Those who know Steve Almond as an incredible short story writer might be surprised by the deep rigor and political analysis of this recent nonfiction book, Bad Stories. But those of us who read his Week in Greed column won’t, particularly those of us who read “To Behave like the Fallen World“ and were able to revel in his capacity to expose his own transgressions for the sake of a narrative that epitomizes the human condition. I consider Steve a mentor, and he’s had a great deal of influence on my work. We chatted over email about his latest book.
The Millions: Early on in Bad Stories, you say you believe that faith in stories has been integral to our survival, but you also believe this capacity poses the central risk to our species and that the 2016 election is an object lesson in just how much harm bad stories can inflict upon even the sturdiest democracy.
When I read that I was reminded of an interview Lauren Groff had with Brad Listi, wherein she likened Ayn Rand to someone who was given a pen to write with yet used it to stab us in the eye.
I agree so much with what you’ve both said here, and in this political era, I’m clamoring for narratives that promote collectivism, what you mention as the beautiful fiction known as the common good. But maybe there’s a different narrative approach that can be taken here.
I’ve had the good fortune of learning from you.
One of my favorite lectures of yours is one you call “Show Me the Gun,” about the amount of information we share with the reader. You urge your students not to hold back, to not be coy; perhaps all the characters don’t have the information, but our beloved reader knows it all.
Am I naive to think that collectivism is the narrative that will lead us toward change? Will it be satire? It seems there are a lot more dystopic narratives, stories about greed gone awry. We watch people on Westworld and Black Mirror and Handmaid’s Tale reaching for more than their fair share, and it acts as a portal into our present or our future, and maybe we’ll learn from it or maybe we’ll all suffer compassion fatigue. What do you think?
Steve Almond: I hadn’t made the connection, but my approach as a teacher of creative writing does have something to do with collectivism. What I often see from student writers is the withholding of vital contextual information from the reader. The writer does this for a number of reasons: She hasn’t figured out the context yet and/or she fears it will be boring and/or she believes withholding will build suspense and/or she’s been told “show don’t tell” too many times. Whatever the reasons, the most common result is that the reader gets confused. They really don’t know the character they’re reading about and what’s at stake for that person. And they usually stop reading that story—no matter how vivid the prose is. They can’t connect emotionally. Because we can’t feel what a character feels until we know what they know.
This is really at the heart of the essential human struggle between selfishness and collectivism. Are we, as individuals and as a culture, willing to recognize the humanity of other people? Are we willing to imagine our way into their struggle? That’s what our most powerful good stories help us do, stories such as the Sermon on the Mount, or the Gettysburg Address, or Their Eyes Were Watching God or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” or Song of Solomon. Great books—great art of any kind—complicate moral action by making us feel our responsibility for the suffering of others. In this sense, it’s the literary ally of collectivism.
Propaganda seeks just the opposite. It’s intended to help us disregard other people, to nurture our own selfish impulses, to anesthetize our mercy. This is what Lauren means when she talks about Ayn Rand. Her novels are properly understood as dogma, a kind of capitalist propaganda devoted to the childish fantasy that the rich are virtuous and the poor are morally defective. They hew to the basic moral logic of eugenics. And they portend a world straight out of Thomas Hobbes, in which life is understood as “a war of all against all.” It is this manner of thought that has animated the American right for the past half-century, and which our current president embodies—a mindset that is a precise repudiation of the Sermon on the Mount.
What you call “compassion fatigue” is the understandable exhaustion that people of conscience feel in having to fight such tireless greed and cruelty.
But it’s important to remember the stories in American history that have marked our moral progress: abolition, emancipation, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights. Long before we had a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror” we had a “war on poverty.” All of this required Americans of conscience to turn away from their screens and get off their couches and take action, to embrace the burdens and privileges of citizenship. As you know from your work, Melissa, it’s exhausting and often thankless work. But it’s the only way we can push the pendulum back in the direction of mercy. It’s not going to happen by us just sitting on the sidelines, hate-watching the demise of our democracy.
TM: You define bad stories as stories that are fraudulent either by design or by negligence. One of the first bad stories is our electoral system. You talk early on in the book about how our system of democracy has been rigged, structurally and logistically, by some combination of cynical partisan intent, class privilege, and abject negligence. You later go on to state how we are powerless to fix our broken institutions.
It was one of those rare, stunning summer days at a summer writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon, when a writer said she just wasn’t sure about voting, that her vote mattered, or maybe I’m remembering wrong—maybe she wasn’t sure about a specific initiative like universal health care or a progressive tax or a candidate—and either I looked at you pleading for help or you me, but that brings me to what I often find to be the worst bad story: What is the antidote for apathy?
If I were to channel my inner Steve Almond, I might say the narrative antidote to apathy is to invoke empathy, and the best way a writer could do that is to write honestly, with an open, unguarded heart. Much less a what to do than a what not to do…to not protect oneself from excessive emotional involvement. That emotional entanglement is the point. As Cheryl Strayed has said, be brave enough to break our own hearts. Today I get to tell my students that contrary to what we’ve been taught, the page is the one place where we are not just safe but encouraged to break our own hearts.
SA: Yeah, look—it hurts to touch the inner life. Our best stories are not the ones that try to soothe that hurt, but ones that articulate that hurt and remind us that we’re not alone in that hurt. Apathy, like alienation, is a defensive response to thwarted desire. It’s people deciding—consciously or unconsciously—that they can no longer shoulder what Sarah Manguso calls “the burden of hope.” So maybe the question we should have asked that woman in Portland is: What do you desire? What are your hopes? Who are you worried about? Where are you hurting? That’s what our best stories do: they peel back our grievances and reveal our vulnerabilities.
TM: My most damaging unreliable narrator is the one I’ve manifested over time by way of capitalism. I’ll wake up and think of all the ways I’ll lose everything I have. All the things I have not yet acquired. I have to catch myself and say, no Melissa, that is not a true story; those are the little capitalist elves taking over your mind. You articulate this so well when you say Trumpism is predicated on the zero-sum model; in order for you to win, the other guy has to lose. What do you tell your children when they are entertaining that very American ideology of compare and despair?
SA: Gosh. Yeah. I mean, my kids are constantly doing this. It’s a natural human impulse, one that capitalism has amplified in ways we hardly ever discuss. Look at the manner in which we fetishize wealth and vilify poverty. You can’t blame that on “pop culture” because we’re the ones who create pop culture. What I’ve found with my kids is that it doesn’t work to scold them for bratty behavior, because these behaviors arise from shame—the shame of feeling that you have less because you are less. And here’s the thing: You can’t shame shame out of existence. You can only love it out of existence. What I try to do is recognize that a bratty kid is a kid in need, but one who can’t articulate his or her needs. My wife and I also try (emphasis on try) to model generosity.
One of the curiosities of the 2016 election was that the psychodynamics revolved around shame. Donald Trump presented a kind of unprecedented figure in American politics because he didn’t just appear immune to shame; he weaponized shamelessness. And this made him irresistible. Not just to his base, who saw in him a kind of wish fantasy of moral impunity, but also to his haters (like me) who reveled in repudiating him. We all fed the oxygen of attention into the Trump Express; we all let him set the agenda. It was a kind of shame-based Ponzi scheme in which Trump would say something despicable and people would express disgust and Trump would say, “See, the lying media looks down upon you!” and his supporters, feeling looked down upon, would convert their shame into greater devotion.
It’s the precise opposite of the lesson you try to impart to children, which is that shame should lead you to question and modify your own behavior.
TM: One thing I find to be most difficult about political writing is that heavy lifting of unpacking the backstory. The exposition. How can I write political history in dramatic scene? What does the reader already know? How much should I share? You do this genius thing where you give the reader a bunch of information, but you respect us—by prefacing your statement with “We know”…as in:
We know Fred Trump was arrested at a Klan rally as a younger man, that he didn’t like renting apartments to African-Americans, that he was sued by the federal government for discriminatory practices and forced to desegregate his properties. We know he used to take young Donald around with him to collect rents, and later employed him in the family business. We know that he urged his son to be a “killer” and shipped him off to a military boarding school at age twelve.
And I was like holy shit—I didn’t know all that, but I was glad for the extra props. Can you talk a little bit about the craft of writing a political essay?
SA: A lot of it resides in simply providing the relevant dramatic context for the reader, like we were discussing before. In this case, you have to understand that Trump was raised by a racist father who failed to love him. You can’t understand Trump—his instinctual racial animus, his inexhaustible masculine shame, his need to project his weakness onto others—unless you give the reader the full story. I wrote Bad Stories in part because nobody is giving Americans of conscience the full story. We get all these half-baked hot takes without any sense of the bad stories that led to particular bad outcomes. It’s all panic and no reflection, all present and no backstory, all symptom and no cure.
TM: You tell a story of your time as a young journalist, a pretty incredible one actually. You discuss how you wrote about an assignment to cover the city of Meriden, Connecticut, how you were not from the city. You were honest about how you simply sat in coffee shops and in your Mercury rather than getting to know the city, scheduling ride-alongs, talking to some people who work graveyard shifts, going to the hospital, things like that. You turned in the story, and here is the best detail: Your boss hands you an envelope with $350 and instructs you to buy something nice for your girlfriend, to go get her some cocaine.
First of all that, is such a great fucking line to a story I don’t know how you’ve gone this long without using it (unless you have, and I suck for not remembering). This story is all about what is wrong with journalism. And I agree, wholeheartedly, but I have to disagree that journalism could not awaken the conscience of the powerful, nor rescue those most in need. I have to believe in something.
I am part of a nonprofit called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. It was founded by Barbara Ehrenreich with the aim to enable writers who experience poverty to write about it. So rather than parachute some cocky 20-year-old out to Meriden, Connecticut, a local warehouse worker in Meriden could tell her own narrative. I often report on lived experience, and one of the greater challenges I’ve found is that news outlets don’t want to entrust someone with lived experience to tell their story; they fear we may have a bias. For example, the child welfare system has been my beat, but as a former foster youth, people may think that could cloud my judgement in some way or another. But that brings me to the point you were making here: What exactly does that say about who we do entrust with the story? Who does get to shape our narratives?
SA: Yes! That’s it! The problem is one of privilege and cynicism and sloth—and I was a party to all three back in Meriden, though I had no idea at the time. Who gets to shape the narrative? We should all be asking that, every minute of the day. Who gets to shape the narrative? Look at all those rich old white men in front of microphones. Are they telling the story of every American? Can they possibly know the story of a child of color who grew up in foster care? Why are we allowing people who can’t see or understand such lives to make policy that profoundly effects (and usually harms) such lives? You can draw a straight line between Ronald Reagan talking about “Welfare Queens” and Trump calling immigrants “rapists” and “animals.” This is why I tell so many stories in the book about the limits of my own experience, the way in which I would sit on my porch in El Paso sipping coffee while below me I could watch young women crossing the Rio Grande from Juarez to come clean American toilets for 12 hours a day. They’d stand there, shivering in the dawn, having to strip off their wet clothes and change into dry ones, hoping an INS van wouldn’t chase them through the low desert scrub. That’s just a stone-cold picture of American privilege. I can’t witness that. I can try to imagine what those women are thinking and feeling, but I have no fucking clue. Only they do.
One of the foundational bad stories of journalism is the bad story of “objective journalism,” which Hunter S. Thompson called “a pompous contradiction in terms.” It’s just a little ethical fairytale that reporters tell themselves so they can sleep at night. It makes much more sense to let people tell their own stories, because even the most sensitive journalistic account is really just an approximation from without.
TM: This brings me also to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. You describe this book as an elegant polemic against television; Postman outlines that as a result of television, serious things are handled (and received) with the same essential lack of seriousness.
What do you think Postman would make of social media?
SA: I suspect he would see it as the final step in the disintegration of epistemology, the moment in which the very idea of “the truth” became so decentralized and subjective as to be irrelevant. And that’s really most of what you see when you look at social media: Everyone is crafting a public fiction that conforms to their inner life. The tech greedheads have this whole utopian rap about how the whole point of social media is to connect people. But that’s marketing, which is to say bullshit. The point is to aggregate attention on behalf of the sponsors. That’s why Facebook was happy to become a sewer of Russian misinformation during the election. That’s why your Google search feeds you results that confirm your biases and nourish your bigotries. It’s why so many Russian bots haunted the digital halls of Twitter.
Any sensible government would regulate these huge companies, to prevent them from spreading bad stories. That’s what the Fairness Doctrine was about: putting a spoiler plate on for-profit propaganda. The whole point of the Fairness Doctrine was to make sure the public airwaves were used to serve the public good. When Reagan’s FCC repealed it, right-wing radio went wild. For-profit propaganda became the media’s central growth industry. The modern media echo chamber was born.
The folks who spew this propaganda sound serious as poison. But they are completely unmoored from reason, science, verifiable truth. Which is to say: They are entertainers who are paid to appear serious. And because there is no Fairness Doctrine to keep them honest, actual scientists and professors and journalists and workers are never allowed to call them out on their bullshit. They enjoy the ultimate epistemological safe space, where they can craft enthralling fictions about how white people are the true victims of everything and are constantly under siege by dark others.
In fact, they get to inject this poisonous rhetoric directly into the American political bloodstream, which is how you get Trump as president.
But here’s the thing: We’re not just witnesses to this process. We’re the needle. The attention we give to the bad stories spewed by these hatemongers distracts us from the stories we should be focused on—the story of climate change, of income inequality, of systemic racism, the stories of our most vulnerable citizens.
This is why, in darker moments, I see America as engaged in a kind of disorganized descent into fascism, because rather than housing the Joseph Goebbels of our age in a dungeon or relegating them to the fringes of our public discourse, we’re amplifying their paranoid and fraudulent hate speech.
TM: Can we do a throwback Thursday and I ask Steve “Sugar” a question that kind of relates to all these bad stories?
So I was teaching a writing workshop to young women at a camp in the Pacific Northwest. I talked about being a teenage girl in foster care and developing an ache: the don’t-get-too-attached-you-can’t-spend-eat-fuck-your-way-out-of-it ache, as it were. My talk was the one thing between the young campers and their lunch. So I gave my talk, and we all scattered our own way, but later in the food line over trays, a young woman approached me and sheepishly asked, “Did you ever get rid of the ache?”
I felt like I was at a fork in the road; one direction could lead to a bad story. What should I have told her?
SA: I would have told her that she was brave and beautiful for asking that question and that the only honest answer to give her is that we’re living in the ache. The ache is the astonishing sorrow of the examined life. The ache is how we know we’re alive. And when we’re telling good stories, the ache is how you know you’re not alone in this life.
This year has been rough. Between politics and the environment, I find it hard to slip into the fictional world of a novel, usually my favorite escape. Lately, I will read a couple of chapters, and although the writing is good, the story is fresh, I can’t make myself engage.
So 2017, has kind of been the year of not reading.
Nevertheless, a few excellent books have broken through. Some are old favorites, revisited as I try to make sense of these trying times, but others are new reads that snagged my frayed attention.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is my favorite novel of all time and I reread it each year as I prepare for the holidays. There is no malaise quite like a black bourgeois blues. I like to follow it up with Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the first novel I ever loved. While Morrison diagnoses the rot at the center of upwardly mobile patriarchal family life, Mildred D. Taylor lets you remember what it is to be a little girl who just loves her daddy. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s debut, A Kind of Freedom, a family story set in New Orleans, is really good, too.
I was in a nerd-fight with a friend and we read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. In my view, they are different takes on the same Big Question: how do we treat those whom we have arbitrarily marked different? In Never Let Me Go, the outcasts are cloned human beings and Fowler chooses to excavate the not-so-fine line between humans and apes. My friend, who preferred the Fowler novel, accused me of preferring Ishiguro because his characters live in a posh English boarding school while Fowler’s people live in Bloomington, Ind., and go to IU. I did concede that challenging the person/animal divide is more ambitious than interrogating person-on-person unkindness. I was similarly intrigued by Richard Powers’s new one, The Overstory—check for it in April.
White Houses is the best novel in my galley stack. Nobody writes love like Amy Bloom. In this book, the lovers are Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. It’s a heart-healer and a heart-breaker. It will be released just in time for Valentine’s Day. Speaking of Mrs. Roosevelt, The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell Scott tells the story of Pauli Murray, another friend of Eleanor, and a great unsung hero of the civil rights movement, another “hidden figure.”
I also found myself nibbling at short story collections. I especially loved What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Arimah, Five Carat Soul by James McBride (I adored the story about the zoo!) Get in Trouble by the ever-brilliant Kelly Link blew my mind. Looking to the future, I adored Renee Simms’s forthcoming Meet Behind Mars. In memory of James Allen McPherson I revisited his ground breaking collection, Elbow Room.
Apparently, I read way more books this year than I thought.
More from A Year in Reading 2017
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It started with The New Yorker. A few years ago, I learned that I could get a discount to the magazine since I was a student, so I subscribed and began tucking each week’s issue into my backpack, underneath my MacBook and a makeup bag. It was a small but crucial pivot; from my third birthday to the end of my senior year, I was a notoriously voracious reader to the point where I’d get in trouble for reading during class. In college, however, things changed: I’d discovered Tumblr three years earlier, but became deeply embroiled in the burgeoning social justice movement that struck across all major social media platforms at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. I was constantly tweeting, constantly blogging, my attention consumed by the allure of instant opining. It all slowly eroded on my attention span until I looked back during my junior year of university and realized: I hadn’t finished a novel in two years.
The New Yorker was the beginning of my homecoming to regular reading. Despite studying English in college, I always thought I didn’t have time to read. Really read. See, I was a working student, scraping together financial aid to cover tuition and buying textbooks out-of-pocket. While my classmates balanced schoolwork with extracurriculars, I juggled low-paying, part-time work on top of it, waking up at 5 a.m. some mornings to work an early shift, then dragging myself to a Samuel Beckett seminar at noon, and sneaking a quick nap before a College Progressives meeting later that night.
I was poor; I’ve been poor my entire life. And in my social justice circles, I constantly heard the phrase “Poor people don’t have time to read.” But one day, while commuting, I put down my phone and picked out a New Yorker; I’d finished half the magazine by the time I reached work.
If you ride the bus regularly, you likely cut out an hour in your daily schedule for transportation. You must walk to the bus stop, wait for it to arrive, then endure the long route to your destination because others have places to go, too. You likely pull out your phone during these expeditions or, like many, stare out the window and think.
It’s easy in our fast-paced digital age to forget how expansive time can be. An hour can zip by if you’re scrolling through Twitter or drag on for days during an exam. Once I started carrying magazines, my bus rides began to feel longer; the 45 minutes to Station North felt like 45 minutes. Soon, I began carrying books again, a habit that felt as comfortable as muscle memory. My progress was slow at first. I traveled with Swing Time for three months (and wrote a review that you can read here). I carried Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland in my tote during January. I devoured Song of Solomon in a week and God Help the Child after work one night. In the past six months, I’ve finished 15 novels, a record beating last year’s two—excluding every novel I skimmed or never completed for school. My thoughts have since kaleidoscoped; my dreams have evolved; my concentration has slowly but surely fortified over time. My political convictions deepened and expanded like the Texan sky. I use social media less and less each day, all because I stopped looking out the window on the way home.
These days I consider myself anti-car, partly because I live in an urban area, but mostly due to the time lost with a car. It’s difficult to carve out an hour or two for reading when you’re working, studying, or both. Riding the bus provides me with the time to focus on a Bookforum while sipping my morning coffee. Public transit can be a gift—a frustrating, dirty one, but a gift nonetheless. Sometimes the delay in your commute can be a couple extra pages of a Roberto Bolaño novel.
Previously: “Writing in Trains” by Emily St. John Mandel
Image Credit: LPW.
I had the pleasure of starting this essay when my life was falling apart, which is the best time, I think, to return to the author who taught you who you are. My first experience with Toni Morrison was by accident: My sisters and I played the DVD of Beloved at our aunt’s house, thinking it to be something different from what it was because Oprah Winfrey was in it. Back then, I was busy searching for normal in the likes of Junie B. Jones or Abby Hayes; only now do I see that the lives of these white girls fashioned a fantasia, when really my world was our world was Toni’s world: sick, sad, and keeping on regardless.
One of the first grown-up novels I read was The Bluest Eye. It was the summer before university, and I found an old copy at a thrift store and stayed up until 4 a.m. chugging through Pecola Breedlove’s heartbreaking elegy. Four years later—a few weeks ago—I bought Jazz, Love, and Song of Solomon, after checking out God Help the Child at the local library. I’ve since finished Song of Solomon and God Help the Child; Jazz is proving to be a labor of love.
Toni Morrison writes prose the way Dizzy Gillespie carried a tune or Ernie Barnes paints a life. They create art that imbues with heat those who let it in. Still, Barnes’s heat emanates from the hot and heavy space between lovers; Gillespie’s within the boiling blood of dancers in Village Vanguard. Morrison derives hers from tension.
Morrison’s new book of essays, The Origin of Others, shows that the sick, sad world in which her novels are set is an old one—one that she yearns to lean out of, one we’re falling right back into instead.
The Origin of Others is, at once, a critique, memoir, and writer’s notebook; the Nobel Prize-winning author explicates the observations and inspirations behind some of her most prized novels. The book draws from her Norton Lectures, in which she discusses race, borders, history, and other literary heavyweights such as Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway. Readers could consider this book a companion to her Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, if they want a pellucid look at the racial minefield throughout American literature. Morrison spans the essays asking what it is to Other others, to mark the color line between them and us. What I found in this discourse was a generational rift between Morrison and us.
Who is “us”? Ta-Nehisi Coates opens Origin with a foreword that claims it “impossible to read [Morrison’s] thoughts on belonging, on who fits under the umbrella of society and who does not, without considering our current moment.” He is correct in that the book envokes our collective, Trump-era anguish with almost clairvoyant clarity, but he seems to overlook how zeitgeist is geared towards winning the right to exist as Others in peace.
Miles Davis once said that “sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” In that vein, Chloe Ardelia Wofford, born February 18, 1931, became Toni Morrison with time. While the name itself was a gradual invention—she was nicknamed “Toni” in college and picked up “Morrison” when she married—the Morrison we read today was conceived in the lifelong Othering either described or hinted at in The Origin of Others; her first essay, “Romancing Slavery,” opens with a representative scene. In the early 1930s, when Morrison and her sister “still played on the floor,” her great-grandmother Millicent MacTeer visited the family and provided her with a brief lesson about race and power:
Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room: without urging, all the males stood up.
Finally, after a round of visits with other relatives, she entered our living room, tall, straight-backed, leaning on a cane she obviously did not need, and greeted my mother. Then, staring at my sister and me, playing or simply sitting on the floor, she frowned, pointed her cane at us, and said, “These children have been tampered with.”…My great-grandmother was tar black, and my mother knew precisely what she meant: we, her children, and therefore our immediate family, were sullied, not pure.
This scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. She remarks on how she first considered the phrase “tampered with” exotic, until her mother rejected the assertion. “[I]t became clear that ‘tampered with’ meant lesser,” she writes, “if not completely Other.” And thus, lit the spark of apprehension that grew as I continued the book.
The second essay, “Being or Becoming the Stranger,” provides us with an astute analysis as of the ways we draw the boundaries between one another. “Culture, physical traits, religion were and are among all precursors of strategies for ascendance and power,” Morrison explains. She opens the argument by analyzing Flannery O’Connor’s “Artificial Nigger,” in which a poor white man with delusions of grandeur teaches his nephew how to view black folk as lesser. She recounts the characters’ journey to Atlanta, and how Mr. Head teaches his nephew to read color. There’s one scene that stuck out, while on the train, where the two spot a large well-to-do light-skinned man who prompts the nephew to say, “You said they were black…You never said they were tan…”
Morrison highlights this scene to illustrate the fluidity of racial identity, how loosely we define blackness. This scenario either posits that race always trumped class or that race cannot be confined by color or, likely, both, an argument that can lend itself to colorblindness had one taken it at face value. Today, race and class have become entangled like a ratking: dozens of outcomes fighting for recognition but none quite standing out on its own. It is true that you can be an NBA superstar who’s still likened to a gorilla, or a footballer still manhandled by the police, but it also remains true that wealth provides enough mobility within the American social stratosphere to feed one’s delusions that they don’t have to care about blackness or, at the very least, are no longer affected by the racism us working folk are. Wealthy black folks don’t have to put up with Mr. Head’s chauvinism on the train when they can book a private plane for themselves, their non-black partners, and their pretty mixed children in the achromatic utopias often afforded to them. Simply put, they don’t have to care about our problems, and they know it.
Morrison then wraps up Mr. Head’s racial anxiety, that way she does so well: “Without the glue of racial superiority there seems to be no possibility of forgiveness or re-union. When, finally, they enter an all-white neighborhood, their fear of not belonging, of becoming, themselves, the stranger, destabilizes them.” This latter portion seems not to have aged at all, especially following a read of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Dylann Roof; as blackness expands, white resentment remains static, transfixed in its original state until catalyzed by violence.
The book continues like this, wherein there are prescient analyses of the cultural moment followed by claims bordering on diminutive, as though Morrison has grown tired of discussing race—which would be reasonable—and yearns for the Obama-era headway that we millennials have grown accustomed to. This is especially apparent in “The Color Fetish,” the third essay, where Morrison briefly touches upon how dark skin is utilized as imagery for anything from menace to hopelessness to sexual depravity. She highlights a few popular examples, such as how in To Have and Have Not (The Tradesman’s Return), Hemingway must point out that an otherwise-named black character, Wesley, is constantly referred to as “the nigger” to “pinpoint the narrator’s compassion for a black man” and render the white protagonist sympathetic. Any keen cultural consumer will recall a similar trope used in Deadpool (2016) and Baby Driver (2017). We haven’t changed that much.
However, while she references “color-ism” once or twice, she entirely defangs and de-genders the issue, glossing over the preference for light-skinned characters—especially women—throughout American literary history, as well as the way this colorism has also been used by ostensibly black texts to alienate light-skinned protagonists from their dark-skinned antagonists, furthering Charles Chesnutt’s tradition of writing blacks with proximity to whiteness as more human. (Ann Petry’s The Street, Justin Simien’s Dear White People and—while I hesitate to list this as such—Jean Rhys’s polemical Wide Sargasso Sea come to mind.)
It is entirely possible that after 40-odd years of ruminating on blackness, racism, and womanhood, Morrison has become fatigued. We’re sitting in an era where 20-something bloggers need monastic practices of self-care just to keep up with the news. A philosophy major I know recently posted a diatribe against critical theory on Facebook, noting that he’d read 50 books a year for four years only to find that the Black conundrum, the why, only expanded the deeper you went, as if he were searching for the center of the universe. Oppression is exhausting and Morrison ends The Bluest Eye’s prologue by admitting this: “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Every day, black folks are forced to parse how we’re seen, how we’re not, and how we’re to rectify these regular affronts in hopes to, one day, untie the Gordian knot that is our existence in a world designed away from us.
The world Toni Morrison grew up in and immortalized in her fiction was diseased. It’s a world of fathers drunk on hate, seeking love in innocence and turning it to rot; a world of little colored girls trapped in mahogany palaces, sewing roses out of red velvet for parties they’ll never go to. It’s a world rife with ghosts of bygone traumas manifesting in cruelty. Throughout her career, she took that world and turned it into doleful prose to try to make the pain a little more beautiful. This was likely why I returned to her like a ghost back to her grave: She presented us with Negresses who were mobilizing forces in their own lives. But it wasn’t empowering; in fact, it could be incapacitating, seeing your suffering in the mirror.
There was a part in “Being or Becoming the Stranger” that shed a little light on my experience with Beloved. Morrison recalls the time she met an “outrageously dressed fisherwoman” outside of her home. They chat for a few minutes and decide to chat again at some indistinct point in the future. But once the fisherwoman is gone, she never returns, and nary a soul knew she even existed, prompting minor heartache for Morrison:
I immediately sentimentalized and appropriated her. Fantasized her as my personal shaman. I owned her or wanted to (and I suspect she glimpsed it). I had forgotten the power of embedded images and stylish language to seduce, reveal, control. Forgot too their capacity to help us pursue the human project—which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others.
I recall now why we ever thought Beloved was a family-friendly film: We had projected onto Oprah a benignity she’d likely wanted to escape from. Oprah, a woman whose success was often extrapolated from the Mammy archetype. We had fallen victim to the way the world perceived her: supplement to whiteness.
Black American history has been unforgiving. From chattel slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to our current neoliberal dystopia—black art has always been produced as ripostes to the black condition of a given era. For poor black folk, those who can’t cull hundreds of dollars for passports that’d go largely unused anyway, their horizons extend to what’s right before them. Hopeful blacktivists open bookstores to shrink that sea of dissonance between poor folk and the diaspora, but America’s anti-intellectualism too often prevails.
Morrison resists. Her prose is poetic in its simplicity and as lush with imagery as a hilltop forest. She makes a conscious effort to keep her books accessible to help black booksellers push cachet literature to the masses. “I thought to myself,” she writes, “what if I published a book good enough, attractive enough to demand black people’s attention?” She’s since reached that goal and then some, I think, but the fatigue still wins sometimes. She explains how, for example, Paradise was written as “a reverse dystopia—a deepening of the definition of ‘black’ and a search for its purity as defiance against the eugenics of ‘white’ purity…” In “The Color Fetish,” she also details how God Help the Child displayed color as “both a curse and a blessing, a hammer and a golden ring,” how the beauty in Bride’s sable skin and silky hair was not enough to make her “a sympathetic human being.” And her acclaimed short story, “Recititaf,” could be declared a colorblind masterwork—in fact, it was. This time last year, a white classmate construed the story’s meaning to be that the race of the characters didn’t matter. The real meaning? It may have gotten lost in the process of writing it:
I first tried this technique of racial erasure in a short story…It began as a screenplay that I was asked to write for two actresses—one black, one white. But since in the writing I didn’t know which actress would play which part, I eliminated color altogether, using social class as the marker…Later I converted the material into a short story—which, by the way, does exactly the opposite of my plan (the characters are divided by race, but all racial codes have been deliberately removed). Instead of relating to plot and character development, most readers insist on searching for what I have refused them.
At the end of the day, Morrison loves her people, as discussed in that famous New York Times Magazine interview with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah back in 2015:
What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze…In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people—good, bad, indifferent, whatever—but that was, for me, the universe.
And yet she appears resistant to carry on this discourse, likely because for a moment there it did feel like we were out of the woods. Imagine spending 40 years writing the brutal mores of race hatred only for it to make a comeback—immediately following the first black presidency, at that. Toni Morrison’s world—the world of Beloved and Song of Solomon, Jazz and The Bluest Eye—is an old world she yearns to abandon forever. The Origin of Others glosses over so many things that at this point should be non-factors. But alas, here we are on the bend of time’s spiral, mirroring the same shit in new clothes, all in the twilight of her life. It is not Morrison’s job to bear new burdens like colorism or misogynoir or, ironically, Nazism; it’s up to us to pick them up and smash them against the concrete, just to let her breathe.
Flip to the back of a new book. What do you see? Blurbs. Line after line of praise, proclamations, and predictions. Tucked in a small corner square is an author’s photo, a passport-size acknowledgment of the face behind the book. Often those faces are hidden inside a jacket flap.
Bring back the book jacket photo.
Bring back those full-page portraits that pronounced I wrote a book, damn it.
For The Reivers, William Faulkner stands in front of a bookshelf full of Modern Library titles. He wears a tie and suspenders, with The Philosophy of Nietzsche and Cities of the Plain at his back. He doesn’t look at us, but at the book open in his hands.
Framed in gold and set against black, Louise Erdrich’s photo for Tales of Burning Love feels pronounced. The novel begins: “Holy Saturday in an oil boomtown with no insurance. Toothache.” You can hear Erdrich, confident yet controlled, spin that yarn for us.
I’m a little afraid for Richard Ford on the back of Rock Springs, his collection of stories. Ford stands in the middle of a snow-lined Montana dirt road, against a backdrop of mountains. He doesn’t seem too concerned, and the pose matches the prose, after all. The first line of the title story is “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.”
A novel is an accomplishment, something to be celebrated. Paradise by Toni Morrison got a fuller photo treatment than Beloved and Song of Solomon, and the author deserves it. Morrison’s countenance tells us: here is a story. Read it.
“Even a selected display of one’s early work,” John Cheever writes in the preface to The Stories of John Cheever, “will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” Cheever, wearing an open-necked shirt and sport jacket, smiles on the back. He looks pleasantly resigned.
John Steinbeck channels Vincent Price on the back of The Winter of Our Discontent. Appropriate for the novel’s ominous epigraph: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.”
Published in 1992, Susan Minot’s shot on the back of Folly is early ’90s cool: hair up, back, and messed, with an unbuttoned denim jacket. An interesting contrast with a work of historical fiction prefaced by an endlessly appropriate quote from Blaise Pascal: “Man is so necessarily foolish that not to be a fool is merely a varied freak of folly.”
Previously: Edan Lepucki on Marion Ettlinger
This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters.
(Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.)
There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite.
The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby’s equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing):
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general — the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality.
Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it.
Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.”
Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom…and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin:
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.
Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason.
Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively:
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees — he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– — his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves.
Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it.
Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ — which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible — may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed).
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov — truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction — guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does:
I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will
Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– — quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note.
I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency — the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist — they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity — the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you — give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up — take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty!
See? It’s easy.
Now everybody —
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
“To start with, look at all the books.”
This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend’s always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, “Fourteen books? Really?”
Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me?
So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I’ve been writing essays about them. Some of them I’ve published. My essay “The Art of the Epigraph,” published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I’m turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books.
I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I’m just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I’ve even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and “Opening Sentences” popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category.
Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence––after the book design, title, and epigraph––is among the reader’s first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly.
But how do they work? What’s makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all?
As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen’s case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They’re great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don’t need to be cued into the game so directly.
Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” expressed a woman’s small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with, “They’re out there.” J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel’s famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose.
It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel’s aims, but this isn’t––and shouldn’t––always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which opens with, “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here––the first-person-plurals “our” and “we”––are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position.” The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the “tragic age” remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will “England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking”?
Jumping ahead a number of decades, let’s examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay:
“My idea,” Chip said, “was to have this ‘hump’ that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.”
Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the “rich suspense” of the rest? It’s hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper’s essay “Why Bother?” He writes:
I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.
Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen’s style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip’s girlfriend (who couldn’t make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening’s value: “You see, though,” he says, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form––gender, power, identity, authenticity––and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?” Though Chip’s argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren’t necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they’re looking, as Franzen himself wrote, “for a way out of loneliness.”
I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can’t begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it’s the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: “Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closetlike room he rented on Stoliarny Place.” From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary.
A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn’t believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The “exceptional heat wave” (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows––subtly, maybe inexpressibly––that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn’t.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” You do not get any grander than that.
In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line’s efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something “offputting” at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea.
Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer’s beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: “On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.” Simple, direct, yet enticing––suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they’re fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur––a kind of historical importance––to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect––and the opening sentence reflects that.
Eleanor Catton’s whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale––no other word for it––with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here’s how Catton answers those questions: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.” Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you’ve got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence:
From the variety of their comportment and dress––frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill––they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway––deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip’s screenplay, “prefigured” in that opening. Except here, Catton’s work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you’d have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader.
Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old.
Both Wolitzer’s and Catton’s openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn’t mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness.
Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, “Call me Ishmael,” from Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville’s line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it’s not their real name, so “Ishmael” appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator’s exiled status.
Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville’s line in Cat’s Cradle: “Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John.” Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we’re given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that’s the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is––you guessed it––swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut’s Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales––religion and politics.
Zadie Smith’s allusive opening of On Beauty isn’t nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut’s (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which goes: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sisters.” Smith’s is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer “to whom,” she writes, “all my fiction is indebted.” But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster’s titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith’s novel may have borrowed Forster’s title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrow her title from Elaine Scarry’s essay “On Beauty and Being Just.”)
Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I’ve seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka’s famous, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka’s famous sentence with wit and originally. His story “Samsa in Love” from The New Yorker takes this approach: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Now that’s interesting. In Kafka’s time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We’re used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character.
But, you know, that’s Murakami. Most writers aren’t as imaginative.
And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath’s mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are “maddeningly improbable.” Roth really does his reader a favor––if you’re not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn’t the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there.
Toni Morrison’s Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: “They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the “white girl” is; she joins the list of millions––billions, even––of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: “Don’t be afraid.” Song of Solomon: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” And, of course, Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” Morrison’s prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition––to, in part, “work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary”––has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches.
I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I’m a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out.
Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit’s incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: “Those who saw him hushed.” The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening––hell, about great literature in general: it’s amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness.
Image via Thunderchild7/Flickr
“It is February,” Anne Carson once wrote, perhaps from within the polar vortex. “Ice is general.” By the time we get to February, the days may be getting longer, but there is a weariness to the winter. Hibernation’s novelty has long expired, and the fruits of the fall harvest are running low. On the coldest day of 1855, Henry David Thoreau noted the old saying that “by the 1st of February the meal and grain for a horse are half out.” (He spent the rest of that frozen month skating on the local rivers.)
But in the middle of the month the calendar calls to break the ice with romance. We’ve settled on February 14, the feast day of St. Valentine, as love’s holiday, but there’s little evidence that any of history’s St. Valentines were linked to romance until Geoffrey Chaucer, first artificer of so much in our language, joined them in his Parliament of Fowls: “on Seynt Valentynes day, / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make.” (And even he may have had an Italian St. Valentine’s festival in May, not February, in mind.) We celebrate birthdays too in February: Lincoln’s, for instance, a holiday Richard Wright chose for his first novel, Cesspool (published after his death as Lawd Today), a violent and raunchy satire of one day in the lives of a Chicago postal worker and his friends. And some authors have celebrated their own February birthdays: James Joyce asked that Ulysses be published on the day he turned forty, February 2, 1922, while Toni Morrison, one of the least autobiographical of novelists, nevertheless tucked a small hint of herself into the first page of Song of Solomon: the day the insurance agent Robert Smith announces he will fly from the cupola of Mercy Hospital is February 18, 1931, the date of Morrison’s own birth in Lorain, Ohio.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for February, full of love, birthdays, and late-winter gloom:
Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)
Austen readers looking for a love story in the month of valentines have many choices, but her last novel, the story of an overlooked but independent woman finding love despite obstacles of her own creation, offers perhaps the most moving moment in all her work: the unexpected delivery of a love letter upon which all depends.
Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope (1832)
Mrs. Trollope’s February arrival in the frontier town of Cincinnati (she left her future-novelist son at home in England) may have led to business disaster — the glamorous department store she struggled to build there failed — but ultimately it made her fortune, thanks to this sharp-tongued and coolly observant travelogue, a scandal in America but also a bestseller.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)
There are plenty of obstacles between Bathsheba Everdene and true love in Hardy’s breakthrough novel, beginning with an idle and frolicsome Valentine’s Day joke that turns deadly serious. This being Hardy, more death follows.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1881; 1892)
The third autobiography of Douglass, who chose to celebrate his unrecorded birthday on Valentine’s Day, doesn’t carry the compact power of his original 1845 slave narrative, but it’s a fascinating and ambivalent self-portrait of a half-century in the public life that was launched by that bestselling Narrative.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)
Every day is more or less the same at the Buckets’ tiny ramshackle house—watery cabbage soup for dinner and the winter wind whistling through the cracks—until young Charlie Bucket finds a dollar in the snow and then a Golden Ticket in his chocolate bar inviting him to appear at the Wonka factory gate on February 1 at 10 o’clock sharp.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
One of the most challenging and imaginative of love stories takes place entirely in winter, as an envoy from Earth has to learn to negotiate an ice-bound planet populated by an androgynous people who can take the role of either sex during their monthly heat.
Moortown Diary by Ted Hughes (1979)
These poems from the decade Hughes and his third wife took to farming in North Devon, the country of her birth, are journal entries hewn rough into verse, wet and wintry like the country and full of the blood and being of animals.
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam (1981)
February is doldrums season in the National Basketball Association, well into the slog of the schedule but still far from the urgency of the playoffs, and few have captured the everyday human business of the itinerant professional athlete better than Halberstam in his portrait of the ’79-’80 Trailblazers’ otherwise forgettable season.
Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich (1989)
Over four Maine winters, with as much ingenuity and persistence as his intelligent subjects and an infectious excitement for the drama of the natural world — the “greatest show on earth” — Bernd Heinrich tried to solve the mystery of cooperation among these solitary birds, better known as literary symbols than as objects of study.
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor (1996)
“By the second week in February, the city’s wholesale calendar salesmen pack up their samples and enter a state of self-induced hibernation,” begins one of the comic-strip tales in Katchor’s second Knipl collection, which celebrates the minor industries, fading establishments, and idle off-seasons of his unnamed city with a profound, if paunchy, elegance.
February House by Sherrill Tippens (2005)
Fans of literary anecdotes and surprising artistic encounters will find an embarrassment of riches in this account of the short time in the early ’40s when Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, stripper-turned-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee, and others shared a Brooklyn brownstone that got its nickname because so many among them (McCullers, Auden, Jane Bowles, and house organizer George Davis) had birthdays in this month.
January of this year saw the release of Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper, an excellent and epic novel that in dealing with the horrors of 20th-century prejudice ingeniously splices together its two main strains: anti-Semitism and anti-black racism. Adam, a historian, is called upon to research and corroborate the hushed-up fact that black U.S. soldiers fighting in segregated units helped liberate Dachau. Their achievement, deemed too heroic or too shameful, was whitewashed over and a more palatable history was written. After fighting Nazism, the soldiers returned home to a new front, their own civil rights battles. Adam amplifies protest voices that have lain muffled over the years, learning that “when black World War Two veterans came home to the Jim Crow South they weren’t going to take it anymore.” He documents their “small acts of resistance” born of a newfound courage instilled in them from the war. On the home front they were up against the same racism from the same oppressor, but one all the more hateful for being severely ungrateful.
Toni Morrison’s latest novel, Home, is concerned also with war, injustice, and homecoming. We are in the next decade of the 20th-century, with African-American Frank Money returning from the battlefields of Korea, but the racism is just as ingrained in the country he was fighting for. The ingratitude hasn’t changed either. “You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs,” Frank is told. Morrison starts her tale and Frank’s odyssey in a hospital: Frank wakes up, bound and sedated, but has no recollection of how he came to be there. He receives a mysterious letter urging him to hurry home to his sister. “She be dead if you tarry.” Frank, bitter and brimming with self-loathing, has been back in America for a year but has been unable to bring himself to head back to his native Georgia. The letter gives him the spur he needs. He breaks out of his “crazy ward” and starts his journey, first barefoot through snow, then shod and fed and with $17 in his pocket from a charitable minister. Soon he is weaving from state to state, plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, but finally charged with both direction and purpose.
Morrison interlards Frank’s narrative with those of the other characters in his life. We meet Ycidra, or Cee, the sister in distress. After years of putting up with her grandmother’s malice (Cee, born in the street, was thus tormented with the tag “gutter child”), she ran away from home at 14 with a ne’er-do-well called Prince. When she is left “broken down, down into her separate parts,” she starts again by securing a job from a white doctor called Beauregard Scott. Morrison deftly showcases Cee’s naivety in a short scene where she peruses Scott’s books with titles such as The Passing of the Great Race and Heredity, Race and Society, and then mulls over the meaning of “eugenics.” The other woman in Frank’s life is, or rather was, Lily, his brief romantic interest, before both realize he is too damaged to be tender, too raw to love. Sex is “bed work,” a “duty,” and when he eventually walks out on her, the loneliness she feels gives way to a calming solitude, “a shiver of freedom.”
Frank travels in the present but on the way his troubled mind casts back, conjuring up scarred thoughts and memories from his time in Korea. He witnessed the deaths of his two childhood friends — the three of them joining the army to escape the hometown they loathed and the limited job prospects of work in cotton fields they didn’t own, just like their parents before them. Reliving their deaths goads him on. “No more people I didn’t save. No more watching people close to me die. No more.” Frank’s unswerving loyalty to his sister means he will stop at nothing to complete his quest. War has left plenty of residual cruelty sloshing around in him. He will kill anyone who has touched her. He fights a pimp and keeps punching him when he is unconscious, fuelled by a reawakened lust for blood — “The thrill that came with each blow was wonderfully familiar.” Morrison is sparing in detailing the carnage of war, but there is one neat twist that she withholds until the end, which suggests that Frank is so corroded by remorse that his sister-saving op will only grant him so much redemption.
Frank rescues a very mutilated Cee — whose job description of “medical assistant” should instead have read “guinea pig” — and spirits her home to Lotus, the town the pair did everything they could to flee from (presumably based, as in previous novels, on Lorain, Ohio, where Morrison grew up). This is home and hearth, but of the tough, hardscrabble variety. And yet, both seem to have come full circle. Frank finds it hard to believe he once hated the place; Cee goes one step further by declaring “This is where I belong.” Home and belonging have been salient themes throughout Morrison’s long career. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, begins with a description of two homes, the MacTeers’ and the Breedloves’, both humble, but the former full of warmth and love. The latter is less so, and the youngest family member, Pecola Breedlove, craves a safer sanctuary and sense of community. This warped homely ideal is a typical Morrison trope. We see it again in Sula — Nel’s home is clean and orderly whereas Sula lives among chaos and disorder. Home, in Morrison’s fiction, is frequently a dwelling and seldom a haven. Milkman Dead in Song of Solomon comes from a home stuffed with material privilege but the Dead house lives up to its name – an empty shell devoid of life. In Jazz Joe and Violet Trace depart the South for the “City” and discover quickly it is no Promised Land. Morrison saves her most mordant variation on home for Beloved: the Kentucky plantation on which Sethe Suggs is enslaved is called Sweet Home.
The subverted home-sweet-home sentiment is utilized again in Home. Lotus, for Frank, is a town of dead-ends, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefields.” Navigating the town’s transportation system is also “rougher than confronting a battlefield.” Much as she yearns for her own house, poor Lily is thwarted, first because of the “restrictions” regarding race in the neighborhood she desires, and second because Frank isn’t able to share her house-hunting enthusiasm. (The two friends he loses in Korea are his “homeys,” but this is the closest he comes to being a homeboy.) A good home seems to be reserved for the lucky few. In one short section, Morrison makes patently (and poetically) clear who does the real living and who the house-tending:
It was 7:30 a.m. when he boarded a bus filled with silent day-workers, housekeepers, maids, and grown lawn boys. Once beyond the business part of the city, they dropped off the bus one by one like reluctant divers into inviting blue water high above the pollution below. Down there they would search out the debris, the waste, resupply the reefs, and duck the predators swimming through lacy fronds. They would clean, cook, serve, mind, launder, weed, and mow.
Morrison makes no mention of skin color here. The bus travel and the jobs do the work for her. She employed a different, more overt approach in Sula, spelling it out for us that Nel is “the color of wet sandpaper” and Sula “a heavy brown with large quiet eyes” (and both “wishbone thin and easy-assed”). In Home she prefers to leave us to infer, and rightly so, that a doctor is white or a minister is black, guiding us only by denoting a character’s vernacular and social standing.
But for all its strengths, Home still falls short. This is partly due to its length. Marilynne Robinson’s Home, of “real” novel length, was roomier, with more space for the characters to breathe (two of whom were also like Frank Money, turning up unexpectedly in their hometown after considerable time away). Morrison tries to pack just as much into her 140-something pages and the result is a busy cast bursting with potential, but characters who are so hamstrung in their tight confinement, so seldom on the page, that their tales are only half-told. Perspectives shift to give us another character’s insight and history, but ultimately we feel as if we hardly know them. A whole batch of them gestate but never hatch. Instead of honing in on a small, crucial ensemble, Morrison prefers to pan out and mint more secondary characters, even in the closing pages. James Wood has accused Morrison of loving her characters too much. Such mollycoddling “hotly hugs the life out of them” — a case in point being Frank himself, who is severely half-baked, all pent-up rage and muttered threats that never come to anything. He avenges his friend’s death in Korea by shooting an old one-legged civilian; he describes how picking cotton “broke the body but freed the mind for dreams of vengeance;” and, just prior to freeing Cee from the doctor’s clutches, he experiences “Thoughts of violence alternating with those of caution.” Unfortunately, and perhaps improbably, it is that caution that wins the day, despite Morrison’s grandiose build-up. In a dismal display of bathos, he rescues Cee calmly and wordlessly, all that bloodthirsty vengeance evaporating in the process. Nowhere do we witness Perlman’s “small acts of resistance.” Big angry Frank Money is all bluster.
Morrison wraps up the proceedings with a saccharine bow-out, loving Frank and Cee so much as to endow them with peace of mind and even douse them in the soft-focus “glow of a fat cherry-red sun.” Mercifully, the impact from the bulk of the book lingers — the poignant depiction of a sundered family, the unflinching portrayal of war — for us to brusquely write the whole thing off. If only Morrison had concluded it otherwise: keeping Frank enraged, a victim of his own exaggerations (“home” still being akin to a Korean battlefield) not to mention his own worst enemy. When still with Lily, instead of sharing her passion to find a home, he tells her all he wants to do is “Stay alive.” Trudging through Atlanta he is mugged by five “sneaks” and then dusted down by a Samaritan who warns him to “Stay in the light.” We would prefer a compromise: we like Frank alive, but wish Morrison with her too-big heart had kept him in the shade. That, along with swapping her scattershot sketching for broader, splashier, and more daring brush strokes on a wider canvas, and Home would have been up there with Morrison’s best.
It was the fall of 2000, and I had just read David Foster Wallace’s article in Rolling Stone about his experiences hanging out with John McCain aboard the Straight Talk Express, McCain’s cannily christened campaign bus. At the time, McCain was running a spirited, if underdog, race against George W. Bush for the Republican party nomination. McCain had positioned himself as the anti-politician politician, the truth-telling everyman — an image he would reinvent as the “maverick” eight years later, only to be out-mavericked by his own running mate.
Why this strange marriage between a youth-oriented music magazine, a pop-culture savvy young writer, and a sixty-three-year-old-war-hero-turned-politician? It came about because commentators had observed that McCain’s studied lack of politicking seemed to be lifting the stupor of the country’s most politically apathetic — and thus most cherished — demographic. McCain was threatening to awaken the eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-olds who otherwise fell into a deep slumber every fourth November. “No generation of Young Voters,” Wallace announced in only the second sentence of the article, “has ever cared less about politics and politicians than yours.”
Apathy was a common trope, then as now. And although I had no statistics to disprove Wallace’s pronouncement, less than one year earlier, in late November 1999, I had watched in awe as tens of thousands of demonstrators, most of them in that eighteen to thirty-five demographic (as I was myself), descended upon the city of Seattle to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization. United against the WTO’s policies toward labor, the environment, and economic development, the protestors effectively shut down the meeting, and the city with it — much as the Occupy Wall Street protestors are struggling to do now. The event was exactly the sort of thing we’d long been told could no longer happen — something that existed only in the dewy memories of ’60s nostalgists. My generation was said to be too cynical and self-absorbed to bother with causes. We’d given up on trying to change the world. For David Foster Wallace, our apathy was a form of sales resistance. We’d been marketed to our entire lives. Civic duty had come to seem like just another product.
But I, for one, was feeling optimistic. Maybe what had happened in Seattle was a sign that things were starting to change. Maybe apathy was giving way to engagement. That fall I was teaching composition to college freshmen. I had a classroom full of enthusiastic young students who for the first time in their lives would be old enough to vote. And I had the idea that it would be exciting to spend the semester reading essays like David Foster Wallace’s and writing about what it meant to be young, to have ideals, to live in a democracy, and to have a political voice. As I handed out the syllabus on the first day of class, gazing out upon their fresh, eager faces, I thought how satisfying it would be to prove those naysayers wrong.
The students saw the reading list. The collective groan was audible.
As it turned out, the naysayers were right.
That Americans hate politics is something everyone seems to agree on, even if no one knows exactly why. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne has written that American hatred of politics derives from the “false polarization” created by liberalism and conservatism, a consequence of the cultural divisions that arose in the 1960s. For David Foster Wallace the culprit is the numbness of living in a consumer society. But both arguments suppose that, in the eras before Madison Avenue and Haight-Ashbury, Americans were thronging to rallies to shake hands with our beloved public servants. It may be true that we did so in larger numbers then than we do now, but there’s nevertheless a general sense that right from the start we’ve been a nation of individuals who have regarded politics with suspicion.
I grew up in the suburbs of Central New York in a middle-class family with college-educated parents whose political ideologies were a complete mystery to me. To say “mystery,” though, suggests I spent any time actually wondering what their ideologies were. I didn’t. I had no idea whom they voted for, and I seldom had any idea who was even running. My after-school activities were sports, not debate club. If I looked at the newspaper, it was to study box scores. In this I was no different from any of the rest of my friends.
Like a lot of kids in my position, my own political awakening, such as it was, occurred in college, but probably not in the way it was supposed to. It was the mid-’90s, and I remember one of my first college girlfriends — a feminist when it was still fashionable to confess to being such a thing — badgering me into taking a position on abortion. “I don’t know,” I finally admitted. “I don’t know if it’s right or wrong.”
“If you don’t know,” she said, not bothering to conceal her exasperation, “that means you’re pro-choice.”
I decided to take her word for it.
The main reason I’d chosen this college — one of the lowest tier in the New York state system — was its proximity to mountains. Some people went to college to learn and to expand their horizons. I wanted to go backpacking. Also, it was one of the few colleges that would have me. My apathy for politics was exceeded only by my indifference toward school work.
But once at college, my attitude gradually began to change. My crash course in women’s rights — compliments of my girlfriend — was an important first step. I began to wonder what else I was supposed to know.
My roommate and I had no TV. The internet wasn’t yet widespread. Aside from my girlfriend, the campus had virtually no detectable political pulse. But this small mountain town, which lacked virtually everything else, at least had a public radio station. The hour in the afternoon when they broke with pallid classical music to broadcast an international news program became a fixture of my college curriculum. It was both daunting and exhilarating to discover how big the world actually was, and how little of it I understood.
By my sophomore year, backpacking was no longer enough. I’d decided I was ready for something more. So I set my mind on a plan to escape, and suddenly I found myself willing to do even the unthinkable: study. I buried myself in books, pushed myself to write, and managed to make the dean’s list. And then, before the start of my junior year, I transferred from the mountains of New York to the plains of Ohio, to a school at the opposite end of every measurable spectrum: Antioch College, a place so infamous for countercultural rabble-rousing that its bookstore sold T-shirts touting the college’s unofficial slogan, “Boot Camp for the Revolution.” Overblown rhetoric or not, the campus certainly looked like a boot camp, with barrack-like dormitories and grassless, muddy footpaths. I was both awestruck and dazed. Even though it was 1996, not 1966, at Antioch the revolution was still very much alive. The school’s official slogan, borrowed from Horace Mann, the school’s founder, was “Be ashamed to die until you have won some small victory for humanity.” Even if I wasn’t quite ready to be worrying about how my tombstone might read, I liked the idea of being surrounded by people who were. What better way to make up for all those years of indifference than full immersion at the epicenter of activism?
But in all the excitement of starting over, I forgot to ask myself one important question: where in this atmosphere did someone like me belong? Although I had managed to shake off my apathy, I had no real intention of replacing it with fervor. I was introverted and increasingly bookish. I had no ideology. I was merely curious. My Antioch classmates wanted to change the world; I mostly just wanted to write short stories.
Instead of plotting victories for humanity, I spent my college years cloistered in the tiny office of the Antioch Review, logging fiction and poetry submissions on index cards. The Antioch Review is one of the longest-running literary journals in the country. I was one of the only students at the college who knew it even existed.
The other thing Antioch is known for, besides its activist student body, is being the butt of jokes. In the early 1990s, at the height of the culture wars, the school was a cautionary tale about the perils of political correctness, culminating in a Saturday Night Live skit lampooning the school’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. The SOPP was a document that required verbal permission before any sort of sexual contact could be initiated.
If you missed the skit, just close your eyes and picture a trembling Chris Farley (playing a “nose tackle and a Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother”) asking a scowling Shannen Doherty, “Can I put my hands on your buttocks?”
Needless to say, Antioch has neither a football team nor fraternities. And of course, Shannen Doherty said no. Within this triangulation you find the familiar caricature of progressive politics: that it’s the exclusive domain of the humorless and dull. Antioch, though, was anything but dull. Given the proliferation of unicycles and art cars and tattoos, the place often felt more like a circus than a campus. What the SNL skit overlooked was the important fact that the SOPP had been written and introduced entirely by the students themselves. Sexual harassment on college campuses was a problem; Antioch students had decided to come up with a solution. I appreciated the bullshit-free way in which my peers had set out to fix something that they believed was broken. If I’d been asked to take part, though, I have no doubt I’d have said no.
David Foster Wallace was probably right that no generation has cared less about politics than Generation Y. Then again, whoever said the same thing about my Generation X would have been right, too, as would whoever said it about the generation before that. The idea that Americans are selfish and individualistic isn’t new. There’s even a school of thought that suggests the idea is virtually as old as the nation itself, that these tendencies might be, paradoxically, an inheritance of the Puritans themselves. The Puritans’ relentless pursuit of self-denial, the argument goes, wound up turning the corner into self-indulgence. So closely did they identify themselves with the divine America that they came to feel they actually personified it. Which led, in a roundabout way, to that great American mystic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose preachings about self-reliance and transcendentalism begot Walt Whitman’s songs of himself; they became something of a national anthem. Ever since then, it seems, the majority of us have beat a hasty retreat from public life.
There are numerous variations on this idea, with different starting points and interpretations. Literary scholar R. W. B. Lewis calls his version of this mythic, individualist national identity “the American Adam.” He traces its evolution from Emerson to Thoreau to Whitman, and on to the early American novelists James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James. Lewis describes the American Adam, celebrated in this literary lineage, as “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.” The American Adam is a figure of pure innocence, focused inward, detached from the larger concerns of the world. He is Adam before the Fall.
If I was failing to become everything Horace Mann might have wanted me to be, I at least got out of my time at Antioch an awareness of the complicated matrix of political issues surrounding everything we do, including the telling of stories. I learned that even great works of literature were products of social values and ideas, too many of which often went unexamined. I came to understand instinctively what George Orwell meant when he wrote, three decades before Fredric Jameson, that “no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
While at Antioch, my tolerance toward the compatibility of literature and politics gradually grew. I developed an interest — sacrilegious for a budding writer — in critical theory: Marxists and postcolonialists and postmodernists. The whole solemn crowd. I spent a seminar on Toni Morrison deconstructing the ways in which Beloved, Song of Solomon, Sula, and her other novels blended controversial social issues such as slavery and race with high art.
During the two years I spent at Antioch, my opinions did eventually grow stronger, my convictions more firm. My admiration grew as well for my classmates — for their passion and determination. They were as far from the American Adam as one could get. And yet, I didn’t try to emulate them. Or even to join them. I remained probably the only student at Antioch who took no part in demonstrations. Whenever my classmates were organizing and meeting and debating, I was somewhere else.
As was my tendency with most things, I fed my fascination with political activism by reading. I read everything I could find: Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, histories of the Situationists, the SDS, the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, the Angry Brigade. I read Hakim Bey and borrowed whatever dog-eared tracts my friends had lying around. I was like an anthropologist trying to decipher some exotic alien society. I wanted to understand their culture, their myths and religion. I wanted to know what propelled them. I wanted to know, in short, what made them so different from me.
In time I learned that there were things I lacked that true activists, like my classmates, had in abundance. Above all else, a tolerance for confrontation and a productive ability to channel anger. My instincts were hopelessly reversed. When it came to the issues I cared about most, what got triggered within me was more often flight than fight. The injustices of the world made me indignant, but more than that, they made me depressed. And the only way to escape the depression was to detach. This has remained true even as I’ve gotten older. My attraction for politics is still, more often than not, outweighed by my aversion.
In 2000, when George W. Bush was handed the presidency through a Supreme Court decision, it was the process that I wanted my students to be interested in. What mattered was taking part and caring, not about the outcome, but about why a thing like democracy was important.
In 2004, when Bush was reelected, I turned my radio off, and I’m not exaggerating when I say a year passed before I was able to turn it back on.
My attempt to interest that class of freshmen in writing about what it meant to be political was far from a success. The fault for its failure was undoubtedly mine. After all, how could I expect them to unravel their complicated feelings about democracy and political identity when I was still struggling to do so myself?
But even after the class was over and I packed my syllabus permanently away, these questions about my political self continued to nag at me. Then, in 2002, I happened to read an article in the New York Times about the difficult political situation in Haiti. The focus of the article was an enormous estate on that tumultuous island that had become occupied by armed gangs. In addition to being the site of a once-lavish hotel, the estate was also said to contain the last scrap of the island’s ravaged tropical rainforest. Against the armed intruders the article pitted the estate’s caretaker, a white Canadian whose mission was to try to save the estate, particularly the forest, from oblivion. (This was almost eight years before the devastating earthquake and cholera epidemic.) At the time, my knowledge of Haiti was sketchy, but I knew it was a place embroiled in unrest. I couldn’t help wondering what it meant that this Edenic estate had ever existed here, and what it meant for someone to be trying to preserve it amid widespread environmental destruction and political upheaval.
My desire to understand the complex situation there led me to a related article from twenty-seven years earlier. “A New Retreat for the Rich — Surrounded by Tumbledown Shacks” documented a party held to celebrate the opening of the hotel on that very estate in January 1974 (a year and a half before I was born). With a mixture of bewilderment and contempt, its author described the jet-setters and society figures gathered poolside in tuxedos and diamonds, utterly oblivious of the dire poverty and political instability surrounding them even then. The hotel had been built atop a powder keg. In fact, the earlier article could in retrospect be said to predict the one that would first catch my eye more than a quarter century later.
There was also a seemingly minor detail that both articles mentioned in passing. But this detail captured my imagination almost as much as the rest: at the turn of the nineteenth century the estate had been the home of Charles Leclerc, a French general who in 1801 had been sent by his brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, to restore slavery on the French colony. Since 1791, the slaves, led in part by Toussaint L’Ouverture, had been fighting to win their independence. Not long after they succeeded, Napoleon dispatched Leclerc to take it back.
But despite his warships and his forty thousand troops, Leclerc’s army was decimated. The general himself succumbed to yellow fever. His successor, Rochambeau, fared no better. Although L’Ouverture would not live to see it, the war he had helped to wage became the first successful slave rebellion in history. In 1804, Haiti became the world’s first independent black republic.
This bloody episode was not, however, the end of Haiti’s troubles. It was instead the beginning of a different struggle. The following two hundred years have been characterized by nearly perpetual autocratic rule and fairly regular American meddling. At the time of my initial research, Haiti was in the midst of a difficult transition to democracy. The country’s first popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought to power in 1990, had already been overthrown once by a military coup. He’d been reelected in 2000 for a second term, but alleged irregularities and deep divisions among the electorate had created a tense, often violent atmosphere.
Amy Wilentz’s Rainy Season chronicles the plight of Haiti’s poor and the rise of Aristide, their champion, from firebrand priest to politician. The book is the story of a nation that for generations has suffered oppression most Americans can barely fathom. But the book also makes clear that this is not a nation of passive victims. In Haiti, brutality has always met resistance. The struggles of individuals, communities, and the populace as a whole reveal a relentless determination to see justice done — a determination still plainly visible in the midst of post-earthquake reconstruction and a new round of democratic elections.
For many Americans, politics is an abstraction, something that happens somewhere else, overseen by people we pay to handle things so we don’t have to think about them. In a place like Haiti, I came to see, politics is virtually inescapable. In 1964, while in exile during the reign of dictator Françoise Duvalier, Haitian scholar (and future president) Leslie Manigat wrote of the situation back home, “Everything is political… The reputation earned by an engineer in his special field is regarded as a political trump. The prestige that a professor gains among his students may represent a political threat to the government… Such is the encroachment of politics on all aspects of life that if a man does not go into politics, politics itself comes to him.”
Poring over newspaper articles from the country’s recent past, I found one from 1987, not long after the thirty-year father-and-son Duvalier dictatorship finally came to an end. The constitutionally required “free and fair” elections scheduled for that year — the nation’s first — pitted candidates from numerous camps against one another. And as the ruling military junta began to realize that it stood no chance of retaining power, they concluded that their only recourse was to stop the election from taking place. This they accomplished by orchestrating a campaign of violence culminating in a daylight attack on a school where at least two dozen men, women, and children were slaughtered while waiting to vote.
Could there be any more stark a contrast than between David Foster Wallace’s bemoaning of voter apathy in the U.S. and the situation in Haiti, where in 1987, daring to vote could get a person killed, and where people persisted in doing it anyway? For most of us, the impossibility of something like this happening in our own lives, in our own country, makes the horror feel pretty abstract, too. We can’t conceive of such a world, even though it’s less than a two-hour flight from Miami.
The more I read about Haiti, the more I came to believe that conceiving of such a world is one of the most important things literature can do. And I realized that some of my favorite novels, the ones to which I felt the greatest affinity, were concerned with politically averse individuals caught in the middle of similarly fraught political situations. I’m thinking, for instance, of Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, which depicts the complicity in dictatorial brutality of a priest who wants nothing more than to be a poet. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kwei Armah, places a government clerk stricken with malaise in the center of Ghanaian political and social turmoil. And many of J. M. Coetzee’s novels explore this terrain, too, including Waiting for the Barbarians, in which an unnamed magistrate wishes to disassociate himself from the evils of the empire he serves. It’s worth noting that none of these are American novels. Which suggests that maybe political aversion isn’t limited to our shores after all.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising then that the book I came to write, based in part on the events I’d been reading about in Haiti, also placed political aversion at its core. I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but it was clearly a symptom of what my mind was working through. I couldn’t help asking, as I looked back on my own complicated relationship with politics: if I had been born in such a place, how might I have been different? Might I have been stronger, someone with the courage to take a stand? Or might I have found a way to be the same detached observer that I am? Or something even more extreme: a true American Adam, determined to remain innocent in a place where such a luxury seemed inconceivable, where attempts to secure it were doomed to fail? These questions felt important to me.
But the questions also felt personal. It soon became clear that despite writing about someone whose circumstances and skin color and place of birth could hardly have been more different from my own, I was writing in large part about myself. In fact, I was writing, albeit in a much different form, the sort of thing I had asked my students to write back in 2000 — about what it meant to have ideals and a political voice, and about the strength it sometimes took to express them, especially when it was so much easier not to. It’s taken me more than ten years to do what I hoped they could accomplish in a semester. Little did I know how difficult an assignment it would turn out to be.
Image: 2006 election in Haiti via Wikimedia
You may have heard. In a surprise upset, the Booker Prize was awarded to Alan Hollinghurst for Line of Beauty. Oddsmakers, literary professionals, and speculating bloggers all considered David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to be a lock, but the Booker, as is so often the case, proved too wily to predict. The award will lead to many newspaper write-ups (NYT reg req’d), and a big boost in sales, although, from the looks of things, I would expect relatively modest Vernon God Little numbers rather than blockbuster best seller list Life of Pi numbers. With the Booker overwith, all eyes turn towards the National Book Awards, which will be announced on November 17th. A look at the non-fiction finalists.Bookspotting on the ElI meant to link to this post from Conversational Reading a while ago as it really captures the particular afflictions of many book lovers. His first question caught my eye: “Do you surreptitiously observe what people are reading on public transit?” Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I have the odd habit of posting about the books I spot people reading during the course of my day. (Bookspotting I call it.) Some might find this odd, but I think it’s fascinating, and better than any newspaper article or bestseller list at seeing what books people are interested in. Sure you lots of people reading the bestsellers, but you also see a delightfully random sampling of the books that our fellow citizens bury their noses in each day. Some my find this to be an odd hobby, but I it manages to affirm my faith in civilization. Here are the three books that I noticed from my seat on the Red Line today: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Morrison is an essential of American lit), The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (I’d wager that this book has been a huge seller here in Chicago), and Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare (I love seeing people casually reading Shakespeare on their way to work).