Because my own book was released in March, and because I’ve never done this before—the tour, the interviews, the reviews, my teaching jobs, all at once—my 2019 reading was terribly inconsistent, with jags and starts, some devoured-in-one-sitting-books and some long-plane-ride-crying-books and many books I had to abandon because they made me feel too sad or too jealous or too dark or they made my mushy brain work too hard. I let go of any book that lacked sincerity in 2019; I plan to maintain that rule. Still, I’ve never in my life felt more grateful to return to words at the beginning or end of my days, to sit still and awed at the marvelous work of others and remember the only point of my little life: that zing, that achey divine something that comes when you fully believe the world someone has created for you and then your own bedroom or hotel room or subway car feels a little more romantic and detailed and bright because of it. Here’s a very incomplete list of works that made my year immeasurably better.
Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance and Sarah McColl’s Joy Enough made me feel cared for the way some books do, books that answer the particular questions you’ve been gripping at, that seem to say I know, yup, I hear you. Jaquira Díaz and Kristen Arnett’s powerhouses, Ordinary Girls and Mostly Dead Things, respectively, reminded me of home, of the fire and weird wonder of where we’re from, the sweaty creeping queer-as-fuck Florida I most want to read about. Both of Sally Rooney’s books felt like goddamn candy after long days, and Jesus she is funny as shit and I feel like people miss that when talking about her.
Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias read like a tremendously generous guide on how to be a better person, a greater listener, and Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan did the same. I listened to Danielle Lazarin’s Back Talk on audio and texted her whenever the actor mispronounced our Inwood street names, but jokes aside Danielle’s work reads like a hug (a really fucking smart hug? what does that mean?) and I’m so grateful to her and every writer writing High Goddamn Serious Literature about Girlhood. Fuck yes.
I reread the stories of James Salter and Jamaica Kincaid and Elizabeth Bishop and Kenzaburo Ōe because sometimes I forget how to write a sentence, and marveled at Amy Hempel’s new collection Sing to It, which, like all of Hempel’s work, changes its terms on you so quickly, sometimes between two little words, in ways that’ll knife-twist your dumbly blinking face. For my classes I read and reread Outline by Rachel Cusk, We the Animals by Justin Torres, I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, Mean by Myriam Gurba, Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, and Syllabus by Lynda Barry (my queen, my hero, my everything).
I fell asleep most nights to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Once upon a time I fell in love with writing because of Jayne Anne Phillips’s collection Black Tickets, and this year Kimberly King Parsons’s Black Light made me feel that same pang of joy-shock when words are so charged they carry their own vibrations. Miriam Toews’s Women Talking made me feel like oh, that’s how a genius does this, and same for Chelsea Bieker’s forthcoming cult-novel (no, literally, it’s about a fucked-to-the-hills birthing cult) Godshot, which is the kind of novel that comes around every decade, maybe, the kind of book that made me feel it was meant for me (is there a greater feeling than that?).
Rick Moody’s memoir The Long Accomplishment was so graceful and so packed with heart and wisdom and sincerity, and Mathea Morais’s There You Are made my heart hurt in similar lit-up ways. I am stunned by the beauty of Chanel Miller’s writing in Know My Name (people will talk about the story, the headline; I want to talk about her prose), and, on that note, Carrie Goldberg’s Nobody’s Victim should be required reading for all. I was fortunate enough to read and perform the texts from As I Hear the Rain, PEN America’s 2019 American Prison Writing Anthology, which is a miraculous cross-genre collection of really great really urgent writing.
Cyrus Grace Dunham’s A Year Without a Name is another life-changing world-warping (really, I’m obsessed) book I’ve now read and reread several times this year, with writing and imagery so lush and so good it’ll leave you hot and choking on vines. It’s still November, and I’m making my way through my final books of the year, but I can tell you Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, and Genevieve Hudson’s Boys of Alabama have me rotating through them so none will end too soon. Taylor’s writing the best prose out there; Greenwell’s got a sex scene in this one that left me WEEPING; Zhang’s golden epic will be an instant classic; Hudson is rewriting the fairy tale, rewriting the body, with sentences like spun dirt and knuckle and all things true.
Lastly, I must shout out the many, many yet-to-be-published book manuscripts of my students, books that have left me as breathless as I am hopeful for the landscape to come. How grateful I am.
One of the many pleasures of reading Anthony Varallo’s fiction is how skillfully he inhabits the points of view of his adolescent and child characters. They aren’t bossy, diminutive adults who tell the real adults how to behave and what to think. Instead, they’re bona fide children and teenagers who see the world as kids believably would.
The Varallo short story that I find myself going back to most often is “The French Girls,” which appears in Out Loud, Varallo’s second collection, which won the 2008 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. This story—about the reaction to three foreign exchange students enrolling at an American high school—spans only two pages, but the author captures with an almost preternatural artistry the nostalgia and treacherous suspense of adolescence. The charm and knowingness of this story are indelible.
In The Lines, Varallo’s fifth book and first novel, the author embodies the adult and child point-of-view characters with similar nuanced humor and sympathy. The Lines is set during the gas crisis of the summer of 1979 and begins when two parents announce their divorce to their son and daughter, ages seven and 10, who subsequently become unwilling witnesses to the family’s demise.
Via email and Google Docs, I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Anthony Varallo about The Lines.
Christine Sneed: Having been a young boy in the 1970s, you likely remember the gas crisis of 1979 first-hand—what came first, the idea of a family breaking apart or the dramatic backdrop of the American gas shortage that informs your title?
Anthony Varallo: The original title for the novel was The Parents, the Children, and that’s very much the way I thought about the book as I was writing it: a story about parents and children, divided into sections, in alternating perspectives that explores a single summer viewed from four different consciousnesses. So, the family came first.
The novel was always set in the 1970s, but the specific 1979 gas crisis actually emerged in later drafts. I hit upon the idea of setting the novel in the summer of 1979 when I realized the characters kept stopping by the same gas station, which led to me describing the gas station, which got me thinking about gas station details, which led me to researching those details—what did gas stations look like in the 1970s?, etc.—which led me to the gas crisis of 1979.
I do remember the summer of 1979 pretty well, actually, but my only memories of the gas crisis are of adults either joking or complaining about it. It was something adults seemed to complain about a lot, along with the other stuff adults seemed to complain about a lot (bills, taxes, having to drive kids around, humidity, aches and pains). But, honestly, in the summer of 1979, I didn’t spend much of my time thinking about world events; I spent most of my time watching TV and eating sugary snacks.
Oddly enough, the very last element to arrive was actually the title, The Lines, after my wife pointed out that the gas lines are the thing most of us remember about the gas crisis of 1979. I also liked the idea of “lines” referring not only to the literal gas lines, but perhaps to storylines, too, if that’s not too much of a push.
CS: The Lines’ third-person point of view moves between the mother, father, boy and girl, and you roam among them with an enviable ease. Was the POV always this alternating close third-person?
AV: Yes, the POV was the one thing that remained consistent throughout the two years it took me to write The Lines. I knew I wanted to write a narrative in an alternating, close third-person perspective, a technique that would afford me all the intimacy of first-person POV while still lending the distance and objectivity of third-person.
That’s nice of you to say that I roam among the characters with ease—thanks!—but that’s not at all how I felt when I was writing the book. It took me forever to figure out how many perspectives I could inhabit in each section, one or two or more, until I realized the POV worked best when I explored one consciousness per section, with some latitude to comment on exterior events (what James Wood might call “free indirect style”), something my editor encouraged me to amplify in the second half of the novel. At times, the POV breaks into a near omniscience in the closing pages of The Lines, which is something I’ve never tried before.
CS: Adults in this novel often do or say questionable things—Gumma, for example, the children’s paternal grandmother, is an alcoholic who phones the boy and girl often and makes cringe-inducing statements she claims will help the children be more vigilant of potential dangers. Was Gumma always as…problematic or are there different versions of her in different drafts?
AV: Christine! I can’t believe you’re asking this question, because this is one thing I was hoping no one would notice about this novel, but what the heck, you’ve got me cornered: Gumma is actually a composite character of two characters from an early draft: one, a mean-spirited aunt who calls the children to tell them terrible things; and two, Gumma, whom I envisioned as a truth-telling, yet mostly-benign margarita enthusiast, who lives in Florida and likes to drive her golf cart around her neighborhood while under the influence. In later drafts, I combined the aunt and Gumma into the same character, reworking the dialogue and changing some of the details so that it would seem plausible that Gumma would say and do all of these questionable things. The result is a darker Gumma, more menacing, but still with some light comic touches too.
CS: The four main characters are never addressed by their given names, but some of the supporting characters, such as the two people the mother and father begin dating after their separation, are named. What is your rationale for not naming the four focal family members?
AV: The idea of leaving the four main characters nameless started off as nothing more than an experiment: I wanted to see if I could do it without getting into pronoun confusion. Luckily, since the family is separating, the four main characters are rarely in scene together at the same time, so that made the challenge a bit easier. Sometimes I’ll impose some kind of technical challenge on myself, just to see where it leads me. Those kind of self-imposed challenges help keep me going in my writing, especially through the long haul of the novel.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend this technique too highly, since it prohibits exploring the characters’ pasts in great depth. So, for example, if I wrote “The father recalled his kindergarten playground, where the father liked to swing on the swing-set and slide down the sliding board,” the reader will picture an adult male swinging on the swings and sliding down the sliding board. Which would be…odd. The technique only seems to work in present tense narration, with nearly all the action unfolding in the present, as is the case with The Lines.
CS: The boy, who is seven, is probably my favorite character—he’s sweet, funny, and earnest and still believes in the goodness of the world and his adult caretakers, and as a result is easily victimized. Is a child’s POV one that you find yourself able to inhabit instinctively or is it hard work? Or both?
AV: I had a lot of fun imagining what life was like for him. I knew I could play his “unreliable” perspective for irony and humor, but I wanted to be careful not to overdo it. I didn’t want his naivety to be his only trait; I wanted him to have the capacity to change too. My approach to writing my child characters is to allow them to see the world of the story in all its brightly lit particulars, with 20/20 vision, but not nearly as able to understand what they are seeing. So, the boy sees everything that the girl sees, for example, but what’s clear to the girl (and the reader) is often a mystery the boy has yet to solve.
I’ve written several narratives from the perspective of children, so I guess it does feel comfortable to me on some level. Still, I try to take into consideration a reader’s possible objections to inhabiting a child’s POV—sentimentality, familiarity, a child narrator who is ridiculously wise beyond his/her years, etc.)—something I’ve had to learn over the years. My one rule about child characters in general is: no “cute” children in fiction. Your child characters can be sharp, observant, curious, even clever, but they cannot be “cute,” or say “cute” things, or, God forbid, redeem the sorrows and complications and disappointments of adulthood by just being plain adorable. No.
CS: Until now, your books have all been short story collections. Can you comment on why, after four collections, you decided to write a novel?
AV: Well, the real answer is: because I did write novels before, but no one would publish them. But the sort of real answer is: because I’ve always liked the short story a little bit better than the novel, since that’s what I teach and read and edit, and since that’s the form that means more to me than any other. Another answer is: because novels are really hard to write, and it took me forever to write one that someone actually wanted to publish. All of the above are true.
CS: Each of the 14 chapters in The Lines is broken into several short sections—did you feel at times as if you were writing a short story? The narrative compression seems short story-like too.
AV: My original idea for The Lines was to write a “collage” novel that would employ vignettes, short-shorts, flash fiction, and short sections in some kind of point and counterpoint fashion to tell a story about a family of four going through a transition. My models were Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Elizabeth Hardwick’s √Sleepless Nights, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. I was able to write the opening pages of The Lines in this style, but, like nearly every writing idea I’ve ever had, this one started to break down after about 20 pages or so. I couldn’t write the “collage” novel I’d set out to write; I had to give up on my plan and let the story instruct me how to write it instead. I don’t know why I have to keep learning the same lesson again, but here’s one I can never quite seem to remember: Your writing doesn’t really care about your plans for it.
Yes, I was aiming for compression throughout the novel, both at the sentence and paragraph level. I wanted The Lines to be the kind of novel that hits as hard as a short story, since those are the kind of novels I like best. I also wanted each section to have some emotional compression, too, where the character reveals something to the reader they likely wouldn’t reveal to anyone else, ever. Eventually, I began to see that as one of the themes of the novel—the pleasure of having a private life, private thoughts no one will ever know—even though I get a little nervous thinking about themes in my writing.
CS: Who are some of your key influences? And would you say that, like John Updike, your default mode is the comic?
AV: I’m glad you mention Updike, since I sometimes get the feeling that no one really reads him anymore. His writing is important to me in the way it says yes to the world, the way it embraces everything, no matter how ordinary or banal or insignificant (He wrote a little too often about golf, but oh well.). That’s a quality that I notice about most of the writing I love, the way it finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. That still means something to me. I also love humor, of course, maybe too much at times. My stuff always reads a bit lighter to me than I intended, not sure why. Lightweight syndrome? But the writers I’m reading right now with the most enthusiasm are Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk, Elena Ferrante, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. And a few dozen others I’m utterly failing to mention.
CS: What are you working on now?
AV: I am working on another novel. It’s in that stage where I can’t quite explain what it’s about yet, which has been the case with every novel I’ve ever written or tried to write. I’m hoping this stage will pass soon, and I can answer this question with a jacket copy-worthy sentence.
For the last two years, I’ve felt like I’ve forgotten how to read well, much less write about it, as it’s become harder to find the space and quiet to do much more than simply let sentences (and tweets, and news alerts, etc. etc.) wash over me. I’m not alone in this, I know, but it’s been a lonely experience; literature has always been my tether to the world, and it feels like that tether’s dangerously frayed.
A couple of times this year I’ve tried to bridge the growing distance between my literary life and daily reality by tackling fiction and nonfiction that feels closer to the world in which I live, commonly known as Texas. Sometimes it’s worked — I read Philipp Meyer’s The Son in the spring and found it a pulpy, compulsive, enjoyable novel of the Lone Star State, complete with oil booms and bits of Cherokee and careful descriptions of the Hill Country, my actual home, and the Llano Estacado, my spiritual one. But sometimes the strategy’s fallen short: I tried and tried again and still failed to get very far into Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas. I’ve finally decided the failures stem from my weariness of being told what Texas means (in the Year of Beto everyone had thoughts about this, most of them irritating.) I’m much more interested in what it feels like to live here right now — messy, mostly, and full of contradictions.
The most interesting, life-giving reading I did this year felt far removed from both the news cycle and Texas. The Vegetarian by Han Kang was a dark fantasy world I lived for a few days and a book that made me think about my sisters and our struggles, shared and separate, to be in the world. It’s a dreamlike, unsettling novel; I wish I could read it for the first time again, but I think I’d be a little scared. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood was something else entirely, a beautiful stream-of-consciousness blur of home-grown philosophy and indecision. Essentially a novel of the in-between, Motherhood is hard to sum up, but I know that I loved it. And then Madeline Miller’s Circe was completely different again, all classical coolness and familiar myths made a little less familiar. I tripped over the language more than once, but I ended the novel with a deep sense of gratitude for the gift of humanity in all its transience, fragility and damage.
That fragility and damage also came to mind when reading The Most Dangerous Man in America by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, though it was balanced by both outrage and sheer entertainment. Starring Timothy Leary, Nixon, and a staggering amount of LSD, the story’s all true but feels like it can’t be. And in a strange accident of timing, I read The Most Dangerous Man alongside Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. While in many ways they couldn’t be more different — the first is a fast-paced, drug-fueled portrait of “the high priest of LSD,” the second an introspective, interrogating look at the stories we use to understand, celebrate and condemn addiction — both helped shape my understanding of our culture’s relationship to substance use and abuse.
It wasn’t all serious this year, though. There’s some reading that’s just fun all the way through, something it took me a while to remember. One of the 2018 reading experiences I’ll hold onto longest was tearing through all of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch as part of a desperate (and doomed) attempt to understand my boyfriend’s World Cup mania and general Arsenal addiction. I’ve since given up, but I kept the book, and the Fever Pitch experiment has served as a surprising reminder of literature’s ability to connect us.
It’s that note I’m ending the year on and that I hope will bring me back into the bookish fold in 2019. I just pressed Andrew Martin’s Early Work into a friend’s hands, knowing she’ll enjoy this playful, quick-reading novel with a dark heart; a novel where all the young beautiful writers talk a little too fast and a little too well, telling jokes and making mistakes that are familiar but just far enough removed. Soon we’ll meet up to talk about it, but for now I’m starting Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and my list for 2019.
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Feast Days, the second novel from Ian MacKenzie, is narrated by Emma, a “trailing spouse” who accompanies her husband to the Brazillian megacity of São Paulo. Keenly observant and devastatingly intelligent, Emma feels “an affliction of vagueness” about her own purpose in the here and now. Her ambivalence is framed by the country’s political unrest, and the sharp divide between the haves and have-nots—as witnessed in the mass protest over corruption and inequality from behind the floor-to-ceiling windows in her luxury high-rise apartment.
Emma’s desire to somehow do something is the central movement of this lyrical, spare, deeply prescient entry in the Americans-abroad canon. Her loss of political and personal innocence is at once familiar and new, darkly comic, and, thanks to MacKenzie’s unerring ear, tonally flawless. It’s a superb novel about unrest within and without.
Ian MacKenzie spoke with me about the risks (and necessities) inherent in his decision to write in a woman’s voice, what it means to inhabit vantage point not your own, how Feast Days grew out of MacKenzie’s own time spent living in Brazil as a foreign service officer, and how the 2013 protests in Brazil over the country’s extreme economic and political inequality compared to the Occupy movement here in the States.
The Millions: This is your second novel. How did the process on the whole compare to that with your first?
Ian MacKenzie: I published my first novel, City of Strangers, in 2009. At the time, I was doing freelance editing work to make ends meet, living in Brooklyn, subletting rooms from friends, 27 years old. I’d been working on that book for maybe three years, after failing to publish an earlier novel and leaving a job as a high school teacher in order to have more time to write. I had this whole idea of what Being a Writer meant, an idea founded on received notions about personal and artistic freedom, and which involved living in New York City, keeping strange hours, and remaining sufficiently unattached to uproot myself on a whim. I don’t think I was really an adult yet. In other words, I was a cliché.
Now it’s 2018. My second novel, Feast Days, seems to me to be the work almost of a different writer entirely, and it’s inarguably the work of a different person. I’m married, I have a real job that has nothing to do with writing, I haven’t lived in New York for almost a decade, and I have a daughter, too, who was born only a few weeks after the book was sold to its publisher. Almost every prejudice I used to hold about what it means to be a writer has been demolished, happily so.
When I was working on my first novel, I had nothing to do but write and think about writing and think about Being a Writer. I couldn’t imagine anything more important in the world. By the time I was working on my second novel, however, I was writing in what scraps of time I could pick up in and around a demanding job, a marriage—in and around real life, in other words. I think, looking back, that I wrote City of Strangers as much because I wanted to be a writer as because I wanted to write that particular book, let alone needed to write it. I was in a rush to get somewhere. Feast Days I wrote because I had no choice but to write it.
As a husband and a father, I have a completely different sense now of what matters. Writing is no longer the most important thing in the world. That’s another cliché, surely. And, by the way, I also have a sense for what it’s like not to have the time or energy, around the demands of adult life, to read a novel or even two in a week, to give priority to fiction in that way. Perhaps that’s blasphemous for a writer to say, but from this knowledge I have an appreciation for what you’re asking of people when you send a book out into the world. It’s not just a matter of competing for attention in our distracted age, rather an understanding of the place books or any art have—a vital and indispensable one, obviously, but not an exclusive one. In a busy life, those encounters with art perhaps take on even more importance; so they have to be worth it. So I have much more empathy now regarding the way in which a person conceives of herself as a reader, and loves novels, but might not want to read, you know, The Recognitions on a Tuesday evening after work. If you publish a book, it needs to be worthy of another person’s time. That doesn’t mean that it should be simple or easy or that everyone has to like it. (Personally, I think that nothing makes a book difficult to read more than bad prose.) But it should be necessary. And it should also be really fucking good.
And when I talk about necessary books, I’ll say here that I think of your novel After Birth as absolutely that kind of necessary book. Its necessity, its raison d’être, just burns on every page.
TM: Thank you. I tried. And truth, there are not enough hours in the day or days in the year or years in a life for books that are not “worth it.” More and more I can intuit whether a book is going to bullshit me and waste my time from its opening pages, and I’ve grown shameless about not finishing books that hedge, books that are not tightly written, by writers who feel like mercenaries. There’s writing in service of the ego and then there’s writing in service of exploding the ego. Feast Days is so much the latter. It had me locked in from the first paragraph. You are so open and deliberate and clear and honest and funny and wry and arresting and self-aware. “Our naivety didn’t have political consequences. We had G.P.S. in our smartphones. I don’t think we were alcoholics.” It’s like the entire novel in microcosm. Gorgeous, and deceptively simple. Told from the P.O.V. of an American woman living in Sao Paolo. How did you arrive at this voice/structure/place, and what about the political implications you so shrewdly skewer on every page?
IM: The lines you just quoted, from the first page of the book, were among the earliest I wrote. The narrator’s voice, her existence, was always there for me. This book began as a short story, something that’s never happened to me previously as a writer—a short piece growing into something much longer—and it was because Emma’s presence was so clear and large and immediate; she required more space to inhabit. At some point I thought of Saul Bellow’s description of writing The Adventures of Augie March—he has a great line about Augie March’s voice coming down like rain and he, the writer, needing only to stand outside with a bucket—because I was so sure of Emma, but the experience of writing Feast Days wasn’t like standing outside with a bucket. I still had to manufacture every sentence. What was new for me, though, was how immediately it was clear if the sentence I had just written belonged to Emma, or if it was an impostor sentence.
I started writing the book when I was still living in São Paulo. I arrived there a few months before the nationwide demonstrations in 2013, the events that in many ways really catalyzed the political drama that continues to consume Brazil—a president impeached, a former president imprisoned, a large number of congressmen indicted for various corruption-related offenses, just the complete demolition of the country’s political class, all while crime and a general sense of instability permeate the major cities. And it’s important to note that this is happening in a country whose democracy is still quite young, barely 30 years old, so you have people speaking nostalgically of military dictatorship, which is both extraordinary and not at all ahistorical. A lot of the most consequential political developments happened after I left, in 2015, and so the moment I was there to witness was preliminary—so interesting, because the future could still have gone in so many different directions.
Emma’s voice is the main engine of the book. It’s a woman’s voice, of course, yet I’ve never written something that felt so natural. Somehow, writing as Emma allowed me to juxtapose registers—melancholy and biting, moody and ironic—in the way I do in conversation but have always resisted in writing. And, as you imply, she’s direct. She doesn’t say everything, and the lacunae, the things she doesn’t say, occupy the book’s white spaces and serve as frames around what is there. But when she does say something, she says it clearly. She doesn’t use a lot of simile or metaphor. She notices, and she remarks on what she notices. She’s laconic and sensitive at once. That’s why I used the line from the Mark Strand poem as the epigraph. It’s a great poem, “I Will Love the Twenty-First Century.” It’s filled with a kind of epochal, almost eschatological, emotion, yet it’s told in this ridiculously cool, dry, bemused voice. And that’s how Emma also thinks and talks.
TM: It strikes me as potentially problematic that one of the sharpest, deepest, most emotionally and intellectually enjoyable female narrators I’ve read recently was written by a man; probably a different reader would be up in arms about it, but I’m more interested in celebrating your accomplishment here. A good book is a good book is a good book, and this is a damn good book. The rest is noise. Though I confess I did wonder whether “Ian Mackenzie” might be a pen name. I’m very curious to hear about your day job. I admire the way it informs your writing as well as your perspective on writing. Feel free to tell me to fuck off.
IM: I certainly won’t tell you to fuck off! And as for your statement of the problem, I’ll take it as a compliment. But you’re right: it’s not what’s expected. And I wish I had some great, articulate account of being a male author writing in a woman’s voice, but I don’t. It was a voice—Emma’s voice—that simply began to exist within me. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t cognizant of the appropriation; I was, intensely so. I’m aware of recent controversy regarding writers’ appropriations of others’ cultures, sexes, experiences, and my instinctual response is that, ultimately, any writer should have the freedom to write from any point of view. But that doesn’t absolve writers from the sin of being tourists in others’ lives for the sake of a text. There’s lots of bad writing that results from a simplistic expropriation of exotic experience. If you’re going to write from a vantage not your own, you have a lot of work to do, both interior and observational. That said, you can write a shitty memoir, too, so it’s not as though writing only from your own experience guarantees success.
As for my day job, I’m a foreign service officer, a job that keeps me pretty far from the literary world, both physical and virtual. It’s ultimately distinct from writing, but, just as any writer’s day job or other experiences inform writing, it informs mine; for one thing, it brings me to other countries to live and work, and Feast Days grew out of my time living in Brazil. What I do as a foreign service officer is certainly useful to the concerns of a fiction writer: spend time in unfamiliar places, learn new languages, understand another country’s culture and politics, speak with and come to know the people who live there. I’m grateful that my livelihood is independent of my writing, although it’s a bit funny sometimes when the fact of writing comes up with my diplomatic colleagues, as it can’t help but seem somewhat curious.
When I was living in Brazil and the large-scale protests began, in 2013, I was cognizant that I was witnessing something not merely local but arising from the warp and weft of human society in the 21st century. I couldn’t help but think of DeLillo’s line from Mao II: “The future belongs to crowds.” You see it everywhere, especially from the first months of the Arab Spring. It’s the kind of thing, also, that engaging with the world as a foreign service officer deepens and complicates.
TM: Your distance from the literary world makes great sense, given your extraordinarily unselfconscious, intellectually and emotionally honest prose. The writing feels pure and fresh, unafraid of itself. And these tricky questions about appropriation remind me of something Geoff Dyer once said about how he’s not interested in fiction or memoir or nonfiction, he’s just interested in really good books. And incidentally, “Foreign Service Officer” is a great euphemism for “Novelist.” Diplomacy is the noble goal, but sometimes we’re outright spies, are we not?
On March 15, the politician and feminist activist Marielle Franco, who came out of the favelas to become this incredible leader, was assassinated in Rio. She had become a threat to the existing political system. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand justice for her. One of the things Feast Days does so beautifully is to articulate the ways huge disparities in class and privilege define life in Brazil. Do you think things will change? Are they changing? What will it take? Are these hopelessly naïve questions?
IM: I like your alternative definition for “foreign service officer.” Something I love about Brazil is its idiosyncratic tradition of diplomat writers—João Guimarães Rosa, Vinícius de Morães, João Cabral de Melo Neto. Osório Duque-Estrada, a poet who wrote the lyrics to Brazil’s national anthem, was briefly a diplomat; and Clarice Lispector, of course, was a diplomat’s wife.
To your question, I think things—all things—change slowly, when they change at all, and I resist being seduced by the narrative that the arc of history bends toward justice, because as much as I would like it to be true, and as much as the second half of the 20th century offers some consoling evidence, the arc of, say, the last 2,000 years of human history, or 4,000, shows that we’re not on a straight, predictable, or necessarily upward path. In Brazil, where enormous street demonstrations have been a feature of life for the past five years, I don’t think anyone would say the changes that have resulted are uncomplicatedly positive. The legacy of the 2013 manifestações is an ambiguous one, and frankly an unsettled one—there’s more to this story yet to come. And the same has to be true of the outpouring of public anger following Marielle Franco’s killing; perhaps it’s ultimately a part of the same story, or perhaps it isn’t. Brazilian society is riven by deep fissures along lines of race and class, great disparities that mark pretty much every 21st-century society but count particularly heavily in Brazil, where the wealthiest high-rises overlook the poorest favelas.
That’s all a way of saying that your questions aren’t naive at all, but they also aren’t straightforward ones to answer. I mentioned DeLillo’s line about crowds; that was something I thought about a lot during my time in São Paulo, as these protests turned into a recurring part of life. My main point of comparison was the Occupy protests in the United States, but what I saw in Brazil felt different. I don’t mean to diminish Occupy, but I never had the sense that something fundamental would change because of it. In Brazil, it felt like something was changing, or might, but it also felt like—as Emma’s husband notes at one point in the novel—the change to come wasn’t something those petitioning for change could control. You see that now, with some activists and politicians blaming the manifestações—or the June Journeys, as they’re known now—for leading indirectly to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. In 2013, something came uncorked, and no one could predict the course of events to follow. This preoccupies Emma, a feeling she perceives in others of unearned sureness. She doesn’t feel sure, even as the world demands that she feel sure of her opinions, her information, herself. Beyond the local and personal concerns of the novel, I wanted to situate Emma’s story in this very specific 21st-century moment, when we’re only just beginning to reckon with the meaning of crowds, both physical and virtual. It’s the background hum of the novel. I don’t need to say more about that here; there’s plenty of opinion on that subject out there already for those who are inclined to consume it.
TM: Yes, yes, yes. This is precisely what I found so glorious and refreshing and truly hopeful in the most earnest sense about Emma’s voice: her refusal to be sure about anything. It’s so much harder to remain uncertain, to not know. Certainty can feel so cheap and shortsighted in general. She’s a stranger in a strange land, yes, but I got the sense that this is somehow constitutional for her. I love her for that. And it’s what makes her such a stellar narrator. She’s one of those characters I would follow anywhere.
Tell me what you’re reading, what you’ve been reading for the past few years, what fed into Feast Days, and what your head is in these days?
IM: Feast Days has two presiding spirits: Elizabeth Bishop and Joan Didion. Both of them are referred to in the course of the novel. Elizabeth Bishop, beyond what her poems mean to me, is inextricably bound up with the idea of the expatriate in Brazil. You can’t think of Brazil and not think of her. Didion is a more global sort of influence for me, the rotating blades of her sentences, the reach of her eye, her precise sense of the dangers of exporting Americans to far-flung locales. She puts her finger on things. Elizabeth Hardwick, in particular her masterpiece Sleepless Nights, gave me a feeling early on for the possibilities of attrition in prose, for what a slim book can do. Perhaps no writer is more significant to me than James Salter. The title Feast Days is meant as a nod toward Light Years, and also Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days. Graham Greene is another influence buried deep in the substrata of my sense of self as a writer. He’s named in the book, too. I suppose that’s to say I wear this stuff on my sleeve.
One of the finest recent novels I’ve read is another slim one, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. Not only is it intellectually rich and entertaining, in the way of, say, Ben Lerner’s novels (another favorite), it slyly builds toward a resonant and devastating ending.
Outside of any obvious relation to Feast Days, Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, which I read a few years ago, is, I think, one of the most extraordinary and accomplished novels written in English this century. It’s a book I continue to think about as I contemplate the book I’m working on—which is in fact the book I was working on before even beginning Feast Days. Feast Days started life as procrastination, or distraction, from what I believed to be the main thing. I hope to turn back to that in earnest now.
Don’t you find influence such a slippery thing to discuss? And performative—just like on Facebook, you can’t avoid the attempt to curate the presentation of self through references and allusions. But of course it’s fun, too, rattling on about the literature you love.
So I’ll just also mention two books published this year that I loved, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil. Uzo is a good friend, and we were able to do a couple of events together around the publication of our novels. His book is like chamber music, dense and woven, all rhythmic voice and concentrated emotion.
TM: At the close of the novel, Emma ruminates on the ending of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, in which a estranged married couple embrace “out of fear…not devotion.” She judges this purported “happy ending” harshly: “their embrace is merely the postponement of something difficult.” But there seems to me, in the book’s final exhale, a note of grace, of resolution, of acquiescence to her life and her marriage and whatever life will bring. The possibility (or inevitability) of childbearing, in particular, haunts the novel. Does Emma live on for you? Do you have a sense of her trajectory beyond the pages of the book?
IM: Emma absolutely lives on for me! I said before how powerful the emergence of her voice in my mind was; that voice hasn’t gone away. I think with pleasure of revisiting Emma, in the way that Roth or Updike or Richard Ford helplessly revisit their characters; but, as with Roth, I can imagine returning to Emma albeit in a nonlinear way—a mind and a voice that are Emma’s, but imposed into different circumstances, not necessarily flowing directly from the events of Feast Days. I wonder about other possible lives for Emma. Other worlds at which to aim her particular eye.
In my last semester of graduate school, I sat in my advisor’s office discussing with him my struggle with plot. I didn’t much care about it, and it felt unnatural to graft it onto my stories. He said that my strength was “an ear for language,” which was something I’d heard before. Toward the end of the meeting, he declared, a bit too casually, “You know, maybe you’re actually a poet.”
My heart sank. Too little too late, I thought. I was 25 and had never written a poem in my life. To this day, I confess the idea haunts me a little. But prose writers don’t up and become poets. It just doesn’t happen. Or does it?
It certainly happens the other way around, and that’s always fascinated me. Whenever I teach Denis Johnson’s work, for example, I often save “the big reveal” for the end of the discussion: “Johnson started out as a poet. Can’t you tell?” The students nod and consider; some of them light up. There is a sense in which I am making a subtle argument — that “literary fiction” as a genre is in fact the fiction of poets: language-rich, language-precise, language-driven. Secretly, I want to fake like I actually was a poet before I started writing fiction; because that’s how you develop the full range of skill and originality.
Enter April Bernard, Idra Novey, and Jennifer Tseng — three talented poet novelists (among many more, I should say) who kindly took the time to answer some questions about moving between the genres, blurring the genres themselves, authorly identity, and their most recent works.
The Millions: Origin stories may or may not be revelatory here, but nonetheless: tell us how you started out as both a writer and reader. Were you most drawn to poetry, or prose, or both, or neither?
Jennifer Tseng: I began my writing life as a poet. Growing up in a bilingual household — one in which the relationship between sound and meaning was constantly being contested — plus years of classical music training, primed me for this. As a reader, I’ve always drawn equal (if different sorts of) pleasure from poetry and prose.
Idra Novey: I was equally drawn to poetry and prose as well, and to playwriting. I’d write scripts and perform them in the backyard with my stepbrother and kids from the neighborhood. I remember sitting in the grass scratching out lines that didn’t ring true once I heard them out loud. Even in fourth grade, I was a compulsive reviser.
April Bernard: I liked all words, but I loved poetry. My mother read to us — there were four children, I was the third — all the time. Recently I found something I wrote in very big printing on lined paper, about the sound of the ocean snoring in its sleep; my first prose poem, when I was six. I always experienced poetry as something that needed to be heard as well as seen, that was in a way “public.” Fictional prose, especially by the time I was reading novels you can get lost in, like Jane Eyre, was a much more private affair. I never planned to write fiction; my one or two early efforts embarrassed me. But I never minded my own voice in my poems, even when I knew they were simple.
The Millions: Writers who start out writing poetry more often step over/switch into fiction writing than the other way around. I’m wondering how much you think this has to do with the nature and process of writing poetry itself, and/or how much this has to do with something else — and what that would be?
JT: As a writer’s experience deepens, it can become increasingly difficult to articulate meaning within the confines of a short form. Our greatest poets do this. Writers whose poetic impulses drive their prose (e.g. Borges, Anne Carson, Fanny Howe, Michael Ondaatje, Maggie Nelson) and writers whose story-telling instincts propel their poems (e.g. Ai, Claudia Rankine, Lois-Ann Yamanaka) further complicate the task of making distinctions. Indeed, another reader could reframe or reverse or refute these categories entirely.
IN: Yes to refuting categories entirely! Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, so many of the most groundbreaking writers in the U.S. right now have eschewed traditional notions of genre. Most MFA programs in the U.S. require students to apply in one genre and stick to it, which I found incredibly inhibiting. Before getting boxed into the genre of poetry as an MFA student, I wrote mostly prose poetry. I also played around with languages, writing a draft in Spanish and the next in English while I was teaching in Chile after college and later in Brazil. It took me two poetry collections and four translations to get back to that kind of experimentation in Ways to Disappear.
AB: While I would never legislate the distinction for others, I find that fiction and poetry do function very differently for me as a writer and come from utterly different impulses. The novels and short stories I have written are very much fictions, very much made up, and the difficult pleasures I had in writing them comes mostly from the thrill of making up whole worlds. In poetry, I am trying to describe the given world — however round-aboutly, however mischievously.
The Millions: Idra and Jennifer, your official biographies might suggest a linear movement from writing poetry (to significant acclaim) to writing fiction, chronologically speaking. April, you’ve written and published two novels and five poetry collections, and one of those novels was your second book. Can you each give us the “real,” less simplified version of your movement between writing poetry and writing fiction? (“Movement between” may even be oversimplified.)
JT: I’ve been writing poetry and fiction since I was in my 20s. Because I’ve spent many years working on the same novel (still in progress) and I rarely write short stories, I’ve published very little fiction. Before my first published novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, which I wrote to escape this other novel, I was “known” as a poet.
IN: The murky area between genres has always been the place where I feel most at home. As for how others viewed me as a writer, I suppose I was “known” mostly as a translator before my novel Ways to Disappear came out, or maybe as a poet-translator, and now as a poet-novelist-translator-essayist, occasionally. But regardless of which genre I have in mind, my attention is foremost on the sentences, how to inhabit them more deeply and risk something new in an image or a question that I hadn’t written toward in any sentence before it.
AB: The “real” story is that I never know what I am going to work on next, but that poetry is always cooking on the back burner and sometimes on the front burner as well. I wrote my first novel, Pirate Jenny, on a dare to myself (I was about to turn 30 and it was sort of a now-or-never moment) and then — while muddling along with poetry, working at magazines, then learning how to become a teacher and then also a mother — I wrote three more books of poetry that were published and at least two and a half novels that no one wanted to publish, probably because they were pretty bad. As Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in Sleepless Nights, “Even bad artists suffer,” and the bad fiction writer in me suffered a great deal over those 15 years. Then my second novel, Miss Fuller, possessed me entirely for seven years, until it was published in 2012. Once that was written and I knew it was okay, I started writing my first short stories and have published two — I want to write many more eventually. I love the short story form and feel more like myself in that form than in the longer novel form. A very long answer to a complicated question — but I need to add that I now do typically write poetry and fiction “at the same time,” meaning, during the same month. Not on the same day.
The Millions: I’m curious about the question of writerly identity: does it matter to you whether you are considered primarily a poet, or a novelist (or an essayist, or screenwriter, or critic, or teacher, or translator)? Maybe the more relevant question is how you think about crafting your list of writerly identities in various contexts: privately, in your head, versus on a website or in a bio that is out there for a specific purpose?
JT: Privately, it matters little to me whether I’m considered a poet or a novelist. In the public sphere, one’s “identity” impacts one’s readership. The American mainstream, accustomed to reading prose, tends to view poetry as esoteric. Quite often, native English speakers in America perceive English-language poetry as foreign.
IN: In my head, I identify with whatever unfinished writing I feel the greatest urgency to work on. It shifts monthly, sometimes daily. A bio generally reflects what a writer has already published and after a book comes out it has to be your public identity for a certain amount of time, even if, in your thoughts, you already belong to some other book-in-progress. It’s not of great importance to me whether others view me as belonging primarily to one genre or another. What is important to me, however, is to have an identity within the international conversation happening between writers, readers, and translators all over the world, to take part in that larger global conversation and not only in the conversation happening in my own country.
AB: I’m a poet — one who also writes essays and is still (forever) learning to write fiction. I wear the poet badge defiantly. Greatest movie line ever, in The Big Short — it’s actually printed on the screen — one businessman overheard saying to another: “Truth is like poetry. And everyone fucking hates poetry.”
The Millions: Does your primary literary community figure at all into this sense of identity?
JT: In my imagined transnational, transhistorical, multilingual community of beloved writers, all sorts have influenced my sense of identity. Of writers whom I know and who inspire me, poets have exerted the heaviest influence. My longstanding friendships with poets have been forged through a love of poetry and the exchange of work.
IN: I’ve stayed close to writers working in a number of genres and languages. For almost 20 years, I’ve been exchanging work and making dinner with the Chilean fiction writer Andrea Maturana. I’ve also shared all my writing since college with the poet Gerald Jonas, who reviewed science fiction for The New York Times Book Review for 25 years. My intense connection to them is driven more by the exciting conversations we have about each other’s work more than what we have in common in terms of genre or audience.
AB: I have several good friends, living writers, who see my work in draft and help me keep going. My other friends — and they are every bit as real to me — are dead, and they are the great poets I am reading and conversing with all the time. I always say to my students, “The dead want to hear from you.” Send a poem on to G.M. Hopkins; Shakespeare needs something new to read today; have you written to Emily Dickinson or Bashō lately?
My true writing community centers on my twice-yearly teaching in Bennington’s low-residency MFA. I’ve been doing it a long time; my colleagues in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in that program are dear to me, and their many successes fill me with familial pride.
The Millions: And now, a question for each of you individually. April, early praise of your recently published poetry collection Brawl & Jag invokes comparatives and superlatives — “the most powerful, intimate, lucid, and indelible she’s ever written” (Wayne Koestenbaum), and “as if the poet set fire to all her earlier work and wrote these new ones in the light of those flames” (Mark Wunderlich). Blurbs are blurbs, but tell us about Brawl & Jag in the context of your body of work and/or your life. Is this a “letting loose” collection? The title would suggest so (along with the opening poems “Anger” and “Blood Argument” and an unflinching poem about merciless parents and a cat murder).
AB: We do not always know what we have “done” when writing — though since my two readers/blurbers, Wayne and Mark, note a new direction in this book I am happy to agree with them. I feel much freer in my life — bolder, less apologetic in disagreeing with so very much in our culture and in my own history. My working title for this collection was “Arguments and Elegies” — then, as the book was finishing, I switched out the Latinate for the Old English. But something I assert in the final poem is important to me as well — that there is a “sluice of sweet delight” running through my work and my life that accompanies all the brawls and the jags. It is inexplicable; but I know I have experienced, do experience, a kind of grace. I love the world, hard love though that is.
The Millions: Jennifer, the review that most lured me to Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness was the Kirkus, in which the novel is described as “at once voluptuous and spare.” Then, when you and I got in touch, I saw that your email address includes the words “ardor” and “austerity.” Can you talk about these twin forces — in Mayumi, in your literary interests, in your way of life?
JT: I’m so glad you asked about ardor and austerity — two of my favorite “twin forces” (and also the twin stars of my book Red Flower, White Flower). The word pairing comes from Iyengar’s definition of the Sanskrit word tapas, which he defines as “ardor and austerity.” (Italics mine.) As a biracial reader/writer/human being who has spent a lifetime critiquing dualism, I gasped when I read that. It proposes that two things commonly known in English as opposing forces, are, in fact, kindred actions. While Iyengar applies ardor/austerity to the practice of yoga, we can apply it beautifully to the practice of writing, to the practice of any art. Often, even the most ardor-driven work is born of an austere practice. We sit down to write, we encounter emptiness, we wait, we sit down to write, we encounter emptiness, we wait, and so on. Over time, we make discoveries. Somewhere along the way, this practice, this sitting, this encountering, this waiting, this returning to make discoveries, becomes a pleasure. Instead of having to discipline ourselves to practice, we develop a longing to practice. It’s an ideal state for an artist to attain, one in which discipline and longing are one.
The Millions: Idra, since we’re talking about genre here, tell us about the influence of mystery/noir on you as writer and reader. When did you know that this novel’s plot was going to be driven by a genre-esque disappearance? Are you a mystery novel reader, or a Hitchcock fan, or a Law and Order junkie? I’m also curious about your process of developing the novel’s wonderful collage form.
IN: My dad is an Agatha Christie junkie. I watched endless Hercule Poirot mysteries on the BBC with him when I was growing up. After I left for college, I never watched those Agatha Christie shows again and I think something in me longed for the noir-y pleasure of them. I knew from the first draft of Ways to Disappear that I wanted to work in something about online poker and the ways that publishing writing and translations often feel like a crapshoot. As for the definitions and radio announcements and the novel’s mashup of forms, if a section didn’t push the world of the novel outward in some way, if it didn’t surprise me as a writer, I deleted it and tried something wilder. I wanted the form of the book to be the continual subversion of form.
The Millions: And lastly — Jennifer, I understand you are currently working on another novel. April, your new poetry collection has just been published, and the book before this was a novel. Idra, you’re going to be teaching in an MFA program in the fall, and I’m wondering if you’ll be teaching fiction or poetry or both. So my question for all of you is whether poetry or fiction is “winning out” for your time/attention right now and going forth; and how you balance the two impulses/interests? Are any of you able to work in earnest on poems and fiction at the same time?
JT: For the first time in my life, I’m writing poetry and fiction in tandem. This will sound insane, but the other morning I was literally working on a poem and on my novel, writing a line or two on one manuscript then switching to the other manuscript to write a line or two and so on. It scared me a little, but it was thrilling.
IN: I also enjoy working on poetry and fiction in tandem. The other day I was editing a short story and then turned to a prose poem about a man who gives birth to a panda, which I’d already sent to an editor who accepted it. But as I worked on the story, something occurred to me about the man and his experience of gestating an endangered animal that I hadn’t thought of earlier. Like Jennifer, I find it thrilling to jump back and forth between various manuscripts and surprise myself with the ways one might lead to new meanings or questions in the other.
AB: I guess I already answered this in another context. I do them both at once — (but not on the same day! Jennifer, that does sound divinely mad!) — and I have plans for new poems and for new stories going on right now.
The Millions: And related to this — the true final question — while I’m framing this as if the two endeavors are in opposition, please do share the ways in which you think they nourish and instruct each other.
JT: In its finitude, poetry revives the prose writer in me like a rest stop during a long journey. The sense of completion one feels after finishing a poem is especially gratifying for a novelist. The novel offers freedom, a break from intense scrutiny; one can roam its frontiers in a more anonymous way, as someone else. (Though poets too find ways to be anonymous.) A writer can learn a lot about her own motives and priorities by turning a poem into a paragraph or a paragraph into a poem, by turning an entire novel into a single poem and vice versa.
IN: I’ve found the process of turning a poem into a paragraph or vice versa to be profoundly illuminating also. And the break from intense scrutiny that the novel offers hadn’t occurred to me, Jennifer, until I read your response, but I think that was probably one of the reasons I found it so pleasurable to work on Ways to Disappear. I worked on it for four years before showing it to anyone but a few close friends. I think that period of time writing without taking part in a workshop, without figuring out what genre it might be, or who might read it, was tremendously freeing.
AB: Fiction frees the liar in me; poetry entraps the truth-teller. But fiction is a trudge and poetry is a dance. I need both.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.
I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.
The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.
Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.
Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.
Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?
I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…
And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.
It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.
Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.
In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.
As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.
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June is sickly sweet; it’s insipid. Is that because it’s so warm, or because it rhymes so easily? June / moon / spoon / balloon… But while Robert Burns happily rhymed his “red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” with a “melody / that’s sweetly played in tune,” Gwendolyn Brooks burned off any sugar in the terse rhythms of “We Real Cool”: the rhyme she finds for “Jazz June”? “Die soon.”
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
June is called “midsummer,” even though it’s the beginning, not the middle, of the season. It’s the traditional month for weddings — Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is overflowing with matrimony — but it’s also the home of another modern ritual, graduation day — or, as it’s more evocatively known, commencement, an ending that’s a beginning. It’s an occasion that brings out both hope and world-weariness in elders and advice givers. It brought David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address reprinted as This Is Water, perhaps as close as he ever came to the unironic statement his busy mind was striving for.
But the graduation speech is an especially potent scene in African American literature. There’s the narrator’s friend “Shiny” in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, speaking to a white audience like “a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life,” and there’s Richard Wright, in his memoir Black Boy, giving a rough speech he’d composed himself instead of the one written, cynically, for him. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is invited to give his class speech before the town’s leading white citizens, only to find himself instead pitted in a “battle royal” with his classmates, while in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a young student follows a white dignitary’s patronizing words to the graduates with an unprompted and subversive leading of the “Negro national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (whose lyrics, to bring the tradition full circle, were written by none other than James Weldon Johnson).
Here is a selection of June reading for the beginnings and endings that midsummer brings:
McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)
One of American literature’s most memorable — and most disastrous — weddings ends, after an orgy of oyster soup, stewed prunes, roast goose, and champagne, with Trina whispering to her groom, McTeague, “Oh, you must be very good to me — very, very good to me, dear, for you’re all that I have in the world now.”
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
Five days after Joyce met Nora Barnacle on a Dublin street, and one day after she stood him up, they went on their first date. Eighteen years later, he celebrated that day — June 16, 1904 — with a book.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1942/2004)
After reading Colette’s account of the migration out of Paris forced by the German occupation, Némirovsky remarked, “If that’s all she could get out of June, I’m not worried,” and continued work on her own version, “Storm in June,” the first of the two sections of her fictional suite she’d survive the Nazis long enough to complete.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)
It’s a “clear and sunny” morning on June 27 when the men, women, and children of an unnamed village assemble to conduct their annual choosing of lots.
“The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara (1959)
Writing during the lunch hour of his job at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara gathered the moments of his afternoon into a poem: the train schedule to Long Island, a shoeshine, the “quandariness” of choosing a book, the sweat of summer, and the memory of how Billie Holiday once took his breath away.
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin (1964) and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” by Eudora Welty (1963)
On the day (June 12, 1963) Medgar Evers was assassinated, Baldwin vowed that “nothing under heaven would prevent” him from finishing the play he was working on, about another notorious murder of a black man in Mississippi, while Welty, on hearing of the murder in her hometown of Jackson, quickly wrote a story, told from the mind of the presumed killer, that was published in The New Yorker within weeks.
Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
Is the greatest beach read the one that could keep you from ever wanting to go into the water again?
Blind Ambition by John Dean (197?)
We know the story of the June 1972 Watergate break-in best from All the President’s Men, but Dean’s insider’s memoir of how it quickly went wrong, co-written with future civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is an equally thrilling and well-told tale.
The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1977)
We’ve never quite known what to do with The Public Burning, Coover’s wild American pageant starring Nixon, a foul and folksy Uncle Sam, and the Rosenbergs, whose June execution is at its center: it’s too long, too angry, too crazy, and, for the publisher’s lawyers who said it couldn’t be released while its main character, the freshly deposed president, was still alive, it was too soon.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979)
Sleepless Nights begins in a hot, blinding June but soon fragments across time, into memories from the narrator’s life — which closely resembles Hardwick’s — and stories from the lives of others, a method that has the paradoxical effect of heightening time’s power.
Clockers by Richard Price (1992)
It’s often said that no modern novel can match the storytelling power of The Wire, but its creators drew inspiration from Price’s novel of an unsolved summertime murder in the low-level New Jersey crack trade, and for their third season they added Price to their scriptwriting team.
When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud (1995)
Bali is hot but dry in June, while the Isle of Skye is gray and wet, at least until the weather makes yet another change. Messud’s first novel follows two English sisters just on the far side of middle age who find themselves on those distant and different islands, reckoning with the choices they’ve made and suddenly open to the life around them.
“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx (1997)
Meeting again nearly four summers after they last parted on Brokeback Mountain, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are drawn together with such a jolt that Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth.
Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
Three Junes might well be called “Three Funerals”–each of its three sections, set in summers that stretch across a decade, takes place in the wake of a death. But the warmth of the month in Glass’s title hints at the story inside, and the way her characters hold on to life wherever they find it.
Image via circasassy/Flickr
It was a year of piles of books. Piles and piles stacked around my office floor, resting on my nightstand, even perched precariously on the top of the stairway banister. These piles competed and collided in my mind every day. Do I begin the morning reading for work? Reading for pleasure? Sometimes these were the same.
In the category of re-reading, I discovered Mrs. Dalloway anew, and –– if you’ll forgive the analogy –– it was like being prescribed exactly the right SSRI. Interior life! Laid out in all of its intricacy, and yet the product of a turbulent mind. As a writer, it gave me hope for my own turbulent mind. And as I wrote to the Buddhist teacher and writer Jack Kornfield (whose book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, wins my vote for most awesome title) it made me think of Woolf as an accidental Buddhist. Next up on the re-read list was Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. I’ve been pressing this book into students’ hands for years, and finally it is most deservedly back in print. A hybrid of novel and memoir, an extraordinary evocation of pure consciousness, I fear I’ll turn off readers by saying that Sleepless Nights is entirely without plot, but bear with me when I tell you that this doesn’t prevent it from being its own kind of page-turner.
Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being was one of the only books published this year that I was able to rescue from the endless stacks and read purely and simply for pleasure. It’s a daring, exciting novel that defies categorization. Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat was a favorite story collection, and I now want to read everything she writes. Chris Belden’s novel Shriver –– an example of a terrific book brought out by a tiny press (Rain Mountain) –– is a send-up of academia and literary pretension, as well as a poignant exploration of writerly insecurity. As a side note, Belden has written a hilarious song all about writerly insecurity, an ode to the author photographer Marion Ettlinger. (“Marion Ettlinger/Won’t you take my picture…”)
This being a year that I was finishing my own book about writing, I also read or re-read a fair number of writing books, and discovered that some of the classics hold up beautifully: Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, of course. As well as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. A new discovery was Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth, a must for memoirists.
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