Last month, The Millions entered the e-book publishing business with Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever. Staff writer Mark O’Connell has hitherto produced delightful work on, among other things, an obscure video game enthusiast named Martin Amis and “the Proust of pencil sharpeners.” In Epic Fail, he traces the origins of viral fame to a pre-Internet age, squiring the reader effortlessly from Shakespeare to the Insane Clown Posse. Mark was kind enough to correspond with me for a Millions Conversation about his new book and early life as a middle school film critic.
Lydia: You and I are colleagues who have never met but maintain an infrequent friendly chatting over the Twitter and the emails. It’s enough distance that I didn’t know this project was in the works until C. Max Magee’s general announcement to the group, but close enough that upon hearing the news I felt the special kind of chuffed you only feel over a friend’s achievement. Epic Fail has the distinction of bringing The Millions into a new phase of its existence, as a purveyor of e-books, which is already very exciting. And then I read Epic Fail and felt even more chuffed. I really enjoyed it.
So now that I’ve buttered you up, I want to ask you about how this endeavor came about. Was this something you were working as a Millions or other piece that took on a life of its own? How long have you been thinking about the project? Our own Garth Risk Hallberg was your editor, I believe. When did he come on board?
Mark: Actually, I have to think quite hard to formulate a coherent answer to the straightforward question of how it came about. Max got in touch early last year, February or March I think, to say that he’d been talking to Byliner about partnering on an e-book series, and to ask whether I had any ideas I thought might work for such a piece. I’d read something somewhere about this Irish schoolteacher called Amanda McKittrick Ros, who’d become widely known around the turn of the 20th century as the worst novelist of all time. I was fascinated not so much by the novels themselves – which are truly atrocious, obviously, but mostly just incredibly dull to read – as by the ironic way they were celebrated by this cultural elite in London and Oxford – C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Aldous Huxley and all those guys. I thought this was really interesting in itself, but also felt that it was a kind of fame or notoriety that we tend to think of as more or less uniquely contemporary. So I thought maybe this eccentric old Irish schoolteacher and amateur novelist might provide sort of a sneaky back door into a discussion of Internet culture, and of the whole ostensibly contemporary phenomenon of the Epic Fail. I’d been thinking about Ros as a possible topic for quite a while, but then this thing, because of the scope and length that the e-book allowed for, forced me to actually try and connect her to some wider and more contemporary cultural currents.
Garth came on board very early on – at the outline stage, in fact. He was really instrumental in helping to broaden it out conceptually in the beginning; and then, when it came to writing the thing, in sharpening actual arguments, and sort of forcing me to come out into the open and say things in a very unequivocal way. Like yourself, I come from an academic background, where things like concision and having a solid “takeaway” are, or are supposed to be, paramount; but I think, constitutionally, I’m the type of writer who only figures out what I’m trying to say – or if indeed I have anything to say at all – by blindly writing my way into it. I’m not naturally a bottom-line type of person who goes in with an argument in mind, is what I think I might be saying here (see?), but Garth really stepped in and sort of forced me to be that when I needed to be.
Lydia: That was what I found most enlightening about the essay — in terms of information I did not have before — that these literary lights of the early twentieth century went into ironic ecstasies over Amanda McKittrick Ros, held readings, formed clubs. I knew that they were elitist dicks (not a value statement) but it’s funny to think that they did something so, I guess, unproductive and time-wastey, as read these awful, awful novels, like looking at lots of YouTube videos (shouldn’t C.S. Lewis have been communing with the Lord?). But then, that’s one takeaway of Epic Fail — the thing with Ros and all the Worst Thing Evers to have followed, is that they either rise into some ethereal, sublime level of badness, or are so unheimlich in their nearness to regular mediocrity (or a combination of both), that it makes them special. (I loved, incidentally, your point about the virulent, absurd badness that actually infects the entirety of literature and art — let’s come back to that.)
I see now there are two untrue things about my first sentence above, the first being that this was the best new information I gleaned from this piece. Because that was actually the song “Miracles,” and also the song “Friday,” which I had in fact made it this far without ever hearing in its entirety. I had sort of willfully not clicked on it, because I kept seeing it everywhere and I guess that was my way of keeping my own ironic distance. So, um, thank you for those things. You do realize you kind of wrote a hypertext book, because you can’t read it and not go digging for, er, miracles, on the internet?
And, truly, the most enlightening thing was learning about Mark O’Connell’s rap phase. Although you’re a tease — first you talk about washing the lemon juice from your face (buy the book, get the reference) and lifting the veil from your readers’ eyes, then you talk about the Irish rap scene, and I was in a fever of anticipation that the next thing coming was the revelation that you had done your own Worst Thing Ever, and that it was a rap, and that possibly there were bootleg tapes about. But it turns out that the secret shame — which was a transcendent bit of prose, incidentally — is actually that you once did something really dickish yourself to an aspiring rapper. A different kind of worst thing ever.
In the beginning of the piece, your compare Cecilia Jimenez, the perpetrator of the Ecce Homo Christ fresco fiasco, to your grandmother, and you invoke the term “mortify” in the Catholic sense. Another Catholic word occurred to me when I got to this last bit of the book: penance. Sorry in advance for sounding like Geraldo, but had this been eating away Was your ebook, dare I say, an exorcism?
Mark: I can’t believe you’d never actually heard “Friday.” That is hugely impressive to me. Although I can see how you’d want to avoid that stuff, or just never end up actually giving it the time of day. I don’t think I’ve watched more than a few seconds of Gangnam Style, actually (although that’s a whole other cultural ball of wax, obviously).
That’s interesting what you said about it being a kind of hypertext ebook. I don’t think it really occurred to me when I was writing it, which seems completely idiotic now. But then after I finished it, I wrote this essay about unboxing videos for The Dublin Review, and the editor, Brendan Barrington, pointed out that having it on ink and paper actually made a lot of sense, because if it was online, the temptation for the reader — even if the text itself wasn’t full of links — would be to just keep going away from the actual text to watch the videos being discussed. I wound up putting in a perhaps overly-cute footnote asking readers to just bear with me and watch the videos after finishing the essay, rather than whipping out their iPhones there and then. And then a couple of my friends who read Epic Fail said exactly what you’ve just said: that they kept having to put it down to go online and watch the stuff I was writing about. I suppose that would be even more pronounced if you happen to be reading it on an iPad, where you’re just swiping away the text to check out some awful YouTube video. Maybe a major flaw of the book, in that sense, is that it keeps suggesting things to the reader that are more entertaining than itself.
That’s another thing that never occurred to me at all — that a reader might think that the revelation at the end would be that I myself was a Worst Thing Ever. (Although of course I’ve done embarrassing stuff. Just probably nothing that would be entertaining for anyone who didn’t know me.) But it’s an interesting question, about the idea of penance. It’s a concept I don’t really understand. I didn’t have a Catholic upbringing, so maybe it’s a difficult thing to get your head around if it hasn’t been part of your psycho-cultural make-up. Personally, I didn’t feel any kind of relief from writing about the dickishness you mention. It actually just made me feel really awful about it all over again. In that sense, it’s probably the opposite of penance; my writing about it actually exacerbated my guilt about it. I mean, obviously we’re not exactly talking about an Augustinian level of moral self-disburdening here, but I do think that that’s the sort of niggling, more or less banal guilt that a lot of people walk around with, and that makes them wince when they think about it. Some really shabby thing they did when they were a teenager, or whatever.
But to answer your question about whether the book was an exorcism, the answer, I suppose, would be definitely not. Or at least it would be a spectacularly ineffective exorcism, seeing as I felt more possessed by it after writing about it than before. I just felt it would have been dishonest and sort of morally shifty not to talk about myself, and my own personal complicity in this culture of ridicule, in terms of the context I was writing in. Although I’m not convinced there’s not something morally shifty about it anyway. Writing is a morally shifty thing to be doing, a lot of the time.
What would Geraldo say to that?
Lydia: Well, I didn’t imagine you sitting at your carrel in a hair shirt. But I think the thrust of the book does invite everyone to put on at least a moderately hairy shirt and do a bit of reflection. I confess when I did watch “Friday,” and thought uncharitable thoughts, I was brought a bit low by the gallantry, or I guess basic human decency, you extend to Ms. Black. And while I had hitherto missed the “Friday” phenomenon, I had seen, and laughed the proverbial tits off while seeing, monkey Jesus. I found your comparison of Cecilia Jimenez to your own grandmother, your touching description of the latter as “a constitutionally private, reserved, and serious person,” and your remark that “if something like this were to happen to her, I’m afraid it might literally kill her,” sobering. The dicks of the early twentieth century argued, probably on the way home from their Amanda McKittrick Ros fan club meetings, about whether art could be good without a moral component. And I’m stodgy and I feel that’s the case, so what I perceived as a slight bit of moralizing on your part made the piece resonate with me. But since you have a sense of humor, (number-one most desirable quality in a writer), you don’t try to act as though these things aren’t hilariously bad. You just provide a friendly reminder that the road of the Worst Thing Ever in the technological age is one hundred percent of the time going to lead to a YouTube comment saying “I hope you die/get raped/etc.”
I was probably projecting about the rap stuff. In my experience the only thing that approaches the shame of shabby teenage things done is the shame of ludicrous teenage things written. And when I think about “Friday” and then some of the horrible things I wrote in high school or college, I offer a prayer or thanks to the monkey Jesus that I did not have to bear that particular cross at a time in my development when I would have been constitutionally disinclined to survive sustained mockery.
Having managed to turn your interview into my personal feelings time, let’s go back to Epic Fail. You mentioned Gangnam Style, and I thought of that phenomenon while reading. The same way that truly terrible efforts can, as you write, infect the whole of art with their badness, good writing invites the mind to romp. Epic Fail caused me to spend a Saturday afternoon sort of furiously taxonomizing, trying to sort through the spiritual differential of something like the film The Room, or something that seems well-produced and self-consciously zany (and thus, I think, unexciting) like Gangnam Style, or terrible Eurovision-style songs, or Susan Boyle, or the (brilliant) show Arrested Development. It sounds like faint praise to call something “tidy,” but I really admire how you (with Garth’s careful shepherding, it sounds like) avoided getting bogged down in trying to explain the whole landscape of viral fame, and list all the sort of subspecies and things that are not x but are y and so on. Your examples seemed really exemplary, and the whole effort was very clean.
That said, it’s such a vast field of inquiry, with many tributaries (I think I have like 200 metaphors in here so far). Do you feel finished thinking about it? You said in your last response that you feel more possessed by the subject than before. Would you consider a long-long-form on this topic?
Mark: Can I just start by saying that the phrase “laugh the proverbial tits off” is itself a phrase that makes me laugh the proverbial tits off? But, to swiftly resume an attitude of moral seriousness – before no doubt just as swiftly relinquishing it – your point about things you did as a kid in high school is an important one, I think. Because part of what’s so fascinating and troubling about this stuff is the almost complete randomness of it. You get the sense that this kind of viral celebrity could befall almost anyone. (Which is maybe, actually, another way of thinking about what the term “viral” actually means in that formulation.)
We’ve all done stuff to some extent that could make us a source of amusement to a large number of people. I was just thinking the other day of this notebook I used to keep when I was about eleven or so, where I used to write in little reviews of films I’d watched on video. My sister found it in a drawer a few years back, and it had these hilariously po-faced reviews of movies where I’d give star ratings and list cast members and stuff like that. But the combination of wrongness and priggishness was kind of fantastic. Like there was a review of Glengarry Glen Ross (and I’m laughing just thinking about this) where I took grave umbrage at the unnecessary level of swearing in the film – “the characters seem to use f-words instead of punctuation” – and gave it 2 stars, memorably dismissing it as “a waste of an all-star cast.” And then you turn the page and there’s a five star review of Sister Act 2 that is just enraptured with the whole thing. I mean, if I was an 11 year-old kid nowadays, that would probably be a Tumblr or something, and those reviews could have wound up being a source of amusement to a lot of people outside my family, which would be a whole other story. Like that lady who reviewed an Olive Garden for her local paper last year and briefly became the Internet’s woman of the hour. It’s just very weird how randomly that stuff can happen. She seemed fine with it; she ultimately seemed not to give a rat’s ass, but not all octogenarians would be so cool about something like that happening. I kind of love that woman actually. Her whole reaction was basically “What the hell is wrong with you people? Get back to work.”
Yes, I know what you mean about that taxonomizing urge. (If it weren’t too aggressively meta, the whole human species might have been taxonomized as Homo Taxonomiens.) It was definitely a temptation for me, but I don’t think it would have been all that helpful for the reader. Although I do talk at one point about the difference between “organic” or “free-range” epic fails and genetically engineered weirdness like Tim and Eric and that sort of stuff. I don’t know that I’d want to write a whole book on it, because I feel like I’d like to move on to something else, but you never know. I do seem to be preoccupied by Internet weirdness. That unboxing video essay consumed me for a long time – and to be honest the essay became a sort of cover story for indulging that compulsion – and I’ve just finished writing a thing about ASMR videos for Slate. You’re welcome. But who isn’t fascinated by that stuff, really? (The answer to that rhetorical question is actually, no doubt, lots of normal people.)
Lydia: The juxtaposition of Glengarry Glen Ross and Sister Act 2 in the notebook of Mark O’Connell, aged 11, the toughest critic on the block, is such pure comedy that I think the writers of Arrested Development would really struggle to find something as home-grown and delightful (local, organic, free-range fails, if you will). All the better because this was probably just before (or concurrent with) the moment when, according to your book, you yourself became hip to the joys of “entertaining ineptitude” and found nothing funnier than the vast distance between ambition and execution.
Which brings me to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a part of your book that I found really fascinating. Brutally paraphrasing, Science has proven that the more of an idiot you are, the greater your confidence that you aren’t an idiot. It occurs to me that in a sense being a kid is one sustained exercise in Dunning-Krugerism. In fact, arguably to be a proper kid you need those moments of total unselfconscious and total commitment — it’s hateful to think of a child having to posit his or her movie reviews or, ahem, paeans to exotic cats and cars, in some ironic, self-conscious frame. Once you get to middle and high school and college, where there are strange and multifarious forces at work — your teachers try to nurture your better instincts and squelch your worse ones, while you and your peers spend much of your time trying feel one another up whilst putting one another down — slowly you learn to think about your output (artistic or otherwise) in a different way.
In terms or raw artistic ability, the wheat and the chaff alike have to go through this process of maturation. But your A. M. Ros, your Tommy Wiseau (of The Room), somehow come through it all with a really majestic, unshakable belief in their own ability that certainly exceeds that of people who really make great art. (When I read Epic Fail I was in the middle of re-reading Of Human Bondage — have you read it? — which has a whole section on artistic toils. Everything synced together beautifully at the moment when Philip the protagonist asks a professional painter to look over his work and give an opinion: “Don’t you know if you have talent?” the painter asks, and Philip says, “All my friends know they have talent, but I am aware some of them are mistaken.”)
Okay, so you don’t want to write a book about YouTube comments. I will forgive you. But according to your bio in Epic Fail you have a book on the horizon — about John Banville? Please to explain.
Mark: I have read it, but it was years ago. Actually, it was one of the first bits of “proper/serious” literature I ever really connected with – as in it wasn’t about dragons or aliens or what have you. I don’t remember all that much about it, but I do remember the business with the club foot, and that Mildred girl being a total bitch. (Am I somehow wrong in remembering it this way?) (Ed.: No.) I do remember being really impressed with myself for finishing it, though. I should probably read it again, through not-15-year-old eyes. I almost certainly didn’t get it at all. But yeah, the Dunning-Krueger effect is a good one, isn’t it? The ironic thing about it, of course, is how primed for misuse it seems to be. The last people who would ever see it applying to themselves are probably the people most affected by it. It’s a usefully scientific-seeming way of explaining why other people are such idiots. Why “The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”, as Yeats put (it in a context so different as to make even bringing it up here wildly inappropriate). I do think most writers – most people, really – could probably do with a touch of the William McGonagall or Amanda McKittrick Ros or Tommy Wiseau unshakable self-belief. If you could somehow combine that with actual talent, you could do a very brisk artistic trade. That’s possibly some kind of formula for genius: major talent combined with the self-belief that’s more often associated with talentlessness.
I do have a book on Banville on the horizon. Last I heard it’s due to come out in July or thereabouts. It’s based on my PhD thesis, which I finished a couple of years ago now. It looks at Banville’s novels from the point of view of various psychoanalytic understandings of what narcissism means. It sounds quite narrow, but narcissism is so variously and broadly interpreted by theorists from Freud onwards that it’s actually become almost like a kind of synonym for psychoanalysis itself. Even though it contains no quips about Trapped in the Closet, it will nonetheless be tremendous fun to read, I assure you.
Lydia: Well, two things are clear. Number one, I must pray for “major talent combined with the self-belief that’s more often associated with talentlessness.” Number two, I must read John Banville.
Mark, I can’t thank you enough for chatting with me about yourself and your wonderful book. Any parting thoughts or, better yet, YouTube videos?
Mark: It’s unacceptable that you haven’t read Banville. That needs to be redressed straight away. Unfortunately none of his books are set in Turkey, but there are parts of The Book of Evidence and Shroud that are set in a kind of warped version of San Francisco, if that’s any good to you.
Thanks for the back-and-forth, Lydia. It was a lot of fun. Like a proper old-fashioned epistolary set-up. Plus this whole thing has been a textbook example of vertical integration, when you think about it.
Lydia: I hate that I just had to google vertical integration, but am also grateful to now know what that means. Ye olde one-stoppe shoppe, that’s us.
2012 is shaping up to be another exciting year for readers. While last year boasted long-awaited novels from David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Jeffrey Eugenides, readers this year can look forward to new Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, Peter Carey, Lionel Shriver, and, of course, newly translated Roberto Bolaño, as well as, in the hazy distance of this coming fall and beyond, new Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel, and John Banville. We also have a number of favorites stepping outside of fiction. Marilynn Robinson and Jonathan Franzen have new essay collections on the way. A pair of plays are on tap from Denis Johnson. A new W.G. Sebald poetry collection has been translated. And Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer have teamed to update a classic Jewish text. But that just offers the merest suggestion of the literary riches that 2012 has on offer. Riches that we have tried to capture in another of our big book previews.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 8,400 words strong and encompassing 81 titles, this is the only 2012 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: No venom seems more befitting an author than words, words, words. In Ben Marcus’s Flame Alphabet, language is the poison that youth inflict on adult ears. Utterances ushered from children’s mouths have toxic effects on adults, while the underage remain immune to the assault. The effects are so harmful that The Flame Alphabet’s narrator, Sam, and his wife must separate themselves from their daughter to preserve their health. Sam sets off to the lab to examine language and its properties in an attempt to discover an antidote and reunite his family. Marcus’s uncharacteristically conventional narrative makes way for him to explore the uncanny eccentricities of language and life. (Anne)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the dyspeptic bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence but compensates by introducing a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson: One of our most prescient and tuned-in writers of science fiction is coming out with his first collection of non-fiction. Distrust That Particular Flavor gathers together articles and essays William Gibson wrote, beginning in the 1980s, for Rolling Stone, Wired, Time, The Whole Earth Catalog, The New York Times and other publications and websites. There are also forewords, introductions and speeches, even an autobiographical sketch. While these pieces offer fascinating glimpses inside the machinery of Gibson’s fiction writing, their central concern is technology and how it is shaping our future, and us. “What we used to call ‘future shock,'” Gibson writes, “is now simply the one constant in all our lives.” (Bill)
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery: With starred reviews from both Booklist and Library Journal, Ellis Avery’s second novel The Last Nude imagines the brief love affair between the glamorous Art-Deco Painter Tamara de Lempicka and the young muse for her most iconic painting The Beautiful Rafaela. Set in 1920s Paris, among the likes of Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and a fictional American journalist named Anson Hall (a sort of Ernest Hemingway type), Avery explores the costs of ambition, the erotics of sexual awakening, and the devastation that ensues when these two converge. Critics have praised The Last Nude as riveting, elegant, seductive, and breathtaking. (Sonya)
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander: Auslander has made a name for himself with side-splitting appearances on This American Life and his equally funny memoir Foreskin’s Lament that have marking out a fruitful career as a Jewish humorist. Auslander’s new book is his first novel, which New York says is “kind of about the lighter side of collective Holocaust guilt” Kirkus, meanwhile, has called the book, which explores the Holocaust as “an unshakable, guilt-inducing fixture in the life of any self-aware Jew,” “Brutal, irreverent and very funny. An honest-to-goodness heir to Portnoy’s Complaint.” (Max)
Smut by Alan Bennett: Given the existence of Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, a new book entitled Smut would seem to have a lot to live up to—at minimum, it should descend into dimensions so filthy and moist that they would cause Baker’s own thunderstick to droop in disgusted admiration. Instead, the absurdly prolific, versatile, and esteemed writer of The History Boys and The Madness of King George provides a pair of very English stories about the sexual adventures of two middle-aged, middle-class British women. So, rather than a lightspeed journey smack into a rigid “Malcolm Gladwell,” Smut is, in the words of the Guardian, a “comedy of false appearances.” And that’s probably not such a bad thing. (Jacob)
Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts by William H. Gass: Random House will publish Gass’s latest collection of non-fiction this January. In Life Sentences, his tenth non-fiction book, Gass explores the work of a number of his own favorite writers, with essays on Kafka, Proust, Stein, Nietzsche, Henry James and Knut Hamsen. Gass, the author of Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel, is a central figure in postmodern literature, and his critical essays have been hugely influential (he coined the term “metafiction” in his 1970 essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”). (Mark)
At Last and The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn is probably neck-and-neck with Alan Hollinghurst for the title of “purest living English prose stylist.” However, where Hollinghurst traces a line of descent from the prodigious Henry James, St. Aubyn’s leaner style harkens back to the shorter comic novels of Waugh and Henry Green. For 20 years, he’s been producing a semiautobiographical series whose chief interest – one of them anyway – is seeing all that fineness applied to the coarsest of behaviors: abuse, addiction, abandonment. Booker nominations notwithstanding, readers on these shores have paid little attention. Then again, Hollinghurst took a while to find his audience, too, and with the publication of the final “Patrick Melrose novel,” At Last, St. Aubyn should finally get his due. Latecomers can prepare by immersing themselves in the new omnibus edition of the previous titles: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. (Garth)
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan: In addition to being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Edugyan’s sophomore novel was and nominated for all three of the major Canadian literary prizes, and won the Scotiabank Giller award for best Canadian novel published this year, whose jury said “any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.” Praised by The Independent for its “shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang,” Half-Blood Blues follows the dangerous exploits of an interracial jazz band in Berlin, Baltimore, and Nazi-occupied Paris. (Emily K.)
The Recognitions by William Gaddis: Fifty-seven years after its first publication, Dalkey Archive Press reissues William Gaddis’s classic with a new introduction by William H. Gass. Gaddis’s mammoth work of early postmodernism (or very late modernism, depending on who you ask) is one of the key entries in the canon of American postwar fiction, and a major influence on the likes of David Foster Wallace. Set in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the novel is a thoroughly ruthless (and ruthlessly thorough) examination of fraudulence and authenticity in the arts. Given its influence on postmodern American fiction, Dalkey Archive Press seems a natural home for the novel.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander: Nathan Englander, 41, burst onto the literary scene in 1999 with his widely praised collection of short stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. This February he releases his second collection of stories, eight in all, that draw on themes from Jewish history and culture. The title story, about two married couples playing out the Holocaust as a parlor game, appeared in the December 12 edition of The New Yorker. The collection as a whole is suffused with violence and sexual desire. In a starred review Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “[Englander] brings a tremendous range and energy to his chosen topic. (Kevin)
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes: What is it with Hungary? It may not have produced the highest number of Nobel Peace Prize candidates, but it almost certainly boasts the highest population-density of contenders for the Nobel in Literature. There are the two Péters, Nádas and Esterhazy. There’s Imre Kertesz, who deservedly took home the laurels in 2002. More recently, English-language monoglots have been discovering the work of László Krasznahorkai. Susan Sontag called The Melancholy of Resistance, “inexorable, visionary”…(of course, Susan Sontag once called a Salade Nicoise “the greatest light lunch of the postwar period.”) More recently, James Wood hailed War and War and Animalinside as “extraordinary.” Satantango, Krasznahorkai’s first novel, from 1985, now reaches these shores, courtesy of the great translator George Szirtes. Concerning the dissolution of a collective farm, it was the basis for Bela Tarr’s 7-hour movie of the same name. (Garth)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo: Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker and an astute chronicler of America’s poor, turns to India for her first book, a work of narrative nonfiction exploring Annawadi, a shantytown settlement near the Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Flowers follows the lives of a trash sorter, a scrap metal thief, and other citizens of Annawadi, and delves into the daily life and culture of a slum in one of the world’s most complex and fascinating cities. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “Boo’s commanding ability to convey an interior world comes balanced by concern for the structural realities of India’s economic liberalization…and her account excels at integrating the party politics and policy strategies behind eruptions of deep-seated religious, caste, and gender divides.” (Patrick)
Varamo by Cesar Aira: With a new book out in translation seemingly every time you turn around, the Argentine genius Cesar Aira is fast achieving a Bolaño-like ubiquity. And with more than 80 books published in his native land, there’s more where that came from. Aira’s fascinating writing process, which involves never revisiting the previous day’s writing, means that his novels lack the consistency of Bolaño’s. Instead, you get an improvisatory wildness that, at its best – as in Ghosts – opens up possibilities where there had seemed to be brick walls. Varamo, recently reviewed in The Quarterly Conversation, features “a Panamanian civil servant [who] conceives and writes what will become a canonical poem of the Latin American avant-garde.” The great Chris Andrews translates.
Flatscreen by Adam Wilson: “But maybe Mom’s not the place to start…” So begins the fast, funny debut of Adam Wilson, who’s recently published fiction and criticism in The Paris Review and Bookforum. The story concerns the unlikely…er, friendship between ADHD adolescent Eli Schwartz and one Seymour J. Kahn, a horndog paraplegic and ex-TV star. In the channel-surfing argot that gives the prose much of its flavor: Think The Big Lebowski meets Catcher in the Rye meets that old cable series Dream On. (Garth)
No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel: A graduate of the MFA program at UC Irvine, Ramona Ausubel brings us a debut novel about a remote Jewish village in Romania. The year is 1939, and in an attempt to protect themselves from the encroaching war, its residents—at the prompting of an eleven-year-old girl—decide to tell a different story, to will reality out of existence, and imagine a new and safer world. Last April, Ausubel published a strange and beautiful story called “Atria” in The New Yorker, and I’ve been anticipating her novel ever since. (Edan)
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon: Once called “a remarkable chronicler of a very American kind of sadness” (SF Chronicle), the author of Await Your Reply has slowly built a reputation as one of the most incisive writers of our time, specializing in characters who are dark, damaged, and perplexing, but making the reader feel protective of and connected to them. Populated with night terrors, impossible memories, ghosts, mysterious messages, and paranoia, Stay Awake heralds Chaon’s return to the short story with delicate unease. (Janet)
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer shows no signs of slowing down after seeing two stunning books of essays published in the U.S. in 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition and The Missing of the Somme. This English writer, blessed with limitless range and a ravishing ability to bend and blend genres, is coming out with a peculiar little book about a 30-year obsession. It’s a close analysis of the Russian director Andre Tarkovsky’s 1979 movie Stalker, and Dyer calls it “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.” Even so, Dyer brings some sharp instruments to the job, and the result is an entertaining and enlightening joy. (Bill)
The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal: A book in the form of a duel. In 2003, John D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay about a young man who jumped to his death from a Las Vegas hotel. The magazine that commissioned the story ultimately rejected it due to factual inaccuracies. Is there a difference between accuracy and truth? Is it ever appropriate to substitute one for the other in a work of non-fiction? The Lifespan of a Fact examines these questions in the form of a seven-year correspondence between D’Agata and his increasingly exasperated fact-checker, Jim Fingal; the book is composed of the essay itself, Fingal’s notes on the essay, D’Agata’s responses to the notes, Fingal’s responses to the responses. (Emily M.)
Dogma by Lars Iyer: Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious was published last year to considerable acclaim, and was short-listed for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. Spurious concerned a narrator named Lars Iyer, also a writer, his friend W., their certainty that we’re living in the End of Times, their longing to think a truly original thought, the mold that’s taking over Lars’ apartment, their parallel searches for a) meaning and b) a leader and c) quality gin. Dogma—an altogether darker work, the second in a planned trilogy—picks up where Spurious left off. (Emily M.)
The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso: In this brief book, Manguso, who already has a memoir – the acclaimed Two Kinds of Decay – two poetry collections and two short story collections under her belt, offers a rumination on a friend named Harris who had spent time in a mental institution before killing himself by stepping onto the tracks in front of a commuter train. Kirkus says the book asks the question: “How does the suicide of a friend affect someone who has come perilously close to suicide herself?” (Max)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson: The exalted author of Gilead and Home claims that the hardest work of her life has been convincing New Englanders that growing up in Idaho was not “intellectually crippling.” There, during her childhood, she read about Cromwell, Constantinople, and Carthage, and her new collection of essays celebrates the enduring value of reading, as well as the role of faith in modern life, the problem with pragmatism, and her confident, now familiar, view of human nature. (Janet)
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton: In his new book, Alain de Botton argues for a middle ground in the debate between religious people and non-believers: rather than dismiss religion outright, he suggests, a better approach would be to steal from it. de Botton, himself a non-believer, suggests that “while the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false,” religious doctrines nonetheless contain helpful ideas that an atheist or agnostic might reasonably consider borrowing. (Emily M.)
Arcadia by Lauren Groff: Previewed in our July 2011 round-up of most anticipated books, Arcadia follows Bit Stone, a man who grows up in an agrarian utopian commune in central New York that falls apart, as they generally do. The second half of the novel charts Bit’s life as an adult, showing how his upbringing influenced and shaped his identity. A starred review in Publishers Weekly says, “The effective juxtaposition of past and future and Groff’s (Delicate Edible Birds) beautiful prose make this an unforgettable read.” Hannah Tinti calls it “an extraordinary novel.” (Edan)
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru: Hari Kunzru’s always had an interest in counterculture. His last novel, My Revolutions, concerned ’60s-era unrest and its consequences. That countercultural energy not only pervades the plot of his new novel; it explodes its form. Structured in short chapters ranging over three hundred years of history and several dozen different styles, Gods Without Men has already been likened to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – but with “more heart and more interest in characterization” (The Guardian.) And the centrifugal structure gives Kunzru license to tackle the Iraq War, Eighteenth Century explorers, hippie communes, and UFOs. (Garth)
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret: Etgar Keret’s choice of position while writing–facing a bathroom, his back to a window–reveals much about his fiction. He stories are absurd, funny, and unearth the unexpected in seemingly everyday situations. Many stories from his forthcoming collection are set on planes, “a reality show that nobody bothers to shoot,” and deal in wishes and desires. In “Guava,” a plane crashes, a passenger is granted a last wish and is then reincarnated as a guava. Another story involves a wish-granting goldfish, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and a Russian expatriate who seeks to avoid having strangers knock on his door. Keret’s stories are brief inundations of imagination, an experience that holds true for Keret as much as it does for his reader. Keret says he becomes so immersed while writing that he’s unaware of his surroundings, regardless of his view. (Anne)
Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison: As a young writer, Harrison gained fame for her tales of incestuous love, which turned out to be based in part on her own liaison with her father, which she described in her controversial memoir, The Kiss. Now, Harrison tackles a different kind of troubled family in this tale of doomed love between Masha, the daughter of Rasputin, and sickly Aloysha, son of the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, while the Romanovs are imprisoned in St. Petersburg’s Alexander Palace in the months following the Bolshevik Revolution. (Michael)
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway: Nick Harkaway’s second novel—his first was the sprawling and wildly inventive The Gone-Away World—concerns a clockwork repairman by the name of Joe Spork, a quiet single man in his thirties who leads an uneventful life in an unfashionable corner of London, and a nearly-ninety-year-old former spy by the name of Edie Banister. Their worlds collide when Spork repairs an especially unusual clockwork mechanism that effectively blows his quiet life to pieces and immerses him in a world, Harkaway reports, of “mad monks, psychopaths, villainous potentates, scientific geniuses, giant submarines, determined and extremely dangerous receptionists, and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe.” (Emily M.)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: After a run of bestsellers, including the Columbine-inspired We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was recently made into a movie with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, Shriver is digging into her bottom drawer to publish an old novel rejected by publishers when she wrote it in 1998. The New Republic, written when Shriver still lived in strife-torn Northern Ireland, is set on a non-existent peninsula of Portugal and focuses on terrorism and cults of personality. (Michael)
The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner: It’s been 14 years since Leyner’s last literary release, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, though he’s been busy co-authoring the series of ponderously quirky human anatomy readers that started with Why do Men Have Nipples: Hundreds of Questions you’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini. With The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner returns to fiction, takes on the geographical and cultural contradictions of Dubai, and writes down the mythology of what he’s calling our “Modern Gods.” Also included: a cameo from the Mister Softee jingle, and a host of “drug addled bards.” (Emily K.)
The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits: The fourth novel from Believer editor Julavits tells the story of an academy for psychics and the battle between two powerful women, the masterful Madame Ackermann and her most promising — and hence threatening — student Julia Severn. After Ackermann forces Julia to relive her mother’s suicide, Julia flees to Manhattan where she works a humdrum job in exile. Soon, her talents are needed to track down a missing artist who may have a connection to her mother. Powell’s Bookstore included a galley of the book as a pairing with Erin Morgenstern’s enormously popular The Night Circus, noting that The Vanishers “has magic, darkness, whimsy, and flat-out great writing.” (Patrick)
New American Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander: This new translation, brought to us by Foer and Englander (with design work by the Israeli “typographic experimentalist” Oded Ezer), represents an unusual confluence of youthful, modern American Jewish thought. Featuring essays and commentary by an intriguingly diverse group (Tony Kushner, Michael Pollan, Lemony Snicket), the New American Haggadah should deliver an infusion of fresh intellectual energy into the traditional Seder narrative. (Jacob)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Adam Levin works on his short game with this follow-up to his 1,030-page debut novel The Instructions. Hot Pink is a collection of short stories, many of which have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Tin House. From his own descriptions of the stories, Levin seems to be mining the same non-realist seam he excavated with his debut. There are stories about legless lesbians in love, puking dolls, violent mime artists, and comedians suffering from dementia. Fans of The Instructions’ wilder flights of invention (and devotees of the legless lesbian romance genre) will find much to anticipate here. (Mark)
Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 by John Leonard: For anyone who aspires to write book reviews – that orphaned form stranded halfway between Parnassus and Fleet Street – the late John Leonard was an inspiration. Tough-minded, passionate, at once erudite and street, he was something like the literary equivalent of Pauline Kael. I’m assuming here we’ll get a nice selection of his best work. (Garth)
The Cove by Ron Rash: For the poet, novelist and short story writer Ron Rash, this could be the break-out novel that gives him the name recognition of such better-known Appalachian conjurers as Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell and Charles Frazier. The Cove, set in the North Carolina mountains during the First World War, is the story of Laurel Shelton and her war-damaged brother Hank, who live on land that the locals believe is cursed. Everything changes when Laurel comes upon a mysterious stranger in the woods, who she saves from a near-fatal accident. “Rash throws a big shadow now,” says Daniel Woodrell, “and it’s only going to get bigger and soon.” (Bill)
Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen: From Franzen, a collection of essays and speeches written primarily in the last five years. The title essay generated considerable attention when it appeared in The New Yorker in April. In it, Franzen told of his escape to a remote, uninhabited island in the South Pacific following the suicide of his friend David Foster Wallace. Two pieces in the collection—“On Autobiographic Fiction” and “Comma-Then”—have never been published before. Others focus on environmental devastation in China, bird poachers in Cyprus, and the way technology has changed the way people express intimate feelings to each other. (Kevin)
Immobility by Brian Evenson: Genre-bender Evenson (Fugue State, Contagion) returns with an inventive mystery centering around a brilliant detective wasting away from an incurable disease and, consequently, frozen in suspended animation for years. Thawed out by a mysterious man, he must solve an important case with enormous stakes, and he must do it all in time to be frozen again before his disease kills him. There’s little information out there on this book, but he has described it as “another weird noir.” (Patrick)
The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño: Published in 2007 as El Secreto del Mal, The Secret of Evil is a collection of short stories and essays culled posthumously from Roberto Bolaño’s archives. Due this April, the collection joins the steady torrent of Bolaño material that has been translated and published since his death. The stories revisit characters from The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas, and feature other members of Bolaño’s now familiar cast. Some have argued that the embarrassment of posthumous Bolaño riches has occasionally bordered on, well, the embarrassing, but Bolaño’s English-language readers hope for the best. (Lydia)
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag: Susan Sontag said that her books “are not a means of discovering who I am … I’ve never fancied the ideology of writing as therapy or self-expression.” Despite her dismissal of the personal in her own writing, Sontag’s life has become a subject of cultural obsession. The first volume of her journals captivated readers with tales of youthful cultivation, spiced with reading lists, trysts, and European adventures. In the interim since, we’ve fed on reflections like Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan and Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, Sontag’s second volume of journals, picks up in 1964, the year of “Notes on Camp” (which also marked her debut in the Partisan Review) and follows as she establishes herself as an intellect to reckon with. (Anne)
HHhH by Laurent Binet: Winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, Laurent Binet’s first novel was recommended to me by a Frenchwoman as an alternative to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel. In fact, it sounds like a blend of the two. It concerns the assassination of Hitler’s henchman Reinhard Heydrich – and a writer’s attempt to navigate the straits of writing about the Holocaust. (Garth)
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald. This collection was published last November in the UK to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death. Translated and edited by Iain Galbraith, it brings together much of his previously uncollected and unpublished poetry. Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Motion cautioned against seeing these poems as having been “written in the margins” of the novels. The collection, he wrote, “turns out to be a significant addition to Sebald’s main achievement–full of things that are beautiful and fascinating in themselves, and which cast a revealing light on the evolution and content of his prose.” (Mark)
Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift: With promising reviews from The UK — “… an exemplary tour guide of unknown English lives, a penetrating thinker, a wonderful writer of dialogue and description, a nimble craftsman” (The Telegraph), “ quietly commanding… burns with a sombre, steady rather than a pyrotechnic flame” (The Independent) — Swift’s ninth novel signals a return to the themes of his 1996 Man Booker prize winning Last Orders: Wish You Were Here chronicles a man’s journey to Iraq, in 2006, to collect his estranged soldier brother’s body, and examines the resurfacing of a both personal and international history. (Emily K.)
Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin: In the grand expatriate tradition, Baldwin went to Paris looking for la vie en rose and found himself in a McDonald’s. The editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There moved his family to Paris for a copywriting job and soon learned that it’s not all croissants and cathedrals. Learning to live with constant construction, the oddities of a French office, the omnipresence of American culture, and his own inability to speak French, Baldwin loses his dream of Paris but finds a whole new reality to fall in love with. (Janet)
The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller: Nobel winner Herta Müller has written a novel about a young man in a Soviet labor camp in 1945. Müller’s own mother, a Romanian-born member of a German minority in the region, spent five years in a Soviet camp, although Müller’s novel is based upon the accounts of other subjects, particularly the poet Oskar Pastior. Despite its provenance and heavy subject matter, the novel, which is already out in German, has received middling reviews from German critics. (Lydia)
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd: Out in April, Waiting for Sunrise, the newest novel from British author William Boyd will take readers to pre-WWI Vienna and on to the battlefields of Europe. The novel follows the fortunes of a British actor cum spy, as he visits the analyst’s couch, meets intriguing beauties, has coffee with Freud, and battles ze Germans. Exciting stuff from the author of Any Human Heart, a Whitbread winner and Booker shortlister. (Lydia)
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens: Perhaps because Christopher Hitchens was writing so honestly and movingly of his illness right up until his death, we were surprised when it came, even though it seemed clear all along that his cancer would be fatal. Hitchens’ essays, in his final year, helped humanize and soften a writer who welcomed conflict and whose prose so often took a combative stance. This memoir, planned before his death, is based on those last Vanity Fair essays. The UK edition is said to be coming out “early this year” and Amazon has it listed for April, while the timing of the US edition is unclear. (Max)
Home by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s latest is about a Korean War veteran named Frank Money who returns from war to confront racism in America, a family emergency (Money’s sister, in crisis, needs to be rescued and returned to their hometown in Georgia), and the after effects of his time on the front lines. Morrison, 80, has been reading excerpts from the novel at events since early 2011. At an event in Newark in April, she read a few pages and remarked, “Some of it is soooo good — and some of it needs editing.” (Kevin)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: Those of us who gobbled up Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall eagerly await the release of its sequel, the ominously-titled Bring Up the Bodies. In Wolf Hall, we saw the operatic parallel rise of both Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn in the court of Henry VIII. In Bring Up the Bodies, Anne’s failure to produce a male heir, and Henry’s eternally wandering attentions, present Cromwell with the challenge of his career: protecting the King, eliminating Anne, and preserving his own power base. How we loved to hate Anne in Wolf Hall; will her destruction at the hands of the king and his chief minister win our sympathies? If anyone can effect such a complication of emotional investment, Mantel can. (Sonya)
The Passage of Power by Robert Caro: The much-anticipated fourth volume of Caro’s landmark five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson appears just in time for Father’s Day. This volume, covering LBJ’s life from late 1958 when he began campaigning for the presidency, to early 1964, after he was thrust into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, comes ten years after The Master of the Senate, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The new volume, which focuses on the gossip-rich Kennedy White House years, will no doubt be another runaway bestseller. (Michael)
Canada by Richard Ford: Richard Ford fans rejoice! A new novel set in Saskatchewan is pending from the author of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. The first of Ford’s novels to be set north of the border, Canada will be published in the U.S. by Ecco, with whom Ford signed a three-book deal after his much-publicized 2008 split from Knopf. The novel involves American fugitives living on the Saskatchewan plains, and according to Ford it is inspired structurally by The Sheltering Sky. Ford, who calls himself “a Canadian at heart” talked about the novel and read an excerpt on the Canadian Broadcasting Company program Writers and Company. (Lydia)
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger: Freudenberger is famous for taking a knockout author photo and for catching all the breaks (remember the term “Schadenfreudenberger”?), but she has turned out to be an interesting writer. The Newlyweds, which was excerpted in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 series, is loosely based on the story of a Bangladeshi woman whom Freudenberger met on a plane. The woman, a middle-class Muslim, married an American man she’d met through the Internet, and the novel follows their early years of marriage in fictional form, marking Freudenberger step away from stories about young women and girls and toward those about grown women living with the choices they’ve made. (Michael)
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey: Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey returns in May with The Chemistry of Tears, his first novel since 2010’s much-loved Parrot and Olivier in America. As in Parrot, Carey again stokes a conversation between past and present, albeit more explicitly: in the wake of her lover’s passing, a present-day museum conservator throws herself into the construction of a Victorian-era automaton. If the parallel between the sadness of death and the joy of rebirth might seem a tad “on the nose,” expect Carey, as always, to swath the proceedings with sharp observation, expert stylistics, and a sense of genuine sorrow. (Jacob)
Railsea by China Mieville: The British fantasy writer China Mieville, as we noted in a recent career retrospective, is an equal-opportunity plunderer of the high and the low, everything from fellow fantasy writers to mythology, folklore, children’s literature, epics, comics, westerns, horror, Kafka and Melville. Never has his kinship with Melville been more apparent than in his new young adult novel, Railsea, in which a character named Sham Yes ap Soorap rides a diesel locomotive under the command of a captain obsessed with hunting down the giant ivory-colored mole, Mocker-Jack, that snatched off her arm years ago. Fans of Mieville’s previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, should brace themselves for another whiplash ride. (Bill)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava: Is self-publishing the new publishing? Not yet. Still, De La Pava’s audacious debut, called “one of the best and most original novels” of the last decade by Open Letters Monthly and subsequently heralded by the blogosphere, may upend some assumptions. This one began life as a self-publication, and though many self-published authors seem to feel they’ve written masterpieces, this might be the real thing. It’s simultaneously a Melvillean tour of the criminal justice system, a caper novel, and a postmodern tour de force. Now that University of Chicago press is reissuing it, heavy-hitting critics like Steven Moore are starting to take notice. (Garth)
The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel: This spring brings a third, dazzling novel from our very own Emily St. John Mandel. It’s 2009, and disgraced journalist Gavin Sasaki, “former jazz musician, a reluctant broker of foreclosed properties, obsessed with film noir and private detectives and otherwise at loose ends,” returns to his native Florida where he gets embroiled in the mystery of an ex-girlfriend and her missing daughter—who looks a lot like Gavin. The Lola Quartet has garnered high praise from booksellers like Joe Eichman of Tattered Cover, who says, “This sad, yet sublime, novel should bring Emily St. John Mandel a widespread readership.” (Edan)
The Lower River by Paul Theroux: Theroux’s latest is about sixty-year-old Ellis Hock who retreats to Malawi, where he spent four Edenic years in the Peace Corps, after his wife leaves him and his life unravels back home in Medford, Massachusetts. The book appeared first as a short story in The New Yorker in 2009. In it Theroux returns to a theme he’s mined so successfully throughout his prolific career—the allure of ex-pat life, and the perils of living as an outsider in a foreign country. (Kevin)
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain: In this follow-up to his PEN/Hemingway award-winning short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, Fountain delivers a satirical novel about a 19-year-old soldier from Texas, home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game. Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, calls it “A Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” Here’s a more in-depth description of the novel. (Edan)
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif: Booker longlister Mohammed Hanif wrote Our Lady of Alice Bhatti on the heels of his celebrated debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. His second novel, also set in Pakistan, tells the story of Alice Bhatti, a spirited crypto-Christian nurse of lowly origins who works at the Karachi Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments and endures all manner of indignities at the hands of her colleagues and compatriots. Part absurd and unfortunate love story (between the titular Alice and a body-builder ruffian), part searing social commentary from a promising writer. (Lydia)
In One Person by John Irving: Irving returns to first-person voice for the first time since A Prayer for Owen Meany to tell the story of a lonely bisexual man working hard to make his life “worthwhile.” The story is told retrospectively as the man, approaching 70, reflects on his life and his early years growing up in a small Vermont town in the 1950s. The novel is being described as Irving’s “most political novel” since The Cider House Rules. (Kevin)
The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: This historical novel by the Nobel Laureate “sits in the tradition of Vargas Llosa’s major novels […] in its preoccupation with political issues and its international scope,” according to Faber, who released it in Spanish this past fall. The Dream of the Celt explores the life of Irish revolutionary Sir Roger Casement, who was knighted by the British Crown in 1911, hanged five years later for treason, and disgraced as a sexual deviant during his trial. His crime: mobilizing public opinion against colonialism by exposing slavery and abuses in the Congo and Peru to the world. At a lecture, Vargas Llosa said that Casement made for a “fantastic character for a novel” — if for no other reason than the influence he had on the eponymous dark view that filled his friend Joseph Conrad’s own best-known novel. (Sonya)
The Red House by Mark Haddon: Early reviews tell us that Mark Haddon’s The Red House renders modern family life as a puzzling tragicomedy. Enough said for this reader, but here’s a little more to entice the rest of you: a brother invites his estranged sister and her family to spend a week with him, his new wife and stepdaughter, at a vacation home in the English countryside. Told through shifting points of view, The Red House is “a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires” with the stage set “for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.” Just what we all need (a little catharsis, anyone?) after the holidays. (Sonya)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: In spite of its name, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is neither etiquette book, self-help manual, nor philosophical tract. It’s a novel and yet it’s a novel in the way that reality TV shows are fictions, with Heti as the narrator and her friends as the cast of supporting characters (even some of their conversations have been transcribed). With the Toronto art scene as the backdrop, Heti ponders big questions by way of contemporary obsessions–genius, celebrity, blow jobs, what is the difference between brand and identity, how is a story told? Read an excerpt (via n+1) to whet your appetite. (Anne)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Jess Walter’ 2009 novel The Financial Lives of the Poets is one of the funniest books ever written about the assisted suicide of the newspaper business. His sixth novel, Beautiful Ruins, unfolds in 1962 when a young Italian innkeeper, gazing at the Ligurian Sea, has a vision: a gorgeous blonde woman is approaching in a boat. She’s an American movie starlet. And she’s dying. Fast forward to today, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a Hollywood studio’s back lot searching for the mystery woman he last saw at his seaside inn half a century ago. The publisher promises a “rollercoaster” of a novel, which is the only kind Jess Walter knows how to write. (Bill)
New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín: Family has always been a presiding theme in Colm Tóibín’s fiction. With this forthcoming essay collection, he explores discusses its centrality in the lives and work of other writers. There are pieces on the relationship between W.B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, J.M. Synge and his mother, and Roddy Doyle and his parents. The collection also contains discussions of the importance of aunts in the nineteenth century English novel and the father-son relationship in the writing of James Baldwin and Barack Obama. (Mark)
Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays by Denis Johnson: Johnson is, of course, best known for beloved and award-winning fiction like Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke, but he also spent a decade (2000-2010) as the playwright in residence for the Campo Santo Theatre Company in San Francisco, a relationship that began when the theater staged two stories from Jesus’ Son. While there, he wrote six plays that premiered at the theater, two of which are collected here. Soul of a Whore is about the Cassandras, a classicly Johnson-esque family of misfits and outcasts, while Purvis is about the real FBI agent Melvin Purvis who went after John Dillinger and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. (Max)
Broken Harbor by Tana French: According to this goodreads interview with the author, Broken Harbor will be the fourth book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series; this time it’s Scorcher Kennedy–a minor character from Faithful Place–whose story takes center stage. On Irish writer Declan Burke’s blog, French summarizes the premise this way: “A family has been attacked and the father and two children are dead, the mother’s in intensive care and Scorcher, who is still not one hundred per cent back in everyone’s good books after making a mess of the case in Faithful Place, has been assigned this case with his rookie partner.” (Edan)
A Million Heavens by John Brandon: Brandon’s first two novels — Arkansas and Citrus County — both focused on criminals, but with his third he turns his attention to a comatose piano prodigy. Lying in a hospital bed in New Mexico, he is visited by his father while a band of strangers assemble outside, vigilants for whom he is an inspiration, an obsession, or merely something to do. Watched from afar by a roaming wolf and a song-writing angel, Brandon’s collection of the downtrodden and the hopeful become a community. (Janet)
Office Girl by Joe Meno: At a glance, Joe Meno’s Office Girl might seem like something you’d want to skip: there’s the title, which calls to mind the picked-over genre of office dramedy, with its feeble gestures of protest beneath fluorescent lights. The doe-eyed specter of Zooey Deschanel somehow also looms. But you’d be wrong to dismiss anything by Meno, author of The Great Perhaps, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails. His latest promises to return us to a postcollegiate moment when a simple sideways glance can reveal the fallacy of our dreams—and how we stubbornly choose to focus instead on the narrowing path ahead. (Jacob)
Mother and Child by Carole Maso: Carole Maso houses beautiful American sentences in unusual, experimental structures – her masterwork, AVA, is an underground staple. The forthcoming Mother & Child is apparently a collection of linked short-shorts, whose two protagonists are, one has to figure, mother and child. (Garth)
You & Me by Padgett Powell: Padgett Powell’s eighth work of fiction is a novel called You & Me that consists of a conversation between two middle-aged men sitting on a porch chewing on such gamey topics as love and sex, how to live and die well, and the merits of Miles Davis, Cadillacs and assorted Hollywood starlets. Since his 1984 debut, Edisto, Powell has won comparisons to Faulkner and Twain for his ability to bottle the molasses-and-battery-acid speech of his native South. One early reader has described You & Me as “a Southern send-up of Waiting for Godot.” Which is high praise indeed for Samuel Beckett. (Bill)
Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu: A short story collection from the author of the highly praised debut novel How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, involving a computer-generated landscape, a zombie that appears—inconveniently—during a big-box store employee’s graveyard shift, a company that outsources grief for profit (“Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you”), and the difficulty of asking one’s coworker out on a date. (Emily M.)
Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis: Martin Amis is dedicating his new novel to his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died in December at 62 after a much-publicized battle with cancer. Amis’s title character is a skinhead lout who wins the lottery while in prison, and a publishing source tells the Independent on Sunday that the novel is “a return to form” that is by turns “cynical, witty, flippant, cruel and acutely observed.” Among the plump targets of this dark satirist are the British press and a society in thrall to sex and money. Sounds like we’re in for a straight shot of 100-proof Amis. (Bill)
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle: Victor LaValle, the award-winning author of Slapboxing with Jesus and The Ecstatic, as well as the ambitious and monster-fun Big Machine, returns this August with a new novel, The Devil In Silver. In 2009, LaValle told Hobart Literary Journal: “It’s the story of a haunted house, in a sense, but I guarantee no one’s ever written a haunted house story quite like this.” Sounds like another genre-bending delight to me. (Edan)
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk: In 2001, the acclaimed English novelist Rachel Cusk published a memoir called A Life’s Work, a highly praised – and vilified – examination of the pitfalls of becoming a mother. At the time she said, “I often think that people wouldn’t have children if they knew what it was like.” Now comes Cusk’s third work of non-fiction, which flows from A Life’s Work and examines marriage, separation, motherhood, work, money, domesticity and love. The British publisher says, “Aftermath is a kind of deferred sequel, a personal/political book that looks at a woman’s life after the defining experiences of femininity have passed, when one has to define oneself all over again.” (Bill)
Fall 2012 or Unknown:
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: East Bay resident Michael Chabon has spent the past several years working on his novel of Berkeley and Oakland, titled Telegraph Avenue for the street that runs between the two communities. Chabon titillated readers with an essay on his adopted hometown for the Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at The Atlantic, which reveals nothing about the plotline but assures us that the new work will be, if nothing else, a carefully conceived novel of place. Chabon had previously been at work on an abortive miniseries of the same name, which was said to detail the lives of families of different races living in Oakland and Berkeley. (Lydia)
Ancient Light by John Banville: Having published a string of popular crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black over the last five years, John Banville returns again to serious literary fiction with Ancient Light. In the novel, the aging actor Alexander Cleave remembers his first sexual experiences as a teenager in a small Irish town in the 1950s, and tries to come to terms with the suicide of his daughter Cass ten years previously. With 2000’s Eclipse and 2002’s Shroud, Ancient Light will form the third volume in a loose trilogy featuring Alexander and Cass. (Mark)
The Book of My Life by Aleksandar Hemon: The brilliant Aleksandar Hemon (MacArthur Genius, PEN/Sebald winner) is reported to be working on his fifth book and first collection of non-fiction pieces. The title, The Book of My Life, alludes to, and will presumably include, his 2000 New Yorker essay of the same name–a short, powerful description of his mentoring literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. This will be Hemon’s first book since the familial tragedy documented in his heartrending 2011 essay “The Aquarium,” also for The New Yorker. (Lydia)
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub: If you spent any time on the literary part of the internet in the past year, the name Emma Straub will ring out to you. She’s a regular contributor to Rookie Mag, among other places, and Flavorwire called her “The Nicest Person on Twitter” (Sorry, Bieber). Her debut novel is about a Midwestern girl who moves to Los Angeles and, at great cost, becomes a movie star in 1940s Hollywood. Straub’s story collection Other People We Married, originally published in 2011 by 5 Chapters Press, will also be rereleased by Riverhead Books early in 2012. (Patrick)
Alt-Country by Tom Drury: There isn’t much information on Drury’s fifth novel, but rumor has it that Alt-Country will be the third installment of tales about the residents of fictional Grouse County, Iowa, where The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams are set. The book is tentatively slated to come out in the fall of 2012. Let’s hope Drury revisits not only Tiny and Joan, but also Dan and Louise, as well as the many odd and memorable minor characters that people his fictional Iowan landscape. (Edan)
Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt with Ilya Gridneff: This long, compendious, delirious “novel” – co-authored with a rakish Australian journalist – should by all rights have been DeWitt’s follow-up to The Last Samurai, but publishers apparently balked at the novel’s enormous formal dare. So the enterprising Miss DeWitt simply began selling .pdfs on her website – a kind of late-capitalist samizdat. Jenny Turner of the London Review of Books wrote a long review of the novel a couple years back that makes it sound like absolutely essential reading. And N+1 ran an excerpt. Now Noemi Press has shouldered the considerable challenges of publishing the whole thing. And if you’re one of the lucky few who has the .pdf already, the money you PayPaled to Helen will be deducted from the cost of the printed book. There’s no telling how many complications are involved in getting there, but in the end, everybody wins! (Garth)
My relationship with John Banville is a strange and unnatural one. In some odd sense I can’t quite identify, I often think that it might even be an unseemly one. A few months back, I finished a Ph.D., having written my thesis on Banville’s fiction. It took me about four years to complete, which means that over that period—at a rough calculation along the lines of a 42 hour working week and a 50 week working year—I spent something in the region of 8,400 hours engaged in activities that were directly Banville-related. 8,400 hours: that’s basically the equivalent of an entire calendar year spent reading his novels, thinking about them, reading and thinking about other academics’ opinions of them, formulating my own opinions, and thinking of clever things to write based on them. There’s nothing remarkable, of course, about a person spending a non-trivial portion of his or her life writing a doctoral thesis about the work of a single writer (university English departments are full of such misfits) but it is presumably fairly unusual for a person to spend four years writing a doctoral thesis on the work of someone who is not only still living and writing, but doing so within a couple of minutes’ walk from where that thesis is being written.
Dublin is a fairly small city. While I was working on my thesis in Trinity College, it wasn’t unusual for me to leave the library to go for a sandwich somewhere and to pass Banville on the street. It happened more than once that I would be having lunch and he would enter the restaurant and sit down a couple of tables away, or walk past the window with his fedora, his large and quaintly flamboyant scarf, and his mysterious canvas carrier bag. (Containing what? Groceries? Surely not. Books, most likely, but then why would Banville be carrying around books? Where would he be taking them, and to whom?) When this happened, I would usually nod casually and discretely in his direction and say to my lunch companion something like “there goes the boss man,” or “there’s the gaffer now.” It amused me, for some reason, to think of myself as a low-level functionary, labouring away obscurely for years, scrutinizing texts and producing a complex 100,000 word response unlikely to be read by more than a tiny handful of specialists, as though this were a service for which I had been engaged by an eminent and enigmatic novelist.
I had also convinced myself that it amused me to be utterly unknown to Banville, and yet to be spending my working days doing nothing but thinking about his novels. But I’m not sure it really did amuse me. I think it felt a little indecorous; even, perhaps, a little shameful. I sometimes joked about feeling a bit like a stalker, but I wasn’t always entirely sure that I was joking.
It wouldn’t have felt so strange to be writing a thesis about the work of Bellow or Dickinson or Joyce or Woolf, because these are no longer men and women, as such, but historical figures, Great Writers, bodies of work to be read and thought about and, if you’re so inclined, interpreted. Even, as we say in the lit-crit racket, “working on” a living writer like, say, Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo would not carry with it this faint but indelible stain of unseemliness, because these people are remote, semi-legendary figures, securely encased in their reputations and, more importantly, their foreignness. Even if I lived in Manhattan and were writing a thesis on Thomas Pynchon, I would be unlikely to find myself standing behind him in the queue for the ATM (and even if I did, it is highly unlikely that I would realize it).
But while I was working on him, Banville was everywhere. My period of postgraduate research coincided with his ascension to a level of fame and visibility he hadn’t previously inhabited (not long before I started writing my thesis, he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea). He was giving readings from as-yet-unpublished novels across the square from the library where I was writing about his published ones. He was curating exhibitions of eighteenth century etchings in galleries on the other side of town. He was getting into public squabbles with crime novelists for writing a highly successful series of mysteries under a pseudonym and bragging about how easy he found it (Banville has always seemed to enjoy mixing it up). At one point, presumably undergoing a particularly severe bout of inter-project restiveness, he was even embroiled in a weirdly out-of-character controversy over vivisection at the School of Medicine at Trinity. The spat became a minor news story, culminating in J.M. Coetzee’s weighing in on his behalf in the letters pages of The Irish Times, and involved his taking part in a small but vocal protest by animal rights campaigners outside the college, which I had to pass one day on my way to the library. Surely Richard Ellmann never had to pass Joyce on a picket line; surely Boswell was never called a scab by Dr. Johnson? (Nobody called me a scab, I should clarify—and neither am I seriously comparing myself to Boswell or Ellmann, or Banville to Johnson or Joyce—but the image is an amusing one, so I’ll let it stand).
For four years, the question I was inevitably asked by anyone who happened to express an interest in what I was doing with my life was this one: “Have you met Banville yet?” It’s a question I got slicker at answering the more I was asked it, until it became a sort of automated response. It was always some minor variation on the following basic template: “No,” I would say, “I haven’t. In fact, I’ve sort of been avoiding him. I’ve been in the same room as him quite a few times, at readings and that kind of thing. I’ve passed him on the street Christ knows how many times—Dublin is a small town, after all—but I’ve never felt inclined to speak to him, to introduce myself. To be honest, I don’t think it would do me or my work any good. I don’t think a critic should have too close a relationship with the writer he’s writing about, or better still any relationship at all. Why would Banville’s opinion of my opinion about his work have any bearing on those opinions, when you think about it? It’s not about what he thinks of me, it’s about what I think of him. Interviewing him would just compromise the integrity of my work.”
This last phrase I always delivered in an ironic, jocular staccato, as though acknowledging the pretentiousness of such a notion, as though highlighting the absurdity of the idea of my work having anything like integrity (I have this highly irritating habit of being dismissive of my own endeavours, and then immediately feeling as though I’ve slighted myself unforgivably). Like a lot of things we say to people, I suppose I both believed this and disbelieved it at the same time. Ambivalence was always the dominant affect of my thesis-writing years.
Behind the jokes about stalking Banville lay a real discomfort with the fact that I was spending so much time thinking about him and writing about him—or thinking about his fiction, at least, which may or may not amount to the same thing. He is, I think, a fascinating novelist, and among the more important presences in contemporary literature, and so it makes perfect sense for there to be a considered academic response to his work (there’s loads of it, by the way, which, given his stature and his prolificacy and the finely-textured allusiveness of his writing, isn’t surprising). It also makes sense that I, as a scholar in the early stages of my career, should choose Banville as the subject of my apprentice work, because I am provoked and perplexed by it in intellectually productive ways and, even now, after all the time I’ve spent with it, still derive real pleasure from reading it. He is, I think, a great writer, and may even turn out to be a Great Writer. But he is also just a guy, and this is something that his physical proximity to me—the fact that I kept passing him on the street—made very difficult to ignore. I often asked myself what it might feel like to know that, somewhere in your city, a person with whom you are entirely unacquainted is spending his days writing a psychoanalytic examination of your life’s work. I was eking out an existence for myself—you couldn’t quite call it a living—through government-funded scholarships that were contingent upon the value to society, however hypothetical, of my interpretation of Banville’s fiction. I did occasionally have an unpleasant image of myself as a parasite living off a large animal who was innocent of my unobtrusively, harmlessly blood-sucking presence. You can have a certain image of yourself and then reject it, but you’ve still had that image: it has come from somewhere. I would have been a lot less uncomfortable had I been working on someone who was dead. (The morticianary insinuations of that sentence were not intended, but they are discomfitingly apt. It is only now, in fact—as in right this second—that I finally fully get Banville’s biographer-as-embalmer joke in The Newton Letter.)
Strangely, when I did finally end up sitting down and having a conversation with him just a couple of months ago, his first reaction to my telling him that I had written my thesis on his work was to apologize for not being dead. I laughed, but made no comment on the spooky perceptiveness of his joke.
“You must absolutely despise me,” he said. I told him—truthfully—that I had somehow managed not to. What I didn’t tell him was that he had often, indirectly at least, given me occasion to despise myself. The awkward ambivalence of my psychological relationship with him, though, was not something I thought it wise to bring up over mini salmon vol-au-vents and room temperature white wine. I had not planned the meeting; in fact, I had had no idea that it would be happening until a couple of hours beforehand. I had received an email from my former Ph.D. supervisor, who had himself just received an email requesting, as a matter of extreme urgency, that someone—anyone—volunteer themselves to conduct a public interview with Banville that evening in a lecture hall in University College Dublin. He was due to receive an honorary lifetime membership of the university’s Law Society that evening, and whoever had initially been scheduled to handle the interview aspect of the proceedings had to cancel at the last minute, and they were now desperately looking for someone who could pull it off at short notice. I wasn’t sure that I was necessarily their guy but, deliberately denying myself any time to think about it, I rang the number anyway, and two hours later I was sitting in the UCD staff bar with the boss man, making small talk. (Against all reasonable expectations, Banville is really very good at small talk.)
While acknowledging that he would be unlikely to conceive of it in the same way, I had always imagined our eventual meeting would be a kind of lower-intensity literary version of that café sit-down scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, in which Pacino and De Niro appear on screen together for the first time. (In moments of greater clarity I understood that, at best, it would be an episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio, with me as a less polished and fulsome James Lipton). The way it panned out, though, not even I could fool myself into sensing any kind of frisson of tension or significance. Banville appeared not to have any particular interest in the topic of my thesis—or at least if he did, he managed not to betray it by asking me any questions on the matter. I was both slightly disappointed and slightly relieved by this. The thesis was entitled “Narcissism in the Fiction of John Banville”, and so there was always the slight but non-negligible possibility that he might understand the whole project to be a long-winded and tortuous accusation of self-obsession and vanity on his part. Even if he didn’t take it personally, there was a chance—far less slight and non-negligible—that he would consider the whole approach facile or wrong-headed or obtuse or in some other way completely beside the point. I had absolute confidence in my work, but—as paradoxical as this might sound (and probably is)—less than absolute confidence in my ability to maintain that confidence in the face of any degree of criticism or dismissal from of its subject. Now that I think about it, it’s likely that Banville had similar reasons for not asking me about it.
Apropos the issue of my spending (give or take) four years reading, thinking about and writing about his writing, he mentioned having interviewed Salman Rushdie for the New York Review of Books in about 1993, at the very height of the fatwa. He spent two full days transcribing their taped conversations. By the time he had finished, he said, he was consumed by an intense hatred of both Rushdie and himself. So he could, he assured me, imagine how I must feel about him after four years.
I chuckled drily and, I hoped, urbanely. It struck me that having a conversation with the man amounted to having Banville on tap. All I had to do was make a comment or ask a question and, as though I’d popped a coin in a vending machine, it would provoke an emanation from the same source that produced The Book of Evidence, Doctor Copernicus and Shroud. I felt an unaccountable, giddy compulsion to start pointing to things and people and demanding that he describe them. How would you characterize the taste of these vol-au-vents, Mr Banville?; or See that elderly man over there at the bar? Let’s have an adjective for him; or What would you say if I asked you to describe this wine? This was, after all, someone who has described the taste of gin more frequently and more variously and more vividly than probably any other novelist in history—gin, with its “silver-sweet fumes” (Eclipse), and its “cold and insidious and subtly discomposing” taste with “the faintest tinct of paraffin-blue in its depths” (The Infinities).
At this point the undergraduate from the university’s Law Society who had introduced us—and who seemed to be the main organizer of the event—had excused himself to go and check on the turnout in the lecture hall. Banville had just finished his own wine and was wondering aloud, presumably rhetorically, whether he might get away with swiping the untouched glass the Law Society guy had left behind. I gave him my blessing, though he seemed not to require it.
A large grey-bearded man with a German accent sidled up to our table and shook hands with Banville. He congratulated him on what he called his “apotheosis”—presumably he meant the lifetime membership of the Law Society—and handed over a pile of about five or six first editions and foreign translations, which Banville dutifully signed. (The man offered him a biro, but he declined, withdrawing from an inner pocket of his jacket a gracefully gold-trimmed Mont Blanc. This glamorous implement now unsheathed, the mere idea of Banville ever writing with anything else was instantly relegated to the category of the preposterous.) I thought how strange it was that the man had used this word, “apotheosis,” so enduringly associated as it was, for me, with Banville’s writing. I had, in fact, written something in my thesis about his repeated use of it. I wondered, briefly, whether the man could be making some kind of sly allusion here, but then checked this flight of obsessive fancy, realizing how unlikely it was that he would be as wonkishly preoccupied as I was with Banville’s fondness for a particular word, and what it might mean in the context of his work as a whole.
The conversation turned again, somehow, to the topic of death, specifically that of Banville’s death. We spoke briefly of the difficulties future biographers and scholars would come up against now that no one, not even novelists, wrote letters any more. He pointed out that emails were probably more useful from a future scholarship point of view, given that they were all automatically archived and organized and searchable, to which I countered that that was all well and good if you had the password. He conceded that this was a fair point, and suggested that if I played my cards right he might think to pass on his login details to me before he died. I said that I would be honored. The idea of Banville having anything as vulgar as login details, however, seemed as strangely implausible as Nabokov owning a pickup truck—he is that kind of writer. Did he use instant messaging, I wondered? (It was an odd thought, but it was not inconceivable. A few years ago, I interviewed the philosopher Peter Singer for a magazine, and he still occasionally pops up on Google Chat, an occurrence which gives rise to all kinds of inane impulses.) I speculated idly on whether Banville’s password might be something like “@pose0s1s” or, maybe, “banvillenobel2016.” Was he a Gmail man, I wondered? Probably not. Outlook Express, if anything.
The interview was less of an ordeal than I had imagined it might be. On our way down to the lecture theatre I had told him that I had agreed to it only a couple of hours previously, that I was as a consequence grossly underprepared and that he would therefore have to do a lot of the heavy lifting himself, and he had patted my arm lightly and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m a raddled old whore at this stage.” My questions seemed to me to shift from the bafflingly gnomic to the recklessly long-winded without ever occupying any intervening sweet spot of coherence and concision but, true to his word, he responded to them with an eloquence that, retrospectively, made those questions appear shrewd. Afterwards, there was a flurry of book-signings and hand-shakings, through which I stood awkwardly off to one side. There was some kind of official photograph that needed to be taken, and I allowed myself to be hustled into the shot, and then that was pretty much it for the evening.
As we walked toward the exit, Banville asked me whether I needed a lift home. I had not anticipated this; had I foreseen it as a possibility, I might well have taken the bus there instead of driving. I told him that I had my car—I think I may even, moronically, have produced my keys and held them aloft, as though some kind of proof of my having driven might be required—but almost immediately regretted doing so. It would, I thought, have been worth the trouble of getting the bus back the following morning to collect my car, had it meant getting a lift home with Banville. I found myself wishing, suddenly, to know what kind of car he drove and, above all, what kind of driver he was. Would he handle his car like he did his prose, with supreme confidence and restraint, changing lanes with suave precision, overtaking with brisk wit and style? Or would he be ill at ease behind the wheel, as I imagined his protagonists would be, constantly wrong-footed by the stubborn actuality of traffic lights and lane-mergers, the boorish incursions of other motorists? I remembered a bit in Martin Amis’s The Information about the comparative driving skills of poets and novelists. The (almost certainly spurious) jist was that Novelists are generally decent drivers, while poets don’t drive, or at least shouldn’t: “Never trust a poet who can drive. Never trust a poet at the wheel. If he can drive, distrust the poems.” And then I remembered Banville’s tendency to make grandiose-sounding claims in interviews about his aspirations of forging some sort of formal synthesis of poetry and the novel. Would he drive, I wondered, like a poet or a novelist? Would I gain some oblique insight into his mind, into his philosophical stance toward the world, by observing him negotiate the M50 and the Red Cow roundabout (that black comedy of infrastructural errors in which thousands of Dubliners play a daily role)? What would we chat about? How would he respond to questions as to fuel consumption, reliability, general performance? What radio stations, if any, would be preset on his car stereo? Would he have a SatNav, or one of those hands-free Bluetooth earpiece setups for his phone? I would now probably never know the answers to these questions. But perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I successfully convinced a publisher that my thesis was worth the time and money it would cost them to publish. So I’ll be spending a further few months on Banville-related activities, hacking and thrashing the thing into a book-like shape; and then, if I’m lucky, my first monograph will afford me some sort of reputation as an academic, as, specifically, a Banville scholar. And these would all be great things, things that might—I permit myself to hope—even lead to that greatest of great things, an actual full-time job. In the meantime, I’ll just have to get over my discomfort with what seems to me to be the rank presumption of regarding oneself as an “expert” on the work of someone who is still living and writing and (who knows?) possibly using a hands-free Bluetooth earpiece while driving.
Eventually, I’ll have to come up with another topic on which to position myself as an expert. In my cockier moments, I sometimes fancy my chances with Nabokov. I would, of course, imagine him being utterly dismissive of whatever reading of his work I might decide to argue for. But that wouldn’t matter very much, because he is safely, unapproachably dead, and therefore reassuringly unlikely to sit down at the next table in a café, or offer me a lift home. I think it would be an easier relationship.
Back | 1. In a section dealing with the novel Shroud, I find that I wrote the following: “‘Apotheosis’, in its associations with ideas of self-perfection and deification, is a key term in Banville’s later work. The narcissistic content of the word as he tends to use it is connected to the notion of the self as a work of art.”