We’ve been given marching orders, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
In between classes I duck into the library to appraise the situation. It’s bad. The building has succumbed to decay. A stone’s throw from where I sleep, the library—aka the Sifriya (ספרייה) because everything here has a Hebrew name, as well as an abbreviation: The Sif—stinks with no fans or functional windows. Forget about that glorious mountain breeze endemic to Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the room smells like 50-year-old carpet, like tube socks, lake scum, fallen pines. But the fug and must are a comfort. This is the smell of my childhood. I am no longer a child and yet still I’m here, working at camp. A psychology for another day: my choices steeped in nostalgia, arrested development, a pressing hunger for vicarious joys. But the practical answer is teaching has become an affordable way to bring my kids here for the summer. I’m an adjunct. Over the years, I’ve come to view this month upstate as my own rustic residency: I teach by day and write at night. It may be no Yaddo, but time moves at a slower place, allowing for deeper concentration without the pull of city life or the buzz of social media.
Narrow in scope, modest in size, it’s remarkable we have a library at all. We have one because this is not a sports camp or an arts camp but an educational camp, a Jewish educational camp, and, as the story goes, we people of the Book have been known to geek out on the written word.
A familiar fantasy: If you build it they will come. When the building was erected in the ’70s, the stacks were filled floor to ceiling with donations from synagogues, existing libraries, day schools, generous readers. When I was a camper we called the Sif “the new building.” We unfurled sleeping bags and watched the Raid on Entebbe every summer on that rust-colored rug. And yet: Even back when the place was new, the books inside were already old.
A longstanding librarian once sat behind the desk though I’ve never seen a person check out a book. I don’t know what she did—read the occasional picture book to younger children, stories about latkes run amok, or the Golem of Prague—but at least during her tenure there was some pretense of order: benches straight, wrappers in the trash. Without oversight, the place has fallen into chaos.
“Clear it out,” we’ve been told. “Everything must go.” For days, I do this: I visit the library. Before lunch, during rest hour. The shelves are mossed in dust and mouse droppings and dead flies. I vanish in the stacks, remove a book. Paperbacks crumble in my hand, pages thin as insect wings. Cloth covers separate from hardbacks, glue breaking from spines, unraveling threads of dried tack. I open them anyway. I say hello to Sholem Aleichem, to Isaac Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Wise Men of Helm. I touch the sordid remains of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Maybe I pocket one or three.
Past summers I’ve stolen Herzog, Call It Sleep, The Mind-Body Problem. I am a thief, but I prefer to imagine my actions as redemptive. Whatever I take is not missed. Better with me, I tell myself. Better to cherish these titles in the comfort of my home then to let them rot, up here, exposed to the elements, suffer more damage, sustain another unloved and lonely winter.
How can we possibly get rid of them all?
Initially, I possess an impulse to open my arms and rescue the entire shabby library, some kind of foster mother of orphaned literature, to squirrel it away to my cabin, filling every surface with text, and suffocate a romantic death from vellichor, from the hopelessly wistful longing of worlds lived through used books.
But I’m fooling myself. For one, there are practical matters: I hardly have room for a bed in my bunk much less a library. How could I drive my spoils back to Brooklyn? As it is, either child or duffel may need to be strapped to the car’s roof. There are also health issues: These books are coated in forty years of death and bat shit.
Rodents, insects, cobwebs thick as surgical gauge. This is to be expected. It is camp. We are not versed in archival preservation. Books sit out on the shelves untreated season after season.
The bats are a more recent development. Apparently, the library’s infested. There is nocturnal video footage to prove it. A colony has been living in the ceiling for god knows how long. Bats flit through the stacks, raining midnight urine and feces. The brittle bodies of Night (of which there are nine copies) splashed in a sickly yellow film.
“What’s that disease you can get from bats?” I ask? My co-worker hands me gloves and a mask.
We are the education staff so it is only natural that the task falls to us. We have been summoned to break down the library. To eliminate the problem.
This is our fate. And so it becomes our crime.
I warn everyone. The arts and craft staff, the counselors. I tell the campers I teach, I tell my own kids: They’re emptying the library. This is your last chance.
No one comes. My kids look at me like, Mom, why are you talking? Two minutes, I beg, and they comply to avoid further embarrassment. My daughter finds a battered Marjorie Morningstar, my son The Magic Barrel.
That leaves thousands of books to go.
Some of my colleagues are more efficient. They get down to business, try to lessen the blow by keeping the banter bubbly, a warm bath of memories. Oh how I loved The Bread Givers! C’mon, has anyone actually read S.Y. Agnon?
At first we make piles, like that home improvement show: Trash, Donate, Keep. We fill crates with those in decent condition; those with enough relevancy and staying power to be transferred. The hope: If not here, perhaps on shinier shelves they may be plucked, handled, loved, read.
Because we aren’t getting rid of a library altogether. After it’s torn down it will be rebuilt. We remind ourselves this to feel less terrible about what we’re doing. We’re not Philistines, Romans trashing the Second Temple, whose destruction we’d commemorated on Tisha B’Av only days before.
We all tell stories in order to live with ourselves.
There will still be a library: new and improved.
Other questions arise: Why does the library house 98 percent Jewish, Hebrew, or religious texts? Had the limited catalogue been born 40 years ago upon the notion that it should reflect the camp’s ideological focus? Or was the content far less intentionally curated? Could it be this is merely the inventory received upon a call for donation? I don’t know. Perhaps this is why the books have sat largely untouched for almost half a century. Wouldn’t everyone benefit from a collection that is broader, more pluralistic in scope? Does a Jewish camp need a strictly Jewish library?
In grad school, I wrote a thesis on Jewish American literature, pitting the tenets of iconic authors: Roth, Bellow, Kafka, Malamud against concerns of contemporaries: Judy Budnitz, Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Ethan Canin. This was in 2002. In interviews, we talked about the dangers and merits of labels. Could there be a unifying ethos, or was this thinking inherently reductive? The grappling felt necessary, however fraught.
Then, as now: Is the category still relevant, or have principles of “Jewish American” been subsumed into the mainstream? Can classification ever be useful or is it solely problematic? To what extent can outsider status be claimed in the face of widespread assimilation? Against the evergreen backdrop of anti-Semitism?
Of course, it’s personal. These are the books I grew up on. Women, too: Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, but overwhelmingly, men. Theirs are the cadent voices in my head, followed by the murmurings of the siddur, the desert wanderings of the five books of Moses. They fuel my passion, frustrations, and rage.
All my life, in some way or another I’ve been writing toward or against this canon. These are the contradictions I carry: The push/pull of tradition, the identification with custom and rejection of law, the foundational wrestling with patriarchy. Classic themes: anxiety, alienation, annihilation, guilt, expectation, desire. Who am I? A Jewish writer, a female writer, a mother writer, an American writer, an East Coast writer, a writer of a certain age, and so on. I recognize the enormous privilege of being able to embrace and slough labels, to see identity as expansive and not limiting. To be this and this. All of these are what make me.
Roth is dead two months. I find a honeyed clipping inside the pages of a book from a local Philadelphia newspaper. The date: 1981. Zuckerman Unbound had just come out. Here he is in the photo, wide slab of forehead, hair dark and thick, bushy at the ears. He looks stern but ironic, young and not, the way fathers look like fathers even when they are just people hanging a coat, cracking jokes through tears, trying to eke out an imperfect life.
The “keep” crate fills quickly. We can save one Malamud, but we don’t need five paperbacks of The Fixer. We probably don’t even need one, if we’re honest. One copy of The Chosen, for old time’s sake. After all, Potok is another famous alum. Where would I be without Seize the Day? But how much Bellow can we possibly hold onto? When is it time to let go?
Donate, we decide. Donate, Donate. Now the donate bins are bursting because we are—I am—being sentimental. Remember: books are losing pages, pulp dissolving to dust, covers defiled in waste. Who would want them?
The Salvation Army in Honesdale has no demand for literature of this ilk. To donate would be more burden than gift. We are in the boondocks. An ugly reality: No one is coming for them. Crates marked “donate” devolve into recycle. We are not ready to call them trash, even as we drag out the industry-strength garbage bags, stuff them with sexism, electric prose. Oh the campfire we could build on Roth alone!
In this way we yield to our directive. We kill, destroy. We throw out the Jewish canon.
There is a heat wave and our bodies are slick with sweat, with filth, our fingers blackened. We cough on dust, on lousy air. Israeli staffers are summoned to address the secular Hebrew catalogue, to sift through Amos Oz in his native tongue, to salvage Curtis Sittenfeld’s translated Prep from the tragic heap.
Then there are the rabbis. The rabbis have a duty unique from the lay staff. They must weed out religious texts: prayer books, Torah, the shelves upon shelves of commentary. But they can’t simply toss the tattered and torn. A law prohibits Jews from destroying God’s name when it is written out in full, not abbreviated. Four Hebrew letters: Yud. Hey. Vav. Heh.
Instead, the holy word is buried in a special place called a Genizah, which means “hiding,” or “to put away.” Rabbis designate volumes to this repository. Later, they’ll be transferred to a ritualistic resting place. There is a small burial spot on boys’ campus. Every year the ground is opened to receive these sacred pages. This year, there is so much; we can’t possibly accommodate it all. Some will be shipped to a cemetery off-site.
In the afternoon, our director visits. He understands what he’s asked of us. He is an academic and a reader and he has no slim grasp of history. The purge continues. We’ve dragged a fortress of garbage bags onto the porch and are racing against the clock. Soon, it will be dusk. Another day, then Sabbath, and all work will stop.
The director brings us Fanta and Chipwiches from the canteen as a reward for our efforts. We crack cans on the porch, our lips blazing orange, and for a minute we are not callous educators and rabbis, but children, hopped up on sugar. We close our eyes and tilt our faces toward the sun.
Finally, the trucks arrive. We sling bags onto flatbeds with fresh gusto, steel-toned plastic stretched to breaking. We set up an operation chain. Pass, hurl. Drivers make trips. We’re told the books are headed to recycling dumpsters located across the road. From there, they’ll be recycled, returned to pulp, made into paper, they’ll turn into books once again. I do not challenge this. I don’t rush to the camp’s dusty edges to inspect their final destination nor do I investigate the recycling system of Wayne County, Pennsylvania.
There is no Kaddish. There are only girls laughing, headed up for dinner.
Maybe it’s less about loss but about what remains. I try to picture future generations walking this tired earth, churning up the fields. What will they find? Time capsules of scrunchies, mixed tapes, putty. Will there still be a camp here, a library in 50 years? Will people dig up buried prayers? Or will the worms have gotten to them, turning the sacred to soil?
As the sun sets behind the dining hall, I arrive at an uncertain peace. Everywhere is an infinite mourning. All we can do is cast our hope on those who’ll follow into these woods: their thoughts and discoveries, what they’ll do and make, the new books they’ll write onto shelves, how they’ll bristle against all the difficult living questions whose answers I may never know.
In the frontmatter of Rebekah Frumkin’s debut novel, The Comedown, the reader is presented with two genealogy charts: one for the Marshalls, and one for the Bloom-Mittwochs. These are wild, unpruned, tangled family trees—more than a few names appear on both. Frumkin sets herself the task of filling in the stories behind these names, and in the more than 300 pages that follow, she does precisely that.
The Comedown tracks the Marshalls, who are black, and the Bloom-Mittwochs, who are white and Jewish, over multiple generations. The two families are tied to one another by a briefcase full of money, which is to say, a plot device. When a hit job goes awry, a payment to the drug dealer Reggie Marshall ends up in the possession of one of his customers, Leland Bloom-Mittwoch Sr. His and Reggie’s descendants spend much of the novel chasing after it. “A briefcase,” one character says. “That’s symbolic. Like in a dream.” The briefcase is a classic MacGuffin, an artificial goal that gives the story purpose. But, breaking with authors like Rachel Cusk, for whom writing conventional fiction feels “fake and embarrassing,” or Karl Ove Knausgaard, who wrote in his My Struggle series that “the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,” Frumkin isn’t ashamed to milk her MacGuffin for all its worth. She knows that narrative is artifice, but she also knows it’s fun.
After a wonderfully dramatic prologue that finds Leland Sr. jumping off a hotel roof in Tampa to his death, Frumkin gives us a chapter centered on his first wife, Melinda Provouchez. We see Melinda as an adolescent in the ’50s and ’60s, traumatized by her mother’s binge eating; Melinda as an overweight mother in 2009, watching over her son in the hospital; Melinda as a student at Kent State in 1970; and Melinda’s search for the briefcase, also in 2009.
Each chapter is dedicated to a single character who, in most cases, will not be the primary focus again. This structural gambit unfortunately results in a compartmentalized narrative. All 13 protagonists get their own chapter, with only one or two repeats. And because the chapters are structured like character sketches, every 15 or 20 pages the reader must reset and make mental space for a new set of personality quirks and childhood memories. As a result, much of the novel is given over to flashbacks and exposition. Each chapter demands the escape velocity of a short story.
There is something democratic about Frumkin’s approach, giving nearly equal time to all the players, from the family patriarchs and matriarchs to Lee Jr.’s video game-obsessed, gender-nonbinary lover. But not all of the characters exert the same pressure on the story, and after a while the every-character-only-once model begins to feel like more of a constraint than an armature. The novel has less of a plot than a series of reoccurring motifs, the briefcase among them, nested in the character sketches. The Comedown soars, however, when characters we’ve already met, and who have left strong impressions—like Leland Sr.—appear in other characters’ chapters, not as reference points but in actual scenes, creating a more cohesive universe.
Leland Sr. serves as the novel’s true connective tissue. Unlike the self-assured intellectuals and defiant neurotics of Philip Roth novels, Leland is an exasperating drug addict. If he has a predecessor in American fiction it is Eugene Henderson of Henderson the Rain King, or better yet Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, the Saul Bellow protagonists who, unlike Charlie Citrine or Moses Herzog, lack the wherewithal to self-diagnose, and self-medicate, with philosophy. But Bellow gives his novels over to these men; in The Comedown, Leland is one voice among many.
Drugs, medicinal and recreational, shape the lives of almost every character. The Marshalls and the Bloom-Mittwochs are dealers, users, addicts, and abusers. Frumkin is attuned to the states these drugs induce, both within the user and without. A memorable chapter devoted to Lee Jr. (not to be confused with Leland Jr. or Leland Sr.) follows his plan to drug his half-brother (that’s Leland Jr.) against his will while under the influence of shrooms. Frumkin nimbly captures the anxiety, paranoia, and vulnerability of that experience. “He had the staticky, hippocampal impression that they were trapped in a snowdrift,” Lee thinks in the moments after stoned sex with a girl in his dorm, as missed calls and texts pile up on his phone.
Devi was still on top of him and he was holding her, one hand at her back, one at her ass, as though she were in a front-slung papoose….She was breathing heavily. The room’s palette was set on a higher saturation than it had been when he and Devi had started…she was thinking about how fucked up he was, and how fake he was, and how little he deserved her… He was getting a shitty Pygmalion vibe from the whole thing and gently pushed her off him.
Frumkin is whip-smart and funny. The writing is compulsively readable without being pedestrian. Sentences seem to vibrate. Here is Frumkin describing Temple Chaim Sheltok:
Unlike the more modern synagogues in north Florida—the no-frills cement ones built by the Jewish retirees who’d floated south from New York and New Jersey, with Reform rabbis who wore guayabera shirts and kept kosher one day a week—the Temple Chaim Sheltok predated both World Wars.
Compare that to Zadie Smith’s description of the Glenard Oak school in White Teeth:
It had been built in two simple stages, first in 1886 as a workhouse (result: large red monstrosity, Victorian asylum) and then added to in 1963 when it became a school (result: gray monolith, Brave New Council Estate).
Both writers have a flair for detailing the social histories of buildings, neighborhoods, and families with an arch sense of humor deployed by a winking, not-entirely-objective third-person narrator.
The Comedown is, in many ways, a throwback to the turn of the millennium. Like Smith, Frumkin’s debut employs a large, multiracial cast to explore issues of identity and history. But they most resemble one another on the level of style. Frumkin’s writing often calls to mind “hysterical realism,” James Wood’s term for the frenzied, information-rich novels of the late ’90s and early aughts by writers like David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and Smith. These were novels that suffered, in Wood’s view, from an “excess of storytelling.” “The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine,” he wrote. “…Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion.”
Wood succeeded in identifying the symptoms of this style, but whether or not they describe a disease is a question of taste. Diedre (not Deirdre—Frumkin loves a quirky name) Bloom-Mittwoch’s chapter opens like this:
What had been happening in Diedre’s life prior to the summer of 1985, the month of July, when [Leland Sr.] drove up to the Shell where she worked in his 1976 green Ford Pinto, dressed in resort-owner pants and a guayabera, pupils massive behind a pair of expensive-looking Ray-Bans? She had been living with her girlfriend Trish in an efficiency above Sol’s Delicatessen…Trish who played drums in a hardcore band called Damocles Anthem that was moderately famous in the Orlando underground scene, playing places like Club Space Fish and D.I.Y. Records.
Wood might argue, as he did of White Teeth, that details like these “vandalize each other.” And he might be right. (There’s that guayabera shirt again.) But this style has its advantages, namely that, when used well, it infuses a writer’s prose with a great deal of intelligence and energy, which is certainly the case in The Comedown. It’s rare that a novel this smart is such an engrossing read.
In recent years, piece after piece has been written about whether white writers can (or should) write black characters, whether men can (or should) write female characters, and what we should make of sensitivity readers who comb novels for offensive material. Frumkin reminds us that these thorny questions of could and should are often a straightforward matter of imagination, empathy, and research. All of her characters are rendered with depth, portrayed with amusement and affection. Frumkin’s witty, third-person voice is as comfortable with the drug-dealing Reggie Marshall as it is his Melville scholar wife, Tasha; she can describe a tripping Lee Jr. just as well as she can Leland Jr., who works at a mutual fund and plans to invest in the very drug that Lee sprinkles on his fettuccine Alfredo.
The Comedown is not, however, a work of gritty realism aiming to portray the lived realities of a diverse set of characters. It is a fundamentally comic novel (and a very funny one at that). Frumkin’s arch style sometimes risks flattening the individual characters under the force of her voice. But in a world of Cusks and Knausgaards, Teju Coles and Ben Lerners—all wonderful novelists in their own right—a novel like The Comedown, with its wide-angle lens and authoritative third-person style, is a reminder of what good old-fashioned fiction can do.
Frumkin, like recent debut novelists Nathan Hill (The Nix) and Tony Tulathimutte (Private Citizens), writes like someone who grew up on Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen, among others, writers whose generation-defining novels appeared at the turn of the millennium. The result is a number of new voices bucking the autofictional trend, breathing new life into the energetic, pyrotechnic, neo-Dickensian novels that Wood so famously knocked, where the unit of measurement is not the sentence or the paragraph but the anecdote. This is good news for the story-starved reader. Narrative is back, and it’s wearing new threads.
Derek B. Miller caught the eye of readers of The Millions with his 2013 debut novel, Norwegian by Night, lauded by Richard Russo in his Year in Reading and staying atop our Top Ten for months. The novel featured an octogenarian ex-Marine, Sheldon Horowitz, who has lost his son in Vietnam and who tries to save another boy from his father, an Albanian war criminal. Set in Norway, the novel also introduced the wily cop Sigrid Ødergård; Miller followed it with The Girl in Green, in which two men involved in the Gulf War get a chance at redemption decades later. Now Miller is publishing American by Day, which sends Sigrid Ødergård from Norway to upstate New York to find her brother, who has disappeared after being named the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s mysterious death. Miller spoke with The Millions, via Skype, from his home in Oslo.
The Millions: You have a background in International Studies, I think.
Derek B. Miller: The short version is that I got a master’s degree from Georgetown in National Security, in conjunction with Oxford, where I finished my degree. I knew I wanted to do a doctorate, so I stayed in Europe, futzed around for a while working for a newspaper, and then I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I got a second master’s and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.
TM: What did you do after earning your degrees?
DBM: I spent about a decade in the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Research. Basically I was looking at countries recovering from war—jump-starting the economy, trying to collect weapons after a war, establishing a transitional justice system. So I worked on that for a long time, trying to push the elephant of the United Nations in a direction that I thought was both more pragmatic and ethical.
TM: That wasn’t exactly the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was it?
DBM: No [Laughs].
TM: So how did you become a novelist?
DBM: Well, I think the idea of creative writing was planted in my head back at Sarah Lawrence, which at the time, 1988 to ’92, had the only undergraduate creative writing program in the country. I didn’t actually do creative writing there, but I think it demystified the notion that writing is something only geniuses or crazy people do. When I tried to write, my first manuscript took me three years. It wasn’t very good, but some of the tone, my approach to characterization, my approach to the relationship between tragedy and comedy—I can look back on my efforts from my mid-20s, and it’s clearly my writing. I found that short stories weren’t for me. So I just kept writing.
TM: So all these years you’re traveling around working for the U.N.—and you’re writing fiction on the side, as an apprentice?
DBM: I was writing. I have a good education for finding patterns in data and building theory, and I think I approached writing from both a creative perspective and an analytical one. I asked fundamental questions I felt I needed to ask in order to write better, such as: What is a story? What differentiates a story from a mere sequence of events? What is the nature of dramatic tension, and where does it come from? How do you deal with large gaps of time? Lots of architecture and craft issues. So I asked these questions, I interrogated the material I was reading to see how different authors achieved that. I wasn’t trying to copy them, I was trying to learn. And it took me a long time to figure it out.
TM: Norwegian by Night, your first novel, resonated with readers of The Millions—and a lot of other readers. Do you remember, was there a day you started writing that book, or did it sort of morph into shape over the years?
DBM: What happened was, I had written a manuscript prior to that, and it didn’t work. There were two reasons why. The architecture of the story was all over the place, and my protagonist was too milquetoast. He just wasn’t interesting enough. Sheldon Horowitz was a minor character in that failed effort, and what I found was that my secondary characters were great. They were relieved of the burden of having to be the protagonist, and that let them be far more decisive and funny and wild and everything else. So when it came time to try again, I decided to move Sheldon Horowitz forward. The reason was because I was very close to my grandfathers and they were dying at that time, and my son Julian was born in 2008, which was when I wrote Norwegian by Night. The ending of the book came to me while I was at the hospital waiting for Julian to be born—it was by C-section, so it was scheduled. I was sitting there and I probably should have been thinking about my wife, Camilla, but the fact of the matter is that I was thinking about the ending of the book. And once I realized how the pieces fit together, I wrote that book in about a year.
TM: Your protagonist, Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Marine veteran who lost is son in Vietnam, feels guilt but has a second chance to redeem himself. Guilt seems to be a big engine in your fiction. Is that a fair thing to say?
DBM: Guilt is a funny word. It comes about from making decisions that in retrospect you feel were fundamentally wrong—getting drunk and running over a kid, pretty straightforward. Sheldon’s guilt over his son is far more complex than that—it’s tied up with patriotism, his Jewish identity, things that are too complex to pin on a bad decision. They’re the consequences of a long life lived. I think loss is a stronger word.
TM: Let’s bring it up to your new book, American by Day. Marcus Ødegård, the brother of the protagonist Sigrid, an Oslo cop—he’s off in America and he’s feeling guilt or loss or regret over his mother’s death from cancer years ago. And now his lover in America dies under mysterious circumstances—I don’t want to give too much away—but again I’m thinking about Sheldon Horowitz. Here’s something that happened years ago that a person’s carrying around like a stone in his stomach—and trying to figure out how to come to terms with it. I guess you could call that loss.
DBM: I think in Marcus’s case he feels he should have spoken up and he didn’t—and that led to his mother’s death. With Marcus I was thinking specifically of a scene from a Saul Bellow book called Seize the Day. A middle-aged guy is having a breakdown, saying, “Are you telling me that I’m not who I think I am? That I’ve lived my life under an illusion of who I thought I was?” If you wake up and you’re 50 years old and you find out you’ve been living under a delusion since childhood and clearly you’re never going to recover the life you might have led, if only—that was a very interesting and powerful theme that I wanted to explore as a way of looking at the way tragedy and crime can go together. I wanted the story of Marcus and his American girlfriend, Lydia, to be about the result of these rich but incredibly different lives, that the collision of those lives created this moment of possibility that ended very, very badly. That felt like an interesting way to create a story—not so much a crime, but to create a story that on the surface looks like a straightforward mystery, but the ultimate mystery is the way these two lives collided to create a tragedy.
TM: You’re living in Oslo now?
TM: How did you wind up there?
DBM: I met a Norwegian girl and she outsmarted me.
TM: Aha. Where did you two meet?
DBM: Geneva. We were both working in the same think tank on weapons. Basically it was an office romance.
TM: The Scandinavian literary tradition is of course gigantic—from Ibsen to Knut Hamsun to Astrid Lindgren up to Jo Nesbø. As an American writer in Norway, is that a cloud over your head? Something you don’t think about? An inspiration? I’m curious what it’s like writing in a place that’s very different from where you grew up in New England.
DBM: I’ve been living abroad for 22 years now. The fact is, I still haven’t read Jo Nesbø and he’s not on my short list. That kind of crime novel—where something horrific happens and somebody’s investigating and everybody’s miserable—it just bores me. I see myself as an American writer, and what I mean by that is that I’m writing into the American literary tradition and drawing quite heavily from it. Though I’m happy to be included in a global conversation on literature as well, that’s the footing from which I have that conversation.
When Don DeLillo published Underworld, it was came out in France. At the beginning of the book, it said, “translated from the American.” Right? And DeLillo said in an interview that he actually quite liked that because while he and everyone else knows that American is not a language, it was nice to emphasize the vernacular. It’s kind of a compliment, if you choose to see it that way.
TM: You’re not reading Jo Nesbø. So what are you reading?
DBM: What’s on my desk is Richard Russo’s debut, Mohawk. After that I want to read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, who I have not read before but I read the first chapter and loved it. I just finished The Marriage Plot from Jeffrey Eugenides, which I quite liked. I just finished The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, which I thought was exquisite. I do not write reviews, but I did write to her and tell her I think she’s absolutely wonderful. I haven’t checked in with Nick Hornby in a while. Then there’s Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis—he wrote The Martian, which became the movie with Matt Damon.
TM: I guess that leads to the inevitable question: What are you working on now?
DBM: I’ve written two things. I’ve written a draft—I don’t know if I should call it science fiction, maybe speculative fiction—of a post-post-post-post-apocalyptic story set a couple hundred years in the future. It’s called Radio Life, and I’m going back to revisions of it. I haven’t shared it with anybody but my agent. And I’m writing a contemporary inter-family drama set on the coast of New England called A Simple Arrangement. I’m hoping to have both of them done, in draft form anyway, by the end of the year.
TM: Are you a full-time writer now?
DBM: I would say yes. I feel the novelists around me are extraordinarily good, and while you’re always competing against yourself to be the best writer you can be, you’re also competing against the market in order to survive, and I can’t write this stuff on my knee on the way to class anymore. Which isn’t to say you try to anticipate the market, because that’s almost pointless.
TM: But you are trying to make a living.
DBM: Yeah, I have a wife and two kids and this is what I’m doing. So if I can’t pull it off, we don’t eat. It has gone extraordinarily well. I’m not a bestseller so I don’t have bestseller money, but I’m writing full time now and have been for about two years.
TM: Is it a good life?
DBM: It’s wonderful. It’s like walking a high wire without a net, but it’s a second career and it’s a chance to turn a corner. I feel I can really appreciate it at this point in my life because it’s the first job I’ve ever had where it’s just absolute blue sky, where instead of being penalized for being creative, I’m encouraged to do it. It’s an amazing space to be in.
This interview was produced in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I will propose two axioms here, the first completely obvious, the second hopefully less so. One: most writers have a zone of thematic interest they compulsively revisit in their work. Rare is the Flannery O’Connor story without a fraught parent-child relationship; few are the Raymond Carver stories without a bottle of gin lurking on the counter. Two: per Carver and O’Connor, a writer’s greatness tends to be proportionate to, or correlate with anyway, the strength and clarity of these fixations. Great writers have great subjects, and they return to them again and again, like a dog worrying daily over a buried bone.
So it’s interesting when an important author purposefully writes against these tendencies, against themselves. In his recent Lincoln in the Bardo, for example, George Saunders abandons his familiar dystopian terrain, going back in time to achieve something artistically new. Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I recently discussed on my podcast, Fan’s Notes (shameless plug), strikes me similarly. Following the runaway success of The Adventures of Augie March, with its rollicking first-person narration and ambition of scope, Bellow released Seize the Day, a slim novella, and cramped in every sense. The third-person narration is straitjacketed, the setting is an old folks’ home, the action is mostly confined to a single, contentious meal between father and son, and the stakes hinge on $700 worth of lard futures. After Seize the Day, Bellow returned to large books like Henderson the Rain King and Herzog — large in scope, large in voice. Largeness was Bellow’s aesthetic mode, outsized spiritual yearning his native thematic soil. But Seize the Day is a notable aberration, an effortful — though somewhat clumsy and abortive — stab at smallness and bathos.
Regardless of how we evaluate this kind of book’s success, it is gratifying and noteworthy to see a artist pushing against his or her own inclinations and instincts. And so I found it, going through the work of Leonard Michaels to arrive at the Nachman Stories.
The Nachman Stories, as they are informally known, are a cycle of seven pieces bound by a single protagonist, Raphael Nachman, a well-regarded mathematician at UCLA (Michaels himself taught at Berkeley for decades). These stories are terrific, wonderfully written, shot through with an enigmatic, elusive sense of mystery. And they are completely different than anything else Michaels wrote.
Michaels’s great subject was the erotic and the borderlands it shares with other worldly conditions: love, hatred, friendship, confusion, depression, and, in particular, death. Going Places, his first collection, commences with two stories of graphic sexual content — “Manikin,” in which a woman is raped and commits suicide, and the even more representative “City Boy.” Here, the protagonist, caught screwing his girlfriend on the living room floor of her parents’ Manhattan apartment, is banished from the house without clothes, runs to the subway entirely naked only to be denied entry, and upon return to the street is met by his girlfriend, who bears his clothes and the news that her father has suffered a heart attack. They return to the apartment, and celebrate the phone call reporting her father’s survival with another interlude on the floor.
I Would Have Saved Them if I Could, Michaels’s second collection, features “Murderers,” perhaps his most well-known and anthologized story. In it, a group of teenage friends routinely masturbate on the sloping edge of a Brooklyn apartment roof while watching a young rabbi and his wife have sex across the street. One day, a member of the group slides down the roof, tearing his finger off in the process, and plummeting five stories. The naked rabbi screams out the window at them, calling them murderers — a fusing of the carnal and mortal in one indelible moment.
Michaels’s last story collection, A Girl with a Monkey, features a titular story that leads with the following sentence: “In the Spring of the year following his divorce, while traveling alone in Germany, Beard fell in love with a young prostitute named Inger and canceled his plans for further travel.” This strikes me as a characteristic Leonard Michaels sentence, packing loneliness and trauma into a rhetorical sardine tin with the frankly sexual. The story proceeds as you might imagine: sex, sex, regret, folly, sex, regret, sex.
In 1997, six years before his death in 2003, Michaels wrote the first of the Nachman stories, entitled, simply, “Nachman.” In “Nachman,” Raphael Nachman has traveled to Poland for a mathematics conference, where he is informed by the American consul that he will be surveilled by the communist secret police. Nachman responds, “My field is mathematics. Nothing I do is secret, except insofar as it’s unintelligible.” Prodded further with a warning as to the “considerable allure” of Polish women, he elaborates:
I’m not married. I have no secrets. I don’t gossip. I didn’t come to Cracow for romantic adventures. It’s arguable that I’m a freak. You’re wasting your time, Mr. Sullivan, unless you want to make me frightened and self-conscious.
The story proceeds with Nachman touring Cracow’s former Jewish ghetto accompanied by a young female guide who may or may not be a government agent, one of Poland’s famously alluring women. He feels a vague attraction to her, though mainly to her stoic inscrutability, and the story ends with them drinking vodka in a café, Nachman thinking, “For an instant, [he] wished he could love Marie, feel what a man is supposed to feel for a woman, but not for the sake of ecstasy.”
Nachman is an ascetic, and Michaels’s focus on such a character — happy with his pencil and paper, his equations and conferences, and his solitude in a little house in Santa Monica — is arresting. It’s as though Michaels, in order to thwart his habitual mode, had to create a character inoculated against desire. To return to our earlier examples, the equivalent would be a Flannery O’Connor protagonist on pleasant speaking terms with her mother, a Carver character who enjoys a single glass of crisp white wine before bedtime.
What does it profit an author to create a character pitted by nature against its creator’s instincts? In Michaels’s case, backgrounding the erotic charge serves to foreground it — Nachman’s sterile, calm existence is constantly being impinged on by the promise or threat of erotic life. The effect is something like a pristine operating room marked by a bare smudge of mud or a greasy handprint, and the plots of these stories are not unlike a contaminated OR being scrubbed down.
“Of Mystery, There Is No End,” begins as Nachman accidently spies his best friend Norbert’s wife, Adele, kissing a man on the side of Santa Monica Boulevard. This coincidence throws his life into moral turmoil — should he tell Norbert and how? And why does it bother him so? The simple answer seems to be that he has his own feelings for Adele, yet he never acts upon these feelings despite having ample opportunity. He is a man of instinctive restraint, a restraint signally opposed to Michaels’s frank explorations of the bedroom and its consequences. It is only in the last line of the story, chastely lying in bed, that Nachman allows himself to wonder if he is in love with her.
The stifling of this erotic energy tends to position the Nachman Stories in the realm of the metaphysical. It’s as though, absent a release for the ambient sexuality in Michaels’ work, the narrative energy is funneled upward, into — if not the spiritual — the mystical. Nachman’s profession, mathematics, perfectly echoes this quality, in its intellectual self-denial, its abstraction in pursuit of equations that aspire to an almost numinous beauty, a beauty that, in turn, can take aesthetic shape in the real world. In “The Penultimate Conjecture,” Nachman visits a math conference featuring a mathematician named Linquist who claims to have solved a long-standing, famous problem reminiscent of Pierre de Fermat’s Last Theorem. Watching the man, Nachman senses the equations are wrong, and the story pivots on his internal struggle: should he speak up and ruin Linquist? He imagines himself and Linquist as medieval knights engaged in mortal combat. Cowering beneath Nachman’s sword, Linquist offers up his slave girl, and thus (as, again, the rumor of sex invades the story’s realm) does Nachman’s fugue end.
The story cycle itself ends with “Cryptology,” in which Nachman has been invited by a shadowy corporation to New York for a cryptology conference. While in the city, he runs into a woman who seems to know him and invites him to dinner; he goes to her apartment only to find her having sex in the shower with her husband, and he flees in mortified dismay. “Cryptology” ends with Nachman in Washington Square Park, calming himself with a vision of home that serves as a perfect imagistic postscript for these stories:
His office and his desk and the window that looked out on the shining Pacific. He’d never gone swimming in the prodigious, restless, teeming, alluring thing, but he loved the changing light on its surface and the sounds it made in the darkness. He didn’t yearn for its embrace.
It is difficult to read these stories, written by a man in his 60s shortly before his death, and not read into them a certain clarity of purpose. Having produced decades of work marked by hectic energy, Michaels’s creation of Nachman seems an attempt to slow things down, to filter the intemperate world through a temperate soul. The sexual is still there in these stories, but it exists less as an act or an actor, and more as atmosphere — background noise that, like the ocean crashing outside Nachman’s window, occasionally intensifies into something audible, becomes for a moment frighteningly present, then just as quickly again subsides.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
William Giraldi spent more than half of his 2008 review (pdf) of Cary Holladay’s A Fight in the Doctor’s Office considering the etymology of “novella,” identifying the history and characteristics of the form, and suggesting essential writers. He claims that the demands of character development are one way to separate novellas from novels, noting that Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice does not require the 800 pages necessary for the titular character of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Giraldi’s introductory thoughts seem like a rather long preface to evaluate a work of new fiction under 150 pages. Such an observation is not meant as criticism. To write about novellas is to engage in a form of literary apologia. Giraldi’s approach is the norm. Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form.
This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works. We might begin by mining appreciative notes rather than simply cataloging criticisms. Tucked between Giraldi’s prefatory critical observations in “The Novella’s Long Life” are notes of admiration: “an expert novella combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.” He continues a critical tradition whose modern genesis might have been the novella-loving 1970s, when even novels were short; think The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, or A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. In a 1972 essay he would later develop into a book, Robert J. Clements considers the oral tradition behind the novella form as helping him “define its length as long enough for a dry split birch log to be consumed by a blazing bivouac fire.” That image was still popping in 1977, when Graham Good, in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, almost elevates the novella beyond the novel, noting that the shorter work often focuses on “simple natural or preternatural exigencies: apparitions, cataclysms like great storms or earthquakes, and individual declines or deaths.” Of course novels also contain deaths, but it’s the speed and tension that matters: the “novella is a closed form whose end is latent in its beginning: there is usually some initial indication that the end is known, and this enhances the narrative art of holding in suspense what it is.”
Fast-forward to very recent memory. At The Daily Beast in 2010, Taylor Antrim considers the focus on novellas by presses such as Melville House and New Directions, and the publication of the “wispy thin” Point Omega by Don DeLillo and Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, as proving that the form is in “pretty healthy shape.” Citing works as diverse as “The Dead” by James Joyce and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Antrim claims that “novellas are often structurally syncopated…their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative.”
In “The Three-Day Weekend Plan,” from the 2011 anthology The Late American Novel, John Brandon offers a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: hoard your novella. Best to “downplay the novella in casual conversation,” and instead keep the form to “ourselves, the adults.” The novella is a personal document, something that will “let us find out, in the writing, how we truly write.” Work to keep in a closet or desk drawer, “away from any and all publishing apparatus.”
In “Notes on the Novella,” published that same year in Southwest Review, Tony Whedon waxes lyric about the form: “novellas are not so much told as dreamed aloud; they inhabit a realm of half-shapes and shadowy implication.” Historically, they “[thrive] on travel and adventure and [are] often set in exotic climes.” Whedon stresses the need for control, and uses language that mimics John Gardner’s oft-quoted definition of the form: all “subplots need subordinating to their main storyline.” That control, in the formal sense, enables time and tense shifts. That temporal compression increases tension and pacing, resulting in a “swirly and gunky” effect. Novellas are “implosive, impacted, rather than explosive and expansive.” I read this as novellas refract rather than reflect. They are something shaken, but not spilled.
“The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread” by Jon Fassler appeared last year at The Atlantic. Fassler laments that novellas are tucked into short story collections as an afterward, or packaged with other novellas to be “sold as a curiosity.” Although Fassler’s piece is primarily a profile of Melville House’s success with re-issuing older works in their “Art of the Novella” series, he concludes that “a renaissance in the mid-length non-fiction” form, the “journalistic equivalent of the novella,” is enabled because of electronic editions.
Upon the release of his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, in which a character publishes a novella, Ian McEwan quipped a series of imagined critical reactions to the short form in The New Yorker: “Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” McEwan confidently calls the novella the “perfect form of prose fiction,” citing a “long and glorious” lineage: Mann, James, Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon, Melville, Lawrence, and Munro.
A few weeks earlier, at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, McEwan claimed that he “would die happy” if he “could write the perfect novella.” Although he worries the form is unseemly for publishers and critics, readers love that they could “hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.” Inverting the typical criticism, McEwan claims that the “novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life.” In sarcastic response, Toby Clements at The Telegraph thinks that McEwan is “lucky to be allowed to publish novellas.” Clements quotes Philip Rahv, who says that the novella form “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” Returning to McEwan, Clements considers the foolishness of word and page count definitions. At 166 pages, On Chesil Beach was considered a novella by McEwan, but a short novel by the Booker prize judges. Giraldi notes that “Adultery” by Andre Dubus is identified as a short story in one collection, and a novella in another. I would add Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor to that list. I have defaulted to italics appropriate for a short novel, but many consider the work a novella. Confusion, idiosyncrasy, beauty: welcome to the world of the novella.
While charting the lineage of novella discussions is worthwhile, as a writer of the form I am most interested in application. Perhaps the most writer-friendly treatment in recent memory is “Revaluing the Novella” by Kyle Semmel from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Rather than formal comparison, Semmel focuses on what successful novellas contain. Like Giraldi and Whedon, Semmel applies John Gardner’s definition of a novella, as explicated in The Art of Fiction. He supports Gardner’s claim that novellas move through a series of small climaxes. Semmel rightly stresses the “series” element of the definition. The mode of the novella is athletic, forward-leaning.
Gardner splits his definition to contain three modes of novellas: single stream, non-continuous stream, and pointillist. The nomenclature might be idiosyncratic, but Gardner’s criticism was always homegrown. Semmel adds to Gardner’s discussion: often novellas contain “resolution; there is closure.” He admits that the point might sound obvious, but it stresses that novellas are not meant to be top-heavy or flimsy. A necessary point to make, as even Antrim, an admirer of novellas, claims that the form “has ambivalence built into its DNA…[it] serves up irresolute endings.”
Semmel considers a range of examples, from “Voices from the Moon” by Andre Dubus to Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. He also considers “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass, but quickly dismisses the work as a “gangly prose poem” of more interest to “literary scholars” than readers. My literary heart sunk. I have loved Gass’s longer novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” ever since it was recommended to me by novelist Tom Bailey, while I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. Bailey thought novellas were defined by time—a season or a weekend—and Gass’s piece was offered as an example.
Gardner devotes several sentences to that longer-titled, shorter work, but spends pages explaining why “The Pedersen Kid” is “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” It is important to note that Gardner stressed not only the stream of climaxes, but that they were “increasingly intense.” Yet what interests me most is Gardner’s further qualification that these climaxes are “symbolic and ritualistic.”
It should not be surprising that Gardner loves this novella: Gardner published it in 1961 in his magazine, MSS. Gass’s novella nabbed the magazine thirty charges of obscenity, one of which, co-editor LM Rosenberg shares, was “‘nape,’ as in neck.” Federal fines caused the magazine to fold after three issues, but Gardner never stopped appreciating the novella. His summary of the plot: “In some desolate, rural landscape . . . in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s child, the Pedersen kid, arrives and is discovered almost frozen to death near Jorge’s father’s barn; when he’s brought in and revived, he tells of the murderer at his house, a man with yellow gloves; Big Hans and Pa decide to go there, taking young Jorge; when they get there, Jorge, making a dash from the barn to the house, hears shots; Big Hans and Pa are killed, apparently — Jorge is not sure — and Jorge slips inside the house and down cellar, where at the end of the novella he is still waiting.”
I reread the novella each winter. I also revisit Gass’s preface to the collection, which explains the composition of “The Pedersen Kid.” He “began by telling a story to entertain a toothache.” Such a story must contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” After weeks of writing he “began to erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” He “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of the sonnet.” He cast away a focus on theme for devotion to the “necessity for continuous revision, so that each word would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound.”
“The Pedersen Kid” was planned end-first, with all action “subordinated” toward “evil as a visitation — sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” It was “an end I could aim at. Like death.” And yet, also like death, “I did not know how I would face it.” He imagined the book as a work of visual art: “the physical representation must be spare and staccato; the mental representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed. It falls, I think, into three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” Three also correlates to the story’s main characters — Jorge, Big Hans, and Pa — who enter the blizzard to find the Pedersen’s abandoned home. Although Whedon does not consider Gass’s work in his essay, it fits one of his theses that symbols in novellas “present themselves orchestrally in the form of leitmotifs that dovetail with disparate time sequences to create a strong over-arching moral theme: hence the novella’s connection with allegory.”
Gass’s novella contains extended spaces between words, which John Madera calls “caesuras,” and Samuel Delany thinks are “actual suspensions of sound.” Gass says that he “wanted pages that were mostly white. Snow.” He practiced typographical and pictorial experimentation in another novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The novella form is short enough to be both art and artifice. Experimentation does not become exhausting.
The novella is ritual: for Gardner, for Gass, for Whedon, for me, but for others?
Despite claims about the paucity of options, writers continue to draft and publish novellas in literary magazines and as standalone books. Big Fiction, At Length, A Public Space, PANK, New England Review, Seattle Review, Glimmer Train, and The Long Story have published novella-length work; The Missouri Review included one of my favorites, “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin. Ploughshares Solos releases novellas as single e-books. Miami University Press and Quarterly West have revived their novella contests. Iron Horse Literary Review holds an annual chapbook contest that publishes a novella-length work during select years. Texas Review Press has its own annual contest, the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Readers and writers of speculative fiction continue to embrace the novella form. Consider Ted Chieng, Jason Sanford, and Kij Johnson; not to mention the nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novella. The most recent winner was Brandon Sanderson, for The Emperor’s Soul.
Deena Drewis founded Nouvella, a press devoted solely to novellas, in 2011. Drewis initially considered works as low as 10,000 words, but became worried that some readers would consider such standalone books as “long short [stories].” She admits that defining a novella is difficult, and instead uses the work of Andre Dubus, Jim Harrison, and Alice Munro as formal affirmations.
At 4 x 6 inches, Nouvella books can feel too bulky beyond 40,000 words, so form requires practical function. Her longest release, The Sensualist by Daniel Torday, “occupies more temporal space” than her other books. Torday told Drewis the work had originally been a novel, but she received the manuscript “pared down to its working limbs. It doesn’t feel compacted the way a short story is often a work of compression, but it also doesn’t take the liberty of meandering, like a novel sometimes does.”
Nouvella’s stated mission is to “find writers that we believe have a bright and dedicated future in front of them, and who have not yet signed with a major publisher.” She finds that the form is “a good point of entry for readers to discover emerging authors.” If readers enjoy a short story from a new writer, they need to do the legwork to find other stories, “or wait until a collection comes out, but that requires a good deal of dedication and perseverance.” Instead, a novella “allows you to spend a little more time inside the author’s head, and because it’s a stand-alone book, it demands more attention from the reader. It’s also not a novel, which for readers, can seem like a big commitment.”
Drewis is prescient: Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Such evolution is not exclusive to Nouvella. Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas from Coffee House Press, preceded his forthcoming debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Mark Doten, who acquired Ervin’s title for Soho Press, notes that “having a strong favorable opinion” of Ervin’s shorter work “was certainly a factor [but not the only one]…in that book going to the top of my reading pile.”
Of course writers are not simply drawn to the novella form for its exposure opportunities. Tim Horvath has always written fiction “on the long side…[before he] knew a thing about word counts and literary journals and what they were looking for.” “Bridge Poses,” his 9,000 word story, was published in New South, yet he was unable to publish another, longer work, Circulation, in literary magazines. An editor at AGNI, while encouraging, “warned that it would be difficult to publish in a journal because of its length.” Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, wrote some paragraphs in support of the work, and that convinced Horvath to remain with the piece. Sunnyoutside Press ultimately released the novella as a book, and Horvath appreciated how the story’s manageable length meant that the work’s “cartographic and library obsessions” could be “echo[ed] throughout the design elements of the book.”
Horvath is drawn to “stories that feel as though they encompass multitudes, that take their sweet time getting going, that have a leisurely confidence in themselves, that manage nonetheless to feel urgent, their scale necessary.” That macro approach can be compared with Peter Markus, whose novella collection, The Fish and the Not Fish, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books: “every word in this new collection is monosyllabic, [and] you would maybe think that such limitation would limit such things as the length of the piece, how much can and can’t be done, how long such a project might be sustained. The interesting thing here is that the restriction worked the other way. The river flowed up the mountain, so to speak.” Markus has always been interested in “short novels or long stories” like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “The Pedersen Kid,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, and the novellas of Jim Harrison.
The novella form’s length afforded Horvath and Markus a particular sense of control over structure and presentation. The same approach might be applied to The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams, which he viewed as a “parody of an academic essay.” After he published a story in Main Street Rag, the journal’s publisher, M. Scott Douglass, approached Williams about being a part of the press’s new novella series. The form matched the writer: Williams wonders who would not appreciate “fiction that equally borrows the short story’s precision and the novel’s potency.” Williams uses the same word as Gardner — “perfection” — to describe the unique tightness of novellas, citing his list of favorites: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Nothing in the World by Roy Kesey, Honda by Jessica Treat, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth.
My own forthcoming novella, This Darksome Burn, began as an experimental, long story; early readers thought it a one-act play. I expanded the manuscript to a novel, reaching 300 pages, but was unsatisfied. Subplots upon subplots had blurred the central narrative. I started-over a year later. I turned the manuscript into a pitch, treatment, and finally a film script. Thought was subverted to action. Everything existed on the page. The script became a novella, and Erin Knowles McKnight, my editor and publisher at Queen’s Ferry Press, suggested I switch to present tense, which allowed me to increase the story’s immediacy. My dark story about an overprotective father in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains had found its form: a novella. I had found my form: I placed a novella about opium traffickers and atomic bomb scientists in storySouth, and another novella about a defrocked priest is coming from CCM Press in 2015.
I have practical and ritual reasons for being drawn to novellas. I am the father of five-month-old twin girls, and my writing is done in bursts, late at night. I spend my days living—preparing bottles, changing diapers, writing reviews, teaching, having lunch duty in my high school’s cafeteria, mowing the lawn, and watching my girls grow—but the cadences of story remain like a faint metronome. My old office will become a playroom for the twins, so I have migrated to a smaller room downstairs, the walls lined with books, and, proper to my Italian Catholic sensibility, a cross above the doorframe. I close the door, and in a small space, within a small page amount, I try to write stories that stretch their invisible seams. I love novellas. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt a novel, or short stories, or essays, or poems. But my heart is set on that form that feels both mysterious and manageable. No apologies needed for that.
It has been said, though by whom I can’t remember, that the Great New York Novel is as elusive a creature as the Great American One. Because this city (the argument goes) concatenates the fictional challenges of other urban settings – the scale of Tokyo, the insularity and cinematic overfamiliarity of Paris, the mutability and lunatic vitality of Bombay – no novelist can own it the way Dreiser and Wright and Farrell own Chicago or Dickens owns London. And so Ishmael pushes out to sea, Isabel Archer steams for England, and Gatsby is left standing at West Egg, chasing the green light. The world’s most expensive real estate beggars the literary imagination.Of course this is more truism than truth. Melville, James, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Ellison, and, more recently, Doctorow and DeLillo and Auster have done the city justice. Three great novels by Saul Bellow – Seize the Day, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet – constitute their own kind of New York Trilogy, rendering midcentury Manhattan indelible for all time. (Bellow, of course, cut his teeth on Chicago). But it speaks to the size of Joseph O’Neill’s ambitions – and the sublimity his accomplishments – that his third work of fiction, Netherland, merits comparison with these authors. Indeed, in its extraordinary literariness, it invites such comparison. It is, for long stretches, a Great New York Novel.The book is deceptively slim, and concerns a Dutch-born investment banker named Hans van der Broek who becomes estranged from his family and from himself in the wake of (though not because of) the September 11 attacks. Exiled in a haunted Chelsea Hotel and a benumbed city, Hans finds a measure of belonging in a cricket league populated largely by working-class immigrants.Hans’ narration has a Proustian sensitivity – and, more strikingly, a Proustian elasticity. Making scant use of page- and chapter-breaks, Netherland travels backward and forward in time, arranging events by emotional, rather than chronological, logic – and, in the process, creating suspense. We learn in the first few pages that by the end of his story, Hans will have settled back into bourgeois stolidity, in London. But how will he have gotten there? we wonder. And will he have learned anything in the process?The answer to the latter question is, of course yes; Netherland, which starts as a murder mystery, is really a novel of awakening. The vehicle for that awakening is O’Neill’s finest creation, a dynamo named Chuck Ramkissoon who will, by 2006, end up face down in the Gowanus Canal. Chuck is an operator, a calculator, and a charmer, but he takes the American dream quite earnestly. “‘Think fantastic,'” he tells Hans. “‘My motto is, Think fantastic.'” He has interests in a kosher sushi business, a numbers game, and real estate. His most ambitious project, however, is to convert a little-used airfield in outermost Brooklyn into Bald Eagle Field:”I’m talking about an arena. A sports arena for the greatest teams in the world. Twelve exhibition matches every summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop. I’m talking about advertising, I’m talking about year-round consumption of food and drink in the bar-restaurant.”Or rather, I should say, Chuck’s most ambitious project is Hans. Initially a cricket buddy, he becomes a kind of mentor for Hans, Quixote to Hans’ Sancho Panza, West Indian Gatsby to his Continental Carraway, shuttling him through insalubrious outer-borough locales and slowly pulling him out of his deep freeze. “He was going to fascinate me,” Hans says, describing both the trajectory of the book and Chuck’s strategy for drawing Hans into the tangled business of “Chuck Cricket, Inc.”As James Wood noted in his New Yorker review, O’Neill finds in cricket a beautiful controlling metaphor; it comes to stand variously for upward aspiration; for camaraderie; for innocence; for fragile, ridiculous, sublime democracy – for all the things Hans feels he lost in the fall of 2001. Beautiful, too, is the way O’Neill puts the metaphor to work, letting his diction suggest, rather than insist (just as he does with the novel’s other preoccupation, the aftermath of September 11). In a scene that recalls Levin among the mowers in Anna Karenina, Hans trims the grass of the wicket-to-be:We took turns driving a lightweight fairway mower with an eighty-inch cut and fast eleven-blade reels. Chuck liked to stripe the grass with dark green and pale green rings. You started with a perimeter run and then, looping back, made circle after circle, each one smaller than the last, each one with a common center. They would soon be gone, but no matter. What was important was the rhythm of the cutting, and the smell of the cutting, and the satisfaction of time passed fruitfully on the field with a gargling diesel engine, and the glory and suspensefulness of the enterprise. […] For all of its apparent artificiality, cricket is a sport in nature. Which may be why it calls almost for a naturalist’s attentiveness: the ability to locate, in a mostly static herd of white-clothed men, the significant action. It’s a question of lookingO’Neill’s writing is this luminous, this precise, this cadenced, and this understated throughout the novel. It creates, in Henry James’ formulation, the present palpable-intimate: Even as the above passage evokes a world, its aphoristic intelligence evokes a worldview, and in the modulation from hesitation (“it calls almost for…attentiveness”) to penetrating insight (It’s a question of looking), it embodies Hans’ weaknesses and capacities. Perhaps even more deft, because less exquisite, is the way O’Neill gives us Chuck Ramkissoon, almost entirely through gesture and dialogue. Along with The Emperor’s Children and The Line of Beauty, Netherland contains some of the most immaculately written English prose of the new century.When O’Neill is using his miraculous instrument to capture the underrepresented precincts of Eastern Parkway and the Herald Square DMV and the Chelsea Hotel and Floyd Bennett Field, it takes on a moral majesty. With the great hole of the World Trade Center smoldering in the background, to record is to memorialize; and apprehending the world as clearly as Hans does becomes a kind of metaphysics, as in the novels of Bellow. It is not a question of looking, but one of seeing.That said, although Netherland moves like a great book, it is, like The Emperor’s Children, sometimes merely a good one. Which is to say that sometimes, Hans merely looks. The stakes of the novel, the things we’re led to believe matter most to him – his wife, Rachel, and his child, Jake – never fully matter to us, because they never assert their independence from Hans’ literary imperatives. A lovely description of Jake’s “train-infested underpants” makes a statement about Hans (what an eye!), rather than one about Jake; whereas Keith Neudecker playing catch with his son in DeLillo’s Falling Man actually, if laconically, sees the boy. Of Keith, James Wood wrote, “He had never been, perhaps, an easy husband – uncommunicative, driven, adulterous, tediously male,” but when it comes to relationships with other people, is there really so much difference between DeLillo’s protagonist and O’Neill’s?Even at the end of the narrative, Hans doesn’t quite seem to see Rachel or Jake as real people, nor is his failure in this regard presented ironically. And because of the novel’s chronological structure and its insistence on the importance of seeing, this threatens to become a serious flaw beneath the novel’s manicured surface. If Hans has been vouchsafed some kind of revelation, there in the green fields of Brooklyn, why are his feelings for his wife so much less convincing than his feelings for Chuck Ramkissoon? And how are we to feel about his return to the IKEA’d embrace of bourgeois “lifestyle” from the dicier terrain of actual life? Is this growth or surrender?This being a novel, style provides the answer, or at least begs the question. O’Neill’s, ultimately, is elegiac, and so, like the tide Fitzgerald’s boats beat against, it keeps tugging Hans toward the past, which is the book’s, and Hans’, center of gravity. The point is not that Hans’ suffering clears the way to redemption, but that for a few moments, it seemed it could have. As the book nears its conclusion, Hans circles back and back to the moments when he came closest to grace, seeing them with ever fiercer clarity. The paragraphs take on the surging rhythms of Hans van der Broek’s wounded heart. Which is a rather too literary way of saying that, in Netherland Joseph O’Neill has accomplished something even more impressive than the Great New York novel. He has brought – has restored – Hans van der Broek to life. We see him.See also: Kevin’s take on Netherland
Scott of Conversational Reading invited me to participate in his “Reading the World” series this month. My contribution was reading and posting about Per Petterson’s In the Wake.I don’t read enough fiction in translation, maybe a couple of books per year. When I do the experience elicits one of two reactions. Either the book is so rooted in its place and culture that I can’t imagine it being written in another language, or the book, despite its overseas origins, shows that there are universals in literature, no matter the language in which a book was conceived. Norwegian Per Petterson’s In the Wake falls mostly into the latter camp, as it draws from the grand tradition of books about ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads.Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day comes to mind, and Richard Ford has made a career out of this type of book. But my favorite example from this crowded genre is Walker Percy’s pitch perfect The Moviegoer.Read the rest of the review at Conversational reading.Also of Note: Petterson just won the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his book Out Stealing Horses. We took a look at the IMPAC shortlist in April.
There’s a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the “staff recommendations” shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn’t long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended — The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two — climbed the store’s bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.
I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)