Almost exactly year ago, I wrote a list of books to read to understand late-stage capitalism for this site, because so much of what’s going on in the world today—Trump, endless wars, climate disasters, the migrant crisis, extreme income inequality—can be tied back to capitalism and yet we have so few books that examine its effects on us who are living in this frenzied late-stage capitalist epoch.
I would have added Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success to the list, but it hadn’t been published yet. On first reading it as a literary novel, the “rich-hedge funder-goes-on-a-journey-suffers-hardship-like-the-Greyhound-bus-bathrooms-returns-having-learned-a-thing-or-two” was a bit of a let-down. The frenetic satirical voice, the similar plot of his older work, Super Sad True Love Story with the older secular Jewish man and the younger Asian woman, grated on my nerves a bit. While other reviewers had praised Lake Success as a radical departure from the previous, since it dealt with an American-born not immigrant character, I still couldn’t get over the similarity in tone, down to the fact that the older Jewish American narrator, previously “Lenny,” is now “Barry”—which of course rhymes with “Gary.”
But sitting back and taking it in as a whole, and situating it amongst our current cultural and political climate, I realized it is possible to write a novel that seems not fully functional in a literary sense (including with somewhat generic unlikeable characters), but its dysfunction can be, inadvertently or not, precisely the point.
It reminds me, glancingly, of Ha Jin’s masterful War Trash, a “diary” about a Chinese soldier who becomes a POW in a U.N. detention camp during the Korean War. The novel’s deliberately clunky voice (a shock after the lyrical Waiting) made the reading difficult but in the end faithfully convey a non-native’s voice further occluded by the stream-of-consciousness form of the diary entry written by a traumatized soldier during a war.
Shteyngart’s previous novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was putatively a love story, but I admired it for its look at techno-futurism, eerily predicting the smart phone, skinny jeans, Internet sites like Hot or Not. It was a funny Black Mirror long before there was Black Mirror, and, for something totally esoteric, the author’s a correct and nuanced and untranslated use of the Korean word gijibae (“brat”—used only for women and girls) was pretty cool.
Lake Success, in contrast to Super Sad, dwells not in the near-future but in the real time of a Trump election cycle, rooted in the seeming unending nightmare of our present; to use a contemporary word, it feels like “streaming.” It starts with Barry, the head of a hedge fund, eschewing a private helicopter or other hedge fund modes of transport to head to Port Authority, on the lam from his marriage, his son’s autism diagnosis, the feds who are closing in on him for some shady trades. He hops on a Greyhound and ends up traversing the country with nothing but some cash and a suitcase full of his beloved expensive watches and the vague goal of reuniting with his college girlfriend, with whom he has not kept in touch basically since they broke up after college, when he chose high finance over their relationship. Much of the middle of the book is a picaresque tour of America’s Triumpian interior. Shteyngart ups the stakes of his modern Odysseus journey by subtracting Barry’s phone and credit cards until he lands in a cash-poor situation (at one point begging with a cardboard sign and cup) not dissimilar from that of the average Greyhound bus passenger, citizens of all colors who are sharing the bus ride with him and act as a kind of Greek chorus.
Barry is about as deeply an unlikeable narrator as they come. He judges women on purely superficial bases (his first contact with his wife-to-be is when she admonishes him for ogling her breasts). He is so underdeveloped emotionally it seems he has no Pavlovian responses to anything except thoughts of sex (but not with his wife, now) and money, which, since he has so much of it, he mainly uses to buy extremely expensive rare watches that he dithers over while barely paying attention to his son.
The finance aspect of the novel is that Barry is being chased by the feds for his shady positions his hedge fund takes in “Gastrolux” and “Valupro,” which seem inspired by the fraud and price gouging of hedge funder Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli and the Galleon Group’s Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri Lankan immigrant to whom a director at Goldman Sachs passed insider information. Barry is cheater on his wife and on SEC regulations, but he isn’t so much a Bonfire of the Vanities Sherman McCoy Master of the Universe as a clueless doofus, even though sloppily racist (he thinks his friend Jeff Park is Chinese—a joke recycled from Super Sad True Love Story with the young Korean American woman, Eunice Park: “Chinese women are so delicate”). The only thing Barry knows in his heart is making money (which he continues to do despite the feds) and while he tries to love his three-year-old son, it seems the only way he can do this is through saving his son, who can’t tell time, a special watch to inherit. As he abandons his family and cuts off communication, Barry knows something’s a bit off with him; there are clues he feels might indicate he is “autistic” like his son.
Barry’s world of high finance frequently references Goldman Sachs, where I once worked; Goldman has indeed become part of pop culture, if anything for indelibly fomenting the mortgage crisis of 2008, but I didn’t find Barry convincing as an ex-athlete finance bro. Barry’s default modes are sheepish and full of shame, which are usually not part of a finance bro’s emotional palette, evidenced in how Goldman conducted part of its business at strip clubs and on golf courses. Most of the finance people I worked with were too self centered to have that aching Barry angst or his need to please because they were convinced they’d already “won” via their acumen and merits and the spoils of income inequality.
What makes Lake Success a notable book for this year is less characterizations and plot. Despite the fact that this novel is pushed as a departure from his earlier immigrant novels, it’s almost like each novel has a version of the same protagonist going through different situations, and that his books merely skim the surface of technical and scientific issues while utilizing jargon (China-pegged currency arbitrage, genetic modification, mortgage-backed securities) but in some ways this refractory, superficial style is precisely what makes his work so interesting and original, especially at this time.
While Shteyngart’s “Barry” characters (I’ll call all his anti-hero protagonists Barry) grope (sometimes literally) their way into their futures, dystopian and not, in between the gross jokes (Barry burps up beer and Domino’s pizza while simultaneously trying to navigate a touching moment with a friend) that rise from the basic—in all senses of the word—plots (love story, road trip story), in Lake Success, we readers can squint to look at the glinting of the over-the-top glass and chrome of these billion-dollar apartments and see, mercilessly reflected back, the attention-deficient, capital-obsessed, atomized, ever accelerating FOMO society that we have become. Even Barry’s liberal-leaning wife, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-mom, rationalizes the good living afforded by Barry’s rapacious capitalism and uneasily deludes herself that, as Dawn Powell characterized certain New Yorkers in the ’30s, that with her phalanx of cooks and nannies and doormen, she is still “not idle rich, but busy, good-living, intelligent idling rich.”
What this novel has carved out, as if with surgical scalpel, is the feeling of malaise that in our weird late-stage capitalist epoch, even someone worth 30 billion dollars can feel. Jeff Park the “Chinese” financier peevishly complains that the top of his Ferrari “used to go down in fourteen seconds…but now it takes eighteen. Everything’s a scam.” Barry, likewise, can’t believe it when he finds his ridiculously expensive watch has lost a few seconds. It’s a funny and sad (and maybe super-sad) realization for these one-percenters that money can’t buy them a perfect universe, that having the means to overspend on a consumable good like a watch still does not guarantee its quality—it is a scam—nor does thirty billion versus fifteen billion make a difference in death. Here is where, through a sea of financial jargon sometimes inexpertly applied (and maybe the goobledy-goo of financial jargon is precisely the point), we hit gold.
The feds do catch up to Barry, but it gets resolved in a paragraph or two (no spoilers, here), and Barry’s free to go and he’s not even barred from the industry; at first this seems like “too easy” a plot point, the galloping narrative merely running out of gas. But it continues as an eminently plausible and expected resolution (art imitates life and back again). It therefore makes in a paragraph the point that a thousand studies from the Roosevelt Institute outlining the costs of rescinding of Glass-Steagall (a Depression-era banking reform law) never could, about how we got here, and how we are unlikely to learn from our mistakes, as long as the money-laden people stay in charge.
That pretty much all the upper-income characters in Lake Success are mild-to-moderately loathsome illuminates the hypocrisies that the people on the “good” side of income inequality have little motivation to change it, even when they are, like Barry’s wife, uncomfortable with some of the moral aspects of it. Barry considers himself a Republican but “socially liberal,” but sees nothing wrong with gouging dying patients for an essential drug because profit and shareholder value is his lodestar. Jeff Park’s father actually needs that drug, and so Jeff is mad at Barry because of it, but Jeff is also glad he, too, is a rapacious Lamborghini-driving financial swell because that way he can afford the heavily-price-inflated drug for his father. Talk about a model minority.
It’s a radical updating of The Great Gatsby as we see Barry smashing up people’s lives, while his cross-country journey gives him plenty of time to think about it and even meet the people impacted by what to him was merely moving numbers around. In our current culture, we privilege business, even though it doesn’t make sense—why do we focus to the exclusion of arts and other sciences, on economic value measured in piles of paper while we despoil the air and water that we depend on to live? Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” isn’t rational and impartial, it’s about maximizing profit; as evidence, as Americans, we might want to consider why all other countries in the world are smart enough to not base their healthcare systems on ours, and the majority have some kind of universal insurance while we, in the so-called land of consumer choice, don’t even had a public option for it. Further, in classic economics, profits would be zero; in a perfect capitalist society because of transparency in costs of production that essential pharma drug should be priced near what it cost to make. Barry succeeds by subverting all of that
The Lake Success of the title is actually a place as well as a metaphor in the book. It is Barry’s green light at the end of the dock, his East Egg, his Rosebud and his White Whale all at once. Why not pack it all into one narrative? Late stage capitalism’s name suggests excess, and also that we are approaching a terminus, as presaged in the title of the excellent early-late-stage capitalism novel (2006), Then We Came to the End. That unless we pivot drastically (“a course correction,” as Barry might say), there’s a black hole waiting as a consequence of our pollution of our environment, of our prizing lucre over life, our worship of paper, of using technology to get rid of inefficiency then discovering that human relationships are remarkably inefficient as well.
Lake Success does take a drastic pivot at the very end (no spoilers!), with a burst of lyricism verging on sentimentality that suggests both beauty and love—and an end. The way Barry lives is clearly not sustainable, and this is what we learn. In this, the novel succeeds wildly, for what is the role of artist if not to reflect back society to the reader—even, and perhaps especially, if we aren’t going to like what we see?
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In recent years, three novels have caused me to gasp, “No!” while riding the New York City subway. The first two were The Mayor of Casterbridge and Portrait of a Lady. The third was Alex Gilvarry’s Eastman Was Here, the often comical story of Alan Eastman, a Norman Mailer-like writer who, as the novel progresses, displays increasingly appalling—and oddly amusing—gasp-inducing behavior.
Eastman is an almost pathological philanderer and liar, who in an effort to win back his wife and un-stall his literary career, accepts an assignment to report from Vietnam just before Saigon’s fall. Eastman is a selfish, narcissistic, womanizing blowhard—Mailer minus the charm and the literary genius. Gilvarry’s success at creating such a delightfully disagreeable anti-hero is an entertaining rebuttal to the notion that the protagonist of a novel ought to be likable.
Gilvarry’s first novel, From the Memoirs of an Enemy Non-Combatant, is the story of a young fashion-obsessed Filipino immigrant who is arrested and sent to Gitmo after he’s mistaken for a terrorist. Memoirs manages to be both funny and serious while depicting a shift in American ideas about freedom. With Eastman Was Here, Gilvarry delves into the past, but the new work is also a comment on how sensibilities have changed in the literary world—and the country as a whole.
Gilvarry and I were both fellows at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, and we’ve run into one another at various Mailer-related events over the years. Our interview touched on the strengths and weaknesses of post-World War II American male novelists; Gilvarry’s good luck with mentors (Gary Shteyngart and Colum McCann); the research required to depict wartime Saigon; and why Gilvarry felt compelled to grapple with the legend of Norman Mailer.
The following is an edited version of our conversation.
TM: This is your second novel. Is the experience of being published different the second time around?
AG: A little bit. You kinda know what to expect. You don’t want to get your expectations too high. You’re more protective.
TM: Alan Eastman is clearly inspired by Norman Mailer. As I read the book, whenever there was a biographical similarity, I wrote Mailer’s initials: NM. I did this at least a couple of dozen times. The way I read it, Eastman is Mailer, but also not Mailer.
AG: Yeah, I think that’s a good read. Eastman is inspired by Mailer and is a little closer to him in biography at the beginning of his life: childhood, Harvard. They share those biographical details. I wanted him to be like Mailer and not be Mailer too. Probably when the action of the book begins, it splits. Then I fill him with an imaginary emotional life, not Mailer’s at all.
TM: There’s the presence in the novel of a second Maileresque figure, Norman Heimish, who is Eastman’s rival but in many ways seemed almost more like Mailer than Eastman. Why include Heimish in the book?
AG: I thought a character like Eastman needed a rival, somebody who he thought had it all who he had to measure himself up against. I feel like Mailer early on had that with James Jones. I get a lot of mileage when a character is angry. You know, to walk into a book store and see that somebody he despises is selling really well would really burns this guy [Eastman] up.
TM: You’re very interested in writers of the post-WWII generation. What draws you to them?
AG: I like the way novels are written in that period, the fifties, sixties, and seventies America. They’re written differently. They use language that’s taboo, that we don’t use any more. They don’t hold back in the way that my generation will sort of hold back a little.
TM: So there’s something fearless about those postwar writers?
AG: Yeah. Absolutely. They were pushing the envelope. If you just use the example of sex in their books. It’s done kind of fearlessly and shamelessly. And not always in a good way—but sometimes in a really good way. I wanted this book to feel like that, like it was written in that time. I didn’t live in the seventies. So I thought, How am I going to capture the feel of that period without doing all those cheesy period details? But if it could sound like a book from that time, I thought it would help the reality of the read.
TM: I thought also that you captured the philandering of the seventies male writer.
AG: Yeah. The scandals and the philandering—that’s a juicy period for that kind of stuff. Writers don’t really act like that anymore, or at least not in public. I liked writing about that and the incestuous publishing world of that time.
TM: And writers felt like they mattered more during that time.
AG: Yeah. You couldn’t really set this book now because writers aren’t as heralded as they were during that time. So it’s really like a time capsule that a man like Eastman could be like that.
TM: Of course, it’s a mistake to think of that as the good old days. But what I particularly enjoyed was that Eastman was so incredibly unlikeable and selfish. Every time you think he can’t be more selfish or betray another person, he just goes ahead. And you start to look forward to those moments of appalling behavior. But today we’re in a moment when it’s considered a valid piece of literary criticism to say of a novel, “I didn’t like the main character.” So I wonder if you had any internal voice—or any outside voices—who told you not to make Eastman such a wonderful bastard.
AG: Yeah, yeah. It’s a tough thing to do because you don’t want to lose your readers because of someone who is so unlikable. But I thought if I keep liking him, if I keep liking writing these scenes, then I think you’re going to like to read about this unlikable person. I was always thinking: Am I having fun with this scene? Is it entertaining at least in some way? That was sort of my guide. There were some places where I think the character went too far and maybe I had to edit it back. I had two great editors on this book—Patrick Nolan and Beena Kamlani, who is amazing. She was Saul Bellow’s editor for the last years of his life–a great, great editor. She was a really good voice for taming Eastman in certain places.
TM: So to ask the obvious question, what kind of research did you do for the scenes in the novel set in Saigon? Have you ever been to Ho Chi Minh City?
AG: I did go there while I was writing this book because I wanted to set the book in the hotels where all the correspondents stayed: the Continental Hotel and the Caravelle Hotel. And so I went to Vietnam and I kind of just stayed in the hotel where I was setting the novel and got a lay of the land. And I read a lot of great literature set in Vietnam. Gloria Emerson’s Winners and Losers–I really loved that book, and I’m really glad it’s now still in print because it was hard to get for a while. Norton has reprinted it.
TM: Your father is a Vietnam Veteran.
AG: Yeah, I’m probably drawn to the subject because of him. He was there and I heard his stories of being in Saigon. That city to him, it’s like a mythology. He remembers it in a great light, the way Saigon was. He would tell me all sorts of stories about what would go on there. So in some ways I was writing this for him, too.
TM: Has he read it?
AG: He did. He really loved it. He wants me to write a sequel. He’s said, ”I want to find out what happens to these characters. Please write a sequel.”
TM: I wanted to ask you about a passage that fascinated me. At one point you write, “The need to enlighten the world with Eastmanisms was exhausting and erroneous.” And Eastman realizes that “his urges were totalitarian.” To me, this seems like a criticism of Mailer as flawed by his narcissism. Did you intend it that way?
AG: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s a pretty good read. But not just Mailer. Many of the writers of that period were narcissists. I was really writing about Eastman first, but it is critical of that behavior for sure. And subconsciously, I felt that writing about a Norman Mailer-like character I have to make some judgements. There are things in Mailer’s life that are hard for me to reconcile. I think all of his readers who like his work, there’s something that’s a little tough to get around. I have that with Mailer.
TM: The character of the woman reporter Channing in the book was, I thought, very successful, and you did something that I don’t think Mailer ever did very well: created a female character.
AG: Thank you. I needed a strong female character to counterbalance Eastman, and one of the biggest criticisms of Bellow and Mailer and Roth is that they have very thin female characters. So I really needed to reach deep and develop a character that I liked. I think in my first novel I didn’t pay too much attention to the women characters. It came out a little flimsy. I agreed with that critique whenever I got it, so I wanted to correct that about my storytelling and my writing. I wanted to be aware of it.
TM: What was it like being this literary-minded kid growing up in the only borough in New York that voted for Donald Trump?
AG: When I was a kid in Staten Island, I hadn’t even discovered novels. I discovered novels really late; I wanted to write screenplays and write for television because I thought that’s what writers did now. I went to Hunter College in Manhattan. I have a lot in common with Eastman, I think, because growing up in Staten Island, I sort of grew up with a chip on my shoulder, with that feeling that I’ve got to prove myself to people—to people from Manhattan, the Upper East Side. I think I even came into the book business with a chip on my shoulder, like I had to prove myself somehow. It drove me. But you’ve got to realize it. Otherwise, this kind of thinking can destroy you.
TM: And you’ve got these great literary credentials: you worked for Gary Shteyngart and studied with Colin McCann. Can you talk about how this affected the way you write a novel?
AG: Gary Shteyngart was actually the first writer I ever met. He was a teacher at Hunter College when I was an undergraduate, and he had just come out with his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and I didn’t know novels could be that funny. I didn’t know people still wrote novels until I met him. I thought all the great writers were dead. I was much more of a film buff. And I got to meet Gary at a really great time in my life. His work inspired me and I wanted to write just like him.
TM: And you got an MFA, right?
AG: I took a number of years off after I graduated from college and I worked in the publishing industry. And then when I started thinking of a novel of my own, I really needed help. I didn’t know what I was doing. So I went back to Hunter to get an MFA, and I was lucky to meet Colum McCann and he really dug my work. He really believed in what I was doing and thought it was important and gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of support. [Shteyngart and McCann] are really important in my life because I look at them as sort of outsiders. I had something in common with them. They were two outsiders, but they both had an incredible desire to write well and make it. That might just be my impression of it, but they were always going to get there. Their careers were inspiring to me. Their work was inspiring. I learned the most from Colum McCann on a sentence level. And then when I got to work for Gary [as a research assistant] for his book Super Sad True Love Story, I learned the most from Gary about how to research a book and how to fake what you don’t know. I learned the way he can make something seem real. I learned so much from him, things like descriptions. Do descriptions have to come from yourself? No, you can actually research that stuff too.
TM: Well, your descriptions work. As something of an old Jew myself, I thought you captured that mentality in Eastman very nicely.
AG: Well, you know, I’m a New Yorker, so I feel like it’s the same kind of thing. This might not count for anything, but this Christmas I had a DNA test and it turns out that I’m one percent Ashkenazi Jewish. And it’s what I always wanted to be. I wanted to be a New York Jewish writer.
Is there such a thing as literary science fiction? It’s not a sub-genre that you’d find in a bookshop. In 2015, Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro debated the nature of genre and fiction in the New Statesman. They talk about literary fiction as just another genre. Meanwhile, Joyce Saricks posits that rather than a genre, literary fiction is a set of conventions.
I’ve not read a whole lot of whatever might be defined as literary fiction. I find non-genre fiction a little on the dull side. People — real people — interacting in the real world or some such plot. What’s the point of that? I want to read something that in no way can ever happen to me or anyone I know. I want to explore the imagination of terrific authors. I’ve heard that literary fiction is meant to be demanding. I don’t mind demanding, but I want, as a rule, a stimulating plot and relatable or, at the very least, interesting characters. I suspect My Idea of Fun by Will Self (1993) is the closest I’ve come to enjoying a piece of literary fiction, but I was far from entertained. And so I read genre fiction — mostly science fiction, but anything that falls under the umbrella of speculative fiction.
It turns out that some of what I’ve read and enjoyed and would recommend might be called literary science fiction. This is sometimes science fiction as written by authors who wouldn’t normally write within the genre, but more often than not regular science fiction that has been picked up by a non-genre audience. Literary fantasy is not so common as literary science fiction, but there is a lot of fantasy, both classical and modern that non-fantasy fans will be familiar with (many are put off by the label “fantasy,” and maybe an awful lot of terrible 1980s fantasy movies). Of course there are J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and the Chronicles of Narnia and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. These books are only the briefest glimpses into both the imagination of some terrific authors and the scope of fantasy fiction. It isn’t all about hobbits and lions and wizards. There’s much more to explore.
You’ve likely read most of these examples; if they’ve piqued your interest and want to explore more genre fiction, here are some suggestions for next steps.
Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart is a grim warning of the world of social media. There’s not a whole lot of plot, but Shteyngart’s story is set in a slightly dystopic near future New York. There are ideas about post-humanism, as technology is replacing emotional judgement — people don’t need to make choices; ratings, data, and algorithms do that for you. As an epistolary and satirical novel Super Sad True Love Story engages well. The science fiction elements are kept to the background as the characters’ relationships come to the fore.
Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. In Cline’s near future, like Shteyngart’s, there is economic dystopic overtones. Most folk interact via virtual worlds. In the real world, most people are judged harshly. Wade spends all his time in a virtual utopia that is a new kind of puzzle game. Solving clues and eventually winning it will allow him to confront his real-world relationships. Friendships are key to the enjoyment of this novel, as well as how technology alters our perception of them. Are we the masters or servants of technology?
Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson is a complex and knowing satire. The world is full of drugs, crime, nightclubs, and computer hacking; “Snow Crash” is a drug that allows the user access to the Metaverse. Stephenson examined virtual reality, capitalism, and, importantly, information culture and its effects on us as people — way before most other authors. Like Cline and Shtenyngart, technology — in this case the avatars — in Snow Crash is as much a part of the human experience as the physical person.
Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the best and most surprising novels in the science fiction genre. It is the story of childhood friends at a special boarding school, narrated by Kathy. Slowly the world is revealed as a science fiction dystopia wherein where the privileged literally rely on these lower class of people to prolong their lives. The science fiction-ness of the story — how the genetics work for example — is not really the purpose of the story. Ishiguro writes brilliantly about what it means to be a person and how liberty and relationships intertwine.
Spares (1996) by Michael Marshall Smith tells pretty much the same story, but with a different narrative and a more brutal full-on science fiction realization. Jack Randall is the typical Smith anti-hero — all bad mouth and bad luck. He works in a Spares farm. Spares are human clones of the privileged who use them for health insurance. Lose an arm in an accident; get your replacement from your clone. Spares is dark yet witty, and again, muses on the nature of humanity, as Jack sobers up and sees the future for what it really is. He believes the Spares are people too, and that it’s time he takes a stand for the moral high ground, while confronting his past.
The Book of Phoenix (2015) by Nnedi Okorafor is another tale about what it means to be a human in a created body. A woman called Phoenix is an “accelerated human” who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression: Americans and their corporations taking the lives of people of color as if they meant nothing. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut is perhaps his most famous work, and maybe his best. It is the tale of Billy Pilgrim, an anti-war chaplain’s assistant in the United States Army, who was captured in 1944 and witnessed the Dresden bombings by the allies. This narrative is interweaved with Billy’s experiences of being held in an alien zoo on a planet far from Earth called Tralfamadore. These aliens can see in such a way that they experience all of spacetime concurrently. This leads to a uniquely fatalistic viewpoint when death becomes meaningless. Utterly brilliant. Definitely science fiction. So it goes.
A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick. Like Vonnegut, Dick often mixes his personal reality with fiction and throws in an unreliable narrator. In A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor is a drug user (as was Dick) in the near future. However, he’s also an undercover agent investigating drug users. Throughout the story, we’re never sure who the real Bob is, and what his motives are. It’s a proper science fiction world where Bob wears a “scramble suit” to hide his identity. Dick’s characters get into your head and make you ponder the nature of who you might be long after the book is over.
Little Brother (2008) by Cory Doctorow takes a look at the world of surveillance. Unlike Dick’s novel, this is not an internal examination but an external, as four teenagers are under attack from a near future Department of Homeland Security. Paranoia is present and correct as 17-year-old Marcus and his friends go on the run after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Doctorow’s usual themes include fighting the system and allowing information to be free.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. After a religiously motivated terrorist attack and the suspension of the U.S. Constitution, the newly formed Republic of Gilead takes away some women’s rights — even the liberty to read. There is very little science in The Handmaid’s Tale — indeed, Atwood herself calls it speculative rather than science fiction. The point, however, is not aliens or spaceships, but how people deal with the present, by transporting us to a potential, and in this case frightening, totalitarian future.
Bête (2014) by Adam Roberts is also a biting satire about rights. Animals, in Roberts’ bleak future, have been augmented with artificial intelligence. But where does the beast end and the technology take over? The protagonist in this story is Graham, who is gradually stripped of his own rights and humanity. He is one of the most engaging protagonists in recent years: an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, the author forces us to consider the nature of the soul and self-awareness.
Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores the ideas of a feminist utopia from the perspective of three American male archetypes. More of a treatise than a novel, it is science fiction only in the sense of alternative history and human reproduction via parthenogenesis. Gilman suggests that gender is socially constructed and ultimately that rights are not something that can be given or taken from any arbitrary group.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin is regarded as the novel that made her name in science fiction. Humans did not originate on Earth, but on a planet called Hain. The Hainish seeded many worlds millions of years ago. In The Left Hand of Darkness, set many centuries in the future, Genly Ai from Earth is sent to Gethen — another seeded world — in order to invite the natives to join an interplanetary coalition. As we live in a world of bigotry, racism and intolerance, Le Guin brilliantly holds up a mirror.
Ammonite (1992) by Nicola Griffith also addresses gender in the far future. On a planet that has seen all men killed by an endemic disease, anthropologist Marghe journeys around the planet looking for answers to the mysterious illness, while living with various matricidal cultures and challenging her own preconceptions and her identity. Griffith’s attention to detail and the episodic nature of Marghe’s life result in a fascinating and engaging story — which is what the women of this planet value above all else. Accepting different cultural ideologies is an important factor in science fiction and both Le Guin and Griffith have produced highlights here.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) by Becky Chambers. There’s a ship called the Wayfayer, crewed by aliens, who are, by most definitions, the good guys. A new recruit named Rosemary joins the ship as it embarks on a mission to provide a new wormhole route to the titular planet. Chambers writes one of most fun books in the genre, featuring aliens in love, fluid genders, issues of class, the solidarity of family, and being the outsider.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke. In this folk-tale fantasy, Clarke writes a morality tale set in 19th-century England concerning magic and its use during the Napoleonic Wars. Somewhat gothic, and featuring dark fairies and other supernatural creatures, this is written in the style of Charles Dickens and others. Magic is power. Who controls it? Who uses it? Should it even be used?
Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) by Zen Cho is set in a similar universe to Clarke’s novel: Regency England with added fantasy. Women don’t have the same rights as men, and foreign policy is built on bigotry. The son of an African slave has been raised by England’s Sorcerer Royal. As in Clarke’s story, magic is fading and there are strained relationships with the fairies. This is where the novels diverge. Prunella Gentleman is a gifted magician and fights her oppressive masters. Cho writes with charm and the characters have ambiguity and depth. This is more than just fairies and magic, it is a study of human monsters, women’s rights, and bigotry.
Alif the Unseen (2012) by G. Willow Wilson. Take the idea of power, politics and traditional magic and move it to the Middle East. We’re in a Middle-Eastern tyrannical state sometime in the near future. Alif is Arabian-Indian, and he’s a hacker and security expert. While having a science fiction core, this sadly under-read book has fantasy at its heart. When Alif’s love leaves him, he discovers the secret book of the jinn; he also discovers a new and unseen world of magic and information. As with those above, this is a story of power. Who has it, and who controls it. The elite think they do, but the old ways, the old magic is stronger.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll. Everyone’s favorite surrealist fantasy begins with a bored little girl looking for an adventure. And what an adventure! Dispensing with logic and creating some of the most memorable and culturally significant characters in literary history, Carroll’s iconic story is a fundamental moment not just in fantasy fiction but in all fiction.
A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) by Haruki Murakami sees the (unreliable?) narrator involved with a photo that was sent to him in a confessional letter by his long-lost friend, The Rat. Another character, The Boss’s secretary, reveals that a strange sheep with a star shaped birthmark, pictured in an advertisement, is in some way the secret source of The Boss’s power. The narrator quests to find both the sheep and his friend. Doesn’t sound much like Alice for sure, but this is a modern take on the surreal journey populated by strange and somewhat impossible characters, with a destination that might not be quite like it seems. You might have read Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — both terrific novels — but you really should read Murakami’s brilliantly engaging exploration into magical oddness.
A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) by Lavie Tidhar. Was Alice’s story nothing more than a dream? Or something more solid? Shomer, Tidhar’s protagonist, lies dreaming in Auschwitz. Having previously been a pulp novelist, his dreams are highly stylized. In Shomer’s dream, Adolf Hitler is now disgraced and known only as Wolf. His existence is a miserable one. He lives as a grungy private dick working London’s back streets. Like much of Tidhar’s work, this novel is pitched as a modern noir. It is however, as with Carroll’s seminal work, an investigation into the power of imagination. Less surreal and magical than Alice, it explores the fantastical in an original and refreshing manner.
The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. A classical fantasy tale of English folklore, despite being set in “Gramarye.” White re-tells the story of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Queen Guinevere. This is an allegoric re-writing of the tale, with the time-travelling Merlyn bestowing his wisdom on the young Arthur.
Redemption in Indigo (2010) by Karen Lord takes us on a journey into a Senegalese folk tale. Lord’s protagonist is Paama’s husband. Not at all bright, and somewhat gluttonous, he follows Paama to her parent’s village. There he kills the livestock and steals corn. He is tricked by spirit creatures (djombi). Paama has no choice to leave him. She meets the djombi, who gives her a gift of a Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world.
A Tale for the Time Being (2013) by Ruth Ozeki. Diarist Nao is spiritually lost. Feeling neither American or Japanese (born in the former, but living in the latter), she visits her grandmother in Sendai. This is a complex, deep, and beautifully told story about finding solace in spirituality. Meanwhile, Ruth, a novelist living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach — possibly from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Ruth has a strong connection to Nao, but is it magic, or is it the power of narrative?
American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman. No one is more in tune with modern fantasy than Neil Gaiman. This is an epic take on the American road trip but with added gods. A convict called Shadow is caught up in a battle between the old gods that the immigrants brought to America, and the new ones people are worshiping. Gaiman treats his subject with utmost seriousness while telling a ripping good yarn.
The Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes causes some debate. Is it science fiction or is it fantasy? Sure it is a time-travel tale, but the mechanism of travel has no basis in science. Gaiman, an Englishman, and Beukes, a South African, provide an alternative perspective on cultural America. A drifter murders the titular girls with magical potential, which somehow allow him to travel through time via a door in a house. Kirby, a potential victim from 1989, recalls encounters with a strange visitor throughout her life. Connecting the clues, she concludes that several murders throughout the century are the work of this same man. She determines to hunt and stop him. As several time periods occur in Beukes beautifully written and carefully crafted novel, it allows comment on the changes in American society.
The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara. Whereas Gaiman and Beukes use fantasy to comment on culture from a removed stance, Yanagihara looks at cultural impact head on, with the added and very difficult subject of abuse. Fantasy isn’t all about spells and magic rings. In a complex plot, Western scientists visit the mysterious island of U’ivu to research a lost tribe who claim to have eternal life. Yanagihara’s prose has an appropriate dream-like quality as it explores our perceptions through the idea that magic is a part of nature to some cultures.
The Harry Potter series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling. The story of a magician and his friends who grow up learning how to use magic in the world and to fight a series of evil enemies. As with other teen fantasies (such as TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer), these books are more about growing up and understanding the world than they are about magic and monsters.
The Magicians (2009) by Lev Grossman is, from one perspective, Narnia remixed starring Harry Potter at university with swearing and sex. Which sounds great to me! From another, it is about addiction and control. Quentin (Harry) loves the fantasy books Fillory and Further (Chronicles of Narnia). Thinking he is applying to Princeton, he ends up at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy (Hogwarts). He learns about magic while making new friends and falling in love, while is former best friend, Julia, who failed to get to Brakebills, learns about magic from the outside world. There are beasts and fights and double crossing and the discovery that Fillory is real. Rollicking good fun with plenty of magic and monsters, but Grossman adds an unexpected depth to the story.
Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a perfect fantasy novel for anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s. I’d imagine it is pretty enjoyable for everyone else too. This time, there is no formal education in magic. Set in Mexico, Signal to Noise charts the growing pains of Meche and her friends Sebastian and Daniela. The make magic from music. Literally. Magic corrupts Meche and her character changes. Moreno-Garcia nails how selfish you can be as a teenager once you get a whiff of power or dominance. In the end, everything falls apart.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
When I first read Percival Everett’s Erasure, it was assigned to me by Gregory Pardlo. Years removed from his Pulitzer Prize, Pardlo was a professor in Hunter College teaching “Multicultural Literature,” a course as challenging and thought-provoking as the man himself. For an entire semester, Pardlo (lovingly) demanded that we see the error of labeling creative works as “Asian” or “Black;” he told us that ascribing a culture with homogeneous traits does not empower the people lashed to said traits, that the authors who peddle this work are reinforcing, unconsciously or not, the foundations of institutional racism. Shuffled between Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, I opened up the pages of Erasure and was immediately annotating line after line, scribbling in the margins, folding pages for future reference. Everett posed a question that remains unanswered 15 years later, although the argument is louder, or more visible, than ever: Who is qualified to write about underrepresented communities? What is the “authentic black voice?”
In Erasure, we follow the absurd life of Thelonious Ellison, or Monk, as he’s known: a protagonist whose biggest, fiercest antagonists are his own intelligence and boredom. A writer, Monk is told throughout his life — by black and white constituents — that he is “not black enough:”
I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered Egads.
Though he shares his name with two African-American artists, Monk tries to distance himself from what passes as African-American art in the present day. Existing in a world of his own, Monk is constantly reminded that he is “different,” even within his own family; his writing hinges so close to his own interests and intrinsic intellect that it comes across as alien. Monk’s own father tells him when he’s young:
‘You have a special mind. The way you see things. If I had the patience to figure out what you were saying sometimes, I know you’d make me a smarter man.’
While Monk’s intelligence and overall awkwardness seems to barely keep him afloat both in his writing career and academia, he begins to notice that another writer is benefiting from public ignorance. Throughout the story, Monk is forced to confront the success of We Lives in the Ghetto, a fictional book written by Juanita Mae Jenkins, which is lauded by critics and owes its success through its inclusion of prostitution, underage pregnancy, and violence. This has earned the book the reputation of epitomizing what one review calls the “experience which is and can only be Black America.” Monk sees Juanita — an allusion to Sapphire, the author of Push, and others of her ilk — as the embodiment of everything that he feels is wrong with cultural classification in the literary world.
Everett lays out the two major pitfalls of navigating author authenticity. The first deals with the stress writers of color deal when navigating their own narratives. Pushed to the brink, Monk pens My Pafology, a book triple stuffed with every stereotype imaginable (its chapters are titled “Won,” “Too,” “Free,” “Fo”) and ships it off to the publisher. He aims for the manuscript to be so emphatically rejected, for it to completely insult every person who turns its pages that Monk can then point to it as proof that the black experience in America is not universal. He banks on these people in power, the Gatekeepers of the publishing world, being able to identify his obvious dishonesty. He wants to be found a liar.
But of course, My Pafology become regarded as an opus of the African-American experience. As his own personal narrative unravels, Monk accepts the book deal as the offer price soars, and even dresses up to pose as the walking stereotype and author of My Pafology, Stagg R. Lee. By becoming the writer he hates, Monk becomes an extension of the industry bigotry he was intending to fight. By this time, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, the man whose name calls back to icons of African American art and culture, vanishes, erasing himself while attempting to fit the model he is forced into. Everett paints the people in the publishing world and academic circles, who aid Monk in his self-immolation, as completely out of touch with reality. They are imbecilic, cartoonishly naive.
In the current literary world, there are failsafes built into the process of publication to manage author authenticity, although they are not absolute. We can plan parades for the new emerging voices, but a James Frey or, more recently, a Michael Derrick Hudson will come around to disrupt the common order. Hudson found himself sitting on a poem which had been rejected (on his count) 40 times by publishers. So he changed the name — not of the poem, but his own. Michael Derrick Hudson became Yi-Fen Chou and now Chou’s poem, “The Bees, the Followers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” quickly found itself published and honored in the Best American Poetry Anthology of 2015. The editor of that year’s poetry selection was none other than Sherman Alexie who, in an explanation for his selection of Chou’s (or Hudson’s) work, laid out the credentials for his process. While these included specifics such as not selecting work from friends and not factoring in a poet’s larger body of work, there were two rules that helped Hudson become our real-life Monk. Alexie made the decision to pay special attention to underrepresented demographics, namely women and people of color.
There is nothing wrong with an editor’s choice to strictly follow these rules, and it’s commendable to hear that a person in Alexie’s position is being especially sensitive to the disenfranchised. But as David Orr points out in his New York Times coverage of the scandal, Alexie’s selection process reveals inherent holes in gauging authenticity. No matter what his intent was, he admitted to using a standard with very poor checks in place for success, which was exactly the fallacy practiced by the editors and publishers who greenlighted Stagg R. Lee. It is in these moments in which those who prepare to combat bias begin by performing a bias of their own, and this is the trap Alexie set his bed on. As Orr explains:
The problem, as the Yi-Fen Chou case demonstrates, is that this accommodation can be a tricky business when our ideas about excellence in poems collide with our ideas about the worthiness of poets.
This exposes a major flaw in artistic perception in publishing. In Erasure, everyone is fooled by Stagg R. Lee. And while Monk wrote My Pafology (whose title he later shortens just to Fuck) to fly in the face of convention — standing as a big fiery middle finger towards an establishment that he feels seeks to earn a profit by deciding which voices are heard and which are silenced — this plan backfires when the established “Gatekeepers” in publishing failed to get the joke. If anything, the Hudson/Chou debacle proves that even though we are now more intensely sensitive to issues of race and class, if a man is able to take the place of a more deserving writer with a simple Word document name change, this system is as flawed as what was already in place.
So what is different from the world Erasure shows us and our world now? If we can’t depend on the morals of the writer or the objectivity of the editors and publishers, how do we navigate the shoals of the authenticity debate? When Erasure was published, the power and reach of the Internet were vastly different from today. Reddit and Twitter have become socially acceptable places to air grievances and watch them either garner support or get ripped apart. The comments section of articles are modern-day gladiator arenas wherein combatants thrash their opponents, helmets of anonymity firmly fastened. It is in these arenas, ones which were basically absent in the world Monk inhabited, that a parallel set of Gatekeepers has grown in voice and influence. Now everyone can afford a soapbox. And while, the result is not always productive, there has been no greater time than now for social injustices to come to light with relative immediacy.
A perfect recent example is the publication of the book Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, which has garnered attention primarily because of the glowing write-up it received in The New York Times. The story follows the journey of Victor (at some points also known as Jim): a freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter of other slaves against the backdrop of a United States that never abolished slavery. Winters is not a stranger to retooling history for his narratives (his Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was popular amongst some critics for its conceit in the “mashup” genre), and novels involving slavery are not uncommon — many have surfaced in the last year. But critics took issue with the fact that Winters, a white author, is not only writing about slavery but also choosing to carry the voice and perspective of a black man. In the Times write-up (by Alexandra Alter), Lev Grossman is quoted as praising Winters for being “fearless.” Meanwhile, the book, ahead of its release, has already landed a television deal.
The backlash on social media was instantaneous. The primary question was why a white man writing about slavery in the skin of a black man constituted as a “fearless” act. Winters explained that his goal was to make literal the idea that “slavery is still with us” (which prompted the follow-up question, “With whom, exactly?”). But what also has people troubled is the fact that a white author felt himself “prepared” to write about the volatile subject matter of slavery by studying black pieces of literature. While you can be sure that Winters did “read and reread literary classics by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston,” to help place himself in context, many people cited this as a perfect example of how white privilege pervades publishing.
Yet this immediate public reaction is the beauty of our current culture. This is what Everett was missing in Erasure. And yes, while I tell my classes that if everyone is shouting, stomping their feet, and clapping their hands, the actual amount of progress during a debate is limited — there is still something valuable in the opportunity for a variety of voices to weigh in.
While working on the first draft of this essay, my first contribution to The Millions was published. My wife tapped me later that night and asked, “Have you read what’s happening in the comments section?” Reluctantly, I scrolled through what had become a fairly complicated discussion. While the posts began with a severe thrashing of Paul Beatty’s work, the topic of author authenticity immediately came up. By the time I read the last comment, the discussion had covered opinions on Beatty’s intended audience and relative merits, misunderstandings that were quickly clarified, and recommendations for authors and music that handled the topic better. What excited me the most was that the comments even delved into my current fascination with author authenticity. With a quick scroll of the page, questions arose regarding the standards of gatekeepers within the African-American literary community. One even went as far to state that, much like Monk himself, Beatty was both the self-aware victim having to cater to a low-set bar, and a willing manifestation of the irony: a black man preaching about the limitations of his culture while shoveling a story that fails to advance the discussion in a relevant way. Sure, they weren’t able to solve the issue in 21 comments, but in having the discussion alongside the article that sparked the discussion, there was a reasonably clear exchange of ideas and ideals. It would be in this platform that My Pafology, even after clearing the first two hurdles of the author’s ethics and publishers’ close-mindedness, would have been eviscerated by avid and watchful readers.
In giving us the fall of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, Percival Everett was forcing us to question whether it was possible to clearly define the African-American experience in our country. The intervening 15 years have seen further missteps as we try to determine the answer. But the conversation is moved forward, however discordantly, by the new guard of people thinking about art and equality. Our world is not like Monk’s, and yes, we have the Internet to thank.
If, like me, you’re a parent to a young child, you probably find yourself reading a lot of picture and chapter books, and then, before your own bedtime, reading different books, ones that feature more adults, more drinking, more ennui. You might believe these books, theirs and yours, to be quite different — but that’s not always the case. Over the years I’ve made connections between my favorite authors and my son’s. Once you see the similarities, you can’t un-see them. So read on, brave adult, if you want the veil pulled from your eyes…
Jonathan Franzen and The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain
Once you get beyond the shock of how the most famous Bear Family spells its name, you might notice how alike these books are to certain famous American novels written by a certain famous American man. A classic Berenstain story (by the original duo Stan and Jan, not the later, inferior titles by Jan and Mike), contains a lot of back story and exposition, and its lessons — on manners, nightmares, and so on — contain at least one moment of domestic strife and misunderstanding. Like The Corrections or Purity, these are narratives about beasts in human clothing (a la Chip Lambert and Andreas Wolf), and the mother controls not just the household but everyone’s psyches. And like Franzen’s novels, the Berenstain Bear books might meander, reveling in details alternately informative and irrelevant, but ultimately they’re straightforward tales about family. (Also, as a friend pointed out to me recently, JFran sort of looks like a Berenstain Bear. This can’t be coincidental.)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
Yanagihara clearly recognizes this connection because she put it in her book: artist JB names his series of paintings of Willem and Jude Frog and Toad, after Lobel’s famous amphibious friends. And, let’s face it, A Little Life is basically Lobel for Adults (now with rape and suicide!) Willem is Frog, the perennial optimist, while Jude is sad old Toad. Like Frog and Toad, Willem and Jude need and love each other despite their differences, and because of them. Toad will keep trying to push Frog away, but Frog will remain by his side. Lobel’s stories, like Yanagihara’s novel, maintains an elegant clarity about the unimpeachable sadness of the world. Plus, Toad’s nice, cozy Toad Hole is the animal equivalent of Willem and Jude’s million-dollar country home.
Emma Straub and What Pete Ate From A-Z by Maira Kalman
Kalman is mainly an artist and illustrator for people of all ages, but her children’s alphabet book is a favorite in our household for its cheeky commentary and beautiful, funny drawings. (I would like to live inside her picture of a pink ice-pop, please.) The characters in this book — Roberta Rothschild, president of the Rubber Band Society; cousin Rocky with his list of people who have wronged him — remind me of the Post family in Straub’s novel The Vacationers: they’re sometimes put-upon, often very funny, from Manhattan, and quite lovable. An Emma Straub novel is the literary equivalent of a Maira Kalman drawing; I have no doubt that her forthcoming novel, Modern Lovers, about two families in Brooklyn, will cement this kinship.
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Richard Scarry
You might think you’re super literary, cozying up with Knausgaard’s multiple-tome fictional autobiography after a long day with your toddler. You probably agree with James Wood, esteemed literary critic for The New Yorker, who wrote: “There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard’s book: even when I was bored, I was interested.” But you probably also feel this way reading Richard Scarry’s books, which, like Knausgaard’s, describe so much of the mundane. Do we really need to know about every piece of clothing in Huckleberry’s wardrobe? Also, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town, with its quaint town squares, its weird cars you’ve never heard of, and its waiters carrying tagines, could only be, like Knausgaard himself, one thing: European.
Gary Shteyngart/George Saunders and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Have you introduced your kid to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yet? I don’t mean the movie with Gene Wilder (or the remake with Johnny Depp in that creepy bob). I mean the book by Roald Dahl. Shit is fucked up! Charlie Bucket lives in horrible poverty, Wonka is a shut-in maniac with too much money, and the Oompa Loompas are victims of the global economy, trucked in from some far-off land to perform labor cheaply. (I’m not kidding. Wonka performs experiments on these workers! They never get to leave the factory!) Wonka’s crazy schemes and nonchalance about everyone’s endangerment remind me of the nutty heroes of Gary Shteyngart’s novels. (Absurdistan, indeed.) The book’s workplace commentary, so tragic it’s funny, is straight Saunders. In fact, I’d love to see him write a novel from the perspective of an Oompa Loompa. It would be like “Pastoralia” but with sugar and torture instead of a cave fax machine.
So there you have it. I suppose it’s time we just rolled up our sleeves and read the child some Don DeLillo, and at night tucked ourselves in with Hop on Pop. We’re tired enough, aren’t we?
I read a lot of headlines about the Sony data hack before I mustered the interest to read anything else about it. There are so many things to click, and the headlines seemed to concern only empyrean Hollywood types, and I am on maternity leave and partially brain-dead. Someone was racist, a woman made less money than a man, something about Angelina Jolie. But eventually the headlines became so relentless that I finally clicked, like an old bloodhound heaving her bulk from the porch and loping off in the direction of a rumpus. I began with one exchange of emails between Sony bigwigs Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal and was immediately so enthralled that I went hunting for others that had been published on the various news sites.
Last year I was sent a copy of the highly experimental Nanni Balestrini work Tristano, the result of a machine randomly shuffling 10 different chapters of an already experimental 1966 novel to create eerie nothings like this:
A long thin rivulet of water slowly advances on the asphalt. She moves slowly under his body. The woman answered no certainly not.
I found Balestrini’s novel alien and repugnant because I am wedded to more traditional narratives; for me all intention and meaning had been stripped from its words by virtue of its reshuffling. But Pascal and Rudin’s emails, which are basically incomprehensible to anyone outside of their industry, are somehow more compelling by virtue of their incomprehensibility, Amy Pascal’s sibylline utterances full of a surprising sort of illiterate pathos and mystery:
I would do this for you
You should do this
Miranda July capitalized on the seductive nature of other people’s mail in the summer of 2013 with “We Think Alone,” an art project whereby people could sign up to receive forwarded emails from celebrities’ inboxes. This was an inspired choice; snooping around people’s emails hits pleasure centers arguably more primal than those tapped by schlepping to a museum, paying $25, and getting a headache after 30 minutes looking at a pile of cat food cans welded together. And while for some people it’s the snooping itself that makes other people’s mail interesting, readers with qualms about privacy could feel secure in knowing that the celebrities themselves had provided access. (N.B: while personal correspondence should be off-limits unless the recipients have consented or are dead, I feel okay about quoting from the Sony leak, and the Wikileaks emails below, because they are ostensibly corporate records, and not personal ones.)
Some commentators observed that Miranda July’s curated emails did not reveal anything particularly titillating about these celebrities (among them Kirsten Dunst and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), but I found the voice of their communiques as compelling as the things disclosed therein. Note the lilting, seemingly non-native English of Kirsten Dunst’s email here:
I also have some great experiences from yesterday as I was in a photo shoot for Bulgari, and there were so many elements and people. I have very strong Ideas to talk about.
I’ll do the second assignment tomorrow, I have a night flight to Boston and it’s hard for me to get in a comfortable place in sleep to dream.
If Kirsten Dunst’s email selections revealed that there is a level of fame at which you don’t really need to worry about what you sound like, to the extent that you are willing to forward your strange musings to thousands of strangers, Pascal and Rubin’s emails indicated that the more money and prestige are attached to your job, the more your professional correspondence is likely to be composed and punctuated like a comment on a Huffington Post article. But more importantly, they show a mode of communicating that has been molded by the melodramatic conventions of the very industry that produced it, plaintive lines like “Don’t pretend all thoes things didn’t happen cuz it makes me feel like I’m going crazy” or “Why are u punishing me”; admonitions like “You’re involving yourself in this massive ad pointless drama that is beneath you”; or the more ominous “You’re about to cross a line that won’t get uncrossed after you do it.”
In 2012, Wikileaks published millions of emails harvested from Stratfor, a global intelligence research firm in Texas. Wikileaks and the news media were interested in these emails for their geopolitical implications, but they also represent a veritable cornucopia of narrative pleasures, all the more delectable because they are strange and secret and real. They likewise reflect a very particular professional sensibility, sometimes self-conscious, often comic, and full of bravado. Even a fractional survey of the emails’ subject lines is evocative: “Fucking Tajikistan;” “Fucking Europe;” “Fucking Russian Defense Guys;” “Fucking Abottabad;” “fucking Mubarak;” “fucking guatemalans;” “fucking Belgium;” “fucking kangaroos;” “fucking hipsters;” “what a fucking shit show;” “Get ready to be hit in the fucking face with a fist full of friendship;” or the succinct command, “pay the fucking utility bill.”
There is no way that a person could read all of them, and random clicking might yield all sorts of tantalizing fragments, à la Balestrini by way of Graham Greene:
I mean look, I never said that the fact these camels/horses came from tourists
meant it wasn’t organized, right. I was just saying that the horses/camels
don’t mean anything in of themselves. There are horses/camels near the
city and in considerable numbers.
These are corporate records, but they are also full of human currents, intimations of complex, even tender relationships:
Reading this, I get the sense that you, in some sense, fear and crave
change at the same time. You find beauty in the concept of change, but to
a limit. You fall back to the comforts of familiarity, the languid
The joy of reading other people’s mail is a well-known, well-documented phenomenon. Anyone who has spent time in an archive has found themselves wandering through the hedge maze of correspondence, which can lead either to fruitful new projects or simply leave the reader floundering in some voyeur’s backwater, pointlessly obsessing over the sheer novelty of the way that people communicate with one another. We have epistolary novels, of course — themselves a product of human interest in other people’s mail and the narrative possibilities thereof. No sooner had the novel been invented than it had been given the epistolary treatment, in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa.
Contemporary novels use correspondence not only to drive a story, but to attempt the herculean work of capturing the spirit of an age — past, present, or future. Some of these are convincing — better, even, than reality — like A.S. Byatt’s divine Possession, built around an amazing fabricated correspondence that works to make the novel simultaneously a mystery, love story, and postmodern work of criticism. Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story constructs a textual future English patois, told through the “Globalteen” messaging accounts of two young women. But these and other wonderful novels that have successfully used the epistolary format cannot scratch the very specific itch of the leaked email, the archived letter. As Shteyngart’s sad sack anti-hero Lenny Abramov writes in his diary, describing his new electronic device: “I’m learning to worship my new äppärät’s screen…the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.” There is a fundamental inauthenticity to the epistolary novel; we cannot forget that it sprang from the mind of its author.
The ludicrous Tumblr, “Texts from Bennett”, which purports to be the SMS record of a Midwestern white boy with delusions of hood status, seems cognizant of the disappointment that undergirds epistolary works of art, guaranteeing in its header that it is “100% Real.” It’s not real, though, and its offerings are ultimately unconvincing, a collection of zany, “urban”-inflected bon mots:
like I said I luv anamels alot 2. i used to rescue rockwilders im one of da highest paid members of PITA.
If “Texts from Bennett” is obviously fake, it is grasping at the heart of leaked mail’s allure. The Tumblr was so popular that it was in fact turned into a novel, one with a surprising number of positive reader reviews, many of which expressed sentiments along these lines: “We all know an incredibly white person who attempts to act as ghetto as possible, but Mac Lethal knows whats up with Texts From Bennett.” (Reading Amazon reader reviews, like Internet comments, comes close to scratching the epistolary itch. Reading comments can be irresistible, not for the opportunity to wallow in outrage about the ignorance or malevolence of your fellow clicking public, or not only that, at any rate — it’s that intimate glimpse at the way people communicate, the things that they say and the ways that they say them. There is nothing like a YouTube comment for revealing our humanity in all its forms.)
Most correspondence we have the opportunity to read is of the highest caliber, composed by great minds and published (perhaps even written, at some level) for the public’s edification. So we have the letters of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Rilke, or Patrick Leigh Fermor and Deborah Devonshire née Mitford. These are gorgeous pieces of writing, but they assume an unrealness by virtue of the genius of their authors; they are artifacts of an age and class for which correspondence was understood as an art form. I remember the surprise, the electric thrill, of reading, at of one of my many past part-time archival jobs, a letter written by a regular enlisted man in World War I. Far from the texts of my college Modernism curriculum — the majesty of the war poets, the self-conscious zip of BLAST or the raffish style of the Wipers Times — the letter was rife with misspellings and homey sentiment, the product of a semi-literate young man sending a short and melancholy message home to his mother. I had never thought about what a normal person might sound like during that era. There can be great style and meaning in unstylishness, “Texts from Bennett” notwithstanding. (The Telegraph published a batch of WWI letters written in a similar vein: “I am very sorry for what I done when I was at home and will pay you back when I get some more pay.”)
We are awash in narrative these days. We are in a golden age of television, where highly polished narratives are whipped up by streaming video companies, tailored to our mined preferences, and basically guaranteed to be addictive. Even our news gets a narrative now: something happens — like the Sony leaks, for example — and we have not only the text, but the meta-text, the commentary on ethics and implications. We have lovingly and expensively produced radio plays based on real-life murder cases, and rounds and rounds of narrative about whether they are bad or good and what they say about our culture. Forget the forest/trees taxonomy; we are so spoiled for narrative that we have multiple forest visualizations — time, space, temperature.
Readers and writers, I think, are particularly susceptible to the narrative delights of real correspondence, which will always exceed the limits of any one novel’s philosophy. A building of Paris’ Palais de Chaillot is inscribed with a verse of Paul Valéry:
It depends on those who pass
Whether I am a tomb or treasure
Whether I speak or am silent
The choice is yours alone.
Friend, do not enter without desire.
Archives are a public good, but they are predicated on this desire. In one sense, my interest in the recent leaked emails is narrative hunger taken to its most pathological reach. Rather than lament the implications of the Sony emails (that insanely rich and powerful white people are still a bunch of crummy racists; that people spend millions of dollars to make shitty movies while the world burns) or the grim findings of Wikileaks (that there is a revolving door between the government, business, and security sectors), I treat these documents as another avenue for narrative desire. But there’s nothing like the magic of an authentic human document. We are surfeited on the “what” of the narrative. Leaked emails give us that rare and precious thing, the “how.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Jason Rogers
A biography, according to my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is “an account of a person’s life written, composed, or produced by another.” Yet, in recent years, a number of writers have been stretching this definition. Nowadays, human beings are no longer the sole suitable subjects for a biography, which is coming to mean an account of just about anything’s life, or history, or essence. These things include cities, literary forms, integers, currency, animals, and automobiles, to name a few.
Why are people writing biographies of such things now? Is it because contemporary writers are more imaginative and open-minded than their predecessors? Or are they simply more desperate for subject matter that hasn’t already been chewed to death? Or could it be some combination of the two?
While I don’t claim to know the answer, I do have a theory that the expanding field of worthy subjects for biographies is related to the expanding field of worthy subjects for serious academic and historical inquiry. The latest example of this high-low trend is Harvard history professor Jill Lepore’s current bestseller, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. It joins a growing shelf of serious books about such everyday objects as salt, cod, pop songs, and the pencil (and, yes, how to sharpen a pencil).
Here is a sampling of a half dozen things that have become the subject of biographies by writers who have stretched the conventional definition of the form, to sometimes stunning effect.
Scott Martelle, a former reporter for The Detroit News, like so many people who grew up in Detroit or spent a sizeable chunk of time there, became fascinated by the place. The result is Detroit: A Biography, a book that makes no pretense of being an exhaustive history, but is, rather, “a book about life, and human nature, and about a city as a living and breathing thing.”
And it succeeds at telling the remarkable story of this city’s life, beginning with its “difficult childhood” as a French trading outpost in the early 18th century, its adolescence as a manufacturer of stoves, carriages and rail cars, its brawny adulthood as the center of the world’s automobile industry, and its surprisingly swift decline into decrepit old age. But Martelle, like many smart observers in recent years, does not write Detroit off, nor does he buy into the hackneyed theories about what caused the city to fall so far, so fast — such tidy scapegoats as the bloody 1967 riot, or the troubled 20-year reign of Mayor Coleman Young. The city’s population peaked in 1950, Martelle notes, the point at which government policies, corporate business practices, and century-old racial animosities began to drain the city of jobs and population.
“White flight wasn’t the only force emptying Detroit,” Martelle writes. “During the 1950s the Big Three automakers and other leading industrial concerns embarked on massive decentralization plans to build factories closer to regional customer bases around the country, but also to try to reduce one of the main pressure on profit margins: the cost of labor.” White flight was also greased by aggressive highway building and entrenched (and racist) real-estate policies that benefited the suburbs at the expense of the inner city. In hindsight, there was almost no way for Detroit to fail to fail.
This biography ends on a cautiously hopeful note. The Motor City may be gone forever — “Large-scale industry will not lead whatever comeback might be possible,” Martelle correctly writes — but he sees signs of hope, including a newly vibrant downtown, many solid neighborhoods, an influx of entrepreneurs, urban farmers, and creative people, a growing sense that Detroit still matters and that it still has a chance.
Recent developments indicate Martelle’s optimism might not be misplaced. His book was published in 2011, two years before Detroit became the largest city to declare bankruptcy in American history. The city has just emerged from bankruptcy, far more quickly than expected, and with many valuable assets, including its coveted Institute of Arts, intact. Maybe a new chapter is opening in the life story of this impossibly tortured, impossibly resilient city.
A Literary Form
In setting out to write the life story of our age’s dominant literary form, Michael Schmidt decided to bypass critics, historians, and, yes, biographers. Instead, The Novel: A Biography is “mainly told by novelists and through novels,” or what Schmidt, echoing Ford Madox Ford, calls “artist practitioners.” The book is staggering — it covers more than 700 years and runs to more than 1,000 pages. Jonathan Russell Clark tried to grasp the scope of Schmidt’s achievement in an essay here at The Millions, noting that a key to its success is the author’s avoidance of literary theory in favor of a dissection of literary influences. It proves to be a wise choice. And Schmidt, for all his erudition, isn’t shy about injecting his personal opinions, which contribute to this biography’s rumbustious vitality. He prefers David Foster Wallace’s essays to his novels; he disses Samuel Richardson and Michael Crichton; he’s very fond of Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel, and Martin Amis; he adores Miguel de Cervantes; and he sticks up for Stephen King. In a nice bit of symmetry, he concludes that the novel is every bit as elastic as the elastic notion of biography that inspired him to write this book. The novel’s great strength, in Schmidt’s view, is its slipperiness, its ability to change shapes, its capacity to absorb material from endless sources, including music, art, history, life, and, of course, other novels. In a final twist, Clark argues in his essay that this biography isn’t a biography after all: “The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure ––the ultimate unreliable narrator — that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him.”
In his anecdotal, entertaining book, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, the mathematician Charles Seife describes his subject as “infinity’s twin,” adding that “zero is different from the other numbers. It provides a glimpse of the ineffable and the infinite. This is why it has been feared and hated — and outlawed.”
Ranging over 30,000 years, from the carvings of prehistoric man to the musings of today’s astrophysicists, Seife’s biography notes that Babylonians were using zero 300 years B.C., and Alexander the Great carried zero to India. But the resistance to zero in the West was not overcome until the Renaissance, with the advent of the vanishing point in art, an innovation that could accommodate the twinned concepts of zero and infinity. Since then it has proven useful to everyone from accountants to people trying to envision black holes as stars packed into “zero space.”
Seife concludes, “All that scientists know is that the cosmos was spawned from nothing, and will return to the nothing from whence it came. The universe begins and ends with zero.” A worthy subject for a biography, indeed.
Pity the poor almighty dollar. There are 760 billion of them circulating in the world, but two-thirds of them live far from home, in chilly places like the central bank vault in Seoul, South Korea. The dominant global currency since the end of the Second World War, the dollar has recently come under attack, most directly by the European Union’s solid euro and China’s newly muscular yuan, but also by shortsighted policies of the U.S. government. Things have gotten so dire that in his near-future satire, Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart has Americans spending nearly worthless “yuan-pegged dollars.” The funny thing about the joke is that it isn’t all that far-fetched.
In Biography of the Dollar, his story of the rise and suddenly precarious position of this once-almighty currency, Wall Street Journal reporter Craig Karmin lays out an astonishing fact. Since the United States went off the gold standard in 1971, the dollar’s value has been built on the thinnest of tissues: faith in the idea of America. And we all know how flimsy that is.
Karmin notes that the dollar’s historical solidity has done much to lift many global economies. But there is a downside: “Enduring demand for the dollar has also encouraged the United States to run up enormous — some would say unsustainable — foreign debts and record deficits.” The U.S., he adds, pays $1 million each day for every man, woman, and child living in the country — just to service its debt. Which leads Karmin to a scary conclusion: “Too many dollars may be circulating the planet and could be setting the greenback up for a big fall.” Which explains his subtitle: How the Mighty Buck Conquered the World and Why It’s Under Siege.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. And you might want to consider buying gold — or euros or yuan — while you’re at it.
Writing biographies about non-human subjects, it turns out, is not an invention of our times. Back in the late 19th century, a prolific author, wildlife artist, and environmentalist named Ernest Thompson Seton wrote a delightfully weird novel that purported to reveal the inner life of a grizzly bear. The Biography of a Grizzly tells the story of Wahb, a grizzly cub in western Canada who watches as his mother and three siblings are gunned down by a bad bag of applesauce named Old Colonel Pickett, the cattle king. The orphaned Wahb nurses his own wound and lives a long, lonely, bitter life, so traumatized by the killing of his family that he never takes a mate. Wahb is a sensitive giant, besieged by enemies on every side, as when a beaver trap snaps shut on his paw: “He did not know what it was, but his little green-brown eyes glared with a mixture of pain, fright and fury as he tried to understand his new enemy.”
The book was preceded by Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known, which portrayed wolves and other animals as compassionate individualistic beings. It became one of the bestselling books of its day, part of a wave of books advocating animal rights by featuring anthropomorphic wild animals that had emotions and were capable of learning, teaching, and reasoning. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Jack London’s White Fang were part of the wave, which eventually inspired a backlash by critics who derided such books as “yellow journalism of the woods.” President Theodore Roosevelt, whose love for the outdoors was surpassed only by his love for slaughtering wild animals, weighed in with a magazine article in 2007, dismissing Seton and company as “nature fakers.” Teddy had nerve.
Earl Swift published a book this year called Auto Biography, which is, quite literally, the story of the life of a single car — a 1957 Chevrolet station wagon. Swift, a pit-bull of a reporter, tracked down the man who bought the shiny new car in Norfolk, Va., in 1957, and every one of the dozen people who have owned it since, right up to a bruiser named Tommy Arney who rescued the car from the scrap heap and lovingly restored it to its original glory. The car’s owners, Swift writes, represent “a cross section of America in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, all of them players in a single narrative for having sat behind the wheel of this Chevy.”
Swift’s ingenious narrative strategy reminds me of Marguerite Yourcenar’s in her novel A Coin In Nine Hands, which follows the journey of a 10-lira coin as it passes through the hands of nine very different people on a single day in Rome in 1933. These nine people, like the dozen owners of the ’57 Chevy, are linked in ways they cannot explain or understand. But in the hands of a gifted writer, just about anything — a car, a coin, a ring, a book, a smell, a memory — can be an opening into the mysteries of human connectivity.
In closing — and in the interest of full disclosure — I should tell you that my interest in the elastic nature of biography dates back more than 20 years. In the early 1990s, I was driving a luscious lipstick-red and black 1954 Buick Special, a car that became my Muse and a central character in my first novel, which told the story of a fictional publicity campaign built around the sale of the 500,000th Buick in 1954, when Buick and rival Plymouth were locked in an actual sales war for the number three slot behind Chevy and Ford. Since the novel’s arc followed that particular Buick from conception to birth to infancy — from the drawing board to the assembly line to the showroom to the first buyer’s driveway and finally onto a magazine cover — I came to think of the novel as the life story of the car. And so my working title was Biography of a Buick.
As publication neared, my editor contacted Buick’s PR people in Detroit, hoping they might somehow help us promote the book. Instead they bristled, threatening legal action if a General Motors brand name appeared in the title. My editor had no desire to go up against GM’s legal department, and so he persuaded me, kicking and screaming, to change the title to Motor City.
With time I’ve grown to like the title, maybe because I ended up getting a consolation prize. The novel also sold in Great Britain and Germany, and my publishers there, unfazed by the huffing of GM’s legal department, stuck with my original title. So the book came out in England as Biography of a Buick and in Germany as Biographie eines Buick. I got to have it both ways, and the life story of my car was destined to have a life of its own.
Maybe we should lay this one on Cormac McCarthy. In 2006, after writing a string of rigorously realistic literary novels that seemed to come down to us from some remote desert Olympus, McCarthy delivered an utterly out-of-character book. The Road was set in the near future after a vaguely defined cataclysm – “a long shear of light and then a series of concussions” – had turned the planet into a wintry ashtray, wiped out most of mankind, and erased civilization. The novel was post-apocalyptic and viciously dystopian and, most amazing of all, unashamed of its genre trappings. It was not exactly news in 2006 that the once-impregnable walls separating literary genres were beginning to crumble. But when The Road won the Pulitzer Prize, became an Oprah pick and got made into a major motion picture, it suddenly seemed that writers of every persuasion, from highbrows to hacks, had the green light to explore that realm once seen as the preserve of writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction: the near future.
Emily St. John Mandel, a colleague of mine here at The Millions, has just been named a finalist for the National Book Award for her fourth novel, Station Eleven, a highly literary work set in the near future that focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors of a flu pandemic that wiped out most of mankind and ended civilization. Here, in Mandel’s words, is what such a world might look like:
An incomplete list:
No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below.
No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films… No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, or a dog bite…
No more flight…
Mandel, in an interview with the New York Times, cited McCarthy’s take on the end of civilization as a liberating force for herself and like-minded writers. “It’s almost as if The Road gave more literary writers permission to approach the subject,” she said.
That Times article dissected the “cluster” of recent and forthcoming novels that are set in bleak worlds after civilization has crumbled. The article speculates that this cluster – books by Howard Jacobson, Michel Faber, and Benjamin Percy, among others, plus Station Eleven and the Divergent and Hunger Games series – is fed by our era’s anxieties over pandemics, environmental catastrophes, energy shortages, terrorism, and civil unrest. Today’s headlines about the international spread of Ebola are sure to deepen this anxiety.
(It’s worth noting that novelists aren’t the only ones drawn to the dark possibilities of the near future. The makers of movies and television shows are churning out dystopian fare set in a future inhabited by a few decent souls trying to navigate worlds riddled with cannibals, zombies and totalitarian cults.)
For many years, the near future has beckoned writers as different as Margaret Atwood, Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick. They’ve recently been joined by a growing legion of literary novelists that includes Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whitehead, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell, and many others. As these writers have shown, fiction set in the near future can be post-apocalyptic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be dystopian, but it doesn’t have to be. (It is, however, almost always dark.) It can contain elements of fantasy, magic realism and/or science fiction, but it doesn’t have to. In the end, labels are less interesting to me than writerly strategies: What is gained by setting a work of fiction in the near future?
A good place to start looking for an answer is Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel, Super Sad True Love Story, a satire set in New York City around the year 2018. Rather than imagining some environmental or economic upheaval, Shteyngart has simply taken today’s technology and tried to extrapolate what it will be doing to us a few years from now. The novel bristles with devices like the äppärät, a pendant that broadcasts the wearer’s scores on everything from looks to “fuckability” to credit rating. An individual’s credit rating is also displayed on sidewalk “credit poles.” The currency of choice is the “yuan-pegged dollar” because the old dollar is worthless. Women wear see-through jeans called Onionskins. Hipsters have migrated from Brooklyn to Staten Island. Nobody reads books anymore. (On an airplane, a fellow passenger upbraids the protagonist, Lenny Abramov, for cracking open an actual book: “Duder, that thing smells like wet socks.”) The country is run by the right-wing Bipartisan Party, and American society is made up of elite High Net Worth Individuals – and everybody else. Lenny Abramov is the “The Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services Division of Staatling-Wapachung Corporation,” which provides life-extension services to anyone who’s got a pile of money and a desire to live forever. The novel becomes, among other things, a very funny portrait of the twinned hells of post-literacy and constant connectivity.
Shteyngart has said that when he started writing the book in 2006, he imagined a future in which Lehman Brothers, General Motors, and Chrysler all tanked. Two years into the writing, those companies actually tanked. “So I had to make things worse and worse,” Shteyngart told The Nation. “That’s one of the difficulties of writing a novel these days – there doesn’t seem to be a present to write about. Everything is the future.” Another difficulty, as Shteyngart discovered, is the novelist’s need to walk the increasingly blurry line that separates the plausible from the outlandish.
William Gibson, who made his name in the 1980s writing science fiction novels set in a future heavily influenced by then-nascent computer technology, is now going against the grain: He recently started setting his fiction in the present. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written,” he told The Paris Review in 2011, adding, “For years I’d found myself telling interviewers and readers that I believed it was possible to write a novel set in the present that would have an effect very similar to the effect of the novels I had set in imaginary futures…I finally decided I had to call myself on it.”
It’s a wrinkle on Shteyngart’s discovery: technology is changing so fast that there’s no longer a present; the future is already here, relentlessly unspooling into the past. Which presents its own counter-intuitive challenge, as Gibson sees it: “It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future.”
Michael McGhee has set his first novel, Happiness Ltd., somewhere between the worlds of Mandel’s extreme post-apocalyptic future and Shteyngart’s more recognizable near future. In the middle of the 21st century, the novel’s titular entity governs the developed world like Amazon on steroids, crushing competition, feeding the public a diet of happy news, and demanding that people consume the abundant goods and services offered by the Bountiful Age. Celebrities are worshipped, lifespans are artificially extended, and after a major economic collapse and years of devastating storms, watery lower Manhattan has been walled off and ceded to disenfranchised persons, or DPs, who refuse to be seduced by the consumer society’s ubiquitous baubles. There are strong whiffs of Huxley and Orwell in this smiley-face dystopia. There is also an echo of the difficult love affair at the center of Super Sad True Love Story – when Nelson, a rising star in Happiness Ltd.’s news management operation, falls in love with a DP named Celia, trouble is inevitable. Such slumming is fiercely discouraged by the powers that be.
In an email, McGhee explained his decision to set his novel near the middle of this century: “To me, the appeal of near-future fiction is its invitation to tweak society’s nose – to take today’s standards and extend them to a ridiculous extreme. For example, modern American culture encourages us to spend beyond our limits – what happens tomorrow when a cash-strapped government requires us to spend beyond our limits? Or, today our culture practically worships celebrities. What happens tomorrow when some of us literally worship celebrities? It’s a fertile field for satire.”
Like Shteyngart, McGhee learned that current events have a way of outracing a writer’s imagination. “The peril is that the near future has a propensity for arriving faster than you expect,” he writes. “It took me 10 years to write Happiness Ltd., and almost all the fantastic features I started with – advertisers tracking our every move, hurricanes ravaging lower Manhattan – came true before I was finished.”
Edan Lepucki, another colleague of mine here at The Millions, hit the New York Times bestseller list this summer with her dystopian debut novel, California. Set in the near future, it tells the story of a young couple, Frida and Cal, who flee southern California after a string of financial and environmental catastrophes, then try to eke out a life in the northern woods. America has finally become what it is now firmly on its way to becoming: a bifurcated society, where the haves live in gated communities, and the have-nots like Frida and Cal live in decayed cities or the wilderness. Like Shteyngart’s future America, Lepucki’s is a country of High Net Worth Individuals – and everybody else.
Lepucki, in an email, described the allure of the near future this way: “I loved the challenge of speculation, of imagining certain present-day conflicts (oil crisis, climate change, disappearing tax base in dying cities) escalating to an intense degree. I also liked the freedom of a post-technological world, and how that added mystery to my characters’ lives, and deepened their isolation. And it was just fun to play pretend, to really fling myself into this new, unfamiliar landscape; I had never done that in fiction. Last, there was a real sense, when I was writing this book, that the characters’ conflicts mattered. I’d never had such a strong and accessible sense of dramatic propulsion when writing, and I think the apocalypse had something to do with it.”
There is, she added, a flipside: “To create a believable future you have to think logically through certain large-scale events, which is so different from my usual concern when writing fiction; I usually work on a much smaller scale, considering a made-up person, putting them in a room, and letting them interact with another made-up person.”
If I see a thread running through these books and their authors’ comments, it would be this: the near future is an alluring time to set fiction because it frees the writer’s imagination in ways that writing about the past does not. Fiction set in the near future frees the writer to build a plausible and coherent world on a known foundation – in a sense, to extrapolate where today’s world is going. It’s a liberating strategy since the future is so patently unknowable; and it’s a timely strategy since people in an anxious age like ours are especially eager to know – or imagine – where we’re headed.
If today’s crop of books, movies and TV shows set in the near future are an accurate barometer, it looks like we’re in for some filthy weather.
Image via mikelehen/Flickr
It could almost be a writing workshop prompt: tell a story, do it in six words, go for the wow effect — and that’s exactly what the Ritz-Carlton wants. Recently, the hotel company launched a campaign inviting social media friends and followers to provide six-word stories about their Ritz-Carlton experiences with the hashtag #RCMemories. The company calls these stories “Six Word Wows,” and the campaign, if one were to believe the corporate website’s press release tagline, is “Paying Homage To Classic Ernest Hemingway Line.” “Which classic Hemingway line?” we might ask. “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them”? No, Ritz-Carlton is referring to the probably apocryphal anecdote that when bet he couldn’t write a story in six words, Hemingway replied, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Although the stripped-down prose of #RCMemories might be seen as loosely inspired by the Hemingway legend, the nonfiction specifications have more in common, perhaps, with SMITH Magazine’s Six-Word Memoirs®, which became so popular that they were released as a series of books in conjunction with Harper Perennial. Six-Word Memoirs® have included micro-narratives such as “Waves lapping. Pages turning. Perfect day,” “Be silly often, and invite friends,” and “I am my neighbor’s weird neighbor.” Someone cynical might note that Six-Word Memoirs®is a registered trademark. “Six word wows,” on the other hand, is all the Ritz-Carlton’s own.
To model the ideal #RCMemories, the company has released eight “Six Word Wows.” They’ve included: “Dinner ‘til dawn. Laughter. Years regained,” “First tooth. Fairy knocks. Girl delighted,” and “Sold out. Last seat. Dreams transpire.” These bytes suggest that accommodations are not just a bed and shelter but Tweetable—an enviable narrative arc in a storied life. Not only that but Ritz-Carlton suggests that by providing a personal narrative gratis for the benefit of a company that netted $626 million in 2013 — after paying to stay at one of their properties, of course — is honoring literary genius.
The conflation of the artist-rebel and consumer is not an entirely new problem. In the mid-nineties, Thomas Frank described a new type of capitalist: One raised knowing that conformity, at least conformity embodied by 1950s suburban life, wasn’t cool. Rock ‘n roll was cool. Beat poetry — cool. Dionysian gratification, diversity, not affecting seriousness, and getting away from what seems like boring homogeneity — cool. The result? The Culture Trust: a corporate America that deploys the sensibilities of counterculture for profit. Its branding offers the reassuring image of nonconformity and heterodoxy that helps the Establishment materialism go down easy and is typified by the logic whereby a company makes Henry Rollins a spokesperson for his purported punk individualism. “The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy,” Frank wrote. “Advertising teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a bizarre notion on the face of it), but in orgiastic, never-ending self-fulfillment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism… We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock ‘n roll rebels.” The ads tell us that buying stuff is spinning away from the buttoned up commuter home lifestyle and indulging our individual anarcho-hedonistist.
Today, the very jargon of advertising gestures toward this ethos. Ad firms offer “creative solutions.” Their online efforts are focused on “social storytelling.” “Brand ambassadors” lead promotions. This vocabulary reframes advertising as artistic and creative, which on some level, it is. The problem is one of dishonesty by omission: Advertising has become more creative and progressive, but its primary object is still capital gain.
The Six Word Wow campaign takes the Culture Trust and raises it a couple of copywriters’ salaries. Where once the Ritz-Carlton LLC was satisfied with its customers merely feeling their consumption to be rebellious, now it asks for user-generated content to supplement their $10-15 million-a-year worth of advertisements. In other words, it asks its customers to first pay for hotel rooms and then advertise them without any compensation. And it’s all done with a playful call to arms, not unlike the announcement for a flash fiction contest — except the prize is always won by the corporation, not the writer, or in more modern terms, the content provider.
Of course, Ritz-Carlton is not alone in adopting a user-generated content strategy. Last year, when Belkin and Lego collaborated on an iPhone case, customers were invited to share phone selfies with the hashtag #legoxbelkin. Burberry’s Art of the Trench campaign asked for trench coat photos to be uploaded to a Tumblr. In Culture Trust 2.0, we’re all Don Draper, and we’re all susceptible to his slick salesmanship. Our complicity via ad content generation allows us to believe that our consumerism is a new, better consumerism; we aren’t bragging about the stuff we bought as much as sharing our stories with the online global community.
Some might protest that user-generated content campaigns are simply a new iteration of word-of-mouth recommendations. We’ve always asked our friends advice. We’ve preferred a reliable consumer report to a fast-talking sales guy. Indeed, according to a study conducted by Ipsos Media CT and the Social Media Advertising Consortium, Millennials trust user-generated content 50 percent more than advertisements, primarily because they find it more “authentic.” The question is: What happens when user-generated content and advertisements amount to essentially the same thing? Furthermore, what happens when the purportedly authentic UGC ad is sought by asking for stories inspired by an unverified story about a fiction writer’s classified ad-styled narrative? Perhaps, like Saatchi & Saatchi’s Team One, the brains behind the Six Word Wow campaign, the best place to turn for answers is fiction.
Toward the beginning of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 tome The Corrections, there’s a scene in which Chip Lambert, a young professor at an elite Connecticut college, shows his critical theory class a series of videos from an ad campaign. In the videos, an enviably brassy, chatty group of women working in an office discover that one of the gang, Chelsea, has a lump in her breast about which she’s too frightened to see a doctor. Her boss, a woman of compassionate technological savvy, has news for Chelsea: She can use the W—Corporation’s Global Desktop Version 5.0 to research cancer, join support groups, and find medical care. It’s all very emotional, not least of all because after Chelsea dies, women around the world look at images of dead Chelsea on their personal Global Desktops before the video cuts to a message urging viewers to “Help us Fight for the Cure” and explaining that W has given more than $10 million to the American Cancer Society. After the viewing, one student praises the bravery of the ad for allowing its protagonist to die, but Chip expects “someone to observe that it was precisely this self-consciously ‘revolutionary’ plot twist that had generated publicity for the ad.” The class does not take Chip’s bald baiting. Instead his favorite student says of the ad, “It’s celebrating women in the workplace… It’s raising money for cancer research. It’s encouraging us to do our self-examinations and get the help we need. It’s helping women feel like we own this technology.” And of course, in a sense, she’s right. The ad doesn’t serve only one purpose, and that one of those is to promote a brand does not negate the company’s charitable donation. Like many texts, the W—Corporation’s commercial is complicated, and the author’s aims may be manifold.
It is exactly this advertising “author” that Colson Whitehead zeroes in on in Apex Hides the Hurt, a novel in which the sixth most popular bandage manufacturer in America hires slick consultants to increase sales. On the advice of one consultant, the brand’s new strategy becomes selling bandages in a range of hues, unlike their competitors that offer only a single “flesh” tone. After all, as he says, “You manufacture this thing and call it flesh. It belongs to another race. I have different ideas about what flesh color is… We come in many colors. And we want to see ourselves when we look down at ourselves, our arms and legs.” The brand is renamed Apex and soon ads showing white, black, and Asian mothers sticking Apex bandages matched to white, black, and Asian children appear on television. Apex begins selling well. As the nomenclature consultant who conceives of the name Apex recalls later, “The packages spoke for themselves. The people chose themselves and in that way perhaps he had named a mirror… In the advertising, multicultural children skinned knees, revealing blood beneath, the commonality of wound, they were all brothers now, and multicultural bandages were affixed to red boo-boos. United in polychromatic harmony, in injury, with our individual differences respected, eventually all healed beneath Apex.”
Whitehead’s bouncy prose is flush with satire: The bandages do not create a society in which it’s understood that the similarities of the soul belie differences in skin color. Throughout the novel, Apex bandages will fail to heal a minor toe injury incurred by the brand-namer—who, notably, is nameless himself—yet he does, ostensibly, believe his own observation that the image of multiculturalism at work in the ads is beautiful. Apex may fail the very man who has marketed the product, but the product also does, to a degree, rectify a sin of homogeneity. What Whitehead captures is the way that advertisements act as limited utopian fictions, reflecting the fantasies of the target demographic. Seeing—and therefore being reminded of—the values signified in a commercial may not be such a bad thing when so often the real world fails to live up to these ideals. Even the authors of these ads are enchanted by their own fairy tales.
Yet at a time when 89 percent of adults ages 18-29 use social networking sites, perhaps the most relevant example of advertising in fiction arrives via Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Set in the near future, the novel depicts a world in which its characters are never without their electronic devices, personal and financial information is (often humiliatingly) public, and men and women are Mediastuds and Mediawhores. Books are rare, but ads coyly branded as social media “hints” are not. When users log in to send messages, the Super Sad Facebook equivalent GlobalTeens posts these “hints,” such as “Switch to Images today! Less words = more fun!!!” and “Harvard Fashion School studies show excessive typing makes wrists large and unattractive. Be a GlobalTeen forever — switch to images today!” Language itself has been perverted so that its chief use is to keep the Mediastuds and Mediawhores of the world vapid consumers — proud of their electronic savvy and low on emotional savvy. Most insidiously, the desire to connect digitally is exactly what exposes GlobalTeens users to ads meant to silence them. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t. The characters of Super Sad True Love Story still air their frustrations through GlobalTeens messages and stream their love letters. The need to be heard cannot be quashed by the machinations of social media advertising. A writing workshop might carefully call them unsuccessful texts.
Perhaps what draws Franzen, Whitehead, and Shteyngart to address advertising in their fiction is its kinship as a type of text. The difference, of course, is that ads can be consumed in seconds, and the author company is the text’s distributor. The text doesn’t need to be chosen by the reader. Yet in each novel, the limitations of authorial intent loom over advertising; advertisements are never purely exploitative vehicles toward consumerism. Copywriters may intend a particular effect, but it is the reader who interprets it. Filtered through the complexity of the human mind, the ads may generate a multiplicity of meaning, and we readers must ask for what advertorial texts we’ll suspend our disbelief.
One reason the Six Word Wows have been effective is that in some sense, the Ritz-Carlton has called for patrons to take some authorial role. Ed French, chief sales and marketing officer of the Ritz-Carlton, provided a statement for the #RCMemories campaign press release: “The Six Word Wows are yet another way for us to celebrate the special memories that guests take away from a visit to our hotels all over the world.” The company has said, don’t kill your darlings; make them for us to share. Like the characters of Super Sad True Love Story, those who choose to provide #RCMemories do want to celebrate their travels by re-narrating them on social media. They want to be asked how their trip was; they want the singularity of their experiences to be acknowledged. And like many writers, they want to believe that with just a few words, they can convey the romance of a moment. “Look!” they say. “Lots of people go on vacation, lots of people sleep at hotels, but I am narrator of my extraordinary life.” And we do all live extraordinary lives. So perhaps the problem isn’t that brand campaigns are exploiting users for content. Perhaps the problem is that we can’t buy an audience, and in the absence of empathetic ears, our default narrative mode is the fiction of advertising.
#RCMemories does not really pay homage to Hemingway, and it’s certainly not art for art’s sake, but like any writing exercise, the Six Word Wows provide a formal frame to display the unwieldy sprawl of human experience. What’s important is that we remember Hemingway’s advice to, “Write the truest sentence you know.” In that spirit, here’s a Six Word Wow: Our stories. Their profit. Share wisely.
Image via vitroids/Flickr
At my wedding last September, my theme — beyond the necessary trilingual nature of the event due to being Russian and marrying an Israeli — was books. For the centerpieces, I chose my favorite literary works, stacked ten copies of them on top of each other, tied them with a large gold ribbon, and then gave them away to the attendees when the night ended. I had classics for the more aged (and non-English-speaking) of the bunch, Russian translations of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but for the younger crowd, I picked Jonathan Franzen and Safran Foer titles, Gary Shteyngart’s appropriately titled Super Sad True Love Story, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. But probably my most current favorite of the bunch was The Borrower by fellow Chicagoan Rebecca Makkai. It was a book I had recently read and one that had stuck with me as a great representative of contemporary literature. I wanted everyone I knew to read it (and it didn’t hurt that there were Russian characters involved, since anyone reading it from my wedding would at least be able to relate on that level). Makkai now has a new book, The Hundred-Year House, a novel about the life of a haunted family and a haunted mansion, told in reverse. We recently sat down to discuss it:
The Millions: The first thing that was really clear to me after finishing your book is how incredibly complicated the structure of it is, especially how every section goes backward in time – from 1999 to 1955 to 1929. How did you go about writing it? Did you write it in chronological order, or did you play around with it a lot?
Rebecca Makkai: I wrote a short story once called “Gate House,” which consisted of some of the plot of the 1999 story. And it didn’t work as a short story at all; it was terrible. But when I revisited it, years later, I suddenly thought of turning it into a novel, and that’s when I started to consider what I would have to do to move backwards in time. At that point the whole thing was coming to me as I went about my day, as I was brushing my teeth – I would have these ideas of the way the plot would be layered. Soon I realized it would be stupid to start writing without seriously outlining, so that was the next thing I did. I ended up with a sixty-page outline. I had calendars, I had timelines, I had historical events. And of course it changed a ton as I was actually writing it. I knew I wanted to write it in reverse chronological order, as it appears in the book, but I had to outline first. Because I couldn’t write 1955 until I knew what happened in 1929.
TM: So you did have to jump around a little?
RM: Well it’s not that I was jumping around, it’s that I had to have every detail worked out before I could write anything, which is unusual. I think people are afraid of outlining, but it didn’t take any of the creativity out of it. And even with the scaffolding the outline provided, I was still catching things up to the last moment. For instance, there’s this bear statue in the woods, and you find out later that it was built in 1957, but I accidentally had it there in 1955… It’s probably not something the reader would really catch until the second or third read—but someone would eventually.
TM: I saw Nathan Englander last year at Printer’s Row, and he said something very similar to that, about how every detail of a story needs to be thought out, no matter how small. If there’s a story set in Chicago, you can’t have a character turn left down a one-way street going in the opposite direction.
RM: Yes, exactly. For me, the details of this house were really important. I ended up drawing the floor plans three times, once for every era. From different angles too. I had to refer to them constantly.
TM: Did you have fun with that, or do you not like drawing?
RM: Oh they look horrible – and I was staying at Ragdale [an artists’ residency] at the time, so there were actual artists there.
TM: Did they see the drawings?
RM: Oh yeah. One of the painters was laughing at me. But it was very helpful. I thought I knew the space pretty well, but then as I drew it, I realized that mentally I’d had the kitchen in two different spaces, depending on the scene.
TM: I would imagine it was really helpful to draw it, since basically all of the scenes take place in that house.
RM: Exactly. In each era there’s someone kind of trapped there.
TM: I did have that feeling a lot. Especially with Case, where all those bad things keep happening to him; the car fire, the knee injury, the bee stings.
RM: The house has this sort of magnetism to it. In 1999, Case is literally crippled by all these accidents. Then in 1955, Grace is trapped there by an abusive husband. And in the ’20s, when it’s an artists’ colony, the characters want to be trapped there. It’s their home, and they’re protecting it. I talk to students a lot about keeping people trapped together in a story so that they don’t just leave, because most people are so conflict-averse that they’d realistically just walk away. I have them practice by writing a scene with characters trapped in an elevator. I don’t think I realized that I’d done that myself until just now.
TM: Was your intention to have some sort of magical element to that feeling of entrapment? And to the house in general?
RM: For sure. I wanted everything to theoretically have some kind of an explanation, but at the same time there’s this question of luck – can you really have that much good luck or bad luck, or does it at some point start to feel supernatural? That’s the question a lot of them are dealing with. For Case, its almost like the house hates him. He just doesn’t belong there.
TM: You said that the first section, the one in 1999, was also the first thing you wrote. Did it change a lot once you decided to make it novel-length?
RM: Yes, quite a lot. Originally, if you can believe it, the story was about male anorexia. No one believes that this guy, who later becomes Case, is anorexic, and the character who later became Doug follows him around, obsessively trying to prove it. The main problem with that story was it was too long. But there was something in it that I loved, and I kept going back to it and trying to cut it, so that it would be publishable, but nothing ever came of it. Five years later it was still sitting there, one of many unpublished stories.
TM: Do you remember why you suddenly came back to it?
RM: I wish I could remember, but no, I don’t. And the original story, about the anorexia, it’s not even there at all anymore. The only trace of it that’s left is the idea of Violet, the original owner of the house, possibly starving to death. There is also a point when Doug takes that idea and puts it into one of the children’s books he’s writing, and it gets him fired. I tried really hard to keep that anorexia in the novel; it was hard to admit that was the thing that needed to go because it was the spark. It was like putting out the match that lit the candle.
TM: The character of Miriam probably resonated the most with me, because I lived with a lot of art majors in college, so someone creating works of art with found objects is very familiar. Did you know someone like that as well?
RM: Twelve years ago, I was in a pizza restaurant in New Haven, CT, with my husband and in-laws. It’s this world-famous place called Pepe’s, where you have to wait in line for hours to get in the door. We had finally made it into the lobby and there’s this group there, and it’s clearly a guy introducing his girlfriend to his parents for the first time. And what she did for a living was create portraits of people’s pets out of strange materials. In my memory, she was making marionette puppets, but I could have made that up. And the parents were trying so hard to be supportive, but they clearly didn’t understand. For some reason that was the seed of Miriam—this person who does this thing that no one would think would be sustainable but she’s actually quite successful.
TM: One thing that surprised me is that you had three separate sections with characters that we never see again. Did you think about the risk of that a lot?
RM: It’s not entirely true, though. The middle section is about Grace, and you do see her again in the 1929 section, as a small child. And there are other characters you see briefly too. I did worry that readers might be disgruntled as I divorced them from these people I’d just gotten them invested in, but I was careful to try and keep certain characters’ spirits in the story. For Doug and Miriam in particular, even though you never get back to 1999, you learn things in 1955 and 1929 that affect their story – that even change our understanding of what’s going to happen to them.
TM: Was there anything else you worried about?
RM: Well, I’m confident that none of my readers will remember 1929 clearly. But I’m worried about 1955, because readers who were around (and know that I wasn’t) could go into it looking for mistakes. But 1999, I remember myself. For a long time I’d wanted to write about the Y2K hysteria, because it was an interesting time, and I like to give deadlines to my stories. There’s a clock ticking; things that are going to happen have to happen by a certain time.
TM: It was a lot like a movie in that way, with the pacing.
RM: Yes. That said, I don’t think it would make a good movie. You’d have to take a lot of liberties, and do it very differently, and maybe return to 1999 in the end.
TM: The Borrower would make a good movie too.
RM: I feel like no one would want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. A ten-year-old boy… With sexuality issues… It would have to be an indie film.
TM: These two books are so different from each other. Was there anything different about the writing processes?
RM: I think it was more fun [with The Hundred-Year House]. All that outlining that I had to do paid off hugely when I sat down to write. The problem with The Borrower is that in the beginning I didn’t understand what I was doing yet and I wasted years floundering around, just figuring out how to write a novel.
TM: How long did this one take, after you just sat down to finish?
RM: I really got back to it around the time The Borrower came out, in 2011. So it happened fast. The Borrower took ten years, because I was poking at it, and I was working full-time so I didn’t have as much time to write.
TM: If you could tell your past self anything about writing The Borrower, what would it be?
RM: Just to outline. You can see the shape of something when you outline. You can see the structural flaws. Working on a novel is like painting a mural: if you’re close enough to work on it you’re too close to see the whole thing. You have to step away and look at it from across the room.
TM: Do you edit as you go along? Or do you write and come back?
RM: Both. You don’t want to spend time editing language when you’re not even sure if that scene is going to stay in the book. You don’t want to polish something you’re still carving. I’ll fix it up if something sticks out, but I wont do micro-edits.
TM: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
RM: I actually love outlining. Especially when it’s new and you’re just generating ideas. I also love polishing the language. I don’t like the big structural edits as much. I get myself geared up for those edits by letting myself play spider solitaire. It turns on the math-and-logic part of my brain. At least that’s what I tell myself.
TM: How much of an impact do your editors at Viking have on your books? Do they change it quite a bit?
RM: They don’t change it themselves; they ask the writer to change it. But it’s mostly bigger things, not the details. They pushed me to cut a lot from the 1999 setting; it was much, much longer before.
TM: Oh! Is that why the chapters are kind of short? Or is that just how it came out?
RM: No, that’s just how it came out. I ended up cutting entire chapters, rather than parts within the chapters. I think I cut it by a third or a half. But I’m really happy with the way it turned out. I’m glad they pushed me.
TM: How many times has your husband read this book?
RM: That’s a good question! Definitely not as much as The Borrower… He’s probably read the entire book three times. I held off giving it to him, so he didn’t read it till close to the end.
TM: Was he helpful?
RM: Yes. He’s my best editor.
TM: Are you in a place where you never want to look at it again?
RM: Weirdly, I’m not. I’m never going to sit down and read the whole thing, but I’m not dreading the many occasions where I’ll have to read from it out loud. Whereas with The Borrower, I’ve read from it so much that I don’t particularly want to read from that again for a while.
TM: Do you have a book tour coming up for the release?
RM: Yes. I’m going to the east coast in July, and in August I’m doing Chicago, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee.
TM: What are you working on now?
RM: I’m wrapping up a short story collection called Music For Wartime that’s coming out next summer.
TM: Are you editing a lot or is everything pretty much done?
RM: Yes and no. There’s one story I feel strongly about that’s unpublished and I really need to revise it, so I’m working on that. I’m also working on the order of the stories. It was done a couple years ago, but we decided to publish the novel first, so I had an order picked out, but since then I’ve written more stories.
TM: How many stories total?
RM: Some of them are short, one or two pages, so it actually ends up being sixteen stories all together – but the total page length isn’t unusual for a story collection.
TM: Have you started a new novel?
RM: I have the idea. I want to work on something set in the New York art world in the ’80s amidst the AIDS epidemic, and Paris in the ’20s. There are artists, some stuff about tuberculosis, and a connection between the two worlds, though I’m not sure what yet.
I’ve been dipping in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, for no particular reason, other than that I like thought — I’m sick of the relentless, numbing emotionalism of American culture.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks deserves every bit of attention and success it has received, for the way it addresses the ethics of science and race. Also, I am a huge fan of historical characters that would be forgotten if it wasn’t for a talented, curious writer who doesn’t succumb to the pressures of being in this (boring) moment. Thus I loved Monique Brinson Demery’s Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu.
It took me only a couple of days to read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. One of the things we are good at are the systems of thoughtlessness — witnessing the dissection of one of them was both rewarding and disheartening. I’m a huge fan of Graham Robb’s work, particularly his biography of Rimbaud and his books on Paris and France. But Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century was a revelation in the power of its conviction and erudition.
I loved Laurent Binet’s HHhH, its intelligence and ethical commitment. Gary Shteyngart is one of the funniest people alive, but Super Sad True Love Story is not just very funny, it is also sad and sadly true.
And it is, of course, the centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which is one of those miraculous books that gets better with every re-reading.
And I’ve gone through dozens of books on soccer in 2013, but I’ll just mention two: Barca: the Making of the Greatest Team in the World by Graham Hunter and Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning by Guillem Balague, both full of great stories, meticulous research, and recollections of great soccer matches. In my entire life, I’ve read only one book about American football, which I despise every day of my life. But Rich Cohen’s Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is one of the best sports books I’ve ever read and now I have something to talk about with men at Thanksgiving.
Looking into the future, I enjoyed and admired Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman (coming out in February 2014), because it is a book about reading (as translating), and full of love for it. Presently, I’m enjoying Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase (July 2014) — it is funny and smart, inventive and poetic, makes me want to write down every other sentence. And I shudder to think it is only her first book.
I read a lot, so I’ll stop here.
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Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s daughter is barely a week old, and little North “Nori” West is already a household name. Yet despite endless commentary about the unconventional moniker, the literary origins of North West have yet to be revealed.
The obvious association is Hitchcock’s beloved film, North By Northwest, but this title is actually derived from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw,” Hamlet muses to Guildenstern. In modern English, the troubled Prince of Denmark thinks he’s one fry short of a Happy Meal when the breeze blows north or north-west.
Is Kimye aware of the literary connotation of their baby name? Probably not, or they wouldn’t have associated their daughter with mommy issues and madness as fickle as the wind. The unique name, and its surprising Shakespearean association, bring up a fascinating question about the cultural legacy a baby inherits solely based on its name.
Certain names are forever tainted by their literary heritage. Jezebel couldn’t shake its association with the shameless wife of Ahab — until, perhaps, the feminist blog came along and reappropriated the name. Both Romeo and Lothario are inextricably linked to passionate seducers, one sincere, the other unscrupulous. Names derived from strong women in Shakespeare’s plays like Miranda and Portia are fairly common, but Ophelias are rare (Unless they’ve all gotten themselves to a nunnery, as Hamlet suggested.) Then there’s Lolita, a name practically synonymous with a sexually advanced, nymph-like young woman (So why don’t we call pathetic old guys infatuated with younger women Humbert Humberts? Just wondering.)
If some names are tainted, then others are forever blessed by their bookish
background. Is it any surprise that literary names like Phineas (A Separate Peace) and Atticus (To Kill a Mockingbird) have taken off in recent years? Who doesn’t want to bestow upon their child a Pavlovian response from strangers who automatically find their child attractive, wise, honest or dignified because of a book they read in ninth grade? And would an ironic little hipster like Ebenezer be the equivalent of naming a child Miser or Greed? (There actually are 70 people named Greed, according to the Census). I won’t even ask about Quasimotos. Somewhere in Brooklyn, there may be one being born right now.
Interestingly, for girls the names of precocious and whimsical yet feminine characters like Matilda, Madeline, and Alice have become perennial favorites — but not their feistier and more assertive literary sisters, Pippi and Eloise. I guess most parents don’t want daughters sliding down banisters and rejecting basic social norms. It’s no wonder the names of strong women in literature — Tolstoy’s Natasha, Morrison’s Sula, Larsson’s Lisbeth — carry a certain lyricism, fierceness, and sensuality that make them both intriguing and dangerous. Often these characters come to be known more closely than the hefty volumes they inhabit.
Then there are names whose connotations are transformed along with the popularity of a particular book. My generation knows Hermione from Harry Potter, but those prior knew her from The Winter’s Tale (J.K. Rowling probably knew what she was doing, naming a precocious young sorcerer after a Shakespearean character magically “resurrected” after being dead for 16 years.)
Which brings up another trait of literary naming: the cannonical tip of the hat. Claire Messud’s dollhouse-crafting Nora in The Woman Upstairs is clearly piggybacking on Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In doing so, Messud invokes the magic of her literary ancestors and creates depth of character before the book even begins. On that note, could any writer name a character Holden or Nathan without readers thinking the author was referencing Caulfield or Zuckerman?
Perhaps names in the titles of books — especially those from childhood — have the most lasting influence over how these names are perceived. Harriets must always wear glasses and are probably undercover agents; Annes are plucky and face difficult obstacles in faraway places like Green Gables and Amsterdam. Sheilas, well, they’re just great.
There’s the rare situation where the overwhelming popularity of a name can all but erase its literary connotations. The influx of Emmas (it was the second most popular baby name in U.S. for girls in 2012) has totally diminished its relevance to Ms. Bovary and Ms. Woodhouse in my mind. The first time I read The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s daughter Jessica threw me for a loop. I thought her name simply didn’t have enough gravitas for Shakespeare, since it is one I associate with popular blonds and B-list actresses.
Some names are just plain obvious in their symbolism. Name a character Adam if you want him to be an everyman. Marys and Maggies are innocent and likely to get devoured in sci-fi or deflowered in literary fiction. Katherines, and now Katniss, are heroine types. Just as certain names in literature connote good and others evil, the concept is fairly often seen off the page too. The suggestion that Tamerlan, a common name in the Caucuses, be retired after the Boston Bombings was a culturally tone-deaf suggestion, but it spoke to the type of personal biases that many of us have with names. I admit to initially feeling slightly prejudged against guys with the same name as certain ex-boyfriends, and when I first started dating my current boyfriend, Lenny, the only other Lenny I knew was the protagonist in Super Sad True Love Story. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was setting myself up for heartbreak (We’re doing just fine, thanks.).
North West is what’s being called a concept name. Will it spawn a generation of Word Smiths and Harry Pitts? Putting Green? Old MacDonald? Cupcake Baker anyone? Names might carry the baggage of their literary predecessors, but what about a phrase? Little North’s legacy will likely be shaped by so many other factors, and to suggest a child’s destiny is exclusively shaped by his or her name is bunk. My prediction is that North West will be a force of nature. After all, wasn’t it the Bard who said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?
Tonight at Columbia: A conversation with Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and most recently Super Sad True Love Story. Moderated by McKenzie Wark, professor of media and cultural studies at The New School and author of Gamer Theory. “Rewiring the Real” at 6:30 P.M.
During a recent visit to Cologne, I avoided the city’s most magnetic tourist attraction – you’ve seen one Gothic cathedral, you’ve seen them all – and instead I explored the city’s bookshops. Large and small, general and specialized, spacious and cramped, there seemed to be no end to the variety. But they all had one thing in common: they were thriving.
How do the Germans do it? When a huge, once-mighty book-selling chain like Borders is going down in flames across the Atlantic, how do the Germans manage to keep their book publishing industry so diverse, so robust, so stable? How do booksellers consistently turn a profit on everything from Goethe to Grass to Grisham? Is it because of careful planning? Dumb luck? Some mystical Teutonic gene? Or could it be a Kultur thing?
Buchladen, a small shop on the north side of Cologne, is as good a place as any to begin searching for answers. It doesn’t look like much from the street – green awning, small display window – but as soon as you enter the shop you’re stunned by the quality and quantity, the variety and beauty of what’s on the shelves. At the front of the shop are new fiction and history books, in hardcover and paperback, by well-known German authors and numerous Americans in translation, including Philip Roth, Richard Price, Nicole Krauss, Paul Auster, and Richard Powers. In the paperback fiction section, 30 feet of floor-to-ceiling shelves, I found books by David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, Karin Slaughter, Don Winslow, and Elmore Leonard mixed in with German, French, Scottish, Irish, English, and Japanese authors. German readers have catholic tastes. They consume crime novels as hungrily as literary fiction, history, philosophy, erotica, and just about everything else.
One thing you will not find on the shelves at German bookshops, large or small, is that mainstay of big American bookstores – signs announcing steep discounts on current bestsellers. That’s because the cost of all new books in Germany is strictly regulated by something called the Buchpreisbindung, a uniform pricing policy that was adopted voluntarily by booksellers in 1888 and became national law in 2002. By forcing all stores and on-line vendors to sell new titles at the same price, the law is, obviously, a boon to small stores that can’t compete with the volume purchasing of the big chains and online giants like Amazon.de and Buch.de.
“The idea [of the Buchpreisbindung] was to eliminate price competition in order to promote the sale of little-known books,” says Simone Thelen, spokeswoman for the Mayersche chain, which was founded in the 19th century and now has 49 stores, mostly in the state of North Rhine Westphalia. “It makes it possible for publishers to publish a variety of books and authors, and it gives us the chance to promote young, unknown authors and books that are not blockbusters.”
This seemingly counter-intuitive strategy – protecting books by keeping them expensive – is actually in line with much of what goes on in Germany today. The country enjoys the healthiest economy in Europe, rising employment, a balanced budget, and an enviable trade surplus not in spite of, but because of, its well-paid workers and their vast network of social services, including universal (that is, mandatory) health care, plus at least four weeks of paid vacation and in some cases more than seven. It makes perfect sense to prosperous, book-loving Germans to pay a fair, strictly regulated price for new books because they believe that the health of the book industry – that is, of publishers, booksellers, and writers, from famous to unknown – is vital to the health of the whole society.
The idea of the government regulating the price of consumer goods is anathema to most Americans, who have bought into free-market gospel and the Walmart mantra that price is everything, and lower is always better than higher. It comes as no surprise, then, that many Americans are wailing about the coming cost of universal health care, our onerous tax rate (among the lowest in the industrialized world), and the need to trim the federal deficit by slashing government spending while preserving tax breaks for the rich. And yet, as the Borders debacle illustrates, allowing booksellers in America to set prices anywhere they choose is no guarantee that even the biggest fish will survive. Pity the vanishing small fry.
Marion Krefting, a sales clerk at Buchladen for the past 13 years, is, like most Germans, widely read, fluent in English, and addicted to foreign travel. Krefting happens to be in love with Australia, which she first visited in the late 1970s and has revisited many times since, most recently two years ago. In Australia she saw first-hand what happens when the government stops regulating the price of books and lets market forces do the job. “The first time I visited Australia, about 35 years ago, they had regulated pricing like we do,” she told me. “When I went back a few years later they had stopped it. What happened was that the bestsellers became cheaper, everything else became more expensive, and there was less variety.” And now the predictable kicker: “The little bookshops don’t exist anymore.”
Australia’s experience is not unique. After price regulation ended in England, the price of books rose by 8 percent; and when it ended in Sweden, one out of four bookstores went out of business. Always willing to go against the grain, the Swiss, who do not now have a book pricing law, are talking about instituting one.
Krefting, the daughter of a bookseller, is a fan of such writers as Tad Williams, Elizabeth George, and William Boyd. But her great love is children’s books, and she points with pride to her personal fief, the large, colorful section devoted to children’s books at the back of Buchladen. When a customer comes in and asks for an appropriate book for a 6-year-old girl, Krefting steers her to a book called Rita das Raubschaf. She gives the customer a concise synopsis of the plot – it’s about a sheep named Rita who gets bored chewing grass and runs off to become a pirate – along with her enthusiastic personal endorsement. The customer buys the book without hesitation. Such crisp professionalism is the norm in German bookstores because clerks are required to study for several years – literature, accounting, and the mechanics of the book business – then pass a standardized exam before they can become certified booksellers. In DIY, blue-sky, go-for-it America, such rigid standards are almost unthinkable. Which is not to say there are no knowledgeable booksellers in the U.S. There are many, of course. It’s just that Americans hope to find knowledgeable employees when they go to a bookstore, while Germans insist on it. To Krefting, the German way makes perfect sense. “This is not a job, it’s a profession I love,” she says. “The pay is not good, the hours are terrible, but I just love books.”
At a nearby shop called Agnes Buchhandlung, the display window contains copies, in German translation, of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, and Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life. The owner, Uli Ormanns, leaves no doubt about the importance of the Buchpreisbindung for small shops like his. “It’s absolutely critical to our survival,” he says. Another thing that helps, he adds, is the national network of book warehouses and its shipping system. “Of the one million books available in Germany, we can order 400,000 of them overnight, just like the big chain stores,” Ormanns says. “Other books, like textbooks, technical books, university presses – which are not a big part of our business – we can get in a week.” He then leads me to the corner of the shop devoted to books – in English – by American and British authors. Particularly popular with Agnes Buchhandlung’s customers are Stephenie Meyer, Philip Roth, Paul Auster, and Jonathan Franzen. “It’s a small part of our business,” Ormanns says, “but more and more customers are asking for American and English authors in English, usually after they’ve read the book in German.”
Catherine Brull, a native of Belgium who has worked in the shop for seven years, is getting ready to crack open her new copy of Super Sad True Love Story, which is priced at 19.95 euros, about $28, including tax. (The sales tax on books in Germany is 7 percent, compared with 19 percent for most consumer goods.) “The German people like the American way of writing,” Brull says. “Sometimes the German authors aren’t easy to read. They have a heavy heritage – Grass, Mann, Boll – and they’re always thinking about that.”
Discounted books are not unheard-of in Germany. When I walked into the venerable Buchhandlung Walther Koenig in the heart of Cologne, I was greeted by a large table festooned with high-quality art books reduced in price by as much as 75 percent. There are four ways sellers can make such sharp price cuts: if the book is used, if it’s damaged, if it was imported from a country without a Buchpreisbindung, or if the sales are so slow after 18 months that the publisher declares it a “remainder,” thus freeing stores to set their own price. The effect of the rule is that large chain stores tend to offer remaindered books at sharp discounts, which smaller stores rarely try to match. Similarly, there are no price rules on audio books, and therefore it’s almost impossible to find them at small shops. The prices of e-books, which currently account for less than 1 percent of all book sales in Germany, are regulated by the Buchpreisbindung.
Which brings us, finally, inevitably, to the elephant in the middle of the bookshop. I’m talking of course about the differences in reading habits between Americans and Germans – or, to be a bit more broad, between Americans and most of the rest of the civilized world. Simply put, one of the major reasons Germany has a healthy book publishing industry, beyond its pricing law, is because Germans (like the English, the Irish, the Japanese, the French, and many other nationalities) tend to read more, and more seriously, than Americans. I can’t cite statistics to prove this, but after traveling much of the world I know in my bones that it’s true. I became convinced of it the day I boarded an airplane in Dusseldorf and sat next to a perfectly typical German hausfrau who spent the flight devouring Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, a novel that has defeated me every time I’ve tried to read it. I remember thinking: Germans are different.
“It’s true that the tradition of reading is very deep-rooted in German culture,” says Michael Roesler-Graichen, an editor at the magazine put out by the Borsenverein, the national society of publishers and booksellers based in Frankfurt. “It’s not the whole population. The so-called higher literature, or belles lettres, is read by a small percentage. But it’s a very vital tradition.”
In 2007 an Association of American Publishers (AAP) survey revealed that one in four Americans did not read a single book – not one book – the previous year. Things seem to have improved since hitting that nowhere-to-go-but-up nadir. In 2009 the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the number of Americans reading literature (novels, short stories, poems, and plays) had increased for the first time since 1982. And this summer a joint survey by the AAP and the Book Industry Group revealed that American publishers’ net sales rose by 5.6 percent from 2008 to 2010, thanks to surging sales of e-books as well as juvenile and adult fiction. Much is now being made of the ascendancy of e-books and the boost they’re giving to the American book industry. I say hooray. But I’m inclined to wonder if this ramping-up of e-reader and e-book sales is an indicator that Americans are suddenly reading more. I suspect they’re merely downloading more. I hope I’m wrong. Time will tell.
None of this is to suggest that the German system of selling books could or should be transplanted wholesale to the United States. Nor is it to imply that all Germans are better-read and better-educated than all Americans. Roesler-Graichen, the editor, is happy to set the record straight on that score. “Whenever I visit America, people say, ‘Oh, you Germans are so well educated, you’re so well read,'” he says. Then, with a laugh, he adds, “I have to tell them it’s not true of all Germans.”
He’s right, of course. But there can be no denying that books occupy a special place in the life of Germany, the country that gave us the printed book. Thelen, the spokeswoman for the Mayersche chain, sums that place up nicely. “Books are not just a commodity here,” she says. “They have a cultural value that has to be saved.”
So in the end, yes, it’s a culture thing.
Image credit: chascarper/Flickr
New this week is Julian Barnes’ new collection of stories, Pulse. We also have new novels from Geraldine Brooks (Caleb’s Crossing) and Jean Thompson (The Day We Left Home). There’s also a new collection available from Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clezio (Mondo and Other Stories). And new in paperback: Millions Hall of Famer Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart and The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis.