Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk’s new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as “a novel in ten conversations”, but I prefer Leslie Jamison’s description: “a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light.” The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan)
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman’s second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)
Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey’s novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman’s next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher — Little, Brown — for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom)
Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy — his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)
Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.)
Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily)
A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)
Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth)
Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. (Garth)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits – ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” – lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth)
The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill)
Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences. Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris. “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer. The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him. In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation. It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope. American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill)
The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess)
The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli’s “idiosyncratic prose style.” (Lydia)
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)
The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.)
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily)
All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess)
Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick’s lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific–he’s the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia)
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political”—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya)
Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson’s latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet)
B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker’s characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it “literary self-archaeology” and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers’ literary obsessions. (Max)
The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive – like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth)
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth)
Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)
Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called “the keeper” of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus’s previous work–including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All–Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer’s writer (he taught Donald Antrim’s first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia)
Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.)
The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia)
The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt)
Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: “Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list.” (Thom)
The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael)
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself. “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt. This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it. Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider. Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September. The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals. Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear. He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling. Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill)
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!” “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied. His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.” Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya)
The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence – furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” – but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth)
The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday’s novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, “While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl–it’s a story told in two voices, and it’s almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss.” Rivka Galchen calls it both “brilliant” and “hilarious” and George Saunders says, “Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart.” I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene…what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan)
Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne)
God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)
My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There’s still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard — or just plain “Karl Ove” to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to “falling into a malarial fever”, and James Wood remarked that “even when I was bored, I was interested.” Book 4 covers Knausgaard’s late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah)
Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael)
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet)
Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — “culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor” – that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya)
Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)
Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a “Bloomer” whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012. Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner. Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)
The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen’s excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael)
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)
Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth)
The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” – some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth)
The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children — Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance — as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom)
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)
Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt)
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.”). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.)
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill)
City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne)
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)
Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick’s witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick’s “Letter from Greenwich Village” in The Paris Review (it’s also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick’s latest is an ode to New York City’s street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of “living out conflicts, rather than fantasies.” (Hannah)
The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel’s classic oral history, Working), Gibson’s latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah)
Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth)
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan)
The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth)
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many – The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie)
Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne)
In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth)
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form–which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker’s headline was “Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity”), described by its publisher as “a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents,” with bonus “fabulist quality.” But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can’t come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown’s nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book’s release, I suggest you dip into Garth’s essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan)
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“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
I went to the National Book Awards ceremony in New York last month for a very simple reason. I wanted to tell James McBride, in person, what I’m going to tell you now: his novel, The Good Lord Bird, one of five finalists for the fiction award, is the most astonishing book I read all year. It’s one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.
“Why, thank you very much,” McBride said from under the brim of his porkpie hat when I bumped into him at the pre-awards cocktail party and told him how I felt about his book. When I wished him luck at the awards ceremony later in the evening and told him I was pulling for him to win, he waved his arm at the cavernous banquet room and said, “At this point it doesn’t really matter. It’s all good.”
I didn’t expect McBride to win the National Book Award that night because he was up against bigger names — Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Rachel Kushner — and I long ago stopped believing that artistic awards are based solely on artistic merit. McBride obviously didn’t expect to win, either, because when his name was called out as the winner for fiction, he stepped to the podium without a prepared speech, visibly surprised. “I didn’t think I would win today,” he told the crowd of 700. Then, echoing what he had said to me earlier at the cocktail party, he added, “If any of the others writers had won I wouldn’t feel bad because they’re all fine writers. But it sure is nice to win.”
And it sure is nice to see such a deserving winner. The Good Lord Bird is narrated by Henry Shackleford, a young slave in the Kansas territory who is freed by the abolitionist John Brown, then, passing as a girl, follows Brown on his various military and political campaigns, all the way to the disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, a major catalyst for the Civil War. (The book’s title refers to the red-headed woodpecker, a bird whose feathers serve as charms, a bird so beautiful that when people see one, they cry, “Good Lord.”) Henry, known as Henrietta or “Onion” to Brown and his ragtag army, narrates the story in a frontier vernacular that is by turns hilarious, bawdy, and wise. Her sharpest insights are on race and slavery, and they’re as valid today as they were a century and a half ago. No one, black or white, slave or free, gets a free ride from Henrietta Shackleford, including Henrietta Shackleford. Here, for instance, are her thoughts on the lies black people tell themselves: “Fact is, I never knowed a Negro from that day to this but who couldn’t lie to themselves about their own evil while pointing out the white man’s wrong, and I weren’t no exception.” And here’s Henrietta on what it means to be black: “Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse.”
The novel has obvious antecedents in the works of Twain and Cervantes, James Baldwin and William Styron. But its framing device — even its opening lines — owe a debt to another tall tale insinuated from American history, Thomas Berger’s indelible epic of the Indian wars, Little Big Man. That novel purports to be the tape-recorded reminiscences of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, a white man who was snatched by Cheyenne Indians as a boy and grew up straddling the racial divide, living with both Indians and whites, finally fighting alongside Gen. George Armstrong Custer and becoming the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The Good Lord Bird purports to be the reminiscences of 111-year-old Henry Shackleford, written down by a preacher in 1942, then locked away and finally salvaged from a church fire in 1966. Instead of straddling the racial divide, Henry crosses other lines — between male and female, freeman and slave, country rube and city slicker — and he winds up in the heat of battle alongside John Brown, becoming the only black survivor of the raid on Harpers Ferry.
Here’s the opening of The Good Lord Bird: “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” And here’s the opening of Little Big Man: “I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.” Even the climactic battle scenes share a chapter title: McBride’s is “Last Stand”; Berger’s is “The Last Stand.” (In a follow-up e-mail, McBride acknowledged Berger’s influence, adding that he also drew on the writings of Leon Litwack and Daryl Cumber Dance.)
I don’t buy books or movie tickets based on awards, and I’m proud to be able to say that I bought my copy of The Good Lord Bird before it was nominated for the National Book Award and I finished reading it before the awards ceremony. That’s not to say I’m opposed to book awards. As they long as they connect readers with writers — and sell books — I’m all for them. McBride’s publisher, Riverhead Books, announced that it was printing an additional 45,000 copies of The Good Lord Bird as soon as the award was announced, bringing the number in print to more than 82,000. I hope they sell like Krispy Kremes. James McBride is an important and thrilling writer, and he deserves to be widely read.
None of the above is to denigrate the other four fiction finalists for this year’s National Book Award. As McBride put it, they are all fine writers. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, in particular, struck me as a book that announced the arrival of a major talent. The novel, which roams from the Bonneville salt flats to the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s to the political barricades in Italy, was a stirring expansion of the promise Kushner showed in her 2008 debut, Telex From Cuba, which was also a National Book Award finalist. Both novels exhibit Kushner’s outsized gifts: her ambition, her narrative dexterity, her ability to paint complex characters and put them in motion in vividly imagined historical settings. Whether she’s writing about the First World War, pre-revolutionary Cuba, or the 1970s art scene, Kushner succeeds because she understands how to handle her prodigious historical research. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true does not mean it has a place.”
There were other delights this year. One of the chiefest, because it was so personal, was the publication of Keystone Corruption: A Pennsylvania Insider’s View of a State Gone Wrong, a sweeping history of the chicanery that has been festering under the state capitol’s green dome in Harrisburg, Pa., for more than a century. It was written by a veteran shoe-leather reporter named Brad Bumsted, who happens to be the man who took me under his wing and taught me the reporter’s craft at the daily newspaper in nearby Chambersburg, Pa., back in the 1970s. As I wrote in my essay about Keystone Corruption, “Brad is an important reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good journalism still matters, it still happens, and it is still built on what it was originally built on — not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed, and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better.”
Though it was published late last year, I’ve got to mention a gem of a book that should burnish the reputation of a writer who has written five novels that are classics, even though too few people have read them. Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings, is a great teeming smorgasbord of Portis’s journalism, travel writing, short stories, drama and memoir. The book also includes a rare interview with Portis and tributes from admirers, including Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, and Donna Tartt. In addition to its abundant wit and wisdom, this book is virtually a connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in newspaper city rooms in Tennessee, Arkansas and New York. I hope it will attract new readers to Portis’s novels, Norwood, True Grit, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos.
Another writer who deserves a wider audience is Nick Turse, who produced a magisterial work of history this year called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Turse argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation ,and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration — not a one-off atrocity called My Lai — but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. This book’s lessons, like James McBride’s insights on race, are as valid today as they were when America was blundering its way to a shameful military disaster four decades ago.
A pleasant surprise landed in my mailbox in April — a handsome new paperback edition of They Don’t Dance Much, the only novel James Ross published in his lifetime, now widely regarded as the progenitor of “country noir.” This new edition, published by Mysterious Press, includes a foreword by Daniel Woodrell, a Ross acolyte who says he first read the novel in the 1970s because George V. Higgins “vouched for it as both literature and a good time.” A funny, bloody, world-wise tale of violent doings at a North Carolina roadhouse during the Depression, the book was published in 1940 to high praise from Flannery O’Connor, among others, but it sold poorly and soon disappeared. A new edition appeared in the 1970s, attracting a new generation of fans, including Woodrell. And now, another three and a half decades after the second edition, we have a third. As Woodrell writes, “They Don’t Dance Much, a novel that was often declared dead but has never been successfully buried, offers a persuasive portrait of a rough-and-ready America as seen from below, a literary marvel that is once again on its feet and wending its way toward the light.”
Last but far from least, this year the Irish writer Kevin Barry followed up his blistering novel, City of Bohane, with an equally strong collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island. The man uses the English language like a musical instrument. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: You must read Kevin Barry.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Looking back at my reading list for 2013, two books stood above all the other new books I’ve had the chance to read: The first is Susan Steinberg’s extraordinary third collection, Spectacle, which I’ve been obsessed with since it came out in January — and really, since ever before. One of the book’s stories appeared in American Short Fiction several years ago and that introduction to Steinberg set up some high expectations that were met then exceeded by the collection. In a year of great story collections, this is the one that stands apart for me. Smart and funny and brutally moving, it’s the most aggressive short story collection I’ve read in a long time, one that forces emotional participation and moral complicity on its readers.
The second book is Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, which absolutely thrilled me as both a reader and a writer. Extraordinarily ambitious and well-shaped, I found it one of the biggest reading experiences I’d had all year, the kind of enlarged experience that seems rarer and rarer in contemporary novels. My admiration for The Flamethrowers also sent me back to Kushner’s Telex from Cuba, which I hadn’t read before but which now seems like a formal and stylistic prototype for The Flamethrowers, in addition to being an excellent novel on its own. I hope Kushner keeps pushing her form and her style forward so powerfully between books — I can’t wait to read her next novel to see where she takes us next.
Some books published in years past that were an important part of my 2013: Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. Kind One by Laird Hunt. Speedboat by Renata Adler. The Complete Tales trilogy by Kate Bernheimer. Light Years by James Salter. Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck.
Some books I loved in 2013 but that won’t be released until 2014: The Last Days of California by Mary Miller. Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank. Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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.
The Pioneer Detectives
The Orphan Master’s Son
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.
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.
Like Rachel Kushner earlier this year, Marisha Pessl faced a nightmare known to only the luckiest novelists. Pessl’s debut, 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was a smash critical and popular success that fetched a six-figure advance, and now she needed to produce a follow-up that somehow topped it. Like Kushner before her, Pessl resisted the temptation to stick with a winning formula; instead she used a broad canvas to produce a novel that is in every way bigger, more ambitious, and more satisfying than her splashy debut.
Pessl’s new novel is called Night Film. People who require categories for their fiction should probably shelve it in the “literary thriller” section, though a genre label is as pointless as a plot summary for a novel as ectoplasmic and slippery as this one. On its base level, Night Film is an exoneration quest by Scott McGrath, the book’s narrator, a disgraced investigative journalist who once tried to penetrate the shell of a reclusive filmmaker named Stanislav Cordova — only to get sued by Cordova and lose everything, including job, wife, daughter, and a fair chunk of his life’s savings and self-esteem. Cordova’s disturbing films, which give the novel its title, have developed a cult following that is literally underground: the movies are so shocking that they’re shown only at secret screenings in tunnels under cities. McGrath describes Cordova as “a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world…He’s down under the railway bridge in the river with all the missing evidence, and the answers that will never see the light of day.”
When Cordova’s brilliant daughter, Ashley, dies of an apparent suicide in a shabby warehouse in downtown Manhattan, McGrath feels the old tug: “I could feel it starting again — the dark undertow toward Cordova. Forget my fury toward him, which still simmered — this was a chance for absolution. If I went for him again and proved he was a predator — what I’d believed in my gut — all I’d lost might come back.”
McGrath enlists two young assistants for his investigation — Hopper Cole, a scruffy drug dealer and one-time boyfriend of Ashley’s, and Nora Halliday, a coat check girl/actress who was one of the last people to see Ashley alive. So, on the face of it, we have a good old-fashioned journalistic investigation. That’s like saying Moby-Dick was a fish story.
What sets Night Film apart is that the telling of the story — the quest for an elusive truth — becomes the story. It’s a deft act of authorial legerdemain that could have backfired, but in Pessl’s hands the story whips along even as it becomes increasingly unclear what the story is, or where it’s heading. As the investigation unfolds, we meet a string of Cordova’s assistants, neighbors, actors, and ex-wives, as well as security guards, tattoo artists, hotel maids, and clerks, shopkeepers, landladies, anyone who had contact with the family. There are intimations of black magic, secret rituals, child sacrifice. The more McGrath and his cohorts learn about Ashley’s life, the less certain they are about the circumstances of her death. It doesn’t help that her invisible father appears to be pulling strings to thwart their investigation.
Pessl embroiders her prose with a grab bag of visual effects that attempt to give the novel documentary heft, including police reports, typed transcripts of telephone calls, photographs, newspaper clippings, text messages, e-mails, online news articles, psychiatric evaluations, and postings from a highly secretive fan website known as The Blackboards. For me, these visuals feel gimmicky and rote, more meta-smoke than actual fire.
But Pessl’s writing has done a lot of growing up in the seven years since Calamity Physics was published. That novel, the story of a precocious teenage girl and her peripatetic professor dad, had a hyperventilated prose style that struck me as too cute by at least half. At 600 pages, it was also way too long. The book’s privileged teenagers, known as the Bluebloods, exuded none of the anomie of the young things in Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, none of the darkness of Donna Tartt’s undergrads in The Secret History. Now Pessl’s cleverness and bloat have given way to assurance. Her writing is frequently deft and insightful. Here’s a bombastic Cordova scholar: “There were two things Beckman truly loathed in life: sitting in the first three rows of a movie theater and the Catholic Church.” And here’s a mousy piano salesman: “You could spot these Mahler-loving men within a ten-block radius of Carnegie Hall. They tended to wear earth tones, have on DVD all of public television’s Great Performances series, live alone in apartments on the Upper West Side, and have potted plants they spoke to daily.”
Marlowe Hughes, a faded actress, delivers a delicious evisceration of McGrath and his two assistants when they show up to interview her, beginning with Hopper:
“This must be Tarzan, Greystoke, Lord of the Apes. You’re missing a grunt and a club. Can’t wait to see you in your loincloth. Now, who else do we have here?” Enunciating this acidly, she leaned forward to survey Nora. “A chorus girl. You won’t be able to fuck your way to the middle, Debbie. And you.” She turned to me. “A wannabe Warren, straight from Reds. Every one of you, the farting demeanor of the artfully clueless. You people demand to know about Cordova?” She scoffed dramatically, though it sounded like a handful of pebbles rasping in her throat. “And so fleas look up at the sky and wonder why stars.”
As good as such passages are, the writing is not flawless. Pessl has a lazy way with adverbs. People sweat “profusely,” winds howl “punitively,” matches blow out “abruptly,” hair is cropped “hastily.” After a while I found myself wishing Pessl had read Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writing, including Rule #3: Avoid adverbs. Her heavy use of italics is also unsettling, especially in the trite koans sprinkled throughout the text: Within every elaborate lie, a kernel of truth…Astonishing how quickly money jogged a man’s memory… Everyone smiles for a photograph… Even worse are passages like this dubious bit of social analysis:
In the age of the Internet, pianos, like physical books, were fast becoming culturally extinct. They’d probably stay that way unless Apple invented the iPiano, which fit inside your pocket and could be mastered via text message. With the iPiano you can be an iMozart. Then, you could compose your own iRequiem for your own iFuneral attended by millions of your iFriends who iLoved you.
At first I took such italics as a form of shorthand, a clumsy way of telegraphing meaning. But by the end of the book I had come to see the italics as an effective way of revealing McGrath as a relentless pile-driver, pounding away at his quest for the truth. The italics contribute to McGrath’s portrayal as a driven and annoying character. Which is to say he’s just like most journalists.
To return to the comparison with Rachel Kushner, I would argue that Kushner’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was an even tougher act to follow than Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Telex was a first novel that didn’t behave like one. It had nothing to do with its young creator’s erudition or deft wordplay; it had everything to do with history, politics, and social hierarchies in the lost world of an American enclave in pre-Castro Cuba. There was nothing solipsistic about it. Unlike Special Topics, it felt like the work of a fully formed talent.
But that’s not to diminish Pessl’s achievement in Night Film. For me, the book’s finest passage is when the trio penetrates Cordova’s remote estate, The Peak, and then get separated. Chased by dogs and guards, McGrath eludes them by submerging himself in a muck-filled swimming pool, hiding in a greenhouse full of hallucinogenic plants, and wandering through Cordova’s elaborate soundstage. The episode plays out like an extended drug trip — McGrath believes he has become part of a Cordova film — and it leaves him shaken and baffled.
That, to Pessl’s credit, is how McGrath — and the reader — wind up at the end of the book. The mystery is not tied up with a tidy bow, the big questions remain unanswered. But when McGrath finally comes face-to-face with his prey, he has the good sense to be willing to shut up, for once, and listen to Cordova’s version of the truth. It’s the smartest move he makes.
It’s rare for a writer of only two novels to get the critical acclaim bestowed upon Rachel Kushner. In 2005, her debut novel Telex From Cuba, about the Cuban revolution, landed the cover of The New York Times Book Review and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her second novel The Flamethrowers, published earlier this year, tells a sweeping story about the New York art world during the Italian factory protests of the 1970s. Both her novels are stylish and rigorously intelligent, as she describes characters and nations alike on the brink of collapse. She spoke with me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, where, she says, her neighbors think she’s “a housewife who doesn’t sweep her porch enough.”
The Millions: Both of your novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, deal explicitly with foreign politics. What is your relationship as an American novelist to political responsibility?
Rachel Kushner: I don’t see the artist as necessarily political. I think if a novel is polemical, it’s prevented from doing its transcendent work as art. If it’s successful, it transcends the political. That said, you’re correct in pointing out that both novels deal with political material, but I think there’s a deep tradition of this inside of storytelling. If you look at the novels of Balzac and Victor Hugo, and even the moderns — Proust, Céline, to name favorites — the characters are always people situated inside the processes and effects of history. I guess I’m a writer who is interested in the way that the world and historical events and processes pressure characters, and the way characters interrelate and situate themselves in their social milieu, political milieu, and so forth. And whether I’m writing something contemporary or in the past does not change this — it’s an outlook. A work of art can have a political emanation to it, but it cannot be the thrust or reducible point of the work.
TM: For the Italian factory workers in The Flamethrowers, political protest is always potential for imprisonment. Meanwhile in America, what’s most at stake for artists appears to be whether or not they’ll get represented by a gallery. What do you think is politically at stake (if anything) for American artists today? Is it the same for writers?
RK: The stakes in politics and art are obviously different. There is plenty at stake for writers and artists, politically, but as I said above, art, in my opinion, cannot be polemical. It can’t be reduced to political stakes. But by making art, the writer/poet/artist is choosing to do something special, which can possibly, I mean perhaps, speak outside the logical of the marketplace.
About the artist just, you know, wanting a good gallery, in a sense I think it’s unfair to compare the stakes of art and the stakes of protest. The implication is that art is sillier, that the stakes are about ego and money and hierarchies, or about these kind of esoteric and febrile conceptual debates. But we are not choosing between a world without exploitation and a world without culture. They are not in a direct competition with each other, where one must be prioritized, and the other overshadowed or shamed for its insignificance. Anyhow, there may be many lines of connection between culture and questions of governance, of capitalism, violence, and so forth, that are worth exploring by putting those two different worlds of art and politics in play, side by side.
TM: Your novel feels very rooted in today’s world, largely because of the way the Italian protests hover over the lives of your American characters in the way that the Arab Spring does so for Americans today. How do you think the Italian protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s compare to the Arab Spring?
RK: When I was writing The Flamethrowers it wasn’t just the Arab Spring that loomed but Occupy, and aunt-austerity protests all over Europe and in Greece. Looting in London. There was a lot happening in the world, and the world is what I respond to, even if I am writing about Italy and New York in the 1970s. But those are really difficult things to compare, the Arab Spring, or so-called Spring, and the Autonomist movement in Italy in the 1970s. In Italy, there were various circles of philosophers who were writing political/theoretical texts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and what they were writing, along a spectrum of militancy, streamed into and joined with a rejection of bourgeois values that occurred among very disparate groups of people, students, factory workers, and people from the south who were something like a sub-proletariat group. The movement had to do with, of course, history, and the economy, factory politics, a failed nationalism, and the culture of the time. I guess in merging various interest groups it does share something with what happened in Tahrir Square [in Egypt]. Some of the more striking arguments about why the revolution was successful — to the degree that it overthrew Mubarak — have been about the heterogeneity of the population that occupied the Square: all different kinds of people rejected the Egyptian state. In this sense something similar perhaps occurred in Italy, except it did not result in a revolution. The most significant gain from the Autonomist movement has probably been in the form of advances for women. Which might make it quite different from what ends up happening in Egypt.
TM: Reno, of the novel The Flamethrowers, is hyper aware of her surroundings in the immediate present, yet she continually falls in love with the people, cities, and art around her in a way that has nothing to do with her naiveté. What is it about Reno that makes her so trusting?
RK: I think that some people have no other choice than to be open; it’s just an instinctual manner of proceeding. Perhaps this is a fundamental division among people, a tendency to react to people and ideas and works of art without suspicion, a way of submitting oneself fully to other people’s codes, beliefs, modes of being, in order to understand them, and to have an experience. I think of it as a kind of enchantment with the world, rather than as naiveté, and to be honest, it’s an orientation that I relate to, personally.
TM: James Wood compared your novel to Flaubert, who’s sort of credited as the father of modern realism. Your prose is realistic in the sense that it’s grounded in physical detail, though what happens in the novel isn’t always “true.” Do you consider yourself as working in a realist tradition?
RK: I am still mulling the fact that Flaubert created a seminal mode of realism (emulated by most writers since), in order to skewer bourgeois values (a topic only taken up by some). I am also still grappling with the hallucinogenic effect of Salammbo. In any case, I probably do hew to certain key markers of realism. I don’t strive to create a sense of un-reality, and in that, I guess, I tend toward something that some people would call realism. But I don’t call it realism. I wonder, is Marguerite Duras a realist writer? In a way, yes? But what does that say about the category?
To satisfy my own instincts, I need to have a form that allows me to incorporate writing that runs the spectrum between detailed and accurate renderings of spaces, places, moments that seem “real,” and a kind of poetic density or oddity. I like to be able to shift tones, and densities. I see the narrative strands of my own novel — the opening sequence of with Valera, the sequences in which other characters speak, and the first person narrator as simply a recording witness — all as having different densities. I’m interested in having a narrative through-line, but also in finding mischievous ways of disrupting that through-line. But I don’t know if that’s realism, or not. The term doesn’t enter my mind as something I need to either adhere to or disobey.
TM: In addition to writing two acclaimed novels, you’ve also written for both BOMB Magazine and Artforum, which gave you an intimate understanding of both the contemporary worlds of art and literature. How do you think they compare with one another?
RK: The truth is I know the art world much better than I know the “literary world” — which, well, what is that? The publishing world? I don’t circulate in a social sphere of novelists, so much. But more importantly, I wish there were more intellectual crossover between the worlds of art and literature, which, historically, had been the case.
If I have to compare, well, the art world is obviously more self-referential, in that you can’t really participate in the conversation of contemporary art unless you’re inside the discourse. Literature is not self-referential in the same way at all. Which makes it more open, less exclusive, but is deriving from the fact that it’s a more conservative and rigid form. They’re almost completely different. The art world has a lively and dynamic social component to it, whereas the publishing world is, er, not that dynamic of a place, and it doesn’t have to be, it’s not motored the same way. There are no biennials, and there isn’t an obscene pile of money at stake. And finally, maybe writers are less open to the culture than artists for some reason. Artists truck in culture. I don’t feel that’s necessarily the case with writers. Some are following the culture, of course, and their work is in response. But there are also these quiet psychological insights that writers pursue, which are different.
TM: What do you think is the most interesting thing happening in American fiction right now?
RK: I hope for a lot of possibilities with American fiction. There are some writers I really love. I was just on a panel the other night with Rivka Galchen and Hari Kunzru (who is not American, but he lives in New York City), and those are two writers I admire. Also Salvatore Scibona, whose novel The End stands out for me as a rare work of beauty and complexity. I think Bret Easton Ellis is a great writer — a very different writer than myself — but one who will have been a really important stylist, a singular American writer. DeLillo continues to produce good work — I think Point Omega was a near-perfect novel. But in truth, I am not that knowledgeable about contemporary fiction. I read a lot of Europeans. Modernist ones. Among younger American writers, I read more poets. There are some smart and fearless and funny and insouciant poets out there. That’s maybe where the energy is for me right now.
Rachel Kushner is in her mid-40s, which means she has not yet reached full stride as a writer. Yet her first two novels have taken her a long way toward huge. How did she do it? How did she go so far, so fast? Turns out it was easy as one, two, three.
Kushner’s first novel, Telex From Cuba, was a National Book Award finalist in 2008, and deservedly so. It had none of the flaws common to so many first novels — the self-absorption, the navel-gazing, the precious prose and attenuated ambition. Written with great assurance, the novel teems with life, with voices, with real events, with historical, composite and imagined figures. It’s set in Cuba in the last years of the corrupt Batista regime, as Fidel Castro and his rebels are rising in Oriente Province, on the eastern end of the island. It is there that two insulated colonies of Americans, in the neighboring towns of Preston and Nicaro, go about the business of extracting riches from the island’s sugar crops and nickel deposits. These Americans, as portrayed by Kushner, are not cardboard villains; they’re decent but naive people who are blind to the ways they’re exploiting the Cuban, Haitian and Jamaican laborers. They’re also clueless that their cloistered, artificial world is about to get swept away in a popular uprising.
One of the novel’s many narrative voices belongs to K.C. Stites, a son of the United Fruit Company’s manager in Preston. K.C.’s youth allows Kushner to create a portrait of pre-revolutionary Cuba as seen through the non-judgmental eyes of someone who has not yet acquired an adult’s experience, knowledge and prejudices. Here’s K.C. on the condition of the cane cutters and the quandary of their American employers:
Dirt shacks, no running water — the way those people lived, it’s just how life was to me. I was a child. Mother didn’t like it, but Daddy reminded her that the company paid them higher wages than any Cuban-owned sugar operation. Mother thought it was just terrible the way the Cuban plantations did business. It broke her heart, the idea of a race of people exploiting their own kind…She was proud of Daddy, proud of the fact that the United Fruit Company upheld a certain standard, paid better wages than they had to, just to be decent. She said she hoped it would influence the Cubans to treat their own kind a bit better.
When I was about halfway through the novel I happened upon an interview with Kushner, in which she revealed that she has a deeply personal interest in this material. Her grandfather was a mining executive in Nicaro, and her mother grew up there in the 1950s. As Kushner told the interviewer:
My grandparents, dead for many years now, saved an incredible trove of stuff from their life in Cuba: every last receipt from the United Fruit commissary where my grandmother bought groceries, a mimeograph of every letter she sent, etc. I spent about three years going through this stuff, and interviewing my mother and her sisters and others they’d grown up with.
Kushner also traveled to Cuba several times, walking the ground her mother had walked, talking to people who remembered the old days, discovering ghostly remnants of the American presence. It was only when Kushner started writing her book that she made a discovery that is vital to any novelist trying to spin fiction out of historical events: the great danger is emptying your notebook, becoming lulled by your research into forgetting that novels are, first and last, works of the imagination. Kushner said:
I had to disconnect completely from all that (research) and build a fictional structure and then adhere precisely to its logic and requirements, which meant only using what served my story. Just because something is true does not mean it has a place. Often it turned out quite the opposite, that the people and characters and details I imagined were much more fluid and true-seeming, and it was the ‘true life’ detail that stuck out and seemed awkward. That said, by so thoroughly metabolizing the ‘real’ American colony, I was able to depict mine freehand…”
Just because something is true does not mean it has a place. This realization is, I think, the key to this novel’s success. So is Kushner’s understanding that “real” is a word that must always appear between quotation marks.
In the course of the novel we meet the usual suspects — Raúl Castro, Fidel Castro, Batista, Ambassador Earl Smith, Henry Cabot Lodge, a somewhat under-drawn Hemingway. (For a more nuanced portrait of Papa in Cuba, see William Kennedy’s latest novel, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.) We make the obligatory trip to the rebels’ camp in the hills. But it is Kusnher’s flights of imagination that breathe life into this deeply researched and thoroughly plausible portrait of the twilight of a surreal way of life.
Another thing I learned from the interview was that one of Kushner’s sources of inspiration was a documentary film called I Am Cuba, which was made jointly by Russian and Cuban filmmakers and released in 1964, before the revolutionary euphoria and the lovely buildings started to crumble. I set the novel aside, got a copy of the movie, and watched it. It is, as Kushner notes, “a piece of propaganda” about the ways the evil Americans exploited and corrupted the good Cuban people. Yet Kushner also noted that it is “one of only a handful of films that show you what pre-revolutionary Cuba might have looked like.”
The film opens with an astonishing piece of camera work — a long tracking shot that starts at a raucous beauty contest on a luxury hotel’s rooftop in downtown Havana, then slides down to the swimming pool deck, then takes you into the pool, then into a nightclub, where frenzied dancing eventually breaks out. It’s breathtaking, and Kushner rightly likens it to the openings of Touch of Evil and Boogie Nights.
After watching the movie, I returned to the novel and soon came to a thrilling set piece, a cocktail party for the mining executives and their wives thrown by a Cuban interloper named Lito Gonzalez, who is trying to horn in on the Americans’ air-tight monopoly on the nickel mining operation. Told in omniscient third person, the narrative moves smoothly between conversations, dipping into the minds of the revelers, pulling back, sliding around the room, revealing the Americans’ anxieties, petty jealousies, racism, lusts, snobbery, decency, and fears. Revealing, in a word, their humanity. It is magnificent polished writing, the literary equivalent of that seamless tracking shot that opens I Am Cuba.
The novel carries other echoes of the movie, including an arson fire in a sugar cane field and the Christmas festivities in Havana, where the Stites family stays at a posh gated country club, goes to a Sugar Ray Robinson boxing match, attends a Xavier Cugat performance, eats lobster and flambe at the Floridita. These scenes reminded me that wise novelists like Kushner take their inspiration wherever they find it — from propaganda films, letters, shopping lists, books, research trips, interviews, overheard conversations, and, above all, their own imaginations. And they never lose sight of the novelist’s first commandment: Just because something is true does not mean it has a place.
They say the second novel is the hardest one to write, especially if the first one was as well received as Telex From Cuba. Obviously they forgot to tell Kushner.
Her second novel, The Flamethrowers, has just been published, and it’s even more capacious and ambitious than her debut. Instead of taking place in a hermetically sealed cloister on a Caribbean island, the new novel explodes in countless directions, in time and space, carrying the reader across continents and oceans, halfway around the world, and deep into the souls of vivid characters living in a darkly vivid age.
That age is the 1970s, when the primary events are set, a time of political kidnappings and murders, blackouts and garbage strikes, minimalist art. At the center of it all is Reno, an unformed young artist and motorcycle racer with a “need for risk,” who grew up fatherless and working-class poor in Nevada. While trying to break into the downtown New York art scene, she decides to try to set a motorcycle speed record on the Bonneville salt flats aboard a new Moto Valera, provided by her artist boyfriend’s wealthy Italian family, manufacturers of motorcycles, tires and money.
In a long opening sequence, Kushner cuts back and forth between Reno’s rough childhood, her trip to the salt flats, and her life in New York, another seamless piece of writing that expands on the promise of that cocktail party for the mining executives in Telex From Cuba. Reno crashes the motorcycle but, as a consolation, gets to set a land speed record for women aboard the Valera company’s rocket-powered vehicle, “The Spirit of Italy.” She hits 308.506 miles per hour, making her “the fastest woman in the world.”
One of Kushner’s most exciting developments in this novel is her deft handling of a complex narrative, her ability to loop backward and forward in time, to shift from the First World War to the ’70s, from America to Europe and South America, to change points of view, all the while keeping the story flowing. She also imparts vast amounts of information — about everything from motorcycles to tapping rubber trees and combat with flamethrowers in the First World War — all of which gives the novel its rock-solid sense of reality. Kushner doesn’t just write what she knows; she writes what she knows and what she is able to learn and what she is able to imagine truthfully from all of it.
My favorite scenes take place in downtown New York in the ’70s, when women wore see-through pants to gallery openings and everyone was, to some extent, nuts. Kushner paints a world of poseurs, strivers, squatters, punks, and epic talkers, people who were inclined to jump into bed together as soon as they’d finished shaking hands. The novel nails the giddy, unhinged euphoria of it all, a further credit to Kushner, who was a young girl and nowhere near New York at the time.
But New York can’t contain Kushner’s imagination. She takes her lovers, Reno and Sandro, to Italy, where they visit his wealthy family at their villa above Lake Como while she gets ready to do a promotion with Valera Tires, cashing in on her notoriety as the fastest woman in the world. Here Kushner stumbles. For 45 pages she dwells on the inner workings of a paranoid, provincial, and obscenely rich Italian family. Worse, there’s a gasbag American named Chesil Jones on hand to deliver windy monologues that bore everyone, including the reader. For all I know, Kushner has hung out with rich Italians in a villa above Lake Como, and they’re every bit as cheap, condescending, and self-absorbed as Sandro’s family and friends. But just because something is true does not mean it has a place.
The novel’s one truly bad moment arrives when Sandro’s brother Roberto, who runs the family empire, rails against the Red Brigades and other activists for having the audacity to object to the fact that the Valera family built its fortune on slave labor and still operates sweatshops in Italy’s slums:
“Anyway, it’s too late,” he said. “Rome is ruined. Dirty and chaotic and there is the feeling of enemies, a population of people who are against you and for no reason. Hateful people who attack us because we are sane, and for order and work and all the good things that Italians once wanted. All the young people are on drugs,” he said. “With long, ratty hair and stupefied expressions, like they’ve figured out how to empty their minds of thought. They have nothing to communicate but the cretinous message anyone can see: I have long hair.”
I’m sorry, but I doubt that even beleaguered Italian tycoons in the ’70s uttered such inanities. I was almost willing to overlook this misstep when I read Reno’s description of Sandro’s and Roberto’s mother: “It was obvious she had been beautiful when she was young, with eyes that were the splendid gold-green of muscat grapes. She was in her seventies now, her complexion like wet flour, clammy and pale, with the exception of her nose, which had a curiously dark cast to it, a shadow of black under the thin tarp of skin, as if her nose had trapped the toxins from a lifetime of rich food and heavy wines.” The novel glitters with such gems.
Fortunately, Kushner wrestles Reno away from the plush villa and drops her into the violent, chaotic streets of Rome, where the novel regains its footing and heads to a darkly satisfying conclusion, where Roberto gets his comeuppance, nothing is neat, and there are no answers, only the next question. The untidy ending might be unsatisfying to some readers, but the lives of these characters could not have played out any other way.
The Flamethrowers, like Telex From Cuba, operates outside — above? — many of the current arguments about the novel, whether it needs to be more postmodern, more realistic, more experimental, more whatever. Kushner has proven, on the strength of just two novels, that those wearisome debates fade to nothing in the face of skillful storytelling, carefully made sentences and a lively, fact-fuelled imagination. Kushner’s fiction is so stuffed with characters, events, stories, history, information — it is so alive in its own specific imagined worlds — that it seems to want to burst. But it never does. And that may be the main reason why Rachel Kushner is well on her way to huge.
The Guggenheim Foundation recently announced that it has awarded a fellowships, worth about $40,000, to Kushner and the writers Joshua Foer, Kiran Desai, Adam Johnson, Ben Marcus, David Means, Terese Svoboda, and Colson Whitehead, among many others. This was terrific news. It means that every writer’s dream has come true for Rachel Kushner: she has the money to buy the time to produce another novel. I, for one, am waiting, impatiently.
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 Pool, The 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.)
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.)
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)
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: The beloved author of Case Histories, Behind 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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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The writing of good fiction requires, among many elusive talents, empathy and imagination. Put another way, the fiction writer must be like a trained actor, inhabiting the minds, emotions, and bodies of people whose essential makeup and experiences are quite different from his own. Write what you know has its limits, and many of us write to discover what we know, or to experience something of what we don’t know. Not to mention the fact that those empathic and imaginative muscles can get flabby; when we stretch them and work them, we stretch and work our whole intelligence.
Lately my reading life has delivered up some interesting examples of empathic leaps; specifically, of writers who dare to leap the imaginative chasm of gender. Are they successful? How does one measure?
Annie Proulx comes to mind immediately. More often than not, her main characters are male. And not just that, her fictional worlds – like the brutal Wyoming plains in her collection Close Range – are distinctly male worlds, where words are few and primal energies prevail. The Wyoming stories are gritty and violent; their central dramatic features include castration, rape, attic-torture, drunkenness, rodeo gore, murder by tire iron. The one “female” story – that is, where the narrator is a woman – ends in a shootout (another woman character shooting her philandering boyfriend and — possibly, we’re not sure — herself). One measure of these stories’ success, you could argue, is that the author’s identity, gender and otherwise, recedes as the characters and the place envelop us.
And yet: I’ll never forget reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker back in 1997 (eight years before Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist were immortalized on screen by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall). The reading experience was breathtaking; I thought, my God, Did I really just read a gay cowboy story, rough sex and all? Who can forget:
Ennis ran full throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours, and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked, “Gun’s goin off,” then out, down, and asleep […] They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.”
At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking. Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman? Or perhaps less? It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption:
The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.
In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman. Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)? Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier?
Do we ever really “forget” the author? Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works? Do we necessarily want her to?
There is the best-known example of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, the foremother of all women who’ve taken pen names in order to advance as an author. With her first fiction publication in 1858, Scenes of Clerical Life, she recorded in her journal speculations and letters she received regarding the secret (gender) identity of the author:
Jan 2 – “Mrs Nutt said to [George Henry Lewes] ‘I think you don’t know our curate. He says the author of Clerical Scenes is a High Churchman.”
Jan 17, letter from J.A Froude – “I can only thank you most sincerely for the delight which [your book] has given me, and both I myself and my wife trust that the acquaintance which we seem to have made with you through your writings may improve into something more tangible. I do not know whether I am addressing a young man or an old, a clergyman or a layman.”
Feb 16 – “[Mr. John Blackwood] told us Thackeray spoke highly of the ‘Scenes’ and said they were not written by a woman. Mrs. Blackwood is sure they are not written by a woman.”
Only a fellow writer by the name of Charles Dickens suspected:
“In addressing these few words of thankfulness […] I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume […] but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.”
With the publication, and popularity, of Adam Bede, published in 1859, Mary Ann Evans (Lewes) did finally step forward as the woman behind George Eliot.
What about Jean Rhys’s Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea? He is a decidedly revised Rochester, less victim than Charlotte Bronte’s – proud, racist, ultimately vicious; misdirecting his emasculation rage (meant for his father) at Antoinette, Rhys’s woman in the attic. Is there a sense in which Rhys is always there, behind and inside Rochester? Look how a man can drive a woman to insanity, can destroy her life. Look at what goes through his mind, how he does it, let me show you. Rochester’s point-of-view – the majority of the book – is in this sense on some level Antoinette’s point-of-view; Woman’s point-of-view.
A random short list (from my bookshelf) of other notable females-writing-males:
Joan Silber, half the stories in Ideas of Heaven
Ann Patchett, Run
Susan Choi, A Person of Interest
Jennifer Egan, The Keep, stories in A Visit from the Good Squad
Flannery O’Connor, the majority of her work
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, a number of stories
Rachel Kushner, sections of Telex From Cuba
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Mavis Gallant, the Steve Burnet stories
On the converse side of literary gender-crossing, there are a few exemplary stories by male writers I’d like to mention briefly.
In “Family Happiness,” a story about rising and falling romance from the point of view of a young woman who marries an older man, Tolstoy gets the female first-person narrator so right and so true – thought, feeling, and action – there is no doubt in my mind that his disappearance from the reader’s consciousness is the goal, poignantly achieved. (One wonders if Anna Karenina might have been written in the first person, to equal or greater effect!)
Daniel Mueenuddin’s linked collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, features two heartbreaking stories of the Pakistani servant class – “Saleema,” along with the title story – both told from the third-person point of view of women. The protagonists Saleema and Husna are at the mercy of male power, which, in this context, is the same as societal power; both meet tragic ends. What’s interesting to me about having knowledge of the author’s male gender in this case is that, while I wouldn’t cite anything particularly “male” in the telling, there is something in the fact of the male telling that dignifies the women in an important way. The stories are told truthfully, unhysterically; this is how it is, the (male) author posits. There is no guilt, no “message,” just the telling. I somehow have the urge to thank him.
Finally, a most interesting example: Colm Toibin’s “Silence,” from his new collection The Empty Family. The heroine is a fictionalized (though researched) Lady Gregory, an Irish dramatist – married to Sir William Henry Gregory, a former governor of Ceylon and 35 years her senior – who came into her own as a writer when she became widowed. Toibin portrays Lady Gregory as a good aristocratic wife – “She had made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated” – yet also sharply observant, quietly ambitious, more concerned with Beauty as a form than its earthly incarnations. In the story (and in real life), she has an affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and is more stimulated by the idea of the affair than the passion itself. This intellectualized intensity results in the writing of a series of love sonnets, which she convinces Blunt to publish under his own name (this is also true to life). At the story’s end, she dines with Henry James and passes on an altered version of her affair as fodder for the great writer’s fiction.
How true to the real Lady Gregory Toibin’s characterization is, I don’t know, but I loved the way in which Toibin, the male writer, endowed the female character of a certain era with “inappropriately” male drives and talents, both confining and liberating her as a woman and artist. In other words, I felt a simultaneous intimacy with the male “frame” and with female intellectual desire within that frame, as observed/admired by a male writer. The layering is distinct from, say, Lizzie Bennett in Jane Austen’s world, where the world is itself seen through a female author’s gaze.
In literary gender-crossings, do we ever really forget the author? Do we necessarily want to? Predictably: yes, and no.
(Image: Male/Female – Jonathan Borofsky from _o_de_andrade_’s photostream)
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
In the aftermath of the Best Fiction of the Millennium series – given that none of my own favorite five made the list, either the “professional” list or the readers list – I am thinking about awards, recognition, popularity; and how reading (and critiquing) fiction is, on the one hand, a communal activity; but also a highly personal one.
Of the Pros’ 20 (the list to which my votes were applied): I’d read seven; two were on my serious to-read list; two were on my “if I can get to them or if a strong personal recommendation comes my way” list; three I’d heard probably way too much about, and so had decided to pass. About the remaining six, I had no particular feelings one way or another. Among the seven I’d read: two were among my favorites, though not my top five; one I found “just fine;” one I had strong negative feelings about; one I found disappointing relative to my expectations; and two I struggled to get through, for reasons I’ve yet to precisely identify.
So much of the joy of reading is, I think, what the reader brings to the work, and the particular alchemy that happens when reader and book collide. I myself would be hard pressed to ever pursue book reviewing in any serious way, because I could see each review devolving into maudlin hand-wringing and tedious qualifying, the prose overwhelmed by appositives and parentheticals, detailing how most of the reasons for why I did or did not connect with the book have to do with my station in life, my mood this week, the book I read previous to this one, the way in which the protagonist reminds me of my cousin Josephine, etc.
My Top Five works of fiction since 2000, for the record:
My #6 (a backup, because initially I didn’t know if short fiction (my Bolaño choice) would qualify) was The Tutor of History by the Nepali novelist and essayist Manjushree Thapa. Published by Penguin UK, Tutor — the first major English-language novel by a Nepali writer – was not released in the U.S.; and so not many American readers know of it. But this was a book that got me out of a reader’s slump (as described by Lydia Kiesling in an essay earlier this summer)—a slump that was composed, as it turned out, of three award-winning novels.
Why did Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba, Lily Tuck’s The News From Paraguay, and Ali Smith’s The Accidental all come to feel more like required classroom reading than the vivid and continuous dream (in John Gardner’s words) we hope for when we read fiction? Here, after all, I had a triad of major award-winners – National Book Award finalist, National Book Award winner, and Whitbread Award winner (and Booker Prize shortlisted), respectively. And yet I found myself, midway through each, trudging through, sighing deeply, and saying to myself like a quarterback who’s been sacked one too many times, “Ok. I’m going back in.”
It struck me that the three books happened to share a common feature: shifting point-of-view. By my count, Telex, which takes place in the American expat community in Cuba during the years leading up to Castro’s revolution, is narrated via eight different points of view — four of which are major characters, the others minor — alternating chapter by chapter. One of these is a first-person voice, that of KC Stites, the bland younger son of a United Fruit Company executive. In Paraguay, which is also based on historical events, point-of-view shifts from paragraph to paragraph, in clipped, episodic fashion, among a wide-ranging cast of characters, including Francisco Solano Lopez (Franco), Paraguay’s heir-dictator at the middle of the 19th century; his Eva Peron-esque mistress, Ella Lynch, an Irish beauty; Ella’s wet nurses and maidservants; Franco’s fat and petty sisters; a self-righteous American minister; a disgraced American doctor; and dozens of other characters including assorted diplomats, soldiers, and Franco’s Brazilian and Argentine adversaries. Ella is the one character who comes to us in (pseudo) first-person, via her diary entries. The Accidental tells the story of the affluent, discontented Smart family, on holiday in contemporary Norfolk, England. Again, sections are narrated from alternating points of view, by each of four angst-ridden family members—two adults, two teenagers—as their lives are disrupted by Amber, a seductive hippie-girl stranger, who, in a familiar trope, shows up out of nowhere and Changes Everything. Amber is the one character (the fifth point of view) who narrates in first-person – an abstract, sinister voice that may or may not be hallucinatory.
“Ambitious” shows up frequently in reviews of these novels, along with “heady” and “inventive.” Each aims to bring to the reader not a conventional journey-through-transformation-with-protagonist, but rather a kind of collective psyche of place and time; hence, the diverse points of view on a single set of events. As readers, we’ve become accustomed to this fragmented, collaged approach to narrative (Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction arguably brought this expectation fully into the mainstream), embracing the notion that truth is relative, and thus the more versions and perspectives – i.e. the more prismatic the presentation – the closer we come to the whole truth.
But the overlay of a complex point-of-view structure onto an already thorny narrative canvas seemed to generate too much static in the reception. And by the time I came to the end of my summer reading, I was tempted to think that the plural-main-character device just doesn’t work (note: apart from my disappointment with the reading experience, this was an especially low moment, since my own forthcoming novel features an ensemble cast and shifting points of view). In each case I felt that the sort-of main character – the one first-person narrator – was the least compelling; and that there was too much competition between character-as-protagonist and setting-or-ethos-as-protagonist. Ultimately, place and time and culture wreaked havoc, while characters became mere casualties of the battle of ideas and historical forces, chewed up and spit out with marked detachment. As Joanne Omang of The Washington Post wrote in her review of Paraguay:
The sheer sprawl of Tuck’s subject matter seems to have overwhelmed her; she has put it all into her story without focus, rather than pruning away the undergrowth… We emerge with neither a grasp of the historical period nor any feeling for its shapers, real or fictional… Perhaps this frustrating approach is meant to evoke the disjointed nature of human experience, the measuring out of lives in coffee spoons, the inadequacy of memory, the sheer coquetry of chance and life and death, etc. If so, it is certainly just as frustrating as real life can be — for example, when one is hoping to sit down with a vivid story and learn a little something about how to be a full human being while yet surviving during violent and turbulent times.
A strong protagonist, I thought; that’s the bottom line. Likable, unlikable, whatever; we – emotionally-ravenous readers (which is a redundancy, really) – we need a through-line, not just a complex or dynamic set of circumstances. In stories of and about shapelessness, we need a primary shaper. Maybe, I thought, as readers, we are fundamentally monogamous.
But then. The Tutor of History raised the lid off of my airless resignation. In Tutor, Thapa has done what I had longed for Kushner, Tuck, and Smith to do—what seems deceptively simple but clearly is not, given the caliber of these writers—which is to bring us both the story of a society in chaos, i.e. the bustling Nepali town of Khareini Tar (circa late 1990s); and the beguiling individuals who people that society. She has sacrificed neither a sense of political-societal complexity, nor depth and sympathy of character. In the end, I wanted to both visit and study this obscure and politically turbulent corner of the Subcontinent, and to sit down with each character over tea.
The book blurb identifies four main characters; I would cite eight: Rishi, the eponymous tutor, a rebellious drifter and disillusioned communist who gives private lessons in history for his livelihood; Giridhar, the alcoholic chairman of the People’s Party’s district committee and an administrative man who suffers from thwarted political ambition; Om Gurung, a large-hearted former British Gurkha, who works along side Giridhar on the campaign; Binita, a reclusive young widow on the margins of society as a result of her manlessness, who runs a small tea shop where the campaign committee congregates; Binita’s beautiful and fatally prideful niece Sani, and her brother-in-law, the famous cinema actor Nayan Raj, who becomes the Party’s well-meaning if a bit misguided candidate for the local parliament seat (driving Giridhar deeper into drunken misery); Harsha Bahadur, the ugly, undernourished Khadka boy who ruins Sani’s reputation by declaring his love for her; and Chiranjibi, a successful businessman who undergoes a quiet conversion to community organizing and political idealism.
There is something here for everyone – idealism, petty corruption, personal rebellion, despair, ambition, beauty, ugliness, opportunism, loneliness, family, feminism, even romance. There are numerous characters, a slate of political parties and bureaucracies, and unfamiliar (to Westerners) cultural references to keep track of. And yet the novel never feels crowded nor impenetrable. How has Thapa accomplished this? I dare say, by keeping it simple. No stylish tricks of narrative episodism, or ambivalent structural gestures toward a sort-of main character, or experimental abstraction. The Tutor of History, while equal in ambition to these other “inventive” and “heady” novels, and sharing their broad goals, succeeds, at least partially, by virtue of fidelity to old-fashioned narrative omniscience. In a brief conversation with Thapa recently (over coffee, not tea – this was in New York, after all), she laughed at herself good-naturedly and confessed: “When I was studying fiction writing, I was doing all this avant-garde experimental stuff; and here, I ended up writing essentially a Victorian novel.”
The comparison is not far off in that Tutor imagines and renders the human experience as one of both self-determination and connection—each of the character’s fates is intimately entwined with that of the others—and in this sense is also concerned with inviting the reader into the novel’s moral world. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwback in contemporary literary fiction to envision the reader not as detached auditor but rather as moral investor. Is it valid to evaluate books based on the writer’s awareness of the reader at all? Perhaps not. But I’ll say that I came away from my summer reading triad feeling distinctly stiff-armed by a kind of insularity of intelligence. These books seemed to me written by the writer, for the writer—more of an intense conversation with self (and, in the case of Telex and Paraguay, with history) than with reader. Stephen Elliott said recently in an interview, “Some readers read to escape; I read to connect.” My summer reading efforts afforded neither escape nor connection, but something more like chin-stroking, head-nodding reverence. Well-played; yes, indeed. Remarkable oeuvre you have there. There is certainly something to be said for heady novels written by women, when so much of “women’s fiction” is about inner emotional lives and domestic relationships. But it does make me ask the question of why we write and why we read; and what it means when a book strikes you more as an intellectual feat than an experience.
The Tutor of History is a novel I will likely revisit, again and again. And like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, I believe that each time I read it, a different character, a different storyline, will come into relief as my protagonist and through-line; depending on what I am obsessed with or trying to understand at the time (I say it again: reading is highly personal). In the shadow of the Victorians, Thapa employs a bit of EM Forster-ism here (“only connect”), adhering to mature realism (Thapa is also a journalist who’s written extensively on Nepali society and politics and thus sees her characters and their context with unsentimental eyes), while lacking the contemporary Western novelist’s relative disregard for the enduring organism of community. An Irish mistress in Latin America, American expats in Cuba, bourgeois Londoners shuttling between city and country – they ultimately come and go at will, once upheaval has run its course. But for the townspeople of Khareini Tar, this is it; this is where their lives will be lived out. Some characters are handed their place in the community, others must make their own; societal position is no doubt a persistent source of hardship. And yet, we understand in the end that it ain’t nothing, this placeness, this connectedness. There seems even to be a place for the reader.