Taipei (Vintage Contemporaries Original)

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A Year in Reading: Patty Yumi Cottrell

This year I have been keeping a list. The first book I read was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. A friend recommended it and she was right. This slim novel is very funny. I went on to read more books by Muriel Spark, like The Finishing School and The Driver’s Seat. I remember trying to read Memento Mori at a café with a woman I had a crush on, and I couldn’t read it. I stared down at the same page for an hour. I’m sure it’s a good book!

I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year in Los Angeles with the digressive and maddening Javier Marías: A Heart So White, All Souls, The Infatuations, Dark Back of Time.

By the summer, I was living in a sublet in Brooklyn. In that shabby room crowded with mood boards and Zen trinkets, I read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, a grotesque, startling vision of contemporary life on this planet, and The Answers by Catherine Lacey, a gorgeous and incisive account of people struggling to answer impossible questions about what it means to be a flawed human in relation to other flawed humans.

A couple months ago, I moved from a sublet in Brooklyn to a place in Ditmas Park. I read Taipei by Tao Lin, which is one of the most uncomfortable and awkward books I’ve ever encountered. It moved me. I adore it.

My friend Brandon Shimoda, a poet, sent me his journal. He printed it out and mailed it to me in a priority envelope. He writes about dreams, walking, his impressions of people on the bus, etc. Sample entry: “Couldn’t care less about poetry or its mind, I just want to make things out of trash and give it all away.”

And finally: Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard. Sarah Gerard is a writer who also happens to be a detective, an intellectual, and a hobo. Her collection of essays about Florida, religion, friendship, sex, and eccentric people and their questionable activities made me perceive the world in a different way. I fell in love with her, so I might be kind of biased.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The Rise of the Sad Flâneur

Michel Houellebecq’s latest English language poetry collection, Unreconciled,  evokes a strange nostalgia. While this relentlessly downbeat collection is entirely composed of poems from between 1991 and 2013, it feels far older than that. In contrast to the current moment, the images Houellebecq uses to conjure up the bleakness of capitalism — commuters, isolated from each other by their Walkmen; microwave dinners for one — feel a little toothless. They make you want to laugh-sob over one beer too many: “remember when we thought things were bad for workers?” Which makes it all the more striking that one aspect of Houellebecq’s work makes it a must-read for the present day — his depiction of the Sad Flâneur.

This figure is freakin’ everywhere in this book. Trudging past an old beggar being kicked in the head, wandering through a car park, reluctantly navigating the tourist district, he consistently registers somewhere between numb and suicidal. He’s worlds away from what’s normally associated with the flâneur — somebody who takes joy from immersing themselves in the crowds and the hustle and bustle of the city. As such, he feels like the inevitable rebuttal to Walter Benjamin’s vision of the flâneur, who simultaneously protests capitalism with its emphasis on hurry and productivity by taking a turtle for a walk in the Arcades and allowing the turtle to set the pace of movement, and who functions as a connoisseur of capitalism.  (“For the masses as well as the flâneur, glossy enameled corporate nameplates are as good a wall-decoration as an oil painting is for the homebody sitting in his living room.”) This vision of the flâneur feels appropriate now — undermining as it does, one interpretation of the flâneur’s most hopeful aspect: that he will act as a witness for the horrors of the past and trigger the “redemptive repair that can correct the past in hopes of a better future.”

Of course, Houellebecq didn’t invent this figure. The Sad Flâneur can be seen through all manner of literature, from the recent (for example, Tao Lin’s 2013 novel, Taipei) to the older (as with Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar). It’s no coincidence that the figure appears in literature in times in which capitalism is at its most ruthless: at his most powerful, the Sad Flâneur lays bare the relationship between capitalism and depression.

All three works feature characters who move through the city with a certain weird sadness. Despite Esther acknowledging that her summer in New York is a gift for someone as suburban and inexperienced as herself, she never reaches the dizzy heights of flânerie. Instead, we get motion minus emotion: “I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolley-bus.” Even when she attempts to deviate from her schedule, as when she lets a group of strange men take her and her attractive friend for drinks, she still expresses her feelings via metaphors for a sort of melancholy movement: “It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction…rushing away from all…that excitement at about a million miles an hour.” Paul, Taipei’s man-child protagonist is the inverse of Esther. He lives in New York full-time, his life is mysteriously all leisure (though, much like that classic New York sitcom trope, like in Friends or Sex and the City, his finances don’t really add up) and his motion expresses that: we follow him from party to party, with his arrival only leading to the realization that he wants to be somewhere else.

It’s clear Paul doesn’t think of himself as a slacker. He’s constantly inventing tiny tasks or goals, as if to lend a sense of industriousness to what is, effectively, just goofing off. He’s not wandering the city, he’s going to buy an avocado or to buy drugs, or else he’s going to a reading. He never seems to enjoy the city or motion itself so much as a sense of having something to check off his to-do list. Meanwhile, Houellebecq’s flâneur narrators are perhaps the most openly lugubrious about their lifestyle. In the poem “The Core of the Malaise,” the narrator states wistfully that when “one is dealing with a ‘simple stroll,’ that ‘direction is…alas very rare.” But if he hates walking with no clear goal, why do it? Earlier in the poem he clarifies for us. The view outside his room “doesn’t make you feel like going out, but staying in the room is disastrously boring.” If at this point, you’re chalking this up as the Gauloises n’ cynicism pose of a French writer of a certain age, read through the entire volume and you’ll gradually get worn down. He’s serious.

If you’re “well, duh”-ing the above, you’re not wrong. After all, one of the tasteless side effects of Plath’s death is that she’s become a poster girl for literary depression, while Houellebecq has been public about his own struggle with depression, which was so serious it led to “several stays in psychiatric units.” Lin has been equally candid, referring to his depression on several different occasions (although he has stressed he’s never been “officially” diagnosed with the illness due to embarrassment about consulting a doctor). So maybe I’m overegging this omelette. Maybe wandering through New York and Paris sounds terrible and exhausting and crushing because, quite simply, we’re seeing these cities through perspectives that have been soured by depression.

Yet none of these authors are shy about linking their works to a larger political picture. It’s no coincidence that Plath opens her novel on a sentence that neatly yokes together city, politics, and depression: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” By the Rosenbergs, Esther is referring to, of course, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of and executed for conspiring to commit espionage with information about the Atomic Bomb for the Soviet Union at the height of McCarthyism. Plath goes on:
I’m stupid about electrocutions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers…It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
Esther’s “It had nothing to do with me” feels disingenuous. It hardly seems a coincidence that the protagonist’s name is so strikingly similar to Ethel Rosenberg’s maiden name, Esther Ethel Greenglass. Besides which, the gruesome, half-botched execution that would go on to mark the height of McCarthyist paranoia in America is described here in a way that anticipates the electroshock therapy Esther undergoes for her depression (“with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant”). It’s hard not to conclude that Esther’s depression is, in part, that hoary old chestnut: a sane reaction to an insane world, or in this case, political climate.

It’s a similar story in Taipei. On a skim read, it seems apolitical. Barring the use of recreational drugs, Paul doesn’t feel passionately about anything and is so exhaustingly ironic that it’s hard to imagine him holding anything within a mile of a deeply-felt political belief. But that one exception is more meaningful than it first seems: in Audrea Lim’s acute LARB essay on Taipei, she notes how Lin swerves “conventional drug genres of bacchanal and cautionary tale” and makes reference to “what Michel Foucault calls ‘technologies of the self’– techniques that individuals enact upon their bodies, minds, and behavior in order to transform themselves.” Her emphasis is on the way drugs make us productive and our reality bearable and this, I believe, is where Taipei makes its politics known. Because Taipei is the first really convincing novel about the modern precariat worker.

The term was popularized in Guy Standing’s 2011 work The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and refers to the millions of people “flanked by an army of unemployed and a detached group of socially ill misfits,” working zero hour contracts and without any of the benefits (sick leave, pensions, maternity leave) enjoyed by those in stable, seemingly permanent roles.

Which all feels distinctly familiar when reading Taipei, which was publicized as “an ode — or lament — to the way we live now” that would concentrate on “what it means to be…on the fringe in America, or anywhere else for that matter,” and in which Paul and his friends are united by the precariousness of their work. There are no stable salaried roles here, instead we get friends who wait tables (fine, but hard to fathom how to eke out a living from such a role in New York), work as a gig-by-gig research assistant for a ghostwriter and almost-copywriter for a band, or work as a freelance journalist whose pitch emails languish unanswered. Writer Paul is perhaps the most financially comfortable person of his generation in the novel, but make no mistake, he’s aware of his success being evaluated on a series of one-off performances. Paul’s most pressing motivation to take drugs isn’t to let off steam, but to repress his social anxiety to a point where he can be talkative at the events on his book tour:
To determine what amount of what drugs…he should ingest, on what days, to minimize anxiety and boredom for himself and others, he’d edited the seven page itinerary from his publisher to fit on one page…He’d printed a final draft…that said he should ingest something…before twenty-two of his twenty-five events and some miscellaneous things such as the day a writer from BlackBook was writing an article about ‘hanging out’ with him while doing that.
The success (or lack thereof) of Paul’s attempts to self-medicate are made explicit when he states:
I mean…the world is good enough, based on evidence, because I haven’t killed myself…Since the urge to kill myself isn’t so strong that I actually kill myself, the world is worth living in.
In a world in which the U.S. president appears to be about to roll back workers’ rights with regard to enforcing labor laws and cracking down on wage theft, in which almost a million Britons work zero hour contracts while their banks get propped up by the taxpayer, this feels like Paul has internalized the right-wing idea of what the standard of life for the average precariat worker should be. Just good enough so that you’re not pushed over the edge into brutal self-harm. Given Paul’s use of drugs to function professionally — in contrast to Walter Benjamin, who looked to hashish, much as he looked to his rambles through the city for “profane illumination” — Paul’s inability to move through the city without inventing small to-dos seems a symptom of an America in which productivity has taken priority over humanity.

Houellebecq is more explicitly savage about what he sees as the false promises of politics. He has no faith in the benevolence of institutions, and we see this in the geography of his latest collection. In Unreconciled hospitals are:
…asylums of suffering
Where the forgotten old turn into organs
Beneath the mocking and utterly indifferent eyes
Of interns who scratch themselves, eating bananas.
After death, the “council-flat old” are buried in “the crematorium/In a little cabinet with a white label” in contrast to “the too-rich old ladies” who are buried in cemeteries “surrounded by cypresses and plastic shrubs.” Clearly, only money permits you to escape being buried at the bureaucratic heart of the city. The fruits of capitalism are cold comfort for inequality: there’s only “Supermarkets and urban routes,/The immobile boredom of holidays.”

It’s worth stressing that half of the collection was written at the peak of publicity surrounding the plight of the French precariat — when working conditions at Orange (formerly the state-owned France Telecom) became increasingly stressful after a push for efficiency following privatization led then-boss Didier Lombard to announce he would cut 20,000 jobs. Lombard is suspected of trying to speed up job losses by unsettling staff with a forced relocation scheme and staff were subject to the stress of “a reduced workforce being asked to produce better results…the threat of site closures and job losses, and an atmosphere of increased competition between workers.” There were 35 suicides between 2008 and 2009 (and further waves of suicides up until midway through 2016), with employees leaving suicide notes implicating the management.

Given the implied politics of these works, the reason for these flaneurs’ strange, numbed sadness becomes clearer. How could these characters take pleasure in ambling across the city they’re based in, when these same cities are effectively the visual form of the same system that’s crushing them?

Because it’s worth stressing that the connection between capitalism and depression isn’t as woolly as it sounds. In recent years there has been a growing acceptance that the two are linked. Research from the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine support the idea that links between poverty and mental and physical health problems exist, while first-person narratives support the thesis and the Guardian publishes articles honing the argument: it’s not capitalism, but selfish capitalism we have to look out for.

Which makes returning to these works — starting with Houellebecq’s new collection — more than worthwhile. If you want to know what Donald Trump thinks about a work-life balance, refer to the man himself: “If you’re interested in ‘balancing’ work and pleasure, stop trying to balance them. Instead make your work more pleasurable.” And yet, it doesn’t sound as if work will become more pleasurable under Trump — as Professor Raymond Hogler has observed, his economic policy overlaps with right-to-work ideology (workers’ right not to be required to join a trade union), which statistically tends to correlate with “lower rates of union membership, lower levels of human development, lower per capita incomes, lower levels of trust and less progressive tax schemes.”

Cities will change under Trump. How could they not? We’re talking about the man whose hotels have altered the skylines of cities around the world, whose primary passion is real estate, whose security detail around Trump Tower in New York means Manhattan midtown traffic jams for the next four years. But it won’t just be about buildings, but people. Sure, Walter Benjamin was from a wealthy family and Charles Baudelaire spent much of his life living off his mother’s money, but still: I think we can all agree that making the city so prohibitively expensive that only philosophers and artists with family money can afford to idle their way round the streets curtails the revolutionary potential of flânerie.

So look to Houellebecq, Lin, Plath for a glimpse into the crystal ball. In a world where business interests will dominate the urban landscape, it’s hard to imagine the happy flâneur will be any more prevalent in literature — or life — than any other endangered species.

Image Credit: Pexels.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
6.

The Goldfinch
3 months

2.
1.

Selected Stories
3 months

3.
2.

The Flamethrowers
3 months

4.
5.

The Luminaries
3 months

5.
3.

The Pioneer Detectives
6 months

6.
7.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
3 months

7.


Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
1 month

8.
9.

Bleeding Edge
4 months

9.
10.

The Lowland
3 months

10.


The Interestings
4 months

 

To start the new year, we’ve made some minor changes to how we calculate our list. Basically, we’ve added a slight penalty for lower-priced books because we were finding that spikes in sales of cheaper short-format books (e.g. "Kindle Singles") and aggressive promotional pricing of ebooks was skewing the list a bit. The change had no dramatic impact on the December list other than that it knocked George Saunders’s $0.99 short story Fox 8 out of our top 10.
The rest of the big changes were driven by our 2013 Year in Reading. Some books that were already popular with our readers got a lot of love in the series, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which surged into the top spot after three contributors named the book as a favorite read of 2013. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings was also a popular name in the series, and that helped return the book to the Top Ten after a few months off the list. Rachel Kushner was the runaway favorite in our series for The Flamethrowers, though the book dropped a spot to number three.
Our lone debut is a very unusual title. Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment is a slim collection, the result of several art teachers being asked to contribute the best art assignments they’ve ever heard of. Hannah Gersen included the book in her list of offbeat gifts for writers last month.
Finally, the contentious Taipei by Tao Lin graduates to our Hall of Fame. The book was the subject of a famously negative review here that perhaps not so paradoxically seemed to get a lot of people interested in the book.
Near Misses: The Circle, Night Film, Eleanor & Park, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, and MaddAddam. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Best of The Millions: 2013

The Millions is going to be very quiet this week, a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most notable pieces from the site during the year. To start, we’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2013:

1. Our pair of Most Anticipated posts were popular among readers looking for something new to read. Our 2014 book preview is coming soon.

2. The Weird 1969 New Wave Sci-Fi Novel that Correctly Predicted the Current Day: Ted Gioia profiled John Brunner’s uncanny novel Stand on Zanzibar, which included, way back in 1969, a President Obomi and visionary ideas like satellite TV and the mainstreaming of gay lifestyles.

3. The Greatest American Novel? 9 Experts Share Their Opinions: Kevin Hartnett convened a panel of experts to offer their answers on a high-stakes literary question, What is the Great American Novel? The answers he received are thought-provoking, enlightening, and, of course, controversial.

4. Judging Books by Their Covers 2013: U.S. Vs. U.K.: This unscientific look at book covers had readers taking sides in a trans-Atlantic design debate.

5. Modern Life is Rubbish: Tao Lin’s Taipei: Perhaps no book polarized readers in 2013 like Lin’s Taipei. Lydia Kiesling wasn’t a fan. Her review — which opens, “When I began to read Taipei on my morning commute, I wondered if I had been lobotomized in the night” — reverberated across the literary landscape like few reviews published in 2013.

6. Judging Luhrmann’s Gatsby: Five English Scholars Weigh In: For literary types, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was the film event of the year, and while reviews were mixed, a panel of literature professors convened by Kevin Hartnett was, perhaps surprisingly, charmed by Luhrmann’s effort.

7. 5 Series You Probably Missed as a Kid (But Should Read as an Adult): Noting the joy of coming to a transporting literary experience with no preconceived notions, Celeste Ng alerted readers to five YA series that she believes will have grown-up readers turning pages well past bedtime.

8. Amazon Announces Purchase of English™: Book behemoth Amazon continued its conquest of the planet in 2013, so the early April announcement — as relayed by Michael Bourne — that Bezos and company had acquired the entirety of the English language didn’t come as a complete surprise.

9. Our star-studded Year in Reading was a big hit across the internet.

10. The Ultimate List: 25 Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use: For the picky writers in your life, Hannah Gerson delivered an array of ideas that will keep the creative juices flowing.

11. So That If I Died It Mattered: Poet Jon Sands’s powerful piece had readers calling their moms to say “I love you.” Here’s just a tiny bit of this remarkable essay: “When asked to explain my choices, I’ve said, ‘Art is how you explain what it feels like to be alive in the 21st century. I am an emotional historian.’ But that’s really my answer to, ‘Why should we all make art?’ My why is more personal.”

12. Ten Books to Read Now That HBO’s Girls Is Back: Much loved and much fretted about, Girls remained a flash point in 2013, and Claire Miye Stanford did a great job highlighting the literary progenitors and contemporaries of the girls of Girls.

13. Tumblr Index: Your Guide to Artistic and Literary Tumblrs, Part III: Nick Moran continued in his tireless effort to introduce us to the rich array of literary Tumblrs.

14. A Breaking Bad (and Beyond) Reading List: No television show was more talked about in 2013 than Breaking Bad. Lauren Eggert-Crowe offered up a great list of books to get readers through their post-finale withdrawal.

15. Too Many Heavens: On Travelogues to the Great Beyond: “Heaven and back” memoirs have been publishing gold in recent years. Rhys Southan binged on heaven travelogues and found that the great beyond is in the eye of the beholder.

16. My Happy, Hopeful News: Novelist Emma Straub’s deeply personal essay about birth, life and hope struck a chord.

17. Call Me Twitterer: Literary Twitter’s First Tweets: Twitter has become an unlikely playground for many literary luminaries, but their first steps on that platform were awkward more often than not.

18. My New Year’s Resolution: Read Fewer Books: Michael Bourne’s unlikely resolution invited us to slow down and savor what we read.

19. The Problem With Summer Reading: It’s the scourge of students, the bane of parents. High school teacher Carolyn Ross explains why compulsory summer reading is all wrong.

20. A Forgotten Bestseller: The Saga of John Williams’s Stoner: The little book that could, Stoner, continued to win over new readers here and abroad in 2013. Claire Cameron dug up the unlikely story behind the publishing sensation.

There are also a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2013 but continued to find new readers.

1. A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro: Readers cheered when the Nobel committee named Alice Munro our newest literary laureate. Ben Dolnick’s 2012 guide proved invaluable for readers looking to get acquainted, or re-acquainted, with her work.

2. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master.

3. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett’s Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature.

4. Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Seven years on, our “definitive” literary pronunciation guide is still a favorite at The Millions. There must be a lot of people name-dropping Goethe out there.

5. Crime Pays: Jo Nesbø Talks about Killing Harry Hole and the Best Job in the World: The Scandinavian crime novel remains a favorite genre, and Robert Birnbaum’s illuminating interview with one of its foremost practitioners attracted new readers in 2013.

6. A Year in Reading 2012: 2012’s series stayed popular in 2013.

7. The Best of the Millennium (So Far): Our late-2009 series invited a distinguished panel of writers and thinkers to nominate the best books of the decade. The ensuing list stoked controversy and interest that has lingered. The write-ups of the “winner” and runners-up have also remained popular. We also invited our readers to compile a “best of the decade” list. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the readers’ list seemed to receive a warmer reception.

8. Confessions of a Book Pirate: Our interview with someone actually “pirating” ebooks put a face on a nebulous trend and generated huge interest among readers, the publishing industry, and the media.

9. Dashboard? More Like Bookshelf: Your Guide to Literary Tumblrs: The initial installment (and the second installment) of Nick Moran’s list remained popular with readers looking to get acquainted with literary Tumblr.

10. Ask the Writing Teacher: The MFA Debate: Writers pondering “To MFA or not to MFA” keep finding Edan Lepucki’s thoughtful advice from her popular Ask the Writing Teacher column.

Where did all these readers come from? Google (and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit) sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers came from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2013:

1. Flavorwire
2. io9
3. HuffPo
4. Arts & Letters Daily
5. The Paris Review
6. The Daily Beast
7. The Rumpus
8. Andrew Sullivan
9. The New Yorker
10. MetaFilter

A Year in Reading: Choire Sicha

Unfortunately for me, I spent more time this year writing and editing than I did reading. But I did have two rewarding reading-related projects.

First, I wanted to indulge in the stakes-free popular literature. So I read all the George R.R. Martin books. Mmm hmm. They are honestly pretty great, like chocolate milkshakes, although I started Kindle-highlighting references to rape at a certain point around book three — I think that one’s the rapiest? — and it really gets ya down. What is the deal? He thinks about rape more than Andrea Dworkin! I really didn’t agree, in the end, with Daniel Mendelsohn’s fascinating essay on the topic of Game of Thrones. I mean, open that link up, and apple-F “Brienne,” and apple-F “rape,” and… nothing??? You can’t get to “remarkable feminist epic” without passing those stations of the sexist cross.

There’s also a question about the series overall that’s the “show your work” problem, as in, I don’t really care about the efforts of the math problem you had to do, I mostly want to see the solution to the math problem. In this case that means: Are we still reading prologue? Have we just read several thousand pages that actually don’t matter? Maaaybe.

In this vein I also read the James Franco book Actors Anonymous and the very silly Dave Eggers book, The Circle. That would make a really good cartoon television show maybe. With a laughtrack. What a silly book! I read it so fast, I basically couldn’t stop. Milkshake!

My other project was… Catching Up With The Kids. This is a thing you have to do consciously as you start to get older, particularly if you don’t teach. So, I read a Tao Lin book! (Taipei, obviously.) I read/engaged with the works of Amanda Hugginkiss Steve Roggenbuck and “Marie Calloway.” I am currently reading the manuscript of the forthcoming book by the proprietor of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, who is or is not named David Shapiro, and it is pretty terrific so far. I like this vein of writing, though not as much as the other young people do. I have already read the New Narrative writers and Dennis Cooper and all that flat affectless 90s jazz and though all the youngs are certainly bringing something new to the table, I don’t think it’s particularly innovative to go all in for this mode. Also, narcissism as an art form is eminently boring. I am ready for something more than people writing I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I.

Anyway I am starting to re-read Rebecca Brown’s The Terrible Girls, which has just been reissued! It’s already the best book I’ve read all year. Every emo youngster should read this, it is where their contemporary literature came from! Every time someone clicks on Thought Catalog, a Rebecca Brown reader should auto-download!

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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The Millions Top Ten: November 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Selected Stories
2 months

2.
2.

The Flamethrowers
2 months

3.
3.

The Pioneer Detectives
5 months

4.
4.

Taipei
6 months

5.
5.

The Luminaries
2 months

6.
8.

The Goldfinch
2 months

7.
6.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
2 months

8.
7.

Fox 8
5 months

9.
9.

Bleeding Edge
3 months

10.


The Lowland
2 months

 

There wasn’t much action on our list November as the top 5 stayed unchanged. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the big mover, jumping from the eighth spot to the sixth.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson graduates to our illustrious Hall of Fame after a six-month run on the list that was initially spurred by the book’s Pulitzer win earlier this year. That departure makes room for the return of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland
Near Misses: Night Film, Visitation Street, The Interestings, MaddAddam and Dear Life. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.


Selected Stories
1 month

2.


The Flamethrowers
1 month

3.
1.

The Pioneer Detectives
4 months

4.
2.

Taipei
5 months

5.


The Luminaries
1 month

6.


The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
1 month

7.
3.

Fox 8
4 months

8.


The Goldfinch
1 month

9.
5.

Bleeding Edge
2 months

10.
4.

The Orphan Master’s Son
6 months

 

In October, we were in the thick of book prize season, and the announcements sent readers running to new books, resulting in a big shake-up on our list, led by new Nobel Laureate Alice Munro. Within minutes of the announcement, readers were finding our “Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro“, penned by Ben Dolnick, author of Shelf-Love, an ebook original about Munro. Dolnick called Munro’s Selected Stories “the Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one” and he singled out The Beggar Maid as “the Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one but don’t like the idea of reading a literary greatest hits album.” Many readers took his advice and the former landed atop our list, while the latter ended up in the sixth spot.

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers continued to win fans (here at The Millions, for example; we also interviewed her), but it was the book’s landing on the National Book Award shortlist that rocketed it to the second spot on our list.

There was also the Booker Prize. Fresh off a rave review here at The Millions, Eleanor Catton took home the Booker, and her big novel landed at #5 on our list.

And the last of our several debuts is Donna Tartt’s long-awaited The Goldfinch. No surprise there.

All these new books bumped five names from our list, collected here as this month’s Near Misses: Night Film, The Lowland, The Interestings, Visitation Street and MaddAddam. See Also: Last month’s list.

Modern Library Revue: #26 The Wings of the Dove

I have tried several times to read The Wings of the Dove and always stalled somewhere around page 30, when Kate Croy and Merton Densher meet in Kensington Gardens. A couple of months ago, after spending my summer reading back-to-back Stephen King novels, I was restlessly scanning the bookshelf for something new and experienced the intellectual version of the thing where anemic people yearn to eat dirt. I had surfeited myself on easy reading; my brain, sensing the slow atrophying and death of its parts, compelled me to reach for Henry James, and together we chugged right through the gate of Kensington Gardens and all the way to the end. When you’re ready, you’re ready.

I was so ready to read The Wings of the Dove that it caused me to have a mystical experience of the sort typically associated with psychotropic drugs. Let’s say that my previous efforts with this book were equivalent to the disappointing herbal cigarette from a store called Groovy Vibes, or a bag of mulch obtained at the concert from someone’s questionable cousin. But this time I got, so to speak, the good shit. You eat the Henry James mushrooms, you look upon his dense thicket of sentences, his plodding parade of commas, and suddenly the text, and the entire world, come into insane focus. The mere act of securing myself a sour-smelling BART seat and opening the paperback was enough, for the two weeks it took me to finish the novel, to return me to this heightened state.

As it happened, reading The Wings of the Dove coincided with a breakthrough in my note-taking. Rather than trying to hold my book and write out long quotations on the train, rather than snapping acid-weakened corners with excessive dog-earing, I realized that it’s possible to take a picture of the choice passage with my spiffy phone. Since discovering this tactic I have used it to very good effect with some books. However, when my consciousness-elevating sojourn with Henry James ended, I was confronted with nearly a hundred photos of pages — a mute and largely meaningless mosaic of text and image like an ill-considered senior art project. Looking at them now is like reading the mad scrawl of someone who has actually taken drugs. Perusing these “notes,” all I can  hope for are a few good flashbacks.

Flipping hopelessly through the Henry James digital photo album, I find that some of my choice passages retain the startling magic that I felt during my trip. Some of them, in fact, leave me with the distinct impression that there is actually something a little bit trippy about Henry James. Kate’s beau Merton Densher, a journalist without enough money to be a suitable husband, is offered the chance to go to America and write a series of society dispatches for his paper; the advent of this opportunity is described as an “imprisoned thought” that “had, in a word, on the opening of the door, flown straight out into Densher’s face, or perched at least on his shoulder, making him look up in surprise from his mere inky office-table.” I see the imprisoned thought like a friendly little pterodactyl, the inky table, Densher looking up with a charming startled look on his guileless face (specifically, I see a young Daniel Day Lewis, as directed by Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola).

(If Henry James wasn’t the originator of the vision of hope as “the thing with feathers,” he certainly made something of it with all his lovely winged things. Here’s Mrs. Stringham, the companion of a young heiress named Milly Theale, when they first form their connection: “But this imagination — the fancy of a possible link with the remarkable young thing from New York — had mustered courage: had perched, on the instant, at the clearest look-out it could find and might be said to have remained there till, only a few months later, it had caught, in surprise and joy, the unmistakable flash of a signal.”)

As far as I know, the major complaint about Henry James is that he is insanely boring. But if you look at him the right way you understand that he is just relentlessly attuned to the dimensions of moments and thoughts, like people on drugs, or teenagers, or neurotic adults. It is easy to miss this when you are busy being grumpy about the incomprehensible passages that pop up all over:
Not to talk of what they might have talked of drove them to other ground; it was as if they used a perverse insistence to make up what they ignored. They concealed their pursuit of the irrelevant by the charm of their manner; they took precautions of a courtesy that they had formerly left to come of itself; often when he had quitted her, he stopped short, walking off, with the aftersense of their change.
I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but squinted at in just the right way, some passages reminded me a bit of Tao Lin’s Taipei, a book I am on the record as finding abhorrent. Here, when Kate thinks about her sister, who made an undistinguished marriage and is now saddled with undistinguished widowhood: “She was little more than a ragged relic, a plain, prosaic result of him, as if she had somehow been pulled through him as through an obstinate funnel, only to be left crumpled and useless and with nothing in her but what he accounted for.” How, when I loathe the style of Tao Lin, can I see him preordained in a book I found so stirring? Some of it is merely coincidence, the deployment of similar analogy and rhythm, as here in Taipei: “He imagined his trajectory as a vacuum-sealed tube, into which he’d arrived and through which — traveling alone in the vacuum-sealed tube of his own life — he’d be suctioned and from which he’d exit, as a successful delivery to some unimaginable recipient.”

I think, though, that while there is a universe separating their prose, Henry James wields a real-time emotional barometer in the way that Tao Lin strives to do. The difference is that Tao Lin’s project is concerned only with the measurements of one person. Perhaps this is a more honest project, if we are to concede, à la Conrad, that life is ultimately a solo enterprise. But this can be such a limiting approach. In The Wings of the Dove, James devotes his prodigious abilities to the group, so that we feel, more or less, the preoccupations of Kate, of Merton, of the mysteriously ailing Milly, of her anxious minder Susan Stringham. James also manages to show the gulf that exists in human consciousness between certain hard revelations about the self and deeper, damning truths still unplumbed:
[Kate] saw as she had never seen before how material things spoke to her. She saw, and she blushed to see, that if, in contrast with some of its old aspects, life now affected her as a dress successfully “done up,” this was exactly by reason of the trimmings and lace, was a matter of ribbons and silk and velvet. She had a dire accessibility to pleasure from such sources.
Kate sees this, but she doesn’t see the way that this relatively common and redeemable “accessibility” to material things will cause her in the end to do something irredeemable. James scrupulously describes his characters while still managing to leave the impression of a final veil separating each person from what they really think of themselves, and one another.

Another key difference between James and Lin is that, if James, like Lin, has you living so much in the moment and inside the minds of his characters, his moments are all of them in service to a story. James strikes me as very bold and modern in his approach to the novel, but he does not abandon plot as a critical component of the form. When we learn about Kate’s knowledge of her own weakness for the finer things above, it is as critical a plot-point as Milly’s wealth, described inimitably thus:
…it was in the fine folds of the helplessly expensive little black frock that she drew over the grass as she now strolled vaguely off…it lurked between the leaves of the uncut but antiquated Tauchnitz volume of which, before going out, she had mechanically possessed herself. She couldn’t dress it away, nor walk it away, nor read it away, nor think it away; she could neither smile it away in any dreamy absence nor blow it away in any softened sigh. She couldn’t have lost it if she had tried — that was what it was to be really rich. It had to be the thing you were.
And the plot is a real doozy. Poor Kate with a dead mother and unsuitable father, taken in by a rich aunt, who forbids her marrying poor Merton even as the aunt finds Merton a charming companion. Merton goes to America, meets heiress. Heiress falls for Merton, which may or may not be a result of Merton’s excessive attentions. Heiress meets lady writer. Lady writer falls for heiress. Heiress and lady writer go to England, and meet Kate and Aunt. Heiress is discovered to have unnamed fatal disease with very few symptoms. Kate convinces Merton to woo heiress, even to marry her, so as to get her money. Merton demands sex in exchange for his promise. How did these nice people go so wrong? How will it end?

Another surprise, considering my earlier struggles with Henry James: this is actually a very sexy book. It’s a canard of old people that entertainment of yesteryear had a kind of chaste sexiness that you just don’t see today, when TV is a riot of exposed jugs and racy language. Usually I am inclined to disagree; the old movies that are allegedly sexy always just leave me feeling desolate over the thinness of Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman, unmoved by Cary Grant, and wondering if people used to go all the way to fourth base while exclusively doing close-mouthed kissing. But Wings of the Dove is such a suggestive book that if two characters had even the briefest conversation I fancied that they then ravished one another on a credenza. As Merton returns to London from New York, he yearns for Kate: “His absence from her for so many weeks had had such an effect upon him that his demands, his desires had grown; and only the night before, as his ship steamed, beneath summer stars, in sight of the Irish coast, he had felt all the force of his particular necessity.”

Once Kate and Merton are reunited, this “particular necessity” remains unmet in a spicy way:
If Kate had consented to drive away with him and alight at his house, there would probably enough have occurred for them, at the foot of his steps, one of those strange instants between man and woman that blow upon the red spark, the spark of conflict, ever latent in the depths of passion. She would have shaken her head — oh sadly, divinely — on the question of coming in; and he, though doing all justice to her refusal, would have yet felt his eyes reach further into her own than a possible word, at a time, could reach.
When Merton finally understands the full extent of Kate’s plot — that he should lay hold to Milly’s fortune by marrying her before she dies, he is by then so full of unrelieved passion that he will do anything:
…he passed his hand into her arm with a force that produced for them another pause. “I’ll tell any lie you want, any your idea requires, if you’ll only come to me.”

“Come to you?” She spoke low.

“Come to me.”
Very few people really come out well in this novel, but there is still sympathy to go around. How awful to be Kate and belong to the chattel sex; for your earthly comfort to be tied up with the whims of your benevolent relative; how awful to have been brought up with fancies and expectations you can ill-afford, ill-equipped to earn a living. How sad for sex to be your only bargaining chip, so that when it’s gone you’ve got nothing left to trade. How sad to be Merton Densher, with an excess of chivalry deployed only when it’s too late. And how sad, of course, to be Milly, to be so young and rich and lovely, and dying and preyed-upon.

Just like you have to exercise your idiom when you’ve spent the summer devouring beach reads, you have to exercise your emotional register. When you are in a state of placidity, you must remind yourself of the way that it is possible to feel like a giant, throbbing nerve. But if mushrooms leave you fetal in a corner, if you’re too old for MDMA, thrill-seek with Henry James. He is there to remind you that every conversation, every interaction shared among human beings, is multidimensional and freighted with meaning.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Pioneer Detectives
3 months

2.
1.

Taipei
4 months

3.
7.

Fox 8
3 months

4.
5.

The Orphan Master’s Son
4 months

5.


Bleeding Edge
1 month

6.
10.

Night Film
2 months

7.
8.

Visitation Street
3 months

8.
9.

The Interestings
3 months

9.


MaddAddam
1 month

10.


The Lowland
1 month

This month our second ebook original The Pioneer Detectives moves into the top spot as the book continues to garner very positive reviews from readers. We hope you’ll pick it up if you haven’t already.

Meanwhile, our list sees a big shake up as three books graduate to our Hall of Fame:

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Ben Fountain’s book won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award. Fountain appeared in our Year in Reading, and Edan Lepucki interviewed him in these pages last June.

Stand on Zanzibar: Ted Gioia penned a very popular piece about the remarkably prescient predictions contained within John Brunner’s book and readers ran to check it out.

The Middlesteins: Author Jami Attenberg made an appearance in our Year in Reading in December.

These graduates make room for three heavy-hitting debuts, all of which appeared in our big second-half preview: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon, MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood (don’t miss Atwood’s appearance in our Year in Reading; we haven’t quite tracked down Pynchon yet for this), and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Near Misses: Vampires in the Lemon Grove, The Flamethrowers, Life After Life, They Don’t Dance Much and Telex from Cuba. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Taipei
3 months

2.
9.

The Pioneer Detectives
2 months

3.
5.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
6 months

4.
2.

Stand on Zanzibar
6 months

5.
4.

The Orphan Master’s Son
4 months

6.
3.

The Middlesteins
6 months

7.
10.

Fox 8
2 months

8.
8.

Visitation Street
2 months

9.
6.

The Interestings
2 months

10.


Night Film
1 month

Tao Lin’s Taipei remains in our top spot. (For more on the book’s success in our Top Ten, take a look at my commentary on June’s list.) Meanwhile, our Millions Original The Pioneer Detectives by Konstantin Kakaes surges into the second spot and continues to win rave reviews from readers. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain was also a mover, landing in the third spot as it nears graduation to our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Our one debut this month is Marisha Pessl’s anticipated sophomore effort Night Film. Our own Bill Morris called the book a “stirring second act” but commenters have voiced strong disagreement.

Pessl bumps Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell from the Top Ten (at least for now).

Other Near Misses: They Don’t Dance Much, Speedboat, Wonder Boys and My Struggle: Book 1. See Also: Last month’s list.

My Latest Article is a PDF

Important note: This essay is best enjoyed in PDF form. Download here.

This is a PDF. It’s one of the new trendy forms of creative expression. It has been around longer than the MiniDisc. The PDF is an early nineties thing. Ergo it’s trendy to use it now.

Powerpoint presentations were the last new trendy form of creative expression after they got a pecha kucha restyle and became a respected go-to format for alternative lectures (alt lec?).

When my boyfriend told me to read a hot new newspaper article about alt lit (online obviously) by Dan Holloway, it talked about a new literature “making the digital world not just its medium but its subject.” The novel was still, though, the transitional traditional object that lent enough validation to this new movement that the newspaper was willing to cover it. The novel is still the idealized portable document format. The novel, Taipei by Tao Lin, was the article’s hook, and the porthole, to alt lit.

In a previous article over at futurebook.net, Dan Holloway says alt lit “deals like no other form of writing with life in the 21st century digital West.” HOORAY. This is what I/we/you’ve been waiting for. Not characters in novels talking in txt spk, but actually what’s going on in our heads when there’s so much internet in there. Described in words. And so. I expected books whose chapters are broken into bytes, to be scattered across our digital devices like narrative space dust, to be inhaled via touchscreen buttons. There was some of that. One of the most fun places to read alt lit is on The Newer York’s Electric Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature, where you throw options into a content graph to find poems and prose hidden behind images. The other is Tumblr. You can also look deeper into alt lit via the alt lit players list put together by @altlitgossip on Twitter, and read some great poems about life in the digital age. Many of these alt lit authors have under 100 Twitter followers. I love this. I feel like an adult sneaking into a teenager’s bedroom. I know I’m embarrassing it by even writing about it here, but alt lit is what I want to read. It’s what I’ve been waiting to read.

Music waits for waves, film waits for movements, literature waits for forms. Has there been a new form of writing since chick lit or the New Puritans? It feels like it’s all been about publishing and not what is being published. There are a surprisingly small number of waves in any artform. Wikipedia lists 37 film movements and 39 literary movements. Film was only just invented, we’ve had words for what feels like forever.

Style and content. That’s all I want.

One of the formats which alt lit comes in is the PDF format. It’s the same format as normal lit. I shouldn’t even be saying “PDF format” because the F in PDF stands for “format.” So I’m being redundant. Like old technology. Even writing this as a Google Doc seems redundant when things like SimpleBooklet are scaleable and shareable (but unable to print or produce a PDF without mangling a careful design (which only looks careful thanks to templates, which know which shades of dark grey are tasteful for body text. In case you’re wondering, it’s #646362.)). (Not an emoticon.)

This is not a history of the PDF. The PDF was always the way to solidify your work. Like someone just beginning to make their way in the world and dictating how the tastes of this current moment in time will be remembered by generations future, the PDF is 22 years old. It needed to exist mainly because of the tight border control exhibited by different versions of Microsoft Word and other software, which wouldn’t allow documents through their gates without battering them into a spew of letters and numbers. A long-form haiku.

Adobe stepped in like an incompetent quango to administer the saving and opening of PDFs, but like anti-virus software became something of a virus in itself, elbowing in to open as many documents as it could, putting out its little red Acrobat triangle like a driver’s flimsy plastic stop sign. This accident is MINE, step back. Like Microsoft, Adobe Acrobat didn’t have the enabler attitude we’ve come to expect from technology. Our technology. Technology that has subjugated itself to us, and the thanks it gets is our shut up, let me get on, don’t reveal your inner workings, keep your interface on.

The PDF, I said, was a way to solidify your work. To rasterize, to merge layers, to save as jpg. Its current popularity could be seen as the paranoid end of the spectrum of our reaction to the multiplicity of devices. In opposition to the free and open new scaleable mediums which, like a diplomatic middle child, squeeze or stretch themselves to suit whatever screen or software you’re using. The PDF is more the controlling parent. It has tight reins on content. It bullies your screen and software into displaying things exactly as it presents them.

So, the PDF as one of the chosen formats of the dawners of the new literature. I get it. I thought it would be the app, but I get it. The app is too CD-ROMy. The PDF is democratic (probably more so than that other early nineties format for content, the zine, which required access to a photocopier, and is the existing cultural format I would most closely layer PDF alt lit over.) At the library it’s cheaper to use the computer than the photocopier.

One of the first alt lit PDFs I looked at had a long string of nacho crisp emoticons across the page (or, since crisps don’t emote, icons). A whole packet of them on repeat.

PDF PDF PP PDF PDF PPF PPr PFr Pr

Here’s the interactive bit. While writing this PDF, which I initially did with pen and paper before typing it into a Google Document, printing it to my desktop as a PDF and emailing it to a website, before them uploading it and you opening it on some kind of screen, none of which has yet happened at the time of typing (this bit wasn’t in the pen and paper draft). Back when it was just pen and paper, I noticed a funny thing. When you write the word PDF a lot, it becomes difficult to form the letters. Try it yourself. Write “PDF” on repeat, and you’ll get something like what’s happening above. Words as broken crisps. The PDF as pen-twister. Its letters are all slightly alike, a straight stroke down the left then a double hitch. Get a pen and paper and try it now.

Congratulations. You just wrote alt lit. You’re part of a worldwide handwritten PDF poem.

I also wrote a song about PDFs, but sound can’t be rasterized yet… Oh no, wait, it can. Adobe truly is an acrobat.

You can’t edit a PDF or make one on your smartphone without a trawl through an app store. Yet there’s something in it. From the moment I read about alt lit and cracked open a few PDFs, I wanted to create one. My latest article is a PDF. A congealed bit of technology, something we’re trying while we wait for literature’s savior format, not an app, not a Kindle download, but some new form yet to be discovered, being discovered by alt lit, being hidden by PDFs. A form which affects content. Here’s my stone tablet. Did you get a pen and paper yet?

The Millions Top Ten: July 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

Taipei
2 months

2.
4.

Stand on Zanzibar
5 months

3.
5.

The Middlesteins
5 months

4.
7.

The Orphan Master’s Son
3 months

5.
8.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
5 months

6.


The Interestings
1 month

7.
9.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove
4 months

8.


Visitation Street
1 month

9.


The Pioneer Detectives
1 month

10.


Fox 8
1 month

 

Big changes on our list this month as four titles graduate to our illustrious Hall of Fame. Let’s run through new Hall of Famers quickly:

Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever: As many of our readers are already aware, staff writer Mark O’Connell’s shorter-format ebook was The Millions’ first foray into ebook publishing. We have been thrilled by the great reader response. And, if you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, why not mark its graduation to the Hall of Fame by checking out this special, little book (for only $1.99!)

Tenth of December: 2013 opened with the book world agog over George Saunders’ newest collection. He famously graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine under the banner “Greatest Human Ever in the History of Ever” (or something like that) and the book figured very prominently in our first-half preview. Unsurprisingly, all the hype helped drive a lot of sales. It also led our own Elizabeth Minkel to reflect on Saunders and the question of greatness in a thoughtful essay.

Building Stories: Chris Ware has reached the point in his career (legions of fans, museum shows) where he can do whatever he wants. And what he wanted to do was produce a “book” the likes of which we hadn’t seen before, a box of scattered narratives to be delved into any which way the reader wanted, all shot through with Ware’s signature style and melancholy. Ware appeared in our Year in Reading last year with an unlikely selection. Mark O’Connell called Building Stories “a rare gift.”

Arcadia: Lauren Groff is another Millions favorite, though it took a bit longer for her book, first released in March 2012, to make our list. Our own Edan Lepucki interviewed Groff soon after the book’s release, and Groff later participated in our Year in Reading, discussing her “year of savage, brilliant, and vastly underrated female writers.”

That leaves room, then, for four debuts on this month’s list:

The Interestings: Though Meg Wolitzer is already a well-known, bestselling author, her big novel seems to be on the slow burn trajectory to breakout status, with the word-of-mouth wave (at least in the part of the world that I frequent), building month by month. That word of mouth was perhaps helped along the way by Edan Lepucki’s rollicking review, in which, among other things, she posited what it means for a “big literary book” to be written by someone other than a “big literary man.”

Visitation Street: Ivy Pochoda’s new thriller featured prominently in our latest preview and carries the imprimatur of Dennis Lehane. That seems to have been enough to land the book on our list.

The Pioneer Detectives: As one Millions Original graduates from our list, another arrives. The Pioneer Detectives, which debuted in the second half of July, is an ambitious work of page-turning reportage, the kind of journalism we all crave but that can often be hard to find. Filled with brilliant insights into how scientific discoveries are made and expertly edited by our own Garth Hallberg, The Pioneer Detectives is a bargain at $2.99. We hope you’ll pick it up.

Fox 8: And as one George Saunders work graduates from our list, another arrives. This one is an uncollected story, sold as an e-single.

Meanwhile, Tao Lin’s Taipei easily slides into our top spot. For more on the book’s unlikely success in our Top Ten, don’t miss my commentary for last month’s list.

Near Misses: They Don’t Dance Much, Speedboat, My Struggle: Book 1, The Flamethrowers and Life After Life. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever
6 months

2.
2.

Tenth of December
6 months

3.


Taipei
1 month

4.
4.

Stand on Zanzibar
4 months

5.
5.

The Middlesteins
4 months

6.
6.

Building Stories
6 months

7.
9.

The Orphan Master’s Son
2 months

8.
7.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
4 months

9.
8.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove
3 months

10.
10.

Arcadia
6 months

 

We had one debut on our list this month, and it may come as a surprise for readers who have been following the site. Our own Lydia Kiesling read Tao Lin’s Taipei and came away viscerally turned off by a book that has received quite a lot of attention both for its attempt to forge a new style and for the aura of its author, who has an army of followers and is, as New York once called him, “a savant of self-promotion.” Despite Lydia’s misgivings, the book has been on balance reviewed positively, including in the Times.
Still, Lydia’s review – negative as it was – was utterly compelling (Gawker thought so too), and because of that, as I watched the sales of Taipei pile up last month, I was not completely surprised. After all, the last target of a stirring and controversial pan (don’t miss the angry comments) at The Millions was Janet Potter’s fiery takedown of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and two of those three of those books now sit in comfortable retirement in our Hall of Fame. In the case of Taipei, the lion’s share of credit of course goes to Lin for writing a book that readers are evidently very curious to read, but I think it is also true that a well crafted, properly supported, and strongly opinionated review like Lydia’s can have the odd effect of compelling the reader to see what all the fuss is about.
In fact, this phenomenon has been studied and a recent paper showed that, "For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect, increasing sales by 45%." (I think in the context of this study, it is fair to call Lin "relatively unknown." While Lin may be well-known among Millions readers, he is not a household name outside of certain households in Brooklyn, and when readers flocked to read the review from Gawker and other sites that linked to it, they may have been compelled to check the book out for themselves.) As we have known for a while at The Millions, to cover a book at all is to confer upon it that we believe the book is important, and whether you believe the book is "good" or "bad," Taipei was certainly worthy of our coverage.
Otherwise, June was another quiet month for our list with the top two positions unchanged, including Millions ebook Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever at number one, while An Arrangement of Light, Nicole Krauss’s ebook-only short story graduates to our Hall of Fame. Next month, things will get interesting on our list as we may see as many as four books graduate to the Hall of Fame, opening up plenty of room for newcomers.
Near Misses: Fox 8, The Interestings, All That Is, The Round House, and The Flamethrowers. See Also: Last month’s list.

Modern Life is Rubbish: Tao Lin’s Taipei

When I began to read Taipei on my morning commute, I wondered if I had been lobotomized in the night. On the way back home, I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row. The following morning, I wondered, Why does he hate me?, the way people wonder about playground bullies, or terrorists. Why does he inflict upon me his “framework-y somethingness,” his “soil-y area,” “the salad-y remains of his burrito”? Why does he take away my joy?

When I received this novel in the mail, I did not understand that Tao Lin was a name I had seen before, during a hazy period several Internets ago, when I was learning about Fat Acceptance and Tracey Egan Morrissey was still called Slut Machine. Later, I recognized the name as something observed in unread Gawker headlines (and unread Millions pieces, as it turns out).

I report this so you will know that when I began reading Taipei, my loathing was pure.

The novel opens and we follow a writer named Paul as he drifts around Brooklyn waiting for his book tour to start. We are with him as he sort of goes through a breakup, sort of goes to parties, sort of “works on things” (sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes not), definitely purchases little lots of groceries contrived as though to generate maximum annoyance (“organic beef patty, two kombuchas, five bananas, alfalfa sprouts, arugula, hempseed oil, a red onion, ginger”), definitely wiles away the hours in awkward communing with pseudo friends “[he was] peripherally aware of a self-conscious Matt slowly creating guacamole”), and definitely upsets his mother.

The subject also has excruciating interactions with a series of distressingly underemployed young women.
Paul noticed Laura looking at his pile of construction paper and said she could have some if she wanted, and she focused self-consciously on wanting some, saying how she would use it and what colors she liked, seeming appreciative in an affectedly sincere manner — the genuine sincerity of a person who doesn’t trust her natural behavior to appear sincere…Laura exited a few minutes later, meekly holding her tambourine and shaker and some construction paper. “I see you ‘got in on’ the construction paper,” said Paul in the sarcastic, playful voice he used to recommend Funyuns the night they met, but with a serious expression. “Good choices, in terms of colors. Good job.” “You said I could have some,” said Laura hesitantly.
Everyone’s ages are recorded, as if in a hipster police blotter: “After the reading Lucie, 23, introduced herself and Amy, 23, and Daniel, 25, to Paul and Mitch, saying something about her and Amy’s online magazine.”

I say this novelist hates words, because the novel reads as though it were the result of strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest, or the edict of some nihilist philosophy, to use as few interesting words as possible. Tao Lin seems to aspire to a prose I can only describe as “affectless.” When an adjective is required, and sometimes when it is not, Lin often adds a “y” to a noun (see: “soil-y”). Some traditionally formed adjectives and adverbs are enclosed in quotation marks; I believe to communicate the overarching theme of the book, which is that the majority of Paul’s powers of observation are absorbed in the business, not of something so studied as introspection, but of prolonged self-gazing from an external vantage. His quotation mark tactic achieves this effect, but it also communicates an embarrassment about words and what they can represent or mean.
He reached outside his blanket and pulled his MacBook “darkly,” he felt, toward himself, like an octopus might. It was 12:52 a.m., almost three hours since leaving Angelica Kitchen. Laura, to Paul’s surprise, had emailed twice — a few sentence fragments apologizing for her awkwardness at 11:43 p.m., a paragraph of elaboration at 12:05 a.m. Paul emailed that he understood and liked her and thought she was “cool.” She responded a few minutes later, seeming cheerful. After a few more emails she seemed almost “giddy.” They committed — earnestly and enthusiastically, Paul felt — to get tattoos together tomorrow.
If Lin is too arch to use the word “giddy” stripped from the safety of quotation marks, he spares no length, no number of unremarkable words, in the service of communicating how his character is feeling. These boring sentences are demarcated from the other boring exposition sentences by their length and the number of commas, which imbue the novel with an arrhythmia that somehow also succeeds at being monotonous:
He imagined his trajectory as a vacuum-sealed tube, into which he’d arrived and through which — traveling alone in the vacuum-sealed tube of his own life — he’d be suctioned and from which he’d exit, as a successful delivery to some unimaginable recipient.
Other narrative choices indicate either a fundamental laziness that precludes finding interesting combinations of words to describe things, or a concerted effort to describe the world of Paul using minimal “literary” embellishment (both possibilities arrive at the same place in terms of transmitting insight or aesthetic pleasure to the reader). Even the conceit of listing ages seems like a careless shorthand to describe people without really describing them, though this strategy conveniently reveals, later in the novel, that Paul’s authorial fanbase is all younger than he (sometimes inappropriately so: e.g., “Calvin, 18, and Maggie, 17, seniors in high school,” with whom Paul and his girlfriend Erin do lots of drugs and swim in the hot tub in Calvin’s “mansion” — quotation marks original — in Ohio).

After the initial deep, anxious loathing I felt for the novel, a germ of grudging appreciation made itself felt. Paul’s drug use in the novel begins with what seemed to me like a your-parents-wouldn’t-like-it-but-don’t-call-the-helpline usage — an Ambien here, an Adderall there, a Xanax. Eventually, though, Paul and his friends launch into sustained drug abuse. When the drugs began to flow (MDMA, LSD, mushrooms, heroin, Xanax, Klonopin, cocaine, Oxycodone, Methadone), I thought the novel began to excuse itself for its awfulness, namely because it now had a Problem I could recognize.

The characters seemed destined for emotional or physical trainwreck, and this immediately made them more interesting. The “affectlessness” made sense too; if you were writing about the observations of a person who was usually on a mess of downers, the adjectives might be the first to go. Your characters would also make a lot of totally inane remarks, as Maggie here, while swimming in Calvin’s parents’ pool on mushrooms: “What if we were all obese right now?” This kind of dialogue was conveyed with extreme accuracy and represents some of the “best” parts of the book.

After Paul and Erin make the surprising choice to get married in Las Vegas (“‘I don’t get it, at all,’ said Paul. ‘It’s what people do. This is what people want.’ ‘It seems really insane,’ said Paul.”), together they shamble around Brooklyn, and embark on a regrettable “honeymoon” to Taipei to see Paul’s parents, and ingest an amount of drugs that I think would make your nervous system fall out and/or prompt your parents (or somebody) to call the police. They feel the drugs’ effects and shamble further around Taipei fast food restaurants, recording themselves for an ongoing series of YouTube videos of themselves on drugs. Throughout this sojourn they display the kind of drug- and pretension-heightened honesty that is not exactly honesty, and that is the very opposite of the generosity and warmth I believe are necessary to sustain human relationships.

I began to think that this might be a sad novel — because of drugs, this guy, who already seems paralyzed by a steroidally muscular self-consciousness, is wasting his life, alarming the fast food employees of Taipei with his utter, utter malarkey, breaking his parents’ heart, and annoying the shit out of me while he does it. But, like the other promising problematic things in the novel — like Paul’s relationship with his family, with girls, with friends, with self, with work, or the amount of time he spends in Whole Foods — the novel refuses to pathologize his drug use, even though that is a time-tested way to engage the reader.

Speaking of inane remarks, reading Taipei came as close as anything can come to putting me on mute. I suddenly began hearing my own voice when I spoke within earshot of others, particularly people older than I. On the BART platform, I heard myself say “It was, like, not what I was planning to have happen,” and my voice trailed off as I became conscious of the poverty of my spoken expression, how much I must sometimes sound like the people in Taipei (“‘I feel like I’m unsarcastically viewing this as a major ordeal,’ said Calvin.”) I was born the year after Tao Lin; hearing our shared idiom come out of my own mouth, I realized that some of my loathing for this book is very personal. There is a fearful recognition of those things I want most to cleanse from my self-presentation, and self.

This realization brought another weak florescence of respect for Tao Lin. First, I tested the idea that he was mocking all our imbecilities and modes of expression, but rejected it as false because I can’t imagine that someone occupying the role of cultural critic would be able to stand recording all these encounters, unless he was able to take a lot of Xanax and not remember doing it, the way I manage airplanes (this is not, I suppose, totally out of the question). I next considered that this author might have made a radical and thus laudatory commitment to capturing things as they are or seem to him, no matter how egregious, or egregiously boring, they look on the page (and possibly because they do):
Laura complimented Paul’s hair and level of “casualness” and, going partially under the table, held a candle toward Paul’s shoes — which from Paul’s above-table perspective felt stationary and storage-oriented as shoeboxes — asking what brand they were.

“iPath,” said Paul.

“I can’t see. What are these?”

“iPath. The brand is iPath.”

“I like them,” said Laura.

“iPath,” said Paul quietly.
Could Tao Lin be… post-shame?, I wondered. Philip Larkin jumped to mind, “High Windows:” ‘When I see a couple of kids / And guess he’s fucking her and she’s / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, / I know this is paradise”). This association, however, was actually what caused me to finally reject this hypothesis as well: Tao Lin might freely record things that seem humiliating to me, i.e., sounding like an idiot, but his sex is the sex of The Truman Show. When the panties come off, the camera, narratively speaking, looks politely away. All we hear about it is that it happens, its location, and duration.

One might perceive this as another form of cultural or personal critique: for someone very focused on the self and what the self is feeling, and how many drugs to put in the self, sex is one of the first normal human priorities to be abandoned. But then we read a conversation Erin and Paul have in Taipei, when they ask one another for opinions and “critiques” about their prowess. While Paul says that sex is not “that big of a thing” for him, Erin still reassures him, and us, that he’s “good at everything” and “[keeps] it interesting” and that she “[has] orgasms…regularly.” It feels a sterile, cowardly way to treat sex from a radical cataloguer of human experience.

I felt it necessary, back there, to mention the initial purity of my loathing, because after Googling around, lighting up new links and links long dark, the loathing quickly becomes sullied and amplified by outside influences. I even found a rejection of my more charitable positions toward Tao Lin from the horse’s mouth: Entertainment Weekly asked, “While you were writing this book, you predicted that it’d be your ‘magnum opus.’ Did that pan out?” and Tao Lin answered: “Yes, in that I didn’t save anything for a future book. I used, as source material, everything I know or have felt or experienced, or could imagine knowing or feeling or experiencing, up to this point in my life.”

Then at Thought Catalog, I was treated to a first-hand account of “What It’s Like To Be In a Tao Lin Novel“:
I’ve always wondered what it was like for people friendly with, like, Hemingway and whatnot. These authors, like Tao, write pretty closely to their personal experience… I will treasure this book for the rest of my life not because my friend wrote it, or because it’s the best book ever written (goddamn is it good, though), or because I’m in it and so are a lot of other people I care about, but actually because of a scene I’m not even in. Six simple lines of dialogue.

–“You said you only go to like one party a month. But you’re at almost every party,” [said Daniel].

“This isn’t normal at all,” said Paul. “Before we met I probably did less than one thing a month.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Probably because I met people I like.”

Daniel hesitated. “What people?”

“You, Mitch, Laura… Amy,” said Paul. “I’m going to the bathroom.”–
Gah.

(I don’t mind airing my loathing, because Tao Lin seems like he can take it. In Taipei, he anticipates it: “He read an account of his Toronto reading, when he’d been sober, describing him as ‘monosyllabic,’ ‘awkward,’ ‘stilted and unfriendly’ within a disapproval of his oeuvre, itself vaguely within a disapproval of contemporary culture and, by way of a link to someone else’s essay, the internet.”)

My loathing was never pure, of course. Not really. I think that really great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord. Then there are things you read, a little less great, that don’t make you feel one way or another, creatively speaking. Then there is a small, deadly class of book that make you never want to set pen to paper again. Tao Lin’s novel is a grave case of this latter kind, where you are faced with the consequences of writing down all the things you do or think. What if they sound like this? Colorless, witless, humorless. Picking out individual passages cannot express their cumulative monotonous assault on the senses.

The good thing about Taipei, if you’re like me, is that its characters will make you want to hug your lover, have a baby, go to work, call your mom. But maybe you’ll rethink that novel, that personal essay. In the cold ruthless scheme of things, that might not be such a bad thing. But it makes me look upon this novel as dangerous and threatening to life, like as the anti-choicer looks upon the abortionist.

Last week I participated in an online survey about ethics in book reviewing. One of the questions asked something like, “Is it okay to review the book of someone to whom you are aesthetically or philosophically opposed,” and I think I answered “Yes,” although I think the correct answer is “No,” or possibly “I’m not sure.” The next day, I saw (on Twitter) an assertion by no less a person than Joyce Carol Oates that reviews should include a minimum of opinion. I am not sure what all of this means for my ethics or my prospects as a book reviewer. But I’ll say it: It is my opinion that this novel is awful, and I am aesthetically or philosophically opposed to it. Likely it comes from some hypocrite-lecteur-mon-semblable-mon-frere place, but Taipei brought out all of my conservative instincts. Only a real codger would say this, but if this is the output we can expect from one of our bright young things, we’re fucked.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2013 Book Preview

2013 is looking very fruitful, readers. While last year offered new work from Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, Michael Chabon, and many more, this year we’ll get our hands on new George Saunders, Karen Russell, Jamaica Kincaid, Anne Carson, Colum McCann, Aleksandar Hemon and even Vladimir Nabokov and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as, beyond the horizon of summer, new Paul Harding, Jonathan Lethem, and Thomas Pynchon. We’ll also see an impressive array of anticipated work in translation from the likes of Alejandro Zambra, Ma Jian, László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marías and Karl Ove Knausgaard, among others. But these just offer the merest hint of the literary plenty that 2013 is poised to deliver. A bounty that we have tried to tame in another of our big book previews.

The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 7,900 words strong and encompassing 79 titles, this is the only 2013 book preview you will ever need.

January or Already Out:

Tenth of December by George Saunders: Tenth of December is George Saunders at his hilarious, heartbreaking best, excavating modern American life in a way that only he can. In “Home,” a soldier returns from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a deteriorating family situation. In “Victory Lap,” a botched abduction is told from three very different perspectives. Tenth of December has already prompted an all-out rave profile from the New York Times. And for those George Saunders super fans out there, yes, there is a story set at a theme park. (Patrick)

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright: While Wright was working on his 25,000-word take-down of the Church of Scientology for The New Yorker (where he is a staff writer), a spokesman for the organization showed up with four lawyers and 47 binders of documentation. “I suppose the idea was to drown me in information,” Wright recently told the Times, “but it was like trying to pour water on a fish.” The investigation has blossomed into a full-length book that’s shaping up to be as controversial as anything that crosses Scientology’s path: Wright has been receiving numerous legal missives from the church itself and the celebrities he scrutinizes, and his British publisher has just backed out—though they claim they haven’t been directly threatened by anyone. (Elizabeth)

Umbrella by Will Self: Shortly before Umbrella came out in the UK last September, Will Self published an essay in The Guardian about how he’d gone modernist. “As I’ve grown older, and realised that there aren’t that many books left for me to write, so I’ve become determined that they should be the fictive equivalent of ripping the damn corset off altogether and chucking it on the fire.” Umbrella is the result of Self’s surge in ambition, and it won him some of the best reviews of his career, as well as his first Booker shortlisting. He lost out to Hilary Mantel in the end, but he won the moral victory in the group photo round by doing this. (Mark)

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa: English-reading fans of the prolific and much-lauded Yoko Ogawa rejoice at the advent of Revenge, a set of eleven stories translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder.  The stories, like Ogawa’s other novels (among them The Diving PoolThe Housekeeper and the Professor, and Hotel Iris) are purportedly elegant and creepy. (Lydia)

 

 

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra: Drop the phrase “Chilean novelist” and literary minds automatically flock to Bolaño. However, Alejandro Zambra is another name those words should soon conjure if they don’t already. Zambra was named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish Language Novelists in 2010, and his soon-to-be-released third novel, Ways of Going Home, just won a PEN translation award. The novel has dual narratives: a child’s perspective in Pinochet’s Chile and an author’s meditation on the struggle of writing. In Zambra’s own words (from our 2011 interview): “It’s a book about memory, about parents, about Chile.  It’s about the 80s, about the years when we children were secondary characters in the literature of our parents.  It’s about the dictatorship, as well, I guess.  And about literature, intimacy, the construction of intimacy.” (Anne)

Scenes from Early Life by Philip Hensher: In his eighth novel, Scenes from Early Life, Philip Hensher “shows for the first time what [he] has largely concealed in the past: his heart,” writes Amanda Craig in The Independent.  Written in the form of a memoir, narrated in the voice of Hensher’s real-life husband Zaved Mahmood, the novel invites comparison with Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  Described as a hybrid of fiction, history, and biography—and as both “clever” and “loving”—the inventive project here is distinctly intriguing. (Sonya)

Exodus by Lars Iyer: Exodus, which follows Spurious and Dogma, is the eminently satisfying and unexpectedly moving final installment in a truly original trilogy about two wandering British intellectuals—Lars and W., not to be confused with Lars Iyer and his real friend W., whom he’s been quoting for years on his blog—and their endless search for meaning in a random universe, for true originality of thought, for a leader, for better gin. (Emily M.)

February:

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell: Russell’s short stories are marked by superb follow-through: many succeed due to her iron-clad commitment to often fantastical conceits, like the title story of her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which draws a powerful metaphor for adolescent girlhood in an actual orphanage for girls raised by wolves. Last year saw her debut novel, Swamplandia!nominated for the Pulitzer prize; this year, her second short story collection—and another batch of fantastical conceits—finally arrives. Just imagine the characters in this title story, trying to quell their bloodlust, sinking their fangs into lemons under the Italian sun. (Elizabeth)

My Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak: When Maurice Sendak died last May he left one, final, unpublished book behind.  It is, according to a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a beautiful, intensely serious elegy for Sendak’s beloved older brother Jack, who died in 1995.  The story, illustrated in watercolors, has Guy (a stand-in for Sendak), journeying down the gullet of a massive polar bear named Death- “Diving through time so vast—sweeping past paradise”- into an underworld where he and Jack have one last reunion. “To read this intensely private work,” writes Publisher’s Weekly, “is to look over the artist’s shoulder as he crafts his own afterworld, a place where he lies in silent embrace with those he loves forever.” (Kevin)

Benediction by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf’s previous novels, which include Plainsong and Eventide, have all taken place in the fictional Colorado town of Holt, which is based on the real life city of Yuma.  His newest work is no exception.  It is a network of family dramas in a small town, most of which revolve around loss or impending loss, strained relationships, and efforts to grapple, together, with the pain the characters face in their own lives and feel in the lives of those around them. (Kevin)

 

See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid: For See Now Then, her first novel in a decade, Jamaica Kincaid settles into a small town in Vermont, where she dissects the past, present and future of the crumbling marriage of Mrs. Sweet, mother of two children named Heracles and Persephone, a woman whose composer husband leaves her for a younger musician.  Kincaid is known as a writer who can see clean through the surface of things – and people – and this novel assures us that “Mrs. Sweet could see Mrs. Sweet very well.” (Bill)

The Bridge Over the Neroch: And Other Works by Leonid Tsypkin: Like Chekhov, Tsypkin was a doctor by trade. In fact, that was all most people knew him as during his lifetime. At the time of Tsypkin’s death, his novel Summer in Baden-Baden, one of the most beautiful to come out of the Soviet Era, remained unpublished, trapped in a drawer in Moscow. Now New Directions brings us the “remaining writings”: a novella and several short stories. (Garth)

 

How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields: Like his 2008 book The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, which was nearly as much a biology text book as it was a memoir, How Literature Saved My Life obstinately evades genre definitions. It takes the form of numerous short essays and fragments of oblique meditation on life and literature; and, as you’d expect from the author of Reality Hunger, it’s heavily textured with quotation. Topics include Shields’s identification with such diverse fellows as Ben Lerner (his “aesthetic spawn”) and George W. Bush, the fundamental meaninglessness of life, and the continued decline of realist narrative fiction. (Mark)

The City of Devi by Manil Suri: Manil Suri is perhaps best known for his first novel The Death of Vishnu, which was long-listed for the Booker and shortlisted for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award.  The City of Devi, his third novel, takes place in a Mumbai emptied out under threat of nuclear attack.  Sarita, a 33-year-old statistician, stays in the city to find her beloved husband, who has mysteriously vanished.  She ends up teaming up with a gay Muslim man named Jaz, and together they travel across this dangerous and absurd and magical landscape.  According to Keran Desai, this is Suri’s “bravest and most passionate book,” which combines “the thrill of Bollywood with the pull of a thriller.” (Edan)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s & Other Voices, Other Rooms: Two Novels by Truman Capote: Holly Golightly is turning 55, and to mark her entry into late middle age, the Modern Library is reissuing Capote’s dazzling 1958 novella that made her and Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue showroom into American icons. The short novel is paired with Capote’s (also brief) debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, a strange and haunting semi-fictional evocation of Capote’s hauntingly strange Southern childhood. Modern Library will also reissue Capote’s Complete Stories in March. (Michael)

Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash: Ron Rash has earned a spot as one of the top fiction writers describing life in Appalachia with his previous books, The Cove, Serena, and One Foot in Eden.  His newest collection of short stories tells of two drug-addicted friends stealing their former boss’s war trophies, of a prisoner on a chain-gang trying to convince a farmer’s young wife to help him escape, and of an eerie diving expedition to retrieve the body of a girl who drowned beneath a waterfall. (Kevin)

 

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne: If you have ever wondered what, if anything, is going on inside the head of one of those kiddie pop stars who seem animatronically designed to make the tween girls swoon, then Jonny Valentine may be for you. Winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award for his first novel Kapitoil, Wayne has built a reputation for offbeat wit in his humor columns for Vanity Fair and McSweeney’s, as well as “Shouts & Murmurs” pieces in The New Yorker. Here, he channels the voice of a lonely eleven-year-old pop megastar in a rollicking satire of America’s obsession with fame and pop culture. (Michael)

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun: English poet, novelist and short story writer James Lasdun’s new book is a short memoir about a long and harrowing experience at the hands of a former student who set out to destroy him and through online accusations of sexual harassment and theft. J.M. Coetzee has called it “a reminder, as if any were needed, of how easily, since the arrival of the Internet, our peace can be troubled and our good name besmirched.” (Mark)

 

Fight Song by Joshua Mohr: Joshua Mohr’s previous novels—Some Things That Meant The World To Me, Termite Parade, and Damascus—formed a loose trilogy, each book standing alone but all three concerned with a mildly overlapping cast of drifting and marginal characters in San Francisco. In Fight Song, Mohr is on to new territory, “way out in a puzzling universe known as the suburbs,” where a middle-aged man embarks on a quest to find happiness, to reconnect with his distant and distracted family, and to reverse a long slide into purposelessness. (Emily M.)

March:

Middle C by William H. Gass: Not many writers are still at the height of their powers at age 88. Hell, not many writers are still writing at 88. (We’re looking at you, Philip Roth.) But William H. Gass has always been an outlier, pursuing his own vision on his own timetable. His last novel (and magnum opus) The Tunnel took thirty years to write. Middle C, comparatively svelte at 400-odd pages, took a mere fifteen, and may be his most accessible fiction since 1968’s In The Heart of the Heart of the Country. It’s a character piece, concerning one Joseph Skizzen, a serial (and hapless) C.V. embellisher and connoisseur of more serious forms of infamy. The plot, such as it is, follows him from war-torn Europe, where he loses his father, to a career as a music professor in the Midwest. Not much happens – does it ever, in Gass? – but, sentence by sentence, you won’t read a more beautifully composed or stimulating novel this year. Or possibly any other. (Garth)

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout: Maine native Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge, her novel in the form of linked stories.  Strout’s fourth novel, The Burgess Boys, is the story of the brothers Jim and Bob Burgess, who are haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children in Maine.  They have since fled to Brooklyn, but they’re summoned home by their sister Susan, who needs their help dealing with her troubled teenage son.  Once they’re back home, long-buried tensions resurface that will change the Burgess boys forever. (Bill)

The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte: Sam Lipsyte returns to short stories with his new book The Fun Parts. The collection contains some fiction previously published in The Paris Review, Playboy, and The New Yorker, including his excellent “The Climber Room,” which ends with a bizarre twist. Several of the stories, including “The Dungeon Master” and “Snacks,” explore the world from the perspectives of misfit teens. As with all of Lipstye’s stories, expect his absurdist humor and a just a touch of perversion. Get excited. (Patrick)

Red Doc> by Anne Carson: It’s been more than a decade since Carson, a poet and classicist, published The Autobiography of Red, a dazzling and powerful poetic novel that reinvents the myth of Herakles and Greyon: hero and monster reworked into a story of violently deep unrequited love. Red Doc> promises to be a sequel of sorts, with “a very different style,” “changed names,” and the spare preview is incredibly intriguing: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.”  (Elizabeth)

 

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee: Author of The Privileges, arguably the best novel about haute New York in the boom years of the past decade, Dee returns with another tale of family life in the upper reaches of New York society, this time post-recession. When her husband loses his job as a partner at a white-shoe law firm, Helen Armstead finds a job at a PR firm, where she discovers she has an almost magical, and definitely lucrative, gift: she can convince powerful men to admit their mistakes. But this is a novel, so her professional success does not necessarily translate into success in her personal life. (Michael)

Speedboat by Renata Adler: This novel, first published in 1976, brings to mind the old saw about the Velvet Underground. Not everybody read it, but everybody who did went on to write a novel of his or her own. Adler is primarily known for her acerbic New Yorker fact pieces, but, like her omnicompetent contemporary Joan Didion, she is also a terrific fiction writer. This fragmented look at the life of an Adler-like journalist may be her Play It As It Lays. Writers still urgently press out-of-print copies on each other in big-city bars near last call. Now it’s getting the NYRB Classics treatment. (Garth)

Mary Coin by Marisa Silver: Following the success of her novel The God of War, The New Yorker favorite Marisa Silver returns with Mary Coin, a novel inspired by Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” photo. The book follows three characters: Mary, the mother in the photograph; Vera Dare, the photographer; and Walker Dodge, a contemporary-era professor of cultural history. Ben Fountain says it’s “quite simply one of the best books I’ve read in years,” and Meghan O’Rourke calls it “an extraordinarily wise and compassionate novel.” (Edan)

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s previous novels were The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke. His third borrows the structure of self-help books (chapter titles include “Avoid Idealists”, “Don’t Fall in Love”, and “Work For Yourself”) to follow a nameless man’s ascent from a childhood of rural poverty to success as a corporate tycoon in a metropolis in “rising Asia.” (Emily M.)

 

The Tragedy of Mr. Morn Vladimir Nabokov: I furrowed my brow when I saw Nabokov’s name on the preview list, imagining a horde of publishers rooting through his undies for hitherto undiscovered index cards.  But this is a very old play, in the scheme of Nabokov’s life–written in 1923, published in Russian in 2008, published in English this spring.  The play is about royalty, revolutionaries, allegories; “On the page,” writes Lesley Chamberlain for the TLS, ” the entire text creeps metonymically sideways. Its author weaves language into a tissue of reality hinting at some veiled, mysteriously interconnected, static truth beyond.”  I’m not sure what that means, but I think I like it. (Lydia)

The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon: Sarajevo-born, Chicago-based author Aleksandar Hemon—winner of the MacArthur “genius grant” and editor of Dalkey Archive’s stellar Best European Fiction series—abandons fiction for essay and memoir in his fifth book, The Book of My Lives. The title alludes to and, as far as we can tell, calls upon Hemon’s New Yorker essay “The Book of My Life,” about his former literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. Just as Hemon’s novel Lazarus Project straddled the fiction/nonfiction divide, The Book of My Lives isn’t strictly memoir, pushing boundaries of genre now from the nonfiction side. (Anne)

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma: Kristopher Jansma, academic and Electric Literature blogger, drawer of daring and controversial parallels on the digital pages of our own august publication (Is The Killing like or not like Kafka?), publishes his debut novel on the first day of spring.  The novel features young writers, young love, artistic competition, girls, jaunts.  I predict that at least one blurber will reference This Side of Paradise. (Lydia)

 

A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal: In the 2003, “a young Oklahoman who work[ed] in New York” stole the eleventh issue of McSweeney’s from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and T.C. Boyle with a story – well, scenario, really – called “Weena.” Maybe I only loved it so much because I, too, was from outlands like those it so lovingly described. Still, I’ve been keeping an eye out for that young Oklahoman, Benjamin Lytal, ever since. I assume that A Map of Tulsa, too, is about coming of age in Tulsa, a city that looks from the window of a passing car at night “like a mournful spaceship.” (Garth)

In Partial Disgrace by Charles Newman: Newman, the editor who put TriQuarterly on the map in the 1960s, was once spoken of in the same breath with the great dark humorists of postwar American writing. Even before his death, in 2006, his novels were falling out of print and his reputation fading. If there is any justice in the republic of letters (which is a big if), the belated publication of his incomplete masterwork, a sprawling trilogy set in a fictional Mitteleuropean nation to rival Musil’s Kakania, should put him permanently back on the map. (Garth)

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: J.M. Coetzee, Nobel laureate and two-time Booker Prize winner, continues to explore the plight of the outsider in his new allegorical novel, The Childhood of Jesus.  It’s the story of an unnamed man and boy who cross an ocean to a strange land where, bereft of memories, they are assigned the names Simon and David before they set out to find the boy’s mother.  They succeed, apparently, only to run afoul of the authorities, which forces them to flee by car through the mountains.  One early reader has called the novel “profound and continually surprising.” (Bill)

April:

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: The beloved author of Case HistoriesBehind the Scenes at the Museum, and Started Early, Took My Dog (among others) is out with the stor(ies) of Ursula Todd. In 1910, Todd is born during a snowstorm in England, but from then on there are parallel stories — one in which she dies at first breath, and one in which she lives through the tumultuous 20th century.  As the lives of Ursula Todd continue to multiply, Atkinson asks what, then, is the best way to live, if one has multiple chances? (Janet)

All That Is by James Salter: Upon return from service as a naval officer in Okinawa, Philip Bowman becomes a book editor during the “golden age” of publishing.  The publisher’s blurb promises “Salter’s signature economy of prose” and a story about the “dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition.” In our interview with Salter in September, he told us it was “an intimate story about a life in New York publishing,” some 10 years in the making.  From John Irving: “A beautiful novel, with sufficient love, heartbreak, vengeance, identity confusion, longing, and euphoria of language to have satisfied Shakespeare.” Tim O’Brien: “Salter’s vivid, lucid prose does exquisite justice to his subject—the relentless struggle to make good on our own humanity.” April will not come soon enough. (Sonya)

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: The Emperor’s Children, Messud’s bestselling novel from 2006, did as much as anyone has to bridge the gap between the social novel and the novel of consciousness her husband, James Wood, has championed in his criticism. Now, Messud returns with the story of a Boston-area woman who becomes entangled with a Lebanese-Italian family that moves in nearby. Expect, among other things, insanely fine writing. (Garth)

 

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: In a review of her most recent book, 2011’s The Uncoupling, the San Francisco Chronicle declared that, “At this point in her career, Meg Wolitzer deserves to be a household name.” Wolitzer’s tenth novel begins at a summer camp for the arts in 1974, and follows a group of friends into the adulthood. They’re all talented, but talent isn’t enough, and as they grow up, their paths split: some are forced to exchange their childhood dreams for more conventional lives, while others find great success—and, as one might imagine, tensions arise from these differences. (Elizabeth)

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner: Rachel Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba, was lauded for its evocative descriptions and its power of suspense. Kushner will surely call on both talents for The Flamethrowers, as her heroine first becomes immersed in a late ‘70s New York downtown scene peopled by artists and squatters, and then follows a motorcycle baron to Italy during the height of the Autonomist movement. Images are central to Kushner’s creative process: a ducati, a woman in war paint, and a F.T. Marinetti lookalike riding atop a cycle with a bullet-shaped sidecar were talismans (among others) for writing this book. (Anne)

Harvard Square by André Aciman: In 1970s Cambridge, Massachusetts, a young Harvard graduate student from Egypt wants to be the consummate American, fully assimilated and ensconced in the ivory tower as a literature professor. Then he meets Kalaj — an Arab cab driver who denigrates American mass culture and captivates the student with his seedy, adventurous life. Harvard Square tells the story of this young student’s dilemma, caught between the lofty world of Harvard academia and the magnetic company of his new friend. (Janet)

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel: Woke Up Lonely is Fiona Maazel’s first novel since being named a “5 Under 35” choice by the National Book Foundation. The book focuses on Thurlow Dan, the founder of the Helix, a cult that promises to cure loneliness. Ironically, Thurlow himself is profoundly lonely and longing for his ex-wife, Esme. The book has been compared to the work of Sam Lipsyte and Karen Russell, and if there’s one phrase that continually appears in early reviews and press materials, it is “action packed.” (Patrick)

The Dark Road by Ma Jian: Ma Jian, whose books and person are both banned from China, published his third novel The Dark Road in June (Yunchen Publishing House, Taipei); the English translation will be released by Penguin.  The story: a couple determined to give birth to a second child in order to carry on the family line flee their village and the family planning crackdown. At Sampsonia Way, Tienchi Martin-Liao described it as “an absurd story” that uses “magical realism to describe the perverse reality in China.” The publisher describes it as “a haunting and indelible portrait of the tragedies befalling women and families at the hands of China’s one-child policy and of the human spirit’s capacity to endure even the most brutal cruelty.” Martin-Liao tells us that the book’s title, Yin Zhi Dao, also means vagina, or place of life and origin. (Sonya)

The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard: Stothard’s second novel (after Isabel and Rocco) follows an unnamed 17-year-old narrator as she flies from London to L.A. for the funeral of Lily, a mother she never knew, the proprietess of The Pink Hotel. While the hotel’s residents throw a rave in Lily’s honor, her daughter steals a suitcase of Lily’s photos, letters, and clothes. These mementos set her on a journey around L.A., returning letters to their writers and photos to their subjects and uncovering the secrets of her mother’s life. Longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize, The Pink Hotel has been optioned for production by True Blood’s Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin. (Janet)

Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perišic: Perišic is one of the leading new writers to have emerged from Croatia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In this, his first novel to appear stateside, he offers the funny and absurd tale of two cousins from Zagreb who get caught up in the American Invasion of Iraq, circa 2003. Perišic speaks English, and assisted with the translation, so his voice should come through intact, and a blurb from Jonathan Franzen never hurts. (Garth)

May:

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Few details have been released so far about the third novel from international publishing juggernaut Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns).  In a statement posted to Penguin’s website, Hosseini explains,  “My new novel is a multi-generational family story as well, this time revolving around brothers and sisters, and the ways in which they love, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for each other.” (Kevin)

My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard: The first part of Knausgaard’s six-part behemoth was the single most stirring novel I read in 2012. Or is the word memoir? Anyway, this year sees the publication of Part Two, which apparently shifts the emphasis from Knausgaard’s childhood and the death of his father to his romantic foibles as an adult. But form trumps content in this book, and I’d read 400 pages of Knausgaard dilating on trips to the dentist. There’s still time to run out and catch up on Part One before May rolls around. I can’t imagine many readers who finish it won’t want to keep going. (Garth)

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt: You Are One of Them is Pushcart Prize-winner Elliott Holt’s debut novel. You might be forgiven for thinking she’d already published a few books, as Holt has been a fixture of the literary Twittersphere for years. Holt’s debut is a literary suspense novel spanning years, as a young woman, raised in politically charged Washington D.C. of the 1980s, goes to Moscow to investigate the decades-old death of her childhood friend. (Patrick)

 

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien: In a letter to his American publisher two decades after abandoning The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien expressed regret that he’d left the epic poem unfinished (some suggest it was cast aside as he focused on writing The Hobbit, published in 1937). Nearly eighty years later, the work has been edited and annotated by his son, Christopher, who has written three companion essays that explore the text and his father’s use of Arthurian legend in Middle Earth. Tolkien fans will be grateful for the uncharted territory but unused to the book’s bulk, or lack thereof: in the American edition, poem, notes, and essays clock in just shy of 200 pages long. (Elizabeth)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The author of the critically acclaimed novels Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus, both set in Adichie’s home country of Nigeria, now turns her keen eye to the trials of cultural assimilation for Africans in America and England. In the novel, a young Nigerian couple leave their homeland – she to America for an education, he to a far more unsettled, undocumented life in England. In their separate ways, each confront issues of race and identity they would never have faced in Nigeria, where they eventually reunite. (Michael)

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy: Percy, whose previous books include the novel The Wilding and the story collection Refresh, Refresh, imagines a world wherein werewolves have always lived among us, uneasily tolerated, a hidden but largely controlled menace, required by law to take a transformation-inhibiting drug. He describes his new novel as “a narrative made of equal parts supernatural thriller, love story and political allegory.” (Emily M.)

 

A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel: A short story collection that includes the author’s New Yorker debut, “Atria”. If that piece is any indication, the book is more than a bit fabulist – the plot involves a girl who finds herself pregnant and worries she’ll give birth to an animal. The specter of parenthood, as the title suggests, appears in numerous guises, as does the reinvention that marked the protagonists of her novel (the genesis of which she wrote about in our own pages). (Thom)

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White: The last work of Nobel Laureate Patrick White gives his homeland an Elysian feel. At the beginning, we meet two orphans, Eirene Sklavos and Gilbert Horsfall, whose parents both died in separate conflicts early on in the second World War. They escape to a house in suburban Sydney and bond in a lush little garden. As with most things published posthumously, the story is a little bit scattershot, but early reviews out of Oz (and our own take) say the book is worthy of its author. (Thom)

Love Is Power, or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett: Barrett’s middle name, Igonibo, means stranger, though he’s no stranger to all things literary: he chronicled his childhood bookishness in our pages last year, and his father is Jamaican-born poet Lindsay Barrett who settled in Nigeria, where the younger Barrett was born and still lives. The streets of Lagos provide the backdrop for his second story collection, Love Is Power, or Something Like That. His first was called From the Cave of Rotten Teeth, and rotting teeth seems to be something of a recurring motif. It’s picked up at least tangentially in this book with “My Smelling Mouth Problem,” a story where the protagonist’s halitosis causes disturbances on a city bus ride. (Anne)

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer: George Packer reveals the state of affairs in America in his ominously-titled new book, a history told in biographical inspections of its various residents (read about one, a lobbyist, in a truly riveting excerpt in The New Yorker).  The bad news, probably, is that American is fucked.  The good news, I learned from an interview in The Gunn Oracle, the paper of record at Packer’s high school, is that Packer didn’t become a proper journalist until age 40, which is sort of heartening, and may officially qualify him for Bloom status.  (More bad news: no posted vacancies at The Gunn Oracle.) (Lydia)

Pacific by Tom Drury: Drury’s fans will be ecstatic to learn that his new novel focuses once again on the inhabitants of Grouse County, Iowa, where two of his four previous books, The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams, also take place. In this new novel, Tiny Darling’s son Micah travels to L.A. to reunite with his mother who abandoned him years before, while back in the Midwest, a mysterious woman unsettles everyone she meets.  The novel tells two parallel tales, plumbing both the comic and tragic of life.  Yiyun Li says that Drury is a “rare master of the art of seeing.” This novel is sure to prove that—yet again. (Edan)

Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm: The title of this collection comes from a 1994 New Yorker profile of the artist David Salle, in which Malcolm tried in 41 different ways, without success, to penetrate the carefully constructed shell of an artist who had made a bundle during the go-go 1980s but was terrified that he was already forgotten by the art world, a has-been.  Malcolm trains her laser eye on a variety of other subjects, including Edward Weston’s nudes, the German photographer Thomas Struth, Edith Wharton, the Gossip Girl novels, and the false starts on her own autobiography. (Bill)

June:

Transatlantic by Colum McCann: Known for deftly lacing his fiction with historical events – such as the high-wire walk between the twin towers that opened his National Book Award-winning novel, Let the Great World Spin – McCann threads together three very different journeys to Ireland in his new novel, Transatlantic.  The first was Frederick Douglass’s trip to denounce slavery in 1845, just as the potato famine was beginning; the second was the first transatlantic flight, in 1919, by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown; and the third was former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell’s repeated crossings to broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.  In an interview, McCann said it’s the aftermath of such large historic events that interests him as a novelist: “What happens in the quiet moments?  What happens when the plane has landed?” (Bill)

The Hare by César Aira: A recent bit of contrarianism in The New Republic blamed the exhaustive posthumous marketing of Roberto Bolaño for crowding other Latin American writers out of the U.S. marketplace. If anything, it seems to me, it’s the opposite: the success of The Savage Detectives helped publishers realize there was a market for Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and the fascinating Argentinian César Aira. The past few years have seen seven of Aira’s many novels translated into English. Some of them, like Ghosts, are transcendently good, but none has been a breakout hit. Maybe the reissue of The Hare, which appeared in the U.K. in 1998, will be it. At the very least, it’s the longest Aira to appear in English: a picaresque about a naturalist’s voyage into the Argentinean pampas. (Garth)

Taipei by Tao Lin: Indie darling Tao Lin officially enters the world of big six publishing with his eighth published work, Taipei, an autobiographical novel beginning in 2009 and concerning a few years in the life of a 25-year-old protagonist moving from Taiwan to New York City and Las Vegas. In an Observer interview from 2011, Lin said that the book “contains a marriage, somewhat extreme recreational drug usage, parents, [and] a book tour” – all of which should be familiar subjects to people who’ve followed Lin’s exploits on Twitter, Tumblr and his blog over the past few years. (And especially if you’ve been one of his “interns.”) (Nick)

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell: Matt Bell’s novel is an exploration of parenthood and marriage, and it carries the premise and the force of myth: a woman who can sing objects into being and a man who longs for fatherhood get married and leave their hectic lives for a quiet homestead by the side of a remote lake. But as pregnancy after pregnancy fails, the wife’s powers take a darker turn—she sings the stars from the sky—and their grief transforms not only their marriage but the world around them. (Emily M.)

His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: Stephen Dixon, a writer known for rendering unbearable experiences, has built his 15th novel around a premise that is almost unbearably simple: A man named Martin is thinking about the loss of his wife, Gwen.  Dixon’s long and fruitful career includes more than 500 shorts stories, three O. Henry Prizes, two Pushcart Prizes and a pair of nominations for the National Book Award.  His Wife Leaves Him, according to its author, “is about a bunch of nouns: love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscence, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.” (Bill)

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: The novels of the great Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai have recently begun to break through with American audiences. Thus far, however, we’ve only glimpsed one half of his oeuvre: the one that deals (darkly, complexly) with postwar Europe. Krasznahorkai has also long taken an interest in East Asia, where he’s spent time in residence. Seiobo There Below, one of several novels drawing on this experience, shows a Japanese goddess visiting disparate places and times, in search of beauty. (Garth)

Carnival by Rawi Hage: True to its title, Carnival – which takes place in a city loosely based on the author’s hometown of Montreal – takes the reader on a tour of a place well-populated with odd and eccentric characters. The protagonist, Fly, is a cab driver with a penchant for binge reading. We learn that he chose his name to draw a contrast with a group called the Spiders. The Spiders are a loose collection of predatory cab drivers, who choose to wait for their customers rather than to hunt them on the streets. Fly himself, too, is no slouch when it comes to weirdness – he says that his mother gave birth to him in front of an audience of seals. (Thom)

Cannonball by Joseph McElroy: Of the American experimental novelists of the 1960s and 1970s, Joseph McElroy may be the most idiosyncratic. He specializes in what you might call information architecture, overloading his narratives with nonfictional data while strategically withholding the kinds of exposition that are conventional in fiction. The results speak for themselves: moments of startling resonance, power, mystery…and topicality. His work has previously tackled the Pinochet regime, artificial intelligence, and, in his terrific recent story collection, Night Soul, terrorism. Now he turns his attention to the Iraq War. (Garth)

On the Floor by Aifric Campbell: Banker-turned-novelist Aifric Campbell takes on the testosterone of the eighties. At Morgan Stanley, she saw firsthand the excesses of the era, which drove young female analysts to develop “contempt” for other women. As a product of that environment, her main character, Geri, feels like a “skirt among men.” She lacquers her ambitions with conspicuously feminine gestures and modes of dress. In an interview with the Guardian, Campbell pointed out that she used to race greyhounds, which gave her a “certain logic” that helped her in banking and writing. (Thom)

July:

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff passed away last summer at the age of 47, shortly after completing this slender novel “written entirely in verse.” His previous books have been largely satirical, so this final work is a departure: stretching across the country and the twentieth century, the novel’s stories are linked by “acts of generosity or cruelty.” Ira Glass, who brought Rakoff to the airwaves for more than a decade, has described the book as “very funny and very sad, which is my favorite combination” (a fair descriptor of much of Rakoff’s radio work, like this heartbreaking performance from the live episode of “This American Life” staged just a few months before his death.) (Elizabeth)

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: In his third novel, Aw writes about Malaysian immigrants to contemporary Shanghai, featuring an ensemble cast who hail from diverse backgrounds; their stories are interwoven, and counterpointed with the lives they left behind.  Aw, who was a practicing lawyer while writing his first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won accolades for his debut: longlisted for Man Booker Prize, International Impac Dublin Award and the Guardian First Book Prize; winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region).  (Sonya)

August:

Night Film by Marisha Pessl: This much-anticipated, oft-delayed follow-up to Pessl’s bestselling Special Topics in Calamity Physics originally set to come out in 2010 is now scheduled – no, this time they really mean it – in the fall. The novel is a “psychological literary thriller” about a young New Yorker who sets out to investigate the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, daughter of a reclusive European movie director. (Michael)

The Infatuations by Javier Marías: Javier Marías’s new book, translated by Marguerite Jull Costa, is his 14th novel to be published in English. It was awarded Spain’s National Novel Prize last October, but Marías turned it down out of an aversion to receiving public money. It’s the story of a woman’s obsession with an apparently happy couple who inexplicably disappear. It’s his first novel to be narrated from a woman’s perspective, so it will be interesting to see how Marias manages to accommodate his penchant for detailed descriptions of ladies crossing and uncrossing their legs. (Mark)

Clare of the Sea-Light by Edwidge Danticat: My time at the University of Miami overlapped with Danticat’s, though unfortunately I never took her creative writing course. I did, however, see her speak at an event for the English department during my junior year. She was astounding. There are prose stylists in this world and then there are storytellers, and rare are people like Danticat who are both. She read from her memoir Brother, I’m Dying, which features one of the most devastating and personal depictions of our wretched immigration system ever written. Haiti has always been an remarkable place – a nation built with equal measures of hope, passion, charm, malfeasance and tragedy. In this forthcoming story collection, Clare of the Sea-Light – which draws its title from a piece she originally published in Haiti Noir – we can expect the prodigiously talented author to render each aspect of the place beautifully. (Nick)

Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Caleb Crain’s debut novel, which concerns the topic of “youth,” borrows its title from W. H. Auden’s 1929 poem “[It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens]” and takes place in the Czech Republic during the last decade of the 20th century. Look for Crain, a journalist, critic and banished member of the NYPL’s Central Library Plan advisory committee, to use research and insight from his previous book – a provocative look at male friendship, personal lives, and literary creation – in order to give Jacob Putnam and the rest of the characters in Necessary Errors a great deal of interwoven influences, covert desires and realistic interaction. (Nick)

September:

Enon by Paul Harding: In 2009, the tiny Bellevue Literary Press published Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Tinkers tells the story of George Washington Crosby, an old man reliving the memories of his life as he dies surround by family. Enon, named for the Massachusetts town where Crosby died, is about his grandson, Charlie Crosby, and Charlie’s daughter Kate. (Janet)

October:

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-bestselling Eat Pray Love put her on Time Magazine’s list of most influential people in the world, and then Julia Roberts played her in the movie adaptation. What many fans of that memoir don’t know is that Gilbert started her career as a fiction writer, penning a short story collection, Pilgrims, and the novel, Stern Men, which was a New York Times Notable Book in 2000.  Now, 13 years later, she returns to the form with the publication of “a big, sprawling, epic historical novel that takes place from 1760 to 1880, following the fortunes of a family called the Whittakers, who make their name in the early botanical exploration/proto-pharmaceutical business trade.” That description is from Gilbert herself, taken from this candid, illuminating and entertaining interview with Rachel Khong for The Rumpus. (Edan)

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: Sunnyside Queens has long held a contrarian perspective. In the 1920s, as urban development projects washed over the outer boroughs, the folks in Sunnyside did all they could to keep the place from turning into a cookie-cutter suburb. Driveways were banned and garages were disallowed. Instead of lawns, the neighborhood’s designers recommended long courtyards that spanned the entire length of blocks – these were meant to encourage mingling and space sharing. It’s no doubt this spirit of dissent, skepticism and opinionated egalitarianism that’s drawn Jonathan Lethem to the neighborhood as the centerpiece for his new novel, a “family epic,” which focuses on three generations of American leftists growing up in the outer borough. (Nick)

Unknown:

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Washington Post critic Ron Charles broke the news recently that Thomas Pynchon will have a new book out from Penguin this fall called Bleeding Edge. (Though Penguin says the book has not yet been scheduled). Charles said the news of the new book was confirmed by two Penguin employees and that “everything is tentative” at this time. More as we know it, folks. (Max)

Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: There’s still not much to report on Rush’s latest, a novel of love and friendship set in upstate New York on the eve of the Iraq War. In October, though Granta Books in the U.K. announced an autumn 2013 publication date, so here’s hoping… (Garth)

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The fifth of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams books to appear, The Dying Grass will most likely not see print until summer of 2015, according to his editor. First up is Last Stories, a collection of ghost stories slated to hit bookstores next year. Assuming there still are bookstores next year. (Garth)

Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt: Your Name Here seems to be stuck in a holding pattern at Noemi Press, befitting, one supposes, its tortured publication history. In a recent Believer interview, DeWitt suggested that the version that appears in print, if it appears in print, may not be the same as the .pdf she was selling on her website a few years back. Chunks may have been spun off into other works of fiction. Whatever the damn thing ends up looking like, we eagerly await it. (Garth)

Escape from the Children’s Hospital by Jonathan Safran Foer: Foer returns to childhood, to trauma, and to interwoven voices and storylines. The childhood here is Foer’s own, though, so this may mark a kind of departure. We’ll have to wait and see, as no publication date has been set. (Garth)

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