I held onto that desire long after the fast food chain did. I went to grad school for a lot of reasons, but McDonald’s Illustrated Classics played their own little part in that decision. It’s not a choice I regret, but, in this deeply pessimistic moment for English departments, I cannot help but feel nostalgic for a time when literature’s cultural stock was so high that even McDonald’s wanted to invest in it.

Fifty Shades of Fan Fiction

The trilogy currently sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list is in many ways a fascinating one, the sort of Cinderella story that gives journalists a chance to make wild guesses about the future of publishing. E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels began on the Internet, evolved into e-books, were printed by a small Australian press, and, just a few weeks ago, were finally picked up by a traditional big publisher, Vintage, which paid seven figures at auction for the North American rights. It wasn’t a risky bet; the biggest trouble has reportedly been keeping physical copies on the shelves.

The book is notable, too, because to some degree, it’s forced erotica into the mainstream conversation. Much of the coverage of Fifty Shades of Grey has focused on sex: women are passing around the novels at spin classes and telling the Times how nice it is to be able to read porn and talk about it with friends. (“It’s relighting a fire under a lot of marriages,” one woman said.) But then there are the books’ origins: the trilogy started on FanFiction.net, as a story entitled “Master of the Universe,” in which James’ main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, were called Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. It was Twilight AU, or Alternate Universe fan fiction, wherein Stephenie Meyer’s innocent girl and vampire were re-imagined as innocent girl and manipulative billionaire. The story eventually morphed into something more original — and “Masters of the Universe” was removed from the web — but the threads remained. “The book emerged from the steamy land of fan fiction,” said Jason Boog, discussing the legal and ethical questions for NPR. “Fifty Shades of Grey has opened the box underneath Pandora’s bed, and we need to decide what to do with the sexy publishing trend hidden inside.”

Why, when discussing fan fiction, do journalists often sound like anthropologists discovering some long-lost tribe — and a somewhat unsavory and oversexed one at that? To be fair, Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel, but it represents a mere fraction of this “steamy land.” Let me take a crack at it: fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely. Outside of all of the various fandoms, and even occasionally within them, a few assumptions seem to prevail: that there is something inherently embarrassing about fan fiction, that it’s cause for anonymity and secrecy, and that it is overwhelmingly pornographic — and often seriously, creepily pornographic. There’s plenty of that stuff, sure, but then, there’s plenty of original erotica out there, too. It’s all a sliver of something much larger. For every story that puts Harry, Ron, and Hermione in some kind of BDSM threesome, there are a thousand stories in which they manage to save the world without having any sex at all.

The literary establishment seems divided on the subject — those who even notice fan fiction, at least. (It’s here that we can part ways with Fifty Shades of Grey, which, as a romance novel, doesn’t really fall under the purview of the “literary establishment” — and the blurry dividers between genres are a wholly different discussion.) Writing for TIME last year, Lev Grossman mercifully skipped the baffled anthropologist shtick: the piece was clearly the work of a super-fan, and he laid out the basics with a great deal of affection. Fan fiction is “still the cultural equivalent of dark matter,” he writes. “It’s largely invisible to the mainstream, but at the same time, it’s unbelievably massive.” (FanFiction.net, the largest fanfic site in the world, has more than two million users and nearly 600,000 Harry Potter stories.) Grossman continues:
Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.
Some authors seem to love the conversation, but some, for legal or creative reasons, seriously hate it. Grossman highlights a few of its vehement detractors, like Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, and George R. R. Martin, who says on his website that, “Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.”

But writers have been lifting and borrowing and refashioning characters, worlds, and settings since people began putting stories down on the page. Grossman draws a line between literary influences, allusions, and homage and the world of fan fiction: he highlights 1966, the year in which Star Trek premiered and Trekkies were, in turn, born, and in which two great literary heists were published: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The latter pair were “written for profit, and they’re adorned with the trappings of cultural prestige; true fan fiction has naught to do with either one.”

I’m just not sure we need the distinction — and I’m not sure that it helps. Nearly every work of fan fiction on the Internet is accompanied by a disclaimer, some variation on “This story was not written for profit, and these characters are not my own.” But it’s copyright law at the heart of that, and to suggest that these writers have no interest in “the trappings of cultural prestige” creates a stark division between fan fiction and its literary counterparts. I have a deep respect for the devotion of fans, and I can certainly understand why one would write a story for love rather than for money. But it’s a multi-faceted world: many of these writers just want a different — and sometimes, a better — way into a story. Hasn’t literature has been doing that for centuries?

There’s fan fiction lore surrounding King Arthur and Don Quixote, but we find easier analogies with modern-day fan culture say, a few hundred years ago, when the novel as we know it was born. Copyright laws had been on the books since the seventeenth century, but the most successful eighteenth and nineteenth century writers watched helplessly as their characters were baldly lifted and reworked into sequels or just plain rewrites — and then sold to the public at a fraction of the price. Charles Dickens, already a victim of intellectual pirating across the Atlantic, watched domestic copycats put out seriously poor imitations of his books with dismay: “I have not the least doubt that these Vagabonds can be stopped,” he wrote. “They must be.”

This was pure plagiarism, meant to harm and to generate profit, not to elevate Dickens’s words. But a century earlier, Samuel Richardson found Clarissa, which he was publishing in installments, to be the subject of positive and somewhat extraordinary fannish speculation. Two sisters, Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin, exchanged dozens of letters with Richardson, urging him to change the course of the novel (basically, they wanted to cut out the rape and death). In The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Carol Houlihan Flynn writes of Bradshaigh contacting Richardson: “Assiduously scribbling over the margins of all the volumes of the novel, she first writes him after finishing volume 4, cajoling, flirting, excoriating, loving, hating, but always admiring her torturer.” Her sister took things further: “Lady Echlin…seems more professional in her investment into the passions of Clarissa, and literally rewrites the novel…Richardson received and of course rejected her alternative ending, but they debated the critical differences in at least forty letters.”

The nineteenth century saw fans skipping correspondence with recalcitrant authors and writing their own endings for books that they loved, including the novels of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and, most notably, Arthur Conan Doyle, who made the mistake of killing off Sherlock Holmes and whipping the detective’s admirers into a frenzy. The practice continued through the first half of the twentieth century, until the 1960s, when the term “fan fiction” was coined and the literary tradition merged with our current ideas of fandom — science fiction, “cult” television shows, terms like “continuity” and “canon” gaining significance in the process. As the Internet became pervasive, fan fiction communities grew and spread exponentially.

But the past half-century also played host to a lot of self-conscious borrowing and refashioning across literature: authors began to look for silences in the canon and probed the neglected perspectives they found there. Some post-colonial literature could easily be categorized as fan fiction. The most famous of these is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which follows Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic” all the way back to the Caribbean. Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête draws the colonial themes out of The Tempest with an essentially direct re-writing of the play. J. M. Coetzee’s Foe exists within the confines of Robinson Crusoe, placing another character on the island with Crusoe and Friday, and explores ideas of authorial voice in the colonial narrative.

Outside post-colonialism, dozens of books fall within the realm of “parallel novels,” many of which take minor characters and expand their worlds. Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs emerges from Great Expectations; Geraldine Brooks looks for the absent father of Little Women in March. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours offers us two subgenres of fan fiction: the AU of the modern-day Clarissa, Richard, and Sally, and the RPF — that’s Real Person Fic — of the Virginia Woolf passages. With RPF, you’re not writing about Aragorn and Legolas’ lost adventures anymore — it’s Viggo and Orlando on the set, and who knew they might be an item? Every biopic that takes factual liberties could be classified as such, and the same could be said for plenty of books, from Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James) to Ron Hansen’s Exiles (Gerard Manley Hopkins) to Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George (our old favorite, Arthur Conan Doyle).

So what’s the difference? Isn’t all of this just a bunch of variations on the same theme? Why does fan fiction’s stigma persist — and why are remixes and mash-ups, analogs in the art and music worlds, accepted, even celebrated? There’s something about the written word that limits all this unfettered refashioning, something that makes people more protective of their work. It’s the fear of plagiarism, perhaps, or the way that for many people, a character can feel so much dearer than a beat or an image ever could. But fan fiction — and all of its literary counterparts, however you classify them — comes from a place of love and admiration. Some people see a corner of a fictional world waiting to be explored; others just want to exist in the world past the last page of their favorite novel. After all, who among us hasn’t felt that way, closing the back cover of an amazing book and wishing that the author had given us a little bit more?

Image: PopCultureGeek.com/Flickr

Cliffhanger: On Extreme Survival Books

The dispute between Himalayan mountaineers and writers Greg Mortenson and Jon Krakauer has been cast as a dispute between fact and fiction. Recently, Mortenson’s wildly popular book from 2006, Three Cups of Tea—which narrates his failed attempt to climb K2, his kidnapping by the Taliban, and his early efforts to build schools for Pakistani children—was debunked by Krakauer in Three Cups of Deceit. As you may know, this 89-page document systematically exposes Mortenson’s story as “an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact” and insists that both Mortenson’s “books and his public statements are permeated with falsehoods.” Though his publisher has launched in investigation into the book’s claims, Mortenson has insisted on its veracity.

Despite the antithetical roles they have assumed in this drama, Mortenson and Krakauer have much in common. Like Mortenson, Krakauer has parlayed his mountaineering adventures in exotic locales into a successful writing career. Into Thin Air, his gripping nonfiction account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, popularized and epitomized a genre that has in many ways become synonymous with Krakauer: the true-life extreme survival story. Stories in this genre follow a predictable pattern: an individual sets out on an adventure, things go horribly wrong, he or she confronts the possibility death, and lives to tell an incredible story. Disaster pushes man to the edge between life and death, and a lucky few live to tell about it. This plotline rarely changes; the details are grisly, the scenarios harrowing. Yet we can’t get enough of such extreme survival stories.

Take, for instance, Lauren Hillenbrand’s latest nonfiction bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, which relates Louis Zamperini’s improbable true adventures, from shipwreck and starvation to shark attacks and torture. Zamperini’s extreme story is filtered through Hillenbrand’s capable narration, but it has much in common with other first-person survival accounts, including Aron Ralston’s 2005 book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Ralston’s book chronicles his amputation of his own arm following a bouldering accident in a Utah canyon, and was adapted into a successful Hollywood movie (127 Hours) starring James Franco, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role. In 1974, Piers Paul Read published Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, which charted the grim ordeal of a South American rugby team after their plane crashed in the Andes mountains and they resorted to survival cannibalism in order to stay alive.

Why are we so fixated with such tales, gory and clichéd as they may be? The very gruesomeness of the material is an undeniable source of fascination. Yet our national obsession with extreme survival tales stems not only from their content but the fact that they are true. Ours is a digital age of “truthiness” in which so-called reality TV is scripted and the extreme situations that Bear Grylls undergoes on his TV show Man vs. Wild are revealed to have been surprisingly comfortable. As opposed to works of fiction, true-life extreme survival stories are granted a special type of immunity and cultural authority. How do you critique the truth? The difficulty of doing so makes the marketing of nonfiction under the banner of truth even more irresistible for publishers and authors.

But strangely, what makes the true-life extreme survival story so appealing is its fictional quality. Self-amputation, hypoxia at high altitudes, shark attacks, cannibalism: this is the stuff of fantasy. As the New York Times writes of Unbroken, “some of it sounds too much like pulp fiction to be true.” Reviews of Into Thin Air insist that it “reads like a fine novel” and admit that “though it comes from the genre named for what it isn’t (nonfiction), this has the feel of literature.” “Every once in a while,” another notes, “a work of nonfiction comes a long that is as good as anything a novelist could make up.”

While the unbelievable qualities of nonfiction survival stories prompt the comparison to fiction, the book that’s generally considered the first novel written in English used truth as a marketing device to legitimate the new form of the novel. And it also happens to be an extreme survival story. In Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the shipwrecked Crusoe survives alone on an island for 28 years by planting crops, taming wild animals, and enduring battles with cannibals and pirates. In various advertisements and promotional prefaces, Defoe markets his fictional novel as an incredible true-life story. The preface to the first volume reads: “the Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it.” In prefaces to later volumes, Defoe (speaking in the voice of the fictional Crusoe) again insists that these are “real facts in my history.” Apparently, some eighteenth-century readers believed this claim. According to Theophilus Cibber, a writer contemporary of Defoe’s, the novel was filled with so many “probable incidents” that “it was judged by most people to be a true story.” Defoe capitalized upon this ambiguity, writing two more sequels to the Crusoe story after the phenomenal success of the first edition. A century later in 1822, Charles Lamb, in a letter to Walter Wilson, describes the technique (which the scholar Ian Watt later called “formal realism”) that helped make Defoe’s novel such a hit: “Facts are repeated over and over in varying phrases till you cannot chuse but believe them. It is like reading evidence in a court of Justice.” The effect, Lamb describes, is one of the truth and nothing but the truth.

Defoe probably based his novel on the real-life story of Alexander Selkirk, an eighteenth-century sailor who survived for four years alone on an island before being rescued. Jonathan Franzen recently visited this South Pacific island (now named, appropriately, Alexander Selkirk) to experience his own Crusovian adventure, which involved re-reading Defoe’s novel on the island. According to Franzen, one of the most interesting questions associated with the origins of the English novel is this: “should a strange story be accepted as true because it is strange, or should its strangeness be taken as proof that it is false?” The genre of extreme survival stories, which, by definition, deals in the strange, sensational, and unbelievable, makes this question even more problematic and acute—and subject to exploitation by savvy writers.

Over one hundred years after the publication of Crusoe’s novel and on the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and marketed it as a true story. Published in 1838, Arthur Pym was hailed as the American Robinson Crusoe, and, not surprisingly, it has much in common with Crusoe, including a bizarre plotline, “atrocious butchery,” and an insistence on authenticity. In one of his essays, Poe himself marveled at Defoe’s literary achievement, which lay in the fact that it did not seem like one at all: “Men do not look upon it in the light of a literary performance. Defoe has none of their thoughts—Robinson all.” What Poe admires here is Defoe’s sleight-of-hand, and he appeared to want to emulate it. Poe’s own work of extreme survival fiction pretended to be Pym’s first-person account of his strange seafaring adventures. For some commentators, Poe’s hybrid work reconciled generic opposites: according to the August 1, 1838 edition of Horace Greeley’s New Yorker newspaper, “it is a work more marvelous than the wildest fiction, yet is presented and supported as sober truth.” But for other readers, Poe was just a liar. Reviewers criticized the book as implausible and fabricated. One review admired the story as a work of fiction, but condemned its being “palmed upon the public as a true thing.” William Burton, the editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, huffed that it was “an impudent attempt at humbugging the public” and that Poe “puts forth a series of travels outraging possibility, and coolly requires his insulted readers to believe his account.”

In terms of what is at stake, the Mortenson scandal may have little in common with Daniel Defoe’s or Edgar Allan Poe’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manipulations of the public and the press. Mortenson’s book was required reading for the U.S. military and is the basis upon which his entire humanitarian organization was founded. If Krakauer’s claims are validated, then Mortenson could be said to have done more than insult and humbug his readers. But then again, the market for extreme survival stories, from the eighteenth century to today, has always been driven by—and eager to exploit—the same wish: the impossible desire for truth that possesses the flair of fiction and fiction legitimated by the veracity of truth.

(Image: Pillar Rock Surfer too close danger Morro Bay CA 14Oct2009 from mikebaird’s photostream)

Known Answers and Unknown Questions: J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg

Why did J.M. Coetzee write The Master of Petersburg?

I mean this as an existential question; the purpose of the novel itself is unusually explicit: not content to be merely “Dostoevskian” in tone, Coetzee’s protagonist actually is Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the story is a fictional account of events in Dostoevsky’s life prior to, and leading to, his writing of the novel Demons. In that way, Master of Petersburg is a sort of reverse mathematical problem. Given a set of factors, it is a matter of simple calculation to derive their product. But what if you start with the product – can you work backwards to discover the original sum from which that product was derived? The possibilities, particular with a large, complex figure, would be infinite. Here, the novel Demons is the product, the effect, the outcome. And from the known answer, Coetzee imagines the unknown questions.

Set in Russia in 1869, Master of Petersburg follows “Dostoevsky’s” grief-stricken return to St. Petersburg after news of the death of his stepson, Pavel, for whom he felt a profound though inscrutable love. While living in Pavel’s old room, he develops a sexual relationship with Pavel’s old landlady, the widow Anna Sergeyevna, along with a fascination with her adolescent daughter, Matryosha. As he becomes increasingly enmeshed in the enigma of his stepson’s death, he discovers Pavel was a member of the nihilist Sergei Nechayev’s revolutionary gang. Nechayev, who is living in hiding, has all the while been scheming to trap Dostoyevsky so to exploit his fame as an author by forcing him to write a pamphlet endorsing the Nechayevite philosophy. Out of these ultimately ambiguous social and political interactions, Dostoevsky begins writing a new novel, ostensibly Demons, in the last chapter of the book.

This plot lies at the murky intersection between fact and two fictions, Coetzeean fiction and Dostoevskian fiction (i.e., Demons). Several elements are based in fact: Dostoevsky did have a stepson named Pavel, who was likewise something of an enigma, although he survived his stepfather. Sergei Nechayev was a real Russian nihilist and revolutionary, and his association with the 1869 murder of a fellow student, Ivanov, partly inspired Dostoevsky to write Demons, where he portrays such idealists of his time as demonic. But the story also draws from the plot of Demons itself, most heavily from “At Tikhon’s,” a chapter originally suppressed by Dostoevsky’s editors, in which the character Stavrogin confesses to having once seduced his landlord’s 12-year old daughter, Matryosha, and driven her to suicide. And finally, to this heady mix Coetzee adds some fiction of his own.

You have to give Coetzee credit for this undertaking, this deconstruction of both the power and process of writing. As a prominent South African writer, no doubt Coetzee was keen to examine the political power of the authorial voice, through Nechayev’s belief in the import of having a famous writer pen the words of a revolutionary pamphlet – and the extreme measures he would take to bring about such a coup. Equally contemplated is the personal power of writing, as it is a means for “Dostoevsky” to access his son, to “give up his soul” so as to “meet him in death.”

But when it comes to the process of writing, you can’t escape the fact that this is not Dostoevsky writing about Dostoevsky writing. It is Coetzee writing about “Dostoevsky” writing. Given this structure, it’s Coetzee’s own role in solving the reverse mathematical problem that compels above all. Why did he choose what he did, from fact, from Dostoevskian fiction, and from Coetzeean fiction? Moreover, Demons is not a novel in a vacuum: many of Dostoevsky’s real-life inspirations are documented, yet Coetzee replaces several of these with fictional inspirations of his own design. Is Master of Petersburg then an account of a fictional writing process? Or is Coetzee laying his own writing process bare?

It’s nearly impossible not to be sidetracked by these thought experiments while reading Master of Petersburg. The fact that much of the (Dostoevskian) fictional parts of the plot are dedicated to Demon’s excised chapter involving the young girl’s molestation is particularly distracting. Coetzee is not alone in holding Stavrogin’s confession as integral to Demons: while some think that Dostoevsky himself was dissatisfied with the confession, others view the forced excision of what was an indispensable chapter as rendering the novel morally asymmetrical. But the extent to which “At Tikhon’s” aligns Demons is not my issue; rather, it is “Dostoevsky’s” largely unexplained tendency to continually attach a sexual subtext to the young girl Matryosha’s interactions, whether with Nechayev, with a sort of version of Pavel that he imagines in the future, or even with himself.
[Dostoyevsky] has no difficulty in imagining this child in her ecstasy… This is as far as the violation goes: the girl in the crook of his arm, the five fingers of his hand, white and dumb, gripping her shoulder. But she might as well be sprawled out naked…
It’s eventually jarring how Coetzee deliberately (and repeatedly) advocates that “Dostoevsky” would be prompted by his own perception of a young girl as above all a sexual object to conceive of the particular molestation scene described in Stavrogin’s confession. I’m not implying this rings false (though it’s somewhat overdone), just that it highlights the major weakness of Coetzee’s particular form of the reverse math problem as fiction: the reader is often far more preoccupied with why Coetzee made his choices than with the choices themselves.

This brings me back to my original, existential question: why did Coetzee write Master of Petersburg? It’s an inspired project, but by its own premise it is merely an experiment, a study, rather than a novel. Coetzee has been criticized for his metafiction before: his 1986 novel Foe, which weaves its plot around Robinson Crusoe, drew him criticism for being a disappointingly politically irrelevant work coming from one of South Africa’s most lauded writers. The New York Times concluded that “the novel – which remains somewhat solipsistically concerned with literature and its consequences – lacks the fierceness and moral resonance of [Waiting for the Barbarians] and [Life and Times of Michael K]…”

However, my criticism of Master of Petersburg is of the literary, not political, variety. Countless excellent novels have been inspired by existing works, but though Coetzee’s writing is stunning, the story, composed of curious but ultimately inconclusive events, never takes hold. It offers much by way of intellectual exercise, but on its own fails to satisfy. More autonomous novels similarly fashioned out of vague questions and ideas contain a central truth or truths that are not merely valuable, but in a sense new, and that have thus driven the author to sit down to write. Here, the underlying purpose, the answer, exists in another novel altogether. And as it turns out, Dostoevsky’s answer is more interesting than Coetzee’s questions.

The Elusive Omniscient

As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this.

I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on.

On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree.

It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up.

No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world.

But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power.

He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise.

But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition.

Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read.

So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance.

And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine.

This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders.

All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.)

Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere.

Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day.

[Image credit: Tim]

Ask a Book Question: #74 (Just One Book)

Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college.  The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives.  To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift.  I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.)  My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one.  Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives.  While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience.  Here are our answers:

Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.

Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut –  may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it’s highly readable.  It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film).  Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time.  I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too.  And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous.  If you love his books, there are others to discover.  Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.

Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me.  I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really –  are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.

Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again.  I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe.  When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe.  In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe.  I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.  On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh.  I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.  Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.

Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.

Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever.  Their lives were in my hands.  I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it.  Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them.  Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring.  Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them.  Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on.  Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels.  Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).

Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!)   It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel.  I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical.  With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years.  Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote.  But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen?  Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.

Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth.  Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.

The Millions Conversation: M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing (Part Three)

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This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party, which we’re sharing with you this week in three installments. Part 1 focused on Form and Style. Part 2 focused on Historical and Geographic Setting. N.B.: Today’s installment contains plot spoilers.Part 3: Audience, Character, and ConclusionGarth: What makes a kids’ book a kids’ book, in the popular sense of the phrase? After having thought about this a lot, the answer I’ve come up with is: kids’ books often have a kind of “educational” component adult novels can get away with bypassing. This is a way of broaching the topic of audience. You mentioned earlier, Emily, that you wondered about the audience of this book, and I wanted to suggest that the question of audience may persist even if you ignore, for example, Anderson’s debt to Adorno (as one can easily do.)Emily: Yes, I think I agree with your idea that didacticism is what makes this YA, but I still find myself wondering what I would have made of this book in my early teens – I wonder if I would have liked it, or even understood it. In my own teaching at the university level, I have seen students struggle with 18th-Century literature. Of course, there are a lot of children’s books that abstract their plots and characters from philosophy and history that is more adult (Narnia’s Christianity, Jane Langton’s use of American transcendentalism in The Hall Family Chronicles, Jenny Davidson’s use of an alternative history of Europe (if Napoleon had won at Waterloo) in The Explosionist, Matthew Skelton’s use of Faust legends and the history of Gutenberg and his press in Endymion Spring). But I feel like Octavian is harder – the style is harder, the form is harder – even if the history itself will probably be more familiar. I like the idea of younger readers liking this book, but I am, nonetheless, a little surprised by it.Garth: This may be one of those things you’re not supposed to ask for from books about American slavery, Sept. 11, Naziism, and so forth, but I thought that the subtlety of Anderson’s moral sense lagged at times behind his technical gifts. Octavian offers an essentially monochromatic vision of the institution of slavery. He does a great job revealing the way it was bound up in the culture, extending the responsibility to most participants of that culture, but he leaves little room for gradations of evil. The ironies are often negations, rather than complications or paradoxes. Juxtaposed with his extraordinary formal achievements, this made me wonder, for whom was this book was written? Younger readers may find fusillades of prose flying by over their heads, while older readers may be disappointed by the lack of moral complexity. It may be argued that melodrama is one of the archaic conventions Anderson is playing with here, but Harriet Beecher Stowe got there in the 19th Century, and did it more convincingly. I should issue another spoiler alert here, by the way. I think we might have to give away some of the book’s secrets to discuss our criticisms.Emily: I wouldn’t say I have criticisms of Octavian as much as I have questions because it is a difficult book.Garth: Maybe this is a way of exposing myself as overly hungry for irony in the novels I read. But for me, the problem of moral certainty (and its potential solutions in Volume II of Octavian Nothing) is grounded in the characters themselves. After watching Anderson painstakingly reconstruct the cultural environment within which anyone found slavery sane, I was disappointed to see Mr. Gitney, the head of the Novanglian College of Lucidity collapse into simple villainy. I was more interested in him when he seemed merely compromised and self-deluding. Similarly, the virtuous Private Evidence Goring, who befriends Octavian, was a little too virtuous for me. He had this kind of Rousseauvian innocence – he seems genuinely colorblind, and naturally assumes his friend Octavian’s equality. He’s like a son of the soil. Could he really be uncontaminated by the pervasive ideology of slave-owning? I wanted at least to see him be really dismissive of a woman, or something. I guess I wanted him to be capable of change.Emily: I share your disappointment in Mr. Gitney. The one aspect of this book that I found kind of clunky was the way Gitney pursued his experiment on Octavian. He aims to discover if Africans have the same intellectual and moral capacities as Europeans, but that would necessitate having a European subject raised alongside Octavian in the exact same conditions. The betrayal of the rationalist empiricism that Gitney claims to defend is glaringly obvious – but not to him. Maybe a way around our dissatisfaction is to think of Gitney and Goring as allegorical figures? Goring as the bright, naive, fresh-faced idealism of a soon-to-be nation; Gitney as… well, maybe the inhumanity of which science and commerce are capable? Something like that? And Octavian – who I think will develop into a flesh and blood, three-dimensional character in future volumes – is trying to orient himself in the midst of all of these?Garth: Ah. This might explain my lack of feeling for Gitney and Goring. I don’t have much of a taste for allegory.Emily: Though, in truth, I was not so bothered by Goring as a character, allegory aside. Perhaps because I am more at home with the idioms of the eighteenth century, his character did not seem false to me – kind of Tom Jones-y, though a bit more religious. I found his naive idealism appealing and believable. A matter of taste, I think. I can appreciate irony but do not require it in my reading. Indeed, I have been known – forgive me, Oscar Wilde – to cry uncontrollably when Dickens describes Tiny Tim’s empty stool and crutch leaning against the wall in A Christmas Carol. My occasional problems with sensibility aside, though, I think allegory might be the key here.Garth: Dr. Trefusius, Octavian’s tutor, was a much more interesting character to me, because his complicated relationship to “the peculiar institution” recalled the Jeffersonian one I sketched in Part 2 of our conversation. Trefusius is hopelessly compromised and complicit, but is not beyond redemption. Indeed, his is the kind of character who necessitates redemption. Likewise Bono, the slave you mentioned earlier, who almost forms a dyad with Dr. Trefusius. His clear-sightedness comes at the cost of his optimism. I suppose I think this kind of muddled moral position has more to teach us, because it’s the one we’re more likely to find ourselves in – beneficiaries of institutions that would bother our consciences, if we allow ourselves to see them for what they are. But here I’m starting to sound like I’m asking for more didacticism. Perhaps didacticism in literature is a paradox. For the bald didactic “moral” can only teach us so much. It precipitates a gestalt shift; we can only learn it once. Whereas putatively amoral irony and ambiguity constitute an ongoing lesson in what life is like. This is what’s so remarkable about Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, by the way. It has volumes to teach us about how one human being can tolerate owning another. Speaking of character, what did you think of Octavian himself?Emily: Octavian is hard to grasp, elusive, there is a lack of emotion about him, a lack of self-knowledge that makes him seem something like autistic at times (added to his encyclopedic knowledge of natural and classical history, there’s a bit of a Rain Man effect). This might have bothered me more if it didn’t remind me of some of Defoe’s best heroes and heroines, particularly Robinson Crusoe, and also Coetzee’s equally emotionally opaque Foe. With the exceptions of Evidence Goring and Dr. Trefusis, all of the characters in Volume I strike me as emotionally broken and joyless, either by slavery or by a deformed and deforming commitment to a perverse version of rationalism.Garth: With Octavian, Anderson clearly wants to do something with the idea of scientific observation (in which his protagonist is trained) versus engagement, but Octavian’s tendency to become a transparent eyeball at key dramatic moments made it increasingly difficult for me to get a read on his character. I longed for a dawning complexity befitting the maturity of the language, but Octavian became less plausible to me the older he got. That is, I think I saw what Anderson was up to, but had some trouble suspending disbelief. I would have liked to have seen more of a moral duality in Octavian himself: struggling with his own urge to dominate others, to lash out in violence at weaker characters, to achieve Oedipal one-ness with his mother… you get the picture. Though perhaps the point is that observation versus engagement is itself a moral quandary. I wanted, finally, to see Octavian as a particular human personality, rather than as an Everyman shaped by forces beyond his control. I’m hoping this is what Part II is for…Emily: My question is whether Octavian can get beyond this broken, stunted, deadened quality in future volumes and if such an evolution can be convincing. Garth: So maybe this is a good point to leave off the discussion. This has been fun, Emily. Maybe we should do it again.Emily: Indeed!Bonus Link: A 2008 profile of M.T. Anderson from The Washington Post

The Millions Quiz: The Glaring Gap

So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?

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